Thursday, June 25, 2015

Alaska - First Day on the River

“Have fun in the Last Frontier.” That is what was said to me when I had to make an emergency call on a satellite phone to alert someone that our raft ripped open in two places while we were on the North Fork Koyukuk River in the Gates of the Arctic, far above the Arctic Circle and far away from any other humans.

“Uh hi Eric, this is Brett. Yeah, the plane just dropped us off an hour ago and we’ve been on the river a whopping fifteen minutes when some of the shady patchwork looks like it got snagged and caused old punctures to turn into two giant rips.  We are going to try to patch it and hope it holds, but wanted to let you know if you don’t see us in five days to send out a search plane.”

His response consisted mostly of, “Have fun in the Last Frontier!” I pulled the phone away from my ear and looked at it to see if there was a tagline button that I accidentally pressed with my cheek or if that was really how the proprietor of the Bettles Lodge responded to me when I told him we might die out here.

It all started with an afternoon flight from Bettles, Alaska traveling about 55 air miles north to a gravel bar near Fishless Creek at the Gates of the Arctic that was about 85 river miles away.



The North Fork Koyukuk snakes around many mountains and has tons of braids (channels going in multiple directions that crisscross and eventually end up in the same place again). This river is like a woman’s mind – we never knew where it was going next. The river literally goes in every direction, including north again, as it eventually flows south and continues on past our ending spot of Bettles. And like some women, this river has many personalities. Sometimes it was mellow and forgiving, other times it kicked our ass. Sometimes it was fast and narrow, others it was wide open with many forks. At first, we’d try to choose our channels and forks in the river, but we quickly learned to just go where the river takes us.

As we marveled at the winding river in the wilderness that would be our home for the next six days, the plane started descending. The little three-seater honed in on a gravel bar which is basically a silty sandbar covered in stones. These gravel bars are prevalent along the river, but not very many of them can be landed on by an airplane.  In fact, the one we were about to land on didn’t look anything like an airstrip unless you consider a short length of somewhat cleared land between forest and river consisting of rocks and boulders to be a runway. I quickly understood why the plane’s tires were deflated so much upon takeoff. The landing was as smooth as one can be when its on a pile of rocks and requires slamming on the brakes.

We unloaded our gear and the pilot took what I hoped would NOT be the last photo ever taken of us by another person again.


And then he was gone. The pilot. With his plane. And our only real connection to civilization.

video

I don’t know how to describe the feeling I had as the plane disappeared and it was just Tom and me standing on a gravel bar next to a majestic river in a magical land with only ourselves to rely on for our safety, sustenance and the journey back to civilization. It was a bit of a rush. High on life, the land, the risks and the fun. Its similar to the common way people try to describe the experience of Burning Man – you can’t.  It’s like trying to explain the color green to a blind person. And yet as I still try to put this feeling in words, someone posted the following online:

 

When that plane disappeared and I looked all around me, it was a perfect moment of yugen.

We looked at all our gear and the deflated raft that we trusted was tested by the Bettles Lodge before we loaded it on the plane and decided the first thing we needed to do was have a beer.  We sat down and toasted to, well, yugen I guess. And we did so under the marvelous peaks of Mt. Doonerak, the Matterhorn of the Gates of the Arctic. Doonerak stayed with us for three days and I have only about 372 pictures of it from various angles, distances and light.


It was time to inflate the raft. We spread it out and were stoked (roll eyes here) to see four valves on the floats and two more on the benches that would be blown up with a tiny foot pump that looks like it was from the Alaskan gold rush of 1896 complete with duct tape wrapped around a leaky connection between the pump valve and the hose.


About two hours later, we had a fully inflated raft and totally pumped up calves – Hans and Franz would be proud. We loaded up our gear which consisted of three bear cans, one cooler, one large bin, three large dry bags, one dry duffel and three small dry bags. Considering we didn’t know exactly what we were doing, we did pretty well.  We were finally ready to shove off.



