Where are You?

I remember it like it happened yesterday. I’m riding my friend’s pony, she is riding another pony ahead of me. We are probably seven or eight years old, at most. She is a good rider, she rides all the time. I’ve ridden a few times here and there but want nothing more than to be a good rider. We are at a full gallop, she rides effortlessly, so well balanced, I’m hanging on to any part of the saddle and the pony I can just to stay on. I remember her laughing, her loud, infectious and usually somewhat maniacal laugh. I’m sure I had my focused face, the face of sheer concentration, sheer will and sheer determination I wear a lot, even now. In my usual “I’m doing this” manner, I am staying on that galloping pony and I’m following my friend. She is winding through the trees and at times I can’t see her. I try not to panic, I have no idea where we are or how to get back to her house. She goes faster and laughs harder. I realize that she is actually trying to get me to fall off the pony by about the third time she grabs a branch from a tree she’s passing, hangs on to it for a moment, then lets go, perfectly timed, to smack me in the face and hopefully unseat me. She laughs, then does it again. I hang on, miraculously, and after the third branch sandwich, I figure out her modus operandi and I learn to duck, or to make my pony swerve, to avoid pain, danger, possible death, and, worst of all, an unscheduled dismount. I have no idea where we are going, and truthfully, other than steering to avoid the branches being snapped at me, I’m not steering, my pony is just following her pony. They’re herd animals. When my friend realizes she isn’t likely to unseat me by snapping branches at me, she spurs her pony on a bit faster and tries to lose me in the woods. I have to spur my pony on, faster, to keep her in sight. I really don’t want to be lost in the woods, so my only choice is to keep up. I keep up and I avoid those goddam branches.

Suddenly, my pony comes to a screeching halt and there is my friend, stopped, at the edge of the world. We are on a ledge with a steep drop off inches from where the ponies’ front hooves have become still. From this ledge, in the dimming afternoon light, off in the distance, are the lights of San Francisco beginning to twinkle. It is magical. “This is fairy’s ring”, my friend explains, a magical place with a magical view. Wherever this place was, however we’d find our way back, I was in awe and I was inspired. In being lost I actually found something; I found that I loved riding ponies and horses as much as I thought I would, and I especially loved riding on trails, in the hills, through the woods, with magical views, and this all became paramount in my life and in many of the life shaping, life altering decisions that were to be made over the next forty years.

Forty years later, in Colorado, with my same friend, we are horseback riding. A rare and memorable treat, like reliving our childhood for a brief afternoon. We are loping along a dirt road, there are cattle watching us speed by, momentarily disrupted from their grazing. My friend, with her same infectious, loud and somewhat maniacal laughter, suddenly leaves the trail, spurs her horse on into the woods and jumps her horse over a fallen tree. I pull my horse up to watch. She heckles me, “Come on! He’ll jump it!” I shake my head. I ride, but I don’t jump horses. I just ride. I’m not a bad rider, but I don’t jump horses, just not my discipline and not something I’ve done since we were kids, careless kids. I think she actually called me a sissy or a wimp or some slightly derogatory name. We are over forty years old, but it seems like we’re still in the second grade. My friend tells me that her mother, who is nearly seventy years old, jumps her horse over fallen trees, and I am riding her mother’s horse, so, apparently, he is capable. I had a conversation with my friend’s mom earlier that day and she told me, and I quote, “I’d rather die while out horseback riding than any other way I can imagine.” I mention this to my friend, who calls me a “big, fat chicken”. I jumped the damn horse over the damn log. I lived. And before long, we were loping in circles, following each other, jumping over the fallen tree and any other obstacles we can find, again and again and again. Laughing. Again, I am determined to keep up, not that I’d be lost if left behind, necessarily, I’d follow the dirt road until it ended up somewhere. And I know my friend would never, at least at our more mature age, leave me behind and lost. She may give me a ration of shit for not keeping up, but I won’t even allow that. And in that moment I found something that I had lost, a certain carefree joy, the thrill of taking a risk and casting caution to the wind for a memory that will last forever.

Old friends finding our lost youth and joy in life.
Old friends finding our lost youth and joy in life.

