Sunday, July 22, 2012

Life in Alaska

To mark my 100th (that's right!) blog post, a selection of photos and journal entries from my time in Alaska this summer.

5 May

The sky is teal against silhouettes of tall pines, the half-moon reflected on the water, the white mountains lit in stark contrast. This is the view from my window at Tutka Bay, and though I haven't been here before, it feels good to be back. Back where the moss is so thick you can lose your hand in it. Back to the marine air, the rocky bluffs, the salty working docks with their thick coils of rope and men clad in rubber and gulls reeling overhead.

It is the same here, and yet it is different. I have the ability to retreat indoors, to only look out the window at the fine rain misting the spruce branches, catching the sun in golden droplets before tumbling down to the calm, reflective ocean. I shouldn't compare one place and one experience to another, but still, I cannot help but notice how different it feels to be in the midst of all this raw, wet beauty and not wake up every morning with the scent of the forest rising to my nostrils, the sun creeping over the edge of my sleeping bag, the cold air hugging my body. It's nice to wake up indoors and eat well and have internet. But I do not feel as alive.

14 May

Everyone needs a little peace and quiet in the sunshine. I need to write with a pen and paper, pausing to let the ink seep in –- a different act, entirely, than the quick typing of words on a keyboard. Here on paper, the delete key is less readily available, and so I must stop and consider my words before they hit the paper.

It is not solely the wilderness itself that draws me in, but the people I find here. The people who turn their backs on highways and shopping malls and television, who seek solitude and, having found it, realize that in the emptiness they have found others seeking the same thing. The wilderness itself sustains, yes, but in the end there are few whom it can sustain fully. The rest of us come here and take what we need from it and are happy to run into each other eventually, to find companionship, to someone to sit on the prow of a boat and drink a beer with and know without speaking that they understand.

10 June

A rash of green is spreading up the mountainsides, spreading north. A mottled, speckled green of a million hues, it unfurls its tendrils and sends out its creeping shoots slowly, imperceptibly, one day at a time.

I feel at times that it's bearable here at the lodge, that I have the fortitude to stick with this job for four more months and finish what I've started. I spend my days doing menial tasks that challenge neither my body nor mind, but isn't there some Buddhist philosophy in that –- letting go of the ego, losing yourself in mundane tasks? I can read and write, use the internet, sleep in a bed at night and perhaps even get a massage or play in the garden or go for a hike once in a while. What perverse part of me wants to trade that for more change and upheaval, days of sleeping in the rain, weeks of hormone-crazy teenagers? Alaska Crossings has offered me a guiding position, and while I'm sorely tempted to accept, a part of me feels I should let that part of my life remain a memory and continue to move on in a new direction. I tell myself I should stay put here at the lodge. And then I wonder – why waste time being unhappy? As Mary Oliver asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

14 June

Indecision: the story of my life. Stay at the lodge or go back to Alaska Crossings? When I need to think, I go to the sea, follow the shoreline aimlessly. I scramble up into the woods when the cliffs and rocks become impassable, zigzag up and down the pocket beaches. Here in Kachemak Bay, the rocky belly of the earth crashes straight into the ocean, and in places there are gashes where the earth itself has cleaved open into a mini sea-cave accessible only at low tide. I crouch in one of these, feeling the coolness of the earth, hearing the crackling of tens of thousands of barnacles like a bowl of rice crispies. It is wet and dark. The rocks drip with water. It seeps from above and falls one drop at a time into the womb of the earth, echoing off the walls.

I emerge from the cave and clamber over rocks strewn with the offerings of the shallow sea: triton shells, mussels, sea weeds, chitons, limpets, butter clams, dead jellyfish. The smell of the air is rich with life and death, growth and decay. From above, in the forest, a chickadee sounds its two notes again and again. I walk on and learn the secrets of this place: that dead jellyfish hold water inside that gurgles and shifts when you hold them, that the sacs of bladderwrack shoot water from pinprick holes when squeezed, that barnacles really are alive, waving their fine arms in the shallow water, reaching for a meal.

