Friday, June 23, 2006

Alaska: Part Four

We woke up bright and early on Monday morning, and packed our stuff in a shuttle van for the short drive back the Haines, Alaska airport. Our driver was running late, and we held on tight, as he exceeded every posted speed limit in order to get us to our plane on time. He screeched into the airport gate, and pulled the van directly onto the tarmac. We were actually there early, and we joked around with the driver about speeding tickets while we waited for our planes to land. A few minutes passed, and then we heard a familiar buzz from overhead. Soon, two Piper Cubs taxied right up to us, stopping a few feet from the van. We were excited about our second wild ride of the morning, and quickly piled out of the van to load all our crap into the tiny planes. This time, there was no mail delivery, so we all got to ride in the same aircraft. We buckled our seat belts, and soon were off, flying down the runway. I was thrilled to be sitting in the rear left seat, where I hoped to study more glaciers. The skies were absolutely clear, and the flight proved to be scenic beyond belief.

After takeoff, I quickly set about taking pictures of the surrounding mountains. Off to the east, the coastal ranges seemed to go on forever, and below us, I could see a huge cruise boat making it's way up the inner passage. About a half hour into the ride, I noticed our pilot, Chuck, was veering off toward the mountains to the east. Soon we were flying over the Juneau ice sheet-an enormously deep reserve of compressed snow, which feeds most of the glaciers north of Juneau. Previously, we had seen the sheet off in the distance on our flight north to Haines, but now, on the return flight, Chuck was taking us right over it. Suddenly, the high mountain peaks surrounding us on all sides. Ike sat in the copilot's chair, Betse behind him and Nate to her left. I sat behind Nate and, to my right, sat a young man named Jeff. He leaned over to me and shouted over the din of the engines, "I've flown this stretch about 100 times and I've NEVER done this." Jeff told me he is a Sergeant-At-Arms for the Alaska State Legislature in Juneau, but lives in Haines. "This is a total TOURIST flight!" he shouted in my ear with joy. Chuck motioned out the right side of the aircraft, and word was passed back to us that there was a dogsled camp immediately below. I tried to see, but I was on the wrong side of the plane to see it. Chuck suddenly banked hard to the left and pulled a tight 360 degree turn so that we could all get a look. I heard Betse yelp (she hates roller coasters), but we all got a good picture of the camp from our new vantage point. Then Chuck straightened the Cub, and headed right down a deep glacier valley. In a few short and glorious minutes, he shot us out right over the Mendenhall Glacier, which terminates right at the city limits of Juneau. Before we could stop our gasping, he lined up the cub, and brought our plane in for a perfect landing at the airport. We piled out, shook Chuck's hand, and thanked him for the special unannounced tourist excursion.

Our hosts from Juneau, Liz and Greg, were waiting for us inside the airport, and we piled our stuff in the back of a pickup for the ride back into town. The view from the ground was equally beautiful, as we made our way up the channel to the Alaskan Hotel and Bar-our lodging destination for the next two nights. As I said in my previous post, the Alaskan is a historic and aging hotel right in the thick of downtown Juneau. We checked in, lugged our stuff up to our rooms, and then walked to a nearby restaurant for some badly needed breakfast. After eating, we were scheduled to do a radio show, and, since it was a "talk" only appearance, Ike and I agreed to go do the radio show as a duet, to let Nate and Betse catch up on some rest. After the interview, he and I took Liz up on her offer to see the Mendenhall Glacier up close. She stopped off to show us an area where bald eagles are plentiful, and we gawked at our nation's birds as they flew from tree to tree all around us. Then Liz took us on a short hike into a flower filled meadow in hopes of seeing more of the birds, and other possible wildlife. The snow melt from the mountains above us cascaded down the valleys, and we crossed over several small, and completely clear streams as we walked. Liz said, "You know, there's no development between here and the snow above us. There isn't enough wildlife to pollute the streams. This water is completely clean. You can drink it." Ike and I looked at her skeptically as she leaned over one of the creeks and scooped up a handful to her mouth. "Oh, that's sweet!" she said, "You should try it." Now, I was an eagle scout, and Ike was raised in the country, and both of us instinctively know that there is no such thing as drinking water from a stream without vomiting and potentially dying from the experience. But this was Alaska. Ike stepped over to the stream and inspected it closer. " It sure looks clear," he said. Then he looked at me and announced, "I'm scared, but what the hell?" He took a handful and raised it to his mouth. "That's good." he said. I figured I better give it a try too. That way, if there was going to be sickness and suffering, at least we would have each other to thank, blame, and hang out with at the hospital. I leaned over and cupped my hand, and, lifting it to my mouth, let the ice cold water pool at the back of my throat. It tasted fresh and sweet as I let it slide down. Ike looked at the stream and pointed out some tiny fish swimming in the area where we had quenched our thirsts. "Are those minnows, Liz?" he asked. She answered,"No, those are salmon fry. They were just born, and are trying to find their way down this stream and out to the ocean." I looked at the tiny fish and imagined what they would look like about 20 pounds heavier- fighting their way back up this exact stream to spawn in about 4 years. This was indeed a strange and wonderful place.

