Thursday, August 20, 2015

Alaska

The things I have to do for work. Last week I used the excuse that I had two ukulele orders from folks who lived in Alaska to fly up and visit one of my all time favorite places. Of course I needed a helper to carry on one of the ukuleles so I enlisted my husband Nick to fill that job. We drove to Charlotte, reluctantly subjected my beloved instruments to the x-ray machine and TSA scrutiny, stuffed them into the overhead bin and were off to Alaska.

Not super happy about the rain.
Our first stop was Juneau, the great town in which I had worked and lived for two summers during undergrad. First as a kayak guide, then for a glacier guiding company. The trip got off to a bit of a rocky start (foresight pun, get ready), as while Nick and I were hiking along the west edge of the Mendenhall Glacier to check out the amazing ice caves, I slipped on the steep, rain soaked bedrock (see what I did there?) and somehow managed to rip a nickel sized hole in my palm and several small but deep cuts in my pinky finger. We chose to walk the two miles back to the car since I didn't have anything besides my other hand to hold my new bloody skin flap shut and I knew the hike would become more dangerous and steep as we advanced toward the edge of the glacier. I hiked out feeling sad and dejected. Seeing the incredibly blue ice caves was one of the most awesome and rewarding things I did while I was living in Juneau.

We had high hopes for a more exciting and fun second day, but the rain was relentless, and continued throughout our stay. That second morning Nick wanted to go for a run, so I took him to a flat marshy trail by the airport that runs along the float plane runway (a little lake type thing with docks placed every few feet) then opens into marshland along the Mendenhall river, where the runoff from the glacier makes its way to the ocean. I decided I wasn't in the mood to run, so I meandered down a smaller trail that wound to a point out by the river. The salmon were spawning and it is always exciting, and a bit sad, to watch them fighting their way up the stream. This time of year salmon carcasses line the shore and make for a serious stench.

In the distance toward the water I saw what I thought to be a person in a large coat (I didn't have my glasses on) scanning the marshy grassland, then bending down as if to clip a dog to a leash or something, then standing up and looking around again as if they were a lighthouse having to shed light across the entire area. As I walked along my little path I noticed the person kept doing this, and, while a little confused I didn't pay them much mind. I figured I would see what they were doing as my path lead back up to the larger trail. It looked as though it would intersect with theirs in a hundred feet or so. I then realized that it wasn't a person doing toe-touches in the middle of the marsh, but rather it was a black bear searching for salmon to eat. Eff. I didn't want to continue along my little path since it took me right by the bear, so I turned and swiftly walked (calmly, kind of) through the grass toward the closet spot on the big trail where more folks were exercising. The problem with this plan, I quickly discovered, was that the ground was getting mushier and the grass was getting higher and higher. At first the fronds brushed my waist, and many were knocked down no doubt by bears walking through, but now the grass stood as high as my chest, with my XtraTuf boots splashing through foot-deep puddles, the bottom of which I couldn't see. I thought, which is worse: hanging out by a bear or getting stuck in some kind of Alaskan quicksand in grass so deep no one could see me as I was consumed by the bushes? I managed to power through my panic and scrambled up the bank, trying to calm my racing heartbeat. A fresh blister rubbed into the back of my heel because I hadn't packed enough tall socks, I decided it was time to go sit in the car to wait there for Nick to finish his run.

The third day in Juneau I was able to deliver my Brazilian rosewood ukulele with Alaskan star inlay to its owner. While still impeded by a day of heavy rain, I didn't hurt myself or offend any wildlife so I considered it a good day. Joel met us at Northstar Trekking, the glacier guiding company I used to work for and for whom he is now in charge of helicopter safety. It was neat to show Nick where I worked, and hang out with some of the folks I knew from seven years ago. One bittersweet thing in particular. Mike, one of the helicopter mechanics that I remembered from my time at Northstar was working in the hangar and his awesome dog Pilot sat overseeing the mechanic work. After hanging out with Pilot a while, I was struck by a memory. On one of my last days working that summer, Mike got a new puppy and brought him in to work a couple of those days. I remember playing with him every time I saw his adorable face and even took a picture one day before getting back to work. So now I have that picture along with this one I took with 7 year old Pilot.















