Thursday, May 27, 2010

Barefoot in Hatcher Pass

Author's note: This is actually from several years ago, when the dogs I had were Kenzie and Finn - both still with me - and also my beloved and, sadly, departed Borderline collie, Buddy. My friend JK had with her Deshka and Keetna, Finn's parents. This story is from early July, not late May... but the recent gorgeous weather had me thinking of it. So Just pretend it's the 4th of July, a beautiful day out, and you live in Alaska...

So today JK and I took the dogs up to Archangel Falls for a hike. Gorgeous day, and not too crowded for the 4th of July, at least not when we got there... by the time we left four(+) hours later the place was jammed. But at the start it was cool and pleasant under blue skies with nary a cloud, a light breeze flirting in our hair and keeping the bugs off.

The road in is a bit bumpy (and here you should be thinking the movie "Deliverance" bumpy). I was feeling like I was back in Africa as we rattled and bounced and crept along, all limbs braced against any available stationary object. There are a couple of places where you have to get out and scout to see what your best option is for proceeding with your vehicle intact - but it's like purgatory before paradise. Once you get in there and let the dogs loose, it quickly becomes almost surrealistically gorgeous.

Finn started the day out by having some confusion as to which group of hikers was his. He went haring up the trail (as is his wont) and hooked up with a spaniel mix and five hikers. He was out of sight in moments, even with the switchbacks because the alder scrub is high enough that all you can see is people from the waist up, and the occasional flash of white tail-tip flagging above the greenery. We called for him but either he couldn't hear us or couldn't orient, because I could track him going back and forth on the trail, evidently searching for us. No success there until one of the hikers turned around and started walking him back down (bless them). Finn learns fast, though: Once we were reunited, he orbited our own group and didn't try to catch up with his new spaniel pal.

Meanwhile the rest of the dogs were racing joyfully over the hills, bounding like stags up the steep slopes, leaping like deer down the gullies, fording streams and nosing into burrows, racing up and down the trail, demented with joy and freedom. JK and I proceeded a bit more leisurely (having her three-year-old son L along), setting our pace in deference to L's short little legs. He came stumping up the trail behind us, happily playing with his blue rubber band and pointing out flowers to us with little piping squeals and crows of delight.

The trail switches back a bit along the first length of it, and then you get to a stretch where a little cataract comes bounding down the slope, sending tributaries across the trail and splitting them off to run weblike down into the gorge. You have to walk for a bit by stepping on the rocks, since the trail is basically IN the water. After that it's more up/down wandering. The dogs ran all over creation, and JK and I took turns handing L over the rough spots. He's a sturdy little guy, but it is a bit of a hike for someone whose entire body is about the length of our legs. After a while he wanted to go in the backpack, so we hoiked him up and picked up our pace a bit. JK is very fit, so the addition of 40 or so pounds of child to her back seemed to make little difference to her.

There is a bend in the trail with a little lake to pause at, where all the dogs went wading. We dawdled there for a few minutes listening to the marmots whistle sharply amongst the rocks and watching the dogs digging into burrows and loping along the shores of the lake. Buddy lost all sense of decorum about here, sliding repeatedly down the hill on his back (like ravens do). This is hilarious; his mouth is open wide in a grin of canine joy, and his eyes are white-walled with excitement. He is balanced on his narrow knife-blade spine, legs kicking to propel himself down the slope. After each pass he leaps to his feet and shakes the vegetation from his long silky coat, running back up the hill to fling himself down and go again. When he has had enough he sneezes twice - evidently as punctuation - and then goes racing around in his bounding sight-hound lope. This is beautiful to behold but silly as all hell, because he tends to bark shrilly as he does it, eyes wild with delight and gleaming with some insane inner joy that makes him look as if he is possessed.

This was all very well and good (although Buddy's sharp high-pitched barking was echoing off the rocks and could have shattered glass) but JK was eager to get around the bend. I didn't know why, having never been up this trail before, but I found out soon enough.

Around the bend the trail opened out into an enchanted valley. The lake we had just paused at was fed by a series of pools that chained together and serpentined across a green-gold meadow. The water there was a delicate translucent shade of teal, running crystalline over a bed of sand that rippled black and white under the water. We stopped and took our shoes and socks off and dangled our toes in the water. It's just come off the glacier and is only a few degrees above freezing, so while this feels incredibly good and refreshing, you can't keep your feet in for more than a few moments at a time. Your bones begin to ache almost immediately and you have to get your tootsies out of there before they go completely numb. But you can stay and dip them in and out for a while, which is lovely.

