I get around, you know? I'm a professional visitor, a homeless (is that a typo?) romantic, a voyageur of sorts, a guy who wonders what‘s around the next bend. I spend most of my time outside. I've yodeled under a glacier. I've walked around in a blizzard in Antarctica. This makes me sound cold, but I am not. I once took a spelling test which received two gold stars on it. But, so what? We’ve all done great things. I like creativity in action. I love pointless challenges. What makes you happy? Why aren’t you doing that? It’s all in the details. I'll probably skip the small talk. Keep in mind that i am not a serious person, though I can be sincere. I'll probably make you dinner at some point. My sense of humor is irrepressible. I've been known to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I am a work in progress. I'm not sure I belong here...
Given the opportunity, I’d rather whisper secrets to the trees than go through the motions. I like giving honey to injured bees. I like picking up trash and I never use bug spray. I’ve become a social creature. Who knew? The path of life takes interesting twists, doesn’t it? I’m not the same man I was three years ago. Can I tell you the truth? I’m enjoying writing this.
If you were to ask me how old I am, I won’t give you a straight answer. I tend to get a deeper look into humanity than most people. I think it’s the questions I ask. But people tell me things I would never ask about. I give strange advice.
If I stay awake for over 20 hours I develop amazing powers of concentration. If I drink during this time, I become chatty. I like to jump into really cold water, yet I am obsessed with hot springs.
One of the best conversations I’ve ever had was with a mountain man from Oregon. We talked about ghosts, living in the woods, heaven, beer, hamburgers, jobs and wandering.
My brother taught me at an early age to keep my mouth shut. Since then, I’ve been a safe harbor for gossip. I can’t remember everyday that I have lived, but sometimes I try. I think it might be possible. People tell me I look like a Viking. I tell them they look like themselves.
Balance is important to me. I’m not sure if its an obsession, or simply a way of life. My head empties with the sound of a gong. I like to tie knots. I have many talents. I’ve read many books. Ask me anything, I don’t mind. I eat out a lot, though I prefer to cook. I love the ritual of coffee, especially in the morning.
I have an accent but its hard to place. Do I interest you? Think about that. Where does that feeling come from? “It’s better to live a short life doing something you love than a long one doing things you hate.” Alan Watts said that. I say it too.
Did I tell you I feed birds from my hand? My niece is dying to know my secrets. Speaking of secrets, I’m only ticklish on the bottoms of my feet. Oops. Say that backwards. That might be my next tattoo.
My hearing isn’t so good. My eyesight is worse. I’ve never met anyone who is famous. I love graham crackers in milk. I write long emails. I like hard work. Give me your shittiest job, I’ll do it. What do I care? I’m here to help.
Life doesn’t follow my Illusions. I need to be right here, right now. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I see myself sitting on a park bench in Strassburg sharing an ice cream cone with you on a beautiful spring day. You can’t tell employers that though, can you? I think I might start…
It is raining as I step off the number three bus and onto the side of the Mendenhall Loop Road. It has been raining since I woke up hung over at the Alaskan (a Juneau tradition), and it has been raining all morning. I don’t mind. Rain is a fact of life in Southeast Alaska, and you can’t let it get to you lest it crush your spirit.
The bus pulls away and I am free to choose my own adventure. I have only a rough idea where I am going. I vaguely remember the roads on a Google map I looked at earlier in the morning. I also have a soggy paper map that shows the bus route and a glacier towards the top of the map. This map is not to scale, and I don’t know how far away the glacier is from the road.
I’m aiming for that glacier. If all goes well, the road I’m walking will lead to Mendenhall Lake. If I can find the lake, I can find the glacier. If I can’t find the lake, then I have no idea where I’m going.
I met a guy in Antarctica who put the idea of this adventure in my head. That was back in November. It’s been simmering in my mind since then. I purposely chose to fly out of Juneau so I could make this day happen. As I walk, I try to remember what he said about the trail. “I walked up the trail and there was a sign that said, ‘West Glacier Trail’ with an arrow to the left and another arrow to the right that said, ‘Primitive Trail.’ I went to the right.” Once I find the lake, I have to find the trail.
I feel good. My stride is strong. My pace is quick. It isn’t long before I find the lake - right where I hoped it would be. I pass a small covered shelter near the edge of the lake. Applause erupts from within. I know it isn’t for me, but I pretend it is. “Why, thank you,” I say. “I’m very happy to be here.” Smiling at my own silliness, another bout of applause opens up and my smile grows.