Aside from the nostalgia, I am also grateful that I got to know Joel a bit, as he is kind of a badass and even more importantly, just a really great guy. He has an infectious positive energy and obvious love for his job which always makes me happy to see. He let us check out the Northstar helicopters, sharing bits of behind the scenes information, letting us in on some fancy lingo, and eagerly snapping pictures of us pretending to be pilots.

Being that Joel is a helicopter pilot, and an awesome guy, he flew down to help fight the fires currently raging in Idaho. Given the dangerous circumstances of such an endeavor that worries me but I so admire his dedication to his job and appreciate his service. His ukulele, which he named Aurora (couldn't have picked a better one myself), made the trip with him, hopefully providing a little bit of stress relief and happiness to these busy days.


As I have said many times, watching someone open the case and see the instrument I have made for them is one of my all time favorite parts of the job and this time was a great one. It makes my heart swell to see that I have made someone happy with my work, and that their expectations have been exceeded in ways they didn't realize they could be. Now, I know this won't always be the case, but on those times when it is, I want to reiterate how truly honored I am to have been able to play a tiny part in my client's lives.

On our final day in Juneau the clouds eventually gave up and parted enough for us to get to go for a helicopter ride and glacier trek on the Mendenhall. I was so excited to be able to get that close range view I had planned for our first day. Finally, Nick could see why I love this place so much; the majesty of the mountains, the intensity of the landscape, the unparalleled beauty of a glacier ice.





After downing our last two Alaskan Ambers since we didn't have any room in our checked bag, we hopped on a plane heading for Anchorage to deliver the second ukulele. My friend Randy met us at the airport and took us straight to a pizza and beer establishment called Moose's Tooth. He knows me pretty well I guess. I have known Randy just about as many years as I have been alive, and I remember being baffled when he up and moved to Alaska after living in North Carolina his whole life. Turns out his wife Rebecca, whom he had recently married, had worked in Anchorage previously and had just been offered her old job so off they went. I am so glad Randy found such a great partner. While we hung out at their house, my favorite thing was watching how well they complemented each other. They are so supportive of one another's interests and it just makes me glad to know Randy is truly happy living in the Great White North.

Photo courtesy Randy Pasley
The ukulele I made for Rebecca mirrors the guitar my dad made for her some years ago, and both have an eight point star quilt square on the peghead. I think it is fitting that the star symbolizes deep family bonds for Rebecca. It was a great honor for me to see how the ukulele I built would fit into their family. To me instruments are just as important as living beings, providing their versions of happiness and love just as their dog Ola Belle does for them, or my dog Harper does for me. Rebecca and Randy both took turns playing the new uke, plucking their individual styles out on the strings. I even strummed along with Randy's rendition of Freight Train. (As we all know, that's my jams)



The next morning while our hosts headed to work, Nick and I decided to explore the nearby town of Whittier, Alaska. Because we misjudged the amount of time it would take for us to drive through the timed single-lane tunnel to Whittier, through which the train also passed, we ended up just making it to Portage pass. We hiked to the Portage glacier since we missed out on hiking to the Mendenhall while in Juneau. The weather turned out to be incredible, warm and sunny, and the hike was one of the more beautiful things I have seen.







All in all it was an incredible trip. While I left Alaska minus two ukuleles and several layers of skin in multiple spots on my body, I gained so much more. With us on our trip home, we brought tons of pictures, new friendships, the coolest pair of hand-knitted socks you could ever imagine, 35 pounds of salmon, 24 Alaskan beers, 4 tasting glasses, a glow in the dark pint glass, and exceptional, lasting memories.









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