Scarlett’s Letter September 6, 2013

We were up early. Kind of. We were up early enough to take a morning hike, with the intent of hunting up some grouse or spruce hens for dinner. Literally, rifle in tow. We saw lots of evidence of birds scratching in the tundra on our last hike, just no birds, but it had been an afternoon hike. This morning, certainly, we should see some birds.

We hiked up the road, which, to some more urbane, may not look like a road, but, to me, having lived on a dirt road far worse, it looks like an interstate. It was a beautiful morning, clear, cool, bright and lovely. If I could’ve ordered a morning off of a menu, this would be it.

The road.
The road.

We turned from the road onto a trail. This a trail used by snow machines in the winter and four-wheelers the rest of the year. In hiking and cycling terms, I would call it a “double track” trail. I try to be intuitive and I think I do a fair job. Most of the time. My man was walking very quietly, using low voice tones. Right. We are hunting for birds. I adopt my best Sacajawea style walk, silently moving up the trail, hopefully, without snapping twigs. We see plenty of signs of birds, torn up tundra being an indication that they have been near, recently, scratching for food. We become quieter. Near the top of the hill, we double back and look for “the trail”. The trail being a barely visible single-track trail through the thick tundra and brush. To anyone but he who travels the trail, it really does not appear as a trail. Left on my own, I may struggle here and there to see which way the trail turns or twists. Hunting birds, I stick to the trail, I am like a dog, flushing the birds, if there were any, away from the trail. My guy walks fifty feet or so off trail, through only slightly denser growth, watching the ground and the treetops, somehow, simultaneously, for birds, ready to pop one that I may flush from “the trail”, like a good hunting dog. I am told of the behavior of these elusive birds. They scratch around in the tundra early in the morning and take to the treetops later in the day, or when scared. If scared, before being able to take flight, they will simply freeze, totally and completely blending in with their surroundings. And, I am quite sure, we passed dozens and dozens of these sneaky bastards, and I am also quite certain they were sticking their little bird tongues out at us as we passed by, oh so quietly, mere inches away. And, once we were out of earshot, I’m pretty sure they did little spruce hen high fives and laughed at us, mocking us for our obtuseness.

The "double track" trail, primarily frequented by four wheelers and snow machines.
The “double track” trail, primarily frequented by four wheelers and snow machines.
Single track trail.
Single track trail.
Trail? What trail? Are we lost, or is our desired destination just temporarily misplaced?
Trail? What trail? Are we lost, or is our desired destination just temporarily misplaced?

I’m sure you’ve gathered from my demeanor that we did not find any birds to “invite” to dinner. We depart from the trail in search of another. I am lost. I mean, I know I could probably back track and find my way to the double track trail and back to the road, and, yes, I would know which direction to turn on the road to return to the house. I am, at least, that astute. But, blindly through the tundra, I may be a bit turned around for a bit and may end up wandering downhill into someone else’s yard, which, I’m certain, wouldn’t be cool, and, as everyone in Alaska is armed and, quite literally, loaded for bear, may be both uncool and disastrous.

We find, no, not the trail home, at least not right away, but I’m confident that we are, at least, headed in the proper direction. We also find along our unmarked path, berries. Blueberries and low bush cranberries. One does not leave home without at least one rifle, maybe two, one for moose, one for birds, and, Ziploc “foot squares”. For berries, of course. We pick and pick and pick and as we load up our foot squares, we find the path home.

As we walk down the hill towards the house, just visible through the trees downhill a ways, my guy spots a saw in the dirt,  a small carpenters saw, and not his. It has likely been there, buried in the dirt and the duff, for many, many years. Many, as my man bought this plot of land in his youth, as a dream, and then dreamed enough that it manifested, with commitment and consistency and sheer will and lots of hard work, into a home. We retrieved the saw from the forest floor. As we approached the house we found an empty jelly jar on the edge of the rock planter where the flowers and the strawberries grow. A jelly jar to anyone else, a “coffee cup” to my guy. We retrieve it, as well. So, between the berries, the old saw and the jelly jar, at least we didn’t come home entirely empty handed.

A "foot square" of berries!
A “foot square” of berries!
Things we found while lost (not really, only temporarily misplaced).
Things we found while lost (not really, only temporarily misplaced).

Coming down the hill, we pass the chukar pen. Yes, chukars, as in domesticated game birds of the partridge variety. Bird is on the menu tonight, and we can’t eat the saw or the jelly jar. So, we decide to pick off a couple of chukars for dinner. The first harvest. And they may have been a week or two too young, but they were delicious.

A chukar. For dinner. Actually, two.
A chukar. For dinner. Actually, two.
Dinner.
Dinner.
Chukars are good eats.
Chukars are good eats.
Dressed for dinner.
Dressed for dinner.
Farm to table.
Farm to table.

So, today, I continued to think about being lost and what that really means; that we are never really lost, we always know where we are, it’s where we want to be that is temporarily displaced. And I also contemplated things found. A saw. A jelly jar. A bunch of berries. If we pay attention, there are things all around us, just waiting to be found, if only we pay attention. A few interesting thoughts to ponder further, and, a fantastic day. The best. Like a dream.

 

 

Scarlett’s Letter September 3 – 5, 2013

The days grow shorter here in Alaska. Oh, sure, there is still more daylight this time of year, this far north, compared to home. But, the days are indeed growing shorter. I can tell, if for no other reason, than my last week of vacation for the year seems to be flying past at an alarming rate. My last trip here was over two weeks long, and not long enough. With just over a week for this trip, I feel I have barely been here and I’m already preparing myself mentally for the trip home and the long duration without visiting, without Alaska, without my Sweetie.

Yesterday we wiled away the day running errands and attending to things before today’s “road trip”. The absolute highlight of the day yesterday was a long awaited and oft attempted tasting adventure at HooDoo Brewery in Fairbanks. This brewery has been around a few years and has been gaining experience, favor, followers and a crowd. We rolled up before they opened, again. We’ve done this before. We’ve rolled up on the day they were closed, we’ve rolled up before they’ve opened. We have never caught anyone home. On our first attempt yesterday, we were only a little early, so we found another quick errand to run and returned to find the “open” sign illuminated and the parking lot jammed. I was excited. Completely. It is safe to say that I love beer as much as wine and nearly as much as Oreos.

HooDoo offers a great sampler deal, with a generous pour of each of their brews. The darker the samples, the happier I became. Like all things I ingest, I begin with what I’m pretty sure will be my least favorite and work towards what I’m sure will be my favorite. I do this with food, I do this with wine, I do this with beer. Ironically, there is color-coding involved in each, pretty much, the darker, the better. I begin with a Pinot Noir and end with a Merlot. I begin with the vegetables and end with the steak. I begin with the IPA and end with the stout. The brews were all good, but the stout stole my heart. So then I had a whole pint.

Our road trip; a “pilot car” run from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. I’ll explain for those not in the know. I know few will ever admit to watching Ice Road Truckers. I don’t either. But, there are, indeed, truckers, not the ones on the show, mind you, but real truckers, who transport pipe, equipment and structures of various shapes and sizes, mostly huge, to the oil fields in and around Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. As the loads are all “oversized”, they require pilot “cars”, usually pick up trucks, with banners, a yellow flashing light, a flag for directing traffic and a driver who knows what he, or she, is doing. My man has been piloting trucks up the Dalton Highway for more of his life than not. In the million mile Ford, which, by the way, is legend on “the haul road”.

The purpose of the pilot cars is to guide the driver and the oversized load safely up the road, to communicate between the truck driver and the other pilot cars what’s ahead, what’s passing from behind. The pilot car drivers are also responsible for communicating, and at times, directing other drivers on the road to keep them safe and out of the path of the large load in corners and over bridges and other crossings. They act as a guide, as a facilitator.

In life, what pilots you safely through the turns and crossings you must navigate? Have you defined your mission, your purpose, your goals, your roles and your guiding principles? Like a pilot car driver and the trucker with the oversize load that trusts him, our roles, goals and guiding principles, based on our values, are what guide us through life, no matter what lies up ahead.

I’ve accompanied my man to Prudhoe Bay before, in early March, well before summer. The landscape was white, the road was ice and we saw an Artic fox, muskox, ptarmigan and the aurora borealis. It was a little chilly, sure, but nothing my guy’s big, warm parka and fifteen layers of my chic clothes from Uniqlo, H&M, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Buckle, Love Culture and a pair of Ugg boots couldn’t ward off. It was awesome. I have pictures. Roughly one thousand.

I’ve wanted to return. I’d hoped to return, crossing Atigun Pass, in the summer, when the wildflowers were out. But there weren’t any trips when I was here during wildflower season. Another summer, perhaps. The flowers are amazing. This, I know, because last year, someone very special, stopped several times on his way home from Prudhoe Bay and picked wildflowers. For me. A week later, I received a surprise, an envelope with a cardboard card, cut out from a Honey Bunches of Oats cereal box, with dozens of different wildflowers carefully adhered to it. Sigh. I know, right? Even dried, the flowers were breathtaking and I really want to see them in living color.

I have also wanted to see the fall colors over the pass. In fall, the tundra looks like it has been set ablaze, changing from a million shades of lush green to yellow, gold, orange, red and burgundy. We didn’t score a trip all the way to Prudhoe until it was too late to go, but we did get the trip to Coldfoot, about half way up the “haul road” to Prudhoe. Coldfoot is south of Atigun Pass, but still, there was plenty of vibrant hued tundra to enjoy.

When piloting, and when a passenger in a pilot car, the trip up, the actual piloting, is very different than the trip back. All business on the way up. Of course. That’s what it’s all about, getting the truck and it’s shipment to it’s destination without delay, without danger and without disaster. This trip, unlike most, was with an “independent” trucker, an “owner/operator”. Most of the trips north my man makes are as a contractor with one of several companies that routinely move big stuff from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. So we were to meet a driver, headed to Fairbanks from Anchorage, hauling a Caterpillar D9, a large, correction, a very large tractor. The load was wide, fourteen feet wide, to be precise, and because of it’s width, would require two pilot cars to guide it safely to it’s destination a few miles north of Coldfoot. One pilot car would be in front, the other in back. I’m sure you’ve seen such things even in the part of the world you live in. On the Dalton Highway, it is more the norm than un-piloted loads. Passenger cars are both a rarity and a nuisance, as I surmise.

