Finding the horizon line: A misty day in Resurrection Bay

I’ve had an affinity for nature of the north ever since I was a child. It was in my blood somehow, a pulsating presence and connection with whales, seals, and wolves; I yearned for the cold. By age 6, I was carefully constructing “pop up” books of humpback whales, complete with facts and the most recent calls-to-action related to their conservation and protection that I had read at the local library. I must have been such a curious sight to many. A Cincinnati girl pretending to be a wolf running freely in her back yard, telling everyone how to conserve creatures of the Arctic seas, and waiting patiently, with intense eagerness, all year for the first snow fall. 

This connection I had with creatures of the cold was unexplainable. Creatures I had never seen and yet could somehow I could always remember with all of my senses touching the bumpy yet smooth skin of a giant humpback whale or running my fingers through the indescribably thick fur coat of an Arctic wolf. It was as if my soul already knew these things. And now, as I sit on the snow covered beach of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska, it’s like my inner child finally came home. It’s like the place I never saw but always remembered, the place I always knew with the deepest sense of my being. 

A quant, quiet town in the winter Seward is, with more closed signs than open ones. Seward’s straight streets and looming western-themed, saloon-style buildings are reminiscent of the gold rush days when towns like Seward first sprung up on nugget laden hopes of frontiers-men who had traveled from across the country (and world) to test their gold-finding luck and brave the wild and the cold. 

I’m sitting here watching the bay as an otter passes. Free and careless he twirls and turns while pawing at his soft brown face. His little eyes are beads of black placed strategically near his tiny nose making one think that even God after creating him had to step back and admire just how adorable the creature was. 

Resurrection Bay’s blue skies have started to fill with snow-bearing clouds and a low hanging mist. The snow highlighted mountains once splayed out majestically against a blue-bird sky and reflective in all their glory against the water, have now become more hazy and less visible. 

A storm is rolling in from the sea and snow begins to fall as a winter wind begins. It stings at my face and I snuggle a bit deeper in my snowy seat crunching the mixture of snow and smooth, black pebbles below me. I’m completely comfortable in my bundled layers. The littlest bit of my breath that escapes from my scarf covered face reveals a small appearing and disappearing cloud against the cold air. 

As the mist thickens the horizon line becomes impossible to distinguish, everything becomes shades of soft gray and muted sea-blue. But in its own way, the snow billowing, misty bay is just as beautiful. It’s softer, tranquil now. One is left to determine where she believes the sea ends and the mountains begin. Seagulls call out as the fly through the wind and increasingly snowy sky. A bald eagle swoops toward the water and disappears as he ascends into the thickening mist near the rocky and snowy cliffs of the encircling mountains. 

I imagine I can encapsulate the moment. Completely hold it in its vidid authenticity forever, somewhere safe within me. Somewhere in a still and spacious place of my soul. I imagine what I would be like if I became more like this moment, if I allow it to become a part of me. And as I close my eyes again, I’m the 6 year old girl running through the backyard howling and free as the wolf, I am the whale swimming and leaping with salty crashes as I reach for the sky then slap down against the sea. 

I lift my head and feel the snow melting as it hits my face. I am six years old. I am free and I am home. 


Turning back: A lesson from Flat Top Mountain 

“Flat Top Mountain? Well sure it’s just about seven miles from the city,” welcome center volunteer, Bob assured us with a wide grin as he pointed out the mountain on a map. 

“Now some people hike all the way up it but that’s not for me,” he continued, scratching at the bout of white hair atop his head. “There’s a nice little over-look though at the base and that’s only a short walk and you can see all of Anchorage.” 

My husband and I scurried off to the mountain and after a brief appreciative moment or two at the overlook area, we were ready to ascend Flat Top Mountain. The trail was covered in packed snow and lined with coniferous trees not tall enough to hide the looming white faced mountain ranges that encircled us. 

After clearing a small stretch of trees, the trail opened up spaciously in every direction revealing Flat Top in all her glory. 

“So we actually get to the very top from this trail?” I questioned, more to myself, as I cupped my hand over my eyes blocking the sun. I squinted at the mountain top and saw several tiny moving grains of rice that represented three people who had completed the climb. 

“Look they are parasailing!” Adam exclaimed as he squinted and pointed towards one the grains of rice who was now airborn, gliding slowly around the mountain on a bright blue and yellow parasail. I watched as the flyer’s shadow cast out over the mountain top. I wondered how far he could see. 

“Let’s go so we have enough day light to get up there,” I said decisively, surely I wasn’t going to let parasail man have all the fun today. 

