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.”

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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