There it is - the west glacier trailhead. I stop briefly to text a few people my exit time. I often travel by myself. If I know I’m heading in the wild or about to do something dangerous, I will text a few buddies who I can count on to send help if I need it. My text said: “Hi. I’m in Juneau and taking a hike on the west glacier trail. I should be out by 9 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll text you by then. If not, wait 3 hours, and then call the cops. Thanks.” Now, I didn’t mention the fact I was going to the glacier. I also didn’t mention that I was looking for ice caves. But, at least it would give them a place to start looking for me. By the way, nobody in their right mind should go looking for ice caves on a glacier by themselves. I am the only exception! Remember that!
Anyhow, I have my safety net in place. I turn off my phone and start up the trail. It’s a great forest trail. Moss covers everything. The forest is green. The path crosses several creeks gushing with clear water. The air is cold, and the rain continues to fall. I’m very tempted to take pictures of the forest scenes, but my camera would be soaked in minutes.
I stop briefly at a viewpoint with a covered roof. There is a family taking a break. They ask me to take a picture of them. I’m happy to do it. In return for my good deed, they tell me how to get to a good ice cave. The information matches what I already know about this enterprise. I thank them and head back onto the trail. My confidence grows.
The trail starts climbing the ridge and it gets steep and rocky in areas. The rocks are wet from the rain, and the tree roots are slick. I slip a couple of times, and I remind myself to take it easy. Getting hurt is not an option.
Finally, I reach the sign I am looking for. The main trail cuts to the left, the primitive trail goes to the right. I step off the easy path onto the rough track. It passes through a thick stand of twisted alder trees. I slip several times on the roots. Picture James Brown in his prime dropping down into the splits. Now picture me doing that on a steep rocky trail. I bet if you compared screams, they would sound oddly similar.
As I walk, I start putting together a songline of my landmarks. If I remember this little song, I will be able to find my way out if I get lost. It’s an idea I’ve taken on from the aboriginal people of Australia and I find it works rather well. The landscape is a song, you just need to remember the lyrics.
The trail leads to an open rocky area. I jump across two creeks and follow small rock cairns which now mark the path over the rock. It isn’t long before I’m looking at the massive expanse of the Mendenhall Glacier. It is truly awesome.
I have seen many glaciers in my life, from Alaska to Antarctica. I’ve watched them calve off huge chunks of ice. I‘ve flown over them, and I’ve stared at them from a ship. This marks the first time that I have seen one on foot. I smile. I love it when a plan comes together - especially a half ass plan such as this one.
I pick my way down the side of a rock bluff and skip down a steep talus pile to the very edge of the Mendenhall Glacier. I take a few tentative steps on the ice. I feel tiny. I am treading on just the tip of the toenail of this giant moving ice sheet. I know enough about glacier trekking to know I am not prepared. I’m not wearing crampons. I don’t have an ice axe. I don’t have any line. I don’t have a partner. I am smart enough to know that I have no business walking around on top of the glacier. However, I’m hoping to walk underneath the glacier on solid ground, and that is a different matter.
The trail has ended at the glacier, and I’m left to my own devices. I start walking along side of the ice sheet picking my way along a steep bank of loose talus. The stones are muddy from silt, and I sink up to my ankles in stones. A handful of rocks tumble down the slope with each step. It is not easy to walk here.
I follow the side of the glacier for about a half a mile before I see two waterfalls cascading down the side of the fjord. The two waterfalls meet at the base of the slope to form a larger creek. This creek disappears into the side of the glacier forming a giant ice cave.
“Holy shit,” I whisper. Good words fail me when I confront grandeur.
I slide down ten feet of loose rock to get to the waterfalls. I slowly spin in a circle taking in my surroundings. There are two waterfalls dropping down from the clouded heights of the fjord face. There is the glacier itself - massive and impassive. Finally, there is a jeweled ice cave cut into the ice. I’ve never seen anything like this, that’s for damn sure.
The entrance is large perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. On one side, an overhanging arch forms one-half of the ceiling. I’m a little leery about that arch. It doesn’t look very sturdy. The entrance appears more trust worthy on the other side of the creek. It looks more like a cave. There is a narrow gravel bank between the side of the cave and the creek. I pick my way across the waterfall hopping from rock to rock to get on the side I want to enter.
