After my Alaskan travels last summer, it became crystaline that I need to write about glaciers. During my two recents semesters of grad school, I developed a thesis project based on this goal and will be keeping my site updated on my project blog Glaciers in Motion. So check in there this summer for an account of capturing the glacier experience.

A small teaser:

” Glaciers are melting, it’s true. Scientific measurements, photographs, personal accounts, evolutionary ecosystem histories prove this. But I don’t want to focus on that. We already know that.

I want to focus instead on the incredulity of glaciers. On capturing the experience of sleeping and waking on a glacier. On feeling it grumble, hearing its pure blue streams gurgle and laugh, watching its colors morph as light changes through the long hours of a day. On peering into the void of a crevasse and appreciating what such voids can teach us.”

Thanks for your readership and support. Enjoy!

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Over the past several months, I’ve been absent from this blog. I’ve been busy being buried by my latest adventure–perhaps the most challenging adventure to date: grad school. How hard can school be? you might ask. Well, let me tell you.

Try harnessing the attentions and energy of 23 freshman boys and girls. We’re talking 18 year olds that may have once been taught the correct subject-verb predicate, but most likely have not. They’re fresh into college, glossy with naivety at what it means to be in the ‘real world.’ The majority are from Wyoming, a state notorious for having some of the poorest support for grade-school English in the country. Have them read dense collegiate essays on surveillance, prescription drug abuse, advertising in schools and the demise of rural America. Challenge them to write coherent five-paragraph essays that draw from each of these texts and connect them together. Try not to crush dreams as you hand back the first essay–a stack of D’s. No, it’s not your job to crush, it’s to inspire. Right?

At least that’s what I thought when I arrived and started my Graduate Assistantship, which entails teaching a composition class to freshman, in addition to taking a full course load geared toward a MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing and Environment and Natural Resources.

It’s possible that over a semester of teaching, learning, writing, speaking, grasping, gasping, drowning, thriving, I have perhaps inspired one of those students. They sure have inspired me to think about my own writing, and to not take a creative mind for granted. To look past repetitive and poor sentence construction and see the potential underneath. To think about the multitude of experiences and moments of growth we all encounter on our paths to becoming who we are.

Lately, as I spend hours sitting in front of my beaming computer screen planning lessons, writing short-form nonfiction pieces, reading pages and pages (we’re talking 100s, maybe 1000s of pages) of literature on teaching pedagogies and conservation strategies, and reading pages and pages of freshman essays that sometimes make me want bang my head against a wall ad nauseam, I wonder if I should’ve just stuck with the ski bum life. I glorify days of waking at dawn and skinning to the top of a peak. Of thinking deeply about the contours of a mountainside, not the intricacies of a freshman composition essay.

But one thought dampens the allure of those memories: change is hard and growth hurts. But it’s the growing pains that make progress most rewarding. It’s the growing pains that make the achievements worth striving for, even if those achievements come at the cost of sacrificing the things we love the most.

The mountains can wait; the snow (hopefully) will keep falling. When moments allow, my skis will keep carving. But in the interim, the in between, I’ll teach these kids. I’ll hope to inspire. I’ll be inspired. I’ll write. I’ll read. I’ll dream.

Now, that doesn’t sound so bad.

I’m not really into water. I enjoy being around, but definitely not being inwater. Especially big water: oceans, fast moving rivers, rough rapids. I’m an earth sign and a land critter most inclined to rocks, snow and ice under foot.

In Alaska, there’s a lot of water. And, I reasoned, in order to fully experience Alaska, I needed to embrace water.

I started with Kachemak Bay, the gorgeous band of saltwater that stands between Homer and the glaciated Kenai Mountains. Kenton’s hand built wooden skiff sat so low that when we motored across the bay, our bodies were level with the surface of the blue, the waves, the crests and white caps. He took us out on mussel gathering missions, hiking adventures, joy rides. The boat became a way of transport to the mountains, the water not an obstacle but integral to adventure. I would burrow against the wind and watch the sea otters flip and splash, watch the waves gain dimensions and iridescent colors as the sun hovered on the horizon for hours in late evening.

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We moved on to glacial rivers. Literally, rivers pouring out of lakes at the mouths of glaciers. Cold rivers, wild rivers, the kind of rivers you really don’t want to fall into. Rivers that channeled and braided, oxbowed and eddied around sheer cliffs, on whose banks dozens of bald eagles swooped and perched on the branches of evergreen trees. Rivers whose waters churned brown and slate with glacial silt.

