Tag Archives: mountains

Fairweather Therapy

I run. I do it a lot, probably not as much as I should, but a respectable amount. I run to clear my head, to keep my heart happy, to think, to calm the hell down. Somedays it’s easy, somedays it’s hard. So in a lot of ways, running is like life.

Today it’s hard. It’s hard and it shouldn’t be. But I’m uncalibrated, a compass needing to realign to true north. I’m stressed, I’m worried, and somehow it feels easier to sit on the couch and not move. But it won’t make this any better. I drag myself out the door and lace up my shoes, slapping an escort of biting “no-see-em’ gnats that sprint to skin like moths to light.

In three minutes I’m glad I’m doing this. The world shifts back into focus, mind syncing with heart. I can think clearly as the trees scroll by and the music pounds in my ears. Sometimes I think about kayaking, other times writing, or I’ll indulge myself with thoughts of the ridiculous computer baseball game I’m too engrossed in. But not tonight. Tonight the Shabin dominates my mind. The Shabin and the 4.13 acres that comes with it.

The acreage is wet. But all land in Gustavus is wet isn’t it? It’s part of the deal. We can afford it. We’re ready. I think. Think. I’ve been doing too much of that. Thinking and projecting. Rubbing the grime off my crystal ball, trying to make damn sure I know what I’m doing.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

I don’t want to make a mistake. This isn’t a starter home, this is going to be home. Forever. When you got one bullet you need to be positive your aim is clear. And I’m not sure yet. It’s daunting, this home ownership thing. In a way it’s riskier then anything I’ve ever done. The consequences far reaching, the way out hard and difficult if we miscalculate. Hence the run, to let it all go for thirty minutes. At least that was the goal.

I reach four corners. That’s what we call the intersection here. The intersection. What a ridiculous way to describe the place where the four roads meet. Clove Hitch Cafe and Fireweed Gallery on my right, the gas station in front of me. Left to the airport, right to park, straight ahead to the ferry terminal. I go straight, don’t even bother to check for traffic. God I love it here.

Past the Sunnyside Cafe. I glance into the windows as I run by. Someone waves enthusiastically through the window as I pass. I’m pretty sure it’s my friend Jen. I wave back with all the enthusiasm I can muster, trying not to break stride. In Gustavus no one just goes to Sunnyside for groceries. You go to talk, to laugh. To be filled with something besides organic apples and romaine. Community. How man places can say they have that? What happens when most people get their groceries? A faceless cashier whose name you’ll never know.

“How are you?”
*beep*
“Good, you?”
*beep*
“Great.”
*beep*
“$8.95.”
*swipe*
“Have a great day.”
“Thanks, you too.”

That doesn’t happen here. Brittney and I stood in Sunnyside for 20 minutes last night. It took us three to find what we needed, another 17 to talk with Kristiann and Aishu behind the counter. I love that. Love that I leave every building a little happier then when I entered.

Past the Sunnyside and down the road. Through the trees on my right I can see the setting sun on fire in the western sky. The trees hide them but I know the Fairweather Mountains are out. That if I run far enough I’ll be rewarded with evening light and a setting sun behind the mountains. I pick up the pace and soon I’m even with the golf course.

You heard me right. Gustavus, population 443 has a freaking golf course. Because Morgan Deboer loves this place. For years he owned the waterfront that the Gustavus dock is built on. But as the land continued to rise, his property line was pushed inland. Morgan thought the new waterfront and acreage should be his, the state of Alaska didn’t. So he went to court with Gustavus behind him. And he won. His thank you? A golf course. And an open invitation to have bonfires on his beach. No charge. Thanks Morgan.

Ahead is the ferry dock. I look to my right and my spirit soars. The sky is a canvas painted with colors no artist can emulate. Life changing red. Soul lifting orange. Inspiration yellow. White cloaked Fairweathers in front set the scene.

I reach the end of the ferry dock and stop. Not by choice. Not by a conscious act. I cannot move. Cannot pull myself away from the atmospheric miracle that is this sunset. I drink it in like I’m dying of thirst. This may be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I pan to the right. There’s a sudden dip in the mountains and hills where the magic bay and her magic glaciers have carved them away, hanging valleys filled with water.

I pan left toward the mouth of the bay. What must it have been like? In 1794 George Vancouver was here. The bay was five miles deep, the glacier five miles wide. No northwest passage here. Just life altering ice. Gustavus wasn’t even a blink in her eye. Just a sandy outwash, a dumping ground for silt.

