Giving Up The Fight

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There’s a song I love that has a passing line: “Summer’s beginning to give up the fight”.    It always reminds me of late August where the heat starts to back off, the days start to get shorter, but clearly it isn’t autumn yet.  In our attempt to make one last grasp at summer, the pup and I found out that summer has already given up the fight.

We made a run north in Denali State Park, the extensive forest and hills that are just to the south of Denali National Park, complete with views of the Alaskan mountains and Mt McKinley.  The plan was to go camping last night, pack up the car, head down the Denali Highway (a rough unpaved, but still a state highway that connects the two main north-south highways in southern Alaska), then down to Valdez to end the weekend.   This was a big trip, this was the third real attempt to camp — the first we called it early when cool weather, loud campgrounds, & massive bugs chased us home after just a couple hours; the second had us wimping out in an RV and even that we made a run for it when the rain was unrelenting.  You can say we “camped” but not the whole weekend —  we camped last night, and were back to Anchorage by 10am this morning.

It’s been wet up that way for the last week or two, that was clear in the trees and woods.  We made camp next to Byers Lake, a beautiful trout filled lake wedged in the Susitna River valley on the edge of the Talkeetna Mountains.  The pup was his usual helpful self, when he made sure to stand on the tent the whole time I was putting it up, and sniffed at the tent stakes just as I was going to hammer them into the ground.  After a short hike to finish off the “305 miles to Valdez” goal, I set to work starting a camp fire.  An hour later, I gave up.  The kindling in the area were more water than wood, and the fire pit was like trying to set a fire on top of a puddle.  Still, it was a nice night, a little cool, but for the pup he was about as ease out there than anywhere.

Somewhere around midnight the skies opened up.  A good steady rain came down for about 2 hours.  None of it got into the tent, but it made things a bit cool for the two of us.  When I was starting to get up around 5:30 making a plan for breakfast and hitting the road, another rain came along.  Lasting for about an hour, it was clear that things were going to be messy to say the least.  With the wet hanging in the air, we got the compound effect of it being 45°F (7°C).  We were just not feeling it this morning.

It was cold, it was wet, and the kicker of it all … about 25% of the trees were showing color of the changing of the seasons.   We gave up the fight on camping, and summer has given up its fight in Alaska.

So the tent is drying in my garage, and we napped an awful lot today, and a run for an overnight in Valdez is still in the plans for tomorrow.  Today is fine though, we’ll just give up the fight here.

Rain Or Shine … Maybe

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Summer is almost over, and it’s time to cram in that one last push to try to be that rough cut outdoorsman that I thought I was when I moved to Alaska.  It’s Labor Day weekend, meaning the perfect chance to take a day of vacation and turning a weekend into 4 days.

The plan, for the last few weeks, simply was to load the car up with camping supplies, food, drink, firewood, and a doggie named Auggie – then hit the open road of Alaska.  In a perfect setting, I would make a run up to Denali on the Parks Highway, take the legendary rough Denali Highway to Glennallen, drive down the Richardson Highway to visit picturesque Valdez, then make the 305 mile drive back to Anchorage along the Glenn Highway.  Because I will be camping, the point would be to make as little plans as possible and just set things up where I need to stop.

I haven’t even begun to leave, and I am trying to back out.  The plan started with departing tonight right after work.  Well – that isn’t going to happen.  For one thing, my laziness put me behind in having laundry for the trip, and since I am packing as much for the pup as myself I have some work ahead of me.

Then of course, I HAD to look at the weather report.  For the first leg, there is a good chance of rain.  Like, really good chance.  Then it’s also supposed to get cold.  Closer to the Alaskan Mountains, they expect snow to reach lower elevations.  There isn’t alot of sun planned for this weekend further along, suggesting what rain comes down will linger as wet/cold.  Remembering back to the camping we did over the 4th of July, I am not looking forward to looking into those sad puppy dog eyes shivering in the wet.

But dangit, I am not going to wait 8 months to try to get one last shot in at seeing this state.

So … Rain or Shine … we are hitting the road.  Whether or not it hits back, we will see.

Fireweed

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Go anywhere in Alaska over the last couple of months, and you would see color across the grasses, in between the trees, and up on the mountains.  The color doesn’t always stand out as awe inspiring or over notable to most visitors, but coming back from 10 days in the lower 48, it triggered a growing bit of desperation.  Known as Rosebud Willowherb & Great Willow-Herb in other parts of the world, in Alaska we give the most widespread wildflower in this region with the far less ceremonious name up here of “Fireweed”.  While people use this plant for things like wines, jams, honeys, and even a substitute for turnips, fireweed is best used up here to tell you a clock is ticking.

