The Class of 2023

Congratulations to Riley, Mishayla, Natalie, Louisa, Raven, Nico, Hamish, Jaden, and tens of thousands of other young people who crossed the stage to receive their high school diplomas last month. The challenges they face are numerous, but we have had conversations with these eight young people, and they are ready to find their place in the world of adults. It is inspiring to know them and in the case of our beloved grandson, Jaden, to have had the privilege to be involved in his life since he was born.

Challenges for the class of 2023

This class entered high school as ninth graders and were sent home after spring break as their world morphed into the unknown world territory of pandemic. Everything around them was closing and in chaos at precisely the time young people were meant to expand and reach out. The norms they and their parents took for granted were gone. Flexibility became an essential survival skill.

As high school juniors, they re-entered their school buildings wearing masks and working to re-establish relationships, extracurricular activities, and some sense of academic normalcy. By the end of 2021 most mask requirements were dropped. But trust takes time to re-establish.  Patterns don’t happen overnight. We must not take for granted the individual courage and determination this generation of students called upon to succeed in graduating from high school.

Graduation at Culver City High School

Jaden and his parents, Joe and Sally

When we entered the football stadium where Jaden’s graduation took place, I looked around at the crowd of caps and gowns and their proud families. Tears welled up in my eyes. More than a half century ago I was walking across a high school stage in southern Minnesota. And just like these young people, I was eager to take the next steps in my own life. It was the Viet Nam war era. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would both be assassinated the following spring. There was chaos around me, but my focus was on finding my place in the world. And walking into that stadium on that cool June morning in Los Angeles the words of our grandson somewhere in the sea of blue gowns and gold tassels rang in my ears.

When asked how he felt about graduation, he responded, “I am excited to be going to college, to meet new people, to see another part of my state.”

He is not focused specifically on the challenges of politics in his own country, the war in Ukraine, climate change, racial conflict. He is aware of these things, but focused on the next steps he can take in his life—succeeding in his new summer job, planning for college orientation in the fall, thinking about what his major might be. And that is exactly what we need him to be doing. We have always needed the exuberance, energy, and skill of young people to come along side those of us who are older and more worn down by the challenges of life.

Graduates listening to speeches

Jaden’s grandparents and father in the stadium, photo by Sally, Jaden’s mother

The field was filled with students of every race and ethnicity mingling around looking for friends. High fives and hugs were caught by cell phone cameras by parents and family members bubbling with excitement and pride. After the audience was seated in the football stadium bleachers, the class of 2023 walked onto the center of the field to the recorded notes of “Pomp and Circumstance”. We all stood. Some of us cheered. Some of us shed tears. The time-honored ritual of high school graduation had begun.

The ritual of high school graduation

In most communities this ritual includes processing into a stadium to the song “Pomp and Circumstance”, the wearing of caps and gowns with school colors, speeches by some faculty and students, a march across a stage to receive a high school diploma, the throwing of caps into the air, and a recessional. There is comfort in this continuity—a sense that the world is progressing as we have known it.

Another important aspect of a rite of passage is the presence of family and community to witness the ceremony. Jaden’s parents, sister, and four grandparents (Washington state, Minnesota, and California) came to participate. My sister, Margaret, and her son, Frank, flew in from North Carolina. His aunt drove in from east Los Angeles. This widespread presence signaled to Jaden that we take seriously this achievement.

Jaden’s mom, Sally, Aunt Margaret and cousin Frank from N.C. at the Griffith Observatory

Jaden and cousin Frank touring LA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jaden opening a card at his graduation party

Jaden and sister Sasha at the graduation party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a wonderful weekend of good food, games, tours, and important conversations. At his afternoon graduation party, Jaden called his own circle and asked those present to share a strength they see in him and something he needs to improve as he makes this big step. Each person’s comments and the accompanying stories spoke volumes about the esteem this young man is held in by those closest to him.

Grandpa Joe and Aunt Juell

Living room set-up for Jaden’s graduation circle and party

 

 

 

 

 

 

The graduation cake

Kudos to Jaden and his family

To Sally and Joe—congratulations! A parenting job extremely well done.

Be well, Jaden. Thank you for being such an eager participant in our Whidbey Island Granny camps all these years, for allowing us to help with the college application and choosing process, and for speaking so openly to us from the time you were a young boy.

Do good work  in the world. Your communication skills, work ethic and moral compass are deeply needed. Sonoma State University is lucky to have you as an incoming freshman and you will learn a lot in return.

Ann wearing the Sonoma State University t-shirt, photo by Christina Baldwin

P.S. To read about the road trip we took, driving 2,838 miles to the graduation, read Christina’s blog:https://christinabaldwin.com/road-trip-hello-again-hello/

 

A surprise

It is a warm, sunny Monday afternoon in mid-May on the lawn outside South Whidbey Elementary School. Our group of two teachers, a dozen first and second graders, and myself as a volunteer are sitting on the lawn in a squiggly shaped circle. We have spent the last two hours visiting their pollinator garden, reading a book, and writing in journals.

Visiting the pollinator garden the students have established in the back of their school—with the help of fifth graders.

The book the class is reading together.

Writing in a journal at day’s end. (Children’s faces purposely obscured.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fifteen minutes before the close of the school day it is time for the daily check out circle. Their teacher, Miss Ristoff, reviewed behaviors for circle. One child volunteered to lead. Another placed a water bottle filled with picked daisies for the center. Another child suggested everyone say names so I can remember them.

Centerpiece of our circle: a water bottle of picked English daisies.

