Friday, July 31, 2009


Found along the trail to Symphony Lake.

If April showers bring May flowers, then July showers bring mushrooms. Last Sunday when Jon and I hiked to Symphony Lake (south fork of Eagle River) he was optimistic that we could find a few mushrooms. He packed his knife and a mesh bag just in case. We did have some luck along the trail as we found a few boletus mushrooms with their distinct rusty-brown colored tops and wide white stems. A few had been nibbled by ground squirrels or other critters so I insisted he leave at least one out of a small cluster for the wildlife to enjoy.

The unusual thing about this hike was that I was the one with the mushroom eyes. Normally Jon is the one who spots them emerging from under last fall's brown leaves or under a shrub or in a stand of tall grass. So when I started seeing them, I understood his thrill at finding these little treasures. If you've never foraged, it's akin to an Easter egg hunt or any other scavenger hunt where half the fun is in the finding. If you're not finding, it's no fun. Of course, if you're successful, you may have lots of work ahead of you.

We only bagged a few, enough to enjoy in our pasta the next evening and for three trays in the dehydrator. After a few more days of rain, yesterday we decided that we should take a walk through his usual mushroom-hunting grounds. Up the trail, around the marsh, over a hill. We saw some that weren't edible, and some we weren't sure about, but we didn't see a single boletus. A little disappointed, we returned home where he made a meal of fresh salmon with mushroom risotto that used last year's dried shrooms. Delicious, as always.
These look like oyster mushrooms, based on photos I've seen, but we've
never picked them. They're growing out of a birch branch on the ground.

When you're scanning the ground for mushrooms,
you just might spot some not-so-big wildlife.

Then, this morning as he was getting ready to leave for work, we were strolling through the yard to see what mushrooms were growing there. That's when I found this King Boletus!
And there was a little one right behind it!

Now that I have the mushroom eyes, I'm beginning to understand Jon's little obsession. Maybe I'll even try to cook something.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Eagle Lake

On a hike several years ago Jon and I reached the crest of a ridge and saw a man toppling cairns that marked the trail. We asked him why he was doing this, this act of destruction. He answered that people build too many of the stone markers when they don't need to. He referred to the overuse of the cairns in the Lower-48 as though they were graffiti. We told him they had to be close together because at times the area could get very socked-in. We didn't expect to change his mind, but we also figured this guy had never been in a cloud bank when trying to follow a faint trail through the high country.

When the clouds push in, you lose your sense of direction. Which way is north? From which direction did we enter? Where is the way out? Jon and I have been caught in this sort of cloud bank. Years ago near Mint Glacier we were hiking around a tarn and hadn't noticed the clouds coming up the valley. We were halfway around the tarn when we lost sight of where we had entered the boulder field that surrounded it. The disorientation that followed caused us each to react differently. As I tried to reassure myself and Jon that we'd find our way, he started rationing food. He seemed near panic. We continued around the tarn, with a sense of purpose: to reach our destination. I tried to stay calm.

Eventually, I found a patch of snow I recognized because on the way up I'd scooped out enough for a snowball to throw. At almost the same time, Jon heard a voice calling us through the cloud. Earlier in the day, we'd run into someone we knew. Now he was hiking up to look for us or maybe to just give us direction. An audio-beacon. Jon still refers to Kim as our savior.

Later, Jon told me that being in the cloud reminded him of a night he spent in a snow cave during a windstorm in the front range of the Chugach Mountains, just above Anchorage. He was tired but didn't want t0 sleep too much for fear the entrance would fill with snow and suffocate him. He even set the alarm on his watch to wake him every two hours so he could shovel the entrance. He was only miles from the city but in the darkness of the cave he feared for his life.

Early this spring, just as the weight of winter was leaving us, I found myself in the cloud bank. When I had time to myself, my mind would wander to a place where I could not see the way out. Though the days were warming and getting sunny, I didn't feel the optimism others around me expected to see. It was a serious funk. I had little motivation. I wanted to hide. Even though I normally could extricate myself from it, this spring I wanted to avoid the things that make me happy. I didn't want to read. Sometimes I didn't even want to bike. I began looking at one-way airfares to Europe. I wanted to run away but I couldn't explain it to anyone. I didn't want to burden Jon with the details of my funk, but he was also at a loss for how he could help.

