My excuses take the shape of blueberries, dripping round and fat from the branches, staining my towels purple as I separate the fruit from the leaves, their shapes burned into my eyelids as I lay down to sleep. Of salmonberries, bright thimbles of translucent red hiding in the green. And of salmon, swimming circles in Tutka lagoon, as I make pathetic attempts to snag them and slightly less pathetic attempts to fillet the fish that others caught. The shape of the garden’s overflowing greens.
My excuses live in a binder of printed out scribbled-over pages – the manuscript for my next book I have to turn in in a month. In summer’s endless procession of visitors and guests.
Which is to say, I’ve been neglecting this blog, the foot-deep pile of toys on the floor, most of my email, and a good list of other things I’ve already forgotten.
A year ago, I was approached by Camp Denali, a lodge deep within Denali Park, about whether I had time to join them for a week this summer and give presentations to their guests. To which I thought “Of course I have time – Who schedules anything a year in advance?” and “I’d be an idiot to turn down a free (paid even) trip to Denali Park”
Our bus rumbled down the 90 miles of winding gravel road, as the driver/guide spun stories of park history, and gestured at the clouds to where the mountain should be. We stopped for Dall sheep munching willows by the side of the road – closer than I’ve seen them in all my years of wandering. We stopped for ground squirrels too. For ptarmigan. Each time the windows opened, guests leaned over other guests, in a bristling mass of camera lenses, taking in all of it.
Perhaps this spider was waiting for unsuspecting pollinators, or just taking advantage of a warm place for a nap.
I don’t think of myself as jaded to the grandeurs of Alaska. I spend many thouroughly enjoyable days (sometimes entire weeks) wandering my own little patches of backyard wilderness, watching sparrows. But there was something refreshingly contagious about seeing all that shutter-snapping enthusiasm for every cloud-wreathed view of Denali’s peak, every wildflower, every distant splotch of a blond-furred bear.
The staff at Camp Denali got nearly all of their guests out on the tundra, nearly every day, with guides gleaned from the ranks of biologists. I was surprised by how much I still had to learn from them. In the evening talks we gave, they learned from us too.
We hiked at 3-year-old speed, using nearly every day to pursue our latest adventuring mission – training Katmai up to be a competent hiker in preparation for 600 ish miles around Cook Inlet next spring. Spotting cairns and adding rocks, running ahead to hide in the bushes, or to find dad “hiding” ahead of him, picking red currants and blueberries and cloudberries, watching for ground squirrels, and jumping off every rock in the trail. Teaching him to hike, teaching ourselves enough patience that we can make sure he still loves it.
With no internet and no electricity in our cabin, we were spared all temptation to get work done aside from our evening talks. With delectable gourmet meals served every day, we were spared the regulaar chores of life as well. I felt vaguely guilty accepting money for what was, in the end, the closest thing to a regular family vacation that we’ve ever had.
And now, after 7500 miles of Alaska wanderings, I can finally say I’ve seen Denali.