Alaska can be a rainy place. Going on my sixth summer up this way, and every one of them has been marked with gray skies and showers and storms. People that have lived here for a long time tell me each year that ‘it’s not usually like this,’ but I’ve come to realize these innocent self-deceptions (read: lies) as coping mechanisms. It rains here in the summer, sometimes for days and weeks at a time. Most days, the rain is pretty tolerable, more drizzle than downpour, and the low clouds create the most spectacular skies you’ve ever seen. Deep shades of palpable intensity, rainbows that make the soul sigh. But it does rain. A lot.
It’s also not uncommon to have several seasons of weather all in the course of a single day, which can be both challenging and rewarding. Wind, rain, sleet, snow, sun, clouds, repeat. One must always travel prepared—both with proper gear and proper attitude. There is always a potential reminder of how much bigger this place is than you might be. Self-reliance is a must.
But some days you do get a little something special. Sunshine to make the heart sing. Clear blue skies backdrops for mountains of dichotomous grandeur—jagged lines of black and white. With special thanks to customary weather volatility, it is easy to consciously exist in these moments—to fully appreciate the gift of a glorious morning, afternoon, evening, maybe even an entire day or two.
Several years ago, I was blessed with a string of such days. I remember them still. That summer had started off with a spectacular May, then steadily progressed into days and weeks of all types of rain. The end of July and most of August it poured steadily and without end. Sometime in August I guided a rafting trip down the Talkeetna (some big water, but a story for another time) and in the three days we were out there it didn’t stop raining even for a minute. The clouds set in a hundred feet above the river and let loose on us the entire time. A rough one.
A couple weeks later, however, the beginning of September, I went back up that way to hike Kesugi Ridge, a well-known backpacking route in Denali State Park. The day I drove up the skies finally cleared, and for the next three days the sun beamed across the landscape providing unobstructed views of 20,310’ Denali, and almost inducing heat stroke in the process. I was not used to the sun at that point, but loved every minute of it. And not only was I fortunate enough to dry out for a while, the nights, dark again after a summer of unyielding daylight, were highlighted by big green bands of aurora snaking their way from the mountain’s peak across the valley below and passing directly overhead my sleeping bag. True story.
I write this now, as the gray clouds pile up outside and the forecast has nothing but bleakness for the foreseeable future, because last week I was again gifted another stint of the same, in almost the same exact place. Between Kesugi Ridge and the Great Mountain, the Chulitna River works its way down into the Susitna. It follows the same basic path as the backpacking route, and both can be easily accessed by the Parks Highway. One high, one low.
A fortuitous shuttle left me sitting on the ice covered banks of the river around 9:30 p.m. last Sunday, where I rigged everything up and pushed off for a couple of hours of late evening boating. It was a beautiful night, clear and chilly, and when I made it to bed around midnight it was still light out. Woke up the next morning to frost covered gear, but after a couple hours on the water I paddled from winter back into summer. From still dormant trees and snow and ice right into green buds, then green leaves, and a day replete with sunshine, temps in the 70s, and big mountain views in abundance. It was clear and warm that evening, and every bit as beautiful the next day. Some days it seems like you must be doing something right. These were those days.
As I write this it’s difficult to believe that it’s the last day of May, but that seems to be the case. I’m glad to have the last two posts and a few other pictures to prove to myself that the month lasted longer than those few days. Other occurrences from the past couple weeks: paddling the Tanana, a weekend down in Southcentral for a wilderness medicine course, back at Birch Lake, Grapefruit Rocks.
Generally, I have an almost non-existent relationship with passive entertainment. Your typical couch potato activities, that is. I’ve never owned a TV, never paid for cable, don’t play video games or spend time on social media. At one point in my life I used to watch a lot of movies, but that was a long time ago. This past year, the year of binge watch marathons worldwide, I’m pretty sure I saw less than 10 films, and only fractions of seasonal shows. I can’t even remember the last movie I watched, but don’t think it was in 2021.
This past winter, however, I’ve developed an unsought YouTube habit. Not sure how or why it started, but it’s the truth, and I’m coming clean. It usually creeps up on me at the end of each day, around 9 p.m. By that time my brain and body are shutting down, but it’s not quite time for sleep. Can’t read anymore, already exercised out, played all the guitar I could muster… And out comes the phone, that awful little bugger. Often, the routine will start off well-intentioned. Initially, I’ll usually try to be somewhat productive. The first video or two will be in Spanish, or have something to do with music. Eventually, I’ll make my way into comedy. Try to get in a few laughs before bedtime. If motivated, I might start that off in Spanish as well—Carlos Ballarta, La India Yuridia, Alan Saldaña—if I can understand 80% of the jokes and catch a few in-the-know Mexican culture references I feel pretty good about it. Failing motivation, however, it’s usually into some Bill Burr, maybe a bit of Chappelle. Straightforward no-nonsense calling out of cancel culture and conservative conspirators alike. The truth is in the middle—if either one of those two things exist—and the reality really isn’t funny at all, but at least these guys can make us laugh about it.
But then, almost inevitably, comes the slide. I don’t often go down the recognized YT Rabbit Hole, but the algorithms have me figured out the same as everyone else. I usually manage to maintain some kind of category focus, but that’s about the only semblance of self-restraint I can claim. There is commonly a slight shift from one type of comedy to another, maybe over to a night-show monologue. You know, get a little daily news in. No less slanted or biased than any network these days, so might as well go with the lighthearted version. After that, about the time I really should be getting into some teeth brushing, what has apparently become a guilty pleasure/curious nemesis takes hold. Sometimes for a couple of videos, sometimes for a whole string of them. I’ve yet to remain captive past midnight, but it’s been close.
