Account Executive Hannah Kaminer recently traveled to Alaska and shared her experience from hiking a glacier to realizing that it’s okay to unplug and disconnect even in the midst of a pandemic.
A Week in Alaska
“Hey Hannah, I’m headed to Alaska for vacation this summer. Do you want to come for a bit?”
It wasn’t a hard question to answer. I had worked from home most of the spring and while that made my cats happy, I was itching for a change. I’d finally gotten the long-awaited vaccine, but my cabin fever was reaching an all-time high. And the voice on the phone? That was my good friend Priscilla, who has worked for Outward Bound and NOLS Wilderness Medicine for years. She’s one of the few people in the world who could convince me to go camping in Alaska. I jumped at the chance.
I didn’t know at the time that the Delta variant was coming and that we were actually far from a return to normal. But there was a window this summer when I felt comfortable traveling. I wore a mask, stayed far away from people when I could, and hauled my ancient Osprey backpack from Asheville to Anchorage.
What does it look like to attempt a vacation during a pandemic? I had no idea what to expect. Here are a couple of things I learned from my weeklong Alaskan adventure.
1. Travel constraints can be a pain – or they can make you more creative.
When it comes to travel, I’m a ‘flexible planner’ – I like to plan ahead, but I also know that much of the magic and growth I associate with travel is born out of inconvenience. I try to stay open-minded.
Renting a car has become ridiculously expensive during the pandemic. In July in Alaska, it was impossible. The only car we found to rent was quoted at $5000 for two weeks. We had arranged our backpacking plans around having a car, so Priscilla kept looking – she even investigated purchasing an old beat-up car for a couple hundred dollars. Even that proved impossible to find because we weren’t the only tourists with that idea.
This temporary setback made us shift our plans to public transit which led to what may have been the most gorgeous part of my trip: taking the train from Anchorage to Seward in a beautiful morning mist. It was my first morning in Alaska, and I still don’t have the words for it.
It’s true that we had to walk a lot more to make our plans work, but we were there to backpack anyways. At every turn, we ran into helpful Alaskans and interesting views. We may have had to walk several miles on gravel in a dreary rain, but we saw otters and eagles and peered into fish processing plants, and got to sit beside beautiful waterfalls.
2. Don’t be surprised if your comfort zone altered – or shrank – during the pandemic.
One goal Priscilla and I had set for the trip was hiking on a glacier. We brought helmets, hiking poles and crampons, and had planned our route carefully. The Exit Glacier is a valley glacier (see photo below) and is quite steep.
Earlier that day, we set up our first backcountry campsite. We made a gradual descent to this point – starting out in a hostel, then camping in a city campsite, and finally camping in the backcountry. I didn’t think too much of it, but once I looked around and saw where we were, I got nervous. Our cell phones didn’t work at all and the whole campground was set up so that any sort of food residue and smell would stay far, far away from where we were sleeping. I’ve adjusted to seeing bears around WNC, but grizzly bears are a whole different ballgame.
I’d grown up backpacking and camping. I’d dealt with copperheads swarming around a campsite, trying to get into tents – I was a wilderness therapy instructor for a while. Why was I so unnerved by this?
Then we hiked out to the glacier. And I don’t like to admit it, but I got really scared. What if I fell into a crevasse? What if I slipped, and just kept sliding… and sliding… and sliding? What if something happened to us out here? I started thinking about the people I love. We had just seen the last tour group of the day walk off the ice and head home. We were the only two people currently on that part of the glacier.
Priscilla taught me how to walk with crampons – we had actually started these lessons before we left North Carolina. We discussed safety at length, and she made sure I was okay while walking out on the ice. She kept giving me instructions and guidance. The blue ice, contrary to what my brain was telling me, was more solid than the white ice, which had been oxygenated. I struggled to keep up.
Just like in the campground, where we never saw or heard any bears, I was safe the whole time. At least, by all rational measures. But I freaked out a bit on that glacier – and later that day, I burst into tears. It was not like me. Yes, I cry, but not about exciting adventures. And did I really need cell service to feel okay?
Here’s what I realize now: we’ve spent the last year and a half stretching our brains to process something unthinkable – that the germs of every person we encounter could be a death sentence to us or our loved ones, or maybe today we’re the ones carrying around those deadly germs. The pandemic has changed our thinking. We are always running the odds in our heads – a constant calculus of fear, hope, and survival strategies. We’ve learned to cover up our faces and talk through masks. We’ve learned to work from home or take new jobs, or how to apply for unemployment. I have friends who are still wiping down their groceries and quarantining their mail before they open it. And cell phones? They’ve been keeping us connected, and connection means safety for most human beings.
When it comes to outdoor adventures, my comfort zone is usually pretty big. But this trip made me realize that my nervous system – and probably, all of our nervous systems – are still very much on high alert. We won’t go back down to a normal level until we know we are safe again. No wonder it’s hard to sleep right now for so many of us.
So my advice, if you’re setting out on a new adventure, cut yourself a bit of slack. You’ve already been on a very intense adventure for the past year and a half – and we need to look at it that way if we’re going to be realistic about our capabilities. Don’t be surprised if the shape of your comfort zone has changed. And don’t worry – it can be expanded again.
3. If you really want to rest, go offline. Completely.
I did say that inconveniences can produce magic while traveling. The state of my cell phone was ripe for plenty of magic – even though I had brought an extra charging pack, the phone battery couldn’t seem to hold a charge, and I just could not figure out the proper settings to get service, even when we were in town at a coffee shop. Priscilla had the same type of phone and carrier, and her phone did just fine.
For a couple of days, I raged internally. I came to Alaska to casually backpack and vacation, not fall completely off the grid. Could it have come at a worse time? I had just started seeing someone, I was worried about my mom working as a nurse in a pandemic, and I was trying to stay in contact with my housemate, who was supposed to be taking care of my cats. (She always does. I just worry about them.)
And then – something shifted. The little choices I was making each day started to feel pleasurable – grits or oatmeal? Keep going or take a break? Farther into the woods or back towards the city? Shudder with wet cold misery or stop and make hot Gatorade? (That one is particularly easy. Hot Gatorade, every time.)
That intense calculus of fear, hope, and survival strategies? I knew I would pick it back up again when I got home. But it was a huge relief to have it recede into the background for several days.
To me, that relief is the beauty of backpacking. The parade of digital notifications goes silent, and you realize that other people are fine without you. It’s not that they don’t love you – it’s just that you don’t need to be paying attention to everything every single second of the day for your life and relationships to function. For a few days, you’re off in the woods, and it’s your job to notice the whinnying of bald eagles, to optimize your grits-to-garlic ratio, and to learn how to get along with yourself again.