Tom took the captain’s position in the back of the raft. I sat in front.  I will give Tom major props for being really good at steering the raft. This river ended up requiring some serious maneuvering and if I were in back, we’d still be impaled on a tree. And I still applaud Tom’s skills even though he did indeed almost impale me on a tree on day two or three, but that is a different story.


We decided to pop open beers but quickly realized this was not a float and chug part of the river. We got in a decent groove of teamwork and were enjoying the huge mountains all around us while trying to steer around trees and rocks. We were on about our 12th minute on the river when suddenly there was a loud THUMP!

Tom yelled, ”We are taking in water fast! We have to get to shore as soon as possible!”

I said, “Oh shit!”

And perhaps the quote of the trip came next. Tom said, “Row like you’ve never rowed before!!!”

I said, “Oh shit!”

It was scary; for me anyway. I couldn’t see what happened since I was in front and there was a ton of water pooling at my feet.  Whatever hit us was under water and neither of us ever saw it.  There was nothing we could have done differently.

All I could think of was those cartoons where two dudes are rowing in a lake while their boat is sinking and pretty soon all you see are their chests and heads while they are still furiously rowing the oars underwater. I thought about gear floating down the river, hypothermia, drowning and bears feasting on our carcasses. And I thought about how hard it was to row to the left side of the river to the gravel bar when the current was taking us right.

We came around a bend and since I was in front, I could see the gravel bar to our right first.  “Tom, go right instead!” And we were able to glide in easily and safely to a large gravel bar.

In hindsight, we weren’t really in deep trouble.  Our gear was secured better than Fort Knox. And the floats kept us afloat. The rips in our raft were on the floor and although that isn’t good, it sure won’t make us sink.  And although the water was freezing cold, the outside air was quite nice (we had 60s and 70s most of the trip). Plus, the water was shallow enough to stand as we got close to shore. I was never in panic mode, but admit the initial scare was really no worries. I’ve just never been on a raft with two major gashes in it taking on water on a river in the middle of the Arctic before, have you?

We inspected the raft and saw this:


A big L shaped rip next to another long rip. I caught sight of something blue in the river and found two old patches that had been on our raft. Based on the lack of glue on the L shaped cut and the shoddy patches, we figured out what happened. A tree branch must have snagged the edge of a poorly applied patch and pushed up under it until catching on the original puncture. Then it went through and acted like a knife slicing open the raft. We must have turned the raft to cause the ninety degree slice and can only assume the same thing happened with the smaller patch.

We unloaded the raft and turned it over. There are so many patches on the raft, we felt like idiots for accepting this is as our floatation vessel for the next six days. A three-year old would have said, “Uh, is there a raft that doesn’t have three-dozen holes in it?”


I found the patch kit, which also was from the gold rush of 1896 and was not surprised to see there were no instructions. And of course nobody told us what to do if we needed to patch the raft, nor did we ask, so we were on our own. The task at hand:

video


Tom is great at steering and rowing a raft, but he didn’t have confidence in his ability to fix it, so I took on that responsibility while he worked on a campfire (he is awesome at this by the way, including disposing of and leaving no trace in the morning).

I knew we had to let the raft dry, so I figured I should tap into the emergency resource we were smart enough to bring along – a satellite phone. Of course we were not smart enough to test it before we got on the plane, but hey, its all part of having fun in the Last Frontier.  As I called the Bettles Lodge on the phone I thought we’d never use, much less in the first 20 minutes of the trip, I knew we’d be fine because if we had trouble and had to stay, the gravel bar we were on was big enough for a plane and there aren’t many better places to camp that I’ve ever seen.  It just would have been a bummer to not do the raft trip – something we had been planning for months.


Luckily the phone worked and I had the conversation with Eric that I summarized at the opening of this story. And again, the gist of his response was, “Have fun in the Last Frontier!” This became our motto for the rest of the trip.

“Brett, look at these fresh bear tracks going right by our tent!”

“We are having fun in the Last Frontier!”