We’d hoped for an early start and even headed into Fairbanks at an impressively early hour. But, when noon came and went and we hadn’t heard from the driver, we called. He was still a few hours from Fairbanks and would need to shuffle the load and fuel up once he arrived. Our early morning departure was becoming a late afternoon and then a later afternoon departure. A trip to Coldfoot, about 250 miles from Fairbanks, if begun in the morning, depending on the load, could be delivered by afternoon and everyone could be home, in their own bed, in time to enjoy most of the following day. That was our hope. But, it was not to be.

We managed to fill our day in town getting stuff done. Thankfully, there was plenty of stuff to be done. Errands and such. We ate Philly Cheesesteaks and fries at the Food Factory, for lunch, because there aren’t any drive-thru’s on the haul road. You pack a sandwich or two and go. There is food in Prudhoe Bay, and truck stop food in Coldfoot. There is also truck stop food at Hilltop, about twenty miles past Fairbanks, sort of the last bastion of necessities before heading further north. How are Philly cheesesteaks different than truck stop food? Well, it’s more of a quality question, I suppose. Get your Philly cheesesteak in town, not a truck stop, while both are unhealthy, the truck stop variety is likely to take an additional year or two off your life, I’m pretty sure.

We met the driver and the second pilot car at about 5:45 PM. Well past morning, to say the least. The driver told the pilots that since he was an owner/operator and paid for his own brakes, we’d be taking the downhills slow. We already knew the uphills would be slow. We headed out just after “curfew”. Oversize loads are forbidden from traveling through Fairbanks during “commute” time, between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. I think their commute traffic is adorable, but, I guess I get it.

Our driver, which requires explaining, I suppose; when you are piloting some trucker up the haul road, as I gather, you sort of adopt him or her as yours for the duration. They become “my driver” or “our driver” depending on the number of pilot cars involved. Anyhoo. Our driver hadn’t eaten all day, so, we stopped at Hilltop for sustenance. This is a truck stop. Terrified of the exponential lethality of truck stop food, and, really, not all that hungry, I had a salad. My man had potato salad, ate half, and thrust the remainder in front of me. I ate it, taking my projected life expectancy down to 111. Ok, so I shoot high. Why not? Then if I die at 101 everyone will say I died an “untimely death”.

At 7:45 PM we depart Hilltop and begin our long, mostly uphill journey into the evening. As I mentioned, the trip up is all business. That means, for me, an unlikely passenger, unless there are northern lights or grizzly bears, I’m probably going to sleep. And I do. Our driver was true to his word, he was moving slower downhill than up. A little backstory is required. Many truckers drive this road day in and day out. They know every pebble, every turn, every nuance. Corners have names. Hills have names. There is a community here. The truckers and pilot car drivers all know one another and chit chat on the radios to one another. Yes, there are multiple radios; one is on an agreed upon channel to chat with your driver and other pilots, then there’s the “road channel” that everyone has turned on to communicate with one another. And, so, the pilot car drivers report upcoming vehicles to their driver on the agreed upon channel, then report the upcoming oversize load to other drivers on the road channel. It is all very impressively complicated and I think there must be some advance degree of study to manage all of this. I don’t know. I only went to college for eleven years, it’s beyond me. Moral; these guys know the road. “Our driver” does not. He has driven the haul road a few times a year, not a few times a week. He is taking it slower than his wide load and brake pads require because he doesn’t know the road. We are in the front, and my man is warning our driver of nuances in the road, to be helpful, and, hopefully, the give him the faith and confidence to speed up, maybe just a little.

I sleep. I wake. I sleep. I wake. I sleep. I wake. I eat a half a sandwich I packed. I sleep. I wake. I get out and pee. I sleep. I wake. And this is how my night goes. Two hundred fifty extremely slow miles. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a girl, on the haul road, and have to pee? Especially when you’re being followed by a big truck hauling a big tractor, being followed by another pickup truck, all occupied by men. I mean, I’ve been the only female on a ten-day backpacking trip with seventeen boys and men, and peeing was a challenge, but it wasn’t an Olympic sport, like peeing on the haul road being followed by trucks full of men. We made it to the top of a hill, several minutes ahead of our driver, so we thought, in order to be able to warn our driver, and the oncoming traffic, of the other party, respectively. I jumped out of the million mile Ford, pulled down my jeans and squatted by the right, front, tire. The road was just a soupy mud, so what I added really mattered little. I was about 7/8 done with my duty when headlights crested the hill behind me. It was growing dark and I’m pretty sure my silhouette was pretty apparent. I heard an exclamation from within the truck and in a split second, I finished, became air born and partially pulled up my jeans, mid air, while opening the truck door. I landed on the seat, bare butt, pants sagging like a middle school delinquent. As I launched myself from a crouch on muddy earth, into flight, into the truck, streams of mud followed me, clinging to my jeans from the knee down. I’m glad there was no video of my endeavor, and at the same time, kind of disappointed there wasn’t. It had to be spectacular, especially in slow motion instant replay mode.

We left town before 6:00 PM. We made it to Coldfoot at 5:30 AM. And we slept in the sleeper. Both of us. Synchronized rolling over went very well, we’re on about the same schedule, our old bones begin to ache at about the same time, which is cool. I guess.

We are awakened by a very loud pickup truck pulling up next to us in a rather obvious and engine revving sort of manner. I am, at first, annoyed, but I think it was the first “alarm clock”. Shortly after the noisy truck pulled up, there was a knock on the window from the other pilot car (noisy truck) driver. The snooze alarm just went off. I get it. The engine revving was just a “courtesy” to make sure we were awake, or dressed, or whatever, for the approach to the drivers’ window. Not many girlfriends accompany pilot car drivers. I get it. We slither out of the sleeper, fully clothed, and right into our respective seats, the truck is started and we drive across the lot to the restaurant at Coldfoot. I pee in captivity and grab three coffees for the tow of us. We meet our driver and are on our way to drop the D9 at it’s final destination a few miles up the road. A slow but safe trip.

It’s the trip home I look forward to with ample time to pull over and take pictures. My guy will never understand my desire to take so many pictures, he shakes his head when I complain that my MacBook is overloaded because of the forty thousand photos I have in iPhoto. But, still, he offers to pull over every time I lift my iPhone for another shot.

Aside from pictures, we have the rifle with us, just in case a large, male moose should cross our path somewhere south of the Yukon River. Bow hunting is allowed north of the Yukon and rifles to the south, so we’ll keep our eyes opened to the south. We also take advantage of a side road here and there to cut some firewood. There is no excuse for coming home with an empty truck bed, if not moose, then, certainly we can take down a standing dead tree or two! There are a few cords of wood cut, split and stacked in front of the house, but a couple more are in order, shortly, for winter. While he makes short order of a few trees, I pick berries. We are hunter/gatherers on our way south on the Dalton Highway. We see lots of moose hunters, and, still, no moose. There is chatter on the radio, not far away, of a cow and calf that crossed the road in front of a trucker, but no bull followed. While it may be moose season according to the calendar, it isn’t moose season according to the moose. Too warm, still. The bulls will chase the cows when it’s cooler. So I’m told.

We arrive at home, sandwiches eaten and the truck bed full of something useful for the winter. But not a moose. The trip was long, but a success. Our driver and his D9 reached Coldfoot safely with assistance from his two pilot cars, helping him manage the curves and crossings safely. Just like our values, roles, goals and guiding principles help us navigate through the turns and crossings life will certainly take.

Now that we’re home, it is time to upload photos from my iPhone to iPhoto. I’m excited. Every time I look at these pictures it will be almost like reliving the trip, again! A picture, a thousand words, a million memories!

Scarlett’s Letter September 2, 2013

After a leisurely morning at the cabin on the Salcha River, we headed downstream in the airboat. Me with my idiotic UrbanOG bag full of fussy clothes, again, shoved under the bow with all the stuff that lurks in those dark spaces men keep vital things in; fuel syphoning hoses, tools, lubricants, fishing lures, various dirty rags and empty beer bottles. I also have my brand new, far more practical, and somehow stylish “Realtree” camo daypack. I felt appropriately accessorized until the UrbanOG tote didn’t make it back to the truck. It ruined the whole image I was striving for for this adventure. I’ll live.

In my super cool, totally appropriate and yet stylish camo daypack, I have my point and shoot camera, my iPhone in a waterproof, shockproof and even snow proof “Lifeproof” case. In red. I also have my helmet cam. I don’t have a helmet on which to mount it and the double sided sticky things they sent with the camera are no longer sticky from having been stuck to snow machines and canoes on previous adventures. So, I guess my helmet cam is a handheld, for the time being. My point and shoot camera batteries are dead, and somehow, though I have everything necessary to survive almost anything stuffed into my daypack, I neglected to insert the brand new package of double A batteries I bought specifically for this trip. They’re still in my purse. I think. I seem to be cursed with cameras when I’m here. Too many cameras, not enough power. On our fantastic canoe trip in July, with the helmet camera mounted to the canoe, I’d hoped to have some amazing footage. I would have, except the damn camera wasn’t charged. I had the point and shoot with me, but the batteries died after about three pictures, and after one canoe capsized, I didn’t dare take my iPhone out, I hadn’t thought to part with a hundred bucks for the Lifeproof case yet. That trip may have been the impetus to do so.

So, I sat in my assigned seat in the airboat, in front of the “pilot’s chair”, always cognizant of not allowing my chair or my arm or any other appendage shift too far to the right and impede the pilot’s foot on the throttle. This usually results in a tap on the shoulder and frantic pointing. Actually, almost everything that needs to be communicated between pilot and passenger is a tap on the shoulder and frantic pointing. It is up to me to decipher what the tapping and pointing means in each circumstance; moose over there, move your chair, put this empty bottle under the bow, grab the bow line, leap to shore and figure out what knot will secure the boat to a permanent or quasi permanent object (pick out permanent or quasi permanent object for extra credit), get motor oil, duck (as in, get down, not as in waterfowl). I’m becoming fairly adept. I think.