“The cure for anything is salt: sweat, tears or the sea.” (Isak Dinesen)

23 June

So this is the trajectory my life is going to take! It doesn't seem quite real. Yesterday, I quit my job at the lodge and within two hours found myself thrown back on the Homer spit, wandering among the tourists with a bewildered look on my face, laden down with bags, without a home or a place to sleep or a clue how I was going to get from Homer to Anchorage to Wrangell in three days' time to return to my old job at Alaska Crossings. But life works itself out, even when you make crazy decisions that seem to make no sense in the moment. I struggle to make these big decisions – to stay or to go – but in the end I always feel I've made the right choice. My mother sent me a Chinese saying in an email: “No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, go back.”

I went back. Back to the Homer spit, where, as I so often do in my travels, I was saved by the kindness of strangers. I met up with a new friend, met more new friends and was soon drinking a beer in the bright afternoon sunlight, laughing. I went to a softball game (gem of small-town Alaskan summers!), tramped through the woods and pitched my tent on the sandy spit yet again, sitting around a fire under fluttering prayer flags, passing a bottle of whiskey around. Traveling with Adam was fun, but I meet so many more people when I travel alone.

There's an inherent danger in being a solo female traveler, but in Alaska, despite the threat of bears and weather and harsh landscapes, I have never felt safer. People here are cut from a different cloth. Being a solo female traveler who likes the outdoors also means that many of the new friends I meet happen to be males, and therefore sometimes requires me to bluntly dispel the myth that I want to sleep with them. But my new friend Josh and I are frank with each other. He wants to have sex, I don't, and after we establish that, I trust him enough to plan a backpacking trip with him for the following day.

Which is how I end up writing in a mesh tent away from the mosquitos (which were rabidly biting through my shirt) on the gravel beach of Emerald Lake in Kachemak Bay State Park. It's a postcard-worthy morning, the lake an oval mirror reflecting green mountains tipped with white, a distant glacier, a ridge of spruce trees. On days like today, Alaskan summer is the most beautiful thing imaginable. As Edward Abbey wrote, “I am drowning in light.”

24 June

I can hardly believe that this is real, that I've left Homer and am flying back into the heart of the rainforest, into the maze of islands and coves and ravines that makes up southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage. I'm on the second leg of a four-part flight from Homer to Wrangell, soaring over the land I thought I'd left behind, returning to a part of my life I thought I'd moved on from. It's a strange feeling, and I wonder what it will feel like when the wheels of the plane hit the runway in Wrangell and I see the old familiar places with older, more experienced eyes. In part, it feels like a homecoming, and in part I'm worried that it won't be as good as I remember. I'm worried that I've made the wrong decision. I'm worried that I've forgotten what it takes to stay sane and safe in the wilderness for six weeks with a group of teenagers who make marginal decisions. But as I look down from my tiny airplane window at the impenetrable treetops covering a misty, shadowy world of moss and devil's club, I am mostly excited. I'm embarking on a new adventure. I'm on the move.

Descending through the clouds into familiar Petersburg, over a curving puzzle of green forest and turquoise water. Glaciers tumbled down from the mountains, whitecaps fleck the sea, the clouds gather thicker and lower. I truly, deeply love this place. The land is what shapes the people, and the people are what make the land so appealing. Where else do you board a plane without having your carry-on inspected, smoke in bars, hop on borrowed boats with strangers and trek 21 miles into the wilderness? Where else can you sit alone on a warm, sandy beach naked in the sunshine, brilliant mountains all around, cold beer in hand? Where else do people carry halibut in their luggage?

Landed in Petersburg. The world is gray and green, mountaintops shrouded in clouds. The airstrip is lined with purple lupine, stunted spruce trees and friendly faces. One more stop 'til Wrangell town.

25 June

Wrangell, Alaska: a soggy, isolated town of 1,800 souls perfectly content to remain soggy and isolated. There's construction on Main Street, and Chief Shakes house is being torn down and rebuilt with a grant from the Smithsonian, but mostly, things are still the same. Gas is still $5 a gallon, everything is closed on Sundays and the same people work the cash registers at the IGA. Bruce, who rings up my purchase of GoldBond, lighters, coffee, work gloves and chocolate bars, welcomes me back. Thirty years ago, he says, he traveled all over the country and the state, looking for something he couldn't quite articulate. When he arrived in Wrangell, he knew he'd found it.

