A Typical Day

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Alaskan sunset

Trifecta

You know when you spend an hour looking at a fitness magazine or watching potential YouTube videos to try and by the end of half an hour or so, you already feel kind of accomplished?

Heck with the workout, did you see all that page turning, clicking action I just did?!

Wowee.

Same thing with cooking or shopping or planning. You’ve basically already done it all just by browsing or thinking about it, right? I mean, basically.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Lupine

 

 

It’s a fun little kickflip the mind does into a brand new stroke: been there, done that, may or may not have bought the t-shirt, made the cake or practiced the yoga.

Living in Alaska can kind of feel like that sometimes.

Drunk by Association.

I went to school for my freshman year of college on the East Coast. I was 17 and living away from home in the dorms. The dorms were not a place for drinking, it was forbidden. So, of course, we found sneaky ways to bring in way too much, way too cheap alcohol and imbibe specialty concoctions like Jungle Juice (exotic? I think not) and 7Up shots. Classy, classy drinking. Not always and not everyone but that wasn’t the point because whether everyone was drinking or just a few people were, the floor itself knew the deal and so, we nicknamed it Drunk by Association. If anyone got in trouble, everyone got in trouble and so by sheer association with the floor, you were drunk, by association.

Now, the Drunk of Alaska is a much healthier association (that’s a bizarre statement). The situation is exactly the opposite, while the basis remains exactly the same (keeping in line with the statement strangeness): you feel you are participating just by proximity, yet the difference is that whether or not you are participating is essential.

Every day in the wilds of Alaska, someone is doing something awesome. You hear about it, you think about it and then, just by being in the same proximity, it feels approachable, normal and just like that workout, almost as if you too have done it.

Being surrounded by such utter badassery, however, does not a badass make. Staring at a recipe does not a cake bake. You get my gist.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 birthday cake

Who stole a slice?

 

 

And so, sometimes, the Summer starts flying by and you chase the tail of its kite, giggling all the while, not noticing the cooling of the evenings and the dropping of the sun and suddenly, the kite flies just out of your reach.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Alaskan sunset

 

 

My first Summer, that kite had no chance of getting away. I went ice caving and ice climbing and packrafting and hiking and flying and camping in the backcountry. Yet, by my second Summer, I was no longer in live/vacation mode, I was fully living in Alaska and I let the kite slip through my hands. Don’t get me wrong, I still adventured far more consistently than I ever had before in my life but I didn’t make it out to the glacier until late Summer and I let work take a front seat instead of fun (I mean, they could at least buckle in together, right?) I rectified this just as I saw the kite slipping away and righted myself to orient towards adventure but the bulk of the Summer had gone.

Not again.

This last Summer, I vowed to myself to chase that kite with all my might. I told myself I would at least complete the trifecta: packrafting, ice climbing and a fly out.

 

Be careful what you wish for…especially in Alaska.

 

“Hey Jules, I was wondering if you would want to be in a video we are shooting?”

“It’s for the guide service. You could do packrafting or ice climbing…”

“I’m in.”

There it was, an underhand pitch of an opportunity to get out on the ice or into the water. I wasn’t working and if for some reason I was, I would get it off. I was going. As the date approached, the agenda started to change and shift and morph as it does and soon, the day came and…I was packing a little heavier than planned.

The day started early, I think an 8am curtain call or so in the hill town 45 minutes away. My girlfriend and I “carpooled”, meaning that she and I met half-way before the bridge and then she hopped on my trusty steed of a 4-wheeler and we whizzed up 1,000 feet of dirt road to the guide service of our dear friends and our shooting destination.

We were fitted for crampons for walking on the glacier and grabbed our ice climbing boots and harnesses and helmets and such and after a few test shots, packs packed down with gear, we were off. An hour or so later, we made it to the glacier.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Kennicott, Alaska Root Glacier 2

 

 

The guides skillfully built out a climbing set-up as we snacked and chatted. How one drills into ice and it is somehow secure is beyond me, but that’s what trust is made of, people (it still freaks me out though).

It was climbing time.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Kennicott, Alaska Root Glacier

 

 

It dawned on me, right as I was about to take my turn that I was about to be in a promotional video for my friends and I had ice climbed all of once ever in my life. Well, at least we wouldn’t be acting. The teaching moments were plenty as I hopped across the ice bridge at the base of the waterfall I would be climbing.

Epic?

Yes, I dare say so.

A few ascents by The Talent (that’s us) and we were off to the next adventure.

Next?

That’s right!

Alaska had heard my cry loud and clear.

We were off to go packrafting.

Just then, the skies grew a little darker, threatening rain right after which we heard the offer:

“Do you two want to be the plane Talent?”

Ex-squeeze me?

Before we knew it, my girlfriend and I were headed to the airport and after another snack break we were up, up, up and away and…

about ready to lose that snack.

The pilot was no newbie to the big blue yonder and he had us dipping and diving and turning on dimes enough times to buy an ice cream cone so the videographer could get just the right shots. Yet despite the green of my face, my heart fluttered. Being up in a plane is one of the best ways to fully grasp the grandiosity of where we are so lucky to call home base. Seeing it from the air gives you a whole new perspective.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Kennicott Glacier Root Glacier Alaska

The glaciers. We had just climbed the one on the right.

 

 

We even happened to head up the same route the boys and I had taken the Winter before via snowmachine and seeing it in the Summer gave me a whole new appreciation for where we had gone, a place we could only see by plane in the Summer months or snowmachine in the Winter.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 McCarthy Creek

Looking down at the “creek”.

 

 

We landed an hour later, tummies turned but satiated by the absolute wonder that is our backyard and then, it was time for a break.

Just kidding!

Onward!

Now it was time for packrafting.

The plan: paddle around the glacial lake, play amongst the icebergs, call it a day.

Outcome: Wind.

Just as we had forecast, the skies further darkened and the winds picked up (this happens almost every afternoon). Yet paddling against the wind, though tiring, was how we were keeping warm and so it was a strange symbiosis. We wandered through icebergs, our friend/guide jumped off of one and then we had all of our shots. Call it a wrap?

Wrong.

The winds had blown us in the direction of the Training Grounds, a quick set of rapids before you get to the bigger rapids below. If there was ever anything perfect to describe the Alaskan mentality, this is it: two practice rapids and then, boom! Jump into the game. Why not?

And so, jump or rather, paddle we did.

I hadn’t packrafted more than once in my life so, with a few quick pointers coupled with some good old-fashioned waiting on the camera time, time enough to get pretty darn chilly, added with some enthusiasm (“I saw you paddling, you’ve got great form”) I was a concoction of ready to go.

And, go we went.

I was in a seriously sweet sandwich between three guide friends and my girlfriend, following my band mate in front and off we went. Two practice rapids down and a couple big ones to go and…

we made it.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Packrafting Kennicott River

Isn’t she adorable?

 

 

I eddied out of the rushing current and watched as everyone else came in through the silty waves.

We got out (not before I tried to throw my sunglasses to a little girl standing at the water’s edge, whom I thought was an adult. Nice work, Jules. Lure the young’n into the raging river! What am I, a fast water silkie in The Secret of Roan Inish? Geez. The band mate apparently has better vision than I and put the kibosh on that one. Embarrassed? Yes.) and everyone was ready to run again but I felt solid with my day. Up a waterfall, up into the sky and down a river? Yes, thank you. My shaky muscles told me I would call it good there.

We stripped down out of our dry suits and found our third set of clothing (we’d gone from tank tops now to down jackets) and made our way to the meeting point as the film crew finished their last shots of the day.

It was time to celebrate.

And I’m pretty sure we did but I can’t remember anything other than being exhausted.

In one day, I had completed the Trifecta: all of my Summer adventure goals: ice climbing, packrafting and getting up in the air.

Apparently, Alaska had been listening.

She threw a serious curveball to the whole I Read About Exercising So I’ve Basically Run a Marathon, Drunk by Association, Scaled a Mountain Because Others Did Around Me farce. She was out for reality and the granting of three wishes in the package of one amazing day.

The place we call home has this magic to it. It’s a sort of “Be careful what you wish for” because it will come back full force (or in threes) type of land. It’s the kind of place that looks you in the eye and asks, “Are you sure?”

Yes, Alaska.

I am sure.

Cheers to doing not just viewing, to jumping into a new pool, wherever that may be.

Thank you, Alaska for the opportunities you provide and the humbling lessons that go along with them and…

Thank you KWG for such a perfect trifecta. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

 

And now…for your viewing pleasure: The awesomeness that is our dear friends’ company KWG (Kennicott Wilderness Guides) and “The Talent”: Watch it. It’s awesome.

 

If You Give This Girl a Snack…

 

…she’s still going to want a meal to go with it.

Remember that book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? My grandmother used to read it to me when I was a child and I remember feeling quite the kinship with that little mouse. He had his priorities straight. If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. And why shouldn’t he? The simple harmony of that age-old combo makes it almost insulting not to. He was a little mouse with big food priorities and I identified with that.

As a kid, the first thing I would ask when sitting down to the dinner table, seeing my portion and assessing its size in comparison to the adults was: “Is there more?”

Little has changed. And so, as perhaps you could already tell, I am a lady who loves to eat. Hunger strikes often and I jump to action. From pancakes to pupusas, I’m a craver of all things edible and when it comes to hunger, few things can top that inner beast. She wins over most other necessities. And that’s my normal hunger level.

Winter hunger on the other hand is a whole new level.

Let the beast be unleashed.

 

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My skiing companion stopping for a frozen bunny leg snack.

 

You see, the thing is, I don’t let much stand in my way when it comes to eating. You think the kitchen is bare with only potatoes, beef and cabbage? I’ll find a way to make a Shepard’s pie with coleslaw to accompany it (we wouldn’t want the pie to get lonely now, would we?). I’ll do my best to make something out of nothing and given a plethora of materials, I might just go ahead and make a feast. Once, my brother and I, well adept in the art of imagining something from random availability, made an egg drop soup from scratch with the three things we had in our house. It was ridiculous and also delicious. Another time, neither of us had the energy to follow through on our plans to go on a hike or whatnot. The obvious solution? We went to the store and bought everything under the sun to make a complete Thanksgiving dinner.

It was the middle of Summer.

So yes, needless to say, when hunger comes my way I open the door with a grand gesture and welcome the beast to the table.

Winter hunger is a whole different kind of beast. She comes on strong and sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. Your whole body is propelling you towards satisfying your most basic needs. You need heat, shelter, water and food. Simply being outside burns calories, so if you’re working outside its magnified tenfold and working can be as simple as hauling water. But, despite how basic it is, in the Winter, there always seems to be a hang-up.

The other morning, I awoke starving. The beast was knocking. I hurried downstairs, determined to make swift time with my chores in order to get to the good stuff: steel-cut oats with peaches and cream on top. Boom! All I had to do was build a fire since the house was now 40 degrees due to the weather outside producing a chilly 30 below (yes, that’s 30 degrees under zero. I still shake my head and open my eyes really wide when looking at the thermometer showing such a sight. It just doesn’t seem possible, but alas…). Well, that was all I had planned on, at least. I carefully descended the stairs, each step getting me closer as I headed to the wood stove to create a roaring fire and then a bountiful breakfast.

I arrived to a big empty spot where the firewood should have been.

O.K. no biggie.

I put a jacket on over my magenta robe and headed into the frosty morning.

“Hiyah!” the cold said as it slapped me in the face. “Take that!” it said, insulted that I would dare to venture outside so poorly clothed. I hurried to the shed and arrived coughing. That kind of cold can literally take your breath away. You inhale too fast and (*enter scientific explanation here) voila! You choke on your own breath. Pretty rude if you asked me.

I continued along and crouched down next to the pile of chopped logs, gloveless, stacking the frozen pieces in my arm which was held in a stiff 90 degree angle to support the weight.

One log, two log, three log, four

five log, six log, seven log…floor (or ground, to be more precise).

The pile tumbled out as I sloppily placed the last log. My hands were freezing and I didn’t perform the motions with the care I needed to. I was being lazy and because of that, I had to start all over again. This time I was more methodical, stacking with care instead of with a rush despite my popsicle hands. At this point the cold was seeping in and my eyelashes were freezing. Blinking my eyes was a devil’s dare as each time I opened them they would do their best to remain together, top and bottom lashes in a frosty embrace. Finally, vision impaired by the lash love and arm stacked high with frozen logs (other hand placed firmly in my jacket pocket to try to warm off some of the burning cold) I headed towards the house and was faced, as I am daily, by the Ramp of Doom (you might remember her from last year).

Last year I was learning to ski and I fell. A lot. Sometimes, the bulk of my ski was simply getting back up.

This year, I’ve gotten better. The other day, I realized that I had fallen down our ramp more times than I had fallen on my skis. Isn’t that wonderful? And so I stood at the bottom of the stairs, log arm starting to fatigue, and leaned forward, hoping my bodily trajectory and some forward momentum would see my safely through the gauntlet.

At the very top, my foot slipped on the last board and I jolted forward (propelling myself far enough to miss the gap (of course there had to be a gap at the top of the ramp between the ramp and the landing) yet not so far as to overshoot the landing. It had been a close one but I had made it. I hurried inside, dropped and then organized the logs and finally, finally, got to building our fire.

The cold was seeping in.

 

 

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When your window trinkets turn into ice bridges it’s pretty darn cold.

 

One last problem: the ashes in the fireplace needed to be emptied. Thankfully, I hadn’t taken off my (still inadequate) outdoor gear yet and so I set to emptying the ashes. Ten minutes later the stove was clean and I was exactly the opposite. My face and hands looked the likes of a smudged orphan straight out of Oliver Twist. Ah, how refreshing this morning was coming to be. Good thing we have a shower to just jump into. Oh…wait. That’s a whole other hour-long endeavor that my belly was not agreeing to. It would be a dusty breakfast. Not wanting to miss the moment of a cool and clean stove, I decided to go the extra mile and clean the glass with a homemade orange peel cleaner I had recently concocted. What a difference.