It feels like Gustavus was set aside. For the few lucky enough or blessed enough to fall under her spell. The little outliers. Flat land in southeast Alaska. Whoda thought? The acreage we’re looking at is flat. But here, with the Fairweather’s on fire with evening light and Gustavus splayed out before me, it feels insignificant. The most popular bumper sticker in Gustavus reads like this:

                                           “What’s your hurry? You’re already here.”
Gustavus, AK

I feel foolish. I’ve spent the last 48 hours agonizing over interest rates, mortgages, and price per acre.     Perhaps I’ve lost track of what makes this place magic. That no matter where we end up, what spot of land we call home, it’s going to be here. We get to be surrounded by these mountains, these people, forever. I feel so much better. John Muir talked about “glacier gospel,” finding God in nature. For a night I’ve found therapy in mountains and sunsets, a reminder of why I’m here.

The sun slides behind Mount La Perousse and as the rays of light disappear the chill of night arrives on the northerly breeze. It is late August after all. Time to get home. Home, how good it feels to say that and know that it’s at the throne of those mountains, in the tight embrace of that bay.

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Rolling the Dice

Every guiding company has them. A page of carefully worded phrases meticulously written out by a lawyer in some office, far removed from the natural world. The infamous risk waiver. A bucket of ice water at the start of the trip. A necessary reminder that the world we are traveling to is unscripted. That it can be harsh, dangerous, and unforgiving. That even the best of us, the most prepared, the most cautious, are not immune.

For those of us that live it every day, we have our own, unwritten risk waiver. Every time we go out our doors and into the woods, up the mountain, or onto the water, we sign it. It’s our unspoken agreement with the world we love. An acceptance that it can betray us at any moment. For if it can happen to Forest Wagner, it can happen to anyone.

Forest lives in the woods. There isn’t a mountain he can’t climb, a fjord he cannot paddle, a situation he can’t handle. Two weeks ago he was attacked by a bear while leading a group of students near Haines in southeast Alaska. He wasn’t been foolish or careless, disrespectful or arrogant. You roll the dice enough with Alaska, and sometimes it comes up snake eyes. What are the odds that there’s a mama bear with spring cubs over that blind ridge? 1 in 100? 1 in 1,000? How many blind ridges do you hike over before the odds catch up?
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Forest’s influence and inspiration stretches across the state, across the globe. He’s taught thousands how to survive in the back country, inspired many to follow their passions as mountaineers, kayakers, river rafters, and skiers. From all accounts, even after he’d been attacked and bitten along his side and leg and fallen off a cliff face, it was he who spoke to the medivac on the cell phone. Calm, clear, and collected, he talked his students through the whole process. His own Wilderness First Responder.

“I can climb down if you need me to.” He told the medivac. As if he’d done nothing more than sprain his ankle on a morning run through the suburbs.

Why him and not me? Two days ago I hiked the mountain ridge behind my parent’s house. Bear and moose sign coated the game trail. Again and again I rounded blind corners. Bear bells jingling and bear spray bumping against my leg offered little comfort. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about Forest around every corner. Wrong place, wrong time. Our unspoken agreement, our signed risk waiver with the natural world.
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I wouldn’t have it any other way. Beneath the sugary, frosted coating that reality TV has given Alaska, nothing has really changed. To truly experience this land, to know it with genuine intimacy means to throw ourselves at its mercy, and accept that we may not receive any. Forest knows this, I know this, Brittney knows this, and so does any other guide or outdoor enthusiast that climbs her mountains and paddles her shores. For if the wilderness was always safe it would not be wilderness. With risk comes appreciation and respect. How charismatic would the bears and wolves be if they were harmless? Would we love them, photograph them, even their tracks worthy of our marvel and imagination? Would glaciers be sublime if they didn’t send blocks of ice as big as buildings into the water to crush and reshape everything in their path?
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So this summer I’ll strap on my boots and push my kayak into the water. I’ll grab my fishing pole and walk the salmon stream, knowing that I share the land with bears, moose, and whales. I’ll grab my dice, take the odds, and see what happens. The alternative is a life that is fraught with other dangers. Forest wouldn’t have it any other way.

He’ll be back, it’ll take more than a bear to pry him away from his natural habitat. I have no doubt he’ll summit Denali again, climb the alpine, and return stronger and more confident than ever. The wilderness needs ambassadors like Forest and the mountains of Alaska just wouldn’t be the same without him.