And,

“Tom, we are about to slam into that pointy tree branch sticking out of the water!”

“Just having fun in the Last Frontier!”

And,

“Holy shit, these mosquitos are horrible, even with the head nets. We sure are having fun in the Last Frontier!”

Tom had a sweet fire going at this point and we set up our tent a good 75 yards away in what might be the best spot I’ve ever camped in.



We had a great dinner and more beers.  Perhaps even a shot of whiskey or three. Since the sun never sets this time of year, we had plenty of sunlight to dry the raft. I figured I was buzzed enough to go patch our raft of life. I grabbed the patch kit and wasn’t sure what to make of the messages all over it to “open only if needed,” nor the fact the glue was dated from 2011 (I may have exaggerated about the gold rush).


I buffed the edges of the gash wounds, cut out shapes and rounded the corners (when I remembered – forgot to on two of the four patches). The glue is like a wet rubber bandy rubber cement. A brush connected to the lid is supposed to enable you to spread the goo over the surface but it was hard to work with because it was so sinewy and elastic. Plus, the fumes. Holy cow. I’ve never taken any drugs in my life, nor gotten high, but now I’m not sure I can legitimately say that.  Between the beer, whiskey and inhaling glue, no wonder I forgot to round some of my edges!

We did all we could do and needed to let the glue dry. Plus, even though it was light out, Alaska truly is the land of the midnight sun. It was time for bed. We crashed and although I’ve never prayed for anything in my life, I may or may not have prayed those patches would hold on the river.

In the morning, we ate a hearty breakfast (pop tarts) and quickly broke camp.  We were anxious to see if the patches worked and since our first day OTR (became our code for On The River) was only fifteen minutes we were eager to be on the water. We discussed if we should test the raft before loading it up and immediately agreed that would be way too sensible so we loaded that sucker up, did a few chants to the river and raft gods and were ready to shove off for day two OTR.


It was a glorious day. Sunny blue skies, probably seventy degrees.  Mt. Doonerak towered over us with glistening snowcapped peaks. We pushed off and rowed down the river for a few minutes. We went over a few rocks and shallow areas. No water in the boat.


We were stoked. The fricking patches were holding strong! Although we both had a little distrust of the raft with all those other old patches, we felt great about our situation and went on to have a beautiful day.  The rest of this day is a whole other story, but it involves two hours OTR, two hours on shore for lunch and then three more hours OTR of which thirty minutes were nothing but crazy fun wild rapids. And the raft held strong!

Mt. Doonerak kept an eye on us all day and we felt like we were now part of the mountains and even more so part of the river.

 

Yugen

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I Promise to Come Back Alive

People seem to associate Alaska with death. The varieties of death are somewhat diverse with the most popular demises being death by bear(s), drowning, hypothermia, poisonous berries, bush plane crash, moose, icebergs in the river, swarming bugs, yeti, White Walkers, black plague and overall cluelessness leading to lost wandering and henceforth death.

I love exploring mental associations. The kind where people associate two or more ideas and objects together based on their experiences. Like if your house is struck by lightening when you are a kid, you may grow up fearing lightening. Mental associations can be positive as well. Like when 5p comes around, you may think “happy hour!” These can be conscious or unconscious – that part doesn’t really matter to me.

I have many mental associations between people and acts/objects/ideas ingrained in my brain.  For example, following are automatic and instantaneous associations I have with some of my friends:

Jeff = Milwaukee handsome
Olivia = bean burrito
Amy = Brother Jon, Avenue of Americas (I have lots more for her)
Dave = spaghetti sauce behind his ear
Hammer = the Mustang and a straw in his mouth, way too small gym shorts
Stanton = crashing into a basement pole while playing floor hockey
Lisa = hair pull
Rich = the dirt
Kerby = “What’s up?” “Nuthin, you?” “Nuthin.”
Dude from rival softball team back in the day = unnecessary and laughable grunts
My mom = Birmingham (instead of Burning Man)
My dad = Not nece-celery (instead of necessarily)
JD = Springsteen
My kids = Total and unconditional love (and spilling and bumping)
Kimmie = Cubs (and also a crazy story involving a custom t-shirt, asshole cops, a crack-whore breakfast and bail money)

I could go on and on.  But the point is I’m trying to not be anyone’s association to a bear's meal!

