Yesterday I took a slow, needed walk in the woods. It was slow because my eight-year-old walked behind me drinking his apple cider the whole way. (That was the only way I was able to get him to walk in the woods with me.)

It was much needed, because I have been dealing with all sorts of change/decision/anxiety-related fatigue this last week.

Problems no less weighty than:

How do I form a bubble cohort for my kids during the dark, wet, cold days of fall/winter that stretch on forever in Juneau, Alaska?

How do I keep my kids from experiencing the same kind of isolation trauma that was inflicted on me in elementary school and informed my entire life, that molded me to the adult I am who still deals with such demons?

How do I educate and care for my kids while working? How do I teach Spanish to middle schoolers over a strictly online platform?

How do I find a bubble that is small enough I don’t get sick (I’m high risk) and don’t expose my children to long-term health heart and lung damage?

You know, small, petty stuff.

While John Muir-ing through the stormy, windy trees under the slight pitter-patter of raindrops, I started sensing the bears lurking under the broad fans of devils club leaves. Without a dog, and just me and my eight-year-old (forgot bear spray—bad mom), we wouldn’t stand much chance against a black bear. Due to the wind storm, we were the only souls on this trail. And my poor little son with his stick—not much of weapon. I started oodey-ooping loudly into the forest.

I was also watching the trees closely, swaying strongly in the gale force winds, just in case one decided to come down on us.

In any new world—whether in nature or another culture—the only choice is to adapt. As the tree bends in the wind so it will not break, so must I. So I try to adapt by sensing with all senses— most importantly, my sixth sense, intuition.

With my senses on heightened alert in that forest, the most remarkable thing happened. I started getting tingles up and down my spine. The constant heightened state of awareness felt akin to that feeling of being high on drugs. It felt as if I was using more brain power. My body was washed in a feeling of wisdom and truth that hued green and the red like the inside of spruce trees.

But in the calm of the green woods and exhale of the warm wind, I did not feel fear. Instead, I felt a tingling under the skin that bloomed into my arms and legs and vibrated at the end of my fingertips, fluttering into my heart and lungs, and culminated into my head almost to the point where I could spill tears and cry out Oh my goddess, I feel alive!

How I wish that we as a culture we could vibrate at this level at this energy. To slow down, look, listen, breathe, and feel. To feel time more palpably than ever before. It’s like adding years to your life. But, of course, this totally goes against our goal-, action-oriented culture, geared towards rapidity and efficiency.

The best way to experience the wilderness is to have no clock, except for daylight. No destination, no goal of miles or calories burned. The only goal being to take in the green, wet, wild world around you.

The same could be said for travel. No goal, no check list. Feel the world with all your senses. Slow, stop, look, listen.

Feel the vibrations.

His hair is the same color as the bark of spruce

Goodday mateys! I’m excited to announce that my essay Alaska on Fire was published in the latest issue of the Hellebore, Black Moss.

An acquaintance called it an “insightful, well-written piece on last summer’s wildfires, budget destruction and the Tlingit idea of shukalxs uxs’— where the end is called back to the beginning”.

You can read the essay here:

I have also included some stunning art by featured artist Reyna Noriega — in my favorite colors, rose and teal!

(scroll down to watch/read)

I am struggling with this blog post. I’ve been wanting to make an important announcement for more than a month now, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. How do you announce you won an award without coming across as bragging? It’s kind of impossible.

The truth is I was totally surprised, thrilled, and humbled when I found out in early April that my poem, “Solstice through Aperture,” placed first in the Alaska statewide poetry contest.

YAY!!!! Okay, back to being humble now…

I have to thank the good folks at Fairbanks Arts Association for hosting the contest, and thank you to Ishmael Hope for reading and blind-judging the poems.

Here is a video from the Fairbanks Arts Association of my reading the winning poem, “Solstice through Aperture,” as well as some of my other poems.

For those of you who prefer to read poetry, I have posted a copy of the poem below.

Thanks for reading/watching!

