Losing Light

Pioneer Peak

The sky clears. Five women squeeze into one dusty red sedan and head for the Butte, a destination delayed too many times by bad weather. It’s late August, the rainiest month in Southcentral Alaska. We lose five minutes of daylight a day.

This time of year, Alaskans rush frantically to complete our impossibly long list of things we wanted to do this summer: Hiking, weeding, berry picking, brush clearing, fishing, climbing mountains.

We’re a hiking group, women in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s who meet once a week during summer to hike a different trail. Our goal today: the top of Bodenburg Butte, a chunk of mountain scraped and scoured by the glaciers that carved the Matanuska Valley. The trail begins with a gradual ascent up a wide gravel path. After a short dip, the real climb begins—505 wooden and dirt-filled steps that lead to the summit.

The parking lot is nearly empty when we arrive at the trail head. Grabbing snacks and packs, hiking poles and water, we hike through a cool, still-dripping forest of birch, alder, devil’s club, nettles and picked-over wild raspberries. Small soggy piles of bear scat appear along the trial. We pause to see what the bears have been eating, but with our loud chatter and clicking sticks, we have no fear of surprising one.

As we dawdle, taking pictures, identifying wildflowers, waiting for each other to catch a breath, I realize how much I appreciate the company of these women who, like me, want to keep moving, to do the hard physical things while I can, while our knees still function, our backs stay straight, and our feet can still grip the soil and pull us up the mountain.

We reach the top and fan out to savor the view. Over one edge, a patchwork of dark and light green farms spread beneath Pioneer Peak. On the other side, the Knik River spills out of its cracked and dirt-streaked glacier, spreading tendrils over the valley. As we pose for pictures on top, we are joined by other women. One, in a flowing pale blue dress with matching headscarf, snaps pictures of her children on a ledge with the mountains as backdrop. The girl wears a long black and white skirt; the son a red shirt with black pants. As the wind grabs their clothes they are flags fluttering on the mountain top.

Soon a parade of women with babies joins us—bright-eyed babies, bald and curly headed, light and dark. Babies in snugglies pressed against their mothers’ breasts, and babies in backpacks wiggling to be set free.

It must be women’s day at the Butte. Strong women, young and not-so-young, climbing, sweating, toiling.  Taking in this view, savoring the last days of summer.

Lincoln At Night

The Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln leans back in his chair staring past the Reflecting Pool at the Washington Monument. I don’t know how it was possible to capture so much pain, sorrow, and strength in one block of white marble.

Lincoln carried not only the weight of a fractured country on his shoulders, but the burden of devastating loss in his personal life—the death of three of his four children, his own struggle with depression, and the mental health challenges of his wife Mary. Yet, tonight, his face glowing in soft white light, he also appears attentive, listening, caring. I suppose any visitor projects his or her own needs and beliefs onto the memorial to this great man.

The first time I saw Lincoln I was eleven years old, visiting my father’s family in Baltimore. We spent a day whisking around the Capitol. Raised in Alaska, I may as well have been visiting a foreign country. We were that far geographically and culturally from the center of our government. On that sweltering day, tears pooled in my eyes as I gazed up at Lincoln. For the first time I felt that Lincoln was real, the stories I read in my school books were real, and I belonged to the history of our country.

Now, on my fourth visit to Lincoln, it’s after nine o’clock on a July evening. Cooler, but no less crowded than in the daylight. I hoped to avoid the crowds and have Lincoln to myself, to meditate on his words chiseled in the walls beside him, and pray for a healing of the sharp divisions in our country.

But Lincoln does not belong to me. People stream up and down the steep steps, circulate around the atrium like bees in a hive, and snap selfies at his feet. Women with long flowing robes and headscarves, school groups in matching tee shirts, young men with drooping pants, ladies in spandex, their ample bosoms and derrieres seeming to test the limits of fabric, babies in arms and strollers, fathers hoisting toddlers on their shoulders, mothers reading the Gettysburg address to their children. People from every state and country, with skin color in every hue from alabaster to dark chocolate. A cacophony of languages and laughter, questions and recitations, baby cries and squeals.

All free to honor the man who kept the Union together, who believed in the equality of everyone here. I try to hold back, but tears pool in my eyes and stream down my cheeks, just as they do every time I visit the memorial. This is the essence of the United States of America. All of us here together, reading Lincoln’s words, gazing at his weathered face, feeling his presence after so many years, so much pain, so much division. We need him. Now, more than ever.

