22 September 2014

The Kodiaks of Katmai: Peace in a Remote Paradise

An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.  If you want to see more pictures, follow me on Facebook/mikaeladeigh.

ime on Harvester Island is non-existent.

After only a few hours on her shores, I lost track of what day it was.  The week stretched out to infinity and the air took on a patina of fairy-dust.

Picture for a moment the scene in LOTR when the hobbits first step into Rivendell or the Fellowship encounters of Elves of Lothlorien. 

That is a fair approximation of my experience of Harvester Island. 

It is an isolated, magical place, accessible only by bush plane and boat.  An isolation that might drive one mad eventually ~ mad with the 360° view of beauty that greets you each morning.  And the silence ~ a silence so profound, you sit on the pebble-strewn beach and hear a raven beating the crisp air with its wings.

The peace I found there I have never experienced anywhere else.  It is part of the silence and the timelessness and the overwhelming beauty of nature.

My spiritual experience extended past the island and into Katmai National Park, where another writer and I flew by float plane to see the famous Kodiak bears (aka grizzlies) fishing for salmon.

There was nothing between us and the bears.  No vehicles to hide in.  No trees to climb.  No guns.  No protection save the mace our guide from Kingfisher Aviation carried.  Just flat land, sea grass, a small river, and bears.  Ten of them all told, but only three that were close enough to be our photogenic models for the two hours we stood on the bank.

Two hours in paradise.

Overwhelming the Five Senses
Katmai is the least visited of the National Parks and for two very good reasons: 1) the remote location and 2) the number of brown bears that live there.  (Katmai is where Timothy Treadwell was attacked and killed by a grizzly.) 

Our little trio was not being foolhardy or cocky, however ~ we carried no food, kept a watchful and “bear aware” eye on our surroundings, and maintained a respectful distance.  Brown bears may look cuddly, but those sharp teeth and long claws can instantly rip you in all the important places. 

Fortunately, these bear tours are quite common and safe and the bears are focused on eating as much salmon as they can find to bulk up for the oncoming winter and hibernation.

We sloshed through about two inches of water as we walked toward the mouth of the river.  Then we rounded a corner and all five of my senses went into shock. 

Katmai National Park - Mountain Range near Geographic Bay
Image taken with Nikon D3300 DSLR

The absolutely stillness of the park, save for the rushing of the river, and the call of the seagulls and an occasional magpie.  The crisp cool taste of the air, so clean and absent of exhaust and pollution.  The mountains cradling us in their majestic arms.  The feel of the water and the sand and the sea grass as we sloshed and hiked our way towards the edge of the river.  The smell of decaying salmon heads and some unidentifiable scent that was uniquely Katmai. 

It settled in my lungs and I breathed a sigh of grateful surprise that I was finally, finally here.

There it was again ~ that sense of timelessness, peace, well-being.  I wanted to gather the park in my arms and hold it, protect it.  Which considering Mount Katmai blew itself up in 1912, is just a tad silly.  But I felt that same tightening in my chest as I gazed around the valley.

And just when I thought this trip of a lifetime couldn’t get any better, the unthinkable happened.
Katmai National Park - Kodiak Brown Bear
A lovely 3-400 pound female was directly across from us on the opposite shore. Although keenly aware of us, she was ultimately more interested in fishing and eating salmon.  She watched the other bears warily, sniffed the air now and then, and ignored us. 

And then she surprised us by getting up, splashing into the river, and walking towards us.  
Katmai National Park - Kodiak Brown Bear
My companion grabbed on to my arm and whispered, “Is she going to keep coming towards us?  I think I’ll just move behind you a little.”  I grinned and kept my camera up to my eye, snapping pictures madly.  Then our girl stopped, just over 5½ to six feet from where we were standing. 

It was the most glorious moment of my life.

My adrenaline spiked with wonder and excitement as she drew closer and closer, and I wondered, "What will I do if she decides to charge?"  And then “Protect the camera equipment at all costs!  At least someone will enjoy these freaking awesome pictures!”

She lunged for a salmon but came up empty-handed.  I held my breath, fascinated, as she stood still, as if lost in thought, and then walked up the river a few feet away, and lunged again. This time, she turned back towards us with a prize in her large jaws.