The cruise ships bypass Wrangell on their way to other places and Wrangell gets by without their business. The store owners and bartenders know what the tradeoff would have been: Wrangell could have been another Ketchikan, or Sitka, another stop for masses of people to disembark from their floating resort, walk around, take pictures and spend money. The shops could have been bought out by the cruise ship companies and passed off as locally-owned businesses selling tourist kitsch. But Wrangell refused to sell out, and whether it has suffered or thrived because of it depends on your perspective. The cruise ships pass by in the distance, sliding through the fog, and the stores on Main Street sell fishing gear and marine hardware and rifles instead of shot glasses and picture frames. On Saturday nights, the three dingy bars are packed with people who know each other, people who know all the songs on the jukebox, people who have chosen to stay.

2 July

The sun is shining for the first time since I arrived in Wrangell on June 24, and how glorious it is! A sudden break in the clouds, columns of them pulling away on every side, retreating into the mountains and leaving us in a bowl of blue. The sun sets earlier down here, and at 8 pm it is striking the silhouettes of clouds, edging them with gold and silver. It is hitting the smooth green hulls of our canoes, propped against a log in a tidal meadow. It is catching the moisture on each blade of grass, flecking the meadow with glimmers of light, turning the green blades iridescent. In the distance, as always, there are mountains capped with snow, the flat blue ocean, the forested hills. Pure silence. Wild lupine and indian paintbrush and yarrow among the rocks. A beach coated with rockweed and mussels and barnacles.

Today is day 6 of a 41-day wilderness expedition. Yesterday it pissed rain for 24 hours and we were all drenched and fairly miserable. We woke up this morning with the rain dripping incessantly against our tarps and hauled ourselves out of our warm, damp sleeping bags to slog through mud portaging canoes. Carrying totes, opening and closing dry bags, tying knots: that is what makes up the days, countless repetitions of each. Each day, we consult our maps and pack our canoes and paddle to a new site, and each one recalls vague, uncertain memories. I've been here before, but when? What was it like? What happened here? The names and places are returning to the realm of my reality, pulled from the cobwebs of memory: South Wrangell Island, North Deer, South Long. A map of sea and islands and coves and channels beings to re-emerge in my head.

When we left town, a search was mobilized for our friend and former co-worker Colin. He'd been on a solo traverse over a mountain pass with an inflatable kayak on his back, and was going to drop into a tributary of the Stikine River and paddle back to Wrangell. Five days before we left for program, his family stopped getting his SPOT messages. Three days after he was supposed to have returned to town, there was still no sign of him. The night before we left, his gear and kayak were found on the mountain: nothing else.

Now we get word on the sat phone that the search has been called off. It's hard to process out here, away from everything, caught up in the work of expedition. It doesn't feel quite real. As Kate says, if you do this work long enough, you're bound to have someone close to you get caught in an avalanche or drown at sea or something of the sort. But that knowledge doesn't prepare you for when it actually happens.

In town, they'll hold a memorial service. Out here, we can only stand in the evenings on the same points that Colin once stood on and look out to the sea, asking questions that may never be answered.

3 July

It's 10:15 pm and I know that with a 5:30 am wakeup and more of the same for the next month, I should be going to sleep. But under a tarp at the base of a massive, ancient cedar, a huge porcupine just walked nearly into my sleeping area and the encounter has left me wide awake. Most nights I sleep just fine under a tarp. It leaves you feeling more exposed and vulnerable than a tent, but in reality the thin nylon walls of a tent offer protection from nothing but bugs and perhaps vision. I've adapted easily to tarp life, and most nights I enjoy sleeping with my face close to the spongy, pungent earth.

