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Archive for the ‘Alaska’ Category

hammock

Saturday 13 May 2017, end of weeks 0a / 0b in Homer: too late… it’s really Sunday

Can someone please explain what’s wrong with me? At the beginning of the month I left the above Mexican Alaskan set-up, my neighboring puppies, and the chance for a real summer of hammock time, biking, and friends for another season of fieldwork in the Aleutians.

I believe there comes a time in every wildlife field technician’s career when he or she can no longer ignore the the little voice in the back of his or her head that’s been whispering, “Summer. You want an actual summer,” year after year.

That time has come for me, to the point where I would have been quite content if the government had shut itself down for the summer, thereby denying me the season of fieldwork. I’ve only ever had 1 true Alaskan summer, and that was when I worked on the Riverboat and at Trailbreaker Kennel in 2012.

tiglax in seward

Being paid for a day of roadtripping to Seward and driving the empty van back to Homer was great!

As I was driving back from meeting the Tiglax in Seward on Monday, I realized that I just want to bike, bake, read, write, and drive this summer. Those sound like the makings of a great summer – well, those plus eating Hot Licks ice cream, participating in the Midnight Sun Run, floating the Chena, backpacking, checking out the Chitina River (where everyone goes for fishing adventures), and just enjoying summer weather.

This comes from the realization that spending time in a place that means something to me (Fairbanks) lends itself to wanting to belong. Over the years I’ve become the person of whom it can be said, “Steph leaves… that’s what she does.” As much as I’ve loved my travels, this saddens me, as I’m learning people matter as much as adventure. Apart from when I have a puppy or my bike with me, I’m starting to acknowledge that my wandering ways are growing lonely.

Being in couplesville at the bunkhouse in Homer has emphasized how nice it would be to have someone else with whom to cook, plan, and wrap up loose ends before leaving for the summer. I was lovingly referred to as the “9th wheel” and “redheaded stepchild” of this year’s 3 Aleutian crews, which are composed of 3 different couples + me.

But enough of that for now. Since those knuckleheads in D.C. managed to agree on a budget, in the morning I’ll board the Tiglax for my westward cruise back home to Buldir with Kevin and McKenzie. We’re extremely curious to see what this year’s weather brings and how the birds’ breeding season plays out. I’m looking forward to sleeping to the sounds of waves and storm petrels.


The day before I left Fairbanks the temperature was around 60F, and I was itching for a final bike ride. I’d wanted to head down Chena Hot Springs Road (CHSR) but didn’t necessarily want the miles through town to get there, so I settled on biking Chena Ridge (left loop on map).

Unfortunately those 20 miles weren’t enough, so after my mid-ride muffin – because my hopeful mid-ride mojito venue wasn’t open yet – I decided to tack on Farmers Loop (right loop). Well, I got to the far end of Farmers Loop and realized I was just a little over a mile from CHSR, and before I knew it, Trekker had turned that direction and I had no say in the matter.

When I turned on CHSR, I had my usual goofy biking grin on my face and was loving life. I still needed to pack and take some belongings to storage, but biking was more important. By the time I forced myself to turn around, I’d learned that the big hills of the first 9 miles aren’t as steep as they look from a car. I’d also learned I should know better than to think bringing snacks wouldn’t be necessary. I know my riding habits.

By the end of the ride I was in no hurry to think about leaving Fairbanks, and I was thrilled to see I’d managed to squeak in a 60+ miler on my last afternoon. I could have gone another 20+ miles without a problem. Next time. That’s the dream!

First, it’s time for the dream of another long boat ride and season surrounded by seabirds.

Buldir

 

 

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Discovering amazing places in the world is a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because it shows travelers the beauty and diversity of the world, a curse because it leads to this draw away from the comforts of the settled life and a struggle to choose where to call home.

When I was at The Pub a few weeks ago, I chose to wear my New Zealand All Blacks shirt from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which NZ hosted and won while I was working and traveling there. The man seated next to me asked me the reason for the shirt, and I proceeded to happily talk to a complete stranger about my country for a chunk of the evening.

