Entire Alaska Blog

Juneau #1 – 3/4/06

When you have a lot to say it can be overwhelming so I’m going to make my goal BREVITY…for now anyway.

I’m in an internet cafe in downtown Juneau, about 30 miles from the lodge where I’m staying; it’s Saturday 4:00pm.  One the staff members is picking us up from a local pub in two hours to return to our temporary housing — the Eagle Valley Center, an “Outward Bound” type of place during the summer where groups can experience team building exercises like rope courses etc.   During the winter, one “SAGA” member lives there, and during the spring (now)  it is used to train the 20 new SAGA “team leaders” (I am one of them) before the SAGA “members” arrive in summer for their 5 month stint. 

SAGA stands for Southeast Alaska Guidance Association, but it’s a misnomer because now the organization is state wide. 

SAGA is an umbrella organization with many smaller organizations within it.  I can’t remember all of them but one is “Connections,” a group that tries to work with schools and community residents to educate them about the environment and health.  One involves native Alaskan “troubled youth” in building low income housing.  Another is my group, the  Alaska Service Corps, which involves people of all ages, from all over the country, in projects commissioned by various state and federal (and maybe private too) agencies….most of them are trail building and restoration projects.  Some are stream restoration projects.  Some are construction of ranger stations.  

Out of all the team leaders here, I definitely come with the least experience.  Many people were here last year, in Alaska.  The rest were involved in trailbuilding, or youth organizations, or environmental service type of work in other parts of the country.  I understand that sponsors were encouraging Americorps (oh yeah, SAGA gets FUNDING from Americorps; I know all this jargon is really confusing) to “diversify” — ie target members of different ages and backgrounds, not just different ethnicities.  I think they liked that I was a “professional.”  We’ll see if their gamble pays off.

My first thought was that I wished I had brought my favorite clothes, because for these first two months we aren’t going to get that dirty.  A lot of team building ice breaker type of activities (GAMES!!! I love it!!!) indoors, plus we tried out the rope courses, and got a tour of downtown Juneau.  

I am probably one of the older people, as I expected, but it’s hard to tell, because experience wise I probably seem a lot younger.  Or it’s in my head that I fit in.  Hard to tell.  These are people I would love to be friends with in any circumstance.   Mostly between 20 and 30, all passionate about the outdoors, helping people, and also HAVING FUN.   Danger is a part of their lives, but so is safety.  I liked that during one of our team building exercises (making ten people walk together on very long skis), the director (oh,  he is older than me; he created SAGA in the 1970s; he is in his 50s) encouraged us to try to cross a frozen steam.  We broke one of the “skis” in the process and he thought it was funny.  He is a nice man, though, and we have “debriefings” after each activity where everyone shares their thoughts and impressions, very touchy feely.   Another activity involved transporting people in fishing nets back and forth across a “race track” — sort of a relay race.   Yet another involved a rendition of tag involving a rubber chicken.   Our days have been very structured and organized and fun.  Each day starts at 8am where we all go OUTSIDE to do stretching.   Of course I 1) don’t want to get up that early, let alone go outside but 2) once there, I wish we were doing more than stretching; I’m kind of exercise deprived right now.  For the last week before leaving CA I was so busy shopping and packing I didn’t do anything physical, and for these first several weeks in Alaska, we aren’t really doing anything too strenuous.  There are mountains and trails everywhere but the steep ones are too icy to climb until summer.

People are assigned nights to cook and nights to clean.  I share a bedroom with three other women.  I’m on the top bunk.  Thank god for Ambien.   Sleeping bags rustling around are really noisy.   I think my biggest obstacle so far is going to be STAYING QUIET.  My tendency is to jump into our group activities with quick answers or jokes or offbeat comments, but I arrived a day late, so as the newcomer, I know that my role is to take a background position, especially since I am so new to all this outdoor survival stuff.   So I’m working on my LISTENING skills. 

If I was 25, I would probably have crushes on about 10 of the guys.  If I was male, I would probably have a crush on several of the women.  Overall, very attractive, alert, perky, interesting people.   With thoughtful sides.  At night, I swear, there are more board games going on than I could every imagine.  These people are more into that kind of stuff than me, even.   I mean, imagine a bunch of camp counselors all together….that’s the group.

Next week we do power tool training (one whole day is devoted to “felling”).   The week after that we do first aid stuff.  Then we do our first assignment (just the team leaders) — building a trail in the northeast somewhere.  I forget the exact location.  The names of all these towns and islands and areas are so foreign to me still.   By the way, when my “team” arrives in two months, I will be with one other (probably more seasoned) leader, not by myself with them.

Yesterday we took our Americorps “oath” on the steps of the courthouse,  with one of Alaska’s senators.  It was rather a big deal.  

I know this is really disjointed.  There is just too much to say all at once.  Will send, re-read later, and probably add more.  I do better with questions.

My address is:

9397 La Perouse Ave.

Juneau, AK  99801

My cell works whenever I’m in town (510-919-3126).  If you need an alternate phone number, the office (Mon – Fri) is 907-789-6172.    I have email when in town, obviously, like today, Saturday.  We have weekends “off.”  A bunch of people went skiing this weekend (of course I didn’t bring ski gear).  But I stayed back because I still had a lot of business to do — getting 8-inch steel toed work boots, knee high rubber boots, more fleece, more gloves, more camping gear — and I have to figure out how to pare down my arsenal of clothing and personal items.  I think the rule is that anything cotton is useless….until summer.    Many other people took advantage of the weekend to leave the Eagle Valley Center (EVC) and stay in hostels downtown.  The EVC is alcohol-free, so the ones who opted to stay in town for the weekend were the ones who wanted to go to the bars.   I may do it another weekend.  I bumped into some of them today at the cafe I’m at right now (a group of us who opted to stay at EVC were dropped off in town to spend the day however we wanted) and it sounds like they had fun last night.

Tonight when I get back I will probably watch some rented movies with the goup, try to figure out how to set up my tent, try to waterproof some of my gear, play some games…. Tomorrow the plan is to go on a long hike with two people who were here last year.  Hope that works out.  Yesterday before the swearing in we visited Mendenhall Glacier — it reminded me of packages of blue ice.  I’ll send photos.  It was neat.  We played frisbee on a big frozen lake in front of it.   Then pizza was delivered there — funny.

We alternate showers every other day because water is limited at the EVC….What else?  The temperature has been about 20-40 during the day, certainly colder at night but I don’t know how much colder.   No precipitation yet, so overall extremely tolerable.   Juneau is right on the water, gets lots of cruise ships in the summer.   The town is tiny, old multi-colored ghost-town type of structures built up on the hill that juts out of the water, like in Vancouver. 

OK, will sign off for now.   Oh yeah — I’m having FUN!!!!!!!!  One of the staff members brought his two adorable dogs to live with us.  They are the BEST.  There are bald eagles everywhere, and dog-sized ravens, as common as seagulls and pigeons would be in the Bay Area.

Love Ali/Alex/Alexandra (some people call me Big Al here)

Juneau #2 – 3/10/06

I should probably start some sort of blog; then those of you not interested or too busy don’t have to get spammed.  But I only have about an hour per week on computer, so just rushing this out for now.  I will not AT ALL be offended if you write me back “Hey, just tell me in person some day.” 

Thanks to everyone who responded to my last missive (and who read the whole thing). It’s great to hear words of encouragement and interest.

I want to respond to everyone individually but will save that for the post cards.  Please send me your mailing addresses!!

Well it’s Friday March 10th and the staff generously gave us a three day weekend because they knew we all had errands in town, and we had an incredibly intense Mon-Thurs.  This is not moving piles of dirt around.  This is not hammering the occasional nail.  This is serious engineering.   We are learning to build turnpikes, bridges, water drainage systems.  There is an entirely new vocabulary to learn: grade, tread, scale, sluff.    There is mastery of the ecosystem – when trees are healthy, when wildlife is involved.   We are not only responsible for felling trees with power tools, a complicated science unto itself (involving geometry, angles, gravity, other properties of physics, not to mention meterology), but also caring for those tools.  Twice a day we have to entirely take apart, inspect, clean, repair, then put back together our designated chain saw as well as brusher (weed wacker).  We have to sharpen and replace chains and blades, mix gas and oil.  We have to wear hard hats, leather gloves, work boots and eye goggles at almost all times we are on duty.  Then there are the hand/trail tools, with more new vocabulary: pulaski, mccloud, rock bar, PV, draw knife (to name a few).   These are various forms of axes, shovels, picks, and log rolling/carrying devices.  Half the time we fell a tree, we then proceed to “buck” it, or cut it into logs for firewood or making boardwalks (another type of trail).  Other times we have to skin it (remove two layers of bark) so that it doesn’t rot, if it is to be used for timber. 

The philosophy regarding the tree cutting is that we are sacrificing a few trees to preserve the greater forest/wilderness.  If you can funnel people onto designated trails, you can prevent damage/over use, and control flooding and erosion.  

We also have to sharpen and take apart and repair the trail tools, and we carry with us to every site a large tool kit containing more things with names I never heard of before: scrinches, wedges, bar nuts…

I was feeling somewhat confident in my people skills the first week.  Sharing circles and name games and skits and puzzles are my forte.  However, I really shut up this week.  I was completely out of my element.  I can barely add oil to my car or hang a picture on the wall.  All this machinery and equipment was not only foreign to me, but I think I actually lack a few brain cells where mechanical/visual/spacial stuff is involved.   It was review for almost every other team leader in training.  About 80% had worked with chain saws before, some since the time they were kids, in their backyards.  There are some professional carpenters in the group.  There are people who led boy scout troups for 15 years.  There are trained, licensed, certified EMTs!!  About 3 people spent time doing construction and rehabilitation and social work in the southeast, after Katrina.  What in the WORLD were they thinking putting me in the same group with these folks??????

So I could barely START the power saw on my first day of use.  Pulled that starter cord about 5 times before I got the knack, and I still sometimes take 2-3 tries before I can get it on (the guys start it like flipping a light switch).  I am one of 4 women; there are 12 males.  The other women are: 1) a 22 year old lesbian firefighter paramedic; 2) a 20 year old former Americorps team MEMBER (a somewhat big girl who has beaten some of the larer men in leg wrestling, don’t even ask); and 3) a very hippyish, slight, 28 year old from Oregon who is ultra PC and has talked to me on several ocassions about things I’ve said that offended her.  She has done a lot of camping but not trail work.  Thank god I have at least one other person on my level in terms of strength (I am actually stronger than she is).  Those weren’t the most flattering descriptions of the women; they are actually all great, funny, nice, caring, helpful, entertaining, etc…..but as usual I feel a bit more connected to the guys, who tend to be more jokey, more loose lipped, more physical.   I really have to watch my jokeyness.  It is so easy to be casual when everyone walks around in their long underwear, plays practical jokes, discusses toilet flushing schedules.  But I have to keep reminding myself this is a JOB, I am being EVALUATED, and I was probably hired on the assumption that being older, I am more mature and more responsible (oops).  Many people here have similar backgrounds/reasons for coming: dead-end, boring or “typical” career type jobs; unfortunate romantic or family relationships, the desire to do something meaningful and adventurous, love of physical activity and the outdoors.   We have all expressed how wonderful it is to find “like minded” people; how our friends and families think we are crazy.  Here we are all normal.    Some of the staff members could be architects or poets.  Everyone seems really articulate, educated (college degree required for the team leaders), and expressive.  Also sensitive, well read, and politically, historically and scientifically informed.   There is great music played every night (oh why oh why do I not have an iPod??).   About 4 of us are from California (2 from Fresno, 1 from LA, and me).   Many from New York, the rest scattered origins including Ohio, North Carolina.

I am getting the signal to leave, so this will be CONTINUED LATER!!!!

Juneau #3 – 3/12/06

Alright, last email before I start putting this on Myspace or somewhere.

Sunday March 12.  Yesterday I did an 11 mile hike, mostly along ice (very dangerous), to see my 3rd glacier so far (there are 8 in the Juneau area).  This one was Eagle Glacier.  The coolest part about it was that there was a National Forest Service-maintained cabin nearby, stocked with food, cooking utensils, propane stove.  It had a loft with a ladder and could probably sleep about 12 people.  It was so bizarre to feel like you are in the middle of nowhere then suddenly stumble upon this little piece of luxury.  The day started out with me in a van with 8 other of the team leaders (every weekend we try to coordinate who is doing what since we are all sharing 4 vans and the bus to/from town goes only half way to where our cabin is, about 30 miles out of town).   I had my big backpack packed with overnight clothes and whatever ski gear I could muster.  The plan was to find a hotel downtown by the ferry docks and treat myself to a night of luxury, quiet, private, clean.   Then wake up early Sunday AM and catch the ski bus to the ski mountain which is about an hour away (Eagle Resort)….it actually has some double diamond runs I was told.   Others in the van were planning trips to the library (for internet), to the downtown rock climbing gym, or to Costco to pick up more never-ending camping/hiking needs….(some folks bought their own personal hard hats to decorate).

Before getting anywhere, we were dropping off three guys to do the long Eagle Glacier hike, which was news to me.  I changed my plans on the spot and invited myself along with them.  Hiking is my passion.  It is why I am here.  I would turn down almost anything to spend all day on a trail.  The guys said “You know this is 11 miles right?”  “Are you prepared?”  “Do you have water and food?”  I said “Yes yes yes” (I actually did have a little pack with me and hiking boots on) and jumped out with them.   It was great to finally be with a group that pushed me!  They were SO FAST!  Even though the terrain was mostly flat, walking through snow, as you know, is like walking through sand, pretty slow going.   Then we got to the icy patches.  I fell on my butt about 6 times, and purposely sat down and scooted about 12 times.  the rest of the time I was maneuvering off the trail and trying to find patches of brush and dirt for stability.   It was like Scylla and Charibdis (sp???)…..Off the trail, “Devil’s Club” was growing everywhere, really sharp needled cactus-like weed that causes deep splinters every time you touch it.  I reached out to grab it abaout 10 times.  I have to go to work on my hands with sharp tweezers tonight.  I also had bruises all over my legs when I came back, plus the seat of my pants looked like I had an “accident”…  All in all, well worth it.  My fellow hikers (Ryan, Pete and Seth) were nice about looking out for me, but not too much.  they pretty much went at their own pace and I guess decided I was OK.  I liked not being given special treatment, even though I know they did wait for me a few times.   I really am not at all used to being the slow one.  That was hard!!!  

It’s a very testosteroney environment.  The guys are constantly trying to one up each other with insults, displays of physical prowess, obscene comments, etc…..I like this inside view to the male world, something I always wanted, not having had brothers.   I feel like a bit of an outsider, obviously.  I don’t think they know what to do with me — they can’t hit on me, because I’m a coworker, and I’m on average about 10 years older than all of them.  They don’t really shut up around me either, though….I can’t tell if they are being more polite or guarded than they normally would be if I wasn’t there.  They often act like I’m invisible.  Several times on the hike, for instance, they just “whipped it out” and peed on the side of the trail.  I had to remind them to WARN me!!!

The testosterone came into play again last night during a game of Risk.  Like the hike, no one bothered to invite me to play before hand.  The other women now that I think about it are not very physical….I don’t think any of them have been on any of the hikes yet…. But once they were sitting down, I plopped down too and kind of made it impossible for them not to let me play.  The greatest part was that they were so busy fighting each other (in the game), they kind of discounted me, and I wound up coming in second out of 6 players.  Technically, you could say I won because the guy who was really winning at the end got uppity when we started teasing him about how competitve he was, and he quit.  I declared myself the winner at that point.

In other instances however, I am getting the same “Are you a ditz?” comments that I was surprised to get my freshman year of college.  People have asked me “Did you really go to law school?” after doing things like rolling my dice into all the pieces on the board and knocking them over, or spilling coffee all over the floor.  I think I am nervous a lot of the time around here.  

Some other fun stuff I’ve done (since the last message was about work):  sledding/saucering one night after dinner (yet another instance where I invited myself along AFTER the group had already decided unbeknownst to me to go)….It was really fun.  I was the only “girl” who went down the hill — it involved a jump at the end, which sent us flying in the air for a few feet before landing.  I was scared, but I guess I am trying to prove myself over and over.  It was also fun though.  I don’t know if anyone is recognizing my efforts or not.  I am also the only girl who still puts on makeup sometimes, and does a full facial cleansing routine twice a day.   I should point out there are two staff members — they work in the office recruiting and training, though in prior years they worked on boats and on trails and all that kind of stuff — and they are super stylish, super girly.  I get a bit envious of them sometimes (they are also a good 5-10 years younger than I am).   But that’s my nature.   I am really torn between the two worlds of glam and granola.

OK, so saucering was one night.  Another fun time was our hike last weekend to Herbert Glacier.  More of the whole group went on that one.  It was still long, but not icy.   I am still trying to figure out the whole glacier concept.  Supposedly they move 1-2 inches PER DAY.   At night people who have “spiked” (camped on a work project) near them say they hear them constantly cracking and breaking.   Although the glaciers are disappearing at an alarming and unprecedented rate here in the arctic region, the glaciers are supposedly GROWING in Antarctica.  That makes me feel better.  We saw a mama and baby mountain goat sunning themselves on the rocks during that Herbert Glacier hike.  They were pure white.

No other animals yet, besides ravens, eagles and squirrels.  Though we get so many lectures about bears, I am surprised I haven’t encountered one yet.

Two night ago my roommate woke me up because the northern lights were visible.  The whole house put on their clothes and went outside to see the phenomenon.   White and green streaks in the sky that appeared then disappeared.  If you were alone you would wonder if your eyes were playing tricks on you.   They only come out on very clear and very cold nights — so it was a rare opportunity.   It wasn’t the brilliant rainbow-like spectre filling the whole sky like you see in pictures — it was a more modest display.  but we all felt satisfied that we could officially say we had seen the northern lights.

Because my mom asked — we are assigned nights to cook dinner with a partner.   I am going to do lasagne with Gavin next week.  After dinner we ask for volunteers to clean up.  The volunteers are always ready and willing.   People are very good about contributing and helping.    The staff goes on a food shopping marathon once a week and we use whatever ingredients they purchased.  Breakfasts are self serve.  One person per day is assigned to set out lunch.

Today I am doing my first load of laundry in town.  Unfortunate that I can’t do it at the house but great that I don’t have to do it in a river (yet)!

Next week is “WOFR” training — a 10 day course that normally costs several hundred dollars but we are actually getting paid to take.   I think it stands for Wilderness Outdoor First Responder” — it involves CPR and other first aid training.   It’s not EMT level, but probably one step down from that.  You get a certificate and everything.  It’s supposed to be pretty intense.  That’s another reason we were given a three day weekend beforehand.   At the end of the course, I will try to do that ski trip.

I have some photos I’d like to get on line but am having technical difficulties with these public computers.  Stay tuned. 

Much love to you all and remember to EMAIL ME YOUR MAILING ADDRESSES so I can write you personally!!!!

