Sunday, June 27, 2010

Skagway: Summer Solstice

"How do you spell ‘solstice’?”

I’d never before had the occasion to spell it, even talk about it, but living for the summer the Land of the Midnight Sun was going to change all this.

“S – O – L – S – T – I – C – E,” said someone.

The thing is, when you live where the sun circles the sky in ever decreasing circles, not the normal Ferris Wheel action of up and down, but more like a lopsided lasso spinning high above you, circling ever higher and ever tighter as June unfolds, Solstice is something to celebrate. It’s not just the longest day of the year but one that, up here, seamlessly blends the 20th to the 21st with nary a pause for daytime to blink and wake up to a new dawn. The sun is too busy chasing its tail. To celebrate?

Skagway has several parties that take up two weeks of fun and good times, but the actual night of? About thirty of us guides from just about as many companies decided to celebrate by hauling our bikes up to the White Pass summit and then, at midnight, riding down the 6% grade, dropping from an elevation of 3,000 feet to sea level in just eighteen miles.

The Summit

At around ten, those of us from Jewell Gardens loaded up Joe’s truck behind the Beek House with maybe half a dozen bikes, maybe more.

Isreal and Joe and Joe's truck

We drove over to the school where the guides from other tourist industries piled a couple more on. Several other vehicles were loaded. I’m not at all sure how we got everyone and everything up to the top—though it did take a good hour or more to organize ourselves.

Getting Organized
Earlier I’d asked Casg, leader of the pack, “Any advice?”

“Yeah, dress warmly.”

Getting Ready to Head Down
Skagway River Below

And so at midnight in the Land of the Midnight Sun, straddling the U.S./Canadian border at the summit of the tightly knit mountains that define Alaska and the Yukon, and despite my hat and mittens, I shivered. But then like a swarm of mosquitoes, everyone hopped onto their bikes and circled the highway a few times—whir, whir, whir—and then we all broke rank and headed like flies down the Pass.

I have to say, I’m the oldest. “See you at the bottom, Mama!” the young studs tossed off their shoulders as they hurtled out of sight.

All wobbly on my borrowed bike, with my friend Eric’s instruction on how to change gears fresh in my mind, I was nonetheless wondering if riding a bike again was as easy as “learning to ride a bike again.”

Amanda, Amanda, Moi

“You okay?” one of the two Amandas hollered over. The two girls had taken it upon themselves to ride tail with me. None of us had the testosterone levels the rest of the pack clearly possessed. Besides, we intended to enjoy the experience.

“I’m good!”

What can I say? It was a rush of adrenalin, riding down through a fairyland of cutting wind and cold on the face. Of skirling down through mountains that have stood their ground for thousands of years, one rising out of another, the lonely cut of a road wending through their ankles of rock and stone and plunging waterfalls.

Amanda, Amanda, and I quickly fell behind the others. It was just us, a trio in the austerity, the quiet so deep the world fell away, leaving only these mountains, this pass, and us.

There is a no man’s land that surrounds the summit. Because of weather conditions during the winter, both the American and Canadian governments have elected to build their customs and immigration offices away from the summit, a few miles into their own turf. Thus is was, about twelve miles south of the summit, Amanda, Amanda, and I rolled up to the U.S. Customs House (which for some bizarre reason was designed to look like an IHOP)  to the cheering of the others who had, for whatever reason, decided to wait on official American soil

I had my passport in my pocket, I slowed down.

“You the last of the group?” not Officer B asked. (Officer B is a guard around one particularly loves. A rather officious sort.)

“Yeah. We’re it,” I said.

“See you around."

I hit the brakes. “You don’t want our passports?”


So not Officer B.

“Thanks!” I bellowed back, wobbling on my bike but picking up speed.

This was just enough interlude to give the others another head start and, with them this time, Amanda and Amanda. I was truly on my own. Just me in this icy, shadowy world, and another six miles to enjoy. I was thrilled.

Four miles later I spotted Eric walking his bike. “Hey, what up?” I slowed down.

"I have a flat tire."

I stopped. “What should we do?”

“I don’t know. It’s another two miles into town.”

We had some discussion. Do I walk in with him? Keep him company. Or do I leave him behind and go for help?

“I would feel more useful if I went for help,” I finally said.


A mile later I remembered the bears and Eric's lonely walk, would he be okay? but a car was approaching, slowing. Kyle, a bus driver, stuck out his head. “You see the guy with a flat tire?”

