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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Winter Solstice in Alaska

“I’ve been up for hours and it is still dark outside!”

The complaint is justified, at this time of year, when the sun, in its best effort, follows a shallow, horizontal arc along the horizon, never really rising well above the Alaska Range. The day is marked by dusky metallic light, slanting in at an angle, a mere three and a half hours in duration.  Overnight, the temperatures plummet to 320 below zero.  The cold snap is predicted to last for several days yet.  We cover our noses and mouths with thick scarves when we go outside, but the hairs in our nostrils still tickle as they freeze.

It is the winter that sets us apart from the rest of the world.

“How can you bear it?” my friends in the Lower 48 States ask.  “Is it not terribly cold and dark?”

Indeed, it is a formidable winter.  Ruthlessly frigid.  Dangerous, even, if one is not clad in proper clothing.  But there is so much to love about the winter as well, I tell them.

Practicalities sometimes become easier. It is so cold that the roads, under a packed sheet of snow and ice, have the texture of sandpaper, less slippery, much easier to drive on.  In town, the parking meters have stopped working and we do not have rummage for quarters anymore.  Chores around the house lessen because it is too cold to concern ourselves with outdoor tasks.  The ones that we do still have, such as picking up after the dogs, is made simpler because the dog poop is frozen solid in the snowy yard.  We never run out of room in our freezer because we can place our dinner leftovers onto the porch, a natural outdoor freezer.

On an aesthetic level, we cherish the crackling, still, white world. Someone has hung Christmas ornaments along intermittent tree branches along our favorite walking trail through the woods.  We follow these, bundled into heavy parkas and boots, as the sun rises behind the spruces and birch trees. By the time we get back to town, dusk is already falling.  Outdoor Christmas lights, turned on early in the year to offset the darkness, cast a comforting golden glow onto the snow outside. In the pitch-black nights, the northern lights are clearly visible, wavering like a green curtain, extending into the Tanana Valley below. The stars, defined sharply in the crisp air, look like they can be touched.  It is as though we are, literally, on top of the world.

For one night, midwinter, the North Pole attains its maximum tilt away from the sun. The longest night of the year is upon us.  Just when we think the cold has lasted too long, we celebrate the winter solstice and its promise of returning light. What good is the warmth of summer, wrote John Steinbeck, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

This is precisely what our winter, rugged and fierce and beautiful, reminds us every day.

 

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South to Seattle

Flying south from Alaska, Seattle catches me off-guard. Again.

In an instant, I am part of a bustling humanity again, a type that the north seems to exist apart from. In the big city, with its cars and pedestrians and high-rise buildings, an energy abounds that I forget exists when I am settled in the slower pace of Alaska.

The pace is invigorating. The sound of traffic constant. Streets are lined with stores of all types: fashion at Macys and contemporary furniture at Roche Bobois and white chocolate mochas at Starbucks. At the Art Museum, an exhibition entitled “Flesh and Blood” promises the shadowy chiaroscuro style of Italian Baroque masterpieces. The Symphony lures with a Christmas concert by three Canadian tenors. And, everywhere, people. Darting in and out of shops, skirting street musicians, waiting in clusters at street crossings. At Pike’s Market, I sidestep the crowd, watch fish mongers throw salmon at each other across ice displays, mostly for the benefit of photo-taking tourists.  Coho salmon, Alaskan halibut, wild spot prawns.  I have to smile. Had I brought Alaska south with me?

In the late afternoon, we go to Sneaker City, some blocks distant. The store is run by two Asian women.  The younger woman takes her pug out onto the sidewalk to pee while we scan the shoes on the racks. Her mother straightens up the store around us, yawning. It is close to closing time. Nick deliberates between Saucony and Nike.  When he finally decides, the older woman packs the shoes into a bag, discarding the shoe box. On the walk back to the hotel, we stop to peer at store window displays. A wine store displays bottles wearing Santa Claus hats. Zwilling knives gleam in a cutlery store. In the German deli grocery store, salamis and Black Forest ham and Löwensenf mustard remind me nostalgically of my childhood.