We hiked back to the car and drove a few more miles out to Mendenhall Glacier Park. Tourist busses and cars filled the parking lot, and Liz ( a long term resident of Juneau) was clearly upset by the number of visitors. "I hate the tourist season," she said as we walked through the crowd, "In the winter, we have this place all to ourselves," Ike and I sort of chuckled at this, since we had just played in Branson, Missouri a few weeks before. This was the kind of crowd you might find in Branson, during the off season, on a rainy day, with half the attractions closed and a good football game on TV. However, as is the case at most state parks, the visitors were content to cluster at the first available scenic overlook, taking a few pictures, before heading to the snack bar for some calories and souvenirs. Liz led us down a trail, and soon we left the crowds far behind. Up ahead, the face of the glacier loomed large over a shallow outlet pool of melted ice. It was a nice hot day (unusual for Juneau- which has over 200 rain days a year), and the locals were basking in the sun, testing their new swimsuits in the frigid water. The sun had heated some of the shallower spots, and, in those areas, kids laughed and splashed while their parents soaked up the sun's rays on the banks. We continued on, finally stopping where a gigantic waterfall of snow melt from the mountains above poured into the pool just a few yards from the glacier's terminus. The air next to the falls was easily 20 degrees cooler, and Ike just stood there gazing up the falls while I scurried around taking pictures. It was quite an experience. After a half hour or so, Ike and Liz headed back toward the car, while I reluctantly followed behind examining some glacially-smoothed rocks on my way. We stopped for some water at a grocery store (the sanitized and bottled variety), and arrived back at the Alaskan Hotel with enough time to catch some rest before our sound check.

That night, we played a couple of high impact sets in the Alaskan Hotel Bar in trade for our haunted hotel rooms. The sound was horrible, but none of the crowd of Juneau locals seemed to mind, as they danced and screamed and made us feel quite welcome. When I returned to my room around 2am, light was still pouring through my window as I finally lay down and drifted off to sleep with thoughts of glaciers, ghosts and this strange state of Alaska wobbling around in my head.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Alaska: Part Three

I'm sitting here in my room in the Alaskan Hotel and Bar in downtown Juneau. I have two windows, one of which looks out at a concrete wall, the other into a 8'x8' ventilation chamber. If I open the window facing the chamber, I can talk to Betse, who has a window 90 degrees to my left, or Ike and Nate, who have a window underneath Betse's one floor down. We have lousy cell phone service here in Juneau, so this is a welcome development in communications. My room is musty with stale cigarette smoke and smells like dirty socks. Of course, the damp socks I hung to dry in the window might be coloring that aroma. This old, old hotel has a lot of history, and a reputation for being haunted. According to local lore, a woman was murdered one night in one of the rooms. She, and a few other of her ghosts friends, are said to regularly show up uninvited in various places throughout the hotel. I am staying in room 318, which is historically supposed to be one of the most "active". I was told by the guy at the front desk, that weird stuff most recently happened just down the hall in 311. Apparently, a woman who was staying in that room found a beer in her refrigerator after checking in. Being a teetotaler, she took it out in the hallway and threw it in the trash. When she returned to her room later in the day, the beer had found it's way back in the fridge. The clerk told me that she then quickly repacked her luggage, demanded a refund, and checked out in a hurry. I decided to test this phenomena, and put a beer of my own in the fridge when I arrived. With any luck, the poltergeists will recognize a kindred spirit, and a put some more in there while I'm away. We are staying here for the next two nights. By the time we check out on Wednesday, I'm hoping I'll have at least a six pack.