“Yeah! A mile behind me!”

“Okee dokee!”

Vroom and Eric’s help was on the way. I was almost disappointed. I’d wanted to be a part of his rescue, but then I realized help always abounds in Skagway. It’s the personality of people who depend on each other all winter long and whose generous spirit filters down to all of us who come up only for the summer. Kindness is infectious. I was surrounded by it. I think this is, perhaps, how life should be lived. Perhaps the way it once was lived. Back before we all got so busy with life that, somewhere along the line, we lost it.

Another mile later and coming onto the bridge that runs over the Skagway River into town, I noticed a knot of people. Wait, here was Sarah, coming back. “Hey, Brenda!” she hollered. “I was just coming to find you!” She rode up, circled, came alongside me. “Yeah, it’s her!” she hollered up to the others. They waved, they dispersed.

I have to ask. Is it easy to feel part of something bigger than yourself when people linger and then go in search of you, a missing piece of the whole?

I wearily but happily rode my borrowed bike over to my boss’s apartment and tried to lock it up outside her bedroom window. For some reason, she and her husband had the window open. I could hear Sevren coughing. My frozen fingers could not get the lock into place. More coughing. Give it up already, I thought, and jumped into my car.

Eric and Joe

It had been agreed earlier that I would drive Eric and Joe back up to the summit to get their vehicles. By the time I reached the school five blocks away Eric was back, Joe too, and half an hour later we spotted their two lonely cars perched on the side of the road in the faltering light.

Joe headed down first. Then Eric. Now me. I followed their blinking brake lights as I again descended the pass, this time a little warmer, this time the light casting different shadows, this time the mountains even quieter, as if they too had fallen at last into slumber with the rest of the world. Was I the only one up? Eric and Joe had disappeared. Just me again on the road.

“You the last one in?” not Officer B asked when I again reached the customs office.

“I am.”

“I understand you drove the other two back up to get their cars.”

“I did.”

“Was the bike trip fun?”

“Fun?” I laughed. “Next year I’m inviting you!”

His turn to laugh.

I was so tired when I finally stumbled into my cabin and set the cardboard in the window to block the sunlight. Shivering, I slid into my sleeping bag without bothering to brush my teeth. The last thing I saw before plunging into sleep was the knot of friends on the other end of the bridge, Sarah back peddling toward me.

It’s rare that one experiences bliss. A oneness with the world, a peace, a harmony, a sense of well being so profound the reality of a physical self actually disappears. I slid into sleep hearing Sarah’s call, “It’s her! We’re all in!”

Summer’s solstice. A moment, a time, a rush of cold in the face, a knot of friends, a bath of kindness, a connection to the divine. Midnight’s sun shines down on us all.

Sometimes you simply can’t help but love life.

The Summit at Midnight, June 20th, 2010

Saturday, June 12, 2010

It's A Bit Like Polishing a Turd

Skagway AK: 13 July 2009: Christopher Prentiss Michel
Skagway AK 2009 
by Christopher Prentiss Michel
used by permission but not necessarily as an endorsement this blog.

Skagway has a housing issue, there just isn't room for everyone. This town of 900 year-round residents live in a paradise hamlet just a few blocks wide and one mile long. Snowy mountains rise straight up to the east and west. This narrow valley almost immediately begins to pinch down from four blocks wide to three to one to a tight squeeze that zig-zags up the Klondike Highway to the summit of White Pass and into the Canadian Yukon beyond. A town conceived, birthed, and sustained by the Gold Rush of 1897/98, it’s a tourist Mecca. Almost a million people will pass through here before the summer’s end and it takes an influx of 1,500 summer staffers to man the plethora of jewelry stores and adventure getaways, everything from necklaces carved from woolly mammoth tusks to helicopter rides out to the glacier fields. Where do all us “summer staffers” reside for the five months of the season?

Employers often purchase or build housing or in some other way create places to live--from rustic to  historical landmark hotels. I was, however, hired late in the season and all these opportunities were long before filled. My son, a seasoned summer worker, arranged for me to stay the month of May with the Presbyterian preacher; after that, I'd be on my own. So I've spent five weeks trying to find a place to lay my head. At fifty-eight years old, I find the challenge a, well...a challenge. Even with my son assuring me “Something will work out."

