Gliding Through Tablesaw

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I went back to the Ocoee this past weekend for my next round of lessons. A few days before we began packing my gear I received a message from poor Brandon that I’d been reassigned from my new instructor, and would be continuing to work with Brandon instead. As excited as I was to work with a new instructor, I was still more relieved than anything to be able to continue with the instructor I was familiar with and had come to trust. You would think that I would have been grateful enough to be a model student, right?

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Saturday went well enough, but everything changed Sunday. Brandon began the day with an easy warm-up of stretches and review of basic paddle strokes (which I still can’t do) and then laid out his plan for the day. He announced that he’d thought it over the previous evening, and he’d decided it was time to step it up. I was going to do one of two rapids that we’d been putting off –both of which he felt I was ready to do, but he was only going to make me do one. All I could do was stare in horror as he continued: “Broken Nose or Tablesaw.” Ice, ice coursing through my veins and a slight buzzing noise in my ears. And Brandon went on to announce the winner for my personal fear contest: Tablesaw (cue the flying monkeys soundtrack).

Guys, from this point on I was the absolute worst student in the world. Seriously. If Ian

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had behaved this badly I would have yanked him up and taken him home after having a “come to Jesus” discussion. If I’d behaved this way in a riding lesson, any of my many instructors would have removed my stirrup irons and made me finish the rest of the day in a two-point at working trot. Ordinarily I would be mortified to see anyone behave this badly, but man, I wallowed in it. I talked back. I argued. I stalled. I whined incessantly. I negotiated. I came up with excuse after excuse. I ran over rocks. I missed eddies. And all the while Brandon, my beloved instructor who had reassured me for three days of lessons that everything we would do was challenge by choice, took a firm stand and ignored my very logical and eloquently delivered rationale for walking Tablesaw.

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I’ve never run Tablesaw in a hard boat. Ever. Broken Nose either, for that matter, but at least Broken Nose was off the table for this day. Back in the days before Ian, when Brinn would help me tiptoe down the skirt lines on the Ocoee, we always ran far, far left at Broken Nose, and I hiked around Tablesaw while everyone else ran it and waited for me below. When I signed up for lessons, I just assumed that I would continue this routine. It had been working pretty well up to this point. It’s hard to swim or hit your head on the ejector rock when you’re busy shouldering a boat across the giant table rock… Brandon has asked me several times what was my goal for lessons. And always my answer is to not be such an idiot on the water. I don’t want to be a liability for anyone else, and want to be able to control my boat better. I didn’t realize I needed to add that I wanted this control so I could hit all the portage eddies…

Saturday was a really good day on the water. I felt like we were taking off my training wheels and I was finally starting to move beyond beginner tactics. Brandon continued building on our earlier lessons to enhance rules I’d learned earlier in my paddling career, and in some cases, completely toss out those rules. I’ve consistently heard that you have to be moving faster than the water to be in control… While we didn’t address this particular adage, Brandon did teach me how to use my bow angle to speed up or slow down a ferry. A slow ferry requires more paddle strokes, but gives me a tremendous mental boost to know that I can take time to look around and consider what’s coming up next. I’ve always heard to leave the eddy high. And sometimes Brandon had us leaving high, and sometimes he had us leaving in the middle, and at Hell Hole we just slid right out the back of the Eddy. So I learned to leave the eddy high sometimes when our next move required it. But what helped more than anything was to learn that when we leave high, we don’t start high in the eddy. Brandon had me backup and start much lower in the eddy to begin paddling so as to build momentum for that ferry once I broke the eddy line. And most important of all, he was teaching me to see which situation called for which moves so I could start assessing scenarios and know what to do and how rather than just following someone else like a duckling. We paddled from the Staging Eddy to Goforth with no major mishaps and one minor mishap as I paddled clear over the top of the boulder I was supposed to slide off of sideways… Only I could botch the move I saw a 10 year old kid pull off just two weeks earlier. But overall Saturday ended as the best day ever. Brandon was the best instructor ever, and one of my most favorite people ever.

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Now as I’m sitting in the creek near the takeout on Sunday morning Brandon is looking less and less like one of my favorite people. I suggested we could drive over to the Hiwassee and he laughed it off. I offered to take us shopping at Rock Creek, my treat! He declined. I even volunteered to paddle back upstream from the lake to the commercial takeout again. No dice. We were headed up the river road and Brandon seemed to determined to do his job. He carried our boats down the steep bank to Jump Rock and we warmed up with some attempts at a one paddle stroke ferry, which I failed at, but I did get more confident in charging for the green water to initiate my

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ferry. Then we turned and followed the river downstream…bringing us ever closer to Tablesaw. All went well until we made it to Flipper where Brandon decided we weren’t going to go far, far, far right as we had previously. My negotiations and protestations began again, and he calmly waited out my temper tantrum, then waited some more on my nerves, and finally we sliced diagonally across Flipper successfully with none of the issues I’d built up in my mind. We floated on down to Goforth where we were greeted by Brinn and Rick as we got out for a break to stretch. Since complaining wasn’t working, I went to sit quietly by myself in the sun. Brinn kept asking if I was okay. He didn’t seem to support my opinion that Brandon is the meanest person in the world, but instead helped me get back in my boat when Brandon decided it was time to go.

