Saturday, June 29, 2013

Skagway homecoming

Here we are, in Skagway. It felt so good to come down the valley, back to this place I once called home. We saw some old friends, who I last saw in 2004. We wandered around downtown and ate at the best restaurant in town (still quite good even though they changed names and owners last year). We stayed in the fancy hotel downtown since the others were full. I had never stepped foot in their doors before- a place reserved for tourists and employees, not us trailer trash locals! Now, as a visitor here, the Westmark seemed like a perfect basecamp.

All the while, I felt deeply into this place, this valley with its throngs of cruise ship tourists walking down the boardwalk sidewalks and taking photos of each other in front of the mountains and the Red Onion Saloon. I had some of the best summers of my life here. I had some hard times, too. I knew most of the people in town... I thought that I would move here someday. I wondered what a winter would be like. Then I fell in love and reigned in my nomad ways, settling into a different kind of lifestyle in Boulder, Colorado. 
Skagway remained in my heart and I knew I would return one day, although maybe not for a full season, and definitely not without Dave!

Now, nine years later, only 3 of my community are left, replaced by a new group of 20somethings- most of my friends having moved on to the real world of having families and homes and careers in the lower 48. Me, too. So much has changed, but the Skagway streets are still lined with most of the same shops, and the same cruise ships drop thousands of people off at the docks, just as they did before.

We head out tomorrow for a week long exploration of the Tormented Valley by the Skagway/Canada border- something I would never have had time to do while working here. I'm nervous, since I know no one who has ever been up into the valley on the route we are about to take.
I expect bears, mosquitoes, wind, rain, and unspeakable beauty. This may be our greatest adventure yet!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The North Country is calling: Alaska road trip part 1

So here we are on the Alaska highway, curled up in our tent hiding away from the mosquitoes. Dave is sleeping peacefully beside me and I'm awake, hearing birds call in the night that I have not heard in 9 years. I miss this drive. I wait to hear the varied thrush who I know so well. But, I hear other birds that I didn't know the names of 9 years ago. I recognize them. I remember. Hermit thrush calls out clearly, 10:30 at night, and white throated sparrow chimes in as well as the familiar robin. The kiskatinaw river murmurs the refrain. Silence. I feel as though I'm heading home. Home. Skagway. Only a few days away. I've worked so incredibly hard in the last 2 months, preparing, cooking, packing, and working incredibly long days, so I can be ready for this trip. I had a few panicky, exhausted nights when I had no idea how I would be able to maintain this momentum. Now, I'm here. 6 weeks on the road. In less than a week, Dave and I will set out to explore a valley I've dreamed of... Via pack rafts, upstream on a swollen river, into the unknown. We have not used pack rafts on our annual river trips yet. I anticipate an incredible new level of versatility and freedom... As long as they are fun to paddle, I see the possibility of easy portages, ability to handle whitewater, and ease of transport and packing. Will canoes be a method of the past? We shall see.

The birds have quieted and my husband snores lightly. The river beckons to us with its soft murmur as I drift into dreamland, the silence of the Tormented Valley beckons, less than a week away.

Friday, May 24, 2013


I have been spending my mornings with a woman who blows my mind in her joy. 

The first time I met Mim, we realized the deep connection we both have with birds. She has birds on her bed sheets, on her pillows, on her walls, at her bird feeder, and very obviously in her heart.

Mama owl
I told her of my Great Horned Owl neighbors. I showed her a picture of the mama with her babies and she asked over and over to see that picture. "Her eyes! She is looking right at me!" " Her feathers are the same color of the bark!" 

Then she said to me, "I've never seen an owl before.... I'd like to see one before I die... Can you take me to meet them for my birthday?".  So, we did. She was all bundled up in a wheelchair for her outing to celebrate her 86th birthday, gratitude emanating from her very being. We picked her daughter up and headed over. 

Dad owl cracked an eye open and stared at my new friend. He stretched as the sun neared the mountains, and hooted in Mim's direction. Mom was bundled up in her nest, keeping her newborn baby warm. Dad stretched as Mim ignored the cold and stared back at him. He spread his wings and puffed his feathers, and Mim got her birthday wish.  

She asks about the owls every time I come to visit. I let her know how the baby is doing, where dad has been sitting, and what mom had for dinner last night.

We read poetry together- I offer Robert Service, (Listen to the wild, it's calling you!) and she shares Grace Noll Crowell's knowing that each day will bring some lovely thing.

We sing her favorite hymn, "for the beauty of the earth... For the splendor of the sky""... It must be SPLENDOR, she tells me. It's such a perfect word. Today she tells me that on her headstone, she wants to have this quote: 

"She never made it to Target, but she saw the splendor of the the clouds at sunset"

...And we laughed and laughed.

She is not afraid to talk about death. She has instructed me very clearly that we must sing that hymn at her memorial service. I MUST use the word splendor!  And, I will. 

What is happening to me here? It's love. It's awe. It's a feeling of immense gratitude.

