Tuesday 24 September 2013

I Left my Heart in Kodiak

Kodiak, Alaska will forever now be known as the emerald isle that broke open my heart.

Here's how it happened.

I have had the great good fortune in my life to travel.  A lot.  To very special places. 
Both personally and professionally, whether as an Inflight-Safety-Professional (read: flight attendant), international active travel guide or film festival emcee, I have experienced some of the most exciting, gorgeous places on earth.  And along the way I have met wonderful, gracious, fascinating people.

But Alaskans are a different breed. 
I would go so far as to say a better breed.

(Easy, people!  I love you all!  It's just that as a whole,
Alaskans are somehow...better )

Perhaps it's due to the sometimes harsh conditions in which they live.  Maybe it's their isolation.  Or most likely, it's their immersion in wilderness.  After all, Walt Whitman did say, and I agree, that:

"Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air,
and to eat and sleep with the earth."

An excerpt from Song of the Open Road, published in 1856

Whatever the cause, my experience with the people of Alaska was with uniformly capable, self-reliant and kind beings.  Top this with the hospitality and generosity gene they carry that far exceeds anything I've seen in my adventures thus far.  Did I mention that they're also all ridiculously good-looking? 

(My new age hippie home friends would approve of the number of bearded men in America's largest state - are you reading this Paula?)

I touched down in Anchorage.  I was picked up from my hotel by Mike, an avid naturalist, writer and lover of life.  He reads Terry Tempest Williams and runs folk music shows.  We are clearly kindred spirits. We drove toward Seward along the blue fringes of Turnagain arm, home to the second highest tides in the world next to the Bay of Fundy. Within an hour I had seen a pod of Belugas, a flock of Dall Sheep and a moose. The place is wild.

I spent the evening with an enthusiastic crowd of adventure film junkies and emerged to a gorgeous moon outlined in the cold sky.  There was a full size image of it in the paper the following morning, and the headlines read:

"Harvest Moon Rises Over Anchorage"


"Scientists Report Advancing Glaciers"

Now THAT is my kind of news.  THIS is my kind of place.

I took off from Anchorage as the sun rose over Denali.

Denali Sunrise

We approached Kodiak.
Whew.  I need to catch my breath.

Surfers' Beach, Kodiak Alaska

It's like Hawaii.  Or paradise.  Or something.  The wildness and rugged beauty are like nothing else.
And again, its people are what put it over the top.

It seemed that we came up to the short runway very quickly, our Dash 8 bucking and lurching as we approached.  It was the most exciting landing I've ever experienced (and as you may note by the aforementioned 'Inflight-Safety-Professional' line - I have experienced many landings in my lifetime).

Now here's where it gets good. 
I was met at the airport by my local host (and new Alaska best friend) Sara.
I learned later that it's a Kodiak custom to never let anyone land in or leave their airport unaccompanied.  After years of landing lonely in new places after dark, this completely warms my heart.  This custom alone is enough to make me move to the place.  Sara didn't stop there.  She warmly welcomed me to the mystical, cloud-shrouded island and took me out for a coffee.  We ordered Brevés which, for the uninitiated, involve cream rather than milk and are essentially liquid heaven. 

And as if that weren't enough, we then drove up Pillar Mountain to look over rugged beauty of Kodiak.  Spinning wind turbines decorate the summit like giant pinwheels.  The place is powered by hydro and wind - 95% renewable energy. Hello, Heaven!

Kodiak is powered by 95% renewable energy - hydro & wind, the perfect pairing


Shortly after arrival I looked at a map of the island and noticed Erskine Mountain.  That's my maternal grandmother's maiden name.  No wonder I feel so at home here.  I'm practically from the place!

Clearly, my ancestors in the Erskine family had been here before

I spent the rest of the day bathing in the generosity of strangers.  Strangers who fast became friends.  We ate giant cookies, went to the beach, got up high and with real curiosity, got to know one another.  I learned some of the local lingo - like 'termination dust' - the first snow on the peaks that indicates the end of summer.  And I even tried out a buoy swing with my sweet and creative new friend Abbey.

Abbey teaches me the finer points of buoy swinging

I slept at Cliff House B&B - but that in no way describes my experience.
In truth, I was welcomed into the home of Marty and Marion - and nourished with kindness, great conversation and cookies fresh from the oven.  I felt completely held and at home.