Fireweed is a strange plant.  It grows as a nice green stalk anywhere between 2 and 4 feet high.  For most the summer months, it is overly unspectacular.  Then somewhere around mid-July, the upper portion of the stalk grows purplish flowers, but not along it’s entire upper length.  It actually starts where it transitions from leaves near the top to this flowering portion, and slowly blooms in succession up to the tip.  As the upper blooms start growing, the lower ones fall off left with a reddish stem.  This progression takes about two to three weeks until the entire blooming portion is just these crimson stems, and is similar to amongst most the fireweed in a given area.  By mid-August, the stems grow deeper read, until they open and form white plumes of seeds.  Late August comes the spread of those seeds, filling the air with a white fluff hanging in trees and the random spider web.

Other than the fact these plants are prominent, what makes them so special is imbedded in the description above.  Namely:

Mid-July … Purple Flowers Starts to bloom

Next 2-3 weeks … bloom up in progression

Mid-August .. Stems grow Deeper Red

Late August … White Fluff

Quite literally, you can time the late summer in Alaska by the Fireweed.  A few people I talk to actually gage their activities on the fireweed.  When the blooms start coming out, that means you have to get serious on your bigger adventures or longer vacations.  Once the blooms reach the top, salmon stop running and summer is almost over.  Stems grow deeper red, time to get your project list for done.  White fluff, summer is over.

To me, it also symbolizes the seasons here as well, simply because this plant goes through such significant transitions that its never the same plant twice.  Yet the change happens so fast that if you do keep an eye on the signs you will miss whole transitions.

The last 10 days, I missed most of Alaska.  During that time, it quite literally feels like we moved out of summer and into autumn.  There was a lot of rain, and the air is wet and cool.  Part of that may just be me transitioning from stupid hot Texas to way up north; but the end of summer is definitely in the air.  Not just because there is white fluff running around, but because … that’s what happens this time of year.  Summer ends.

Ready or not.

20 Years Later, and You Can’t Take That Away From Me

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((This is another non-Alaskan post, I know you are getting a lot this month but I am sweaty Houston for cripes sake.))

August 21st, 1993 I was standing perfectly still waiting for an announcement.  My eyes locked on two volunteers, their hands gripping each other’s so tight I could see the man’s eyes bulging from the pressure of the much smaller much older woman’s hands.  I was sweaty from a 13 minute workout completed less than a half an hour before while wearing a thick uniform.  My socks had water seeping in from the rain that fell earlier that night and ate their way through the leather shoes.  I waited anxiously, because all of us knew on that football field, that announcement had the potential to re-define my life from that point on.

In this blog before, I told you at some point about my involvement in the marching arts activity, specifically the elite level of the activity Drum & Bugle Corps (Drum Corps for short).  Wednesday of this week represents the 20th anniversary two significant event in that history for me.  Back in those days one couldn’t march the top level (Junior Drum Corps) if you were 22 years old.  August 21st, 1993 was the last day of the last season I was eligible to be a marching member of a junior corp.  So, by rule this activity was being taken away from me.  That’s the first significant event.

My last two years, 1992 & 1993, I marched with what was then called the Cadets of Bergen County – a group that over the previous 10 years could be considered the elite of the elite.  From the moment I first saw them perform on a public TV video in 1987, they were an organization I thought would be a dream to be involved in.  For the next five years, I busted my tail trying to learn what it took to be a part of that group, but really didn’t think I had a chance even after a disastrous series of problems getting to and from audition camps in 1992.  Making the group was an achievement of a lifetime, what I didn’t know that the work I had ahead of me.  That first year in 1992, we busted out tail, was short on talent, and was against some of the most exciting groups that the activity seen — yet our little band of brothers still was able to pull of reaching 2nd in the World (that means only one group in the whole of the activity world wide was better).

Marching with the Cadets was the hardest thing I have ever done, hands down, not even close.  From a move-in date in May, we slapped ourselves in a routine of early morning wake-ups, 6 to 10 hours of rehearsal,  pack-up, warm-up, perform a show, re-pack, then sleep on a bus until you reach the next site where you are lucky to get sleep on a school gym floor — if we didn’t have to perform, rehearsals ran into the 14-16 hour days.  The shows were extremely tough to add to it.  As a contra (aka Tuba in the Key of G), I had to run at just over a jog with a 25 pound unbalanced slab of metal on my shoulder without losing my breath.