Meanwhile, the dogs - who seemed impervious to the sharp bite of the cold - are wading chest-deep in the water. Deshka, who likes to lie down in streams to cool off, wallowed in a little eddy pool. Finn and Kenzie dashed heedlessly in and out, drinking some and shaking quite a lot more all over us. Keetna was off industriously investigating the hummocks, evidently looking (without apparent success) for ground squirrels to dig out. Buddy went wading with the others, but soon developed an odd hunch to his back, stepping gingerly along with his spine raised as high as he could curve it. He's mightily deep-chested, our Buddy, with a tiny little wasp-waist that many a whippet would be envious of. All I can think is that he was trying to keep his little wanker out of the icy water. At any rate, he looked ridiculous, but as this is a particular talent of Buddy's, it was barely cause for remark.

The falls were maybe 3/4 of a mile on, above us. We picked up our shoes and wandered barefoot up the valley. If someone had told me I'd spend the day hiking barefoot in the mountains in Alaska, I'd have thought them nuts. Hiking, yes. Mountains, yes. Alaska, most definitely. But barefoot? No. Not something I associate with the wilderness here as a general thing, most especially not in mountainous terrain. But the ground was densely covered in mosses and sedges and little low-growing plants thickly scattered with red and white flowers. It was turfy underfoot, soft and springy and completely delightful on the bottoms of our feet. In some places the ground was sodden with the meltwater - much warmer amongst the plants than in the streams and pools - and it made lovely squelching noises as we walked on it. There were nice patches of mud to squish between our toes and little puddles in which to rinse them off again. The places we had to cross over the streamlets all had nice big rocks to step across on, some covered in moss and lichen, none especially sharp.

We walked up to the falls and lay down on our backs in the springy turf. JK had brought some cheese and crackers and we nibbled a bit, chatting for a while over the roar of the falls, then falling into a companionable silence. It's stunningly gorgeous up here under the deep blue sky. The foaming water of the falls is brilliantly white, against the dappled rock of the mountain. The varied green of the turf is comfortable for sitting and even more comfortable when we lie back upon it, looking at the little white puffs of cloud that have begun to scatter across the sky, letting the sun gild our faces while the breeze washes sweet and cool over our skin. It is really rather lovely up here, peaceful and still, with only a few other hikers around. It reminded me of photos I've seen of the Scottish Highlands, actually; maybe that makes sense, given the similarity of latitude and altitude. I wonder if there is the same sense of the wildness of the land there; the same feeling that if you are just a little quieter, you can hear the voice of the Earth.

Eventually it is time to pack up and go back down the trail. There is little darkness at this time of year, but L is, after all, a toddler, and while he is cheerful and pliant on our hike, there is a limit to his energies. Accordingly we gather our water and the baggies for the snacks, call the dogs - because Finn and Kenzie are still running around like maniacs - and head down the mountain. We are still carrying our shoes and socks, loath to put them back on. Part of the magic of this place transmits up through our bare soles... or maybe that should read our bare souls. Up here, there is something about the one that ties directly to the other.

Finn did have one more bout of civil disobedience when a tiny lab-cross puppy came skittering along the ridge and lolloped into our dog pack. Eventually we corralled Finn, which he took with good grace, and we gave the other hikers a head start before heading down ourselves, hoping to discourage further indiscretions on his part.

We cut to the other side of the descending pools, fording the streams without difficulty, but eventually we did have to put our shoes back on. As we went down the trail we met quite a few more hikers going up than we'd seen on our own way up, including one guy in a kilt (grey cammo - I wonder what clan has THAT pattern?) The dogs were amazingly good; all of them but Finn and Kenzie were maybe a little tired - perhaps not a surprise, given that they ran the entire time we were walking. Finn and Kenzie had the most excuse for being tired, since they bounced around like Tigger while everyone else lolled around on the comfy turf - and maybe they were a little tired, come to that, because they behaved perfectly on the trail, mannerly and obedient, if still noticeably energetic.

Well, at least they were good until we got back to the road where we had parked the car. There we re-encountered the little lab pup, upon whom Finn had evidently developed a bit of a crush - which affection he proceeded to demonstrate rather graphically. (Sigh.) Deshka, Finn's father, gave him a look of such profound disgust that you could almost hear him thinking: These young punks. No class, no style, no judgement. (Deshka, an experienced stud dog, is FAR too dignified to attempt to hump a 3-month old puppy at any time, much less in the middle of a dirt road.)

I'd estimate that hike is about a 4 or 5 mile round-trip, probably not over 4000 feet where we went. Above timberline, certainly, but up here that's 2500 feet, so that's not a good guide for altitude. It's my new favorite hike (hanging with JK has been quite an education for good places to go with the dogs... or without them, although why anyone would want to do that I have no idea.)

So that was 4th of July in Hatcher pass. In retrospect, I think there's some risk going barefoot up there... because if you set your soles bare and unprotected on that ground, something comes through them that alters your souls forever, and you can never get rid of it.

