Thursday, July 28, 2011

Just Watch What Happens

I sit high on a hill, overlooking Cook Inlet in Ninilchik, Alaska. And I'm not happy. There's nothing to see.

I wanted to camp down on the beach, right next to the water's edge, where thousands of people converge tomorrow to  dig for gigantic razor clams. There'll be a negative tide, exposing clam beds normally out of  people's reach. And I want to watch the action. I've been told it's bizarre.

But a winter storm washed the campground out to sea.  So we park instead up in this place, high on a heavily forested cliff, barely overlooking the action. Hrumpf.

From my campsite, I can see down the hill on one side, to an old Russian village, where girls and women still wear long colorful dresses and the men all wear beards.  I can't see them because I'm too far away, but I know they are there. If I crane my neck and look out across the water, I see Mt. Redoubt and her sister volcano Iliamma, both wearing their snow-white caps. 

And if I walk over to the next campsite, balance near the hillside's edge and whistle Yankee Doodle, then maybe I'll be able to see the clammers tomorrow. Barely. A lot of trouble. There's nothing to see up here. So I'm not happy.

I walk back to our campsite, grab my book and plop at the picnic table, basically looking at the tops of a lot of trees climbing up from far below. What I really want to be looking are the waves on Cook Inlet.

Then a commotion catches my eye. Just ahead. Look! LOOK! I can't believe what I'm seeing.  An American Bald Eagle has just deposited her very large baby in a tree top not 20 feet from my face. Twenty feet! A baby bald eagle. Sitting on the top of a tee. Looking back at me. Mom flies away. Baby stays put. AND STARES AT ME!
What do I do? Stare back.

And holler for Allen who takes our picture with the baby in the background. Then, I sit at the picnic table and babysit,  for 20 minutes. My life merges with this baby's. I'm thrilled, amazed and amused at what I'm seeing. But he's, well, sort of bored. I watch as he picks his feet. Looks all around. Cleans under his left wing; preens his tail. Shudders. Scratches his head. And picks his feet some more. But he stays there.

And I'm guessing mom TOLD him to stay put, while she goes fishing. Yum. He's waiting for lunch.

So I stay put, to watch for mom to come back. But I, too, get bored, just looking at a bird doing basically nothing. So I begin to read.

I hear a commotion.

When I look up, my baby is gone. I see a flurry of feathers -- mom's  black and white mingling with baby's brown and white -- and they're gone.

What a sight. What a memory. There's so much to see high up on this wonderful hill.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Climbing Into the Ice Age

The big blue blob (center bottom, first one on the left) is me, 20 feet away from the edge of Exit Glacier.

How exciting.

We're here. At Exit Glacier. The only glacier in the whole Kenai Fjords National Park you can walk to. 

A little geography lesson: Alaska has a bunch of mountain ranges and the one called the Kenai Mountains wears a beret, of sorts, of ice, thousands of feet deep.  It's called the Harding Icefield and it spreads over the mountaintops for 700 miles. Thirty glaciers spill out of this icefield.

The Harding Icefield and its glaciers  are the reason the Kenai Fjords National Park exists.  To see most of these glaciers, unathletic  people like us travel by tour boat up and down the fjords (which we did) or take a plane (which we didn't) to do a fly-over. 

One of those glaciers, Exit Glacier, is the only one you can walk to. In fact, it's called Exit Glacier because the first documented time anyone walked across the Harding Icefield (in 1968), they exited through Exit Glacier.

Today we plan to hike up to the edge of this glacier (not across it), a distance of just a little more than a mile. No problem.

We drive to the beginning of the trail (the parking lot is packed!). And redress ourselves for warmth.  Exit Glacier's  all ice. So, of course, we'll get cold in her company. We wear scarves, sweatshirts, jackets. 

And off we go.

The first part of the trail (the part we see from the visitor's center, so it's the part that convinces us  to do the hike) is wide and paved, straight and nearly flat. Young and old, thin and fat trundle along.

Piece of cake. 

About 20 minutes into the walk, the crowd thins and the pavement ends. The trail turns into dirt and heads up to the right, into the trees and it gets narrower.

Piece of cake.

We hike on. Up. And up. There's no longer a crowd.  And our piece of cake gets crusty.

Our steps get steeper, rockier and slippery as solid ground gives way to loose glacier gravel. So as we ascend, the trail beneath our feet descends, just a little.  And, I notice the people heading my way, the ones climbing/sliding down, the ones who "HAVE BEEN THERE," mostly stare straight ahead, their cheeks reddened, their hair matted ... with what? Sweat?

We continue up, up, and it's so steep, the trail turns into multiple switchbacks littered with boulders and fallen trees embedded into the silt. Those trees become welcomed footholds as we climb this galcial stairway.

Look! There she is. Exit Glacier. We made it! She's big and cracked and cerulean blue in spots. And monstrous.

Allen and I the edge of Exit Glacier
I catch my breath,  then rush down (yes, it's downhill!) the final few hundred yards of path that are new (because the glacier is melting, receding) and narrow. I get to the very edge, but I'm still 20 feet away from my goal. I see a sign. Oh, pooh.  It says we can no longer touch the glacier. It's too dangerous. We could slip and fall underneath her giant foot, which would crush us after it froze us. 

