May Meltdown

Another month in the Interior, and a complete transition from one world to another. Having been up a winter without an Alaskan summer, and many summers without an Alaskan winter, it all finally makes sense. Traveling from the outside in always seemed such an abrupt event that adjustment was an undertaking. Living from one season to the next, however, witnessing the lakes thaw, and the rivers break up, and the trees budding one week and rematerializing decked in green the next, both body and mind undergo a similar shift from dormant to fully alive. The 20-hour days and the 60° temperatures—so amazing when one can tangibly recall 100° down the scale—inject an insistent energy into everything around. It is good to be alive.

COVID has not yet had the dramatic impact on human health here that it has in so many places around the world, though the economic repercussions of weeks of lockdown and the crisis as a whole have only just begun. The Alaskan economy relies heavily on summer tourism, and there will be incredibly limited visitation this year, leaving many without work or an annual income. At the same time, there is trepidation concerning opening the state back up to visitors, as closing the borders prevented an initial spread of the virus, though may have only delayed the inevitable once travel resumes. Life as a whole seems to be moving back to the way it was before, however, or whatever the new normal might look like. Businesses have been okayed to reopen, with minor restrictions, the sun is shining, and Alaskans have reemerged from the confinement of both winter and quarantine. As for myself, I’ve been back at work for several weeks already, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to have employment in the outdoors (or at all, for that matter), as well as considerable chances to explore my surroundings. So much to see and do, and summer has only just begun. A few of those lived opportunities from the past several weeks:

Round-a-Bout. The last part of April and early part of May (something akin to spring, I suppose, or mud season in the Rockies) were a bit of a weird time for electing outdoor activities. It was skiing on the remnants of groomed trails some days, and running on a select few dry paths on others—or even both on the same day. It was slush, ice, miles of standing water, and lots and lots of mud. For the most part, trails were too muddy to walk or drive on, but also not snowy enough to travel. The rivers were melting off, but with huge ice dams creating lethal hazards in unexpected places, hence no early boating. A state of limbo. But it was also a time to get out and get going, time to do something, anything.

I didn’t know anyone when I moved here only a couple of months before the beginning of all this, though thankfully I met a few people just before things started shutting down, and was lucky enough to have one quarantine companion to socialize with during the ordeal. Not sure what life would have been like otherwise, and don’t care to imagine complete isolation for the duration of all those days. The importance of friends has never been more pronounced. Anyways, right before going back to a regular schedule, we headed south for a few days and ended up making a big highway loop from Fairbanks to Delta to Glennallen to Palmer, Talkeetna, Denali, and back. A round-a-bout on a significant portion of Alaska’s limited road system, in other words, the 2,4, 1 & 3, or the Al-Can, Richardson, Glen, and Parks Highways respectively—though the numbers are rarely referred to and the names change confusingly along the way. The original intention was to travel the Denali Highway, which is in reality a 130 miles of dirt road on the south side of the Alaska Range, but we only made it in about 20 miles from either side as several feet of snow prevented through travel. Even that early in the year, however, the daylight was abundant, allowing for lots of sightseeing and plenty of hiking around. Highlights were moving through a wide variety of terrain and weather conditions—bone dry mountains on one side and pure winter on the opposite; hikes up Donnelly Dome, Lion’s Head, along the Matanuska in Palmer, and down to the Nenana River in a couple different places in Denali; witnessing huge chunks of ice crashing their way down the Susitina and Chulitna Rivers; lots of wildlife including groupings of moose grazing together and a quick glimpse of a wolverine crossing a dirt road; and amazing views of Denali from multiple vantages.

Drove the loop in the center. Line through the loop is the Denali ‘Highway’.
Donnelly Dome looking south.
To the north.
Hours long sunset illuminates the Mat Valley.
Nenana below Dragonfly Falls
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Denali from the ‘highway’.

Delta Clearwater. Finally, after weeks of waiting to get on some moving water, the opportunity presented itself with an overnight on the Delta Clearwater. The original plan was to float the Chatanika, but hot temps and excessive melting created flooding throughout the area, so last minute research revealed another local run which proved to be the perfect spring float and testing run for the little ‘pack raft’ I plan on using for the summer. There are two commonly run trips on the river, both of which begin about 12 miles from the confluence of the Delta Clearwater and the Tanana. Each trip involves floating those miles of the Clearwater and then joining up with the Tanana. The shorter run, which I chose this time, ends with a mile float down the Tanana, followed by a one-mile paddle up a side stream to Clearwater Lake. The second option is to continue another 18 miles on the Tanana and end up at a bridge just outside of Delta Junction, something I certainly hope to get in before the end of fall. Both are also amenable to a bike shuttle, which is always an awesome way to deal with logistics. The Clearwater itself is a bit more developed than I’d imagined, with lots of summer cabins along the banks, though has its wild sections and certainly lives up to its name with crystal clear water revealing school after school of fish swimming below. There was also lots of waterfowl, along with a great campsite and sunset, a couple well-timed rain showers, and more of a wilderness feel the last few miles.

The PR 49. Not as classy as a canoe, or as comfortable as a raft, but holds plenty of gear and easily fits in the back of a Camry.

Tanana. My next couple days off (full weekend warrior mode (though with Tuesdays & Wednesdays as weekends)) I paddled 56 miles of the Tanana from the Pump House in Fairbanks down to the town of Nenana. I left at noon the first day and arrived around 5 the next, and got incredibly lucky with a steady downstream breeze and the push of some high water current. Could have been brutal otherwise, as the Tanana is a massive river (the largest tributary of the Yukon) which can be miles wide, and slow moving as it meanders through multiple braided channels for the majority of the time. The highlight of this trip was definitely the island camp which I found at exactly the mileage I’d hoped for after an afternoon of steady paddling. A small flat sand patch surrounded by mounds of driftwood, with an excellent view of the Alaska Range in the background.

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Rusting relic. Old Tanana riverboat.
The get-out in Nenana.

Up Close. Hard to not be effusive when detailing the amount of potential in this area of the state. Summer seems to hold even more prospects than winter, with an abundance of hiking, climbing, biking, boating, etc. all within an hour’s drive. There are trails galore, a profusion of float trips from a few hours to a few weeks, and lakes, mountains, and rivers in every direction. The hardest part is narrowing down the next adventure, and trying not to worry about how much you’re missing out on while doing it!

Run Free! Moose Creek Dam in Chena Lakes State Rec area. Walk, ride, or run for miles.
200′ from the front door. Bear Lake.

Back Upstream

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Breakup. Days of sunshine, warming trends, rainfall, and rapidly melting snow. Creeks and rivers transforming from frozen to flowing. Huge blocks of ice splitting apart, fragmented sections of floes meandering downstream only to crash into the next gridlocked section of river where they rise up, spin, and submerge. I have long wanted to witness the phenomenon, and it is quite the sight. Now is the time of shifting seasons, and accompanying thoughts. Dreams of rivers, of drifting current, of past and future adventures, of days spent running rapids and nights sleeping on sandy beaches, the arterial OM of the universe etched in the background.

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Chena River, Downtown Fairbanks

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Chatanika River

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Tanana River

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Nenana Ice Classic an Alaskan tradition since 1917. Ice melts, tripod falls, winning guessers as to minute, hour, and day win upwards of $300,000.

Back Upstream. Rivers have been part of my life for a long time now, and I hope they always will be. If I lead even one trip this summer, which I certainly hope to, it will represent my 20th season as a guide; and even if I don’t, I will almost certainly be floating new sections of streams, and spending many summer nights camped alongside them. There is no greater feeling of freedom and peace and contentment than traveling for miles and days down a moving river.

My life has consisted of so many days, months, and years with rivers as a focus that it would be impossible to account for all of the positive experiences that guiding as an occupation, and running rivers as a passion, have contributed to my individual experience as a human being. I really can’t imagine what my life might be like had I done anything but. I thought it would be entertaining then, while waiting for everything to come back to life this spring, to briefly revisit a few of those places and times. To pause for momentary reflection, a look back upstream. The following words and photos represent but a sampling of some of the rivers I have been fortunate enough to work on and travel down throughout those years, mainly chosen simply because they’re pictures I happen to have saved to this computer. My apologies for the lack of photo credits, at this point I have only vague recollections as to who took many of the pictures. A few other trip accounts and photos, from Idaho, Alaska, New Mexico, Texas, and more, can be found on the Rivers page as well.

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Arkansas River, Colorado. The first rafting trip I ever went on was the Brown’s Canyon section of the Arkansas, but it took me several years to piece this information together once I became a guide later on. I went as a commercial customer, and mostly remember a cocky college kid at the oars alternating all day between talking about himself and telling us what lousy paddlers we were. Oddly enough, I didn’t really think the experience was all that fun (which is why it took so long to figure out what river we’d gone down), and have no idea what prompted me a couple years later to attend training and become a guide myself. But that guide school, which included a six-day trip on the Dolores River, followed by a couple summers of taking customers down the mellow town stretch of the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, sealed my fate for the next couple of decades. Later on, I ended up working several seasons on the upper stretches of the Arkansas, one of the most rafted rivers in the world, and spent countless days alternating between talking about myself and telling people what lousy paddlers they were.