-Al (fill in whatever ending you like)

Juneau #4 – 3/20/06

This is an incredible day.  I rented a room in a motel BY MYSELF.  We have one day off in the middle of a 10-day Wilderness First Response class which has been like med school on speed.  We’ve covered cardiovasuclar system, respiratory system, neuological system, spine injuries, brain trauma, frostbite, hypothermia, diabetes, allergies,
drowning, lacerations, heart attack, stroke, fractures….plus evacuation methods, since we will be encountering these situations many hours removed from hospitals, and sometimes not even accessible by helicopter (at least that’s how they are training us; in reality we probably won’t be that remote….)
I still don’t know who my other leader will be or what geographic region of Alaska I will be sent to.  The areas are Southeast (here; it gets really wet in spring, but you can kayack, and there is more “culture”), Denali area (amazing hiking, Mt. McKinley, one of the most beautiful national forests), the Aleutian islands (need I say more???), and then some place even farther north — more remote, more wild, more bears, more cold, less rain and mud and mosquitoes.  I don’t even know what my preference would be at this point.
I think I care more about who my partner will be than where I will be. I’ll lump all the other 17 leaders in training together right now and say for the most part they are humerous, smart, and would be great to get to know better.  However, I do not want to be placed with several of them, including a guy from LA who doesn’t have much outdoor experience and speaks like a character from the Cheech and Chong movies.  He’s trying to detox (quit smoking and drinking) after his brother was murdered and his parents divorced last year.  Nice guy but never stops talking and doesn’t pick up social cues that others aren’t listening.   He is really scrawny and contstantly is cooking meat for himself (as you can imagine lots of vegetarians in this earthy group), and trying to work out in his room.   He also plays guitar.   But really out to lunch when it comes to learning complex principles like in our WFR class.  However I doubt they would pair two novices together.
I would also be a bit disappointed to be partnered with one of the two Dennis-es.  I love them too, both very soft spoken and helpful and comically best friends, always together (were SAGA corps members last year, returning this year to be leaders).  But they are SO nice and SO polite, I am pretty sure I would shoulder most of the social
activities with our group, if I were paired with one of them.  I would probably get bored, too, because they aren’t very forthcoming.  They are closest to my age out of all the other leaders in training (I’m guessing 32 and perhaps 36??).   They are also extremely patient and knowledgeable which is why I am betting I will be paired with one of them — I will be the social one and they will be the skilled one. Only thing is that maybe they will want to pair me with someone younger for more diversity.  One of them is from Ohio.  He was a car mechanic.  He decided to take a vacation to Alaska last year, then never went home.  He found SAGA and decided to make it his new career. The other Dennis is from somewhere in the south with one of those great drawls.  I forget what his past was.  He has his own car and so he takes people into town after dinner each night, even if he doesn’t have any errands there.  That’s what I mean by nice.
Harder to describe all the people I like.   Each character could be his own book.   Maybe I’ll come back to describing the weekend instead.  So we have one day off from WFR training and I decided to rent this room at a motel to have my first taste of privacy and uninterrupted sleep in 3 weeks.  The last two weekends, some other people stayed in town, mostly in order to drink (our house is “dry” and has a curfew of 10pm.  If you’ve been drinking at all, you’re not supposed to come home).  I figured I’d get the room, then go out with whoever was going out (there are lost of bars downtown), and spend the next day doing laundry, finding a computer, and swimming laps in the community pool (after buying a bathing suit and goggles, more items I left in California).   Four of the other guys followed me to the motel I picked out (their last week’s choice was a former brothel, shared bathroom, loud, over a bar, historic but kind of sleezy).   My choice was just as cheap, but researched, of course, clean and actually luxurious in relation to where we have been (TV!  Minibar!  Bathtub! Drinkable water!  Laundry room!  Computer room!!).   Of course the “stupid boys” were making cracks about what a bad location it was in (6 whole blocks from the main road) and how it “better be good,” the whole way over.   I didn’t even ask them to come!  The level of banter and derision toward me from someof the wiser-asses has been coming to a head.  I might say something in one of our group meetings.  On the other hand, I would like to be nonchalant and not let anyone know they are getting under my skin.
Anyway, the four guys shared a two bedroom suite, and I had my own room.  Ahh.  They wanted to watch basketball for several hours, so I just hung out with them and had some wine and talked.  It was actually very relaxing and people finally started sharing their true opinions of the house goings-on (though still pretty circumspect and trying not
to overtly “gossip”).    They were some of my favorite characters in the house, maybe not my closest cohorts, but intriguing people.   Pete is only 22 but very dry/witty, kind of quiet, really smart, and, OK, good looking.    Max is a loose cannon.  He’s 25 I think.   Handsome and knows it.   Loud mouth.  Aggressive.    More testosterone than
everyone else combined.   But charming.  That deathly combination. He’s actually quite rude, often to me, which is why I am of course determined to win him over.  I think I am, a little.   Gavin has a crush on me.  He’s about 29, recently broke up a long term relationship, is from New York, accent and all.   Was a waiter and a chef, and a Youth Leader in Alaska three years ago.  He came back to do the Youth Corps again (I’m doing the Service corps, which is older people, in their 20s, as opposed to the “hoods in the woods”  — teens– he will be managing).   He’s really into photography and pontificating and also wearing wife beater tank tops.   He dragged me to karayoke last night and signed me up to sing “I Got You Babe” with him.  Luckily I beat it out of there before our turn came up.
The fourth person staying in this motel is Wolf — originally from Detroit, but lived in Anchorage for last 5 years.  Native Eskimo is in his genes.   He modelled in New York City a long time ago (I don’t think it’s very obvious right now; but he is really tall), now is also doing the Youth Corps Service.  (Youth Corps and Service Corps leaders
are in training together).  He is probably early 30s, has written 2 novels and one screenplay.  Very cerebral but also acts as if he was raised in the wilderness in terms of his knowledge of the ecosystem and survival skills.   He is not rowdy like the others.
Thee other guys — Trevor, Justin and Mitch — are staying with a friend of Justin who happens to live in Juneau.  I didn’t meet up with them at night — they must have been at different bars.   I did meet up with two staff members (also younger than I am of course, though they are my supervisors).  Juneau is so small and so few places are
open past 5pm, you just are going to run into people you know.   They were Lindsey (an Education Coordinator, one of the blonde cheerleader barbie types) and Jeff (who I now suspect might be dating her; he was a creative writing major at U of Penn, now is one of our Field Managers).
I’m clearly not going swimming today.  Just too much laundry and email and photo work to do.  It’s our first big snow storm since I’ve been here.  It started out 30-40 degrees and sunny every day, week one, then last week it was -1 to about +5 every day.  The snow kind of blew away and it was just icy everywhere.   We did our morning stretch circle indoors.   Now it’s a bit warmer but nice and white.   I tried running a couple times near our house after WFR class (sitting still for 8 hours a day taking in dense new materials was like studying for the bar; I really needed release!).  It was weird to go out in hat and gloves and parka.  My legs actually went numb the first time because I only had one layer on them.  My CD player won’t work outside — the below freezing temperature drains out the batteries instantly.    But it’s so flat, I’m going to get bored if I do that kind of run very often.  I’m just getting really sedentary.  UGH.  I try to take walks on our lunch hour, but again, without a walkman, and unable to go into the hills (because it’s too icy), just staying on the road is pretty boring.
I can’t wait til we’re back to strenuous outdoor work.  We do our first trail building project in about 8 days — in a slightly more northern town called Skagway (but still in the Southeast).   It will still be just team leaders.  Will finally have to pull out the tent (I still have to LEARN to put it up, and waterproof it).   What SAGA does is find sponsors who pay us to do various projects throughout the state, of varying duration and difficulty.  Sponsors may include National Park Service, State Park Service, private land owners, municipal road services, schools, etc.
Some of you have inquired about the chain saws we will be using.  They are mostly “029s” (I forget the brand) which is one of the lightest and smallest sizes (though still probably about 20 lbs).
We have done several outdoor simulations as part of WFR (coined “woofer”) training. They involved cutting down small trees and limbs and making stretchers with pieces of rope and duct tape (and carrying people in them).   Also: making splints out of materials in our backpacks (sleeping mats, bandanas, shoe inserts).  Tracking people (the dogs kept finding them before we did).  And positioning people (playing comatose) onto backboards, after pulling them out of holes or snow drifts.  Being the “patient” can be fun — if you are the one being carried around in warm blankets on a stretcher — or freezing and uncomfortable, if you are supposed to have knocked yourself out skiing and have to stay crumpled up in the snow while the rest of your team argues about what to do and how to examine you.
So we have 5 more days of the training (including homework assignments at night and quizzes in the morning; they brought in a certified EMT to conduct this program), and then, I think, 2 more days off, then we go to Skagway.  I really, really, really appreciate the little messages and replies you have been sending me.  Anyone who emails me
gets on to my postcard recipient list!!!  It’s amazing how just a few personal words from an old friend or loved one can turn my whole mood around on days when I feel like an outcast.  Which I don’t usually feel like, but the stress is kind of underlying and everpresent, and subtle, I think.
I’m having brain freeze as to any other info to share — the games and tomfoolery kind of died down this week due to all the studying — but some interpersonal issues have flared, in a minor way, between certain people, so of course that is fascinating to me (oh yes, I might be involved in some of them, possibly; that JANE is always on my back, harrumph).   There is ALWAYS music on – every break, every meal, every free hour, and that bugs me too, but I’m trying trying trying to just deal and tune out and be normal.
Alright, gonna grab my laundry, take a short walk and then meet folks at a cafe at 6pm for our van pool back to the cabin.
Oh yeah — last weekend, after I finished installment #3 of this blog, I joined some folks for an film festival (shorts about the ocean) at a local cafe.  The cafe was really cute, brightly painted, funky art, lots of organic menu offerings.  It would fit in well on Haight St. One film was called Flip Flop Flotsam, bout an island in Africa where flip flips are mass produced, mass worn, mass discarded, mass recycled by marine and land organisms, and ultimately turned into art & sold to tourists.  Then there was a short about an aquatic theme park in Florida that has been almost abandoned in recent years but used to feature “mermaids” trained to swim synchronistically in the natural waterways for guests to watch.   Then there was a piece about a father eskimo (modern) teaching his son to hunt seals (with rifles and skimobiles).   And one about how modern technology is creating intense sound pollution in the oceans that is killing whales and dolphins by literally shattering their eardrums, also messing up their sonar communication.  It’s happening all the time, even last year, in the US and other western  countries, killing thousands of sea creatures (we’re talking marine oil drilling, barge building, nucelar and other military bomb testing).   SAGA is such a well respected organization in Juneau that when I approached the guy who was in charge of the festival (who happened to be friends with some of the staff) and told him how much the rest of our group would have liked the show, he just handed me the original DVDs and said to drop them back at the cafe the next week.
Alright, gonna go.  My photos STILL haven’t uploaded!!! AAAGGGHHH!!

Juneau #5 – 3/26/06

Back at the library on a Sunday.  We had a three day weekend, because we finished our Wilderness First Responder course on Thursday, and we are all now certified.  I am not confident I could truly help anyone with a life threatening emergency in the woods, but I have some idea at least.  In our final days we gave CPR to baby mannequins, including using the electric defibrillators you see on ER…And we gave actual injections (of saline) to our instructor.  She was a hoot.  Didn’t mind getting 10 shots in each arm; we the students were more panicky with the needle.   We also made a stretcher from small trees, branches, string and duct tape — I was the guinea pig who got carried in it for one mile to the harbor, where I was finally released (it was actually really comfortable).

After the course was over, Joe, the director of this whole SAGA program (I described him as an aging hippie in a prior email), came by to give us another pep talk, an analysis of group dynamics over time (there is a curve where people start off enthusiastic and optimistic, sink to a low with feelings of disappointment and ostracization, then regroup, and finally bond and perform).  Apparently I wasn’t the only one in the downward part of the curve.  A lot of people were feeling restless and frustrated.  We were encouraged to explain our feelings and ask for specific help from the group.  So I finally got to vent that I felt picked on, that I felt like the boys were being exclusive.  

After that, Joe took us on an amazing hike to several of the beaches that surround our cabin (without a guide, I never would have found the snowed-over trails that linked them).  It was spectacular to see shells washed up on the snowy shores — weird contrast of imagery.  The beaches were FULL of shells.  I could absolutely not resist collecting dozens of them, even though we are expressly forbidden (encouraged not to) to remove anything from nature.  The philosophy is that whatever wildlife or artifact you see will look much better in your memory, where it is, than on your desk at home.  Take a picture.  So I would carry around my favorite items for a good part of the walk and then finally set them down, pretending I would come back later and photograph them (I didn’t have my camera), but knowing I wouldn’t really.  There were PERFECT scallops, with both sides of the clam-like shells in tact and attached with some sort of membrane.  There were entire halves of red crab shells, enormous.  The meat had probably been eaten out by something else, and all the rest remained practically intact.   There are beautiful purple muscles everywhere, alive on the rocks in the water, and empty all over the beach.  You could definitely eat well if you were stranded there.   Tidepooling uncovered living sea anenomes, starfish, and sardines.   Swimming only 10 feet from shore we saw two sets of seals (very curious and alert, probably accustomed to hand outs from the fishermen).    We were also introduced to the main variety of trees in the area (some sort of spruce I can’t remember; hemlocks; and birches).  There are bizarre mushroom like formations that protude from many of the trees called “Bear’s Bread” — though bears don’t really eat them.   Basically we hiked through what is marshy meadows in the spring and summer — little rivers and streams everywhere, currently frozen.   The first time I hiked in the snow it felt really weird.  Now that I have my Alaskan “Xtra Tufs” (knee height rubber boots with great traction and insulation), it feels second nature.  Except on the icy patches. 

Yesterday (Saturday), I was in town, just walking around trying to decide what to do when I bumped into three guys (Pete, Ryan and Seth, the same ones that did the Eagle Glacier hike to the cabin two weeks ago), on the sidewalk.  Again, they were planning a hike.  Again, I just spontaneously invited myself along.  (None of the women are outdoorsy or physical.  One is just sort of out of shape, the other is actually quite overweight, and the third has been having serious latex allergies since we’ve been here and actually has to leave the program now to see a specialist).   I have no idea if they wanted me along or not, but too bad.  This time, I stopped at an outdoor gear shop and bought Yakitraks— treads that you strap on to the soles of your shoes for extra traction in ice.  They saved my life.   I would have been really scared climbing that trail otherwise.  I have no idea why the boys don’t slip like I do.  Maybe they do but they just have fun with it, and aren’t scared….they tend to ice-skate/surf the slick spots.  I think they’re insane!    If any of you have received postcards of Juneau showing a tram that goes up the face of a mountain, we hiked to the top of the tram ride.  It was my first serious exercise in SO LONG!!! I really needed it.  The boys usually spend their free time rock climbing (on rocks), and get their exercise that way.  I don’t know how to rock climb and am not sure that is a sport I will get into, ever.

So it got warmer this week.   More like 50s now, snow melting, rain starting.  Many people went skiing at Eagle Ridge this weekend, and I bought a few ski items (cheap goggles, mittens) in case I got the urge to go (there is a bus from downtown to the mountain an hour away), but I never got the urge.  Just packing up my stuff to stay the weekend downtown, away from the house, and then packing a day-pack each day for my little hikes and errands is quite draining for me.   Fitting in a ski trip too just seemed a bit overwhelming.  Then again, I probably would go, if a person actually invited me or said “Alex let’s go.”  All I hear about is groups of other people, already going, already carpooling, and I just can’t keep tagging along, inviting myself.  It’s humiliating.

Three new staff people arrived over the weekend.  I will meet them when I get back to the cabin tonight.  They are all supposedly around 25 yrs old.  Two will be women. 

Still don’t know my assignment — geographically or co-team-leader-wise.

There have been a lot of snow ball fights.  I think that’s where one of my last paragraphs was supposed to lead to.   There was so much wonderful powdery fresh snow over the last week it was impossible not to throw yourself into it every chance.  We made snowmen and forts.  The dogs really loved it.  I spent almost every break running around with them in the fresh knee deep powder.  The problem was that I can’t throw like the boys.  They can lob a ball from 50 feet away and hit me right in the head, but all I can do is sneak up on them from behind and throw snow into their faces from an inch away — I don’t have the strength or the aim to play otherwise.  That again led to some of my feelings of being an outcast — and after our little sharing circle re. the mood curve, I think I scared them enough to leave me alone (I joked I might cry if they hit me) — but that only lasted about a day.  At least 2 people — Ryan and Pete — seemed to have taken note of my comments.  Ryan has invited me to play Speed Uno and to go rock climbing (I declined, but I appreciated the gesture).  Pete hasn’t invited me along anywhere, but he asked “What was the whole deal with that speech?”  He isn’t that expressive.  

Here’s my schedule for the next couple weeks:

March 27-30:  Further team leader training in Juneau, including: 1) learning to erect the cooking tent, the huge community tent that accompanies every camp site; 2) a drug/alcohol lecture – yawn; 3) hopefully some knots training and some more work with the saws since I don’t remember anything and still suck; 4) possibly some more flora/fauna lectures

March 31:  Education Day.  Not sure what that is.  But I will miss it because I have an interview at the Welfare Office to qualify for food stamps.  Woo hoo!

April 3 – 6:  Department of Transportation work.  This will be clearing foliage and felling trees along highways.  We wear bright orange.  Our first actual job.  Still in Juneau area.  Power saws, ack!!!

April 7: Education Day

April 10-13:  Dept of Transp. work in Juneau

April 14:  Education day

April 17-May 20:  SKAGWAY.  A town about 3 hours northeast, where we (still just the team leaders) will camp out the whole time and build our first trail.  

May 22-26:  Orientation to Indian Shop.  Indian is a town up north.  It will be the main office for all the groups stationed north of Southeast Alaska, like Nome, Anchorage and Denali (or is Denali considered Southeast?  I actually don’t know.  NO ONE calls it Mt. McKinley though!!!!)

May 29 – June 2:  Arrival of corps members.  Second orientation with members and leaders together.   Imagine a group of 70 people camping together in the woods.  Like Burning Man without the drugs???

So the plan is to send my photo CDs to my father, who will upload them, and then I can log on and caption them and share them with you all.  I have 3 rolls developed by now.  Be ready for a photographic onslaught!!

Over and out!

Love A______________

PS — Cruse ship season starts April 1.  Right now the town has been empty, but apparently it explodes to three times the population in spring/summer, when tourists start disembarking from thier “Inside Passage” cruises.

PPS – Cotton kills.  Did you know that?  Here in the wet and cold, you should only wear synthetics or wool.  I can’t believe I left most of my goretex and polypro outdoor gear at home and brought my bulky sweaters and old sweatshirts and T shirts instead.  Those are probably going to go to donation.  Since my storage space in California is pieced together from floor to ceiling like a jigsaw puzzle, I’ve simply decided to shell out for a few more capilene shirts and fleece jackets and expedition weight socks.   Those fabrics pack up smaller and dry faster.  

PPPS:  You all live in the “Lower 48.”  That’s how the rest of the US is referred to.   It’s not generally a compliment.   Did I already say that in a prior email? 

Juneau #6 – 4/1/06

Golly, where to start.  Busy week.

Monday was more team building stuff, touchy feeling talking and acting games about non-verbal communication and discipline.  Afterwards our director Joe Parish (founder of Saga; dad you can Google him now) took us on an amazing hike to a few more of the beaches near our retreat cabin.   During the summer they are marshes and prime bear habitat.  We were told that after hibernating, the first thing bears do in the spring is take a big long dump.  You have to be careful not to disturb them in those private moments.   Also, bears don’t hibernate all winter contrary to belief….they wake up and walk around periodically during the winter.  We saw some more seals and starfish and anenomes and plant tree life (the spruce I was trying to recall last week is the Sitka Spruce).   Again I was impressed that the hike was a bit dangerous.  We are not being treated like little kids.  Part of it involved scaling some rocks and another part involved tramping through thigh-deep snow drifts.   Again I was the only female.   I forgot my camera 😦

Tuesday was another tree cutting day.   I was really nervous because a week and a half had passed and I never really got the hang of it the first time.  We worked in conjunction with the National Forest Service who were in the middle of widening a logging trail anyway (everyone here is concerned about unnecessarily felling trees just for practice).   I stuck to bucking and limbing since just starting the saw is still hard for me, as is body position (have to keep your feet and head out of the way, your arms locked for strength, not strain your back, stand in such a way that the falling portion rolls the right way down the slope, and watch the tension and compression of the trunk/limb so that your saw doesn’t get pinched and stuck in the middle of your cut.  It’s really hard to figure out, especially when the limb is stuck under another limb or under snow, you just don’t know where the weight is centered.  I got stuck several times.  It was really discouraging.   The best part of that day was that the dogs were there running around, getting stuck in the snow, being cuddly.   They seem to understand how to stay out of the way of the saws.  

Wednesday was van maintenance day.  Everyone in the group, I couldn’t believe, already knew how to change oil and change tires, so I think they cut the training short.  They showed me how to change oil (I got really dirty and earned some new respect), as well as all the other fluids, and check air pressure.  But for some reason we didn’t do the tire change.  I will be responsible for doing this, though, if I am on the road with my crew in the middle of nowhere and my co-team leader is not there to help.  In the short term I was relieved to get out of it.  We also practiced loading gear on the top of the van and tying it down — who knew there were so many procedures and techniques for things I never even thought about? 

Thursday was:   HIGH ROPES!! I mentioned that the cabin we’re staying in is used as an Outward Bound center and kayaking training center during the summers…..they have low ropes courses (obstacle courses you maneuver with a team for trust building) which we practiced on our first week, and high ropes courses— balance beams and tight ropes about 20 feet off the ground.  You climb a ladder (with two spotters), then up a telephone pole type of apparatus, then cross back and forth across the rope or beam using various aids such as swinging ropes, parallel cords…hard to explain.  You are harnessed and helmeted and three people are manning the safety ropes on the harness.  A thousand times more secure than indoor rock climbing.   The most fun part of that was coming down — we were allowed to flip upside down and land on our hands if we wanted.  

Yesterday, Friday, was an “Education Day.”  In the morning we attending part of a week long seminar at the University of Alaska (Juneau) on Energy Conservation and Resources in Alaska.   One speaker talked about the relationship between herring populations and global warming and retreating glaciers.  The next speaker was one of Alaska’s House Representatives (as in Washington DC legislator), and he introduced himself with his grandparent’s Eskimo names and discussed how even though Alaska is an oil producing state, it has the country’s highest fuel prices.  It is hard to convince Washington to give money to Alskan towns that only consist of 400 people.  It’s a conundrum because these sparsely populated remote towns are what define Alaska, but the numbers aren’t enough to qualify them for the resources they need (in some towns a gallon of milk can cost almost $10, and these are in areas where people still hunt and gather for their subsistence!!!)  Then we went to the library to research various subjects that will be put together in a book for the corps members who arrive next month.   My subject was “Wolves.”  It reminded me of the 5th grade reports I wrote about racoons, white-tailed deer and the Sun (remember mom???).    In three hours I did gather a lot of fascinating and horrifying information.   This month the state legislature passed new laws increasing the areas wolf hunting will be allowed, increased the types of allowable hunting (from helicopters and from snowmobiles), and increased the numbers of wolves per license.   It’s sickening.   People love to hunt in Alaska (moose, deer, etc).  They see the wolf as a barrier to this fun activity because of course those are wolves’ prey.