Over the course of our conversation, this father of a first year college student and a free spirited teenage daughter heard tales of my travels in NZ, China, and Mexico. Some of my adventures worried him as he thought of his own daughter, but mostly he seemed entertained by my tales. Toward the end of the conversation he asked, “Since you love New Zealand so much, what’s keeping you from going back?”

After my usual bs mumbling about visas, needing a job, and the cost of living, I stopped and reflected on how I’ve compiled excuses for not making a move to my favorite country happen. A few years ago I read a blog post about dreams and whether we pursue them or not. Unfortunately I can’t recall the exact line or find the post, but it said something like:

When our dreams seem too difficult to realize, we convince ourselves we never really wanted them that badly, and then we force ourselves to not want them any more. In making up excuses and moving around our dreams, we abandon them and never know what could have been.

The Importance of Big Dreams – similar yet different post by a great blogger

As someone who still gets more fired up to talk about New Zealand than anything else, that idea saddens me. I haven’t let the dream die, but I’ve realized that something else has gotten in the way. To explain, we have to return to the South Pacific.

Wanaka, a cute town in the Central Otago region of the South Island, wanted me to slow down and stay awhile during my travels. I arrived with only 5 days left in my ~4.5 weeks of wandering everywhere I could squeeze in down south, and I was greatly saddened that I had to catch a flight so soon. Though it’s a town situated on a beautiful lake and just down the road from ski areas and the Southern Alps, Wanaka seemed rather unassuming and quiet compared to the nearby tourist-saturated Queenstown. I quickly decided that its character and 4 season climate made it my preferred area to live.

While walking down the main street, I noticed The Picture Lounge – NZ Photographers Gallery, home of what I discovered to be a gorgeous collection of landscape and adventure photography. Naturally, I went inside to check out the beautiful images. As I took in the pictures hanging on the walls and flipped through the many albums, the unexpected happened. I began to cry.

I cried because New Zealand is too unfairly beautiful. I cried because I’d fallen in love. I cried because I had just about 2 weeks left to spend there.

As I struggled to contain myself, an employee walked over to chat with me. When I looked up from the album and he saw I was in tears, his expression changed to concern. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” I smiled through my tears as I worked on wiping them away. “Sorry, just give me a minute.”

Once I’d closed the albums, I was able to walk up to him and explain I had no interest in leaving his amazing country. He was relieved to know that was the only reason for a teary visitor, and of course he appreciated my mentality. Kiwis know how fortunate they are to live in a gorgeous country and be so distant from the rest of the world; one simple t-shirt design reads “Living in a better place… New Zealand.” I bought one.

Despite not wanting to return to America, I left New Zealand on schedule and have spent the last 5 years frequently daydreaming of my hobbit home and when I will return. Alaska – specifically Fairbanks – has been my home base ever since, but it hasn’t necessarily felt like home.

Being a homeless couchsurfer who typically floats into town for just a week or so between jobs hasn’t allowed me to establish my post-college life. Yes, I’ve found time for backpacking, dogsitting, biking, The Pub, and visits with friends. Until recently my stints in town have been too brief to really feel like I’m part of the community, though.

Now I’m back in Homer – home of the headquarters of Alaska Maritime NWR – and just a week away from leaving civilization for another summer on Buldir. After visiting Saturday’s indoor Farmers Market, I decided to step inside businesses I’ve ignored on my last 2 seasons’ worth of stays in Homer.

Enter Ptarmigan Arts, a co-op art gallery full of Alaskan photography, paintings, drawings, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, and woodworking. While browsing through the gallery, a feeling hit me as I realized…

Alaska. Alaska is why I haven’t focused my life on returning to New Zealand. Although I shed no tears, my visibility grew fuzzy, and I had to hold myself back from light crying as I gazed at the beauty – and more so the character – of Alaska captured by cameras and carved in wood.

