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Getting lost in Alaska: Adventures in nature and parenting

  • Author: Libby Bakalar
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 21, 2015

JUNEAU — No matter how long I live in Alaska, it seems I'll always be a New Yorker in at least one critical respect: I'm scared of getting lost in the woods. Like, really scared. Part of the reason I live here, of course, is to be in the woods. But I like to be there in a very controlled way: When I know exactly where I'm going, exactly how to get out, and — critically — exactly when I'll get out.

Really, there's only one thing that scares me more than getting lost in the woods, and that's getting lost in the woods with six children. Actually, there's one thing that scares me even more than that: Getting lost in the woods with six children when I'm scheduled to lead a Girl Scout meeting attended by 10 children two hours from the time that I'm tromping around in the woods with no damn clue where I am.

It started out as an innocent, mellow little walk to pick high-bush cranberries on a recent Sunday morning with two other Juneau moms and their kids.

For non-botanists outside Alaska, high-bush cranberries are like regular cranberries, but they taste even worse, if that's possible (Yes, I realize this is a subjective and controversial statement, but there you have it). The skies above Juneau had cleared of monsoons for the first time in weeks, and we decided the kids needed some fresh air and exercise.

REI moms

Before I go any further, a few words about the other two moms on this adventure. Much unlike me, they seem to have emerged from an REI catalog both in looks and demeanor: They've always got cheese and crackers and little cut-up smoked salmon wraps for snacks; they always remember to put on rain pants; they never wear makeup; they rarely yell at their kids (especially in nature); and most of all, they always know what they're doing outdoors. I might be scared, but I'm not stupid: I know better than to venture into the woods without a couple of Alaska sister wives capable of rescuing my Diet Coke-drinking, directionally-challenged ass if need be.

Things were going fine at first.

We were on a marked trail, and everyone (i.e. mostly me, I think) was happy about that. We were laughing and playing and having a grand old time. But then Mom No. 1, the unofficial leader of this expedition, suggested that we take the dreaded "different route" back.

Oh no. Not the "different route." Anything but that! To my ears, "different route" are the worst words in the English language after "out of coffee." Plus, as I said, I had a time constraint. My third worst nightmare — leading a room full of children to procure a brownie badge in "painting" — was looming not two hours from the moment that this "different route" was announced.

Visions of McCandless

Mom No. 2, who had a younger child in a backpack, splintered off to return to the cars on a presumably more established trail, while Mom No. 1 used her formidable orienteering skills to shepherd the rest of us back to civilization.

The kids thought we were on a grand adventure, and so did I. Only they were psyched about it, and I wasn't. Mom No. 1 was confident she knew where we were going, and she couldn't have appeared calmer as she used a compass and a creek bed to navigate us back. As I tumbled headfirst over an enormous, sodden, moss-covered log, I announced that I'd rather testify before the legislature's Senate Finance Committee for five hours straight than be forced to rely on a compass and a creek bed to get myself and six children home to a warm bed that night.

We bushwhacked through several acres of dense rain forest.

And because I knew we were less than a mile from our cars, I suddenly thought of Chris McCandless, that bro who famously sold all his stuff, marched off into Denali National Park, and promptly died in an abandoned school bus a mile from the road after eating a poisonous plant — all the while thinking he was deep in uncharted wilderness. I felt a pang of camaraderie and sympathy for the man, because that would totes be me. (Well, everything except the selling all my stuff part, because I'm not a good enough person for that. I'm especially attached to my iPhone, my coloring books, and my shoe collection. There's no way I'm parting with any of those).

Anyway, the walk ended with our party emerging in a different residential cul de sac from the one in which we'd parked, but apart from that, Mom No. 1 had delivered civilization as promised, with time to spare for the Girl Scout meeting. Everyone was muddy and smiling.

Later, after ineptly explaining the difference between landscapes and portraits to a brownie troop, I remembered that for me, the best part of any adventure in the woods — big or small — is always the same: Coming home to a stiff drink and a hot shower, in that order.

Libby Bakalar is a Juneau freelance writer and author of the popular blog One Hot Mess (http://onehotmessalaska.blogspot.com/ ), from which this column is taken.

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