nature

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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Today Was a Good Day

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be ready to go in 30 minutes.”

Oh, snap.

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

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

Right?

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

Nope.

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

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

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

Finally we were off.

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

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

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

 

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The leaves setting the mountains afire in color.

 

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

“We’re having a wedding!”

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

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

 

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Icebergs ahead!

 

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

Bears.

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

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

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

There they were.

Bear prints.

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

 

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Oh joy.

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

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

 

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…and then there’s the enormous boulders too.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Time to move on?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Icebergs, Lakes, Sand?

 

 

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Cinda Jones in all of her glory.

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

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

Or not.

The truck wouldn’t start.

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

Unfortunately, this time it wasn’t gas.

The battery was dead.

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

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

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

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

She was on her way.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Fireworks.

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

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

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

today was a good day.

 

And it was.

 

 

A Hidden Lake Breaks

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Every Summer the Lake breaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 o’clock.

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

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

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

Within 10 minutes I had almost 10 tables to myself.

Ugh, we should have known.

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

Who knew?

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

The end of Summer.

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

I walked towards the bridge when suddenly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

I went out to explore.

The entire River channel had switched.

 

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Before.

 

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After.

 

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

 

 

 

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The deepest part of the old channel

 

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Dried veins of the path of the water.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

And so, I took the long way home.

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

 

 

 

Surviving the 180s

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

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

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

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

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

I was exhausted, he was restless.

We were in different places.

 

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Sunrising / Sunrisen

 

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

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

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

 

Then, the storm came.

 

Literally.

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

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

Amazing, right?

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

You see, lightning as we all know, strikes.

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

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

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

Except for two weeks ago.

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

And cause a fire it did.

 

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

 

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

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

Wrong.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

It was getting closer.

 

 

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

 

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

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

Say what?

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

But it is.

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

Sweet dreams.

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

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

Another 180 degree shift.

 

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Water / Land

 

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

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

It started to rain.

Another 180.

It’s been raining ever since.

 

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

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

 

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

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

The very next morning was the start of the rain.

The trip was cancelled.

Another 180 degree shift.

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

Right. Expectations. I should have guessed.

Dinner for one, please.

Another 180 degree shift.

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

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

 

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New blooms from newly refreshed soils.

 

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

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

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

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

Let’s just hope I don’t get whiplash.

 

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

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