dessert

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Kennicott River

Swimming

In Alaska, I’ve had to learn a new language. It’s one I didn’t know I didn’t speak and certainly didn’t know existed until I stumbled into it. The focus of my learning has been less on dialect or accent and more on meaning. Take, for example, the word “hike”. To me, coming from California, I considered myself a pretty good hiker. I’d go off on my own for a few hours, traversing the mountain lion, rattlesnake filled fields and feeling very brave along the way. That was a hike. In Alaska, or at least in my neck of the woods, a hike may mean something very different. My first “hike” in Alaska turned into an 8-hour day, for which I was neither in shape nor mentally prepared. I came back feeling like I had gone through a battle. I had gone through an Alaskan “hike”.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Kennicott glacier Alaska

A “hike”. Ice climbing was just a quick add-on.

 

 

Another example is the word “cold”. California cold is anything colder than 50 degrees. Freezing is just insane. “Cold” in Alaska? Let’s just say, during my first winter, when I first experienced a week-long stretch of the negatives (25 degrees below zero, to be precise) that was considered “warm”. When I used the word “cold” to describe how I felt (like someone was sandwiching my fingers and toes and nose between ice cubes) people would downright laugh.

Laugh!

At 25 below zero.

So, needless to say, there’s a lot of play in what means what and to whom and Alaskans just have a different threshold of what’s normal to me.

“Hike”: Anywhere from 4-10 hours

“Cold”: 60 below zero

“Hot”: Anything above 70 degrees

And so, I’ve learned this language as I go along, oftentimes by finding myself in the midst of a situation I thoroughly thought I understood only to realize I was sorely mistaken and highly under-packed in snacks. So, to avoid said misunderstandings, I try to avoid assumptions and never leave the house without at least three other layers, a change of socks, a rain jacket and snacks enough for a half-day endeavor. Therefore, even if I don’t fluently speak the language, at least I might have the tools to survive whatever I’ve gotten myself into.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Hiking Alaska

Another “hike” before I got the terminology down. It was 6 hours long and included a barefoot river crossing and ice climbing through caves.

 

 

The most common area of the Alaskan language that I still find myself tripping over is scale. “Hills” here are what I would consider “mountains” and “creeks” are often what I would deem “river” material. Just the other day, scale popped up again when my girlfriend asked me if I wanted to take a stroll.

Stroll (my definition): a lackadaisical walk, perhaps with ice cream in hand – no, scratch that, definitely with ice cream in hand, in footwear ranging from flip-flops to none at all across even terrain, preferably covered in soft grass, or sand.

Stroll (her definition): a 4-6 hour hike (hiking shoes most definitely required) through a forest, followed by scaling a rocky hillside to a bolder-laden steep peak surrounding a glacial lake far below and eventually ending at another lake requiring sidehilling (read: trying to emulate mountain goats, or in my case, falling with style – or not) and then doing it all in reverse. Call me crazy but this, I would call an “adventure”.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Trundling Alaska.jpg

This is where she wanted to go. My first time to The Toe, with the boys who became brothers.

 

 

So, yeah…a clarification of terms and scale is helpful.

But it’s not always the obvious trip-ups like scale either, sometimes the Alaskan language is a little sneakier.

The other day, when I decided to sign-up for the 3rd annual Women’s Packrafting Clinic, I felt very secure in my decision because I knew what I was going into. There were no unknown Alaskan terms and the conditions of the day were understood. We’d practice some skills, self-rescue techniques and then have an awesome ride down the “creek”, which I knew to be more of what I would consider a “river”. The “creek” was raging from our hot days we’ve finally been having (hallelujah! Welcome, Summer weather. We missed you) but I knew that already. The day would be long but beautiful and I had just enough snacks. No surprises here.

However, I felt a little tingle as my spidey sense alerted me to something that suddenly felt closer to me than I was comfortable with: swimming.

“Swimming” was a verb I felt competent I knew the definition of until moving here. When I first heard it used, no one was smiling, but there I was with a big grin. Swimming! Fun! No, no, silly.  “Swimming” to me conjures up images of pool floaties or Ethel Merman-esque swimming caps. It has a lightness to it, an easy, breezy, “these are the days of our lives” feel to it.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Poolside Santa Cruz

Like this. Poolside cocktails with my favorite cookie.