He began our round of checkout by saying his name, his nick name, and his age. The child next to him passed, not yet ready to speak, and the twig being used as a talking piece went to the next child. “My name is Evan. My nickname is “Ev” and I am 7.3 years old.” By the time the talking stick reached me, nearly everyone has checked in.

“My name is Ann and because it is such a short name, I don’t have a nick name. And I am 73 years old.” I saw some raised eyebrows on the other side of the circle. The girl sitting next to me said quietly, “That’s older than my grandmother.” Smiling, I leaned over to her and responded, “I am a grandmother.” And then I passed the talking piece on.

I can’t stop smiling. For the past several decades I have lead PeerSpirit circles in places ranging from hospitals to university classrooms to non-profit board rooms in many different countries. Nobody in this circle knows or cares. They are just present to their own circle, as they should be.

The closing round of the talking piece is a response to the question, “What is a ‘glow’(something that went well) and what is a ‘grow’ (something that could have gone better) from today that you experienced?”

It is now ten minutes to 3 p.m. and some of the students in other classes are beginning to file out of the building. Yet, the two teachers maintained calm as the natural twitch factor of first and second graders began to ramp up.

First and Second grade teacher Caris Ristoff setting up the journal writing exercise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternative Learning Experience teacher, Andi Kopit, reading a book to the students.

“OK, everyone stand up and do either five somersaults or five jumping jacks,” said Ms.Ristoff. Little bodies instantly went into action. In three minutes everyone was done and sitting back in circle. It took some refocusing, but we were checked out and the students ran inside to pick up their packs a few minutes after 3 p.m. This was a masterfully held circle. Perfect in its timing, respect for individual voices, and content.

I had volunteered to spend an afternoon with the students so they would better know me when I came to be part of their field trip later in the month to visit a blooming prairie. I should have guessed that the students and their teachers would be familiar with circle. However, I had no idea that sitting in a circle with them would be such a poignant reminder to me of the power of circle.

These youngsters are being raised to understand and love the natural world around them. And they are being raised to listen and respect one another. This bodes well for the future of the world around them. And as a complete bonus, two of them gave me a hug on their way into the building!

The Last Spring Break “Granny Camp”

Our two LA city grandchildren have been coming up to visit for most every spring break since they were two years old. Since Jaden is 18, that is nearly 16 years—interrupted a couple of times for a larger family trip, including one year to South Korea. This spring is the last time they will come together because Jaden will be in college next year.

Their mother and father no longer escort them. They have grown into two fine young people who are remarkably helpful and competent. And, since they like to earn money, our weeklong time has gone from a focus on entertainment to an opportunity to learn some outdoor chores—not something they get to do in their LA apartment.

Sasha, Christina, and Jaden on the ferry to Whidbey Island for their last annual granny camp.

Vivi welcoming Sasha and Jaden to our home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature exploration has always been a part of granny camp

Of course, we always get out to explore nature. This time a campfire and hike with our friends and theirs, Nicole and Janet. And that’s the thing: our friends have become theirs over the years. (I don’t have photos of all the adults they spent time with, but you know who you are and your presence in their lives means a lot.) Community has been an important part of their time with us.

Nicole, Janet Sasha, Jaden, Christina and Vivi hiking at Ft. Ebey State Park

Jaden perched on a cedar stump at Ft. Ebey State Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sasha preparing to put her intentions into the campfire.

Outdoor chores for pay had a big appeal

Because we live rurally, there are many opportunities for outdoor chores—planting the first seeds in the spring garden, splitting wood to dry for next winter, and raking up debris from under our big Douglas fir trees.

Sasha planting the first pea seeds of the spring.

Jaden moving logs to split.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sasha using the log splitter.

One of the values we teach our grandkids is the importance of community volunteering. They worked with our local well association to clean up debris from winter storms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily circles and evening board games balanced out their experience

Time indoors cooking together, drawing animal cards for our morning circles, playing board games in the evening, and, of course, playing with Vivi filled our days. The weather was more challenging than usual, but we persevered.

Oh, no, snow during spring break!

Evening board games were an important part of the week. Christina and Sasha playing tile rummy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for colleges with Jaden

An added element at the end of this year’s time in our home was taking Jaden to visit Sonoma State University—one of three college acceptances he has gotten.

The morning before we did the campus tour we drew animal cards at the restaurant and spoke about the things to look for in a tour. And reviewed questions we might ask.

Jaden standing in front of the SSU Charles Schulz library next to Lucy of the snoopy cartoons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed with friends Sara Harris and Ken Smith to add the experience of a local connection and the reminder of community.

 

 

 

At day’s end after the campus tour we drovean hour to Bodega Bay State Park to take in the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean.

If there is any greater privilege than having an opportunity to pour love, encouragement, skills and possibilities into a young person, I don’t know what it might be. Thank you, Sally and Joe, for entrusting us with your beautiful children.

 

Renewing a Longtime Skill

After recovering so well from my August back surgery, I have been eager to return to favorite responsibilities and challenges.

Am I ready?

    To walk the dog, take a longer hike, kayak, garden and mow the lawn?

How do I return without injuring myself?

   I have no sciatica pain, but strained muscles along the surgery site and a tender three-inch scar: how do I listen to my body now?

How can I be of service at this time in my life?

   A more complex question, but important to me, and my service has always included physical challenges.

What about recertifying my Wilderness Medicine First Responder status?

Known as WFR (woofer), this certification is granted only after a rigorous 10-day immersion into deep first aid and emergency response training. In wilderness, a WFR may be the only medical attention available for hours, even days. To retain WFR status requires recertifying every two years, usually a three-day weekend, in which participants first pass the written exam, and then spend two-and-one-half days in outdoor scenarios—sometimes the victim, sometimes the responder.  I had until the end of 2022 to take a three-day training from the National Outdoor Leadership School. A mid-November training was located nearby. I signed up.

