I woke up early, got showered and dressed, made myself coffee, then went downstairs to ask how to walk to the pharmacy. I was told it was way too far to walk. I decided that “way too far” was in city terms and not very far for me. Nonetheless, I panicked and went outside to call my mom. I thought she might be able to look it up on a computer and give me a second opinion. As we discussed the accuracy of “way too far” to walk, I saw the words “Of” and “De”. “Office Depot? No way…” I got closer. “Off” and “Dep”, and now I was convinced. I waited for five minutes for the store to officially open, then raced inside. I picked out a fancy, very distinctly patterned thumb drive. The cashier was super nice and pointed out that the other thumb drives were on sale. I told her No thanks because I wanted one that looked different from the others. Then she offered me stamps. “Perfect! I would have needed those soon,” I said. “I thought you might!” she smiled. I was already really liking Alaska. I bought some Christmas stamps and my drive and headed out.
When I got back to the lobby, I found that the lobby had computers with USB ports on them. I used these to transfer my presentation to my new thumb drive. I double-checked for success. I guess my series of unfortunate events actually worked out for the better. Then I went upstairs to pack my bags, check out, and go to my hostel. I tried the same door again and to no avail. I called my mom. Freaking out, I kept walking towards the hotel, wondering where I could stash my bags to make my tour in an hour. On the way, I passed a building beside the Annex and realized it was the one I needed. I had been trying the wrong door. I checked in and the lady inside kept apologizing that someone had messed up the night before. Although I went to the wrong door, they hadn’t taken the phone with them either. She told me she would move me into a single instead of a 6-person bunk situation. I said how I hated dropping $100 the night before when it was so cheap to stay at Alaska Backpacker’s Inn, so the lady then said it would be “free of charge”. I’m pretty sure I got the next four nights in a single completely free. Wow, that’s a gift.
I dropped my stuff off in my room which was on the first floor of the building I’d been trying to get into before. There were all kinds of writing on the walls and drawings all the way down the hallways. I opened my room and it was warm, although it had a slightly weird smell. I had a cot with two pillows and sheets and two towels, a fold-up chair, a television on a stand, a window with a curtain, and even a small refrigerator! There was no peephole on the door, however, and I had to remember to take my card every time I left to go out to the bathroom. It was no Sheraton or Hilton and my grandmother certainly would not enjoy it, but, for me, it was perfect. I felt like a real Alaskan backpacker! The only other people there were unfortunately the winter residents rather than travelers, and they tended to be older, dirtier, and a little not-all-there, but I appreciated the warm company nonetheless. We exchanged words only as I passed the coffeemaker on my way to the door.
I dropped off my stuff and headed straight towards the Hilton, where I was told to go for my Glacier Tour with Salmon Berry Tours. On the way there, I realized how hungry I was and how we were meeting at 9:30am but were supposed to be gone until 5pm. I decided to grab breakfast. My hair was freezing, literally, in the cold air after my shower. I found a place called the White Spot and went inside. It was covered in NFL and MBL gear, particularly from Cleveland. I asked the guy behind the 50s-style counter why there was so much Cleveland stuff (Browns and Indians) and he said he was from Cleveland. What were the chances? Two days in a row! He moved to California for college, then moved to Alaska and never went back. He hadn’t been to Cleveland in 30 years and asked how it was. He even asked about the very street I live on, gently surprised that I was familiar with it. Then he cooked me up some Alaskan classics, including reindeer sausage. I’m a vegetarian… but I’m also one for the experience. It was quite filling and I apologized for paying ahead of time, but told him I was in quite the rush. He understood.
Rushing off to the hotel, I found I was the last one the tour guides were waiting for. Sorry, Alaska has too many temptations! I took one of the two empty seats in the back, amongst a group of men, women, and teenagers who all seemed to know each other. I looked around and saw that we all had dark, straight hair. I was one of the only ones with light eyes, that dreadful peculiarity that defines me as metis. Soon we began moving and I rolled those eyes as we picked up the last woman at the hotel where I had just come from. Well, the walk was nice, and it’s the reason I met that man, ate that food, and experience the White Spot. I had no regrets.
As we pulled out to make our long journey into the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, I got to know the group of people around me. It’s funny how introductions start at AISES events. Questions usually include “What’s your name? What’s your tribe? Are you here with a group? Where are you staying?”, and only later to we delve into the topics of school, work, and origin. Everyone was friendly, smiling, and eager to be in Alaska and see the sights.