For some reason, I decided it would be a great idea to keep my helmet cam in hand, lens cover off. Too many times now, something amazing has occurred and the stupid helmet cam has been stuffed in the deepest, darkest recesses of my pack and I have only a story to tell and no picture to prove. On one trip, I saw five bald eagles. Do you believe me? That’s what I mean! I need photographic evidence! Today, redemption. As we soared downstream my eye was caught by some motion to the left. An eagle. And he flew alongside the boat for the longest time. I clicked my camera on, and aimed it in the general direction of the great bird. With a helmet cam, or at least my helmet cam, there is no viewfinder, you have to guess at what you’re filming. It has a very wide angle, so I was pretty sure I was filming eagle and not the wake in the water. At last, the bird lit in a tree and we continued our trajectory downstream. Satisfaction. Triumph.

We reached the crowded boat ramp and I deftly leapt to shore, bowline in hand, and, well, just held it, while the truck was retrieved. There were several vehicles waiting to load boats, and several more boats waiting for their vehicles. Surprisingly, it didn’t take all that long for our turn and in very short order, the boat was trailered and we pulled away from the ramp. A couple of different passersby commented on the airboat with the Lycoming engine. Most of the airboats on the water these days have large car motors powering the propeller. This one, an aircraft engine and an aircraft propeller. Seems right.

We headed back towards Fairbanks, stopping at Los Amigos for lunch; tacos and an Alaskan Amber. Wherever the airboat goes, there will be folks to talk about airboats. Airboats have been gaining popularity in Alaska over the past few years and now are numerous. People spend big dollars on big airboats. Many we saw on the Salcha River this weekend were large and had an enclosure to keep the passengers (multiple passengers) and pilot alike, warm and dry.  Big, extravagant, and yet, ordinary. There is nothing quite like an airboat, built from the ground up, with a Lycoming aircraft engine in it, to spark conversation. And so, more conversation ensued at the bar at Los Amigos.

Lunch down, we continued our trek towards home. We stopped at the gas station in Fox for more wine, believe it or not, and, somehow ended up next door at the Howling Dog for another beer with an old friend, my Sweetie’s old friend, a new acquaintance for me. The Howling Dog is another well-known institution in Fox, Alaska, immediately across the street from our usual Silver Gulch. I am glad to have finally had the opportunity for a visit with a limited season and shorter hours than Silver Gulch, it was nice to be nearby at the right time of day during the right time of the year. I am always happy to see scarlet begonias in planters and pots nearly everywhere I go. The Howling Dog being no exception.

But the biggest, brightest and prettiest scarlet begonias of all time are the ones on the porch of my man’s house. The growing season nears a close and I simply cannot take enough pictures of these amazing flowers, knowing that their days are numbered. When the cold comes in another couple of weeks, the pots will be upended, the tubers collected and put in the cellar for planting, again, next spring.

Scarlett’s Letter September 1, 2013

It’s Labor Day weekend and opening day of moose season here in Alaska. When I arrived a couple of evenings ago, the airport was full of folks aiming to shoot a moose, literally and figuratively. All those visitors and most of the locals will be in the woods, on four wheelers, on foot, on boats, looking for moose. Everything has been late this year. Break up, when the ice on the river breaks up in spring, was late this year. And everything else followed in turn, late. The salmon ran late. The warm weather for planting gardens and greenhouses was late. The berries were late, which I am not complaining about, there were still plenty to pick upon my late August arrival. It is likely that the moose will be late this year, too. It isn’t cold enough, yet, and there are still too many leaves on the trees. Things work seasonally here, not by a calendar. You can name dates and make rules that follow dates, but nature will always follow the seasons.

People here, most of the people here, are seasonal, too. My man is definitely an example of that. Life is not ruled by calendars and clocks, it is ruled by the weather, the seasons, the slant of the sun, the amount of daylight per day, by the fish in the streams and rivers and the animals in the woods and on the tundra. Calendars and clocks have no impact on nature, but moose hunting season is set by the calendar. My man thinks I’m just a calendar and clock kind of girl, and that is somewhat the case. My life is run by calendars and clocks because of my job. I also remember dates and kind expect others, too, as well. Holidays and birthdays mean a great deal to me, to others, often seasonal folks, and especially my man, that isn’t the case, they’re just another day in the midst of some much more important season. But, I am seasonal, too. For example, I happen to know that bikini and sundress season is almost over and boot and sweater season is almost here! And I love that the California climate allows for some overlap in these areas. Alaska is different. The fall season is here, even if the calendar disagrees.

Last year was different, and with a busy work schedule ahead of him, my man saw a moose on his way home from work, on opening day, pulled his rifle out of the back of his economy car, and shot his moose. Opening day. A quick call to a friend with a truck and a couple of knives and three hours later it was quartered, loaded and hung up at home. Not the norm and not the way things are going to be this year. There may or may not be a moose, but, with moose still in the freezer from last year, there is no real pressure to get one this year. But, if no moose is had this year, the pressure will definitely be on next year. As I like to say, it is what it is.

We were not going to hunt for moose today, or this weekend, or maybe at all. We have an invitation for a visit with a friend with a very large cabin, more of a lodge, really, up the Salcha River a ways. I’ve crossed the Salcha River, on our way to dip net for red salmon on the Copper River in Chitinia when I was here in July, but I have not really “seen” the river. We were a little hesitant to commit when the invitation was offered with threatening rain and an open airboat, but, today, we decided we’d go for it. Without cell service or Internet at the house, we relied on the news on one of the three or four television channels that sporadically come through. It looked like we might have enough of a rain free window to make it there, and back home again, without getting too wet or too cold.

We packed up, loaded up, geared up, hitched up and went. I wore about ten layers of clothes, Smartwool, fleece, Gortex boots, and I had my man’s huge winter parka along, for good measure. We were looking at a couple of hours, potentially in rain and wind, in an open airboat. It could be cold. And I’m a wimp. No, I’m not really, but I’m a Cali girl and it is less than 80 degrees out, so I’m a little chilly.

As we drove south, with a stop at Silver Gulch in Fox for breakfast and a brew, through Fairbanks and North Pole to Salcha, the rain would splatter the windshield just enough now and then to require the wipers. Then it would stop. Then it would begin again. When we arrived at the park where the boat launch was, we could see the trucks and trailers parked in the lot, in the overflow lot and along the road where they shouldn’t be parked. Because we’re glass half full folks, we cruised through the main lot, closest to the ramp, up the line, all full, around the corner and back down the other side, all full, except one. One spot in the main lot was open. We quickly dropped the boat in the water parked the truck and trailer in the open spot. I say we, I looked on as the boat was launched and the truck and trailer were moved. But, either way, the glass was definitely half full. See?

We got our gear on the boat and stowed. I’d worn “cute clothes” to breakfast and brought ugly clothes for the adventure. I had hoped to stash my “cute clothes” in the truck, but, with all that happened in securing that prime parking spot, this did not occur. I was ready with my daypack and all the essentials for the trip and the overnight, with some contingency items, too, like the good Boy Scout I am. And, now, in addition to uber-efficient daypack, I had an UrbanOG tote with my J. Crew cardigan, my skinny jeans, a cute blouse and my brand new black flats. I stuff them under the bow of the boat with the boxes of fishing lures, syphon hoses, aircraft engine oil and spray lubricant. I’m trying not to think about what can happen to my lovelies.

I take my spot on my lawn chair, positioned carefully in front of the “pilot’s” chair. I put my headphones on, for the engine noise, and I put my life vest on, somehow, over my Sweetie’s huge winter parka and all the layers of clothing I’m wearing. I don’t even want to think about what I look like. There must be a way to do all this with a tad more style. I will find that way. I did it as a backpacking Boy Scout leader (I’m sorry, those olive drab pants and shorts are like vomit), I will do it again. Find style and functionality where only functionality seems to be the norm. Watch me. I am grateful for the parka, though, and my gloves, and my cap as we set off up the Salcha River. Especially when it began to rain precisely two minutes into our journey.

Again, I am reminded of what it means to be lost. I am. I mean, I know I am heading upstream on the Salcha River. Period. End of story. I know, in a couple of hours, we will arrive where we are planning to go. That’s it. As with most rivers, there are channels and adjoining streams along the Salcha. My man navigates them, turning this way, yielding that. He has been to our destination once before, but overshot it by twenty or thirty miles before stopping and asking directions back. I am not unnerved, I have total and complete trust, if, for no other reason, because mine is a man who WILL stop and ask for directions. And he knows rivers, their nature, how they are constructed, how they work, what is dangerous, what is safe. Most of us look at a river and see water moving in one direction, but there is much more going on, there are eddies and back eddies, there are cut banks and shallows. To be safe, and efficient, you need to know which side of the river to be on when there are eddies and back eddies, cut banks, and all. I don’t. He does, and in particular, in an airboat. An airboat can navigate in very little water, which is why they are gaining so much popularity with hunters and outdoorsmen (people). Airboats can go where jet boats can’t, and jet boats can go where boats with propellers cannot. Airboats can even travel over hard surfaces, if need be, but, of course, this is not good for the longevity of the plastic coating on the hull of the boat, and fissures, cracks and other weaknesses in this coating, I learn later that evening, in a story, can cause said airboat to take to the air and perform acrobatics, tossing its occupants asunder in a spectacular display. Still not worried.

To add to the adrenaline, which, by the way, I love, and may actually be just a bit addicted to, remember, it is opening day of moose season. There are boats of every imaginable shape, size and propulsion charging up and down the river scaring the fuck out of any moose within a ten-mile radius. We saw no moose, we saw lots of moose hunters, and because their boats were all empty, they, apparently, hadn’t seen any moose either. We have the big rifle with us, because during moose season, you just don’t leave home without it. It rests obediently in the bottom of the boat. I love that guns are so obedient, they do exactly what you tell them to, nothing more, nothing less. For those of you a little less convinced, just keep in mind, guns are inanimate objects.

We reach our destination, which, for me, is always a little unnerving. I consider myself quite capable, quite handy, pretty smart, and, most of all, trainable. This is a new world for me, and one I quite enjoy. I’d like to assimilate. But I need to be taught the ropes, quite literally. My man is very aware of all of this, and is an excellent and patient teacher. But, sometimes you have to know what to teach and when to prompt your student to do what is expected. I am learning that when we stop the boat, I am to leap up, grab the bow rope and leap to some firm footing and secure said boat, without a) looking like a dork b) acting like a girl and c) falling into the water, which would encompass both a) and b). Only occasionally do I still need to be prompted. The only piece of the puzzle I’m missing is which knot, specifically, I should be tying. I’m a Boy Scout leader, I know lots of knots, or at least I used to. As I often say, and often say to my man, show me once, maybe twice, and I’ll be flawless. My knot left something to be desired, but it held. Next time, for sure, I’ll have him show me exactly what know he uses.