Every once in a while, though, it can be slightly unnerving, especially when you're lying alone in the shadowy half-darkness and hear the crackling of sticks, the rustle of leaves, and you wonder whether you're imagining it or whether it's real. Are you on edge for no reason but an overactive imagination? But wait – there it is again. You begin to prepare, mentally – noting where your bear spray is, where your escape routes might be. You slowly unzip the top of your sleeping bag, just in case. You hear it moving closer and then, suddenly, there it is, just a big lumbering porcupine, but a large and spiny wild animal nonetheless and how are you to know you haven't set up your tarp right on top of his own favorite resting spot? He turns tail – fat tail like a beaver, black and white quills swaying as he retreats – and disappears into the thick forest. Long after he's gone, his presence remains. This is his territory, not yours. You curl under your thin later of synthetic protection reaching blindly for a headlamp while he deftly navigates this jumbled mash of forest: stumps rising from steep hills, cedar trunks fallen and criss-crossed, roots upended, standing sideways, stands of devil's club like thorny walls. A place entirely inhospitable to anyone with a pack full of gear and only two legs to walk on, but home sweet home to a slow, waddling climber covered in quills. Where will he go, now that I've interrupted his evening stroll? Will he find another tree to climb, another bed to sleep in and forget about my intrusion, or will a memory of me shouting at him linger in his consciousness as he lingers in mine, reminding him to stay away from the base of the big cedar?

5 July

Back at the floathouse for 15 hours to prepare for the next 30 days in the wilderness. A flurry of cleaning and repairing and organizing gear. Tomorrow we head off to an area unknown to any of us, a tangled cluster of islands colored pale green on our nautical charts: the Kashekarof group.

The 11 teenage girls we're taking on this adventure couldn't be better. They make our jobs easy and fun. We have a diverse group, culturally: Caucasian and Athabaskan and Tlingit and African American, and one quiet Yupik girl. I love that this job gives me the opportunity to work with Yupik and Inupiaq kids. Before coming here, I knew next to nothing about the people of the far north, people who are U.S. citizens but whose lives are utterly dissimilar from everything we know. Despite our shared taxes and government highways and McDonalds and Walmarts, we are a big country, geographically and culturally, full of vegan new-age surfers in California and voodoo Creole gospel singers in Louisiana and tractor-driving soybean farmers in Iowa. But all of those seem homogenous compared with the people who live in the scattered villages far off the road system in northern Alaska. Isolated, they retain their culture even in a school system and job market that demands otherwise. The Yupik people I've met through this job take a long time to speak or answer a question. They consider their words before speaking. Their voices are low, hushed, unhurried – pushed from their vocal cords as if with great effort, quiet but steady like the tundra winds. They hunt seal and moose and caribou; they ride snow machines and shoot thirty ought sixes; they grin with a sincerity and enthusiasm that lights up their round faces like jack-o-lanterns. The Yupik children I've met have been gap-toothed and beautiful, with smiling eyes, smooth skin and thick, straight black hair. Hard working, every single one of them. Not complainers, not whiners. How can I describe their voices, their stories, the way their smiles light their faces? I think sometimes that I might like to teach in a Yupik village, but what would I have to offer them? I would be a foreign teacher in a foreign land, again, struggling to find purpose. And yet still. I want to help facilitate communication between our fast-talking, demanding U.S. culture and these far-flung people who find themselves thrust into a world that's not of their making.

9 July

Through my sleep I hear the lonely echo of foghorns, sounding twice. I open my eyes and see only the damp darkness of the inside of my sleeping bag. Thrusting my head out to check the time – 4:30 am – I enter a world shrouded in fog, the moss-draped tree branches overhead spiraling into gray oblivion. Out on the wet, rocky beach, the fog closes in from the ocean, shutting out the islands and the mountains and channels that last night defined our sense of place and helped us make sense of the chart we've been following for days. Today we are lost in the fog, stranded on an island of green in a sea of gray mist, ocean calm as a mirror.

I follow a trickle back into the woods to collect water. The stream is a series of stagnant pools full of water stained a rusty brown by the tannin of tree roots. It seeps from beneath logs, pooling around the edges of ferns and giant skunk cabbage leaves. Everything is still and muffled except the croaking of an unseen, solitary raven somewhere in the treetops. The forest stretches on into the deep, thorny interior of the island, away from the clean salt air of the sea, getting thicker, darker and heavier until it finally disappears into an impenetrable tangle where every living thing is soft and rotting.