Not that you'd want to.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hay Dude

So this morning - and a beautiful morning it was, too, sunny and warm, with a light breeze and deep blue skies - I went over to the farm in anticipation of the delivery of two absolutely enormous round bales for the sheep. As usual the dogs gave me an escort up the driveway to the house, thoughtfully announcing my arrival for Rae. Rae pops out and scolds them ("Don't you know her truck by now?!? She lives here!" - Well, yes, nearly.)

Rae is slightly at loose ends (well, as much as anyone is ever at loose ends on a farm), since half of Wildood is east, attending a quarter of Wildwood's college graduation (and you know I'm talking about you, girl!) By consequence Rae is in need of some help finishing the morning coffee.

"Got any milk to put in it?" I ask her, with an innocent grin. Rae gives me a disgusted look.

"Do I have any milk?" she repeats, in tones of incredulity. This is, realistically, a pretty stupid question; one of the goats is producing at least a couple of quarts a day, which Rae, all on her own, has no chance at going through without help. Even though she's freezing everything she milks at this point, there are still jars of the stuff in the fridge, as I discover when I poke my head in there. So many, in fact, that I'm not sure which one to use.

"Okay; just checking," I say, picking a likely-looking jar and helping myself. We make ourselves comfortable, looking out at the pretty day, and chat for a few minutes until the dogs announce the timely arrival of the Hay Dude. He has arrived promptly at noon after church, as promised, with his wife riding in the cab beside him and two gigantic round bales on his flat bed. We go on outside and meet the Hay Dude (a lean, compact and suntanned fellow who appears to be in his sixties and who bears a facial resemblance to a younger Gene Kelly - with whom he also shares a certain adept economy of motion, as I am soon to discover). He volunteers to drive the flat bed down the back hill to the sheep pens and offload there. Rae seems keen to use the tractor to move the bales, which I can understand: Using the tractor is one of the most fun things you can do on a farm. But our Hay Dude is quietly insistent, evidently concerned about safety issues, and prevails. He trundles his truck down the steep hill and backs it up parallel to the pens. There is a certain amount of clanking and rattling as the heavy chains holding he bales are released. The backmost bale is hanging nearly as much off the back of the bed as it is on the bed, but the Hay Dude ducks fearlessly underneath it to release the chain. Since this is not a Poe story, the bale does not fall on him and crush him. He clanks out from underneath the bale, dragging chains. From the cab his wife watches while he and Rae shove the bale and roll if off the bed, where it falls with a resounding thud and rolls a few feet. Rae climbs up on the flat bed and Hay Dude follows. They unchain the second bale and stand on the roof of the cab, heaving hard against the bale. Since I'd estimate their combined weight at about a quarter of that of the bale, they really have to put their backs into it. They rock it twice, three times, and it starts to roll. Rae jumps down onto the bed to push. Hay Dude braces one foot against the roof of the cab and the opposite knee hard into the bale, straining against its bulk. He is stretched out like a college hurdler going over the jumps, but just as he reaches what looks like the disaster point he hops agilely down onto the flat bed and keeps the momentum going. The second bale thumps heavily down next to the first.

There. That was easy. For me, anyway.

We go back on up the hill; the truck, in the way of diesels, belches a small cloud of exhaust. Walking behind the truck, I ask Rae, "Is it totally sick and wrong that I like the smell of diesel exhaust?"

"Yes, it is totally sick and wrong. And I like it, too," she tells me. I laugh; at least I have company in my sick wrongness. That's probably the best I can hope for, since I doubt I'll get over many of my quirks between now and death.

We re-emerge into the sunshine at the top of the hill, where I am going to write Hay Dude a check. He has quiet, smiling eyes, dark blue under brows like gull wings, white and graceful against his tanned skin. I whip out my checkbook, accidentally flinging a credit card to the ground.

"Oops," I say, retrieving it and blowing the grit off it. "Don't want to be throwing that around."

"I lost one of mine last week," he agreed. "I knew it was in the house, but I couldn't find it for the life of me. Turned up in the fridge." That makes me smile. "Do you milk the goats?" he asks me then in his quiet voice, having apparently inspected them as he drove by their pen.

"Yes; well, the owners do," I amend. "I just board my sheep here." He nods in a satisfied way. I think maybe this is a farmer thing: You like the animals for their own sakes, sure, but it's somehow viscerally satisfying to know that they are doing their part to drive the cycle of life. "So we said, what - three seventy? Three eighty?" I ask him; I've forgotten how much he wanted for delivery.

He frowns. "It can't be that much, can it?" he asks himself. "One seventy-five a bale, which is three fifty for the hay, plus delivery - yep, three seventy," he agrees. "Just make it for three sixty, though," he adds.