If you ever did something that hard, you know that it comes with great lessons.  Nothing did more to form and develop me as that activity did, and that organization did.  I learned that hard work means results.  I learned world is full of competition for what you do, but if you are accountable for what you are asked you did what you can.  I learned the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.  I learned that perfect practice makes perfect.  I learned what brotherhood is, what fraternity means, and what it is to have people who are just as crazy as you can do if we all have the same singular goal.  Being a member of the Cadets meant accomplishing something extraordinary by going on and by honest hard work and determination; ideas that people can’t take away from you once you take the uniform off.  Once you were a Cadet, you were Always a Cadet.

Anytime … and I do mean Anytime … that someone compliments my work habits, my drive, and my focus; I think of what I learned those two summers.

That steamy summer night 20 years ago in Jackson, Mississippi; we all waited to find out who was going to be named the champion for 1993, for my final year; and I remember that moment 20 years ago like it was yesterday.  By the closest of margins, by one tenth of a point, from that point I could I could always say:

I am a World Champion.

and nobody can take that away from me.

Apologies

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I haven’t been blogging like I planned.

I flew down to Atlanta, GA for work, and like I keep telling people;

“Last week I went salmon fishing in Prince Edward Sound and all I caught was a cold.”

So I owe y’all my impressions of cool stuff I saw last week but that won’t happen much the next couple days.

Tomorrow I throw down with the best thing to come out of Georgia, Mr Brad Barnes; then I head to Houston for a week.

And I miss my dog. For the first time when I left him at the Pet Hotel he tried to run back to me in the most heartbreaking moment I had as a dog owner.

Denali – All The Way In

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I hope all of you someday visit Denali National Park.  Simply put, it is as wonderful of a national park as I could think of in the world.  If you do, there really is only one thing worth doing when you are there, and that is simply put “Go All The Way In.”

Denali National Park is known for it’s namesake, Denali (aka Mt. McKinley), the largest mountain in North America and the largest mountain base above sea level to tip in the world.  But if you read my blog last week (The High One)  you’d know that.   While the mountain is big, the park is frickin’ huge.  Not only that, it’s virtually untouched by man.  In it’s six million acres of land, there is only a single road that cuts through it.  Sure, there is a fair bit of backpackers, bush planes, and other means to get around in the park; but the only way a normal tourist can go anywhere is on this road — and only by a park bus.  There are different tours on the road, but when my family talked about doing the park there was only one way we wanted to do it, All the Way.

What does that mean?  It means we went on an 11-hour bus tour (the bus being no better than a green painted school bus) along a mostly dry gravel road winding along mountain valleys until we reached the “end of the road” in once was a small mining town of Katishna, 92.5 miles from the start.  This tour included a “Katishna Experience” including a look at what life was like 50 years ago during those mining days, when the dozen people out here survived by hunting and gathering what they needed between trips of a 100+ miles just to find a road.  The area out there at the end included some private resorts, complete with airstrips for tourists (and surprisingly, really good cell phone coverage).  As nice as it was out there, this is a trip that’s about the journey, not the destination.

The road out to the end includes killer views.  From the first 5 minutes, we started seeing glimpses of Denali, as it’s snow covered peaks contrasted with the green hills surrounding it in our view.  As we got deeper, we saw we were getting lucky.  Only 1 in 3 tourists in the park sees any of the mountain, since it gets a fair deal of cloud coverage year round – and only 1 in 10 sees the entire thing.  Our guide said we were in the “1 in 6” range, meaning when we were far away we could see the peak, but when we got close enough to see it all there was a fair bit of clouds on it.  But out there near Wonder Lake (mile 85) you get hit with the full profile of Denali in all it’s splendor.

But its not just Denali that you see.  Around Highway Pass (Mile 58) you see Poly-chrome, a series of glacial cuts that left the landscape showing nearly all the colors of the rainbow in the rocks, grasses, and peaks all spread out over hundreds of thousands of acres of a river valley.  Or the glaciers coming down the mountains from the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66.

Then there is the wildlife all along the trial.  While our guide said we had a quite thin day, the bunny count ticked over moose around Mile 20, a grizzly mommy and 2 cubs near Mile 30, and so many Caribou including one that blocked traffic from Mile 69 to Mile 67.