My life and my career felt much like circling the tarn, over and over without a voice or a sign to guide my way. I finally met with a counselor who helped me verbalize what was on my mind. She helped me begin to set a course for getting out of the fog and move in the direction I wanted.
She helped me see my fears: What if I made the wrong move? What if I was letting someone down? Realizing that the only person I needed to worry about letting down was me helped me to make the move. And if I'm not letting myself down, I'll be a much happier person to be around. We all get stuck from time to time. Not all of us are fortunate enough to find someone or something to guide us. I'm still plotting my course, but I'm headed the right direction.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

whatcha writin'?

What will you write? Another guidebook? Update the current one? Fiction? Freelancing? So many questions are coming from my friends about what I will be writing now that I have my new job. But first, before I begin a project, I must become a student.

When I was younger, I was a musician. I still am, though I rarely play the French horn these days. To be a musician takes practice. Hours of repetitive practice. Scales, challenging pieces. Exercises to expand your range. Keeping the embouchure in shape. Writing is a lot like music. It must be practiced regularly for one to develop and progress. When I took up the mandolin a few years ago, I started all over with scales, toughening the fingers, learning to hear what note would come next when playing by ear.

I've been a non-fiction writer for most of my writing days, dabbling in poetry now and then, but not really imagining that I could write fiction. Now I want to expand into fiction and I know it will take practice. In a lucky opportunity, the one evening I could attend the free public readings when UAA's summer MFA low-residency program was in progress just over a week ago, I found my answer for how to begin. The featured readers for the evening were poet Linda McCarriston and fiction writer & essayist Josip Novakovich. After McCarriston's often moving, sometimes political poetry, Novakovich began his readings.

His ability to inject humor into a piece about a man working in a forced-labor camp in the former Yugoslavia was captivating. His voice lent authenticity to the story, making it feel like the sequence of events really could have happened in the way he described. After the reading, I approached the table where books by all the presenters were offered for sale. I took the plunge and picked up Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop. In it, I've found exercises for helping me tap into my creative side without the worry that I won't finish a piece, that I won't be able to figure out how to end it.

I've just begun working through the book with his lists of exercises, some which challenge me to write about topics that are not always comfortable. Subjects where I don't have all the information, but permission to just make it up as I go along. Freeing my mind to run with ideas that I never would have approached before.

I hope to work through a few exercises every day, just like one would practice an instrument every day. The thing I've noticed since starting on this new endeavor is that I've already begun looking at my world a little differently. Looking for clues and cues that can be taken and fabricated into a story. I guess I've always done that to some extent, but I'm watching and listening a little more intently now, becoming a student for all my waking hours.

It also may be time for me to start picking up the mandolin each day, maybe begin with a half hour at a time to toughen the fingers. Practice is practice.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

eleven years

Upper Reed Lake

For our eleventh wedding anniversary Jon and I wanted to get out of town for a short backpacking trip. Short, since last year carrying a full pack was pretty painful for me. In a way, it would help us prepare for a longer trip later this summer. We looked through the hiking book and easily decided that going to Reed Lakes in the Hatcher Pass area was an obvious choice.

Obvious because it's about five miles to the upper lake. It's also where Jon proposed to me 12 years ago (to which I replied "Yes, do you want to do that next week?"). Realizing we hadn't been back since 1997 helped to solidify our plan. Two nights of camping next to a glacial-fed alpine lake. A full day for exploring the valley and low ridges overlooking the valley. Never ones to start things too early in the day, we were on the trail by about 4:00pm (or so).

Sprinkles fell as we began our hike and met all the day-hikers as they made their way out of the valley and back to their cars. Not many people would be hiking in on a Sunday, especially when the upper valley was starting to get clouded over. The rain made crossing the boulder fields a little more tenuous, so I took my time, using my arms to lower myself onto rocks with better footing or to climb over larger boulders, some the size of small cars. The rough granite made my hands tender after all the pushing against the boulders. The creek flowed next to or underneath us, gurgling and clunking as it poured down the valley.
Jon in a boulder field near the upper lake.
(Not the one we crossed to get there.)

Above the lower lake.

With the sprinkles, we didn't take many breaks on our way past the lower lake, but did pause to wonder at the turquoise color of the water, a color that seemed more rich with the cloudy day than it might be in the sun. Continuing past the waterfall, we arrived at the upper lake and found a campsite hidden from the trail but still with a view of the lake. Just as we finished setting up the tent and fly, the clouds opened to pour rain on the valley. We curled up in our down bags, falling asleep to the rhythm of the rain drops on the fly.

