July 2013


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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