I took the ashes out into the woods and tried to throw them as far away from me as possible.

That did not happen.

My arc was off and the ashes came back at me like a little mini tornado.

Success!(?)

Now, fully ashed-up from my head to my toes, I headed back up the ramp (without fall) and into the house. I was in need of some serious face washing and a new set of clothes but not before I took the chill off the house (what are you crazy? It was too cold to take any layers off at this point. The temperature inside was still almost 70 degrees warmer than outside but our house was slowly turning into a freezer. Inside it was 38 degrees and dropping by the minute). By the time the flames were devouring the fresh wood and I had washed and (quickly) changed, an hour had passed since my ravenous self had first looked forward to breakfast. What an adventure the day had already been just to whip up a bowl of oats.

The Hour Long Oats.

That seemed excessive.

Enter: The Five Hour Pizza.

You know when you have a craving for something? I do. It’s on my mind until it’s in my belly. So, when The Chief had a hankering for some homemade pizza the other night, I wanted to support his inclination. Let’s get this guy a pizza. I was already hungry at this point and so my efforts went towards making us a snack in order to tide us over for the highly anticipated pizza while The Chief worked away at the dough.

Pizza!

The Chief loves pizza like I love my pancakes. Translation: that’s a lot.

We knew we were in for a little wait since we were making pizza from scratch and so the snack came in handy to stave off hunger for the hour ahead of us until pizza time. The Chief finished the dough and let it set to rise while we snacked away. Before long, we realized that we would need the generator. The inverter could have handled the load of the oven with the rest of the operations in the house but unfortunately, the charge in the batteries was low and therefore, needed to be charged by the generator and…

the generator was outside.

And as it would be, the weather on this night, like the day of The Hour Long Oats, was quite cold though only in the negative 20’s. Basically swimsuit weather, right?

Needless to say, it was going to take a moment for the generator to heat up enough to do its thing.

I guess the dough would reallllly get a chance to rise now.

We brought in the generator and unscrewed its cover to reveal the mechanical underbelly in need of warming, propped it up on my Make Me Taller block of wood and put it next to the wood stove.

For the next two hours, The Chief prepped the pizza bits in patient excitement. The snacks were wearing off and I was already headed towards a different dinner plan. Anything that could happen soon sounded better to me at that point but when I saw the care with which The Chief was concocting the perfect tomato base and shredding his cheese combo and selecting toppings I couldn’t concede to a little simple hunger. I was in support of this mission. Pizza Night was back on track despite edging less toward fashionably late and progressing to rude in my book.

The hunger beast knocked a little louder.

Finally, the generator was warm. We took it outside to run it and of course, the gas tank was empty. We went to refuel it and eventually returned to fill the generator. A few expert pulls from The Chief and she was whirring away.

On the way back in we realized we had forgotten the pepperoni in the “cooler” outside (see: tote placed outside in the frozen wilderness that serves as one of our freezers. Watch out Kenmore, there’s a new cool in town). Shoot! Now we would have to wait for these to defrost too.

Thankfully, the fire had been raging in order to defrost the genie (generator) and within 20 minutes the pepps were looking peppy. The pizza had been assembled, the oven pre-heated. It was time to make some kitchen magic happen. Cravings satisfied in 3, 2, 1…

Lights out.

Just as the oven had come to temp and we were readying the pizza for bake-off, the genie died.

“Hmmm…that’s strange” we both thought aloud optimistically. “Should be fine” we both reassured.

The Chief headed out to assess. Within a few minutes it was whirring again, the kitchen light came back on and we waited as the oven again rose to temperature. A momentary set-back.

The oven rose right up and…

Again. Lights out.

“Bad gas?” The Chief and I thought again aloud simultaneously. It was a hopeful solution. This time, we wouldn’t turn on the eco-throttle (basically it saves energy and burns less gas). We would let the genie run full-bore to burn through whatever water had gotten into the gas. We would blow the bad gas out, fix the machine and cook a pizza in the meantime. All set.

The Chief headed out again, ramped the machine up and came back in hopeful. “That should do it”.

A minute or so later, it stopped again.

By now, we were three hours into the pizza. The snacks had definitely worn off. The genie was dead, again.

We decided to bring it inside again. Without a warm shed to work in (ours isn’t enclosed and doesn’t have room for a stove in it to keep warm while working), a lot of work ends up happening inside. Our house took on the smell of gasoline and oil instead of pizza as The Chief slowly removed each part, checking for ice in the lines or some other mishap. I looked on with fingers crossed. Finally, diagnosing all he could see, The Chief put it all back together again.

We would try one more time.

You guessed it. Our last attempt was to no avail, despite the oven kicking on and almost coming to temp, the genie again died before we could high-five and we were left again staring at a pile of dough who so wanted to grow up to be a pizza.

What would we tell this dough? Sorry, we just couldn’t figure it out?

No! This man loved pizza. Darned if we wouldn’t try (again).

And so, we decided that although the batteries were in fact low, they were not so low that solely running the oven off of the inverter would be detrimental. We switched over the power and turned on the inverter. The oven clicked on and again the heating process started. The dough looked on with hope in its eyes. Pizza time.

Nope.

Within minutes, the inverter, without explanation suddenly quit. Our brand new inverter (O.K. 6 month old inverter) suddenly shut off out of nowhere. This had happened before during the Summer. I had turned it on to put music on for The Chief’s arrival home after a long day at work and instead of returning to tunes, he returned to me with my hands in the air, staring at the equipment that had suddenly quit. We had sent it in and they couldn’t recreate the problem. It had simply worked for them. $60 later in shipping fees and with no real response other than “That’s weird” from the company (they are extremely helpful but simply could not tell us what had transpired) we had our working inverter back.

Had it struck again? We tried turning it off, holding down the power button, talking to it, doing a dance, everything. Nothing worked. The pizza dough looked on in dismay. Finally, after tinkering away, The Chief decided to call it quits. I started thinking of the fastest solution to our hunger that I could muster and just when I was ready to start executing said meal The Chief said: “Well, I guess I’ll go get the old inverter.”

What? We are still doing this? The look in his eyes told me that he would cook this pizza if he had to go to Anchorage and back to buy a new inverter. He was not giving up. I love this about him. I wouldn’t say I’m some sort of deserter but my dedication to the project paled in comparison to his. I buckled down and got my supportive pants on. Let’s do this.

The Chief went out to grab the old inverter and I went to find the tool bag we would need. We came back together and he went to work, disassembling the existing set-up for the new inverter and connecting the old inverter instead. Through the mess of black and red wires, The Chief held steady and after stripping the wires and reconnecting them and adjusting and rearranging and overall doing things I still have no idea how to do, the old inverter was in place. It was now 4 hours since we had started our pizza project and edging towards 10pm. My overly dramatic hunger beast threw her hand up and “woe is me”‘d me many times but now, I was in it. I couldn’t be swayed. It was Pizza Night.

Thankfully, the old inverter (trusty steed that she is, fingers crossed) set right to business. The oven kicked back on, the dough rose with a smile and thirty minutes later, in it went. The house, once filled with the smell of gasoline and oil shifted palates as the dough turned to crust and the cheese bubbled up.

Finally, finally, it was pizza time.

By the time we sat down to eat, it was 11pm. I was past hungry (the beast had given up on the prospect of food and had instead taken to my insides like a punching bag), ready for bed and exhausted from the in and outs and highs and lows of the evening. We had a non-working generator, a non-functional but new inverter, an old inverter being pushed to her limits and a battery bank that was near dead with no way to charge it (since the genie was caput).

But, we did have pizza.

Honestly, that dough could have turned into bubble wrap in the oven that night and I still would have eaten it. To have simply gone to sleep after that journey would have been a slap in the face to the battle we had been through. Pizza Night Combat. We had made it.

And it was delicious.

Never before did I think I could live a life where the things that I want aren’t immediately available. A recipe calls for capers? Run to the store and get them. Well, no sireebob. That’s not how it goes in these here woods. But when the hunger beast calls, especially with a special hankering, you answer. The outcome might be different from what you expected, capers might have to be olives borrowed from a neighbor, ice cream might have to be blended snow and cream but when it’s all said and done, the journey makes it taste just as good as the real thing.

Cheers to the feast and to feeding the beast…eventually.

With love,

 

From Alaska.

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Today Was a Good Day

Some days stand out more than others. Some days remind me more than others of where I am, of the majesty of this place and of the refreshing concoction of absolute wilderness and strangely cosmopolitan offerings we enjoy and of the importance of friendship.

It was a Sunday and a somewhat gloomy day in the very first moments of September. Some gloomy days welcome me to the indoors, others make the indoors feel frantic and claustrophobic. This one embodied the latter. Although I typically think of Sundays as a home day for family time (and pancakes. Lots of pancakes), our schedules haven’t really met up to make this shiny Sunday ideal a possibility. And so I sat in our cabin alone, knowing I should be writing or reading or whatnot and enjoying the peace and quiet but I was instead feeling stifled by the four walls around me. I needed to get out.

In these moments I typically suit up and head out alone, walking the River Trail by our house (hoping the dog doesn’t ditch me) and returning refreshed. But that day I needed more than the River Trail. I needed an adventure. Since my post about getting out a few weeks ago I’ve been on a sort of mission to explore more whenever possible. Sunny days make it easy, it’s the gloomy ones that feel a bit like a ball and chain. But once you’re out, and break free of whatever imagined heaviness you felt, you realize you were always free and well, it’s on.

And so I ventured out of my typical approach of solo outings and contacted a girlfriend instead. She is someone I’d enjoyed meeting up with all Summer but we hadn’t made time to have intentionally set girl time, it had always been by a gathering’s happenstance instead. She replied immediately.

“I’ll be ready to go in 30 minutes.”

Oh, snap.

Apparently it was time to get moving. In true Sunday fashion I was still donning PJs, sleepy eyes and a head full of bed.

I started collecting what I’d need. We had decided on a walk to The Toe (the end of one of the local glaciers). I dressed and I packed (snacks, water, a knife, extra socks, jacket, rain jacket) gave the house one final look and set outside to get going. 30 minutes had already passed. She was going to walk and meet me down at the parking spot (literally one spot to the right of the No Passing sign down at The Toe) after 30 minutes. I realized that she didn’t know how far I lived (and I had overestimated my get up and go timing) and told her to hold those horses but that I was on my way.

Right?

I remembered then that I had told our neighbor that I would exercise his pup that day. And so I loaded Cinda up into our new (to us) truck and headed out to gather him.

Nope.

The truck (which had been giving us quite the go around in true wilderness vehicle fashion with an un-diagnosed fuel issue which had already stranded us multiple times) started but the moment I put it into reverse it chugged to a stop. I tried again. This time she fired up with gusto (thattagirl!) and I decided to take a few steps forward before venturing backwards again (there was a hump within the first few feet behind us which required a bit more power than the little lady seemed to have). She roared forward and then started strong backing up and…chugged to a halt. Cinda looked at me like she did while I was learning the stick shift last winter, as if to say “Lady, I could do this with my eyes closed”. Well, close those eyes Cinda Jones because this is about to be a do-si-do dance of frustration. I tried the back and forth a few more times before calling it on account of gas. She needed a fresh pot to brew on (she seems to think she’s empty when she’s not and so sometimes adding 5 gallons of gas does the trick, even if there’s already plenty of fuel to spare).

I topped her off and ta-da! Off we went with Jones rolling her eyes the whole time. We were on our way and, dog-disses aside, were having a pretty good time already. I popped on some tunes and headed to get our second backseat driver: Cinda’s brother Diesel.

After shocking him half to death just by opening the door due to his hearing loss it then took me almost 5 minutes to get him out the door. I pet him and cooed at him and made big gestures, all the while hearing the truck chugging in park (no way was I turning the beast off after all that) and hoping she would continue. Finally, he rose, stretched and gaily skeedadled towards the truck. He knew the drill, even if he’d never seen the truck before. I loaded him up and got in myself as the dogs settled in with their backs to one another, looking out their respective windows without so much as a ruff of acknowledgement. Oh siblings.

Finally we were off.

We decided on a new meeting place: The Restaurant. After all that, this girl needed some stronger coffee. Coffee, some chit-chat and an enormous breakfast burrito later and now all of us were off together.

I realized quickly that I didn’t know where I was going. I had been driven down to The Toe once last year when I had first arrived and once again via the Wagon Road coming from the opposite direction on the back of a 4-wheeler where I was more concerned with spotting the bears leaving the plentiful piles of bright red berry bear poop than I was with remembering directions.

Thankfully, my girlfriend had a solid knowledge versus my inkling and she guided us safely into harbor.

 

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The leaves setting the mountains afire in color.

 

It was beautiful. The day which before had felt gloomy now felt luminous. We started walking to the glacial lake when we spotted what looked like a photo shoot. Three girls were gathered behind a rock. Two were doting on one, bringing her flowers and fixing her locks. Then, I realized that I knew one of them. I waved hello and she shouted back joyfully:

“We’re having a wedding!”

We shouted our congratulations to her friend and looked to the left to see the groom and his men waiting for the lovely bride. It was beautiful and set such a sweet tone to head into nature with.

We walked along the cliff’s edge of the lake as the dogs ran up and down the steep terrain. Eventually it evened out and we descended on an easier slope.

 

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Icebergs ahead!

 

Just then, the dogs went crazy. They had picked up a scent (they were no longer ignoring one another. Once out in the open they run together, trading off leading and deciding together what should and shouldn’t be peed upon by both of them). They followed it with a voracity that is normally reserved for…uh oh.

Bears.

Just as I realized that my girlfriend coincidentally said: “You know, I was going to bring my bear spray (essentially a massive can of pepper spray that is a favorite accessory out here if one is without or not in favor of a gun) but then I realized that I was with you and you’d know how to handle it.”