Back home, I’m riding my own horse, having just moved my horses to a friend’s ranch for boarding, I am riding, at a full gallop, up a steep, wooded hill, following my friend on his horse. I have no idea where we are headed, there is no trail. He knows the way through the dense maze of trees that populate neighboring properties, all private, some we have permission to ride on, others we don’t, and I’m not fond of the prospect of being left behind, being lost and finding my way onto an irate property owner’s land. I keep up, at all costs. I’m a pretty good rider for a middle-aged woman, not as well balanced as I once was, on a taller horse than I rode as a kid, and the ground being so much harder than I remember it being from childhood. I am reminded of the wild ride through the woods on ponies darned near forty years ago. I have the same focused face, again, sheer determination and my “I’m doing this” attitude. I do not like being lost, I do not like being left behind. I seem to have deviant friends. But, truth, I am enjoying the hell out of myself. I don’t have many friends that live like this, take chances like this, do fun, wild and amazing things. This is my life. By design. And, face it, life is going to kill all of us at some point or other, may as well make it good! I don’t want to die in a recliner gripping a TV remote. And, again, I have regained something, this day, that is lost on so many other days behind the responsibility of work, family and home. Fun. Thrills. Joy.

Finding excitement in not knowing the path.
Finding excitement in not knowing the path.

Being lost. There are different ways in which we can be lost. We can be lost in a specific manner, as in having lost our direction, by not knowing where we are or where we should head. We can be lost in a larger, more general sense, we don’t know what to do with our lives, our talents, our energies. We may be so lost we don’t even know we have talents, energies, passions or other components of what life is. We can also be lost from something we hold dear, as in we’ve misplaced or lost track of something we consider of value.

How do we become lost? We lose direction. We lose our bearing. We lose sight of a landmark or other navigational guide. We become disoriented, confused, distracted. Our course is altered unexpectedly. There are many ways to become lost, but, usually, we have gone in an unplanned or unintended direction and we aren’t sure how to right our course, or even whether we should right our course. Think about it.

Life is like water in a stream, when it meets a boulder it is diverted.

Jobs, people, hobbies, experiences can all alter the direction of our lives. It is not possible to live and to avoid this. If you remain perfectly motionless and resist any chance or change, possibly, your life can go with few alterations to course. A slow, steady, monotonous course to death. Step into the raft, trust your guide, and go for a thrilling ride down the rapids. That’s what life is meant to be. Sometimes, we have to become lost in order to be found. The diversion around the boulder that alters our path is certainly better than crashing directly into the rock. Think about it.

Do you have to know every twist and turn of the river in advance in order to navigate the rapids safely, successfully, skillfully? No. If you know enough about rivers in general, about eddies and back eddies, the nature of currents and obstacles, you can successfully and safely guide your raft down a river you’ve never navigated before. So, in life, we don’t have to know, for certain, our exact path, in fact, we will go much further towards our ultimate self if we don’t know every step we will ever take. There are many valuable lessons in self from those deviations from our intended course, again, better to divert our path around those obstacles, to change our course, than to run into and be stopped in our tracks by that obstacle. Think about it.

We don’t necessarily need to know precisely where we are going and exactly, step by step, how we are going to get there. True, we should have a destination in mind, but how we get there may differ from our original plan. There are a dozen ways to drive to any point in the city you live in, no one is more right than another. There may be many variables that cause you to choose one route over another, traffic or road construction as an example. The destination is the same, the course can vary. So, if our destination is our goal, how we accomplish that goal is our journey, our path, and the path we choose initially may not end up being the best route. That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our goal, our destination, it just means we need to alter our path, our direction, our method for attaining our goal. Nor do we need to know exactly where we are at any point in time. We may have to lose our direction a time or two to actually, finally reach our goal. Think about it.

So, being lost is good. Losing our way is preferred. Am I talking crazy?

What is the definition of lost?


lôst, läst


1. unable to find one’s way; not knowing one’s whereabouts.

“Help! We’re lost!”

synonyms: off course, off track, disorientated, having lost one’s bearings, going around in circles, adrift, at sea, astray

If you are unable to find your way, if you do not know your whereabouts are you really lost? You are where you are. You know you’re there, you can feel yourself where you are, you can see your feet, your legs, your hands. You can see everything that surrounds you. You are right where you are. The only thing you may not know, temporarily, is where that point is related to the rest of the world. You, in fact, are not lost, you just haven’t decided which direction to head to change your location to one you’d prefer, perhaps one you recognize.

