Not This Summer

 
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After two summers of swatting mosquitoes, shivering in my sleeping bag, surviving on grayling and Mountain House freeze-dried food, breaking my back peeling poles and carrying a 60-pound pack, and spending the majority of my time without seeing a single teenager, let alone another person, this summer, I will be enjoying the anti-Alaska experience. That’s right! I will be trading in my bear spray for a bikini, my mosquito net for makeup, and my hiking boots for heels, and high-tailing it to Europe.

In honor of my cousin’s graduation, my 83-year-old German-born grandmother is taking me and my two cousins to Europe on a cruise. I will wear sun dresses every day, eat to my heart’s content, and see cliffs, castles, and vineyards. For two wonderful weeks I will be spoiled.

But, in exchange for spending-money, my dad has awarded me the job of scraping and painting the quarter-mile-long fence that runs along the front of our small farm. According to him, it is simply another vital lesson in the value of hard work. If I want to be spoiled, first I gotta pay my dues.

So each morning I get up, put on my old sap-stained, Alaska pole-peeling clothes, and head to the fence. I set down my Kindle — my old Coleen River sidekick — spray myself down with bug dope, blast Mumford and Sons, and begin the scraping.  It’s been a wet spring, and it feels like all the mosquitoes in Alaska have come down to pay me a visit. They hound me. The rhythm becomes painfully familiar: scrape, swat, swear, scrape, swat, swear. Sometimes, a neighbor comes out to watch me “Old man got you working again?” they ask. I just nod my head. Yup.

As I scrape, I picture myself in Europe, enjoying fine food, dessert wines and Swiss chocolate, riding through the canals of Amsterdam, and watching the World Cup final from an old German pub. At noon my dad pays me a visit. “Ugh, this is too much like peeling poles at Heimo’s,” I say.

“What’s the matter with you?” he responds. I thought you were an Alaska girl!”

“Nope,” I say. “Not this summer.”

Grrrr—it

 

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Near the top of the globe, at the slipping edge of Alaska, on the southern coast of the Arctic Ocean is a small barrier island called Arey.  It is nothing more than a six-mile-long scrap of land pounded by whitecaps crashing in from the open water. The island is entirely bare; the only evidence of life, the birds overhead and the dinosaur-sized polar bear tracks pressed into the sand. Yet, the thought of this island was what I imagined every day as I paddled down the Hulahula River, shivering from a core-deep cold, the bill on the hood of my raincoat pulled down to shield  my face from the stinging shards of sleet.

When we were backpacking over the Brooks Range, and all I wanted to do was be rid of my sixty-pound pack and throw it into a ravine, I dreamed about being on the river—and this island.  But when I got to the Hulahula, I discovered that the river was sometimes dangerous and always demanding. Each morning, before packing up camp, I’d pull on my cold, damp clothes and rub my hands together to get the blood circulating. Then, I’d take down the tent, pack up our gear, and load the dry bags into the canoe. Three hours later, we’d finally push off and then for the next 20 miles battle the river’s rapids and the biting wind to the coast. 

After 14 days on the river, when we’d finally reached Arey Island, I waded to the edge of the Arctic Ocean and gathered snail shells, thinking I’d soon be going home. But, then the winds blew up, and we were stranded for another three days. The cold on Arey was worse than anything I’d imagined. The non-stop winds came straight off the North Pole and cut threw everything – our tent, my clothes, and the driftwood shelters we’d erected. We even built bonfires, but still it was impossible for me to get warm. Sometimes, I felt like there was no end to it.

When I tell people about our trip, they often ask me how I managed it, physically and mentally. The word that always came to mind was Grit.

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and educator, popularized the word with her TED talk. Grit, she said, is the single best predictor of success in life. She got the word from the John Wayne western True Grit, in which a girl hires a gruff, one-eyed, alcoholic sheriff to hunt down her father’s murderer. Despite her age and gender, the girl refuses to let the sheriff go alone and against all odds, sets out with him to take on the rugged west. This, Angela Duckworth points out, is what grit is about: “passion and determination” for long-term goals. While most people seek immediate gratification, with grit there often is no “aha” moment, just hard work and a long wait.