Funny you should say that. I had packed two dogs as protection but noting further.

Just then, as we neared the water’s edge, I looked down.

There they were.

Bear prints.

Not just any bear prints. These were brand new, and huge and clawed, meaning that they likely belonged to a grizzly bear.

 

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Oh joy.

I alerted my girlfriend and we both looked up to see the dogs running after the scent. The good news was that the tracks were heading in the direction we had come from, and thus away from us, and so we called the dogs off and to us and continued hastily in the opposite direction of the enormous prints.

We walked and we walked and we walked, occasionally looking over our shoulders for a hungry grizzly, until we made it to the far end of The Lake where we dropped in to explore some new caves. The ice of the glacier proved too slippery without cramp-ons (little metal teeth you attach to your shoes) and so we decided to continue on to find more easily accessible caves further into the moraine (basically the dirt and rock on top of the glacier which is sometimes very thick and sometimes so thin that a mere scratch exposes the ice below).

 

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…and then there’s the enormous boulders too.

 

The best part about hiking on the moraine is that you never know what you will find and there is only the trail that you make. Nothing is laid out in front of you. And so we chose our route, sometimes following the dogs, sometimes choosing to scale different approaches more friendly to our two-legged selves when we came upon another body of water. The color was unbelieveably blue. Just across from it was a beautiful cave created by the melting and morphing of the glacier.

 

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The moraine and the glacier are a constantly evolving landscape. Sometimes huge “wormholes” (big holes standing tall above the ice created by the melting of the ice) will suddenly be gone, collapsed and melted. A lake within the glacier can break and flood through the holes and crevices and places we explore. Rocks fall. It is a beautiful place but also a place for vigilance. Look before you leap.

And so as we went into the hollowed out cave we watched for falling rocks and debris, noticing the piles from previous falls. Just as I had finished taking a picture of a little ice bridge formed by melting and had turned my back to walk back to the little lake a shift must have occurred and rocks and debris came spilling onto the area where I had just been standing seconds before.

 

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This cave is made completely from ice and covered in rock and dirt.

 

Time to move on?

We watered the dogs and ourselves and then ventured out and up and took stock of our surroundings.

 

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In all truth we didn’t have any real idea where we were and suddenly it was getting late.

 

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Looking down towards the cave after crawling out. Suddenly neither of the lakes were visible.

 

We had a few hours before we needed to be back still but we had been walking already for hours. We took in the landscape and starting positioning ourselves in a general direction. We didn’t want to take the same route twice and so we went up and over hill upon hill upon hill until we hit a treeline with sandy dirt and easier walking which led up all the way back to the truck.

 

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Icebergs, Lakes, Sand?

 

 

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Cinda Jones in all of her glory.

It was ice cream time. I had been stalking a cone of ice cream from the General Store for two weeks now. Every time I had tried to get ice cream they had been closed or I had been working. It just wasn’t happening. But not today. Today I knew their hours and I was ready.

We loaded the pups and set off for an ice cream sundae Sunday.

Or not.

The truck wouldn’t start.

Thankfully, I had 5 gallons of gas in a can that I had thrown in the back of the truck (I had already pumped the can full twice that day: once before trying to leave, then I had emptied it into the truck in our driveway when she wouldn’t start, then I had gone through the rigmarole to fill it all over again.

Unfortunately, this time it wasn’t gas.

The battery was dead.

Thankfully, I remembered that The Chief had told me he had put jumper cables in the truck.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a soul around except for us. The wedding party had left, no one was there and we wanted to solve this via the ladies, not just by calling our boyfriends for help.

Thankfully, we remembered that our other girlfriend was in the Hill Town that day. I called her. My phone wouldn’t work. It rang and picked up but I couldn’t hear a thing. Thankfully, my girlfriend’s phone did work and she was able to get a hold of her. She said she’d be happy to but that she was almost out of gas and wasn’t sure she could make it home if she also came to get us.

Problem solved. We had 5 gallons of gas for trade.

She was on her way.

A little while and some trail mix later and she arrived to save the day. We all laughed realizing that we three approached the task differently, but too many cooks in the kitchen worked out just fine and a few minutes later the truck was purring again. We filled her tank with a couple of gallons and thanked her.

 

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Notice that the lights are on? Yup, me too. I’m still new to the truck and, well, I forgot they were on.

 

She had to leave then and so we continued on our way back to town with just enough time to make it to yoga class (yoga class in the woods?! I know. Pretty amazing). By now our ice cream dreams were in the past. Another day.

We parked and walked into the old cabin where yoga was being held. We arrived to the welcoming smiles of other girlfriends. A big bellied stove in the middle of the room took the chill off until the motions could warm us on their own. It was beautiful and exactly what I needed and suddenly two hours had flown by.

By the end, the hike and the yoga had started setting in and a serious tiredness was taking hold of me. There was live music in town that night at The Restaurant and as we drove by the glow of the place was as inviting as could be but I was done for the day. I hugged my girlfriend and thanked her for the day, for inviting me to go to yoga with her (something I always mean to do but rarely make it to), for getting lost in the wilderness with me and for brightening my day. We had brightened it for one another and a new closeness was born.

I slowly made my way home. The dogs were pooped and sprawled out in the backseat. I puttered towards the bridge when I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. I stopped the car.

Fireworks.

I drove to the middle of the bridge and put the truck into park and sat watching my own private show of the lights.

It’s a pretty special thing to start a day with a looming gloom only to end it with an impromptu fireworks show and fill it with every sort of soul warming goodness in between. That’s the magic of this place.

I made my way home that night feeling happy and fulfilled. I had nurtured a friendship, cared for myself, adventured and been awed, all in one day. I arrived home (after stopping to give The Chief a kiss and say goodbyes to friends until next year at a BBQ in our neighborhood) tired in the best of ways and happy in the most important of ways and the only thing I could think to myself over and over was:

today was a good day.

 

And it was.

 

 

A Wind Event

Of all the elements, I have to say that the wind is my least favorite, especially to be exposed to. Indoors, watching the wind blow through the trees, listening to the creaks and bends of trees in a storm, that’s one thing.  It feels chaotic but inside I’m relatively protected. But being outside in the middle of a windstorm? No, thank you.

Wind has always made me feel hectic and off kilter, as if my body and mind can’t quite seem to make the handshake on how to interact. I feel discombobulated, irritated and overall just “a little off”.

The winds started a week from last Saturday. It was “Prom” in town, a yearly event with a theme and a King and a Queen and a whole mess of mainly locals boisterously celebrating the nearing close of the Summer. As we walked into the mayhem the wind picked up. It was a warm wind, a “Witches Wind” and it laid way for a strange feel to the night.

In the morning the winds hadn’t ceased but their warmth had retreated and their ferocity increased. The day was blustery and ominous.

The next day they were at their peak. From inside our cabin I could hear trees being pushed past their creaking point. They were being overpowered by the wind. Almost every time I walked outside I would hear a tree fall, crashing through its comrades and eventually down to the ground.

That day I was working a 3pm-close shift at the restaurant. I walked there in record slowness as I stayed bent forward at a 45 degree angle in order to not be blown backwards. As I rounded the first corner out of our driveway a cracking sound began and within seconds a huge aspen tree fell right in front of me. They were dropping like flies. Everywhere I looked bundles of trees had fallen together, tripping over one another like a bumbling group of drunks. The forest was tumbling over. I continued on into the normally protected woods but the wind still found her way in, whipping through the usually quiet spaces. I had to climb over fallen trees and jagged stumps that had fallen in the path just to make my way.

 

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The stump itself stretched feet above me. Land of the Tall Trees.

 

I stumbled upon a pile of very fresh bear excrement and looked around me. The wind was so strong and the noises it produced from blowing brush and breaking trees were so loud that even if the bear had been feet away, neither one of us would have been able to hear the other and there’s nothing quite like spooking a bear. It felt truly eerie and truly out of my hands. Cinda and I hurried along to the opening at the river trail, glad to be out of the thick woods but unfortunately back into the brunt of the wind. We steadied ourselves and trudged forward.

Over an hour later I finally made it to work (a little late). The last few minutes of the walk were the dustiest and a miniature tornado spiraled into me, leaving my freshly showered self filthy and my mouth full of dirt. At work I walked into an obvious mood. The wind wasn’t pleasing anyone. After weeks and weeks of rain people had been overjoyed by the few days of sunshine we had been experiencing. But now, the blue skies weren’t so welcoming when your face got a wind rash after being out in the elements for an hour or so. And, as the days of wind continued more and more damage was done.

Two friends sidled up to the bar and told me of their wind carnage. One friend’s entire living situation had been ruined. He had spent the Summer already chasing off bears each morning, clearing trails and setting up his wall tent to live in until he could put up a more permanent structure. It hadn’t been easy living but he was making it work the best he could. When the winds came on they picked up his entire structure and threw everything about. It looked like a tornado had come through. It was time to build (and time to move out until he could build). Another friend had a huge tree fall and crush his Summer storage tent. A few feet one way or the other and it would have taken out his shower or his permanent shed. Two other friends completely lost their sheds. Another friend’s trailer had a tree woven in between it and three other trees but hadn’t been damaged. Another friend’s driveway looked like a game of pick-up-stix. Trees were strewn about and entangled so completely that it took hours and hours to clear. If there had been an emergency, he would have been completely stranded.

Flights were grounded, planes were stuck, people were stranded, missing their trips home, mail couldn’t come in or go out. It was chaos.

Yet instead of panic, the community came together and got to work. Vans were put together to get people to where the planes would have taken them (unless they were going to the backcountry or trying to come in from the backcountry. If that was the case they unfortunately remained grounded or stranded). The Chief had thought to put a chainsaw in our truck and was prepared to clear his way to work. Groups of residents went out to the main road and cut trees for the entire day to clear the road so people would have a way in or out.

In California there are road crews. Trees fall down, power lines go down. Tree companies come to clear the trees, PG&E comes to restore power. It’s not always fast and it’s not always easy, we too have been stranded at our house due to downed trees, but it was always a waiting game. We didn’t have a chainsaw and even if we did I wouldn’t have been confident enough to take down a redwood (and rightly so). The problem is yours but it’s the responsibility of someone else. Here, the responsibility is all of ours. See a tree? Have a chainsaw? Take it down and out of the road. Not “your” road? It’s all of our road. If you’re on it, it’s your responsibility, just as much as anyone else.

People spent all day clearing roads that they themselves rarely use because that’s how it goes out here and I love it for that.

After work The Chief came into town to visit me at The Restaurant. He left around 9:30pm, mentioning that he and our neighbor would be clearing their way home. I had walked the road only a few hours prior and they had driven it an hour before. It wasn’t too bad both of us thought and so we planned to see one another in an hour after I finished up work and headed home to meet him.

It was the shift that wouldn’t end and so despite “closing” at 10pm we finally got ourselves closed up by midnight. I bundled up and went out to the car with a flashlight to light my way, trying to see in the dark despite the wind whipping dirt into my eyes. I jumped into our truck, closed the door and took a deep breath, happy to be out of the mayhem. And then I went to start the truck.

And then I went to start the truck again.

The truck wouldn’t start.

Everyone was gone. Town was deserted and here I was. Stuck in a windstorm in the dark.

I called The Chief.

No answer.

I called our neighbor he had said he was going to clear with.

Answer.

“Hey lady, we are still out here clearing, what’s up?”

It was almost three hours after they had left and they were still clearing the road just to be able to get home.

He handed me over to The Chief who hadn’t heard his phone in all the noise of the saws. I had originally called to see if he could come get me but now that he was still working I had already decided on a second potential. One of the chefs at the restaurant was my neighbor, maybe he could jump me if I got a hold of him quickly. I explained my idea to The Chief and got off the phone in time to call the chef’s girlfriend for his number (thankfully she responded) and get him before he crossed the bridge. Catching someone before they pull up, park, get out, unlock the bridge, drive through, park, get out, lock the bridge, drive away, turn around and do it all over again just so they can come get you at midnight thirty is ideal. I caught him right as he was unlocking it. He came back to get me but we both ended up being jumper cable-less and so I caught a ride home.

As we approached the bridge I looked to the right towards the ice fall and told him to stop.

The Northern Lights were out.

They were bundled up behind a cloud, creating a glow that lit up its dark edges. Then they would dance from behind it in streaks of green light that disappeared just as quickly as they came.

We sat parked on that bridge for a good while, admiring nature and science and the majesty of the place we call home. In the middle of all the mayhem and destruction the last few days had brought, this moment of respite and silence was beyond welcome. The winds had even stopped for those moments we watched from the bridge which is almost always windy. But not that moment in that night. For a few minutes it was peaceful again.

We rode the rest of the way home, noticing all of the fallen trees and uprooted soil. The soil in Alaska is shallow and so root systems are already challenged by the terrain. Add to that a month of rain followed by a few days of sunshine and then whipping winds and you have yourself the perfect combination for a forest dropping like dominoes. As we drove closer to our common driveway I saw all the work they had done. Trees upon trees upon trees cut down and cleared from the road. It would be an enormous clean up.

 

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Piles and piles high up from the ground

 

We parked at the turnaround in my driveway when we looked ahead to my neighbor’s road and saw that it was completely blocked by a huge Spruce tree. It was a task for tomorrow, he said. We said goodnight just as The Chief rolled in. He too was done for the day, I was done for the day, we all were. It was time to hunker down and listen to the wind and the falling trees and pray that none fell upon our little cabin in the woods.

We went inside and built a fire to take off the chill of the no longer warm winds and put on music to unwind and distract from the tumultuous outside. We traded stories we had heard throughout the day and sat in a sort of stunned stupor of what had transpired from the powerful element. And then, we cozied up and dozed off.

 

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Io came to inspect with me the next day. This is the road after the boys cleaned made it passable.

