April Super Moon

The earth has completed another 365-day journey around the sun. It is my birthday, but I am hesitant to celebrate. This year, the world has tilted. Nothing is as it was.

I am trying to adjust. We are cloistered, distant and alone, yet keenly aware of each other, next door, a few houses down the road, across the world. A pandemic still has the upper hand, one that sickens and kills, one that has yet to be subdued. Even in remote Alaska, where we thought, for a moment, the virus wouldn’t find us, roads are deserted, businesses closed, restaurants on the brink of ruin. We cannot gather, mingle, touch. We comply with safety measures, standing six feet apart, sewing masks, cloroxing surfaces. We realize that even the cold temperatures of Alaska will not withhold the virus’ spread. Now and again, in an effort to lift our spirits, we allow ourselves a few Corona virus jokes. A martini glass is named “Quarantini”. A new logo for the postponed Olympic Games shows its rings unlinked, safely distant from one another. A beer company has a “case” of Corona. We secretly smile, not daring to show it on our faces, because people are dying. We go for long walks in the woods with the dogs, following a trail between stark-branched birches and black spruce. Even in April, there is snow on the ground. But it feels good to inhale the crisp air.

KoponenWalk

I want to be near those that I love. I think about my mother, by herself, beyond restricted borders, in the place of my childhood. We are separated by thirty years and an ocean. It is a lovely spot, in southern Germany, verdant with wildflowers and meadows, framed by the towering Alps. We children ran through these, carefree, on our way to swim in a lake nestled between mountains, catching our breath in the cold water. Summer days stretched before us, untroubled and long.

Unknown

I look out of my window in Alaska and gaze upon different mountains, serrated and snow covered. It is so much more than the threat of a disease. It forces us to think about priorities, and the people whom we want to be with, and the places we call our own. It blurs frontiers and nationalities. With each added statistic, another boundary crumbles. We are together.

Tonight, we are promised a pink supermoon, not in hue, but in implication. A bright, full moon will come close to our planet in its orbit around us. It is named after the season, and after “moss pink”, a trailing wildflower, an early bloom that quietly heralds the coming of Spring. One day, we will look back upon the crisis we are living. Tonight, with just the lift of an eye, it may be enough to simply gaze upon the same moon, wherever we are.

 

 

Glacier Ice Cave in Alaska

We are caved in, isolating ourselves from each other. Our world is changing because of an ominous virus that is stealthily spreading. Several weeks into this strange and troubled time, we practice social distancing, quieting down, finding a new normal. There are books to read, online courses to work on, lots of time to write. Luckily, the great outdoors in Alaska, vastly unpopulated, still provides us with opportunities to go outside. If we cannot regroup with others just yet, at least we can seek out venues where we are not likely to come into close contact with people.

“Let’s go see an ice cave!” I propose.

After several days indoors, the teenagers are immediately animated, not even balking at the idea of going for a hike, even if it means getting off the couch, sorting out winter gear, filling water bottles.  Eagerly, we leave our self-imposed den for a different type of cavern: the Castner Glacier Ice Cave.

IceCave1

It is an easy, straightforward hike, we were told, a manageable day trip from Fairbanks.  “Just drive past Delta Junction to the Castner Creek Bridge,” were the instructions.  “Then you’ll see cars parked at a pullout. That’s where the trail starts.” We drive, in snowy conditions, visibility low. Squinting through the windshield, we wonder about this excursion. Should we have picked a better day for this? We pass only a truck or two on the otherwise deserted road. Would we even be able to find a cave in such weather? But then, just beyond the bend and the bridge, in an otherwise people-less landscape, we see a row of parked cars. The trailhead.

On the creek bed, people are heading towards the glacier. We follow, pondering the wisdom of our boots when everyone else is wearing snowshoes. Not long into the walk, sinking knee deep with every step, no inkling of the so-called trail beneath our feet, we understand why.  Arms flailing, trying not to topple over, sinking into deep potholes, we must look like the epitome of gracelessness.  Helen tries to run quickly across untrodden snow in an effort to not sink but lands, face-down, in deep snow.  Yanni opts for a “short cut” across to the right riverbank, seemingly higher, less slushy, only to double-back to our original trail when he becomes stuck. Periklis, a Greek student Yanni brought home from college with him, gawks at the terrain, telling us he has never seen so much snow in his life.  I try to follow in Nick’s deep foot imprints, huffing and sweating with the exertion. Where is the leisurely walk we were promised?

IceCave5

There is no sign of a glacier cave until we practically stumble into it.  Hidden from sight, its opening suddenly gapes at us around a corner of the steep, snow-covered moraine. And then, we are literally beneath the glacier in an enormous ice cave.  We are astounded by its beauty. Formations of ice, scalloped along the cave roof, shimmer translucent and blue.  Further in, deep indentations in the walls are encrusted with hoarfrost and glitter in the half light.  Our feet crunch on ponded water that has frozen solid on the bedrock, reflecting shiny silvery light.  It feels as though we are in a fragile glass house that is nevertheless as massive and strong as the enormous glacier above us.  Silence grabs us as we take it in, almost as though we entered a sanctuary, one the earth has gifted to us. In time, the earth may reclaim it, as the cave shifts – widening, lengthening, melting, possibly collapsing. For today, however, we feel enriched, fortunate to simply have beheld it for an afternoon.

