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Backcountry Alaska

Not far from the Canadian border, still on the Alaskan side, Nick shares with me a “secret garden,” his favorite camping spot on the Eagle Trail. Although not technically “backcountry,” since it is still connected to the sparse Alaskan road system, it nevertheless feels as though we have the world to ourselves. We set up our camp near the Clearwater Creek, its gurgling and sighing the only sound we hear. In a few days, on the 4th of July holiday weekend, some more campers may arrive. For now, it is only us.

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Nick has come here often, over the years, and is eager to go mountain biking on a practically empty road, with fireweed and lupine and forget-me-nots blooming alongside. We pedal, with a deep view of the Alaska Range in the distance. In reverse, the view is of the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains. A world of snow-covered peaks, one grander than the next. We leave our bikes and drive on with the truck, to get a little closer to those distant peaks, to feel even smaller in the vastness that surrounds us. The road is uneven, damaged by last winter’s frost heaves, and forces us to slow down to take it all in. We see wildlife – a couple of elegant arctic swans drifting on a lake, moose on the edge of the forest, a bald eagle, our campsite’s namesake.

The next morning, we hike up onto the mountain behind our campsite. The path is the historic Eagle trail itself, first blazed in 1885, from Valdez to the Klondike gold fields near Eagle. The trail was used by miners and trappers when Eagle promised to be an important mining center, only to be abandoned later when gold was found near Fairbanks. We follow a portion of the trail, thick with history, then veer off to climb steeply through a dense spruce forest. I am glad we have taken bear precautions, spray and bells and attentiveness, because our sight is limited due to dense vegetation. Suddenly and unexpectantly, we reach a rocky outcropping at the top and emerge to an overlook of the landscape. The vista opens up extravagantly onto the Tok River Valley. We pause. It was worth every breath of exertion on the climb up to it.

EagleTrail

In the early evening, with the summer sun still high in the sky, we sit by the rushing water of the creek. We bring our books, intending to read for an hour or two, but I relish only the sound of the water, the sun still warm on my skin, the gentle breeze in the spruces. The images from the mountaintop are still engrained in my mind.

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” The author is unknown to me. The sentiment, however, is firmly entrenched.

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White Mountains of Alaska

It is a favorite place in the White Mountains of Alaska, on the banks of Nome Creek, where clear water trips over polished riverbed stones and the mountains turn rust colored in the evening sun. We have camped here often in years past. Just shy of high country, the mountains above us are still dotted with snow melts, even in early June. We climb a rocky trail that is sprinkled with pieces of white quartz until we are beyond the tree line. Tiny white dogwoods and purple Arctic lousewort blossom on the alpine meadow. We pause, breathless, to take in a vista, immense and timeless.

The landscape has not changed in hundreds of years. We, on the other hand, have.

Antarctica

 

In the blink of an eye, the children have grown into young adults. Just yesterday they played “Antarctica” on remnant snow patches near the creek. They sat on the spongy tundra, picking blueberries, circumferentially, as far as their arms could reach. They held forked willow sticks into the campfire, willing marshmellows to brown rather than blacken.

Years later, some players in the group have shifted. The camaraderie, however, has remained unchanged. They stride ahead on the trail, their chatter constant, their laughter braided. A hike onto Tabletop mountain started in sunshine. Near the summit we are caught in sudden hail, pelting us sideways. We hasten our descent, drenched and cold, but have to laugh at this weather change, so typical of Alaska, always capricious and unpredictable.

Tabletophike

Later, as we sit around a campfire with the mountains silhouetted by the midnight sun, the “kids” share their stories – from college, about holding jobs, of managing on their own. Soon the Alaskan summer will be over, a juncture, and we will part again. Somewhere embedded, we will remember the mountains and the creek and the trail.

It is a place of lastingness, even if we are just a tiny measure in time.

Mountainsilhouette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alaska at a distance

“Alaska is open again. It’s up to us now.” 

The headline in the local newspaper is tinged with both promise and trepidation, at a time when our command over a pandemic is still tenuous.

Fairbanks, a town on the edge of wilderness in interior Alaska, is stirring again. After being cloistered in our homes, safely secluded, we venture out. The world looks the same, typical of a delayed spring in the Far North. Chokecherry trees shimmer white, fragrant on the breeze. The rivers, swollen from the ice melt, are flowing again. Lilacs are beginning to bud and the red tendrils of peonies are pushing their way up through the earth again. Folks drive out of town with campers and four-wheelers, to camp on gravel bars near rivers, to absorb the fledgling green after a long winter.

The atmosphere, however, is skittish and uneasy. We abide by restrictions still in place. We must decide whether an outing is essential or superfluous. On streets that were ghostly empty just a few days ago, cars head towards offices and restaurants and supermarkets. They idle at coffee shops, awaiting drinks that are handed out through drive-up windows by gloved hands, smiles obscured by hand-sewn masks. We cautiously open up our offices again, to ensure that our employees get a paycheck, to make a dent in the unpaid bills that have accumulated for weeks. Co-workers are asked to share staggered shifts. People gather in restaurants, but tables are seated at timely intervals, limited to immediate family members. In the supermarket, we bag groceries and retrieve receipts, minimizing contact with the cashier. We postpone the hairdresser’s appointment, and the dental cleaning, and the workout at the gym. Special events are modified. We try to make the best of the situation, even if it means having Helen’s high school graduation take on the form of a car parade, seniors atop cars, waving and smiling, an important ritual fallen short.

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In time, we relax, ease our precautions, shed the masks. Alaska, after all, has always been “open”. It is inherently different from the rest of the world, we tell ourselves. “What do they mean, social distancing?” a patient of Nick says, laughing at the safety guidelines. “I’ve been doing that all my life. That is why I came to Alaska.” People live in cabins and on homesteads, in remote villages, along great interior rivers that can be accessed only by rivers and float planes. There are miles of trails in the woods to walk along without ever meeting another person. We know what it means to be hermetic and withdrawn, particularly after a winter when temperatures dipped steadily to 40below. Does the world’s “new normal” apply to us as well?

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Just a few nights ago, I stood with a friend in my kitchen. She told me about contracting Covid-19 and how she slowly clawed her way to health again, as people nervously eyed her from a distance. “I’m immune now,” she told me, smiling, seeing the silver lining in her ordeal. She still wears a mask in public, however. “I’m wearing it for others now. That way they won’t need to be afraid.” And I think of her grace in the face of adversity.

Being “open” is not about things – gates, or shops, or petunias, or chapters in a book. To be open demands more. It means suppressing our fear in order to listen to a friend. It involves not judging others when their comfort level differs from ours. It means abiding by choices people make even if they do not parallel ours. It calls for finding new ways to connect.

Somehow, I’m not worried. It is what we have has always been best at.  

 

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?

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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.

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