 

 

That definition also exists here but there’s a second “swimming”, the “swimming” I heard where I was smiling solo, a “swimming” which would perhaps be more aptly named “falling out of a boat into a freezing river”. It doesn’t have quite the same ring though, does it? And so, “swimming”, I came to find out, means two things here: fun swimming (smiles included), and potentially scary swimming (less smiley). I opted to stay on the smiley side.

I’ve been packrafting (an awesome sport, check out Alpacka Raft for a look into the wonderful world of bringing your boat wherever you go) a couple of times each Summer here since my first three years ago and it’s a sport with an instantly addictive quality. The Women’s Packrafting Clinic is one of the highlights of the year and since I missed it last year, I was stoked to join in. 35-ish women teaching and learning from one another, packing up boats and hiking a few miles upriver and then boating down? Amazing.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Packrafting

First clinic.

 

 

Still though, that spidey sense was kicking. Swimming. I’d never “swum” before and for some reason, it felt like it was knocking on my door. During the freestyle practice time in the local swimming (fun swimming) hole, I did something I normally don’t and I practiced falling out of the boat and self-rescuing. I practiced three times and on the third flip, something tweaked in my neck, sending it immediately into spasm. Oh joy!

A few ibuprofen, some lunch and an hour or so later, the spasming had lessened and I figured my spidey sense would too but there it was. “Careful, Miss Pancakes!” it warned, “You’re going to swim”.

Always listen to your spidey sense.

Perhaps I swam because of that voice in my head. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps, it was simply time. Three years without a spill was starting to get to me. I kept wondering when it would be my time to “swim” and how would it go? The anxiety of its looming inevitability had crept up and so, by my own doing or by pure chance, inevitability finally showed her face.

One moment I was up, the next I was caught on a rock and the next? I was coming up for air, facing the wrong way, flipped to the wrong side, heading face first into Class III rapids.

I was swimming.

Thankfully, instinct and training kicked in and I flipped onto my back and turned myself around, feet first as I rode the next set of rapids while trying desperately to grab my boat. I had managed to hold onto my paddle and used it to the best of my ability to steady myself as I aimed to keep my head above water. It wasn’t going well. Each time the water would go over my head, I’d come up just in time to hit the peak of the next wave and take on more water. I started to panic. I wasn’t getting enough air. I couldn’t see. I was hitting my feet and seat on rocks as I sped through the mid 30’s-degree water. Then, I heard the voices of the women that day.

“If you find yourself swimming, stay calm. Keep your feet up, hold onto your paddle and don’t worry about your boat, worry about your life.”

In that moment, I realized that my attempts to catch the boat were going to be fruitless. As I gave up on rescuing the boat and focused on rescuing myself, I slammed into a rock, coming to a stop as I watched the boat speed away. Slowly, I assessed my surroundings. I was sandwiched between the rock that had caught me and the current that was pushing me into it. Thankfully, it wasn’t so strong that I couldn’t move and so, ever so carefully, I steadied myself to find my way to shore. Foot entrapment was also something we had gone over that morning and as I felt the shifting rocks below me, I again heard the women’s words:

“Slow and steady. People have drowned in even the shallowest water from getting themselves trapped in a mad dash for the shore. Slow down.”

Slowly, steadily, I made it to the shore.

Just then, the rest of the group showed up, saw my predicament and eddied out to help. After they checked in with me with the double “Are you ok” (the first happens immediately, the second comes a few minutes to make sure you’re telling the truth when you reply “yes”) we devised a plan where two of them would scout for the boat and the other would stay with me. Upon their sighting of my craft, I then hiked downriver and they all rafted down. Finally, after bushwhacking along the moose track laden shore for 10 minutes, I caught up.

There they were, my group, waiting with smiles, and my boat (which had beached itself – see, don’t worry about the boat, worry about your life) to greet and congratulate me.

“That was a long swim! Nice work!”

I love those ladies.

The rest of the ride home, I talked myself through the rapids as I always do, pumping myself up as I go and congratulating myself on doing it…

I had finally gone swimming…

and I was exhausted.

Staying afloat in those icy cold waters is no ice cream-toting stroll in the park and the fear that kicks in could tire a horse. Yet thankfully, this pony was headed back to stable.

