Back in Boulder

Biking Flagstaff Pic

My mother turned 52 this month, and she seems to have found the fountain of youth.

For my dad’s tour for his new book, Braving It, our whole family piled into our Toyota van and went on a whirlwind road-trip of the West, kicking off the tour in Boulder, Colorado, my mom’s old stomping ground.

To introduce me to her former home, my mom decided to rent mountain bikes and take me on her favorite Boulder biking route, a relentless, 45-minute climb on steep switchbacks up Flagstaff Road to a point overlooking the Boulder Valley. After living in the car for two days, my legs were stiff and my lungs, at altitude, felt like they had been crushed under the weight of the mountains. But I was not about to refuse the invitation. We made our way to Flagstaff Road, my mom in the lead, pointing out places from her past, reclaiming the town as her own. I struggled to stay in earshot as I huffed and puffed up 6th Street. My mother seemed to be gliding on the thin mountain air, sitting back on her seat, surveying her city.

When we reached the beginning of the ascent, she glanced back, smiled, and took off climbing, her legs taut and strong as she stood up on her pedals and curled over the handlebars. I followed, attempting to keep her in sight as she took the switchbacks seemingly two at a time. Each bend she rounded, she’d hold up her hand and wave like the queen looking down on her subjects. All I could do was grimace. I may have backpacked over the Brooks Range and paddled to the Arctic Ocean, but I was no match for my mother on a bike. There would be more rides over the course of our week in Boulder – Sunshine to Poorman, Old Bill, Lee Hill – and I would get stronger, but it was on this first ride that my mother staked out her territory, letting me know that Colorado was her home long before I entered the world.

Me and Mom in Idaho

Elliot At Altitude

Elliot at Altitude

Move over, Cheryl Strayed. I have a new role model.  Her name is Elliot Singer; she’s 14 years old, writes an amazing blog at Elliot At Altitude, and eats mountains for breakfast.

I’ve known Elliot since I was 11 years old, and if I’ve learned one thing about her over the years, it is that you should never underestimate her. At four foot, eleven inches, and no more than a hundred pounds, it’s hard to imagine this girl doing much damage. That is, until she shakes your hand. She has the kind of iron handshake that could make a grown man tremble.  Her callouses are hard and well-worn, developed over the years from summers spent scaling the Sawtooths, biding her time before she was ready for the high peaks of the Himalayas. This spring, Elliot finally had her chance, and with five-time Everest summiteer Melissa Arnot as her guide, she traveled to the Khumbu Region of Everest to attempt three 20,000 foot peaks. She had been training for the trip for months, waking at 5:00 am to run at the gym, wearing a 20-pound weight vest around the house, and practicing her breathing techniques for the paper-thin air of the high Himalayas.

This trip was a test, not just of her skill as a climber, but of her character. Few teenagers have the patience or the perseverance to be a mountaineer. An ascent of 20,000 feet takes every bit of physical and emotional strength you have, and, sometimes, you don’t even get the reward of reaching the summit. But Elliot is a quick study.  In the Khumbu capital of Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the high Himalayas, Elliot discovered the value of being “chill,” of entering into a meditative state in which you prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and settle for something in the middle.  Armed with Bob Marley and a pocket full of Coconut Crunchies, she successfully summited Island Peak, slept 20,000 feet atop Lobuche Peak, and entered into the unknown territory of Kyajo Ri. With each ascent, she set the bar higher, proving again and again that she is absolutely fearless, one of the grittiest gals I know.

Recently, when faced with my own small challenges, I have started to ask myself a question, “What would Elliot do?”

Elliot, I don’t know what the future holds for you, but after standing at the summit of a 20,000-foot mountain, the sky is truly the limit.

My Alaska Playlist

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Little Lion Man by Mumford and Sons

On my first trip to Alaska, for the first week, until my batteries died, I listened to music almost everywhere I went: when I was peeling poles in the clearing, when I was bathing in the Coleen River, when I was falling asleep at night, and sometimes when I was trying to catch Arctic grayling for supper. I may not have believed in the power of my bear bells to ward off the grizzlies, but I sure believed in power of Mumford and Sons. I’d convinced myself that as long as they were playing, I was safe from marauding bears.

The Funeral by Band of Horses

Heimo and I have very different tastes in music. Of all the songs on my playlist, he only liked this one, and the only reason he liked it was because he said I peeled poles faster when I listened to it.  He was right. As soon as the drum section of the song began, I would ramp up my peeling and pull the drawknife toward me as fast as I could.

Skinny Love by Bon Iver

Nothing made me miss home more than “Skinny Love.” At night, I would listen to it again and again before I fell asleep, and I would dream of home. It was the song playing on the radio when I left and it was the song playing when my dad and I pulled into the driveway six weeks later.

1234 by Feist

I first heard this song just before my third trip to Alaska and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I sang it in the canoe, counting the strokes on each side, as I paddled down the Hulahula River to the Arctic Coast. I even managed to teach my dad the song. He couldn’t remember the lyrics, but we were never more in sync with our paddling than when we sang Feist’s “1234.”

Hero by Family of the Year

I called this song my time-to-make-up with Dad song. I played it after fighting with my dad for the first time, and played it after other fights, too, to remind myself that, though I may not have cared for him at the moment, my dad was a pretty special person.

Forget You by Cee Lo Greene

If “Hero” was my time-to-make-up with Dad tune, then Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” was my “see ya” song. Whenever I was really mad at my dad (or Heimo), or sick and tired of Alaska, the weather, or the work, I would march off into the woods or walk down an open gravel bar along the river shouting “Forget You.”