On one river, Alayne’s visiting sister, Leigh, led us. A Pennsylvania river guide, she’d never floated an Alaska river before. She steered us into the Grewingk River, none on board, not even our captain knowing what awaited. The river met us with strong, dirty rapids. We met it with eager arms and ready paddles. We glided, jerked, highsided, laughed and gasped. It was a dance–we danced with the river. The river led, our Puma raft followed. And we all stayed dry, mostly.

The ultimate water experience presented itself two days before my departure: work on a commercial fishing boat. Stay out on water night and day, be confined to a boat, surrender control to the water. I met the crew of the aged, steel Chimpmunk fishing vessel in Homer Harbor at midnight. We departed into calm waters, the engine chugging steady, the sunset in its second hour. For a while I visited with Chris the captain and Matthew the deckhand, and then set to sleep in the cabin.

The cabin became a cocoon. I drifted off to the loud chug of the engine. Warm diesel fumes filled my nostrils and dreams. I woke at intermittent moments and marveled at the soft sway of the ocean waters, then burrowed deeper into blankets and sleep. At 6am I woke to hot sun and was greeted on deck by glassy waters turned a pink bronze. The volcano Illyamna was also bathed in bronze, as was Mt. Redoubt above which hovered a still full moon.

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We let out the net, waited for hits. Reeled it in. Slimy, still-live salmon flipped forcefully out of my gloved hands and slapped the steel deck floor. We tossed them in the ice chest repositioned the boat and began the cycle again. Midday sun baked the boat, we exchanged warm layers for tshirts, we contemplated a swim in the ocean. The tide came in, our net filled faster. The boat rocked gently in still calm waters.

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At dusk, we turned toward Kasilof. My time on the boat was ending, I had a plane to catch in 24 hours. Matthew and I stood at the helm as the sun turned the inlet into glitter. I squinted across the water, absorbed it. Who knows when I’ll see water like this again, I thought. But then, I may see it sooner than I expect. Afterall, I’ve got a job on the Chipmunk for next summer if I want it.

But I’m not ready to trade the mountains for the ocean, yet. Though it sure is nice to have experienced the other side.

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I’ve lost count of how many outhouses I’ve used since arriving in Alaska six weeks ago. Not that I typically keep numbers on the sorts of bathrooms I frequent but the prevalence of outhouse use here has been so high that it’s worth noting. I’d say it’s probably 50/50 with conventional flush toilets.

What’s with all the primitive usage? Well, it’s Alaska. Here, living on the rougher side of comfort is just as common as not.

Dry cabins, they’re everywhere. Small one room spaces with no running water, a wood stove for heat, some sans electricity, the more luxurious ones with. Yurts. Abandoned school busses. Campers. These housing options reflect an Alaskan value that’s caught my eye from the start: work with what’s available, be resourceful. Here in Homer, that often includes have a low impact, be conscious of the mark you leave on the environment.

A few nights ago, Alayne and I visited a friend’s house for dinner. Given her glamourous natural beauty and San Francisco upbringing, Angelina isn’t the sort of girl I imagine would choose to live in a dry cabin in Alaska. She and her boyfriend have been inhabiting their quaint 700 square foot log space for three years. “It’s Alaska,” she says, “when in Alaska, you live dry.”

We filled our water cups with a 20 gallon jug of purified water. We steamed fresh Kachemak Bay mussels in white wine, garlic, parsley. We fried fresh halibut cheeks and wrapped them in tortillas with organic kale from her greenhouse. We sat gathered around a picnic table on the front lawn (the cabin was a little too small for group dining) and when one of us needed to pee, we followed the path to the outhouse. “It’s a lot harder in the winter,” Angelina hinted with a smile.

While in Talkeetna last week, Alayne recalled her early days in Alaska when she lived in a 400 square foot dry cabin with her boyfriend. They hauled water from the neighbor’s house 100 yards away and, since neither had a car, they dragged their firewood a half mile from the road to their cabin on a sled. They read books by oil lamp and bathed with water warmed by their camp stove. And when they had to use the bathroom they trudged through snow and mud to the outhouse. “It was beautiful,” she recalled, “it was so simple.”

How much potable water is wasted every time a toilet is flushed? Well, if your toilet is pre 1994, 3.5-7 gallons go down the drain with each flush, if it’s post 1994, federal law requires that 1.6 gallons be flushed. The federal requirement is an improvement, but say you flush your toilet five times in a day and there goes eight gallons of drinkable water. Within a week, you may use 56 gallons, and in a month 240 gallons. It puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

There’s also no curb-side trash pickup in most towns outside of Anchorage. You gather your trash and take it to the dump. You see the number of trash bags that fill your car, whether you want to or not. Alayne proudly remembered a time in Talkeetna when she and her partner produced one grocery bag full of trash for the entire month.

