Friday, July 25, 2008

Moose's Tooth Brewery, Anchorage
Rachel, Laura, Me, Claire, Will and Chase and the 500EH helicopter! Loading up
During the ride...
Saying "goodbye"

I rode in a helicopter for the first time today!!! A crew of us from work were flown into a remote unmaintained trail to log it out. The trail is not for the feint of heart because it has some really hairy river crossings. There used to be huge wooden bridges on this trail and it was quite nice and well-maintained. It was fairly popular because it was the tail end of a point to point hike from Seward to Hope. However, mother nature took it's tole and swept the bridges right away so now, it is an overgrown, brushy, boggy and loggy mess. We were briefed by the helicopter pilot on safety and then we flew for about 20 minutes and he dropped us off in a gravely sand bar in the middle of Boulder Creek. We then proceeded to orient ourselves and hike down the trail in 3 pairs (a sawyer and a swamper). We leapfrogged each other down the trail cutting out fallen trees. Will and I were able to clear out 20 trees before the sprocket on the end of the bar got jammed into the bar and made the chainsaw very unsafe to operate. I feel very lucky that I wasn't hurt especially since I wasn't wearing my safety glasses (they were all fogged up and I couldn't see what I was sawing). Will and I were so disappointed and crestfallen at this point. You see, our crew rarely gets to do anything like this and we were excited to be able to log out a trail. Will and I both have histories of being on wilderness trail crews where logging out cross- cut style is almost all you do. So we were sad that we couldn't saw for the rest of the day. Instead, we proceeded to chop off as many branches as we could for the other saw teams and we actually removed 4 more logs! At around 5:00 pm we realized that we were going to have to abandon the log out effort in order to make it to our pick up location (about 6 miles from our drop off location) on time. We hauled ass over some of the sketchiest trail that I've been on, falling into holes hidden by 8 foot tall devil's club and cow parsnip and skittering on narrow ledges with a sharp drop off to the roiling river below. We reached a river crossing that was not safe to wade through so we scouted for a fallen log. We found one that worked but I was fairly nervous crossing and carried my backpack across first and then went back for the dolmar of gas. Laura actually slipped and fell but caught herself with her arms and legs so she was hanging under the log. Chase crawled out to help her and the rest of us uttered words of encouragement. I do not know what we would have done had Laura fallen into the freezing cold, fast-moving water. I am glad we didn't have to deal with that. Our pick up point was still 1.5 miles away and there was another big river crossing and a lot of crazy trail to go in about 45 minutes. As we were recouping after Laura's scare we heard the helicopter flying overhead. We radioed in and asked if then could pick us up on a sand bar in the next big river crossing which was about 150 yards away. They obliged and we burst out of the bushes onto the river bank just as the helicopter started circling to look for us. It made a tight landing and we loaded up and took off for the ride home. We were all wet and tired and happy despite the fact that we had to leave at least 25 trees across the trail to be cut by the next trail crew, next year!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Kenai Fjords Tour boat
Reserrection Bay
Harding Glacier
Sea lions

Bear Glacier with a medial morraine

View from Mount Marathon
Community dinner of sweet potato pizza and rhubarb pie
broken bridge on the Russian Lakes trail
replacement bridge made from native material
milling boards

But what minutes! Count them by sensation, and not by calendars, and each moment is a day. ~Benjamin Disraeli

So many days have passed and they are filled with moments indescribable. We have all felt the passage of time and softly wonder at its inexplicable ability to drag on and on while at the same time fly more swiftly than a hummingbird. I feel this paradox now. It seems as though I have packed lifetimes into 2 small months, but it also seems as though only yesterday I was coasting over the rugged mountains of Alaska, seeing the icy wildness for the first time and experiencing that giddy excitement of dreams about to be realized. There is something both strangely satisfying and unsettling about this feeling and with the summer half over, I feel awash of emotions: proud and satisfied with all that I have accomplished and experienced, anxious that there will not be enough time left to do everything and disheartened that there is still so much more time left before a pack up and ship out.