I kept my camera on her, shooting frame after frame, living in the moment, my heart racing like I was on an insane roller coaster ride.  The sound of her ripping into the salmon, crunching on its bones, was music to my ears.  Not because I’m morbid or particularly blood-thirsty (although I might be ~ but that’s another story), but because it was so silent in the park, and we were so close to her, that we could hear it.

Too soon, she finished her quick snack and left us to wander downstream.  We soon followed, hoping to beat the low tide out to the float plane.  I lifted my face to the sun and filled my lungs with one last taste of the cool mountain air, wishing I could have stay there indefinitely.

Since returning, friends and co-workers have looked at my photographs, heard me tell my Katmai story excitedly, and shaken their heads in disbelief and censure.  And I understand.  To stand unprotected in the midst of legendary Kodiak bears is not for everyone. 

But for those two precious hours, I felt no fear, only awe at the power and beauty of God’s creation.  And that deep abiding peace and awe that coloured my entire Kodiak experience. 

And just like Frodo, I am filled with “an overwhelming longing to rest and remain” cradled in the arms of Alaska.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

Where do you find peace and feel a sense of awe and wonder?

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18 September 2014

La Belle: New Address, Same Old House

It ain't what they call you, it's what you answer to.
~ W.C. Fields

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.

nd this blog now answers to new, easier to remember and hopefully easier to spell, url: www.mikaeladeigh.com.

When I began this blog back in 2005 (wow, we turn 10 next tenyear!), I still lived in a world of lofty romantic ideals and an attachment to Latin.  

Today, those romantic notions are sadly tattered and blowing the breeze of cynicism and disillusion. 

The old url is the Latin translation for Canticle 2:16 (or Song of Solomon):

I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.

See?  Very romantic. 

The sentiment, at least, has proven true on this count: I belong to the art of writing even more than I did in years past.  The style has changed (as it should as I read and wrote more) but the love of ink and paper and words and ideas and the worlds and emotions they create and inspire ~ that has never changed.

So, much like the house you like that sits in the neighborhood you’ve outgrown, La Belle has kept the same structure, just moved to an address that’s easier to travel to.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

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15 September 2014

Top Ten Travel Lessons Learned

"The only way that we can live, is if we grow.
The only way that we can grow is if we change.
The only way that we can change is if we learn.
The only way we can learn is if we are exposed.
And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open.
Do it. Throw yourself."
~ C. JoyBell C.

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on the workshop and on the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.

ime Lords with British accents who roam the universe in blue police boxes aren’t the only ones who view time as a “wibbly-wobbley timey-wimey thing.”

Before I ever set foot on Kodiak Island, I already had a growing list of Lessons Learned on an Alaskan Adventure.  Such foibles are to be expected with any endeavor we undertake, but especially so since I’m all about relationships and not logistics.  And I have a wee bit of ADD.  

So here are my Top Ten Lessons Learned that might also help you get ready for your next trip.

#1 – Three Months Does NOT Equal Ninety Days
This is part of the timey-wimey thing.  I know I can’t be alone in thinking, “I have plenty of time to prep and buy X, Y, and Z for my trip.  I don’t leave for another three months!”

Oh not so, my dear, not so.

Out of those ninety days, you have twelve Saturdays and six Fridays.  If I had remembered this fact back in June, REI, Bass Pro, and Dick’s Sporting Goods would have met a much less stressed version of me.  As it was, I was running around like the proverbial guillotined chicken, desperately searching for hip waders.

#2 – Solar Chargers: For Airplanes & Airports without Plugs
Even though I planned on being out of cell and wifi range while on Harvester (where happily, I had wifi for a few hours in the morning), I needed to keep my phone charged while waiting in airports and on planes.  

Alaska Airlines became my favorite airline because they are super polite, friendly, funny, and have plugs on the backs of the seats.  This was a gift from on high on the flight from DCA to LAX as my Kindle app drains my battery like Vlad the Impaler.