So I stand 20 feet away from this monstrous piece of ice, and enjoy the coolness of her breezes because I now understand the sweat I saw on others. I've shed my scarf; my cheeks are warm and red. I'm tired. But happy.  Because I made it.

I'm not bragging. But I made it. I climbed up for 1.2 miles on a "moderately strenuous" hike. Then climbed/slid back down. 

Just explaining. I made it. 

In A Small Town Everyone Knows Everyone

I'm connecting the dots.

That's what Judy says.

Judy is our campground host in Seward, AK, and she, along with her husband, Jim, invited us to go to church with them last week. And we did.  Then, they invited us to go to a free salmon/halibut picnic by the bay (see the pic? click the link; there's more) with the senior citizen center. And we did.

This morning, we're back at church (a Methodist church) for the second visit. It's here  I'm connecting the dots, and finding out that when you live in a small town, everyone knows everyone. And everyone knows your business.

Even if you've lived here only two weeks.

Here's what happened.

It started at the picnic, where I discovered a sturdy stock of senior Alaskans. A few talked about their hip replacements and some tottered about because they need one.   But most were like Bob, and Monty and Louise, who talked about their love interests, their exercise classes and their fishing adventures.
I don't know how old Bob is, but I'm guessing he's in his 80s. He's lived in Alaska since 1953 and has a girlfriend (of eight years) who's down in the Lower 48 visiting family. Louise, (in her 70s), exercises a lot and volunteers for the local food bank. She's going out fishing for salmon on Wednesday with Monty, who's 93. He owns his own boat and although "he's slowing down a little," Louise says, he and his wife enjoy the sport of catching the salmon. I met his wife, too.

OK. Now back at church this morning, the preacher mentions he went fishing this week WITH MONTY! Our new friend Monty. Who's 93. And he caught 13 salmon.

I look over at Judy who winks at me and painted her index fingers together. She mouths  "you're connecting the dots."

There's more. Remember, I said in a small town, everyone knows everyone and everyone knows your business.

Well,  after the service, a young man (in college) comes to greet us in church because, he said, he knows our business (we'll, he didn't use those words.) He said he met us earlier this week at the SeaLife Center (it's like the state aquarium). He's the fellow who lectured on seals and sea lions and he remembered talking to us after the presentation and applauded his efforts. He remembered that, and was happy to see us again, this time in his church.

So, I guess after two weeks of living in Seward, AK, I'm now part of that  "everyone" crowd. I'm beginning to connect the dots. I'm getting to know everyone and they're knowing my  business. I can't hide. If I sneeze anywhere in town, someone I know will say "God bless you."

So while I'm loving it here, I'm rejoicing that we leave on Tuesday.  And will regain our anonymity.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Crossing Over Into A Trailer Park

This is an amazingly noisy campground.

We're  in Wasilla, AK. And it's 10:30 p.m. (still sunny). And I see (and hear) kids playing chase and dress-up, a fellow toot  toot toots on his harmonica, fireworks explode in the background, dogs bark, guys chat, more kids scream, guys laugh ... Man!

What a noisy place!

Our dogs need to go for a walk. So I guess we won't disturb anyone's peace if we do it now. At 10:30 at night. We leash them up, hop out and walk around.

What we find, in addition to  a wide-awake neighborhood, is stuff. Tons of scattered stuff. Not really trash. But, well, sort of trashy stuff. One motorhome (an old, beat-up guy), shares its space with a mishapen freezer (a cord snakes through a hole in the window screen), a scooter and a pile of recycled wood (intended, I'm sure, to be a porch one day). 

Toys, toys and more toys surround other trailers, as do dog cages, plastic tubing, wobbly gas grills, metal parts and aluminum siding. Blankets cover most window. A dog barks at us. Then pokes his head out one of those blanket-covered windows. And barks at us again. 

"Conor's House" (see pic) doubles as a trailer and art easel for the young lad, who obviously shares love with his mom.

We realize as we walk that we've stumbled upon a different life.

We are camped in a trailer park. A permanent neighborhood where people cram their lives into rectangles. It's one of those places. The kind I've never been in. 

We keep on walking and after covering the circuit, climb back into our little rectangle and feel better. This is our place, in here, not out there, where life differs greatly from ours.

We settle in for the evening, delayed by the midnight sun.  And now the harmonica guy strums a guitar. And the kids  play keep-away with  a hose. And it's near midnight. When the dad comes home next door.

We met him earlier. He's the park handyman and works as a bar bouncer most nights. When he pulls up in a rattle-trap truck, his kids (five of them) run up to greet him yelling "Daddy's home!" He hugs, then hushes them. "Use your night voices, kids!" he stage whispers. Simultaneously, his wife climbs out of their box and plows through the kids for her hug. 

Then, the gang sets out on a project together. They spend the next 30 minutes, in quiet construction, building a canvas tent. A big one. For the kids to sleep in that night. They've been waiting. For dad. To come home to put up the tent. And he jumps right in to the project without complaint. Without begging for time alone. Without reaching for a cool drink, an easy chair.