Now here's what I've noticed about this place.  I feel different here.  People make time.  For all those little acts that make a person feel connected, cared for and human.  From sharing a fresh carrot from the garden to offering their help and to really listening.  This strikes a particular chord with me given my recent contemplative pilgrimage to Alberta's tar sands and my work to quiet my mind.  This quiet is alive in Kodiak, and the people who shared their island with me are doing all those things that make the difference.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the special organization that invited me to the island in the first place.  They are the Island Trails Network - hellooooooo! Could they be any more INCREDIBLE? This tiny and committed organization is one of the most efficient, well-managed and aspirational non-profits I've seen (and working with the grants program of The Alberta Ecotrust Foundation, I've been fortunate to see many phenomenal non-profit groups in action).  This team works from dawn til dusk building and restoring trails to encourage active engagement in the magical landscape of their islands.  They connect community members through events and opportunities for outdoor activity and they clear the beaches of tons of marine debris each year (much of it from Japan).  They do all this with a vigor, a passion and an energy that exceeds that of even the most youthful Jack Russell Terrier.  Their superstar team smiles while they work hard and they make it look fun.  Most remarkable of all, they are universally liked on the island.  And you and I both know (especially if you live in Alberta!) that this is not always the case for environmental groups.  Island Trails and their champions are truly making a positive difference to the people, places and other sentient beings on their small slice of earth.  And the ripple effect they're creating is more like a tsunami.  Now that's what I call good work.

Island Trails' youngest team member taking a snack break.  Notice his Alaska uniform: Carharrt coveralls and plaid flannel

My personal take on the people I met in Alaska is that for the most part, the folks that crossed my path actually choose to live there.  Many have come from far away to be there.  They pay attention to how beautiful it is every day.  And what broke my heart wide open was the true caring and kindness that everyone showed me.  From the man sitting next to me on the plane, to my local hosts who I now joyfully consider friends, people gave freely of themselves, their home and their time.  .  Nobody is a stranger.   I have been touched.  And I don't think I'll ever be the same.  I now walk home from the wild.  With an open heart.

Kodiak Sunrise Photo Credit: Sara Mooers

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break....I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

Wednesday 11 September 2013

It's a Party up Here! (and We're Gonna Have one Hell of a Hangover in a Hundred Years...)

I barely know where to start.
Except to say that I find myself in Ft McMurray, and it hasn't stopped buzzing since I arrived.
Boys and their shiny toys have been cruising the streets day and night.  Most of these boys are driving shiny new Ford 350s.  Most of them are 31 years old, the average age in this city.  Most of them are probably making $177,000 a year, the average annual income in this city. 

Now some of you may be thinking, 'Fantastic!  Maybe she'll finally meet her man!"  Well, to you I have to say, 'Not bloody likely...'  For this is one of those towns where, as the saying goes, 'the odds are good, but the goods are...odd'.  (My apologies to any sweet Fort Mac boys who may be reading this post!  It's just that I fear we may be ideologically opposed, but if that's not the case or you're open to converting :) let's talk.)

As far as the place itself goes, it's certainly a party.  A sausage-fest to be more precise. But I won't be moving here anytime soon.  I'm more inclined to think along the same lines as Neil Young, who in Washington DC this past Monday declared Fort McMurray's oilsands a 'wasteland'.  In response, a local Fort McMurray station decided to pull Young's music from their playlist.  My response to them, is to play his music as loud as I can.  Here's one of my (particularly relevant) faves:

Now, as for Ft Mac, someone had better call the cops to shut down this 'party' that's going on, because it's bringing down our house.  Literally.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Who KNEW you could have so much fun with a bunch of nuns???

Until Tuesday, my only experience with sisters was with my own.  My sweet siblings who double as confidantes, best friends, giggle partners and touchstones to bring me back into line when I go off sideways (it's been known to happen).  And the only habits I knew were bad ones - like eating chocolate before bed.  And I'm not religious.  Except for the way I religiously crave chocolate (note the aforementioned).

But this week, I've set out on a journey along the length of the Athabasca River with a bunch of nuns.  Okay, that's not quite true.  Amongst us are three 'Sisters of Earth', part of a network of women working to heal the ecological and spiritual crises of our times.  Two amongst them belong to formal communities of sisters and are what I would have until now referred to as 'nuns'.  The third is a long time social justice activist.  The final team on our journey are Theo - a man of great courage to engage in this two week voyage with a gaggle of gals, and his partner Terry, a writer and Buddhist.

A road trip with nuns is nothing like I might have expected it to be.  Picture less convent, more 'Sister Act'. I find myself in the presence of some of the most progressive thinkers I've ever met.  We dress in jeans and sweatshirts and spend our days sharing both our love and deep concerns for the world.  We talk about politics, dreams, ideals and ideologies.  We sip wine at night, speak candidly of beauty and of darkness, periodically say, 'Oh my God!' and giggle into the evenings.  As for what we giggle about, well, that's nun of your business ;)

For a less irreverent take on the trip, visit our blog at: riverpilgrims.net