Monday, July 29, 2013

Turning 23 in Longyearbyen

It’s been a whirlwind of a year. Much of the time I have felt like a puppy learning how to swim, doing the doggy-paddle, barely able to keep my head above water, panting and gasping for breathe. This year I have had some of the most incredible experiences and some of the most challenging experiences of my life so far. I have tapped into my knowledge bank and utilized every skill and discipline I spent the previous 22 years mastering. I’ve swept a lot of floors, served a lot of cocktails, skied a lot of couloirs and photographed a lot of polar bears. I sometimes sit in disbelief and wonder how it all happened. I am now in Longyearbyen, Svalbard (of all places!) alone on my 23rd birthday.  I depart tomorrow early in the morning. The rest of the guests left at 8:00am so I have the day to myself. In honor of this solo time, which I seldom seem to have these days, I wanted to take a moment to reflect, and since I am far overdue for a blog post (my apologies) I thought I would share 23 memories/highlights/moments (with pictures!) from the last year. 

May I recommend a listen to either of these tunes if/when you watch the flicks ;)

The Larson family invited me to join them on a float of the Lower Salmon River last August. WHAT A PLACE! Despite the fact that I grew up 30 miles from the Yellowstone I have not spent a lot of time on rivers. I grew to love it in the past 3 years. There is nothing quite like river time; floating along at the water’s pace, no place to be but here and now, kind of like powder skiing, a forced abandon to the forces of gravity and power of nature; the result of surrender: pure joy, elation, a harmonious existence with the earth. Freedom. Add the white sand beaches and warm turquoise water of the Salmon River and you have paradise.


CJ and I scrambled up a non-chalont peak in the Beartooths. When we finished the final bushwhack at the bottom we emerged through the brambles a little farther west of where we began earlier that morning. We found ourselves basking in the setting sun on a sandy beach at 9,000 feet in the Montana wilderness. Without hesitation we stripped down and ran into the frigid water. Realizing 100 feet out that it was quite shallow we dropped to our bellies and dunked our heads, surfacing refreshed, grinning ear-to-ear among the golden sand and sunshine.

The Tetons have an allure that casts a shadow over neighboring ranges. When I first set eyes on Mount Moran I knew that I wanted to climb it. I was particularly intrigued when I discovered that the absolute best way to approach the climb was by crossing String and Leigh lakes by canoe or kayak, hauling the boats across a short portage in between. I was thrilled when Alaskan friend and adventure companion Dan happened to be in the area and was keen for an adventure. After a successful climb and summit we concluded that traveling via water is the absolute best way to approach mountain ventures, particularly with a heavy pack.  We celebrated with bandit and beautiful light dancing among reflections across a perfectly still Leigh lake.

The alarm went off at 5am. Norbert stood up and pushed aside the curtain looking out the window at the sky. “What do you think?” he asked. “We might as well give it a try.” I answer. We stepped outside into the darkness and quietly retrieved our bicycles, mounting up, and pushing into the dark. Headlamps glowing we began to navigate the old military roads into the Daarse forest. We arrived at a small clearing we had seen deer at the day before. No fog. Deer, but nothing else particularly spectacular, except the adventure, that alone was worth the effort. We opened a thermos of coffee and watched night turn to day. Red deer roared in the distance and light slowly crept up between the beech trees. I sat quietly listening and watching next to one of my favorite traveling companions and #1 pork chop.

We had just arrived in Churchill and were immediately bustling around preparing everything for the start of the season. It was a bit chaotic. Late in the afternoon Jane brushed the dust off her carharts with her work gloves. “Let’s go to the flats and catch the sunset. Quick. Hurry.” Jane, Melynda and I pulled up to a small cabin on the shore of the Churchill River just before it reaches Hudson Bay. We opened a bottle of wine and lounged on the rocks watching the sunlight fade as a pod of belugas danced in the current.

Someone interrupted Kathryn during the first evening of our Zoo Keepers & Educators Leadership Camp.“The Northern Lights are out!” Everyone stepped outside onto the deck at the Churchill Northern Studies Center. The show began gently but within 30 minutes had turned into an intensely vivid display of moving color and life enveloping the entire horizon. The display lasted for hours. We lingered in the cold soaking in every minute of Mother Nature’s elaborate light show. What a night. Oh, what a night….