Last night one of my favorite people here, a team leader named Ryan, organized us after dinner to play “Celebrity Salad Bowl” — a variation of charades.  People got so into it.  I love the cheesiness of this group, the intensity and the competitiveness and creativity.  LOVE IT. 

Today Saturday I finally became a van driver.  I passed the driving test weeks ago but never actually had the courage to drive people around because in these vans you can’t see out your rear view mirror or parallel park without a spotter (like a U-Haul).  But today I did it.  It was easier than I thought.  Woo  hoo.

General stuff going on:  It’s SPRING!!!! Snow is melting.  The frozen rivers are now becoming half ice, half water.  It’s really dramatic.  The beaches are starting to appear, with all their colorful rocks and shells.  I can now see how many trails there are everywhere (there are more miles of trails than roads in Alaska).  I’ve been running more often in the evenings.  The roads are a nice soft sandy texture (we are in bog-land).   I discovered some beautiful places I want to go back and photograph tomorrow:  Eagle Beach and the Shrine of St. Teresa.   They can only be described with photographs.  The views of the blue water with the colored homes and docked boats and snowy mountain tops in the distance with islands everywhere is just indescribable.  The sunsets are more beautiful here for some reason.  Maybe because the skylines are so amazing — adding the dropping sun just takes it to a new level.  We saw an amazing rainbown the other day — the entire arc, from bottom to top.  Plus it was a double rainbow (two rows of prisms right on top of each other).

The other big news is that we received three new team leaders in training.   Two are females.  WOO HOO.  Both 25.  Awesomely cool.  They like to hike and engage in the snowball fights and late night talking.  One wears MAKEUP!!!  The other used to work for a vet, so she’s an animal lover like I am.   Neither of them snore.  Both of them shower.  Neither has allergies.  The plan is that we are all going to dye our hair a weird color (since the guys are all going to get tattooed together).  I’m in heaven.   Plus Jane left the program.  She was the one with the latex allergy who was always lecturing me.  She had to go seek special treatment back in the “lower 48.”   Turns out no one liked her, not even staff. 

I finally weighed myself at the gym.  Gained 10 whole pounds in one month.  Ugh.  But my hair is long.  And I have really cool outdoor gear.  I could be an REI model 🙂

I’m gonna sign off cuz my hiking partner Jen has arrived.   Gavin is also waiting for me.  We’re going to do Juneau Mountain Trail.  Woo hoo!!

Love Alex

PS: 60 degrees outside today

PPS:  My April Fool’s Joke was to tell everyone that Bush was impeached.  No one sees news so they all believed me. 

Last Email from Juneau (#7) – 4/12/06

Two more days til we take a ferry (the only way out of this town except plane) to Skagway (about 1-2 hours northeast) to start the full time camping and trail-work portion of our training.  Ferry leaves day after tomorrow, Friday April 14 at noon, to be exact. 

The past week and a half gave me a taste of how hard trail work actually is.   We did real jobs, for the US Forest Service and the US Park Service (two different agencies). It was body-encompassingly exhausting, mentally too.

Monday and Tuesday we worked at Mendenhall Glacier, the most popular tourist destination in Juneau.  We divided into four smaller groups and took turns brushing (clearing away small trees and overhanging branches) several trails, in order to widen them, after they were dormant and unused all winter, and gravelling.   In winter gravel is used to prevent slippage on snow and ice but in the spring and summer they want it all removed.  There are actually special power tools, sort of like lawn mowers, you use just to sweep gravel from grass.  The rest we removed with good old shovels and push brooms.  My favorite part was breaking up banks of snow with the shovel.  I received a couple surprised comments from people about my enthusiasm for this back-breaking kind of work.  Moving dirt — just what I wanted to do!! Really!!!   The brushing aspect was funny.  I never thought before about whether a tree was pretty or not.  But we were instructed to lop off branch stubs and remove stumps that weren’t aesthetically pleasing.   It’s the idea of making a trail look as if it magically appeared rather than that it was created by people.  I got very attached to the small hand saws.  I decided I don’t like power tools.  They break down, they don’t always start, they required complicated tuning and assembling, they are unpredictable.  I like relying on elbow grease.  I started taking the beautification of trees along the trails very seriously, feeling quite god-like as I decided which limbs stayed and which got tossed into the ditch.  We cover all remaining stumps with moss.  It’s a great disguising trick.

Wednesday was the most gruelling day.   We helped the Forest Service buck (cut into log size pieces) and split (ie into firewood size) about 200 felled trees.   The Service was in the middle of building a new campground and wanted to use the trees for firewood, which would be provided to the lucky campers at the new site.   They assumed it would take our group of 20 two days to do the job, but we finished in the first day.  We were split into three rotating groups:  people bucking with the chain saw, people splitting with hand axes, and “runners” who loaded into wheelbarrows then carried the un-cut logs and firewood from station to station, eventually piling it up in a massive heap.  I mostly was a runner (go figure) and by lunch-time my entire body was wet with sweat, including my hair.  

After lunch I learned how to chop wood.  Never realized it was so hard.  I had to learn a special stroke and really pull my whole body weight into the swing.  I felt like a ROCK STAR.  It really requires strength, as well as confidence.  I had to be cajoled into even trying because there was so much testosterone out there, guys trying to outdo each other, see who could cut the most, the fastest, with the least strokes.  A sweet staff member (who is also very petite) from Wisconsin told me if she could do it, I could, and she insisted that I keep trying and trying til I got it, which I did.  I spent only about 15 minutes bucking logs with the chain saw cuz I hate the chain saw and it gets me so tired so quickly.  It’s really heavy.

Thusday was more brushing work (widening roads and trails) in an area called Swamp Lakes — prettier than the name.  Has something to do with formation by glaciers.  I rocked (verb that is overused – everyone here rocks everything, what happened to “use”??) the loppers (I used to call them hedge clippers) on this particular day.   There were also some overhanging trees had to be completely felled, because on a windy day, or if the trees died,  they could fall and hit a car or person.   I did a little sawing, but mostly tried to avoid it.

Friday was an “Education Day.”  Two rangers – one from the Park Service and one from the Forest Service – came to the EVC to discuss philophies behind the “Leave No Trace” ethic. We had college seminar-like discussions about whether or not to build a bridge in a pristine area if a trail leads to a river….or whether it’s OK to scatter biodegradable waste at a campsite….or whether there is ever a good reason to take a feather from a beach as a souvenier….

Then we discussed bear safety.  First we learned to distinguish brown (grizzly) and black bears (by skull shape and paw print, not necessarily by color or size, since you don’t know what age you are dealing with, and black bears can be brown and white as well as black).   Black bears have smaller claws and feet, adapted to climbing trees.  Grizzlies have larger claws and feet, not to kill people, but to DIG.   Black bears will generally run away from you; they defend themselves by climbing trees.  Grizzles evolved in the open tundras and had no place to run and hide.  Therefore when scared they stand their ground and attack.

Juveniles (not old enough to mate, but no longer nursing) are the most aggressive because they are constantly testing their position, trying to figure out where they are in the heirarchy of power….also just curious.  

The most dangerous times to encounter a bear are when there is a mom with cubs, or when they are feeding (usually fishing).  If the bear doesn’t see you, walk away.   If the bear does see you, and it’s black, stand your ground, it will usually run away.  If it’s a grizzly, or a juvenile/upset black bear, not only must you stand your ground and make noise, but also make approaches TOWARD the bear, if it doesn’t back away.  You can’t let it think it has dominance.    If that doesn’t work and it starts to attack (leaps at you), only then do you play dead and hope it backs off.  The only time you actually start fighting back is if it isn’t letting go or the attack is intensifying.   The subject of shooting bears with guns, mace, or pepper spray was left ambiguous because a) you might not have any of those items available; b) people have varying levels of proficiency with these weapons and c) people have different opinions about when (if ever) using such defence tactics is appropriate.

Still on Friday, an ornithologist came by to talk about birds and birding.  We tried out different binoculars and passed around stuffed birds that made realistic calls, common to this area.  This is a major migrational stop for many species as you can imagine, since we are amongst so many islands, so close to the ocean, and in such an extreme climate. 

Over the weekend, most people decided to stay in town because a major Alaskan event, the Folk Fest, was stationed in Juneau all week, culminating in concerts and performances Saturday and Sunday.   Bluegrass and country, mostly, by locals as well as some national and international artists.  I ideally wanted to go, just to experience it, but I’m not a huge fan of this kind of music, and the other team leaders were REALLY grating on my nerves all week (the guys being macho and put-down-y, and the two new women being either oblivious or else still charmed and flirting, like I was the first two weeks).   Plus, we had just found out that we were leaving to Skagway on the coming Friday, meaning it would be my last weekend to make sure my camping gear was in order, seam seal my tent, waterproof my boots, apply another coat of waterproofing to my clothes and gloves,  mail unnecessary items back to California (THANKS JIMMY!!!) and get gifts to others into the mail (if you’re a chocolaholic, be on the lookout). 

I stayed at the lodge with three of the quiter folks and we had a really nice time together.  We heard stories on Monday about all the drinking and hooking up and dancing and other shenanigans, but…I didn’t really feel I had missed anything, and I slept quite well.   That’s why I didn’t get one of this missives out to all of you until now…wasn’t in town!!

Monday and Tuesday we volunteered for one of SAGA’s other sub-organizations (remember, I’m in ASC — Alaska Service Corps) called YABAH – Young Alaskans Building Affordable Housing.    I was excited to learn some carpentry skills and get out of the forest and mud and rain (oh yeah, I got DRENCHED the prior week).     Silly me.   Guess what our assignment was?  CLEARING TREES out of an undeveloped lot in PREPARATION for a new home to be built there.  I couldn’t escape tree cutting this day.  I had to do my first pie-cut (a three-cut process used for larger trees) and all I can say is that I bombed over and over.  It’s really hard to tell what angle you are holding the bar (blade) while still keeping your head and body out of the way of the chain.  The first cut needs to be at a 45 degree angle, and then second one needs to be exactly perpendicular to the tree, and those two cuts have to meet one third of the way into the tree.  The third (back) cut has to be about 10% higher than the wedge, and all the while your feet have to be grounded (despite the fact that there is mud, foliage, rocks and other debris all around you) and your arms have to be straight and the motor wants to keep dying.   I was taking down small trees, so there was no real danger, and I could have felled them with a simpler two cut process, but I was practicing the pie cut.  All I really learned is that I still hate chain sawing, though my skill at limbing and bucking got a bit better, and I feel pretty comfortable putting the saw together, gassing it, starting it, and even learned to sharpen it, finally.  I prefer being a “swamper” – someone who drags the large branches and logs away after the tree is down. 

Today is now Wednesday 4/12,.  I am using it as my first personal day.   I was planning to save all my personal days (we get one per month) for a vacation at some point, but I really need this day to re-roder work boots.  Tthe ones I originally ordered are not 100% leather, therefore unacceptable.  YOU try going on line and finding women’s work boots that are 1. all leather; 2. 8″ high; 3. waterproof; 4. insulated; 5. steel toed; 6. women’s size. ARGH!!!!!!  Someone who’s become a buddy to me, Dennis Reigel, just bought a station wagon from one of the staff members for $150.  It’s 4 wheel drive, has snow tires, plus 4 regular tires, runs great, has 160,000 miles on it, is about 10 years old, is big enough to sleep in, has functioning climate control and stereo, etc.  You get these deals all the time in Juneau, I guess because the population is so small and it’s so hard to get vehicles in and out of the city (your only method is by ferry).   So now I have someone to drive me around once in a while, and here I am in the library, finally.   I sent Grace (thank you Grace!) my first 4 rolls of film to upload to Ofoto, so hopefully next week I can share them with y’all.

Tomorrow we learn how to flag for the Department of Transportation (yes, some of our work will require donning the pretty orange suits and holding the “Stop/Slow” sign), then Friday we are off to Skagway, never to return to Juneau (at least not for SAGA).   As soon as we disembark, we set up our first work camp, at the base of a popular hiking trail, which we will spend about a month rehabilitating.  After our month there, we move on to a town called Indian (farther north) and meet up with our crews, who will just be arriving for their orientation.  So there will be about 70 of us camping out together for another 1-2 weeks, then finally, I guess it will be June by this point, we go off with our crews and I become a true team leader.  We still don’t know who our partners will be. 

My relationships with people have their ups and downs; I get along with some people more one week, and less the next.   The new Amy and new Noah who arrived two weeks ago are actually a couple but trying to hide it.  I had sort of a heart to heart with Kenny and Max, the two hot headed 24 year olds who were giving me the most grief, and they’re being really cool now.  I think they just needed to be around me more and figure out that I AM ALWAYS JOKING!!!!  I’m feeling happier about them.

I am also engaging in some long-overdue girl talk with Amy and Jen about which guys are cute, which are nice, which are cocky, etc….it’s fun.   They STILL don’t know I’m 36.   Two even NEWER people arrived last week and one confessed to me he heard I was 30-31 but “didn’t act like it.”   I think the prevailing wisdom is that I’m 31.

All the snow except in the mountains has melted.  Kind of sad, but very dramatic. I picked up some new gear:  a better fitting hard hat, better fitting safety goggles, better fitting (and more waterproof) gloves, clip on earplugs (cool in the logger world), a cuter hat, more undergarments (amazing how wet you get when you are both sweating and it’s raining), and carabiners to hang stuff all over the pack that comes with me everywhere: new clip on knife, clip on screw drivers, clip on flash light, clip on compass, clip on thermometer, clip on goggle defogger.  You really do need all this stuff.  I also bought waterproof file folders for all my papers.  People have already figured out that if they need a stapler, scissors, or envelopes, I’m the one who has them. 

We are definitely leaving the EVC because it’s summer caretaker has arrived with her dog (yay more dogs!!!) to start setting up the kayacks and rope courses for the various groups that will be using the EVC over the summer.  I would love to have her job one day.  She has a cute little cabin and will basically be paid to play.  I get along well with her boss, Dave, the winter caretaker who’s been working with us a little bit….Maybe I could come back and have her job next summer….Then again, the rain here is a drag…..I hope I get assigned to a northern area where it is drier.   The mosquitoes are already out in full force.  But what’s weird is that I have ZERO mosquite bites.  What’s up with that???

I better call it quits for now.   I’m torn between telling you the main events and sharing the little details.   Hopefully that was a mix. Did I already write that Wolf was fired/quit?   Sad but kind of foreseeable.  Indie might leave.  Her sister died and she’s going home for the funeral but hinted to me she might not come back (she just got engaged to her girlfriend).  Dennis Reigel wants to quit because he’s fallen in love with Juneau and wants to stay here.  He’s job hunting on another computer terminal while I’m typing this.   Sarah and Jen dyed their hair and Amy and I were supposed to join them as an act of female solidarity (Sarah went blue and Jen went pink), but I had just dyed my hair BROWN the day before (damn those grey roots!!!) and couldn’t bear to see the $75 go to waste.  Still gaining weight — it might be muscle, but I’m not fond of it — jeans all getting tight — and my legs are getting purpler and purpler.  Don’t know where all the bruises come from but I do bang into rocks and trees a lot and get into play-fights with people semi-regularly.    It’s good that it is still cold enough (40-50 degrees) to cover ups with long sleeves and long pants.

Alright, I’m signing off, really, I swear.  Bye

Skagway #1 – 4/19/06

It’s been a while…or so it seems.  Today is April 19, Wednesday.  I love this town.  Last week, Thursday, still in Juneau, we spent a crazy day learning how to flag for the Department of Transportation (all those signs you see on the side of the road are meticulously placed, and each one is REALLY heavy; again, another “science” I never knew existed).   Then we ran around doing last minute errands before the big move from our cozy retreat cabin to full on camping for the rest of the year.   Friday morning we boarded a ferry to Skagway, stopping first in Haines.  It was FANTASTIC.  Forget the ferry rides I’ve taken in New York, in Greece, in Norway, in the Bay Area.  For some reason this one was so much more exciting.  First of all the ship itself was fun — sleeping cabins plus viewing decks plus homey cafe and one teeny gift shop.  Very mom and pop, not a big fancy cruise ship.   Seeing the Alaskan coastline from the water versus from the land was an entirely new experience.  It seemed so much more dramatic and picturesque.  We saw orca whales (misnomer, they are actually dolphins) swimming right alongside the ferry most of the way.  It had been raining for the past 3 days but luckily cleared up for this ride.  We arrived at 8pm (it stays light til 9pm these days), and drove our vans, packed with 5 weeks of gear (camping, food, tools, fuel, cooking equipment, wall tent, water canteens, all clothing and personal items we own), off board, to a camp site about a half hour from the dock.   Finally it felt like Alaska, remote, watery (just like the “tundras” you see on Nat’l Geographic type shows), intersprinkled with cliffs.  The town of Skagway is MUCH smaller than Juneau — like in Northern Exposure.  The mayor owns the main camping/sporting gear shop and is very friendly toward SAGA (our group).  He hooked us up with free cross country skis, snow shoes and sleds for the weekend.   He’s only about 40.   But I am getting ahead of myself.  We drove that first night along a windy, desolate road that soon went from pavement to gravely dirt.  We passed waterfalls, marshes, old cabins.   We stopped at the Chilkoot trailhead.  This is a famous old goldmining trail.  It leads to and through Canada (22 miles away).  It’s known for being rugged, and the Park Service tries not to groom it too much.  It started raining at this point, so we had to set up camp, at 9pm, in the dark, and in the rain, at a site we had never been to before.  The day before we left Juneau, I was waterproofing my tent, and someone who was trying to help me move it broke one of the main poles.  This was a major problem because it was a uniquely shaped pole and not easily substitutable or repairable.  The only thing to do was call Mountain Hardware (located in Richmond CA!) and have them send a new one as quickly as possible.  There is no overnight delivery to Alaska from the mainland, so I knew I wouldn’t get the new pole until mid-week sometime in Skagway.  I had to set up my tent, broken, in the rain, and ask people to help me compensate for the lack of structural support.   The one staff member who came with us — Blake, who just turned 25, and acts more like a frat boy than anyone else — seemed deaf and blind to my situation.  Another leader-in-training, Seth, a super nice guy, is the one who made my tent livable for me. 

I dragged not only my full size backpack but also my oversized ski duffel bag (on wheels) into my tent.  I seemed to have way more stuff than anyone else, yet still somehow didn’t seem to have all the right things.   Pulling “luggage” over branches and mud didn’t do much to improve my image as a serious outdoors person. 

In the morning, I was dry.   I slept longer than anyone else, because I had made sure to set up my tent farthest away from the fire pit and the parking area as possible.  There was some mild resentment, because even though it was Saturday, technically a day off, the rest of the group had woken up and set up the two wall tents (which are each large enough to house two picnic tables, two stove ranges, bear boxes, coolers, etc), and started a fire.  I joined them at 9:30am in time to help organize the food.   Most didn’t fit in the bear boxes and coolers and had to be arranged in the vans, which were also housing all our tools.  The vans are also housing much of our personal gear because we are not supposed to keep ANYTHING with a scent in our tents, including toothpaste, deodorant, gum, lotion, shampoo, soap, coffee thermos, etc.

Right now we are organized into two “teams” even though we are all camping in the same place.   The idea is that over the next 5 weeks while we are in Skagway we will switch team leaders.  Right now I am on a team with ten people total.  The two leaders are Jen and Gavin.  Jen is one of the new girls who at first I really liked but then kind of turned off to because she seemed really into impressing/cozying up to the guys in an overly flirtatious way.  Gavin is probably one of my favorite people here.  I won’t be partnered with him when training is over because he is going to be working with youth (“SAYC”), while I will be working with a team of older (mostly in their 20’s) people (“ASC”).   He’s the one from New York who is a bit older (29 I think), did SAGA three years ago, is very patient, is into photography and cooking and Scrabble and education generally.   Each team has its own wall tent, its own food supply, it’s own tools and gear, and it’s own van.  (By the way, these vans are so trashed after years of abuse by SAGA teams.  Ours is missing rear view mirror and driver’s side door handle, has a cracked windshield, and the trunk/rear doors only open from the inside, requiring people to scramble over several rows of seats to open them.  I won’t even mention the condition of the upholestery or the amount of trash that accumulates).    We were trying to think of a team name and the guys were going for superhero names or cartoon characters or wrestling pros.  I suggested “My Pretty Pony” and for some reason they actually understood my humor this time and with a minor alteration (“We Pretty Pony”) that is who we are now.   We have a cooking and cleaning schedule for meals.  I was put in charge of making breakfast the first work morning (Monday) and making dinner Tuesday night.  Breakfast was oatmeal and dinner was casa dias.  I’m getting ahead again.

