Sitting on a rocky outcropping next to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, I looked intently across the glacial plain towards a ridge of white peaks. Snowflakes swirled in the air and a broad smile beamed across my face. Next to me the boys were bursting balls of energy at the moment — we all knew we’d just witnessed something unique.
Minutes prior while hiking towards the glacier, we’d come across a large mountain goat in that very spot. We observed each other intently for what seemed like a lifetime before it made a slow and deliberate retreat down a shear cliff. Stunned at the close encounter, I wasn’t actually sure who was more surprised by the experience, us or the furry white goat.
The boys and I have made a ritual out of these Monday hikes, and each has become rewarding in its own way. The outings started with short walks to the river behind our cabin then extended farther afield and to other days of the week. There are so many places to get out and stretch our legs around here. So much to see and learn about each time we depart a trailhead into the woods.
Our hikes, though, are becoming more interesting as winter rapidly arrives. We’ve watched leaves quickly turn from green to red to orange to brown before falling to the ground. Felt warmth go to cool then cold. Rain turn to snow and then back to rain. Ice gather and people promptly disappear from this rural outpost of Alaska.
Whether it’s at the edge of a glacier, a mountain lake, a rushing stream or a mountain-lined bay, everything wild around here is changing swiftly. The animals know it and the people do too.
Fortunately, Porter and Magnus are keen on the differences they’re seeing and experiencing on a near daily basis. As I write this, they’re outside playing in the woods. It’s pouring rain and there’s still snow on the ground. Porter’s snowman is melting, and daylight is beginning to funnel over the mountaintops and through the trees. But in true fashion for them, he said while pulling on his boots and coat, “Dad, I’d rather be outside, I don’t care what the weather is doing.”
I hear that.
The change in weather hasn’t simply been a welcome to a new season, but a welcome to the real Alaska, too. And I didn’t fully understand this until walking down a snow-covered dock with a fellow boater the other day as slush crunched beneath our boots. During our brief chat he said something to the effect of, “This is winter in Alaska, which is why there aren’t many of us here.”
In the moment I didn’t think much about our short conversation, but later, and with the help from a native of Alaska (Jill), I realized what he was saying. Gone are the tourists. Gone are the cruise ship passengers. Gone are the campers. Gone are the visiting fishermen and boaters. Gone are the seasonal workers. Gone is the picture of Alaska that is carefully presented in glossy brochures and advertisements to people in the lower 48 and elsewhere. What’s left are people who actually live in Alaska, and there aren’t many of us around because it’s not as easy.
I say this because as I watch winter arrive, I’m starting to get the picture. This altering in Alaska’s mood from the bustle of summer activity, of seemingly unending light and relatively nicer weather is that life is starting to move to a new phase and pace. With fewer people, less sunlight and harder weather, we’re slowing down like the bears settling into hibernation around us. And sometimes I have to remind myself to do just that. To be idle.
When I find myself rushing kids into carseats for the next activity or am trying to feverishly finish something on Yahtzee, I consciously tell myself to take it easy. To stop and enjoy the small things around me like the changing of the seasons. To watch the boys laughing and playing in the snow or throwing rocks at ice near the river bank. To put my phone down and pick up a good book. To sit on the front porch or beside a crackling fire with Jill and simply talk about our days. To let the unending beauty of everyday Alaska grab hold of me no matter what mood she’s in. In essence, to simply savor these moments.
Sure, those brochures don’t talk about this time of year, but if they did I imagine they’d have a big mountain goat on the front saying, “Welcome to The Great Land … and the real Alaska.”