To get a permit for guided camping on U.S. Forest Service land, one leader needs to be a WFR. To get insurance for the wilderness trips and quests PeerSpirit has offered, a WFR needs to be on staff. Question #1: I am now officially retired from that work. Do I really need to do this?

Answer #1: Yes. Around home and outdoors, family and friends count on me to respond to any level medical emergency. In my neighborhood, I am part of the informal emergency response during storms and power outages. My skills are useful to people I love and care about. As long as I have stamina for the rigors of training, I want to keep recertifying.

Question #2: Am I up to the task? The only way to find out was try. I registered, found a simple AirBnB nearby, and began studying.

Twenty-five students ranging in age from 22 to 73 (me) and two instructors arrived at Camp Indianola Methodist Camp the morning of November 18. We were an even mix of men and women dressed in outdoor gear preparing to spend most of the day outdoors practicing rescue scenarios.  Heavy frost covered the ground. Our meeting hall was an old wooden, not very well heated building. We sat in a large semi-circle on chairs behind folding tables.

Indoor classroom at the Indianola Methodist Church Camp

We introduced ourselves by name, number of recerts we had done, and something interesting we learned this last week.

I said this was my twelfth recertification and the thing I had learned in the wee hours of the morning was that my longtime co-guide, friend, and sister WFR had just passed away after a long battle with cancer. It was important to me to speak Deborah Greene-Jacobi’s name into a circle of guides on the day of her death.

My instructor was honoring and sympathetic and as we moved on, part of me was doing this certification for Deb as well as for myself.

The young man sitting next to me said, “Geez, I was not even born the first time you did his training!” (I later learned from the NOLS office that they don’t exactly keep records on who has done the most certifications “but there are only a handful of people who have certified as many times as you have!”) 

After the check-in, we took a 50-question multiple choice test. We needed a score of 70 to continue: I got a 94. My mental confidence was boosted: now for the physical challenges.

After an injury or illness, it takes a while to resume body/mind confidence, especially for those of us in the over-70 bracket. Though my surgeon said I had coped pre-surgery “like a trojan,” I realized how essential it was for me to get on my bike and ride distance, get in my boat and paddle, don a daypack and hike. I have always had strong body confidence and am determined to regain that sense of physical selfhood.

This course would require me to bend, lift, kneel on the ground, endure cold conditions. How much was I my “old self?” And what are the capacities and limits of my “new self?”

Once scenarios began, the outdoors became our debriefing/teaching classroom.

In those three days, combining lecture and small group scenarios, we covered burns, hypothermia, lightening, drowning, acute mountain sickness, gastroenteritis, evacuations, infections, broken bones, interfacing with front country EMS, and so on. A third of the students would be chosen for a scenario and go with one instructor to receive information on how to roleplay their situations.

The rest of the group paired up, went to find our patients with a minimal amount of equipment and proceeded carefully through our patient assessments to determine why the patient was in trouble and what we might do about it. In the scene shown below we found a patient in extreme pain with a broken femur that we had to splint and get ready for evacuation.

In one scenario four of us created a femur splint for a patient.

 

 

Wilderness medicine is defined by illness or injury occurring greater than one hour from definitive care. There are many challenges to wilderness medicine: the environment may add to the problem (cold, heat, darkness, etc.), the patient’s condition can change over time, equipment for treatment or evacuation must be improvised, decisions are often made without outside contact.

 

 

Most of the participants were staff for schools and outdoor programs, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and adventure tourism companies. We all can be responsible for big decisions in difficult situations. As always in these trainings, I am enormously impressed by the caliber of people doing this work.

In another scenario (this one in the indoor classroom) we worked in groups of 5 to practice cleaning and closing an open wound.

Demonstrating fine examples of steri strip would closure

 Answer to Question #2: Yes. I did it. I brought my renewed physical self and experienced guide self to the course. I opted out of only one activity: litter-bearing a pretend victim off the field. I returned home a bit stiff and tired, but with my body confidence restored in my ability to continue being of service in this way.

My dear friend and co-guide, Deborah Greene-Jacobi, and I hiking May 2022. Her battle with cancer was valiant and determined. She taught me so much about so many things. I will forever miss her. She died the morning I began my WFR training.

Gratitude

My heart is filled with gratitude—the kind of inner flush that starts in your heart and constantly reframes your thoughts. It is not just a polite ”Yes, I am feeling good.” And it is not fleeting. These complex days in the world find me with a newfound ability to listen, reflect, and sort through what to take in and what to let go.

I had my two-week post-surgical visit this week. Excellent report after my L4/L5 bilateral laminectomy. Now free to resume swimming, biking, and hiking—albeit gently. (My surgeon knows me.) But even before that visit, I knew I was doing well because I had weaned myself off all pain meds, begun moving more easily than I have in a couple of years, and above all, am feeling no sciatica pain!

When my surgeon came into the room, I got up and took his hand in both of mine and profoundly thanked him. Certainly, his skill and that of his entire team was instrumental in all of this, but I went into surgery as physically strong as I could. We were quite the team. I feel as if I have been given a new lease on my active life.

Thanks to all of you who reached out during this time. I read and re-read every comment and card. They meant a lot. Those good wishes helped me remain hopeful. I was carried into the surgery on a wave of healing energy.

This public declaration of gratitude will help me hold that point on the wheel of each situation I find myself in these next months and beyond. It is a stated covenant, a commitment to keep my hand on the gratitude rudder that charts the course of my life.

