glaciers

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

A Very Bear-y Summer

It was a very bear-y summer.

Supposedly.

All around me, I heard tell of bears galore. Bears in the road, bears in the yard, bears blocking the trails.

But me?

No bears.

Perhaps because of the prayer. You see, I do a little silent prayer as I walk about these woods:

“Please let me see something…safely.”

And so, perhaps my timing was off or perhaps the prayer was working because I hadn’t had hardly any run-ins, safe or otherwise.

Where were all these bears everyone was talking about?

Our two friends, a brother and sister duo by way of CA, came to visit late July. They came bearing a full Costco/Freddy haul I was almost embarrassed to ask for and they shopped for our entire Summer re-supply like pros. They navigated the unfamiliar Alaskan terrain in a swift 1-2 punch and made it out with barely a layer of dirt. They were stocked and stoked and ready to…

See a bear.

Every day my girlfriend’s wish was the same:

“I want to see a bear.”

“Safely.” I would add, either under my breath or aloud in a sort of micro-managing OCD attempt to put a little gold safety light around her. It’s a funny sort of strange to live in a place where an invitation to visit comes with a quick and dirty death by bear or moose disclaimer. You know, just FYI.

But she was hell-bent and so I wished we may and wished we might see a bear tonight, or today or anytime before their week-long woodsy retreat, well, retreated, melting back into the California sunshine.

And then, we went for a hike.

Not just any hike.

The day before, we had gone for a hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier

First steps on The Glacier

 

 

We had hiked out to the glacier and stood amongst that frozen fantasy in awe and then hiked home.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier Danielle

Tiny Yellie.

 

 

The next day, we ramped it up a notch. Without ever having ridden a 4-wheeler, we made our friends brave driving up to our next hike: the mine.

Driving a 4-wheeler, not such a big deal. Driving a 4-wheeler for the first time up a muddy, rutted, sometimes split in half with deep ditches running through the already narrow road up a couple thousand feet of rocky terrain? Well, that’s quite another thing. So, in typical Alaskan fashion, we geared them up and pushed them out of the nest and…

they flew.

Up, up and up for an hour until we finally reached our destination point: the beginning of our hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09- 25-17 A Very Bear- Y Summer 4-Wheeling Bonanza Mine

Not a bad parking place.

 

 

Apparently, I had forgotten to mention that a hike would follow the harried path we had already tread but, again, they jumped right in.

Up, up, up we climbed. It’s the kind of hiking where you (unless you happen to be far more fit than us) take about 30 steps and then take a break. 30, break. 30, break. Repeat, repeat.

An hour in and we’d identified endless plants and flowers, already found copper rocks, found fresh water and snacked and rested on a mossy knoll.

Beneath the Borealis 09:25:17 A Very Bear-Y Summer McCarthy Alaska

Laid back.

 

 

And then it set in.

A pain my girlfriend had been experiencing on our hike the day before suddenly turned into a searing pain. Going up was not an option, but going down? That felt pretty good. And so, she decided to head back down. We would finish the hike up and circle back to pick her up on the way down.

Easy-peasy.

We were pretty close to the top at that point, it would be a quick turn-around and then we’d come to her rescue and swoop her up in our 4-wheeler chariots.

Right?

Wrong.

Apparently, laws of physics and all, going up is a lot slower than going down, especially when the grade is such that in going up you feel like one with the ground because of the angle. It looks like you’re in a fun-house mirror.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Mine Kennicott Alaska

Fun-House Baby

 

 

An hour up and we had finally made it.

The mine.

And soon, the top.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Peak

Ominous, eh?

 

 

I’d been to this mine the year before but I had been terrified to reach the top. My knees got wobbly just looking at it but this year, it was my goal. I was to see the other side.

And we did.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier 2

The same family of white ice we had been on the day before.

 

 

It was an amazing view of the glacier I’d never seen though the wobble in my knees returned and I had to immediately sit down once we’d gotten up. The Chief bounced around like the gazelle that he is while I tried to take it in, turning tummy and all.

Soon, we decided to putter around the mine and made the journey down from our perch.

