The sun was starting to slip behind the lush temperate rain forest. The salmon were active, swishing through the creek, spawning, participating in their life cycle. We were quiet, cameras and iPhones at the ready to capture this prototypical Alaskan scene.
Our guide for the hike at Tonsina Creek was Cheryl. She started to lead us further into the forest, on a trail along the creek. “There’s a campsite up here somewhere,” she said. “But I’ve never found it.”
And we froze.
One of the members of our group pulled up a weather application on her phone. It was 10:04. Sunset was at 10:27. And we still had to climb back up the mountain and to the lodge that served as our home base for this trip.
“Cheryl!” we shouted after her.
How do we tell her we’re done? How do we say that as magnificent as this landscape and experience is, we’re not quite prepared to hike out of the forest in darkness? How do we gently say …
“Cheryl! We’re chicken shit!”
“And we don’t want to be bear shit!”
Well. That certainly gets the point across.
My trip to Alaska with 11 other women as part of a Green Edventures adventure involved the prerequisite bear and moose talk as we spent most of our time out in the wilderness, exploring the Kenai Fjords by kayak, hiking and crampons. The hike to Tosnina Creek came after dinner on our least active day in Alaska. We dubbed it Dramamine Day as many of us discovered that the “less drowsy” formal most definitely does not mean “non-drowsy.” In about eight hours and 90 miles on a boat around the Fjords we awed at the up-close-and-personal look at Holgate Glacier. (Turn around and there’s Surprise Glacier because, well, turn around and “Surprise!” another glacier.) We were giddy at the repeated sightings of humpback whales playing all throughout the water, spotting their spouting and gaping in awe at the occasional and spectacular breach. But to get to the glaciers and to the whales took a lot of boat riding. And so some of us (see: me in particular) gave into napping in between the exciting parts.
Therefore, after dinner I was eager to stretch my legs on the hike from our lodge on Lowell Point to Tonsina Creek. It was billed as relatively flat, though I’m sure many of us would disagree with that assessment. Still, it was a beautiful, soft trail. Easy to follow. Lovely to look at it. Our pace, however, was brisk and any meditative aspect quickly vanished with the shout and clap of “Hey Bear!”
I don’t know how it started, but I joking began singing. You sing to ward off bears, right? And quickly it became Cabaret Night on the Trail. Others joined in with the singing. Somehow, I became the loudest. I would have backed off, only others encouraged me. And so my enthusiastic, but very off-key, musical entertainment became the soundtrack of the hike.
I knew someday my knowledge of 1980s pop rock and commercial jingles would come in handy. But I had no idea that a rousing rendition of “Like A Virgin” to scare away bears in the Alaskan woods would be my claim to fame. I also know all the words to the jingle for the game “Twister” and can sing all the verses to the them from “The Facts of Life.”
More appropriately, later in the hike, I started to softly sing “This Land is Your Land.” It got stuck in my head the night before when we went into Seward to watch a performance from Alaskan legend Hobo Jim and he offered his own arrangement of the Woody Guthrie song. The song has forgotten verses, a forgotten history and a meaning is open for interpretation. What could be more appropriate for my time on mountains in Alaska?
People had asked me “why Alaska” when I told them where I was going on vacation. Why not? I responded. It wasn’t just a cute answer. It was the only answer I had. Everything about the trip involved things I enjoyed — hiking, kayaking, adventure, meeting new people. I felt a bit guilty for going with no real purpose or grand mission. I was going because it sounded cool. And that sounded lame.
But that’s open for interpretation.
Once in Alaska, I was awed by the beauty. Taken by the majesty. Enchanted by the gray. I was lightened and inspired by the other women who had been drawn to Alaska. I found it easier than expected to withdraw from the constant connection of technology. I found it easier to be in the moment and let go of past hurts and future anxieties. Yep, taking you through a Justin Timberlake song on the trail didn’t create a relaxing sense of peace. But it was me, stepping into my authentic and genuine self, which sometimes is loud and obnoxious and other times introverted and contemplative. In Alaska, I found a place where my inherent contradiction felt at home.
Once back home, I took my parents through my photos, clicking through them on Facebook page and describing them as best I could. “You know, you did something your grandmother always wanted to do,” he said. “She always wanted to go to Alaska.”
I never knew that. Then again, I never got to know my paternal grandparents. My grandfather died before I was born and my grandmother when I was 2. My memories are of my maternal grandparents and I can see clearly the traits I inherited from them. I most certainly did not get my love of nature, adventure or travel from my mother’s side of the family. I knew some of that came from my father. But when I heard about my grandmother’s longing to see Alaska, well, it felt like I had completed something for her, without even knowing about it.
That was a forgotten verse in my life story. It was a forgotten history from which my life story was shaped.
That is why I chose Alaska. Sometimes the reasons become clearer after you follow your heart’s desire.