This woman shares her stories freely. She tells me of living in Muskegon, Michigan, diving in the waters to gather old, gnarled knots of wood buried in the muck below. She tells me of her favorite cousin, who she played hide and go seek with well into her teens. She tries to swim across any body of water she comes into contact with, from the quarry on the farm in Wisconsin to rivers in Europe, sometimes needing a boat to follow to keep her safe.

Mim's bird feeder
She tells of camping with her four daughters and her husband, and I am there with her. I am diving into the muck hunting for gnarled knots of wood and listening to the birds, as we sit looking out of her window at the assisted living facility so far from the places these stories took place.

This woman has LIVED life. She has filled her life with joy and birds and lakes and card games and family. I am in awe. I want to soak in every story she will tell me. I see how I want to be at 86, passing my stories along so vividly that we are transported to times long ago...

This is what I love about caregiving. I am so honored to be there with Mim. I anxiously await my time with her, and I'd like to be there for her for the rest of her life. My life is enriched in the stories and birds and poems and hymns and hands of gin rummy. 

I am honored to be of service. Gratitude fills me every single day.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pinyon juniper scrublands

A cool wind blows through the pinyon juniper scrubland, and I think of my senior friend who passed last summer.

"She had an extreme, ecstatic response to nature," her lifelong friend said. How perfect. That description said more to me than her words could convey.

I open an old pinyon nut shell, and note its emptiness. I wonder if any human has eaten the pine nuts from this shady spot overlooking one of the many arches of this incredible national park. I remember the last time I collected pine nuts, salting and roasting them in abundance at Valley View, my favorite hot springs in Colorado. I ate so many pine nuts that I got a stomachache, but still I wandered/wondered in amazement that these little nuts had sat, undeveloped, all around me for years, never knowing that such a feast could await me... Only once every 7 years. No wonder pine nuts are so expensive!

How could one grow a field of them and have the financial stability to survive for so long, when they produce their edible cornucopia so rarely? I haven't gathered a wild pinyon nut since.

Wait! This is year 7! I wonder if they will ripen again this year! Is the timing that reliable?

This I ponder as I allow my thoughts to wander quietly in the shade of the scrubland.

I've been thinking a lot about John Muir, Ed Abbey, and John Wesley Powell. Ed and John Wesley knew these scrublands intimately. They knew these canyons with their green streams streaking through it long before I was even a speck of existence in my great-grandparent's time.

We would have all been friends if we'd been alive together- John, John Wesley, Ed, and I. Who were the unsung females heroes of this movement that I embody? Rachel Carson is the only one I know.

Were there others? Did they write of their experiences? It seems as though it is my turn to follow in those footsteps.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Belonging. 10 years of rivers!

So here we sit at Green River State Park and I realize the powerful urge I have to hop in the river and float through my favorite canyons. I remember the first time, as Dave and I left this shore, this incredible feeling of leaving everything I had ever known to venture into the canyon I had dreamed of for years. I remember the incredible freedom, and praying that I remembered everything.

Green River State Park launch site, April 2013

The same place in 2004, with Rex who joined us on many canoeing trips until her passing
I remember camping for our first night in the tamarisk, reaching camp just at dusk and setting up camp in the only clear space we could find, ducking and crawling into the thick tamarisk to find this secret opening.
Our first Green River campsite in 2004

I remember the incredible feeling of.... Aliveness. Of fear of the unknown. Of exhilaration. Of HOME. That day in 2004 was the first time I realized how much I BELONG on the river. I BELONG in these canyons. This river is a part of me, and I am a part of it.

I think of all the rivers I've floated since that first trip with Dave. I think of the hurricane we came upon in 2005 on this very river, here in the desert of Utah where the last thing I would ever expect was a hurricane! The headwinds were SO strong that day. We had to fight waves and wind until finally we gave up and camped across the river from Anvil Butte, on a sand bar protected from the wind. The next day as we packed up our gear, we watched a huge dust cloud billow up against the canyon walls upstream of us, headed our way. I looked up and the clouds were swirling around a blue eye right above us. The center of a hurricane! I had laughed at the 3 guys here at the put-in, where I stand right now in 2013, when they said that a hurricane was coming! I was not laughing now. Dave and I sat, huddled under a tarp with Oso and Rex, our canine companions, between us- marveling at the wind whipping around us and the freezing temperature that was 25 degrees warmer 5 minutes before.
Anvil Butte, 2005, the day before the hurricane

Something unexpected always happens on rivers. Always. In the 10 years since I stood here in this spot for the first time, I've experienced crazy wind, terrifying thunderstorms, an insane flash flood, hidden grottos and streams snaking their way through rarely visited side canyons. I've awakened to canyon wrens and ravens singing and frogs croaking all around us, huge clouds of mosquitoes, fish snapping at the debris swirling in eddies, double rainbows (oh my god!) arcing over the river brightening a dark, ominous sky, and countless peaceful silent picnics and naps under cottonwoods, and magic around every corner.

These last 10 years have been the best of my life, and it all started here, on the banks of the Green River, where my life became one with the water that I gaze upon in this moment. The gratitude is overwhelming. The gift the Green River gave me in 2004 is the greatest gift I could ever have: the birthing of a sense of HOME.

Just before sunset on the Green River in 2005