After August in Alaska — A full mind and a happy heart
I can’t decide whether I am the luckiest woman in Alaska or the luckiest person in America. I have just had the best 30 days anybody could have in any place ever. I have been home.
Home in Ketchikan where people know my family well. In Metlakatla where when the planes don’t fly and you just deal with it, or ask somebody to take you to the airport in Ketchikan in their boat and they don’t think twice about doing it. And they call ahead to the airport to tell Alaska Airlines to hold the plane because they know the guy who works the gate.
In Barrow when the sun is up so high in the sky at 11 p.m. that you feel like bedtime is a catnap in the afternoon sun. In Kaktovik, where you buzz the coastline looking for polar bears but the only one you see doesn’t move cause he’s so satiated from gorging on a ring seal that he ate for lunch (taken from a fish camp that we just visited) that he can’t move.
Flying over the North Slope in a helicopter, a land that is more water than terrain, walking on the tundra that is like a magnificent sponge filled with color and water and delicate flowers.
Talking with whaling captains about their ice cellars that are thawing and worrying about their food security yet anxious for more development in the Arctic as it means job security.
Then down to Kodiak with the Coast Guard — everyday heroes who are there for Alaskans day in and day out. We flew out to the brown bear refuge on the island and stalked a stream to come upon a sow and her cub relaxing in the sun. We were the intruders in her world and kept a respectful distance.
Kodiak is indeed the Emerald Isle. Cold Bay was the next outpost, made even more so since the only fuel source (the truck from Frosty Fuel) was out of commission. We flew out to a national security cutter in the Bering Sea and all I could think of was that these were the waters that my boys fish in. I was proud of them and afraid for them at the same time. These are big waters.
I visited big bears the following day in Katmai National Park. An old boar nicknamed “Ugly” showed us how real bears fish.
In Kenai I spent the day with 80 kids from military families and shared their delight as they caught humpies and silvers in the Kenai River. For many, it was their first fish ever. Verne and I flew out to Healy Lake for a celebration of life for a WWII vet and trapper who’s lived in the Interior since the 40s. A beautiful tribute to a wonderful man, complete with 21-gun salute, military flag ceremony and bowling balls shot from the canon into the stratosphere. He would have loved it. The quiet at Healy Lake in the morning was amazing — your ears absolutely rang because the quiet was so intense.
Intense and beautiful is the best way to describe the Aleutians trip. Flying in a C-130 for almost 6 hours from Anchorage to Shemya. A true outpost. Flat, 2 miles by 4 miles, old buildings from WWII next to buildings housing missile defense assets. Brave souls made the “double dip” — swimming in the Pacific and then running around the cove to jump into the Bering Sea. Not me.
We took the helicopter 30 minutes out to Attu — the end of the chain, directly under Russia and on its own time zone. No inhabitants on the island since 2009. Amazingly beautiful with mountains straight up into the sky, lovely harbors and beaches and streams with fish so thick you could walk across.
We helped erect a monument to the Natives who had been captured by the Japanese during the war and later interned, never to return to Attu. For an island that gets rain almost every day of the year, we had blue sky and calm winds as we ate lunch on the mossy, pillowy tundra. Adak almost seemed like civilization after Attu. Buildings and people (just over 100) were outnumbered by caribou (3,500).
These three Aleutian communities are like a forgotten world, left over from the war. Amazing history.
Verne and I spent our 25th anniversary at Winterlake Lodge on the back side of Mt. Susitna. The floatplane trip out was like a science class as our pilot told about the land formations and topography.
Chena Hot Springs was yet another reminder to pay attention to science. Bernie’s place is the land of possibilities and big ideas. Next year he will have bananas growing in his greenhouse! I felt like a Japanese monkey floating in the mist of the hot springs, alone on a Sunday morning before the crowds came to talk about geothermal, hydrogen and methane.
In Kenai I ate graham crackers soaked in liquified natural gas to demonstrate how safe it is and then went offshore on an oil/gas platform in Cook Inlet to see where the stuff comes from.
Instead of going to Tampa for the convention, I went to the Yukon River where the air is clear and the people there are focused on energy and food. Pretty basic stuff. In Beaver, a village of 70, the students danced and were shy and proud. The tables were filled with food that people had brought to share.
It was obvious that those who had the least brought the most to share. Stevens Village was equally small, with big ideas about governance. Tanana is proud of their innovation with biomass and how they have brought down energy costs and created jobs. Yet, they have a new cafeteria at the school that has never been used as they wait for funding for a cook and lunch program.
Our pilot (the best I’ve ever flown with) flew at about 400 feet throughout the region following the Yukon as he navigated weather. What a way to see the country. Ruby was nestled in the high bank of the river, lovely even in the rain. Tales of domestic violence and suicide marred the natural beauty of the area. In Galena we were greeted at the airport by my old friend Sidney Huntington, now 97. He’s still driving and conceded to go live in the elders facility because his wife told him she was done cooking for him. He has only made it through the third grade and is passionate about education. He has spoken at every graduation in Galena since 1973 and attends every basketball practice and game at the school. His sister is 93 and looks about 65. Good genes.
Downriver we were in Kaltag, Grayling and Holy Cross. At each village the sun came out when we landed and as we were leaving the rain started to fall. After the third village it almost seemed beyond coincidental.
The history of early Alaska was still present, from the mining in Ruby and sawmill in Kaltag to the old missionary church in Holy Cross. Pictures of horses and cows in Holy Cross was a reminder of how little outsiders understood the area at the time. Now it’s moose and fish again. The kids are learning their Native languages and dancing while taking pictures on their cell phones.
I spent Friday evening at home in Anchorage by myself making rhubarb chutney from my plant that came from our old house. It was good to make something from something that I grew. As I cut and stirred I reflected on all the places and people I had visited over the past 3 weeks. I am truly overwhelmed by the generosity, the warmth and support that I find. I have never received so many hugs from total strangers who greet me like a sister. And oh, the places I’ve been! Majestic, awesome, breathtaking.
There are no adjectives to sufficiently describe a wilderness like Attu, Teshekpuk, the Yukon tributaries. My mind is full and my heart is happy. The only sadness I have is that in order to experience this amazing place I call home, I have to leave it.
From back to D.C. and then to a conference in Iceland before it’s back to work here where people call me by my title rather than my first name and we exchange handshakes rather than hugs and talk politics rather than things that really matter, like family and food.
I’m blessed in so many ways, but it’s times like this when I realize that I walk in several different worlds. Glad to have you all anchoring me to the world that really matters.