Our host is not at home. We sit on his lovely deck and enjoy a beer. A few minutes later, he arrives. Boats are shuffled about and we all retire to his palatial cabin, out of the rain and wind, and visit for the remainder of the evening late into the night. The perfect ending to a perfectly executed day, no directions required.

Scarlett’s Letter August 31, 2013

To be in Alaska again! Bliss!

After a long day of travel, yesterday, we decided to just have a nice, easy, relaxing day at home. Or, at least, near home. Maybe not so easy, but relaxing.

Late August is one of my favorite times of year here. Berry season. I love berries, of all types. I eat berries daily, year round. I have no problem shelling out great sums of money at Whole Foods for organic berries for daily consumption. I think if I were an animal, I really, truly, may be a bear. I love salmon, and other fish, and I love berries. Ursus Americanus, the American black bear, an omnivore, will much more likely forage for berries than hunt and kill any creature, unless you’re camping in a tent and have a Snickers bar in your sleeping bag with you. They are opportunistic hunters with a sense of smell nine times greater than a hound dog. Sure, if you put a slab of meat in front of a black bear, or the salmon are leaping from the water, the bear will certainly enjoy the meal. Berries, though, are easy pickin’s. And, pickin’ berries is an enjoyable pastime, for bears and people alike.

I have been up the hill, behind my Love’s house, a few times before. I’ve walked the “trap line” before the snows, I’ve ridden a four-wheeler along the trail, I’ve ridden a snow machine along the trail. And, yet, I really can’t see said trail. It is not a well-developed trail, intentionally. It is private and the intent is to keep it that way. As a hiker, I know, that it doesn’t take many sets of footprints to permanently mark a trail. As a certified instructor in the principles of Leave No Trace, I know for a fact, very few sets of footprints along the same course will create an indelible trail. Certainly, growth will reclaim the appearance of the trail, but the underlying scar remains, the earth is altered. When hiking in pristine wilderness where no trails exist, in other words, if you do not have “durable surfaces” to hike along, it is recommended that multiple hikers spread out across the area, each taking a unique path, so as not to create a trail where one was not before, and, really, where one is not needed in the future. With the trail behind the house, there is evidence that it exists, but it is used seldom enough by only one, and occasionally two hikers, that it is not a “durable surface”, not a recognizable trail to most. As it should be.

Without a defined trail, in an area I’ve only visited a handful of times, I am, admittedly, a bit lost without my guide. Now, if I were to traverse this path alone, without guidance, I would take measures to assure my safe navigation to my desired destination and my return from my desired destination. I didn’t need that, I had my Sweetie as a guide. It’s his trail. Reminiscent of a couple of horses I’ve owned, he led the way and I dutifully followed. Sugar always wanted to be in the lead and Ranger was always more than happy to just follow. He led, I followed. Up to the top of the ridge and then, a decision, which I was being asked to make. The lead horse usually makes the decision, but it was up to me. Should we take a longer hike down to the stream where the blueberries should be amazing and we may see some salmon berries along the way? Or take a shorter hike along the ridge to where we’ve picked berries before? I’ve never seen a salmon berry, and I’m never afraid of a longer hike, even after a long day of travel and a few nights of short sleep. I opted for the longer hike, the opportunity to see salmon berries that I’ve never seen before and to see a valley and stream I’ve never seen before! We headed to the right, up over the ridge and down, down, down a fairly long, steep hill. All the while I’m thinking, only a little concerned, what goes down is going to have to come up, again. Me, in particular.

We had a daypack with us, with the essentials; empty yogurt and cottage cheese tubs for the blueberries and some “foot squares”, also known as one-gallon Ziploc bags, for any sturdier berries we may want to pick, like low bush cranberries. Blueberries are juicy, plump, though not nearly as plump in the wild as the farm-raised, store-bought variety, which, after eating wild Alaskan blueberries seem fleshy and bland. Nonetheless, blueberries will crush one another in a “foot square” and make juice and jam in a daypack before reaching home, again. The other essentials include “flagging” tape, to mark where we drop the daypack and rifle while we wander the tundra picking, oh, and the rifle, just a .22, just in case we scare up a grouse or spruce hen, also known as dinner, potentially. It isn’t moose season yet, by a day, so higher power isn’t, yet, a necessity. I’m wondering about bears, but I don’t ask. I’m not the lead horse.

We make our way down, down, down, the hill toward the bottom of the valley. If you have never hiked on tundra before, allow me to attempt to describe it for you; it is like hiking on sponges. It is like moss, on steroids. Well, it is a moss, but deep. Very, very deep. And this time of year, it is changing colors, from green to orange, red and yellow. The berry bushes grow all over the hillside amongst the tundra, and are also changing color, from green to gold to red, depending on the variety. There are hundreds of varieties of berries in Alaska, another reason why I feel I belong here. The deep, cushy tundra covers the soil, rocks, downed logs and other obstacles, so it is uneven, but soft and spongy. I guess, if you’re unfamiliar with it, it would be much like spraying an obstacle course of logs and rocks with a foot deep layer of sponge. Walking down a steep hill covered in tundra is interesting, you place your foot down and wait a fraction of a second to see just how far its going to sink before being on firm enough terrain to allow you to lift your other foot off the ground for your next step. I figure I must look a little like a slow motion version of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, traversing downhill in sort of jerky, exaggerated steps, lifting one foot high enough to pull it out of the tundra, kick it forward enough to make progress, and place it down again, tentatively. Wait, sink, lift, step. A pretty good work out and an unforgettable experience. I heart tundra.

On our way down, we encounter a moose trail, which is a trench worn into the tundra, clear down to the soil beneath. We walk a ways along the trail, made, likely, by just one moose. At times the trail bed was over a foot beneath the top of the tundra alongside, it sometimes came to my knees, it was like walking in a ditch. Some trails are traveled by many moose and can be much deeper cut, which I can only imagine, as this was a “single moose trail,” so my “guide” said. And, considering the source, I believe. We also spotted many areas where the tundra had been disturbed, the surface was torn up and scattered; “bird sign”, meaning that grouse had been scratching in the area, meaning, we should be able to scare up an inexpensive protein source for dinner. Hence the .22. Blam!

We reach the stream at the valley floor, though it isn’t visible. I can hear the water burbling over rocks, but the stream itself is shrouded in tundra and thick brush, mostly blueberry plants. We pick and pick and pick, filling a couple of large yogurt and cottage cheese containers, and eating plenty more, too. After a bit, we decide to make our way back up the hill, traversing diagonally towards the ridge in search of more berries. The longer trek to the stream was “fruitful”, pun intentional, though we saw no salmon berries. Up on the ridge, though, we may find some low-bush cranberries. And maybe a bird. For dinner. Blam!

We hike and hike and hike. I follow the lead horse, who is deliberate and methodical in his ascent. I can appreciate that. I am offered the opportunity to lead, at one point, because I am “tailgating”. Oops. My bad. So I lead for a while. I only know to go up the hill, there is no trail, we deviated from the trail when we decided to go down into the valley. I just head up the hill. As you may know, I’m a bit of a cardio nut. If I have nothing better to do and I haven’t done anything strenuous, yet, in a day, I can usually be found at the gym just sweating my brains out on the cardio equipment. I have four machines I favor, and of those favored four, my favorite, and the reason for joining the gym I joined, is the Stairmaster, the actual stairs on an inclined treadmill, not the little step paddles that move a few inches, but full on stairs, mechanized stairs. I do about 72 flights of stairs in fifteen minutes. Hills don’t bother me. Even hills covered in a foot of spongy tundra. I’m just launching myself uphill, thinking, “Wow! Now this is a Stairmaster!” Tackling the steep climb with this mindset may have been a worse offense than tailgating.  As I’m striding up the hill, I notice large indentations in the tundra, I think they must be our footsteps from our descent. I point them out and, no, I am informed that they are the footsteps of a good-sized bear. I have visions of us swinging the butt of the .22 at the bear’s head, repeatedly, in an attempt, likely a hapless attempt, to escape with our lives. I march on, a little faster and with a bit more enthusiasm, like skipping steps on the Stairmaster, and a much worse offense than tailgating. So, we take a rest, plunk right down on the tundra, which is like sitting on a pillow. A soggy, damp pillow. Luckily, we packed another essential in our daypack; the remainder of the bottle of wine we were enjoying the night before, a 2011 V. Sattui, Crow Ridge Vineyard, Old Vine Zinfandel. Of all the wine I schlepped to Alaska, this was our favorite. By far. We kill the rest of the bottle and I relinquish the lead back to he who knows the way and hikes at a more reasonable pace. I follow dutifully behind, a mindful distance.

At a few points along our ascent to the ridge and, hopefully, back to the trail home, we stop, my man looks up, looks right, looks left, and walks on, occasionally altering direction by a fraction, a degree. He knows the curve of the hills, the pattern of the trees that differ from the pattern of the trees in another area, some spruce, some birch and hardwood, each lending a different color and texture to the hillside. The direction of the sun also provides guidance, and, though I am lost, and there is not trail other than the meandering footprints of a “good-sized” bear and a single moose trail leading somewhere, but not home, he knows the way. We find along our route, the remains of a baby moose, just some clean, nearly white bones and one small hoof, perfectly intact from the knee down. And we walk on. Still, I am lost, and, if left on my own, would likely wander for quite some time, maybe never finding my way back to our starting point. Again, had I started on my own, I’d have navigated myself, deliberately and would be able to navigate back without much trouble. I am slightly lost only because the area is unfamiliar to me and I started on the premise that I need not navigate, deliberately. When I see the first “trap”, I know we are back on the trail. Not really a trap, the trap itself has been removed, and is only in place for a very short duration during winter. But, there are many trap sites along this trail, for marten and fox, mostly, and they are familiar to me, now.

At the top of the ridge, we turn and head down the trail towards home. Though I cannot see a trail in the tundra, through the brush, in the layer of birch leaves that are already scattered on the forest floor, for fall is here, already, in Alaska, I know there is a trail and that we are following it. Familiarity. Lost no more. A short time later, the form of the house becomes apparent further down the hill, hiding behind the trees. Home, in time for dinner. Chicken. From the freezer. Blam. Only the sound of the freezer door shutting.