 

Never before have I felt so at the mercy of the Earth and never before have I felt so close to it. In California, if a storm was raging I could simply drive home on paved roads and head inside. If there were trees in the roadway and a road crew was taking care of them I would grumble as I rerouted myself home. I would walk in the door and flip on the heat and the lights and none of it would really be my issue to handle.

Here it is all of our issue to handle. The next morning, wind still whipping, we drove into town with our neighbor to jump our truck. On the way in we answered calls from fellow neighbors with him, looking at what it would take to repair ripped off shingles and tin roofs and checking in on an out-of-towner’s home. I love that sense of community and the common sense of responsibility. Our neighbor’s wellbeing is our own. We all need one another out here and we all have different strengths to share.

The beauty within the destruction we all saw was the continual coming together that this community shares. We are here for one another. Passing someone on the road? You always stop to see if they need a ride. Have a lot of greens in your garden? You see if anyone wants some. In cities we can find community but the sense of need for one another is different. If I need something I can go to the store. Out here, if you need something you call your neighbors. You put the word out and people come around full-bore. It’s a beautiful and continual circle of giving and receiving and despite the unfortunate conditions which can create need, like a massive windstorm, what one receives is often an improvement. A tent destroyed turns into a structure made from a friend’s old shed. A road blocked with trees turns into a night of bonding for two friends. A dead battery leads to a shared ride and a friend to watch the Northern Lights with. Out here we are not alone, we are a community and I’m so proud to be finding my place within it.

Thank you, Alaska.

 

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Cinda Lou enjoying a finally cleared road filled with Fall colors.

 

 

A Winter Tale: Falling on Ice Ain’t Twice as Nice

Some days, you just can’t quite catch up with the universe. You wake up “off” and stay “off” until a switch flips and suddenly you are right side up again.

Before I lived in the woods one of those days might look like this:

  1. My alarm failed to go off and thus I awoke in a state of stress and hurry, rushing to get to work on time.
  2. In my rush to caffeinate and avoid looking as if I haven’t showered (which I haven’t because I am late) I am simultaneously putting on mascara while making coffee when I stab myself in the eye with the mascara wand and in my reaction, I knock over the freshly brewed coffee.
  3. I remedy the eye situation but decide to forego a second round of coffee. I get into the car and get ready to go just as I remember I decided not to stop for gas last night. I guess I’ll be a little later to work.
  4. The gas station is packed.
  5. I get to work late and the storm continues and the day continues to hiccup me through it.
  6. Finally, I get home (after hitting every red light possible) to an empty fridge and a cold house. I turn on the heat and jump into a warm shower and from there on out, the stress of the day is gone and there’s nothing a good movie and a bachelorette style dinner of cereal can’t fix. Of course the remote is out of batteries but hey, I survived.

 

In the woods, one day in particular sums up that “off” feeling perfectly. There was no work to be late to or boss to impress (or not impress) or gas stations to wait at impatiently but still, the same sort of tumbling, bumbling mess of a day arose, even way out here in the woods.

It went a little like this:

 

It was late Winter, almost Spring and the last few weeks of good skiing were upon us. My girlfriend invited me over for some girl time and a ski which I eagerly agreed to, having woken up a little blue and a little “off” that day. And so, I prepared myself to leave for a visit.

It wouldn’t take long.

Wrong.

My plan was to drive (with my newly acquired stick-shift skills which were still pretty shaky, especially in snow) our Jack-in-the-Box of a vehicle to the Footbridge since we still hadn’t broken down and bought our ($300) bridge pass for the vehicle bridge (which would have meant enjoying the luxury of driving straight to her doorstep). From there I would ski to her house a few miles away.

Easy peasy.

I just had to get a few things done first.

Coffee: we were out. So I ground by hand enough for the week. Out of almond milk too but hey, black will do.

Next up: I went to make a fire to take off the chill of the night before and to keep the house from freezing while I was out (The Chief was at work until late that night, working construction on concrete floors in the freezing temperatures).

 

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Freezing temps the night before had made little ice covers on previously melting snow

 

Out of wood.

So I geared up to chop some and came back inside with a heaping armload.

Next up: water (we were out).

I again headed outside almost slipping down the ramp which had frozen a bit and came back up ten minutes later (after many a try to get the generator started) with 80 lbs. of water, stepping gingerly to avoid a catastrophic slip. Inside I managed to spill half of the contents of one bucket all over the cabin floor while trying to transfer it into the pot on the stove. As I stepped on the floor I could feel the water beneath the boards. I had also managed to put the fire out. Nice move.

I sopped up the water as best I could, chopped more wood, and got another fire going with the hopes of drying out the cabin floor.

Still, moving forward, determined to get to the comfort of my friend, I dressed myself for the still cold temperatures (it had gone way below zero the night before and the snow had turned to a slick sheet of ice with mush underneath, not exactly perfect conditions).

I chose all of my favorite layers, trying to cozy myself up and treat myself kindly in this already frustrating gloomy day. Long johns, thick socks, snow pants, flannel, sweatshirt, jacket, hat, gloves, face buff.

I was ready. Just then I looked at the impressive fire I had built and started to worry. Should I leave such a raging fire going unwatched? I’d heard about chimney fires and with the way things were going that day I figured it best not to take chances. I sat in my layers, starting to sweat, watching the fire, imagining coming home to a pile of smoldering wood (our house). I decided to check outside to make sure everything was ready to head out while the fire died down a bit.

I gathered my skis and walked over to the car. It was completely iced in.

 

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The driver’s door doesn’t open so I went to the passenger’s side and just as I pulled the latch I started to slip on the ever so slick ice surrounding the vehicle. Haha, not so fast, universe. I caught myself, jumped in the car and popped open the driver’s side door. My first triumph of the day, at last!

I walked carefully around the car. As I was about to step into the driver’s seat to check the gas level I felt my foot break through ice as I fell backwards. The ice around the car was fresh from the night before. Apparently I had overestimated its strength. I was suddenly lying in an ice puddle, my skis and poles and ski boots scattered everywhere. I felt the water seep into my boots and down the back of my pants.

Wonderful!

I slipped a few more times until I finally got myself up and out of the ice pit and into the house where I stripped down, rung out my clothes, hung them to dry and dressed myself all over again. Luckily I had just been given a pair of snow boots so I didn’t have to wait until they dried and the ski boots which had fallen when I fell were still somewhat dry. Since I had been wearing my backpack when I fell I thankfully hadn’t hit my head on the ice but the backpack too had gotten wet so I unpacked, hung up wet contents and repacked it as well.

O.K. back in gear. The fire was no longer reminiscent of a fire-breathing dragon, it had a steady flame and I felt comfortable leaving it. I again walked outside, slow and steady. The driver’s side door had shut in all the commotion so again I walked to the other side, crawled in and opened it. I slid through the car to the other side and checked the gas level.

It was full.

No, of course it wasn’t.

I carefully got out the other side and placed my skis and poles and boots and backpack into the car and then headed for the gas can which was also full.

No, of course it wasn’t.

I pumped gas quickly. Too quickly. The gas came spewing out the top and all over my newly adorned outfit. I’m used to a little gas so I just went with it. I tried to add gas to the car but couldn’t find the funnel so I just went for it. It got everywhere. It was even too much for me to handle. I was like a walking match. I finished filling the tank and went back inside for yet another clothing change (though despite new clothes I still stunk of gasoline).

Alright! Fueled up and ready to go.

I made my way slip sliding to the bridge, carefully exited the car and got out my skis, changed into my ski boots, bungee corded my snow boots (the second pair of the day) around my backpack and off I went. The ice was slick and within moments I had almost landed on my back twice but no, not again universe. I was determined to stay upright.

I started to get the hang of the slick ice so much so that I called a good girlfriend while skiing (a first for me). I was feeling pretty impressed by myself and better and better as I listened to her words of wisdom when suddenly, I heard a helicopter almost directly overhead.

The T.V. show.

They were filming the area. I immediately thought to myself, “ugh, I don’t want to be in their shot, I didn’t agree to this!” And as I took one look up, deciding to ski away quickly to shelter under a nearby tree what happened? I fell completely backwards on an uphill that was at such an angle that even wearing my backpack with boots strapped to the back I still hit my head.

Hard.

I picked up my phone and the last remnants of my pride and sanity and told my girlfriend what had just happened when suddenly, the fog lifted.

 

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I started laughing, giggling at first and then it morphed into a roar. Maybe I was concussed or maybe the fall just knocked it out of me. She was laughing on the other end and our sudden shift just kept egging one another on. I started moving again, phone in one hand, ski poles in the other, trying not to fall again but at the same time suddenly being O.K. with all of it.

Yes, today I was clearly out of sync with the universe. I wasn’t jiving and oh freakin’ well. My girlfriend, after we had finally stopped laughing said “Wow, you’re dealing with this day really well” and I remember finally understanding that it wasn’t up to me. This day was a bit of a lion but my anger towards it wouldn’t do me any good and really, I had to just laugh at all that had happened: more wardrobe changes than a pop concert, bumps and bruises, turning our house into a lake, a splitting headache, falling while simply looking up in front of a whole crew of people I knew, stinking of gasoline and still, it could have been worse.

We got off the phone when I realized that I was suddenly lost. I had decided, in my new attitude towards the day, to try a shortcut I had heard of but had never tried, especially in Winter.

I called my girlfriend whom I was visiting and she, as per usual, didn’t answer. I had already made a few gut instinct turns while on the phone and couldn’t be totally sure of the path I had already taken and so, the only way to go was forward. I continued on with confidence and immediately hit another slick spot and down I went!

Again.

Third fall’s the charm?

I picked myself up and got the snow out of my pants and continued on. Eventually, the girlfriend called back and I described my surroundings in detail:

“Well, there are a lot of trees.”

“Did you pass the left turn to the Toe yet?”

“Sure!” (I had no idea)

“Just go straight, Julia. No turns.”

Okey dokey, I got this.

And I did. Eventually I found her (a couple hoots and hollers exchanged between us helped). She walked down from her cabin to greet me and after a quick once over and a lot of friendtuition (friend intuition) she asked:

“Woah, my dear what happened to you today?”

We went inside, me leaving my boots on because we had planned to go for a ski, that was the plan, right?

“What do you need?”

I love her.

What I needed was to slow the heck down for a minute. What I needed was to recognize that the comfort I had spent the whole day in discomfort to get to was suddenly in front of me. She didn’t care if we skied of just sat and talked and we ended doing the latter for quite a while. Suddenly, the day was almost gone (it had taken me almost four hours to get there from the time I had talked to her that morning when it should have taken one) and I was exhausted and in pain and emotionally drained but after telling her the story of my day which again ended in an uproar of laughter I felt even better. We decided to go for a quick ski in which I did the most epic slow motion fall either of us have ever seen, setting my headache right back in place.

Fourth fall’s the charm?

 

 

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We returned, still laughing about the fall  when she opened a cider and promptly hit herself in the neck with the cork, resulting in a bruise. We roared. I made pepper sculptures while we cooked dinner and we spent the rest of the night talking and laughing, a lot of laughing.

 

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The first part of that day may have been some of the most frustrating moments I’ve ever had. All I wanted was to get to my friend and it seemed the universe was hell-bent on making me work for it. Maybe that’s what it needed from me, a little gusto. Most everything that could have gone wrong did and things I didn’t even think could happen happened. Even in the woods (I might even say especially in the woods), those days happen just when you don’t need them the most, just when things are already hard. That’s when those days happen.

This whole week was kind of like that day but with its parts evenly dispersed through seven and it seemed to be that way for a lot of folks. It was like trudging through mud. But instead of suffer silently, people talked. I had people I love dearly and people I barely knew telling me how hard the week had been for them, that tears kept coming and frustrations kept jumping in the way of progress and they didn’t quite know why. Maybe it was the weather (it’s been raining and gloomy for weeks), maybe it’s the Summer coming to an end, maybe it’s a deep-seated issue, maybe it’s really nothing at all. Either way it was a weird one and I couldn’t stop thinking about that day last Winter where eventually all I could do was laugh.

 

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Even the sunsets were weird. Beautiful, but weird.

 

And so, I remind myself that no matter where I am, those days will happen, those weeks will happen. I will fall flat on my back (or more recently on my face, resulting in a beautiful black eye just in time to see my family last week where my nephew told me “Auntie Juju, you look like a zombie”. Thanks, kiddo). I will feel the buildup of pressure and frustration and I can decide to run from it (though it seems to run faster) or I can stop, look at it straight in the eye, see it’s not so bad and appreciate the ridiculousness of it all.

This week may not have been my shining moment of glory but hey, at least I was in good company and at least together we were finally able to laugh some good belly laughs. If you’re going to be out of sync with the universe, it’s at least nice to be there in good company.

Cheers to answering honestly when asked how you are and to finding some friends to wade through the muck with, it makes it a lot easier. And hey, at least after a weird week of rain (or three) the mushrooms, some as big as your head, come out to surprise you.

 

 

 

A Hidden Lake Breaks

Summers around here remind me of the filling of a balloon. You can fill a balloon with air or water or chocolate pudding if you like (“Now and Then” reference, anyone?) but at some point, the balloon breaks.

This town is the balloon and the Summer fills it with parties and get togethers and events and concerts and bear sightings and bear run-ins and happy tourists and grumpy tourists and hard work and long work and it just keeps coming. The good and the bad just keep coming and filling it up until the town bursts.

In a tiny town where everyone knows one another and everyone is in the same balloon together, it feels tighter and tighter as the Season goes on and at some point, the balloon breaks. The tension is released and the contents are freed.

This last week, the balloon broke for me the moment that the Lake broke.

 

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Fly a kite over a glacial pool? Yes, please.

 

Every Summer the Lake breaks.

The Season is spent in anticipation of the day that the subglacial waters of Hidden Lake far off in one of the resident glaciers will heat enough to break through their icy confines and head our way. Unlike the picture above, the amount of water is immense and the lake hides beneath the glacier. The release turns our rivers into beasts.