Everyone is trying to recover from our experience at the Klaune Mountain Bluegrass Festival. My last post left y'all at the city limits of Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, Canada. Without going into a play-by-play of the entire weekend, I will suffice it to say that we made an serious impact on the Yukoners, and the Yukoners made an serious impact on us. It was one of those places where the spectacular scenery was only eclipsed by the warmth and kindness of the people who live in it. Like all great festivals, Kluane Mountain is staffed completely by volunteers, and our hosts outdid themselves to make us feel comfortable in their home. We were fed, chauffeured around, and generally treated like 3 kings and a queen for the entire weekend. This was the festival's fourth year and, although it is primarily a BLUEGRASS (emphasis intended) festival, it's audience of about 250 showed this old timey honky tonk band that they appreciate a Wilder kind of music. Although we were seriously sleep deprived, we gave the folks our best and they ate it up. We played a concert on Friday night, and then another Saturday afternoon. I was told by one of the volunteers that the standing ovations we received after both shows were the first in Kluane Mountain's short history. On Saturday night (NIGHT???- the sun was still on the horizon at midnight), we attracted a packed house in the old community center as the last dance band of the evening. Anyone who was able to squeeze into the 90+ degree metal building was treated to the sight of a pulsating frenzy of two steppers, cloggers, and free form dancers jumping up and down at the front of the stage as we rocked, sweated, and rocked some more. Outside the mosquitos hung thickly in the air, waiting patiently for the overheated to come to the dinner table.

Sunday morning (MORNING???- the sun came blazing up above the horizon around 4am), we played an unamplified set in the Haines Junction log cabin church. The church was packed to it's log rafters, and it felt really good, for once, to be free of the microphones. We continued the gospel theme at our final show, back on the main stage, with at spirited version of "My Times Done Come" by the Golden Gate Gospel Quartet.

After the finale (featuring all the members of the bands who performed throughout the weekend), we packed up our crap and stuffed all our luggage into a van, a Subaru Forester and a pickup truck with a camper shell, for the three-hour ride back to the U.S. 19 people from the three American bands, (Alecia Nugent, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and The Wilders) had to share the cramped space in the vehicles. Ike and I knew it was a going to be uncomfortable, so we jumped into the pickup truck with Graham from Steep Canyon. We enjoyed the scenery and listened to our driver, Harvey, tell us stories about the freezing cold winters in the Yukon. He told us that Yukoners always try to park their cars so they don't have to turn the steering wheel immediately when they pull out. " At 60 below celsius, (-140 fahrenheit), if you turn the wheel to fast, eh?", he explained in a classic Canadian accent, "you'll rip out your CV boots, and then you won't be steering anywhere eh?" We rode on, and suddenly the van in front of us pulled over. Multiple band members spilled out, and I saw a short line of women forming outside the outhouse just a few yards from where we pulled over. Likewise, the men streamed into the surrounding brush, each apparently taking in the scenery for a few moments before heading back to their respective vehicles. Graham, Ike, and I got back into Harvey's truck and, as he fired up the engine, I saw Nate walking towards us from the big van. He came to the window and said, "hey, do y'all have any room for me in there?" We all shook our heads no and hoped for the best. "Come on!" he said. " I can't GO BACK in that VAN." Hey pleaded, "They've been playing BLUEGRASS the whole way, I'm SICK of bluegrass. I want to hear some AC/DC!!!" There was only a small area between Ike and Graham in the back seat of the pickup, and we all said in unison, "sorry dude, no way." Nate's head drooped, and he shuffled back toward the van. He was just a few yards away from it, when it suddenly pulled back out onto the highway leaving him in a cloud of gravel dust. He turned around and we knew our comfort level had just taken a turn for the worse. Ike cursed him from the back seat, "you son of b$@&h!, you PLANNED that!"

Nate climbed into the center seat, and after defending himself for a few minutes, he pulled out his cd, and we settled back in for the ride. AC/DC blared from the speakers, and we all had to yell for our conversations to be audible over the music. Although we were cramped, Nate's arrival brought with it an energy that was lacking before. Everyone in the van was over-tired, and the small talk and dreamy scenery had lulled us all into a state of near unconsciousness. Now, with Nate squeezed into the mix, we all perked up for the rest of the trip, laughing all the way. We arrived back in Haines, Alaska about 11pm. Everybody grabbed their gear, and we bid our Yukon hosts farewell. George, our chauffeur for the festival, had a few tears running down his cheek when he hugged Betse goodbye. Everyone shook hands and we all agreed that we really need to do it again next year.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Alaska: Part Two

