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As Alaska burns, acts of caring — for yourself, and for others — might save your sanity

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: July 10, 2019
  • Published July 10, 2019

Wildfire smoke hovers around the mountains on the Kenai Peninsula last week, as seen from a plane on its approach to Anchorage on July 3, 2019. (Photo by Alli Harvey)

I flew over the Kenai Peninsula last week after a trip back east, and I was both transfixed and alarmed by what I saw.

The mountains rose sharp and blue, silhouetted above what looked like a heavy, dense gray fog. In a way it was beautiful. The mountains were different shades of navy and deep green and threaded at their base by a silvery, cloud-like mist. I knew it wasn’t fog though. It was smoke.

My lungs whispered to me, “Take us back to Massachusetts!”

My brain corrected them, “But you miss home!”

As of the writing of this column there were 30 wildfires burning across Alaska. Reports from friends whose homes are in danger tell me that Alaska’s many amazing firefighters are innovative and persistent as always, yet spread thin across the state. Reinforcement crews from the Lower 48 are here.

Meanwhile, as we shatter temperature records and (for me) burn through calls to state legislators pleading for action on the state budget, it feels in more ways than one like Alaska is on fire.

My sinuses and my lungs have words for me as they work overtime to accommodate smoke. I am part of what they call a “sensitive population,” and I probably shouldn’t be spending as much time as I do outdoors.

And yet.

How else am I going to stay sane through all of this?

For some of my friends, their respite from the world is going out to a nice meal. Others head to the movies. Some friends do CrossFit or take spinning classes. Burying your head in a good book or binge-watching TV are other popular escapes.

But for me, if it wasn’t already obvious, my escape hatch is being outside. That’s my mental and physical health go-to.

So, no, my actual home is not in danger. But when this broader place I call home is shimmering with fires and smoke, it’s a challenging line between taking care of my broader community and taking care of myself. And that thing I do to take care of myself — go outside — is the very thing I’m afraid for. And it may be physically harming me.

Some of my pointers for getting through this past week since I have been home include:

• Drink water (my stepdaughter will laugh at this; this is my advice for pretty much everything).

• Do something proactive. Cook something for a friend. Write a nice note. Donate to a cause you care about. Drive someone to where they need to be. Make a call. Show up to an event when asked. Write that email. Acts of caring, in small and big ways, collectively add up and surely with only 700,000 and change of us across the state, if we each did a bit more this week than we’re used to, that could translate into something bigger than those individual actions.

• Go outside, but be careful. Wear sunscreen. Monitor your breathing. Don’t exert yourself too much if you’re like me, one of those “sensitive populations” (asthmatic, old, young or prone to any other pulmonary condition). Do something unusual — go find somewhere to swim or run through the sprinkler. Ride your bike at midnight. Go for an early morning walk or run.

I have these incredibly uncomfortable moments where I imagine that I’m in Wyoming, Alaska — a high-desert place with that powerful sun beating down on me, the dust kicking up over sage, and maybe some ranches scattered around right around the corner where I can’t see them. It doesn’t feel so far-fetched, and for a moment it even feels nice until I remember where I am, and that it’s not Wyoming at all, but the far north.

So I find a body of water and I dunk myself in it. I feel how cold and refreshing the water is, and I appreciate that. I live on this line now, between knowing and caring so deeply that the anxiety of it all overrides everything else, and needing to take care of myself and remembering to take in my life moment by moment.

I hate that Alaska is so hot, and so on fire. But living in that feeling won’t get me anywhere, so ultimately I pull myself out of it by trying to find the good while also doing some good.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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