Adventures in the Mountains

What do you do when you’re presented with 72 hours of free time, only a 30% chance of rain, and you live in remote Alaska? You pack your bags and head for the mountains! A few different friends had recently done a ridge-top hike in the nearby mountain range and camped at a cabin along the way, and I really wanted to check it out. But all of my friends were either fishing, working, or otherwise unavailable…so I went by myself.

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As I walked through town, backpack on my back and bear spray dangling from my hip, the Wells Fargo clock said 3pm. I noted the time as I left town and started winding my way up Ski Hill via Eyak Mountain Trail. My mind was on the fog up ahead, and I pondered my adventure which hadn’t really yet begun. I was a slightly worried about the visibility level – I was told the trail wasn’t well-marked and the piles of rocks which designated the route were tricky to find in the clouds were low. I had roughly estimated a 7pm arrival time at the Ridge Shelter – an hour up Ski Hill, an hour over and up to Crater Lake, and then two more hours across the ridge. Daylight wasn’t really a factor because the sun doesn’t set, so I wasn’t in a rush.

I rounded the last corner to the chairlift at the top of the hill, a slight breeze made me realize that my back was a little wet. Actually, it was quite wet. I took off of my backpack and discovered that my borrowed CamelBak bladder leaked if not kept upright…and I had it upside down. There was about a liter of water spilled inside of my backpack, about half of which was absorbed into the top edge of my sleeping bag. I contemplated turning around – I hadn’t really left yet. My desire for an adventure won. I stuffed the bottom two thirds my sleeping bag back in the stuff sack and draped the top end out of my pack, letting it flap in the breeze to dry out. Onward and upward. I munched on an apple and goldfish as I hopped across onto the Crater Lake connecting trail and looked at the fog looming ahead.

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I continued on to Crater Lake, one of my favorite spots around town. Far enough removed to feel remote, but close enough to walk to, it is a stunning, pristine paradise. I soaked in the beauty and refilled my now-upright CamelBak. To keep the bears away, I was talking and singing to myself – hoping that they’d hear a human voice and head the other way instead of hearing the crunch of my steps and coming closer to investigate. As I rounded the corner of Crater Lake talking about what song I should sing next, a startled hiker gave me a funny look as he hurried past me, eager to dodge a conversation with the crazy lady. I turned on my iPod.

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Crater Lake was the furthest I’d been before, and the trail sign marking the Alice Smith trail was new territory. I spotted my first pile of rocks and took off in that direction. The trail was faintly worn, and the rock piles were fairly easy to spot on the way up. As I took a break to enjoy the views from the top, I checked my phone and the map – it was 7pm, and my little GPS dot was still very close to the lake…nowhere near the spot where the shelter should be. Oh well, 8pm would be fine, too, I thought.

As it turned out, I made it to the shelter at 10pm. I ate my sausage and pasta even though I wasn’t hungry, warmed myself over my little camp stove, and emptied out the contents of my backpack to dry whatever wet items remained. The only other casualty of the spill was the paper cup holding my granola. The dried oats regressed to a mushy, oatmeal form and coated the inside of the backpack. I figured if this was my biggest issue, I was in good shape (and made a mental note to better waterproof my food next time) and went to sleep.

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This was the first view I had of the Ridge Shelter. The final cairn before the cabin is in the bottom right corner. Can you see the shelter?

The next morning brought less fog and better views. The camp stove earned its keep by providing hot coffee in the morning (which was the entire reason for bringing it). After some breakfast and a quick cleaning of mushy granola from basically everything I packed, I was back on the trail around 8am. There were a few remaining patches of snow covering the trail, and each one was stained with pink splatters. Some people have told me it is caused by a plant (though I didn’t see any) which dyes the melting snow. To me, though, it looked like old blood splatter from hungry carnivores prowling through the winter. It left me a little unnerved and I continued singing and talking to myself.

After a few more hours on top of the ridge in varying levels of fog, I came to the lake signaling it was time to begin my descent. There was some minor confusion regarding poorly named landmarks and a broken sign with questionable arrow directions, but I figured out where I needed to go and began my way down the side of the mountain. The trail was freshly weed-whacked and obvious – a delightful change from my recent times of searching for cairns every five minutes. It was heavily lined with salmon berry bushes, and I noted that if I were a bear, this is where I would hang out. I sang and sang. Favorites included: the Hamilton Soundtrack, Despacito, (neither of which should be a surprise) several Shania Twain hits, (a carryover from hiking in Nicaragua this winter with friends…though I’m not sure where we got it) Goodbye Earl (which I assume came into my head via Shania Twain) and the theme song to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Your guess is as good as mine as to where that last one came from…

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Before long, I was back in the forest heading for the Power Creek cabin. Last year some friends and I were supposed to spend my birthday at Power Creek, but a very heavy rainstorm coincided with a newly-built beaver dam to flood part of the trail and make it impassable. I was really excited to finally get to check it out. And it did not disappoint – the cabin was beautiful – complete with bunks, a table, a wood stove (and firewood!) and a loft. I settled in and started a fire and explored nearby. Sandbars and waterfalls were all around, and there was so much to see! After dinner, I curled up by the fire and did a little reading before heading up to the loft for bed. I noted that my throat was a little sore – apparently I overdid it just a tad on the singing and self-conversing throughout the day. It made me smile.

