Tuesday, February 28, 2012

winter bear

Not a bear track.

I had snowshoed up Rover's Run and had just turned onto Moose Meadow trail when I heard someone behind me calling to someone. I heard the voice a few times, then turned around to see a dog and skier heading my way. The skier had something to tell me. It turned out to be someone I knew. Jerry is a former park ranger and now owner of a great little bakery in town. Someone had come up to him at the trailhead (not even a mile from where we were now) and told him they'd seen a brown bear near a mushing trail. Yes, on February 28, in Anchorage. Are you sure? he'd asked. They were, but he cautioned me that they looked like tourists.

What does a tourist look like in winter? Probably someone wearing tennis shoes and jeans, no hat and leather driving gloves. A person dressed this way could easily mistake ursus arctos horribilis for a large dog. I know I've done double-takes where on first glance I've mistaken a dog for a bear, or the other way around. Nevertheless, bears do sometimes wake mid-winter and ramble around the park looking for a snack before returning to their dens, so Jerry felt he should at least tell me. I laughed a little when I told him I planned to hike Black Bear trail, a known denning area. I jokingly promised that the first thing I would do if I saw one was to snap a photo.

We went our separate ways, but now my stomp on the trails didn't feel like a solo hike. I felt I had company, my unseen companion: a groggy, somewhat hungry bear. I turned onto Black Bear and followed a solo fat-tire bike track on the narrow trail. There were footprints from a hiker, too, but once I turned onto the Paper Plate trail (so named for how the impromptu trail is sometimes marked), it was just me following that lone cyclist's track through a few inches of fresh snow.

Devil's club and tire track.

In places the rider rode so straight that the front tire's tread disappeared under the track left by the rear tire. On corners, I could see where the front tire had dipped into a groove or made a smooth arc so that the pattern left by the two tires resembled the outline of a crescent moon. The trail was carved so narrow in places that I could see where the rider's boots had hit the snowy sides of the trail at regular intervals, following the rhythm of the pedal stroke. Occasionally, I'd see footprints and know that the rider had gotten off the bike to walk.

Around me, I could see where days old animal tracks were now only a line of dimples in the fresh snow. In some places the spruce were so close together it would have been impossible to squeeze between them. In others, they were scattered about, decorations in a wide meadow. I watched for fresh animal tracks and thought about the bear. I wondered if it was really out there, awake. Earlier in the day I had been re-reading David Quammen's Walking Out, a short story which features a pivotal scene with a bear. Is this coincidence, I wondered.

Meanwhile, I followed the bike track. Soon, I noticed human-sized divots in several places on either side of the trail. If I looked closely, I could see the rider's shoulder, body, head, even a little dent from a helmet pressed into the soft snow. On one divot, I could make out the bike wheel's impression and see what kind of tire the rider was using. I laughed to myself and remembered friends referencing a problem with gnomes on the trails, this trail in particular. Gnomes who jumped out and pushed riders over before the rider could know what was happening. I had sometimes imagined myself as one of those gnomes on snowshoes, pushing my friends over because they were having all the fun.

But there are no gnomes and there was no bear for me today. The gnomes are safely hidden in story books and backyard gardens while I hope the bears are still napping. As I crossed a wide meadow on a more familiar route, ravens flew above. I stopped to listen as their wings whooshed through the afternoon air and they called out to their companions. Maybe they saw the bear or the gnomes but they weren't telling. They were heading back to the mountains and I was heading home.

Monday, February 27, 2012

my inner snowshoer

A dead birch in Bicentennial Park hosts new life.

Friday night I was driving out of my neighborhood when I saw the distinct single beam of a bike headlight as a cyclist pedaled up the path along Patterson Street. It was a perfect 20-degree evening and the routes had been cleared of the previous night's dusting of snow. In my warm car I felt a twinge of sadness that I have not been biking.

Yes, it's been a challenging year for winter cyclists in Anchorage. Even fat-tire bikes are no match for another foot of powder or a path that has just been buried by the road plow. But I've commuted or biked for fun in the winter for so many years that not doing so reminds me of the rides I've done under the best conditions. Rides on firmly-packed trails that twist through the birch and spruce forest, crossing ponds and narrow bridges. I recall last winter's adventures up rivers, to glaciers, on lakes and up long trails normally reserved for my summer rides.

It can get pretty demoralizing when I dwell too long about how much I miss the riding. But that usually happens during time spent alone. When I get out with friends I realize what I've gained by being off the bike and embracing my inner snowshoer. After all, before I was a mountain biker, I spent much more time hiking. Once I got into mountain biking, I followed Jon's motto: If you can bike it, why hike it? Yet getting out on foot has its advantages.

Last Tuesday, I met my friend Diana for a snowshoe. We hadn't seen each other since summer. We stomped around on the new Kincaid singletrack trails. At our hiking pace, we were able to catch up on what's happening in our lives. We stopped to look at the shapes of the trees, admiring how the fresh snow decorated the deeply-crevassed bark on the cottonwood trees. At our slower pace, it was also much easier to examine the animal tracks that had been left in a fresh snow. A few hares, some dogs and a few mystery tracks - several which turned out to be squirrel tracks. Things that I may have only glimpsed out of the corner of my eye while I rolled along on the trail were now in focus for me.