Sunday we skiied and show shoed and sledded near the Canadian border.  It was amazing.  I have two minutes until the group gets to go shower (first time since Juneau) so I will have to come back to this. 

Monday I worked cleaning up an historic cemetary.  FUN!!  There was a waterfall and old mining cave.  There are trains everywhere.  Ads are painted onto rocks on the cliffs.   Today, Wednesday, we cleaned up the Dewey Lake trail.  GORGEOUS!!!!  Tuesday we did a 10 mile hike on the Chilkoot, more clearing.  Details later.   On Friday we are being HELICOPTERED in to Sheep Camp way up in the mountains for a work schedule of 8 days on/4 days off.  Tomorrow we prepare for that.  It’s been SNOWING at night, getting BELOW 20 degrees.  HORRIBLE to get out of sleeping bag in morning!! 

Gotta go!

No cell phone reception in Skagway, by the way.  But I have a phonecard I will try to put to use (mom and dad).

Grace — did you get the photo CDs????

Love, Alex/Ali/Alexandra

Skagway #2 – 4/20/06

I started jotting down notes since internet access is starting to become more and more scare with our new location (12 mile hike from town) and new schedule (8 days of work, alternating with 4 days off).

Every 8 days we will hike the 12 miles along the Chilkoot (steep, slushy, rugged old mining trail with “Warning – Advanced Hikers Only” signs everywhere; at the end is a portion called the “Golden Staircase) to Sheep Camp, from our trail head in Skagway, carrying 8 days worth of clothes and personal items, including tents, bags, tarps, mats, lamps, water bottles, etc…..My pack will probably weigh about 50 lbs.  We hiked 5 miles out and 5 miles back one day last week just to do some trail work, carrying a few saws and loppers, and our lunches, water, hard hats and safety goggles; and that nearly killed me.  Probably because I was wearing my steel-clad work boots (3 pounds each?) and because I was alternating between freezing and sweating. We will go all the way to Sheep Camp (which is supposed to be snowy right now; pretty high altitude) for the first time this Tuesday (4/25). 

I was incorrect on my last email — our GEAR (cooking, tools, communal stuff) is being helicoptered in by the Park Service, while we hike.  We spent all of today,  Thursday 4/20, packing up for 3 weeks at Sheep Camp (we are leaving one camp site set up for weekends back here in Skagway).  We filled both vans then took them to the Park Service for weighing.  Total weight was 2, 574.5 pounds (I remember because each helicopter can only carry 1200 pounds and it was a big deal that we will have to put the excess on a third helicopter).

We always get our information at the last minute.  Last night at 9pm was when I found out I had to figure out what to keep in town for 4 days and what to “heli” to Sheep Camp, all by noon the next day.  I had to decide whether or not to heli up my tent, and find lodging in town all weekend (there are hostels and B&Bs), or whether to leave my tent, camp over the weekend, and hike my tent (it’s 7.5 pounds) in on Tuesday.  At the same time we were being rushed around to take our final showers, do our final loads of laundry and final grocery shopping trips….and we still have to show up at 8am, breakfast finished, dishes washed, lunches made, dressed in work gear and ready for the day, at stretch circle (or else run a lap; it’s more humiliation than pain).   I am ALWAYS rushed.  Alarm goes off at 6am and I for the first time in my life do not get immediately up but hit snooze over and over because of how COLD it is!!! (Frost on tent fly, leaves and mud crack when you walk outside.)  Then I run to the wall tent to hurriedly try to help cook and eat and clean and put everything away and bear proof the table tops and ground — then try to be cheerful as we pass around stretches and quotes of the day and chant our little “Play Hard Play Safe Shoot Straight Nobody Gets Hurt” ritual….  (Apparently there is a story behind that; in the first year of SAGA in the 1970s somebody was trying to shoot at a bear in self defense and missed his buddy by an inch or so.  No one was harmed, not even the bear.  Actually, no bear accidents, or even saw accidents, in SAGA history, though a staff member has saved a hard hat with a knick in the visor where a saw hit it; and some prior crew member, years ago, cut through his chaps, but his leg was fine.)

So now that our gear is loaded onto the helicopters, we have a blessed free hour.  I’m back in the library, of course.   I recognize the cafe server and the hardware store clerk here.  A perfect stranger at the computer terminal next to me pointed out that my boss was outside.  He recognized the SAGA van (we come here every summer I guess) and figured out I was new in town and must be part of SAGA.   He explained to me what we would be working on in more detail than any of my own staff has explained to me.  

So, back to the beginning of this email….I’ve been jotting down notes by hand over the last few weeks.   In no particular order:

– My fingernails are GNARLY.  I am laughing at memories of manicures.

– I gave up on the makeup.  I just don’t have room or time for it.  I do all my personal grooming in the van, with 5 guys next to me, as we drive from camp to our worksite for 10 minutes each morning.  That consists of running some deodorant under my shirt, swiping cotton swab over face and neck with astringent, putting on sun screen, mosquito repellant and lip balm, and flossing.   We have a “brush circle” when we can coordinate it, with people standing around the sump pit (the hole we dig at each site to dump dish water and other non-water liquids), tooth-brushing.   It’s hard to remember and find time, since we keep our toothbrushes and paste in the vans, and it’s cold, and we’re always rushing.  It’s nice to have group motivation.   I am really about the only person here who flosses. 

– The “Rec Center” here in Skagway (a combo gym and public meeting place) allowed SAGA members to use their showers for free.  I went yesterday and saw a mirror for the first time in ages.  Wow.  Sun (or wind) burned face.  It’s often overcast, but my face is always hot, I think from how windy it is (right on the water).  And scratches on my face I didn’t realize I had.  Most of my job is dragging branches and limbs through wooded forests, and I am always getting slapped in the face with pine needles and sticks, since my hard hat tends to fall off.  I hate wearing the hard hat.  It seems more of a hindrance than a safety feature but it’s required.  What else?  Bruises EVERYWHERE!! Who knows where they come from.  I guess I knock into logs, pick up a lot of heavy things and bump them into my legs…I’m definitely NOT PRETTY right now!!!

– All the guys are surprised (there were scales in the gym where we showered) that they have each gained about 10 pounds too.  I’m not the only one!! We are hoping it’s muscle but we eat very well, and very frequently.  Lots of butter fried stuff.  Lots of chocolate. Lots of bagels and nuts and dried fruit.  They should make anorexic girls do this program.

– Back to that cross country skiing day …. Despite how physical our job is, guys were still trying to be very macho, attempting snowboard jumps and spins (knowing they would crash, because on cross country skis) and digitally filming their wipeouts.   One of the guys I used to think was really boisterous, Max, has turned out to be much more introspective.  He often wanders away alone and discovers great things and tells us about them.  He found an amazing frozen waterfall in the snowy mountains, with a spring (unfrozen) at the bottom.  He rigged up my water bottle to retrieve water from the spring.  We were hot and sweaty from the ski/hike to the fall, and the water was the coldest, sweetest thing ever.   Evian doesn’t come close.  Max also discovered the mining cave with the old graffiti in it, when we were working at the historic cemetary (where all the headstones indicated deaths between 1890 and 1910).   The best thing Max discovered was a half-price thermos at a thrift store in Juneau that keeps coffee hot 24 hours straight.  I got one just like his and I think I’m in love with him now because of it.

After skiing, I went with two other people (Justin, a leader in training and Blake, a staffer) to the tippiest top of one of the mountains near us in order to have a jumbo long sled ride down.  It was absolutely gruelling getting up.  Blake told us to worry about avalanches on the way down.  I thought about Mom’s article about swimming out of an avalanche.  Blake said it was more important to keep an air pocket around your head.  I just couldn’t believe we were risking it and doing this nearly 90 degree drop in the sled.   In the end we chose a less steep route but it was still stomach churning.  

Alright.  I tired myself out again.  Am in town for next 3 days, so more later (remember, you can always request deletion from this mailing list!!!)

xo Al

Skagway #3 – 5/4/06

Whew.  Think I need to start in the present and work backwards, lots happened since last check-in.

Today, May 4, is the beginning of my first 4-day weekend, following our first 10-day work “week.”  I am EXHAUSTED, physically and mentally.   It’s good, I think.

The history associated with the town of Skagway is incredible.  This was the gateway to the 1898 goldrush in the Klondike river in Canada, right across the US border.  Thousands of Americans sailed from San Francisco and Seattle to Skagway, where they took off on either the White Pass Trail or the Chilkoot Trail by foot (or animal) over the summit of the mountains (about 4000 ft elevation in a mere 25 mile distance), passed through Canadian customs, built ships, then sailed down the rivers to the various towns where gold was supposedly available for the taking.  It took people so long; the trails were so treacherous; most didn’t make it, or when they did, the gold was gone.   It took most people over a year to do the hike because they had to do the uphill portion in the winter, to drag their sleds and gear over the frozen rivers; then wait til summer for the rivers to melt and carry them downstream on the other side.   The most treacherous part of the trail was on the White Pass summit — it’s called the Golden Staircase, preceded by The Scales.  This appx. 10 mile section is practically a 90 degree incline.  Part of it is called Dead Horse Trail because more than 3000 horses died trying to make the climb, totally overloaded, on frozen narrow rocky trails, in freezing weather.  Most people (called “stampeders”) had no idea what conditions they were getting into, and the journey was so much more treacherous than they were prepared for, they virtually lost their humanity in mistreating their beasts of burden, which were abandoned to die up at the top, and pretty much expected to only make it half way before falling off a cliff or slipping and drowning or simply collapsing from exhaustion or broken legs.  When that happened, they bought another horse to the point where their gear was, and took it until it died, and just kept going through animals in that way.  UGH. 

The Golden Staircase is named for obvious reasons — tons of famous photos of this portion of the trail, consisting of a long single file line of goldseekers climbing up the vertical mountains in the snow, like ants.  The Scales is so named because before the steepest section, gear was weighed, and a fee had to be paid for the weight.  The irony was that no American was allowed across the Canadian border unless he had a year’s worth of provisions with him.  This meant that each person had to go up and down the whole trail 30-40 times, to get what amounted to an average of a TON of gear up there with  him.  

The White Pass Trail was at first considered the fastest and most preferable route; but it turned out to be the most deadly.  The Chilkoot Trail, which led out of a tiny settlement right next to Skagway called Dyea (pronounced “DYE-EE”), was considered the “Poor Man’s” trail because it was too rocky, narrow and steep for horses or mules, and men who could not purchase animals walked the whole thing by foot. 

The Chilkoot Trail is the one I am working on.  It is the one that includes the Scales and the Golden Staircase.   Our base camp is in Dyea, which incidentally no longer exists except as a campground.  The town, which was booming in the 1890s and early 1900s, has entirely disappeared by now.  All that’s left is a meadow and river system.    Our camp is literally at the head of the Chilkoot Trail.   Our work assignment is at Sheep Camp — which is 12 miles into the trail, accessible ONLY by foot or by helicopter (no road).   There are three campsites before Sheep Camp on the way up the trail.  The trail starts with Saintly Hill, so called because you are a saint if you can make it over without swearing.  It is really steep and narrown and slippery.  Worse with a 30-40 pound pack on your back, worse still if there is ice or snow or mud (all three conditions present right now).  After that, there is fairly flat terrain until Finnegan’s Point, where there remains an old mining shack with rusting cots, and a modern warming tent for passers by to stay if they so desire (just canvas over a platform, with a wood burning stove inside and an outhouse nearby, but luxurious if it is raining and cold outside and you want to sit down for a while).   Another 3 miles and you reach Canyon City (during the goldrush there were saloons, dance halls, hotels and stores set up here; now there is only another warming tent and an outhouse).  Another 5 miles takes you to Pleasant Camp, and then, after what seems like an impossibly gruelling, endless, uphill climb, where the trail constantly disappears into streambeds and steep rock cliffs, you reach Sheep Camp….another little “city” back in the day, a resting point for the stampeders, which is now just a campground.  The story with this name is that people hunted and sold goats here.  The area is a natural habitat for white mountain goats.  But the silly outsiders referred to them as sheep.   Incidentally, there are lots of misnomers in Alaska.  There is a town called Chicken because people didn’t know how to spell Ptarmigan, the state bird for which it was supposed to be named (ptarmigans look like chickens but they can fly).   Even Skagway was supposed to be spelled Skaguay, but the US Postal Service made a typo, substituting w for u, and the error stuck; it would have been too costly to make the change.

Seriously, I was SPENT by the time we made it to Sheep Camp.  We left at 9am and made it there by 4 pm, with only a 30 minute lunch break, and maybe a couple 5 minute stops at other points.  You get sweaty as you hike, so when you stop, you quickly become really cold (despite that it was a balmy 45 degrees or so the day of our hike).  It makes you want to keep going.   I thought I was in shape; that I could never really get tired; that I hiked faster than anyone I knew….but I could not believe how fast my crew was going.  I really could have used a slower pace.  I think it was because of the difficulty of the footing.  Not at all a groomed trail.  That is on purpose — the Park Service wants to maintain the trail in its natural/original condition (of course this ignores the back story that this was even earlier a trade route for native alaskan tribes on the coast and in the interior — fish and seal skin would get traded to the interior; elk and buffalo would be traded to the coastal folk.   We might be doing some work with native Tlingit tribe descendants, and perhaps erect some signage which pays homage to that era of the trail; right now all the signs along the way only refer to the white man’s experience of the trail during the gold rush).

Once we got to camp, work was not over.  It was time to set up the wall tent (where we cook and do dishes), set up our own tents, and have, of course, a meeting.   We were to begin work for the Park Service the very next morning at 8am (after making breakfast, packing lunch, and completing stretch circle, which basically meant waking up at 6am each day).   It was cool that there were wooden platforms up at Sheep Camp.  Much neater than staking out our tents on muddy ground.  I had received my replacement pole from Mountain Hardware at this point, so my tent was much easier to erect.  However, since I had purchased it as a floor display from the Marmot outlet in Berkeley, it didn’t have an accompanying footprint (a ground tarp customized to the shape of the tent), and Mountain Hardware has informed me they do not make the footprint anymore.   My tent (a Skyview II), is in an irregular shape — the body is a rectangle but the vestibule shoots out to the side, so the overall shape is a crescent.   It’s hard to conform a rectangular tarp to this shape tent, and you can’t have the edges of the tarp project outside the tent body, or else rain will collect and leak in.   So I have to maneuver the tent and fold in the tarp so it somehow fits, and I bought a vinyl picnic  tablecloth to fill in the empty parts, and part of the vestibule has to hang over the edge of the wooden platform….anyway, kind of an ordeal.   I also bought extra stakes and extra line so that I could spread my fly (tarp over the tent) extra tight and be extra sure that water would not leak into my tent.  I also purchased a miniature dustpan and broom to keep dirt out of the tent, and a couple sponges to get rid of the mud and snow that melts in the vestibule area.   Other people set up their tents in about 5-10 minutes.  I usually spend 30-45 minutes making mine just right 🙂

By the way, when I contacted Mountain Hardware to purchase a customized footprint and was informed they no longer sold them, they did advise me instead to go to a hardware store and buy some Tyvek (waterproofing used on the exterior of buildings during construction, usually around windows or under the stucco layer, kind of like paper or cardboard but synthetic; you folks at BBHHR and SGH probably know exactly what it is!!!).  I went to the hardware store here in Skagway but they only sell industrial size rolls for lots of money.  The hardware store advised me to visit a construction site in town and ask the contractor for extra scraps.  There is actually a ton of construction going on as the town readies for the onslaught of summer tourists.  There are only about 500 permanent year long residents, but when a cruise ship docks, the town can fill up to 10,000 people.  They say the streets look like Disneyland.  The whole town is only about a square mile in area!!!  I haven’t resorted to asking construction crews yet.   Maybe over this weekend.

My hand is actually in quite a bit of pain at the moment.  I was gripping hand tools and pulling huge weeds for 6 days straight and it feels like the beginning of carpal tunnel, or arthritis.  I’ve been told this is natural.  My hands have actually gone numb overnight.  It’s supposed to get better as I get stronger, and also if I take long rest periods.   So I am going to take a rest.  More later.


Skagway #4 – 5/6/06 (Warning – makes prior installments seem short)

Alright, back to the saga.  Ha ha, get it?  I work for SAGA

Maybe some random observations first.

Everyone of the team leaders training with me right now is caucasian, and at least 50% have blue eyes.  Weird.  I am the most exotic person here, being half Jewish.   The single Native American, Wolf, left the job due to difficulty getting along with the staff.  There was one Latin American, Miguel, who went back to Los Angeles to help out his family with financial difficulties.

Each day at Sheep Camp, it would start off snowing (12am – 6am), then start raining, then get sunny (around noon), then start snowing again, then start raining again around 8pm.   Talk about the need for layers.   At first I couldn’t imagine building trail under snow, but no one was daunted.  You just brush it aside, and then start hacking at the moss and leaves underneath, until you reach the permafrost.  At first we were using picks to chip away the frozen mud to create a solid tread, but we were told to skip this step since spring was coming and the trail would melt so much over the next months; the Park Service will have to come back and re-cut more layers out.  I guess the trails become spongey mush if you don’t carve them out all the way down to the mineral soil level, along with drainage areas along the way.

I’m going to jump around a bit more and go to the weekend before we left to Sheepcamp, when we were stationed in Dyea, the former stampeders’ settlement a half-mile from the center of Skagway.  I use my weekends, as you know by now, to rent motel rooms and get away and shower and watch TV and use the computer and feel human for a few days, while many others remain at the camp site, eat the free food there.  I literally don’t know how they can stand taking no break, getting dressed crouched on their sleeping bags in their tiny tents day after day, trying to crawl in and out the door without dragging mud inside, eating breakfast standing around the fire while it’s pouring rain, hoping their raingear doesn’t get too saturated, cuz there’s no place to hang it to dry, brushing their teeth with chattering hands over a hole in the mud, unable to rinse the brush  without going to the river and risking getting their boots wet on the stepping stones to reach the part with current (only safe way to dispose of “grey water”…..how can they find that tolerable with no break, for week after week after month after month?!

I was doing laundry today and heard some of the guys from my group who were also there that it was the first time they had washed their towels since leaving Juneau three weeks ago.   That’s a lot of travel in dirty backpacks, numerous uses at public showers, followed by being tossed into the back seat or the floor of our perpetually crud-encrusted vans, then moved into a clump in their tents.  Seriously, you can’t really dry anything out, cuz it rains at least once a day.  You can hang stuff in the wall tents which tend to get steamy and warm when we are boiling water at meal times, but you’re hanging the towel over greasy wall tent poles, in what is essentially a sauna.

OK, so back to that first weekend. I rented a room ($70/night) at the only motel in town, called Seargent Preston’s Lodge, named after a famous radio show featuring Sgt. Preston, a fictional Canadian Mountie (horse-mounted police officer), which it turns out my mom actually remembered listening to as a kid.  She even remembered Sgt. Preston’s dog’s name, King.   According to the show, he frequently came over the border from Canada to Skagway for provisions or for dramatic story lines (this was known as a town of drunken bandits).   I got flack from the other people I work with for renting a motel room instead of camping in one of the town’s RV lots, or staying in the hostel (essentially an old man’s house, with pets and toys and dishes all over the downstairs, and a couple bedrooms upstairs with several beds; the doors are never locked; it smells like cooking and laundry and diapers and pet hair).   But those hypocrites all wanted to sleep on the floor of my motel room, after boozing in the local pubs.  (If you stay at the hostel, you have to be in by 10pm).  They also wanted to shower in my bathroom, watch my TV, make calls from my phone, or just come in from the rain and wind and hang out (duh!! There’s a reason humans invented walls and roofs and carpets!!)  I was astonished at how NICE these usually rude guys were being to me, for obvious reasons, but I caved and allowed several to crash on my floor overnight.  Word spread and as 1am and 2am rolled around, other members of our group showed up in the room and squeezed in.  I even had someone passed out on my bed, another person whose head was in the bathroom.   The manager complained in the morning and threatened never to let a SAGA member stay at the motel again (these guys didn’t just wake up me; they woke up other guests as well).  But I sweet talked the manager and promised never to let more than one person in my room again, and convinced him (because it was true) that I DID NOT WANT to associate with SAGA myself on the weekends I stayed in town!!  He believed me and this weekend, while I am here for 4 nights, he actually moved me to a double room, for the same single price, just to be nice (and creepily flirtatious, but that’s OK).