#3 – Rent a Bad Ass Camera & Back Up Your Photos ASAP
This is something I actually did and would definitely do again.  I rented my Nikon D3300 with an 18-300mm lens and camera bag from Borrow Lenses.  It was simple and affordable.  Without that sweet set up, I wouldn’t have been able to get the close ups of the Kodiak brown bears (aka grizzlies) in Katmai National Park or the snow-capped Alaskan Range.
Bear Tour with Kingfisher Aviation
Totally worth the money to get these close ups!
This was part of a lesson learned from my last trip to the West Coast.  I bought a Canon point and shoot (not terribly expensive, but still) and two days later, it took a swim in the Pacific. 

Related lesson #2? “Don’t drink several cocktails and then walk along the beach in the dark while taunting the waves.”  But that’s another story.

Related lesson #3?  “Back up your data as soon as you get home.”  Because I didn’t and I lost all 1,000 pictures except for a few I uploaded to my Facebook album.  I have someone trying to recover them, but if they can’t do it, those are a lot of money shots just…gone.

#4 – Saltwater and Skiffs Equal Waterproof Camera Bag/ Storm Jacket
My note to self reads: “You will want to take pictures while in the skiff.”  I used a plastic bag to protect it when I wasn’t taking pictures, but I missed a few shots because I was worrying about keeping the camera dry.  And the Storm Jacket by Vortex comes recommended by a National Geo photographer.  Sweet!

#5 – A Polar Plunge is Awesome – with a Wet Suit/Dry Suit
Call me crazy ~ I already know it ~ but I really wanted to snorkel in Uyak Bay. The water was so clear you could see all the way to the other side of the world.  It was also turn-your-skin-blue-ice cold.  Since I was returning home to 90° weather, I did manage to get my Keenes off and walk in the Buskin River for about ten seconds before I had to admit defeat.

#6 – Fly Fishing Makes Salmon Taste Even Better
Got some great shots (now erased *&^$%) of salmon jumping and struggling on a fly fishermen’s line in Buskin River and wished I could have gone out in the river and fished too.
I mean, I already have the hip waders.  And I like fresh fish.  

Just need to make sure there’s a manly man around to scale and gut it.  Tried that once ~ ick.

#7 – “The Mummy” Ride Makes Bush Planes Look Like a Merry Go Round
I owe an apology to my friend Gregers and his buddy Curt – I hate roller coasters and that roller coaster at Universal Studios on my layover at LAX was vomit-inducing horrific (although I just closed my eyes and kept my In and Out burger safely in my stomach) and I cussed them up one side and down the other for telling me it wasn’t a roller coaster.

But I was grateful once I reached Kodiak and had to ride in a bush plane and a float plane ~ both which are seriously under-rated.  They’re awesome and you get to see a side of the island/mountain you wouldn’t see otherwise. 

Plus, if you’re lucky, you get a Scots pilot.  That vortex of Scottish charm is potent in a five-seater Cessna.

#8 – Forget the Treadmill, Stairmaster Is Your New Bestie
There was a gravel path that I swear was vertical.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t really vertical.  But the gravel was loose and squishy, so I got a real workout to and from the banya and the main house.

On second thought, forget the Stairmaster.  Just put your hip waders on and walk in mud or wet sand.  Same result.

#9 – You Can Never Have Enough Travel TP and Hand Sanitizer
Packing light was essential to me, so I only took one roll of travel toilet paper and a handful of hand sanitizer wipes.  This was not a good idea, especially when going for long hikes, or in my case, long ocean skiff rides.

#10 – Make the Magic Last
Don’t be in such a hurry to get back home.  Actually, I didn’t want to go home.  Still don’t ~ I need a bumper sticker that says “I’d Rather Be in Alaska.”  So I booked a hotel in Kodiak and left a day later.  But I wish I had arranged to stay a few extra days in Anchorage.  Denali was calling my name and I couldn’t answer this time and it broke my heart. 

Yes, I’ve got it bad.  At least now I am better equipped for wherever the longing for wilderness adventure takes me.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

What are your travel lessons learned?

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09 September 2014

Return from Harvester Island

Why do you go away?  So that you can come back.  So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors.  And the people there see you differently too.  Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
~ Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on both the workshop and the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.

eace equals absence.

