This photo was taken from Powerline Pass, looking down the South Campbell Creek valley, toward Anchorage in the distance, right.
One week ago, Lisa and I were running the 2013 Alaska Law Enforcement Torch Run in the midst of snow flurries; I wore running shoes with hex-head sheet metal screws drilled into the soles, to keep from slipping on the icy course.
Today, for the second time in fewer than 24 hours, Nina and I climbed Bodenburg Butte, which is located a few miles southeast of Palmer. We experienced beautiful weather, both times: sunny, warm, a bit breezy at the top yesterday and somewhat windy today — we could see wind whipping clouds of Knik Glacier silt into the air east of the Butte.
A number of people who are either unfamiliar with hiking or unfamiliar with the Butte have asked me what they need to wear or bring when scaling the nearly 900-foot-high glacier-scraped stone nubbin.
On days like yesterday, we wear sunscreen, sunglasses, shorts, tank top and running shoes. I tuck a Nalgene bottle of water and a lightweight windbreaker inside a small backpack with my wallet, camera-phone, keys, a couple of granola bars, bandana, bug spray and a small Ziploc bag with bandaids and Neosporin in it. That’s all we need on a sunny-and-warm Butte day.
Today, I wore similar clothes and brought a small pack with most of the same contents. We were meeting a group that included several small children, so I brought along more just-in-case granola bars and small bottles of Gatorade.
Leaves are just beginning to unfurl along the Butte trails. The vegetation will bloom and grow rapidly, however, so it is probably a good idea to wear clothing that covers your arms and legs if you hike the west Butte trail, located off north Bodenburg Loop and Mothershead Road. There are three reasons: mosquitoes, pushki and devil’s club.
Mosquitoes tend to favor the west Butte trail because it winds through a forested area before climbing a flight of stairs and series of switchbacks to the top; mosquitoes are nowhere near as plentiful or obnoxious on the south trail’s usually-wind-and-dust-swept paths to the top. Using a DEET-based repellent is most likely to keep the ravenous west-trail mosquitoes at bay, but it’s a better idea to apply that chemical to clothing rather than bare skin, which is why long pants and sleeves are a good idea.
Pushki, also known as cow parsnip, is a lovely and useful plant that can do ugly things to the skin of people who touch or brush against it. If you encounter it on the trail, there are remedies that can help reduce the severity of the rash. Wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts — and being careful about which plants you or kids with you touch with your bare hands — can prevent you from having an encounter with pushki in the first place.
Finally, devil’s club is a plant between 3 and nearly 5 feet tall, with pretty garnet drupes, almost-hand-like leaves so large I’ve seen kids attempt to use them as makeshift rainhats (before discovering the bristling underside of the leaves) and a thick, spiny stem that looks as if it could be a medieval torture implement. Imagine stumbling or stepping into a patch of devil’s club while wearing shorts! If you experience an unpleasantly close encounter with the prickly devil’s club, wash the wound and apply an antibiotic cream.
Yesterday and today were beautiful days to journey up the Butte, but an Alaska summer can also include rainy, chilly and windy days. Weather can be hot while hiking on the lower reaches of the Butte, but frigid and windy on top just a few minutes later.
The Butte isn’t located far in the backcountry, but it never hurts to hike prepared.
• Look at the forecast for the area and wear or bring lightweight, noncotton layers — cotton will not keep you warm if sweat or rain make it wet. Lightweight layers are easy to stuff in a pack, to put on and take off as conditions require.
• Layers generally consist of long noncotton underwear pants or shirt (I like lightweight wool, because it keeps you warm even if you get drenched), noncotton shirt, lightweight fleece and a jacket and/or pants that are waterproof or windproof. Wear waterproof footwear when conditions call for it; when it’s drier outside, running shoes or a pair of well-fitting hiking boots are fine.
• If the temperatures will be warm, you might only need a noncotton shirt underneath the rainwear. If the weather will be cooler, bring along a warm hat, gloves and perhaps a lightweight fleece as well, with noncotton shirt and pants. Windy and cold, but no rain? A wind jacket and pants are compact and lightweight and can easily be stashed in a small pack along with gloves, hat, fleece layer or even a lightweight down jacket.