 

Dinner. Chicken from the freezer, cranberries from our hike, corn, squash, lettuce and tomatoes from the garden and greenhouse and a 2009 Ceja Carneros Merlot from the box I schlepped from home, to the airport, on the plane, to Alaska.
Dinner. Chicken from the freezer, cranberries from our hike, corn, squash, lettuce and tomatoes from the garden and greenhouse and a 2009 Ceja Carneros Merlot from the box I schlepped from home, to the airport, on the plane, to Alaska.

 

Ahhhh-laska

I am back from the wilds of Alaska. Well, maybe not the wildest part of Alaska, but, yes, the part with no Internet, no cellular service, and, at times, no electricity. Right, I didn’t make it to Barnes & Noble. So I have much to say, a week in Alaska, who wouldn’t have a lot to say?

It is no surprise that I love Alaska. I mean, I love California, all of the Californias; the endless coastline, some sandy, some too rugged to traverse, the big cities, the small, historic towns, the big trees, the agriculture, the history and the heritage, the big mountains, the rolling foothills, the winding rivers. Mostly, I love the Sierras. But I love Alaska, what I’ve seen of it, thus far, a great deal, and, yes, in some ways, more than Cali. And, yes, in some ways, I love Cali a bit more, but, increasingly, that tends to be related only to quality shopping venues and wine.

They call Alaska “the last frontier”, and while it is certainly my latest frontier, I don’t intend for it to be my last. It will be a lasting frontier, for me, though. I really can’t see, at this point in time, no matter what happens in my life, on any level, not having Alaska in my life on a regular, if not quasi-permanent basis. I am in awe.

But, it is no surprise that I love Alaska. I’m sure you must have some memory from childhood, some very formative memory, that, though random and seemingly insignificant, has, in some way influenced your life and even, maybe, directed the course of it. Certainly you must have. We all must have. For me? It was a Hamm’s beer sign. Circa late 1960’s or early 1970’s, I don’t know for certain, that’s when I saw the sign, it could’ve been an “old” sign at that point in time. But, it was a sign, a sign that guided me into certain pathways and journeys, not directly, but through the subtle and lasting impression, and the sheer, somewhat cheesy, backlit beauty of the scrolling river scene, depicting waterfalls, a serene river, wildlife, a campsite. As Liz Lemon would say, “I want to go to there.”

There was an old school scrolling Hamm’s Beer sign in “Food City” in Napa, at the intersection of Jefferson and Old Sonoma Road, for any old time “Napkins” out there. My mom would push the clackity-wheeled grocery cart through the store, filling it with boxes, packaged cake mixes and Jell-O, and cans upon cans of faded, waxy vegetables and condensed soup, I was a particular fan of “Campbell’s Manhandler’s Beef and Barley”. I was pretty sure that’s what was in the kettle, over the fire in the campsite in the Hamm’s Beer sign. Mom would pick up a couple of items from the produce and meat aisles, iceberg lettuce and ground beef, most likely. While she shopped for the week’s “loss leaders”, I stood at the front of the store, mesmerized by the sign. I am one hundred percent certain that is where my love of the outdoors, of the wilderness, camping, rivers and adventures was first ignited. I know, Hamm’s Beer wasn’t from Alaska, but the scene in that sign could’ve been Wisconsin, or California, New York, or Alaska. It didn’t matter, I wanted to go to there.

My parents certainly were not “outdoorsy”. Until I was four years old, we lived in Oakland and I only remember gray fog, gray streets, gray highways, gray factories and the gray water of the San Francisco Bay circa mid-1960’s. They never camped in tents or hiked, canoed or skied.  Seeing nature was done from the comfort of a large sedan on a Sunday afternoon, with, maybe, a picnic, if the weather permitted. A trip to “the wilderness” was staying at a friends’ cabin in Tahoe. The adults sat around inside the dark cabin, day and night, having cocktails, smoking and playing cards. The kids took to the woods, followed a stream, out to the lake. Fish were caught by the boys, and some fish never made it back to the cabin, on a dare, they were eaten raw and whole, by the boys, before we even knew what sushi was. The fish that did make it back to the cabin were never seen again. I’m really not sure what ever happened to those beautiful rainbow trout, we certainly never ate them, cooked, or raw. We had the contents of boxes, packages, and cans, accompanied by Jell-O molds, on a bed of iceberg lettuce, as a garnish. I’m sure there was ground beef in the meal, somewhere, too, but certainly no freshly caught rainbow trout out of the pristine, blue waters of Lake Tahoe.

I’m certain it was because of the Hamm’s Beer sign at Food City at the intersection of Jefferson and Old Sonoma Road in Napa that I begged my mom to let me join Girl Scouts. I wanted to camp and fish and live in a tent by that river, maybe see that bear. Beer really wasn’t on my mind, yet, I was a few years too young. And, ironically, my first beer was with those very girls, from Girl Scouts, sleeping outside, in sleeping bags, under the stars. On my parents’ deck. Sssshhh. But, perhaps that sign has had another influence in my life; my love for beer, especially if it were to be enjoyed alongside a woodland river. Not Hamm’s, of course, for like my love of the outdoors, my taste for beer has developed into a lust for more.

I had the best Girl Scout leaders in the world, and, again, I’m sure that is another formative turn in my life; that I had Girl Scout leaders that hiked and camped, in addition to all the crafty stuff. By the time I was big enough and old enough to be a Girl Scout leader, myself, most of the other Girl Scout leaders wouldn’t fathom setting foot outdoors for an activity. My troop did. Because of the influence of my adventurous Girl Scout leaders as a girl, and, because of the Hamm’s Beer sign at Food City at the intersection of Jefferson and Old Sonoma Road in Napa, I became the Girl Scout leader that took the troop hiking, backpacking, snow boarding, rock climbing and rappelling.

So off to Alaska I’ve been. Again. And there will be another again. And another. There is much to see, there is much to do, there is much to experience. And though I still have many corners of California I intend to explore, I want to see all of Alaska. Too. And other frontiers, as well.

This trip started with the idea of a couple of new adventures.

Our plans for a July trip to “fish camp” on the Yukon River to fish for “silvers” were dashed due to the fact that there weren’t enough salmon in the river. So, in July, instead of gill netting for silvers on the Yukon River, we dip netted for reds on the Copper. I didn’t mind the change in plans! I was thrilled! The annual fall run of “chum” salmon on the Yukon gave us another opportunity for “fish camp” and more salmon. Like the Hamm’s bear, I could eat salmon pretty much every day, maybe not every meal, but I have been known to. No easy task keeping this girl supplied with salmon, and, I will resort to, dare I say, frozen fish from Whole Foods and maybe even, shudder, Target, if I must. Desperate times, desperate times.

I’ve seen a few parts of Alaska in our travels; Anchorage, Fairbanks and surrounds, certainly, Coldfoot, Prudhoe Bay, Denali, a little bit, and Chitinia. We were hoping for a “pilot car” trip from Valdez to Fairbanks, taking an extra day to see the town of Valdez before reporting for duty. With only a week of vacation left for the year, this was it, and a trip to the Yukon for a couple of days and another to Valdez for a couple of days, would pretty much round out the plans for the week.

There were also hopeful plans for a wine-tasting party, which is a more “winter-time” tradition in the “neighborhood”, when it’s too dark to do much else. But, no one would object to a wine-tasting party earlier in the year, certainly. I, as you know, have been buying up wine, week in and week out, winery after winery, tasting room after tasting room, and then, I very carefully selected the six (of twenty seven) bottles I’d take, to share with friends and neighbors. It is, I assure you, no easy task to lug two suitcases and a half a case of wine, single handedly, from the trunk of my car in the economy parking lot to the bus, from the bus to the terminal, and finally, to the agent to be checked, at whatever unholy hour of the morning it was. Feeling like a mother parting with her infant at day care, that first day back to work, I handed over the specialty box I bought to cradle my wine from Cali to AK, even in the hands of the Samsonite gorillas.

But, as with life, even a week in a life, plans change. And, as with life, when plans change, there should never be sorrow or anger, disappointment or despair. Plans change. That’s life. Plans change. That’s vacation. Plans change. Though we never made it to “fish camp”, or to Valdez, and, well, we drank all the wine ourselves, it was a splendid, fabulous, wonderful and never to be forgotten week. Not because of the wine, and, yes, even with the all that wine, nothing will ever be forgotten. Being able to adapt the plan and still enjoy every single moment is what vacation needs to be. Being able to adapt the plan and still enjoy time together is what a relationship needs to be. Being able to adapt the plan and still evolve in life is what success in life is all about. Practice, every day, adapting for alterations to your plan, because, being a master at that is what will carry you through life, much like the canoe, on the cheesy, backlit scrolling river on the Hamm’s Beer sign at Food City at the intersection of Jefferson and Old Sonoma Road in Napa.

 

Aaaahhh-laska!
Aaaahhh-laska!
Enjoying V. Sattui wine from the Napa Valley, in Aaaahhh-laska!
Enjoying V. Sattui wine from the Napa Valley, in Aaaahhh-laska!

 

Aaaahhh-laska!
Aaaahhh-laska!

Scarlett’s Letter August 30, 2013

I don’t even know where to begin with this day. I guess the beginning would be appropriate.

I slept like crap and there was no good reason. My mind just picked some random topic and decided it should worry about it and keep the rest of us all sleepless. The topic? The wine in the box being transported as checked luggage from Sacramento to Portland to Anchorage to Fairbanks and then its reception and use thereafter. It was epic. There were even related nightmares.

My alarms were set for 3:30 and 3:31AM. You rely on only one alarm? Fool! Two, on at least two devices. It’s called a contingency plan. Have one. For everything.  I had a nightmare or something, last night. I’ve had it before, but not for a very long time. I had the sensation that someone or something sat on the bed, tightening the covers atop me, or perhaps, the someone or something was actually on top of me. Whatever it was, I was rendered incapable of movement. I was also, for whatever reason, incapable of uttering any kind of sound, no plea for help. Have you had this dream? It’s terrifying. I think I may have actually emitted some kind of guttural noise.

Two of four alarms. I'm a little OCD, okay? But I'm never late!
Two of four alarms. I’m a little OCD, okay? But I’m never late!