We woke at 10:30 to a silent evening. Jon made dinner at the camp stove and I poured wine from a Nalgene so we could toast our anniversary.

The next day we shared coffee, oatmeal and a lake view, then spent the afternoon exploring the valley and its hidden tarns, watching other hikers below us on the trail and looking out at the Knik River far beyond us.
split boulder

A little company for breakfast.

Tuesday morning we woke to sunny skies and a warm tent, a relief since packing the tent in the rain can be terribly frustrating, plus it weighs so much more wet than it does dry. We had just enough fuel for coffee and more oatmeal in the morning, enjoyed while watching this marmot foraging for its breakfast. We took our time on the hike back down the valley, though the skies were already beginning to cloud. A snack at the lower lake. The dry conditions made it much easier to pass through the boulder field with the full (though somewhat lighter) pack. This time I wore gloves so I wouldn't tear up my hands on the boulders.

We ran into a few day hikers on our way out, but by the time we were off the trail and enjoying a beer at the trailhead (which Jon had stashed in the creek two days earlier) the valley was filling with clouds as it was the day we started.
Jon, master of the cold beer, delivers.

After this relatively short trip, I'm much closer to being prepared for a longer backpack trip this summer. Will we be able to hike all of Kesugi this year? That's my hope. It all depends on Jon's schedule.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

into the unknown forest

A few years ago I was in a writing class. One of the participants, Angela, is an artist who worked for years at an outdoor gear store in town. When she told the class that her goal was to leave the store and work full-time on her art, one person pleaded: "But you can't leave..."

I think of that sometimes, how tied up my identity is with the job where I often put in more than forty hours a week. How people see me as an expert whose advice is sought, who is so connected with Paramount and with cycling... I mean, I even took on the handle Alaska Bike Girl, affirming my identity to the rest of the world. But eventually, I have to push myself away and follow my goals.

I'm a writer. And if I want to be a writer, I have to act like one. Think like one. I must write. More than one book. More than a blog. I have to live the part by dedicating my time to finishing the short stories that are only up to five pages long. Start the projects I've only jotted down as ideas. Pursue the visions that need more than just a few hours a week. It's become obvious that I can't write at the level I want and have a full-time job (and a healthy relationship with Jon). I have to make a clean break. And this is when it happens. Friday is my last day.

I've put this off for some time. Over a year. Hell, I started drafting this post back in May! And it's tough to commit to leaving my job when so many people are stressed about the economy, losing their jobs and making financial sacrifices, but I have been planning and saving for this day. What made me wait was the same thing that can hold anyone back from making a big change: fear. Fear that I was doing the wrong thing; that I would regret my decision; that I wouldn't be able to make a living as a writer.

Almost two weeks ago, another Alaskan woman in her mid-40s announced she was leaving her job. She looked nervous on camera, as would be expected. Since the announcement, I imagine she feels a bit relieved. That's how I'm starting to feel. Because deciding to make a career or job change is something we hold onto as a big secret, partly (for me) out of fear that we won't have the guts to follow through with it. Telling a close friend or a partner is one thing; announcing it to the community is another. It's hard to take it back once you set things in motion. It's scary not knowing how it's all going to work out. But the signs were everywhere, including a chance encounter with a former Anchorage Daily News editor.

Jon and I were at a party for a friend who was about to go in for brain surgery. He used to work for the ADN, so there were lots of people there from the paper. As Michael Carey was preparing to leave, I had a chance to reintroduce myself to him - we met many years ago at an editorial board meeting. I told him I was getting ready to leave my job to write full time, to which he advised that I not delay. You just have to do it. Other writers and artists seem to understand this need to pursue that creative something that is boiling up inside ourselves, pushing and calling us to let it out. But heeding the call is akin to stepping into an unknown forest at midnight, barefoot and without a headlamp. It would much easier to stay where I am.

But I know that if I didn't take the step, I would regret it. And life shouldn't be measured with a list of regrets, but with chances taken, passions followed. I've had a good run working at Paramount. I've worked with some fantastic, smart, funny, committed people over the years. I've met people from all walks of life and from many points on the planet. I've listened as people told of their plans for adventure and heard their stories upon return. It's been a fascinating and rewarding time, but there is so much more I need to do and say.

Okay, I'm going to step off the curb... now.

Monday, July 13, 2009

all or nothing - part II

Looking west from the far side of Rabbit Lake.

