A new kind of winter – be afraid or be excited?

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When we tell more seasoned Alaskans that we just moved here, they invariably ask us how we’re liking it so far. Our reply has been consistently positive. From here the conversation inevitably turns to the winter ahead, and, while the majority of folks we talk to genuinely like living here, I’ve noticed two distinct ways that our new friends (or strangers we meet at breweries) reflect on the winter months – one voice tends toward  trepidation while the other is colored by joy.

 

The Winter Fearful

New friend: So how do you like it here so far?
Us: Each day we find more to like.
New friend: Well, you know you haven’t been through a winter yet. Just you wait.

Here are the reasons I’ve heard to be afraid:www-alaska-in-pictures-com-severe-winter-snowstorm_5378

 

The Winter Hopeful

New friend: So how do you like it here so far?
Us: Each day we find more to like.
New friend: And you haven’t even experienced the winter yet! Just you wait! 🙂

cross_country_coastal_trail_jodyo_photos_a24d4023-02f7-45e0-91d1-db7c0dbece5aHere are the reasons I’ve heard to be excited:

  • the Aurora
  • snow sports: cross-country skiing, sledding, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating
  • beautiful snow – on the mountains, in the trees, on the ground…even on the streets
  • how the snow creates light in the darkness
  • more social gatherings
  • moose come down from the mountains
  • the Iditarod
  • Fur Rondy
  • hot beverages
  • more sleep (catching up after summer’s mania)
  • access to cabins/recreation that require lakes to be frozen

 

Of course it’s not nearly as black and white as I’m painting it. Most of the fearful are also happy about the beauty of the Aurora or the fun of Fur Rondy.  Many of the hopeful have a MAJOR caveat – we need a good snow year for them to be truly excited. And everyone agrees that it’s hard to motivate when it’s so dark. But they also agree that getting outside, no matter the darkness or the cold, is essential to making it to spring healthy and happy.

So far, we are happy. It’s cold, but we’re figuring out how to layer and what shoes work best for short walks vs. long. Today we’re going to try cross-country skiing on a trail that we can walk to from our house (we’ve been “practicing” on our hardwood floors). I’m roasting pumpkin in the oven and Mike is kneading bread dough. We’ve each bought better mittens and keep our yaktrax on hand. We have detached and emptied hoses and have put a basic emergency kit in our car. We’re checking out new bars (shout out to the free cheese at F Street!), hosting music nights with new friends, and last week we traveled to Fairbanks to try to spot some northern lights.

On Thanksgiving we will snowshoe a few miles to a yurt in the Chugach Mountains without water or electricity, so we will be prepared with our best sleeping bags, extra extra socks, insulation for our camelback tubes, and fire wood. Alaska offers so many opportunities to be in the wilderness, and the next few years will be all about learning how to take advantage of them in every season, safely and always full of gratitude.

I guess I think both teams have a point – going into the winter without caution can lead you to drive too fast, underdress, pay for lots of house repairs, and, the worst – become a depressed hermit. But going with too much worry means missing out on the kinds of beauty that you don’t get in a lot of other places in our country, even cold ones. We have snow AND mountains, cold AND recreation, ice AND arctic critters.

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As the winter creeps in, we are nervous, of course, but when people ask how we’re doing up here, we stick to our mantra: Each day we live here in the great north, we find more to like. I know, I know…it’s not really that cold yet; there are still eight hours of daylight instead of six. But this is an adventure! Mike and I are in awe of the natural phenomena ptarmigan4of shortenting days, alpenglow, northern lights, snow that doesn’t melt, and the changing colors of snow chickens, er, I mean, willow ptarmigans. This place is magical. Cold and dark and magical.

So bring on the winter! It’s going to be great.

Yours in wonder,
Sarah

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A little bit of wilderness

Summer in Alaska is gloriously hectic. People are trying to make the most of every minute of daylight, and there are a lot of those minutes. Mike and I had a different kind of summer: for most of July, he was in the field for work and I was touring around Spain & Portugal. So while our days were full (mine more fun than Mike’s I think), we weren’t able to do all the wilderness-y things – rafting, biking, fishing, backpacking – that define an Alaskan summer for so many of its residents.