Inquiries and a few sketchy maneuvers later and we had seen all that we had come to see.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanaza Mine

Two mountain goats I ran into.

 

 

It was snack time (obviously).

And then, the clouds started to roll in and it was time to leave.

What time was it anyway?

We hustled back down the mountain to our rain gear and fired up the machines, picking up a wet walker along the way, keeping an eye out for Sis.

Just then, I got a text:

“Holy shit saw bear”

The sheer lack of punctuation made my stomach turn.

I tried to call.

 

No answer.

 

I texted back:

“Where? How close?”

 

No answer.

 

The invitation disclaimer rang through my head. I kicked myself for not having gone with her for fear the boys would turn back too and miss the mine. I thought it would be a good esteem builder, a mini vision quest of sorts.

I was an idiot.

Now, my friend was out there, by herself in this very bear-y Summer that she had suddenly tapped into.

We put the hiking into high-gear and made it to the 4-wheelers in time to put rain gear over our already wet clothes.

Finally she got back to me. She was O.K.

We hustled down the mountain, picking up a very wet walker along the way and finally made it back to her.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley Virga

Incoming! Rain time.

 

 

She had beat us to town, a fact that seems obvious now (again with the physics and all) and had made her way to some well-deserved wine at the local lodge.

Finally, we were able to get eyes on her and know she was O.K. She described her encounter with the bear in the bushes, gorging on berries and how she had done the very right thing of making herself known as she skeedadled around it. All four back together again, we saddled up for a rainy ride to the restaurant and then home. We were pooped. An unexpected double-day unexpected hiking, rain and heights with a very bear-y topping had worn us out.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley

 

 

A Summer without bears for me and suddenly, my guest of all people had a solo run-in. I was both proud of her and mortified of my lack of hospitality all at once. While I was conquering (read toying with) my fear of heights, she was face-to-face with a berry-lovin’ bear.

And it wouldn’t be the last time. It turns out she had opened up the waterway. Finally, the very bear-y Summer came our way. In fact, all the wildlife did. The next few days were chock full of the wilds. Swans and moose appeared as if they had finally gotten their invitation to the party, bear poop appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

They had arrived and the next bear we saw was right in our “backyard”.

“Jules, that’s awful close to your house, isn’t it?”

It was. It was on the River Trail that Lou and I walked on the daily. But hey, we live in bear country, that’s the deal, right?

Gulp.

We watched it devour a bush of Soapberries in minutes, thrashing the poor thing about with its powerful swings. It unearthed small boulders in the blink of an eye looking for goodies and we all just sat there watching. Cinda, looked on from the back window of the truck unconcerned. This was no bear run-in, this was a day at the zoo and she was content with our safety enough to let us explore without so much as a yip.

Welcome to the neighborhood, bears.

And so, the very bear-y Summer made its way to our neck of the woods. A few days later, our friends left and soon after I followed with Cinda and the loss of our Lou began the journey we are still on.

But the bears stayed and now, home without my girl, I was on my own.

A couple of weeks after she had passed, I was forcing myself to take a walk. Walks these days without Lou have taken on a sort of double-edged sword because walks are one of the few things that can lift a hard mood or ease a sadness but when I’m walking, I miss her the most. Our walks were a comfort only she could provide and her presence is irreplaceable. But still, I went. This particular day was extra bear-y, I could just feel their presence but I was crying so hard that I set it out of my mind. On my way down to The River, I stopped in to borrow Cinda’s brother, which made me howl even louder, missing those two peas in their odd pod together. There’s nothing quite like walking while crying to make you feel reduced down to your inner toddler and that was where I needed to be.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Cinda + Diesel

Bat dogs, back in the day. Pups in the snow.

 

 

Until it wasn’t.

Because suddenly, as I rounded the corner to drop down onto the River Trail…

I was face to face with a bear.

The same bear, most likely, that we had seen unearthing small boulders with the swing of a paw. The same bear that decimated the bushes in one fell swoop. And there I was, less than 12 feet away without my sense of security, false or otherwise. Her Brother had gone on ahead but as I whistled back he came, charging around the bushes, catching sight of the bear and quickly leading the way home. Although I’m not fluent in his language as I was hers, it was easy to decipher:

“Let’s get out of here!”

