Sunday, September 20, 2009

August in the Wrangells

When I was a kid, my mother would plan elaborate family vacations.  She would plot out itineraries and collect brochures for years, working out how to see the most in the shortest amount of time, how to get the most bang for our bucks.  These trips were, on one level, amazing.  On another level, they were exhausting and frequently became occasions for family tension.  But I have to give my mother credit for two things on this front: (1) instilling in me a deep desire to travel, and (2) defining by contrast my preferred way to travel.

This summer I went to Alaska for the second time in three years.  Of course, Alaska is a very big state.  "Divide it in half and Texas would be the third largest state in the Union," I heard from more than one Alaskan.  It would be more accurate to say I visited the Wrangell/St. Elias National Park for the second time in three years.  More accurate still to say I returned to McCarthy, AK.  I did so, in part, because I had such a good time there the first time.  I did so also because, after that first time, I had friends in the area eager for my return.  But mostly, I returned because the first time I discovered the magic that is McCarthy and the Wrangell Mountain Center, particularly the week-long writer's workshop they put on in August.

My approach to this sort of travel contrasts with my mother's.  Where she went for breadth of experience across a region, I go for depth of experience in a more localized place.  Where she planned extensively with a meticulous itinerary, I plan a little but leave a lot up to serendipity.  For sure, there was some planning.  I coordinated my visit with my Anchorage friend, Maria Shell.  Figuring out how to negotiate the trek from Anchorage to McCarthy takes no small amount of planning.  Doing so with a WMC board member charged with stocking up the larder at the center also requires some planning.  But Maria is nothing if not efficient and organized.  And so I found myself stepping into a very Alaska experience -- "the big shop" done for one's self and for anyone along the way who's heard you are picking up supplies.  Maria, to her credit, worried that she was asking too much of her vacationing friends (myself and her college friend, Laurene) -- but I wouldn't have traded the experience or this role for anything.  Sure, fitting all those supplies into her car along with our own gear was a challenge, but that was part of the fun.

In Chitina, before moving on to the tire-eating rails-to-washboard-road 60 mile route off the grid to McCarthy, we picked up WMC executive director, Jeremy Pataki.  Jeremy eased into our group easily and provided many an amusing story and stop on the way to McCarthy.

We had a few days to settle into McCarthy, which included the Blackburn Music Festival that just happened to coincide with our arrival.  No great planning, that.  Again, serendipity.  But such a wonderful experience, and such excellent music.  A good time was had by all!

Then there was our plan to do some back country base camping before the writer's workshop.  Linking up with workshop director, Nancy Cook, and her year and a half toddler, Izi, we flew by bush plane from McCarthy up the Kennicott valley to a small landing strip on the fosse (a level area between mountain and lateral moraine).  We had no real plans for our days there except to find a place to camp and then explore from there in whichever direction we chose.  Here, perhaps, a little better coordinated planning would have benefited us -- we encountered quite a few gear items we wished we had remembered to pack.  Even so, making do without them was fun and we were all reasonably well prepared for what we encountered. 

And then the workshop.  A week of writing and reading and excellent conversations with Scott Russell Sanders, the featured guest artist running the event.  The workshop combines outdoor activities with writing circles and public readings.  It is an exhausting schedule, all the more so for following so closely a back country camping experience.  All the more so because lodging, for me and several others, was nothing more than a tent and sleeping on the ground in what we affectionately termed, "Tent City."  But a deeply enjoyable exhausting schedule, despite the regular and persistent rain.  A schedule, perhaps, more reminiscent of my mother's ambitious travel itineraries.  Indeed, one of the reasons I chose to head out to McCarthy before the workshop was that my previous experience had taught me that the workshop doesn't allow much time to explore the area outside of what's on the schedule. 

And then, a few glacier hikes and beers at The Golden later, it was all over and I was on my way back to Anchorage for a few days before heading home to the start (whiz bang!) of the new semester.  Hard to believe that I had spent two weeks in one little off-the-grid town in the middle of nowhere.

I tell people I went to Alaska.  They ask if I went to Sitka or traveled by coastal ferry.  They ask if I saw Glacier Bay or killer whales.  Did I go to Denali?  Did I see former Governor Palin or go to Wasilla?  I tell them no, I went to McCarthy in the heart of the Wrangell Mountains.  Most have never heard of the place.  Those few who have wonder why I would spend so much time there.  McCarthy remains for now, thankfully, off most tourists' radar.  It is truly a magical place.  Or maybe the magic is in my process, my way of encountering it.  In the end, though, I had so many magical experiences that could not have been planned:

  • Being guided to an artesian spring by a wood elf.
  • Discovering a singer/song writer I think may be on the cusp of broader discovery in the lower 48 (Justin Farren)
  • Getting brain freeze from drinking water straight off a glacier.
  • Hot toddies on a glacier in the rain.
  • Reading creative writing in a tent while drinking bag wine.
  • Getting poked in the eye by a toddler and having the experience bring us closer.  (I love you, Izi!)
  • Waking early to a sunrise that caused cloud draped mountains and glaciers to glow.
  • Sweet encounters with a ptarmigan, hoary marmot, and ground squirrel.
  • A sauna in a bush cabin -- best sweat ever!  Thanks, Nancy!
  • Learning about the Deborah Number while standing on the dirty foot of a glacier.
  • Discovering a strong queer presence in an isolated community.
  • Weathering monsoon rains dryly in a new tent.
  • Falling in love with open mic night at The Golden and how it serves to bring community together.
  • Hearing stories from adventure guides about how the interpersonal communication with clients is far more challenging than much of the technical aspects of mountaineering.
  • Eating a variety of fresh berries straight off the plants.  High bush and low bush cranberries.  Wild currant.  High bush and low bush blueberry.
  • Being held over a moran on a glacier and recalling the local stand-up comic's routine, by turns hilarious and horrifying, about what would happen if I fell in.
  • Learning about the geology of the region by examining a picnic table full of local rocks. 
  • A personal tour of a subsistence homestead by a man who has lived year-round in the Wrangells for 23 years.
  • Seeing a lynx bounding away through the alders. 

All the brochures and travel guides in the world could not have prepared me for these encounters. Thanks, ma, for the travel bug, but you know I gotta do it my way.

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