Saturday, June 28, 2014

In which I go to a Solstice party, get up close to a glacier, and generally feel incredibly happy :)

Catchin' y'all up again!

Last week Tess and I had the day off together, plus her friend Liz, who works on one of the Holland America ships, was in town. We were feeling pretty lazy, but stopped at the Alaska Mountain Guides to see if they had any open slots on a zipline trip. They did not end up having extra spots, but we had a nice time sitting in the cool sunshine, picking up some snacks and the grocery store, and watching The Nanny Diaries on my bed. It was also fun to get to know Liz a little bit! Not only are my friends here cool, but they have cool friends!

On the 21st, Tess and I headed out after our evening show to the Skagway Solstice party. Meridith had the day off and had already been there for a couple hours. Tons of townies turned out. Every time I start to think I know everyone in Skagway, I stumble across another couple hundred people I've never seen! It's neat. The sky stayed very light very late – and it never really gets dark in the summer. The sun goes down for a couple hours, but the sky remains quite twilight-y. Anyway, we hung around for a couple hours, chatting, getting our faces doodled on with an electric blue face paint pen, and listening to the awesome family rock band that our friend and coworker Zach plays guitar in. Zach recently graduated from the Skagway School and is headed down to Oregon in the fall, but meanwhile we had the pleasure of hearing him knock “Johnny B. Goode” out of the park!

Several days ago, I felt a little irritable and melancholy after an evening show (for one thing, here is a slightly petulant piece of advice from me to you: If you're going to see a show in which you expect to hear live ragtime piano, maybe it would be polite to refrain from sitting down and playing extremely skilled solo jazz and ragtime at the piano in the lobby for an hour before the show), so instead of going inside I went to the playground right by my apartment and swung on the swings, which was lovely. Afterward, I was lying on the ground under the swings, contemplating existence, and two guys who looked to be about my age walked up and sat on the swings. It turned out that they're from California, which is always totally exciting to me. Their names are Connor and Alvin; they go to the US Maritime Academy in the Bay Area, are majoring in Mechanical Engineering, and are doing an extremely-poorly-stipended 60-day internship on the Alaska State Ferry. They're in Skagway for an hour a week! It was really great to meet people who weren't living in Skagway, and nice to have spent some time outside.

And now I'm up to yesterday, which was amazing! Steph and I had the day off together, and we called up Alaska Excursions early and got on a 10:30 am Glacier Point tour. Meridith had done the tour twice already – once alone and once with her friend Kate, who is in town visiting this week – and was awed and moved by the experience. And no wonder!

First, Steph and I met up with Wyatt, the guide for the first and last parts of our tour, on the Railroad Dock. Wyatt and his girlfriend Hannah already knew Tess from Blues Night at the Gold Rush Brewery, so now Wyatt has met all of us Days of '98 girls. He's from California – as I mentioned, I have a nose for Californians! (Actually, side note – when we're gambling with the guests before the evening shows, we like to diversify the blackjack or dice with trivia questions. Mostly we ask Alaska-related questions, but I also like to ask them to guess where I'm from. I've asked this question probably 15 times at this point, and except for two heavily-Canadian crowds this week, someone has gotten the answer correct every single time. I don't know what it is, but somehow the California is written all over me! In fact, random people on the street come up and tell me I look like a Californian sometimes. It's weird but cool.)

Anyway, once the big group from the Disney ship showed up, we loaded onto a boat, which we rode 30 miles down to the Davidson Glacier. 

It was the first beautiful, warm day in over a month. The views were incredible (duh)...

...and we saw a couple of bald eagles...

...and a couple of humpback whales!

We also got to know Anna and Megan, who work for the horseback tour arm of Alaska Excursions and were taking the tour on their day off, like us. Megan is a professional photographer, besides working with horses.

Once the boat landed...

...we filed off, grabbed a sandwich and some snacks for lunch, and loaded onto a bus, which took us to a trailhead. We donned rubber boots and life vests, and were led on a short hike by our awesome middle-of-the-tour guide Jake. The guides who do the part of the tours that actually take us hiking and up to the glacier live at Glacier Point full time over the summer. Our lovely part-time castmate Renee did that for three summers and says it was the most amazing thing she's ever done.