It was this bus ride where I made my first friend, Joshua Waupoose of the Menominee Nation. He introduced me to his cousins, his teacher, and his friends. I then learned from Josh that he was interested in computer science and that he was struggling to go back to school, but determined to go through with it. We also spent nearly an hour talking about casinos and how they destroy reservations with greed and alcoholism. Josh told me some personal stories of how his life has been negatively affected by these means of allocating reservation money, means which, he said, tear nations apart more than they assist them. Alcohol dependency in his family struck a familiar chord with my own family problems. It also resurfaced the stereotype of Indians being alcoholics, and the thought saddened me.
Our endless conversation was periodically interrupted by “ooo’s” and “aww’s” as we passed through icy plains, bounded by towering mountains. The height and intensity of these mountains was nearly incomprehensible. The age-old snow, imprisoned forever on the unscathed slopes, glowed a shade of rose as the sunrise poked through the peaks. At the base, a mother moose and her two baby calves were grazing alongside the highway, somehow finding enough food on the frozen tundra to fuel their enormous, awkward bodies. I quickly looked around the bus; the windows were fogged from our breath, yet everyone’s noses were pressed to the glass. (Okay, everyone but Kaleb – he had fallen fast asleep.) I had always wondered what kind of Indian would come to an event clear in Anchorage, but I got my answer: any kind. We were all captivated by the mysterious wonders of our ancestors’ land. I couldn’t help but smile, and feel strangely at home.
As we approached the glacier, I learned that one of Josh’s friends, Doug Littlehat, is actually a Navajo member attending school at the Menominee college. Doug joyfully told us the story of his grandfather who had found a big hat as a boy. He wore the hat from childhood until the hat became too small for him, thus giving him the name Littlehat. Doug left his reservation to get away and experience something new. He’s an advocate of sustainability and a coffee aficionado. I found his passions conflicting and laughed. He asked why and so I got the privilege of sharing a new idea with him: the concept of Water Value. For a man interested in sustainability, and especially for a man of the Navajo Nation where water has a high value, I thought he would be interested to learn about the new idea of tagging produce and goods with a price representing the units of water used to produce it. I had just learned about this in my Environmental Geology class that semester and was eager to share. I told him coffee was one of the most expensive products in terms of water value, rendering its sustainability as questionable. Then I praised him on his support of fair trade coffee business. Doug listened to what I had to say with keen interest. He replied passionately with how he will investigate this new concept and figure out a new solution for a coffee shop project he was working on.
After a couple hours of windy roads and never-ending mountains, we reached Long Rifle Lodge. There we had turkey sandwiches, soup, and lemonade. I then remembered it was Halloween! The stuffed animals all along the walls and rafters of the lodge were decorated in silly Halloween costumes. We took pictures, exchanged names, and laughed. The warm lunch wasn’t long enough and we soon found ourselves tripping over each other to get a view of the glacier from afar before departure. Gripping the freezing railing of the lodge’s deck, I leaned around the pine trees to lay my eyes on a small, blue wall of ice, framed by the classic Alaskan mountains. I could just imagine the wide river flowing from the north beneath the centuries of ice. But it didn’t seem so big.
I was wrong.
We piled back into the bus and went down a side road, not far down the road from the lodge. This valley quickly became flat. It was littered with pines. After speaking to some guards, the gate was lifted and we were off to meet our glacier walking guides! We pulled up to a small hut with an electric heater and Port-a-Johns where two eager guides suited us up with crampons and ski poles. Extra gloves and scarves were distributed. I eagerly took more gloves as I realized the intensity of the below-zero wind. I bundled up and put my camera around my neck. I taped a couple of distributed hand warmers to the backs of my hands and checked my phone. Wow, I still had service – way to go Verizon! I sent a picture of the glacier to my mom, then took one with my real camera. I frowned as I watched the battery power tick away from the cold in just minutes. My phone, on the other hand, stayed warm in my pocket and refused to die. It produced for me many beautiful panoramic shots of our hike through the valley.
Our group descended the side of the slope facing the icy expanse below. In about fifteen minutes, we approached the first large upheaval of ice. I took a picture of a hockey net and several people asked if I was Canadian, referring to my Canada hat. I said no, but then I met my first Canadian Aboriginal. The lady was one of the people in the Menominee group, but she was from a Quebec tribe. We all exchanged cameras and took numerous shots together, alone, and of the breath-taking views. The ice looked like snowy rocks at first, then we realized its magical azure hue. Brandy, our tour guide, explained that the ice absorbs every color but blue, hence the unnatural tint being reflected back to our eyes. Then we approached the enormous face of the glacier, carefully shuffling along sheets of ice and snow flakes. It was like looking up at a building’s wall. Suddenly, my mind was flooded with images of Wooly Mammoths and characters from Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.