I’m going on an epic adventure to Alaska with my buddy Tom.  We leave on Monday. We are due to come back two weeks later assuming everyone I know is wrong with their doomsday associations. Funny thing is I don’t think any of these people have ever been to Alaska so their fears and concerns are either based on something they heard about, or somewhat bruising to my survival skills pride, they are based on their lack of confidence in our knowledge and abilities to be dropped off by a bush plane in the Gates of Arctic and fend for ourselves down a river with no guides or safe words.

Although this trip has been in the works for years and committed to months and months ago, we are scrambling to be ready to fly out on Monday. It’s amazing how life gets in the way of preparing for not dying in Alaska. Plus, neither of us is really concerned about anything really – we just want to have an experience of a lifetime. ‘Life’ is key.  We fully intend on coming back with stories and memories that we will associate with Alaska forever.

This trip pretty much knocks me off the grid.  I will be in civilization at various times between jaunts from one adventure to another but I don’t plan on checking in with anyone, other than my children. Even though Mindy at work today (half) kiddingly asked if there are any files with critical information or phone numbers she should call if I never come back. I assured her I’d return so no need to give her access to the man behind the curtain, although my ex knows what to do in the event of an untimely death (is there a timely death?).

So enough death-talk and negative associations! Instead, think of this as a grand adventure, a soul cleansing, a life changer and a damn good time. I’ll be back end of June.

Godspeed my friends…


Friday, April 3, 2015

Oh Honey

“Oh honey.” Have you ever said that before? Or thought it? I know you have. We all have said it to that special someone. It’s attached to all kinds of emotions and reactions. Love, frustration, empathy, surprise, sympathy, lust and even disgust to name just a few. Something happens and whatever you are going to say, it’s led off with “Oh honey.” Or perhaps that is all you say. Sometimes that is plenty enough.

The universal truth, in my humble opinion, is that having a honey to say “Oh honey” to is a wonderful and lucky thing. Some honeys come and go. Spouses, girlfriends and boyfriends – honey one day and thou who shall not be named the next. If you are lucky enough to have a honey, I hope you appreciate him or her everyday.

My bestest honeys are my boys. It may be weird for a father to call his twelve and nine year old boys honey, but I do. And I’m weird. Even when I’m addressing them by their names or as punks, or kids, or dudes or whatever; in my heart it is still as honeys.

I very impulsively saw a band I’d never heard of last night. They are called Oh Honey and I highly recommend you check them out.  They have at least one song that is rising in popularity and getting them some national attention.  It’s called ‘Be Okay’ and it probably should be my theme song.  





Here are most of the lyrics – I just cut out the repetitive ending chorus:

Fresh cut grass, one cold beer
Thank the Lord I am here and now, here and now
Summer dress, favorite park
Bless your soul, we are here and now, here and now

I'm wide awake, so what's the point of dreaming when your life is great?
Celebrate the feeling, celebrate the feeling

Can't complain about much these days, I believe we'll be okay
Oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh
Can't complain about much these days, I believe we'll be okay
Oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh
We're sleeping out, I believe we'll be okay

Sun kissed skin on my lips
Thank the Lord I am here and now, here and now
Fireflies after dark
Bless your soul, we are here and now, here and now

I'm wide awake, so what's the point of dreaming when your life is great?
Celebrate the feeling, celebrate the feeling

Oh! Can't complain about much these days, I believe we'll be okay
Oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh
Can't complain about much these days, I believe we'll be okay
Oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh
We're sleeping out, I believe we'll be okay

We'll be okay
We'll be okay

Can't complain about much these days, I believe we'll be okay

Nice job Oh Honey.  Great and simple lyrics put to a sweet beat resulting in a fabulous song that I hope catapults you to fame and fortune.