My wish for each of you is to capture moments of gratitude, tuck them into a pouch where they can easily be retrieved, and pull them out as needed to serve as antidotes of hopefulness in moments of challenge.

After a visit with my surgeon, a celebratory hike to our favorite Bowman Bay. Resting in the blessing of the long vista of Puget Sound. Photo by Christina Baldwin

Glaciers, Part II, Hiking

Blue sky, a summer day, and an invitation to walk around on a glacier. Such grand adventure! Yet, walking around on glaciers is precarious. Advancing or retreating ice edges are in constant flux, creating crevasses, hidden snow bridges, and steep, slippery traverses.

Ann on Root Glacier, photo by Christina Baldwin

We went to Alaska in June 2022 to visit family and touch the expansive wilderness of this northern continental rim with its raw edge of climate change. In my previous blog I wrote about paddling near one of the fastest melting tidewater glaciers in the world. In this blog I write about hiking on the Root Glacier in Wrangle St. Elias National Park. This is the largest national park in the United States, 20,000 square miles. Six Yellowstone Parks, or the states of Vermont and New Hampshire could fit within its boundaries, and only two dirt roads run into the park’s vast interior.

Mt. Blackburn and the glacial flow below, photo by Christina Baldwin

Christina’s brother, Ric, and sister-in-law, Kathy, drove us 60 miles on a dirt road from the SW entrance to our cabin. The morning of our adventure we walked across a foot bridge over glacial silt-laden waters, runoff from the expansive peaks of the park. Mt. St. Elias at 18,808 feet is the second tallest peak in North America. Mt. Wrangell (14,163 feet) is one of the three largest active volcanoes in the world. Nine of the tallest sixteen mountains in North America are located here, as are thousands of miles of glaciers and the largest ice field in North America (Bagley Icefield).

Crossing the bridge to McCarthy, Alaska, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

 A van from the St. Elias Mountain Guides picked us up in McCarthy, population 100, at the edge of the park, and took us lurching along the one-lane, five-mile road to the old Kennecott Copper mine where we would begin our hike to the glacier.

 

 

Hiking into the abandoned Kennecott Mine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our adventuring troop consisted of the four of us, a couple from Texas, and a couple from France. Our two young guides gave us a safety talk, fitted us with the crampons we would later need to walk safely on the glacier, and we headed out of basecamp. A two-mile trail to the glacier’s edge undulated through a young aspen, subalpine fir forest filled with wildflowers amid a distant backdrop of towering snowy mountains. The air temperature had warmed to 65 degrees F. and mosquitoes were beginning to hover. Our guides kept a steady, doable, “just ahead of the mosquitoes” pace. We stepped over the fresh droppings of both moose and bear, counting on the guides’ assurance that bears were not a problem in groups of eight or more.

A stream crossing on the way to the toe of the Root Glacier

After two miles, the forest trail opened to a view of the moraine, a blast of cool air, and the disappearance of mosquitoes. We zigzagged down the wet, gravelly footpath to the glacier’s edge and donned our crampons.

Christina putting on crampons as we transitioned from the two-mile hiking trail onto the toe of the glacier

The spikes of the crampons gripped the melting, slippery glacier, giving us confidence to hike on the ice. With each step up the gradual incline, the vista became larger and grander. Mt. Blackburn (16,800 feet) to our Northwest towered over us—a snowy giant standing aloof and seemingly inaccessible.

Gaining confidence as we work our way up the glacier, photo by Christina Baldwin

In 1912, a young east coast scientist and adventurer named Dora Keen climbed Mt. Blackburn in a skirt and lace-up boots! It took two tries for her and her party to summit, and no one has ever repeated their technical ascent of Blackburn’s south face. Here are two accounts of her achievement: 1) https://www.steliasguides.com/blog/alaska-spotlight-on-advenure-dora-keen-1912-first-ascent-mt-blackburn/  2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Keen

From a distance a glacier appears white and relatively smooth. Up close, the surface is dense, uneven, and in summer it is scattered with blown dirt. Occasionally there are small colonies of  “glacier mice.” Not really animal matter, the “mice” are a conglomeration of life forms from bacteria to mosses. Palm-sized, oblong moss balls, they always occur in groups, and actually “move” in tandem with one another—albeit at a barely discernible pace. The Root Glacier is one of the places these life forms are being studied, including miniscule radio tags used to monitor their movement even under mounds of snow. This article explains the studies in greater detail, including showing the radio tags: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/22/858800112/herd-like-movement-of-fuzzy-green-glacier-mice-baffles-scientists

A group of glacier mice

 

Holding an individual glacier mouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The encouragement to alternate our views from grand vistas to miniscule life forms emphasized the complexity of the glacier ecosystem. As neophyte adventurers, we would only venture about two miles up the toe of the glacier

Beyond the area where we ventured, the glacier had cracks and crevasses and snow bridges dangerous to traverse. Six or seven miles beyond us rose the Stairway Icefall. A wall of ice 7,000 feet tall! It is second in size only to the Khumbu ice fall on Mt. Everest.

Ric and Kathy Baldwin, Ann and Christina with the 7,000 foot Staircase Icefall behind us. guide photo

We spent several hours meandering over the terrain of this immense glacier toe. At lunch hour, we sat on ensolite pads while the guides dipped a pot into the aquamarine blue glacial pools to make tea, coffee, or hot chocolate.