And so we did.

Tears were replaced by adrenaline and my pumping heart got me home in a jiffy. Her Brother followed me home to drop me off and then went to his own abode to tell his Dad the day’s tale.

And often since then, her Brother or the rest of the neighborhood dogs will watch over us. They patrol our yard, chasing moose or bear through the night. For we live in the woods, amongst the wilds…

and it’s been a very bear-y season.

 

Thank you to our friends for coming to share this amazing place with us, disclaimer in full-effect and all. I can’t explain how much it means to us that you made the journey, jumped right in and swam.

Cheers to the end of a very bear-y season, and to facing your fears, even when you don’t mean to. And cheers to our safety nets that at some point set us free to see if we fly without them.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

And the sun sets on another Summer.

 

Love to them.

Love to you.

Love to Lou.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset Skip to My Sunset Lou

Waiting for me. Leading the way.

 

 

The Glacier

Before arriving in Alaska I can’t say with much certainty that I knew what a glacier was. I’m only slightly sure that I was aware of their existence (but not entirely sure I didn’t just think they were large icebergs) and definitely sure that I didn’t grasp their many faces. And so, my first time on The Glacier was a complete slap in the face and every time since has been another awakening unto its own.

You see, my first time on The Glacier I went ice climbing.

Me. Ice climbing.

If you’re beginning to think I’m some sort of badass you can stop yourself right there. I can say for certain that I did not know what ice climbing was, but with my girlfriend’s encouragement (and the loan of her dog) I let her sign me up with her guides.

I’d never even been rock climbing before (a likely introduction) but there I was, gearing up with boots and crampons and an enormous backpack full of gear for a ten-hour day of hiking and climbing on our friendly neighborhood glacier, followed by crashing an ice climbing course meant solely for the guide company which I had no business attending (but was too afraid to leave on my own since it would mean traversing solo across a glacier which I had just met and then finding my way back to the trailhead and then back home. No thank you). And so I climbed, and despite the fear of heights that I thought I had, I felt safe and secure and successful, followed by completely out-of-place, cold and tired at the training but hey, at least I was in good company.

My second time on The Glacier was with the encouraging girlfriend. We explored a bit, I got my first solid lesson in using crampons and we ate curry for lunch. It was a beautiful day and again, I didn’t have to hoof it alone.

That was last year. Now, I’ve lived here for a year. I’ve been through Winter in the cold, dark north. I can handle The Glacier solo, right?

Well, sort of.

It was a beautiful sunny day at the tail end of a wind event a few weeks ago and so, despite the sun and the sights, I was still feeling a little off-kilter from the ever-present gusts of dirt in my eyes and blow-back winds pushing me about. Still, when it’s sunny and you are free, it’s time to get out. Some friends only had a few days left in Alaska and they invited me along to go out on The Glacier. I hadn’t been on it all Summer and had been scolding myself for not having done so. And so, despite the blustery day, I headed out to meet them.

The Chief and I drove across the river into town with a friend to jump our truck (which I had been stranded with the night before) and she fired up quickly. All set. And so I sent a message up the hill to let my comrades know that I was on my way. Even though it was my day off I was in a bit of a hurry to get going. This town is notoriously slow going since things always seem to go wrong or take longer than planned. It’s not uncommon to hear someone come in late for work because their batteries were about to die and they forgot to run the generator and then the generator was out of gas so they had to pump gas and then spilled it and had to change and…you get the point. Things come up. And so I was trying to stay ahead of the game. The truck was running and I was on my way. Plus, I had a massage scheduled that day (best day off ever) and I wanted to make sure I would be back in time.

I helped Cinda into the truck and off we went. We were listening to our favorite Cocteau Twins song when the truck chugged to a halt. Thinking that the battery had given out again (the battery in it is a wee bit small for the truck) I called The Chief to see if he could jump it (again) with our friend’s truck. He left work and borrowed the truck and 20 minutes later, when I should have been arriving to meet my friends, The Chief gallantly arrived. He quickly deciphered that it wasn’t the battery. Thankfully he had a can full of gas that we filled our tank with and the new infusion in what we think is simply a bad fuel mix was enough to start the babe right up. He followed me up to the Hill Town even though he really needed to be at work because, well, he’s amazing like that. We bid adieu as I successfully glided into the Hill Town.

