Ah the joys of spending the summer in a place where you can hike to a mountain peak and swing by an ice cave on your way back. It was a great end to a hike up to Bonanza Mine, my favorite hiking trail, and definitely one of the tops for this area.
The ice caves here, as elsewhere, glisten a beaming, bright blue. I set my black backpack down and watch as they shimmer and they shine, almost oceanic, and I find that I just sit there and stare at them, just like I can at the open ocean. And I can sit and ponder because there are no tourists here. I can sit and relax, listening to the rush of water from Jumbo Creek.
And so I sit. As I contemplate the ice caves I begin deliberating about whether or not to leave. Mostly this involves calculating how much time it takes to get back to the shuttle, which leaves every half hour, taking me from Kennicott to McCarthy. My calculations, however, are interrupted by the sound of falling rock. I look up to see that my black backpack has been pelted by stones. I cover my head. The stones have rolled off of the glacier. I step back and make the decision in an instant, considering it an omen that it’s time to move on from my reflective little spot in front of the blue ice caves. I’d like moments like these to last forever, but on I walk.
The California Honeydrops were rocking it out at the Golden Saloon in McCarthy on Wednesday night, and it was a blast.
For me it was a little strange to hear a Bay Area band in McCarthy. I haunt the Bay Area, during the cold winter months, but even so I’m usually still something like three hours away from the buzz of the San Fran scene or the East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley) action, and without a car, well, I rarely get out to these cultural Meccas. Lucky for me, The Honeydrops came to me, this time around, all the way up to the end of the road to our little bush community in the middle of wilds of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Also on this weekend’s hike, as I stood at the top, socked in, surrounded by the white foggy clouds, visibility severely limited, I can’t help but notice that there’s also a different sort of quiet than I usually experience. Typically when I stand at the top of Bonanza or any other epic peak, there is a sort of silence of the vastness, and in the vastness, something that adds to the mountain top experience of standing in solitude above the world, somewhat god-like. There often isn’t much to hear, just maybe the wind brushing along rock, but it makes for an epic sort of hush.
On this foggy day, though, I can’t see the world below, there is no silence of vastness. It’s a silence of blankness. I’m surrounded by white, and it feels like a suspended moment from childhood, like a blanket fort, like I’m surrounded by white sheets, and it’s late, and everyone else is sleeping. It’s some sort of tantalizing no place, it’s a place to whisper secrets, perhaps secrets that we never knew existed, and perhaps these become humble epiphanies, but they remain secrets still, secrets that we are free to feel because it seems like they will forever remain within the empty blankness, held somehow, in the no place.
This was my view, hiking up Bonanza last Saturday. It looks a little like my thumb was covering half of the lens on my smartphone cam, but no, that’s the fog line, and that’s often what it’s like when you hike the last stretch of Bonanza. There’s a big altitude gain in a short period of time, and at the top you can get socked in. Sometimes it’s surreal because in more than one instance when I finally get to the peak, the fog lifts and I suddenly have a spectacular view.
Today, no such sense of divine intervention, which is okay, because fog gives things a different look, and with it a different form of appreciation. Like the ghostly way in which the ruins of the Bonanza Mine appear.
The fog also brings certain things into sharp relief that you’d otherwise not focus on. Instead of sensory overload, with all the grand and epic views, you see funky rock formations that you’d typically look past.
Paradoxically, our limitations can be surprisingly expansive. They set our attention on the intrigue of things too easily overlooked.
I usually don’t see bears whilst on my daily river walk — it’s pretty rare — however, having just found myself in the throes of a close encounter with a bear whilst embarking on my daily constitutional, and having had another close encounter with a bear only the very night before, I thought I’d take a few moments to share these 3 tride-and-true techniques that I myself recently employed (more or less) to safely navigate an encounter with an Alaskan black bear in the middle of the vast wilderness of the Wrangell St-Elias National Park.
For my most recent weekly hike, I went on my most usual route, which is up to the Bonanza Mine, but as I approached, I could see two figures silhouetted at the top. I kept hiking, but it was clear that they were making themselves comfortable, nesting up in the clouds. Not wanting to share the spot with anyone else — I’m fiercely protective of my personal space when out on a solo hike — I decided to try another ridge line, and, lucky me, it affords me some new views.
A few years back, when I spent a few off-and-on years on Kodiak Island, and when my love for craft beer was still young, I remember a particularly satisfying brew from the Kodiak Brewing Company, called Liquid Sunshine — and truly, the sun-god as my witness, it was the closest thing I can imagine to tasting sunshine, at least in the form of a beer. A nice sweet piece of citrus fruit has the effect, for me, of tasting the sunshine, particularly a good, golden mango, where there’s a moment when there’s this sweet sting on the tongue, like a slap from the sun.