What else happened that weekend?  The buzz around town was that a movie was being shown at the Tourist Center (right now serving as a community center, since the “season” has not yet started).  It was “The Big White” starring Robin Williams and Woody Harrelson and Holly Hunter, filmed in Skagway and along the White Pass about three years ago.  There were two showings on Friday night, 5pm and 7pm.   Both were free.   The 5pm showing filled up (only about 75 people can fit in the showing room at a time) so there was a handwritten sign to come back at 7.    At 6:30pm, the lobby was already packed with locals, and a line was out the door onto the sidewalk.  I looked for other SAGA members but I didn’t see any.  I enjoyed making small talk with the people in line with me.  It’s nice to be able to announce I am not a tourist but somewhat of a permanent Alaskan resident, and also not a “preppy” (scum of the earth to Skaguans) — but a grubby trail worker.    The 7pm showing filled up too and they decided to show the film again the next evening.   I didn’t get in, so instead I went across the street to the Red Onion, the historic saloon (still features a brothel upstairs, now a museum).  The bartender introduced himself by name, and addressed me by name the whole time I was there, leading the waitress and other bartender to call me by name too.  I decided I never wanted to leave Skagway, ever, these people were just too cool!!!  As opposed to the image of old grizzly 50 year old bearded guys in Alaska, the population seems to consist primarily of people in their 20s and 30s, the kind of people who work at REI and Whole Foods, people with stylin’ Helly Hansen and Northface gear, some with dredlocks, others with that rock-climbing magazine cover look.    Anything going on about town (the night before it was a pot-luck; I heard people discussing their dishes at the grocery store as I was purchasing snacks, and at the cafe where I ate breakfast), everybody attends.   It’s so cute.   And like I say, these are young people, not senior citizens.

Finally, Gavin walked into the bar, and together we decided to go to the single other bar in town, the more grisly, locals-filled (as opposed to historical landmark, though this one is actually historic too), “Moes.”  Hole in the wall-ish, and people smoke inside.  (Weird, same with the more locals-oriented eateries).   At Moes we saw about half of our group.   I was breaking a rule wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt with the SAGA logo on it (we are supposed to completely dissociate the SAGA name with alcohol)….so I turned it inside out.  This was my “going-out” outfit:  Carhartts (work pants) – not entirely clean, oversized baggy grey T-shirt, hiking boots.  My concession to Friday night was that I was not wearing my hair in barrettes or pigtails, just down (because it was finally shampooed).  I think that night changed things with a lot of SAGA guys.  All I had to do was show up, drink some beer and a couple shots, and suddently I was an OK person.  Don’t those stupid heads know that’s all I did for about 15 years?  I keep forgetting most of these guys are between 21 and 25.  I was introduced to a few local skaguayans, but none that I really was interested in, and that was that.

The next day I went on a long hike by myself (I invited others, but most of the guys here are more into rock climbing), to “Upper Dewey Lake,” which is about 3 miles from the town center, and about 2500 ft climb.   There is a warming tent there for folks who want to stay overnight, and then a few miles farther, and higher, there is the “Devil’s Puchbowl” featuring spectacular waterfalls.  I only got half-way to Upper Dewey Lake.  A) It was MUCH steeper and more exhausting than I aniticipated.  B) There was more ice on the trail than I anticipated.  C)  at 2000 ft, there was about 2 feet of snow on the ground, which I wasn’t dressed for (no snow in town).  So I turned around.   I started doing the “Hi bear, how ya doin bear, just passin through bear” (Canadian accent perfects the routine) song on my way down, after hearing some rustling below me.   You always feel silly doing this in the middle of the woods, in case you bump into a person (you look a little demented)….and sure enough, after about 5 minutes of singing in a loud Canadian accent, I saw Jason, one of our Park Service bosses (though he’s only about 25) coming up the trail.   He laughed at me, but we both knew I was being smart.   He was going to the warming tent ahead and I felt like a wimp compared to him for having turned around, but then again, I rationalized, he is a Park Ranger with experience.   A few days later, when we were all at Sheep Camp, and Jason was there giving us our work assignment, I asked him how the rest of the hike was.  He said he saw where my tracks ended in the deep snow and turned around at the same place, for the same reason.  I felt so vindicated!!!!!!

I saw the movie that night, and a few other SAGA members were there too.  It was sucky, and I left in the middle.   There was a second free film afterwards, a documentary about the native Aleutians (island chain in Alaska leading to Russia) who were forcibly moved to mainland Alaska during WWII by US troops so that the islands could be used to fight the Japanese (little known fact that we fought a foreign army on US soil during WWII, in Alaska).   The story was about the hardships those Aleutians faced in the makeshift camps, and how the tribes were never fully reunited, and the culture almost lost.   None of the Aleutians had ever seen trees before then!!  That’s how sheltered they had been on the islands. 

I’m going to go backwards in time some more, BEFORE that weekend.    We had just arrived in Skagway off the ferry from Juneau, and set up camp at the Chilkoot Trailhead in Dyea.  We spent 4 days working on trails in/around town (including the Lower Dewey Lake), and cleaning up the Historic Goldrush Cemetery (featuring the grave of the notorious Soapy Smith, the gangster who ruled the town by cheating newcomers of cash with devilish schemes).  The trailwork amounted to a nice long hike, scoping out information about its condition so that the Park Service could figure out how much time and manpower to allot in the next weeks to cleaning it up after winter, before the spring tourists arrived.  We noted lots of downed trees blocking the trail, other dead trees hanging dangerously over the trail (could fall in a heavy wind), areas where roots were overexposed (bad for the trees), areas of flooding/mud that would need to be re-routed, filled in, or bridged over, and areas where people were shortcutting the designated trail, a BIG NO NO.   If you are a hiker, STAY ON THE PATH.  There are reasons that the path was chosen to be where it is (erosion danger, e.g., on shorter more efficient routes), and those shorcuts would have to be blocked, probably with logs, or else with large boulders. 

I got to do this reconnasaince mission with just three other people — Amy, Gavin and Justin — and it was really nice.  No staff there to confuse or harrass us (Blake especially has become a tyrant, issuing orders without sufficient explanation, being quick to blame others without admitting his own mistakes, acting impatient to those who ask for clarification).  I did realize during this time, however, some of my own unique work qualities.  This may come as a shock to you guys, but I am bit of a perfectionist.  I wanted to clip all stray twigs growing into the trail, pull down all dead trees that were even close to sliding in to the trail, making note of every single potential area for improvement we saw.  The others (except Gavin, who has always been supportive of me and is also a very thorough person), rolled their eyes and repeated, ” I don’t think we have to do that.”  Amy brought her binoculars and was intent on bird watching the whole time.  Justin carried the chainsaw and was only interested in “big jobs” invovling that power tool.   Finally, someone said something along the lines of “Alex just chill out.  We know this is just busy work to keep us occupied until our supplies are helicoptered to Sheep Camp” and I realized they were right.  I took off my hard hat, strapped my loppers to my pack, and realized how lucky I was that indeed, I was being paid to HIKE this particular day.   We basically encircled a lake system, bumped into our former WFR trainer Lucy (who did our wilderness first responder class in Juneau last month), who was walking her dogs (she lives in nearby Haines and was in town conducting another WFR class), and enjoyed a leisurely lunch at streamside, during a glorious period when the sun came out.

The cemetary work was also a lot of fun.  I think because there was no possiblity of chain saw work (again, I’m not scared of the saw, I am just unskilled with it, and I hate doing things I’m bad at).   This was clearing leaves and debris from the popular tourist attraction, clearing the footpaths, and pulling out devil’s club (the cactus-like weed that is ubiquitous here).  At the top of the footpath, beyond all the graves, was a beautiful waterfall, and an old mining cave complete with very old markings inside.  At first we thought it was a bear cave, but the interior clearly looked like the results of human blasting.  We thought the water was running fast enough and coming from a pure enough source to drink it without filtration, and we did, and It Was Good.   I spent this day with Max (the wise-ass with the sensitive side; just like he went off during our cross country ski day and discovered the frozen waterfall, on this day he prefered to work alone at the head of the trail, away from the grave sites, and discovered the cave.  He also decided to do some very meticulous stone work, pulling heavy boulders from the area to re-line the path.  It was very pretty.  He is very vocal about hating the supercillious way staff supervises us, and can come across as a ne’er do well, but days like this one proved his actually dedication to good work); also with Sarah (the younger girl from Colorada with the big family who send most of her money home; she is always a joy to work with, very instructive, non-judgmental and positive, but not above voicing her own complaints sometimes); and with Amy (who again was more interested in bird watching than working, but is good to gossip and girl-talk); and finally with Dennis Reigel, who is also a dedicated hard worker, who hangs out with the quieter less obnoxious people (Dennis Bates, Sarah, Indy), and who is 34 I think.   We all had a really good productive time together.

Before the weekend, we had one “Education Day.”  In the past these were bear safety and “Leave No Trace” lectures, films about the Klondike Gold Rush, museum tours, etc.  Today we were joining the single school in Skagway (K-12) which was participating in “Clean Sweep” – the annual litter pickup the whole town engages in the first nice weekend after winter, to gather the debris buried in the snow all winter.  We started off in the cafeteria, where all grades (so funny to see 5 year olds and 17 year olds in the same room) stood in line for lunch (tater-tots, fries, canned corn, and “Homeruns” — like McDonald’s dessert pies).   Without being asked, our SAGA group sprinkled itself around the tables with the kids.  Some sat with the little-little ones, and others beelined to the blossoming pre-pubescent girls.   The loud obnoxious guys (Trevor, Mitch, Pete, Justin) sat with the loud, obnoxious 10-12 year olds.  They had exquisite rapport.  They engaged in fart jokes and compared video games.  They burped and shot straw papers .  I once asked Brad how his humor had evolved since junior high, and he told me it hadn’t.  I now saw this was probably true for many men.

After lunch we broke up into various classrooms and got driven in vans to various spots in the city to pick up trash.  I was in a classroom of 8th graders, along with Kenny (a sweet, 26 [old for SAGA] year old former carpenter, who is always smiling but also a big prankster, always sticking things in my pockets and hoods that I discover days later).   I talked mostly with the girls.  One of them reminded me a lot of Kate Heckert (Ron’s daughter).  She was sitting apart from the others at lunch, but was really smart.  She told me the backstories about the other kids (who was on drugs, whose parents were on drugs, who liked who), and I had fun gossiping with her.  I guess some women don’t mature much since junior high either 🙂

Doing stuff like this is why communities love SAGA.  We got a typewritten thank you from the principal.  Some SAGA members even volunteered a second day, Saturday, on their own time, for day two of Clean Sweep.  Not me, I was sleeping in late at Seargent Preston’s.   I am frequently surprised by how service minded and GOOD these people I am training with actually are, compared to our general population!!

I am actually current now, up to our actual work at Sheep Camp (I was a crew leader that week; we are all taking rotations; more about that), and our Education Days afterwards (which included train ride on the famous Yukon and White Pass Railroad, round trip from Skagway to White Pass Summit; there are more books and movies about the saga of building this railroad, which features the steepest grade of any route in all of Northern America, built during below freezing temperatures into vertical, icy, rock cliffs), as well as a lunch, paid for by the mayor, at one of the local cafes.

Oh what the heck, let’s crank out Sheep Camp and call it a day.   Our main assignment is three-part:  1) re-route a mile of trail which is subject to flooding to the opposite (higher, drier) side of the river; 2) re-locate Sheep Camp to a site a mile farther up the trail, including building 22 new wooden tent platforms.   The new site is actually going to be closer to the original camp (town) than the current site is (where we are all staying now).   3)  Build a new bridge from the re-routed trail to the new campsite.  Jason and Jeremy were the two Park Service reps who were on site to supervise us (both between 25 and 30).  Jeremy was the son of the teacher whose classroom I volunteered with on Clean Sweep day.  Small town!!  We blessedly had NO STAFF on site during these 8 days (2 days of hiking, 6 days of work).  Things ran smoothly.  Kenny was my co-crew leader.  We made up a chore chart (2 people set out breakfast and lunch in AM no later than 6:30 am; 2 people clean up no later than 7:30 am; 2 people prepare dinner; 2 people clean; and 1 person refills water jugs and cleans the warming tents and generally bear-proofs camp before bedtime).   As crew leaders we were also in charge of assigning people to the bridge, the trail re-route, or the camp-site clearning jobs, each day.   This was pretty easy.  People volunteered, the numbers worked out, and everyone was happy.  I worked at the new campsite most of the time.  This basically involved taking a forest and clear-cutting it.  Jason, one of the rangers, flagged a general line that would be a footpath between the platforms and the outhouse, and also flagged about 22 sites that needed to be cleared for the platforms.  From then on it was up to us to cut down trees in the way, pull out devil’s club, all the way to its roots (which could be 20 feet long and/or buried under a foot of frozen dirt, blocked by boulders or ingrown with birch, spruce, willow and cottonwood tree roots).  We also had to create a smooth tread, determine where the trail should run to avoid flooding and stumbling, and also do a lot of rock removal and power-brushing.   This is why my hands are still swollen.  For 6 hours a day, 6 days in a row, I was bent over, gripping either a pulaski (and using it like a pick to break up rocks, roots and frozen dirt), loppers (to cut back brush), a bow saw (I actually like felling little trees with hand tools) or a rake (funny concept to rake the woods, but necessary to expose weeds and roots which otherwise would be hidden under moss and leaves).  My back hurt a lot during this time too, but I would take frequent breaks, and my back is totally fine now.   It was never stressed or pinched, just sore from use, like leg muscles are after a run.  Several other people were more injured than I was.   Jen did something to her hip and took a day off.   Steve didn’t like the pressure on his back and refused to do anything but rake the whole time (he is as skinny as Brad was).  One of the Dennises twisted his knee like I did skiing last year, but after a day of rest was fine.  Gavin didn’t even join us at Sheep Camp because he developed tendonitis last week at the cemetary and did office work in Skagway instead.  Tim’s hands are acting swollen and arthritic like mine are.  We are both dowining the Ibuprofin this weekend and monitoring ourselves.   As a crew leader I was responsible for tending to people’s injuries, and writing up incident reports.  I kind of liked being a nurse, giving them ice compresses, and wrapping them up in ace bandages.  We had radios in case of anything serious, to call down to staff, should a rescue helicopter be needed.  The Park Service rangers were up there with us too, with a fully stocked cabin and tons of medical supplies. 

The hardest part about camping was simply the inconvenice of every menial activity.  To drink, you go to the river, filter water with a pump into your nalgene bottle, or else gather a pot of water and boil it in the wall tent.  To clean a dish, you have to boil water, fill three basins with wash, rinse and bleach water, and dump the grey water in the faster flowing river father away from camp than our drinking water river.   Wash face or body or hair?  Forget it.  If you’re lucky there’s time to wipe a wet-nap over your face or carry one to the outhouse or into the woods with you.   I decided to change my underwear only every few days (sorry if this is TMI but this is LIFE nowadays), and resort to changing pantyliners instead (ingenious don’t you think?).  Changing clothes — including camisole and long underwear, the layers closest to the skin — is such a luxury it feels as good as a shower.  I did this every third day.   Our outerwear we simply allow to accumulate dirt and grease.  There is simply no point in cleaning it.  On the trail, I am literally on my hands and knees ripping roots out of the ground, or hacking dirt particles into my ears, mouth and nose with the pulaski.  To pull my work gloves off I use my teeth, which means eating dirt.   It’s all good. 

The only thing grossing me out was my hair.  That’s where hats and pigtails come in.  Washing my hair was the thing I most wanted to do when I came back to town.  And shaving my legs, even if no one could see them but me. 

I’m eating about 5,000 calories a day.  Literally.   Hot chocolate and oatmeal in the morning.  Protein bars as snacks.  2-3 sandwiches (cheese and peanut butter, mostly) at lunch time, plus yogurt and fruit.   Dinner is usually lots of pasta or beans or quesadillas (did I spell it right this time?) or soup.   Since that takes place as early as 5 or 6 pm, by bedtime I am usually ready for a large helping of chocolate chips or licorice or trail mix or dried apricots.   I eat like I’ve been starved, though I don’t know if it’s really that I’m burning so many calories or that I need the comfort, from the cold and rain and social stress.   I know that I can do 30 pushups at a time now, whereas I could only do 15 when I arrived in Alaska,.  Everyone is really strong, but everyone has a bit of a gut too.  I kind of feel like Hillary Swank in that boxing movie — muscular but kind of big.  I don’t think I want to be like this forever.

I carry a purse (OK a nylon tote bag) at camp.  I need it to transport my stuff between all the various locations I frequent.  We cannot keep toiletries or food in our tents, so I keep those things in one of the bear-proof knackboxes.  I keep my boots in the warming tent to dry next to the stove, and I keep my thermos and lighter in the wall (meal prep) tent.  My work gear – hard hat and gloves – are in the supply shack.   I am constantly taking food from warming tent to supply shack, baggies from wall tent to knack box, boots from tent to warming tent, lighter from warming tent back to wall tent, tissues from knack box to outhouse….

On our hiking day back from Sheep Camp to Dyea, the bliss of staff-less-ness was interrupted by an angry radio call from Blake, demanding to know why we were travelling in four groups rather than two, since there were only two radios, two first aid kits, and two cans of bear spray.  He was right, and we were wrong (there is a dating couple here who wanted to go along together in the back, and some adventurous guys who left the night before in order to get back early and rock climb; neither of these extra groups asked my permission and I didn’t even know their plans until Blake radioed)….and everyone groaned, realizing there would be more meetings and lectures down at the bottom.  I actually took that as a compliment, that under my leadership, in contrast, people were pretty happy.   I didn’t do a whole lot, mostly what I did was let people do what they wanted.  Certain people wanted to work hard and lead; and I let them.  Other people were lazy and wanted to slack.  I let them.  The Park Service guys – Jason and Jeremy – were incredibly impressed with how much we accomplished in such a short time.  That’s what really mattered. 

Tonight is Sarah’s 21st birthday.  We’re meeting at the pizzeria.  She has told me all she wants is a glass of wine.  I told her to let everyone buy her drinks without protesting or causing a commotion, but that she didn’t have to drink them.  She reminded me of Mary.

Last night was Cinco de Mayo.  A bunch of people partied at our camp site in Dyea but no way was I giving up my motel room to go back there for a night.   I’ll join the group tonight.   I bought Sarah some long underwear, since she hasn’t had any THIS WHOLE TIME!!!!

I want to mention that I had some news last week — my grandmother, my mom’s mom, died, after suffering from Alzheimer’s for about 10 years.  It was actually somewhat of a relief, since she had been gone to us for many years in spirit, and my mother, who had power of attorney over her health, and was the executor of her estate, had been very overwhelmed with her caretaking for a very long time.   I will probably return to Trinidad sometime this summer, where my grandmother will be buried next to the husband, my grandfather, whom she was passionately in love with until the day he died 10 years ago (we think he drank himself to death in grief and loneliness over her demise), in a little cemetery just a couple blocks from the house they built together (now a national historic landmark), overlooking the Trinidad harbor and the famous Trinidad lighthouse.    A fascinating part of this story is that Indy has been absent the last 3 weeks, returning to California because of the accidental death of her triplet sister.  Indy’s family is from Arcata (her last name is Cruz), and her sister was buried at the very same Trinidad cemetary.  After talking to each other, we think that her sister was buried on the Saturday immediately preceding the Sunday my grandmother was buried there.  Is that possible??????  Another weird thing is that Indy followed her trip back to Humboldt with a stop in Sacramento (where my cousin Rory and his family live), then a few days in Berkeley!!!  Her fiancee (she is gay) lives in Berkeley, and Indy will probably move there after our Alaska gig.  I heard about the crazy rain, and crazier gas prices in the Bay Area.  