I think it all started with cop videos. As in real ones. The body cam captures of crazies, criminals, and constant haters, and all the people and seedy situations police officers deal with on a regular basis. Why or when I started watching these channels, I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps it was searching for another side to a now popular narrative, or maybe it was some really good clickbait. I do have this to say, however, I would recommend watching a couple hours of these videos to everyone.
I’m guessing most of us have a fairly ambiguous view of police officers, they’re good when we might need them, but defiled if they’re holding us personally accountable for something—spoiling our fun or slowing down a commute. Watching certain versions of the news these days sees them constantly demonized, and it is both acceptable and prevalent in pop culture to portray cops as a united enemy to be opposed. And violently opposed at that. There is even blather about defunding departments and eliminating entire forces. Which is why, I would suggest, that before considering joining into any of those conversations a person should sit down and watch some YouTube. Afterwards and during, one might consider what society would actually be like without any means to enforce the laws that most of us agree allow our world to function. That is without the thousands of decent men and women who work at a thankless and potentially fatal occupation dealing with entitled assholes and violent criminals alike. Certainly caused me to soften up a bit. I know I wouldn’t want any part of that job. While fully aware that significant issues exist within the system, and across all strata of our governmental organizations, I can still be thankful for the majority of the people that volunteer to serve in them.
The channel I found myself viewing most is created by a man who goes by the intentionally ironic mark of Donut Operator. Donut, as far as I can tell, spent several years working as a police officer, though now seems to make a living from his YT channel and streaming himself playing video games on Twitch. What a wonderful time to be a creative entrepreneur. Anyways, most of Donut’s videos feature footage from incidents ranging from traffic stops to deadly force encounters. In each episode Donut attempts to objectively assess the actions of both officers and offenders, as well as to address prior and current viewer comments regarding the prudence of decisions the officers make, along with the training and procedures they might be following in doing so. As in, why did an officer shoot a crazed addict who was charging them with a broadsword instead of using a Taser or verbally assuaging the danger. The range of scenarios officers may come across is baffling in scope, as are the outrageous and entirely unrealistic demands for non-lethal force against very lethal threats.
But it’s no longer the cop videos that are the draw, they’re just how I got to the next place. The place I’m in now. Even with Donut’s admirable sense of humor and objectivity, the negativity of each situation on his channel quickly becomes a draining experience, even if it does create a sense of empathy for what a lot of officers routinely go through. Realizing this adverse reaction—that of the negativity, not the empathy—however, makes the decision to watch what I’ve been habitually watching somewhat confounding. The name of the channel I’m now hooked on is Active Self Protection, and I obviously ended up there through the benevolent auspices of the algorithm. Like watching people get shot? You’ll love this next suggestion. The thing is, I don’t think I particularly enjoy witnessing or even imagining violence, though somehow find myself captivated by this particular channel (which features nothing but violent situations), and its host, John Correia (pronounced similar to the country in Asia).
The format goes like this: we see a snapshot of a real-life encounter which inevitably involves a person, or multiple people, attempting to violate the rights of another person, or persons—generally a robbery, mugging, car-jacking, kidnapping, etc., though occasionally a road rage incident, bar fight, etc.; the preview is followed by a brief intro of the day’s topic by Correia and a short advertisement by his sponsors, usually makers of pepper spray, targets, ammo, gun holsters…; after the ad we get to the footage, which usually comes from one or multiple angles taken from security or dashboard cameras; following the video, Correia introduces the lessons viewers might take from each incident, often while replaying and reviewing the tape. Once again, these are all real incidents, most of which happened fairly recently. And people, real people, often die violently—almost always by gunshot—in the encounters.
The videos are generally not as horrific as they may sound—though a couple of them most certainly are. And really, all of them should be. Human beings are killing other human beings. They are killing them out of greed, out of spite, out of anger, and in order to survive. And we’re allowed to watch endlessly. We are desensitized to the violence, immune to the telling of these age old stories, and buffered perhaps by the poor quality of the often audio-free videos. We’ve seen it all before so many times on the screen, hear about it every day in the news, so none of it seems all that real. In order to make the scenarios more palatable for dissecting key learning points, Correia himself incorporates humorous euphemisms. The ‘good guys,’ when killed, ‘sadly didn’t make it.’ The ‘bad guys,’ when terminated, take ‘the room/asphalt temperature challenge,’ depending on whether or not they die indoors or out. The winner of a gunfight, we’re always reminded, is ‘the first one to get effective shots into the ‘meaty bits’ of their opponent.’ You should also keep in mind that when a gunfight starts, ‘You have the rest of your life to get shots on target.’ And then there’s John’s FIBSA Factor, the ‘F— I’m Being Shot At’ which often ends an encounter by sending perpetrators fleeing whether they’ve been hit in the meaty bits or not. Curiously enough, they usually run either way rather than dropping dramatically to the ground as Hollywood might have us believe. Like chickens with their heads chopped off, many of the mortally wounded criminals manage record sprint speeds before eventually keeling over.
A good portion of the videos hail from Brazil, which comes out seeming like a terribly dangerous place to live or travel as a result. Many amusing comments may be read pertaining to viewers’ newfound averseness to vacationing there. Ironic, of course, when one realizes that almost all the other videos come from the United States, and that this is exactly how we’re viewed by the rest of the world. Somehow this fact doesn’t seem to register with most of the folks commenting. Perhaps because we’re so used to it now, and perhaps because the incidents are often referred to by which state they come from rather than being attributed directly to our country as a whole. As of a couple of weeks ago, the US, in slightly over three months of 2021, has already ‘tallied more than 12,000 gunshot deaths… and 150 mass shootings in which four or more people were killed’ (The Week). Over 23 million guns were purchased in this country in 2020 alone. Some would have you believe that more guns equal less violence, but that clearly isn’t the case. Others call for the banning of guns entirely—an incredibly impracticable scenario given all the guns that are already out here. What’s the answer then? I really don’t have any clue.