Brandon guided us over to river right just above Tablesaw where we hopped out, parked our boats, and began hiking across the table to watch Brinn and Rick come through. Brandon pointed out visuals that I should identify early to hold my angle. He showed me how we were going to come in behind the first wave, maintain a left hand angle, and only paddle for stability and to maintain the left angle if the water dropped my bow. He insisted that this angle would push me into the gigantic friendly eddy on river left. Then we watched several boaters come straight down, and others even with a right hand angle, proving Brandon’s next point that there was a wide margin for error in this rapid. We left the water with a good plan and unfortunately the walk back didn’t take very long.

Once we reached our boats, fear completely took over my heart and mind. I don’t know if I looked as sick as I felt, but I felt pretty yucky. I kept waiting for Brandon to show one sign of weakness. Had he waivered for even a split second, I would’ve jumped all over it and used the excuse to climb out of my boat and start dragging. But he didn’t. He offered some reassuring advice, made a few jokes, and patiently waited while I shook like a leaf. Lots of stuff rolled through my head. I finally followed Brandon back into the current. I shook like a leaf and bumped every rock between our eddy and the main current. Brandon peeled out into the current with one hand on his paddle so the other hand could wave and remind me of my visual aids and show me my boat angle. I glided out behind him, and glided right down through and over the waves and into a river left eddy where Brinn was waiting for me and cheers erupted across the river.

 

So many emotions. Too many emotions to feel them all individually, and they completely overwhelmed me. Had I known how many friends had stopped to wait on me, I may have ended up chickening out. I had no idea that multiple good Samaritans had hopped out of their boats with ropes and cameras at the ready for me. Shane, Krystal, and Michelle, along with their friends and family, parked their raft and waited for my first go at this rapid with the camera rolling. Rick filmed from the other side of the river. His friend, Charles, who I had just met minutes earlier waited as well. Brinn stayed parked in the higher of the two eddies to be ready to go after me or give me a focal point to paddle towards. Brandon swung in and waited for me as well, and the first emotion I could actually identify was overwhelming gratitude for this amazing group of river family to cheer me on in my success. I threw my arms up and tried not to cry as I felt the fear sneak away and warmth replace it. Adrenaline coursed, and I continued to shake all over, but no longer in fear. Brandon reminded me that it would still be pretty scary next time, and probably the time after that, but it won’t be as scary.

 

Still jittery, and now distracted by it, we left Tablesaw and meandered down through Diamond Splitter (my most favorite Ocoee rapid) to eddy on the left before Dixie Drive for Brandon to issue the next set of instructions. I had to ask him to repeat himself about 10 times, and apologize repeatedly for listening to only half of what he said. I now have a greater appreciation for how hard Brinn has to work to listen through his ADD. Finally I digested the bulk of my directions and we headed back downstream, where I proceeded to miss eddies, fail to hit surfs, and blow ferries as well. At some point it became clear that we weren’t finished and Brandon wasn’t going to let me jump out at Torpedo or at the bridge, so there would be another first to add to my plate: Hell Hole. Hell Hole scares me because it’s big, it’s fast, it’s incredibly pushy, and I’ve never ran it in a hard boat. But I’ve swam it, so I guess I’ve already experienced the worst that could happen. I like to think that I didn’t protest running this one quite as vehemently as I did Tablesaw, as I’d pretty much resigned myself to going through it. And Brandon helped to set an angle through this one that helped me punch straight through and into the eddy on river right. And it was absolutely fantastic! Now all that was left between me and a swim-free day was my old nemesis…Powerhouse. Rather than get in the pushy current that goes straight for the junk over on river left, Brandon helped me sneak right out the backside of our eddy and paddle straight over the river right side of Powerhouse. I’m ashamed to say that it was much smaller than I had remembered it, and there was no risk of falling over backwards this time.

 

So I did it. Over the course of two days I managed to creep down the Ocoee from the Staging Eddy to the takeout without carrying around anything. We ran conservative lines on most everything above Goforth, but I didn’t have to bushwack and shoulder a boat. And Brandon is once again the best instructor ever and one of my favorite people again.