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Browns Canyon

San Juan River, Utah. Oddly enough, my first private multi-day trip didn’t happen until several years after I’d started guiding. Upon returning to Durango after a summer of working on the Yellowstone River in Montana, my old boss at River Trippers invited me on a week-long family float down the San Juan. The water was sparse at that time of year, and like a moving trickle of mud it was so low. By the end we were actually pushing the rafts along the sandy bottom for miles before the take-out. But we didn’t see any other people the entire week, and the trip was an incredible experience. Great campsites, side hikes, good food, good company, and good times. Something special, in other words, and a foreshadowing of the importance trips like that would represent for years to come. A week later, the river suddenly spiked due to fall flooding, and we quickly drove back over and did the upper stretch, normally a three-day trip, in just a few hours. Water in the desert is an amazing thing.

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White Salmon, Washington. The following year was the real beginning of my ‘career’ as a guide. It was my first experience with bigger whitewater, and the start of a trend of year round work on rivers throughout the US from spring through fall, and seasons of international work each winter. That April, I attended another guide school in California, followed by a swiftwater rescue course in Montana, and then spent the summer working in the Pacific Northwest. The company I worked for had multiple permits on rivers in northern Oregon and southern Washington: the Deschutes, Clackamas, Klickitat, Owyhee, Santiam, and the White Salmon to name a few. This allowed guides to move around a fair amount, and work on different sections of river throughout the summer, which always keeps things interesting. Trip photos are a staple source of income in the commercial rafting industry. Most of them merely capture close-ups of smiling clients with a couple of waves splashing around them, and make great family photos for Christmas cards or home hallways. Running Husum Falls on the White Salmon, however, provides some of the best shots ever if you’re looking for social media style points. Guiding the falls a couple times a day can be a bit rough as a guide—as things can get violent in the back seat—but the faces reappearing from the foam are always priceless.

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Tana River, Kenya. While running trips in Montana, I met a guide who worked for one of the other outfitters at an afternoon get-together in the Gardiner town park. He had a pronounced British accent, so I asked the usual questions to find out where he was from. Turns out, he grew up in Kenya, where his family owns a rafting company. I never saw nor spoke to this fellow again, but took down the contact information for the company, and pestered his brother, who manages it, for a couple of years before he offered me the opportunity to work in Africa for a season. What descriptors could possibly define the experience? It was all of them. Amazing, incredible, unforgettable… I spent several months in Kenya working mainly on the Tana, and also had the opportunity to camp in a few of the national parks, climb Mt. Kenya, and spend a couple weeks kayaking on the White Nile in Uganda just months before the first of two dams were finalized. Africa is as wild, chaotic, and mystical as this world gets.

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Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica. I worked several winter seasons down in Central America, the first couple of seasons guiding commercially on the Pacuare, which is probably the most popular rafting trip in Costa Rica, and another two years managing river operations for Outward Bound on rivers throughout the country. The Pacuare has changed significantly since the first time I ran it. Its commercial success actually saved the river, for the time being, from dying behind a dam—a fate of many sections of incredible whitewater in CR and the world over—but also altered the wild nature of the river corridor significantly as companies constructed roads to the river, and built campground resorts along its banks. This first photo, however, is of one of my favorite places in the world: Huacas Canyon, the heart of the run and still an enchanted environment of waterfalls, jungle canopy, and the three best rapids on the river.

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Kern River, California. On a good year, California has some of the best whitewater in the world, and I was fortunate to work three consecutive big-water years on the Kern. Years where the Sierras were piled with snowpack, and conditions were perfect for it to melt ideally, providing six-weeks a season or so of incredible spring paddling, followed by a summer of dam releases on the lower sections of river. The best thing about working on the Kern is that easy access to numerous different sections is akin to living next to multiple rivers all within a short driving distance. The Upper Kern is undammed, and has several stretches of Class IV and V whitewater, each one with its own distinctive characteristics. Day runs might include the big waves in Limestone, the technical and action packed Chamise Gorge, the seldom run Ant Canyon, the often run Cables section, and perhaps the munchy Class V Thunder Run. On a really good year, several trips down an even higher section, the Forks of the Kern, a multi-day undertaking which begins with a two-mile hike (with mules carrying rafts and gear down) into the Golden Trout Wilderness, provide epic adventures for guides and clients alike. As the summer heat hits, trips move downstream to the Lower Kern, where pool-drop rapids, desert scenery, swimming stretches, and jump rocks create a perfect mix of relaxation and good times.

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Rio Mendoza, Argentina. A few years ago I had the opportunity to guide for a couple of months on a section of the Rio Mendoza in the heart of Argentinian wine country. The river is a drainage of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes and the Americas, and several companies offer whitewater trips on a short section of rapids just upstream from the city of Mendoza, a popular tourist destination. Most of the time I was there, I guided for one of the worst companies I’ve ever worked for in terms of safety, equipment, professionalism, and taking care of employees. The last week or so, I finally defected to one of the best companies I’ve seen in terms of the same (Argentina Rafting). The river that year was huge, with one of the biggest run-offs in the past decades. Each day the river got bigger and muddier and faster, and more than anything I remember the powerful earth scent getting stronger and stronger each morning as I walked the riverside trail from town to work. It was late January, and springtime in the South American desert, and everything was in bloom and coming alive, including the Rio Mendoza.

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Grand Canyon, Colorado River, Arizona. This is the trip everyone loves to ask about. The one everyone has heard of. And yes, the one you should definitely do if every the opportunity arises. As a mentor guide once expressed, ‘If you get an invitation, do whatever it takes to go—quit your job, get a divorce, anything….’ I concur. The longer the trip the better, and motorized, in my opinion, is not an option. Realize that the trip is not really about the whitewater. Many of the rapids are famous and massive and a few of them even frightening, but the trip is about everything, the whole experience. It’s about spending days and nights on end immersed in wilderness. It’s about the places you get to. The beaches you sleep on, the side canyons you hike up—all magical environments and each one unique. It’s about the silence, the routine, the meals, the comradery, the festivities, the complete absorption into a totally different way of life. For many, once the trip is over, it can be difficult to face the old realities. I’ve been twice: a 30-day winter trip and for 25-days in the spring. The toughest part of each trip, up to the point of legendary stories, generally has something to do with small group social dynamics. Friendships and romances may be forged forever, or dissolve in disaster (sometimes on the same trip in a related manner!). People have different goals, and desires, and habits, and schedules, and work ethic. But for the most part, small disagreements can be easily resolved, and each trip can be a positive and even life-changing experience for all. No matter what happens, however, as with all river trips, there will be memories engraved, stories which will not be forgotten.

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Buffalo River, Arkansas. For the non-initiated, hanging out around a campfire with a bunch of guides can be excruciatingly boring as far as conversation goes—it’s big rivers, epic trips, and carnage stories on repeat. It’s questions about different sections and logistics and wheres and whens, and I’ve always enjoyed gleaning information about potential rivers to check out. Many of those rivers of campfire lore I know personally by now, and am grateful to be able to say that. But I also always like to ask clients what rivers they know of in their own home states, which often elicits a few guffaws and stories about tubing booze cruises, but occasionally instills inspiration for low-key exploration should the opportunity arise—say, for instance, one just happens to be driving through Arkansas with a few days to spare and access to a canoe. Wherever there’s water and the slightest bit of elevation, there are rivers, often running through beautiful places the world over. The Buffalo was one of them, along with the Niobrara in Nebraska, the Upper Missouri in Montana, the Hocking in Ohio, too many rivers to count in Florida, and so forth. I recently read that there are around 3,000 rivers in Alaska, and don’t know whether to be daunted or inspired when considering the endless opportunities alongside the various commitments necessary to experience just about any of them.

Over the years, my focus in running rivers has shifted somewhat, though not completely. I still love exploring new places by downstream travel in a boat—be it raft, kayak, or canoe. Love being on the water, and the places one can access via waterways. I do love whitewater, and hanging out with like-minded friends that value time spent on rivers. I enjoy the thrill of rapids, and the inspired confidence of experience. But these days, more than anything, I love getting as far away from civilization as possible, for as many days as feasible. I like simplicity in travel plans and travel companions, the spontaneity of last minute forays into the wilderness. I like small groups, or just one partner, and also appreciate the occasional solo expedition. I’m in it for the exploratory nature of the process, for the opportunities to see new places and experience different environments. In it, I hope, for a while longer yet. People often ask me to name a favorite river. The very honest answer: Whichever one I’m on at the time.

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April Daze

On it goes. As you are well aware, I’m sure. Days of self-isolation and social distancing and the supermarkets getting odder with each weekly visit. The masks, the suspicious eyes above them, the random empty shelves and missing items and inclinations to succumb to compulsion. The longing, as well, to get back to a sense of normalcy, to roam at will, to have a few less worries in the world.

Here, the seasons shift with a swiftness. Ice and darkness give way to sunshine and rain showers. Colors reappear on the hillsides, stands of budding birch trees a wash of pink in the distance. Rapidly melting snow, a mess of slush and mud in its place. A palpable energy in the air, new life ready to explode at the seams. Another Alaskan summer is upon us, months of light and goodness and going and doing.