When I was working with Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts, many, many years ago, I became aware of the “Hug a Tree” program which encouraged children who were “lost” to not wander. As soon as they came to the realization that they were alone, apart from their group, they were taught to go to the closest tree or similar landmark adjacent to the path and stay there, to hug the tree until someone came in search of them. In the wilderness, or even on city streets, if very young, or very old, and unable to navigate back to your group, to safety, this is extremely practical advice. For, if you are very young, or very old, someone is looking for you from the moment you escaped their view, undoubtedly. By remaining in one place you are far more likely to be found. Countless are the unfortunate stories of children, of elderly people, wandering aimlessly while their rescuers tried to follow their path, tried to find them, and, often, their paths crossed numerous times, but at inopportune times. By staying in one place, especially near a trail or path, the chance of being found increase exponentially. Unless alone in the wilderness, for the rest of us, those of us who move autonomously around the planet, independently, this may not actually be the best course of action. If I just froze and clung to a large, tall object the first time I became disoriented in my travels for work, I’d probably have missed a flight, missed a connection, missed a meeting, and, perhaps, lost my job.

As autonomous, independent adults, negotiating our way through the world, we have at our disposal numerous resources on which we can rely; navigational devices like apps on our phones or GPS units, we may have maps or an atlas handy or that can be easily obtained, and we always have the ability to ask for assistance. At the very minimum, we have our powers of observation, our ability to solve problems, and we usually find our way again in short order.

In the wilderness, of course, this may be a different story, especially if traveling through the wilderness is not something we do regularly. Hopefully, we have planned well enough in advance to have notified someone of where we are going and when we should be expected to return. Hopefully we have further prepared by packing contingency items for our adventure, however short; extra food, extra water or the means with which to purify water, matches, a knife, some nylon cord, some extra clothing. And with a certain amount of preparedness comes the calm assurance that survival is more likely, and with that calm assurance, usually comes the ability to think clearly enough to re-orient ourselves and find our way to the path back to civilization. Or to hug a tree.

Notice, in both cases, in town and in the wilderness, our safe arrival at our intended destination was reliant on the fact that we had a few tools, a few necessary items available to us. We had resources or were able to identify resources that would assist us in our return. Knowing how to equip ourselves in our journey, real or rhetorical, will be a determining factor in our ultimate success and in the efficiency of our route. The trick, then, is to know what we should equip ourselves with, and for each journey, it will differ. The resources I need for a backpacking trek will differ from the resources I need to obtain a certain career goal.

We’ve established, then, that becoming lost, in life, is good, that we gain experience and growth and overcome adversity and challenge by becoming lost, not losing sight of our ultimate goal, or destination, and finding another course, through diversion, to our reward, our goal. We have also established, that in reality, when we become lost, having certain resources, tools and skills available to us give us the confidence and clarity to find our way back. This is true in our journey in life, too. With the right preparation, resources, tools and skills, getting diverted from our original course towards our goals is not just a valuable lesson to be gained, but an opportunity to employ that preparation, those resources, tools and skills in establishing a new course towards our goal.

So, in life, when we are feeling lost, what should our approach be? How should we be prepared? What resources, tools and skills should we have at our disposal to establish a new and better path to our destination, our goal? How do we begin? How do we know?

I remember an acronym I learned in a wilderness first aid and survival class I once took. S.T.O.P., Stop and Sit, Think, Observe, Plan. By taking these steps you could usually figure out a way to survive until help arrived, of course, the more training you had and the better prepared you were, the better your chances of survival. This same acronym can be applied to any situation, real or rhetorical. That first moment when we determine we are lost, that our course has changed, been diverted, or we’ve just temporarily lost our way, whether on the streets of a strange city, in the wilderness, or on a path to our goals in life, if we take some time to stop and sit, to become quiet and calm, that is always the first, most important step. If we frantically try to scurry about and determine, in haste, which direction to head, we are likely to make an error, potentially a costly one. Stop. Become quiet. Listen. Be still. We may hear a street nearby, or voices, or just enough peace and quiet for a solid idea to form. Stop.