But the real question here is: Why am I watching this before turning in for the night multiple times per week? Why is this what I end my evenings with when I’m too tired to focus on anything else? I guess I’m unsure of that myself, and often swear that I will cease this behavior, but sometimes can’t resist the enticing titles that continue to pop-up: ‘Store Owner Takes the Fight to Robber;’ ‘Two Armed Men Stop Knife Attack Cold;’ ‘Guard Forced to Shoot Angry Patient…’ Do I not already know that the world is fraught with peril? That good and evil are locked in eternal battle? That there are profuse numbers of wicked people waiting for opportunities to do harm? That there are guns and bad guys and boogey monsters everywhere? Is it that I like to see karmic justice delivered to criminals? Which happens, but not always—plenty of victims die as well. Do I like to imagine myself a hero? Or pretend that these videos will provide a sense of readiness in case a similar scenario occurs in my own life? I don’t even ‘keep my tools on’ me (i.e. carry a gun around everywhere I go) which is one of the top lessons of every video.
The answer to that question is also that I don’t really have one. But I think it has a lot to do with Correia himself, and the lessons he provides in each video. Each one is analogous to fostering a holistic lifestyle of awareness and introspection. Correia encourages viewers to think about what they would do in each situation. His channel might even be viewed as an acknowledgment that there is evil in the world, and that we must live alongside it. Correia promotes preemptively identifying our values in order to let them guide us in the event of danger. What is worth dying for? When is compliance a better strategy? Where should you draw the line as far as that compliance is concerned? In what instances might you step in to assist someone else? When shouldn’t you? He talks about what it means to be a moral and ethical defender, and praises those who are able to reduce a threat appropriately and without undue amounts of force. In many of the videos he cautions against letting our egos get the better of us—‘Don’t start none, won’t be none.’ He counsels letting go of reactionary behavior and walking away from unnecessary aggressions.
Correia’s brand is built around the ASP acronym, and features a snake’s head as its logo. He admonishes viewers to ‘cover their ASP’ at all times, and promotes proactive measures to ensure physical and emotional fitness. The letters stand for Active Self Protection, but also double as the guiding principles that allow us all to be better prepared for the unexpected in life: Attitude, Skills, and a Plan. I appreciate the simplicity of it all. Be confident. Always work at improvement. Know what you’re about.
Correia also covers the tactical aspects of each scenario and highlights the need for increased diligence in certain situations, namely transitional spaces. While we should always be attentive to our surroundings, even in what we might consider to be safe zones, we put ourselves at greater risk as we travel about in the world around us. Vigilance is recommended. These spaces may be represented by thoroughfares and parking lots. Always go to ATMs (‘Accessories to Muggings’) inside of buildings. And so forth. This too, I think, can be applied to the larger scale of life. Seems like the transitional spaces can last for years even as we move about looking for a safe environment, our happy place. It’s imperative then to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. To be able to identify threats and deal with them appropriately. To remain aware. Stoicism is an endorsed form of compliance, and we must accept much of what life visits upon us—though there is also time for action and self-preservation. It’s also significant to realize that sometimes bystanders are there to help you out. Even more important to know that you can help someone else out. And finally, when life suddenly spirals into chaos, we must recognize the wisdom of Correia’s guidance, ‘Attitude is Everything.’
Honestly though, I really need to just go to bed when I’m supposed to.
Speaking of transitional spaces, the day I got back from the trip down south it started snowing and didn’t stop for days. Then it warmed up and all that snow started to melt. And then it got really cold for a while and all that melted snow turned to a whole bunch of thickset ice. For days the roads were about as treacherous as they can get. A few places even shut down for a minute, but for the most part it was business as usual, though more cars in the ditches than ever. And after that, it got crazy nice. From -20 on Saturday morning to 50 something on Sunday afternoon. And it stayed there for two full weeks. Days of glorious sunshine and brilliant blue skies. Gorgeous spring weather and all kinds of snow for all the things. Perfect conditions for just about any winter sport you can imagine, but no need for bundling up. Quite the opposite, in fact.
It was days of getting out and getting after it. Waking up each morning and greeting the sun. The standard doses of fresh air and exercise, plus welcome regimens of Vitamin D therapy. Lots of day trips and multiple modes of transportation/recreation. One of the highpoints was a day with Emilie, Jim, and a few of Emilie’s sled dogs for a marathon distance skijor from her cabin at the top of Murphy Dome, down down down to the pipeline and the Chatanika River, along the river for many miles and then all the way back up the big hill. The morning was a bit harrowing with less than desirable conditions due to overnight freezing. Some sketchy descents, and a handful of falls for everyone but the dogs. The afternoon, however, was magnificent. Once we hit the pipeline it was nothing but sunshine and slush the rest of the way. The temperature was hovering around 60 that day, about enough to melt a person after a Fairbanks winter, and after lunch we all had to strip down to our skivvies to finish out the rest of the day. Even that layer proved too constricting for Jim, who bucked it all the way down and courteously hopped in the back of our line. Thankfully, no severe burns were accrued in the following hours, and the dogs pulled like champs in helping us back up the hill. A big outing for Jim and myself, a casual day in the life of Ms. Emilie.
There were also a couple days of snowshoeing around Wickersham Dome and a perfect three-day weekend—t-shirt snowboarding on Saturday, super-fast skate skiing on Sunday, and the season’s first float trip on Monday with Emilie and Becky down the Delta Clearwater, the only ice free section of water around. Well, mostly ice free, I got to hop out and ride a big floe down the Tanana for a few minutes, which was actually more stimulating than it sounds. Fun facts: first mosquito bite on April 20th, first cloud of mosquitoes encountered two days later (even though still in the 20s most nights!), and then all the sudden one more full day of winter and snow on the 30th. So now back to transitioning with a little Alaskan reminder of the impermanence of all things. Those sure were some amazing days though. Warm memories, you might say.