I found grit in Alaska, but you don’t need Alaska to get grit. Grit is the mile runner who guts it out in the last 200 meters; it is the stutterer who returns to the classroom everyday despite being teased; it is the farm kid who trudges to the barn every morning before school; it is the dyslexic who finishes all seven Harry Potter books; it is the girl who trains to make the high school football team; it is the boy who shovels snow all winter and mows lawns all summer to pay for college.

Grit sounds like what it means — a mixture of purpose and perseverance. Grrrr—it.

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HulaF’nHula

For all those of you who have asked about the disappearance of my grittygal blog, I apologize. It has been a long haul this year. I promise, however, to return to the blog with renewed vigor. Thanks for sticking with me.  


          100_0927The Hulahula was littered with rocks and boulders and long sections of big, ice-cold rapids. As the bowman, my job was to read the river and pick the best route. Occasionally, I had time to study it, to calmly choose our line through the rapids. But most of the time, I was forced to make split-second decisions, paddle hard, and pray to the river gods that our canoe would make it through without spilling.

Between rapid runs, my dad liked to lay his paddle across the gunwales, sit back, and admire the scenery.

“Aidan,” he’d say, “Just enjoy this. You may never see anything like it again.” He’d pause and then he’d add for emphasis, “No really, Aidan. This is it. This is one of the last great wildernesses left. Just relax and soak it up.”

Relax and soak it up, I’d mutter to myself.  My dad had learned to trust me and my ability to read the river, but from my perspective, he had forgotten what was like to be in the driver’s seat.

On our fourth day, my dad was dreamily watching the mountains when I yelled out, “Boulder garden!”

His reverie came to a screeching halt. “Eddy out!” he yelled.

Downriver was a section of water teeming with rapids and angry looking rocks.

“No way,” I said. “We can’t make it.”

“What do you suggest then,” he said tensely, without a sliver of bliss left in his voice.

Lining our canoe wasn’t an option. The rock walls were too steep and the current too strong.

I bit my lip. The river was divided into three channels. On the right, the water surged toward a cliff in a long wave train and then dropped off a ledge into a bowl of roiling water. In the middle, three large boulders rose up. The spaces between them were too small to squeeze a canoe through. On the left, the water was fast and as rocky as a scree field.

“What do you think, Aidan?” my dad asked.

“The right,” I said, hesitantly.

“Yup,” he answered. “Looks like our only option. Let the current take us up to the wall and kick us out. Then draw the canoe hard left and miss that bowl. There’s a smaller drop to the left, but I think we can survive that one.”

I bit my lip again. I didn’t like his choice of words.

“You got this, Aidan,” he said, patting me on the back. “If we take this right, we’ll be okay.”

“And if we don’t?” I asked.

“Be confident,” he said. “Bold and confident.”

I studied our line along the right wall.

“Take your time,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Now,” I answered. I knew the more I thought about it, the more frightened I’d get.

We peeled out and entered the wave train, the water heaping over the bow and flooding into my spray skirt. I could hardly see, but knew we were just inches from the wall. When the wave kicked us out, I yelled, “Left! Left!” but the boat wasn’t turning. I was certain we were going to dump. Then, suddenly, the boat moved. We’d missed the drop-off. When we pitched into the second one, I felt the bow of the canoe porpoise. It dove, came back up, and I emerged from a wall of water. Then I saw it, a boulder dead-ahead. I drew the canoe left, but could tell by the way the boat moved that my dad hadn’t seen it yet.

“Boulder!” I yelled. I felt the back end of the boat bump the rock. But that was it. A bump and not a collision. Ahead I saw an eddy just downstream.

“Eddy out,” I shouted.

When we turned the canoe into the eddy’s calm water, I felt my muscles slacken. We’d made it. After inspecting the canoe, we realized that we’d cracked a crossrib, but that could be fixed.

“Holy shit,” my dad said, relieved.