After our hike, we filed into canoes and rowed up to the glacier. (Seriously, you do so many different things on this tour!) Getting as close to the glacier as possible involved some trekking over mud and through swirling glacier runoff, which was pretty exciting. 

The silt looks like molten silver.

A few weeks ago when Meridith first went, they could go right up to the glacier and walk on it, but at this point in the summer there is too much water in the way. Still, we got pretty close, and we even got to eat some glacier ice! It was pure and cold and delicious.

This picture makes me hurt.
There is something incredible about seeing a glacier,
and I have not been able to put it in words yet.
It is completely different from
anything else
I have ever seen or done.

We stayed out there for about half an hour, then walked/canoed/hiked/boated back to Skagway. On the return boat ride, we saw a hundreds of sea lions sunning themselves on a big rock and playing in the water. This is a different species of sea lion than the ones you see in San Francisco. 

We also saw a bunch more whales, bringing our incredibly unusual and lucky whale total to eight! Wyatt said the only thing that would have made it better was an orca sighting, but that only happens 3-5 times a summer.

Once we landed, Steph, Megan, Anna, and I got fish and chips for dinner at the Fish Co., which had been recommended since arrival but which none of us had tried. It definitely lived up to its reputation, and sitting outside in the sun eating fish and chips was a perfect cap to a perfect day.

Not that it was actually the cap to the day, since after that we met up with the rest of the Days of '98 gang at the Eagles Club, where the Jons were buying everyone drinks. We had a good time there, returned to the house to shower and change, and went out for a couple more drinks at the Station and Bonanza. It was great getting to hang out with Meridith's friend Kate a little more, and some of our other Skagway friends.

Today I had to work, but I had the morning off, and since it was the first 80-degree day we've ever had here, I spent a solid four hours of the day sitting in the sun, reading and chatting with locals and listening to the local radio broadcasting its pledge drive right outside next to me. I couldn't be happier :)

Monday, June 16, 2014

In which I hold puppies, ride an ATV, and see a bear!

As you may have seen in my Facebook photos, Stephanie and I went dog mushing on Thursday! As with when Tess and I went horseback riding, we just called up Alaska Excursions in the morning and asked if they had any available spots on tours. It was a pretty cool day! The woman who drove the bus to Dyea was kind of strange and unpleasant and rude, which put a bit of a damper on the beginning and end of the trip, but the whole middle part was great! We rode in a streetcar-like mountain vehicle up to the place where the dogs mush (?), and loaded up onto 6-seat wheeled sled/carts amid a clamor of barks. When our musher released the brake, the dogs – probably about 20 harnessed to our sled – immediately took off! Steph and I had been worried about if this is nice for the dogs, but it was clear that they like their job. They love to run! Some of them even bounce up and down because they want to run faster. We went around the track three times, stopping a couple times for pictures, and then got off the sleds and met all the dogs, which was very fun!

On the way down, we stopped at the place with the campfire and the gift shop and the pen for the dogs who have the day off... and the puppies! (P.S. It was even more obvious here that these dogs love to run. The pens had big wooden hamster-type wheels in them, and one dog just ran and ran the whole time we were there! It seemed to be having a great time. It was very intent on running in the same place, viewing the wooden planks of the wheel!) Anyway, we had a very interesting fifteen minute lecture about the Iditarod, and then we got the best part, which was holding and petting the tiny three-week husky puppies. AUGH. I want to hold all the puppies forever!!!

Then I had a couple days of shows, and then we all had Sunday off! Mike, the owner of the Gold Rush Brewery, offered to take us ATV-ing in the Carcross Desert, and then to Whitehorse. So Meridith and Stephanie and I layered up and hopped in the truck!