• If the weather is rainy for an extended period and conditions get muddy on either Butte trail, consider bringing along a pair of Kahtoola Microspikes, which are made for icy trails but work well in warmer weather on trails that are sloppy. We’ve used them in summer on the Butte, Lazy Mountain and Pioneer Peak.
When hiking the west Butte trail, bring along $3 and a pen to fill out the fee envelope if you don’t have a day-use parking pass sticker from the Mat-Su Borough. On the south trail, we leave $3 in a marked receptacle, for parking on private land at the trailhead.
Three weeks ago, my father found out there was no sign of cancer left after a surgeon removed a tangerine-sized tumor from his colon.
Everyone in our family felt relieved, and elated. That day, my sister wrote an ecstatic post on her Facebook page. Daddy and Mom went out for dinner. Daddy ate his beloved chicken-fried steak, and then enjoyed a brownie sundae for dessert. My parents drove home, puttered around, went to bed.
My husband, Roman, as part of his job, regularly takes calls in the middle of the night from police officers who need to consult him about after-hours cases. I heard the phone ring at 1:39 a.m., a few hours after Daddy had fallen asleep back home in Little Rock. I couldn’t understand Roman’s words, but wondered why he was talking so gently to a cop.
Surfacing from sleep, I realized he was talking to me, saying my Mom was on the line. Why would Mom be calling at this hour? She’s a morning person who lives three time zones east of Alaska, but this was very early, even for her.
Her voice sounded calm, soothing. Why would Mom be soothing me? Then I knew, but simply would not hear it. Joan Didion calls it magical thinking: If I quietly and rationally say “No, Mommy” enough times to my mother, it means it didn’t happen. My Mom has to be mistaken. The doctor had announced just the day before that Daddy beat cancer. So how could Daddy be dead and my sweet mother irrevocably torn from him for the first time in 50 years?
We flew to Little Rock and saw Daddy in his casket a couple of hours after arriving. His face looked so drawn and serious without his roguish smile and twinkling brown eyes. He wore a suit and tie, gold wedding ring, his slightly askew eyeglasses. Thousands of years ago, the families of pharaohs would fill their tombs with food, treasure and shabtis, to ease their passage into the afterlife. We did something like that for Daddy. In a little drawer of the casket, we cached Hershey kisses, shelled pecans, toothpicks, autumn leaves from his backyard, rocks from the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, a St. Francis holy card, letters we had written. The next day, we attended his funeral Mass at a lovely old cathedral and, on the blue-sky day after that, heard the efficient volleys of a 21-gun salute and watched my dress-uniformed nephew give my mother the flag that had lain on Daddy’s casket.
Most of our family boarded planes or drove away the following day, leaving Mom, Nina and me alone.
Mom and I talked about how we each felt submerged. We wandered out to lunch, to the mall, poked around in Daddy’s office, looked at the neat scratches of his handwriting on his desktop diary — he wrote down what he ate for his final meal.
I thought about the Dallas Cowboys football game for which my three brothers had rented a skybox, their way of giving Daddy a special 85th birthday; the cruise around South America my parents had booked for February; a gala we had been organizing for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, June 15. Why couldn’t he get a reprieve, enough time to relish those eagerly anticipated occasions before passing away?
Daddy was a relentlessly optimistic man who sacrificed more than a year to doctor visits and undiagnosed pain, a loss of nearly 40 pounds that left him frail-limbed, then a lengthy incision and recovery from surgery.
He followed rules, became an Eagle Scout and police chief, served our country in Vietnam, earned a fistful of medals and a master’s degree. He visited all 50 states — he and Mom made a special drive from Arkansas to that last state, North Dakota — and lived in eight of them (as well as in South Korea) while I was growing up. He squired Mom throughout five continents. He liked everyone he met until they gave him a damned good reason not to, chuckled frequently and worked hard to care for his wife and five children and make us all happy.
This catastrophe of losing a parent strafes almost everybody. There is nothing special about my grief. Others have endured much worse: helplessly watching mothers and fathers endure months of suffering. Death strikes thousands of fathers every day, all over the world. Everyone will mourn, sometime.