Bonus Track: Clay Pigeons. I heard this song for the first time ever a couple days ago. Originally by a singer/songwriter from Texas named Blaze Foley, it was also recorded by John Prine. Both artists use a technique called Travis Picking for the song, and both versions are worth a listen, or lots of them. Maybe I’ll get there one day, but for now just sticking with some chords. The most basic ones. Like the rest of life, a work in progress.
And just like that, springtime once again. Compounding daylight and warming weather—sometimes a whole year’s worth of seasons in 24 hours—the inevitable oncoming of another Alaskan summer. While many profess their impatience for winter’s departure, others feel a different sense of urgency. Panic almost, that we didn’t quite do as many things as we should have over the past months of frozen opportunity. The remaining days of serviceable snow calculated anxiously, plans made in hurried anticipation of life without skiing around every day. Last minute exploits and explorations executed with resolve.
When I came up a little over a year ago, I promised myself, for various reasons, that I would stay in the state for at least a year before even thinking about going anywhere else, vacation or otherwise. Turns out, COVID made it easy to observe that conviction. But honestly there isn’t anywhere else I really want to go at the moment anyway. Other than to visit family, I have no motivation to return to the continental US. And while I might move to another country if the opportunity presents itself, I have no desire to travel abroad for diversion. Too many people. Too much hassle. And truthfully, this place is the real Disneyland for anyone with free spirit and inspiration.
Not only have I not left the state, however, I’ve barely managed to make it out of a hundred mile radius most of the time. No need to. Other than the trip to Arctic, I’ve been perfectly content hanging out in Interior Alaska. I love the landscapes here, the lighting, the hundreds of miles of unpopulated trails and rivers.
Last week though, with the inescapable end of winter nearing, I motivated to take myself on a little trip down south. Back to Southcentral AK, that is, where I spent many a summer, but haven’t really explored in the winter. It was time for a breaking of routine. Time to re-center and recalibrate. Check out some new landscapes for a change. Search for inspiration. Maximize the season.
As usual, I had only a rough idea of an itinerary. A few thoughts, plenty of free time, and only myself to debate with regards to daily decisions. Easy enough. I might annoy myself a good deal of the time, but I’m quickly convinced to make abrupt alterations based on spontaneous motivation. And I got lucky. Every day sunshine everywhere I ended up. I needed that, and am grateful for the good fortune.
Kid’s Corner. Spent the first night at my friend Pat’s house in Wasilla. Imagine Sarah Palin as a mid-size city and you will know what Wasilla is like—a trashy, sprawling, meth addled, crime-infested nightmare of traffic, generic box stores, churches, and littered highway… But I digress; suffice it to say it’s my least favorite place in the state, but apparently it works for some people. Like Pat, for instance, who was a gracious host.
Pat used to work for NOVA as a glacier guide, and climbing, ice, rock, etc., is his passion. Last winter, he came up this way to help oversee a couple of ice climbing trips for the program, and I’ve always wanted to join him on a more involved excursion than the easy waterfall we took the clients on. We woke up the next morning to a heavy snowstorm outside, but loaded up the gear and drove out towards the Matanuska Glacier. About halfway through the drive, the roads and sky cleared up, and warm(ish) weather made for perfect conditions for a climb up Kid’s Corner, a multi-pitch series of frozen waterfalls in a small side canyon up Caribou Creek, the put-in for river trips down the Matanuska River, where I guided for several summers.
Pat is a pretty serious guy, but he’s always excited to take people out climbing. He’s also a great instructor, and after each section I would ask him a couple of questions to which he would offer tips to improve what he identified as my ‘shitty technique.’ You can’t teach someone everything all at once, however, so I had to learn a couple of lessons the hard way—such as each time you swing the axe you should look where it’s going to hit, then tuck chin to chest upon impact to avoid getting smacked in the teeth with an exploding chunk of ice. Good times. Really. It was an amazing day, and a great experience, and I am super thankful to Pat for taking me out there. So beautiful, and much more fun than I’d imagined ice climbing might be.
As a funny aside, as we were gearing up to climb a woman showed up at the base of the first falls with camera in hand. She was a professional photographer who had seen our car in the parking lot and followed our tracks up to where she knew we’d be climbing. As mentioned, Pat is usually a pretty no-nonsense character, so I was surprised at his generous attitude at being photographed while climbing, though he did (actually) refuse to smile. Look for us in an upcoming adventure magazine. I’ll be the one exhibiting the shitty technique.
Alyeska. Alyeska is the state’s biggest ski resort, located an hour south of Anchorage. The drive down takes you alongside the Turnagain Arm, where you can see belugas in the summer and lots of sea ice in the winter. Though not as massive as many famous ski areas, Alyeska is a world class resort with several high speed lifts, a tram, great terrain, and one of the best views ever from the entire mountain. Like you’re riding down into the Pacific. The last time I visited was a very long time ago on a pair of Army issued skis, bowlegging it down the mountain in camo Gore-Tex just wishing I had a snowboard. Well, that wish finally came true, and was one of the main intentions of the trip. And man-oh-man, what a day it was. Mid-week, no crowds. Early clouds and overcast turned bluebird before noon, ski patrol started opening up the gates, and it was sunshine, steep lines, and mashed potatoes. Run after run after run. Seven hours of straight shredding son. An all-time top-ten day of riding.
Seward. I had planned on spending a couple of days snowboarding, but after that day I knew the next would not compare, especially after waking up to cloud cover and colder temps. Thoughts of flat light and hard pack were entirely unappealing, adjustments appropriately made. Drove a couple hours down the Kenai Peninsula over to Seward, where I once again found sunshine beaming down on snow covered peaks and seascapes. Spent the morning X-country skiing around freshly groomed Bear Lake, the afternoon duck-walking for a couple of miles on a trail of ice through shady trees out to Tonsina Point on Resurrection Bay. As Pete wrote in response to the last post: ‘A land touched by the hand of God.’