Josh and I trailed behind the others, engaged in conversation about nature and what we were seeing. We tested the limits of our tour guide by following Doug up some slippery slopes, just to say we stood on a piece of the glacier. We learned that the glacier was slowly receding and that, years from now, it would be all the way gone up north. I climbed a pile of ice and peered miles upstream. Was global warming really going to destroy my glacier? I frowned, then looked down at an icicle. I plucked it and held it up to the light. It was clear with little air bubbles. Doug found an enormous hole in the ice. He poked his head through it from the backside and we laughed because it looked like he had fallen through. Then he found a crevice. I walked towards it and Brandy told me not to go any farther; I could fall 30 feet down. 30 feet?? Doug threw a small stone into the crevice. We listened to the click-clacks as it bounced through the ice then silence. One, two, three, four — SPLASH. “Woah……….” We all stared at each other in awe at the depth. Snapping back to my senses, I quickly backed away from the edge.
Thinking about the depth to the river below, I began to look at my icicle in a different light. “This has been frozen for thousands of years?” I asked. Brandy nodded. “So… I’d be the first person to eat this?” I pointed at the icicle. She laughed and nodded again. I ate the icicle. Doug licked one that he found. Then we learned about ice worms, little creatures that live in the ice. “…Yum…?” Doug laughed, reevaluating the icicle. Ice worms, Brandy explained, are so inefficient and not much use to predators due to their size and the energy it takes to hunt them that many wonder what purpose they serve. I laughed a little at this, believing that there is no such thing as a “purpose”. Life has no purpose, it’s just chance. Once, by chance, there is life, that life merely has a “niche”. Why do people always try to quantify life by purpose? By value? Why can’t there just be life? I caught up with a group of people learning to scale a sheet of ice with a pickaxe. We watched as the rising sun caused the tips of the glacier to drip slowly in the warm light. I marveled at how the sun rises and falls in the same corner of the southern sky. Doug was off jumping in snowdrifts in the distance. Everywhere, people were captivated and loving every minute of their tour.
As I continued to observe Doug’s recklessness, I began to admire his obnoxious, outgoing personality which was coupled by an aggressive adamancy for sustainability and ‘doing the right thing’. If I had never held deep conversation with him, I might have written him off as a hyperactive, meddlesome twenty-something. He was always finding a way to get into trouble. Scaling piles of ice, chipping at holes in the surface, climbing under tight ledges,… He could put a smile on your face, then a worrisome frown the next second as you watched him attempt something dangerous. When the ice under our feet began to crack, we followed the fissure with our frantic eyes to its source and found a wide-eyed Doug with a “wasn’t me” look on his face. Had we left him alone for an hour, he might have found a way to bring down the whole face of that glacier. Yet, judge as I might have, I am glad I got to know the real, compassionate, make-a-difference Doug. His passion is an inspiration in itself, crazy as he may be.
Several hours after hiking, we were sad to leave the glacier, but also happy to get warm again. On the windy hike back, Josh pointed to the silt on the ground and told me people sell that stuff for facials. “Yeah, they make ‘glacial facials’,” he joked, yet he was completely serious. I laughed. The things people do for money!
As we said goodbye to the glacier and boarded the bus, I began to realize how much respect I had garnered in just one day from the Alaskan natives. “You know,” I told my friends on the bus, “they say our ancestors came to the Great Lakes after crossing through here thousands of years ago. They also say our area used to be frozen like this as well. Can you imagine having to pass through here without any amenities? And the Alaskan natives chose to stay here!” The others nodded in agreement. We were all excited to learn about our Alaskan brothers and what drew them to leave Asia and settle down in such an unforgiving terrain. Stopping at a Starbucks in Palmer for toasty coffee on the way back to Anchorage, these thoughts were resounded.
When we made it back to our hotels, Josh looked over at me eagerly. “Want to come out with us tonight?” he asked. “We were thinking of having a Menominee dinner, but since you’re alone you can join us if you’d like. It’s Halloween. Maybe we’ll dress up.” I was so happy that I had already made friends in just the first day. All my preconceived fears of this trip began to dissolve. “I reserved a ticket for the Zoo Boo, but I’ll come after! Just let me know.” I told him. He gave me his cousin’s number because he phone wasn’t working in Alaska. We went our separate ways.