It’s time to take the dog for a leash-free walk in the late-afternoon sun.
We’ve had torrential rains and high winds this week in Girdwood, stripping many of the leaves from our trees. Termination dust sprinkled on the tops of the mountains has become a blanket of snow sliding inexorably down the slopes.
Our season of snow-free walking in the woods is coming to a close. Soon we’ll need our Yaktrax, snowshoes or Nordic skis to get around outside.
For those of you with a longer autumn, I offer this list, which I’ve been compiling since this summer’s workshop at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska.
Near the end of the week, I sat next to Frank near the campfire. While we were busy writing, Frank had been walking the trails. I thought to myself, “What does he do when he walks in the woods?” I wanted to know what kept his attention after, say, the first fifteen minutes.
He answered my unspoken question, talking about noticing “old friends” (plants, animals, rock formations, etc.) and meeting new ones.
This isn’t a list for hard-core nature lovers and woods-walkers. It’s for those of you who, like me, have “nature deficit disorder,” and are seeking a cure.
Suggestions and additions from veteran hikers and rookies alike are, of course, welcome.
- Be quiet––and loud. I can walk for miles in the woods with a friend, noticing nothing, because we’ve been deep in conversation. Consider walking without talking, enjoying companionship without words. For those of you in bear country, find other ways of making noise, such as wearing a bear bell.
- Bring your dog. If you don’t have a dog, get one. Our dog Brady is very helpful in the woods. I’ve learned to trust his radar to tell me if there’s something dangerous nearby.
- Learn the names of things. If you don’t know what things are, it’s hard to see them. All the trees look the same, rocks blend into each other, and birds are no more than small, medium and large. Knowing the names of the “friends” you meet in the woods gives your experience texture.
- Train your senses. As you walk, concentrate on one sense at a time. Set a timer, and for five minutes, just notice what you smell, or hear, or feel. Alternate until you’ve used them all, then notice what happens when you walk with all your senses awake.
- Don’t go fast. Some people hike as if it’s a race. Sure, fast hiking is great exercise, but it makes noticing difficult. Slow down. Not only will you notice more, you’ll also have more endurance.
- Find a guide. Make sure it’s someone knowledgeable and patient. You want someone who’s a good match for you––someone who understands your reasons for wanting to reconnect with nature. It’s also important that this person pushes you just enough, but not too much.
- Bring what you need. I bought Leki trekking poles this summer, and every time I didn’t bring them with me on a hike, it was a mistake. There are many helpful kinds of equipment out there. Just be sure that you don’t weigh yourself down with more equipment than you need.
- Don’t go alone. We have a romantic ideal that links nature and solitude. That’s all well and good, but for anyone with any nature fears at all, being alone in the woods sets the bar too high. If you think you have to go alone, you might just stay home.
- Think through your fears. Knowing exactly what you’re afraid of helps you figure out how to get past it. Afraid of bears? Learn how to use bear spray, wear a bear bell, walk with someone you trust to help you in a bear encounter. Afraid you’ll get lost in the woods? Take an orienteering class, buy a compass and learn how to use it, find a friend who can follow a trail map.
- Know your limits. Not everyone’s ready to hike Crow Pass. I just read the description, and the thought of crossing Eagle River (very cold, and 2-3 feet deep) made me say, “Hell no!” Pushing yourself too far past your limits will only increase your fears and resistance.
Last Wednesday Liesl took her new kayak out for the first time.
The night before, our friend Scott helped us load the kayak on the Subaru’s roof rack, securing it with tie-down straps, and ropes tied to the front and back. He and Liesl consulted the knot-tying app on my iPod, then created specialized knots that held the kayak securely.
Our plan was that Liesl would paddle from the Portage Lake put-in to a beach on the other side of the lake (about 3 miles, one way). Scott and I would take the tunnel to Whittier, hike through Portage Pass, and meet Liesl at the beach for lunch.
By the time we got to Portage Lake on Wednesday morning, however, we’d figured out that we didn’t really have a way to coordinate between the two adventures. Particularly since this was Liesl’s first solo kayak, Scott and I felt better about staying on the Portage side of Maynard Mountain.
So we launched Liesl, who was thrilled to be on the water. Paddling is a great equalizer for her––in her kayak, with her upper body strength, she has an advantage over most of us so-called able-bodied people.
As she paddled farther and farther away––and then disappeared––my anxiety began to build. One of the challenges in our relationship is that she’s an adventure seeker, and I’m an anxious Chicken Little.
Scott, Brady and I walked the trail to Byron Glacier, on the far side of the lake. Brady enjoyed the off-leash time, darting into the brush on our left to take quick drinks from the rushing creek, coming back at a run when I whistled for him. For some reason, he always barks when we get to Byron Glacier, and this time was no exception. On our way back, we met several groups of tourists and locals. Brady, our little social butterfly, enjoyed all the pets and attention they gave him. He’s such a love sponge!
Liesl was out of our sight for at least several hours, and my anxiety built to a level where Scott could feel it emanating from me. As a distraction, we decided to do a bit of shopping in the book store and gift shop at the Begich Boggs Visitors’ Center. In an act of faith, I bought a Portage Valley patch for Liesl, to commemorate her first solo paddle. We also exchanged a dollar for four quarters, for the high-powered binoculars outside. Joy and relief surged through me when I spotted Liesl on the far side of the lake, the wind at her back, steaming back to the put-in.
Scott figured we had at least a half-hour before she reached the shore, so we set off to scout out the Trail of Blue Ice. We were deep into theological conversation when my cell phone rang. It was Liesl, and she was high as a kite.
She had paddled into the wind, all the way to the beach on the other side. The water got a bit rough, and she almost turned around twice. But she’s determined and persistent, so she pushed on.
In my own way, I’m determined and persistent, too. The winds of anxiety may have picked up, and the water may have felt quite choppy, but I pushed on and through, because I know how much a day of kayaking means to Liesl.
And we both were very thankful for Scott, whose support made a great day of adventure possible.
But it’s also a timepiece, a marker of summer’s too-speedy passage here in the north. Fireweed begins blooming at the bottom of its stalk, and when the blossoms reach the top, we have six more weeks until winter.
Yeah, you read that right. Six more weeks until winter. Autumn is a blink-and-you-missed-it season here. A few years ago we had our first measurable snowfall on September 30.
And that’s here in one of the more temperate parts of Alaska.
Alaska’s extremes of scarcity and abundance push those of us who live here to treasure what we have when we have it.
Summer lasts from late May to late August (if we’re lucky). We squeeze as much outdoor activity into the summer as we possibly can. It’s not virtue. It’s survival. The longer I live here, the more I feel compelled to take advantage of summer while it’s here.
In the winter, the tiny mid-day windows of light have a similar effect. If there’s sun available in the winter, Alaskans want to be outside in it, no matter the temperature (within reason).
Alaskans are a crazy bunch of hikers and skiers and kayakers and pursuers of all kinds of outdoor activities. I don’t do any of these things. Well, maybe a little bit of hiking.
But I do feel the pull of this place. Not only its beauty. Not only the peer pressure of all the forty-something (and older) wilderness women I know.
The pull is a whisper, saying, “If you want to make it here, you have to throw yourself into it. You have to love it, know it, live it.”
Yesterday this guy paid us a visit.
I think he and his friends have been here before. I recognized the chit-chit-chit of their chatter.
There’s a small cluster of cottonwood trees right outside our condo. I took these photos with my elbows propped on our deck railing for stability.
While I watched, he gave himself a dry bath, scratching himself all over. His efforts shook the branches, and fluttered the cottonwood leaves.
The camera’s click-click-click finally got his attention.