Frozen Highway

Eagle River

Frozen Highway

Eagle River Valley. Southcentral Alaska.

The river is ours. We are the only humans traveling this brilliant white highway on a clear March morning. Our voices and the hollow crunch of heavy boots are the only sounds we hear. At this time of year we gain five minutes of daylight a day. Now that the sun has crested the mountains, it casts enough heat to penetrate our layers of wool and down and nylon. Ahh. We thaw out. We are bears waking up after a winter’s sleep.

“You’re crazy,” my daughter texted me before we left town this morning. The temperature at her house was -10 degrees.

“You’re right,” I replied.

I too doubted my judgment. Why would I willingly leave a cozy house, plenty of coffee, computer, TV, and books to head out into the frigid weather? But, the trip had been planned for months and my husband and I had plenty of clothes and food and friends waiting to join us. Of course we would go. So four of us, old friends since our children were small (and now have their own children), stuffed backpacks, loaded sleds, and hauled our gear to spend two nights camped in yurt along Eagle River. Just what we needed: an escape from the city, the internet, politics, and a constant bombardment of bad news. And, a chance to celebrate surviving another winter.

Though we’ve hiked this valley countless times in the summer, we revel in the ease of winter travel upstream. No scrambling up and over glacial rocks, slogging through the silty riverbank muck, or yelling “hey bear,” through the chest-high grass and cow parsnips along the trail. In an hour we’ve covered twice the distance we could reach by the same length of time in summer.
Still, we’re in no hurry. We dawdle to take pictures and puzzle over tracks: a canine—wolf, dog?—a moose, unmistakable with its long legs poking deep holes in the snow, a snowshoe hare leaving pellets along the shore where it nibbled on willows, and just below a clump of alders on the bank, tiny scratches left by a flock of red polls snatching seeds from the cones. A smooth narrow trail snakes through the snow and disappears into a plate sized hole in the ice. River otter, we decide, slipping beneath our feet. Further, behind a gentle snowdrift, we find a yawning crevasse, black water coursing deep below our apparently hollow surface: A warning to tread carefully.

The sun, the air, the crisp contrast of blue sky against white mountains, and the company of friends who share the wonder of it all, fills me with a peace I haven’t felt in months.

An overflow forms a silky gray pond of new ice as smooth as a hockey rink. We creep across, testing the strength of the ice, snapping pictures of bubbles, twigs, and leaves trapped just below the surface. Before long we’ve spent three hours meandering. Though daylight will linger for several more hours, the sun dips behind the mountain, and without it, the temperature will plunge below zero. We turn around reluctantly, thoughts of hot food, warm fire, and the comfort of our round little shelter, luring us back.

That night while the others sleep, I creep outside to check for the aurora. No blue or green streaks in the sky, just the glow of moonlight, so bright I see clearly without my headlamp: the white ribbon of river below us, the shadows of trees on snow. I breathe in the icy air, tuck my hands under my arms, and say a prayer of thanks for the beauty around me. This is my spiritual antidote to the anger, hatred, and violence in the world around us. I think of a quote from Doug Peacock, in Terry Tempest Williams book, The Hour of the Land, “insulate yourself with friends and seek out wild places.”

I duck back into the yurt, snuggle into my sleeping bag, and fall asleep to the snores of people I love.

For the Love of Books

The project took all winter. Drawing plans, scavenging lumber and stained glass, gluing, nailing sanding, staining. A way for my husband Jim to chase away the winter blues. I didn’t tell him I thought no one would use his little library. Who reads real books anymore when you can download them from Amazon? In fact, according to my sixteen year old grandson, no one reads books at all anymore—except for old people like his grandparents.

“The only books I read are school books,” he said.

It breaks my heart. All the beautiful books we read together when he was small. He used to devour whole series of fantasy adventure books.

“How will you develop your imagination?” I asked.

“I don’t need books for that,” he said.

When he’s not watching downloaded television shows and movies on his phone, he’s playing games or Instagramming his friends. How will his generation learn to think creatively when everything is packaged for them?

Jim doesn’t worry about the fate of the next generation. He’s got a plan, materials, tools, and time. He’s happy.