I have had so much fun the past couple of weeks! After a week off from work, which was filled with fourth of July reverie and many random encounters and projects which included but were not limited to getting skunked out on the lake fishing, baking pizza and rhubarb pie, building a new fence for the garden, running, strumming the guitar and slip sliding up and down Mount Marathon, I took off on another 8 day overnight hitch for work. The day before I left for the hitch, I climbed Mount Marathon. As I mentioned earlier, the trail up this mountain is about 3 miles long and gains 3000 feet. Folks race up and down this mountain in about 45 minutes during the annual fourth of July event. I decided to trek up the mountain on a whim and had on heavy car harts and a backpack with my computer. I figured that if folks could complete the trek in less than an hour in a race, I could complete it fairly safely in at least 2. I was comparing it to a hike up Mount Sentinel. One can jaunt up that in sandals care free, why not Mount Marathon? I was wrong. The first leg of the trail was a 100 foot vertical climb up a rooty rock wall and then quickly transitioned into a nearly vertical mud slicked braided scramble up through the trees. I had to use all of my limbs and grasp at the alders to keep from sliding down. The trail turned into a near vertical rock climb/scramble above the tree line and loose gravel slid out from under my feet or crumbled as I put my weight down. The view was great though and I watched no less then 7 eagles sweep on the air currents above me and out towards Resurrection bay. I had a grand view of the bay and the fjords and hanging glaciers and the town of Seward below me. I encountered several other hikers who had seen a black bear on the trail and who had watched grizzlies playing on a ridge across the way. I also encountered hikers who encouraged me to take the runners trail down the mountain which, from what I could tell from watching the race, was a snowy, then gravely then muddy shoot straight down. I finally reached the top at the one hour and a half mark and happily took in the beautiful scenery. I had been told to take the snow shoot down. Apparently it is the fastest and safest way to go down. I found that hard to believe but figured I give it a try. There was a well defined groove in the snow to slide down (no less than 900 people had done it before me) and I sat down, car harts, computer and all and began sliding down. I figure I got up to about 10 miles per hour and was sliding for a good 5 minutes or so. I was using my feet and my bare hands to attempt to control my speed and direction and got hung up on a couple rocks. The slide finally spilled me out onto a graveling slope and I stood up and shook the snow from my pockets and shoes and then proceeded to careen down the loose gravel shoot. What I thought would be a truly treacherous trek down the mountain prooved to be a really fun careening, slip-sliding adventure. The gravel slope gave way with each foot step and with some practice I was able to jog down at a fairly quick pace. The gravel shoot gave way to a creek lined with slick mud and for much of that leg, I squatted and slid on my feet. At some points I had to hike in the creek and scale down mini waterfalls. When I finally got down the mountain, about 2 and half hours had passed and I was wet and muddy and completely in awe of the men and women who run up and down that beast in less than an hour!

Work was fun. I learned a lot. I learned how to mill boards from native material using a small metal frame and a chain saw and how to use a grip-hoist. I practiced felling 16-20 inch trees and honed my chopping and bark stripping skills as well as my bridge demolishing skills. I wore waders for the first time and shoveled and hauled a lot of gravel. Our project was to demolish a broken bridge and replace it with another bridge made of all native materials. We had to fell trees and strip them and mill boards and fashion them into a bridge. We also had to haul out the material from the old bridge. It sounds like a fairly simple affair and it was, but very time consuming. We had visitors to our camp every evening. Dave and Arrow (belonging to Claire), Molly, who used to be on the crew, and two different Dans (one married to Katy and the other an old trail rat, as well), Adrian and Twig (Will's girlfriend and dog respectively) and Laura and Ivy (friend of all and her dog). Some of them cooked us dinner, while others helped us work and still others just entertained us with their presence and their dogs.

I came home to a ravished garden. Last week, a vole had been nibbling at the peas and the rhubarb so I fortified the fence and made it as hole proof as possible. However, my efforts were futile and upon my return, the broccoli, chard and brussel sprouts as well as the carrots and squash were all suffering if not totally nipped off. Katie had bought a rat trap the day before, so we rigged it up with celery and peanut butter. Neither of us were too keen on killing it but concluded that it had to be done for the sake of our garden. The setting of the trap was a treacherous two person ordeal that too leather gloves and a wooden spoon to accomplish but we left it stealthily in the peas and withing 48 hours, we caught ourselves a vole and squeamishly if not triumphantly disposed of it and reset the trap, in case he had told his friends.

Yesterday, Katie and I went on the Kenai Fjords Tour. It was a rainy, sleety, cloudy day but we still had a wonderful time. The five and half tour afforded amazing views of Resurrection bay and beyond, huge 6 foot ocean swells, and lots of wildlife. We encountered otters, sea lions, orcas, humpback whales, puffins, porpoises and seals. We also saw huge glaciers, 10 stories tall, calving and creaking into the ocean. The cool glacial wind and the icy blue of the compressed crystals were breathtaking. I felt so small in the shadow of this looming mass which is but an arm of the Harding ice field, an even larger mass of ice and rock that covers 100s of square miles of the peninsula. It is amazing to think that underneath these glaciers and ice fields are topographical features that have never been mapped and that are not the same as they were yesterday and when finally exposed will be nothing like they are today. I had hoped have such a glacial experience while I was here and I had a brief emotional moment as I contemplated their imminent extinction as a result of climate change and global warming. I have been toying with the idea of a pilgrimage to see the polar bears. They hold a very special place in my heart for many reasons but I think I will be satisfied with pictures and verbal accounts of these amazing and endangered species. I would only be killing them off more quickly by expending the CO2 to travel to them. Sigh....