I can’t even possibly begin to thank everyone involved in helping me add this to my paddling portfolio. My mom kept Ian all weekend so Brinn could come out and watch me achieve new things. Brandon worked overtime to protect me from myself and help me work through some tough moments. Brinn cheered harder than any husband has ever cheered on a wife. Rick and Krystal documented my achievement so I could relive it over and over. And so many more people were responsible for getting me to this point. Hopefully an opportunity will arise where I have a chance to give back to them just a little of what they have done for me. Until then, I’ll try to pay it forward as best I can, because the river is not just a waterway filled with spills and thrills, it’s a community –one whose membership floods me with gratitude.

“Bad coaches make their students dependent. Good coaches make themselves redundant.” -Paul Strikwerda

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Ending the Longest Day Ever in Healy, Alaska Part III

Alaska Part III , trip day 2; July 3, 2018750_3536Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.Evan Hardin

After we wrapped up our amazing aerial tour and glacier landing, we were starving, soTalkeetna we were off to find some local grub. Downtown Talkeetna, here we come. While it was 9:30 in the evening, Main Street looked like it was maybe 6:00 or 7:00 PM. People were just sitting down to eat at the many places we drove past, and parking was almost nonexistent. Brinn identified a spot right in front of the Denali Brewing Company, so that’s where we pulled in to eat. This probably ended up being my favorite eatery during the entire trip. I had the ribeye sandwich and it was pretty amazing. The place had a cool vibe, and the energy was fun and festive. This little town reminded me so much of Boone, NC. A little touristy and a lot earthy.

brewWe wrapped up an enjoyable dinner on the deck by recounting our amazement with flying through the mountains and walking on a glacier in sight of Denali. We all passed our phones around the table to ooh and ahh over the images we were able to snap from the air. Ian hugged on Steele, munched on a few fries, half a grilled cheese, and began melting into a puddle of tired little boy. So we jumped back in the Sequoia and began our trek to Healy to continue along the longest day of our lives.

My driving directions indicated that we should expect the drive from Talkeetna to Healy750_3499 to take about 2ish hours. Ha! We probably got back on the Healy Spur around 11:00 PM. Keep in mind that it is still looks like 7:00ish PM by Tennessee standards. At this point we have been awake since 5:00 AM, and have failed to experience darkness yet. My research promised that there would only by 22 hours of daylight, so we must be getting close to dark, right? Again, just kidding! By 22 hours of daylight, my sources must have meant full-sun daylight, because it never seemed to get any darker than twilight.

750_3505We drove and drove, and drove some more. Mount Denali loomed in front of us, then eventually to the side of us. For hours we drove, bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t have stayed in Talkeetna. Wouldn’t that have been a great idea? Except I’d already made reservations in Healy for that night and rafting reservations for the next morning. So we soldiered on to our destination. The shadows grew a little longer, and eventually I had to set the font size a little larger to read my kindle comfortably, but full darkness never arrived. We drove past the most breathtaking scenery of my life, but around 1:00 AM I just lost the energy to care. And then we drove some more.

Finally we arrived to our cabin on Otto Lake. We trudged into our cabin, located beds,750_3539 crawled under covers and crashed. The last thing I remember saying was “the only person allowed to wake me up is Ian. We are not getting up with Eastern or Central Time zones.” So finally, the longest day of our lives ended. It’s just too bad Gary continued to function on Eastern Time…

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Paddling Out of the Fog

So let me take a break from reporting on Alaska to recount my experience from this last weekend. But first you need some background information…

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I’ve never been a good kayaker. Those who know me, who have watched me boat, can attest to this fact. I wasn’t necessarily a bad paddler, and could get down class II fairly competently (aka, not dying). Heck, I could even make it down class III if someone (cough, Brinn) would let me follow their lines. If I flipped, and didn’t manage to completely panic and bail, my roll would usually bring me up. I definitely wasn’t headed towards class IV or anything particularly hairy, but I could typically make it down the Ocoee with minimal swimming so long as I took the cheat lines (which included hiking around Table Saw).

Then I decided to have a baby.

I assumed that I would pick paddling back up the same way I’d picked riding back up.

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Riding was a little rough immediately after birth as I’d lost more core strength than I’d realized, but with time my strength came back and once again I could hop on Reggie and go. Paddling was a bit trickier. Because I nursed Ian for a full year, and worked a forty hour week, time to fit in a full river trip was just too hard to come by. So a year went by without any time on the water. The next year, I was able to fit in one trip, then the following year Ian was ready to start going along with us, so I spent a lot of time in a funyak. By the time Ian turned four, I finally felt less guilty about leaving him behind to hit the river without him, and I thought I was ready to start stepping it back up, but a new experience confronted me at many outings.