Spruce needles resting atop the snow after a wind storm remind me of eyelashes.

On each foray onto the trails, I notice something different. See a track I don't recognize. Look at a tree and notice its angle, its height or the other organisms that use the trees as their homes. The rise and fall of the route; who has traveled it before us.

The body print of a mystery animal in Bicentennial Park
keeps me curious. Do you know what made these?

While I miss getting out on a bike and wonder with a bit of anxiety whether I'll be able to ride this summer, there's another part of me that appreciates the frequent snowfalls and even the debris that lands on the snowy trails after a wind storm. The snowshoes and poles are now fixtures in the back of my car. And yesterday when I was out with my friend Jo-Ann she commented that when my shoulder is better we should continue to venture out on snowshoes. She's right. And I'm glad I can appreciate my snowshoe adventures for what they offer, not merely think of them as a substitute for something I'd rather be doing.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


In the last month or so, I've had two dreams where I've had to rely on the strength of my arms to climb. In one, a hike ended with a wire grid fence I needed to scale to get to a level spot and safety. The other one involved me mountain biking, then climbing one tree and swinging to another before I could continue. (In the dream, I forgot the bike & had to hike back to get it). I was relaying this story to my physical therapist with the interpretation that I really want to have my arm back; I want to trust the strength & stability of my right shoulder and I want to ride my mountain bike.

My PT listened, then asked if I'd had the dream interpreted. There are websites that do this, she told me. Fascinating. I can't imagine what it would take to write a program that would be able to take a few words and give a person insight into their dreams. Why not give it a try?

I plugged the words: "hiking," "climbing," "scaling wire fence" into the field and hit "go." Here's what one site came up with:

"To dream of a wire represents the short, but very frequent, journeys you take. To dream of a rusty or old wire is a representation of your short temper." For the record, the wire fence in my dream was not rusty. But I wonder, are these the journeys I take to see the PT and my doctor?

This kind of fence, except not covered with snow.

"To dream that you are climbing to the top of a fence suggests success. If you make it over the fence, then this suggests that you will achieve success and fulfill your dreams by means that may not be necessarily positive." What nefarious things might I do to assure my novel (in progress) gets published? If I offend you on my journey to success, I apologize in advance.

"Hiking is very difficult, as it requires endurance, persistence. and perseverance. To dream that you're hiking signifies the progress you have made in your life. You are focused on your goal." Hiking is not difficult, unless it is. I have, indeed, made progress.

Then I plugged in "bicycle" and this is what they said:
"To dream that you are riding a bicycle means that you are feeling confused and unsteady. You should achieve harmony between all aspects of your life if you want to reach your goals. If you have difficulties riding the bicycle, then it implies that you doubt your ability to achieve success without assistance. To see a bicycle in your dream suggests that you should involve yourself in more relaxing and entertaining endeavors."

I think maybe I need to try a different dream interpretation site. Or, maybe I should accept my original theory that the dreams mean I want my shoulder to get better so that it's strong enough that I can climb fences, swing from trees and ride my mountain bike. I don't know what my novel has to do with climbing fences, but it does feel like a challenging journey.

Friday, February 17, 2012

before you beat that drum

When Jon and I visited Oahu, the USS Arizona Memorial was the first thing on my list of places to go. To not visit this memorial would be like going to Washington, D.C. and not go to the Lincoln Memorial. I visited D.C. years ago and an experience I had at the monument remains strong in my memory.

After a slow start at the hostel that first morning in Honolulu, Jon and I caught a bus to the USS Arizona, arriving around 10 a.m. Visiting the memorial is free, but there are only so many tickets given out for visitors to view a short film then take a boat ride to the site of the sunken battleship. We had over two hours to go through historical displays before we could go to the Arizona. We took our time reading the information and viewing short film clips about the bombings that took place on December 7, 1941. The exhibits provided their history lessons by telling both the American and Japanese sides of what led up to the attack. Some of the most moving video accounts were those given by elderly veterans who told their stories as a part of a project to capture their memories of life on the battleships and about that fateful day.

Finally we left the bright sunshine and went into a darkened theater to get an idea of what to expect at the memorial. We sat in the same row as an elderly man. Part of me wanted to ask him if he'd served in WWII; the other part of me was near tears as I remembered my dad, knowing that he'd once been stationed on Oahu in the '50s and that I'd never asked him about his time there. After the film and a short boat ride, we stepped into the memorial.

The white memorial spans bridge-like across the sunken battleship. From the memorial, we could see where the bow and stern of the ship were marked; we could see the ship's faint outline under the water and the sheen from fuel that continues to leak from the vessel. Parts of the ship, including the turrets were above water and slowly rusting into the harbor. The attack on Pearl Harbor figured so large in the lives of some survivors that several who died years later have had their ashes interred with their fellow sailors in the hull of the sunken ship. All the names, those who perished on board and those who were later interred, are etched on a wall at the far end of the memorial, in the shrine room.