"You sure?" I ask him, and he nods firmly. "Okay, then," I tell him. I'm not sure why he's amended this; maybe some sense of chivalry? An older way of doing business, harking from a time when things were done on a handshake? Satisfaction that his hay is going to feed production stock? Just good old-fashioned decent farm guy-ness? Whatever it is, it seems to warm me slightly, along with his quiet, level-eyed cheer.

He takes the check and turns his truck around. Rae stops him; he has a lightweight step-stool on the bed, doubtless used to help him get the chains over the tops of the bales when he was tying them down. He's not much taller than I am, and the bales are about five feet thick. Rae has noticed that without the bales to wedge it behind, it's at risk for flying off in the breeze as soon as he hits the highway. She weights it down with chain and the Hay Dude gives her a nod of thanks and a wave as he trundles off into the gorgeous Alaskan day.

"Good eye," I tell Rae. She snorts.

"Girl, I've lost so much crap out of the back of my truck that way it's not even funny. I've learned my lesson. I need a break after pushing that hay around," she says. "Let's go sit on the deck in the sun and finish the coffee."

Well. That sounds just perfect to me.

We take the pot and a jar of goat milk out and settle into deck chairs. We chat about how we should position the bales; there are two pens, Trinity's and the main ewe pen, and since I don't want to keep buying separate hay for him, we try to figure out a way to set the bale up so that he can have access to it at the same time as the ewes. As we talk our neighborhood-resident eagle flies by, low enough that I can see his (her?) feet curled underneath him. Five minutes later one of the cranes circles just as low overhead. I can see its red crown, the places where feathers have dropped in molt from its wings. The crane soars in a wide oval above us, coasting; it drifts back down to the horse pens, then beats its wings to regain altitude and soar over us again. It makes a third pass, circling the opposite direction this time. It hangs its legs in its own slipstream, ruddering right, threading adroitly between a spruce-top and the crown of a birch tree. The spruce top passes just under its right wing, but the crane tips neither wing nor leg against its reaching branches and executes a neat turn around it, figure-eighting a glide back into the horse pens to rejoin the other cranes.

The cranes are allowed in the horse pens but not up on the lawn, because they like to kill and eat baby chickens. Unfortunately they tend to stick their long beaks through the chicken wire and grab the chicks by their heads and pull. Unable to get the entire chick back through the wire, they end up with just the head - and Wildwood ends up with a lot of decapitated baby chicks all dead in their pen. Kind of grim to come home to. This, not surprisingly, is Seriously Not Okay with Wildwood, so the dogs have been encouraged to run around and bark madly any time the cranes fly low over the lawn. They - and the cranes - have an understanding about this: In the horse pens, the cranes are welcome. On the lawn, near the chickens, they are not. This works well for the Wildwood crew - and evidently for the cranes, because they come back year after year, stalking elegantly around the horse pen, picking up stray bits of grain, hopping up and down, wings a-flutter, in their social displays. Flying overhead in pairs, crying their strange, compelling, warbling song to each other.

While the crane flies, we debate whether or not they're graceful on the wing. I think they are; Rae thinks they're not. It turns out that what I see as a peculiar grace strikes Rae more as just peculiar - and perhaps she's right. But I can't help it: When I see them, I think of grace.

For a while we talk of writing. Rae is herself a published author, and has plans for some books after the spring chores are lined out a little further. I talk about a work of fiction my agent has suggested I write, a story I started at her behest and in part from curiosity, but one which has caught my attention now. (And, sorry to say, distracted me from the blog and my other book. This is temporary, I assure you. And besides, I have no idea if this story is any good. It's in the hands of my proof-readers as we speak. They are tasked with telling me if it's crap or not: Not much point in continuing, if it it is.)

After the Wildwood Writer's Conference concludes, Rae fixes me with a stern look.

"I'm pretty sure that you left here last time without milk and eggs," she scolds me.

"Oops, sorry," I say, grinning. "Have to send me back for retraining."

"I should say," Rae agrees, gathering up the empty coffee pot and her cup. I take the milk and my own mug. I swap them for a dozen eggs and about one and a half quarts of fresh goat milk. Hmm. I'm not quite sure how being offered coffee has morphed into me taking home fresh eggs and milk, but there you are. It's a strange alchemy, but not an unusual one at Wildwood. I plan to randomly seed their kitchen with empty Ball canning jars and see what happens. It's not quite spontaneous generation; more like some kind of transformative magic involving benevolent elves.

So now I'm reawakening my blogging muscles, giving them a little stretch. After all, I have to limber up a little before I'll be ready to regale you with some of my less dignified visits to Wildwood of late.

We can't all be as self-possessed as the Hay Dude.