Hatcher Pass, Independence Mine, Government Peak, and Palmer, AK. Initially, I imagined spending a couple days down south, taking my time driving back to Fairbanks, and camping out in Denali on the way home. Once I got down that way, however, there was no compelling reason to hurry back—especially given forecasted negatives in the park. So I decided to stick around for another day and check out Hatcher Pass in the winter and spend a night in Palmer. Palmer, in spite of its unfortunate proximity to the aforementioned Wasilla, which festers like a growing tumor a few miles away, is one of my favorite towns in Alaska, and has the added bonus of several great breweries. Not a hard sell to myself.
Admittedly, I was somewhat wary to visit Hatcher Pass. It’s beautiful and busy in the summer, and famous for snowmachining and backcountry skiing in the winter. I had always imagined it to be crazy and noisy with people and tracks and avalanche slide paths all over the place. Maybe it gets like that, but the day I went my car was alone in the parking lot, and there was only one set of ski tracks through a foot of powder on the mile up to the mine. Oh, and it was t-shirt weather. Truthfully. Spent a couple of hours soaking in the sunshine and poking around the old gold mining camp, and then drove over to the Government Peak cross country trails, which were freshly groomed and a blast to ski. Great views, lots of fun ups and downs, perfect conditions. That evening was sunlit peaks above town and a couple craft brews down in it. #blessed…
Made it home just in time for the biggest snow of the year here in FBX. First day back on the job was hours of deep pow tree riding at Ski Land. Looks like winter might be here for a bit longer after all, though it’s getting a little crazy out there conditions wise. After those days down south, however, I can know that I did my best this winter, and ease on in to whatever comes next. Which, I’m guessing, is like a bunch of mud followed by four straight months of daylight and all kinds of who-knows-what.
There is an alternate hazard, I suppose, to that of creating endless lists comprised of future plans. And that would be the living of them until no further desires remain. The point where invasive realities and uncontrollable circumstances descend—a deep fog obscuring the bygone brilliance of halcyon days. Colorization in reverse: full spectrum vibrancy turned monochrome. The point where the choices don’t make sense any longer, and only confusion remains. What happens when all the dreams are gone away—whether realized or otherwise? When the things one lived for previously have disappeared into the past forever?
What’s left then? And how to make sense of it all. Can meaning be created? Forced? Found again? Hoped for or believed in? The obvious truth is that life goes on with or without overt implications of purpose. Some people care more about this than others.
To wonder what this world might be about may be the most senseless burden a person can voluntarily assume. Crushing, really.
Time, considered a constant in many practical conversations, seems anything but, and paramount somehow to any discussion of reality and the meaning we might impose upon it. It is this concept of time in which we work out our interpretations of attainment and fulfilment, or their antonyms. Time alters as we age. It changes with mood, with activity, when we are with different people and in various environments. Without a feeling of purpose in life, or a someone to mark the memories with, weeks and months melt into years and disappear without notice—while mornings, nights, and hours alone languish in indefinite suspension.
What is there to do then, at least in the meantime, but move from macro to micro. To focus on maintaining, to figure out improving. To hold fast to hope. To do the things, and work at appreciation in the moment. To be open to new experience and change. To eat less sugar and play some more guitar. To get some rest. To sleep, perchance to dream.
March in Alaska is appreciation in the moment. The light, the snow, the warming temps. Every single day importunes to be lived in. Recent things: hiking six miles up the McKay trail with MA, Jack, a sled, and enjoying a few speedy descents; killer day of skiing with Sean on the old Fairbanks to Circle route; long shadows and tea time on big solo Stiles Creek loop; the Fairbanks World Ice Art Championships; my little place in the birch trees and the more guitar part. (Might have to give the page a minute.) They say you have to perform to get better. With gratitude and apologies to Mr. Guy Clark.
January 20, 2021. To take some time today for thanks. To acknowledge a sense of coming out from underneath something. To breathe regular and deep. To celebrate less anger and antagonism, a respite from doublespeak and incessant invocations of lies. To appreciate a little more class. A modicum of decency. To hope that the terrible ironies of the past weeks, months, and years may relent, even if only for a minute.
Here, aside from those outside influences, it’s been an intentional shift of focus. No longer the same drive to go out and about no matter. A hiatus from solitary efforts and extended excursions in exchange for a few hours of fellowship when available. Still the long hours of confinement, the days and nights of quiet seclusion, but a renewed concentration on communal activities. And a few new ones at that. Ice fishing with MA and Yi, cross country skiing and exploration with whoever wants to go, a newfound enthusiasm for winter biking, and a foray into skijoring (skiing super fast on sketchy trails while tethered to a sprinting sled dog) with Emilie, Salomon, and Ragnar.
A few hours from now I will have been in Alaska for one complete year. It’s been interesting to assess, over the past several days, how much has shifted since this time last January. Globally and socially on the macro scale, and all sorts of ways at the individual level. Thinking about how foreign this place seemed at times. All the darkness and a certain kind of cold, and trying to figure out how to exist in it one day at a time. Trying to figure my way out in this part of the world, that is, and how to navigate in a new reality with minimal support. I thought that moving here mid-way through winter might have been a better time to arrive than earlier in the fall, but now I realize it was probably more difficult not having any sort of transition time. I smile to think of all the groping around in the dark on several different levels, often quite literal. How a majority of learning my way around occurred in the black of some very long nights.
But one acclimates. We figure it out. We get comfortable, and gain an awareness of our environments until a place holds a certain familiarity. We adapt. We learn to appreciate what we have around us, and to embrace the locations we live in with a certain sort of pride. We work to identify the beauty therein. Or, at least, we are capable of doing so if we commit to it. It’s been refreshing then, over these past few days, to think about those first winter months compared to now. The cold and the darkness are simply a part of life, and I’ve learned the whereabouts of all sorts of amazing places, and the timeframes for experiencing them. It’s also been inspirational to realize that there is still a lot of exploring to be done, even just a few miles from my doorstep.