When the first of my alarms sounded, tired though I was, I leapt from under the covers and prepared myself for … vacation. If it had been work, it may have been another story. I got ready, threw all my luggage into Meep (my Civic) and floored it to SMF (Sacramento International Airport).

The flight to Portland was mundane, except for the “complimentary beverage”. Love that! From Portland to Anchorage, so very typical of air travel, I don’t even know where to begin. Surely you’ve flown. What has been your experience? A screaming baby, someone contagious, someone loony? Am I right? These are the required components of almost any flight, it’s like mandates that must be met. Where do I begin?

At 6:30 AM? Nooooooo! Where will I get a mimosa?
At 6:30 AM? Nooooooo! Where will I get a mimosa?
Cafeteria 15L! I love you! Thank you for being at SMF at my time of need!
Cafeteria 15L! I love you! Thank you for being at SMF at my time of need!

On my flight from Sacramento to Portland was a man. He was short in stature, sort of a “Napoleon complex” going on. He wore black jeans, a black jacket, leather or pleather, I dared not get close enough to discern. He also wore black-lensed aviators, indoors. I first saw him in the boarding area and thought “Hmmm. Whatever.” On the plane, he sat one row back and across the aisle. He looked like he was either some kind of CIA operative or a hit man, or both. Again, whatever. When I got to Portland, after my free two mimosas at SMF and my complimentary red wine on the flight, I headed to the bar for a porter, and, there was CIA operative hit man guy. I’m a little unnerved. I drink my beer, I head for my gate. I sit, I write, I compose some notes, I look up, and, there is CIA operative hit man guy, black-lensed aviator glasses still shading his eyes. I board the plane, and, behind me one row and across the aisle, CIA operative hit man guy. Jeez. Should I be worried. As I understand it, ordering a hit on someone is incredibly affordable these days. Did I piss someone off? I have no assets!

Drinks on us? Thanks Alaska Airlines!
Drinks on us? Thanks Alaska Airlines!
Somewhere at PDX. I would've paid closer attention but CIA operative hit man guy was there, too.
Somewhere at PDX. I would’ve paid closer attention but CIA operative hit man guy was there, too.

Also on the flight? A screaming child, apparently under two years old because it was a lap child, so, by my reckoning, not even in the “terrible twos” yet. Oh my. It is well over three hours from Portland to Anchorage and the child made noise the entire way with only a brief respite. Whether it was happy noise or very unhappy noise, it was still deafening. At first, I blamed the mother. When the seatbelt sign was turned off and the mom got up and walked up and down the aisle with the little monster, which seemed to appease it, I thought she was okay. But, when the noise ensued and continued for the duration, I redacted that from the record. I don’t know how I survived motherhood, and, I don’t know how my children survived childhood. I always believed that, like women of the nineteenth century, that children should be seen but never heard from, and, if heard from, it should be with proper grammar, diction and an excellent vocabulary respective of their age.

Seems like a perfect flight ... except for the usual suspects.
Seems like a perfect flight … except for the usual suspects.

Another guest on our flight today? Coughing guy. Immediately across the aisle from me. I have Airborne with me. I never leave home without it. But I have several more hours of travel, the crucial question here is; can I get to the Airborne before the germs get to me? We can only hope. To make matters worse, he isn’t just coughing, he is blowing is nose into the same limp, wet and wilted tissue, which he produces from his pocket about a mili-second after he has spew germs in several directions, including mine. What’s worse? He is playing Candy Crush on BOTH his tablet and his smartphone. I AM sickened.

Another guest on our flight, and only two seats away? Captain Obvious-ly Not. He has the window seat and, bless her heart, his wife has the middle seat, I have the aisle. I fight hard for my aisle seat. He is peering out the window and narrating, which, in itself is annoying, but when so absurdly incorrect and impossible, I feel like sicking the hit man on him. He says, and I quote, “I can see Canada, but I don’t think I can see Greenland.” Um. Hello? We are flying from Portland to Anchorage at 38,000 feet. You couldn’t see Greenland if you were Superman and ate the planet devoid of carrots. I thought, perhaps, he was the mentally challenged son of the lady sitting next to me, but apparent age and matching wedding bands nullified that prospect. Similar comments continued, barely audible over the screaming, for the entire flight. I ordered wine with my cheese platter. Then, a second glass of wine. On the house.

But, then, there was company for Captain Obvious-ly Not, his corporal, perhaps. The flight attendant passed, carrying two plastic bags, one for trash, one for recycles. He’d made his way up the aisle, audibly, asking for garbage. Corporal Obvious-ly Not actually asked him if he had any lemon-lime on his cart. There was silence, for a long second or two, then, Bryan, the flight attendant responded, beautifully, “I don’t have a cart, I have bags, for trash, but I could probably find you a used lemon-lime here. The cart is coming, just behind me.” Loved it! It wasn’t snotty, it was delivered perfectly and was well received! Bryan! A master at language and communication and a worthy adversary for the walking, talking unconscious.

And, please, let’s not forget “knees in the back of the seat guy”. He was on this flight, too. I haven’t sat near him for a few flights now. May I ask? When you board your next flight, please make note of the seat backs, note the thickness and the quality of the materials, the foam, the man made covering. There is not a lot between your knees and the back of the person in front of you. I paid for a two-hour, vigorous and divine massage night before last. Yesterday, during my pedicure, I was seated in one of those massage chairs, which is alright, except it was set on high and if felt like I was being punched from the back of my thighs up to my neck for the duration. I most definitely did not need another involuntary massage today. I tried looking casually over my shoulder to express, wordlessly, like, “cut it the eff out!” I must have miscommunicated, because it continued, and with a new intensity and vigor.

I did manage to snatch a couple of minutes of sleep, somewhere after the first glass of wine, a less than stimulating article in Vogue, the 902 page Fall issue, and the shrieks of screaming child, now, new and improved, with more intensity, more decibels and a higher pitch! I am wondering, at this point, if I might be able to hire CIA operative hit man guy to make my flight a little more tolerable!

The only truly bright spot in the flight, besides Bryan, the witty and worthy flight attendant, were “the bag ladies”. The woman seated in front of me boarded, and upon taking her seat, placed the most beautiful, most divine, most sublime, small, yet adequate, wheeled, with a retractable handle, delicious red, bag in the overhead. This so did not go unnoticed. By me. Or, by the other “bag lady” on the flight. From two rows back, a perfectly coifed, colored, tinted and Botoxed specimen of a woman stepped forward and asked fab bag gal, “Where did you get that bag”. I eavesdropped as best I could, and, apparently, this fab bag is only available from one artisan, in one shop, in some section of Portland, and, as I don’t know Portland at all, except for one fantastic Thai place with something on the menu that made me laugh so hard I almost wet my pants, I don’t know where to obtain this magical art of a bag. Bright spot and despair.

We are approaching Anchorage. Finally. Screaming child is screaming even louder now. Captain Obvious-ly Not is narrating our descent. Incorrectly, I’m sure. His wife is listening, enrapt. CIA operative hit man guy has broken his code of silence AND removed his black-lensed aviators and is, in the last moments of a nearly four hour flight, trying to make conversation with the much younger blonde gal seated next to him. Meanwhile, I am still getting a vigorous and unsolicited massage. I am out of wine and, since we are on approach, no more is available. I am plotting my stealthy, surreptitious acquisition of the fab red bag in the overhead next to my “Real Tree” hunting daypack. Then, the most beautiful thing occurred; coughing guy, while struggling to replace his tablet and smartphone into his backpack, overhead, turned and coughed, open mouth and all, all over CIA operative hit man guy. Was this some kind of double agent coup? Awesome! You see the most incredible things on commercial air carriers!

I have made my way to Silver Gulch at ANC (Ted Stevens International Airport Anchorage). I love layovers here! Silver Gulch has fantastic brews and, as far as I know, unless you bring a growler home, isn’t available in the lower 48. Why, I met my Sweetie at the original Silver Gulch in Fox precisely three years and a few days ago. Friendship, then love. There is magic in that brew! Apparently, because, as I sit here and write and mind my own business, sipping on my Prudhoe Pig oatmeal stout, I have been mercilessly hit on by a number of guys. I even have a business card. In case I’m ever in the Phoenix area. Ew. Another guy asked, “what, are you a writer?” Well, yes, I am, of sorts, and now, you are blog fodder! Welcome! You and so many other unsuspecting folks!

My official "Real Tree" day pack, complete with my Buff scarf, in scarlet, of course.
My official “Real Tree” day pack, complete with my Buff scarf, in scarlet, of course.
Silver Gulch at ANC. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being here! And here, a Prudhoe Pig oatmeal stout! Mmmmmmm.
Silver Gulch at ANC. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being here! And here, a Prudhoe Pig oatmeal stout! Mmmmmmm.
Yes. I like the goods, but I'm a little odd.
Yes. I like the goods, but I’m a little odd.
Since the beginning of time, I have always been able to secure the one and only seat proximate to a power outlet, until today, but, no worries, upon request, you can be plugged in behind the bar. Tip = good.
Since the beginning of time, I have always been able to secure the one and only seat proximate to a power outlet, until today, but, no worries, upon request, you can be plugged in behind the bar. Tip = good.
I'm done here. Time to head to Fairbanks. I'll be writing, but I probably won't be posting for a bit. Stay tuned, adventures abound in the land of the midnight sun. It will be good, I'm sure.
I’m done here. Time to head to Fairbanks. I’ll be writing, but I probably won’t be posting for a bit. Stay tuned, adventures abound in the land of the midnight sun. It will be good, I’m sure.

I will be in the “Land of the Midnight Sun” and the land of “Not Much in the Way of Internet” for the next ten days. I will be writing, rest assured. I will not be posting, until I am back here, at Silver Gulch, in ANC, at the earliest. Hang tough, it will be good, I promise. Like screaming kids, coughing guy and knees in the back of your seat guy, you can count on it!

Scarlett’s Letter July 14, 2013

It’s here. The day I have been dreading, the day vacation ends, the day I travel back home to my “normal” life. With every pore of my being, I don’t want to go, but I am duty bound. My airline ticket is paid for and I have work at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning and I know Mom has been missing me. I thought of “missing” my flight, but I know that would just create way more drama than I’m willing to manage.

