The water came up quick and close as we seemed to skim just over top of it before landing on the really, really short air strip. It was January and as the wind started blowing cold down south, I found myself hopping a plane, and then three more for an island…the island of Sitka, Alaska. This spot in southeast Alaska has a harbor of calm waters and a string of towering snow capped mountains. The day I arrived the air was filled with fog and rain. It was quite a shock to look out two days later and see huge mountains flying straight up. I could talk for pages about the weather–the wind, the rain, the stunning sunsets over the water–but it is the nature created in part by the weather that has enveloped and grounded me while simultaneously lifting me up.
But first: How come Alaska?
Well, last year after a particularly snowy, icy, and rather miserable winter in North Carolina, I said to the Universe: I am not spending next January here!
Note to self: When chatting with the Universe, Be specific. I imagined somewhere warm. Somewhere I could find say exotic fruit and create tan lines. But the Universe heard what I said and delivered…delivered me to Alaska in January.
While the days are short and the rain falls pretty steady, also steady is the growing light. Where I might have thought a warm secluded island, I received a warm island of people. Where I might have envisioned water to swim in, I have been granted stunning water falls where the ice blue water glitters brilliantly clear.
I have come to this far off spot to be near a friend who could use some warmth and in turn he and his community have given me all the warmth. They have also given me a few lessons in being slightly more frontier worthy.
First, there was the new friend who told me of the hiking trails that I could explore. “But be sure to take at least a horn with you.”
“Oh, I have my whistle.”
An eyebrow raised. “Oh, that’s cute. Were you planning on entertaining the bear first?”
I assume he meant “first” as in, First before he EATS you!
When I told my friend of my naiveté of the whistle for bear protection, he replied, “You know we call those Dinner Bells?”
Then there is the footwear. I came with some snazzy lined mid-calf waterproof boots, which I sport just about everyday. But if you are a local, you don a pair of Tuffs. Don’t have any? Well, if you are lucky, you’ll wind up at a sweet lady’s house with a warm bed, a hot shower, and a closet full of Tuffs.
Sitka has 9,020 residents, so you do not stay under the radar for very long. And, that is a good thing…I think. It’s gotten me noticed on the trail, in the grocery store, and at the coffee shop which has either been due to new faces being quickly noted or because of my attire. I sport my lucky hunter-proof orange jacket which I find not particularly fashion note-worthy. Yet, on several occasions I have been identified by my outerwear: “Didn’t I see you (fill in the blank)? I recognize the orange jacket.”
Who knew I was making such a fashion statement. I’d surely be recognized back home if I walked the street in what seems to be custom here: a bright green jacket with reflective crosses on the back. Which I must say, makes me wonder if the airfield had a sale. Folks look like they are ready to flag in a plane on Main Street. Of course, the choice is brilliant in the dark days as I can see someone for hundreds of yards. I think the same is being said for the lucky orange jacket.
While I have been walking most places, I did acquire a loaned truck. There is nothing that makes this 5 foot 5 inch gal feel more tough then saddling up behind a four wheel drive pick up. I haven’t taken the truck off road…since it’s not mine, plus there is the fact that off road means driving to the end of the island, hitting gravel and then landing in the water.
Walking takes me off road. I’ve been able to enjoy a walk in the woods most everyday. One big hike took me up Gavan Hill that is lined with stairs and stairs and stairs. I recalled Angel’s Landing in Zion that I hiked last fall. Gavan is minus the tourist and has a heck of a lot more stairs, including a good rope section. At the top, I was almost parallel with the snow capped mountains all around me.
Most hikes have happened deeper in the woods where moss covers the trees and the sense of otherworldliness—like being dropped into The Hobbit—comes to mind. Some trails hug the mountain sides and others open up into wide open space. I’m learning to discern the Spruce Pines from the Yellow Cedar from the Hemlock and hoping to catch sight of the blooming Salmonberry before too long.
I know how I got to the island, but my curiosity leads me to ask what brought others to this rather remote corner of the world where the barge to resupply the grocery store causes a back up at the SeaMart parking lot and a peek of sun means taking off early from work. I met a few who came after college for AmericaCorp and found steady work, and others stopped in for the fishing or outdoor activities and are still here some dozens of years later.
At the outdoor shop, where I bought a backup headlamp—a hot commodity in this area—I met Jessie who said he showed up one summer, went home a few weeks later and sold everything to move to Sitka for good. “The thing is, people who live here do so because they want to. That’s what makes it a community.”
At the pharmacy I met Mike who acknowledged that there might be places with better weather, and then quipped: “But then you’d have to live there,” and Mike doesn’t want to live any place but Sitka. “I like that I walk down the street and I am not anonymous. I have a place here.” He smiles and adds: “You come and you find it hard to leave.”
Mike touched on something often absent in our society…the feeling of being connected to where we are by having that assurance of being known, the feeling of having a place in the world. That seems difficult to achieve in big cities and rather easy here. Not sure how long I’ll stay on this magical island community, but certainly the locals have made me feel welcomed. Thanking Mike for the chat, I turned to leave.
“Hey, I like your orange jacket.”