I accompanied BJ for the first week of Polar Bears International’s Tundra Connections broadcasts. This meant a week out on the Tundra Buggy Lodge working with three scientists and a moderator conducting educational webcasts about polar bears, the arctic, and climate change. One of our broadcasts that week had over 200 users watching, many of which are entire classrooms of students! I was astonished and thrilled by our ability to reach such a large audience. We then had the opportunity to Skype with some classrooms, allowing both kindergarteners and university students to ask the scientists their own questions. It was very inspiring to integrate the technology that is so saturating in our culture with nature and conservation.

Mesmerized by the orange colors of fall, I could not take my eyes off the tundra when I arrived in Churchill. The last life of summer lingered, awaiting the bitter cold winds and snow. Nearly a week later frost decorated the branches, leaves, and blades of grass. By the time I left 2 months later Hudson Bay was completely frozen over. The polar bears needed to fast no longer and returned to the sea and their hunting ground, anxiously awaiting their first seal feast. Another season changed, another page turned, another circle of existence continued it’s cycle.

I returned to Bozeman in December after eating way too many cookies and exercising far to little in Churchill. I don’t remember who called whom but somehow we organized a pre-season ski tour with some of my favorite ladies. It was one of the first times I had toured with a large group of gals and it was SO MUCH FUN. We laughed a lot, smiled a lot, and skied a lot of powder. It was Soooooo goooooood. Thanks ladies.

I joined my grandparents, uncles, and extended family, some of whom I had never met before in Santa Fe for Christmas. My Uncle Mark and I stayed up late drinking wine and de-bunking family mysteries. I was able to put together a story that had always been a bit broken in my mind. It was so nice to relax, share stories, and walk Honey Bear, their pooch, in the mild New Mexico winter air.

Tony and I spent New Years Eve at the Bonnie Belle Cabin with an awesome group of friends who live in the little town (village?) of Silverton, Colorado. It is a magical little spot nestled in the San Juan Mountains. We skinned up in the late evening after climbing a pitch of ice. We arrived after dark and laughed hysterically over multiple games of charades. Someone went outside and ran back in, “Moon Dog!” We gathered on the porch and gawked as it illuminated the surrounding mountains. I turned the other direction, “Comet!” Michelle and Tony spun around in time to watch it for a few full seconds. Its duration was stunning.   


When winter arrived I ventured to Salt Lake to play in the mountains. I stayed with Tony & his roommates. The first morning I woke up at their house I walked in to the kitchen and feasted on what I fondly refer to as ‘Breakfast Mountain,’ Tony’s specialty; a pile of lightly fried sweet potatoes over a corn tortilla with a medley of fresh vegetables, particularly tomatoes, sprouts, and avocado, topped with two fried eggs and fresh salsa. THE BOMB. I will never forget my first breakfast mountain. 

I rushed back to Bozeman from Salt Lake City in January to join the (small) Polar Bears International staff for our annual meeting. Since it is my first year working with PBI it was also my first annual meeting, and I didn’t really know what to expect. On the last day we sat in a circle having a discussion. What are the most effective tactics we can use? What resources are available to us? What has the greatest impact? I paused for a moment and imagined myself as a fly on the wall. I felt honored to be sitting in a room with such intelligent and compassionate people discussing such important issues. I did my best to be a sponge and soak up as much as possible.

Elly-gazellie… I could write a novel. Let’s just say that we had the entire town of Haines saying “Prost!” in lieu of “Cheers” at the bar by the end of it all. We had a life changing 2 months together, beginning in Salt Lake City, travelling through Bozeman, Seattle, up the Inside Passage and settling for the last 6 weeks in Haines. I cried hard as her ferry disappeared into the dark in early April. Elly is the closest thing I have ever had to a sister.

We were at the P-Bar in Haines. I wore my cowgirl boots. I have never had that much fun dancing. Everyone was having SO MUCH FUN it was ridiculous. There was a live local band, it was Elly’s first night out on the town, and it seemed that everyone was out to greet spring after a long sleepy winter. Sylvia was with us dancing away; three sisters together. I finally called it a night around 2:30 in the morning. Sylvia & Elly were still going strong. I made it about 5 minutes out of town when Sylvia called. “Can you come back and get me?” I was confused. There was a pause. “The cabin is on fire.”

Mother Nature is more powerful than we are capable of comprehending. Loosing Cab was a stark reminder. I will never forget the days and weeks that followed.

Thin clouds covered the sky as we left camp. We gained the first vertical and crossed a long flat stretch. Adam was out front and lightly falling snowflakes were illuminated by sunlight underneath a cloudy sky. The light continued to improve as we moved up healing the fear that shuddered within me after Cab’s death and a strange string of associated events. A great day of skiing was followed by camaraderie as we chuckled away the evening at Camp Davidson.