Yesterday evening, a group of us went to Hope for open mic night. It was the same crew as weeks before and bonfires before. Essentially, the whole contingent of forest service temporaries and their significant others fill the bar and the mud flats and the outside crevices and mingle to good music. I had a great time and interacted easily with my co-workers and dare I say, friends. I think that time has made me less of a stranger and an outsider. I think that this is a lesson that I will always have to learn. I am often discouraged by my inability to fit in or by others stand-offishness when what is really happening is the slow passage of time. I am beginning to learn the language of Alaska and understand its ebbs and flows and the small community which I have so boldly entered is starting to become less foreign. We are becoming accustomed to each other and my initial impressions of the social dynamics here were perhaps a bit skewed. There are amazing, thoughtful, poetic, compassionate people here. All it takes is time and trust and these things will reveal themselves. I found out that a coworker of mine has spent a year in Zambia working at a refugee camp and then she continues to fund raise for the cause and in my eyes, she has moved mountains and listening to her speak and reinvigorated me. I have spent the past two months worrying about my own trials and tribulations and the stresses of new jobs and social dynamics. Last night, I was reminded of the bigger picture, the world at the large, the passion of people trying to right the wrongs and to find beauty in the mire and to sing heartfelt poems and to dance freely and shout loudly. I thought that this was not here and have felt shy in my wildness, subdued in my goofiness, and laughed at for my conservationist/humanitarianism/environmentalist approach. I think that there are many in this circle of people who may, at first, scoff at recycling or make fun of using nature wipe instead of toilet paper or letting it mellow instead of flushing it down, but in the long run, they are silently working in their own ways to, as I like to say, save the world.

Today, I can almost feel the sun. It has been rainy and overcast for two weeks now. I am in Seward, on the edge of another weekend and another work week. Our projects and eight day hitches are complete and we now wait on edge for a fire call. The spontaneity of a fire call and the need for a fire call has everyone on edge. We depend on it for our winter survival and our summer occupation. Without a fire call we are left to waste time on the compound and flounder for projects and doomed to work in the rotting fish carcasses of the Russian River. But with a fire call, we are occupied for two weeks straight and making more money than we could ever hope for. But we have to be within an hour of the station and we have to be prepared and we know not when the call will come and if it will come at all. The rumors fly and tension is high.

The expanse of Alaska time stretches before and ahead of me. Katie is leaving tomorrow morning early. She will be gone for a month or so. I am excited for her because she will get to fight fire in the states and do what she was hired to do. But I am sad because she has been a good friend, a kindred spirit and a partner in crime. I know that my adventures will not stop but they will be a little more lonely without her. Time is passing in such a way that I am beginning to wonder about fall and the winter. I am beginning to wonder about the next year and the next 5. The last five have flowed by so easily, so quickly...I want so many things that I don't know what to work for in the mean time.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

“Be yourself. There is something you can do better then any others. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.” – Unknown

This is sound advice, for sure. However, like so many things, it is easier said than done and I am struggling to remember to be myself and to be content with my interests and tend to my happiness as well as others. I tend to have the hardest time when I interact with people who I am trying to impress or fit into, specifically my crew. I just completed my first 8 day hitch for work and it was really interesting. First of all, we use ATVs to haul all of our gear in so we are free to pack as much as we please. I really went out on a wire and packed two sleeping bags and 7 whole apples. I didn’t however, go all out because I was suspicious that the ATVs would break down and I would have to haul my backpack in the end. Fortunately, this was not the case, and we set up a plush camp, complete with propane stove, tarp, cooler and full kitchen set. I was amazingly comfortable in a two person tent (quite different from my usual little roadrunner than I can barely sit up in) and two sleeping bags. I sat back to learn the routines of this crew in our new settings. We wake up at 6:30 (Claire notoriously rolls in at 10 till 7:00 and we cook breakfast, which includes toasted bagels for some folks (yes, we brought a backcountry toaster) and coffee. At around 8:00 we start cleaning up and bear-proofing camp then we warm up and do safety circle in the form of hacky sack for about an hour. With 6 of us, it is a bit of a challenge to get a hack (when all 6 touch the sack before it falls to the ground). By 10:00 we are working hard in the ditches. Our project was about 4 miles in on the Resurrection North trail out of Hope.