When darkness falls, we venture to the Steelhead Diner. The restaurant is filled, the scents aromatic. I am wedged in tightly between two other tables. I feel like I am practically sitting on my neighbor’s lap.  I try to politely avert my gaze, not wanting to eavesdrop on their conversation. I settle to people watch.  Trendy attire, long boots, form fitting jackets.  I glance down at my jeans and sweater, feeling, all of a sudden, distinctly Alaskan.  Afterwards, walking back to the hotel, I notice the homeless, huddled, leaning against buildings. Caught in the excitement of the day, I had not seen them earlier. I pull my jacket closer, feeling the wet cold brought in from the ocean.

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In our hotel room, we open the shoe box to see that the lady, inadvertently, has packed us the wrong shoes.  Should we return for an exchange?  We ponder for a moment, then let it go.  The day has been long. I feel frayed. I walk onto the outdoor patio, where gas-lit firepits ward off the chill.  No one is there. The market vendors have crated their produce, covered their crafts, shuttered their stands. Ferries have stopped. I sit, huddled into my fleece, and look out onto the bay. The Ferris wheel on the waterfront has been stilled for the night, but its lights cast a glow onto the dark water.

As much as I enjoyed the lively, whirling day, I exhale. It is quiet, finally.

Snow Balloons

On a Sunday afternoon after the first significant snowfall in Fairbanks, the landscape is blanketed smooth and white.  The sunlight slants sideways, casting the spruces into a golden glow, a pristine world.

I try to animate my family.  “Let’s go for a ski!”

They glance up at me from the couch and armchair where they recline, books in hand. Even though it is noon, they lounge, Helen in pajamas, Nick still unshaven.

“I don’t have any ski pants,” is Helen’s excuse.

“I want to finish the article I’m reading,” Nick comments.

I tell them I would assemble what we need for the excursion.  I would find appropriate clothing, apply wax to the cross-country skis, gather poles into the trunk of the car.  We are so lucky to live in Alaska, I tell them, where snowfall and skiing are always guaranteed.  Even the US National Ski Team takes advantage of this, traveling to Alaska early, where they can begin their training much earlier than anywhere in the lower 48 states.  They grunt back at me before they finally concede.

Of course, given the fact that we have not used the equipment since last winter, our preparations take some time.  Helen grumbles that the ski pants she borrows from me are too big.  Nick’s second pair, which I borrow, in turn, from him, are equally large on me.  After we pull tight the drawstrings at our waists, we both look like balloons.

“Never mind,” I tell my fashion-conscious teenager.  “There will only be moose out there to see us!”

Nick, when we arrive at the trails, realizes he has left his hat in the garage at home.  I produce a bright baby-blue headband from the compartment in the car, which I hand him with grin.  He looks at me in dismay but pulls it over his ears anyway.

Finally, even though not exactly trend setting in attire, we are off.  Helen chooses the wider trail to skate ski.  Nick and I follow each other along a narrower, parallel track which is perfect for classical skiing.  Just as I try to tell myself that skiing is like bike riding, once learned. forever engrained, I turn to see Helen, arms flailing, lose her balance.  She lands gracefully.  I, however, head turned, chuckling, run smack into Nick. He had been plowing ahead steadily, like a tractor in first gear, but had chosen that precise moment to slow down in front of me. I land in the deep snow, from which I try to extract myself, skis crossed, poles jutting.  I heave myself back up, dignity bruised, much less elegant in manner.

When we collectively find our ski legs again, the loop trail beckons. The skis hiss as they glide over the packed snow. We lengthen our stride on the gradual decline and feel as though we are flying.  We call to each other, laughing, soon drenched in sweat. The air is crisp and invigorating. Who would have thought that moving forward across snow covered terrain purely by the power of our own locomotion could be fun.

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Afterwards, we joke about each other. My “clomping” whenever the skis slid out behind me.  Nick’s steadfast expression as though he were taking on the next 50 km freestyle race.  Helen’s exaggerated panting whenever the slightest uphill presented itself, complaining that, unlike her father and me, it was not her intention to lose ten pounds before the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

We may have been the Flintstone Family on their first ski excursion of the season, but later, rubbing our sore muscles, we all felt there is hope for us yet.