Branching Out

My friend Nancy has a way of drawing me waaaaay out of my comfort zone.

In hindsight, this has been going on for nearly two decades. Exhibit A: In our pre-kid days we spent a leisurely afternoon hiking the Winner Creek trail in Girdwood, only to cap it off by spontaneously launching ourselves off Mt. Alyeska in tandem paragliders. I wish I had better photos, but this was before cell phone cameras. Here’s the page from my scrapbook:

What were we thinking?!

In the interest of time, let’s fast forward to 2016 and our badass solo dipnetting excursion. It ended well, but I have an irrational fear of driving Kenai Beach. I’m always terrified we are going to get stuck and the tide will swallow our truck. It’s a bumpy ride and you have to keep your foot on the gas, even when there are young children and horses meandering in your path. (True story.) Every year I swear I’d rather take my chances and swim with the salmon than drive that beach, yet every year I go back and do it again. (From the passenger seat, of course.) Throw in my profound dread of bonking (#slaughtering) salmon and the notoriously disgusting PortaPotties, and let’s just say this isn’t your typical beach experience. But look at that cooler of fish we bring home every time!

Another example was last summer’s trip to beautiful Kayaker’s Cove. We boarded a water taxi in Seward and were dropped off in a remote cove 12 miles from the city. We took the kids to a hostel for two days of paddling, hiking, and enjoying the company of fellow travelers. Would I go there again? Ab-so-lutely. I loved every minute of it… except for the pesky sea kayaking part.

Turns out I prefer a bit more substance between myself and the sea floor than a tippy piece of plastic, especially when it’s frigid 900-foot deep ocean water. Who knows what critters were lurking beneath my kayak, ready to flip it at any moment?! We paddled endlessly, little blips bobbing in the waves and wakes, and it felt like we would never make it back to camp. Every corner revealed another empty cove, much like a false summit on a hike. My relief was palpable when we finally saw the cabin in the distance. I rammed my boat ashore and scrambled out, vowing to never sea kayak again. It’s a promise I’m certain to keep. The kids, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough. I’ll happily take them, but next time I’ll enjoy the view from the safety of the shore!

In spite of COVID, Nancy dreamed up more adventures than ever this summer. We are in each other’s bubble and did our best to balance physical health risks with mental health needs.

When she sends random texts such as, “Backpacking to a glacier in Homer this weekend – you guys in?” I immediately begin researching the deathly hazards this excursion might entail. Meanwhile, she blows up my phone with enticing scenic photos and rave reviews. My sense of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) sets in, and I know I’m doomed.

I’m double doomed when Maggie gets wind of the potential plans – that girl is up for anything and everything. She caught the backpacking bug when Nancy booked a yurt at the Eagle River Nature Center this May. We don’t own lightweight gear, but the hike is only a few miles and we didn’t need to haul a tent. We dusted off the backpacks Clark and I bought decades ago – Maggie used mine and I wore Clark’s, so neither was a perfect fit, but it worked.

The trail is notorious for wildlife, so my hackles were up, bear spray ready, and I kept a constant eye ahead for bears and moose. Apparently I should have been looking up instead. About 20 minutes into the hike we ambled upon a man with a huge camera around his neck. “There’s a bear up in the tree behind you,” he casually reported, pointing skyward.

Say what?

Sure enough, we had just unknowingly walked underneath a black bear, lounging above the trail in the high branches of a cottonwood. It’s a bit Where’s Waldo-ish, but let’s call this one Exhibit B:

At this point the car was closer than the yurt, and trust me I thought about turning around. I felt even further out on a limb than that bear, but going backwards didn’t guarantee our safety either. It would, however, guarantee a very disappointed daughter. So onward we went.

(I still had one very annoyed daughter, because for the next mile I warned everyone we passed about the bear in the tree. I like to think they appreciated it more than she did.)

The forest transformed as we hiked. From dense stands of birch and aspen to dark, scraggly spruce to wide open mountain vistas, it’s no wonder that bear climbed a tree to take it all in. The various shades of green play well together this time of year.