 

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Finally, we made it. But where are they?

 

My friends were heading down from one friend’s house and after a few confusing texts and calls we found one another at the guide shack (I had forgotten that we would need crampons, remembering The Glacier as only being a sweet little thing requiring hiking boots alone. How quickly we forget). We all geared up and headed out The Glacier Trail. An hour and a few miles later we started to descend and I felt totally lost. The creek between the hillside and The Glacier had shifted enough that the “entrance” onto The Glacier, the spot where everyone would come off the hillside and find their way onto the glacier had completely changed from the two times I’d seen it the year before.

I wish I could say with certainty that if I had gone alone earlier this Summer to The Glacier that I would have figured this out and not just “cliffed out” at the old entrance but I’m not really comfortable with lying. I can hope that I would have figured it out, that my stubbornness would have helped me find the way, but as a serious creature of habit and lover of comfort I’m not totally sure that I would have pushed that hard. Maybe. I hope so. I think in reality that I hadn’t made it to The Glacier yet this year out of fear of the unknown and so a hurdle like that could have derailed me, had I made it that far.

We scaled down the hillside, the dogs far ahead of us and already begging from tourists camped at the base of The Glacier.

 

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Our view from the base. The Glacier lay ahead in all its glory.

 

We stumbled immediately upon an ice creation.

 

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Melted out ice caves

 

I ran in, excited to see it from the inside and just barely dodged falling rocks. Whoops! I forgot my glacier manners and ice cave rules. Look before you leap.

 

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Little rocks (thankfully) and water falling from to top of the ice cave

 

Manners in mind and footing in place we headed up and onto The Glacier. One member of our group lost her manners quickly. My sweet pup decided to let nature call in the number two fashion upon the pristine glacier. I picked up her little gift with a newly available Costco sized M&M bag (we had to eat the remaining M&Ms in a hurry to free up the space, which, while delicious, kind of lost their appeal due to the situation) sealed it tight and placed it into my backpack. The backpack which held my food.

We were off to a good start.

 

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Hiking up the first icy hill of The Glacier

 

And we actually were off to a great, albeit stinky, start. For the first fifteen minutes we were fine going simply with our hiking boots but once the terrain turned a bit tougher it was time for crampons.

I’m not a fan.

I know that they make it more feasible to hike up and down into places in the glacier which would otherwise remain unseen to me but they also make me feel like a toddler wearing platform shoes. It’s as if I’ve attached bricks to my feet, lost all flexibility and then, decide to attempt the scary stuff.

This was the part I had forgotten about. The scary parts. The year before when I had gone ice climbing we had hiked the mildest parts of The Glacier (the simple up and over route instead of into the depths) and put on crampons only to scale into the basin where we would set up camp to climb. I barely needed instruction because they were necessary for moments only and the fall would have been into a soft obvious location not into some wormhole into the heart of The Glacier. The second time, as I had conveniently forgotten, we had taken a more hilly route, jumped over little rivers within the glacier and climbed sheer sides. I had been afraid but I had forgotten that fear.

Key words being “had forgotten”.

Suddenly the fear came upon me like a whisper from behind as we veered away from the easy route on top of The Glacier and immediately started sidehilling down it. We stopped to put on our crampons and layers as the already present wind began to pick up and up and up. I watched Cinda’s fur blow in the breeze and then suddenly her whole body jolted back as a powerful gust of wind hit her. Everything had shifted in an instant. Suddenly, I had high heel things on my feet, extra disorienting wind and more challenging terrain.

Gulp.

Our first move in our newly acquired garb? Cross an ice bridge between two moulins (a tubular chute, hole or crevasse worn in the ice by surface water which carries water from the surface to the base far below, like a sudden sinkhole which appears with little to no warning). They were substantial holes on both sides, both tunnels leading in opposite and unclear directions into the stomach of the glacier. You fall in and…good luck. My girlfriend shouted to me through the wind:

“You might want to watch Cinda on this one. It’s a little sketchy.”