On the way to the Larimer Lounge to see these guys play, I talked to my ex-girlfriend for the first time in quite awhile.  She was my honey. It was a quick chat of mostly a recap of our respective day. Hers was long and mine was fine. Later, she texted me that she had a horrible day and just didn’t tell me on the phone. I guess she still looks to me for comfort even if that isn’t my role in her life anymore. Oh honey.

I told her tomorrow is a new day and that she should sleep so that tomorrow will come. As a guy trying to appreciate everything, take nothing for granted and live in the moment, I felt like maybe I was shortchanging today by suggesting she just get to tomorrow.

I found my own advice to my ex-honey combined with hearing the band play ‘Be Okay’ to be a bit of an epiphany. Or less dramatically, a reminder that I have it so good, with or without any honeys (besides my kids).  No matter how bad the day gets, we’ll be okay.

But with all that said, I don’t like longing for things I don’t have. I have it so good right now, despite any bad days. I can’t complain about much these days, I believe we’ll be okay.

So why do I find myself longing for someone? Music is so powerful. The band has another song I liked even better than ‘Be Okay.’ I listened to this other song called ‘I Love You Will Still Sound the Same’ and thought about my honey I no longer have. And yet, I still have her in my heart.  I can’t put her arms around my neck and feel her heart on my chest but I can feel her in my soul.



I can live in the moment and appreciate what I have every day. I can also go to sleep so that tomorrow comes. Because maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to say to her, “Oh honey,” and who knows, maybe feel her heart on my chest and her arms wrapped around my neck again.

I believe we’ll be okay.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Forever

I was talking to a friend today about forever.  As in, do I believe in forever?  It’s actually a great question that I have never thought about directly.  Instantly, I thought of my children and know I will love them forever.  I know somehow some family members can lose something and not have love forever, but I’m so sure that I will love my guys forever that I know that would not be an issue for us.  I believe in forever when it comes to loving my boys.

What else?

*crickets*

I’m not a religious person so I can’t pull anything from that realm.  As I mulled, she said plastic.  Unfortunately, she might be on to something.  It made me think of Twinkees.  She then told me to Google ‘container ship rubber duckies.’  Wow!  I had never heard about the 20,000 or so rubber ducks that have been floating around the world since a shipping container spill back in 1992.

What else?  I’m still drawing a blank.  I guess that supports my belief that everything is temporary.  Except for my love for my kids of course.  Although what happens when I die – that gets to be way too deep of a conversation that I don’t have answers to anyway. 

Everything is temporary.  I’ve written about this before and I’ll talk your ear off about it with examples ranging from Burning Man where if you don’t participate or engage, it literally might not be there tomorrow (it might burn) to going on a trip with a friend – if you don’t go when the opportunity presents itself, you may never go. 

My next tattoo will be a line from a Dylan Thomas poem.  “Rage rage against the dying of the light.” Interpret it how you want.  I understand he wrote it as his father was dying.  I think of it as a reminder to live in the moment and never take anything for granted. 

I consider myself a relatively drama-free person.  But the last two months have been overflowing with emotions.  I think I’ve been on my period.  Ha, I wonder how many women want to smack me for that comment.  My last two months have been an old school country song.  Thank goodness I don’t have a dog or I’m sure he’d be a goner.

Yes, I broke up with my girlfriend.  Work has been a bit of a bear with a longstanding client possibly leaving us and a pretty big hiccup with another, all requiring my best fireman skills to douse the flames.  And one of my work peeps has crazy health shit going on at home with her family where sometimes I wonder how she hasn’t checked herself into the funny farm.  I fear the day she comes in and has news that nobody so young should have to endure.  One of my best friends is so pissed off at me that a relationship that I considered to be brotherly may be over, in large part because I’m not afraid to express my feelings and he won’t own up to his shit because I’ve hurt his feelings. 