IceCave6

Ice Sculptures in Alaska

The sculptures, made of ice, are larger than life.

A snowy Sunday afternoon has drawn me to the ice park in Fairbanks. A competition is taking place, the World Ice Art Championship, one in which large blocks of ice, harvested from frozen ponds, are being transformed into exquisite works of art.  The sculptures stand in clearings between black spruce, some carved from a single block of ice, others assembled from multiple blocks.  The multi-block works are finished, detailed, lovely in composition. At the single block sites, many are still rough-hewn, in progress, as their sculptors work to liberate from the ice block the forms they envision in their heads.

I find my friend Heather Brice working on her sculpture.  She looks tired but smiles, determined, as she brushes the softly falling snow from her piece. She, like the other carvers, has been working practically around the clock for the past few days in order to meet the judging deadline. The effort shows in her piece: an elegant seahorse, polished and delicate, swimming upright.  Its unique anatomical shape is evident at once in the curvature of its neck, the down-pointing snout, its long tail, the hard, bony plates of its exoskeleton. True to its ability to change color to match its habitat in the sea, it has turned translucent to fit into the icy landscape. I gape, unable to comprehend that such loveliness can result from a rough block of ice.

IceArt2

 

It is a remarkable process. In this outdoor art studio of a black spruce forest, carvers use chainsaws, forklifts, chisels and picks, as they work with their medium in its various states of water.  The temperatures have remained far below zero most of the winter, both aiding and hindering their progress.  The frozen ice, strong and dense, is less likely to fissure and crack when supports are sawed away.  On the other hand, challenged by such numbing conditions, wearing parkas and mittens and facemasks, these artists are most certainly among the most stoic in the world.

The subject matter of the sculptures are as varied as the artists that created them.  They come from all over the world – Japan, Latvia, Canada, Russia, Alaska – to try their hand at winning over the judges with their piece. A sculpture called “The Heart of the Universe” exudes power and presence through ice spikes that radiate outwards.  In “The Blessing of Baikal” a mythical father bestows a blessing upon his river-daughter before she flows away from him.   There is a tribute to Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, at his untimely death, as he towers high above his teammates, caught in the action of the game, dunking the ball into the net.  “Not Forgotten” pays homage to fallen veterans, in the figure of a motorcyclist who stops at the half- open gate of a cemetery.

IceArt3

 

Later this Spring, the sculptures will slowly disappear, acquiescing to a gentler season, but their thawing will not lessen the fortitude they showed in the winter. We will recall them in our memories, how they glittered in the sun, were shaped by wind and reflected in the changing light. It is earth art at its finest, drawing attention to the landscape precisely as it is returned to it.

 

Winter Escape to Maui

“It’s almost Mai Tai time!”

Not one person on the airplane was in a bad mood. We were, after all, trading a long stretch of Alaskan subzero temperatures for the soft balminess of the Hawaiian island of Maui. Among cheering and clapping, the airplane descended slowly into a valley, between mountains, coned and lush and green, in tropical contrast to the white landscape we had left behind.  We alighted, felt the silky, warm air on our skin, looking distinctly Alaskan in the bulky layers we were still dressed in.

“I want to see a black lava beach!” Helen announced excitedly.

“Let’s hike onto a volcano!” was Yanni’s agenda.

I wanted merely to sit on a lanai surrounded by blooming bougainvillea and hibiscus.

The pretext for our trip was Nick’s continuing medical education seminar. He needed to attend a certain number of these, to accrue the necessary credit hours in order to remain in good standing with Alaska medical licensure.  For the rest of us, it provided the perfect excuse. I had leafed through his continuing medical catalog, looking up conferences in sunny destinations that I felt he could “benefit” from, topics he should learn about. Beaming, I presented him with a conference in Maui: “Topics in Internal. Medicine”.  The kids and I would tag along on Alaska Airlines companion fare tickets. Who, after all, was better equipped than us to make sure that Nick would attend most of the lectures?

It did not take long for us to quickly immerse ourselves into a time that seemed to, suddenly, stand still.  We switched momentum in minutes, on this volcanic island, thousands of years in the making, erupting, then cooling, the cratered summit of Haleakala still standing tall at its center.  We eased, stepping into the slower rhythm of this island paradise.  We languished in wicker chairs beneath gently swaying palm trees, felt the warm sandy beach between our toes, tasted sweet pineapple chunks. Nick joined us, cutting out of seminars early. Shorts and flip-flops had replaced his khakis and button-down shirt.

Maui3

 

In order to imbue some culture into the kids, I roused them occasionally from their recliners by the swimming pool to go on an excursion. We walked along the coastal trail to Honokahua, an ancient burial mound, where, according to Hawaiian belief, ancestor spirits still watch over the land and the people.  At sunset, we paid attention to the blowing of a conch shell, serving a practical purpose in ancient times, for those in canoes who sought the welcome and direction from those on land. Nowadays, the ceremony, symbolically performed to summon mana, energy, from all four directions, still resounds in its effort to say mahalo, thank you, at the close of the day.