The absence of stress.  The absence of critical words.  The absence of anxiety.  The absence of negativity.  The absence of a frenetic pace.

Peace is the space in between ~ where I am free to be myself and free to grow. 

And I found that peace, that in between space, on an island in Alaska called Harvester.

Beauty Inexpressible
From the moment I boarded a 737 (one of eight modes of transportation to get to my destination) to the first white-knuckled, sea-sprayed skiff ride, I felt like I lived in a dream.  Nothing, not even the realities of bathing only twice in eight days and ‘marking my territory’ in a patch of sea grass, dispelled the watercolour surrealism.

Don’t believe what you hear about Texas ~ everything is bigger in Alaska.   

The snow-draped mountains of the Alaskan Range make my Blue Ridge and Shenandoah look like ant hills.  The ice cold, hazel gaze of Uyak Bay is more seductive than Caribbean blue.  The air and the wind and the waves and the rain taste sharper, strip you bare, and caress you deeper, than any you might encounter on the West or East Coasts.

This shouldn’t surprise you ~ the Last Frontier is bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined ~ twice the size of the Lone Star State.

And the beauty.  My God, the beauty. 

The View from Harvester Island
© 2014 La Belle Dame de Merci
Everywhere you look, in any direction, there is nature, in all her raw and aching glory.  It tightens the chest, fills the soul until you are overwhelmed and breathless, leaves you spent and satiated.  It is almost too much.  And yet, never enough. 

But what is Paradise without some sorrow, some darkness to spice and sweeten the day?  Such glory, such beauty is not enjoyed without cost.

The Price of Wild Salmon
On two occasions, our small band of writers and adventurers sat spellbound in the skiff, clinging to humongous bins filled with the sloshing remnants of ice, sea water, and fish guts.  Our cameras snapping madly, we watched hardy Alaskan fishermen haul up their purse seine nets for their third or fourth salmon catch.  The sun gilded the hair on their brawny arms, muscles bunching and straining against the heavy fish and gravity. 

Knowing that purse seiners go out and do these “sets” as many as twelves times, my heart ached to see jelly fish outnumber the salmon when the net made its final burst from the sea.  Even “pinks,” salmon that is not as tasty as the “reds” that run in May and June, and the “silvers” that run through September, would be a better catch than jelly fish and bull kelp.

So they will lower the seine net and perform this delicate yet back breaking dance over and over, for an hour each time.  If the salmon are running and the schools are big, they may catch two hundred-fifty fish, averaging six pounds each, with every set.  But if the salmon are running thin, they will be lucky to get one hundred twenty-one in a set. The ones we witnessed didn’t have more than fifty fish in one set. 

Nets drying on Harvester Island
© 2014 La Belle Dame de Merci
Working in much harsher conditions than your average postman, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” nor sleet, hail, or hurricane-force winds stays these stout-hearted men (and a few women) from their self-appointed fishing rounds.

Sitting in that gently rocking skiff, shooting moments of a life that most in the Lower 48 romanticize, I wondered, “What in the world draws and keeps a man to this kind of life?”  Some have never known anything but life on the water, picking fish with their fathers from a young age.  Some come to it as a second or third career, some as a hobby.  Yet they all feel the pull, the siren song of the beauty of this at times forbidding tundra.

You cannot come here, live here, sleep here, without being affected by it.

And you certainly cannot leave here without your heart breaking a little at the goodbye.  This is the real reason I believe they stay ~ the blood that pumps through their veins is mixed with salt-water, fish oil, and sea air.  It is more real, more a part of them then their limbs. 

Perhaps that is why this place, these waters, these mountains, these islands, have burrowed a nest in my heart and my soul ~ I understand that need.  The addiction that keeps one from leaving for more opportunities, warmer weather, an easier life.  Because my blood is mixed with dirt and compost and seeds. 

Eugene O’Hara in Gone with the Wind said 
The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts…
And he was right.  But I believe if he had seen Alaska, had visited Harvester Island ~ he would have added the sea to that observation.

I know I do.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

What images does this essay conjure for you?  Do you romanticize the sea and fishing?

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