Guide preparing hot water on a Jet Boil with glacier water for hot tea, cocoa or coffee

Numerous blue glacial pools, ranging in size from table tops to room size, provided water for our hot drinks and extraordinary beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eager lunch crew awaiting their drinks while sitting on Ensolite pads to keep dry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Language goes mute in the face of this much grandeur. Pictures do it some justice. Stories elucidate my experience a bit more. But feelings of humility, awe, and respect are the jewels that I will carry in my wilderness heart forever. It was one of my most spectacular “God moments:”

As long as I walk this earth, I will do everything I am capable of to protect and love this precious planet. I shall focus on efforts large and small that contribute to earth-tending—whether in gardening the tiny parcel of land that I am privileged to live on, filling my soul’s reserve by walking or paddling in places of beauty, or sharing earth’s beauty with the next generations.

Closeup of Mt. Blackburn from the footbridge into McCarthy, Ak

Post script: It was a great privilege to do this trip. We had planned it for summer 2020 and then came the pandemic and my mother’s death. Originally, we had hoped to focus on Denali National Park, but in the summer of 2021 an underground rock glacier closed the road half-way into the park, which remained closed in 2022. When we first dreamed of this trip, I had no thoughts about back surgery. In two weeks I will have back surgery. Life keeps offering up changes. When big dreams call, answer them as soon as you are able.

Knowing that I would face back surgery at summer’s end, I was careful yet able to physically meet the challenges of the trip. I am ready for the surgery and in good shape and optimistic that my trekking and paddling days shall continue for some time. We also know this trip elevated our “carbon footprint.” We do not casually overstep our sense of sustainability. We constantly reassess the balance between remaining life dreams and remaining climate capacity. This year, Earth Overshoot Day (the date when humanity has used all the biological resources the Earth can regenerate in a year) occurred on July 28. Our actions contributed to that AND our daily life choices have helped keep that date at bay.

Glaciers Part I, Paddling

We have long dreamed of a trip to Alaska to visit glaciers, experience their grandeur, and understand more directly the impact of climate change. We also wanted to visit my brother-in-law, Ric, and his wife, Kathy, who volunteered to lead a road trip through some of the wilder places in that wildest of all states.

Photo of the Chugach Mountain Range south of Anchorage, from Ann’s seat on her Delta flight

And so, we planned a June 2022 trip to kayak in Prince William Sound near the Columbia glacier and hike the toe of the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park—both adventures of great privilege and magnificence. Having Ric and Kathy as narrators/drivers/tour guides was an extraordinary bonus.

Kathy and Ric Baldwin, our trusty tour guides

We began our trip driving south alongside Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Prince William Sound where we caught a ferry from Whittier to Valdez. On the way to Whittier, we stopped at the Portage Glacier visitor center. Ric explained how the glacier had been a major feature at the edge of the center when it opened in May 1986. Now the glacier has retreated across the lake and behind a ridge and is no longer visible.

Signage at another roadside glacier located between Valdez and Chitina, AK, the Worthington Glacier

On our six-hour ferry ride to Valdez we passed the mouth of Columbia Bay full of icebergs. (Columbia Bay is one of many bays pouring into the forested, island studded Prince William Sound.) We passed the site of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in 1989 which dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into these pristine waters. We marveled at islands large enough to have their own mountain ranges and exchanged concerns with Ric and Kathy about the true  fragility of the waters of Prince William Sound.  Fortunately, we saw sea otters, an orca, and sea lions. We later learned that sea otters had made a better comeback after the oil spill than the resident orca pod.

Glaciers are extremely dangerous/unpredictable rivers of ice. To experience them from the water and on foot we knew the importance of local guides. For our paddle, we joined Anadyr Kayaking because my research and conversations convinced me that their 33 years of experience in Valdez would ensure excellent safety and natural history skills.

We were not disappointed! Kayaking the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound required that guides and paddlers take a two-hour water taxi to ferry our kayaks into Columbia Bay near the calving face of the glacier.

 

Christina riding on the water taxi  to our paddling adventure

 

 

One of the floating icebergs we passed while on the water taxi

 

Ann in the cabin of the water taxi, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We off-loaded our plastic double kayaks onto a cobblestone beach. The motorized taxi retreated out of sight and we were alone at the mouth of creation. The air temperature on that partly cloudy June day was 45 degrees F. We wore three layers of warmth on our legs, four layers of clothing on our torsos, donned life jackets and spray skirts, climbed into our kayaks and pushed into a sea of floating ice. Our skilled guides maneuvered a pathway through the small to medium icebergs, offering us many angled views of towering walls of blue and white ice.

Unloading kayaks from the water taxi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting into our double kayaks from the shore

 

 

Paddling near the west face of the receding Columbia glacier

 

 

Glaciers are not rivers that flow. Glaciers are rivers that crack under pressure, burst, boom, grind, and calve. The SOUNDS of the glacier added an element of unease and alertness. Our guides brought us to within 1.5 miles of where ice meets saltwater. We paused, listened, and drifted on this windless morning. I was thrilled to be in a place with virtually no sign of human presence. Here was The Beginning. Rocks that had been crushed and moved and buried for millennia suddenly revealed. Ice that had taken ten thousand years to form, now afloat and melting in two days.

 

Christina in our double kayak within 1.5 miles of the 40 foot high active glacier face

 

West face of the melting Columbia Glacier meeting Prince William Sound

 

We paddled to another rocky beach for lunch and pulled the boats high enough to avoid the incoming tide. The guides made hot chocolate and tea while we ate standing up, stretching our legs. The scale of the wild in Alaska is hard to comprehend. A “small” calving event occurred across the bay and we watched a wave undulate the ice-filled channel and ripple onto our shore. An occasional gull flew by. The seals and sea otters that we had seen swimming among the ice floes were nowhere to be seen way down in this ice-choked arm of the bay. There were NO lichens on the rocks. Life as we know it had not yet taken hold here in the raw aftermath of melting glacier.