Our friend Pete recently returned from the Lower-48 after a head-on collision with a truck. He was on a bicycle, timing himself as he pedaled the Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico. He returned to Anchorage to recuperate and figure out how he was going to pay for a very expensive helicopter ride and medical bills. He has a broken collarbone an injured hand, and lots of body stiffness.

When he showed up at the shop last Monday afternoon, his tan face and long hair were good to see. We were all concerned after his wreck, so seeing him acting his usual self, boyish humor included, was a relief. Now that he's momentarily off the bike (allowing me to maybe keep up with him), we decided on a little hike.
Next to a stream: stop picking that scab!

July Seventh: Rabbit Lake Trail. Another hot day. A little sunblock this time but one application is just not enough for a full day out there. I still compare to last summer when we still had snow patches along the side of the trail in early July and wore long sleeves to keep off the chill.
From the archives: July 10, 2008.

This year the streams provided a splashing relief from the warm, still air. Instead of fog, smoke from forest fires clouded the air. When we reached the lake, which we had mostly to ourselves, I soaked my feet in the water before I continued hiking around to the far shore while Pete napped in the sun.
Destination: just below the Suicide Peaks in the distance.

Maybe it was because the 11-mile hike was only my second longish hike of the year, but that warm sun really sapped my energy. Rehydrating and napping were the best ways to recuperate so I'd be ready for the next day. I'd promised Jon I would ride with him and a product rep from Giant. The plan: ride Lost Lake Trail, just outside Seward.

July Eighth: Lost Lake. Just after noon. Jon, Paul and I hit the trail from the Primrose Trailhead on the south shore of Kenai Lake. The day was hazy with smoke from forest fires, but not so bad that we actually smelled the smoke. Climbing through the forest I must always remind myself that the payoff for pushing my bike over the ever-more-exposed roots will be an expansive view from the top and a sweet singletrack descent. Though I know I can bail anytime I want, I know that the best is ahead so I plug away at my own pace, swatting at the biting flies that try to gather on my legs whenever I stop. I try not to stop. I'm also relieved that I'm not the only one who has to dismount.
The view behind us of Lost Lake, just before the final summit.

Lots of people do this ride from the other end so they can blast through the descent to Primrose. I've been meaning to do it that way but I love the view of Seward from the top of the climb and the occasional views of the bay whenever I stop along the descent, though this day the views were barely visible through the veil of smoke.

Jon and I took a break to cool off in one of the alpine lakes. I could feel my body temperature dropping after just a couple minutes in the water and from the cooling breeze that was blowing from Seward. I felt ready for more climbing as we passed Lost Lake and I again settled into my pace.
Paul on Giant's new twenty-niner.

Paul and Jon ready for the final descent.
Did I mention that Paul works for Giant?

The descent was fast and uninterrupted by other trail users. I slowed for some patches where gravel had been added to the trail to improve the surface. (I imagine that the trail crew hoped rain and trail users would compact the gravel, instead it was loose, so I had to watch my corners as my tires sunk in.) Rocky sections, water bars and dips, skinny sections of trail, shale on the side slopes as we neared Seward. All were familiar yet new since I haven't been on the trail in a few years. At the parking lot we heard ravens calling out to each other while we pumped our tires and had a snack to get ready for the final stretch.

We formed a paceline to ride up the highway to return to the car. All told: 15 miles of trail; 12 of road. It made for a long, satisfying day. Exhausting. A welcome beer at the car before heading back to Anchorage for a salmon dinner. Paul got a real Alaskan mountain bike experience. Everything but a dip in a mountain lake.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

all or nothing

I once read on a band's website that they were either too busy to post any news or there was nothing going on, therefore nothing worth posting. The past week has been mostly the former. Weather in the 70s and even 80s - uncommon in Southcentral Alaska - has kept me busy biking and hiking in my free time and too exhausted to write coherent notes about it all. It seems I could post a calendar of the past week's activities. True to my day planner, it'll be a photo calendar:

July Second: Jon and I head for Hope, AK. On the way, ride part of Johnson Pass Trail - to Bench Lake and back. About 19 miles of beautiful backcountry mountain biking.
Riding through a meadow lined with
false hellebore (I think) and cow parsnip.

Resting on the bank of Bench Lake.

To the bridge!

Soon we would spend three nights with our friends, Lynn & Art, at their cabin. Friends would drop in all weekend, most bringing food, some bringing stories and news from outside this small laid-back town.