Another calendar year now a shaving of history. What we learned in the process remains to be seen. Upon us now, 2021, The Year of Unprecedented Expectations. May it live up to even a small fraction of these anticipations. And may we notice if it does.
For my own part, there are aspects of life, mostly out of my control, that I hope will shift in the near future. Yet it seems the best way to start a new year, or week, or day, is with an attempt to offer appreciation for what we might have, rather than lamenting that which we don’t. I like the idea of resolutions, but more so, it’s prudent to reaffirm that which we are doing right in life, make some small adjustments, and move forward from there. Change, as has been proven, does not occur overnight, not even on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps better than a list of unlikely habit modifications then, how about a list of the things we are thankful for, an expression of gratitude for the things we’re already doing right, and maybe, just maybe, a couple things we might want to work on from there.
Mine? Gratitude: Family, healthy body, income, house, motivation, good sleeping & eating habits, books, curiosity, ability, free resources for learning, access to the outdoors, access to equipment, memories and impressions left over from years of adventures, a life in Alaska, a few friends to call, money in the bank, food in the belly, clothes on the back, car in the driveway, fuel in the tank, keys on the table, skis in the backseat… Keep doing it right: Language practice, exercise, exploration, personal and professional growth, focus on healthy practices, positivity, learning, letting go, holding on, keeping some faith… Two things: Less sugar, more guitar.
It has not been an easy year, and the next might not be any easier, but I’ve always loved ending and starting a new one not just with words and thoughts, but with actions as well. What better way to confirm one’s convictions than invite them to the party? The past couple holiday weeks have held some tough days, but many positive experiences as well. The solstice was indeed a celebrated time of year. The night before, I met up with a friend and her friends who decided to create a small community event with the making and lighting of ice lanterns (a core of ice illuminated by a candle) along a mile of trail just outside of town. It was fun to participate in the placement and lighting of the lanterns, and then watch the whole neighborhood come out to walk and ski the route. The following day, that of the actual solstice, I did a ‘Dawn to Dusk’ hike, something I’d heard of months back, and wanted to participate in. The event is more of a do-it-yourself thing, which is exactly what I did, but sponsored by the local running club. The idea is to run/hike ‘all day,’ on the shortest day of the year, which, if you’re going by sunlight hours up here, was around 3 hours and 48 minutes. I went up to a place called Chena Dome, started just after it got light, and walked steadily for 15 miles on snowpacked trails around Angel Creek. Took about 6 hours total, and was almost dark by the time I got back to the car. I got to see some spectacular colors in the sky around sunup, but never saw the sun itself as it was too low on the horizon and behind the mountains all day. The moon that night was huge, its light shimmering across the snow covered landscape.
What else? The last couple days have been great as well, and the amount of winter trails in this area is truly unbelievable. Must be hundreds of miles all a short drive away. The new ‘Trails Challenge’ has been revealed, with even more places to find, and just today I discovered a 12-mile loop right down the road from my house! Last day of December was teaching some ski lessons and taking a group to track down a few signs; New Year’s Eve was a midnight 5K run on ice at -10° in downtown Fairbanks with fireworks exploding from every yard in the neighborhood; and this morning was miles of skiing those newly discovered routes.
2021, so far, so good. All the best to you and yours, and may we all be inspired to adapt to and appreciate whatever might come next. Happy New Year!
Winter solstice, 2020. The darkest day of one bleak year.
December 21st. Fairbanks, AK. Sunrise: 10:57 a.m. Sunset: 2:42 p.m. Not quite the full story, as it’s certainly light out for a little longer than those few hours each midday. However, with the sun so low on the horizon, overcast weather can obscure it for days at a time. I am fortunate in that I’m able to be outside for at least a couple hours each afternoon, and that my schedule conveniently allows for driving to work in the 9:30 predawn. Nice to get at least a few hours a day of visibility, even if it’s through a windshield. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go to an office in the dark and sit inside all day and then drive home in the dark. But then again, I could never even imagine the office part to begin with.
A lot of folks, including myself before moving here, say they think the darkness would be tougher than the cold. They’re both just part of life, I guess, these days. And I suppose one’s reaction depends on how life happens to be going that winter. I’m working on three years of solo living, the last one in a new place where I moved just in time for a socially distanced pandemic. So, there’s certainly a lot of darkness outside the window. Every morning, every night. No people, no pets, no TV, no terrible habits or hopeful distractions. I won’t lie, it’s a lot. The deepest blues are blacks. At some point one has to be honest about whether or not more daylight would help anyway. Trying to keep the faith. Trying to stay healthy. Trying to find new ways to fill up brain space, and override the thinking time. A few new songs on the guitar, a foray into picking up some Italian, books and more books. Reading overdose. Exercise and stretching. Lot of time to manage and strange how it passes. Weeks and months blur together leaving one wondering where they disappeared to. Days, however, or the long dark hours between them, drag on forever.
In the daylight hours it’s the usual, but with less motivation than usual. Skiing, walking, skiing, couple days of snowboarding, bit of snowshoeing. Trying to get in at least a few hours of socialization each week. Been out on a few jaunts with the Fairbanks hiking club, which materializes as anywhere from 2 to 10 people depending on the week (though several hundred members on Facebook, of course, always ‘liking’ it up). Have also been able to run a few trips at work, trying to keep other people on the positive side of winter as well. A few photos from work and not work, and an encouraging end note: After tonight—Gaining!
Work: More Castner Glacier, Ski Land Resort, Plow Truck, Trail Maintenance, Trail Enjoyment.
Not Work: Moose Mountain, Rat Pond, Angel Rocks, Chena Dome, Mastodon Trail, Upper Angel Creek Cabin.