11 July

Being dry is the only thing that matters. Warmth you can create, but even when GoreTex and rubber and neoprene keep the layer closest to your skin somewhat dry, it is miserable having the outside of you dripping wet. It's miserable having to peel off soggy layers before climbing into bed, knowing you're going to have to put them on again in the morning. The rain falls hard for hours and it seems like it will never stop, like I will never be dry again. One of the girls wakes me up at 1 am with an urgent whisper and I have to stand in the rain and change out a pee-soaked sleeping bag and wonder why I choose to do this work. Then, exhausted, I crawl back under my tarp and lie in the blackness listening to the rain pinging and drumming against my tarp. Each drop has its own weight; each inch of tarp its own tautness. The result is a symphony of raindrops; the rhythm of a drummer with a thousand arms. I sigh and close my eyes.

Dawn. Eagles swooping through the opening blue sky, sunlight filtering green through the canopy of trees. The world is washed fresh again; we can paddle with the wind at our backs while whales spout in the distance. We are surrounded by life: blankets of starfish and sea urchins as we glide over the shallow rocks; silicone-like jellyfish pulsing in the waves; a carpet of bull kelp floating on the surface of the ocean, glimmering in the sun, stretching to the horizon. Seals pop their heads out and watch us curiously as we pass, and a pile of sea lions basking on a navigational marker grunt and snort at us, indignant at our intrusion. In the distance, a barge stacked with brightly colored shipping containers chugs up to Juneau behind a tug boat.

At camp, we get the girls to bed early and wash our hair in a rushing freshwater stream. Our little cove is calm except for the splashes of jumping fish, and we are dry and warm and clean once again, remembering why we love this crazy life.

11 July

In the wilderness, there is nothing extraneous, nothing that does not matter. In our manufactured, efficient world, beauty may seem like a frivolous extra tacked on for our pleasure, but out here, even the most delicate purple orchids pushing from the litter of the forest floor are born of form and function. Where everything has a place and a reason, beauty is abundant: in the painted surface of this cove reflecting the sunset sky; in the tiny shells that make up the beach; in the simplicity of my tarp and sleeping back tucked between driftwood logs and clumps of beach grass. We carry only what we need. We collect water, we move, we cook food, gather wood, sleep. There is nothing extraneous, and pure beauty in the simplicity. Nothing is wasted in nature.

What I dream about, under my tarp doing paperwork: a cabin, planning for the winter, ordering five-gallon buckets of dried fruit and nuts and grains, chord books and strings, journals and pens and books. Planning and organizing, preparing, chopping wood, making jams and sauces. Always by my side there is some unseen person, some blank face yet to be filled in... who? When? And when do I just go do it alone?

12 July

Cozy in my sleeping bag, ready to fall asleep to the sound of dripping water – not rain, for once, but a stream that dribbles over logs and cascades between shelves of fern. I just talked to the office on the sat phone and agreed to do another girls' program from late July to mid-September, and suddenly, this all feels real. I'm back at Alaska Crossings, back where I never thought I'd be. The life I was leading in New Hampshire seems so far away, a glowing fire on a distant plain. My apartment, my car, my desk in the newsroom – is it possible that that was the same year, the same life?

16 July

Each day is a year, a full cycle of seasons. Morning is spring, the world fresh and wet with dew. Daytime, the summer sun beats on the earth, wakening it. Evenings are fall, the light slanting golden, crisp air, wind rustling the leaves before the darkness of winter settles in for the night.

We woke this morning to the overcast skies of Alaska and then were transported up the Stikine River to the Canadian border, to a different world. Hemlock and cedar is replaced with cottonwood and alder, and the loamy forest floor has given way to sandy beaches. The river is running at 20 feet, and tree trunks are half-buried in silt. The fine grit gets everywhere, in our teeth, our food, our fingernails, our eyelids. We sleep in tents pitched on sandbars while the great river flows around us. The sun shines sideways on our little island and the clouds are electrified with the sunset, edged with neon. The sound of the river sliding past seeps into our dreams.

17 July

The wind has picked up, blowing upriver from the sea, pushing against the current. The clouds shift in the wind, settling into the bowls and valleys of the mountains. We are warm and dry and sandy, and I am so happy to be in this particular place in the world, on this particular river: the longest undammed river in North America, a paddler's dream. Waterfalls stream down steep-walled mountains and drop into turquoise pools. In one week, I leave this program to embark on another. After that, my life unfolds blankly yet again, a thousand possibilities waiting to be written on its pages.