We were replacing, adding and resetting culverts or as Kurt fondly calls them in a rough Boston accent, cul-ver-sacs. Our work proved to be amazing tedious because of the nature of the dirt. The area is covered in heavy clay and whether it is wet or dry it is difficult to break up and shovel out. We all worked on our own culverts and so the work was fairly solitary and I felt little pressure to out perform. After work, we gathered around the fire and chatted while one person cooked dinner. We had several visitors throughout the week. Molly, who was on the crew last year, spent three nights and three days with us. She worked with us and made us Mediterranean pasta with artichokes. Dave, Claire’s boyfriend hiked in with beer and Arrow, their dog and stayed for two nights and Janet and Nellie hiked in with Max, the dog and the makings for mojitos. Eric joined our crew from the maintenance crew and he brought two bottles of whiskey and a lot of tobacco. We spent every evening around the campfire and I mostly listened because they are all friends from way back and talk about things far out of my frame of reference. I enjoyed myself during these times but seeing the well knit group of friends made me nostalgic for my friends and how comfortable we all feel around each other and our form of entertaining ourselves. I sang a lot and was criticized for it, mainly because they didn’t want those songs stuck in their heads and not because they are opposed to singing. But I quipped “I let you be yourselves, so let me be myself.” We had an evening adventure to Hope for an open night mic and I learned first-hand about the dangerous nature of the mud flats that are exposed by low tide. I got stuck to my shins in some sinking mud and had a moment of worry as I tried to pull myself free. I was indeed, able to extract myself but later learned from my crew that people die on the mud flats every year because they get so stuck and then the tide comes in. Yikes.

I was able to meet up with my Aunt Debbie, who was visiting friends in Kenai, a town about 70 miles away. She came and picked Katie and I up and we spent some time wandering around Seward and then drove back to Kenai. The day was simply amazing and full of warm sun (it has been mostly rainy and cool). Her friends live right on the ocean and have an amazing view of the Alaska range across the water. The Alaska range is volcanic and sometimes, the mountains smoke! Katie and I pounded the beach while Aunt Deb and her friends played pool. We played rummy on the lawn in the warm sun at around 10:30 pm and continued the game inside until the sun set at around 1:30am. Geri, Deb’s friend has a great collection of classic rock vinyls and we whiled away the time listening to the Beatles, the Eagles, Aero smith, Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac. Geri, Katie and I danced ourselves silly and finally decided to go to bed as the colors of sunset faded from the sky. It rained the next day but that didn’t damper our trip to Homer, a quaint drinking town with a serious fishing problem. Homer is the halibut fishing capitol of the world. It is also filled with cute little tourist traps and souvenir shops. The main point of Homer is on a spit in the bay is ringed by scenic mountains and glaciers spilling into the bay. Homer is surely one of the most scenic towns I have seen. We wrapped up our Homer experience with a trip to the Homer Brewery. It proved to be a bit of a disappointment as they don’t serve beer at the brewery and we weren’t in the market for a growler full of beer. We were able to sample two styles of beer, rye ale and a raspberry porter. They were both tasty but the mood was rushed and I feel as though I need a better venue to truly sample and critique their beer. We did a grocery stop in Soldotna and returned to the St. Elias brewery where we chatted with the bar tender, who we have seen at Solstice and other functions. We also chatted with some of our fellow drinkers and exchanged phone numbers with some guys who like music. Imagine having that in common...

We hitched home with ease. The Fourth of July crowd helped our cause. Everyone swarms to Seward for the Fourth of July because Seward is where it all goes down. There are fireworks at midnight on the third, a parade and an epic race up and down Mount Marathon. The race is renowned for its challenge and it has become so popular that you have to win a lottery to compete. Competitors run straight up and down a rugged mountain. I watched the men careen down a gravel shoot at the base of the mountain. They were wet, muddy and totally scraped up. Seeing the women run triumphantly across the finish line made me want to compete in the race, or at least give it a go on my own. I partook fully of the Seward festivities and rounded out the night at a bon fire with my coworkers. I had a really good time at this bon fire, had a heart to heart with Mark and played guitar and sang until the sun set. This was one of the first times that I felt truly free and comfortable with a large group of my co-workers. I am not sure what was different but perhaps it is just the passing of time.
Midnight on the 3rd of July
Carolyn and Smokey in the parade
Carolyn, Katie, Jennie and Rachel on the 4th
Men competitors coming down Mount Marathon
Debbie and I in Kenai with Mt. Ilyamna in the background

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Men Who Don't Fit In
Robert W. Service

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest. If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady,
quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.He has failed, he has failed;
he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone;
He's a man who won't fit in.

Sunset on the beach in Kenai

A culvert that I installed for work
Beach graffiti on the coast in Kenai

Katie, Geri, Aunt Deb and I
Homer Brewing Company