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Anxiety can absolutely cripple you. I’d never experienced it before, but my postpartum existence invited it to creep it slowly. I went from happily running my beloved Jett to Lilly on Clear Creek, to finding myself sitting on Spring Creek and unable to leave an eddy. Just a few weeks before this paralyzing trip, Brinn and I ran Spring Creek from Waterloo down to Tom’s house by ourselves and had a great run, despite one swim. But when we came back a few weeks later with Ben, I couldn’t make myself go through Meat Grinder. The same rapid I’d had no issues with just weeks prior seemed enormous and impossible. I realized that I couldn’t do it. I may have had the ability in me, but my brain and body were not cooperating well enough to get me through it on this day. It’s hard to describe the feeling, except to say that it was overwhelming, like an elephant sitting on my chest. I ended up walking around 3 or 4 rapids that day. The hike was twice as hard as the rapids would’ve been, but I just couldn’t do it. And I had more experiences like this to hit me . I couldn’t make myself get back on the Ocoee. We took the raft down, even the ducky, but I just couldn’t will myself to carry my kayak down the rails to get back on this river.

I needed help. Lots of it. And all kinds. The first step was to seek medical advice. I’ve never had anxiety issues before in my entire life. Rather than looking for a chemical option, I began a nutrition program to look for a holistic option. I’ll have plenty more to say about this program in a future post. The condensed version: getting a handle of my dietary needs and eating the right foods for my body, while taking food based supplements to satisfy deficiencies has helped bring my baby-growing hormone-wrecked body back together and drastically improved my outlook. So now I should be ready to get back on the water, except I still had that feeling of helplessness. I couldn’t make my boat do what I wanted it to do even through class IIs. Brinn, God bless him, tried so hard to help advise me on technique, but he just couldn’t dumb it down simply enough for me to get it. So I reached out to Joe Gudger of Ace Kayaking and he recommended a series of lessons. He finalized my schedule and last week sent me a reminder that I should meet Brandon at the Ocoee takeout on Saturday at 10:00. The Ocoee. With my kayak. Excitement warred with dread as I tried to convince myself that I was looking forward to my first lesson, but dread started pulling ahead. Despite my reluctance, I got in the truck Saturday morning with all my gear so Brinn could drop me off to meet Brandon Beaty.

Brandon is a superhero hiding in a Jackson Nirvana wearing a disguise of Kokatat and Sweet Protection while accessorizing with Werner. I hope Brandon didn’t find the day as exhausting as I did, but I fear he must have. Laughing and issuing the same advice to an inattentive audience has to be trying and tiresome. Saturday began with seemingly simple work on the lake where we quickly established that I didn’t know anything at all about kayaks or paddles, or how to combine the two for forward movement. Brandon patiently answered my dumb questions and showed me the same strokes again and again and again as I attempted to imitate his technique. Then we began going upriver while working on attainments. This kept me too short of breath to ask as many dumb questions, but don’t worry, I still thought of them. After this portion of the day, we floated back down to the take out ramp, took a break, and loaded up Brandon’s truck to head up river for some work in real current.

Brandon carried my boat down the bank to put in below Slice and Dice and immediately put me to work on ferrying across some very minimal current near the bank on river right. He tweaked and adjusted while always encouraging. He’d remind me to rotate while I would insist that I was rotating –picture me sitting stiff and rigid from hip to head with not one degree of rotation in there anywhere. I’d start across the current and lose my angle and he’d patiently remind me to use my stern draw. Too bad I wouldn’t listen to him until seconds before I hit my new eddy. But despite my best efforts to stemmy Brandon’s efforts to fix me, his commands were actually starting to sink in! So he led me across the pushier current coming from the bottom hole of S&D to the big eddy on river left. From here, the goal was to go to the top of the eddy and practice ferrying across the slightly pushier water. And here is where fear found me again. The current looked so strong. I knew I’d lose the angle of my ferry and get pushed down river and have to make a sloppy S turn to hit the new eddy, if I didn’t blow right past it. Brandon talked me through our goal and method of execution and reassured me that I was over thinking it, and the current wasn’t nearly as bad as I was building it up to be. And I sat and over thought and worked myself up. Brandon never yelled at me (as I deserved), nor pushed me to jump out before I was ready. He patiently waited for me to speak or indicate my readiness. And I finally identified the source of my fear: the bow draw. This one, seemingly simple paddle stroke still confused me in flat water. Now I’m supposed to put it all together, leave the eddy with forward strokes to initiate my ferry, use a stern draw on the left to maintain my ferry, then throw in a bow draw to turn my boat before charging my new eddy. Easy, right? Sure, except for that bow draw. So I finally shared this with Brandon, and rather than telling me to suck it up or dismissing my fear, he simply announced “then don’t do the bow draw.” And he graciously left the eddy to show me how to complete the exercise without the bow draw.