I slept until 8:30, and it was delightful. I enjoyed my coffee and breakfast on the porch before packing up and heading out just before 11. The singing continued. After being startled by a flock of geese on the trail and by a humming bird which dive-bombed my head just as I was stepping on a very precarious rock, I made it to the trailhead around 1. I walked another mile until I finally had cell service and sent a text to my friend Tim to come and pick me up. Unfortunately, Tim was grilling for the town 4th of July BBQ and didn’t expect me so early, so I had already walked six of the seven miles back to town before he apologetically showed up to get me just one mile out of town. What’s six more miles, right? It was the only part of my adventure where I saw a bear – the salmon have made it up into the lake and surrounding streams, meaning the bears are out and about. Wrapped up in my newly-found cell phone service, I startled a little black bear almost as much as he startled me as he tried to catch lunch. Luckily, in our mutual fear, we each went our separate ways without incident.

My first solo, mini-thru hike was officially deemed a success (aka I didn’t get lost or eaten). Doable but hovering just outside of my comfort zone, it checks all of the boxes for a good adventure. I can’t wait to plan the next one!

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Out the Road

Perspective is a tricky thing. It can make or break a situation. A good sense of perspective can help avoid arguments and provide compassion and empathy in difficult times. And gaining a sense of perspective is one of my favorite side-effects of traveling and living in other cultures. It’s easy to get caught up in the rote, minutia of day-to-day life. It’s easy to forget how lucky most of us are. If you’re reading this, it means you have access to a computer and internet. It means you have the time to find and read my quirky, little blog (which I obviously really appreciate!) and these two aspects, along with many other likely characteristics probably put you in a category better-off than many people around the world. This makes you lucky – it makes us lucky.

The other day, while picking salmon berries along the side of the road and watching eagles soar overhead in the sunshine, a friend said “We’re so lucky to live here,” which made me think about perspective. And, she is completely right. This town is so weird but oh so great.

Cordova is a very small town. It’s basically divided into 4 areas, geographically. You have “town,” which is about 2 city blocks and you have the harbor, where all of the boats are parked. There is one main road that goes through town. Leaving town and going west will take you to a hotel called Orca Lodge, where the road dead-ends after about 3 miles. Going anywhere in this direction is called going “out Orca.” Leaving town and going east, towards the main airport is called going “Out the Road.” The road passes Eyak lake, winds along the Copper River and passes the main airport, but mostly it is surrounded by wide-open expanses of land lined with snow-capped mountains. It dead-ends where the bridge which used to connect Cordova to the rest of the world was washed away years ago, about 30 miles out of town.

I love going Out the Road. There’s the Copper River  in all of its glory, there’s Sheridan Glacier (among others), There’s countless well-maintained hiking trails and endless wilderness to explore off the trail. There’s moose. There’s bears. There’s delicious berries. There’s fishing, kayaking, climbing, swimming, boating, and pretty much whatever else you feel like doing. It’s paradise. Running out the road is where I run to train for my half marathon. It’s where I ride my bike when I want to explore something new. It’s where people go to have a bonfire, celebrate holidays, picnic, and relax. And virtually all of the land around here is nationally protected, so it is acceptable to set up a little camp and hang out wherever you please. And, any time I get to say I “went Out the Road” I feel like a local using insider lingo. It makes me smile.

It’s easy to take Cordova for granted. It’s easy to feel stuck; without a road connecting you to the real world it can seem isolated. Mail takes forever to arrive, everything is expensive, and Grub Hub or Uber certainly don’t exist. Sometimes it feels a little like living abroad – for example, one half-mile stretch of road has been torn up and “under construction” for over a month because someone decided to repave the road without knowing that there is a national asphalt shortage. Really? A national asphalt shortage?? In the US? Ha. But it is totally worth it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in these details and forget what Cordova is – a paradise of naturaleza.