This is one of those places that is just plain hard to put into words.  Through the whole of the park, there is so much change, so much beauty, and so much surreal surroundings that the only way to approach it is to take it in at its full value.  Not just a part, not just segments, but All The Way In.

Let me just say …

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I’ve got a lot to tell you about.  This week, as I mentioned last week, I spent as a tourist around Alaska.  I’m not about to spoil the trip by just blogging up a big old summary.  Instead, I am going to promise you the moon.  The weeks to come I am going to be on the road down to the Lower 48, which means my Alaska news will be thin.  But the last week will give me enough to take care of your Alaskan hunger.

So that you know what I did (and to hem myself into what I need to blog about in hindsight), here is a list:

  • Denali National Park Road to the End
  • Second Salmon Fishing Adventure out of Seward
  • The Drive along the Parks & Seward Highways
  • Kenai Fjords
  • Seward Sealife Center

And if I have time, I will fill in on some thoughts of Tourism and Safety — and a few other hints and thoughts on coming up this way.

But in short, this has been a great week and will need to recover for at least a day.

The High One

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Make no mistake, this is a big one.

This week, as part of my “stay-cation” with the family, we took a trip up to Denali National Park.  The centerpiece of the park is Mt McKinley, the mountain with the highest peak in North America.  And by Mt McKinley, I mean Denali … the name was sorta changed about 10 years ago to the name of the mountain every Alaskan calls it.  Denali is Native American (Athabaskan to be exact) for “The High One” … and I have to say, you can see why.

Topping out at 20,320 feet, it is only peak over 20,000 feet and over 6,000 meters in North America.  It’s the 3rd most prominent peak in the world, meaning that it stands out compared to the rest of the mountains around it by 20,000ft (6,100 m).  It also is the 3rd  “most isolated” peak, meaning that you have to go 4,600 miles (7,400 km) to the nearest peak that has the same elevation (and that 3rd place isn’t fair, since Mt Everest is the 1st because nothing else is taller).  For mountains starting above sea level, it is the tallest in the world from base to peak, at about 18,000ft (5,500 meters).  

So, what’s all those crazy numbers mean?  

It really stands out!

Seriously.

Along the Alaskan Mountain Range, Mt McKinley isn’t surround on all sides by other mountains, it’s open to the north and the south.  Coming at it from the south, the face of the mountain jumps out at you with pure dominance.  We can see it on the drive up to Denali, mostly.  On a clear day, we can see the mountain from Anchorage.  Then when we make our way around the Mat-Su Valley, we lose it in the trees and hills; but then when we crest a hill … Pow.  We get past Talkeetna, and then you get over another crest and … KAPLOW!!!  When you can get yourself in front of it, its like  ….. KABOOOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!!

 The only issue with seeing the mountain is the weather.  You’ve heard me complain about the weather, well, guess what … it rains alot up there.  So it’s rare to actually see the whole of the mountain.  Typically only 1 in 3 visitors to Denali National Park sees the peak, and only 1 in 10 sees the whole mountain.  We were about 1 in 6, the whole thing was there when we were too far off to see it all, but it clouded up by the time we got in front of it.

Seeing Denali is as much of a must do as you can get in Alaska, but its also a battle to do it.  Still, that’s the night thing about living up here, if it’s 1 in 10 that sees the whole thing, I can still see it 1 out of 10 days here.

1 Year Later: Not No Regrets

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The “Alaska, Year One” Chapter of the great book of my life is now complete.

One Year Ago Today, I became an Alaskan. In some ways, it feels much longer than that, but in some it feels much shorter. The hot summery days of Kansas were blowing me towards that plane as fast as I could get on it, and immediately when I stepped off here my world flipped on its head. In many ways, it was a hard separation. It becomes tough to chat with old friends when they are 3 time zones off and continuing on in their own lives; and I had a new job and a whole new set of challenges to face. I did what I could to embrace this life, and in many ways it embraced me. Within a few visits, a bouncer would pat me on the back and let me through when I hit the door of a pub, like I had been going there for ages. It took me just a couple of weeks to not only learn curling, but to get a nickname. I bought a house, bought a dog, and bought more hiking equipment than I likely will ever need. And in that first week I survived my first earthquake, failed my drivers license test, and saw a bear.

So do I have any regrets?

Absolutely.

If you’re shocked … well … we obviously never met. Eventually I will regret every decision I ever made, it just takes time and for me to see something I am jealous of.

