It is spring break-up in Anchorage, the roads are sloppy, gray mounds of debris filled snow lies along the edges of lawns and streets. You walk carefully to avoid ankle deep puddles or patches of slick black ice. Everything is wet and cold.
Inside it is warm though, shoes are tossed in a pile by the front door, wet coats hanging on hooks in the laundry room… drip, drip, dripping. Soggy mittens lay over heater vents blasted by hot air. Inside it is cozy. It is busy. My mom is at the table, freeze dried packages and parcels of food lay in organized piles… Day One. Day Two…. Day four. She is planning a family backpacking trip. We stand on the scale with our aluminum framed backpack and she adds things or takes things out. Sub-zero sleeping bags are tucked into weather-proof compact bags tied to the bottom of the pack frame.
My dad is looking at maps, my brothers sharpen their pocket knives and help my mother tie “bear bells” to the top of the pack, my sister is cheerfully helping her decide if we will have freeze dried potato soup the first night or the second. In goes tang, instant coffee, hot cocoa and packets of powdered milk. Dried nuts, fruits and packets of instant oatmeal will provide breakfast, candy bars will provide energy for the hike.
Me? I am grumpy. I have completely outgrown these family camping trips. My good friend Cookie’s sister is getting married and I want to stay and go to the wedding. I want to wear a pretty dress, curl my hair, dance! My pleading falls on deaf ears. Instead I am outfitted in a flannel shirt and dingy hiking boots and off we go!
It is still cold and snowy when we get to the trail head. We start out anyway, a bundled little caravan. It takes a while, but my parents soon realize the trail is impassable. They give up and we turn around. YAY! If we go straight back we will be back to town in time for the wedding!! Instead, we sit in the car while my dad talks to the park ranger. A few minutes later we pull up to a small lake dotted with float planes. Plans renovated, we load in two planes. It takes two planes to fit our whole family.
Begrudgingly I admit this is pretty cool, those sour and dark feelings now repressed. My first flight in a small plane, we fly low and see goats on a mountainside – I had no fears in those days. Before I know it we are at Upper Russian Lake, skimming to a stop on icy waters. Using an oar to break the thin ice, we row to the shore where a tiny little log cabin awaits us. We made it!
As is usually the case in those years, I shake off my teenaged sullenness and allow myself to enjoy where we are, what we are doing. The lake isn’t big, but it is ringed on two sides by tall snow capped peaks. We go out on the water in the sturdy old rowboat and throw in a fishing line, but of course it is too early in the year. No fish bite. It is fairly easy to hike up at the lake, there are no leaves or devil’s club to slap you in the face, so we explore. A lot. We play cards, games, tell stories. I want to say we sang, but I never remember my family sitting around singing, so maybe not.
In the end it was a lovely trip. We went on three or four backpacking trips during my childhood. As an adult I am in awe of that. The planning and organization around something like that! Taking four little kids into the wildest most remote woods. Hiking trails eight miles long with a five year old! And frankly, if my girls had given me as much grief as I gave my parents, I may have just given up. I am glad my parent didn’t give up. I can still see my mother, bandana, big smile, a ladle in her hand and a pot of stew over fire. And my dad in that boat, letting my brother row across the lake, while he watched Ray with a certain pride as he struggled with the oars. I think it is these experiences that made growing up in Alaska special. Magical. And I am glad I was an Alaskan Kid.