I love Alaska’s mountains, glaciers, tundra, trees, flowers, and hot springs; its boats, lakes, rivers, islands, and ocean; its moose, bears, wolves, otters, and other furry animals; and its birds. I love its small towns, breweries, dry cabins, outhouses, plaid and Carhartts, hiking boots and XtraTufs, potlucks, and puppies. I love its funky daylight cycle and aurora borealis. Perhaps most importantly, I love its people who have welcomed me to stay for almost 10 years.

I love New Zealand. I don’t like being American, but I do love Alaska. Even though I don’t really have a home, friends always welcome me back.

So what to do? Beats me.

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bike sketch

http:/www.taylormadebikes.co.uk/faqs.html

The bicycle means different things to different people. For kids, it’s a stepping stone to a new form of play. For bike commuters, it’s a source of transportation. For professional cyclists, it’s a hobby and money maker. For the average American, I’m guessing it’s a form of exercise.

Then there’s someone like me who smiles at the memory of a good bike ride while dreaming of the next. I can wonder why on earth I’m crawling my way up a hill and then remember as I feel wind-induced tears of joy as I fly down the other side. I can yell at the headwind while wondering why I decided it was time for a ride and then breathe easily as I smile at my speed and ride a good tailwind home.

Unfortunately, scooping dog poop and carrying buckets of dog food and water has kicked up my carpal tunnel syndrome, which has led to wearing my wrist brace day and night. Currently when I bike, my hands do go numb, so today I looked up how cyclists deal with carpal tunnel. Just reading someone’s comment of “I do not wish to give up cycling because of it” put me on the verge of tears.

Even when I’m not certain, my bike Trekker just seems to know what I need and where to take me. For me, the bike provides mobility, freedom, thinking time, self-torture, exercise, and happiness – sometimes all in one ride.

When I climb on my bike these days, it’s often just to get around town; my bike is my car. Yet because biking is in my genes, I often find myself shouting, “Yay biking! I love biking!!!” (Seriously, I should have started the sticker company that makes these.)water bottle

Despite the wind, on Tuesday I needed to go for a real ride – not just running errands. My one errand included dropping off the rest of the brownies and blondies I’d baked the day before; they needed to get out of my cabin – hence the bike ride.

As I left campus and started up into the wind on Farmers Loop, I was in the middle of a pretty intense thinking session. Staying in town for this long has shown me that I am indeed a human who wants social contact. As happy as I am with opening my door to 60 puppies with wagging tails in the morning, I’ve realized I don’t want to spend my evenings alone in the cabin.

This led me to thinking about life and what I want out of it, and that’s less than a clear road to me… as in it’s the trail-less wilderness of Denali. After roaming around in my mind for awhile, I needed to get out. Instead of only dwelling on my thoughts, I started singing some of the sad songs that I find beautiful; instead of slowing down for puddles, I started riding full tilt through them, delighting in the rooster tail of water spraying my face, coat, and shoes. Before I knew it, I was having a blast racing my way downhill, riding a tailwind into the beginning of sunset. My biker’s high had been a little slow to arrive but had finally kicked in.

The only downside was that my feet had grown cold from the wet and wind, which made me decide to briefly stop in Barnes and Noble. Really it was part of Trekker’s plan all along, I think, as inside I found the remains of a free food event. I inquired as to what had happened and learned that the Alaska Writers Guild had just held their monthly meeting.

“Are you a writer? If you’ve written a sentence, you’re welcome to come talk about writing and get input,” said a middle-aged male member.

Hmmm. Am I a writer? That’s something I ponder now and then. Was this serendipitous meeting meant to be a kick in the pants for the future?

After chatting for a bit, I sat by the fire to warm my feet and jump on better internet to check for sub jobs. Since poor Fairbanks is desperate for substitute teachers, subbing is my new time filler and money maker. Being in charge of kids who just want to horse around while teachers are gone isn’t my ideal job, but it’s something that allows for a very flexible schedule and challenges me to work around people.