Other random thoughts I’ve made note of over the last few days:

Background noise.  In California, it was the freeway, or sirens, or my neighbor’s music.  Here, in Skagway, it is eagle cries.  There is a nest right next to our campsite in Dyea.  We see the couple (eagles mate for life) come and go regularly.  At Sheep Camp, the background noise is the willow ptarmigan, which emits a sound like water draining out of a bathtub, or pouring out the spout of a 5-gallon container: “Glug-glug, glug-glug.”  It’s very weird, and a bit on the annoying (non-stopping) side.  We saw a ptarmigan on the hike up to Sheep Camp.  It literally looked like a chicken, until it flew up into a branch overhanging the trail, and didn’t move, even when we walked under it.  Stupid?  In Juneau, at the EVC, the background noise was the thrush, which emits a one-note “Hmmmmm”, a sort of whistle.  No song or melody.   Also kind of annoying.  A new bird we grew familiar with at Sheep Camp, when were off the trails and more in the wilderness, was the red breasted sap sucker.  This is a striking looking, red, black and white speckled bird.   Sort of like a woodpecker.   It sings beautifully.  Plus it knocks on wood, as a call, in a regular pattern.   It also pecks on wood to eat sap, but the rhythmic knocking is for communication.  Sap suckers will knock on any hard surface, including tent poles or cabin roofs.  With Amy’s help, I was able to watch them call to each other and actually gather and play (or so it looked; maybe it was a mating ritual).   Speaking of wildlife, back in Dyea the other day, I saw my first bear!!!!  We had heard of bear sitings (suspiciously only by Blake, while he was alone…hm……) before, including a grizzly he spotted on the trail from Sheep Camp to Dyea, which only left after Blake talked and yelled at it for 15 minutes.   This time I was in my tent, organizing, as usual, and Ryan called me out.  He was on the river shore, and pointing across it to a point maybe 500 yards away.   There a black bear was pulling down a tree, trying to get to the flowers growing on the bark at the top of it.   The bear was, forgive me, SO CUTE!!!!!!  Just furry and smooshy face (a black bear, not a brown/grizzly), and probably a juvenile.   Yes large, but not scary.  He definitely saw us, and watched us, but we probably scared him, because after only a 1-2 minute show, he slowly ambled off into the woods on the other side of the river, and we didn’t see him again.   That’s probably how 99% of bear encouters go.  You see them, they see you, and you go your separate ways.  Nevertheless I found a cool item in the gear shop in Skagway — odor proof plastic bags.  Neither the store owner nor anyone I’ve talked thinks they would actually be effective in deterring bear encounters, but the packaging sure seems convincing.  I want to be able to find a wrapper in my jeans pocket when getting undressed in my tent at night, and NOT have to put on my shoes and raincoat, unzip my sleeping bag and bag liner, squeeze out from under tent tarp, and go all the way to the bear-proof garbage can down the road from our camp, in order to discard it.  I would like to be able to put ithe wrapper in the odor-proof baggie and sleep carefree.   Or–imagine!–be able to keep lotion in my tent, or even chapstick.   We’ll see….

The plan after our next 8-day stint in Sheep Camp is to immediately move to Anchorage.  We will have 7 days to get there however we want.   Some people have their own cars (the 2 Dennises).  Most people will squeeze into our two vans.  I am considering renting a car (maybe with some others to split the cost) and going my own way.   We are going to Anchorage because 15 miles outside is the little town of Indian, location of SAGA’s northern office (Juneau being the southern office).  At Indian, will meet OUR CREWS!  There will be 90 people total participating in a 2-week orientation session, all of us camping.   I’m not sure about the details, but I think we get assigned our co-crew leaders and our crews pretty immediately after arriving, and camp together, though overall everyone will pretty much be camping together.  Even the staff can’t imagine the scene — they start laughing everytime they try to describe it.  I guess this is the largest group SAGA will ever have had.   Though I still don’t know my assignment, I have been told we are probably getting our first choice of region, meaning I will probably get the North — YAY!!! Colder but drier.  Smaller and fewer trees.  I have been in the Southeast for the last 2.5 months, so a change will be welcome.  It feels more Alaskan to be more remote.  The southeast is comparatively commercial, as you may have been able to discern, since it is where the cruise ships travel.  Oh yeah, and Blake, my nemesis, is the staff supervisor for the southern crews.  In the north, my supervisor will be Jillian.  She is a bit stuffy and corny, but she’s fair and professional.  

Mitch, who is friends with Blake, told me he thinks we will be paired together.  This will be GREAT if true.  I actually love Mitch.  He is best friends with Trevor, who is often rude to me, but Trevor is rude to everyone, and when it comes down to it, I think Trevor is extremely funny.  Mitch is funnier.  He could go into stand-up or improv.  He is also really smart and tuned into popular culture as well as history.  Most people who are funny are smart, haven’t you noticed?  Also, Mitch was one of the first to agree with me that he thinks Blake and Trevor are unjustifiably harsh toward me.  In contrast, Mitch is really supportive of (and harmlessly flirtatious with) me.  He taught me how to use various tools, how to turn on the propane burners, how to work the water filter.  His tent ripped and he bought a new one for Sheep Camp.  He left his old one down in Dyea with a tarp over it, to use as storage.  Then he offered it to me, to sleep in at Dyea, so that I could leave my tent up at Sheep Camp and not have to hike it back and forth.  Really sweet of him.  I would LOVE to have him as my co-leader. 

Gonna go.  You all have lives to lead.  Get off the computer.  Thinking of each person on this “To” list, really!!!! 

Love Alex/Ali/Alexandra

Anchorage – 5/20/06

Are you on Alex overload yet?  Despite all that captioning and lengthy blogging, I have so much more to report!!!

Just arrived here in the ugliest city I have ever seen (makes Las Vegas, NV and Bald Knob, AR look beautiful) — Anchorage — three hours ago. 

Left our Dyea base camp in a 15 passenger van, with 8 other people and all of our year’s worth of personal belongings (piled so high they blocked the rear window and required about two dozen bungee cords to secure the excess on the roof), yesterday (Friday) afternoon.  We drove for 8 hours, over White Pass and the Canadian border (no direct route from Skagway to Anchorage without crossing into Canada; too mountainous); passed through White Horse (popular vacation spot in Canada, another gold rush town); saw amazing scenery, including some avalanches, the amazing Bennett and Emerald Lakes (literally aqua green colored and sparkling clear; elevation about 4000 feet?), spent the night in Beaver Creek, Canada (Yukon Territory; population less than 100), then drove the final 8 hours today, back into the US, through Tok, Glenallen, “Destruction Bay” (have to research that town name).   I was in the “fast van.”  The other 8 team leaders in the “slow van” are going to take 4 days, rather than 2, to make it to Anchorage, camping and exploring along the way.  That idea sounded great to me at first, until I found out that from this Tuesday, May 22, until June 10, I will have NO PERSONAL DAYS OFF!!!!  Therefore, I decided to get to Anchorage as soon as possible so that I could get a room, some time to myself, and try to take care of some growing business needs:  Apparently a paycheck wasn’t deposited; a credit card is over its limit; my loan company didn’t get my deferral paperwork; I lost my cell phone charger; I have medical documentation to submit; I have to mail unnecessary gear somewhere (where?!); am planning a trip back to California in July to attend my grandmother’s memorial service in Humboldt County; must find a home for my sweet cat Tara (separate email to come); I have to make a tent footprint; find a more comfortable thermarest (REI’s extra lite is not for long term use!); etc etc etc.  I would sooooo love a pedicure and manicure and root touch up, but not in the budget 🙂

OK, I guess that was indulgent.  Back to Alaska.

Our last week working at Sheep Camp was productive.  You will see more photos of the work we did.  I am happy never to have to hike that 12 mile trail again!!  I am sad to leave the two cute Park Service rangers we worked with there — Jeremy and Jason — but I am proud of what we accomplished.  The staff member with us that week was Jillian — and she was great.  We really needed some solid organization and she is much better communicating, inspiring and confidence building (not to mention giving us hands on, detailed trail building instructions) than Blake was.  In fact, because of Blake, two great team leaders have quit since my last missive, Max and Kenny.  They both had a lot of outdoor mountaineering experience (Kenny was a guide in Yellowstone) and felt that their suggestions and concerns were being minimalized and/or dismissed.   They actually left without much warning to anyone, and no goodbye to many of us, including me.  My first reaction was extreme disappointment since I was beginning to really like Max (as soon as he became dissatisfied he became more sympathetic and respectful toward me; we were hanging out more); and Kenny was always one of my favorites, always grinning and playing good natured jokes.  My second reaction, however, was pride.  I was still in the game, and they quit.  Granted, they didn’t quit because they were tired or physically uncomfortable, but they couldn’t or didn’t want to handle the politics.  I felt validated; I wasn’t the only one having personnel issues.   I had outlasted two of the strongest players.  OK, it’s not Survivor, but you know what I mean.

I received my crew assignment:  I am to be paired with Dennis Reigel, one of my two first choices (the other would have been Mitch, who keeps me laughing non stop with his dead-on impressions of people from celebrities to SAGA members).  Dennis is quieter but more my age (just turned 35), and we have a lot in common in terms of life experience, dissatisfaction with staff, exasperation with the younguns, and taste in music.   He did SAGA last year so he knows the technical skills and is really patient with me.  As opposed to most of the guys who still treat me like a punching bag to some degree, I get a teeny tiny flirt vibe from him; I think he likes me, as a friend, so that makes me like him back.    The only problem with Dennis R is that he is seriously considering quitting.  In fact, at this very moment he is either still in Skagway, having decided to accept a job offer there and stay as a permanent resident, or else he decided to stay with SAGA and is in the slow van.  He actually isn’t that upset with SAGA.  He’s just in a phase of life where he is ready to set down some roots and be autonomous (this group living stuff can feel like grade school, or the military, or jail sometimes), and unlike myself, who is doing this for the experience, he has already had the experience.  I am torn between cajoling him to stay, since I would love working with him, and he did make a commitment to SAGA (they invested 3 months into training him; he can’t really be replaced at this point); versus acting as a friend and supporting his decision to follow his heart and do what makes him happy.  I don’t want to be co-leading a crew with someone who doesn’t want to be there.  Finally, I told him that once we get our own crew, we will probably both be a lot happier, much more independent, making the rules and schedules ourselves.  I told him he only had 6 more months, we would see a lot of Alaska during that time, and that he and I could have fun talking about our post-SAGA lives together, since I can’t wait in some ways for this to end either.  Like him, I fantasize about taking a waitress job in Skagway and joining that community too.   (Really, that whole town was like a college town with no college — all 20-40 year olds who are either river rafting, biking, hiking or climbing guides, or otherwise in seasonal jobs catering to the cruise ship tourists; you always see them in each other’s back yards, on hammocks, drinking beers and barbequing….)

If Dennis quits, I have NO IDEA what will happen.

The other thing I found out is that I will be placed in the NORTH, as opposed to Southeast.  Again, that is what I wanted.  YAY!!!!!!  North is less rainy, smaller trees, more “vast.”  I will see moose, carribou and grizzly bears, which aren’t as prevalent in the Southeast.  I will have Jillian and Jared (JJ’s replacement; I know, a lot of J names, you don’t have to keep track of them) as my supervisors, rather than Blake. I am EXCITED.  My old Berkeley friend Cynthia Shidner (nee Alldgredge) who gave me the nickname Ali when I was about 5 years old, lives in Glennallen (considered “North”), in a house she constructed with her husband.  I can visit her!  My aunt’s boyfriend’s sister (actually a closer relation than it sounds) lives in Anchorage, also considered North.  I can visit her!  Another high school friend, Lilly, also lives up here somewhere.   Denali (Mt. McKinley to crackers) is in the North — probably one of the most spectacular sights I will ever see, from what I hear.   Downside:  MOSQUITOS.  Apparently, the swarms can be so thick you can’t see through them at times.  I discovered a line of clothing that has built-in mosquito repellant in it — forget what it’s called right now (Buzz In?)  So far have bought a baseball cap made of that material.  I’ve heard it really works.  Yes, I already have the net that covers the head, and a larger mosquito net for who knows what.

I have been taking notes over the last 2 weeks of little observations and random thoughts that I will probably put into a separate email.   Just to finish the basic news for now, I guess I’ll fill in the two education days we spent after our final Sheep Camp stint (that stint, to recap, consisted of one day of intense hiking with 35 pound pack; 6 days of shoveling gravel, moving huge rocks, digging trenches, removing roots, getting completely splattered in mud followed by camp work mornings and evenings before and after work; then a final day hiking back).  Instead of throwing our packs on the ground and relaxing after all that, we had three intense afternoon hours to go to town, take public showers, use coin washing machines, buy groceries, go to the bank, and if we were lucky, check internet and post office.  THEN (8pm by this time) we had to re-set-up our tents at base camp, and THEN have a friggin meeting!!!  Oh yeah, we also had to unload the two helicoptors worth of trail tools, fuel, wall tent equipment and food that were dropped, inventory them and re-sort them into bear boxes and storage units.    In the rain.

And be up at 6am the next morning to get ready for 8am stretch circle, pack lunches, make breakfast and leave for a day of ROCK CLIMBING and SEA KAYAKING!!!  Education Coordinator Amy Nye was in Dyea/Skagway when we returned, full of her cheerleader energy (everything is “FANTASTIC!”) and apparently oblivious to our state of dishevelment.  Actually, most of our group seemed pretty happy about the plan, and I would have been too, if I could have had a day or two of rest first.  I am constantly astounded and amazed by the physical (and mental) prowess of this group.   I didn’t really hear anyone complaining.   Myself, I was mostly annoyed that we were never informed that we would be doing such activities.  We are expected to have only one backpack and one duffel bag and are constantly scolded for having too much stuff — on the helicoptor; in storge –yet somehow we are supposed to have lightweight, roomy rock climbing clothes, and clean waterproof gear for the kayak, and shoes suitable for bike riding (the plan for the SECOND education day).   I have more stuff than most people — I actually have a third duffel bag containing an extra rain suit, jogging clothes and jogging shoes — so I had the necessary stuff, but it bugged me that I had to endure so many comments about my stuff, when it turned out to be necessary.  I guess other people made do with their mud-, sweat- and grime-smeared rain gear from the previous work week, and climbed and biked in their stiff, non-breathable Carhartts and hiking boots.   Am I too pampered/high maintenance????

The rock climbing was my first outdoor experience.  So much harder and scarier than indoors.  We had great instructors though and I did well.  I climbed a bit higher and faster than several of the guys, but there are also about 6 guys here who regularly climb completely unguided, on routes they forge themselves, in the middle of the wilderness, any chance they get, so this guided experience was probably pretty silly for them.  I also got to RAPPEL down a cliff face.  That was really scary, at the top, just because I had no idea what to expect, but as I went down it seemed like child’s play, really easy.

Turned out it was too windy that day to kayak, so we went on a very tame raft ride instead.  We got these treats for free because we allowed the guiding groups to use their new trainees on us!!!  It’s still the very beginning of the spring/summer season, so these guiding groups needed some practice runs.   Their trips are designed around buffet-eating, less physically inclined cruise ship passengers, so they are really simple.   We actually rafted along the part of the Taiya river that borders Dyea, and saw our tents along the shore 🙂

Mom, Dad, relatives and guys I have dated:  skip the next paragraph.  Girlfriends:  The guides were all SO HOT!!!! REI employee types.  Ski instructor types.   Sigh.  If I stayed in Skagway, I would definitely hang with them.  The town is so small, they seemed eager to hang out with us too and kept inviting us to their BBQs and pub crawls, which we had to keep declining because 1) we had no time and 2) we aren’t allowed to drink!!!  

The bike ride on Ed Day #2 was especially disappointing to me.  We got driven in a van up to the White Pass Summit, and then coasted all the way down.  You all know me; I wanted to ride UP.  It actually seemed like quite a gradual ascent, more gradual than the Lakeshore to Skyline route I take in Oakland.  It would probably take most of a day to accomplish though.  Anyway, it was raining at the summit, and much colder than in lower Skagway, so we donned bright yellow rubber coats and pants, and waterproof gloves.  We looked like asbestos exterminators (“abaters” to you BBHHR folks).   Not my favorite way to ride, in a single file line, pretty slowly, down a road we had already seen when we went cross country skiing in the same area our first week in town.  But whatever.  It did feel good to feel a bike under me again.  If I ever lived in Skagway, I would probably ride all the time.  Come to think of it, most townies do seem to employ bikes more than cars.  You always see people in flip flops riding by one-handed, carrying plastic grocery bags.

Here’s a brief outline of my schedule for the next few weeks:

Sat 5/20 – Tues 5/23 (am):  Personal days in Anchorage

Tues (pm) 5/23 – Fri 5/26:  Prepare for arrival of 90 crew members at SAGA’s Indian shop (Indian is about 15 miles south of Anchorage).  Camp near the Indian shop.  Plan orientation activities and meals.  We will be cooking for the crews three times a day.  

Sat 5/27 – Sun 5/28:  Crew members begin arriving in Indian.  They too will be camping.  We will have a 90 person camping group.  Like a mini Burning Man??? (Minus RVs) (and art) (and drugs)

Mon 5/29 – Fri 6/2:  Crew orientation.  We team leaders are in charge.  Staff is just there to help out.  Crew members will go through the Bear Aware, Leave No Trace, Relationship, Power Tool and other lectures we went through.  They won’t take Wilderness First Responder or van driving courses though.

Sat 6/3:  National “Trail Day.”  We will volunteer with local community members to do basic trail clean up work.   SAGA public relations trick.   

Sun 6/4:  I drive with my crew of 8 (and Dennis????) to our first work site — location, sponsor and duration still unknown to me.

Mon 6/5 – Thurs 6/8:  My crew and I work daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm.

Fri 6/9:  Education Day.  I think I am in charge of planning this one for my crew.  I hope to do as much animal stuff as possible (volunteer in a shelter?  Hang out with a wildlife biologist?)

Sat 6/10 – Sun 6/11:  DAYS OFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mon 6/12 – Fri 6/16: start the work/ed cycle all over again.

(My last day of this whole program is November 30, though I may have to stay longer if I take too many personal days….If I don’t make them up, I don’t get the $4000 Americorp Education Award at the end)

My cell phone works again here in Anchorage.  510-919-3126.

I have finally seen bears.  A black one was over the river from our Dyea camp, pulling down a tree to eat the flowers off it.  It looked up at us, sniffed the air, then ambled away.  Saw another black bear nibbling newly budding grass on the opposite shore, just 100 feet or so away, as we crossed a bridge hiking up the Chilkoot.  Again, he looked up and sniffed, but immediately went back to his meal, and seemed completely indifferent to the 8 of us feverishly snapping photos.  So fuzzy and soft looking, just scrumptious, with a chocolatey brown patch on his shoulders.  I missed the third bear siting:  Gavin and Dennis drove by two smallish GRIZZLIES (probably juveniles) on the road just 1/4 mile from our Dyea campsite.  Again, no action to report; just pictures.  Other animal news:  our drinking river at Sheep Camp was frequented by pairs beautifully colored harlequin ducks; harbor seals always greeted our van as it drove from Skagway to Dyea, along the Taiya river (literally, they seemed just curious as they watched us drive by).  Also saw two porcupines — both in trees (who knew?) — as we hiked the Chilkoot trail.  They were HUGE, and kind of clumsy looking.   Finally, saw one moose and one carribou in the middle of the Alaska Highway on our descent into Anchorage today.  Just like the movies, we almost hit them, but swerved just in time.   That road, by the way, was crazy.  Beautiful non-stop scenery (snow covered mountains in the background, aqua colored lakes and sparse forests in foreground, unimaginable emptiness all around) but the pavement was only half-way present, often dissolving into dirt, gravel or crevices.  The van ride felt like a roller coaster, especially when I was in the 4th row back.  I guess the Alaskan Highway is notorious.  By the way, most of the time we were on Route 1, which I hear is the same Hwy 1 that goes down the coast of California and even all the way through South America.  True???

Ack, my hands.  They still get numb from time to time, and my back was pretty tense and knotty by the last day at Sheep Camp, but I’m getting better rather than worse, I think.

Much love, and keep those replies coming.  Otherwise I have no idea who I am writing to!!!

~ Al”x”

Random Notes, 5/23/06

I scribbled these items in a notepad when I was off-line for days at a time:

– Frozen toothpaste:  that’s what I brushed my teeth with for the month we were “on spike” in Skagway

– Speakers:  Mitch brought portable speakers that hook up to his CD player so we have music 24/7 — doing dishes, eating dinner, even hiking down the Chilkoot Trail.  Weird to be blasting Led Zepplin in the middle of the wilderness.   One reason I’m glad I didn’t get paired with Mitch:  I can’t take music 24/7.  There is not a single van ride — short or long — where someone’s Ipod isn’t plugged in.  Can’t wait til it’s me and Dennis and either our music or silence 🙂  OK, we’ll probably let others play their music sometimes too….  Forgot to add, several people brought comedy CDs up (really raunchy ones which don’t make it to TV for the most part, but hysterical).  We will often listen to these standing around the fire, laughing so hard our stomachs hurt.  I wish I could remember the names of the comedians, other than Dave Chappelle.  Sometimes when the guys notice me, they start apologizing for the content.  How many times do I have to tell them, I’m 36!!  I’ve DONE most of those things they’re laughing at…..

– Compost toilets:  cool feature of Sheep camp.  Only human waste and biodegradable TP down the porta-potty, and there are two huge bins of wood scraps outside.  Every week or so we’d bring a tub of wood scraps into each outhouse, and the rule is you dump a handful down the hole after each elimination.  It almost entirely cuts down stink, and the hope is that it all biodegrades with no need for cleaning….