Lunch time across from the glacier, photo by Anadyr Adventures guide

 

 

Joining a trip like this, you always meet interesting people. One noteworthy couple, Jose and Jose from Mexico City, surprised all of us at lunch when they pulled tuxedos out of their dry bags, donned them and posed for a barefooted Save the Date postcard they were going to send to friends. They were so energetic, such a delightful addition!

 

It was exactly 30 years earlier that I had pushed off the shore of Lake Superior to begin kayaking around the largest of the Great Lakes. My life was changed by that journey. I stand humbly in the beauty of these years, grateful for so many adventures, grateful for this day of awe and reverie.

Exactly 30 years ago I pushed off the shore of Lake Superior to begin my 65 day journey, photo by my paddling partner and friend, Paul Treuer

 

 

Ann paddling her boat “Grace” on her journey around Lake Superior, another photo by Paul Treuer

And yet, my awe is tempered by knowledge that this beach was under ice just one year ago. I am standing on human-caused climate change. The World Glacier Monitoring Service has tracked ice changes in relationship to temperature and mass since 1894. The scientific evidence regarding glacial loss is absolutely clear. The Columbia is the fastest melting glacier in North America and is contributing 1% of global sea level rise.

Questions began churning inside me. What can one person do about the magnitude of the problem of climate change? Is that even the right question? Shhhh . . . whispered myself to myself. Just be here. The right question and your own unique answer(s) lie submerged, like the bulk of each iceberg before you. Fill your soul only with beauty and wonder.

 

A melting glacier, photo by Ann on her Delta flight

Next blog: Glaciers, Part II, Hiking

Holding Extreme Tragedy and Finding Beauty Again

Spring is coming to Ukraine, despite the desecration of its country. We do not hear about the beauty of the natural world unfolding from its winter slumber because so many horrific things are happening to people, buildings, and homes. It is hard to find beauty when everything around seems burnt, bombed, and dangerous. The only reference I hear about the landscape was first frozen ground to enable tanks, then mud to slog them down, and lately about leaves returning to provide camouflage.

Our table centerpiece-prayers for Ukraine

The people AND the land of Ukraine are being severely harmed. They are the principal supplier of wheat and sunflower oil to many countries, particularly in Africa. What is being planted? What is being destroyed?

Our Wilderness Guides Council held another zoom call to witness the stories of our Ukrainian colleagues.

We from the United States, Canada, Europe, and South Africa listened. The first Ukrainian speaker reported relief to see the faces of his countrymen—a confirmation that they are each still alive. One by one they took up the invisible talking piece.

“I wait every night for the call from my son who is fighting to find out if he is still alive,” reported one man.

“My home was bombed. I have confirmation of this now. My mother has been captured by the Russians in Mariupol, but at least I have word that she is alive.”

Barely able to speak through her tears, a young woman said, “Hate. I did not think I was so capable of hate. That we must prove what the Russians are doing is unthinkable,” she said in reference to the fact that Russians are claiming the atrocities being discovered have been staged by the Ukrainians.

“Thank you for listening,” they each said at the end of their speaking.

The call dropped me to my knees, brought tears to my eyes, left me grasping for what else I might do besides being a listener and sending money to the World Central Kitchen https://wck.org/.

How do I hold these stories?

 After the call, I walked outside to see my garden.

My April garden tulips

Tiny arugula seedling coming up under the protection of row cover.

 

I could see the beauty before my eyes. But I was not staring into a bombed landscape. So much sadness filled my soul. How could I integrate the stories I had just heard and make space again for joy? How could I remain grounded in my own reality and resources so I could be a witness for those who needed it?

Nature is always my refuge, my restoration, but I needed more than just a meander in the woods. I needed something tangible to do. I had been thinking about collecting nettles this spring. There is about a two-week window when they are big enough to cut and not so big that the stems become woody. Perfect, I would “armor up” to harvest nettles.

Young forest nettles perfect for harvesting.

The tiny- pointed hairs covering the leaves and stems break off when touched and release formic acid—the same venom found in bee and ant stings. So, NO bare skin for this harvest. Many people consider them a superfood, a super medicine.  Nettles are a rich source of vitamin C and potassium. They contain more iron than spinach, antihistamines that help alleviate allergy symptoms, and serotonin, which imparts a feeling of well-being.

My gloved hands harvesting nettles

 

Dressed in heavy pants, long sleeves, thick gloves, I carried two 5-gallon buckets down a path and off into a huge nettle patch near the state park parking lot. Within 20 minutes I had snipped two buckets full of nettle tops. The patch was so big, looking back behind me, I could not tell that anyone had been here harvesting. Nettles grow in Ukraine. Would anyone even be safe harvesting them? My thoughts would wander, then I would refocus on my task. Harvesting nettles requires attention—a wrist bared or sock top exposed means miserable itching.

 

Back home carefully snipping the tender leaves from their stems into a steaming pot.

Coming home, I sat on a chair on the patio and carefully snipped the leaves off the stems and into a gallon pot. Two five -gallon buckets consolidated down to one gallon of leaves to steam. It took about 20 minutes of steaming for the nettles to cook down (the steaming destroys the stinging hairs) to a small serving dish size. Sauteeing some of last summer’s garlic and sunflower seeds in olive oil, I added the steamed leaves turning them over and over, adding lemon juice and balsamic glaze. Presto! A vegetable dish for three.

 

A filled gallon pot cooked down after steaming

 

 

 

The nettles sautéed in olive oil, garlic, and sunflower seeds.