The Girl by City and Colour

I found the title of this song applicable to my situation. Whenever I grew tired of my Alaskan adventures, I would crawl into the tent, curl into my sleep bag, and put on this song. I almost managed to convince myself that the song was written for me. If I ever meet City and Colour, I will have to ask who, or what, inspired the song.

Sweater Weather by The Neighborhood

I sure wasn’t wearing a sweater at 40 below in Arctic Alaska, but that didn’t stop me from playing this song. Every morning, as I pulled on my ski shirt, my snow pants, my jacket, and my parka, and my boots, I put on “Sweater Weather” and pretended that I, too, was sun bathing on a beach in California instead of dressing in the frigid air of the wall tent. I even played the song for Edna as we got ready together in the cabin.  Her comment was, “Is this junk what teenagers are listening to these days?” Edna never let me play it again, but when I was alone I always put it on just to remind myself that I was still a teenager, even up in Arctic Alaska.

Ho Hey by The Lumineers

The first lesson I learned before my first Alaska trip was how to handle a bear encounter. My dad told me that if I ever saw a grizzly, the best thing to do was to start talking to it in a strong, assertive voice and let it know I was there. In Alaska, as I walked through spruce and willows thickets, I would sing to myself, tell myself stories, recite tongue-twisters, anything to let the grizzlies know where I was.  But, for fending off bears, my go-to song (along with “Little Lion Man”) was “Ho Hey.” I’d discovered it just before we left Wisconsin and couldn’t get the refrain, “Ho Hey”, out of my head. I added it to my playlist last minute, for the catchiness of the refrain alone. But what I found in Alaska was that “Ho Hey” was the perfect way to announce myself to the grizzlies. “Ho Hey, I’m comin’ your way.”

Home by Phillip Phillips

This song was my hiking song as I backpacked over the Brooks Range. Standing on the summit of Gilbeau Pass, looking out over the Hulahula River Valley, I felt at home. I felt as if I belonged.  Even now, I feel like I have two homes: Wisconsin and Alaska.

Gritty Gals Are Gutsy Girls

I recently learned that I was included in Caroline Paul’s book, The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, a collection of stories and tips from Paul and other female adventurers throughout history. I am honored to be a part of the Gutsy Girl club! Here is the link for those interested: http://www.amazon.com/Gutsy-Girl-Escapades-Your-Adventure/dp/1632861232/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458930694&sr=8-1&keywords=the+gutsy+girl+escapades+for+your+life+of+epic+adventure

 

Women in the Wild

Watching “The Revenant,” I was struck by the stunning cinematography, and reminded of how much I missed the Alaskan wilderness, at least aspects of  it–the scene in which Hugh Glass is repeatedly mauled by a bear made me thankful to be experiencing it second hand from the comfort of my movie seat. I was impressed with Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of  the legendary mountain man  and  surprised myself by finding DiCaprio at his most attractive as he crawled inside a horse’s carcass to stay warm. But still I couldn’t help but wonder, Where is our female Hugh Glass? Legendary women  have always existed, but if Hollywood has a minority issue, it also has a female heroine issue.

I want a movie about a woman who can brave a bear attack, eat raw bison liver, and find her way across the wilderness. How about a film dedicated to Fanny Bullock Workman, an explorer, cartographer, writer, and mountaineer? Or, what about Sacagawea? How far would Lewis and Clark have gone without her? How about Aliy Zirkle, currently running fifth in the Iditarod? Largely considered a male event, the Iditarod would lose roughly one-third of its competitors if it weren’t for female mushers.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to celebrate what the movies have not women in the wild. Woods women like Edna Korth who has lived in the middle of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more than 30 years. Female mountaineers like Melissa Arnot who has summited Everest five times. Adventurers and explorers like Kira Salak who at the age of 24 became the first woman to backpack across New Guinea.

Hugh Glass might have been a tough mountain man, but these modern day women would give him a run for his money.

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Aliy Zirkle, champion sled dog musher

Grittygal to Citygal

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I am sorry Alaska! I have betrayed you. You are no longer the only love of my life. I have found some place else, a civilized, sophisticated city, pulsing with energy. Its name is Amsterdam.

Those who say love at first sight is a lie have never been to Amsterdam: The narrow cobblestone streets, the three-story stone houses, the open-air markets winding through the city, the canals crisscrossing the neighborhoods, the musicians serenading the tourists on the bridges, the bikers zigzagging through cars, the people smoking in the green leaf cafes. Maybe it was the fact that the whole city smelled of marijuana, but there was no resisting it, I was high on Amsterdam.

The city gave me a rush that I had not experienced since Alaska. There, it was the quiet, a silence as big as the tundra.  But in Amsterdam, it was the noise. The torrent of people and traffic, expanding and contracting like the bellows of an accordion.  

That first day in Amsterdam, I explored every street corner and canal I could. Five hours later, I returned to my room and collapsed on my bed. Outside my window, the lights of the city danced over the water like the Aurora Borealis in the Alaskan night sky.

I was just about to fall asleep, when I realized I had forgotten something. I grabbed my purse from the window sill and started digging. Finally I found it at the very bottom, my Leatherman. Every night when I was in the Alaskan bush, I slept with it by my side. It made me feel secure.

Next to me, my cousin turned over in her bed, and stared at me, her eyes wide open. “Are you kidding me, Aidan!?” she asked, glancing at the knife. I laughed and tucked the Leatherman under my pillow. I may have fallen in love with the city, but it couldn’t change the fact that the habits I learned in the wilderness stayed with me. I was still an Alaska girl.

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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.”