From adversity, opportunity. The restrictions on socializing and working have indeed caused much uncertainty, but continue to provide unanticipated prospects. The situation is most certainly not ideal, but at the same time, for anyone with motivation and drive it has provided unforeseen chances to act upon previously held desires—from exercising more to eating better to catching up on some reading to changing career paths and reevaluating life goals. I feel incredibly fortunate for the time, and have been able to see and do far more than I ever would have otherwise had the opportunity for this year. I have honestly, FYI, been doing my best to follow the recommended measures to keep myself and fellow citizens protected from potential threats, and to adhere to the state mandated rules on travel, distancing, etc. Fortuitously, however, one can stay within the guidelines here and still find plenty to do and see in the outdoors—all with plenty of distance from other individuals. I am thankful to be here, and to have had so many extra days to get out and look around. Photos and words from the past couple of weeks:

Ester Dome. Ester is one of several named ‘domes’ around Fairbanks, and a prominent feature on the outskirts of the city. There is a road to the top, which, even though covered in numerous antennas, provides great views of town and the Alaska Range, including sightings of Denali of clearer days. Several trails also run from the top down into the valleys below, making for multiple hiking, etc., options, though what goes down must also come back up. Let’s just say the day I spent out there ended up being a bit longer than anticipated, culminating with a relentless 2,000+ ft. return climb. Weapons training.

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Steese Highway. A day of scenic driving is not generally on my agenda, and rarely considered a fun activity. I’ve always wanted to see the frozen Yukon River, however, along with a couple other random attractions along the way. So, with not much else going on, decided to make the 180 mile run up north to the end of Alaska Hwy 6 which terminates on the banks of the Yukon in the town of Circle City, named by early miners who believed it was located on the Arctic Circle, though turns out it’s about 60 miles south of the line. Anyways, this was the one time to stray outside of the local area, and a series of misadventures led to feelings of regret at having done so. There were a couple of highs to the day, however, the literal ones being the views from Twelve-mile and Eagle Summits, the others a herd of caribou silhouetted walking along a snowy ridgeline, a large owl surveying Birch Creek, and gazing across the frozen expanse of the mighty northern river.

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The Yukon here extends to the trees and beyond. Can be 10-20 miles wide in this section.

Local Knowledge. Other days have been occupied with cross-country skiing at various locations throughout the area and getting to know my way around a bit more each time. I can’t believe what the trail miles-to-resident ratio would be around here. There was also discovering a little known public use cabin near where I work, which involved packing a trail in the day before just to see what was out there, and then snowshoeing sleeping gear and dinner in the following afternoon for a night’s stay. (After three months of winter teetotaling, I also decided it would be a good time to support the local economy during these tough times by stocking the ‘fridge’ there as well.)

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White Mountains Revisited. The closest trailhead providing access into this area is only a half-hour drive from Fairbanks. I spent a couple of days out there at the beginning of the month, and hoped I’d have the opportunity to get back out before all the snow melted. And I did, with two more trips since then. Spent one wintry Saturday afternoon skiing along a clouded ridgeline in one of the last big snowstorms, and the past several days doing a triangle loop trail from Wickersham Dome out to three different cabins, staying a night in each one.

Temperatures have been warming up quick, and the first couple of days was traveling on slushy snow and sweating in just a t-shirt and ball cap. The second night I was out it rained all night long, making for some interesting conditions the third day, and a slightly worrying creek crossing in the a.m. which had me slow creeping on skis across a questionable thickness of melting ice. It was all good, however, and a stellar trip overall. Also, quite possibly the last decent conditions of the year for having done it. As far as the rest of April, the weeks, months (?!) to come, it’s one day at a time at this point. Just one slow day at a time.

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Moose Creek Cabin

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Eleazar’s Cabin

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The trail up Moose Creek.

Cabins, Caves, & Quarantines

Early April in Alaska. Spring snow continues to fall this year, though transitions throughout the month of March were certainly dramatic. We now enjoy lots of sunshine most days, and light from early morning to around 10 pm. Definitely makes hanging out outside even more appealing, as do the temperatures which hover in the 30° range. As mentioned in the last post, things here are as elsewhere, though several weeks behind. Anyone coming back into the state is asked to do the self-quarantine thing, and the rest of us are mandated to stay within our local communities, though allowed to go outside while maintaining appropriate distancing from non-household members.

It’s certainly difficult not to get caught up in the severity of an unfamiliar situation. Hard to know what to do about any of it, and impossible not to consider all the difficulties—financial, physical, emotional, mental, etc.—so many are going through at the moment. But it is also important to look for ways to alleviate worry through deliberate action, as fretting about misery we have no control over only creates unnecessary internal despair. Inventing ways to morph negative to positive, to capitalize on the unexpected rather than dwell on the unchangeable, is an important aspect of successfully surviving the pandemic. It’s been uplifting to see how many are managing to do exactly this. Developing business strategies to continue to offer services to clients; inventing routines and challenges for working out at home; hosting live concerts from remote settings; and all manner of other motivating and engaging innovations are readily available for internet inspiration.

Like many, my work schedule has been drastically altered for the time being. Reduced responsibilities leave hours and days open for any and all activity which might alleviate the isolation. For me then, it’s been an opportunity to continue to explore the local area and do a few of the things I didn’t think I’d have time to squeeze in before this winter was over. With all this time, and the snow still hanging out, mini-missions to nearby locales have become the standard for escaping the confines of apartment exile. A few photos from the past week:

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White Mountains. Spent a few days in the White Mountains, a one-million acre recreation area west of Fairbanks. The BLM oversees the area, and grooms 250 miles of trails open to all manner of winter travel. They also manage 12 public-use cabins, which can be reserved online. Would really like to do an extended trip in the area at some point, but a couple of nights in the cabins was a good way to reconnoiter the opportunities, and a fun, and physically challenging trip in its own right. Stayed the first night at Fred Blixt, which is the only drive up cabin of the set, and then hiked/snowshoed 14 miles out to the Colorado Creek cabin the following day, returning on the third.

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Castner Glacier. The Castner Glacier Cave is an easy stroll/snowshoe off the Richardson Highway south of Delta Junction. The cave is at the toe of the glacier and formed by an underground stream which drains the glacial melt in warmer seasons. Travel on the glacier itself provides amazing views in all directions, and is reported to be a great summer hike into the Alaska Range.20200329_162647 

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Social Distancing in the Last Frontier

Interesting times to be certain. Myriad thoughts on the current situation, which is surely the same here as most elsewhere, many of those ideas derived from conversations with friends and family members. For one, turns out these past months I’ve spent primarily in my own company, I’ve simply been being proactive in my social distancing. Who knew? Other topics concern the role of media and politics in escalating crisis, as well as the role of citizens in their response to the same; the dubious actions of certain individuals; and the importance of living your best life in order to stave off the fear of death, which awaits us all.

Yes, the situation is real. A previously unknown strain of virus makes its way across the world at a rapid pace; people fear for their lives. Is there malicious intent involved on the part of the virus? Doubtful. It simply does as humans and every other animated organism, or in this case particle (apparently it’s debatable whether or not a virus is ‘alive’) on Earth does, it propagates to max capacity, sometimes at the peril of other life forms. This particular virus has been successful due to the successfulness of our own species in spreading across the globe and moving willy-nilly across its surface. It thrives because we do. In most cases, the virus does not kill its host; in certain cases, it does. To watch the news, to believe the incessant high-pitched fervor of media sources in our society, however, is to know that it is out to get us all. Depending on which ‘unbiased’ source you trend towards, Democrats or Republicans are to blame for its continued spread. You may easily stumble across related conspiracy theories concerning foreign governments, or our own, as well.

What you will not see will be a rational comparison of the probability of dying from the coronavirus vs. dying from causes due to smoking (480,000 deaths in US annually), obesity (280,000), gun deaths (35,000+), texting and driving (4,500), etc., or any mention of how the country (or we as individuals, for that matter) are addressing any of these issues. Personal responsibility is incredibly boring. We need something scarier. Something from which the only protection can be fear, isolation, hoarding, panic buying, and of course, hand sanitizer. Turns out, there is a big market for this type of reporting, and hordes of people almost hoping for the worst.

Here, as elsewhere, delusional preppers take to the internet to indulge in apocalyptic fantasies in which they thrive as ultimate survivalists in the wake of civilization’s downfall. As long as there’s enough toilet paper to go around, of course. They will use their stocked weapons to forcibly take that which they desire, and to right the injustices of their previously unrecognized potential. They dream of a world beyond decorum and communal consideration in which only the strong survive. They fail to realistically imagine the skills beyond shooting which might be required, or what the absence of civic services might look like. Rather than putting forth effort right now to create a dream life for themselves and a greater community, they dream of a life far beyond the failures of their present day existence. Somehow this will be the world worth living in.

Mark Oliver Everett of the Eels sings, “If you’re scared to die, you better not be scared to live.” How true that life is a precious gift, but only if we regard it accordingly. There may be many takeaways from this pandemic, but above all: the future is unknown. Two months ago it would have seemed a highly unlikely prediction to announce that we would be living as we are currently. It simply didn’t seem like a realistic scenario. The vacant streets, the shutdown businesses, the empty shelves and freezers. But we do know this, and we always have: we are born to die. The whys of this may be forever a mystery, but the truth of it is with us always. It is up to the individual to determine how to exist under the shadow of this certainty. If you are reading this, you are alive right now. It is up to you to take action or not. Up to you to rid your future of regrets. To live your best life. To compile a bucket list for some far off future, or journal about the adventures you bestir in the present. To toil for money or live for something greater. To appreciate those that love you. To love those that appreciate you. To acknowledge all that you have. To live life rather than cling to it. For those who can claim to live in this manner, death is not to be feared.