 

 

 


It made me so happy to honor the earth’s bounty in that way, to feed my family. Action empowered me to do something good and tangible. It brought me joy and purpose. By day’s end my heart was again open.

The connection between  food and land and hope

The work of holding the complexity of these times is immense. We all do it in different ways. Let us not forget that the earth is helping us, too.  Leaves are returning to the trees in Ukraine. May blooming flowers rise in the shattered cities and surprise those most in need of beauty. May someone be planting a kitchen garden on their porch. Stinging nettles grow worldwide. Maybe one of the local chefs working with the incredible organization of the World Central Kitchen is preparing nettles in some Ukrainian village this very day.

This is not a far-fetched thought. WCK partners with local chefs to create hot, deliverable meals to communities in Ukraine being bombing. (There are many fine non-profits working in Ukraine. I highlight WCK because of the connection to food in this piece of writing.) For example, a small town outside Kharkiv where cows cannot be milked and the grain silo is destroyed have been receiving hot meals. In a monastery in Odesa where 130 seniors live and 10 refugees a day come from Mariupol, the monastery staff bakes bread and shelters homeless animals. People and land working together sustain life.

Plants connect us. Food preparation connects us. The act of foraging in dire need or in adventure awakens gratitude that food is there. I can reach my gloved hand into the nettle patch and feel connection to the life-giving presence of Ukraine and its remarkable people.

Do Not Forget Us!

Flag of Ukraine, courtesy of Wikipedia

Like so many of you, I have felt shocked, devastated, and immobilized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Other than discerning a good way to send relief, I have felt helpless. So, when the Wilderness Guides Council put out a call for a collective gathering to hear the stories, needs, and strengths of our Ukrainian friends, I eagerly signed up. (WGC is a global network of wilderness guides and supporters who offer “contemporary wilderness rites of passage”.)

Since the international Wilderness Guides Council convened in Ukraine in 2012, I was hopeful that some of our Ukrainian guides would be on the call. At least four participants were from Ukraine. The rest of us tuned in from many countries including South Africa, Spain, Germany, Canada, South Siberia and many U.S. states.

2012 WGC attendees in Ukraine, photo courtesy of WGC, Darcy Ottey

Close-up from 2012 WGC gathering in Ukraine, photo courtesy of WGC, Darcy Ottey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the Ukrainian guides was sitting in total darkness because his city is under bombardment and strict orders to have no lights on at night. One is currently living in Canada, every day fearful for her parent’s lives. The other two had fled their cities and were in the currently safer western part of their brave country.

Council Wisdom

The intention of the council was to offer peace and protection for Ukraine. We opened with a slide show of that 2012 gathering, a song, silence with lit candles, and then an open invitation for the Ukrainians to speak so we could bear witness. Words came slowly at first. Feelings were raw, so very raw. One of the Ukrainians had spent 12 days in a bomb shelter with her family before fleeing to the western part of the country. Another is still living in a city being bombarded. His face illuminated only by his electronic screen showed the wear of sleeplessness and living in constant danger. Still another wrote her comments only in the chat box because her reception was so poor she feared we would not be able to hear.

There were long pauses. This is the way of council. We wait. We hold the space open so words can form and be supported as they arise.

Some of us as witnesses added comments after our Ukrainian friends spoke. One American guide who went to the 2012 gathering spoke of bringing 3 acorns back from a 1,000 year old oak. One of those acorns sprouted. She planted it and it is now about 30 feet high—a symbol of the longevity and strength of its home country. Another shared the t-shirt that was literally given to him off the back of one of the Ukrainians on the call. Another among us spoke how she is living on stolen lands—from U.S. native peoples—and reflected on the violence so long perpetrated against peaceful peoples everywhere.

1,000 year old Ukrainian oak, photo courtesy of WGC, Trebbe Johnson

I chose to repeat the words one Ukrainian guide had spoken at the end of his second check-in. “Something new is being born. In a birth both the mother and the child are very vulnerable. We must pay attention and protect both the mother and child.” The words haunted me, yet I know he spoke them as a man who has lived many decades and watched the ongoing trials of his country. His voice invited respect. He spoke with hope. He repeated words that each of his countrymen and women had spoken earlier, “We will not lose our country. We will remain free.”

The chat box was filled with information, including a note from one of the German guides with a connection to a site that would help refugees find shelter, food, and clothing in her country. We shared emails. We want to remain connected. We want to speak again. We are eager to help in whatever ways we are able.

The parting words from each of our Ukrainian friends was, “Do not forget us!”

Something new is being born

Leaving the council, I chose to head to our nearby state park with its old growth Douglas firs and western red cedar. I wandered the slowly emerging spring woods in the tradition of the Medicine Walk, so dear to the hearts of my fellow WGC guides. The phrase “something new is being born” kept repeating itself in my mind. A short ways up the first hill of the trail a large, old alder tree next to the trail had blown down since I walked this trail last week. It was shocking how little root structure had held the old alder all these years. The alder will now become a nurse log providing a platform for mosses, mushrooms, salal plants, huckleberry, and eventually another alder tree. Something new is being born out of a loss, though, at the moment, all that is visible is the dead alder and all the ferns and young plants it smashed on the way down. Can any of us begin to see what will be born out of the current tragedy in Ukraine?

“We must pay attention and protect both the mother and child.”  Further along, I stopped to lean against the 500-year-old cedar tree. It is hollow now—a person could actually bend over and “skinny” their way from front to back. The winter has blown down some of its enormous branches, yet as I gaze skyward, back against the tree, I cannot see through the many remaining branches to the top of the tree. It is probably the oldest tree in the park.