I’m not saying all Alaskans are environmental saviors, but there’s a noticeable level of consciousness here that is harder to find in the lower 48. When the conveniences of modern day living are harder to access and the prices are much higher, as they are in Alaska, it makes you a little more aware of what you really need to live and what you can live without. From what I’ve witnessed this summer, a life less ordinary is a life well-lived.

 

 

 

When you have no job and 20 hours of sunlight a day, time ceases to exist in any way you’ve known before. Each long-lit day bleeds into the next like water-splattered ink drops, and often the events within a 24 hour period are enough to actually make up two days, or perhaps even three. Life takes on a dream-like quality–though that could be the lack of sleep–and it becomes normal to start an adventure at 10 pm, to finish an adventure at 1 or 2 am when the sky is just a darker shade of blue.

Such was the case when we visited the hamlet of McCarthy, a village of creatives and unconventional folks nestled at the foot of the Wrangell Mountains. According to the 2010 census, only 28 people live in McCarthy year round. That number swells in summer when tourists flock to McCarthy and its sister town, Kennecott, an old mining town that is a gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. When we arrived in McCarthy days before the solstice, summer season was in full swing.

In order to get to town, we first drove 60 miles to the end of unpaved McCarthy Road, which has a reputation for blowing tires and busting wheel bearings. Once a mile from town, we parked in a designated lot and walked across a series of foot bridges to get to downtown: a handful of frontier-fashioned buildings planted along the dirt main street. All electricity in town is provided by one large generator and most buildings don’t have running water. Showers are an anomaly.

The Kennecott Mine

The Kennecott Mine

We were seeking a solstice celebration but first we had a date with the Root Glacier, a mile-wide, mild-sloped ice field that crawls out of Mt. Regal’s Stairway Icefall. We hit the trail out of Kennecott at 6 pm, strapped on cramp-ons at 7, wandered off route, lost our way among compression cracks and crevasses, and finally reached camp as sunlight was softening around 11:30 pm. We were greeted by bear scat and a pair of kissing porcupines. We posted up on a lush island between the Root and Kennicott Glaciers. For two days we lingered among the moraines, watched endless sunsets crown the ice waves gold.

The Root Glacier

The Root Glacier

When we returned to McCarthy on June 21, solstice eve, the entire place was buzzing. We stopped into The Potato, home to the only espresso machine in town. “Are you going to bluegrass?” Jeff, an acquaintance we’d made a few days earlier asked. “Of course!” We chorused. We stopped into the general store for AfterBite. “You gals heading to the bar tonight?” the friendly cashier inquired. We nodded enthusiastically. “You girls know about the bluegrass band tonight?” the parking attendent asked when we dropped our backpacks at the car. “There’s a tequila party too!”

The Golden Saloon is the social epicenter of McCarthy and Kennecott. Naturally, it’s the only bar within 60 miles. When we entered its double doors around 9:30 pm, we were hit with a blast of hot, humid air and big upright base notes. The bar was two bodies deep, dining room tables full, dance floor not yet hopping but would be soon. Where did all of these people come from?! I wondered. And they kept coming.

The night raged on, so did the light. People spilled out of the Saloon’s deck, beer cans, pints, martini glasses in hand. There are no cops in McCarthy, and no open container laws. I met a collection of fascinating people–a poet from Montana, hydro engineer from Anchorage, natural resource professor from Berkeley, a native cultures anthropologist, a pilot, a glacier guide from Minnesota, a 60 year old woman from Taos who was cycling solo around Alaska. The polished wooden dance floor pulsed with writhing bodies, stomping feet.

Around 1am I stumbled outside to check the light. It was dim like that you’d find in an early dusk. The monster moon glowed ivory, hovered above the historic building fronts. Sometime around 3am I swayed my way to the parking lot. I stopped on the footbridge, watched the waters of the Kennicott River snarl and curl under my feet, gazed out to the Root Glacier still illuminated in the now early morning light.

Tomorrow was already today, the transition from one day to the next seamless, almost as though there was no transition between them at all.

It's 3am, I think it's getting lighter...

It’s 3am, I think it’s getting lighter…

I’ve gotten a nickname since arriving in Alaska. I’m the Yes Girl. Want to skiff across the bay? Yes. Want to camp on the beach even though we might get swallowed by the tide? Yes. Want to go pick mussels at midnight? Yes. Want to ski a chute that requires hours of bushwacking and post holing to get to? Yes. Want to take a sea plane to a glacier, ski for three days and raft from the glacier to the ocean?