When folks hear that we missed this most sacred time, they shake their heads and make us promise not to be so foolish next summer. And they’re right to judge. Alaska’s heart is in the wilderness; it is one of the reasons we are so happy to live here. But you have to find and then commit the time to get out there. Two consecutive days (three are better, more are a dream) are required to really get into it. We just didn’t set aside the time or we were out of town or we used rain and chill as an excuse to day hike and do projects around the house instead. Next summer we’ll do better.

But I did get out for two overnighters. The first was with Mike in the Chugach Range front country; not technically wilderness, I guess, but really close!  We hiked six or so miles up a wide valley to Williwaw Lakes, a chain of crystal blue lakes in a stair-step basin under Mt. Williwaw and O’Malley Peak. While there were several other campers at the lower lakes and one tent at Walrus (the upper lake), we found a secluded spot on the edge of the second-to-the-last lake and had the place to ourselves.

We arrived early enough for a day hike up to Williwaw Pass, a cloudy, but worthwhile pursuit. Someday we’d like to come up to the pass the other way, from Long Lake. That’s for next summer, right??

We wanted to do the hike as a loop so the next day we hiked up to Black Lake and then tackled the scree slope to get up to the ball field. Of course, we learned later that the scree slope was avoidable via a steep, but real trail on the other side of an outcropping, but you know…we wanted a challenge! A scary challenge. My first scree slope!

The ball field (Ballpark?) was completely enshrouded, but it was lovely to have to focus on the views just in front of you and under your feet. Apparently there’s a lake behind me.

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It was a perfect first backpacking trip – views, solitude, a little bit of challenge, a running moose, dall sheep, no bears, and my favorite companion.

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My second backpacking trip was totally different, but equally lovely. This time I hiked farther and flatter, in the rain, and with two women, naturalists by trade and hobby who have plenty of experience in the Alaskan wilderness. Our journey took us to the Kenai Peninsula (my first time there!) for an 11 mile-hike through a forest then along Crescent Lake to the Crescent Saddle Cabin. Not sure if you read that…we hiked to a CABIN. No tent taking up pack space, no bug spray necessary, no cooking outside in the rain. Move over, glamping, ’cause you haven’t seen a posh wilderness set up until you’ve stayed at an Alaska State Park cabin. I didn’t take pics of the inside, but here are some that I found on the internet.

Nice, right? There was a three-sided wood shed stocked with semi-decent wood and an outhouse equipped with toilet paper. The lake was a short walk from the cabin and they even had a row boat! We didn’t use it, but it was nice to know that we could have.

The first seven-ish miles took us through a pretty forest on a trail covered in spruce needle duff, the perfect surface for a long hike. It reminded me of Washington forests and I was happy to recognize species and colors and smells of home. About halfway through the hike, the clouds rolled in. Silly me, I left my rainpants safely tucked away in my pack. I think I was still remembering Washington and the kind of misty rain where a raincoat and pack cover are sufficient. Nope! Within a couple of miles my pants, legs, and socks were SOAKED! When rain started trickling into my boots I decided it was time to find evergreen umbrella and change.

 

Warmer and drier in shorts and rainpants, we continued on. Our last four miles skirted Lake Crescent on a trail primarily covered in tall, tall, tall grass. I mean most of the time it was over-our-heads tall. Add to that the fact that the grass was dense, wet, and pretty well obstructing the rocks and roots and turns of our primitive trail and you can imagine our pace. Our spirits, however, were high. With three tough ladies, an even tougher Skipper Key dog, and plenty of silly calls and hearty songs, we walked (almost) fearless through the “carwash” (as Mike’s colleague calls the wet, tall grass). We arrived at the cabin soaking wet, but happy to have a roof and walls to keep us out of the rain and a wood stove to dry out our sopping clothing and gear.

I’m grateful to my new friends for introducing me to cabin camping, for leading the way through the grass field, and for packing the greatest food – gourmet olives, cheese, curry, maple whisky – that I’ve ever enjoyed in the wilderness.

I feel like I’m better prepared to head into the wild next summer. You can be sure there will be more of this in wilder places!

Yours in wonder,
Sarah

An extravert travels alone, and loves it

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I am recently back from a most fantastic trip to Spain and Portugal, and while the whole trip was glorious, this post will focus on the first seven days. The aventura en solitario.