Parts of the USS Arizona are above the water line. The list
of sailors is inside the memorial on the far wall in the shrine
room. Ford Island is in the background.

Inside the room, I looked up at the names. Over 1,100 men. Brothers, sons, fathers, uncles, nephews cousins. I wondered about the men who had the same last names, remembered the history lessons about brothers dying together in battle; how painful that had to be for their families and communities.* I thought of our current political situation. Our government has just ended a war in Iraq. We are still in Afghanistan. Political candidates are beating the drum, talking tough about Iran. Campaigning with swagger. I wish every politician who brings up war would read the names of those who died in Iraq; those who were injured. The names of the Americans, the allies, the Iraqis, the innocents (those we often hear called “collateral damage” so we won’t pay attention to the fact that these were people). The names of all the people they left behind.

I think it's the least they can do.

*Further research shows how many brothers served together on the USS Arizona.

By coincidence, my brother posted this yesterday. It features a photo of our dad while he was stationed on Oahu.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

big city - honolulu

When Jon and I were planning our trip to Kaua'i, I noticed that the last flight from Oahu to Kaua'i would give us no time to get from the main terminal to the inter-island. We decided to spend two nights on Oahu and explore a little. After all, the only things I'd seen of Honolulu were the airport and the views from a jet window.

I booked a room in a hostel* just a few blocks from Waikiki and read up a little on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. We decided to skip renting a car and try out the public transit, which is supposed to be one of the best in the nation. As we waited at the airport for The Bus we noticed the sign that said "No luggage." I almost decided to take one of the more direct shuttles to Waikiki, but Jon, always frugal, didn't give up. Soon the bus arrived and the driver did not reject us or our luggage (if it fits under the seat or on your lap, it's okay) and we were on our way. When we finally reached our stop, we only had to walk a block to the hostel.

"You've won a trip to Beautiful Waikiki!!"
Anyone else watch the
Price is Right as a kid?

After checking into our Spartan room (sorry, no photo), we wandered around the neighborhood looking for dinner and watching the people. It was late and we settled for a light dinner at a mediocre place where I got a salad before we strolled home for the night.

We've only stayed in hostels a few times: in California and in New Zealand. Each one is different, but we've often been fortunate to get a private room that is fairly quiet. This was not such a room. We needed open windows to stay somewhat cool, but the windows also let in the noise from bars that were just around the corner. Add to that the amorous couple in a bunk in the adjacent co-ed dorm room and it was a noisy night. In the morning, a young Euro on skype positioned himself directly under our window. When I finally got up to get coffee, I gently reminded him of the hostel's "quiet time" and asked that he not do that the next morning.

After a slow start, we headed out for the day. (I'll cover that in another post.) On our way back to the hostel at the end of the day, we picked up a couple beers at a market then sat in the courtyard drinking them as a group of hostellers gathered in an ever-widening circle around a small table nearby. We planned our evening; on a mission to find a restaurant we'd walked past the night before after their serving time had ended.

We couldn't quite remember which side street to turn onto but tried a few. We remembered a torch outside (quite common) and that it was on the west side of the street, adjacent to a hotel. We explored the side streets that connected busy Kuhio and Kalakaua Avenues Finally we spotted it and walked through a dark street to reach it: Jinroku. We chose a seat at the bar, sitting next to a man who was enjoying his meal with a beer. From Belarus, he’d happened upon the place the previous evening and loved it so much he returned.

Have you ever known you’d found a great place even before having a bite of food? This was such a place. I ordered a lychee martini and Jon ordered a beer. The small restaurant was hot and humid and full of energy. Three cooks worked the grills as we sat watching, sometimes asking the name of a dish they were preparing. We started off with some sashimi, then ordered a combination meal for two. The meal was a performance; several works of art served in about seven snack-sized courses. There was a noodle dish and eggs, grilled squid dumplings, daikon radish salad, miso soup with beef. When we thought we were full, they brought the penultimate dish and said there was more. Really? We asked for a take-out box and prepared for the dessert. (How could I say "no" to milk pudding?)

I'm not sure how long we were there, long enough for most other diners to leave and the chefs to scrape their grills clean, chatting with each other and with us. Finally we ambled slowly back to the hostel with full bellies, happy we had found this unassuming gem amongst the glitter and noise of Waikiki. And though the hostel was still noisy, the circle in the courtyard having grown larger and more inebriated, we slept better that second night and prepared for a day of sight-seeing in the city before flying over to the Garden Isle, Kaua’i. Plus, we had delicious leftovers for breakfast.

*This is not an endorsement of the hostel, but merely to let you know where we stayed. Maybe if you're traveling solo and looking for a relatively cheap place to stay in the city, go for it. I would, however, recommend Jinroku. If I ever have a need to overnight in Honolulu again, this would make it worthwhile. Here's the menu they use at their place in Tokyo. Maybe I can go there instead.