Air travel is both amazing and exhausting. At 6:20am central time, we left Kansas City for our first short flight to Chicago. After a two hour layover, we boarded another jet for the 4 hour flight to Seattle. Three hours later, we were in the air again, stopping at the entrance of the Alaskan inner passage in Ketchikan. Air commuters got off, then more came on, and then we were up again- only to land again a half hour later in Sitka. More people got off, and then more came on, and then then we were in the air again for another 25 minutes. The view out the window was stunning with endless miles of snowy peaks to our right, and the Alaskan inner passage below. To our left, over the peaks obscuring our view, the Pacific Ocean lay beyond. We finally touched down around 7:30pm in Juneau. That's 7:30pm ALASKAN time (which is a difference of 3 hours). From the time we boarded the first plane, until the time we walked off the aircraft in Juneau, we were in the air or in airports for over 15 hours. We walked up the skyway and everyone was sore and tired as we grabbed our gear off the conveyor belt and loaded it into a waiting van for the short ride to the Juneau Super 8 Motel. It was now after 8pm, but still very sunny. We were told by the driver that the sun usually sets in Juneau this time of the year around 11:30pm- only to rise back up again at 2:30am. I barricaded the window of our room with the comforter off my bed, drank a couple of beers and shared a sandwich with Nate before collapsing into unconsciousness. I had been awake for almost 24 hours straight. Although I immediately fell asleep, it seemed like only a few minutes before Nate's alarm went off, and we were up again, reloading our bags and heading back to the airport for our flight to Haines, Alaska.

When we arrived back at the Juneau International Airport, Nate pointed out the window to the tarmac where our next plane awaited us. It was a 6-seat Piper Cub. Our luggage took up the entire rear, and the back two seats of the aircraft. A Piper Cub is the equivalent of a Volkswagon Bug with wings. Its the type of plane I've seen hundreds of times on TV, but never dreamed I would actually climb into. Due to the lack of space, Ike volunteered to wait behind and take a second Cub, who's cargo consisted of the pilot, our venerable bearded band leader, and the town of Haines' daily mail delivery. We were taken out onto the tarmac by our pilot, Jody, and after securing us in our seats, this friendly veteran flyer put us at ease immediately with a few jokes regarding his impending license "reinstatement" and a few instructions on the safety features of the aircraft. Without much more preparation, the bug with wings was speeding down the runway. Just before we ran out of pavement, Jody pulled back on the controls and we lifted up into the sky. Almost immediately, I was struck not by fear, but by awe. I've always been a reluctant flyer and consider air travel a claustrophobic experience endured only out of necessity. But this was something very different. Nate and I sat in the back, me behind Jody, and Nate behind our acting co-pilot, Betse. As we climbed above the city of Juneau, we were treated to a 260 degree close-up view of the surrounding mountains and inner passage below.

Jody pointed out (unnecissarily) some sights of particular interest, and we shouted our approval over the roar of the Piper's engine. Regular readers of this blog know that I am the ultimate armchair geology geek. So you can imagine my delight as I drank in the scenery all around me. Snow-covered 10,000 -15,000 foot peaks stretched to the east as far as I could see. Intermittently as we flew, a giant glacier field would appear and, although I had studied them in college, I was unprepared to see the real thing from such an advantageous vantage point. Cody told us that these glaciers were all connected to the gigantic Juneau ice sheet, and had been scouring these mountain valleys for over 5000 years- since before the recession of the last ice age. He also pointed out that the ice was thousands of feet thick toward the center, and moving at a rate between 20 and 100 feet per day. From above, the ice appeared an intense florescent blue in places, and stripes of mountain gravel scrapings were visible in parallel bands indicating both their direction of movement, and astonishingly efficient and powerful erosional power. At one point in my revery, I looked over at Nate and said, "Dude, I am SO glad I quit my job!"

The flight was over way too soon, and as we slowed and approached the Haynes, Alaska airstrip, Jody set our bug down as easy as pulling into a parking lot. The runway was situated right next to an extremely large drainage of shallow water to our left, and, as we slowed, I spotted a bald eagle resting on a tree stump 100 yards away. Apparently, Haines has one of the largest populations of bald eagles anywhere in the world, and is literally overrun with them in the fall. Once we got all our junk out of his plane, we posed for a few pictures with our pilot, and gave Jody a copy of "Throw Down" so he could hear what we do for a living. A few minutes later, our hosts from the Yukon Territory pulled up in two vans. After introductions were made, we loaded our stuff up for the drive across the Canadian border to Haines Junction. Ike's plane landed soon after, and we all jumped into the vans for a trip into town for a delicious meal of salmon eggs benedict. We stuffed ourselves silly, and then it was off to the minivan with our driver/tour guide, Gordon.