I’m packed. I’ve been packed for a couple of days. This is the only place I visit or travel to, ever, that I actually unpack into drawers. Ordinarily, when away from home, I just live out of my suitcase. Even at home, some things, I just leave in my suitcase and deal with from there, because I know, sooner rather than later, I’ll be heading out again. I started making my customary piles several days ago. As a frequent traveler, that’s what I do.  I make piles. I have my electronics pile, my personal care products pile, my shoe pile and my clothing pile. To most, I appear hyper-organized, to me, the piles are random, but very necessary, and the only means by which I’ve managed to never forget anything vital. A few things, I just have duplicates of, one for home, one remains in the bag, to avoid that horrible discovery, no deodorant or no toothbrush.

I’ve begun to leave things behind here, now. For example, my snow boots, which we bought here when I visited in March. I have more use for them here than in Cali, though I do snow camp, and such, I’m equipped enough for the snow down there. I’ve left my favorite old pair of Vans, too. Ironically, I bought them here when I first came here for work, nearly three years ago, the day before I met the man I call mine, now.  And they came in so handy, an impulse buy, a BOGO I picked up with the purchase of practical work shoes for my last day on site training my client. I ended up using my BOGO Vans for the first ever airboat ride. Now, though pretty worn out, they are permanent residents in Alaska and have been on many, many more airboat excursions.  And now I’ve left my old Lucky Brand jeans behind, the ones I always use for painting and staining projects when I visit, one size too big and soft beyond soft from wear, spattered with various shades of wood stain, the deck of the neighbor’s bus, the porch posts of my man’s house.

What I am taking home is crammed into my suitcases and my computer bag, headed back to Napa after four weeks away. Bulging is an understatement. Heavy is a gross understatement. The temptation of a third suitcase, full of frozen, dried and jarred salmon is met with sheer practicality. Alone, managing three suitcases at nearly 12:00 midnight, when I am due to land, then having to make my way to the bus and to long-term parking, then to load them into my car and make my way the additional hour and a half home, to then have to unload them into the freezer. With my alarm set for tomorrow morning at 5:00 AM, it is just more than I can bear. I do manage one generous Ziploc of dried salmon strips in my purse. Double bagged. They are quite aromatic!

Quietly, early for a Sunday, we make our way to the airport. We arrive early, thankfully, because the line to check bags is moving incredibly slowly. At last, my bags are checked and I head for security. A brief goodbye, they are never long enough in my opinion, but that is probably for the best. He heads back to the car as I enter the short security line. Before I make it to the podium, I see him back out and drive away. And, as always, I fight back tears, more successfully this time than any time before. They are there, I just don’t let them out. Yet. My computer bag gets pulled off the conveyor at this airport, but never at LaGuardia, Logan, Newark, LAX, SFO, O’Hare, or Kennedy. Funny. But I am patient, the TSA folks are doing their job, and with all the electronics and cords I carry, I can only imagine what my backpack must look like in the x-ray. I have actually been conducting an ongoing experiment, unwittingly, mostly out of forgetfulness, but, still, for months, and probably nearly 60,000 miles of travel on four different airlines through, likely, a dozen different airports, I have had a bottle of eye drops in my computer bag and a bottle of mouthwash in my purse. Undetected. So I am actually relieved when my bag garners some scrutiny, and yet, the eye drops and mouthwash go, again, undetected, even with a “thorough” inspection. My shoes and my cardigan back on, my computer bag zipped up once again, I go to the coffee stand and buy a coffee and a yogurt. I’m not hungry, my stomach is actually quite unsettled, either from too much wine last night, too little sleep, or just trepidation. Maybe all three. I put the yogurt in my purse for later, I’ll eat it on the plane, in coach. I have window seats both flights and an eight-hour layover in Seattle, which just makes the dreaded trip home seem that much worse. An eight-hour layover! Another reason the suitcase full of fish may have been a less than fantastic idea. I sit, without thought, waiting for the boarding announcement. I pay very little attention to what is going on, I just sit.

I do hear an announcement from the gate agent, for those with flexible travel plans, a voucher for this overbooked flight and a later flight out. I am alert once again and run for the counter. I show the agent my ticket and tell her if I can make the connection in Seattle, I would be happy to rearrange my flight. My name is added to a list. The boarding announcement comes and I am asked to wait to see whether they’ll need my seat. I am just a little “anal” about boarding at the earliest opportunity, I like to claim my wee bit of overhead bin compartment territory for my computer bag. My oversized purse fits snugly under the seat in coach, and there is no room for both under the seat. I’m a rather particular traveler. Travel is a very large part of my life, I seek to move through this world with ease and as much comfort and convenience as I can secure for myself. So, to miss my boarding opportunity makes me a bit edgy, it had better be for good reason.

At long last, it is determined that my seat can be given to a young lady who is traveling with her grandparents. I am happy to forfeit it, and, in exchange, I receive a $400 voucher good for a ticket to anywhere Alaska Airlines flies, like right back to where I’m standing now. The agent is tapping madly at the keyboard and revealing no expression whatsoever on her face, I can’t tell if she is making any progress in rebooking my travel. I DO have to make it home in time to teach early tomorrow morning, I DO have to make that 9:30 PM connection in Seattle. Finally, she looks up, makes eye contact, and then smiles. The only seat available for me on the later flight to Seattle is first class. Oh, darn. It is 8:30 AM, my new flight leaves at 2:00. And I only have a one-hour layover in Anchorage and two in Seattle. Darn. I hate when that happens. Not. Upgrade. Upgrade. Upgrade.

I take my voucher and my new tickets and text my man to tell him I gave up my seat on the morning flight. He turned around and picked me up out front and we spent the next few hours strolling through the Georgeson Botanical Gardens at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, one of our favorite pleasures that we hadn’t taken the time to enjoy during this visit. We grabbed a quick breakfast at Sams’ Sourdough Cafe and finished our time together browsing through Gulliver’s Books in town. Just those few bonus hours made all the difference in the world. Cherished time.

Back at the airport, a few hours later, I made my way through security. My bag got pulled off the conveyor, again, and I smiled. I like consistency. And, again, the eye drops and mouthwash go undetected.

I flew to Anchorage, in first class. Is it bad when you begin to recognize flight attendants and crew members on more than one airline? I was fortunate enough to be on a plane with Woody Woodhouse piloting. I’ve flown with Woody before. Woody is an “old school” pilot, he speaks clearly, and loud enough to be heard, he loves his job, he loves Alaska, and he wants to share. One part of Alaska that Woody is particularly in love with is Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. Woody somehow manages to fly the plane, while narrating, within what looks like mere feet of the peak, first so the people seated on the left side of the plane can get up close and personal with the mountain, then he turns tightly and the people on the right side of the plane get to get personal with the mountain. Last time I flew with Woody, my camera and iPhone were buried deep inside my carry-ons and I couldn’t grab them quickly enough. This time, I was ready! With both!

We landed shortly after we buzzed past McKinley, with just enough time in Anchorage for a quick porter at the Silver Gulch Brewery in the airport there where I chatted with a jolly woman who’d been to Beerfest at Silver Gulch in Fairbanks just the night before, as had I, sort of. I flew first class, again, to Seattle where, with my two-hour layover, I had just enough time for a quick flight of wine and some lively conversation with other traveling wine enthusiasts at Vino Volo.

In a state of travel induced exhaustion, I collected my luggage in Sacramento, grateful to have only two suitcases to wrestle onto the bus and then into my car, where there already was a box of my “career clothes” and a third suitcase, left from my brief parking lot visit between my flight from Newark and my flight to Anchorage over two weeks ago. I cram my suitcases into the backseat, marvel at the total and complete darkness of the sky, and make my way home. I arrive at 2:00 AM, huck my luggage upstairs, set up my computer and training materials for morning and find my way to bed. As I turn off the light, the darkness feels oppressive, almost as though it has weight and volume and I struggle to fall asleep. Finally I do, about the time my alarm jolts me back into the reality of “my world”. I am not ready to face it, but I do, I must, and I plough through, with thoughts of that $400 travel voucher safely tucked in my wallet and I begin to plan what I will do with it.

 

 

Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Caribou near the Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Caribou near the Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF

An Effort to Evolve

Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Georgeson Botanical Gardens UAF
Breakfast at Sam's Sourdough Cafe
Breakfast at Sam’s Sourdough Cafe

 

Mt. McKinley, courtesy of Alaska Airlines pilot Woody Woodhouse
Mt. McKinley, courtesy of Alaska Airlines pilot Woody Woodhouse

 

A quick porter at the Silver Gulch Brewery location at Anchorage International Airport.
A quick porter at the Silver Gulch Brewery location at Anchorage International Airport.

 

A flight between flights at Vino Volo at SEA-TAC
A flight between flights at Vino Volo at SEA-TAC

 

Power outlets!!! At Vino Volo, SEA-TAC! Almost as welcomed as the wine!
Power outlets!!! At Vino Volo, SEA-TAC! Almost as welcomed as the wine!

 

Scarlett’s Letter July 13, 2013

My wonderful, perfect, fun, romantic vacation draws to a close, and with every passing second I try not to let the fact that I’m returning “home” dampen my mood. But it does. But I try not to let it show, and I’m not sure I pulled it off 100%. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not like I won’t be back, I will, I just don’t know when and my vacation time from work dwindles. With only half the year behind us and one week of vacation left, it is hard to figure out where to take that week. Next week would be grand, but then the next six months would be hard to endure. I try not to think about it.

We busied ourselves this morning, fishing. We revisited the stocked ponds along the Steese Highway. We were armed, we thought, with what no fish could resist; freshly gathered and dried salmon roe. I harvested it myself and it has been drying in the yard for the past few days, as the salmon strips dried in the smoker. We harvested a small alder tree from the yard, stripped the bark from it, chopped it up and used it to smoke the fish in the smoker. The roe just dried, slightly, on racks in the sunshine.

We visited the prettiest of the several ponds first and saw trout everywhere, jumping for insects, swimming past us in small schools, inches from our “irresistible” bait. I tried a lure, a spoon, a spinner, with and without bait. Stuck up fish. Stuck up hatchery born, commercially fed fish. They don’t even know what salmon roe is, apparently, nor that any normal, wild fish would attack it like Jaws a young, teen, swimmer at the beach. Eventually, we moved on to the next, less scenic, more successful pond, based on our earlier experience. Nothing. Nothing, but mosquitos. We gave up early and fast and returned home, with thoughts of, maybe, hitching up the airboat and going after the “sure to catch” grayling on the Chatanika. Once home, though, in the heat of the day, we decided not to. Not to do anything. And it was splendid, just some quality, quiet time. A siesta.