I have never traveled alone. Yes, I have flown alone. I have ridden buses alone. I have certainly spent brief periods of time by myself in unfamiliar places. But I was always meeting someone, waiting for someone, with someone else. In the past decade or so, that someone was usually Mike. He is the best travel buddy a person could ask for. He is funny and patient and spontaneous and easy going. Plus, he is an excellent driver, is super handsome, and can set up camp in the dark.

But Mike couldn’t come on this one. So it was just me. And guess what! It was awesome.

After an uneventful 36 or so hours of flying and busing, I finally made it to Granada, Spain, home of the Alhambra and free tapas with every drink. I got in late, and pushed past fatigue from a sleepless night and jetlag to venture out of my hotel near the Cathedral for some Spanish food and, even better, Spanish vino. My first thrill of solo travel was realizing that I didn’t have to consult with anyone about where to eat or how long to stay. I read the local newspaper (sort of) as I sat at the bar. I ate quickly and drank slowly. In halting Spanish I chatted with the bartender (cook? owner?) about where else I should go that was close by. I went home when I felt like it. I slept like the dead.

In the morning I took a bus into the mountains and spent the next six days hiking all over the Alpujarras, a string of mountain pueblos in the Sierra Nevada. Each day I tackled some new challenge, and got through it. The silliest was a miscommunication about gelato that ended in a young man cursing at me in Spanish. The most serious was when I got lost high on a slope and had to walk along and then on top of an acequia to get to a dam to cross a ravine.  Each time the obstacle was behind me, I felt strong.

In the evenings when I pulled, tired and sore, into a new village, I was eager to learn about its nuances on my terms, at my pace. And, one of the main reasons for choosing the adventure in the remote area I did, I wanted to practice my Spanish. That meant a lot of talking with strangers, and inevitably talking about my aventura. I loved the look of surprise on people’s faces when I said that I was traveling by myself. Several older men offered to walk with me. 🙂

When I told the crew – local farmers, fisherfolk, and purveyors of jamĂłn serrano – at Bar Los Rosales in TrevĂ©lez that I was hiking up to the Siete Lagunas they piled on the advice (most of it being that I was a fool to go). They believed it would take me at least ten hours – probably more! – to climb up to the basin and then back down to the town and should therefore start out at 7 – no 5! – in the morning to ensure that I would not be undone by the heat. The owner was so nervous that the morning of the hike she insisted I eat extra cake and return promptly to the bar upon my descent to prove to her that I was okay. DSCF8905Alas, the hike took me less than seven hours and the bar was closed for siesta when I got back, but that evening we all shared a round of drinks and stories about hiking and why we love the mountains.

A few times I met an older person, usually a man, who believed that I could do it. Who wasn’t surprised that I was out there. Who didn’t think I was crazy. Anthony, a kind hotel concierge, gave me the best advice of the trip: “Sarah, if you get lost, remember you can always climb. From higher up you will see where you need to go.” He must have known what was ahead of me.

How many people like Anthony would I have talked with if I’d been with another person? If my traveling companion had spoken more Spanish than me, perhaps I would have been left out of the conversation. If they had spoken less, perhaps I wouldn’t have engaged in talk with strangers so readily or for so long. Because I was by myself, I got to decide when to talk and with whom to engage. If I was uncomfortable I just paid my tab and left. If I was happy I stayed and tried to glean as much as I could from the funny, tough, patient men and women of the Alpujarra.

Most of my six days in the mountains, however, I was alone. On my first day, when I hiked the “popular” route up to the Siete Lagunas I saw four other hikers. On the 45-ish km trek from TrevĂ©lez to LanjarĂłn, I never saw another soul on the trail. I waved at the occasional farmer off in a field and once a truck drove by me on a rare section of road (thankfully – I had made a wrong turn!), but mostly it was just me. It was both peaceful and exhilarating to be by myself for so many hours a day.

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It was peaceful to be quiet. To listen to the sounds of unfamiliar birds and comforting cowbells far up the mountainside. To hear the wind whip up a barranco or catch the hint of a stream up ahead. Sometimes it was so quiet that the sound of skittering lizards startled me, like there was something much bigger out there just out of sight.

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It was exhiliarating to take charge of every situation. To find my route by paying attention to the trees and slope and sounds. To climb to high ground when I was lost so that I could get my bearings. To feel unsure of my path, but then to spot a barely visible red and white marker on an old stone and let out a “whoop!” because I knew I was on the right track. With each decision I felt more confident and energized for the next literal and metaphorical fork in the road.