It was a glorious evening, but long night thanks to our dog Riley. This was her first night away from home, and she wasn’t a fan of Maggie sleeping on the top bunk. We rearranged sleeping arrangements multiple times throughout the night, but she simply wouldn’t settle. Who knew our dog would be the most stressful animal we encountered on the entire trip?

Sam missed most of our Summer 2020 adventures due to his work schedule at Carrs Safeway, but he was able to join us for a quick camping trip to Skilak Lake. Nancy and I have been friends for decades, and I’m so happy our children can say the same! Our Skilak trip was blessedly benign, right up my alley:

Next came the backpacking excursion to Grewingk Glacier. I’m not gonna lie, this one was so far outside my comfort zone I almost bailed at the last minute. It started calmly enough, with a five-hour drive to Homer and a comfortable cabin. We ate in a restaurant for the first time in months, and it felt so strangely normal. (The restaurant was Fat Olives – everyone wore masks, and they only allowed three tables in the entire dining room.) Back at camp, the girls played volleyball and demolished us in a game of Pitch. It was a lovely evening.

The next morning we checked out from our safe space and headed into the abyss. As I loaded my car the campground host buzzed over on his ATV and engaged in small talk. Upon hearing we were headed to Grewingk Glacier he said, “I hope you ladies have your bear spray! There are some aggressive black bears in that area who have been treeing people!”

Treeing people?! What did that even mean? I was worried enough about hauling my heavy pack (we needed a tent this time) and I certainly couldn’t climb a tree! And even if I could, what good would it do? Remember Exhibit B?!

Maggie overheard the conversation, and as we drove away she shook her head from the passenger seat. “I really wish he hadn’t said that,” she said. She was ecstatic about this excursion and knew he’d just potentially ruined it. We met Nancy and Lia at Safeway for a few last minute groceries. Maggie made a beeline for Nancy and alerted her to the problem, while I stayed in the parking lot and tried not to vomit.

Honestly, I don’t know why the campground host’s comment terrified me so much. We live in bear country, and they are a risk on any given trail and any given day. A mere two days prior the kids and I watched in horror as a black bear attacked our chickens. We screamed and threw tennis balls at him from our deck, and eventually he wandered off in search of an easier meal. All our hens survived.

We held an emergency meeting in the parking lot, and everyone was open to altering the plan if necessary. I didn’t want to ruin the trip, and suggested we talk to the water taxi operator before making a final decision. Surely they would have first hand knowledge if the stories were true.

The water taxi folks adamantly refuted the campground host’s claims, stating that Glacier Spit bears were “prevalent but habituated.” People were seeing plenty of bears, but no one was getting charged, let alone chased up trees. To further alleviate my fears, they pulled out a map and circled all the places bear-proof storage bins were located. Armed with this information and a few cans of bear spray, we stuck to the original plan.

And that’s how I ended up on a remote shoreline with no one but my dear friend and our two teenage daughters, watching the water taxi motor away and leaving us 100% alone. We tipped the captain cash and also gifted him a Ziploc of smoked salmon (at the last minute we decided not to carry potential bear bait in our packs, and he was quite excited to take it off our hands) so I hoped he would remember us fondly in case things went south.

Sidebar: technically, we weren’t 100% alone. In the distance we saw a group of people who had beached their boat, and they were digging some sort of trench. I did not find this reassuring.

The hike from the beach to the lake was flat, relatively easy, and breathtaking. The girls took the lead and were patient with the slower pace of their mothers. Maggie was especially capable and confident, and the only one in the group who had practiced using bear spray. She’s learned many valuable wilderness skills from her dad!

At one point the girls stopped cold, and sure enough there was a black bear ahead. He crossed the trail and stopped when he saw us, but thankfully did nothing more than stare for a few seconds and then stroll away.