July Third: Hit the trail at about 1:30 with my friend Jo-Ann after driving to the Devil's Pass Trailhead (Jon and Art would ride from Hope to Devil's Pass and pick up the car). We set a comfortable pace as we climbed along a creek, up a valley that opened into the wide tundra of the pass. Clear skies. Once in the pass the wind cooled us after the sweaty climb. We had more climbing ahead, but after the high point on Resurrection Trail (2,600 feet), it would be mostly descending. All told, about 34 miles of happiness.

Jo-Ann cruises through a rock garden.

Meeting up with Art and Jon - the most important
piece of information: where I stashed their beers
in the creek for when they finished the ride.

Our news blackout ended when we arrived at the cabin, anxious for a cold beer and a hot sauna, to learn that the governor had announced that morning that she would resign. Why, when and what would happen next fueled speculation around the campfire that night and in downtown Hope the next day. An iPhone with a very slow connection gave us a news fix the next morning, but speculating was more fun.

July Fourth was a good day to rest, so while Jo-Ann's man, Adam, tackled a 90-ish-miler, Jon, Jo-Ann and I biked to downtown Hope to catch the breeze coming off Turnagain Arm and get an ice cream at the local stand. No idea why there was a blue dinasaur hanging from the flagpole.

I don't know, do you think this is political?

Jon offering pointers on skipping stones.
I didn't think I needed a helmet for this maneuver.

For Pam & her mom: the coffee cart is still there, though they were on a break.

How do you like those hours?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

without judgment

As people around the world analyze the life and death of Michael Jackson, I clicked on a story link that gave me a bit in perspective. For Generation X, it is the end of a cultural era. One of those reference points for a generation always in the shadow of the Boomers. I straddle the generations, so, from childhood, I vaguely remembered Michael from the Jackson 5. I remember more that he was a part of the soundtrack of the student union at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Freshman year, there I was, a kid from a small farming town of just over 1,500 thrust into the expansive campus in the capital city. I didn't know how to study, wasn't in the dorms and was going through enough inner and family turmoil to be more than just a little confused about my direction.

The student union was positioned on the shore of Lake Mendota. Heavy wooden chairs and tables inside; metal ones on the outdoor terrace. Back then the drinking age was 18 and you could buy a pitcher of beer at the bar along with a bag of popcorn. People were allowed to smoke in the building and scents from standard commercial cigarettes were often overpowered by the smell of cloves. It wasn't uncommon to see people pass a joint around either. Everything was accepted, or at least tolerated.

If I remember any sound from the Union, besides that of the heavy chairs scraping across the floor, it's the sound of the jukebox that was situated just to the left of the main entry to the Rathskeller. A real jukebox packed with 45 records and songs that can take me back to that year if I let them: Take me to the River (Talking Heads version), Dock of the Bay (Otis Redding's plane crashed in nearby Lake Monona just days before the song was released in '67) and the Jackson 5's "ABC."

I used to go to the Union to study, I would say, but really I was there to socialize. Or to watch other people socialize while I disappeared at a small table under an arch. It provided the atmosphere where I could hang out and meet new people without being in a real bar. It was where I met a future housemate. It was where I would sometimes go in the summer after my first year of college, before I took off for an out-of-state school and other diversions before finally getting my degree from UW-Milwaukee (yes, it took three schools and about four majors for me to find my way).

A few years later I went back to the Union. The lighting seemed brighter in the Rathskeller. I remember that there were bouncers. The old jukebox had been replaced by a more modern model that played CDs. And though I was still in my 20s, I suddenly felt old and very far away from those days when I was 19 and trying to figure it out. Now I'm 44 and still trying to figure it out, though that is what life's journey is all about, I suppose.

And after all the turmoil that Michael went through - from child prodigy and maybe even musical genius, through his mistakes, I imagine that he was still trying to figure it all out and along the way he got painfully, publicly lost. The people he hurt may one day forgive him. A large part of the public will not. But can we at least appreciate that for a time he shared with the world his talents? When I think about it, I remember those old Jackson 5 songs "I'll be there," as well as those groundbreaking songs from the 80s. He contributed to the soundtrack our generation grew up with. That will always be there.

Note: I began this post on June 26 and called it "milestones." I said what was going through my head at the time. Lots has been said since his death, and earlier this week was the memorial service. After reading things written by other people, I wasn't sure how to finish this post. It's hard to not judge, but now is not the time to judge. Now is time to allow people to be sad and also to celebrate what was positive in his life. It's what any of us would want when our days are over.