After crossing the Canadian border, we began to climb in altitude, stopping at the summit of a mountain pass for a snowball fight and a few pictures. Gordon stopped a few more times on the way- one for a photo opportunity at the Yukon border, and again, at a beautiful park called Million Dollar Falls. We stretched our legs with a short trail walk, and, as we neared our destination, the sound of the falls grew louder and louder with each step. The snow in the peaks all around us was rapidly melting in the June sun, and gravity dictated that it would flow downhill- seeking the shortest path to the river below. In the case of Million Dollar Falls, that path was through a narrow canyon. We walked down a wooden staircase and felt the mist from the falls moistening the air just before seeing water, turbulently rushing down the canyon at a velocity that was hard to imagine without seeing it for ourselves. We paused for a few more pictures, and then walked back up to the parking area where we shared a local Yukon beer before climbing back into the van. Rarely do have the luxury of this kind of travel, and we relished the opportunity to actually see the sights of the country as we moved through it. Another hour or so passed before we reached the city limits of Haines Junction. It was about 2pm, and, after almost two days of travel, and only a few precious hours of rest, we had finally arrived at our first festival destination of the tour.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Alaska: Part One

I am trapped in a flooded parking garage fighting to get to the van. The water is up to my knees and the current keeps making me slip and fall. My boots are soaked and they squirt out water as I run. I'm late. Impossibly late. And if I don't get to the van soon, we will miss our flight. I've got to get to the van and pick up the rest of the band so we can get to the airport...
I wake up in a panic. Its 2:02am. I've been dreaming.

The alarm is set for 3:00am, but there is no use in trying to go back to sleep now. I switch off the alarm, get up, turn on a light and get dressed. I brush my teeth, then pack the brush away in my suitcase. I zip it up and drag it downstairs clunking over each step- too tired to pick the damn thing up all the way. My drowsy elderly cat awaits me at the bottom of the steps, confused by the schedule change, but interested in it's possibilities. I put on some coffee and check email for any developments that might have occurred in the few hours I slept. There is nothing. Then I go outside and back the van into the driveway. I pack the instruments first, then the behemoth case of cds, and finally, my own overstuffed suitcase. I go back inside, give the cat a very, very early breakfast and shut out the lights.

Its now 3:30am, and as I pull out of the driveway, I call Ike to make sure he's up. He reports that he is up physically, but not mentally. I notice there's not much traffic at this time of the day as I make my way through the darkness to his apartment. I call him when I arrive, and quite a little bit of time passes before I finally see him. When he comes out, I'm surprised at the lightness of his load. Ike comes from the "I'll do laundry on the trip" school. With only a two week tour however, I have chosen to take the alternative approach- packing, no, STUFFING my suitcase as full of clothes as possible. Of course, three suits, 9 dress shirts and a pair of cowboy boots only complicates the matter. Ike gets in and I start off to pick up Betse. No wait, Ike has forgotten to pack his dress shirts. I throw it in reverse and he runs back upstairs. He returns with multiple shirts on hangers and says, "I don't know WHERE these are going to go." I inquire as to the stuffing possibilities in his luggage, but he too, has overcrammed his smaller bag to the limit. His solution is to go back and get a smaller computer bag that he can pack full of shirts, and carry on to the flight as a "personal item".

Its just a few blocks to Betse's. She is waiting outside with bags and fiddle ready to go. Like me, Betse is also of the "cram it full, and then cram some more" school. She loads it in and we head out onto the highway to the airport. On the way, Ike carefully rolls his dress shirts and places them in his bag while I fret and worry to no one in particular about the cd suitcase. I'm afraid it is overweight. The night before, I had looked up weight allowances on the airline's website, and the max they allow for a checked bag is 100 pounds. On the way, we stop by and pick up my dad, who will be baby sitting the Brown Clown while we are away. I drive to the airport and park outside the terminal. A Sky Cap is on hand to receive our bags. I tell him, "watch out for this one, it's definitely overweight". He grins at me and yanks it up on the scale. I hold my breath until he says, "Ok, yeah, it will check. You'll have to pay extra, but it will check alright." I exhale and look at the scale. It reads 99.5 pounds.

It is now 5:30am, and we are on our way to Alaska.