This post sounds pretty egocentric, and I guess it is. It’s about doing something by myself. It’s about learning how to be alone, at least for a little while. I am an extravert, which means I get my energy being around others. This hasn’t changed. I am also married, and my husband’s opinion and feelings are as important to me as my own. I am used to discussing, debating, and taking others’ thoughts into considertation, not just when I travel, but in a lot of my life because I like to be around people. But for seven days in Spain, I didn’t do any of that. I just, well, I was just me. It was really cool. I learned that when I am afraid I get pessimistic quickly, but each day out there I got better at taking deep breaths and imagining solution-based scenarios instead of worst-case scenarios. I learned that my Spanish grammar needs a lot of improvement. I learned that I eat better but drink worse (aka more) when I’m out to dinner by myself. DSCF9333

Most importanly I learned that I like to be by myself sometimes. I thought that it would be really hard for me, that maybe I wasn’t going to like myself enough to be alone for such long stretches of time or maybe I would get bored because I was boring if I didn’t have someone else around. But it was all good. In times of quiet I contemplated life and how to do better. I took in my surroundings and worked on – cliche alert – being in the moment. In the evenings I met strangers who taught me about their culture and made me laugh. I read a lot. I never watched tv. I ate well. I slept even better. It sounds cheesy, but so much time for thought and reflection was, for me, a good thing, probably because I don’t tend toward alone time naturally, as an introvert might.

DSCF9037I will travel solo again. I enjoyed it too much to let this be the only time. But I learned something else as well. I really love traveling with Mike, probably because I love him so much. When something awesome happens, I want to share it with him. When something is difficult, I want him to be there to help me get through it. But now I know that I can also get through it on my own. I can get a lot out of a place because I am alone.

So, next summer, when Mike is out in the field again for six weeks, I’ll be heading somewhere fabulous, by myself. Where should I go?? I have a year to plan, so shoot me your suggestions!DSCF9089

 

 

Yours in wonder,

Sarah

Sarah’s solo adventure, dĂ­a 3

It’s siesta time in TrevĂ©lez, a pueblo nestled high up in Spain’s Alpujarra region of the Sierra Nevada. I have been in Spain for 3 full days. I am happy, still a little jetlagged, missing Mike, and exhausted from a sweaty, incredible hike to the first of the Siete Lagunas, 1500m above my hotel.

So far the best part of my trip has been the scenery. I am surrounded by wild color – swarms of purple and white butterflies; yellow, pink, and blue mountain flowers; a patchwork of brown and silver rocks mixed with green heather and pine trees on the mountains – all made more brilliant by the white, flat-roofed houses and grey cobblestones of the villages.

Unfortunately I have the butterfly and wildflower pics on my real camera, and no way to upload them yet. Your imagination will have to suffice for now! 🙂

Today is my only rest day (hence the day hike?). Tomorrow morning I will throw my too-big pack onto my shoulders and set out on my journey to the remote and non-touristy Pitres. The following day I’m on to Capileira, and finally, on Saturay I’ll walk to LanjarĂłn. I met a German man at the lake today who just finished this same walk in reverse. He said the first hikers he saw were here, hiking above TrevĂ©lez. Four days of hiking – solo.

This could also happen to me. Yes, I will see and talk to people in the villages I pass through on the way, but the prospect of walking by myself for the majority of the 40+ km is likely and, well, a bit unsettling. I have never done anything like this before. Heck, I’ve never even traveled alone before! In a strange way, however, I am looking forward to being uncomfortable in my alone time. It is a test. A challenge for my extraversion. A chance to be quiet for awhile. I wonder if I will feel the need to talk to myself? Practice my Spanish? Sing? Or maybe the wilderness will help me to reflect, to sort of meditate. I hope so.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

A big first!

No, we did not buy the parking lot featured in the photo, but we did buy a super cute house in the Valley of the Moon neighborhood in Anchorage! Unfortunately, Mike will be out in the salt marshes near Lake Clark on our first official day in the house tomorrow so our awesome realtor, Miyun Reid (in the red blouse) surprised us at the Title company with the sign and case of beer. Photos of the actual house and soon-to-be projects to come!