Um, are you kidding?!

The Wosnesenski Glacier is considered small among Alaskan glaciers, but when you’re talking about glaciers, size is negligible. A glacier is a glacier: a mass of grumbling ice surrounded by rocky peaks that breathes, expands, retracts and by way of melting provides the world with water its been storing for over 3000 years.

A glacier is a glacier and glaciers are captivating.

Alayne’s friend Kenton also has a nickname: the Wizard of Woz. He has spent a lifetime exploring the nooks, snowfields, serac colonies of the glacier. He arranged the float plane and he, Alayne and I landed at the mouth of the Woz late on a Wednesday evening. We cooked a feast of mussels we’d gathered the night before. We hid from hoards of mosquitoes that bit our faces, arms and legs, even through clothing. We slept excited, fitful sleeps.

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The amount of gear required for a summer glacier expedition is staggering: skis, boots, crampons, ice axes, ropes, tents, sleeping bags, food, more food, chocolate, clothes, and even a couple of mini skirts. Braced against our overloaded packs, we picked our way up the moraine, a wide fan of lumpy cracks and fissures where glacial ice meets land. We playfully nicknamed our crampons snow leopard claws. Ice turned to snow, we traded claws for skis, skinned up a wide snowfield, admired seracs along the way. We set camp in a rock nook at 3,300 feet and hid from the relentless sun.

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And then, we skied. For two days we toured among the towering rock faces and snow fields. We left our signatures in figure eights down mountain sides. We scouted each line, first checking for cravasses, then yipping and hollering as our knees dropped telemark turns into velvet corn snow. In the afternoon we hid from the sun that burned so hot and bright I felt my brain was melting.

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On the third day we packed up camp, skied 3000 vertical feet to the glacier mouth. Skied within feet of gorgeous serac colonies. Picked across scree slopes so steep and loose I forgot to breathe while crossing them. Finally, our feet were on the ground but the next phase of the journey was yet to come: the river.

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The Wosnesenski River is a glacier-charged channel of water that snakes and winds 16 miles from the glacier mouth to the ocean. We’d packed in a raft, which we pumped up and loaded down with piles of gear. We pushed off across the lake around 5 pm after having spent the entire morning skiing and hiking. And then we floated, charged, skid, scuffed, bumped, waded but mostly cruised for five hours until our raft met the ocean.

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The journey from water to air to lake to glacier to snow to summit to snow to glacier to lake to river to ocean was complete.

With adventures like these at the ready, how could I say no?

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For the next two months, this blog will be devoted to traveling around and experiencing the great wide beauty of Alaska. 

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I’ve entered another world. It resembles worlds I’ve experienced in the past–great coffee shops, art galleries, local bands, dive bars–but it’s surrounded by glimmering water, jagged snowcapped peaks and a sun that doesn’t set until midnight. A six mile ride out on the spit–a straight six-mile finger of land that extends into Kachemak Bay–unveils a completely new landscape of harbor filled with schooners, skiffs, crab boats, all sorts of vessels designed for water exploration, and gritty bars where fisherman gather to swap tales of winter crabbing in the fierce Bering Sea.

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Water is a way of life here, but so are the mountains. If you have a friend with a boat you can access the perfect complimentary adventure of a sea to ski. On Saturday morning, we met Alayne’s friend at the harbor, loaded skis, skins, ice axes, packs into his small boat named Vamanos and motored across Kachemak Bay to the snowy peaks of the Kenai Range. Hours of uphill hiking among moose tracks and bulging piles of bear scat led us to alder bushwacking, soft snow skinning. We paused for lunch–king salmon that had been smoked by a friend, dark chocolate–and gazed at the bowls and ridges around us that bordered the sea.

“This sounds naiive to say,” I started, “but I had no idea life was so good in Alaska.” Alayne and Dan both smiled like they knew a deep secret I was just beginning to grasp.

Hours later we reached the high point of the ridge and gazed into Grewingk glacier. A haiku came to mind:

Granite icebergs burst

from a solid sea of white

ribbed with tints of blue

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We skied patches of soft corn snow and slowly picked our way back down among the alders, the moose tracks, the bear poop. We paused along the trail to collect fiddleheads and devil’s club shoots to cook later in the week with some newly acquired King Crab. By the time we reached the black sand of Hawaii Beach, it was nearly 11pm and the sun was iridescent on the water. At midnight, as we drove up Alayne’s driveway, we spotted a mama moose and her calf.

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How did I not know the wonders of this place before? It is as though I’m being let in on a great secret. Perhaps what makes it so secret is that you never really know the depth of the place until you experience it first hand. This is just the beginning.

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