For one thing, I didn’t go dip netting. It’s a shore based fishing where you literally dip your net into a salmon run, and catch up to 25 of the little buggers in your limit. Passed by me with an early run (and a lack of a hook-up).

There are things I do regret above moving here. Alaska is simply put a long ways away from a lot of things. I struggle to maintain my involvement in the marching band judging activity because it doesn’t exist up here, I don’t have good west coast contacts, and few are willing to risk the travel expenses on a guy from Alaska to do a show. Vacations are difficult, because either you look at some time here (which is great, don’t get me wrong), or it’s a few plane rides to anywhere cool.

In all honesty, the job hasn’t turned out the way I expected. I envisioned walking into a company & industry on the cusp of doing great things, and I could be key to making a difference. The potential is there, but we are far from the cusp. Instead we swim upstream against culture change, bureaucracy, and past influences that left a bad taste. Coming from an environment where I had positions on leadership to fill my ego, I’ve fought though way more emotional and subjective arguments than I expected or wanted.

But I also regret those things that were in my control. Namely my health. In the book of my life, the chapter that preceded the one on Alaska was about the success I had with losing weight and getting my life back in order. I’ve wandered off that path fairly significantly, and now fight my way to find that path at all. In some ways, that is the hardest to swallow.

But when you look back at a chapter in your life, you have to balance out the regrets with that which makes you happy. Those scales, quite simply, balance towards the good.

Not a day goes by that there is something beautiful about this state that stuns me. From the mountains circling our fair city. From the rolling clouds, hugging the landscape. The trickle of a quiet creek, the noise of a waterfall, or the wind through a wet forest. I love a walk down a lighted snow cover path in the dead of winter, nodding to a fellow Alaskan on how nice of a night it was for a walk. I love how the low light of winter gives the city a feel of sunset, a continual golden hour. After days of rain, I love the way the grass smells and the earth comes alive.

I found it easy to fall in with the people. Most seemed to be variations of those I knew. From the Oil transplants from Texas & Oklahoma, to the midwesterners that found this wasn’t that much different than what they know. Then there is the whole slew of races and backgrounds that makes Anchorage a greater melting point than one can find anywhere. It makes daily life around other Alaskans not just livable, but enjoyable.

Of course, I don’t regret the pooper. Since the day I brought home my puppy, Auggie, I’ve had a reason to yell, clean, smell like bad food, and pick up fecal matter. I always wanted a dog, and now I have it, I found it to be hard work, restrictive of my life, and a general pain in my ass. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Day after day, I find new opportunities to do new things. Sometimes its the old things I love, like hiking or chatting over a few beers. More often than not its something new, like salmon fishing or curling. So much of Alaska is taking advantage of the opportunities available. While I don’t take every opportunity, I do take them and that makes my life more and more interesting.

So yeah, a year after moving to Alaska I can say that I have my regrets; but I am glad I made the decision. I complain a lot, but like I learned recently, that what makes us complain the most is what makes us laugh the most when we can look back at it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I regret it or enjoyed it, the fact of the matter is that it happened.

The great world spins, and whatever plan my life is one, it now includes a chapter called “Alaska”.

No one will take that away from me.

Fresh Fish

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“Family are like the Catch-of-the-Day.  On the first day, they are great and you can’t help to have as much as you want.  By the third day, it’s no longer something to write home about.”
I first heard that story from my dad … at the time he was giving my Aunt’s Eulogy.   If he can get away with it there, I can get away with it here.

On Facebook I took it a step further and said yesterday:
“Last day before what will likely be a stressy, frustrating, and much more enjoyable stretch of time off than I will want to admit vacation.
On a side note, my family arrives tomorrow”

Today starts the first time I have had extended time off of work since the holidays, and the first “kinda” vacation in over a year.  It’s a sort of Stay-Cation (a vacation where you don’t travel very far) in that I am not leaving Alaska; but it sort a isn’t because I am renting an SUV and spending approximately 30 hours in it the next week driving around.

More importantly, Alaska is being invaded by family.  My parents, my brother, and my young nephew step on a plane shortly after I post this and will be here before sundown.

Our plan is fairly busy, and I have the overloaded itinerary to prove it.  A tour of Anchorage, train to Denali, bus through Denali, train to Seward, fishing, Kenai Fjords tour, and a whole bunch of other stuffed in between.

For you the reader that means something other than complaints about the weather for a while.

For me, it’s going to be time to start dreaming about someplace further south.