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.

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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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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.

Skiing

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.