Since I’m so inexperienced and rather out of my element, I haven’t necessarily been excited about most potential jobs. However, this time was different, as there was a job in a computer class at a middle school. The appeal lay in the class note, which read, “Students are working on a world tour project where they need to do research and find 21 places around the world they would like to visit.” THAT I could try to keep kids focused on all day. Travel’s the greatest!

With the job impulsively in hand, I realized I needed to bike the rest of the way home and get to bed before a day of travel talk. Yes, I’d be the annoying sub with far too much enthusiasm for the topic, and it would be great.

On my way home I was all smiles as I enjoyed the tailwind and sunset. Trekker had done it again, given me just what I needed: a 26 mile ride, a brief visit with a running friend I bumped into (not described in this post), ideas for the future, and the chance for a Steph-geared subbing job. Yay! Biking!

 

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cookiesAs I sit on my brother Jeff’s couch, eating a few cookies from the batches of my Grandma’s snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies I just made, family comes to mind. You see, I’m a fantastic sister. I arrived at Jeff’s in California a week ago, and part of his condo tour included specifically letting me know where the cookie ingredients were “in case you want to do any baking.”

With empty cooling racks on various surfaces and crumbs beneath as reminders of what had been and could be, I took the hint and did some baking. My brother and I are very different people, but his baking cupboard showed me that we do share that interest.

Jan 89

Jeff and I also share a love of the outdoors, reading, and travel, but our interests and intelligence vary beyond that. He went to MIT to study computer science; I went to UAF to study my own interdisciplinary major of nature photojournalism. He plays ultimate frisbee, reads court cases, and even travels to Washington, D.C., to sit in on U.S. Supreme Court sessions for fun. I hug puppies, play in the kitchen, and run for fun. In other words, my brother is smart – as in naturally intelligent.

Jeff’s brains took the family to D.C. for his 3 years as a contestant in the National Spelling Bee. While he was busy working his way to tying for 5th in the nation, I was nervously pacing upstairs in our hotel room.

Whether he knows it or not, I truly don’t know what I’d be like as a person if it weren’t for him. He was one of those kids who got straight A’s in school without needing to put much effort in, so I just grew up assuming there was no reason for me to not get A’s. The difference was that I had to earn them with late nights and a few actual tears of fear for Honors Chemistry. (Of course not too far in I learned that Chem is awesome and ended up taking AP Chem.) I graduated from high school with a high GPA and carried that work ethic and need for good grades throughout college.

Ultimately none of that really matters, though, since I can now sit in a brewpub and watch football on the screen above Jeff’s head while he’s watching on the screen over mine. (Although somehow he did get the hideous gene that makes him support the Wolverines. NO approval from me on that one.) Both of us got the quieter side from our Dad rather than the talkative gene, and while we don’t talk much or live close by, we get along reasonably well. He has his tech life, and I usually find puppies.

I’ve realized that I probably wouldn’t be exactly where I am without the influence of my human brother and canine sister. Because Jeff was part of a very active Boy Scout troop, I was always envious of his outdoor excursions. When it was time to decide on a destination for Jeff’s senior trip – a family trip following graduation from high school – we all had been interested in Alaska, but Jeff is the one who officially requested it.

Riverboat

RBDII on twin trip in 2004… unless I somehow was flying when I took this

Little did I know in 2004 that a month of Alaskan summer would lure me to college in the Last Frontier. Nor did I know that my ride on the Riverboat Discovery would be the very first of dozens; when wildlife fieldwork failed to pan out 8 years later, I became a deckhand for the 2012 season. When riding the Riverboat in 2004, I first laid eyes on Trailbreaker Kennel, home of Susan Butcher and David Monson. Being a dog lover, that was obviously the highlight of the boat trip for me.

When I heard that Trailbreaker could use a hand in 2012, I quickly offered my help and  became a dog handler for my 2 days off the Riverboat per week. Being on shore with the dogs was so great that I made a few appearances late in 2013.