Our hike continued with only minor inclination. We laughed and talked about Alaska and our brimming excitement after being on our trip for only one day. I couldn’t quite explain it yet, how Alaska was making me feel. It was kind of like coming home. I decided Curtis Welch, an Alaskan doctor in Nome, Alaska in the 1900s, described it best when he said Alaska provided plenty of room for him to stretch out his soul. Stepping out of the airport yesterday and seeing those mountains had been like stepping out of a small room you hadn’t realized you had been cramped in most of your life. There was this freeness and eagerness in my spirit. 

Adam turned to me while pointing to the trail ahead, small, iced-over footprints that inclined, almost vertically up the rest of the mountain. 

“I don’t know if we can do that,” he said, as he pushed his foot over the prints, testing their slickness. 

“I mean, even if we make it up, can we make it back down?” 

I frowned at the trail and turned my head to look up the rest of the mountain. The parasailers and tiny specks of humans were gone. 

“Yes. We can do it. I’m fine,” I stated decisively as I began my ascent. 

Before we knew it, we were half way up the ever steepening and icy incline. 

“I think we need to go back,” Adam said. His brow furrowed. “I mean look down there. I’m not saying we’d die but we would get seriously hurt hitting those rocks if we fell.” 

But the thing about turning back is that it feels like giving up. It feels like you chose comfort and simplicity over perseverance and challenge, and that doesn’t feel good. After some discussion, I reluctantly agreed to turn back. No sooner did I turn around and set my first foot in front of me did I realize just how difficult going back down was going to be. My foot slipped. I wavered and crouched until I basically crab walked my ass down the vertical part of that trail. 
Adam was right. We weren’t prepared for this. We were the Cincinnati tourists with no metal spikes in our shoes and no real experience mountain climbing. But somewhere along that slipping and sliding and ass-scooting descent of shame, I realized something. 

The sun warmed my face as I carefully meticulously placed each foot in the next most trustworthy and least slick appearing spot. What a sight we must be! I thought as my fear suddenly became humourous and turned into a moment of laughter. I turned around to check on Adam and smiled, he was scooting too. 

Maybe it is okay to turn back, I decided. After all, there is honor and humility in realizing your limitations and making decisions within that acknowledgement. It makes you real, authentic and capable within your own abilities. There is no shame in realizing we are small, in understanding our vulnerabilities. 

As we drove away, I watched Flat Top Mountain become smaller in the distance. I studied her rocky edges and snow blanketed face. Maybe one day I’ll make it to the top. She’ll still be here waiting and my soul certainly won’t let this be the last time I come to Alaska. I think it too needs all this space to stretch out. 

A snow covered valley in Girdwood, Alaska 

There’s just something about the mountains. Majestic, unwavering, awe-inspiring in their sheer magnitude. Sometimes it’s just good to stand there in observance of them and allow yourself to feel small. It’s good because when you are small, staring up at those snow caped peaks, your problems are small too. Your worries, insecurities, mistakes, doubts all seem even smaller in comparison. The realization of the smallness of what consumes your mind leaves way for greater contemplation, appreciation and the pathway for a more authentic existence. 

When one stands in reverence of mountains so great, it’s difficult to not see God’s fingerprints. The delicacy and intricacy one might appreciate in a piece of finely constructed pottery, one can also observe in the mountains. Staring up at the mountains and the large areas of coniferous forests, vast shadows splayed out on the areas untouched by the sun, jagged rock cliffs, one has to be sparked with at least an inkling of curiosity of where they came from. 

Mountains change your perspective too. This idea of feeling small, those massive yet intricate fingerprints of creation, how changed you feel in the midst of it all, you walk away at least little bit different every time. You walk away with an invitation for a more authentic existence. 

While spending time in Girdwood, Alaska, yesterday I took an evening run just before sunset. I remained mindful of each footstep, pacing myself while still being cautious for patches of ice on the trail. That is when the trees opened up and revealed a snow covered valley splayed out almost endlessly in every direction, mountains completely surrounding me. I stopped running and listened to the quiet. That’s the thing about quiet, it has its own sound. Thick, blanketing snow like that has an absorbing quality. As you stand there breathing and listening it somehow has a way to make your soul feel full. 

As I stood there, I allowed the very essence of me to absorb that realization of my smallness. And being small, nothing more than a single snowflake in the bigger picture of time and eternity, I couldn’t help but decide that purpose is so important. If we are small and life is fleeting, why don’t we live more of our lives as if that is true? Instead of seeking comfort and getting caught up in routine, why don’t we mindfully live every second to fulfill the purpose that each of us individually was born with inscribed in our very being? I became more still in that valley, my breath an ever appearing and disappearing cloud against the warm glow of a setting sun against the encircling range of mountain tops. 