Throughout the dark months, the rumble of Jim’s table saw quivered the floor of my office right above his workshop. The high-pitched whine of his sander drove me to the kitchen—laptop clutched to my chest—to escape the sound. I envied his persistence through setbacks, mistakes and do-overs.  Sawdust accumulated on the shop floor, and drifted through the garage and into the house. All I had to show for my incessant tapping on the keyboard was sore fingers and stiff neck.

By spring, the library was ready. Jim mounted the structure on four stout recycled posts dug into the ground at the bottom of our driveway. The bright sunlight revealed the skill and beauty of his workmanship: a pitched roof with vents; a golden sun on one wall, a carved tree with a brass heart on its trunk on the other, a door of frosted glass, and solar lights inside. A fairy house, I thought.

We collected books scattered all over our house: from the grandkids’ long-abandoned stack in my office, the baskets in the living room, the night tables, the guest room, and the dining room table from our bedside until the two shelves were filled.

At first, a few cars slowed down to stare. Someone opened a window, aimed a cell phone, and clicked a picture. Then dog walkers paused, opened the door, and peeked inside. A woman yelled, “Love your little library,” as we swept last fall’s leaves from the driveway. Jim smiled.

From my office window, I watched a minivan stop. A woman got out, unbuckled two kids from their car seats in back and plopped them in front of the library. For several minutes they sorted through the books, pulling them out, flipping pages, putting them back. Finally, mom and kids got back in the van, each with a stack of books. Soon, cars we’d never seen before stopped, spent several minutes sorting through the stacks, took some out, and often left some behind. Four, five, six cars stopped by on a weekend. Kids stopped while riding their bikes and snatched a book.

Our little library had become a neighborhood stop on the way to other places.

Now, the shelves are never bare. Just when the supply of children’s books begins to thin, another batch arrives. When paperback thrillers run low, a new supply appears. Mysterious forces keep the library full and the lovers of books traveling to our doorstep.

My grandson was wrong. There are still people who read books—the real ones—who love the weight and feel of book in hand, the crisp snap of a turning page, the sharp colors of an alluring cover, the ability to mark your progress with a real book mark.

All this, thanks to Jim, who created the little library for the pure joy of it, sure that people who still love books would find it.

A Trashy Anniversary

To celebrate thirty-one years of marriage my husband and I sort trash. Not your average clean-out-the-garage trash, but marine debris. Unimaginable junk tossed or lost at sea.

Most couples wouldn’t think of celebrating their anniversary elbow deep in slime, ripped up shoes, and razor sharp shards of plastic. But this is one small way we can help care for the ocean, a passion we’ve shared since we spent our honeymoon in a cabin on the shores of Kachemak Bay near Homer, Alaska.

We are joined by some thirty other volunteers at the Port of Anchorage on this hot, dusty July day. Over a hundred other volunteers—ranging in age from seven to seventy—have been sorting trash over the past three days.

After a ten-minute orientation from the project coordinator we start pitching objects into separate bins:  clear plastic bottles;  hard plastics;  nets and ropes; big fishing buoys; and anything aluminum. Styrofoam cannot be recycled so it goes into large green trash bags. This includes large chunks of white crumbly stuff as well as hundreds of small oblong floats from fishing nets. In a matter of minutes, the white tee-shirts we were given to wear over our clothes are streaked with brown filth.

Each piece of trash has a story of how it wound up on an Alaskan beach—the 2011 Japanese tsunami, a marine container dumped overboard in a monster storm, careless fisherman, sunken ships, or entire countries that dump their trash into the ocean. But I don’t have time to dwell on these stories. The forklift lowers two more Volkswagen-sized white bags onto the ground. People untie each one, pull out bulging bags of beach trash, and lug them over to our massive wooden sorting table.

As new volunteers arrive, veterans train them. If an object goes into the wrong bin, someone retrieves it and puts it in the right place. We become a well-greased (literally) assembly line.

On our lunch break, I chat with a young man who spent several weeks collecting this trash on the beaches of Montague Island in Prince William Sound and Kayak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. He worked for a non-profit called Gulf of Alaska Keeper which cleans different Alaskan beaches each summer. Gathering the trash at such remote sites means living on a boat for forty days, commuting by helicopter to the clean-up sites, then back again at night—grueling physical work in all kinds of weather.

“How much trash is left out there?” I ask.

“We covered about ten miles,” he said. “And there were forty miles left.”