As I came into town, sleepy and sopping wet, I made my way to our truck to change and regroup. There, under the center console was a cookie, just for me. The Chief had bought me the little treasure earlier that day and I sniffed it out like a kid finding hidden Christmas presents. It was glorious, like a hug from within.

Learning to speak Alaskan has pushed me into situations I might have otherwise wiggled out of. It has coaxed me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. It has given new meaning to words I thought I knew and still new meaning as I learn what they mean for me. “Swimming” was a word I lived in fear of. When would I swim? How would it go? Learning the word and living the word are two different things and here, there are still so many words I only know the definition of. Yet, despite the bumps and bruises that sometimes come with learning them, I’m excited to add my own stories to my Alaskan dictionary. Cheers to learning a new language, even in the place you call home and to learning a new side of you along the way.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Packrafting Kennicott River

The fabulous K. I always feel good when she’s on the water with me. Plus, she’s got the best drysuit I’ve ever seen.

 

 

Cheers to our very varied definitions of terms and to learning to speak the language of the locals.

Cheers to swimming, in all it’s forms.

 

With love, from Alaska.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Glacial lake.jpg

I think we can all agree on “beautiful” for this one, eh?

 

 

 

The Quickest Way To Hear (Your) God Laugh (How Did I Get Here PART II)

I had plans.

With my newly created single life I was going places (literally). First on the list was Alaska and then, after 17 days, I’d go back to CA, regroup and head to Thailand and just keep going from there. I was free and it was time to make use of it.

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The last load to storage before departure. Pack it up, pack it in, let me begin.

Alaska because I felt as if a rope in my gut was pulling me there.

Thailand because I wanted to learn to surf, brah.

As I stocked up on items for Alaska I also acquired items for the other leg of the trip (even though I hadn’t bought a ticket or made any real plans). Sundresses and sandals would wind up in my haul of long underwear and bear spray (ya know, to avoid a “https://www.youtube.com/embed/YOlkeDrqozw“>The Revenant” situation, please).

I came home one day and my girlfriend giggled as I shuffled in two pairs of heeled sandals.

“Those will be super useful in Alaska, huh?” she wink-winked me, almost as if she knew I wouldn’t be back for them.

My intention was to be on my own merry way. Do my own thing on my own schedule. I never even began to think that those heels would gather dust in my storage unit.

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A whole life (sandals included) in one little box

 

Plan: I’d get to Alaska and out of my comfort zone and then find some killer waves, dude.

Every time I think back to that trajectory I planned for myself I think of a quote I recently learned:

“Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh” (David Milch)

And I was shouting these plans from the rooftop. I should have heard the thunderous laughing from above that must have followed my announcements but stubborn ears are deaf to opposition and I just kept on planning and meeting with friends and asking for tips on places to go post AK (thanks DW).

Once in Alaska (see last week’s post here describing the journey in) I was still convinced my future held beaches but succumbed to the reality that something was telling me to stay (shouting it actually). I was in for a quick summer stop-over, Alaska style. So I started to look into staying. First thing’s first: money. Leaving for Alaska had meant buying a lot of items I just didn’t have in my arsenal (see: bear spray, a headlamp, hiking shoes…I had thought I was way more outdoorsy than my existing equipment suggested) so I hadn’t exactly been flush to begin with and I didn’t plan on bleeding myself dry in the funds department.

And just like that a job offer came.

My girlfriend introduced me to a friend who was starting a food truck. He needed help. I needed a job.

Boom! Employment (Thank you, MacChina).

We were fast friends, I mean sheesh, I’m a girl who likes to eat and he’s a chef. What could be better? Friend match made in heaven.

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Not a bad view to whistle while you work

Ok, so money problem taken care of but now where to stay?

My girlfriend said I could build a platform on her property and camp there for the summer. I’d need to find or have lumber hauled in from Anchorage and find a tent and bear wire (WHAT?! Who even knew that existed and thank you to whomever created it). Since all of that was a lot to acquire we also decided to keep an ear out for places for rent.

And so it was settled.

Until it wasn’t.

Because this is where The Chief enters the story and my exit plans disappear without my realizing it.