In 1999 I was sitting on the bench overlooking the tree when two young boys wandered up from the campground. They grabbed some big sticks and started hacking away at the then smaller hole in the tree. I was completely shocked. It occurred to me that no one had taught them to respect a large old tree. I rose from the bench and gently approached them.

“Excuse me,” I said. They both looked up. “Would you beat your grandmother with a stick?” At this point they have set their sticks down and are looking at me as if I am some kind of apparition. “This is the oldest tree in the forest. It is the grandmother tree. We must treat it with respect.” The two boys hurriedly disappeared down the trail.

Later I worked with the park ranger to erect a sign and a barrier to the tree explaining its age and importance. “We must protect both the mother and the child.”

The winter has been hard on the forest. A number of large trees have blown down. Yet the whole of the forest remains functioning, beautiful, and vibrant. The further I walk the more I can understand the wisdom of the older Ukrainian guide who has walked the “forests” of his country for many decades. He knows intimately the individual components of cities, mountains, forests, people. He sees them as a whole—resilient, interconnected, ever-changing. Two hours later I return home with a much better understanding of how these four guides could be so sure that they will not lose their country. They know and understand things that we as outsiders can barely comprehend.

Sitting down to dinner that night next to the wood stove, holding hands with my beloved, we offered prayers of gratitude for the incredible privilege of an intact home, enough to eat, and a peaceful neighborhood. And we asked for prayers for all who do not have such privilege at this time.

We will not forget our Ukrainian friends. We will keep the stories of their courage and determination alive, for they represent the hope that people everywhere have for democracy to remain alive.

 

 

 

 

Our Animals Help Us Be Better Humans

Blue-eyed girls, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

Daily our little blue-eyed corgi helps me be a better human. By doing the things she loves, I become a happier, healthier, kinder person. Having a dog makes sure that I tend to the following:

Plan time outdoors every day.

 Share love and affection and, of course, snacks.

Pay attention to needs other than your own.

Offer kindness.

Be curious.

It seems so simple really. Yet we humans can get involved with matters of consequence and overlook or minimize these basic tenets of a good life. But our pets, be they dogs, cats, horses, birds, guinea pigs or something more exotic, thrive on these things. And so do we!

Because Vivi is only two years old, she needs a LOT of exercise—which is very good for us. Two good walks a day of at least two miles. Time in the big, fenced yard of her best friend, who also happens to be a corgi, racing around flat out  with no leash. Lots of time on the floor playing with stuffy toys and keeping her two 70+ year-olds flexible. And did I mention race and chase? Her favorite indoor game is to be there when the laundry comes out of the dryer and steal a -falling sock or underpants that then requires a fun romp and keep-away around the living room. Such good laughter for us two serious humans.

The laundry helper stealing a dropped sock. photo by Christina Baldwin

Come get me. I know you want your sock!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vivi loves meeting people— especially children. She does a hilarious belly crawl as she approaches them—as if a short corgi needs to make herself even shorter so as not to intimidate little children. People always laugh and ask what she is doing. We explain that she wants to meet them, and this is her greeting crawl. During the pandemic, when meetings with passersby have been reduced, her six-foot leash is just the right social distance and her friendliness a wonderful bridge builder. We call her our little Minister of Joy. There are, of course, people who simply ignore Vivi and walk on by. She watches to see if they are dog aware or not, almost shrugs her little corgi shoulders and then heads onto her next interaction.

 

Always on the lookout for something new and interesting!

 

Regularity of schedule and pattern provide a secure rhythm to our days. Yet, Vivi is always “up” for something spontaneous—like the surprise appearance of a squirrel on the feeder or a neighbor who stops for a chat during a walk. (Honestly, I am quite sure that most neighbors in the next community over have no clue what my name is—I am just the one who walks that cute tri-colored corgi named Vivi.)

At the end of their weekly Medicine Walk in our local state park, Ann writes in her journal and Vivi remains alert.

 

As a longtime wilderness guide, I have incorporated two practices from guiding into my life: a weekly Medicine Walk and a daily Sit Spot. (A Medicine Walk is more about being than doing. It is a walk with intention to seek greater awareness and guidance.) Vivi has made this easy. She loves our Medicine Walk. She gets to sniff as much as she likes and when she stops to notice something, I stop to try and perceive what she sees,  hears, smells, or senses. Always she knows when someone is coming well before I am aware of their presence. Walking alongside our perky little pup, I pause as often as she does and listen to the forest. May I do this the rest of the years of my life. It will surely take that long to perceive both the underground symphonies of resonance and the above ground harmony of sensory overload.

Winter Sit Spot on our front porch, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

The other nature-based practice that Vivi helps me honor is the Sit Spot. When dusk comes, she comes to find me until we head out the front door and sit on the porch together.  On a near daily basis, here are some of our gifts—eagles coming into roost, the last flickers at the feeder, or a surprise clearing of the mountains just in time for sunset.

I cannot end this blog without sharing the journey of two dear friends who walked their 15-year-old chihuahua/Italian greyhound to her final breath this week. They did so with beauty and attention, taking care of their “old lady” as she aged. After she had a stroke, they stopped everything for three days and simply prioritized her needs and their own. Tootsie has been on every hike and camping trip we’ve taken with them all these years—an adventuresome little dynamo. We will all miss her. Tootsie helped them be their best possible selves. She deserved no less.

Tootsie in the last week of her life. Photo by Nicole Luce

 

Would love to hear some of your own stories about how your pet helps you be a better human in this complex world we live in.

Henry Beston’s famous quote from The Outermost House:

For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”