Last week the Lake broke with a vengeance. Boy did she move.

The water rapidly flooded from its origin miles away down to the River which divides the town in two: the East Side of the River and the West Side of the River (we live on the West Side, the side which is more remote. The East Side houses the restaurants and hotels ((which makes it sound much larger and industrialized than the two restaurants (one of which is also The Bar) and two hotels actually shape it to be. Heck, we still have dirt roads and the businesses provide their own power by generator. It’s no downtown New York or anything, but compared to the surrounding areas it definitely resembles a sort of town)).

As I was rushing to work that day I was stopped at the footbridge while people slowly crossed. Slowly is an understatement. They stopped, took pictures, stood in awe. Frustrating as it was to wait there with their complete disregard for my existence and/or need to cross to make it to work, I’m lucky it happened because it caused me to look around and notice what was occurring. Suddenly I realized: the Lake broke.

People were gathered at the other side watching the waves of water fly much much higher than they had all Summer or even in the past near decade. The River, which normally rushes and alerts you to her presence by way of a solid outpouring of water was now screaming her power with almost wavelike rushes. The energy around the water was intense and the freezing glacial waters sprayed up towards the walkway.

But off to work I had to go. I felt moved by the sheer volume and height of the water but still in the zone of the Season: work.

I spent the evening working at The Restaurant and listening to reports from excited tourists and Locals alike of the River.

“It’s higher than its been in 10 years!”

“It’s almost to the grates on the bridge!”

It was too much to just hear about. The Chef and a Manager whom had been stuck at work all day had to check it out. It was 7 o’clock and the whole town was down there by now.

7 o’clock.

If you’ve ever worked in the restaurant industry, you know that 7pm is the Witching Hour. It’s the time when your night will either get thrust into mayhem with table after table after table, or when you’ll realize it’s going to be a slow night.

Seeing that there were little to no tables at the time we thought their leaving would be fine. They had to check it out, we all agreed. It was a moment all should witness.

Not more than 5 minutes after their departure the crowds began.

Within 10 minutes I had almost 10 tables to myself.

Ugh, we should have known.

It went as smoothly as it could and just as the rush faded, the two returned, stoked from their adventure all the while apologizing for the unexpected rush we had just endured.

Who knew?

After a 9 hour shift I was tired but as I walked closer to the bridge to meet The Chief, I felt the energy of the earthly event start to grab hold of me. It wasn’t just the Lake that had burst, it was the whole balloon. I could feel it. There was an energy around it, a wildness celebrating not just this amazing happening but something else:

The end of Summer.

Never in my life have I ever welcomed the end of Summer. Not once. But this year, I feel it. The Lake breaking, to me, was the pin in the balloon of the ever-building Summer intensity. The annual event had happened and now, it was time to enjoy the last bits before the Fall. It gave a new perspective in the unending rush: the rush was about to end. Enjoy it before it is over.

I walked towards the bridge when suddenly…

in the starting shadows of 11pm I saw two familiar shapes: CindaLou (our pup) and The Chief.

They had both independently left the impromptu party at the bridge celebrating the Lake break: The Chief due in part to the overwhelm of the crowd and also to find me. Cinda left due to the fireworks going off. She is not a fan. As soon as the fireworks started firing, The Chief assumed she’d scurry but hadn’t seen in which direction she’d left. Needing a break from it all himself (crowds and crowds after Winters of solitude will seemingly never stop overwhelming Winter dwellers, self included) he started walking my way and we all ended up meeting in the middle at the Watering Hole.

The only way back home was back towards the crowd and so we all steadied ourselves for a change of pace and headed towards our car on the other side of the bridge, open to the possibility of staying at the party for a while to celebrate.

Cinda, did not get that memo, nor did she agree to it once it was proposed.

As we approached the gathering her ears clung closer and closer to her head, hoping to drown out the booms in her thick fur. She panted as we stood and decided to stay or go. Halfway through the discussion we both looked at her at the same time: she looked miserable. As she caught our eyes, her ears perked up with our attention and she nodded in the direction of home, her body promptly following. If there was even half a chance we were leaving, she was taking it.

She was halfway across the bridge before we conceded and started following her home.

We were both fine with missing a party but I needed a moment in the water.

We paused on the bridge, much to Cinda’s chagrin. If she had hands she would have been tugging at our pant legs but instead she whipped out the puppy eyes and tugged at our heartstrings. Still, I told her to wait on the other, quieter, side. I needed a moment.

The Chief and I held onto the rail and looked beneath us to where the water was pummeling against the legs of the bridge and over the boulders beneath us. The sturdy metal bridge was rocking back and forth in a way that could have made a weak stomach seasick. Hours before a huge rogue iceberg had been swept towards the bridge with the heavy current. It had pummeled into the structure and rocked the watchers standing upon it. Hours later there was another iceberg, beached but ready to run at the slightest influx in water.

 

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Icebergs as big a small houses can be moved in an instant in the raging waters

 

It was a beautiful moment there on that bridge, listening to the rush below, feeling the intensity of the movement and holding on just a little tighter.

Nature, is amazing. Water can move boulders, change landscapes, destroy and bring life. It can be kind or cruel and of course that always depends on which side one looks at it from but that night I felt the calm in the crash.

We went home that night, happy our Lou had led us away from a party and towards home instead. It was a quieter celebration for me, an ability to finally take a deep breath. To see the finish line in sight.

The great break had shifted something in me and seemingly most of the locals in town. There was a renewed calmer energy about town. But not only did the break shift us, it shifted the land.

That mass of water had to continue somewhere and the farther the massive surge went downriver from the bridge, the closer it went to the banks of the West Side by our home.

I went out to explore.

The entire River channel had switched.

 

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Before.

 

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After.

 

In the braided rivers of Alaska, it’s common for rivers to switch channels, but seeing it happen so swiftly only gave greater clout to the power of water. I walked upon the new shore that just days before was all rushing water. I explored that which had been left behind and felt the intensity with which the water had changed the landscape.

 

 

 

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The deepest part of the old channel

 

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Dried veins of the path of the water.

 

I’ve always been drawn to water but I thought it was simply due to living near the Pacific Ocean. Water had always been in my day-to-day. Even if I wasn’t at the beach I lived my life around it. I used it as my compass to orient my world around. Now, living hours from the Ocean, I realize it’s not just the Ocean I crave, it’s water in general. Every day that I can, I walk the paths from our house down to the River. I sit on her banks, take her temperature, listen to her and look for the treasures she unearths.

 

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…or the treasures Cinda unearths, like this bone of who knows what here.

 

No matter how despondent my mood at the beginning of my walk, going down to her banks always lifts me from a funk. I still orient towards the water and still, towards the West. My point of reference has always been water.

 

 

 

I love living in a place where an act of nature is cause for celebration. Where fireworks are set off to high-five Mother Earth and the whole town hoots and hollers to her.

I love living in a place where there are natural phenomena on the daily to celebrate but I also love living with a person whom doesn’t have to see the end to every party to celebrate in his own way and whom also lets me celebrate by myself in a moment of quiet in the middle of the wind tunnel on the bridge with the water rushing below. I love living in a place where every walk shows me something new, a change to the Earth I feel I know so well and yet still lose the path on regularly. Just the other day I became so distracted by the changes of the River that I walked right past the last shortcut home.

And so, I took the long way home.

Here’s to the finish line finally coming into sight and to enjoying the moments in the midnight sun that we have left. Despite the rush and rumble, I’m sure I’ll miss it dearly at times come Winter.

 

 

 

Surviving the 180s

Three weeks ago I was up to my ears in work.

I would come home late every night and spend a few hours half working, half spending time with The Chief until I retired for a short sleep and awoke to do it all over again.

The Chief, on the other hand was searching for work extra work to supplement the lack of fire work he’d been called for. The fire season was off to a strange start and the jobs he would have normally been assigned hadn’t been sent his way.

The Chief was at home and hustling for work while I was rarely at home and hustling at work.

He kept up the house and I crashed once I got there.

I was exhausted, he was restless.

We were in different places.

 

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Sunrising / Sunrisen

 

It was a complete 180 degree shift from this Winter where he worked every day he could when he wasn’t sick and I was instead at home keeping us running.

It was a complete 180 degree shift from last Summer when we both were working like mad. We kept sane not through the support of a spouse at home providing a clean house or homemade meals but through the craziness of new love. It powered us through the summer madness.

Then, two weeks ago The Chief found more work and another 180 degree shift came. He and one of his best friends started working twelve-hour days for a film crew followed by a construction job. Things started falling into place again. A new rhythm started to establish itself.

 

Then, the storm came.

 

Literally.

I came home one night two weeks ago early for once and spent the evening alone since suddenly The Chief was the one working late. I enjoyed the time to just be in our home and listen to the thunder roll. Thunder and lightning in Alaska is a new thing. Coming from California and spending many Summers in the Midwest, I am used to thunderstorms. I crave them. They are so dramatic, so all-encompassing and then…they’re gone.

Yet, even a mere ten years ago, thunder was a rare occurrence in Alaska. Now it is common. The Lightning Belt has actually traveled North and so with the belt comes a cinching in, a sudden concentration and constant presence of lightning in Alaska.

Amazing, right?

In a way (for a lightning lover), yes and in another way, no no and no again.

You see, lightning as we all know, strikes.

In less rural areas it might not be such a big deal but in the wilderness? It’s a big deal. This Summer the state has been littered with lightning strikes, so much so that the map shows more red (strike points) almost than green (land) at times. And when lightning strikes, fire is a very real possibility. With most of the state being dense wilderness versus populated areas there often is little to no fire response nearby.

And so, that evening while I sat by myself and enjoyed the roll of thunder, I also felt a sense of worry for what the lightning accompanying the thunder might bring.

But what we worry about rarely comes to fruition and as a worrywort of sorts, time and time again I’ve seen that to be true.

Except for two weeks ago.

I worried that night two weeks ago that lightning would strike and cause a fire.

And cause a fire it did.

 

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This is the first picture I took of the fire as it started to become more and more noticeable.

 

And so, as the Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department, The Chief was set to work by the Department of Forestry.

For days the fire went on with little concern from the outside. It had started in almost exactly the same place as a fire which had started 7 years earlier (the cycle of seven runs strong)  and so it was amongst “Old Burn” (areas that had already been burnt and therefore didn’t provide as much fuel for the fire). It seemed (or was speculated) that it would stay put in the same area, that the land would be re-scorched and then regenerate, and the fire would have served its purpose to help the land renew itself.

Wrong.

The weather this Summer had been unseasonably warm and the earth unseasonably dry and so, the new fire jumped the bounds of the old fire within days as it found new fuel.

 

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The fire starting to pick up fuels, especially due to the consistent wind to the Southeast

 

We spent the evening of a friend’s birthday looking out from the Hill Town down into the valley of the fire, watching huge smoke plumes build into mushroom clouds of smoke and watching flames jump so high into the air that we could see them with the naked eye 17 miles away.

 

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I’m down with a light show, but this was no Led Zeppelin experience. This was real and too close for comfort.

 

 

It was getting closer.

 

 

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The smoke plumes the morning after. The parts that look like clouds above the treeline are in fact smoke and that wind just keeps on blowing in the same direction.

 

Thankfully, we had a river between us and the fire.

Except that the river has a narrow point. A point where the fire could, if it had picked up enough fuel, “jump” the river.

Say what?

I’m no fire pro but I didn’t see fire as being particularly adept at jumping.

But it is.

The Chief told us all a sweet lullaby that night as we watched the beaming orange about fire and how she can get so hot and move so quickly that she can actually uproot huge trees in her path and spit them ahead of herself and high into the air like a catapult launching fire bombs to spread a fire.

Sweet dreams.

If this fire caught enough fuel and the wind kept up in the direction of the narrows, it was only a matter of time before it jumped onto our side of the river. Suddenly, less than 20 miles away no longer seemed like any sort of barrier. It was especially concerning for the isolated Lodge near the river jump point which was just downriver and in the exact direction the consistently blowing winds were going. The Chief was flown out over the fire to provide a better idea of its trajectory and then flew to the Lodge to help them create a plan of attack should the fire come their way.

Two more days of intense smoke-filled skies went by as tensions started to rise. The Chief now was no longer just working again, he was working around the clock. I, on the other hand, ended up with two days off in a row (I was actually still doing work from home for web design but at least I was finally at home except now, I was the one who was alone).

Another 180 degree shift.

 

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Water / Land

 

The heat kept up and tensions grew and grew. The Chief’s phone rang endlessly with concerned residents and Forestry briefs and attack plans. He was on the clock for 12-14 hours daily but couldn’t turn around without being questioned, on the clock or off. A town meeting was held to discuss the upcoming approach for different scenarios and that night an air attack was launched with the goal of preventing the ever-increasing fire from jumping the river.

The air attack (planes which dropped water and then refilled their huge tanks at local lakes) worked tirelessly and by the morning the fire hadn’t jumped the river. And then, just like that…

It started to rain.

Another 180.

It’s been raining ever since.

 

In the first week of the fire, I had two days off. The Chief had none. In the second week I suddenly had three as I had stopped working at the food truck. The Chief still had none. On my newly free day off I ran into a friend.

“A bunch of us are going into the backcountry for the next few days. We are bringing instruments and packrafts and we are going to just play music for the weekend and hike and then paddle all the way back. Wanna join?”

 

As a singer, I honestly can’t think of a better retreat into the wilder wild of the backcountry.

It was hot and sunny and the perfect time for backpacking. I was nervous about getting all the gear in order and squaring away things in time and I’ve always been wary of big group outings but I could tell it was a nervous that I needed to work through and so I set myself on going and started thinking of feelers I could put out for borrowing gear.

The very next morning was the start of the rain.

The trip was cancelled.

Another 180 degree shift.

And in some ways, in retrospect, I was glad. I spent my entire first day off in the cabin, grateful for the dreary weather in ways that were twofold: one, for the fire and two, so I didn’t feel guilty for staying inside. My body and mind were exhausted.