Featured photo by Fera Photography

In the morning, we take our paddleboards out over sleepy Auke Bay, still peaceful in her slumber, before the whale watching boats stir her up. The water is so clear you can see the bottom of the ocean. The gentle sun, low on the horizon, warms the salty air. For a moment I worry I might add another line to my face today, a face that resembles a map of where I’ve been, but then I remember that each one is a token, a souvenir, an adventure.

We glide over to check our friend Rocky, where my four-year-old daughter disembarks, summits the barnacle inhabited crag, and calls out: “I am queen of the mountain!”She insists on swimming out to me on my paddleboard, which floats over the water like a feather on a breath. One small movement can send her spiraling off into the deep or cutting into the rocks. Each slice into the water incites ripples that continue until they break on the shore miles away. 

Paddling like a puppy churning up the placid bay, she arrives at my board and crawls on. A humongous salmon jumps up and plops next to us, clearly enjoying the hushed morning. My son, yellow and gray like a canary in his wetsuit, soaks up the rays on his back while fully submerged in the water. Is he sleeping? 

“Are you alive?!”I call to him. In his blissed out state he does not respond until I holler, “Hey look, there’s No!”

The resident seal always comes when he hears the children’s voices. And look, now he’s playing peekaboo with us, popping his head up, then disappearing into the deep. My yellow canary son chases him on his paddleboard until they are just a few feet apart and engaged in the most epic staring contest.

At this point my daughter has already jumped off the board and is swimming towards the shore, just to prove to herself that she can.

The sun warms my face. Not to worry, I tell myself, I remembered sunblock today, fragrant like honeysuckle under the warming sun’s rays.

Photo: Kelly Renouf Sorensen

Sometimes I wonder if life is really an alien experiment to see how we humans react. The beginning and middle of our adventure was ridiculous, so there was no reason it shouldn’t end in shenanigans.

The first time my four year-old ran away at the Haines Fair, we discovered her in the bouncy house. Later that day, I was cleaning up glass off the carpet when she locked herself in the camper bathroom and couldn’t get out.

“Mommy, let me out!” my errant fair fairy cried. We tried talking her through unlocking the door, but her little fingers couldn’t release the lock to free her from her claustrophobic confinement. Jason climbed on top of the camper to look down into the bathroom skylight. 

As he coached her I continued picking up and sweeping glass into a dustpan. Sweep, sweep, try the door. Locked. Sweep, sweep, try the door. Still locked. 

This went on for a while and soon my daughter’s patience turned to frightened sobs as she pleaded with us to free her from her stinky prison. In the meantime, I cut myself on some glass and started bleeding profusely. What else could go wrong?

“I guess I’ll have to take the door off,” Jason said. Within minutes he had unbolted the entire door, freed Taegan, the glass was cleaned off the carpet and I had located a bandaid. 

Now it was time to go listen to Ozomatli!

The boys built a zoo for their woolly caterpillars

When the sky wasn’t a torrential downpour, gale force winds stirred up a sand storm on the fair grounds, making it feel more like Burning Man than the SE Alaska State Fair. During the evening raging gusts almost blew our friends’ tarp off and snapped a tent pole in half.

By the last day, the fair workers were so happy it was almost over that they let Olin come in free. They also allowed our four-year-old, Taegan, to climb the three story climbing wall, although she was technically too short. Her first time up she struggled. Bound and determined she tried again, and made it all the way to the top to ring the bell!

Not to be outdone, her older brother decided to try the climbing wall also and made it to the top. 

The ferry workers, fed up with measly wages, benefits, and poor treatment, continued their strike. Needing to get home, we booked a last-minute ride to Juneau on a whale-watching boat. As this was a smaller boat, we had to leave our truck and camper in Haines while waiting for ferry negotiations to resolve. Our only issue was that all of our necessary house wares were on the camper, including our coffee pot, broom and dustpan, bedding and pillows, pots and pans, refrigerated goods, condiments, bicycles, life jackets, kids’ car seats, guitar, computer, rain gear, sun gear, clothes and toiletries. After our trip we couldn’t afford to break the bank anymore, so we decided to pack it all up and carry it on the boat with us. What ensued thereafter would have been pure comedy, if it hadn’t have been so scary.