We had eight to ten days ahead of us. The Hulahula has a pretty sounding name, but by the end of our trip, by the time we reached the Arctic Ocean, tired, battered and shaken, we’d chosen a cruder phrase to describe the river.  Pronounced not as three words, but one, an expression of reverence and deference: HulaF’nHula.

 

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Wolves of the Hulahula

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On our first morning on the Hulahula, I woke to the sun and the howling of wolves. The day before, close to camp, we had spotted their fresh tracks, prints bigger than my hand.

I noticed that Dave, Chris, and my dad were all facing southwest. Chris had his binoculars out. He let them fall and turned toward me, motioning for me to come forward slowly.

“Just below the ridge,” he said, pointing. “Three of them.”

I held the binoculars to my eyes, and scanned the hillside. Then, I spotted them. A trio of wolves throwing back their heads, their bodies curved like crescent moons. They were calling to one another. The sound rolled through the valley.

For fifteen minutes, we stood at the base of the hill just listening, thrilled.

The conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”

I will never be a mountain.

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When the Sun Don’t Shine

100_0753On the seventh morning of our trip across the Arctic, I awoke to the sound of rain. Ugh! Another day without sun. July 31st marked a full week of cold and clouds. Even my joints moaned and groaned. I pulled my clothes out of my sleeping bag. They were still wet and, even worse, smelled like stinky feet. Each night I stuck them inside, allowing my body to heat and dry them while I slept. But, somehow they had gotten pushed to the bottom. I grit my teeth and slid the shirt over my head. Boy, what I would give for dry clothes.

At the cook tent, my dad had just finished making oatmeal. And this time, he hadn’t added dried berries or whey. As we neared the end of the backpacking portion of our trip, our supplies were getting low. We’d hoped to catch fish on the Chandalar River, but the rain kept coming and the water was high, so the fish weren’t cooperating. I was starting to get “boat-eyes,” fantasizing about what I would eat when we got to where the bush pilot had dropped off our folding canoe and two bear barrels of food. In one of those bear barrels, I knew I had a bar of dark Lindt Chocolate. That alone kept me going.

Now, my dad was cursing. He’d spilled his bowl of oatmeal. When he stopped swearing, he grabbed his spoon and then, without hesitation, began eating off the ground. “Five minute rule,” he said, grinning. Before we did dishes, Dave passed around the oatmeal pot for us to scrape. “When did scraping the oatmeal bowl qualify as a treat?”

An hour later, after taking down the tent and packing up our backpacks, we were off. The mist hung low over the mountains. I imagined myself walking through the Western Highlands of Scotland–Campbell country. The tundra was like a sponge beneath me. With each step, my boots filled with water, until finally I had to stop to dump them.  As soon as I plopped myself down, I realized my mistake. I had just soaked my butt, too.

Finally, after seven miles of steady marching, we got our first glimpse of the Hulahula River. From, the distance it looked like a snake, curving back and forth until it reached the horizon. I imagined the mountains slowly falling away, the land leveling out, the tundra turning to sand and gravel. The river would lead us to the coast, to the Arctic Ocean.

That night I fell asleep to the cold roar of the river.

I woke up to the sound of my dad celebrating. He was hollering like he had just seen the Packers win the Superbowl.

“Get up, Aidan! Come out!” he shouted.

I was not in the mood for optimism. I closed my eyes and tried my best to ignore him. Even in the Arctic, I needed my beauty sleep.

“Get up,” he yelled again.

I crawled out my sleeping bag, rolled my stiff shoulders, cracked my neck, and stumbled out of the tent. I looked around trying to figure out why my father had woken me.

And then, I realized. The sun!

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“We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”

100_0739100_0720100_0734When I was child, my favorite book was “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” Every night before bed, I’d make my dad read it to me. I got so good that I could finish the sentences for him. To this day, I still remember it: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day. We’re not scared. Oh oh! Grass. Long, wavy, grass. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve gotta go through it!