There is more but we all have our crap to deal with and I’m not looking for any sympathy or woe is me support.  I can handle this, but I’m just saying I don’t like it.  And it illustrates how quickly things can be taken away.  One minute you think all is well and perhaps even take things for granted, the next second its gone.

I was in Arizona this past weekend visiting close friends.  I happen to have a few relatives on my dad’s side in the Phoenix area but we aren’t close – it has a lot to do with the fact my dad and his brother had a family spat that lasted for most of my adult life until they mostly reconciled ten or fifteen years ago.  The ripple effect is that I never got to know my uncle as an adult nor do I spend any time with my two cousins or their families.  And that is it on my dad’s side. 

I was telling my buddy House a tiny bit about this when he picked me up from the airport.  We dropped off my stuff and met up with my buddy MoMo.  And I got to finally meet House’s beautiful (inside and out) girlfriend Meghan.  And the next day I got to see a dear Burning Man friend GoLauri.  It was cool to be around old friends and new.

House and Meghan had a couple of poorly timed conflicts with my visit so they had to disappear for a few hours on Friday night and then again on Saturday.  No worries, I totally understood and had MoMo and GoLauri to hang with, in addition to being really comfortable hanging by myself and making friends with strangers.

But then when I got home Saturday night around 8p to wait for House and Meghan to get back, I found out my uncle died.  The one right there in Phoenix.  It wasn’t the most surprising news in the world – he was late 80s and was in a home suffering from dementia.  I wasn’t close to him.  But he’s my dad’s only brother.  I named my little guy after my uncle and dad in a way by having his middle name be Jack, the name my dad and uncle George called each other growing up and through their adult years (until the family spat).

I feel bad for my dad.  He is 86 and his health has deteriorated quite a bit the last few years.  My parents have a trip scheduled to fly into Phoenix in two weeks where they were going to see George and then drive on to San Diego.  They just missed him.  I was right there in Phoenix and didn’t even make plans to see him and I just missed him.

My mom says my dad is fine.  He might be relieved he doesn’t have to see his brother in the state he was in at the nursing home.  We already went through that with his mom (my grandma) and it isn’t pleasant.  But my dad didn’t come to the phone.  He’s lost his only sibling and is likely reminded of his own mortality.  I don’t think he wanted to talk about it.  I can relate.

I decided to crash on Saturday night rather than go back out with the gang when they were ready for me.  I didn’t tell them why.  Nor did I tell them on Sunday Funday or Monday when I left for the airport to get home.  I don’t handle death well.  I haven’t been around it much and I don’t know what to do.  I know I didn’t want to talk about it, even when it came up with Meghan and House while at breakfast Sunday.  I kinda felt like a fraud anyway.  I really didn’t know my uncle.  The last time I saw him was with my ex wife and my older kid cuz the younger one wasn’t even born yet.  

I drank too much this past Sunday Funday. And I was a bit of a jackass to my friends and their friends.  I’d like to blame it on my period.

I have all this crap going on and then this happened.  And it hit me how everything is so temporary.  Something I already know, but not everybody else does.  I had this great girlfriend, but we really aren’t meant to be together forever (there is no forever).  I have these great clients that turn not so great and eventually we will part ways (there is no forever).  I have a right-hand person that I love as a co-worker and a friend who might lose a husband way too soon (there is no forever).  I have a buddy that treats me like an acquaintance rather than the brother I thought we were (there is no forever).  I no longer have any uncles and my dad lost his only sibling (there is no forever). 

Rage rage against the dying of the light.  Take nothing for granted.  Do not put off something you want to do, no matter how hard it might be to achieve. Tomorrow may never come.  And what you have now won't be there forever.

Nothing is forever.  Even the plastic ducks are disappearing.  Some sank, some washed up ashore and have been taken away, others succumbed to the sea and managed to deteriorate into fish food.

Nothing is forever.  Except for my love for my children.  So I’ll continue to appreciate them and respect that I get to be their father.  But I’ll be gone someday and wherever I am, I will have loved them like no other.  And they will have to move on.

Because nothing is forever.