Happy Solstice. Happy Holidays. May there be light in your life.
And I think over again
My small adventures
When from a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And thought I was in danger.
Those small ones
That I thought so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.
And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing:
To live to see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.
--Song from the Kitlinguharmiut. Copper Eskimo. Trans. Knud Rasmussen
Continuation of cycles. Almost a completion from when I arrived in Alaska this time around. It is mid-October, and winter has set in once again in the Great North. It feels right somehow, like it’s time, though a line from The Stranger appears amusingly in my head: ‘No, there was no way out, and no one can imagine what nights in prison are like…’ But still and again, the beauty of it all. The constant change of color and energy. The fascination in watching and listening as the world refreezes. The rivers, so recently thawed, now slush in motion. The lakes already solid enough to stand or skate on. The silence.
The last few weeks offered days on end of autumn at its finest, providing opportunity to get the head straight before the long nights ahead. It’s been good to slow shift from one extreme to the opposite. A few of the finer moments: paddling a bit more of the Tanana with Emilie and Toko; canoeing under the northern lights one week and hiking 12-mile summit in the snow two weeks later with Michael Ann; bike riding and axe throwing at work; and a visit from the lovely Renée, who flew from Phoenix, AZ to Fairbanks, AK—106° to 36° (and far colder by the end)—to hang out for a while. While she was around we managed to get up the Dome, visit Castner (as awesome in the fall as in the winter), hike Angel Rocks, hit up the hot springs, check out Fairbanks, and get in a dawn patrol paddle on Birch Lake. So incredibly nice it was to have someone to show around for a while, someone to share the world with for an all-to-quick moment in time. (Many of the following photos are courtesy of others…)
Three-quarters through the orbit and a steady transition from extended hours of sunlight to prolonged hours without. As mentioned in the last post, shifting seasons up here often portend instable emotional balance, as metaphorical dark days manifest as literal. Such was the case in early August, as autumn’s advance seemed to arrive far too early. It was difficult to stave off thoughts of the cold, dark, and lonely to come, even with relative warmth and long weeks of daylight remaining.
It is not uncommon this far north for sunny days to be replaced by snow storms overnight. In the visitors’ guide to Denali National Park seasons are defined as summer, winter, and ‘the other two weeks.’ But we are lucky this year to be experiencing a true fall season, replete with days of glorious golden glow and emphasized crispness in the air. Days that demand to be appreciated as they exist, without a thought as to any sort of before or after. Thankfully, these past few weeks have fostered a shift in focus from impending future to present moment. Days like these deserve mindful approach.
As the dark skies return, so too do the extended sunsets, the northern lights, and opportunities to reflect rather than constantly move from one venture to the next. It’s time to be thankful for the past several months, as short as they seemed, and all that they contained. Time to take some time to look back on a few hundred miles of rivers floated, trails traversed, new areas discovered and explored. It’s time to slow down a bit, to get a little more sleep, maybe read a few books and reevaluate priorities. Time to spin through the equinox and settle into the balance which attends it.
Since returning from the trip to the Arctic, it’s been back at work and taking advantage of opportunities to return to running some trips for the program. It’s been a lot of days down in Denali, rafting and hiking and train rides with patrons, as well as a few days of camping and hill climbing on my own. It’s been checking out more local tails and continuing to expand awareness of the greater area. It’s been keeping an eye out for the aurora, and a four-day trip down the Gulkana River. It’s been a concentrated effort to live each day as it comes, all while taking in the fleeting colors of fall along the way.
It’s easy to post the good. To exult the positive aspects of an idealized version of our lives. To breeze over the banal, and conveniently omit the undesirable. To fabricate romanticized stories for potential audiences in an attempt to believe them ourselves. We all know the doubtfulness of the factuality of these flawless existences, but writing or reading otherwise often seems an uncomfortable petition for pity. We must stand on the affirmative.
And it is virtuous, I believe, to seek the favorable and show appreciation for the good we have in our lives. But it’s not always easy. This year has been one of major changes in my life, even before the virus, and in the world as a whole since the virus. In spite of all the activity and opportunity, it’s been dealing with health problems, and mental struggles, and even a bit of existential bleakness. It’s been months and months of limited social interaction, and a near zero expansion of acquaintances. And suddenly it’s already late August in Alaska. Even weeks ago the sun started to slant in a noticeable way. Shadows stretch further across the ground each day, and the air has turned autumn. Green leaves skip through yellow in a matter of minutes and sit brown on the branches. Summer moves swiftly into fall, a season we know will only last weeks at best, and impending winter creeps into the mind. The months of darkness and isolation to come. There is nothing to be done about it but to accept it. To keep on with it. To continue the search for import in the void, and press on with gratitude. To fake it till we make it—or otherwise.
In spite of some heavy realities, however, I continue to have plenty to be thankful for. Plenty to weave into one of those accounts of a blessed actuality, complete with accompanying photos, of course. I’m happy to report that I was recently able to achieve several of my goals for the year, and for Alaska, all at once. Those goals being these: to get into some real Alaskan wilderness for a while, many many miles away from any road; to travel in the Brooks Range; and to guide at least one trip in my 20th year of guiding. Happy to report that it all happened in a very fortuitous manner, opportunity presenting itself in the throes of disappointment, as it were, almost as if the universe decided to helpfully intervene for a quick second. For this I offer a heartfelt ‘Thank you!’ accompanied by a low bow to the daunting abyss.
For many weeks I’d been working on a plan for the realization of the first two goals, those of spending some days in the Brooks, far removed from civilization. I selected the river, scheduled the flights, planned the route, and dreamed up the itinerary. The gear was ready, the maps perused, the dates selected, and additional sources gleaned for pertinent information. As this was one trip I couldn’t really afford to do on my own, nor one I wanted to do alone, I even had one person, then two, lined up to accompany me. But, of course, people being people, the second dropped out almost as soon as he signed up, and the first found herself in a difficult workplace situation a week later. The imminent disappointments of not having a dedicated companion in other words, the same old nonsense as always. This same week, however, Michael, of Arctic Wild, a company out of Fairbanks I’ve been in contact with for several years, sent me an email asking if there was any chance I might be interested in helping to guide a commercial trip on the Kongakut River in the Arctic Refuge at the last minute. Turns out, I was.