In Alaska’s Brooks Range, the words came back to me, but with a few new twists. This was my version: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a miserable day. I’m sure scared. Oh oh! Mountains. Towering, jagged, cold, rugged mountains. I can’t go over them. I can’t go under them. Darn it! I’ve gotta go through them.”

I’d tramped through tundra, waded through rushing glacial streams, and wrestled my way through willows, but July 30, 2014 was the pivotal day–the Continental Divide. And, there was only one way to get over: through Gilbeau Pass.

The sky was dark and daunting. We were walking high up in a gray mist, following caribou trails through snow fields and talus slopes lining a cliff edge. I refused to look down. One misstep and I would be over.

Behind me, my father teetered back and forth, trying to balance his 70-pound pack and a 10-pound shotgun that was lashed to the side of it. His march was that of an oversized penguin waddling up the slope. Compared to him, I looked like a mountain goat. But, no matter how many times I offered to carry the shotgun, no matter how many times Chris and Dave, our backpacking companions, offered, he refused. He’d brought it along, so he was determined to lug it. Plus, if we saw a bear, he wanted to be the one holding the gun. “No bear in his right mind would be up here,” I told him. He smirked, “No person in his right mind would be up here.”

Coming down from Gilbeau, I spent a lot of time skidding on loose rocks. When the ground leveled out, I was eager to put distance between me and the high mountains, and I drifted ahead of the group. As I rounded a turn, there in front of me was the huge, brown-haired, hump-backed form of a grizzly. Ursus Arctos Horribilis! I wanted to yell for my Dad and Chris and Dave, but the words wouldn’t come. I felt like I had just fallen into “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” “OH NO IT’S A BEAR!” Except this was the real thing. I couldn’t hide under the covers. I couldn’t bury my face in my dad’s chest and beg him to protect me. I couldn’t skip to the end, because this time I didn’t know the end. And, unlike the characters in my book who ran back to their house and hid, I had nowhere to go. My only escape was up the side of a mountain, but I knew I couldn’t outrun the bear.  Even Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a bear.

Rather than chasing me up the mountain, however, the grizzly took one look at me, turned, and fled up the 60-degree slope, looking more like a prima ballerina than a 700-pound giant. I had just come face-to-face with my worst fear, the monster of my childhood nightmares, and what had it done? It ran. I never would have guessed.

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A Bear!?

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Prior to this trip, I’d never actually seen a grizzly. I’d been in bear country and had seen fresh tracks and steaming scat, but never a bear. So, on this trip, I was intent on spotting a grizzly. I didn’t need a long look at one, and I sure didn’t want one close up, but I was not going home without catching sight of a griz.

As we hiked up the Chandalar River toward Gilbeau Pass, I was constantly on the lookout. We tramped across gravel bars thick with willows, and I scanned the branches for a bear. When we stopped for a break, I looked downwind to see if one might be tracking us. While my dad, and Chris and Dave ( our two companions) quizzed each other about old 70s and 80s music to pass the time, I stayed silent and focused. They could have their fun, but I would be the one to spy the bear in the thicket ahead or to send out the warning call when one came stumbling out of the brush.

But after 4 hours of steady hiking over the tundra, always climbing higher, I grew tired. The only things on my mind were if we’d stop, how long we’d rest, and if I might dip into the trail mix or the hummus when we did. So, when I came up out of a ravine, I was not prepared for the brown-haired, humped- back form of a grizzly.

“Bear!” Dave yelled, turning to my dad who was carrying our only shotgun. Startled, I jumped into action. I pulled out my pepper spray and put my thumb on the trigger. I was prepared to stand my ground. And then, the bear turned.

It was then that I saw two very un-bear like horns emerge from the animal’s enormous head. This most definitely was not a bear. In fact, we had stumbled upon an even more unlikely beast — a muskox, thrashing its head back and forth as it browsed among the willows.

I felt surprised, thrilled, and then a bit disappointed. But I needn’t have worried. I was going to see grizzlies – a number of them – and quite possibly a polar bear, too.

Stay tuned for more bear sightings.