The night of our 9:30 pm last-minute boat departure to Juneau, our friend whose tent almost split in half dropped us off at a dock that looked a mile long. The winds were gusting around 45 mph and the ravaged sea looked ravishingly ominous. 

We began to unpack our bags: one, two, three, four… Twelve bags in total, plus two bicycles!?!

Oh my gosh, how the heck are we going to carry all of this stuff all the way down to the dock?!It looked like it would take at least fifteen minutes to walk down to the loading platform. 

Already it seemed like there were a hundred people crowded on the skinny dock, each of them with suitcases. One strong gust could knock any one of them into the water. I noticed in the dusky light that the boat hadn’t even arrived. 

Stacking backpacks, booster seats and bags on rolling suitcases, our four- and seven-year-old rolled a suitcase and schlepped a backpack. Jason looked like a gypsy laden in seven bags plus two bicycles, toting a comforter, pillows, food, clothing, and my computer. Making our way down the narrow plank, we clutched our hats so as not to lose them in the frigid wind. After many arduous minutes we finally arrived on a small floating dock 3 feet above the water.

That’s when I noticed that our precious children were standing right next to a three-foot drop-off into the stormy sea, and there were no side railings protecting them from one strong gust of wind blowing them off. The dock was high enough from the surface of the water that even an adult wouldn’t be able to climb back on. In any other instance I would have made my kids wear a life jacket, and children are required to wear life jackets in all harbors around Alaska.

I grabbed my daughter’s hand and did not let go, making it impossible for me to carry the additional bags. And still the boat was nowhere in sight! How much longer would we have to wait on this death trap? It was all starting to feel like a sad joke. We decided to head back up the long, windy ramp and down onto the beach to wait in safety for the boat.

Soon I hear Jason call, “Boat’s coming! Let’s go!”

We boarded the ramp and headed down the dock that was now even more crowded than before.I put the kids downwind from me to shelter them from the gale force winds. The blessed crowd insulated the children from the cold and kept them from falling over the edge of the dock into the unforgiving ocean. 

As we watched the catamaran approaching, I recognized the band that I had enjoyed last night. Ozomatli look cold and annoyed. They probably hated Alaska by now.

“Dude, it’s July 25th,” the guitarist said to the drummer. “What’s this place like in September?!”

The boat pulled up to the dock and the crowd let out a whoop. The captain announced that they had to check every one of us off individually, so sorry about the wait. 

Waiting in the line, I turned to my seven-year-old and instructed, “You’re going to be faster because you’re small. As soon as we get on the boat, I want you to find us a good spot for all four of us, and save it. Got it?” Olin nodded.

It was only a few minutes later Olin noticed a space in the crowd. Instantly he made a run for it, Taegan in tow, and bee-lined straight for the gangplank. He passed up the ticketing agent, who didn’t even notice, and all the other adults waiting to get on. Before I knew it, he and his little sister boarded the warm boat, leaving me on the dock in a combination of shock, amusement, and embarrassment.

“Go ahead,” the guitarist from Ozomatli said to me, allowing me to cut in.

“This is why it helps to have kids,” I responded.

By the time I boarded the whale watching boat/ ferry shuttle, Olin had reserved a beautiful long bench with a table in the back, by a window. As sky darkened from ink to pitch black, the rain danced against the window, we snuggled in and the children fell fast asleep on my lap. 

Home free. 

Visions of puffy clouds from the Yukon danced through my head, cotton candy the size of a porcupine, my kids ringing the bell on top of the climbing wall, dancing the salsa to Ozomatli in the sunshine, and the howls of the coyotes in the middle of the night… 

I couldn’t wait for next summer when we’d be back.

The first five minutes in the Behemoth weren’t good. On first smell I could tell something wasn’t right. Then something in the truck caused my hyper sensitive lungs to react, and suddenly I needed my inhaler. 

On our first corner we climbed a small hill, and our flatbed Chevy Cheyenne work truck slowly putted up the incline, chug-chug-chugging as hard as my lungs. After the hill we finally hit 30 MPH and the rig started hiccupping down the road. Hop-hop-hoppity hop like a bunny rabbit. My husband started laughing. I was starting to have serious doubts that I could make it the full 320 miles while involuntarily head-banging and gasping for breath. My lungs that had oft landed me in the E.R. felt like they were being crushed by a garbage compactor. You see, we were going to travel the Golden Circle from Skagway to Whitehorse, then finally to Haines for the SE Alaska State Fair. A trip we had done once before, albeit in my old car. 