Finally, after much internal dialogue, I left the eddy. And it was nothing! The rushing current I’d worried about felt more manageable than I expected, and I found myself following Brandon’s instructions (to an extent) and was able to join him in the next eddy. It wasn’t pretty. There was lots of yuckiness. But it was starting to come together! Now he changed it up a bit to go back across the current, leaving from a different eddy than the last time we ferried this direction, and ferried through a different section of the current. I followed a bit more quickly this time and didn’t require as much coddling to jump out there. More yuckiness ensued, but some good stuff started surfacing too. Then the rafts showed up. And they kept coming. Starting to feel more confident about myself and my newfound abilities, I decided I could be brave enough to jump out between rafts. I reviewed Brandon’s commands in my head: “leave the eddy and hit the current in the second trough, right below the big trough, then let my bow drop to charge the eddy. Don’t pause between my forward stroke and my stern draw. Rotate at the waist AND LOOK WHERE I’M GOING.” I spotted my opening in the rafts and I shot out towards the current…and proceeded to let every single one of Brandon’s instructions leak out of my ears. I left the eddy with too high of an angle, didn’t let the current drop my bow at all, never looked at where I wanted to go, and found myself landing right in the first trough…on top of another kayaker who had been merrily surfing before I came to town. I immediately apologized to him and he reached out to touch my arm and tell me not to worry about it, that it was completely okay. At this point I frantically tried to reverse my ferry (bear with me, my brain is leaking, remember?) to get off of him, so I yank away from his hold and then I hear splashing and maybe even a chuckle out of Brandon. Kayaker manages to roll so at least I haven’t caused someone to swim, but he was snorting and spluttering a bit. While this was probably the worst of my gaffe’s, it certainly wasn’t the only one. Some of them were bad enough that Brandon would just shake his head and say “we’re not going to discuss that one.” Other times he’d start with “well, do you know what you did wrong?”

By Sunday morning Brandon had correctly assessed that my brain couldn’t hold any new information, so rather than trying to teach me more strokes and concepts, we headed up river to practice the programming he’d attempted to install on Saturday. Some parts were really yucky, and some parts were great. I had a few moments where the light bulb would go off, and several instances where I realized how lost I was. By jumping around to different places on the river, Brandon subtly began working us down river so that we finally went through a few rapids and did a short section of the Ocoee. Anxiety backed off and was replaced with apprehension, which I found easier to push through. As we prepared to hit the waves below Flipper on river right, my heart raced and my muscles constricted with fear. For lack of a better expression, I kept a nervous grin on my face and let Brandon lead me out of the eddy…and I blew my instructions again and hit the swifter current and blasted past my fearless leader. But he calmly issued a few commands, and somehow I managed to follow them, and my control returned. At this point, my boat climbed over the waves smoothly, and I found success. My nerves still caused my whole body to shake, but I’d done it. I know it’s a tiny achievement to most, but it’s a mountain of an achievement for me. Now I actually feel excited to return to the Ocoee in two weeks for my next lesson with a new instructor. Thank you Brandon, for helping me ease back onto the Ocoee and move out of the blinding fog.

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Summertime Snow Angels, Alaska Part II

Alaska Part II , trip day 2; July 3, 2018750_3194After our break at Willow Creek, we continued the longest day of our lives and headed north-east to Talkeetna. As we got closer to the turn for the Talkeetna Spur, Denali’s peak came into view and held our attention for most of the drive. Everyone talks about how the Rockies make the Appalachians look so small, but the Alaska Range absolutely dwarfed the Rockies, with Denali featuring prominently in the middle. All 20,310 feet stood out as clear as could be on this gorgeous evening. Not a single cloud or strip of haze marred the absolutely perfect sight.

Along the Spur, we encountered our first moose sighting. We excitedly turned around for a second view, thinking we were really seeing something. By the end of our trip, we decided that Alaskans see more moose than Tennesseans see white-tailed deer. Along with our moose sighting, we found a road side viewing area that provided an absolutely perfect angle of Denali. We stopped for a while, shot a few pictures, then headed on to K2 Aviation.

750_2941I don’t think we could have selected a more impressive company to take us out for an aerial tour. K2 Aviation maintained a beautiful facility full of flowers with seats and a small playground, while providing guests with drinks. They suited us up with galoshes type boots to pull on over our shoes to keep our feet dry during our adventure, then they matched us up with Daniel, our pilot for the evening. Daniel led us out to our 1965 model plane which would provide transport for the evening, and helped us settle in to our seats and headsets, then we were off!

Our tour flew within 6 miles from Denali’s summit, then took us down into the750_3107  Ruth Amphitheater and Great Gorge. We viewed the Tokositna and Ruth Glaciers, the ridges of Mount Huntington, hanging glaciers on Mount Hunter, and the famous Moose’s Tooth. Our guide pointed out many different features:

  • South Face of Denali
  • Don Sheldon Amphitheater
  • The Sheldon Mountain House
  • The Great Gorge
  • Moose’s Tooth, Broken Tooth
  • Mount Dickey
  • Ruth Icefall
  • Mount Hunter
  • Mount Huntington
  • Susitna Valley

We probably have pictures of each of these, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you which was which.