I had never been on an ATV before, so it was a little scary and pretty exciting. Steph and I rode on the one that was in good shape, while Meridith and Mike rode the one that stalls out all the time. We took turns learning to drive, just tooling around on the dunes a bit, and then headed up the road to a trail up Montana Mountain. I rode behind Steph and then Meridith on the way up. It was both fun and beautiful, especially when we came out from the trees and beheld the valleys below! We gained a few thousand feet in total, which meant that while it was 65 and sunny where we started, it was pretty chilly when we got close to the top of the mountain, and there were still significant patches of snow on the ground. These required some serious ATV maneuvering. Generally we had to get off and let Mike figure out how to get the ATVs over the snow patches. But we got almost to the end of the trail before it became completely blocked in. At that point, we hung out and made snow angels for a while before turning around and heading down. After the hardest parts were over, I got my gumption up and drove the rest of the way down, with Steph riding behind me. Once I got less stressed about steering, it was really fun!

We were damp and muddy and sweaty when we got back to Mike's truck, but we loaded back in and headed to Whitehorse. We hit up Walmart, where I replenished some of my show makeup and picked up a muffin pan and other semi-essentials. Dinner was sushi at a place off the beaten path – delicious and basically affordable, which was awesome. We stopped for Starbucks and then headed home. On the way, we saw two porcupines and... three black bears! The first black bear was eating dandelions. The dandelions un-constipate the bears after their hibernation. This works because the flowers sit in the bears' stomachs, fermenting. Side effect: Drunk bears. We were able to pull up right alongside the bear and watch it eat many dandelions in a very focused way – it didn't even really notice us! The other two bears along the way saw us drive by and hightailed it away from the road, but we still got good looks!

The drive to and from Whitehorse is just stunning, of course. The last rays of sunshine along the mountain ridges reinvigorated my awe for Alaska.

I don't have any of the pics from today - Steph and Meridith took a bunch on their phones, but I wasn't carrying my camera - so you'll have to wait and see them on Facebook! It'll be worth the wait, because FYI I look like a freaking badass in my ATV helmet ;)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

In which I have maybe the best day of my whole life

Watch out - this is a long one, since I have stuff to catch up on before I get to today. But I think it's worth it! ;) If it's too long for you, skip to the second half, because today was the most amazing day.

Last Wednesday was Stephanie's birthday! We surprised her in the morning with a cinnamon crumb cake for breakfast and a bowl of some of her favorite things. We did a few shows, and Jon brought it a whole dozen cupcakes from Sugar Mama's! After the shows, we went out to dinner in honor of the birthday girl, who wanted wings at BrewCo. Tess' parents were also in town and came along – and treated us to the dinner, which was very generous of them! After that, we headed over to the Mile Zero B and B, where Tess' parents were staying. It's a beautiful space. Maggie, the assistant there, who just graduated high school in southern Missouri and is heading to Boston in the fall as an aspiring model, let us use the living room to watch a movie. Steph had picked The Room, which is known as the “best worst movie” ever. I had semi-watched it with my Cohoes family one night, but no one else had seen it at all. We didn't quite make it through, but we all affirmed its worst-ness!

Then, last weekend, Jon Hays finally came into town! He's a co-owner of the company, and, more important to me (lol), the other pianist! He slotted into the show smoothly, and now I officially have regular days off until September! They actually gave me three whole days off this week, I imagine to give me an extra break, since I worked 20 out of the prior 21 days. All the work hadn't been too bad, but I'm definitely excited to have more time both to rest and to do amazing Alaska things!

So on Monday, I shared my day off with Tess. She called up Alaska Excursions, a company that runs a bunch of the tours, that morning, and was able to get us comps for a horseback tour at 1:00. We headed out, met our adorable/fun/awesome guide whose name isn't coming to me at the moment but I'm sure it will later because we're going to be friends plus she reminds me of my friend Elizabeth (hi, Elizabeth!), and loaded onto the van with the rest of the tour group. We were driven to Dyea, a drive I've experienced several times now but am not at all tired of, and up to the horse paddock (is that what you call it?). Tess and I had fun trying to guess which horses we would be put on. 

I was given Wayland, a beautiful black horse, and was behind Tess at the end of the tour line. We set out, guided at the front by our van driver's twin sister Sarah and at the back by Joshua, who is from North Carolina and has never been to any big cities but has spent several years in Alaska after first coming up here to try to get an ex-girlfriend back! Anyway, the woods were beautiful, as usual, and it was super fun to be on the horses. And when we emerged at the Taiya River Inlet, I was (yet again) awestruck by the view, and the feeling of being out in Alaska on a horse.