– Pancakes and other great meals:  Yes, we made salmon balls, omelettes, potato latkes, lentil soup, chili, curry stir fry, falafel….all with ingredients helicoptored up to the site and cooked over one of 4 gas burners, using only 2 pots, 2 pans, no fresh water other than what we boiled from the stream….It was pretty amazing.  I am not a cook.  I usually chose a cleaning duty.  The guys tend to be gourmands (I’ve noticed this in the city too– more men than women seem into cooking these days).  We also have a fair number of male vegetarians.  What I love about camp cooking is that most meals tend to be a big goulash/mish-mash of combined ingredients.  Anyone who knows mel knows that’s how I cook anyway — one dish meals.   Sometimes we’d combine potatoes, pasta and rice in the same pot (along with veggies, cheese, beans, gazillions of spices, but especially garlic, since it helps keep away mosquitos).  All the vegetarians in the group are fish eaters, so tuna was a frequent add-in.  The meals were so carb heavy, I sometimes just opened several cans of chicken and downed them as a side dish.

– Cowboy coffee:  The biggest challenge every morning on spike was getting coffee.  Imagine 20 people, two burners, and water necessary for washing, rinsing, filling nalgenes for lunch, oatmeal, and coffee…..Some people have french presses (I finally bought one myself), so they can make their own coffee.  Before I had the french press, I was using instant coffee but that ran out very quickly.  (I have become a big fan of Coffee Mate since coming to Alaska).  Anyone without a french press at that point had to stand in line to use the ONE single serving filter device which can only take a little water at a time, and takes about 5 minutes to make just one cup.    the only alternative to this whole scenario is to make cowboy coffee, where you just dump a bunch of grounds (no one has come up with an exact measurement yet) into a teapot of hot water, let it steep, then add a splash (exact measurement unspecified again) of cold water to force the grounds to settle to the bottom.  Indie and Dennis Bates are great at this method, but no one else attempted it. 

– My joys in life:  (1) Thermos.   If we have instant coffee around, I can fill it up in the morning, and it’s still piping hot at lunch time.  On those rainy/snowy days, such a treat.  Also great when I’m running around in the morning trying to brush my teeth, go to the bathroom, gather my work gear, pack a lunch, wash my face, exhange my wet/dry clothes hanging in the warming tent, do my morning chores ALL BEFORE 8AM — usually leaving me no time to actually drink any coffee.  With the thermos, I can wait and enjoy it during stretch circle.  AHHHHHH.  (2)  Crystal Light.  My solution to water, water, water every day.  I’m not a big water drinker.  A lot of you know that about me too.   Several staff have actually LECTURED me about how bad it is that I will go until past noon some days before I take my first sip.  I just hate water.   (Nevertheless I pee non-stop, at least twice before lunch, usually in the middle of the night, what gives??).  A little artificial flavor and suddenly I look forward to hydrating.  Seriously, the simple things out here make such big differences in your state of mind.

– Mice and squirrels:  We shared our camp site with these guys.  Mouse would shred anything left in the warming tent:  cute to wake up in the morning and find little nests made out of Glad garbage bags; not so cute to find the corners of your work gloves bitten up.  A few people chose to sleep in the warming tents on particularly cold nights, but they only did that once:  each of those three individuals reported mice scurrying over their heads and making all kinds of noise all night long.  We also had a mouse trapped in our knack box for a few days.  He LOVED the toilet paper rolls; that’s actually what he was after (he left the granola bars alone).   Ryan (aka SUPER MAN) decided to empty the knack box in its entirety (big job) to find the mouse.  We didn’t find it and realized it must have been entering and exiting via the lock opening.   But we did find a squished up decaying dead mouse at the bottom — probably months old.  As for the squirrels, they just showed up and tried to jump in the knack boxes whenever they were open.  They were cute.  We also saw lots of humming birds in the final days there, as spring was waking up.  They are attracted to bright colors and it was sad — they kept zipping around our wall tent’s pink duct tape and other of our non-edible camping gear — probably quite confused.

– Knots.  We finally had a training session, but it was at 8pm, AFTER a full day of work, which for me begins at 6am and never stops until after dinner dishes are washed and the camp is scrubbed down (tables bleached; micro-garbage [crumbs] picked up from the dirt; garbage tied up; grey water dumped in the far-away, fast-moving river), usually around 7pm.  At that point I still have an hour of running around to the various places my various things are stored before bed time, so I crashed, and I missed the session.  However, I bought a book at REI in Anchorage the other day, and I’ll practice on my own.   Side note:  We learned a cool way to calculate 100 feet (comes in handy when you are working or filling out paperwork in which you have to record exactly how many feet of trail you worked on) — we used a pedometer to figure out 100 feet, then walked the distance several times in our most natural gait.  It usually took me 38 steps.  Now I just walk 38 steps and I always know how far I’m going.

– Re-vegetation:  An important part of trail construction I never thought about before.  After you are done felling trees and pulling roots and chopping out tree stumps and creating tread and moving rocks, the areas surrounding the trail can look pretty gnarly.  So we hike out of eyesight of the trail and cut big squares of moss (like lawn pieces) which we carry back to the sides of trail and lay out.  Not only does it look prettier, but it helps delineate the trail so people actually know where to walk.

– CLIMATE UPDATE:   It is suddenly SUMMER here in Anchorage.  I noticed our last couple mornings in Sheep camp that the temperature in my tent was more like 50 degrees in the morning than 30 degrees.  As we hiked down the Chilkoot our final day, it was so warm that one of the guys [Robert, newest addition, no time for character analysis right now, let’s just say Rick Morales look-alike, slight lisp, a little pudgy, kind of aggressive (probably to cover up lack of confidence), young (22?), but opens up when you get him alone) took of his shirt (he was stinky), and Ryan took off his long underwear so that all he was wearing was his super short running shorts (with gaiters!!).  That inspired Mitch to take off his pants and hike in his boxers, and I finally joined the crowd and took off my pants cuz I was wearing boy-short style underwear.  I was pretty nervous and embarrassed, but after watching Ryan and Mitch get totally nude and jump in the river, it felt silly to be prudish.  My only rule was that no one could walk BEHIND me, especially if we were climbing up hill.  We passed several groups of tourists in this condition, it was pretty funny, especially when we explained we were Americorps.   Our last day in Skagway, the sun was so bright and warm, I actually saw members of our group wearing short sleeve shirts for the first time since arriving in Alaska.  In Anchorage, I have worn shorts and tank tops and sandals every day, morning, noon and night.  It must be about 80 degrees.    THE BIZARREST THING:  THE SUN DOES NOT GO DOWN!!! I had heard about the land of the midnight sun, but I thought that happened farther north, and deeper into the summer season.  But I can tell you that at 10:30pm last night, the sun was streaming into my motel room, blinding me.  At midnight, when I turned out my light, the room was still bright enough to read in.  The folks who have been going out drinking at night report that at 2am it is “dusk” — but the sun is still visible, just low on the horizon.  By 4am, it is definitely morning again.  Basically, the sun just makes a circle around the sky, but never disappears.   I don’t have a problem sleeping.  I just wear an eye mask.   But the warmth is kind of annoying.  I hope it gets colder!! I can’t imagine working with long pants and long sleeves (required) and a hard hat (sweaty, ick) in this kind of heat.  We had no spring.  Just winter and now this!!

Alright, just an hour til we take off to Indian — 15 minutes north of here (many local Anchorage residents haven’t even heard of this town, which is halfway to Girdwood) — and begin prepping for arrival of crew members.   By the way, Dennis Reigel has decided to STAY!  So no worries on that front.

– Favorite recent purchases:  Crocs (rubber clogs with adjustable heel strap and breathing holes; lightweight and perfect for camp/showering/apres hiking); calculator Casio watch from Walmart (we have a lot of number crunching to do once we are leading our crews; it’s so geeky it’s COOL!), Chocos (another type of hiking sandal — better than Tevas), big pink sunglasses, personal can opener.

– Beauty tips I’ve learned out here:  1) Leave-in conditioner.  Jen suggested it.  This could have solved my hair problems for the last 20 years.  2) Head & Shoulders shampoo.  Necessary to get through those 8-day periods with no hair washing.  Everyone seems to be scratching their scalps toward the end.  Not me anymore.  3) Oral B built-in battery operated toothbrush.

– Competition:  Jen hurt her hip a couple weeks ago and didn’t accompany us to final week of Sheep Camp.  Indie and Sarah each took 3 sick days at Sheep camp days (Sarah had cold and Indie hurt her knee).  Amy never works very hard (literally lies on the ground and bird watches while others are buried in mud and pulaski-ing away), so she hasn’t been injured, but that’s different.  That leaves ME as the only female who HASN’T taken a sick day, HASN’T been injured, HASN’T backed down for any chore (except chain sawing.  I will credit Amy that she loves the chain saw and power brusher and will always do that work, whereas I will always try to find work hauling rocks or chopping stumps instead).    

– Special shout outs:  1)  to Grace, who sent me the most amazing care package (mace, journal, sewing kit, 2 CDs with funny podcasts, 2 AAA maps which my van members have already consulted, disposable camera, cotton pads, disposable disinfectant wipes, “Off” repellant wipes, soap and loofah glove, wonderful newsy tidbits about her fascinating life and cultural experiences); 2) my mom, for her care packages including, of course, BOOKS (joke is that other moms send food; mind makes sure I have reading material), celebrity gossip magazines (which get devoured by males and females alike in my group), beautiful wolf cards, lip balm, tweezers (for that nasty devil’s club), and, of course again, CLIPPINGS :-); 3) my dad, who has timestakingly uploaded all of my photo CDs to the internet to share with you all; 4) Jimmy, who saved me my final days in Oakland when I was carless and who routed a big carton of unnecessary items to my storage space, and who also uploaded some photos on line for me, and who shares random pieces of knowledge with me; 5) Jessica Ferrey who broke out pen and paper and sent an actual letter in an envelope!; 6) moms Caroline P., Caroline L., Anne, Eva and Pearl who somehow carved out time to read my stuff and write me back, including photos of their adorable kids who I am SOOOOO jealous of!!!; 7) all of who you take the time to send me one-word to one-novella length replies.   I cherish each one, and write you a mental postcard each time (sometimes they translate to actual postcards). 

– UPDATED MAILING ADDRESS:  For the rest of my term here (or at least until further notice), my permanent mailing address will be:

Alexandra Hershdorfer

c/o S.A.G.A.

HC52 Box 8855

Indian, AK 99540

Office phone:  907-653-1170

Cell phone: 510-919-3126 (I get reception in Anchorage and other select places and can check messages pretty regularly)

I don’t yet know where my first assignment will be or where exactly I will be the rest of my 6 months, after orientation ends on June 3, but I will let you know when I find out.

Love, Al”X”

Fairbanks #1 – 6/11/06

Long time no write, probably due to all the photologging.

I’m probably at a low point right now, not necessarily emotionally, just kind of ready to be done with all this.  Being a crew leader is hard.  Juggling all these multiple personalities and interests, staying responsible, pleasing SAGA staff, pleasing our sponsors, being fair to my co-leader, and finding time to relax, stay healthy, and have some fun myself….Pretty impossible.

I’m rethinking my decision to come north.  So far not a big fan of Fairbanks.  Like Anchorage, just big, sprawling, and flat.  Add to that: HOT, DRY, and FULL OF MOSQUITOS!!!  It’s truly unpleasant.

So, the new people are:

Colleen Cullen: age 19, from small town in Indiana, never before went more than 400 miles from home, has never before seen a mountain.  Gay, in a committed relationship.  Very small, very quiet, but sure of herself and very bright.  I could talk to her for ages.  Good taste in books.

Rob Shiock:  my mistake.  I thought he was cute.  Actually, almost a carbon copy of the Rob I dated in Oakland (the pot addicted UPS driver).  Only this one is vainer and completely disrespectful.  He likes to parade around with shirt off, and does push ups and sit ups spontaneously, whereever we are.   During the orientation (when all his clothes were on), I noticed that he made a point to ask me questions and seemed generally polite.  Now it’s another story.  He whistles in my face when I talk, has told me that he’d rather address all matters to Dennis (my co-leader), and either contradicts, argues or ignores whatever I say, even though I try really hard (and I wasn’t initially being disingenious at all) to compliment him when I can.  (Controversial topics have ranged from sanitazation issues at camp to sawing techniques).   Further channelling Rob from Oakland, he is a devotee of Bob Marley and Ben Harper.  Karma, it gets me every time.  Luckily, no one else much seems to like Rob either.   Oh, 23 and from Pennsylvania.

Kyle Canady:   Dennis wanted him because he reminded him of his little brother.  From South Carolina, 23, seemed really shy during 70-person orientation.  Ouila, now that we are in a smaller group, he is never quiet.  Sings outloud, shouts, jokes.  He’s polite and respectful, though, and I like him.  Talkative.  Just kind of like having a rambunctious 5 year old around. 

Dawn Strahan:  Separated from me at birth?  I picked her up at the airport back in Anchorage and my first impression wasn’t great.  Strong Texan accent, and complaining about the weight of her bag (she thought a duffel would be fine for long distance backpacking trips!).  However, I was also attracted to her, because she was one of the only people who wasn’t into the phony “woo-hoo”-ing and high-fiving all the time.  When I offered to take her to town for errands, she was visibly relieved.  I told her I understood how important it was to take care of personal business and she replied that she wanted to be on my team.  She is a huge animal lover, and her reason for being here parallels mine:  interested more in wildlife habitat conservation than hard core camping per se.  She likes hiking but doesn’t have a ton of experience.  She’s tough and wants to keep up, but she’s basically announced she has no present intention to use the chainsaw this summer.  She spends her free time making friends with our neighbors at Rosehip Campsite (27 miles up Chena Hot Springs Road, 40 minutes from Fairbanks) who have dogs.  She was becoming very attached to one toothless man in a camper who had a dog he rescued from an abusive sledding company.  According to the man, Dawn is the first person besides himself the dog has allowed to touch him in the year he’s had him.   Dawn worries about being out of shape and keeping up with the pretty boys, and I figured out before she even told me that she is bulemic.  We will have looooots to talk about, I think (to everyone out there: I have never been bulemic!)

Mike Fournier:  Can I marry this guy?  Or at least nominate him for US President?  OK, first he looks like Rob Lowe.  Second, super nice, super polite, obviously liberal arts educated (likes to analyze and listen to NPS). From Maine.  I think about 22.  (But more mature than most).   He is a conscienscous objector to our current work assignment.  Absolutely against the felling of healthy trees, especially in pristine old growth forest and for mere recreational use (I will describe our current project in more detail below).  He feels bad for objecting, but for now won’t participate in the sawing, just the swamping (removing the felled trees out of sight).  He has become Dennis Reigel’s little sidekick.  Dennis has always excluded himself from the group, even during team leader orientation.  He and Dennis Bates had their own cars and were always going off alone on weekends and after work.  Indie later joined their sub-group, and Sarah, Gavin and I floated in and out of it.  Now that Dennis Reigel doesn’t have  Dennis B., Indie or Sarah here, he sort of latched on to Mike, who is also (ironically, given his brains, humor and looks) a bit excluded from the group.   It’s another syndrome of loud obnoxious people creating the mood for everyone else.  Even though just two of our group fit this description, it has a way of making the other 6 of us feel left out in a way.   The bratty guys are probably intimidated by Mike, and put him down (VERY subtely, but I detect it), to bolster their own egos.  Ryon can hang with the bratty boys and the quiet people.  I’ll get to him later.  In the meantime, suffice it to say Dennis has recently confided to me his intention to detach himself from Mike a bit (I was worried for a while they would quit together, something they only half jokingly vocalized to me), and Mike has announced he will not quit, yet (did he think trail building didn’t involve tree cutting???)

Ryon Heath:  28 years old.  I didn’t talk to him much at orientation, not sure why.  I am just such a superficial person – attracted to the loud, obnoxious, attention grabbing pretty people.  As it turns out, the quietest people are the ones that are turning out to be the greatest assets to the team, and not at all shy now that they are not in a group of 70 anymore.  Ryon brought a video camera with him.  He majored in film arts and is making a documentary.  Funny to be unconsciously going about your day, and then hear Ryon’s voice behind you, narrating you.  He was also a professional logger for a year or so.  Staff suggested we take him on our team because our first project was so saw-heavy.   He isn’t thrilled about the work either.  Just cuz he has experience doesn’t mean he likes it.  He confessed he was really disappointed not to be put on the crew that was assigned to Denali and Kodiak, but that on the other hand he was happy to be in our crew, because there is noone in it he actually dislikes (there was a pretty cocky fellow placed on the Denali/Kodiak crew, led by Mitch and Dennis Bates).   I told him how disappointed I was, myself, not to get sent to Denali or Kodiak Island, and that I would do everything in my power to go there, even in passing, as a group, or on my own after this program is over.  Maybe we can travel together?  Ryon really wants this to be a wilderness experience.  He tries to avoid every trip to town we take.  He wanted to spend our first weekend on a sole backpacking trip, even though we advised him not to, due to bear danger.  As it turns out, he couldn’t hitch a ride to the trail head he had marked out, and he returned to camp around midnight, pretty dejected (aw).

Details of job coming up next…

Fairbanks #2 – 6/12/06

Alright, our project. 

First, I should point out that team leaders had their last weekend day off on May 23.  Crew members’ first day of orientation was May 29.  Our (Dennis and my) group was the first to leave Indian and head to our first work site.  That was June 4.  June 3 our group spent all day grocery shopping and getting last minute gear.  We were up til almost midnight loading the van with 5 months worth of camp, work and vehicle maintenance equipment, not to mention the equivalent of about 8 large coolers full of bulk-store food and our personal gear (about 3 bags per person).   That was after a full day of orientation (including 70-person “sharing circle” around candles til midnight on June 2).  The drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks was 8 hours, sans stops.  We got out here and there for photos, and made it to Fairbanks around 6pm, at which time we commenced shopping for perishable goods (fruit, milk, etc) at another wholesale market.  By the time we re-loaded and made it to our campsite (45 minutes up “Chena Hot Springs Road,” not technically Fairbanks anymore), then set up our tents and organized our food and kitchen gear, it was again almost midnight (though still light enough to see without a headlamp).   We had to be up at 6am the next morning to make breakfast, pack lunch, and be ready for a US Fish and Wildlife employee to meet us at our campsite for a ground-bird nesting training session.    As you can imagine, by June 6, our crew, and ourselves (Dennis and I are the only ones licensed to drive the van) were EXHAUSTED!!!!!

The ground nesting bird training was set up because the site we are clearing is prime nesting habitat for various birds, especially song birds.  A federal law prohibits disturbing nests of migrating birds, but there is an exception made if you flag out areas 30 feet in any direction of a nest that is found and work around it.  Apparently it is hard to get trail work done in Alaska because summer time is the only season that the ground is unfrozen and workable, but summer is also the time wildlife is out and mating and nesting and rearing young, etc.  The Alaksa STATE Park System wants a new trail built.  The US FEDERAL Fish & wildlife Dept doesn’t want any habitat disturbed.  The compromise was giving us some training and getting the job done as quickly as possible.

I’ll come back to the training later.  Very interesting for you birders (and probably non-birders, since I’m a non, and I found it interesting).

The training which we thought was going to be something like a hands-on certification program, turned out to be a 45 minute power point presentation in an office cubicle at the Dept. of Natural Resources’ in Fairbanks.    That left us with a free afternoon.  With no time for advanced planning, Dennis and I were on the spot.  It was like having a van full of 8 year olds whining for ice-cream or ponies.  Well, OK, it was a couple loudmouths demanding to kayak or skydive while the rest were patient and understanding that neither Dennis nor I had ever been to Fairbanks, had no money (SAGA still hasn’t given us the credit cards it was supposed to have by now), and no quick way of getting eight people into an organized activity.   We wound up driving around the city, discovering it was pretty ugly and sprawling (like Anchorage or Las Vegas or Anytown USA, flat with malls and mega stores, though surrounded by verdant green fields and rolling hills.   Then we did more shopping, which our campers were getting very tired of (so were we).  Unfortunately, with only one van, gas funds low, camp an hour away, and the city pretty much unwalkable, where the van went, everyone went, so it was off to Walmart again. 

Why more shopping you might ask?  Yes, I like to shop.  But that’s not why.   This might be a good time to list how well SAGA equipped us before we left the shop….

Better yet, I think I’ll cut and paste the email I wrote to the office yesterday:


Alexandra Hershdorfer

to fss, saycnorth

More options
Jun 10 (2 days ago)

Hi guys.  It’s the weekend and I am at the UAF library, so thought I’d try to clarify the piecemeal voicemails and semi-connected phonecalls Dennis and I have been sharing with you over the past week:

Camp/Equipment Needs

1. Wall tent corner pieces – missing.  Jared bringing to us on Tuesday?

2.  Mosquito net poles – broken.  Are we receiving replacements?  (We all look like chicken pox victims!)

3. Water filter – none packed.  Purchase, or can one be sent?

4.  Fire extinguisher – none in van or van kit.   Purchase, or can one be sent?

5.  Dishes and utensils – none packed.  We purchaed and will submit receipts.

6.  Pots and kettle – too rusted for use.  We purchased replacements and will submit receipts.

7. Chaps – all are cut or torn.  I understand these were the best in the Northern shop, but in case a millionaire dies and leaves SAGA some funds, it would be great to have some safer ones.  