I pause at the entrance. This is scary as hell! The thought of stepping into the cave sends tingles down my entire body. My heart beats loudly in my chest. I start giggling. I love this high. I know I’m going in. I didn’t come all this way to chicken out now. Do you remember the movie, “Field of Dreams?” Do you remember the scene where the writer Terrance Mann was about to step into the rows of corn for the first time - to see what is on the other side? That’s how I feel. Though they are one in the same, I ask for courage from Buddha, The Universe, My ex-girlfriends, Tao, Zeus, Krishna, The Great Spirit, The Glacier, God, The Great Pumpkin - anyone I can think of, and take ten steps inside the cave.
It’s too much for my senses. The ice walls of the cave amplify the roar of the creek tumbling through the rocks. The sides of the cave are smooth, dimpled and sparkling like facets of a cut jewel. The ice is very clear. I half way expect to see an iceman frozen inside of the ice. Ancient rocks are stuck in the walls. Water drips from the ceiling. The whole cave glows with a dull blue color. I am standing inside of a cold sapphire. It takes a while to get used to this.
My initial high dies away, and I settle down. I walk deep into the cave. The creek tumbles over the bedrock creating a never-ending set of rapids and waterfalls. I can’t see the white glow of the opening of the cave anymore. I wonder if I kept following the creek would it lead me to the face of the glacier. I’m tempted to try, but the bank of the creek has ended. I will need a dry suit to investigate further.
I reflect on my situation. I am standing alone underneath a glacier. There isn’t a single person on this planet that knows where I am. “Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown,” I say to myself. It’s an interesting thought.
I start mindlessly humming aloud. It sounds really cool. The acoustics of ice caves are great. Soon, I am chanting “Ohmmmmmmm…” really emphasizing the mmm’s. My voice never sounded so good. I take it up another notch and try out a yodel. Now, yodeling can go one of two ways. It can sound amazing, providing the yodeler can hit the notes clearly or it can sound terrible, like a teenage boy reading aloud in English class. I’ve had it go both ways. I will only yodel under the right conditions. I’ll test my voice first, and if it seems like it will hold, I will let ‘er rip. I don’t know if it was the acoustics of the cave, or just being in that moment, but my voice rang loud and true over the roar of the water.
I’ve never yodeled this good before and I let it flow out of me (I know how ludicrous this sounds to those of you who don‘t know me). My last efforts end in a bout of laughter. I am a happy man.
My time in the glacier is nearing an end. I still have to find my way back to civilization. I knew before I entered the cave that I would have to keep track of time. I stick to my rules and leave the cave. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I have no regrets. I’m riding an amazing high of discovery and I am tingling with the experience.
I back track down the glacier to the trail. I remember the lyrics to my songline: “Climb the creek to the shallow valley. Follow the cairns past the open rock area. Cross two creeks and follow the little snake through the alder. At the duck tape and orange flagging, veer left back to the bigger snake. Follow the bigger snake back to the lake and you are home free.” When I get back to the trailhead, I text my people. I let them know that I have made it out and all is well.
I am satisfied with my efforts. I am drenched to my skin, cold and hungry, yet I am completely euphoric. It has been a great day.
Life Accomplishment No. 37,824: Yodel Under a Glacier. Check!
I grew up in the woods. The wilds of northern Michigan contain a thick forest of hardwoods and pine. I spent many days wandering through the trees with my friends, dogs, and by myself. There isn’t much of a horizon up there, just more trees. If you want to see far away, you must visit the shore of Lake Superior.
My background lends me comfort in other woodlands that I may visit. I still enjoy a good romp among the tall trees of the forest wherever I can find them.
I felt that familiar pull to head into the forest several days ago. I was in Sitka, Alaska recuperating from my latest working stint. I knew a walk through the woods would be good for me.
With my friend Annie in tow, we started walking towards the trailhead of the Indian Creek Trail. I used to frequent this trail when I called Sitka home. It had been two years since I had last seen it, and I wanted to reconnect with it.
Before we got there, Annie spied a couple of gravestones from the sidewalk. We stepped into the dark woods to investigate. One grave led to another. We found perhaps ten graves with stones from various decades ranging from the late 1800s to the 1950s. The graves were spread throughout a little patch of spruce. The graves weren’t in a designated cemetery. They didn’t look like they were cared for anymore. Some of the stones were chipped and leaning. Some of the graves had sunk into the earth.