Fast forward to March 2017 when I was fresh off of 2 months in the heat and sunshine of Mexico. I’d returned to Alaska earlier than necessary in the hopes of catching a few weeks of winter. At the GCI Open North American Championship Sled Dog Race I ran into Laura Allaway, an Iditarod musher and fellow dog handler at Trailbreaker.

She mentioned her winter tour business had been shorthanded; I mentioned I was back in town with a whole lot of not much to do until summer. It’s not hard to put the pieces together from there. She told me she couldn’t offer me much money for helping out but that there was an open cabin next to the dog yard.

I was SOLD.TBK home

dog teamMaybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but it looks as though it’s thanks to Jeff that I’m a dog handler for Golden Heart Dog Tours out of Trailbreaker Kennel. God probably had a slight hand in it, too. 😉

Being a sled dog handler in winter had been an idea since coming to Alaska, but needing income to pay off student loans had put it on hold. Now that I’m free, the dream is real! As of this past week, I finally had the chance to hop on a sled pulled by my own little team! From my childhood with Pixie to present times, puppies have always been the best.

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list

The top of the list is no more! Now what?

I don’t want to cloud over the significance of this event with words, so this will be short and sweet.

Today on March 20, 2017, I paid off my student loans for good! (!!!!!!!!)

It was no accident that I made the last lump payment today; on this date in 2007 we both put my sister Pixie – a shetland sheepdog – to sleep, and I was offered the chancellor’s tuition waiver that ultimately lured me to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

No, I’m not able to pay off my loans because I make the big bucks. It’s because I’ve been thrifty for years – even when traveling. (friends, Couchsurfing, Airbnb, hostels, floors, buses, and trains) It’s because Scott and Frank have let me crash on their couch in 3 different Fairbanks homes during my stints in town. It’s because my trusty Trekker has safely transported me over pavement, gravel, snow, and ice for almost 8 years – sparing me the expense of gas. It’s because I’ve been paid to play in amazing places with amazing people for months at a time and have no expenses.

I couldn’t be at this point today without the help of everyone in Fairbanks who’s ever given me lifts now and then or helped me move a load from storage to real housing. Nor could I be here without the guidance of my financial advisor, my dad, the engineer turned H&R tax guy who’s encouraged me to fund my retirement fund for years. Now he’s agreed it’s time to pay off my loans rather than refinance them, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

I’m finally free from wasting money on an expensive piece of paper every month. My UAF experience is nothing I would have traded, as I’m now eating Pub nachos and enjoying a pint of Hoodoo IPA. To say I’m beyond thrilled to be done paying money to a mysterious entity would be an understatement. It’s time to start the free life

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Beautiful weather? Check. Bike? Check. Helmet? Check. Wallet, phone, water, and TP? Check. Destination? Unknown!

I unlocked the bike from the rack, then re-attached the lock to the rack since I knew I wouldn’t be leaving the bike alone during the day. With a quick glance at my watch to check the time – 11:30 – I was on my way. On my way up the silly hill that doesn’t look steep at all, but somehow becomes a slow 24 minute climb to the overlook of Kachemak Bay. As I inched my way up the hill on my borrowed mountain bike, I wondered why I do these things to myself.

Simple. When I get on a bike after a long period away from cycling, I turn into a 5-year-old. A visceral happiness radiates throughout my body as my hands grip the handlebars and I swing my leg over the frame. As I begin pedaling, my face automatically breaks into a glowing smile that goes along with my words of “Bike!!! I love biking. Biking, biking, biking!”

It’s the most natural reaction in the world to me, and I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. The same thing happened the 2 nights in August when I claimed the tent at Spike Camp. Having not stayed in a tent since April, just unzipping the tent fly triggered the same soul-deep joy. “Tent!!!” was all I said as I climbed inside and stretched out on the sleeping bag.

Little things that draw out such basic, yet deep, happiness shouldn’t be ignored; they need to be embraced whenever possible, whether anyone else “gets it” or not. They’re what form a world of intriguing individuals.

