life lessons

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?

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Easter 2018 Brunch Quiche

The Great Alaskan Adult Easter Egg Hunt

One of the first things I realized when I realized that I lived in Alaska was this: I miss my kids.

In California, I had kiddos galore.

Now, don’t get ready to call the authorities, I haven’t left a clan of little Julia’s running about stealing people’s pancakes and causing a ruckus. No, they weren’t little Julia’s, they were the littles of my friends and family and together, we ran thick as thieves.

I remember some of the first gatherings I went to with this particular group of friends turned family, over ten years ago now, and everyone laughed as they turned to see me, surrounded solely by children, not an adult in sight.

I was in heaven.

Growing up as the younger sibling of a brother 8 years my senior, things could get a little quiet around our house. I spent a lot of time alone, which I liked, but there had always been a part of me that wanted a big, bustling family.

Well, I got it.

Every week, at least once, we all got together to celebrate anything from Taco Tuesday to Frittata Fridays (actually, we never did Frittata Fridays but that is a genius idea. Jotting it down now). The point is, we were together all the time. From regular days to holidays, we were a great big extended family.

Those kids taught me so much: how to speak “Giggle” (as some of my adult friends now call it), how to make something from nothing, the art of a snack and the ease of pure love.

Upon arriving in Alaska, I missed those interactions, those lessons, those laughs and I spent my first Summer missing them more as I realized I was staying. Holidays were the hardest. Our first Easter here, I let float by with little more than a realization that it was, in fact, Easter. Without the littles running amok, what was the point?

Yet, thankfully, it wasn’t long before the families with kiddos became our friends with kiddos.

Hallelujah!

Since they aren’t always around, the littles I met here couple with missing the littles I’ve known in California for over a decade brewed a new reality: every holiday is cause for celebration, kids or no kids.

And so, along came Easter weekend, and there were kids and also no kids.

On Friday, I got my kiddo fix in the form of a lake party under a very nearly full moon to celebrate the birthday of a little lady of the lake.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Full Moon March 2018

A full moon and alpenglow? Lucky, indeed.

 

 

Although I didn’t know the kids as well, we had yet to establish inside jokes or hand signals, just being around them brought me back to the time of being surrounded by such intimacies. Plus, watching one of them fall asleep while in the middle of gearing up (boots, jackets, gloves, etc.) brought on the belly laugh that only kid foibles can.

Then, came Easter. The plan was a brunch but the day before, inspired by the kiddo time, we decided to add a little play into the brunch-y day.

The Plan: a sort of white elephant meets easter egg hunt, for adults.

Everyone brought a present or two to hide and by 5 pm, the frittatas, quiches and salads (gosh I love brunch) were eaten and the presents were hidden.

The hunt was on.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Easter Egg Hunt

And so it begins…

 

 

I was fully impressed. Unearthed were a soldering iron, a movie, a jar of whiskey, a coconut ladle, a leather-bound journal, a backgammon set, a hat and a picture frame. Everyone scored.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Adult Easter Egg Hunt Alaska

Tadaa!

 

 

Before too long, the sun was starting to make its descent, and in following with my family holiday post-meal tradition, I suggested a walk. The boys were already in pyro mode, setting up for a bonfire, and so the ladies and the pups and I took a stroll down to the river.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Snow Spring Diamonds

Snow diamonds.

 

 

An hour later, and the bonfire was roaring and the seats around it filling up.

It was time for the second hunt.

Having fully enjoyed the childhood energy of searching for goodies, we decided this couldn’t just stop at ourselves and so, The Chief and I donned our Bunny tails again and hid a new kind of egg in the shape of a can and the colors of the American flag. That’s right, people: The Great Alaskan PBR Easter Egg Hunt.

The eggs lay in snow-covered trees and in snowmachine nooks, at the top of our library and plopped straight into the snow and one by one, a thirsty bonfire-goer would return victorious with the chilled golden liquid in hand.

Yet, like every Easter I’ve ever been too, one egg remained unfound. I had deemed it the “Golden Egg”, as in my family there is always a Golden Egg. It’s the Cats Pajamas, the Cream of the Crop egg, normally containing a treasure paramount to the other eggs and it is always the hardest to find. My nephew prides himself on his Golden Egg radar and we could have used it because the lone soldier still stands today.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Easter 2018

Can you spot it?

 

 

The night faded and I tucked into dreams…

and awoke to one last wiggle of the Easter Bunny’s tail:

A girlfriend had come by and dropped off a chocolate Easter Bunny, and, in very Alaskan fashion, a scoby to make my own kombucha with.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Chocolate bunnies

What a combo!

 

 

How I love the woods.

Thank you, friends, for coming together for a beautiful meal, for testing and proving that a Himalayan salt candle does, in fact, also serve as a salt lick and for celebrating in kid-like fashion a day which I’ve missed celebrating.

Here’s to the lessons from the littles. I’ll miss you until I see you, but until then, I’ll try to live up to your liveliness.

Thank you.

Happy Easter, happy Equinox and happy Spring to you.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easter 04-02-18 Easter 2018 Brunch Quiche

Brunch: the best meal…until dinner.