I finally felt myself start to relax. I let myself know that there was nothing that “had” to be done that day other than run the generator and do a few other chores. Overall, I could build a fire and read or watch movies or just do nothing.

It was heaven and in stark contrast to the go go go I’d felt since Summer hit. I don’t think I’d actually taken a deep breath since and so I melted into the day. Since it was still raining, The Chief was expecting to be off a bit earlier than his usual 10pm and so I started making a special dinner, excited to finally be home together when both of us weren’t moving at 100 miles per hour.

Wrong.

Just as I was settling in post-chores The Chief called.

“Change of plans, babe. I’m headed out on a helicopter to the Forestry station and spending the night there. I’ll be home in a bit to pack.”

Right. Expectations. I should have guessed.

Dinner for one, please.

Another 180 degree shift.

And so I spent the day alone, interspersing chores with utter nothingness and enjoying every minute of it (except for the moments when I worried, having not received word of his landing safely. I told you, I’m a pro worrier but also weather conditions in Alaska do change faster than you can imagine and I can imagine the worst).

And so now I sit in the middle of three days off, the most time off I’ve had in months. I planned to spend it outside in the middle of nowhere surrounded by music and people. Instead, I’ve spent it inside in the middle of my cabin. I’ve spent it mainly alone and chosen to do so. I’ve spent it with my thoughts whom are not always kind but are there to teach and with our pup whom is a pretty good teacher (especially in the art of relaxation) as well. I’ve spent it listening only to the sounds of the fire crackling and to raindrops on the roofing (oh, and to some so bad it’s good Netflix).

 

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New blooms from newly refreshed soils.

 

I’ve never lived a life like this, where the actual shifting of the wind can change the entire week or a rainstorm can send plans spiraling into the distance. Where Seasons are king and work is fluid and walking through life is done on one’s toes, constantly being ready for a change.

I’ve never looked back to a year past before for advice and found myself in the same physical place yet in such stark contrast to the daily life of the last year that there was no comparison and no advice other than to just go with it and expect change. There is no typical day or typical week or typical Season. This life is always changing.

It might sound exhausting and I guess sometimes it is, but it’s also the lack of pattern, the surprise of tomorrow and the tenderness of now which is beautiful. When you never know what’s next and never know if what you hope happens will in fact pull through you become a little more aware of what is now. Now may not be perfect or pleasant, but the 180s promise that it won’t be forever.

And so, for now, I sit cozily in our cabin, reheating the special meal for The Chief and hoping he does in fact get off of work early today on his return home, all the while knowing it’s entirely possible that he won’t. I’m sitting in the unknown and “planning” accordingly by trying not to plan at all. Clearly, I’m still working on it but I’m sure a few hundred more 180s will help me find my way.

Let’s just hope I don’t get whiplash.

 

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Rain may bring a dreary sky, but she also brings heart-shaped puddles, wonky as they might be.

P.S. A good friend of mine is a magician behind the lens. Here is what he captured of the fire pre-rain from the Hill Town.

 

There’s Always Something in the Woods

Last week was the first time I drove Bluebell (my mini motorcycle) all the way up the mountain to work.

I hadn’t driven her up there yet because:

a: I wasn’t totally sure she would make it. I had taken her up little hills before and she had struggled a bit, to say the least.

I had gotten stuck at the bottom of a hill in the 4th of July weekend crowd. Without anywhere to go but up and starting from a dead halt I had gunned it and had crawled up the hill so slowly that I crept up alongside two tourists and matched their pace, despite my full throttle action. I just looked over and gave them a nod. Yup, check out this hog, ladies. Pretty badass. I was going so slow that I almost fell over. I’m sure it was a scene from “Dumb and Dumber”, or the like, reincarnated. I couldn’t help but just laugh out loud since they only stared back at me, unimpressed by the sheer power they were witnessing.

Yes, that slow scale was situational but still, I worried. The way to work is 7.5 miles and the last 4 miles are a steady incline resulting in a 1,000ft. gain in elevation. I grew up basically at sea level so this gain to me seems pretty substantial. Needless to say, past embarrassments (or extremely cool events depending on how you look at it) taken into account, I was apprehensive, which was furthered by the next issue:

b: If she did make it, I had no idea how long it would take and therefore no idea when to leave for work. Things here are impossible to gauge. Less than 8 miles to work should take little to no time at all. Wrong. In a car it often takes 45 minutes. That’s almost to San Francisco departing from where I’m from in CA. Plus, even if I gave myself “plenty” of time there still was the possibility that she would break down and then I’d be stuck pushing her uphill and end up late to work.

I hate being late to work.

And so I avoided it for the first day I was scheduled to go up since getting Bluebell.

But come the second day of work and the second encouragement from The Chief that “of course she will make it up the hill” I decided to go for it.

I gave myself an hour to get there.

Or so I thought.

After packing for the day (meaning I packed a different shirt for if it got hot up at work, snacks to get through another 10-12 hour day, pants to paint in if the food truck was slow, bug spray, sunscreen, gloves and a hat and a jacket for the ride home and a change of clothes for the evening and an extra pair of socks. Seriously, you can never have too much along for the ride in Alaska. The weather changes faster than you can imagine)

I kissed The Chief goodbye and ran outside to greet Bluebell and head off for the day.

Wrong.

The little lady needed some fuel. So I ran to get the 5 gallon can of fuel.

Empty.

I rushed her over to the 55 gallon drum of gasoline in our driveway and pumped away, a bit too enthusiastically, resulting in gasoline spilling all over the both of us. Mmmm, gasoline in the morning (creepily enough, I truly love the smell but I’m sure it’s not the best aroma to serve food in). Then, on a whisper from my intuition, I checked the oil.

Good thing.

Almost gone.

I ran again to the shed where the empty gas can had been to find the oil. Empty bottles were everywhere, but a full one? That was a bit more of a search. Finally I unearthed some and ran inside to check with The Chief that I had in fact gotten the correct oil for her.

Check.

Back outside again I topped her off with oil. We were ready to ride. We just had to get her started.

Getting going is a five pronged process:

1. Turn on the fuel switch (I never even knew those existed)

2. Click the selector to RUN

3. (First find the key) Turn the key to ON

4. Wind her up with the foot crank

5. Pull the brake to start her

About ten false starts and some manipulation of the choke and she was finally off and on her way with me along for the ride.

At this point we had 45 minutes to get to work. I was calculating as I drove whether or not I would be late when suddenly a moose appeared in the middle of the road. She looked at me as I slowed down to give her space (moose are unpredictable and definitely something to stay out of the way of. A hoof to the face? No thanks) but instead of a standoff she just crossed and disappeared into the woods. Alright, 40 minutes to make it to work now. Unlike a vehicle we didn’t have to cross the bridge (meaning get out and unlock it, get back in, lock it again, check for other vehicles etc.) which takes longer. Nope, we just had to cross the foot bridge.

Did I mention it’s tourist season?

Bridge courtesy for motorized vehicles is to wait on the other side for others to cross or if you’re antsy to follow far behind (especially 4-wheelers since they can’t fit past a pedestrian). On the motorcycle I can easily pass someone but in the vein of courtesy, I kept a good distance between myself and the couple in front of me.

They slowly crossed without a care in the world, me behind them trying to keep my balance as I crept along. Finally we got across and we was able to move ahead on our merry way.

Sort of.

I should have known the holdups weren’t through with us.

Half-way up the hill I hit The Mudslide. I was at the bottom of it, heading up a short steeper hill within the 4 mile long hill and what was atop the steep little hill at the top of The Mudslide? Another dang moose.

Don’t get me wrong, I love moose, but they are a million times more unpredictable than a Whack-A-Mole and I had already ran into one that had been easy that morning. What were my chances of two? At least this one too was solo. Better than a mother and a calf.

This one was a teenager, through and through. It looked me up and down, considered moving and then considered otherwise. It paced back and forth along the road. I stayed at the bottom of the steep little hill, not wanting to have another incident like the one with the “Dumber” moment. If I matched its pace going uphill that was way closer of contact than I wanted. Ideally, I’d just zip past it, but since it was at the top of the hill and barely progressing forward, that was unlikely.

I honked my horn (it sounds almost exactly like the “meep, meep!” of the Roadrunner) and the teen just looked back at me, unimpressed. Did I just get dissed by a moose? I revved my little motor and the same look came at me again.

Finally, the teen moved into the woods. I cheered and waited for a moment before gunning it up the hill.

Success!

Nope.

As I peaked on the hill there was the moose. The teen seemed to levitate off the ground as I reached the top of the hill as it hadn’t in fact gone into the woods so much as up and over the hill out of sight and into the little pond alongside the road. I swerved to miss any incoming kicks and hauled tail up the second little hill in front of me, checking my rearview mirrors as I kicked up rocks and tried to steer clear of the big ones (the dump-you-off-your-bike-ers).

Ten minutes later I had finally made it to work.

What a day!

And it had only just begun.

We were busy busy busy and the day flew by. It was Friday, which means softball games at the ball field, games which I hadn’t gotten to play in weeks due to the tonsillitis events. I was stoked to get there. Just as we closed and started to clean in order to leave we heard a clap of thunder. The air shifted and the sky went black and it started pouring harder than I have ever experienced in Alaska.

Bluebell!

She was outside with her seat completely exposed (a seat which is currently only foam as the covering seems to have disintegrated over the years). I ran and covered her.

It seems a wet bum wouldn’t be the biggest issue of the night however.

I had forgotten my rain gear.

Rule #1 in Alaska: Layers. Always pack layers. And I had, all but one: my rain jacket.

Never forget your rain jacket. In Alaska it rains almost every day (or snows in Winter). Not always hard and not always long, but almost always a bit of rain.

This was a torrential downpour and I was caught without gear.

Oh joy!

My closing duties were done and the storm hadn’t moved down the mountain yet. Softball was still happening but if I rode down I would have been in town without warm clothes (my change wasn’t enough to get me through soaking wet) and soaked to the bone. So I waited for a ride from my boss and bid Bluebell adieu.

Well, she almost made her first full trip up to work and back.

 

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At least she was left with a view

 

By the time we got down to softball the storm had reached them as well and the game was rained out.

The next morning we couldn’t get up to her before work but seeing as I didn’t have nearly as far to go to work that day (I work at two places: one is the food truck at the top of the hill, the other is a restaurant at the bottom of it) I decided to try a different mode of transportation: my bike.

Last year I had a hand me down bicycle which had tire and gear issues which we were never quite able to remedy. Riding up to the food truck town was pure torture as none of my gears worked but one and riding uphill in one gear for over an hour is something I’ll leave to the pros, thank you very much.

This year, I had borrowed a friend’s bike but it was too big for me. Every time I had to get off of it I would try to hop and propel myself forward and every time I got on I would try to get a sort of moving start and aim not to fall (which was a good aim but not always the reality).

Finally, my neighbor’s bike which had been stolen (here it’s called “borrowed” but without permission it seems a bit more of a steal) all winter reappeared. In its absence she had purchased another bike and so after having seen me and my don’t-fall-over tactics on the Too Big Bike she offered it to me.

It fit!

The gears were finicky and only sort of worked and the handlebars surprised me with a sticky residue nearly impossible to remove but it had more than one gear and it moved me where I needed to go. It was all good.

Except the seat: the seat would not stay put. I’d adjusted it and tightened it and tested it countless times. It would even sometimes stay for a whole day but then the next time I would ride it I would slowly feel myself start sinking down, down, down. And so I would ride with my knees basically in my teeth, huffing and puffing just to get it going down the dirt road.

But, I ran into a girlfriend the day after my Bluebell expedition and she somehow strong-armed the bike into staying put. The seat remained in place and I was able to bike and bike and bike.

Until the tire went flat.

Easy fix, right? I borrowed a pump.

Nope.

It had “special tires” and for the life of me I couldn’t find a “special pump”.

And so it sat with flat tires and I resorted to the next step: two feet as my mode of transportation.

I walked to work the next day and at the end of my shift, The Chief and I drove up and finally collected Bluebell.

Someone (who knows?), unaccustomed to the fuel line situation, had left the fuel on and so we worried she wouldn’t start but after a few tries start she did. I let The Chief ride her home since he hadn’t gotten any Bluebell time. Finally she was back home and my modes of transport were twofold again (legs and Bluebell).

 

 

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The next day it rained and so I chose the less painful route of walking (water pellets hurt on a motorcycle). The Chief had the day off and spent it working on his own motorcycle which finally was resurrected.

Two working machines?!

We may not have a car that works but darned if we don’t have two machines.

That day I asked my girlfriend (the strong one) if she had a bike pump I could use and it turned out she did. I brought it home and pumped those babies up the next day before work.

Three modes of transportation?! (Legs, bike, motorcycle) This was too much.

And obviously it was too much.

5 minutes into my ride I started feeling myself slowly shrink.

The damn seat again?!

There’s always something in the woods. It’s always something when you live in the woods.

The day after The Chief got his motorcycle running he rode it into town. We got a ride home and the next day when he came back to get it he couldn’t start it, not even with a little help from our friends (Joe Cocker really rocks that version).

 

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Even Cinda was up to help

 

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This is a My Damn Bike Won’t Start face in case you’ve never seen one.

 

That’s just how it goes.

There’s always something in the woods.

Be it a moose or a holdup. There’s always something. No gas. No oil. Fuel left on. Rain storms. A dog that needs to come home so you leave a bike in town. A flooded pathway. A working bike one day followed by who knows what happened the next. A low rider bike. A wet seat.

But hey, at least it keeps it interesting. Between the dust and the potholes, two wheels and four wheels alike all have trouble at some time and if you can’t just throw your hands up and laugh along with Alaska then she will be on her own just laughing at you (in a kind way but still, you won’t be in on the joke).