Cases of COVID-19 are growing in Alaska, and stringent measures are in effect to slow its spreading. Schools and restaurants are closed. All public events have been cancelled or postponed. We have been asked to distance ourselves from others. People here, as most everywhere else, seem willing to accept these temporary actions, but are often loathe to completely give up their exercise, access to the outdoors, or freedom to recreate. Each day must still be lived.

The good news is, social distancing has never been easier than in Alaska, where outside of population centers one is unlikely to be within (at least) hundreds of feet from the nearest individual. I’d already been planning on writing something about a few of the winter sporting options here, so when I heard a man putting his skis on at the UAF trails proclaim ‘Ah, my favorite form of social distancing,’ I knew he was on to something. All these silly words then were really just leading up to an overview of a few of the ways to enjoy both life and winter in the Interior.

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Cross Country Skiing. Perhaps my own favorite form of social distancing in the winter as well. Two skis, two poles, a pair of boots. Kick, glide, kick, glide. Like canoes and kayaks, the stylistic simplicity of ski travel has been around for centuries, millennia even. No need for improvement. Additionally, the they say this is one of the best forms of cardio available as proper technique requires full body effort. It’s also an incredibly peaceful way to cruise around for miles on packed snow trails. There is nothing more serene than quietly traversing through lightly falling snow in the winter woods. There are more groomed areas in the borough than I can count, and many that I haven’t yet visited or discovered. There’s no telling how many hundreds of miles are accessible throughout the state.

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Downtown Fairbanks and the Frozen Chena River

Snowshoeing. In my opinion, snowshoes are not the most effective manner of traveling in most conditions, though they certainly have their place, and can be fun for a couple hours of walking around in the woods. A half-day of snowshoeing is generally a must for the winter tourist, as using them is as easy as strapping them to one’s feet and going for a duck-footed walk. They are quieter than skis, and allow one to trod through deeper snow. Can be good exercise if you’re breaking trail, and no designated trails are required. Explore at will.

Ice Climbing. I’m new to the sport of ice climbing. It’s something I never imagined enjoying before, as I pictured standing at the shaded base of a frigid wall of ice stamping my frostbitten feet while belaying. Being miserable, in other words, and bored both. But it’s actually quite fun and clearly spectacular to get to work one’s way up a frozen waterfall. I’m still very much a novice, but would like to do some more exploring in winters to come.

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Dragonfly Falls across from Denali NP

Fat Biking. So named due to the girth of the tires, which enable one to ride in winter conditions. Fat bikes are increasingly popular these days, and a great way to travel for miles on packed winter trails. Its pre-corona popularity as a group activity in Fairbanks was evident in weekly community rides and multiple races throughout the season. From my limited experience, fat biking can be as fun as any other sort of trail biking, or brutally challenging due to snow conditions. If you don’t have any set goals, however, even struggling through powder can be an amusing endeavor. Just don’t expect to go anywhere fast. Or straight.

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Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding. Unfortunately, the local areas prematurely closed for the year due to social distancing measures, but thought I’d mention what the potential for resort riding is up this way. There aren’t any huge developed mountains or big resorts in the Interior. Really, there’s only one in the state, and that’s Alyeska way down by Seward (awesome if you ever get the chance to go as the base of the mountain reaches the shore of the Cook Inlet—it’s like riding down into the ocean). But there are a few areas with enough elevation and trails to keep the locals entertained each year, each with transport to the top of the hill from the bottom, and open on the weekends and holidays when temperatures are warm enough to ride. There are three main spots: Ft. Wainwright, Moose Mountain, and Ski Land, and we even have a little T-Bar where I work which I’ve started up the past few weekends. Ski Land is the ‘Farthest North Chairlift’ in the US, and features an incredible view from the lodge. Moose Mountain is the local’s favorite, and utilizes a fleet of ‘variable capacity charged terrestrial trams’ (school buses) to shuttle folks from run to run. And Wainwright is actually on the Army base but generally open to the public and boasts the ‘best terrain park in the state.’

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T-Bar laps facilitate proper distancing.

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The view from Ski Land looking north.

Snow Machining. I don’t get too excited about two-stroke engines noisily spewing exhaust across the wilderness, but it would be unfair not to include this ever popular Alaskan activity, as well as to not inform you that saying ‘snowmobile’ up here will quickly identify you as an outsider. ‘We’ use snow machines, thank you. And I’ve definitely been on a few this season, as the population I work with seems to prefer motorized to exercise. Personal preferences and prejudices aside, snow machines can be a lot of fun, and are certainly useful tools and a valid means of transportation in remote areas. They’re also used to groom a lot of those awesome ski and bike trails, so I duly give them thanks and appreciation for that contribution.

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Big Sid ducks the Alaskan Pipeline

Everything Else. There are certainly all sorts of other ways to enjoy winter up here. Dog sledding, skijoring, ice fishing, trail running, winter camping, aurora chasing, ice sculpture carving, snow people making, hot springs soaking, or even just sitting in your house alone watching the spring snow accumulate outside the window and enjoying thoughts of extended winter adventures, as I’m doing right now. Social distancing at its finest.

Going It Alone

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I have done a lot of solo traveling in my lifetime. A review of just the past couple years would include multiple road trips across the United States, several solo river expeditions, and unaccompanied weeks in Mexico. There have also been numerous backpacking trips, and countless day hikes, trail runs, and even wanderings through major metropolitan areas. I’ve gone days and weeks at a time without speaking to another human being (or even myself, BTW—in spite of all the isolation I haven’t yet picked up that habit). Why? Often because I wanted to be alone for a while. I enjoy solitude and my own company. Equally often, however, because words and intentions so seldom imply determined action on the part of the speaker. Expectations often lead to disappointment, especially when it comes to the actions, or more often inactions of others.

20200214_153344People, in my experience, are in the habit of making plans with little aim to follow through with them, not intentionally, but because a majority really wish they were the type of people that would see those plans to fruition. They want to imagine themselves to be adventurous spontaneous individuals that would pack a bag at short notice and head to another country for a couple of weeks, or into the wilderness, or even on a bike ride the following day—but truthfully it’s a little much to live up to when the time comes to execute. One of my favorite quotes, for years, has been: ‘If you want something, you better be willing to go it alone, because if you wait for other people, you’ll be waiting your whole life’ (Bob Burnquist).

Because of this socially accepted predilection for flaky behavior, I find it difficult to relate to a lot of people. I will still be friends with someone that stands me up, but with a better understanding of both relationship and individual. I give everyone a chance, but when it comes to making plans to do things it’s generally a one-strike rule these days. No follow through, no future attempts. I’ve always had the mindset that I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do (Word is Bond!) and expect the same from others, largely to disillusionment, though not nearly to the severity of earlier years. I’m somewhat inured to it all these days. Not cynical at all, simply experienced enough to know better.

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For this reason, I’ve always valued having one person upon whom I could count to do exactly as they said they were going to do. No matter what. Someone to trust, and yes, someone to travel with and share life with. Someone to take care of, and make smile, and do nice things for. Someone I knew would always be down for most adventures, and appreciative of united experience. I treasure having this in my life. Every now and again, however, we have to be this person for ourselves.

Intrinsically, I realize the happiness of one person should never rely completely on another person (a reason in itself to figure out how to create your own contentment). We are all ever changing and adapting and morphing—our emotions, thoughts, attitudes, corporal structures, etc. But it’s hard sometimes not to desire that one someone in your life, no matter how stable one might be as an individual. Especially with all the talkers and duffers in the world. It’s nice to hang out with other people. It’s fun to travel around with that special someone, or even a group of them. We all know this. I don’t need to elaborate on the rewards of shared experience, or compile the practical benefits of having someone else around. I’m sure most of us would agree that being with another is generally preferable to being without. But not always.

Sometimes it’s just really nice to be by yourself. Other times, as alluded to earlier, decisions are not ours alone to make, they are made on our behalf and in some cases without our consent. In these instances we are commonly forced to choose between doing something or not doing something. Missing opportunities or extracting their potential. Living our dreams or living in a box. Whatever the case, voluntary or otherwise, sometimes we find ourselves exploring the infinite abyss single-handedly. Either accidentally or intentionally we find ourselves on unaccompanied sojourn. The best way to go about it then, is to identify the positives and proceed with intention.

If you do not take the time to spend time with yourself, or have never spent time with yourself, I highly recommend it. Start with a couple of hours and work your way up to a couple of days. Anywhere outside is my preference, but anywhere you’re comfortable (or perhaps just a little uncomfortable) works fine too.

Everyone needs some time alone. A little time to get to know themselves. Time to sit in silence, to be with their thoughts, to move about unrestrained by the needs or expectations of others. Time away from technology. Time away from daily distractions and the constraints of responsibilities and concerns. Time to learn. Time to relax, revisit, retrain, rethink, reset, reaffirm. To think. To not think. To be active or inactive. To be whatever we want to be, or to determine what it is that we want to be, and move forward from there.

Being alone lets one discover who they are without all the things. Without all the other people. Without the perceived judgments, the reputations to uphold.  Who might you be in a void? In a crisis? In a hotel room alone with all the electronics shut off? On top of a mountain in the sunshine? Inside a tent in the middle of the night with lightning flashing directly above and rolling thunder shaking the ground around you? Are you happy with that person? Is there work to be done? Being alone lets one examine all sorts of emotions, from loneliness and fear (perhaps even existential anxiety, woo hoo), to joy and exuberance and maybe even enlightenment. This self-knowing proves to be the most important aspect of both creating and embracing opportunities to experience the world on an individual basis.