I was in downtown Chicago for a brief walking tour. I was pressed for time as I had a flight home and needed to drive through traffic to get to the airport in time. I’d parked my rental car in a parking garage, of which there are many. I’d taken pictures of the garage and made note of the address, but it had the same management company and signage as just about every other garage in the area. As I walked in the direction I remembered the garage being, running a few minutes behind schedule, putting me in a position where I could ill-afford a navigational error, I stopped for a moment to gather my bearings. In that moment, stopped and quiet, I heard a street musician, a saxophone player playing, terribly, I might add, the Hokie Pokie song. I knew, at that moment, that the entrance to the garage was just across the street. I’d noticed that musician, heard the same song, as I’d exited the garage. In my haste and concern over being late, had I not stopped, I likely would not have heard the musician and may have taken a less direct route back to the garage.

S.T.O.P. - calmly applying thought and observation to find my way back to the parking garage as quickly as possible.
S.T.O.P. – calmly applying thought and observation to find my way back to the parking garage as quickly as possible.

The T is for think. After we’ve stopped, we need to think. In stopping, hopefully, we have become quiet and have calmed down, our thought process is much more likely to be logical and productive. Depending on the situation, whether real or rhetorical, in taking the time to think of our options, this phase may take a few minutes, or a few months. If lost in trying to get back to the parking garage, I could probably have thought things through in a few moments and found my way back one way or another. My options may have included consulting a map on my phone, asking someone for directions, hailing a cab and giving the driver the address of the parking garage. Lots of options. In a more rhetorical situation, having lost our direction in pursuit of a goal, we may need to spend more than a few minutes to right our course or find a better route altogether. We may decide we need more education, or a different career path, or some other major course deviation, all of which may require a bit of time and effort to collect all the options necessary to consider. The point is, no matter the scenario, thought must be applied, logically, to get headed in the right direction, again.

O is for Observe. As I observed the saxophone player as I left the garage, it was the observation of that sound, again, on my return, that successfully guided me back. After stopping, and thinking through our options, we should observe our surroundings, the resources we have immediately at hand that may aid us in getting started on our path, again. Thinking and observation are not too unrelated. I consider observation just a more tactile form of thought. Thinking generates ideas from vapor, observation generates ideas from tangible items in our midst. In being physically lost, our powers of observation are usually key in reuniting us with our path to our destination; a tree, a rock formation, a building, a landmark, a sign. In our more rhetorical example, observation may not be quite as tangible. We may, instead, observe behaviors of those we consider mentors in our journey. We may observe activities that generate a desired outcome that will further our advancement towards our goal. We may observe resources that may assist us that we had not previously considered. In observation, we are really just opening our minds to other possibilities, we are becoming creative.

P is for Plan. And this, of course, is the most critical part, whether lost for real or in a rhetorical sense. The old adage goes, “a failure to plan is a plan to fail”. In life, failure is not and should never be considered an end, it is often the means by which we learn what it is we need to know to eventually reach our goal. But, if certain failures can be avoided, like boulders in the stream, then, by all means, we should attempt to steer around them. A good plan will assist us in navigating around failures that may delay our success. If lost in the woods or in a city, a plan can be as simple as calling for assistance, heading in the direction, by compass, that we were originally headed, climbing to a higher point for a better vantage point.

In life, a plan is more ethereal, as in both ether and real. A plan, of course, is paramount, and it always begins with the goal itself. Then we can sketch out how we will achieve that goal. Our plan can be very specific or can be quite general. I think the more general the better for the long term, more ether like. But, each day, at waking, or better yet, before going to sleep the night before, a very specific plan should be made, with our overall goal in mind, so that some positive action and progress is made, steadily. A more real plan. Lest our goal be like the sun in the sky, always there and never closer, sometimes shrouded by clouds, or night, but always present, and never, ever closer.

And, as plans pertain to our goals in life, is it not the plan and the deviation from the plan that is the definition of “lost” to begin with? The goal hasn’t changed, but the path, the plan, does. With constant change and flux, it is then critical that we be as flexible as our plan. We may need to adapt the plan, and we may need to adapt to follow the plan. Making a plan, following a plan, and, necessarily, adapting the plan, all requires change. We must embrace change to have any hope of every achieving our goal.

Nothing ever gets better that stays the same. We must accept change, embrace change, court change, in order for any part of our life, our experience, ourselves to improve. Change is a deviation from the current course, is it not? Change is becoming lost, temporarily, with a change in direction. Think about it.

In being lost we are found. In being lost we learn. In being lost we grow. In being lost, we can reach our goal, our dream, our purpose and become richer for the journey, the deviation in the intended course. Do not fear becoming lost, it may be just the key you need to open all the doors you desire. Think about it.

Get lost.


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.
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 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.