We turned and headed back before too long. The ride back was peaceful, and as with the hike and float tour there was hot chocolate waiting for us at the end, along with incredible salmon dip. I've got to get the recipe!

Once we got back to town, I showered and fell promptly into bed for an hour-long nap, while the other gals went to yoga. Then we headed to Olivia's Bistro, which is the cute restaurant across the street – we'd been thinking about trying it for weeks. The first half of the menu is Mexican food and the second half is other seafood. I was torn, but we all ended up ordering some kinda Mexican food or other. We're pretty deprived in that regard out here! It's no solid California Mexican, but it was both tasty and plentiful. Steph and I got the white chocolate rum bread pudding with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and fresh mint for dessert. It was everything it's cracked up to be. We also found out that our server was Olivia (as in Olivia's Bistro). She's the daughter of the owners, and she's about our age. She spent three years in New York, working for a law firm and then for Citigroup, but decided it wasn't for her, and she's back for the summer working in the restaurant until she figures out what to do next! We got her number so we can let her know when we go out next and she can come along!

And today – holy crap, today. Oh my god, today. Today, thanks to Renee, I showed up at the Temsco base by the airport and asked the check-in desk if they had any extra space on a helicopter glacier tour. Sure enough, they had an extra slot on the very first tour of the day. I did have to pay, but I only had to pay the local rate, which is still expensive but half of what the tourists pay. It was an easy decision to hand over the money!

We got orange safety vests and over-the-street-shoes glacier boots, were divided into groups, and loaded into the helicopters. I got to sit front and center, right next to the pilot! The pilot's name is Ian, and he already knows Tess a little bit, since she's been hanging out with one of the other pilots, and has met a lot of the Temsco crowd in the process. We took off and flew out over the inlet.

From here on out, I don't even know what to say. I was grinning the whole time. Eventually we turned left over the mountains, and flew over little bits of glacier before soaring out over a big section of the end of the Meade Glacier. 

 bit of glacier

this might be my favorite picture I've ever taken in my whole life

The Meade has lots of little glaciers flowing into it, which creates striations of crushed rock in the ice. I forget what they're called. The surface of a glacier is rough and cracked, because the deepest ice flows almost like honey, whereas the upper ice is still delicate and cracks when it is moved. 

I didn't even know before this that glaciers are made of super-compressed snow! It takes about a hundred feet of snow to become one foot of glacier, but Alaska can get 200-300 feet in a really good winter! Of course, the glaciers are receding at the rate of about 200 horizontal feet per year, and a bunch of vertical feet, too (maybe it was 50?). At this rate, the section we were standing on will be gone in 20 years. Boo, global warming!

We landed by the tent that serves as home base for the glacier crew during the day. Our guides – Rachel, Ben, and Ashley – welcomed us and started showing us around. It was cold up there! But with my jacket on, my hood up, and my hands in my pockets, I was pretty ok. Anyway, I was too busy being amazed to mind much. We trekked over the rough surface of the glacier, crossing streams of glacier melt.

Best of all, we peered down into moulins, which are crevasses caused by said streams and can be as deep as two or three hundred feet. Those were the places where it's the most beautiful, since the top of the glacier is dirty but the deep, smooth sides of the moulin are an incredible, perfect blue. 

At one point, Rachel kicked a mass of crushed ice down a stream into a moulin, and we could hear it roaring all the way down. It was crazy that it was so loud for so long! She says she only gets to do that on the first tour each day, because later in the day it builds up and isn't so kickable.

Just before we had to go back to the home base to wait for the helicopters, we stopped one more time at a stream where we could kneel down and drink. My hand got very cold ferrying the water to my mouth, but it was worth it for what was about the best thing I've ever tasted. Rachel was also kind enough to get a couple pics of me on the glacier!

 real pic of me on glacier

hilarious selfie on glacier

I was so not ready to leave, but I got back in the helicopter so as not to be abandoned. The flight home was equally beautiful and amazing (I feel like I overuse those words here, but there's just nothing that communicates the majesty, the profundity, and the utter beauty of this place). It was a lot like my very first flight into Skagway, actually! Ian pointed out the cruise ship sitting in the dock in Haines – Skagway can only dock four ships, so on five-ship days one of them has to dock in Haines and ferry people into Skagway.