I like old cemeteries especially when I find them in an obscure place. They have character, and tell a silent tale of the rise and fall of humanity. I thought it was a very peaceful place.
We stopped briefly at the trailhead to look at the map. I remembered the way, though not the particulars of the trail. The Indian Creek trail is well marked (at least up to the waterfall). I didn’t have any worries about finding our way there or back. We walked on.
The temperate rainforests of southeast Alaska are among the prettiest I have ever walked through. If I could only use one word to describe them, I would use “green.” The Sitka spruce dominates this stretch of forest. They stand thickly together, towering above the trail. These are old trees, some of them dating back five hundred years or more. The trunks of these old ones are huge - far bigger than I could put my arms around. They remind me of the redwood trees of northern California, though these spruce are not as big as the largest giants down there.
A thick green mat of moss covers the entire forest floor and fallen stumps below the canopy. Swampy taiga areas dot the forest floor with heads of skunk cabbage growing from them. Tall whips of devil’s club grow everywhere - their broad leaves just beginning to unfurl. Various types of ferns grow from fallen stumps.
The forest floor is a jumble of fallen limbs and massive trunks scattered all over the place. Some of the newly fallen trees ripped their roots out of the ground when they fell down. The black twisted root system easily stands over ten feet high.
It is a great forest.
Throughout this forest runs Indian Creek. The melting mountain snow and continuous rainfall feed the river in an unending supply of cold clear water. Several smaller brooks also feed this creek and we crossed several of them by bridge.
“Stand Still Like a Hummingbird”
Annie and I stopped to take a break after crossing the first major bridge over the river. We sat down, ate some tidbits, drank some water and chilled out for a few minutes. As a photographer, I always am looking for a good photograph. It was here that I made some of my favorites of the year.
Overhanging the creek was a small mossy patch that looked like a perfect seat. I had Annie take an easy pose that she could hold for several seconds at a time. She needed to hold completely still, because I had my shutter speed set at three seconds. A long shutter speed will blur moving water for a silky effect. I took a few photos, recomposing and trying different speeds until I found the right spot.
I wanted to try to see if both of us could be in the picture. I had Annie sit down in her spot and I looked over the scene to see where I would fit. It was obvious that I had to be in the river. I set my camera up to take a picture every ten seconds for ten pictures. I climbed down a stump put my feet into the icy cold water. It was painful. My feet started to go numb almost instantly, but I hustled as fast as I could to where I thought the composition was right. I turned and held my pose for the camera. It was imperative that I held still. This was not easy, because my feet were in agony. The water was frigid, and it took all of my composure to hold still. I held as long as I could stand before lunging back to shore. I happily yelled out in pain as I climbed out of the water. Cold isn’t strong enough a word for the temperature of that water.
We looked at the results as I warmed my feet. My positioning was just a bit off, but the pictures were great. I had created the effect I wanted to in this picture. To make it perfect, I’d have to do it again. This time, I made mental notes of where I had to be. The water wasn’t any warmer on my second attempt, but I was satisfied with the results.
I put my boots back on, and we continued along the trail.
This walk had no parameters. Time didn’t matter. Distance didn’t matter. There wasn’t any destination. We turned around when it felt right to do so. When we were hungry, we pulled out our lunch and put our one beer in the creek to cool. Trail beers get cold in just a couple of minutes in Alaskan streams. As we ate, it started to rain. That didn’t matter either. We were content to enjoy the walk for what it was.
The Fascinating Banana Slug
Annie is good at seeing banana slugs. She found this one eating a leaf right next to the trail. Banana slugs thrive in the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. They come in a variety of colors, waxy pale to jet black. This one was a handsome dog turd brown color.
Banana slugs leave a slime trail wherever they crawl. They move slowly, and it’s interesting to see how far they have crawled over the moss carpet.
I put my macro lens on my camera to see if I could get any close ups shots of the slug. It was hard to get the lighting right in the gloom. With a little experimentation, I was able to get the right combination of physics and art.
It started to rain harder. We grew weary with our efforts. The walk turned into a slog, but we made the best of it. We finished our day by stopping at the grocery store for food before heading back to the hostel. We put on dry clothes, cooked a healthy dinner and relaxed. This is one of the best ways I know of to end a good hike.
The Sitka Trail Association has done a marvelous job with its trail system. The Indian creek trail is a shining example of what happens when a group of good people gets together and create a good trail system. To find other trails in Sitka, volunteer or support them find them at: www.sitkatrailworks.org