Living in this little bubble is unlike anywhere else in the world. I’ve picked 15 quarts of Salmon berries within a 15 minute walk of my house. I have the ocean at my door, grassy meadows and snowy mountain peaks within walking distance. People wave when they pass on the street. People use the phone book to look up phone numbers (which, by the way, is 5″ by 7″ and about 50 pages long). Trump supporters are neighbors and best friends with  Clinton supporters. Different religions, races, and ethnicities coexist peacefully. I can get (almost) wherever I need to go without owning a car, but I am in the middle of nowhere. It’s not perfect, but it is pretty amazing. And I think I am pretty lucky to be here. I am trying to appreciate this, knowing that when I do have access to Uber and Grub Hub again, I will certainly not be able to ride my bike out to a glacier and pick wild berries. It’s just my perspective, but I think it’s pretty great 🙂

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The Copper River

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One of the many, many meadows Out the Road

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Liz, hanging out on the Copper River. We spent the afternoon watching the trout jump and laughing at the kayakers that flipped over (they were ok – only their egos were bruised)

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Intoxicating Alaska

It’s official. I love Alaska. Most days are rainy and don’t get over 40 degrees (4C) and I don’t even care. It’s just so pretty. The 37 minute flight from Anchorage to Cordova was easily the most scenic flight I’ve ever been on. It could have been a sight-seeing tour if the stewardesses would have stated a few facts as they served drinks. I spent most of the flight snapping pictures of the gorgeous mountain tops and the sparkling blue water as they slowly passed by my window…each landscape seeming better than the last. The burly fisherman who sat next to me on the flight was definitely judging me for being so touristy…but I just couldn’t stop. I was obviously from out of town – a contrast to the majority of the other passengers on the flight. I’m pretty sure most of them knew each other based on the greetings in the airport. Neighbors saying hi to old friends who had migrated south for the winter and were making their way back to town for the summer.

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I haven’t quite adjusted to my new scenery yet. The picturesque, snow-capped mountains which are always there, in the background, in every direction, give me the feeling of being on vacation. Even when I’m at work. Sometimes I look out the window to the looming peaks and for a split-second, I need to remind myself that they are real – not a backdrop or something fleeting, like a rainbow. It’s like living in a National Geographic photograph. I’m sure my friends will quickly tire of my Instagram photos consisting of one mountain after another…but oh well.

Yesterday was a sunny day, so I took advantage of the (almost) clear skies and soaked in some of the gorgeous views on some local mountains. There is one chairlift in town with some awesome ski trails, but there’s not enough snow anymore to ski this season. Oh well…it’s still great for hiking! Bald eagles and hawks flew above in close circles as we admired the views from on top of the mountain. The  wingspan and the sheer size of the birds was impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever been that close in the wild. It was amazing.

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Know of some great hikes near Cordova? Let me know!

Five Alaskan Life Hacks You Probably Didn’t Know

Alaska is pretty disconnected from the rest of the lower 48 states. In fact, I see more similarities on a daily basis that resemble life in a different country than I see connecting it to my own. If it weren’t for the fact that I still have cell phone service, I might forget all together. The sheer size, the new culture and the contrast in climate make it completely different than anywhere else I’ve ever lived before.

There are also some completely different norms here, which only add to the feeling of living abroad. Here are five ways that Alaskans seem to have life figured out just a little better than their neighbors to the south (and elsewhere).

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Three Checked Bags Within the State

It’s a big state. And in most places (cough cough…Cordova) there is limited access to pretty much everything. Thank god for Amazon Prime…but that’s a different story. Most things here – if they’re available – are pretty expensive because they’re imported. It’s almost like living on an island. So in Cordova, for example, most people do all of their serious shopping (groceries, clothes, etc.) in Anchorage. To accommodate, Alaska Airlines gives all passengers traveling within the state 3 FREE checked bags on every flight. So a family of four going on vacation to Juno would get to take 12 bags with them. Or, a mother taking her son to Anchorage for his monthly orthodontist appointment can bring back 6 suitcases-worth of shopping.

And by suitcases…I mean Rubbermaid totes wrapped in duct tape. Sitting at the Anchorage airport for an extended period of time means that you see lots of people rearranging their groceries to stay under the 50 lb limit – heads of cabbage and bags of oranges are flying everywhere.

Fresh Air

Alright…so this is a little less of a life hack and a little more of me being extra-appreciative of the fresh air after spending the past 7 months in India. But Alaskans sure do know how to have some gorgeous cities with fresh air. And in the past week, I don’t think I’ve heard a horn honk…even once. I loved India, but this is just so nice. Okay, okay…I’m done.