But even though it visited as he slept in his own bed, at home — so decisively his hands were still peacefully tucked up by his chin, like a child, when my mother turned and found him — this soundless, painless death struck down my Daddy. The dark-haired, 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound man who playfully “whiskered” my cheek and voice-bugled “Reveille” on mornings I didn’t feel like waking up; the broad-grinned Kaw-Osage man who loudly played Indian war songs on a record-player in our darkened foyer, to entertain and terrify trick-or-treaters on Halloween; the greying but still formidable Daddy conspicuously writing down license plate numbers of cars taking his daughters away on dates; the nearly deaf Daddy who ferried his petite Siamese cat, Der-Der, around on his shoulder, “rested his eyes” in his 45-year-old recliner, cried at his daughters’ weddings and openly revered his wife, “Wosie”. I can’t remember ever hearing my father raise his voice in anger to her or to me.
His Roi-Tan boxes became my jewelry boxes after he smoked the cigars originally housed in them. The smell of fresh cigar smoke instantly recalls my father. So do sunsets. Daddy would beckon my mother — “Rosemary!” — whenever he saw a particularly gorgeous panorama of the sun descending through fervent rose and lilac streaks in the big Arkansas sky.
The feeling of being submerged lingered even after our plane touched down in Alaska. Work, whittling down our fully loaded laundry table and shuttling Nina to and from school and hockey kept it at bay, sometimes.
I hadn’t hiked since Daddy died. It seemed like the only thing that could lift the press of sadness. I texted some friends and we decided to hike Lazy Mountain on Sunday.
It was a clear, temperature-in-the-30s day when we set out from Lazy’s trailhead. We quickly sluiced off our sweaty fleece and shells as we climbed, shoe spikes biting into dirt and, in some spots, a veneer of snow. My lungs and leg muscles protested, silently. Lisa texted from the Butte as we reached the first picnic table — always hiking with me in spirit.
Shooting a few photos in the now-chilly air, we slurped water, donned layers from our packs and continued up the steep dirt track, to the top of the first false summit. We hiked the stony path to the second false summit, carefully moved across skids of ice near the second picnic table and trudged, weary, up the final rise to the narrow spine marking the last stretch to Lazy’s summit. Stomach-quailing drops fell, nearly clifflike, within a few inches of each foot as I walked — Matanuska Peak and McRoberts valley to the right, the Talkeetna mountains way off to the left. I opened an ammo can tucked behind an American flag anchored in rocks a short, careful skitter to the right, signed and passed to Audra the summit log inside and then we shot a few congratulatory photos.
My friends started walking down, picking up packs and poles they’d left on the ground just below the narrow ridge.
I stayed a little longer, clambering up the tumble of rocks at the summit. The air was so icy I could barely feel my ungloved hands, but the western sky blazed as the sun crept lower, hidden beyond strips of cloud.
Daddy is gone. My mother drives his Buick SUV to the cemetery every day because she still can’t bear to think of him being alone there, without her. Nina wrote a letter to him, which we tucked into the little casket drawer before he was buried, ending with this sentence (exactly as she wrote it): “Could you try to communicate with us even if its just a little noise.”
I thought back 11 years, when I called my parents to tell them I was pregnant with Nina. Daddy was sad, returning from his aunt’s funeral in Oklahoma, so I told him first.
The sun slowly plunged, emerging below the clouds, igniting Knik Arm and searing the heavens with vibrant saffron and coral and purple.
I snapped some pictures and started down, my metal shoe spikes clicking and sliding against the rocks. I remember Daddy’s exultant voice on that long-ago day — what he said then and what I imagine he would have exclaimed while soaking in this spectacular sunset.
We were nearing the 4,800-foot top of snow-streaked April Bowl on the Fourth of July when Lisa noticed a dot moving slowly across the lush green valley far below and outside the steep-walled mountain basin where we stood.
It wasn’t a bear—the dot’s gait looked human—but that’s about all we could discern from that distance. We stood in the frigid wind, watching and wondering why a hiker would be approaching the steepest, tallest part of the trail ridge from that direction, when the wind paused and we heard what sounded like crying and a scream: “Daddy!”
Why was a child wandering alone in a deserted, secluded area of Hatcher Pass, especially in cold, windy weather? Perhaps the parent who had been caring for the child fell or—scary possibility—maybe a bear or wolf attacked the adult. That was one of our first thoughts.
Lisa and I immediately rushed down the rocky and then tundra-caped slope, waving, calling and keeping the still-moving dot in sight.
The dot was, indeed, a child. He was a 7-year-old boy—we’ll call him Jon—who had come to Hatcher Pass in a white van with his dad and a big group of people.