But there can be auxiliary advantages as well. Mainly, the freedom. The doing whatever you want whenever you want. The not having to be concerned for anyone’s needs but your own. The choice to take care of your needs or not. The absence of conflicting opinions and desires. The never having to ask someone else for permission or approval. The never having to discuss or debate the desirability of activities, eating options, lodging, camping locations, side hikes, or anything else. The never having to wait, and never having others waiting for you. It’s your own pace, your own day, your own trip, your own life. You either appreciate it or you don’t. You can hike 3 miles or 30 miles. You can skip lunch and keep going, or never get going in the first place. Sleep late, get up early, stay out all night. No one cares but you. You will never have to listen to whining, complaining, criticizing, or common sense. In this life, you are your only limitation. Be open then, at least on occasion, to going it alone.

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Frozen Rivers & February in Denali NP

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Winter camping is not something I would invite someone to do. It’s one of those things that for some strange reason you have an interest in, or that for plenty of good reasons you don’t. It’s a different kind of fun. Actually fun might not be the right word, though depending on the trip there can certainly be joy inducing moments. Reward may be the better term. There is challenge in encountering the elements and taking care of yourself in demanding conditions. Everything moves at a slower pace. Tasks must be completed with deliberation. One must constantly evaluate and deal with fluctuating circumstances. It is rarely ‘go go go;’ it is often ‘stop and fix.’

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Sanctuary River

Some examples: You must not, obviously, let yourself get too cold. You should do your best to leave your gloves on, which turns easy jobs into tedious chores. As long as it’s not really really cold, it’s probably okay to cheat every now and again, but exposing hands to frigid wind and/or touching metal (think setting up a tent or using a stove) can quickly escalate into severe discomfort and potential risk. You must also not let yourself get too hot, which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. You want to avoid heavy sweating, which means delayering for movement and regularly changing into dry clothing, especially socks. This generally means taking off clothes in the cold before you start moving, and as soon as you stop in order to put dry layers on. Neither a particularly inviting occasion to get naked in icy temps while surrounded by blowing snow. You must also make sure to consume lots of calories and liquids, preferably hot. This means keeping things from freezing solid, and eating when you might not want to, and heating water, and cooking food, all of which require attention and time. You must make sure not to clumsily spill boiling water on yourself in spite of bulky clothing, or dump dinner on the ground. You must be methodical and organized and proactive. You must deal with wind, and snow, and darkness.

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The rewards then: The satisfaction of self-preservation. The snug feeling of being properly layered and tucked into a sleeping bag while the wind howls around you and snow piles in drifts against the side of the tent. The knowledge that after you’ve finished dinner for the night and made all the preparations for bed there is absolutely nothing going on for the next 12-14 hours. The sleep. The enjoyment of having miles of wilderness all to yourself. The light and the landscapes. Moments of intense quiet and stillness. Guiltlessly eating as much chocolate as you thought to bring.

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Mushing Trail to the Teklanika River

I recently spent a few mid-February days and nights in Denali National Park. I won’t bother with the specific logistics, but things are going on in the park this year which shaped the route I traveled, a 30-mile figure eight from the Savage River over to the Teklanika drainage and back. I hiked the main park road, which is closed in the winter, on the way out, and was able to hike and ski along a sled dog trail on my way back in. The only people I saw in the backcountry were a group of four rangers and their sled teams who packed the trail while patrolling. I went up and over a couple passes from one drainage to the next, and crossed a few frozen rivers, exhilarating moments for one unaccustomed to the practice. Caution is advised, as while there could be several feet of ice up top, current still runs underneath. A mishap could easily prove fatal, though iced over waterways have been utilized as winter travel routes for centuries.

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Nice work if you can get it… NPS Rangers

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Trail across the Savage River

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Huge depression of collapsed ice right next to crossing

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Savage River downstream, AKA why I took the bridge the 1st day

The trip provided the opportunity to optimize winter gear options, and to experiment with using a toboggan to transport it all. Officially known as a ‘pulk,’ I was able to put one together with a sled I found at work, some webbing and carabiners I had at home, and two lengths of PVC pipe which provide stability and prevent the sled from sliding forward into your ankles on the downhills. The day before I left, my boss excitedly presented me with a harness (actually designed for pulling one of these things) he happened across at an outdoor store. Thanks Sid. The set-up had its challenges, especially since I packed the sled like someone else was going to be pulling the 100+ pounds on there, but proved to be an efficient tool in the end.

The weather was a mix of everything. Wind, cold, blowing snow, spots of sunshine and warmth, a serene winter scene of big falling flakes on the last morning. Temperatures ranged from negatives to high 20s. I spotted one snowshoe hare and stood very close to a large bull moose grazing in a snow drift. I also saw tracks from all sorts of other animals, including one large wolf print. It was all about exactly as I was hoping for, and probably the perfect amount of time to hang out down there.

Again, I wouldn’t try to convince anyone who wasn’t interested to experiment with tent camping in the winter. It was hard enough to convince myself to go with the thermometer reading -30° the morning I drove down (it was up to zero by the time I started walking, however). A more popular option would be to utilize one of the amazing huts—equipped with wood stove, kitchen, beds, etc., available to rent all over the state. But I enjoy seeing what life must have been like not all that long ago, and what Iditarod mushers and arctic explorers and all sorts of other crazy folks do or did on a regular basis. It’s also remarkable to experience natural environments as they exist as a whole. To know the forces which shape and define them. Furthermore, it’s nice to rethink what’s important in life for a while, to shift focus from the irrelevant to the most basic. A cup of hot tea, a warm sleeping bag, a long night’s sleep, and a good bar of chocolate.

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Winter Schminter

So, as promised, the day to day. What is winter existence like in the far north? Or, at least, what’s it like these days.

Well, nothing like it was back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, when white men began to occupy in force, that’s for sure. And not at all like it was when indigenous people subsisted in extreme temperatures by means of ingenious survival techniques honed through thousands of years of collective knowledge and tradition. Like everywhere, much has changed over the course of the past generations. To pronounce the lives of natives and early explorers and pioneers as ‘hard’ wouldn’t even begin to describe the severity of the realities they faced daily. To say we’ve gotten softer as a society is to pretend we’re still somewhere on the Mohs scale at all.

Alaska now, at least in the urban areas, is about like anywhere else in the States. Hardship means waiting in line at Starbucks. Deprivation is going without strawberries in January because they’re a dollar more than you want to spend. Is it a little colder than most of the lower 48, at least for the time being? Yes. Does it matter? Not really. Most people here do what people in the winter do just about everywhere else, they stay indoors, they move from one heated location to the next. They avoid the cold as much as possible and whine about it regularly—as if they didn’t know it might be cold here. Kind of annoying, to say the least. Transportation and technology and increased population density and wealth distribution have made temperatures and distance relatively obsolete. Box stores are box stores; fast food places sell the same fare as anywhere else—shit food, cheap prices; produce from around the globe can be purchased in any season (though you better eat it quick, cause it does take a minute to get here). Even gas, extracted from the North Slope of Alaska as crude oil, shipped to refineries down south, and returned again, is sold at prices on par with anywhere else in the US. So, yeah, for better or worse, with a few minor differences mostly noted from the warm side of a window, the daily routine is pretty routine.

Well, for the most part. Thought I’d still go ahead and detail a few of the ways people have developed to deal with the climate, and attempt to provide a sense of what mid-winter in the Interior is like.

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Northern Latitudes: A lot of folks I’ve met tell me they’ve always dreamed of coming to Alaska, though in the course of those conversations it becomes obvious most don’t have a clear idea of some of the basic realities of life here. A lot of people think it snows all the time, that it’s always cold, etc. People think of glaciers and icebergs and polar bears. They want to visit for a week and see Kodiaks fishing for salmon and the northern lights and maybe do some dog sledding, all in the same trip. But they also don’t want to be that cold, and probably don’t want to get rained on. Many people also think that Alaska is about the size of Hawaii, since they’re always off to the side in those little boxes on maps. So, I’ll start with a quick overview of geography and climate.

First off, Alaska is huge. Here’s a tidbit from everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia: ‘Alaska is the largest state in the United States by total area at [around 600,000 square miles], over twice the size of Texas, the next largest state. Alaska is larger than all but 18 sovereign countries. It is also larger than the combined area of the 22 smallest U.S. states…’ You get the point. It’s enormous and commonly divided into six different regions, each with widely differing characteristics, including geography, population, and weather patterns. All of this area is separated into private land, native land, and federal land, with the government still being the largest landholder at 60%—a significant portion of which is protected as parks and wilderness. The four biggest national parks are in Alaska, and seven of the 12 parks over one million acres are in Alaska. Alaska has 14 mountain ranges, and yes, lots of glaciers and some volcanoes and parts of it are prone to major earthquakes. The land itself is wild, rugged, beautiful, violent, unpredictable, and amazing. There’s also a lot of wildlife, though often visitors seem to have strange expectations of what that means. Outside of Denali NP and the coastal Kenai Peninsula, where sightings are almost certain, you might not see a whole lot of animals in a week—especially if you’re not paying attention.