750_3149I cannot even begin to formulate a way to describe our views. To say they were breathtaking or fabulous is the worst under statement. I love science. In fact, Geology was probably my most favorite college course I enrolled in. Seeing the geological formations and understanding the geological forces that created all of this was an absolute geek-out experience for me, but ultimately, taking all that in really changes your perception. You don’t have to agree with me, but I just don’t see how anyone could experience such a landscape and question a greater power. It seems all too evident that none of this was a mistake. Obviously a great divinity intentionally put into motion all the tectonic forces which formed this wondrous terrain. Truly, we took part in a religious experience. Sometimes you have to leave church to find God.

In the middle of our flight, Daniel brought our plane in for a landing on the 1,000 year750_3249 old Ruth Glacier. Ian and I were pretty excited about landing on a surface that required skis, and it didn’t disappoint. We had our smoothest landing of all 5 of the aircraft we traveled in for this trip. Once our plane was parked, Daniel helped us all tumble out into the snow to play.

I know you hear that “everything’s bigger in Texas.” The King Ranch, birthplace of TX ranching is bigger than Rhode Island. I’m sorry, Texas, but I believe Alaska has you firmly beat. Denali National Park contains over 6 million acres. That’s bigger than Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island or Delaware! Granite peaks surrounded us on every side as we faced Denali’s south face. The slopes rising up in front of us looked just feet away, but Daniel warned us not to stray far, because those hills could actually be thousands of feet from us. We asked if we could walk to the stunning blue glacial pools we could see just below us, and he had to explain that those were actually several miles away, and he couldn’t guarantee the snow pack or depth of ice outside of the area we were parked.

received_1644411878941203.jpegOur flight included quite a few children, so we had an exciting stop on the glacier, including a giant snowball fight. Ian did get in trouble for hitting the plane. Daniel called him out and set him straight that the plane is the one target off-limits. Brinn could hardly stand himself as he took in all the possible ski trails and started calculating the negotiations that would be required to convince a pilot to leave him out there with skiing equipment for a few hours. Brinn and Ian both hit the ground to make snow angels and to slide down the hills. They were both far more active than me. Even my dad spent most of the stop taking as many pictures as possible. I just walked in circles in a daze while trying to drink it all in. If I close my eyes, I can see Denali looming over and beckoning climbers to come tempt its received_10156968813965656.jpegroutes. I can still hear the rushing of water all around us, and even flowing beneath the ice that we stood over. I remember the hot sensation in my fingers of holding giant handfuls of fresh snow. It tasted so clean.  An above all, the absence of smells will stay with me forever. No exhaust, or chemical scent anywhere around us. No plants or animals came close enough to this elevation to leave behind any odor. No one brought food for the short journey. Everything simply smelled fresh. I think it may be the first time in my life to truly experience “clean.”

750_3237aThe privately owned lodge with its own helicopter pad caught our interest, so Daniel spoke to that during our stop. The Sheldon Chalet has 5 luxury rooms available for guests to reserve, but with the price per night in the thousands, it’s not likely that I’ll have the opportunity to indulge in this particular tourist attraction.

20180703_192243.jpgUnfortunately our time on the glacier came to a close, and Daniel loaded us all back into his plane to resume our aerial tour before delivering us back at K2 Aviation. It was somewhere near 9:30 PM at this point, and we still felt like it may be 4:00 in the afternoon. This sunlight was unreal. Reluctantly we left our beloved glacier behind to head on to our next adventure of enjoying Denali from the water. Stay tuned as the longest day of our lives in land of the midnight sun still continued for another five hours…

 

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Land of the Midnight Sun, Alaska Part I

Alaska Part I, trip day 1-2; July 2-3, 201820180703_131018.jpg20180703_171855Upon arriving in Alaska, we spent a very, very brief night in Anchorage. We were warned to expect 24 hours of daylight in Alaska, but my research indicated that this was only true in the more northern reaches of the state. Landing as far south as Anchorage, I read that we should expect closer to 22 hours of daylight. With a 10:30 PM arrival, we were thrilled to still have full light to navigate our exit from the airport as we settled into an unfamiliar car while driving Anchorage’s roads to locate our hotel for the night. The daylight really made the process so much easier as we were all exhausted. At home it was 1:30 AM! Our plan was to check-in and be in bed by midnight. I figured that we could sleep until 8:00 AM and get a full 8 hours before starting our Alaska adventure. At this point the sun looked about like it does around 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening at home.

