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Blueberry Alaska

August in Alaska and the blueberries are fruiting, a sign that summer is drawing to an end faster than usual this year. It has been cooler, more rainy, and, because of the pandemic, a more withdrawn summer. The end of summer rituals, however, hold fast.

“Let’s go blueberry picking,” I suggested to Helen, my youngest child. “Before it’s too late.”

She sat at the kitchen counter, looking up, distracted, from her laptop. She had been contemplating the college course catalog, thinking about classes she might enroll in for the fall. In just a couple of weeks, she will depart, leave Alaska, the place she was born and raised in, the home that built her. She is eager to go to the lower 48 States, to embark on the adventure. Her excitement, however, is tinged with worry. “Will it even be a normal college experience?” she asked.

Amid the Covid pandemic, she signed a school contract, one in which she promised to social distance, to wear a mask, to abide by one-way hallways, plexiglass partitions, “grab and go” meals from the dining hall, to not gather with friends in her dorm room. Many lectures will be held online. Some hybrid courses might offer a face-to-face encounter with the professor. The planning is still tenuous.

“I’ll never make any friends.” She sighed, shutting her laptop, and went to bed early. She was not holding her breath.

My heart ached for her. She had hollered and whooped when she received her college acceptance letter, staring solemnly at a second letter describing a scholarship award. Her smile had lit up her face. All was well with the world then. It was a surge, after a high school senior year that ended abruptly, classes finishing online. She had to abide with a high school graduation that took the form of a car parade, with friends at a distance and a diploma sent in the mail. Contrary to her usual companionable nature, she could not even celebrate with her friends, hugging everyone in sight.

 

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In the morning, we drove to the heights of Murphy Dome, packing in dogs and water bottles and plastic containers. We picked up our friend Rebecca and her pup on the way out of town. Spirits lifted, the day promised sunshine and extended vistas from the slopes. Rebecca chatted with Helen in the car, about Oberlin College and the dorm room in Burton Hall that Helen had been assigned to, on the coveted fourth floor, with its dormer windows. Helen’s face brightened as she told Rebecca about wanting to take courses in biochemistry and philosophy, about playing soccer, about the bedsheets and desk lamp and posters she wanted to ship to college. I caught my friend’s gaze in the rearview mirror and smiled.

On the higher slopes of Murphy Dome we found wild, lowbush blueberries growing in abundance. We made our way along a trail, stooping down towards the carpeted blueberry patches near the woods, relishing their deep indigo color. The dogs, bounding ahead, returned to “help” by eating berries right off the twigs. When we reached a wide, alpine meadow we sat, reaching out for the berries that surrounded us, taking in the vista of the hills falling away below us. Our talking segued into companionable silence as we methodically picked, lost in our own thoughts. I didn’t think so much about picking the blueberries for their health benefits: lowered blood pressure or improved cognitive functions or essential nutrients. I gave little thought to the culinary pleasures of jam or pies or muffins they could result in. Instead, I celebrated the fruit and its harvest more for the sake of spending a closing afternoon with a daughter on the verge of leaving home and an old friend who has been as much of a mother to her as I have.

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Helen will shine at whatever she attempts to do once she leaves home, I told myself. She will flourish, regardless of obstacles, like the tart blueberries that grow, hardy and cold tolerant, on the Alaskan mountain.

She is ready to go, I realize, even if I’m not.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.