We landed with a fun, tight left-hand turn into the Temsco base and exited the helicopter.

As I walked away, back in to town, I was so exhilarated I had to scream and shout for a minute! Good thing no one was really around ;)

To top it off, as I passed the Lemon Rose cafe on my walk home, I spotted hot-out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls in the window and just had to pop in and buy one. Somehow that really just pushed my happiness so over the edge that I almost started crying!

The power of the experience has only stayed with me and grown all day - as I cleaned the house, as I wrote a letter, as I went grocery shopping (and actually got every single thing I wanted at the grocery store!! A Skagway first!! They even had buttermilk!!), as I read my book outside, as I made granola, as I took Renee's wonderful silks class, as I sit here watching Psych and drafting this post. The awe and the joy are still with me. I can't think of anything better I could have done.

And that's it for now, folks! All caught up at last :)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

In which I finally have a day off, and go on a hike and float tour!

Sorry it's been so long since my last post! There was a week where I didn't do much but work - then I had one day off, about which I am about to tell you - and then I went right back to work and didn't have the time/energy to actually post about it! But I'm feeling mildly energetic tonight - enough to get a few things done on the internet after 10 pm, anyway! So here goes :)

On Sunday, we all had the day off! I had made it through 13 workdays in a row! Now I'm in the middle of a bunch more, but it was great to have that one day in the middle.

Renee has some contacts in the hike-and-float tour company, so she arranged for a heavily discounted tour for whoever wanted to go. Meridith, Bill, Gregory, and I were all in, so we hoofed it over to the Railroad Dock to meet the tour guide (Jeremy) and hop in the van. Jeremy drove us to Chilkoot Trail head in Dyea, and we started off with about a three mile walk through the forest.

It just has gotten more beautiful here every day, as the deciduous trees grow leaves, the ferns pop up brilliant green, and small flowers bloom everywhere.

I don't have any words for this.

Apparently Coastal Brown Bears
(which are the same species as Grizzlies
but are bigger yet less aggressive
because they eat so much salmon
with so little effort)
do this to mark their territory.
If another bear comes along and can claw higher up the tree,
then it continues into the territory anyway,
because it is like

It was particularly cool, because Jeremy knows a lot about the different kinds of plants and what they can be used for. I loved learning that stuff, even though I've already forgotten a lot of it!

 I forget what kind of tree this is,
but it has to grow on top of rocks,
because the soil here is too acidic
for basically anything except spruce, hemlock, and dogwood,
but the rock neutralizes acidity!

 I forget what kind of fungus this is,
but you can knock on it
and it is as hard as wood!

 I forget what kind of fern this is,
but it is Jeremy's favorite plant, and very beautiful.

Its spores line the underside,
like they're in little pill packets or something.

After our hike, we made it to the riverbank where the raft was waiting for us. We changed into waders and hopped in!

So ready!

Jeremy rowed us down the river. It was so beautiful, peaceful, calm... all the adjectives! ;) I felt like I was meditating without really meditating.

 The company was lovely – sometimes we chatted and sometimes we just chilled. (Literally, actually – it was a little cold out!) 

 Jeremy and Greg!
And Bill, sort of hidden behind Jeremy.

An eagle's nest!

We pulled over at one point onto a rocky bank, where Jeremy taught us rock bowling: Pick a large rock, crouch over and hold it behind you, and then throw it between your legs and see whose goes farthest! I came in last every time. But that's ok!

Sooner than I was really ready for, we pulled up to the final bank and hopped out of the raft. They had hot chocolate and still-slightly-warm chocolate chip cookies ready for us, which was perfect

We helped carry the raft aground and then Jeremy drove us back to Skagway. Even the drive was beautiful :)

Next up: Stephanie's birthday on Wednesday! TTYL!