But that’s not really what this is about, it’s more about winter and summer, and day and night, and light and dark, and cold and not that cold, and how all of these things manifest in the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun.’ The biggest surprise for many people, to the point of disbelief, is that for several months each year it is light out 24/7. Which means that in the darkest winter months, the sun is barely visible on the horizon for a couple hours each day, while in the summer it sits up in the sky for weeks at a time. The best way I’ve come across to describe the process is that every place on Earth receives the same amount of daylight and darkness over the course of one year. On the equator, days and nights are split evenly every day. Twelve and twelve, approximately. Due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, however, northern and southern hemispheres receive more or less light and heat as the planet rotates around the sun, hence winter and summer. Almost everyone is familiar with this concept (though plenty of Americans I’ve known are surprised to learn that Christmas in Australia is in mid-summer, or, for that matter, that other countries even celebrate the same holidays we do…).

People also realize that in the summer the days are longer, and that the nights grow darker beginning in the fall. Extend that then, to the top of the globe, where for several months each year that axis is angled steeply towards (or away from) the sun. The further up you go in latitude, the more dramatic the effect. So just how high is Fairbanks? Well, for comparison, the southernmost point on the South American continent (also the southernmost tip of mainland in the southern hemisphere minus Antarctica) is around Ushuaia, Argentina, which is located at 54.8° south. (The equator represents 0° and both poles a respective 90°; each line of latitude corresponds to around 69 miles.)  Going the other way, Anchorage sits at a much higher 61°, and Fairbanks at 64.8°, only 120 road miles from the Arctic Circle. In mid-June the sun makes a dizzy circle in the sky, never dropping far enough below the horizon for several months to resemble true nighttime. According to the Visitor’s Bureau, Fairbanks receives 70 straight days of sunlight from May 17th to July 27th.

When I arrived then, it was nearly opposite, though I missed the solstice by almost two weeks. Dark. Real dark for a good portion of the day. Most notable, I think, in the morning. Most of us are accustomed to early nights in the winter, so that hasn’t been so different, but waking up around 6 a.m. and looking out the windows into a night lasting until almost 10 a.m. takes some getting used to. Or perhaps simply getting through. The light, however, as I attempted to describe last time, throughout those slim daylight hours, certainly contributes another element to the equation, easing the experience somewhat. And once the days start to get a little longer, as is happening now, it’s immediately apparent. By mid-March we’ll be at twelve and twelve, and after that—more light than you know what to do with.

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The Cold. I talked about the cold last time as well. What it’s like, what it’s not like. Having spent one entire February in Ushuaia, again mid-summer down that way, I can tell you the weather was much more harsh and unpredictable than it is here. I can’t imagine what misery winter that way might bring. But I won’t hold back on the facts. The week I arrived, temperatures dipped below -20° and for the most part they’ve stayed there and below. The first ten days or so it was often around -30°, and there were a couple of days where it did indeed hit -40°.  Two things about -40°: on a trivia note, this is where the scales of Celsius and Fahrenheit meet; on a contemporary note, in the past, the number of days the Interior spent each year at around this temperature were used to define ‘what kind of winter’ it was. This area often went weeks on end around -40°, occasionally dropping down even colder. The times they area a changing, however, and fast.

From my experience, things aren’t too bad until around -30. Activity that doesn’t generate enough speed to create wind chill, such as cross country skiing, walking, shoveling snow, etc., can still be enjoyable at -25° given one is adequately dressed and moving around. Biking, downhill skiing, snowmobiling, etc. are completely out of the question for most people until -10° and up, as things get miserable and dangerous otherwise. Around -30°, however, the intensity is notable. Around -40°, obvious changes begin to occur. LCD screens stop working, gas pumps slow down, unheated cars won’t start, and touching metal with bare skin causes an instantaneous burning sensation.

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How do people and machines deal with the cold then? Well, we’ll get to the people in a minute, but as far as keeping things running I have to say that human ingenuity is certainly impressive. I have no idea how the hot water keeps coming out of the tap, or how all the power lines don’t fall under the constant weight of several inches of ice. As for vehicles, pretty much all of them up here are equipped with block heaters which cover varying parts of the engine. The heaters plug in via a cord which comes through front grill, and folks carry their extension cords around with them. Most public spaces, hotels, workplaces, etc. have shared outlets available in parking lots. When things get really cold, it’s advised to keep your car plugged in somewhere if it’s going to sit for more than a couple of hours, otherwise the viscosity of oil and other fluids begins to be affected, which can cause major problems. To make things even easier on we creatures of comfort, these days most cars are equipped with an auto-start device. Simply press a button on your keychain from inside of a warm building, up to hundreds of feet away, and there starts the engine. Wait a while, exit building, enter car, drive away. One nice and completely unexpected perk to this severity of cold I might note is that it is rare to have to scrape ice off your windshield. I thought for sure that unpleasant chore would occupy a significant chunk of my morning routine, but so far I’ve brushed a bit of snow off and that’s it. No scraping required, and no frozen shut car doors. Yet. I bet when it gets warmer these things will happen, and apparently it can also rain ice on occasion coating everything, but when it’s this cold it’s way too dry to melt then refreeze. Nice.

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Driving. Living here obviously entails driving in poor driving conditions. My first couple days here, I thought about how road and weather conditions in town were such that in most places I’ve lived, including many years in Colorado ski towns, most people would have stayed home for the day. The driver of the taxi I took from the airport to hotel said it best in that in you don’t need snow tires but ice tires. Because that’s what you drive on. Ice. It doesn’t generally snow very much in the Interior. But that snow doesn’t melt, especially on city streets. It turns to ice and stays that way. While the main highways are generally clear dry pavement, at least in one lane each way, as soon as you exit onto a town or city street you’re back on packed snow and ice. The good news is that there are some incredible tires available which incorporate some cool technologies to provide super grip. Blizzaks are the brand of choice, and they work well.

Another thing which helps is that people are collectively accustomed to driving on the ice, so generally don’t do too many stupid things. In the summer a lot of Alaskans drive like assholes—fast and furious tailgaters and everyone with broken windshields to show for it. In the winter, however, good spacing and good sense prevail. As far as type of vehicle, there are people driving around in just about everything, even Camaros. For my money, a good front-wheel-drive is all one needs, and often handles a lot better than some macho truck. I prefer the simplicity, gas mileage, and all-season compatibility. Thankfully, neither my ego nor my manhood are affected by the size or model of my car.

Other Truths. Global climate change has severely impacted Alaska. According to the Alaskan Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the US. Major environmental alterations have been set in motion. I am not even going to begin to detail them here, though it’s fascinating and somewhat frightening stuff if you care to research further. Melting permafrost, receding glaciers, reduced snow, increased flooding, intensifying storm systems, dying and invading species of flora and fauna alike, and on and on. We’ll ignore the deniers for this one, and admit that our actions and lifestyles represent the driving factors in all of it.

Therefore it’s tough to admit that even though Alaska is experiencing negative consequences of unbridled carbon emissions at a significantly increased rate—if everyone lived as we do up here the process might be exacerbated ten-fold. This represents one of the ethical dilemmas one must either acknowledge or ignore as a resident. From a practical perspective, it would be difficult to act as an environmentalist concerned with one’s personal contribution to climate change and live in Alaska at the same time. On the other hand, the state has a severe need for people who care about the land and the resources and protecting what remains.

Living a modern lifestyle in such a severe climate necessitates major energy consumption and carbon emission. As described, the crude oil leaves on ships, then has to be brought back on ships to be burned up, all consuming fuel in the process. Most all goods, including comestibles, must also be flown or shipped in. To date, I have purchased a single bag of carrots with a ‘Grown in Alaska’ label, everything else had to be transported in from somewhere far away via plane, boat, and truck. Those January strawberries I mentioned, they’re here, along with everything else you might find in the local super store wherever you live. The power needs in winter are enormous. Natural gas covers some of the heating, but a lot of energy comes via facilities which burn coal (which is abundant in Alaska). Heating is also provided the old-fashioned way in the form of wood burning stoves, which sounds harmless and quaint, but actually contributes significantly to carbon emissions and poor air quality, something one might not expect when envisioning a city surrounded by pristine wilderness. And then there’s all that driving around and pre-heating vehicles and leaving them sitting around idling for hours solely in order to avoid getting into a cold car.

These factors not only cause long term environmental effects, but also contribute to immediate problems in the form of winter air pollution. Part of this is simply that there’s all this stuff going up into the air—but that stuff is going up into the air the world round. The second part has to do with extreme temperatures and the inversion they cause, which traps all of that nastiness close to the ground for days at a time. When temperatures drop below -20° warmer air covers the cold sump created in the Tanana Valley where urban populations are located. And with no wind to speak of, nothing leaves. A thick cloud of particulates forms over Fairbanks and the surrounding areas. Experiencing this haze of smog is like looking at the removed lungs of a lifetime smoker. This is what we’re doing to ourselves. I live about 20 miles southeast of the city in a little town called North Pole, which, unbeknownst to me before moving here, at the worst of these specific times has the unfortunate reputation of having some of the most polluted air in the world—even worse than Beijing according to some data. Thankfully, this phenomenon comes and goes, but it serves as an unpleasant reminder of much larger issues.

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Love/Hate this photo. Coal smoke from power plant makes a 90° turn. Inversion.

Stop the Insanity. The last thing I’ll touch on as far as daily living up here is how people deal with spending winters in extremes. Getting through the cold, dark, and lonely. Having been here only a month, I can only offer secondhand accounts, recent observations, and my own developing strategies. Like I said, most folks just stay indoors. As much as possible they minimize time and distance from one artificially warm location to the next artificially warm location. They heat their cars up before they get in them and leave them running if they have errands to take do. Inside the buildings and houses, it’s the same as about everywhere at any time of the year. Lots of screen time. Though forced time indoors, with the right mindset, can certainly be viewed as an opportunity. Time to get creative in the kitchen, time to read books, do some research, tool around on an instrument, etc. People also cope by using sun lamps, taking vitamin D, baking in tanning salons. Some people prefer the bar or the bottle. Some just wait for summer and all that daylight.

