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.