Willie and I sit in a plywood room dominated by a wood stove, talking. It is not for long – the others are gone to get beer (a tightly-controlled commodity out here), and I find myself temporarily alone with Willie. He sits on a chair, sweatpants tucked into muck boots, tortoiseshell glasses on the bridge of his nose, white beard and wavy white hair. I do not know how old he is. Old enough to have a granddaugher, but young enough to jump on a motorcycle and ride from Alaska to Chile, as he did two years ago. I piece together the stories of his life as he tells them to me, the hint of his Chilean accent sprinkled with phrases picked up from 30 years in Alaska.

The wood stove releases its warmth slowly, and outside the two-room cabin the tide creeps just as slowly into the lagoon. The small, dingy window offers views of the bay, smoke curling from a few other cabins perched on pilings, fishing shacks strung with buoys and nets, water dripping off spruce boughs. Willie leans on the back legs of his chair and tells stories.

He grew up on a ranch in southern Chile, he tells me, where he never heard the word 'no.' Perhaps it was because he was a boy. No, you cannot do that. No, you cannot go there. I hear his accent as he speaks the words, spitting out 'no' as if it's a curse. He and his brother rode horses to the river in the summer, stripped off their clothes and swam naked in the current, ate lunch on the banks, narrowly averted death, as children do. They tended chickens and horses and cows. In the winter, they hunted hares and went to a school run by Catholic priests. It was a life out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story.

That life is gone now. It's been replaced by another, but the world is changing always and the other life is on the verge of being lost as well. Here in Alaska where Willie has built his home and his livelihood, king crab and salmon have been overfished and predators are shot from the sky to bolster the moose population, which sport hunters pay good money to hunt. They come from outside, give their cash to local guides and store owners and go home with a pair of antlers to hang on their wall. Man has a propensity for violence.

In 1973, Salvadore Allende was ousted from power and the priests were driven from Willie's school, replaced by military recruits. Twenty-one year old boys with machine guns stood guard at the doors. As Augusto Pinochet established his dictatorship through waves of violence and oppression, 'no' echoed across the mountains. Willie couldn't stand to watch what was happening to his country. As soon as he finished high school, he left. He got a job as a deckhand on one of his grandfather's boats and sailed up the coast to Central America, across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. He was never homesick –- there was much to see, much to learn –- much to say yes to.

At the Panama Canal, he jumped ship and disappeared, not to return to Chile for decades. He worked his way up to the United States and eventually to Alaska, where he worked as a crab fisherman in Kachemak Bay before the technology became so advanced that it depleted the crab populations. He fathered three children and conjured his own boyhood dreams as he raised them: summers, they set up fishing camp on the Copper River and let their salmon haul dry on racks on the banks. Once at sea they caught a 275 pound halibut that sent two gaffs and a handgun into the drink before they finally hauled it onto their boat; it fed them for two winters. They built a cabin and rigged their own hydroelectric power. They learned to drive a boat in rough seas, to read the tides and the currents, to sail with the wind. People say Willie has salt water running through his veins.

In the middle of a story about a bear and a keg of beer at Willie's 40th birthday party, his son Tristan kicks open the cabin door with an armload of contraband beer. Like his father, Tristan is quick to smile, easy to laugh with, and entirely capable: the kind of person you'd trust your life with the day you met him. I've only encountered one or two other people like that in my life. They are few and far between, but they seem to congregate here on the Alaskan coast.

More people trickle into the tiny room, pulling up fat chunks of firewood to sit on. We are all outsiders, idealistic seasonal workers –- an expendable resource here, and frequently treated as such. We are told 'no' often, and that doesn't sit well with Willie. He welcomes us to his cabin, his boat, his home in town. We will not go jobless, he says, no matter what happens. We will always have a place to stay. It is such a change from what we are used to that, sitting around the woodstove in the cabin with Willie and his son, drinking a rare beer, listening to them talk about happiness and oppression, living and joy and suffering, we are overcome with gratitude for this man who is so generous of spirit, so firm in his beliefs, on such good terms with the natural world. We wander off to our own cabins to sleep. The next morning, Willie comes back at high tide with cases of beer under each arm and claps me on the back. “I brought you some liquid,” he says, not caring who sees. “You can't always follow the rules.” Then he gives me a hug and jumps back into his skiff.
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