Five minutes later (which felt like thirty), we arrived at the ferry terminal. Late. It was 5:15 A.M. and plenty bright outside. This was, after all, Alaska during the summer. Getting out of the rig I noticed the lettering on the door read “Quality Asphalt Paving”. I was breathing in creosote! That explained the funky smell and asthmatic reaction. “Maybe I should get a snorkel and breathe out the window,” I joked.

Ten minutes after that I lost my voice, which would not return for the rest of the trip. Guess I wasn’t going to be entering in the singer-songwriter competition at the State Fair, or singing along to my guitar around the campfire.

We met up with our friends on the early ferry ride, and after seven hours we unloaded in Skagway. The creosote-saturated rig chugged 20 mph down the busy main road, and soon we started the ascent through the pass that was so foggy you could hardly see the white camper towing a white car with no brake lights ahead. The thick air squeezed my lungs even more. I rolled the window all the way down and tried to stick my head out, and my daughter strapped in to her car seat behind me started coughing. 

“You are the most sensitive person I have ever met!” my husband reminded me, which did nothing to alleviate the pressure on my lungs. I couldn’t respond because my voice was gone and the loud truck engine drowned out my whispers. Which I’m sure my husband appreciated at the time.

It’s too late to bale out now, I thought to myself. There was no cell service, hospitals, or even pull-outs. We climbed higher and higher through the steep mountain pass that paralleled the Chilkoot Trail, where many a miner lost his hopes and dreams — and a few lost their lives — on their way to strike it rich in the Yukon.

Those men and women that came to Alaska to find gold, those were the rugged, the hardy, the fittest, the dreamers, the hopeful, the swindlers, the fools, the brave, the brawny. People like me did not come. The truth is that I would have died long ago back in those days, first at age one when I came down with pneumonia, and again at age four when my asthma landed me in an oxygen tent for a week. Yet here I was, chugging up the pass in the untested Behemoth on its maiden voyage as we traveled around the Golden Circle of yore. 

We finally made it to the summit and on the downhill crossed in to Canada after stopping and showing our American passports to the Canadian official. Once we got off the mountain the air cleared, the sun appeared, the road leveled and straightened and we could pick up the pace. With speed, the Behemoth stopped jittering and Jason, my husband, cracked his window to let in a cross breeze. My lungs relaxed a little with the breeze, although my daughter’s coughing worsened. I quietly started plotting my escape from this toxic truck… I would take the kids with me, fly back to Juneau, as soon as we got to Whitehorse. Jason and the Behemoth could find their way back on their own.

Once we got to Takhini hot springs, my lungs had stopped barking at me and I almost forgot about booking a flight home. Instead, I noticed the beautiful white and black aspen trees. Looking closely one could see their magical eyes. The trees see all…

(To Be Continued…)

Wildfires wrapped me in their hazy cocoon yesterday.
Muffled all sounds and thoughts like a cold,
Like the eerie quiet of underwater. Orange sun transformed my living room into a glass of Tang. 

A parliament of eagles vied for salmon guts on the beach, chasing off the ravens over daisies and seaweed. Quarreling ravens forced out a few of their own in a screaming cacophony. Five scouts set off in precise fighter jet formation. Peace granted again.

My daughter returned from the beach smelling like wild mint. “I saw a moving rock!” she said. “A moving rock – what is she talking about?” The beach remained frozen in time.

Suddenly a rock became a porcupine and hobbled along the water’s edge.
Dinner fit for a mermaid of garlic shrimp and beach asparagus transported me back to Costa Rica, if just for a moment.

Out in front, a mama orca taught her two babies to hunt while Daddy long-fin kept watch in the distance. 

At 9:45 P.M., the wildfire sun glowed hot pink above the horizon, marking June’s finale in a brilliant exclamation point.

Photo: Kerry Howard