Real Life

‘An ice man melted my heart’

Online dating led to a romantic six-year Alaskan adventure.
Ice man melted my heart

Before Emma Stevens met her now-husband Gary, she never imagined she’d end up living in Alaska. Christchurch-born, Whanganui-raised, she travelled the well-trodden Kiwi OE trail through London and Sydney as a teacher. But apart from a year living in Los Angeles, places further afield never interested her.

“Alaska was literally the last place I’d ever dreamed of,” she admits. That was, until she met her “Ice Man”, and spent nearly six years falling in love with not only her significant other, but with the Yup’ik and Cup’ik cultures of the vast US state.

It all began in the late 1990s when Emma (64) relocated back to New Zealand following several years living in Sydney with her daughter Ella (then 20). She was a newly single parent struggling to pay her mortgage with one income. Forced to explore her options, Emma found a much-needed opportunity in the somewhat isolated town of Balclutha, in Otago. She landed a teaching job there and suddenly found herself in the deep south.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a mad risk-taker,” Emma explains of her relocation. “But I’m very positive and I’m not afraid to give things a go.”

The close-knit community took her in, but Emma still found herself feeling lonely.

At a friend’s suggestion, she tried an online dating website in the hope of sparking up some company. Scrolling down the list, she spied the username “Arctic NW Kotzman” and sent off a message on a whim.

“There was a strange inexplicable familiarity about this man,” she tells. “Our connection felt different.”

Emails soon became part of her daily routine. Gary, her online acquaintance, was also in the education sector, working as a school principal in Alaska. The two never exchanged pictures and the element of anonymity gave Emma the confidence to confide in him.

“He knew me better than anybody,” Emma says. “I was so honest with him, I’d cover my eyes when I pressed ‘Send’! And yet he’d still continue to email me, so the more he did that, the more comfortable I was telling him about my childhood or my previous marriage. I trusted him.”

As they communicated over the course of many months, Emma built up an image in her head of what her “Ice Man” looked like. “We were worlds apart. I thought, ‘There’s no way we’ll ever meet.’”

That was until an off-hand comment about New Zealand being the first to see in the millennium sparked off the conversation Emma never imagined they’d have.

“He was thinking about going to Mexico for some sun. I said, ‘You should come here. We’ll be seeing in the New Year first.’ And he replied, ‘That sounds like a great plan!’”

Quickly, a far-flung romance became a crashing reality and, when it came time to meet her mystery man at the airport for the first time, Emma admits she was far from impressed.

“I was horrified!” she recalls with a laugh. “He was carrying a sign which read, ‘I am from Alaska and I need Sunshine’, which was his pet name for me. When I approached him, he said, ‘My, you’re tall!’ I thought, ‘Oh, no, he hates me!’”

Her imagined long-haired, cave-dwelling, Byron Sully-esque hero was revealed to be a middle-aged, balding gentleman sporting a baseball cap and a big moustache. Excitement quickly turned to embarrassment.

“I was worried about what other people thought – in those days, there was quite a stigma around internet dating.”

During his 10 days in New Zealand, however, her opinion began to change. Although Gary returned to Alaska once the school holidays were over, he returned in August 2000 and proposed to Emma on her 50th birthday. They were married in January 2001. Their honeymoon period was short-lived, though, as Gary struggled to get work. When a job opportunity came up back in Alaska, Emma found herself making the 25-hour journey to the country that would become her home for six years.

Although an incredible culture shock – lifestyle changes included having to wear three pairs of gloves to stop her hands from freezing, and a new diet of bottled moose and salmon – Emma found herself embracing Alaska as her true home. In fact, when she and Gary returned to New Zealand in 2007, it was at his request.

“I didn’t want to return,” she admits. “It was such a tight-knit community and they’re so accepting and kind. I think it comes from living in such a harsh environment and having to rely on one another.”

Emma and Gary (71), both retired from teaching, now live in the sunny Tasman region, where Emma has penned a memoir, Walking on Ice, about her experiences. Having given a number of talks about finding love in the most unlikely of places, Emma says there are no hard feelings between Gary and her over that initial reluctance.

“He loves to hear how we first met – he’s never offended and I love that about him. We never expected to meet, but I’m so glad we did.”

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