When I started to run again, with the snow crunching under each of my feet and the blood in my veins becoming fuller with my quickening strides, I knew I was a little different. I remembered that I was small, yet significant. I remembered my life was fleeting yet this was all the more reason to live in a way that honors that realization. Because when you know something and live in a way that is consistent with that, you are authentic. And feeling authentic feels like standing at the base of an awesome mountain. 

What brought you to Alaska?

“So what brought you to Alaska?” My first go-to question when I found out someone was not born and raised in the ‘last frontier.’ My husband and I have only been in Alaska for three days and already the people we have met and their stories have been as fascinating and wild as the mountains and uncharted nature the state is known for.

Me asking this question all stated on the plane ride to Anchorage. The man sitting next to me came to Anchorage for a military assignment, “A long time ago,” and decided to stay. Our conversation progressed and he shared that since life is so temporal, fleeting, you may as well spend it where you want, doing what you want. He scrolled through photos on his phone of his kayak business he now owns in Alaska. They were pictures of smiling people and families against blue ocean waters with the backdrop of breathtaking glaciers. “After all, that’s the only thing we truly know in life right? That one day we are all gunna die. Everyone, everywhere. Death is an awesome equalizer,” he grinned a little wider as he said it. I nodded as he continued to scroll through photos on his phone. He ran his fingers over his wirey grey beard contemplatively, still smiling as he observed each of his photos with the upmost attentiveness. As if he were seeing each photo for the very first time. I glanced past him at the mountain range visible through the small plane window as we prepared to land in Anchorage, pinks and oranges of a setting sun splayed out over the perfect canvas of snow covered mountains. How could you not look at this everyday as if it were your first time seeing it? I thought. Maybe no matter where you live, though, that’s a good outlook to have, I decided as the pilot captain came over the speaker preparing us passengers for landing.

In the welcome center, we met a smiling, jovial, white haired with multiple missing teeth, visitor-center-volunteer. He eagerly showed my husband and I travel brochures and recommended areas to pull off the highway for photo opts. I naturally started to assume he was a born and raised in Alaska with his affinity for all things Anchorage, but after we asked for some travel tips for our voyage to Seward, Alaska, he smiled wide and placed his hand near his heart. “I have a soft spot for Seward,” he said, his voice a little softer and more serious. “See that’s where I decided to jump ship. I jumped off a boat when I saw those mountains, swam for shore, hitch hiked to Anchorage and been here ever since.” Jumped ship? How indescribably fascinating, I thought. But as I started to ask him more, he scurried off to assist a free-spirited looking man with a large backpack asking for directions. I watched him pointing exaggeratedly to assist the lost winter traveler. I guess sometimes you just know where you are supposed to be, I thought. Maybe I too could be more forward about things in life. When you know, you just know and that should move you to action. Hell, even if that means jumping into ice laced seas to get there.

I soon learned that not everyone who migrated to Alaska was running to the last frontier. Some people come to Alaska because they are running from things.
During a sled dog tour we met a guy, late twenties, dark hair and weathered skin, wearing layers of well broken-in snow apparel. His handling of the dogs and sled equipment came second nature as if he had been doing this forever. But he later shared that he was from Hawaii and came to Alaska because he was running from an ex girlfriend. Like literally running, fearing-your-life-and-safety running. “I gotta apologize if I seemed rude, I’m just a little jaded still,” he said to me as he pointed to where to sit on the sled. “Understandably so..” I said shaking my head as I took my seat on the sled. I guess if you’re going to run from someone, Alaska would be the place to do it, because apparently she hasn’t found him yet.

While in a local diner we met a woman with long blonde hair and the kind of blue eyes that can be described as piercing. She asked where we were from before she took our order, “No shit! That’s where I’m from too!” She exclaimed when we told her. We went on to share stories about changes that have occurred in the area over the past 20+ years since she’s been there. “I figured it hadn’t changed much. That’s why I left ya know,” she said as she placed the napkin squares down for our drinks and started to pour glasses of water. “See I was a loud, opinionated, outspoken women and in my time that didn’t fly. I wasn’t going to change who I was so as soon as I graduated from high school, I started traveling the world. I came here to see the northern lights and have been here ever since.” She smiled wide and looked up slightly. “You know I’ve thought about that place from time to time, but I have never looked back. I have never regretted making the decision to leave.” I smiled back at her and nodded. Because sometimes that’s the best thing you can do, look at someone in the eye, smile and absorb their words with your very being. A piece of me connected with her in that moment, that search for belonging and a place that accepts you as you are. And I was happy for her, truly happy for her.

Leaving the diner we drove along the mostly frozen waters lined with snow covered mountains and blue bird skies. I can see why people would live here, I thought as I closed my eyes and allowed the midday sun to cover my face.