I remember the first time anything big went wrong with my old car in California. The seat stopped adjusting (it was automatic) and my reaction was to almost be offended. How could this just stop working? I’m driving here, people. I’m so important, right?

Alaska doesn’t care who you are she just cares how you get through it and believe me, it’s not always with grace and ease and a song in my heart. But most of the time I can just laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. So many vehicles, so little movement. When half of your day is just spent hoping to make it to and from work and the other half is spent working, there’s really no time to be stay grumpy.

The road here is always bumpy and so one can either learn to avoid the big bumps and glide with the rest or point each one out (but that sounds very tiring).

And so who knows? Maybe this week I will find a way to fix the seat. By then I’m sure Bluebell will catch a cold or my shoes will go missing or our vehicle will start working. It’s a constant game of musical vehicles but hey, none of them have electronic seats, so at least that won’t go out.

Cheers to living on the edge and in the woods. Who knows what’s next? Fingers crossed and backpack packed (this time with a rain jacket).

 

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There’s a Fire in them Fields

When I first told my California girlfriends back home that I was dating the Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department here there were two and only two responses:

  1. “Oh my god, how old is he?” Yea, I guess when I hear Fire Chief I think of an older man with a huge mustache. He can only check one of those boxes. And…
  2. “Of course you are. Of course.”

Geez. I hadn’t thought of it as obvious until each and every one of them said that. I sensed a pattern…

I’ve always been interested in a more rugged lifestyle and hey, I’ve always worn cowboy boots year round, so I guess it does make sense that I would be attracted to a rugged place and a rugged cowboy-esque (think classic Marlboro, not rhinestone) man to go with it. The Fire Chief part was just a little title icing on top of the obvious cupcake, I guess.

Growing up and honestly pretty much until now, the only interactions I’d had with fire departments had been dichotomous and rarely fire related. I’d admired fire fighters as a kid and keep that wonderment and respect with me still to this day. I’d had child like interactions with fire personnel that I wasn’t acquainted with, like being sprayed off by fire hoses at the end of a 10k Mud Run I completed a few years ago.

On the opposite side of things, I also used to hang out with friends in high school who were part of the Volunteer Fire Department in the area with whom I would get into more trouble than public service. Sneaking into the Fire House to have a party (with the radios blaring in case of emergency and the guys on duty staying sober, don’t worry) was a common weeknight activity. But neither of the two interactions really had much to do with fire other than hoping that during the party that we would all get to slide down the ladder.

Firefighting to me was a very distant reality. One which I admired but did not see myself participating in. Looking back I’m not sure if it’s because I felt I had come upon the game too late ((most of my friends had been in the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department) for years already)) or if it was too much of a boy’s club to break into, or if, as a shorty I was too physically intimidated. I do know that it intrigued me, but I never pursued it.

So, upon moving here and finding my (apparently obvious) partner in crime who just so happened to be Fire Chief of the VFD in town, I again felt fire pique my interest but again shied away. The Chief holds meetings for the VFD on Wednesdays and I would conveniently always be working or busy.

That was last year.

However, come the middle of Winter last year with all the grant proposals and planning for the year ahead taking place in the middle of our small cabin, I started to get interested and invested and started thinking towards this year. I still felt intimidated. I still felt it was a bit of a boy’s club. But after talking about it we realized that in the event of a fire, considering how much we like to be together, we likely would be together. If The Chief was called to a fire I could either arrive with him, untrained and unable to do much to help, or I could come to trainings, learn the equipment and become a member of the VFD.

Me?

It didn’t seem quite real, or feasible for that matter. I tried different angles to see if The Chief really was serious about needing me there. I tried to get out of it, but at the same time somewhat hoped he would push me towards it.

In true Chief fashion, he did.

“There’s no reason why you can’t do anything at the VFD that I can do and there’s no reason for you not to know how to help when we live in such a vulnerable area to fire. You’ve got this.”

Well, shoot. There’s no arguing that. We do live in a vulnerable area. We are in rural Alaska. The road to the town is 60 miles of pothole ridden gravel and dirt. Outside help would be a long time coming. We should know what we are doing. We are the initial attack force.

 

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Changing out the Smokey Sign to High Fire Danger. Only you.

 

So, I resolved to go to meetings and try my best.

 

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Not a bad place to train, I guess.

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Piss packs and water reserves and mountains, oh my!

And it’s a good thing I did.

Three days after our second meeting in which we practiced running the different pumps on the different trucks and in which I tried, with fail, to memorize the order of operations to get water flowing, there was a fire.

Sure enough, The Chief was right. The first fire of the area and we were together, only now unlike last year, I could help.

A neighbor had come by to report smoke down the road from our house. Erratic winds had caused it to flow in his direction but not ours (we live on opposite sides of the fire and the winds had sent it his way. He also had to pass the area to get home whereas our turnoff is before the site). Smoke? The Chief had been alerted about a controlled burn in the area but had been assured the night before that it had been tucked in for the night and was completely out.

Or so they thought.

But they were wrong.

By the time The Chief and I got to the burn site there was not only smoke but open flames. Fire is tricky like that. She can seem like she’s gone and then, with just the right fuel from a windy day, she can pick right up as if resurrected from the dead.

 

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A panoramic view of the burn site.

 

The winds were just so that day and the temperatures (for Alaska) were cooking that the situation could have spelled disaster. Surrounded by dead Spruce trees and fields of dried grass, we arrived to the open flames and immediately got to business. We live a mere 5 minutes down the road. That fire could have beaten us home if it caught the right wind, and then beaten our home to a pulp. The Department isn’t equipped for structural firefighting and so we would have tried to contain the fire but likely wouldn’t have been able to save our home. We would have had to watch it burn while we tried to contain it so we didn’t also have to watch our friends’ houses burn as well.

The firestarter (or rather the person who ordered another to oversee the fire) was called and told of what was happening and that we required immediate help. He may have thought that the fire was out but unfortunately he was wrong. Further, a fire should never have taken place the day before in the conditions we were experiencing and it should have been overseen by a larger group with better water back-up had things gone wrong. He sent a crew to help us to handle the situation.

Our neighbor had to drive the fire truck to the site while we watched the fire. We had left the truck in town, stationed to be near the more populated areas where fire seemed more likely. Of course, it was the day that we should have brought it home. When you live in a town where it takes twenty minutes minimum to get from our house to town in a loaded fire truck and there are only three functioning trucks in the area, it seems right that it should be centrally located and easily accessible by qualified members of the VFD if need be. But now, we were on our side of the bridge and the river without an immediate truck response.

When resources are limited, it’s hard to know how to best play them but from now on that truck will be with us every second, ready to respond and the two others will live on the opposite side of the river, poised for attack.

 

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I seriously can’t imagine a better color scheme. I love that truck.

 

So, with the fire truck arrived and a hand crew to boot, we started at it. Having just gone through my first round of training, I figured I should defer to our neighbor and to The Chief to operate the pumps.

Wrong.

“It’ll be good training. Fire her up.”

Gulp.

O.k.

Thankfully, they were there to answer any questions which arose and I was able to get water flowing within minutes. Then, of course, I immediately walked away from the pump to ask The Chief a question while our neighbor headed out with the hose.

 

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Easy-peezy, right?

 

Big mistake.

The pump runs at whichever pressure you set it at. That being said, if you walk away from the pump and the pump runs out of water and you’re still trying to run the pump, well, it will run. It will run itself right into the ground and blow up.

When you have three fire trucks total for a great expanse of land it’s best to keep all three functional. It would have taken almost an hour to get a different truck over to us had I broken the pump and it takes hours to get to town and weeks to replace the pump. Overall, it’s just best not to break it in the first place.

The neighbor quickly reminded me of all of this with just one quick point and shout.

“You walked away!”

I ran back to the pump.

“This is your station. You watch your water levels. You watch your guys. You watch your pump” said The Chief.

 

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A few hand signal snafus (we didn’t really cover those yet) and a lot of digging and water later and the fire was contained and put out. I brought the throttle down slowly and then killed the engine. All was quiet again as everyone seemed to stop and look at what had become of the fire and to what could have been.

 

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Having been surrounded in refuse smoke, we all stunk to high heaven but even smelling like a dump couldn’t break my spirit. I had helped. I had run the pump. It hadn’t been perfect, but I had learned and most importantly, I had gone to training even though I had been intimidated. I kept imagining myself just standing there, feeling helpless as The Chief did all the work and I was so glad that a different reality had been the case instead. While I ran the pump and our neighbor ran the hose, The Chief could call and report the fire, take wind speed measurements, check conditions and oversee the effort. I would have missed out on helping because I was intimidated and afraid to fail. What a waste that would have been and in a different situation, what a danger that could have been. An ego at bay (momentarily) helped keep a fire away.

Within the hour The Chief had been called onto patrolling duty by the Department of Forestry. 12 hour days of driving the area back and forth and up and around to monitor campfires from visiting campers and to be on the lookout for developing weather systems, smoke and the like. To me, living in or near a city, I never even knew to contemplate just how much attention goes into hyper rural fire prevention. A lightning strike could be the beginning of a fire. A cigarette butt or an unattended campfire, or sparks from metal contact or any number of things could start small and turn into something very dangerous. In a city, response is easier to mobilize (though the fire is no less dangerous). Out here, we are on our own for precious hours. And so, he is on watch for anything and everything that could lead to fire.

Two days later of patrolling later, there was a fundraiser for the VFD.

 

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The event of a couple days past was abuzz in the community and so was the reality of the importance of the VFD. I watched as The Chief spoke to our community of the rising numbers of fire, the elevated danger of fire with our high temperatures and erratic winds and the dwindling water levels.

 

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The historic Rec Hall

 

Throughout the night, the mountains of delicious potluck foods (seriously, this place can throw a potluck) and the music and dancing, I kept looking at The Chief with a new respect and a special sort of awe. I knew what he did was of great importance but I guess I hadn’t understood just how much was riding on his back. When he said the ‘fire was out’, the fire was out but what if it had sparked up again? It would have been on him. Placing the trucks and training his team and keeping the equipment functioning and funded. In the end, it all rests on his shoulders.

I’ve always appreciated being in a role of leadership. I can jump into a situation and see what needs to get done and help to delegate so that it does. But I’ve never been in the constant state of responsibility The Chief is in. I know that I could do it though I can’t say whether I’d volunteer for it, but someone has to.

Seeing The Chief in front of the attendees in this light, seeing him speaking to them, asking for their help since fire is such a community effort, seeing him in this situation of responsibility did make it obvious. I further understood what my girlfriends’ saw (or heard from me by phone) immediately. I love seeing this serious side, this side that makes me and others feel safe. This side that knows what the relative humidity levels are every morning and watches the sky like a hawk scans the ground. I love seeing him in Chief Mode and well, it’s Summer now. ‘Tis the fire season. I also love how Chief Mode affects me. I take myself more seriously now. When he asks me what the water level is off-hand, I answer confidently. At trainings (instead of being the goof-off I usually was in class) I listen because I know it could come into play and now, I’ve seen it come into play and seen the potential mistakes in play. There’s nothing like a sense of urgency or emergency to challenge oneself and I hope each time to better and better be able to respond. I also hope we never have to respond again but I’ll train every week nonetheless.

Engage Chief Mode.

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…and co-pilot Lou

Scaling the Scaffolding: a Tale of Two Wobbly Knees

 

Next month marks a year since my life did a complete 180. I went from running water and local organic grocery stores to a “slop bucket” (a collection of water from the sink in the place of a draining sink, since there’s often little to no indoor plumbing here) and massive town runs. I went from everything I’ve ever known and every habit I’d created to a complete new way. But some things remain the same, no matter how far we travel, no matter how far we’ve come. Some things remain.

When I first arrived last June one of my first outings was to go ice climbing. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of ice climbing. It sounded way out of my element and way out of my comfort zone.

The girlfriend I was staying with when I first got here (when I first thought I’d only be here for 17 days and then off to who knows where) runs a guiding service in the area. She had to work that day but knew some of the guides were going ice climbing.

“You should go along” she encouraged. I was newly adjusting to my surroundings. Getting used to peeing outside, still afraid of bears around every corner, still getting used to the light at night and the ever-changing weather throughout the day. Rainstorms followed by blazing sun to suddenly overcast and frigid. My backpack was essentially my mobile closet with everything from a toothbrush to bug spray to a fresh pair of socks. Thinking ahead was key. It was all new.

So when I heard about the ice climbing expedition, I was uncertain. I didn’t know the guides, didn’t know the gear and I didn’t totally understand the endeavor which in the end was good because it allowed me not to think far enough to realize that I would be climbing up into the air when I have a fear of heights.

 

I have a fear of heights.

It was something that I had all but forgotten about myself until I got here. Occasionally, back in California, there would be a beautiful sunset which we would climb up on the roof of my house and watch. I would gingerly climb the ladder, slowly placing each footstep, holding on for dear life as I scaled the 6 feet that would take me up to the roof that looked down at least 30 feet to the ground below. I would feel my stomach drop, my knees start to go wobbly and my feet begin to numb before I’d even ascended halfway. Up on the top, I’d find my nook and cranny myself into it until I had to move again in order to come down (a time which I hoped would come as soon as possible, but you know, the sun is on her own schedule. Are we there yet?). The thing was, those times were rare. I rarely scared myself, rarely had to step out of comfort, and so, until those moments, far and few between, I started to forget my fear of heights. How convenient.

But here I was, slowly realizing that the sport ice climbing contains the word ‘climbing’ which meant I was going up. Gulp. There was really no turning back. Looking back as we hiked I could barely see the town and had little to no faith of my ability to navigate the rocky terrain back to the home I had just arrived at a day or so before. And so I set out to conquer my fears, while simultaneously pretending they didn’t exist.