Jon’s dad and the others with him planned to hike up April Bowl. Despite snow along the route that was obvious from the trailhead parking lot, Jon wasn’t wearing a hat or coat—just sweatpants, sneakers, T-shirt, a thin cotton sweatshirt and thin gloves. The adults with him wore similar clothing.
The weather became more chilly and windy as the trail ascended. Jon grew cold, so he huddled in the shelter of a low crescent-shaped wall made of rocks, part of the way up the Bowl, while his dad and others in the group hiked on to April Bowl’s highest point, Hatch Peak.
Somehow the group split into two groups, and each group thought the other group was taking care of Jon.
No one was taking care of Jon, however. He had felt so cold he decided to leave his rocky windbreak and make his way down to the van. He did not go back down the trail, and didn’t realize when he descended the steep slope outside April Bowl that he was heading in the opposite direction from his dad’s van, into wilderness.
Lisa and I earlier had passed Jon’s dad and his group, as well as the other group, while trudging up the first segment of the ridge trail.
Jon seemed unhurt when we reached him. He wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but did say he was very cold.
We quickly put a warm hat on his head and had him don a windproof, insulated coat one of us had been wearing— it covered most of his legs and the sleeves dangled almost to the ground, but at least Jon was protected from the freezing wind.
We guided him back up the steep side of the Bowl ridge and asked him for his dad’s phone number. Jon didn’t know what it was.
We could see the parking area northwest of us, so far away the people there appeared as dot-like as Jon had looked earlier. Several dots were milling around next to a wee white van. We could see, all the way down the cirque as far as the waterfall area, that no one was scurrying up the trail.
We guided Jon down, helping him negotiate the loose rocks and sloping snowfield in our path. The three of us were off the ridge and in the “bowl” of April Bowl when we saw a man with a trio of friends bee-lining for the trail we had just left.
Relief flooded the man’s face when he saw his little boy, safe.
Lisa and I each have young children and we frequently take them hiking.
Our encounter with Jon reminded us how critical it is to properly supervise children on a hiking outing. It also reminded us how important it is to teach children what they need to know if they get lost and what items they need to wear and have with them to be prepared for the unexpected.
• Don’t assume someone else is taking care of your child. If a large group is hiking, check to be sure each child in the group is assigned to a specific and reliable adult who will be responsible for keeping track of that child. Tell each child which adult they should be staying close to.
• Count heads at the beginning and end of a hike and check frequently during a hike to be sure each child is accounted for. Consider getting walkie-talkies so different groups or people can communicate during an outing, when cell phones might not be usable.
• Have an adult act as “sweep” during the outing, hiking at the very back of the group to be sure no children lagging behind get separated.
• Teach a child his parents’ names and phone numbers. He should also know his address. If a child is very young, attach that information to the inside of his jacket before going hiking.
• Have the child wear noncotton layers of clothing. If it’s cold, he should have long underwear, warm hat and gloves, pants and shirt, a fleece, a windproof jacket and pants and, if it’s very frigid outside, a down or otherwise insulated coat. Cotton won’t keep a child warm if it gets wet or sweaty.
• Have the child carry a small backpack or fanny pack. My daughter, now 10, wore a Camelbak-style fanny pack when she was younger and graduated to a school-sized pack with waist belt and sternum strap last year. In it she carries a long-underwear shirt or fleece, rainproof shell, extra socks sealed in a Ziploc bag, snacks in a Ziploc or Tupperware-type container, Nalgene bottle of water, warm hat and gloves, adhesive bandages in a Ziploc, headlamp, small plastic garbage bag, bug dope towelettes and a whistle.
• A child is usually taught to stay put as soon as he realizes he is lost, to wait for someone to find him. Jon didn’t do this; he was fortunate someone just happened to look down and in his direction at the right moment while he was wandering, lost.
• Kids need the adults who are caring for them to hike prepared. Adults should dress properly and bring water, food, first-aid supplies and extra clothing that anticipates Alaska’s shifting conditions—expect warm weather to quickly turn cold, rainy, sleety, even snowy.
• And the most important tip: Teach children basic survival skills: examples include why it’s not a good idea to drink water from a stream, how to put together a makeshift shelter, using a whistle to summon help, what to do if they see a bear or other animal.