After I finally wound down enough to drift off to sleep, it seemed like it was only 10 20180703_084910.jpgminutes later that Brinn was shaking me awake and garbling about sleeping late. The sun was directly overhead and shining brightly, and thus began the longest day of my life. I dressed and repacked in record time while Brinn got Ian ready and my dad showered. We were out the door within 30 minutes and headed to Wal-Mart to make a planned stop for supplies. Our initial plan had been to wake up by 8:00, find somewhere to eat, hit Walmart by 10:00, then begin our long trek up to Denali. Feeling that we were already behind, we rushed straight to Walmart to purchase a cooler along with drinks, snacks, and ice to sustain us during our journey. When we arrived at the Walmart Supercenter closest to our hotel, however, we found the first door looked with a sign to enter on the other side of the store. We all thought this was odd, but maybe they get a slower start in Alaska than they do in TN? The three of us started to walk down to door #2 while my dad headed to go move the car closer to door #2…in a very empty parking lot. At this point he calls out to us, “I don’t think it’s 8:00.” I check my phone, and realize that the signal has gone crazy and the time zone seems to be stuck somewhere near Japan. We enter door #2 and ask the greeter what time it is. He patiently points to the clock right in front of us and shares that it is almost 6:00 AM. SIX O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING!! This is the day after we left just flew THOUSANDS OF MILES across two countries! At this point we all stare at Brinn who sheepishly volunteers to go find mosquito nets and fishing supplies. So now at this point we’re running extremely ahead of schedule.

20180703_100239After a groggy jaunt around Wal-Mart, we mosey over to the nearby Denny’s for some much-needed breakfast where we discuss our itinerary. Originally, I had planned for this first day to consist only of gathering supplies and making the long drive to Healy where we had a cabin reserved for three nights. After the third night, the plan was to make our way back south, stopping in Talkeetna for an aerial tour of Denali, and then coming down to Wasilla for a couple of days. Upon checking the weather, however, we discovered that our flight day was forecast to be overcast and drizzly. Since we had such an early unexpected start to our day, we called the flight company, who happily changed our flight from Friday to that Tuesday. The only catch: we’d have to wait until 7:00 PM to be able to all go fly together. Talkeetna was roughly two and half hours from Anchorage, so we now had a little over 10 bonus hours for our day. We quickly decided to hit our Wasilla stops on the way up to Talkeetna and enjoyed a very touristy day killing time.

 

Our first post breakfast stop found us at Peter’s Creek. We stumbled on this small park20180703_114531.jpg right off the Glenn Highway in the Eagle River area. Brinn noticed a pretty creek running under the highway and saw a good area to pull over, and from there we identified a parking lot. We followed the trail for a little while, and then opted to hike up the creek banks to do a little scouting. The rapids were smallish class IIs, but it still looked like it would be a fun run. Unfortunately we didn’t get an opportunity to talk to any local boaters about anyone running this creek, but we’ll add it to our list for when we go back.

 

20180703_175903.jpgThis is where we first encountered Cotton Wood trees.  This odd tree grew a white fiber that strongly resembles cotton, but shed worse than a crepe myrtle! At time it felt like we were walking through a very warm snowstorm. Our clothing quickly furred up, and we looked like a lint filter had exploded on us, but we all relished the opportunity to stretch our legs.

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20180703_100952.jpgAfter leaving Peter’s Creek, we pushed on to Wasilla and decided to tour the Iditarod Sled Dog museum. It turns out that the museum itself is quite small, really no bigger than the gift shop. But rather than spend time viewing the exhibits, Ian wanted to see the dogs. While we were there, we had the opportunity to ride in a wagon behind a few of the dogs. Some of these dogs had actually raced just this year! I couldn’t believe how excited the dogs were to pull us. They were yipping and jumping the entire time we loaded the wagon. Once their handler called for them to go, they were off like a shot. It felt a bit like careening wildly through the woods in a gocart.

After our ride, the staff shared with us that they had recently had a litter of pups, and we20180703_101621.jpg were invited to snuggle with some husky babies. Ian, obviously, was quite taken with the puppies and reluctant to turn them loose. I ended up buying him a small plush replica to encourage him to turn loose of the real deal. Surprisingly he found the knock off satisfactory, and I didn’t have to refinance my house to be able to afford a pedigreed puppy whose mama had run in the Iditarod race. Ian struggled to come up with a name, so I (a true 90s kid) suggested Balto. I had tried to encourage Ian to watch Balto a few years ago when it was on Netflix, but he had absolutely no interest at the time, so obviously he didn’t remember the movie I was talking about. Later that week, I loaded Balto on his Kindle , and it became his favorite movie during our trip. After his second or third viewing, he decided that his new plush puppy looked exactly like Balto’s nemesis, so he named his dog Steele. Steele has risen to prominence in Ian’s life, and now ranks higher than Greenie the bear. Steele participated in almost every excursion through Alaska, and now sleeps beside Ian every night.