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Out the Kitchen Window. Early January.

For better or worse, I’m not quite wired like that and have to get outside for at least a while each day. I don’t care how cold it is. Even shoveling snow or driving the plow truck at work (something I wouldn’t normally consider an outdoor activity) is way better than being inside all day. I’ve been doing a lot of cross country skiing, both as exploration for my new job and in my off time, and trying to get to know the area and all it has to offer. While researching local trails I came across a ‘Trails Challenge’ put on by Fairbanks Parks and Rec each winter and summer season. The idea is to travel the listed trails by one of whatever means is allowed on that particular trail (snow biking, running, walking, skiing, snowshoeing, dog mushing, snow machining (as they call it here)), find signs on each one, and snap a selfie and eventually achieve the ‘coveted Trail Blazer award.’ It’s been a great starting point and motivator. I have yet to find anyone interested in joining me on the trails, but I have come across a few other people on a couple of them, at least.

I’ve also been trying to be my own ‘Yes Man.’ Anything I see that looks moderately interesting and may have a social component I’ll make an attempt at. Yoga class this Monday? Okay. Exercise dance class at the gym? Uh, I guess.

The gym too, can be a positive for a lot of people this time of year. A good place to alleviate lethargy, get motivated, and perhaps work on goals one might not normally focus on in other seasons. I’m lucky enough to have a great facility available, and it’s entertaining to try out new machines, new exercises, and switch up the normal routine for a while. Gotta look good come swimsuit season.

The one communal outdoor activity I’ve managed to take part in was definitely inimitable most places, and way more fun than I’d imagined. The Running Club North of Fairbanks sponsors a ‘Fahrenheit be Darned’ run each Wednesday night throughout the winter. I found their website early on, but normally work evenings, so wasn’t able to attend the first couple weeks I was here. About a week ago, however, I had a Wednesday off, and found myself in Fairbanks that afternoon. I hemmed and hawed about sticking around, but ended up making it to the university just in time to join up with about 10 other intrepid athletes for that evening’s event. We ran a five mile course around campus. It was pitch black, and icy, and snowing a bit, and around -13°—which they noted later was much warmer than the two previous weeks. And it was a good time. I hope to do a couple more before winter is over, but getting out that night also gave me the confidence and inspiration I needed to get out on my own last week for some packed snow trail running at -20°. Freedom!

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Anyways, winter schminter… It’s February now. -35° this morning, but predicted to leap into double positive digits over the next couple of days. We could even see 15°. That’s a 50° shift—get out the board shorts and tank tops! Ric, who I met on the river this summer, lived in Fairbanks from ‘76-87 and describes those years as a very formative time in his life. He writes, ‘Always liked February. ‘Big Gain Month’ is how we used to call it. Winter’s back is broken and the temperature daylight curve starts to steepen. You are on the downhill side of it. You’re gonna survive!’

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Interior Monologue

It’s been two years now since I started this site. Not being a user of social media, I initially wanted to have a small presence on the web in order to demonstrate a modicum of technical proficiency and feigned interest in the digital world should an employer inquire. I also wanted to motivate myself to write a little bit, thinking there could be no harm in contributing my own minute inanity to some infinitesimal portion of the internet. Additionally, I created it so that family members, and a few friends, might peruse photos and descriptions if interested, rather than being subjected to hours of pictures and effusive trip details each visit. It’s worked for all of those things, and even if only a handful of people check in on a regular basis, it’s been rewarding to see how the posts have developed, and to revisit them myself from time to time.

But truth be told, it’s not something I‘m wholeheartedly committed to. I won’t bother to detail personal perspectives on the ills prevalent in the creation of idealized internet personas—fashioned to make us look our best, to make others jealous, to mask unlimited insecurities. I won’t bother to do that because we’re all aware of those realities, even if we have collectively agreed somehow to embrace them. It’s not always like that, I know, some people just like to share information, advice, recipes, photos, artwork, etc., but often, even then, ego plays a part, along with a need to feel needed. I get it for sure, and am not immune to those desires, but I suppose I care most about finding fulfillment closer in, whether it’s feeling comfortable with solitude, or sharing physical experiences with people I value.

All of this to say that I was considering the cessation of the site for multiple reasons, but when it suddenly, and kind of shadily, I might add, ‘auto-renewed’ a couple of weeks ago (while the goal of many bloggers is to monetize their sites, I actually pay to keep ads off of this one) I decided to keep at it for a few more months. And those months will most probably be focused on Alaska, my home for the time being. After that, perhaps I’ll be hoping for real friends in place of faceless followers, and getting my likes and thumbs-up in person or not at all. Until then, however, thanks for reading.

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Chena Hot Springs

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2020: A succession of flights beginning in Amarillo, Texas on January 1st landed me in Fairbanks around midnight on the 2nd. The convenience of air travel makes distance obsolete, and creates mental disparity in attempting to reconcile the abrupt relocation from one reality to another. Some believe it takes the soul several days to catch up to one’s body. I have flown to Alaska several times in the past, and driven multiple others. I’ve often made the near 4,000 mile overland trip from Texas to Alaska, or back down, stretch out over a couple of months; the quickest I’ve ever done it took a week of long tedious days of extended driving. It’s much easier to comprehend the distance between the two when one serves witness to the immense expanse of land which separates one location from the other. A slower pace allows both body and mind to adjust accordingly.

When I walked out the doors of the airport at one in the morning I imagined my first thought would be: ‘What in the f*ck am I doing moving to Alaska in the middle of winter, or at all?’ But it wasn’t really like that. I simply noted the intensity of the -20 air mingled with a cloud of lingering exhaust fumes, put my bags in a taxi, and rode off into the icy darkness.

The next day was a whirlwind of logistics and preparation for the near future. The one I’m living in now. Up until about three months ago I hadn’t remotely considered the idea of living in Interior Alaska as a possibility in my life, yet sometimes options are not mandated by the person left to choose between them. Forces beyond our control—the decisions of others, failed or functioning relationships, available and desirable work opportunities, etc.—leave one to reorganize priorities and outcomes, to accept circumstances with a mix of resignation and hopeful optimism. By the end of that first day, I had found a place to live and a vehicle to purchase, and was well on my way to becoming an Alaskan resident.

I’ve now been here almost a month, and continue to operate motivated by that same combination of acquiescence and forced positivity. Just trying to figure it all out. As mentioned in previous writings, my thoughts on Alaska are often convoluted. I still feel as if there’s unfinished business here, so much to see and do, infinite possibilities, yet often question whether or not I am capable of accessing that potential. Queries of self-efficacy guide honest assessments of character and circumstance. There is also the fact that throughout its recent history, the past 300 years or so, Alaska has drawn those who care only to see how much they can take from the land. An ethos of extraction prevails, and that can be difficult to negotiate.

For now, however, rather than dwelling on dilemma, I will simply share some impressions, and save the day to day for another time.

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Tanana Lakes

Years ago, I was in the military. My last year in, my team flew up to Alaska in mid-December to conduct training exercises in a cold weather environment. We arrived to the Anchorage area, several hundred miles south of where I am now, in time for the winter solstice. I remember watching the sun make a quick arc across the sky each day, appearing around 10 a.m. and disappearing quickly thereafter, at around two in the afternoon. It was a particularly frigid winter, with no snow, and temps around -20 with a wicked wind steadily blowing throughout our time there. The ground was covered in hoar frost, and as part of the training I spent several days and nights trying to stay warm and survive in ‘the field.’ I feared most for my toes, which passed hours without feeling. At the end of those two weeks, I never wanted to go back.

The Army being the Army, however, and me being a single soldier tasked with following orders as they came down, I found myself in the same exact location only weeks later. Attached to another team, we flew up from Washington State in a cargo plane with the heater set to about 80 for the entirety of the flight. When the time came, we parachuted out the side doors and I found myself crashing to the ground soon thereafter on the same landing zone I’d jumped into weeks before. Due to the adrenaline, and my overheated core from the plane ride, as I started rolling up my parachute I looked around thinking to myself ‘This isn’t so bad.’ About two minutes later all that internal heat was gone with the wind, and the cold set in hard. I cursed my luck knowing that I was going to be there for a couple of months this time around, and imagined nothing but misery for the duration.

The first couple of days proved to be exactly that. More wind, more cold, lots of ice around the base and several people almost breaking bones because of it… On day three, however, a shift occurred in the weather. It suddenly warmed up enough to snow (extremely cold air generally signifies a high pressure system with little moisture), and the wind died down significantly. From that time on, it was one of the best deployments I had in the military. We spent the first ten days ‘training’ at Alyeska Resort—a local’s nightmare—300 camoflauged Gore-Tex clad yahoos on Army skis destroying runs of beautiful fresh powder with the ugliest turns you’ve ever seen. The next several weeks we tent camped and did survival training and rode snowmobiles and cross country skied and even had our own little biathlon. It was awesome. The experience culminated with a mock scenario which found us one midnight flying several hours up north in Chinook helicopters. Just before they landed we started up our snowmobiles and revved them off the ramp, James Bond style, flying off the tailgate and onto the packed snow beneath. We spent the next three days doing our thing, the entire time the sky above us lit up with every color of aurora possible.