(But, well, I suppose that it’s possible that I’m just spacing the story here, over-romancing the past, and it’s possible that I drank Liquid Sunshine not at the Kodiak Island Brewery but at some other Alaskan town, like in Haines, at the Brewery there, because after two off-and-on years on Kodiak Island, I spent two off-and-on years in southeast Alaska. But, okay, a quick Google search reveals that it was Kodiak Island Brewery, because they still have the beer, Liquid Sunshine, described on the site as Pale, hoppy “Steam” or “California Common” style beer. 5% abv. This is interesting to me just now, because I remember the alcohol content as being higher, the effect as being far more potent, but then again I’ve always been a light-weight when it comes to handling my liquor, the fact of which, though, I’m quite happy about, since it has saved me much money over the years.)
I’m back in Alaska for the summer, an unexpected turn of life that now affords me some epic days of hiking. My favorite route takes me up to the old Bonanza Mine, one of the copper mines in Kennicott, Alaska, back in the days when robber barons like J. P. Morgan financed what I believe was the most profitable copper mine in human history.
Here are the ruins (of which a person can still scramble around in):
To get along with each other, we must respect one another. There is not shortcut. In this era of “nationalist” enthusiasm, in this Trump-world where people are viewed with suspicion because they are of a different religion or nationality, of a different gender or race — it’s important to remember that surrounding yourself with people who look and think and act just like you is no guarantee that you will be more safe, more secure, or free from conflict. Peace is not won through purging ourselves of those who are different, it comes through a maxim that I saw on display most notably in my travels through Alaska: live and let live. It’s simple. It’s basic. It’s respect.
I was reminded of this reading a bit of wisdom from Zadie Smith:
Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail
Here’s an extended quote from the New York Review (Dec 22):
“I don’t think I ever was quite naive enough to believe, even at twenty-one, that racially homogeneous societies were necessarily happier or more peaceful than ours simply by virtue of their homogeneity. After all, even a kid half my age knew what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans. My best friend during my youth—now my husband—is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes, and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government, and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.” (emphasis added)
Coldest morning of our camping trip in the Kenai. The weather has been good to us, despite how late it is in the season. By Alaskan standards, snow can fly at any time in October, so we were pushing it to try to squeeze in one more week, but the weather has been fantastic. I’ve have been in McCarthy since March — not even so much as a trip to Glennallen (the closest town, four hours away) in the last seven months — so it’s been enriching to me to get out and explore! This pic is from a campsite in the Kenai Wildlife Preserve, Kelly Lake, where we were the only campers. Fog in the early morning makes the lake look smokey and mysterious.
Taking a few days to tour the Kenai Peninsula. The weather has been amazing, especially here in Homer, where the bright sunny beaches make me feel like I’m already back in California. This is the view from our campsite in Homer (out the back of our rented mini-van), where we can see the Pacific Ocean spread out before us in a campground we have all to ourselves.
A few vegetarian friends drop by in the morning to enjoy the all-you-can-eat salad bar in the backyard. It’s nice to watch them from the comfort of the cabin, but it’s also a good deal safer. Most people don’t realize that moose can be just as dangerous as bears. They are friends, but it’s best to give them a little personal space.
This is the light at midnight at the summit of McCarthy Peak on Fireweed Mountain. No flash or camera adjustments necessary, there’s just plenty of light yet for pictures and enough visibility to allow us to do a night trek. We started hiking at 7 PM, all to avoid the heat of the day because it’s been bloody hot here in Alaska this summer, again. After enjoying the summit for a while, we hiked along that ridge line that you can see in the background and eventually laid out for a few hours of rest (probably can’t honestly call it “sleep”). Then at about 3 AM we all woke at about the same time — roused by either the chilly ground beneath or the mosquitoes buzzing about — to see the sun light pushing itself above the distant mountain, glowing yellow and orange behind the peaks in the east. Lot’s of bush-wacking at the beginning and end of the journey, lots of tumbles and falls, but we stumbled out from the thick brush at about 6 AM, tired, with a few new scrapes and scratches to show for it, and most importantly with another summit under our belt.
My new bushy, old-school Communist beard has some practical advantages, one of which is extra facial coverage to protect from mosquitoes. On this particular trek — up Fireweed Mountain — they were on us the entire hike, even at 6,000+ feet, at the summit.
As inspiration for my own novel, I’m looking to Melville, specifically to his infamous Captain Ahab, “a grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Ahab is obsessive to the point of insanity, seeking to extract vengeance from the epic white whale. It’s Ahab’s intensity and energy that pushes the narrative forward, farther into the deep oceans of the high seas. In the story, Ahab is Shakespearean in scope, making for a rich metaphorical discussion, but from a writer’s perspective, there’s something about Ahab that is also a little more difficult to put a finger on. He doesn’t quite fit the bill as a traditional antagonist. He’s ungodly, yes, but ultimately, Captain Ahab’s fight is with himself. Read more