I Couldn’t Live Here

As we pull out of the drive of the bed and breakfast, I crane my neck around to make eye contact briefly with the middle aged couple seated in the middle seats of my “soccer mom” minivan. The first few minutes are usually the generic cordial introductions.
“Where you from?”
“New Jersey.”
“How long have you been here? How long are you staying?”
“Two days, three more nights.”
“Are you liking it so far?”
The wife laughs, “it’s nice… but there’s no way I could ever live here.”
Her brashness stops me. Not that many people don’t allude to their opinion that Alaska is nice to visit before the scary villain of winter returns. I can understand how living in a temperate rainforest could literally and metaphorically dampen people’s mood. It makes me grumble from time to time.
But to so eagerly announce her decision with little prompting makes me dig deeper. I acknowledge the rain, the snow, the sun’s lazy winter transect as it plays leapfrog with the mountain peaks.
“Oh it’s not that,” she insists. “It’s just…” she glances out the window as we move through Gustavus’ lone intersection, “there’s nothing to do here.”
Again, the outdoor fanatics would have to disagree. There were mountains to climb, a certain 65-mile long bay to paddle, fish to catch, deer to hunt. But it wasn’t fair to expect a 45-year old accountant residing in the shadows of concrete and skyscrapers to ooze enthusiasm at the prospect of bushwacking up Excursion Ridge.
“If your not a big outdoors person I can see that,” I allow. “Even though a little more time in the woods would do wonders for us all,” I add quietly.
She gives a little sniff, “yea, I definitely wouldn’t be able to stand being here more than a week or so.”
I take the bait. Keeping my voice pleasant I turn my head again and the van drifts briefly over the center line.
“I understand that,” I say, trying not to sound offended, I couldn’t spend one hour in New Jersey after all.
“But let me ask you something. If you had to spend a winter here, what do you think you’d miss about New Jersey? I’ll even be generous and say that you have a house within cell phone range and internet, I won’t make you drive to the library to check your email.”
The van goes quiet while she thinks, the sound of the wheels on the pavement echoing through vehicle as we near the park. Heading out to do what defines so many people in this town, the reason many live here, the reason many can’t imagine living anywhere else.
After ten seconds of musing she answers, “oh… I don’t know, you know… just like, going to the movie theater and stuff.”
“Entertainment, new movies” I nod, “I can understand that.”
“Yea, but I guess we really don’t go to that many movies.” She glances at her husband, “when was the last time we went and saw a movie?” He answers with a shrug. “Well there’s other stuff,” she continues, “shopping, the mall… though I don’t do a lot of shopping.”
The car goes quiet again as I wait for her to continue.
“I guess just having the option…”
“The option to do things that you never do?” It’s out of my mouth before I can stop it and I bite my lip. This is going to be a long paddle.
“I don’t mean to pry or anything, I’m just curious what people think they’d miss.” Silence answers my feeble attempt to cover my break in character. Perhaps I’d offended the malls and movie theaters that she holds as dear to her as we hold the mountains and waters here.
I’m too protective of this place, too quick to be riled when others don’t see it the way I do. Perhaps far too biased to pass judgement on what the acceptable line of appreciation is. Not everyone has to want to live in a sleepy town of 400, thank God or it wouldn’t be 400 people after all.
What made my 45-year old accountant’s declaration so difficult wasn’t in her opinion (though her lack of tact was matched only by mine), but her inability to defend her position. That we as a society can have so little personal attachment to the region that we live, simply settling there because that’s where our parents did, where a job took us, yet so ingrained that inhabiting something different makes us shudder. It struck me how home can resonate so little with some, how many other people can’t pick one unique thing that they’d miss? Granted, I’m just piling on New Jersey now, but New Yorkers have been doing that for years. She and her husband did come to Gustavus after all, off the beaten path (though she later expressed regret that they didn’t take a cruise).
It’s important to turn this around, to look through my tree shrouded cocoon of southeast Alaska. I can understand the value in visiting places that we have no intention of ever living. Seattle’s nice, for a while, but I know that I could never live there. I love the music scene, Safeco field, the brew pubs… oh the brew pubs. But would lose my mind waiting 20 minutes to get onto the I-5 every morning, I know I couldn’t handle it.
The difference lies in knowing what I’d miss if I did move there. I’d miss my 30 second walk to work, exchanging waves with every car that drove by, intimate open mic nights every other Saturday, the bay, the whales, the bears moving through the backyard… the list could go on.
I’m sure if she thought about it long enough she could find a unique thing or two about home that she’d miss if I exiled her to Gustavus for the winter. Or maybe not. Maybe she’d fall in love with the countless potlucks people throw here, the dreamy silence of the falling snow with little to do but sip coffee and grab whatever artistic medium calls to her like it does for so many here in the winter. She may never want to live here, but I bet if she did, she’d miss the movie theater less than she thinks.