As I go back to sorting, I’m torn between despair and hope. So much waste hauled away. So much left. So many hands willing to help; so many more needed. How do we stop the flow of garbage into our oceans? I don’t have an easy answer, but as I look at the people around me, I choose to have hope. We can do something.

The forklift lowers the last white bag onto the ground. We distribute the last pieces of broken and smashed garbage into the appropriate containers. People begin raking the tiny pieces of plastic left on the ground and tossing buoys into a large container van for shipment with the rest of the recyclables to Seattle and California where they will be turned into clothing, shoes, cloth, and other objects.

Two hundred tons of trash picked up this summer. Trash that will not poison fish or entrap whales. It’s a small success, but worth celebrating—after a shower—with a dinner of fresh Alaskan halibut and a glass of wine. Not a bad way to spend an anniversary.

Blossoms

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Ten of us gather around Verna Pratt on a clear sunny day in May in the mountains above Anchorage, Alaska. Verna wrote the books on Alaskan wildflower identification—two of them. Anyone who is curious about the names of the flowers along the trails, in the bogs, beside the roads, or on the tundra carries Verna’s books stuffed in their backpacks or tucked in the glove boxes of their cars. The books are color-coded so that those of us who don’t know scientific names can flip to a color tab and find the common name of the flower growing beside us. The pages of my twenty-five year old copy of Verna’s Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, are water-stained, crinkled, splotched with dirt and the occasional smashed mosquito. It is so well loved I’ll never give it up. Within it, memories of hikes, river and backpacking trips, picnics, and the seemingly endless days of Alaskan summers. Since I first bought the book, I’ve longed to take a field class with Verna, but work, grad school, raising a daughter and life kept me from signing up. Now that neither of us is getting any younger, I’m finally learning from the master.

To study alpine wildflowers you must walk slowly. People on their way to the mountain top race around you, looking either annoyed or puzzled to find ten people clogging the trail examining barely visible pink blueberry blossoms. You should not be afraid to get personal with the flowers, to kneel in the damp tundra, put your nose right up to a tiny flower, and examine it through a magnifying glass attached by a string to your neck.

Verna leads us up a steep, rocky trail, through mountain hemlock and above tree line. Her knees are not what they used to be, one hip is bothering her, and she explains that she may have to stop frequently to catch her breath. But, as we follow her, she climbs steadily but slowly, relying on one hiking pole which doubles as her pointer. There is so much I would have simply walked past if I had not slowed down: the tiny white alp lily, the clustered pink alpine azalea, the fuchsia-colored wooly lousewort.

At the edge of a melting snow field, a cluster of leaves no bigger than my pinky fingernail pokes out of the flattened grass. Verna points at it with her stick. Gentian, she says. I don’t know how she can tell anything from this miniscule clutch of green. Tiny stalks will soon reach up bearing dark purple tubular flowers. On a sunny day they will flare open at the top and resemble tiny vases. So much to accomplish in such a short time. So much to see if you forget about getting to the top.

Spring

Spring arrived early in Alaska this year. Leaves pop out in mid-April instead of early May. Cranes, geese, and grebes are back already. Is the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival too late this year—May 12-15? Will the shorebirds have already passed by on their way a warmer than usual Arctic? I’ve been trying to catch up on spring, thumbing through my bird books, listening to bird songs on my Audubon app. Trying to remember who’s singing in the woods, the swamps, and the shore.  All this brings back memories of other springs, other summers.

Faded pictures, warped pages, an occasional pressed mosquito or gnat embedded in the description of a duck or song bird. You would think that by the condition of my mother’s Birds of Alaska book she might know the birds by heart. But, no. The sorry state of her Birds of Alaska book was due to neglect. There were loons and ducks, robins and ravens. That was the extent of Mom’s bird identification. She was not that interested in figuring out which bird was which. But, wildflowers. They stayed put. She tried her best to transplant the wildflowers from the marsh surrounding her cabin to the yard at home. They just didn’t take. Nor did the little marigolds from home like the wet weedy soil around the cabin. I’ve never been much of a gardener. Too much time in one place. I’d rather keep my eyes and binoculars to the sky and trees scanning for birds. But this spring, Mom would be proud. I’m taking a wildflower class from the grande dames of Alaska wildflowers, Verna Pratt and Marilyn Barker. I’ll try to take my eyes from the sky.