Just as I was about to grab her and find ourselves another route, she scampered across with the utmost ease and so, my excuse to find a better route now gone and my better judgement aside, I started to cross. My stomach dropped into my feet and my heart up into my neck as my body slowly and awkwardly carried me across. I did not feel centered, I did not feel competent. I felt like a wet rag trying to dance a tango. Not my most graceful of moments.

On the other side I caught my breath.

“That.

Was.

Scary.”

I told my friends and I nervously stopped to eat a snack. I felt like I was going to be sick. You see, I try and try and try again to fool myself but my body reminds me. I am afraid of heights. In my mind I see the path but my body reacts. Wanna look down into a moulin? I can’t. My feet literally won’t take me.

 

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This I can handle.

 

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Peering down into this? No thanks. These pop up out of nowhere.

 

And so, after crossing (sorry, I couldn’t take a picture but just imagine two huge tunnel slides to each side of you and a maybe two foot wide expanse to cross over them) and remembering the fear I had felt before, though not to this level (and never during ice climbing (perhaps the harness had something to do with it)), it suddenly dawned on me that I would be doing the return trip alone.

 

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Since the truck had died and our meet up had been slow, time had been moving despite our still trying to catch up with it. We had been on the glacier almost 40 minutes before we even put the crampons on and now, I had 20 minutes before I needed to head back. We had basically just gotten there, just gotten to the “good stuff” (read: scary but more beautiful and worth the challenge) and now I needed to turn around.

We traversed a few more creeks within the glacier and went up and down hills that seemed impossible to ascend or descend any other way than on hands and knees or slide down like penguins but somehow I remained upright (and awkward). Finally, tucked away from the gusts in a little alcove I announced my need to depart in order to make it back in time for my massage (a statement that sounded unbelievably swanky and out-of-place while standing in the middle of the wilderness).

 

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Beautiful Jess. Wanna come back?

 

I had already stated that, of course, they probably wouldn’t want to head back when I had to, but secretly hoped that someone might want to. At the same time, I knew the challenge would do me good and in a way hoped I would fly solo.  It was divided 50/50. Though I was scared I said my goodbyes and whistled for my Lou and turned to head back the way we had come (though already planning to avoid the Ice Bridge of Doom) when I looked back and couldn’t decipher up from down.

 

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The last views of my friends

 

Where in the world had we come from and how?

I had purposefully been paying attention (I thought) to our route but when I looked back it all looked the same and the hilly landscape seemed unrecognizable in reverse.

Oh well, they were moving one way and I had to head the other.

 

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A last goodbye from the Buddha

 

I cannot explain how grateful I was to have our Cinda Lou with me. She was like a little ice fairy, floating along the face of the glacier, jumping over moulins like a professional hurdler. She made it look easy, and so, as I have done so many times before, I channeled her confidence and picked a route forward.

 

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Lou smiling at the moulin

 

Within minutes we were nowhere we had been before and facing crossing fast flowing waters and climbing an almost 90 degree incline. I looked to the right: even worse. I looked to the left and could only assume that it turned into a sheer drop-off to the moraine (the rocky below) since all the rest to the left had been as such.

How had I gotten us here?

I had simply gone in the same-ish direction back and now, we were somewhere completely unknown, out of sight and alone.

That’s the thing about a glacial terrain, one minute you’re walking on flat ground, the next there is a sheer cliff at your feet. Another, you’re protected from the wind storm, the next you’re basically windsurfing, trying not to lose footing. Next you’re looking down a moulin into the mouth of the glacier and next you see a turquoise lake appear, calm and pristine. It’s forever changing and after two trips one year ago prior to completely different spots on the exact same glacier, I was feeling completely lost and completely out of my league.

Oh well. There was no other way but forward.

I found a narrower crossing and planted my feet in order to make the big jump to the other side of what now was become a river in The Glacier in order to climb up the face to the other side. I looked and then leapt and…

I made it. Safe and sound.

 

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The water was 3-4 ft. wide

 

And solo.

Cinda did not follow.