Charlotte Jewell of Jewell Gardens, Skagway AK
Charlotte Jewell
Something was not working out and D-Day was imminent. Then one day my boss Charlotte, owner of Jewell Gardens where I'm working, slipped her arm through mine. "My brother tells me you're looking for a place to live. This true?"

"It is."

"He says you're looking for a five-star hotel."

I laughed. "And I want a chocolate mint on my pillow every night!"

"I have a cabin. In the back of my house. It's a half-star hotel."

We both laughed.

"It's not much to look at right now," she said. "We've been using it for storage and there's been a bad leak in the roof. A lot of water damage. I think there might even be mold in there. But if you'll give my husband some time to do some new dry walling--"

"I can paint!" I eagerly interrupted. "And I don't mind helping with the clean up." Little did I know.

Jim Jewell duly did the dry walling and I was told to go over and take a look--fully warned there would be no place to poop, cook, or keep clean. But she would get me a wee frig, a microwave, and a membership to the Recreation Center so I could shower.

I first saw the place five days ago. Here is what I saw:

Brenda Wilbee's gold rush cabin abode, Skagway AK 2010
Gold Rush Cabin counter before clean up
Gold Rush cabin desk interior before cleanup
Gold Rush Cabin closet before cleanup
Gold Rush cabin bed before clean up

What the pictures don't show is the smell of mold--or the detail of "clean up." I backed out and headed down to see my new friend Jess, manager of the gift shop at Jewell Gardens where we both work. We sat in her mezzanine office. “I don't think I can live there. My health,” I stammered, ever mindful of the precariousness of a faulty immune system and the fact that there is no doctor in this town, not even a pharmacy.

A few minutes later I again stood in the little cabin, this time with Jess, watching her pretty face. She looked around and finally said: “We can make this cute. I promise. It has potential. We can do this.”

I put my trust in her. And such is life here in Skagway. On her day off, she and Natalie, a server at the Gardens, plus my son Blake and his friend Ethan (my friend, too, another bus driver up here and a total cutie pie I’ve gotten quite attached to) all showed up and we went at the place—hauling out the stuff, bleaching down every square inch, painting the entire thing a pale buttercup yellow.

Cleaning up at the Gold Rush cabin

Blake pried off a window of plexiglass up by the bed, which had been stuck on tight with some kind of goo, then headed to the hardware store. He brought back hinges and weather stripping and made me a window that actually opens and closes, enabling much needed cross ventilation. The open/close window is critical. I need fresh air if I am to mitigate the mold, and now the bleach and paint fumes. He also brought back some screen mesh and nailed it up so the mosquitoes don’t come in—important here in Alaska and probably more critical than the fresh air!

Backside of Brenda Wilbee's 2010 Gold Rush cabin abode, Skagway AK

Skagway AK's Whitehouse B&B
White House B and B
It’s taking some work. The carpet, which I asked to have ripped out, and which won’t be ripped out, had to be cleaned—somehow. Miracle enough, after a day of cleaning and painting, Blake, Natalie, Jess, and I went down for a “pint of ale” at Skagway’s Brew Co, and one of the women from the preacher’s church overheard us talking about the place. She owns the White House, a lovely Gold Rush B and B just around the corner from my new digs. She offered to let me use her carpet cleaner.

Perfect strangers overhearing a conversation in the pub. Only in Skagway. But there’s more to the story. The next morning Jess and Natalie met Jim, Charlotte's husband, at the coffee shop.

"Hey, how's it going with the cabin?" he asked. "Getting the place cleaned up okay?"

Before and After of Gold Rush cabin kitchen
Before and after gold rush cabin clean up of writing desk
Before and after gold rush cabin clean up of bed
Before and after gold rush cabin clean up of closet

They duly reported.

Jim laughed and said, "Still, it is a bit like polishing a turd, isn't it?"

Ha, ha.

I still can't tell the story without cracking up. And so despite my scattered existence in this faraway place called Skagway, Alaska, I find myself at last beginning to feel at home in this narrow valley of river and rock, squeezed in between high mountains. Housing can be a bit like polishing a turd at times, yes, but there's no shortage of humor and  friendship. If Skagway struggles with its housing, it doesn't suffer from lack of generous and warmhearted people--permanent and seasonal and all ready to step in--"something working  out"--planting me firmly in the warm and nurturing soil of humanity at its best.