The views from the glacier lake were every bit as spectacular as Nancy’s photos promised. The girls made quick work of setting up our tents – camp chores are Lia’s specialty! I finally relaxed, and could not be prouder of our confident, capable daughters who work so hard on these trips! We enjoyed perfect weather, a small fire, and great conversation before retiring to our tents for evening. We did see another black bear, but he was only interested in taking a drink from the lake and kept his distance.

As predicted, the winds screamed down the glacier and across the lake in the middle of the night. I woke when Maggie ripped open our tent zipper and bolted outside to reinforce our stakes with rocks. I’m not sure either of us truly slept after that, with our canvas walls flapping so vigorously we felt the entire tent could break free and fly away.

We emerged a little shell shocked the next morning. The previously placid lake now had waves, and chunks of calved glacier ice were lodged on the shore near our campsite. The wind made it a challenge to take down our tents. We broke camp as quickly as possible, and thankfully the wind was no longer an issue once we hiked away from the lake.

I’m happy to report that we didn’t see any bears on the hike out, and never once had to climb a tree! It was a happy ending for all, because the beached boat was now gone and we were a full hour early for the water taxi. We had survived, and I declared NOMO FOMO!

Once home, we barely had time to breathe before it was time for our annual dipnetting adventure. The window is narrow and we had to go! Again, the boys were busy working so it was up to the ladies to fill the freezer. By now we have this trip pretty dialed in: Lia and Maggie are masters with ratchet straps, we know to drive the beach at low tide, and our dipnetting skills are solid.

We do still have a bit of a learning curve with the Luggable Loo, which I bought because of the aforementioned terribly toxic porta potties. It’s basically a tall, narrow privacy tent, and inside there is a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat top. You can see how nicely it fits in with our sleeping tents:

I also sprang for the Double Doodie Waste Bags because of the appealing product description:

These lightweight bags prevent accidental spills with a leakproof, double zip locking mechanism and a tough, puncture-resistant outer bag. A smart choice for any portable toilet, the Double Doodie with Bio-Gel comes pre-charged with Bio-Gel waste gelatin powder to solidify liquid waste and mask unpleasant odors. Ideal with the Luggable Loo Seat and Cover (sold separately).

Those parts in bold? Fake news! Thank goodness I was wearing XtraTuffs, and that’s all I need to say about that.

The privacy tent works well, but I do highly recommend tying it down properly or you might find your Luggable Loo exposed when the wind kicks up. I can only imagine that would be really embarrassing if it started to blow away while in use, but of course that’s only speculative.

Also of note: If one person walks back to camp for a “quick” errand but doesn’t return for nearly half an hour, it would be nice to perhaps go check on them. Just in case they are dealing with personal porta potty wind issues.

Despite those issues, the Luggable Loo was still better than using the always overfull public porta potties that haunted our previous dipnetting trips. Overall, this trip was a stress-free success, even by my standards.

Oh wait... until the very end when everyone on the beach received a text that said,

Emergency Alert: The National weather service has issued a TSUNAMI WARNING. A series of powerful waves and strong currents may impact coasts near you. You are in danger. Get away from coastal waters. Move to high ground or inland now. Keep away from the coast until local officials say it is safe to return.”

Aaaaand that’s when mass pandemonium ensued. Fortunately we were planning to leave that night anyway, so we had already broken down 90% of our camp. Nancy and I were back at the truck loading the final gear while the girls kept our nets in the water until the last possible minute. We were caught in the middle of two worlds: to our left, church group leaders were marching around with clipboards and yelling roll call. They loaded dozens of teens into vehicles and evacuated, abandoning their campsite and coolers of fish. To our right an old sourdough emerged from a semi-permanent blue-tarped structure and declared everything was fine and there was no reason to panic.

We decided not to take our chances. Nancy stayed at the truck to finish loading, while I ran down the beach to pull the girls out of the water. They understood the urgency of the situation, and in record time the nets were broken down and strapped to the truck while I disposed of our double doodies. I might dread driving Kenai Beach, but sticking around during a tsunami warning is even scarier.