That whole experience changed my perspective of Alaska completely, though I still never imagined myself living here full time. I made it back many years later as a guide, and spent my first summer here near Denali National Park taking clients down the Nenana River. Most of the people working up here in the summer only come for the season, but there are a few that stay year round, and even a couple who actually grew up here. I’ve worked in the state four summer seasons total, and would always inquire as to how life was in the winter, not because I was interested in living through one, but because I wasn’t. Watching the seasons’ quick change each fall, and noting the darkness descend (miffed in late August because of a 10 p.m. sunset), my thoughts turned quickly to the desert. Descriptions of -40 temps and the minimal daylight hours convinced me of the correct nature of those notions.

There was no love in the desert this year, though for this reason I may report that Alaska in the winter is much more beautiful than I ever imagined or remembered. It would be difficult to describe, but sometimes it almost hurts to look around, a weighing of the heart the soul what have you, to be surrounded by beauty of such intensity—to be the engaged observer, to take part in the realization of fleeting reality. To be here in the winter is not to admire the landscapes, but to be absorbed into them. There is darkness, to be sure, for many hours of each day. But the light, for the hours the sun sits on the horizon, is otherworldly. It is a physical presence, palpable around you, the snow, below you on the ground and above you in the trees, never white but warm shades of pink and gold. The sky, for hours and hours, cobalt and blues deeper than you knew existed in the world, and purple and pink and red. To be here is to live inside of a suspended sunset, rather than watch it on a distant horizon—from passive onlooker to full participant.

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As for the cold, it’s also not as most would imagine, though I’ve come to realize most would also not believe that to hear it. From many perspectives, temperatures dropping past 40 degrees above zero are cold enough, let alone even imagining -20, or -30, or -40 below. You will simply have to believe me or not when I say, so far, I’ve been a lot colder in a lot of other places. Places like the Texas Panhandle for instance, and definitely in lots of deserts, and for sure in Leadville, Colorado, the last wintry place I lived. There are two reasons for that, the most relevant being the wind, which, right here, rarely blows at all. I think the best analogy would be (maybe not even an analogy, as it’s kind of the same thing) stepping outside here is a lot like stepping into a walk-in freezer, like the kind found in most restaurants. It is so still that it takes a minute for the cold to set in. Once you realize that it’s cold, you also realize it’s definitely the kind of cold that could kill you if you continued to hang out in a t-shirt and shorts for much longer. But it’s not the kind of cold that makes your face chafe instantly and causes you to turn away from it quick like. It’s not the cold that comes ripping at you from hundreds of miles away, the kind of cold you encounter when climbing mountains in the fall or kayaking in the spring. It’s not that ferocious surprise cold that makes your eyes tear up; it’s a slow almost imperceptible cold, one that likes to take its time, but also the kind of cold that skips the shivering stage. The second reason it’s not so bad is that, unlike in those other environments where wind and wetness can create unexpected distress dangerously quick, you know it’s going to be cold when you go out, and you know what it’s going to be like. As such, it’s not that hard to be able to adequately prepare for it, up to the point where it’s also not difficult to be able to enjoy being outside without discomfort. For those willing to do so, that is. A small number indeed.

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X-country skiing at -25. Expelled moisture freezes quick. Good times.

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Trails Everywhere!

The hardest part then, for now, is trying to face it alone. The starting over again. The being surrounded by all this beauty and intensity and endless potential. It’s knowing that there are a few people out there doing these awesome things, creating these amazing epic adventures only possible in this sprawling wilderness, but having no real idea how to become aligned with them.

I’ve done a lot of solo traveling, including several multi-day trips in Alaska, and am sure I will continue to do so. Sometimes because I really wanted to go alone, and a lot of times simply because there wasn’t anyone else around willing and prepared to make things happen. There is a tenuous line, however, between voluntary solitude, and something far different. There is also the fact that Alaska truly is on a much different scale than anywhere else, in terms of both splendor and consequence. In an abandoned school bus not too far from here, Christopher McCandless penned a line in a book margin, ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ I do not agree completely, yet fully understand the sentiment. Especially in a place like this.

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20/20

20170619_204959-2.jpgA new year is upon us, the earth beginning another revolution around the sun—if, of course, there can be imagined to be a beginning and an end to the cycle, a start and a finish, rather than a continuum. How much better for us here in the northern latitudes to celebrate in the dead of winter, rather than to picture things starting over in the middle of summer, as they must do further south. A renewal, a fresh start, a regeneration, new chances and new opportunities. From dark to light, death to life, cold to warm, winter to spring. The imagery lends itself to resolutions.

The days, 31st-1st, and numbered years, of course, human constructs based on measuring the invention of linear time as a whole, and on this particular calendar given in relation to the life of a religious figure. Why wouldn’t the year begin anew on the solstice, at the very least? No matter. For the purposes of this post we’re going to go with it. As of midnight, the year is 2020, the year of hindsight, and a year of new beginnings based on lessons garnered from life experiences to this point. Why not?

What I have mostly been dwelling on these past months of 2019, or perhaps for years now, concerns individual efforts, successes, failures, and imaginings as to the amount of influence we can affect upon any aspect of our personal realities. We are very limited, it would seem, in our impact, though not entirely without recourse or decisions.

We have all heard that we often cannot control circumstances, merely our reactions to those circumstances. Examples might be as benign as the weather, or as malignant as the death of a loved one. This notion could be seen as both depressing and inspiring. Either way, it would be difficult to argue its basis in reality. Perhaps a more poignant take moves beyond reactions to propose that we cannot control our circumstances, but yet we can control our character, comprised as it is of attitudes, emotions, and actions—the latter being the most important consideration. Defining values in a continual process of growth and awareness prepares us for inconsistencies inevitable in the environments we occupy.

In this world most things are outside of our control, including, to a large degree, our individual selves. Our genetics, for instance, are beyond us. We don’t get to select our gender, or the color of our skin, or guarantee any sort of early financial stability or loving home environment. All are born with predispositions towards health and/or illness. Our actions and life decisions may influence these susceptibilities, for better or worse, and our attitudes may also determine certain outcomes—though most would be willing to admit neither is failsafe in preventing, curing, or even intensifying vulnerabilities. We’ve all heard of 30-year-old marathon runners collapsing of heart attacks and smokers living to 100.

Furthermore, we can’t even determine seemingly less significant things in our lives. Our thoughts, to be specific, are often well beyond our control. It proves incredibly difficult to retrain one’s brain to cultivate more desirable initial reactions to given situations. We are people of prejudice and judgement, each of us to one degree or another. We make snap decisions based on all manner of input informed by past life experiences and influences. We may find humor in inappropriate instances. Some may even be aroused by socially taboo subjects, or programmed to find pleasure in negative behaviors. In these instances, the thoughts themselves are inescapable. It is how we choose to act upon them which will determine their impact on individual and communal realities.

We can also not predict the future, nor the actions of other people, nor the universe as a whole. No matter how carefully we plan for contingencies or try to shelter ourselves from emotional abuse or physical detriment, there are too many factors to account for in ensuring success of any measure. We all have good days and bad days, interact with good people and bad people, and must deal with personal frailty and the juggernaut which is the world around us.

So it is true then that we cannot control the vast majority of influences in our lives. It is also true, however, that we may express some autonomy in how we react to situations as they present themselves to us along the way. We can strive to nurture neutral or even positive responses to seemingly negative situations. We may also work to extract ourselves, or protect ourselves from those situations, though this may not always be immediately possible. Above all, we may work to learn and grow from the circumstances we live through. This is the cultivating character part, the importance of determining personal values in an effort to strengthen resolve in relation to any given condition. This is the 20/20 hindsight. Not an examination of how things should have been done in the past, but how the lessons we’ve learned to this point might serve us in the present.

Integrity, the act of doing what we know to be right even when no one else is around to notice, proves essential in our progress towards becoming fully realized individuals. ‘To thine own self be true.’ Without defining one’s values, there may be no right or wrong to speak of, no clarity or guidance for future predicaments or accomplishments. We must determine our personal philosophies and strive to achieve customized incarnations of said values. Simply put, to be the best that we can be. To give the best of ourselves in all situations, regardless of external response, or lack thereof.

The Golden Rule posits that we should treat others as we would like to be treated; similar maxims are said to exist in most religions and cultures. This is the expression of our character and values. Unfortunately, there is no assurance that those we treat in this manner will treat us the same way in return, yet another variable outside of our control. Perhaps an appropriate (albeit wordy) addendum would be to determine how we would like to be treated, find people that treat us that way, and do our best to reciprocate. Our personal values not only dictate how we treat others, but also determine the respect we hold for our own well-being.

This is the important lesson: personal value systems are not refined to influence others, though we may hope to exert positive results through our efforts. They are meant to inform our intentions with respect to desired outcomes in our own lives. There is no guarantee these outcomes will manifest, but understanding what we are willing to accept as edifying and gratifying allows one to abandon or embrace relationships—with people, possessions, passions, activities, etc.—with clear mind. They allow us to receive, examine, and respond to those aforementioned circumstances with a predicated level of consciousness. They permit us to do what is right in our own lives, and according to our own principles, regardless of happenstance, or the consequences of forces beyond our control. They fortify us in the present and help us to prepare ourselves for the future.

Happy 2020.

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Full Poem: Sweet Darkness

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