Sunday, July 13, 2008

castles are burning in my heart

So that last post kind of sucked; I woke up that morning feeling like I had a cold and I was upset about it but I felt like I had to post to let people know where I was and I should have just left it alone. But erica cured me with a combination of little green chinese pills, lots of echinacea tea, and a clove of garlic chopped up and swallowed raw. Anyway, so I'm starting over.
The last time I was in Alaska, I was exhausted and pissy and generally not in a good place to really appreciate where I was. God, I'm glad I could come back. I may be heartsick and confused, but I feel so much more human and alive after this trip than I have in a while. Partially, it was what I did while I was there: hiking with friends, hanging out, meeting new people, and sleeping in after staying up late talking about everything possible. And partially it was where I was, in a place as different from Chicago as anything I could imagine, with mountains everywhere I looked and snowshoe hares in the front yard and less peoplein my immediate vicinity than maybe my apartment building has at any given time. I don't know how to explain, but it made so clear to me that there were other ways to be alive than what I've been inside, and that made me feel so hopeful about the future. (You can ask erica, but I was seriously incredibly cheesy pretty much the entire time I was there. I tried not to be, but I just kind of was anyway. Ah well.) I think I'm going to leave it at that and post comments about some of the pictures I came back with and see if any small stories come out of that. Sorry if it got a bit long, but honestly nobody's forcing you to read it. I hope you will, though.

Above is partway up Sugarloaf, the mountain we hiked up on the first full day I was in Denali. The majority of the hiking in this area is done without the benefit of trails, and it makes it into a completely different type of hike than I'm used to. I had a hard time getting the hang of things, especially going up loose shale slopes. I had a moment where I freaked out on the way up because I just couldn't imagine how I was ever going to get down this steep, crumbly slope without falling, but with some pointers from erica and Cassalyn (mainly just don't lean forward into slopes because your feet are more prone to go out from under you) I managed to make it up. And when I did, the whole world just kind of opened up, and we were completely surrounded by mountains and clear air on every side. It was awesome.

Cassalyn! I wish I had a copy of the one soon after this where she had cake all over her face.

Erica, partway up.

A marmot! Erica almost walked into this one, and we saw four more in close succession after this one finally ran away, which is apparently unusual. They're very slinky animals, like silky jelly on four legs.

Erica standing near the edge at the top of where we climbed to. See all the mountains? It looked like that all around us.

There are lots of pictures of erica lying down on top of mountains, and this is my contribution. Tundra is pretty nice and springy, and holds warmth pretty well.

If you look closely at that white patch in the middle, that's as close as I got to seeing Denali the mountain this time. It's actually pretty amazing that it was out at all; only a quarter to a third of visitors see the mountain at all due to the weather systems it tends to inspire around itself, but I saw it the last time I was here too. We actually didn't go all that far into the park proper this time, which was totally fine, but it was nice to catch a glimpse.

The second major hike we went on was at Tattler Creek and then partway up Sable Mountain, to a kind of saddle between peaks. This one is actually inside the park. We went straight up a drainage (I'm pretty sure that's the point this picture is from, looking up), realized we were too far over, walked a little ways along the ridgeline, then backtracked down and then up another drainage to the saddle. I was extremely happy because (even though I had a cough from my weird almost-cold) I felt like I really had already gotten better at the straight-up-the-side technique of hiking. It made me feel strong and good about myself, like I could trust my legs and feet a little bit more, although I definitely tried to keep in mind that I shouldn't take it for granted. Still, a good alive feeling.

And from the top.

And again. We saw Dall sheep from a distance here, ewes and lambs (a nursery herd, I think it's called; the rams run in separate herds) that we could hear bleating and knocking rocks down the sides of the mountain. The lambs are quite cute and playful. We also saw a golden eagle, which I stopped and watched circling around for a few minutes. It was one of those moments of clarity for me, where I just wished so much that more people could see something that simple and powerful. Maybe wilderness preservation would be easier then.

I went on several elderhostel hikes (grandparents and grandchildren or just grandchildren) with erica while I was here. Basically, as far as I understand, these kids and their grandparents come out and stay at the park for a few days, go on educational walks and hikes, and hopefully come out a little more knowledgeable and excited about what they've seen. The last full day I was there, Erica and I got up early to lead seventeen kids (along with one other instructor) on a hike that passes by several lakes, including one with a beaver dam. The beavers were too savvy to come out when seventeen kids were around, but I still had pretty good conversations with several kids and came away reassured that something good was happening. Anyway, this picture is a bunch of the kids sitting under the root system of a fallen tree (white spruce?). Because of permafrost and the relatively shallow water table in this part of the world, the trees and other plants tend to have wide shallow root systems instead of deep taproots, so when they fall they have these huge plate-like root systems that just life out of the ground. The kids loved it.

I spent a lot of time querying erica on the flowers that we saw on hikes. She knows a huge amount about this now (she impressed me and cassalyn by naming most of the 40 different flowers we saw on our Sugarloaf hike accurately), including families and medicinal uses in some cases. Anyway, we spent so much time talking about it that I took a bunch of flower pictures. This one above is forget-me-not, the state flower of Alaska. I don't know if it grows at lower elevations (or if a subspecies does), but we definitely only saw it on higher slopes. The tiny flowers are almost neon blue, they are amazingly beautiful/cute. This is from Sable.

Shit shit shit... Anemone? I can't remember and it's been like two days. erica? Also on Sable. As an interesting side point, many flowers here have common names like those I see at work (goldenrod, veronica, anemone, etc.) but look quite different. I guess that's kind of the issue with common names, but it doesn't seem too terrible as long as the scientific name is also available.

Purple cress, from Sable. We initially thought this was a color variant of the forget-me-not, but it's a totally different flower.

Also purple cress (I think?), and the unfortunately blurry flower in the foreground is Arnica. Arnica can be used as a salve to relieve muscle pain. From Sable.

Tundra rose, which was one of my favorites just for being everywhere and cute and yellow. I mean, I like daisies. I don't necessarily favor the rare flowers.

Bluebells, from the kids' hike at triple lakes. I'm not sure if there's a more specific common name. I thought it was interesting that there were a lot of blue flowers here (a fairly uncommon flower color, generally speaking) but no red that I saw. We speculated that this was because the pollinators are different here, but I don't know.

This is from the plane window as I was flying out of Anchorage. It doesn't show up as well as I'd hoped, but I could see mountain peaks poking through the cloud cover, lit by a nice perpetual sunset.

There are lots of things that made me inexplicably happy, like eating on top of mountains or recognizing a flower I'd never seen a week before. But like all good trips, it had to come to an end. It took me 22 hours to get home to my extremely needy cat and start putting my new life together again. I'm already hoping I can go back next summer, and I'm thinking more and more about moving back west in the next few years. I need to be in a place where there are mountains, where I can see the end of the city and go there when I want to. I think it's becoming necessary.


erica said...

it was great having you here. miss you! and i love love love that you just said "back west." way to throw geographical imperialism on its head :)
good luck with the cat.

pulley-whipped said...

welcome back. we have no mooses...but we do have caribou coffee, which is, you know, kind of the same thing.

ammie said...

Not anemone, although they look similar. damn mountain avens, I can never remember the name...

Lauren said...

those pictures are beautiful!!! i wish i could have been there with the three of you too!!! Maybe next summer . . . . .

cassalyn said...

yay! fab! thanks! i owe you a lot of pics. i'll try!

Rosiecat said...

I love the title of this post! Ammie, you are such a poet.

I miss mountains too, and I'm not even from back west. But Chicago's sunsets this year have blown my mind, and I seem to be spending a lot of time by the lake. Urban beauty, no?