On the drive home Maggie said, “Mom, I knew it was serious when I saw you running, because you never run!” (So sad. So true.) We made it safely off the beach and away from tsunami danger (the old sourdough was right – it never happened). It was a long, dark drive home and we were all exhausted, but grateful to have 14 fish, lots of laughs, and more memories!

By now I’d had plenty of adventures for one summer, but I can’t say I was surprised when I got another text from Nancy: “Float the Chena on Thursday?”

My initial reaction was that no, I’d rather stay home with my to-do list. It didn’t help that this excursion involved a kayak, but apparently the Chena River flows so slowly that it feels more like a lake. And of course Maggie was all in. Also, didn’t I just swear there would be NOMO FOMO? I’m doomed. I’m going.

Before I knew it our truck was loaded with SUPs, an inflatable kayak, and bikes. We were rolling north and chasing the sunshine to Fairbanks.

The Parks Highway is usually cluttered with RVs and tourists this time of year, but due to the COVID travel ban we cruised empty roads most of the way. We did hit a few construction zones, but it was nice to get out and stretch our legs. (Sadly, we also hit a little bird, which Maggie later fished out of the truck’s grill so we could honor it with a brief ceremony.)

We stopped in Denali National Park to break up the drive, which was a ghost town due to the pandemic. No tour busses, no hikers, no Husky puppies. We did see spectacular scenery and a few caribou, but the trail we planned to hike was closed due to an animal kill. We let the girls bike along the road on our way out, which was mildly stressful since Maggie was swerving all over the place and even looking backwards as she went around corners on the wrong side of the road. Even so, the stop fueled our tanks and we pushed through the last hours to Fairbanks.

This trip was more glamping than camping; we stayed in an adorable treehouse at Sven’s Basecamp Hostel in Fairbanks. The place was stocked with a kitchen, bathroom, coin-op showers, fire pit, and game cabin.

Now this is the kind of tree I can climb!

As promised, the Chena river float was manageable even for inexperienced paddlers like me. I was a little worried about sharing the waterway with motorboats (it’s not a true adventure if I don’t find something to worry about!) but it turned out to be a great afternoon. One of Maggie’s friends was in Fairbanks at the same time, so her family floated with us and even helped with the shuttle. How perfect that our float ended at the Pump House, which has the perfect deck for dinner and drinks!

The next day we went to Birch Hill, where the girls biked and Nancy and I walked a loop. Before heading home we decided to stop at the Fairbanks Costco to see if they had bleach wipes and disposable face masks, which were impossible to find in Anchorage. On the way we stumbled across some puppies for sale, and I pulled in so the girls could pet them. I hoped they were Huskies since we didn’t see any in Denali. It turns out they were a Husky, Pomeranian, and dachshund mix. (How does that happen?!)

It also turned out to be love at first site for Lia. Before we knew it, all plans of Costco were abandoned, because we were coming home with an additional passenger. We went across the street to Fred Meyer instead, and picked up enough puppy supplies to get us through the long drive. They named the little guy Gus, and he has been a perfect addition to their family. He didn’t make a peep the entire drive home.

Fairbanks was the final summer excursion for our group, but it should come as no surprise that Nancy and Lia squeezed in a few more adventures without us.

I’m blessed with a forest full of friends, women who stand by me through every season. Sometimes they push me out on a limb, while other times they provide shelter. I hope I do the same for them.

I hope my children are watching. I hope the seedlings of their friendships grow to have as many rings and experiences as mine. I hope they recognize that friendships need tending, but even with care they will sometimes grow apart. More than anything, I hope they don’t chop each other down in the process, because you never know when a relationship can be rekindled.

I wish I could be a spontaneous, energetic, fearless mom like Nancy, but that’s never going to happen. I’m the cautious one who holds the keys, packs the maps, and nags too much. She is the play button to my pause, and that’s okay.

It takes many types of trees to make a perfect forest.

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