My First Visit to Lake Clark

Last week was my first visit to one of the National Parks that I’ll be working in. Lake Clark National Park sits between the Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay, where the Alaska Range and the Aleutian Range collide. I was headed there for a three-day motorboat operator training (the Department of Interior offers/requires lots of training, most of it quite good). The way to get to Lake Clark is almost always aboard a small airplane, and generally involves flying through Lake Clark Pass, notorious for its beauty. It was cloudy for my first trip, but we got occasional peaks through cloud portals.

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My plane made stops in Illiamna and Pedro Bay to drop off fishermen before getting to Port Alsworth. We banked hard after taking off from Pedro Bay, and could still see the dust cloud on the airstrip from our takeoff as we passed back over it.

 

From there we scooted over a low point in the mountains, crossing low over Canyon Creek:

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and then Upper Tazimina Lake:

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before dropping rather steeply into Port Alsworth, to land on another gravel airstrip.

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Lake Clark National Park’s headquarters is a pretty low-key affair. The below sign directs you from one of the gravel airstrips, around the corner to the visitor’s center and headquarters.

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At the one end of the runway is a small bay, that affords ever-changing, and always lovely views of Tanalian Peak.

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Lake Clark National Park only has a few established trails. I was able to string a couple of them together one evening for a lovely 4ish mile hike. Sections of the trail were awash in bunchberry dogwoods, probably my favorite plant. They were in various stages of bloom, sprinkling happiness all over the forest floor.

Here’s a fun bit of trivia that I just learned on this trip: bunchberry are possibly the fastest plant in the world. They catapult pollen out of their flowers so fast that only recently has camera technology gotten fast enough to capture the event.

Elsewhere on the trail I was greeted by a variety of birch, starflowers, oak ferns, meadows of Labrador tea, and crowberry.

The surrounds offered some distraction from the flora from time to time.

What can I say about the commute home? Nothing that would do it justice. It was not a clear day, but the clouds were high enough that we could see our surroundings as we slipped through peaks and under glaciers on our way through Lake Clark Pass. My jaw was slack and my neck was sore.

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It is a tremendous privilege of mine to be able to work in and for these special places. It is also a reminder of what a privilege it is to have collectively preserved our National Parks and National Monuments. Their establishment was often won in hard fights, and their continued preservation will require more vigilance still.

Running from the Rain

Sarah and I had plans to go for our first backpacking trip of the season last weekend, unfortunately, the weather forecast for around the Chugach Range was a mix of green and blue — rain and snow. That made our plans a little less appealing.

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After a little bit of digging, it looked like all of the green (rain) was going to be stuck south of the Alaska Range, which I’ve illustrated below. You’ll notice Denali as the big one (not to scale, necessarily). So we made the smart decision (chickened-out) and high-tailed it to Denali National Park which is on the north slope of the Alaska Range.

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It was Memorial Day weekend so we only ran into a little bit of snow.

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Once in the park, we were greeted with pretty clear skies, some pretty assertive wind, and some pretty fantastic scenery. We didn’t see Denali itself, but that’s about par for the course. We did get to see caribou, Dall sheep, arctic ground squirrels, moose, and harlequin ducks, so that was pretty cool. We found ourselves repeatedly saying something along the lines of, “Can you believe we live here?”

Look at some pretty pictures:

Shake it up!

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I’m sure it will seem like no big deal in a couple of years, but we just felt our first earthquake. It was southwest of us in a town on the Kenai peninsula called Nikiski. At a 5.3 magnitude and 60 miles deep all we felt was a second or two of shaking/rumbling in our second floor apartment.

I guess it’s really not a big deal. As far as initial reports are telling us, people weren’t hurt; property wasn’t damaged. But still, I was repairing my day pack and then I was shaking. It was weird, to say the least.

As I read about our little quake, I learned that we have a lot of earthquakes here in Alaska, most of which are too small to be felt much outside of where they originated. But in 1964, a lot of Anchorage was leveled by a much more serious earthquake. Cities like Valdez which were closer to the water were pretty much devastated. I don’t think we’ll run into anything like that while we’re here, thank goodness, but as we look for a house the possibility of an earthquake is always on our minds. Our favorite house right now was built in 1944, moved to a new foundation in 1949 and then survived the 1964 quake. We’d be pretty safe there, right?

So don’t worry! When you visit, the biggest earthquake adventure we’ll have is riding bikes over to Earthquake Park. It’ll be beautiful and educational, and hopefully your legs won’t feel too shaky when we get back. 😉