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20180703_141530.jpgOnce Ian acquired Steele, we were on to our next Wasilla stop: the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry. What we expected to be another small operation turned out to be a largely outdoor venue that covered several acres. We began our tour indoors and viewed quite a few traditional museum exhibits with information about the earliest forms of transportation in Alaska in its early days of settlement, then we worked our way outside to the big toys. This place was every little boy’s dream. Literally full of planes, trains, and automobiles, we also encountered farming machinery, rescue equipment, and helicopters. This destination was well worth the stop.

 

At this point our early start after a long, late day really started to catch up with us. We20180703_152223.jpg stopped for a late lunch, then began to head north again. Needing some rest, my dad pulled into Willow Creek State Recreational Area to enjoy some pretty scenery while he caught a quick nap. Ian settled into watching a movie with his new puppy, so I followed Brinn as he lugged his fishing gear down a trail to the river. Here we marveled at the giant king salmon 20180703_152235.jpgjumping right out of the water to flip around in the air. Anglers were not allowed to fish for the kings while we were there, but Brinn still had a good time trying (and failing) to interest other fish into biting on his line. I had the chance to rest my tired feet, still a little puffy from the flight, and soak in the majesty of our view. Several people had warned us that Anchorage is just a city like any other, and you really had to get out it before you could really see Alaska. Willow Creek gave us our first opportunity to really begin seeing Alaska in all its glory.

Follow along next time as we arrive at Talkeetna and get up close and personal with Denali while learning more about that midnight sun during the longest day of our lives…

 

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The Great White North

20180703_201030.jpg20180706_141333.jpgLast year my dad said “let’s go to Alaska.” For several months, the talk was all hypothetical and speculative, but then by Christmas he handed me a credit card and instructed me to start making reservations. At this point it started to get real. And scary. Most of my travel experience has been relatively close, and geared around gate times for horse shows or dam release schedules for boating. I’ve never had to schedule a flight in my life, and now I was responsible with planning all the details for the trip of a lifetime.

I honestly had no idea how to go about planning this trip as many of the trip blogs I cameResized95750954070956816.jpg across on the trusty ol’ web focused on different areas of the state than we wanted to see, or they made recommendations for cruise ships. As I kept stumbling along from city to city online, the Kenai Chamber of provided a page to leave my email address for more information. Thinking I would receive an automated response listing several local businesses, I ignorantly entered my email and waited for inspiration. Instead of receiving a directory, dozens of local businesses started reaching out to me via phone and email to share information with me about the area and their specific businesses. One in particular really stood out, a fishing guide who was originally from Georgia. I mentally filed away his business name and figured I’d reach out to him later in the week, but that evening he called to speak with me over the phone. In that conversation, he provided me with quite an education about fishing on the Kenai peninsula, lodging, eating options, and scheduling. Our entire trip came together in that one evening as Rubin Payne helped me develop my itinerary for 12 days of traveling and helped us select the best options for my family’s situation.

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After developing the itinerary, the pieces started coming together smoothly, and based on Rubin’s advice, I was able to make some strategic selections in booking the remaining items we wanted to hit along our route. While I would do a few things differently now that I have the luxury of hindsight, overall our trip ran to plan and most of our excursions yielded amazing views and fond memories. I’ve tried to condense our trip into one entry, but I just can’t find a way to do that and adequately describe all of the amazingness we experienced in the 49th state, so you get to look forward to multiple upcoming entries detailing our travels.

Stay tuned for part 1: Wasilla

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Nerf War for the Big Six Year Old

750_2433.JPG750_2431.JPGIan couldn’t quite make up his mind for his birthday party’s entertainment this year. At one point he wanted to have another laser tag party, but then a week later he asked to have his party at the Children’s Museum , and then he asked to have his party at the Fun Factory (an indoor bounce house). We’ve already done the laser tag thing, the Children’s Museum is all the way in Chattanooga, and the Fun Factory was a little expensive and restrictive on time and foods. Then a brochure for a local gym750_2367.JPG caught my eye: “Nerf War Birthday Party!” The idea was great, but the cost was still a little high. The facility provided bullets and clean up, but guests would be required to bring their own guns and eyewear. Then Marilyn suggested we look at renting one of the local gymnasiums through Parks and Recreation. The cost there was extremely reasonable, and they were completely open to letting us set up for a nerf party. But then Brinn put in a call to our church just to see if we might be able to use their facilities, and that landed our winner.

With the money we were able to save on the facility, we were able to purchase guns, bullets, and safety glasses for each child invited. Brinn visited Lowe’s to acquire cardboard boxes to set up forts and barriers for kids to hide behind. Ian’s Nana took him to the park on Saturday morning so that Brinn and I were able to meet Joy at the chu750_2336.JPGrch and set up quietly without Ian’s knowledge. Several of Ian’s sweet friends from Kindergarten were able to come, some kayaking buddies, a neighborhood friend, and his best bud from pre-school even showed up for the nerf battle! Everyone was able to keep the secret, and Ian got to show up for his first surprise birthday party!

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