Livin’ on Berries

When I found out that my house would be a cabin…I had visions in my head of a quaint, little cabin where I could finally have the space to make a little garden. Fresh tomatoes, basil, lettuce, you name it. I even arrived in the beginning of spring – perfect timing! As usual…nothing ever turns out quite as expected. The soil in these parts is terrible – nothing can really grow without a greenhouse and a person with an extra-green thumb. I have no greenhouse…and my thumb is basically black…so I guess there won’t be a garden.

What I will have is lots and lots of berries. Blueberries, kyani berries, salmonberries, nagoons, cranberries, and so many others whose names I’ve already forgotten. Wild berries everywhere. I love berries. And according to a study done by the US National Institute of Health in 2013, the berries here specifically have “extraordinarily high antioxidant levels” making Alaskans some of the healthiest people around. Now if I could just find some fresh goat cheese to pair them with…

Lots and Lots of Sunlight

Bring on the Vitamin D. Today, April 5th, the sun will set at 8:39pm and will rise tomorrow at 6:39am. Right now, Southern Alaska is gaining about 45 minutes of daylight per week. It won’t be very long until the Midnight Sun makes an appearance. There aren’t many other places around the world where someone can work all day and then climb a mountain, ride down the Copper River or hike up a glacier afterwards.

It’s a shame the soil is so poor in Cordova, because in other parts of Alaska vegetables are enormous due to all of the extra photosynthesizing going on.

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Working Half of the Year (or Less!)

Winter is pretty brutal in Alaska, (Or so I’m told – I’m not quite brave enough to fact-check this one myself.) so many business are only open half the year. Fishermen and hunters have a very limited season, some of them earning their annual wages in just a few days. As long as I don’t have to spend my winters off here in Cordova…this seems like a pretty sweet set-up – work six months in Alaska, and go migrate somewhere warmer once the temperature drops. Normally when I travel for work, I like to fly in a little earlier or fly out a little later, allowing myself to travel and explore. Arriving here before April, though, or leaving after October 1 just don’t sound that appealing to me, though. We’ll see.

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Know of other cool tips and tricks that are unique to Alaska? Let me know!

Greetings From Alaska

I’ve been primarily offline the past few weeks – I came back to the US in mid-March and spent a very nice two weeks at home enjoying some quality time with my favorite people, consisting mostly of endless Easter egg hunts, Legos and delicious food. Now, after what felt like a never-ending string of flights, I’ve finally landed in my home for the next six months: Alaska.

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Sunrise over the mountains surrounding Anchorage during the world’s longest layover

Though it took almost as long to fly to my little ocean-side Alaskan town as it did to get all the way to Bangalore, it was so much more pleasant. Even as I am writing this, sitting in Anchorage airport, the check-in assistants are singing songs to passengers and I’ve seen at least five frequent fliers come in and greet the attendants by name and get received with a big hug. It’s not in an obnoxious way, either…just sweet. Everyone is so friendly! I really loved India, but it was definitely time for me to take a break and try something new – and I think Alaska will be just the thing.

As usual…I’ve done my research and I’ve come up with my Alaskan bucket list to complete over the course of the next 6 months. Other than eating as much seafood as possible, soaking up fresh air and enjoying the wildlife…there are a few things I don’t want to miss out on.

Drunken Moose – This one might not be possible since I’m coming in the summer…I might have to settle for seeing a sober one instead. I listened to a podcast recently which described how moose end up eating rotting crab apples to make it through the winter in cities around Alaska. The fermenting fruit has an intoxicating effect, meaning cities sometimes have 1,400 lb drunken beasts roaming the streets. I think the winter has been fairly mild, however, and it’s already April. I’m betting that the foliage that is already available is much more appealing than fermenting apples…but I’ll still be on the lookout.

Glaciers – There are few other reasons to venture out to the freezing tundras…but seeing some stunning glaciers which aren’t likely to be around for much longer is definitely one of them. You will find me riding a dogsled pulled by some adorable huskies and kayaking through glacier rivers…among whatever other activities intrigue me as well.

Climb Denali – Denali, the tallest peak in North America, is obviously on the list…as long as my knees cooperate. This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the US National Parks, so it seems only fitting to spend some time in Denali National Park and summit the 20,310 foot peak. Guess I better order those glucosamine chrondroitin supplements now!

Northern Lights – no Alaskan bucket list could be complete without seeing the Northern Lights! The strength of the lights depends on the year and the lights peak every 11 years. The last peak was in 2013…but there should still be plenty of solar storms and sunspots to fill the sky with colors and keep me entertained regardless!

Fly in a Float Plane – These are the small planes that fly low to the ground for amazing sight-seeing and can also land on water. They provide a totally different view of the wildlife and can land on the WATER! Sounds like something I need to do.

Know of other things I should try? Let me know!