Suddenly, my trailblazer was stunted. She didn’t trust the jump. I walked to the narrowest point and urged her to follow suit on the other side. I cooed encouragement at her and promised I would grab her. She didn’t budge. Then she started pacing back and forth, starting twice by trying to walk the divide, the water which would have been up to her shoulders and the current which would have swept her up and sent her who knows where in the blink of an eye lapped at her paws and she quickly retreated.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

We both let out a little whimper and I allowed myself a moment of panic. And then I grabbed my breath back and called her back as she started walking towards the ledge. We are doing this. You can make it Lou.

I called her to a different narrow spot and steadied myself to grab her if she didn’t land the jump. She gave me a look of utter displeasure but also of trust (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing but I’m comfortable with it) and then, she jumped.

And she made it.

And then she was off with me scrambling behind her.

She ran towards the hill. It was so steep that she had to lean as far forward as possible while still having to sidehill up the face it. I got down low and hands and knees and crampon toed my way up. We both stopped at the top, breathing heavily and looked at one another with a sort of It Can’t Get Worse Than That, Right? type of look. I hugged and kissed her and spent a moment more just breathing while trying to plan the remainder of our route (while still avoiding the Ice Bridge of Doom). I surmised that it couldn’t be much longer (though I couldn’t see the exit) and decided to hug the Easternmost route for the remainder of the return. Thirty minutes later we were off The Glacier and back to finding the elusive trail. I had created mental markers for myself but in the end, it didn’t matter.

 

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A big rock (in front of the far away Castle Rock) was my beacon towards the trail

 

My Cinda knew the way (even though she had never taken it before that day). She led me back and up the steep hill, circling around every few steps to smile at me. I’ve never seen her do that before. One, two, three, four steps, circle, look at Mom and head forward for four more. She checks on me when we are out together but never in such a rhythm, with such consistency.

 

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Four steps forward…

 

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…one circle to look back.

 

For a dog whom isn’t always overtly forthcoming with expressions of love, this less than subtle check in warmed my heart. I felt like crying. I had truly been scared. Scared of falling, scared of picking the wrong route and sliding into a river of ice, scared of losing my dog. Seeing her look back to me I suddenly let it go. We were off the glacier and we had gotten off of it together.

 

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Crossing over a raging creek and looking back at The Glacier

 

The rest of the hour-long hike back she checked on me every few steps. She even took a shortcut (which I knew and planned on taking) and when she realized I hadn’t made it to the entrance yet, she circled back to show me how.

 

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Fall was in the air and the winds had started to die down a bit and an ecstatic calm (if that dichotomy can somehow exist) came over me as we hustled back.

 

 

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We got back just in time to grab a snack and water us both before going into a greatly appreciated massage. I was physically tired from the hike but also emotionally tired and simultaneously elated by the journey.

We had made it.

To many out here, it would be nothing to simply turn back alone. It would be nothing even to go out alone and come back alone. To find a route and follow it with confidence. To me, it was a challenge. To choose my own route, completely on my own (or at least without other humans) is a new practice. To trust and to expand past the comfort of the known into the discomfort of the unknown isn’t my first choice, but in a way, at this point in my life it’s the only one.

I may not be the first to try a new route or to scale a mountain. I am still cautious and careful and perhaps overly so, using my respect for the grandiosity and potential danger of this place at times as an excuse. But that’s O.K.

I’m learning to stretch.

I’m so grateful to live in a place and among people whom share their adventurous spirits with me. People who prance across an ice bridge like it’s nothing, who find their own way when lost in the woods, who set out to summit a mountain they’ve never been to. This place and the people within it both intimidate and inspire me in such a combination that I consistently find myself a little outside of my comfort zone but in very good company, be it scenery or people or animals or, simply my new self who’s learning, day by day to trust again in the intuition we all have within.

I hope that next year and every year from now on that I remember the fear and embrace it rather than tuck it away. I hope that I push forward with or without invitation from others to see this land. I hope that as my confidence in myself grows the fear will realize it can start to let go.

Thank you for the endless challenges and chances to expand, Alaska. You sure keep me on my toes (and, when the going gets steep, my hands and knees).

 

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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.