jokulhlaup

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?

 

 

 

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.

 

flyakite

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.

 

bergin.jpg

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.

 

then.jpg

Before.

 

today.jpg

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.

 

 

 

today2

The deepest part of the old channel

 

today5.jpg

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.

 

joneseatsbones.jpg

…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.