8. Shovel/spade – none was packed.  Were we supposed to get one?  It would be nice to dig cat holes and sump pits.

9.  Credit cards – updated ETA?   Right now we have zero petty cash.  I have filled our gas tank with my own money ($75) and will be purchasing groceries for next week with my own money.


As you know, Dennis and I feel this may be an inappropriate assigment for SAGA.   We understand that circumstances may change after we speak with Brooks Ludwig tonight, Jillian speaks with him today, and Jared comes by on Tuesday.  In the meantime, these are our concerns:

1.  Grade of slope:  The first two miles of terrain (I have not surveyed further) follow a flagged route of very gradual switchbacks, along an approximately 50-70 degree grade.   Right now there is no trail at all, and it is difficult to take a simple step foward without tripping or sliding, let alone fell a tree.  

2.  Experience of crew:  Ryon Heath was a professional sawyer in the past,  and he has told us that even he is unqualified to cut this trail, let alone the rest of us.  Dennis Reigel never sawed last year; he and I have felled a total of 2 trees between us this year.   My felling doesn’t even count, since someone else finished the poor pie cut I started for me. The other 5 crew members picked up saws for the first time last week in Indian.  Each had less than 30 minutes on them.   Dawn stated she has no intention of using a saw this summer and she was informed during her interview this was OK.  Colleen is willing to use a saw but not on this terrian, since she regularly falls just walking and swamping on it.   Mike has become a consciencious objector (more below) and will swamp, but will not cut down any trees.  That leaves Kyle and Rob, both of whom are willing to saw, but can be reckless (Rob especially) and have to be carefully monitored by me and Dennis.  Ryon, our most experienced sawyer, tripped and fell WHILE A SAW WAS RUNNING IN HIS HANDS, simply due to the inability to find secure footing. 

3.  Width of trail:  We were initially informed this was to be an 8-foot wide trail.  After  meeting with Park Service on Tuesday, we learned the trail is to be 4 feet on the downslope of each marker, but 10-12 feet on the upslope, whenever the grade is more than 30 degrees (so far it has consistently been about 60-70 degrees).    Accordingly, the swath of trees we have been felling so far has been 16 feet wide, and surveying ahead, I do not see the grade decreasing any time soon.

4.  Density of trees:  The forest we are cutting is pristine, old growth (confirmed by Park Service).  It consists of alder, black spruce, paper birch, and cottonwood.  So far the trees have been an average of 1- 5 feet apart.  As the trail ascends the mountain, the trees become more like 5-10 feet apart, but the proportion of large cottonwoods (~12 inches diameter ) increases.  These require highly skilled sawyers, considering the slope and the density of other trees around them.  

5.  Fire danger:  We were told that fire danger was extremely high right now, given the heat and dryness of the terrian.  We were given two backpack sprayers to extinguish flames with, and informed that just setting a hot saw on the ground could ignite a fire.  However we were not given any other fire fighting instructions, and we are not trained firefighters.   The sprayers are very heavy and difficult to maneuver along this difficult terrain; to keep them right next to the saws would require certain crewmembers dedicated to carrying them and doing nothing else.   

6.  Binoculars/radios/chaps: Park Service promised to provide us with this equipment but has not responded to phonecalls requesting that we receive the supplies.  We finally secured a set of binoculars from Fish and Wildlife, but these are the personal belongings of the woman who gave us the the powerpoint presentation on nesting birds, and she asked us to return them to her next week.  We drove to her home and borrowed a set, after cutting trees for three days and possibly destroying nests we could not see (violation of federal law).

7.  Morale:  All crew members appreciated Jillian’s talk during orientation about what we do and why we need to put ethics aside sometimes.  Ranger Brooks, Dennis and I have talked to our crew about the benefits of this new multi-use trail (sacrificial scar, Alaskan culture, etc).  Nevertheless, the consensus amongst the crew members is that the trail shouldn’t be built, since there are already places for people to hunt and ride ATVS & bikes, and people have been doing these activities in Alaska without this 16 foot swath of destruction, for centuries.   One member has vocalized his serious intention to quit, if we continue this job.  Others are simply dejected and demoralized.  It doesn’t help that this is bird nesting season, and we are endangering habitat as well.   Other issues affecting morale are: heat (70-80 degrees; we are lugging (and consuming) 5-gallon water jugs up the mountain each day along with our extinguishers and saw equipment), dryness/dustiness (we have a lot of sneezing, congestion and possible allergies), mosquitoes (yes we were warned, but even so, free time — lunch, dinner, weekends — isn’t even bearable with the swarms and the biting).  

I would add “grizzly and black bear in our camp” to the list, but those were probably high points for the crew (!).

Thanks so much for the 3-day weekend.  It definitely brought a lift to everyone.  Most were still sleep-deprived after their travel to Alaska and the intense orientation, followed by the long drive and the startling first week of work.   Our first Ed Day last Monday was disappointing to many, since the talk only lasted one hour (powerpoint presentation in an office cubicle), and Dennis and I didn’t have time to organize anything for the rest of the day. (We mostly drove around finding out things were too expensive, closed, or not on the maps).   Folks attempted to do some three day trips into the woods this weekend, but each group arrived back at camp, unable to find rides from hitch-hikers.  I am really grateful Lindsey intervened and talked the UAF museum into comping us admission on Monday.   We are still working on what to do the rest of this Monday (our Ed Day instead of Friday, since Park Service wants to move our camp each Tuesday).  I am emailing Lindsey a list of other suggestions she can hopefully help us with, admission-fee-wise.

Thanks Jillian for understanding first weeks are hard; I look forward to seeing how this summer turns out in the end.  I see moments of hope when our crew is relaxed and laughing, and when they have clear direction.  Dennis and I are tired but our relationship is still copacetic, I think 🙂  Thanks Jared for all your driving and fulfillment of crew requests.

Personal Requests

From Alex:

1) My dad sent me a care package.  It arrived at the Indian shop.  I opened it and removed the contents to a plastic bag.  They consisted of some underwear (I know, a bit personal), a short sleve capilene shirt, some tweezers, possibly, maybe some lip balm, hard to remember the rest.  I would be most grateful if you found it and forwarded it to me.  I think my dad put a lot of thought into it. 

2) Black synthetic pull-over hoodie:  I fear I left this garment at the laundromat in Anchorage (the one a few blocks from REI), but hoping it found its way back to Indian.  If you see it, it was actually one of my more expensive belongings….would love to have back.

From Kyle (both items in his bag in the shop):

1) Jeans

2) MP3 player


On plus side, park rangers are friendly, our camp neighbors are friendly too.  We enjoy going to the general store 4 miles down the road and observing the local “culture.”   No rain :-).  Van in good shape.  Crew members’ energy, self-sufficiency, determination and grit levels are high.   Several people turning out to be completely different from what I thought they would be, which is always fun.

Love Alex


That probably covers the main points!

I have had no response from the office to this message.  Maybe they think I’m a griper.  But seriously, the entire crew, including Dennis and I, are really bummed about this project.  First, Dennis and I HATE SAWING!!!  So far we’ve managed not to do any at all ourselves, since three of the guys (at least last week) seemed gung ho, and our attention was necessary to monitor them and take care of other things like calling the office, trying to find goggles for the crew (another item the office forgot to pack for us), and making contact with our sponsors who never came back to work with us after that first morning.   The Fish and Wildlife woman is an angel.  Not only did she let us borrow her personal binoculars, but she met us at her house and talked to us for a long time about things to do in Fairbanks.  She had some cute dogs and cats.    Dennis and I and the rest of the crew fantasize about being removed totally from this project; many are disillusioned that they are not doing any tread work, any re-veg, just sawing and clearing, non-stop for 4 weeks.  We think this is more appropriate for professional loggers.  Half these “kids” were sitting at college desks 2 weeks ago, boarded flights for Alaska a day or two after graduating.   Ryon (the ex logger) thinks it’s a “joke” that the 8 of us are out there.   Jillian’s response so far has been sort of pedantic: “Sometimes situations you think are impossible really aren’t.”  She thinks it’s fine that we do just saw work, and think it could be “fun.”  On the other hand, she agreed to talk with our park sponsor, and our other supervisor, Jared, is driving up from Anchorage to visit us, deliver mail, and survey our work conditions tomorrow night.  Ranger Brooks has suggested (after I told him a few of our concerns, leaving the heavy stuff for Jillian to convey) that we be ATV’d (along with all our gear, including tents, etc) to the summit of Twin Bears Mountain, and work down.  Apparently the trees are smaller and less dense, and the terrain is a bit flatter at the top.    Still, it gets pretty monotonous doing the same thing day in and day out, and what usually makes trail work fun is all the variety of the work — stone placement, drainage systems, tread work, etc.  Brooks has also suggested that instead of completing the 11 mile loop, we re-adjust our goal to half of the loop, and let a professional logging team do the rest.  What our team would prefer, of course, would be to move to an entirely different project in Fairbanks.  Not sure if there’s any chance at all.     Oh, and when I mention it’s hot and dry here, I mean it.  There are forest fires raging around the Fairbanks area right now.  The sky is actually dark and sooty; you can smell them.   We have to wear long sleeves and long pants when we work, plus hard hat, gloves, 8-inch high boots and usually wool socks to avoid blisters, when we work.  In the 80 degree sun, not fun.  And have I mentioned the mosquitos yet?  I don’t know what to say except every minute you are outside, there are at least two dozen buzzing around you.  I wear 98% Deet (it burns through plastic) on my skin, and still, I have bites on the bottoms of my feet, my toes, up both legs (they bite through most fabric), along my inner thighs, on my butt (nice when you have to scratch there), and my lower back. I guess I do a better job Deet-ing myself or perhaps wearing stronger fabric on my upper torso and head, which are not too bitten.   I used my own money over the weekend to buy several dozen citronella candles which I later realized might attract bears due to the scent, but I don’t know what else to do when we are cooking and eating, since our screen tent and wall tents are both unusuable right now.    Should I have chosen the Southeast instead?  There I’d be rained on.  Which is worse?

Let’s move to BEARS!  Everyone’s favorite subject.  And then, just to remind myself, I need to mention the nesting bird we found (adorable), the redneck culture here (makes the Beverly Hillbillies look like preppies), the departure ceremony we received when we left the Indian shop, and the Ed Day we are currently in the midst of (which I organized).  Also:  my relationship with Dennis (strained right now; he’s too passive), and my “weekend” (that wasn’t).   Next weekend I am disappearing from the group EN TOTO. 

You know what?  Gonna send this off now, and come back later.   Sorry mom, who begged me to “stay positive!” in this email.  I keeps it real!  I do fantasize about coming home right now.  I think I’ve had it with camping and leading.  Even hiking on weekends seems un-fun now.  I think I can return to desk work and not feel imposed upon.   Something to be said about civilization and weekends and gym workouts, done in a safe, non-injurious way.   Don’t get your hopes up too high yet, dad, but maybe environmental law……???

More later,


PS:  Before I sign of for the day, here’s our tentative schedule for the next 5 months (in case you still want to visit!):

6/5 – 6/30: Twin Bears Mountain, Fairbanks – 11 miles of felling for new multi-use trail

7/3 – 7/7:  Wrangell/St. Elias – invasive weed removal

7/10 – 7/21:  Dept of Transporation – clearing highway shoulders in off-the-map towns of Tazlina and Slana

7/24 – 8/4:  Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge – don’t know what we’ll be doing here, but it’s what I’m looking forward to most!!

8/7 – 9/8:  Dept of Transportation work in Edgerton, along the Richardson Highway (supposedly remote highway work is ideal for viewing wildlife, since destruction of landscape to make highways leads to eventual re-growth of new flora in those areas, and young seedlings are the favorite kind of food for many animals like moose, and which is why there are so many moose and deer collisions on highways)

9/11-10/6: Mat-Su Valley: project unknown, but this is another breathtaking region of alaska, not too far from Anchorage.  I researched it and got really excited and now I don’t remember why but I’m sure I’ll fill you in in September.  This is the area our staff supervisor Jillian is building her one-room eco-cabin with her boyfriend.  If they chose this area to reside, it must be special.

10/9 – 10/27:  Home sweet home (sort of).  Chugach State Parks, where our Indian shop is located.  Again, I don’t know what we will be doing yet.

10/27 is “graduation day” for the crew members, and there will be a lot of hoopla, slide show, humorous awards, etc.  Crew leaders stick around for another month to clean and repair tools and winterize the shop in preparation for next year.   I think by Nov. 30, our last day of service, we are actually back in Juneau.  I miss that place already!

End of SAGA – 6/21/06

Had to use the pun one last time.

Writing from my friend’s Oakland hillside apartment (I should call it a penthouse even though it is under the main residence) overlooking the glorious San Francisco Bay.  It’s 75 degrees and sunny, with a refreshing breeze.  I just picked up my bike from my storage unit so that I can ride around the neighborhood here, full of windy roads and eclectic homes.

Am currently looking for places to crash, while I job hunt….If I can’t find a longish term living situation (couple of weeks?) before Friday (when Jill needs her place back), I will fly to my mom’s in Tucson (current temp: 106 F) and try to job hunt from there.   Job possibilities include law firm (environmental?), finishing up my Americorps term with another program (perhaps in Humboldt County), or doing some other wacky thing.  Cecily already forwarded me two ideas from Craigslist: legal assistant to private investigator, and research assistant to grant writing firm…both sound intriguing Cecily!  THANKS!

OK, so why did I leave?  There are about 30 reasons, of equal weight.  But to start, I was frankly sick of living out of a tent with no running water, no independent means of transportation, and having no privacy.  Training with the other team leaders was fun.  I learned a lot from them; they were upbeat and supportive, even if annoying at times, and our projects were thrilling.  With my own crew, I was no longer inspired.  These kids were even younger and more immature.  They weren’t motivated to play games or bond, and in fact most of them were downright sneery toward me (the nerve!).   My co-leader’s idea of leadership was to give the team as much free time as possible and go off by himself.  However, some of our members really wanted and needed structure.  I wound up being the only one doing paperwork, creating chore charts, organizing team building activities, going to town for food, gas, and other supplies, making calls to our sponsors, planning education days, etc.  I actually didn’t even mind this imbalance, until word got back to me that the group felt sorry for Dennis, thought I was bossing him around and making all the decisions, and that I was lazy and not joining the rest of them on the trail (there were two days I was absent; once, I was at the hospital with Kyle, who broke his ankle skateboarding on the weekend.  The other day I was out finding binoculars, a new saw, and writing a letter to staff regarding our work predicament).  Dennis, it turns out, wasn’t doing much to dissuade the group.  He was a combination of grateful, resentful and guilty that he wasn’t doing more as a leader.  He was still talking about leaving SAGA, buying a beater car and an old cabin.  He even asked me to name which of our team members I would choose to promote to leader, should he leave.  As a result, I did start to take more control, and probably acted a little less chipper and fun, a little more busy, frustrated and overwhelmed.  The group dynamics disintegrated quickly.  Members openly talked about mutinying, not just because of me and Dennis, but because they didn’t like the work: sawing and more sawing in an old growth forest, on a 70 degree slope, in 80 degree dry weather, sweating in long sleeves, getting eaten alive by mosquitos that did not dissipate on the trail or at our campsite (town was the only escape)…. This was on top of being left high and dry by staff without all necessary camping gear or safety gear.   By the time a staff member arrived last week from Anchorage bearing gifts (mosquito net tent, axe to split wood, credit card to buy food, mail), it was already too late for Dawn, who had purchased a plane ticket back to Texas (where she is now).  Poor Jared was faced with two team leaders who simultaneously wanted to quit and all he could do was beg us to stay.  I called my mom and her brilliant advice was to beat Dennis to the punch.  It was one thing to leave the crew with only one leader, but an entirely different thing to be the second leader to quit, leaving the team alone!  Sure enough, when I announced last Friday morning during stretch circle that it was my last day, Dennis whispered to me that his mother had purchased a plane ticket for him.  Yet his conscience wouldn’t let him abandon the group, so he would stay.

I forgot to mention the worms.  Our campsite was in some sort of silk or inch worm nesting habitat.  They fell from the trees on our heads, in our food.  We had to dump worms out of our cups and pots before using them.  I had worm in my sleeping bag somehow.   And there were not just some mosquitoes up there.  I had bites all over my body.  I was itchy from morning til night, no matter how much repellant or anti-itch cream I applied.  It was nauseating.  I had blood smears inside my tent from where I killed mosquitos, and my arms and legs were scabby from scratching.  Mike had bites on his penis (that happens when you pee in the woods) and I had bites on my butt, which I think were just a result of bugs biting through multiple layers of clothes.    I still can’t clench or unclench my fists without pain and/or popping.  I don’t feel like I put that much strain on my hands, but I must have.  I’m too young for arthritis!

Final point: just no personal growth.  Being around 25-year-old team leaders was one thing.  But these crew members were an average age of 22, and there were only six of them.  Dennis, my co-leader, likes a lot of alone time, and of the remaining six crew members, 4 were guys, and the fart/poo/one-upmanship antics were amplified.  Colleen, the 19 yr old who had never left her hometown in Indiana before, was too timid to be much of a presence, though I liked her (I think she was also very persuadable and allied herself with the guys against me, to some degree).  Dawn was so physically uncomfortable and unfit, she couldn’t be much of a companion to me either (though of everyone, I liked and related to her the most).   Dennis and I were the only ones insured to drive the van, so we could never escape; we always had to take crew members with us.  I was really missing interaction with adults. And I missed exercise.  You’d think I was getting it, but not really.  Spent so much time chauffering people around in the van, talking on the phone, doing errands, and even on the trail, pulling trees around a few hours a day, but not much else, cuz it was just too hot and too uncomfortable.   Who wants to go on a hike or a run after you are already sweaty and dirty and bitten up, just from standing in the heat in heavy work gear, knowing that you can’t shower or clean off afterwards?  As my clothing grew tighter and tighter on me, I realized this whole experience was not very healthy after all.

And I still couldn’t weild a saw competently.  How was I supposed to be the leader of a sawyer crew if I myself didn’t feel comfortable felling a tree or even bucking a felled tree?  Embarassing! (I’m skipping the many meetings I had with my crew eliciting their feelings and trying to resolve differences and apologizing, etc.  My attempts at sharing and motivating were mostly met with blank stares.)

So that epiphany came on a Wednesday, I announced my departure on Friday, and on Monday I was on a plane, having spent the intervening weekend in a motel in Fairbanks, in endless phonecalls with just about every single staffer in SAGA, who listened and advised and tried to convince me to stay.  They insisted that they’d rather have me there than Dennis, that they would hire another team leader to replace him, that they appreciated my energy and communication skills, that the “hard skills” Dennis had were easily trainable and they would personally coach me in any area I needed help.   What they didn’t realize was that I simply missed carpets and indoor plumbing and I was ready to go back to an office job, using my writing and organizational skills, maybe even becoming a full fledged yuppie, going on vacations and staying in hotels (or camping for no more than a week at a time).  I like dental hygeine and I like ceilings.   THERE, I ADMIT IT!!! YOU WERE ALL RIGHT!!!!!!

SAGA seems to understand; I had long exit interviews with several staffers, was told my feedback was valuable.  This year they had more crews than ever before and I think they were understaffed and we were underprepared and ill equipped.   I heard that their hiring supervisor just quit, so that position is open (based out of Juneau, you live in a house and work in an office), and I suggested my openness to it (that way I could finish my hours, get my $4000 education award, and not feel I was abandoning SAGA or Alaska), but I haven’t received an offer.  I’m not surprised, or sure I would really do it.  They also suggested that I become a crew MEMBER on a team with Pete and Indie, who had to send one of their team members home due to illness.  That would just be too weird though.

So I’m California, a bit in flux, my “civilization clothes” buried in the back of my storage unit under heavy furniture.  If you see me, I will be in Tevas and an unsexy T-shirt, just warning you.   That is the rest of the story!!  It was fun sharing with you, and I am tempted to just keep these blogs going, but I don’t have any reason now, except megalomania (“Hey guys! I did laundry and saw a movie last weekend!  Here are pictures of my corner Safeway!”).  I’m also a bit exhausted, so if I take 24 hours to answer a phone call or message, it doesn’t mean I’m not THRILLED to hear from you.  That you care about me means more than I can say.  Call!  Write!  I will get back to you, and each communication, I swear, makes me more determined to stay.  Can’t wait to catch up with each of you personally.


PS:  To Bay Area folk – drinks at Paragon (Claremont Hotel) tomorrow night (Wed), 8:30pm?  I know it’s inconvenient (middle of week and little notice), but it seems to accommodate the folks I’ve spoken to so far :-).  It’s summer solstice!!

PPS:  Remind me to talk about the grizzly bear that raided our camp.  Amazing that the biggest “story” didn’t even make the cut in these massive missives

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