I met him my first night in “town” at the local (see: only) watering hole. We had talked for 30 minutes (unbeknownst to us) before my girlfriend came to check on me. Was this furry mountain man bothering me? I hadn’t even felt the time pass. I was a goner.

But I’m a stubborn one and clung to my singledom like a kid to a cupcake. Ain’t happenin’, Captain. I’ve got plans.

And then the thunderous laughing from the sky began again. I told my boss at the food truck (one of his best friends) that it was no biggie. It was just a fling. It had to be, right? I should have felt bad lying so blatantly but I thought I was telling the truth. He would just smile and say “Ok, see you in the morning, neighbor” since when I was at The Chief’s house we lived a quick walk through the woods away from one another. He knew. Everyone knew.

People I didn’t know would come up to me in town and say how happy they were for us.

Us?

I’m in an Us?

No way Jose. Not this little Senorita. I’m a solo artist. I mean, that’s the plan.

 

But…work on the platform was at a standstill.

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The Proposed Platform Site (aka a pile of somewhat flattened rocks)

I spent the better portion of a day trying to flatten the site but I still didn’t have building supplies.

I asked my boss to order the materials.

I asked The Chief.

I asked in the way that you ask for a fruit cup in place of dessert at a restaurant.

Everyone knows what’s happening. Everyone knows the deal except for you because you’re trying to convince yourself that you want the fruit cup.

It’s smarter.

Healthier.

Right?

(Not to call living on her property a fruit cup, it would have been a big time dessert just not the one I was meant to have)

And so I eventually let go…

and ordered dessert.

 

I was basically living with The Chief (though still in denial about it, I mean just because all of my stuff is there and we were grocery shopping together doesn’t mean I live there, right?) but one Taco Tuesday night we made it official.

Living with someone you’ve just met is insane.

Living with someone who’s never lived with a girlfriend is a recipe for disaster.

Living with someone after just getting out of a 7 year relationship is a rebound.

Right?

All of these judgements circled my head but the laughter from above was finally gone. I had stopped making plans and jumped into the flow and it had carried me straight to him.

Now, don’t get me wrong, moving into a perma-bachelor den was interesting (to say the least) but it immediately felt like home.

Pretty soon the question put to me by locals switched from:

“So, are you staying the summer?”

To

“So, are you staying the winter?”

Ha! Winter! That’s cute.

Nope. No way.

 

And before I knew it I was planning for winter.

 

A friend in CA that had watched me go through the breakup said that it seemed like I had changed my plans all for some guy and he was worried I would lose my trajectory (and never get to Thailand).

Fair enough. And thank goodness for friends who shoot it straight (Thank you N).

But I hadn’t lost my trajectory. I had ended up exactly where I was supposed to be. This was scary to accept and hard to defend when oppositions from myself and others started coming in but all I could counter with was that it just felt right. I felt at peace.

I realized that Thailand had been a sort of safety net. A “planned” next move to let me feel safe in the uncertainty of Alaska and open me up to it’s possibilities. Leaving Alaska simply because that was the plan I had announced would have been the biggest mistake I’d ever made, The laughter from above would have been deafening, even to these stubborn ears.

Trying to preserve my pride just to avoid judgement that I was jumping in too fast or giving up my plans for “some guy” would have led me away from where I’m supposed to be. And there’s a difference between standing up to oppositions because you don’t want to be wrong and standing up because you know you’re right, even if all you have for proof is a feeling.

Plus, staying in AK didn’t mean I wouldn’t go elsewhere, it just meant I didn’t want to go now.

Now was for seeing if when the fireweed flowers disappeared and the rocky ground became snow and the town went from hundreds to (maybe) 30 people if this was still where I was supposed to be.

Lucky for me, it was and it is.

That doesn’t mean everything is unicorns and puppies and dessert every meal. We are real. We are human. We disagree and get fussy just like anyone else, that’s just life.

And even though at times being out here is a challenge and a constant departure from the creature comforts I wouldn’t trade a nearby grocery store or electricity for anywhere or anyone else.

But I wouldn’t complain if a chocolate shop happened to open next door.

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Summertime. Home sweet home in the woods.

 

// All credit for our coming together goes to the town as a whole, our next-door neighbors and a Subaru get away vehicle powered by Marvin Gaye. Were it not for them, we wouldn’t have been forced into seeing what was right in front of us. Thank you. //