He leaps right into the family and they leap right back. They talk in whispers. They laugh in whispers.

Life is good, I realize. And I'll bet when those kids are adults, they'll look back at life in the trailer park as  good.  As theirs. Warmed by the fun times and love they received tucked alongside dog pens, piles of recycled wood, scattered toys and, of course,  "Conor's House."


Monday, July 4, 2011

So This IS Alaska

The doggie barked shamelessly. What a good watchdog!

Off the main road, into the woods just south of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a wooden cabin called the Flying Squirrel Bakery.

I want to go in because it's so rustic, so Alaska, sitting back in the woods like this. I bet there's a moose carcass hanging off a tree somewhere in the back, and a woodman nearby chopping wood to freshen the stockpile for next winter.

The setting is perfect. This Is Alaska!

So I'm excited. We go in.

And immediately, I'm not happy.

Up front, glass cases brim with sumptuous, eclectic sweets, such as ginger cookies laced with rosemary, chai tea cookies and flattened macaroons, the size of saucers, bearing those trendy unruly squiggles of milk chocolate. For lunch (if we want, but we don't) we can savor  lamb-lentil stew with a hefty chunk of whole wheat, raison, cinnamon swirl bread (that's just one loaf).

Off to my right, a man feeds firewood from a wheelbarrow into the mouth of a modest pizza oven made of bright red brick. 

And behind me, I see marble-topped cafe tables surrounded by two-tone wooden chairs.  Paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling, dancing a bit in the ceiling fan's breeze.

It's comfy, beautiful.

But it's trendy. Not rustic.  Touristy. 

I wonder if these people even eat moose.

I shake my dismay and order coffee and sweets (trendy or not, I savor tasting rosemary/ginger cookies, which are YUMMY!) and chat for a minute with Joe, the waiter. From Wisconsin. Who wears stylish square squinty glasses with dark, dark rims. 

"So," Joe inquires. "What did you think of Talkeetna?"

Talkeetna's a small muddy town bustling with activity, partly because it's where climbers must sign in before tackling Mt. McKinley. But also because somehow, I don't know when, Talkeetna got hot. It's twenty-something friendly. It's a magnet for the outdoorsy in-crowd.

They overflow into main street from the popular microbrewery and crafty little shops selling high-priced trinkets and high-end wearable art,  such as silk-screened scarves, jewelry and hand-felted slippers. Cafes sells lattes. Every Friday open-air concerts rock the public square.

To answer Joe's question, I say, "Trendy," laced with a touch of disdain.

He misses my pitch.

"Yea, isn't it great?" he quips. "It's a real party town. And, kinda like Vegas. When you play there, it stays there."

His love for what's hot is cute. And I'm softening to this idea that parts of Alaska are growing up and out of that wilderness skin. So I ask, Why? Why is Talkeetna so cutting edge?

"Because," he says, with confidence. "We're a continuation of the Seattle scene."

So up here in the wilds, 2,300 (road) miles away, between one moose and the next, Seattle's little Alaskan sister rocks. She's hard-nosed, driven to succeed as an artsy, party town. On a very small scale. But she's doing it.

And it dons on me. This is Alaska. Her people don't give up. They go for the gold. And get it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friends We Meet Along the Way

 Allen  with our new friends from Hawaii, Rhoda and Allan.


There's a woman outside my motorhome, saying, well rather singing, "Hello?"

I think it's funny that people avoid knocking on a motorhome door. Most holler out "Hello?" Or "Anyone there?" Or, like my dear friend Carolyn, "Are you up?"

But they do not knock. 

Like today. "Hello?" she repeats.

And I'm shocked to see who's there.

It's Rhoda and Allan, a couple from Hawaii we met a few days ago in Nenana, AK, around a campfire. They, like us, are now staying in Alaska's Denali National Park and from all of its 6 million acres, they chose to camp across from us.

Small world.

Yes, small, but spending time with Rhoda and Allan broadens our world in many ways.

They are so unlike us. My husband Allen and I were born to middle-class American parents in or near major cities. We had Mayberry kinds of growing-up lives.

Rhoda was born on a poor hillside farm in the Philippines, where she was raised by her grandparents on rice and fish. Allan was born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, who became American citizens before Pearl Harbor was bombed. And, Allan says, they were too poor for the government to bother interning. So they were left alone on their poor hillside farm where Allan and his siblings were born and raised, he says, "to be Americans."

He eventually bought his own education, through a government loan program, and became a nuclear engineer. ("I boiled water for a living," he jokes. His job involved testing nuclear reactors.)

Rhoda worked in Hospice care prior to her marriage to Allan six years ago.

And this is where our lives come together.

Like us, Rhoda and Allen retired and now enjoy an extended journey, traveling for months in a motorhome. Exploring Alaska.

From divergent pasts, we converge.

And now Rhoda and Allan are outside our motorhome door, inviting us to another campfire. This one at their campsite. And they'll provide the food, intending to broaden our palates as well as our lives: Hawaiian hotdogs (very VERY spicy and pink and made with pork, chicken and tofu) and savory bison steaks.

I'll bring a salad and dessert. And I'll be sure to holler "hello" when I get there.