Being on the go with no set route or destination – another of my favorite pastimes – was another reason for today’s ride. I’d headed north up the Sterling Highway, but I didn’t know where I was heading or where I’d turn around. To some people, that equates to a recipe for getting lost; to me, that’s a recipe for a fun adventure.

As I approached one curve I saw a sign indicating that a left turn would put me on the Old Sterling Highway. I bet the Old will hit the main road again at some point, and I’ve never been on the old highway before! Decision made.

Making that turn paid off, as I traded the 55mph speed limit and “traffic” for a winding road through woods and marsh that took my mind to the roads near Wilderness State Park in the northwest corner of Michigan’s mitten. It was perfect. Yellow and orange leaves covered the trees alongside the road. Colors in the marshes ranged from green to yellow, red, rust, and burgundy. Houses were few and far between.

Anchor River

Anchor River

Eventually a downhill led me to a bridge over the Anchor River, where I realized I was on the outskirts of Anchor River State Recreation Area. With beach access just 1.3 miles down a road to my left, I knew it was time to go admire the mountains. Along the way I passed a campground that mentioned North America’s Most Westerly Highway Point. Being a bit of a sucker for finding geographical extremes, I knew that the bike had carried me where I needed to go.

The beach offered me everything I was looking for and more: relaxation, a beautiful view, a gorgeous collie-english setter puppy, and friendly conversation with a group of real cyclists who showed up not long after me. The only thing I could have asked for would have been an ice cream stand. Homer bike

Once it was time to leave, I headed up to the town of Anchor Point to find snacks. Having participated in PALM and DALMAC, organized bike rides across and up Michigan, many times, I felt right at home stopping in the local grocery store for Gatorade, a banana, and a granola bar. As odd as it sounds, I epitomized myself; I was a happy ginger on a bike checking out a little town that most people blaze right on through.most westerly

The ride home on the (new) Sterling Highway was fairly uneventful but was a continuation of the picturesque journey. The final 2-3 miles were the icing on the cake: racing down the hill I’d crawled up at the start of my ride. Tucked as close to the handlebars as I could get, I coasted most of the way home in probably the 35 mph range.

“There’s the cyclist? How was your ride?” Emily asked as I walked down the bunkhouse hall.

High on biking endorphins from my 34 mile ride, I responded, “That was the best thing I’ve done in my life!” While I’d walked out the door that morning unsure of what I’d see on my ride, I returned very pleased. It was a good reminder that if I just keep pedaling through life, I’ll get to where I’m supposed to be going.

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sunrise

Last (and only?) sunrise at sea, north of Kodiak

The morning of September 5th dawned with an elusive scene in the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea: a beautiful sunrise. As the nautical miles slipped by, the Tiglax moved ever closer to returning our band of field biologists to Homer. The ship’s crew seemed anxious to return home to friends and family, and the rest of us had emotions ranging from apprehension to excitement to calm.

After picking up a small field crew on East Amatuli, there was nothing separating us from Homer except the waters of Kachemak Bay. Riding a rising tide, we finished our last supper of brisket and coleslaw shortly before rounding the Homer Spit.

loaded truckA small welcoming committee greeted us at the dock, where we unloaded dry bags of personal gear and boxes of extra food, diet samples, and data books from the ship. Once everything had been carted up to a waiting pickup, we were turned loose on solid ground. After unloading at the bunkhouse, there was just one more thing to do before bed.

We Buldirians, Aiktakians, and Chowieteers walked to the Otter Room next door for a beer. Drawing heads’ attention upon our entrance, I knew we were XtraTuf-wearing unknowns. The 7 of us put 2 tables together, ordered pints, and timidly looked around as we tried not to stare at other people or the multiple TV screens. We talked quietly – as we always do – about the season and personalities aboard the boat. Knowing glances made their way around the table, and I knew we were the 4 hobbits having a journey’s end pint at the Green Dragon. No one else in the bar knew where we’d just returned from, and most of us don’t quite know what’s next in store. We’re happy to be together, though.

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