We hiked out to the glacier (a glacier!) over rickety bridges protecting us from the freezing water of the rushing creeks below and up and down slippery rock which was a far enough distance that by the time we got there everyone was ready for a snack. It was miles and clothing changes away, we were suddenly on exposed ice. Just the hike alone was more than I had done in recent months due to a recurring neck injury and carrying a big pack wasn’t a daily endeavor, to say the least. I worried as I realized that I already felt tired. Nevermind, snack time. With backpacks full of boots and harnesses and snacks galore, we all sat down to eat and evaluate the situation. Where would we drill into? Which were the hardest and easiest routes to climb? Clearly, I had a lot of input into these questions.

I was totally and completely over my head, but they were patient and taught me what to do. And then, just like that, the line was open. One guide offered me the option of more explanation or to just go. I chose the latter. I could feel the nervousness building and needed to beat it out of the gate. And so, with a relative hang of the idea (use these picks and your boots to climb up this enormous ice wall, get to the top and bouce-glide down) I clipped in and…

I got to the top. My knees were shaking, I couldn’t find my toe holds (it didn’t even compute one bit how a 1/4″ of metal was supposed to hold me into this ice face) and my forearms were screaming from clawing my way up with the axe but I kept going and I made it.

At the bottom, I looked up and realized I had scaled a height probably 5 times bigger than that 6 foot ladder. I was on Cloud 9. I patted myself on the back (after I’d dropped the ice pick) and hugged my girlfriend’s pup whom had followed me out for the day and had supervised my every move.

 

Version 2

Buddha, if I fall, will you catch me?

 

Fear of heights be gone. Onto the next challenge. Right?

Back in California this past Fall my Mom and I celebrated our birthdays (we are a week apart. Two Scorpios. You can guess how my teenage years went. Sorry for being a terror, Ma). For mine, we took a walk. For hers, she chose a craggy cliff side stroll. There were ravines and hills to climb up along rocky cliffs. It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park (although it was gorgeous) and for the first time in a long time, I saw her fear of heights in action.

 

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Growing up, I remember us both having fear. Now, a seasoned ice climber with one day of climbing behind me, I was coaxing her past the hairy junctions, holding her hand and congratulating her on the other side. She did it. She too conquered the fear.

 

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We were free. Right?

As you might have guessed, nope. Wrong.

This is how I found out: in this Shoulder Season of Spring before Summer, work is very much of the pick-up variety until everyone’s full-time jobs start. I was lucky enough to pick-up work from a local restaurant that my neighbor and friends are starting. The task? Painting.

 

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Little T punching the clock

 

The first day we arrived (The Chief, Cinda and I. The Chief had done construction for them throughout the Winter. Days below ten degrees finally became their cut-off point (meaning work would be called off) but this was only after working multiple days in below zero temps, even 20 below one day. I barely left the house on those days. They worked outside. Total badass status/crazy, if you ask me)) our neighbor was giving us the gist of the painting process:

“There will be some real basic on the ground stuff, some 6 foot ladder stuff and then the real Daredevil parts up high”.

Ha! He’s cute. Daredevil? Look past me my friend, I thought to myself.

And then I heard myself. That standard. Height = No Can Do, in my book. But wait, I thought we had gotten past this, right?

I pushed it out of my mind as I watched The Chief scale the first wall. I had work to do on the ground, only so many people (ideally one) can be on a ladder at once and I was needed on the ground below him.

We are three weeks out of The Chief’s surgery. Ideally, he lifts nothing and does not exert himself. Since the day after his surgery he has had to break the rules in order for our house to keep running, but we’ve tried to keep it mellow-ish, despite his distaste for not doing the heavy lifting.

In comes Summer.

The day we started was the day Summer arrived and with it temperatures of 80 degrees plus.

Up on a ladder, up on a porch, all day on the sunny side of the building with his neck crooked upwards is not the ideal healing and resting situation. And so, I thought to myself as I felt my feet go numb just looking at him way up in the air, if there’s more ladder work, I will try to help take some of the brunt so it’s not just him and his sinuses up there.

 

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Well, it turns out that I had to make good on that offer because there was a whole building to paint. A huge building.

Day two, still hotter than any of us expected and…it’s time for more ladder work.

“Babe, I’ll just do the ladder work today” I said, as simply as I might offer to divvy up the chores. You do the dishes while I haul water. I’ll pump gas while you water the plants. Simple. A trade-off. There’s work for all and it simply needs to be claimed.

I immediately regretted my decision.

Three of us (meaning The Chief and our neighbor with me bouncing around trying to find a place to be of use) moved a 24 plus foot extension ladder from one side of the building to the one in question. We propped it up and adjusted it in the rocky ground it stood upon. We were painting the second level of the building which had a hip roof (just what it sounds like, a roof below the “real” roof. If the roof of the building is the shoulders, the hip roof is, well, the hips) for the ladder to rest upon. Originally, we had discussed rigging up a harness situation in which one person would lean out of the windows of the second story and paint while tied in. As soon as we moved the ladder into place and The Chief all but ran up to the top without so much as a wobble and called it good, I realized that the harness idea was, to be punny, out the window.

Grrrrrrrrreat!

Just then, a few other friends showed up. Everyone stopped working to greet them and congregated around the ladder.

My ladder. The ladder I was going to have to climb up. That was as far as I had gotten. I knew I had to climb up it. It didn’t even occur to me that simply climbing up it might not be as easy as The Chief had shown it to be. He “No-Handsed” it.

Growing up watching my favorites in the Olympics like Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan it had never occurred to me that what they were doing was all that hard. I mean, it’s teachable, right? Needless to say, the first time I went ice skating and nearly broke my rear trying to do a jump (because that is what everyone is able to do their first time on the ice) I had the hard realization that simply because something looks easy doesn’t mean that it is and if it’s difficult and someone makes it look easy, well then it might be even more difficult than anticipated. Add fear to that equation and well, you’ve got my second day of painting.

I could feel the fear mounting (where was this even coming from? I had conquered this, right?) as we stood talking, I knew that my knees and feet wouldn’t respond much longer if I just kept looking at the feat ahead of me instead of starting it. So, with everyone there, I grabbed my paint bucket and brush and started climbing. The Chief had scampered up without holding on, I got one rung up before I quickly realized that he must be part Ninja, part Panther, as I fell forward and clung to the rungs for dear life. I started up the ladder, paint brush and bucket in one hand, the other free, both sweaty. Thankfully, the crowd on the ground took this as a cue that the break was over and started to disperse, a bit. This was not a moment for spectators, I looked like a newborn fawn taking its first steps. I was awkward.

A good three minutes later I was up the ladder (something that had taken The Chief all of about 7 seconds to complete, dang Kristi Yamaguchi look-alike).

Now what?

When in doubt, sit down.

I balanced one foot at the top rung and the other one rung below it and huddled to get my bearings. Bearings: well, I’m up really high. I have now become one-handed because I have nowhere to place my paint and essentially I am no handed because I need to use the other to paint.

Typically, I have pretty excellent balance, but try to balance a bucket full of fear and you get a spinning coin about to fall. Heads or tails? I decided that one, I was not going to fall and two, that I was going to at least get a few slats painted before I called it quits.

It turns out that even at full extension, my dual rung stance didn’t get me high enough to paint the highest slats. I would need The Chief’s help after all. So much for being his savior. This, I immediately saw as my out. I mean, does it really make sense to trade-off and on so that I can paint 2/3 of the top portion only to have to run and get The Chief for every last 1/3 before we (they) move the ladder again? Not at all.

This gave me the push I needed to finish my first section. My thighs were shaky from my balancing straddle (and from fear) and my positioning was awkward but I was able to power through and slowly make my way to the ground. Ah, sweet Earth. I’m never leaving you again.

Fear of heights realized, not welcomed, but acknowledged.

I rounded the corner to find The Chief.

“Hey babe, you ready to switch?”

Mmmhmmm.

I stalled telling him that we were switching for good. I went over to the wall he was working on (from the ground) and picked up his brush to work while he finished the last third on my area.

My area.

I had taken it on and yes, I was scared but there was something holding me back from completely abandoning the endeavor. Could I just give in so quickly? My thighs felt rested. He finished and came back over to get help moving the ladder. We summoned our neighbor for help as well.

“Babe, does this look good? Can you reach both sides from this?” He asked as they tried to place the ladder to my liking.

I couldn’t answer because if I did I would have said “Put it where you like, dear. You’re the one who will be doing the painting here” but I hadn’t fully committed to quitting the project just yet, so he got a silent reply. He thought I didn’t understand the question and so a few reconstructions of the quandary later I was finally able to answer.

“Looks good”.

As soon as our neighbor left I was able to explain my tongue tied-ness.

“I’m scared. It’s really high. It’s like…it’s really high”.

“Oh, ok. Do you want me to do it?”

I did, of course I did.

But I am stubborn and made myself try again.

We finished another section. I was starting to get my sea legs about me. I was feeling more confident. I still moved like an awkward crab but I felt a bit more at ease.

For the next ladder move the cat who had gotten my tongue had left to find someone elses. My tongue was working and I directed them where to place it.

No sooner had a climbed up (this time with no hands until at least the fourth rung. Progress.) and gotten situated did I start to feel just the slightest shift.

I froze.

Was the ladder moving? No, it couldn’t be, I said to myself as I realized that this last move I hadn’t checked the footing holds in their rocky setting.

It turns out, it could be.

Just as soon as I had started planning my escape route the ladder started moving again, a good consistent very slow slide off the roof. There was no time for planning, I was falling. Simultaneously, another stopper by stopped on by. I didn’t know him. I pointed at him. “You, come here. Now. This ladder is sliding”.

He ran over and didn’t move until I was safely on the ground.

“Your footing is uneven in this rock”.

Yes, thank you.

I hightailed it to The Chief and told the story of my near doom.

Clearly seeing I was shaken, he offered again to take over.

And so I let him…

for about five minutes.

I had walked over to his previous station and spent four minutes staring at the wall before I ran back over to the hip roof happenings.

“I want to do it”.

Patiently, he climbed back down. He checked to make sure I was actually comfortable with it and that I wasn’t purely fueled by pride (ugh, he knows me too well) and then confident in my responses he gave me some pointers. I watched him run up the ladder and show me footing options and window grips to be able to hang from the window to gain reach and stability.

Perfect. Thank you. Now go away so I can look awkward as I try to replicate what you just did.

I did not replicate it. It did not look the same, I’ll tell you that right now.

But, I did get back up there and together, switching on and off we nearly finished the whole side of the building that day.

The next day I was gung-ho to start and finish the last section. My thighs were sore from bracing myself and my feet hurt from trying to grab onto any sort of traction I could find (where’s the super power of Gecko hands and feet when you need them, right B?). I was done. The last of the “Daredevil Work” would be completed and I could go back to the safety of the ground feeling like I had made headway with my fear of heights.

 

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One last section to freedom

 

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Heading down for the last time

 

Well, Alaska (and years of planning and building blueprints) decided differently. You see, the building, no surprise here, is a box and thus, has four sides, all of them two stories tall. The “Daredevil Work” was only halfway through.

Oh joy.

Scaffolding.

I feel like my only interaction with scaffolding is the famous photo of men on a lunch break in New York in 1932. You know the one.

 

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This isn’t even scaffolding but it’s my idea of what being on scaffolding is like (if you are as brazenly comfortable as these gents are on it).

And so, lunch pail (actually, paint pail) in hand I ascended, climbing the big ladder again as it wobbled the scaffolding. I reached the top and immediately sat down (it really is the move, I’m telling you) to asses my surroundings. The Chief came up to show me how to move myself and the scaffolding up.

It’s going higher?

The best part about adjusting scaffolding is that, if you’re alone, it has to be done unevenly. You adjust one side two to three moves up by sticking your foot in a metal apparatus and (in my case) putting all your weight on it to get it to move down which raises that side up. Then, you walk uphill on the wobbly boards to the other side and do the same thing. Back and forth feeling like you’re surfing, raising up a bit more each time until you’re where you need to be. You also do all of this while trying not to spill your paint bucket everywhere or fall off.

Three separate sets of adjustments and hours later and my section was done. By the end of it I was feeling more confident again. The Chief reminded me that it takes practice, that he’d been doing this for years and to have patience. Patience, schmatience, he’s part Ninja. But he’s also a correct Ninja because by the end of the day as the winds picked up and I gained a partner in crime as we moved the scaffolding to the next section and we bounced one another around with our each and every move I found myself swaying with the boards instead of resisting them (while resisting my urge to sit down) and finding new ways to reach a little farther or lean a little more. Efficiency up, fear down. But not completely gone.

It turns out that a year ago being strapped into a harness that was attached to a rope that was bolted into ice (does that seem secure to you? Me neither but they are the professionals and it was amazing) that was held on the other end by an extremely confident crew is a little different from climbing up a ladder solo and balancing while painting on its upper rungs. I had not conquered my fear but I had faced it again, this time more seriously and man, was it determined to stay put but it wasn’t going to.

Without the stretch out of the norm how are we to remember our fears? Even more, how are we to challenge them? And how are we to start the journey past them? I had been living in the safety of a world I constructed where I knew what would come next and how to avoid it if it scared me. Here, there’s still the option to say “no” but the situations come upon me faster than I know how to plan for and thank goodness for that.

My scheduling of my safety bubble has been interrupted and fear has been a frequent visitor but even though uninvited, fear is a welcome surprise to remind me of the things we carry with us no matter where we go. Before I came here, I put a reminder in my phone to do something every day that scares me or simply puts me out of my comfort zone, be it trying a new class or getting lost and finding my way back. I had to search out those things. Now, they come to me. Oh, joy. But really, it is a joy.

I have a fear of heights and I now remember that but I will keep challenging it until it turns into “I have a slight fear”. Perhaps it will never turn into “I had a fear” but I’m sure there will be enough situations here to make it come to be if it is at all possible.

Until then, I’ll keep the reminder of my Mom conquering her fears, step by step, one foot in front of the other and of my Ninja boyfriend, making the hard look so easy that I (somewhat) fearlessly attempt it.

 

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