So, I did. The trip was 10-days in the far northeast reaches of the state of Alaska; we rafted, camped, and hiked along 50 miles of the Kongakut River, our final nights’ camp located around 15 miles west of the Canadian boundary and about the same from the Arctic Ocean. There were six of us total, and the trip was incredible. The crew was myself; the clients, a family of four from New York; and Emilie, trip leader and awesome individual. Emilie’s been an Arctic Wild guide for 11 years now, spending probably several years’ worth of nights in the Brooks and otherwise, and is exactly the type of guide you would hope to get if ever doing a trip in AK—hunter, fisher, dog musher/racer, boater, and builder of her own cabin. She also has endless stories about life and crazy adventures in Alaska that have to be pried out of her one at a time, her modesty being but one of her many exceptional qualities.
The trip itself began in Fairbanks with early morning flights up north. I flew in on a bush plane with the gear, while everyone else hopped on a flight to Arctic Village, where they waited for the small plane to shuttle them out to the Drain Creek put-in on the Kongakut. The flights in and out of the Brooks Range were some of the best memories of the trip, as the pilot, Daniel, grew up on the Sheenjek River which we paralleled along the way. For most of his childhood, his family forged an existence by subsistence fishing and hunting, and trapped for income. His was one of the three families allowed to stay on the land when the area fell under federal protection as a refuge. Daniel told stories most of the way up, and the views from the low-flying aircraft, both there and back, were phenomenal. He stayed the first and last night with us out there, as well, which certainly added to the overall experience.
The ten-days we spent in the river corridor were spent in the same way as most river trips. Time on the water, time in camp, cooking, chilling, fishing, and hiking. The walking was definitely the most memorable aspect of the entire trip in my mind. Simply pick a direction and start off, probably uphill, and go until you feel obliged to turn back. It was all limitless and awe-inspiring. With the group we would sometimes walk in the mornings, or in the afternoons before dinner. From after dinner till around midnight, however, was the time for real exploration, the time when the true magic of the mountains was revealed in the constantly changing luminescence. On these hikes it was often just Emilie and myself, and sometimes B-Man, the 17-year-old son from NY. It was all quite dreamlike, and, like all enchanted experiences, proves difficult to recall in the aftermath. The light was ever-evolving, but also never ending, as darkness was still long days away in that part of the world.
The weather was about as perfect as it could have been for a trip in the arctic—cloudy, cool, sunny, drizzly. The last several days featured a low fog creeping in from the ocean and down into the valley each evening, ethereal landscapes a result. Most of the wildlife moves through this area of the refuge in June each year, accompanying tens-of-thousands of caribou on their migrations. We saw signs of animals everywhere in tracks and bones covering the beaches. We also spotted multiple groups of Dall sheep, heard wolves howling in the early morning, watched a two-toned grizzly lumber over a mountain, and got a glimpse of a couple massive bears, a pair of musk ox, and a big bull caribou when flying out of camp on the last day.
That flight, as mentioned, was also a high point thanks to the skills of the pilots, and Daniel’s desire to fulfill B-Man’s vision of jumping into the Arctic Ocean. We flew the remaining distance from camp to the ocean at around 100’, cruising between low-hanging fog and the channelized river corridor and coastal plain, and landed in incredibly limited visibility only a hundred yards from the cloud covered coast. Here, thanks to B-Man’s enthusiasm in enlisting accomplices for his objective, he, I, and Daniel quickly stripped down to our skivvies, ran across the shallow depths of the Turner River, and dove into the sea. After, it was back in the air and a quick ascent to sunshine, followed by an unforgettable flight back through the mountains and their infinite possibilities.
It must be said. Just as I am loathe to detail personal problems, I am equally reluctant to express overt political sentiment. But here goes. The controversy surrounding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or AN-Wahr, as it is often pronounced) is deeply complicated and far beyond the scope of anything I care to write for the purposes of this blog. You may have heard about it recently on the news, or for several decades now. Information is readily available to interested readers, though rarely unbiased, just as I am not unbiased. Yes, we still currently need oil, but over 1000 miles of Arctic coastline have already been drilled, degraded, and dumped on. There are colossal rigs, and roads, and untold amounts of trash and toxic waste scattered across the entirety of it. The only untouched part of this ecosystem is that small percentage which lies within ANWR.
As a whole, ANWR represents one of the few true wilderness areas left on this planet. It is not at all, as you may have heard the mouths proclaim, a wasteland. There is not ‘nothing’ there. There is everything there. It is full of life. Unbelievable amounts of life. Every square foot of tundra holds seemingly hundreds of different plant species. Thousands upon thousands of animals rely on this environment to exist. Millions upon millions of birds, from around the globe, migrate to the area every year to nest and reproduce. To believe that it won’t be affected by development is to blindly swallow another lie of political convenience.
Donald Trump and his administration have consistently attacked and corrupted everything that truly makes America great, including democracy, environmental protections and policies, and our public lands. He has promoted division, hatred, xenophobia, and a distrust of the press—all while fostering an environment which allows for egregious undermining of moral values and common decency. As far as this issue is concerned, Trump states that he didn’t know anything about ANWR until ‘someone’ recently mentioned ‘something’ about it. He has since gone full bore on opening up the entire coastal area to industry development. As with most everything else, this ambition seems to have much less to do with the issue than with Mr. Trump’s ego and political ambitions. There is much to consider here, and it is impossible to estimate all that hangs in the balance.