As evening approached, my plan was to take my man out for a nice dinner, my treat, in thanks and in appreciation for such a wonderful vacation. We called to make reservations as The Turtle Club in nearby Fox, and, thankfully, they had a couple of openings left, and one for precisely when we’d hoped for. We got all dressed up after washing the smell of mosquito dope and salmon roe off, and headed towards town. We had a lovely, lovely, large, large dinner, which, against my plan, ended up being his treat, for my upcoming birthday. My sweet man! We skipped dessert, on purpose.

Across the street, in Fox, is Silver Gulch Brewery, where we met nearly three years ago, and today is Beerfest, featuring tastings and a live polka band in the tent adjacent to the brewery. The parking lot was jammed full, so we parked across the street and skipped the fest and just went in for a quick visit with the “locals” at the bar and a beer (40 Below for me). We had an engagement for dessert, up the hill, and enjoyed filling our free time between dinner and dessert visiting and sipping.

We enjoyed dessert and wine with the neighbors up the road, as we always enjoy time with them. As they prepare to sell their home and move away and make a new life in the “lower forty-eight”, I struggle to face the fact I leave this “vacation world” tomorrow morning and return to my life, firmly rooted in the “lower forty-eight”. People come and go in life, not so much like a tide, but more like a river, there for a fleeting moment, in the grand scheme of things, then on with the current. When I think of the number of people I have had friendships with over the course of my, now, fifty years, the number, in total, is staggering. And, at moments like this, I want the river to freeze, like rivers do, here in Alaska. I will return, soon enough, but it will be different, not better or worse, necessarily, but different. In time, even a short period of time, there are changes, and we have to accept and adapt to those changes. Or be left behind, saddened and confused.

Living with my elderly mom, lonely since my dad passed, or longer, she fills quiet with one-sided conversation; mostly of “how things used to be, when times were better”. She mourns for the world today, not at all like the world she thrived in, a world that, to her, was simpler, slower, softer and more tangible. She just exists in this world, she doesn’t understand it, appreciate it, or participate in it, complicated, fast paced, unforgiving and digital. Today’s world is foreign and hostile, scary and unwelcome. Today’s world, that which Mom fears and discounts, I embrace and drink in. And with this lesson, vivid in my mind, I pray that I am always appreciative, accepting and a willing participant in the world, and as it evolves and changes. As the world evolves and changes, I hope, so, too, shall I. I don’t ever want to be sorrowful or bitter for a world that has changed in my midst, I don’t want to be left behind, saddened and confused. As I head home and my world at home and the world that I love, here, both are destined to change, I vow to boldly embrace those changes and adapt and be joyous for the new, exciting experiences ahead, the new people, with the hope that some people in my life remain steadfast, and with the hope that the people who do move on remain, somehow, close. And so, many smiles, chocolate mousse and more wine! Salut!

 

 

Salmon roe drying in the sun, excellent bait for most trout.
Salmon roe drying in the sun, excellent bait for most trout.
The prettier fishing pond, stocked with fish that don't know salmon roe is good bait!
The prettier fishing pond, stocked with fish that don’t know salmon roe is good bait!
Alder wood from the front yard was used to smoke the red salmon strips from our trip to Chitina earlier this week.
Alder wood from the front yard was used to smoke the red salmon strips from our trip to Chitina earlier this week.
Smoking the salmon strips over alder wood.
Smoking the salmon strips over alder wood.
An example of change; what is now Silver Gulch Brewery in Fox, AK is on the site of the old Fox Roadhouse.
An example of change; what is now Silver Gulch Brewery in Fox, AK is on the site of the old Fox Roadhouse.
Preserving the past: the Silver Gulch Brewery building was built "around" the old Fox Roadhouse.
Preserving the past: the Silver Gulch Brewery building was built “around” the old Fox Roadhouse.
Preserving the past: the Silver Gulch Brewery building was built "around" the old Fox Roadhouse.
Preserving the past: the Silver Gulch Brewery building was built “around” the old Fox Roadhouse.
Our friends' amazing chocolate mousse with a super "secret" ingredient!
Our friends’ amazing chocolate mousse with a super “secret” ingredient!

Scarlett’s Letter July 12, 2013

Today, near Fairbanks, the weather was perfect. Perfect! It was warm and sunny with no clouds in sight and no smoke from the nearby fires. And since we planned on a canoe trip down the Upper Chatanika River, perfect was just perfect!

We met the neighbor up the road with her kayak and the neighbor’s down in the valley with their two canoes. There were five of us in all, our friends, a mother/son team, with the son working on requirements for his Canoeing Boy Scout merit badge in their canoe, me and my man in the second, borrowed canoe, and our friend with her kayak. We were kindly chauffeured to our launch spot and set off, armed with snacks, sandwiches, the best gluten-free cookies ever, mosquito dope, fishing gear, extra clothes, various cameras, all with near dead batteries and a firearm. Just in case, a necessary precaution in, well, just about anywhere, outdoors, in Alaska.

I’ve been on this river a few times before, in an airboat, and I kind of had the gist of it, but, still, I will admit, I was a little nervous. I’ve been a passenger and in participated in no way in the navigation. I just hung on and smiled. I haven’t canoed in quite some time, and have usually canoed on a lake, or “flat water” as it is often called. Rivers can be tricky, and even rivers you are familiar with can change, literally, overnight. One new tree fall can make a lazy stretch a much more hazardous challenge. I remember one of the few times I did canoe on a river, the Russian River in Sonoma County (Northern California), back in college, in an aluminum canoe, we got sideways in the current and sort bend the canoe around a bridge pier. We straightened it out as best we could, and, believe it or not, no questions were asked when we returned it to the rental company. So. Yah. A tad nervous. I knew I was in good hands, with much experience, both with the river and with canoeing in general. So, I just paddled as instructed. And smiled.

Originally, this was going to be a “ladies” trip, but not all the ladies could attend, so we invited the guys. And as soon as we encountered our first tricky tree snag, which required some thought, planning, contemplation and strength, we were glad we had the men with us, for more than just their good looks and excellent company! There were a few passages we had to stop and walk and figure out whether to proceed by land or by “sea”. We fished along the way, catching an Artic Grayling with every few casts, most of which were released.

As we made our way down this scenic river, we passed an upended tree root in the middle of the river. Caught in the snag was a fishing rod, the first canoe spotted it and yelled back to our canoe to try to grab it. I was in the front, so as we sidled up along the snag, I grabbed the fishing pole. The top half detached from the bottom half, so I had half. My man grabbed the bottom half! And in the time it took to negotiate around the next few bends in the river, I had the twigs, dirt and other river matter removed from the reel, the rod reassemble almost correctly, and another functioning pole for us to use! Finders keepers!! The unofficial fishing derby competition intensified. And at the rate we were fishing, it was going to be a very long canoe trip!

We pulled the canoes and kayak ashore at one point and enjoyed the food we all brought, potluck style. I made a salmon spread, for the first time ever, with only a little supervision and guidance. I used one of the jars of salmon we canned just a couple of days earlier, added some salt and pepper and some mayo and sweet relish. It was really, really good, bones and skin and all! Now, I get it with the whole jarred salmon thing. I’d still prefer fresh, of course, or a frozen filet, but the jarred salmon has many, many options for deliciousness!

I’d brought my “helmet cam” and we fastened it to our canoe, turned it on, and anticipated the potential of eight hours of digital filming capacity! I also had my “still “camera with me, which has both still and video functionality, and I let our friend borrow it to take some pictures as “evidence”, if needed, for the canoeing merit badge. Sadly, though, and totally my oversight, the batteries died after a couple of shots. After our lunch on the rocky banks, we took again to the river. Our river. We were the only people on this part of the river, all day long, until we arrived at our destination. Bliss.

We paddled and fished, fished and paddled, trouble shooting “sweepers” (fallen trees or branches that, if passed under, could sweep you out of your canoe) and snags. We ported the canoes and kayak a time or two, the kayak being far more maneuverable than the canoes. At one point, focusing a bit more on fishing than paddling, the two of us fell a bit behind the other canoe and kayak. My man suggested we slow up and possibly walk around the fallen tree across that portion of the river. We watched as the other canoe headed through and they appeared to make it just fine. We paddled forward in pursuit. Then I noticed our friend in the kayak quickly beach her vessel and begin to run. I thought to myself, “she just went to ‘study nature’, as we used to call it in Girl Scouts”, so I couldn’t imagine she had to find another private spot behind a tree. As we drew closer, I saw the occupants of the other canoe, drenched, dragging their canoe towards the shore. The young man had firm grasp of one paddle and his mom was swiftly off and into the river after the other, which, thankfully, she retrieved, lest we have a canoe up the river without a paddle! Everything was soaked, but accounted for, except their fishing pole. Darn. You win some, you lose some. We’d won one, and now we’d lost one. We gave them our extra, our newly refurbished and almost as good as new, rod and reel. Fishing poles be dammed, thank goodness everyone was okay! And we set off. I decided, at this point, to tuck my helmet camera safely into a Ziploc buried deep into my daypack strapped securely to the canoe. I couldn’t wait to see the footage! Too bad the batteries were dead and there was nothing to view once I got home and tried to upload. Oh well. I was able to revive the other camera enough for a couple of photo op shots before the batteries decided they were, once again, dead. Or maybe just extremely sleepy.

The rest of the trip went without incident, a few fish caught, a couple released, a couple saved for later consumption. We reached our destination, the bridge crossing the Upper Chatanika at the Elliott Highway and called for our chauffeur. And with our thirty-three mile trek behind us, in five short hours, we made our way back home.

And, in reflection, all I can say is that I am so thankful; I am thankful for the unique opportunity to be able to share experiences like this with so many truly, wonderful people, in such a magical and beautiful place, with so much laughter and friendship, love and fun. I am thankful, most of all, that we all made the trip safely, of course, and look forward to many returns. I’m a lucky girl. Blessings counted!

 

Getting ready to go.
Getting ready to go.
Potluck lunch of the banks of the Upper Chatanika River
Potluck lunch of the banks of the Upper Chatanika River

An Effort to Evolve

 

 

Adventures with friends, can't beat it!
Adventures with friends, can’t beat it!