Enough of philosophizing, we decided, when the ceremony drew to a close.  Our thoughts veered instead towards what we should eat for dinner: mahi mahi or shrimp tacos or huli huli chicken.  Deliberations about which eatery we should frequent absorbed a good portion of our enthusiastic discussion every evening. In our food-obsessed family, no meal would ever go unheeded.

Other times, we absorbed the landscape.  A stony labyrinth, built of rocks and grass, on a rocky outcropping overlooking the crashing, spume-covered waves, provided the perfect earthwork, through which we slowly walked, following its unicursal path.  In Lahaina town, we stood beneath an enormous banyan tree, whose aerial roots covered an acre, spreading a huge canopy above us.  We hiked through bamboo thickets, coming across twin waterfalls cascading into a shadowed rock pool when we were only looking for a stream. We stopped, enthralled.

Maui2

 

Hawaii is enchanting, drawing us in with its waterfalls and fragrances and sea vistas.  By the end of the week, I am, however, ready to return to Alaska. I miss the quiet winter, the frozen lakes, the snow-covered hillsides. If Hawaii is a love story, toying with pleasure, satiating my senses, then Alaska is still tugging at me like the old trusted friend I have left behind.

 

 

 

Ice Fishing in Alaska

“It’ll be fun!” the teenagers told me.  “We’ve figured out a fishing hut on the Tanana Lakes!”

After a four week stretch of temperatures hovering near 400 below in Alaska, cabin fever had firmly entrenched itself.  All of us were weary of slouching around the house.  Now they were suggesting a different type of cabin for diversion:  an ice fishing shack.

Hmmmm…

Not much of a fisherwoman myself, I was immediately skeptical.  In summers past, my family had persuaded me to go “combat fishing” in the Kenai River for salmon, standing shoulder to shoulder in the blue green water while the fish slunk around my waders.  Despite all patient instruction, I succeeded only in snagging my fishing line on rocks lining the riverbed and casting about in all the wrong directions.  It wasn’t long before I gave up, opting to sit in our boat, poured the hot water designed for our coffee thermos over my frozen toes, and munched on goldfish snacks.  Later in the summer, my family once again convinced me to go fishing, this time a halibut charter in Kachemak Bay.  This should be easier, I thought, when I saw the well-equipped boat in Homer’s harbor, fishing poles lined up already against the railing, bait attached, guides at hand to help.  Not long after we left the relative calm of the bay, however, the swells surged, rocking the boat wildly, and more than one of us leaned over the railing, upchucking our breakfasts.

Maneuvering to the edge of the expansive lake, I surveyed the fishing “huts” scattered across its frozen surface.  They ranged from primitive tents set up over self-drilled holes in the ice to campers to wooden structures complete with a wood burning stove, smoke curling upwards. Our particular exemplar, a wooden shack, stood in the middle of the lake, having been dragged out across the ice earlier in the winter.  I eyed the ice, thicker at the edges of the lake, and took courage from the fact that other vehicles had already driven across safely.

FB1AF26C-B076-43F8-989B-6D48A33CF6CE_1_201_a

Inside, the hut was furnished with just the basic necessities for ice fishing.  It was dimly lit because of its lack of windows but warmed from the wood stove the boys fed with logs.  The wooden planks of four corners of the hut had been removed, exposing the ice below, and drilled into this were four fishing holes.  All in all, the effect resembled an outhouse.

The teenagers had already started fishing, each facing a corner, dropping lines into the holes.  Light shimmered from below, casting an eerie glow into the dimly lit hut.  Far below the ice, whitefish and rainbow trout and arctic grayling swiveled, dodging the bobbing lead weights which the boys had hooked with salmon eggs.  Every so often, they used a ladle to break up the ice crust forming over the fishing holes.

I settled myself on a metal camping chair to await the result of their efforts.  After an hour passed without a single tug on the fishing line, I started to question the whiteboard tacked onto the wooden wall onto which previous hut inhabitants had recorded their successes. On January 6 someone caught over 120 fish using small rubber jigs.  On January 14 three people caught about 100 fish between them, using shrimp as bait.  Perhaps we had picked the wrong time of day?  Or were dropping our lines too low?  Or maybe the fish were just outsmarting us.  And then, of course, I pondered the wisdom of this catch-and-release sport…

When I grew stiff from sitting, I left them to their ruminations about how to best hold the line, or to switch out the bait, or to change the music to Taylor Swift, in case that was more along the acoustic preference of the fish.  Outside, after the gloom of the hut, the sun was bright on the snow-covered lake, the air still and crackling and cold.  My walk, though not long in the subzero temperatures, took me a distance across the lake.  I looked back towards the fishing huts, quiet and tranquil. In the end, the kids managed to catch a multitude of fish that day. Once they properly determined the right bait and depth, they caught fish after fish while I, once again, did not hook even a single one. Fishing may just not be my sport, I conceded. The white silence on the lake that day, however, was enough for me to join in on yet another fishing venture anytime.