The night before I left Haines I stayed up all night. I was so completely exhausted and drained, not from staying up all night, but from 2 months of relentless… life. I wish I could have given back more of the love that the community poured my way. As I drove out the Haines Highway headed for Montana I felt a little like I was running away… I will never know whether or not I made the right choice. But on my to-do list is to write a love letter to Hainesfor all the smiles, hugs, cookies, and clothes. For the community’s support and the beautiful beaches with which I could surrender to my thoughts and digest the occurrences of the passing months. I drove through a blizzard and pulled over before Whitehorse to take a nap. When I woke up 3 hours later my car battery was dead. The world speaks a funny language sometimes, but I pushed on anyways, and arrived home safely 3 days later.


The train door began to close. I looked out at Brody, weighed down by my load. Imagine a 115 lb girl hauling 150 lbs of gear around Europe on trains by herself… stooopid, but I’m stubborn to a fault. He stood in the colorful station and waved as the door closed. I was whisked away, bound for Bucharest, as our ski trip to Romania came to a close. When we arrived there was still a considerable amount of snow. In two weeks time we watched the snow disappear. Couloirs turned to rock and rollovers became waterfalls. We bought shorts because pants were unbearable. We skied some of the worst snow I have ever skied; snow covered in pine needles and gravel with sun cups that resembled rough waves in the sea. And we had a BLAST.

Nearly a moment after I boarded the ship we left the harbor and went full speed ahead for St. Kilda, a small island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. I woke to blue skies, calm seas, and gigantic towers of rock, covered in a curtain of white wings, birds flitting about the entirety of the massive spires. I rushed out of my bunk and onto the deck, camera in tow. Moments later we approached the island. I have never seen such a remote piece of wilderness. Enormous cliffs jutting out of the sea contrasted its lush hillsides. A short jaunt to the top revealed the vast blue Atlantic in all directions. I stretched my arms to the sky and embraced the ease and beauty of such a remarkable place.

The entire group was back at 14 camp contemplating; calculating the pros and cons, the potential consequences and the reward. A small crew of 6 decided to stay past our out date and give it one more go. I had things I needed to do, but they were on hold for a month, they could wait a few more days. The final steps to the summit ridge I struggled to catch my breath; 10 steps, breathe for 20, 20 steps, breathe for 40. I was exhausted from the attempt only 1 day earlier with 1 day of rest in between. I took the final steps to the summit and everyone hooted and hollered. Clouds softened the beaming sun as euphoria buzzed between us and we exchanged high-fives and hugs.


(There are no bears in this video… sorry.)
A seal lounged on a small piece of sea ice. “If you approach them slowly they don’t seem to get scared. I think they see the ship as a gigantic ice berg or something,” Martin, first mate of the Stockholm, mentioned later on. We couldn’t have been more than 10 meters away and noticed a white face with black beady eyes and a little black nose swimming silently behind a cluster of ice flows. “No Way…” I gasped under my breath. Everyone was silent. In a burst of motion the polar bear emerged from the water lunging onto the ice flow and landing in an enormous splash on the other side, the seal barely slipping away in front of his open jaw. The bear swam for a moment and crawled back onto the ice flow stunned and defeated. He then slid back into the water and swam away slowly into the abyss, continuing the relentless search for sustenance in the vast puzzle pieces of melting sea ice.
At 11:55 the crew of the Stockholm summoned everyone for a toast. I was a bit confused as we had already toasted to a successful journey and everyone seemed to have said goodbye and retired to their rooms. Anika appeared with Champaign glasses for all and Peter shouted “1 MINUTE!” The last few stragglers shuffled into the galley. “Midnight!” Peter said and everyone raised their glasses, “Happy Birthday!” and the room full of Germany and Swedish friends began to sing (in English!), followed by hugs and warm wishes from all. We reconvened a few hours later and danced at a disco club 78 degrees north of the equator into the early wee of the morning. I couldn’t have asked for a better celebration, or better company. Thank you. What a treat.

“You know, with your life, you should get down on your knees and pray to the powers above every single day.” Peter said to me this week. He couldn’t be more right. Thank you to all the friends, mountain partners, vadering cohorts, family members, and followers. After all, experiences aren’t much if you don’t have someone to share them with.
Bear Hugs from the #greatwhitenorth.
Much Love,