Field Notes

Northern Lights 1B • June 14-July 4, 2017

Final Update from the Last Frontier!

July 3, 2017

Greetings Parents and Friends,

Apologies for the lapse in trip updates, but for the last 10 days, we have been deep in the Talkeetna Mountains, and today was the first day in well over a week that we have seen cars, houses or any other form of civilization. In a few hours, you will have your precious cargo back in your homes. Do not be alarmed if they smell of mildew or refuse to sleep indoors. They are merely re-acclimating.

Last Friday we set off for our 10 day excursion; 8 days of back packing, and 2 days of white water rafting. After learning how to properly pack and wear our 40+ pound, 70 liter packs, we set off with quite literally everything we may need on our backs. It was a trying day, sort of a baptism by fire, as we trekked uphill and through some relentlessly muddy trails. That said, the group had an unbelievably positive attitude towards such a challenging activity. Natalie, in particular, never faltered in her efforts to encourage and keep the group moving. Our leaders, for the rest of the trip, could count on her to keep the morale high. The first night was capped by a Jambalaya meal curated from our New Orleans gals, Barrett and Lady.

The second day could be described by one word: muddy. Kaitlyn managed to get stuck in quicksand-like mud. Minutes later she managed to slip and fall in waist-deep mud, only to come up with a huge smile and laugh the experience off. The real hero of day two was Emma, who, having never put on a trekking backpack in her life, managed to lead the entire group through the mud. The group’s high spirits were maintained by Chef Kelly’s magnificent back-country chicken alfredo tortellini, despite the sky opening up and pouring down on us. What was really incredible was that, whether or not it was raining or sunshine, morning or “night”, Carter would always keep his signature blue lensed RayBans on. Thank you, Carter, for keeping things interesting.

By day three, we hit our stride and the trail got easier. We became a well-oiled machine: setting up and breaking down camp as one unit, knowing proper bathroom protocol (river rocks work well!), but most importantly, being there for one another. No participant showed better “expedition behavior” than Barrett. She would never take off her wet boots and get comfortable at camp until everything was set up perfectly. Our leaders were so thankful for her presence, as her selflessness made our job much easier. As we rolled into camp this day, we passed two moose 100 yards away, the first real Alaskan wildlife that we did not startle off. This night we slept in an incredible valley, beautiful hillsides with absolutely stunning and majestic peaks at each end of the gorge. Add a broken-down military jeep to the campsite, and you have a pretty surreal place to spend a night. Oh, and a couple mosquitoes. Lily managed to rack up the most bites (we counted). Congrats Lily!

Our fourth day was summed up by one word: bushwhacking. This was probably the most trying day yet, but thankfully, we had beautiful un-Alaskan weather. The reward, however, was making it to the tundra to set up camp. Our campsite was beside an alpine lake, nearly atop a huge hillside with a roaring river thousands of feet beneath us. To put this in perspective, our past three campsites were reminiscent of a KOA campground compared to this gem of a campsite.

On the morning of day five, we rolled out of our tents, cleared off our eye-boogers to the aroma of pancakes cooked by our leaders Kelly and Tyler. Here, atop this incredible view, we enjoyed the sweet breakfast before our reflection hike. Similar to the reflection paddle, we space ourselves out while walking through the tundra, and hiked in silence. This was a powerful experience for everyone, and the three or so miles of hiking this day absolutely flew by. Camp this night was set up by Julia and Barrett, who could have retreated to their tents during the light rain when we got to camp, but instead chose to use their knot-tying skills to set up a cook shelter so the whole group could enjoy a hot meal. Brett, once again, volunteered to cook, as he has made it his mission to learn as many meals as possible so that he can cook at home for his mom and sister.

The next morning was perhaps the most interesting of the entire backpacking section. As we finished off breakfast and threw our packs on, we noticed a familiar humming noise in the distance. It turned out to be a helicopter. What we didn’t know was a quarter-mile away from us a downed Cessna plane had been there since Saturday. We were all genuinely confused why a helicopter would be landing around us when we were in so remote of a place. To our bewilderment, a couple of minutes later, we watched as the helicopter ascended carrying in tow the downed airplane. Needless to say, none of us saw that happening. GoPro footage can verify this event. The hiking this day was trying, as it was up “The Pass”, which was a scree field (loose rocks) that ascended sharply for well over a thousand feet. The group was rewarded immensely at the top. Just when we thought we had seen it all, that no new view could surpass what we had seen in the previous five days, we were all floored upon looking out at the Talkeetnas from this vantage. After all, the best view comes after the hardest climb. If there was a pinnacle of our backpacking portion, this was it.

The next day, day seven was the final day with packs on our backs. Fitting, as it was also the most difficult.  Again, we walked across scree for several hours, only this time it was alongside a hill with a slope of near 40 degrees, and, as it sometimes happens in Alaska, the skies decided to open up for us. Our heroes for this portion were Lady and Lily. Their leaders and the rest of the group could always count on them to not only never utter a complaint, despite the dismal conditions, but to bring up the mood of the entire group around them. After this portion, we bushwacked downhill for a few miles, practicing our bear calls until we reached the Chickaloon river. For the last three miles of our backpacking portion of the trip, we walked alongside this fluvial wonder, at some points walking on fine sand, and at other bushwhacking through thick, thick brush. An exhausting finale to the longest day of trekking yet, the real hero this day was Michael, who decided to brave the weather and cook us all a warm meal when no one else quite seemed to have the energy.

We woke the next morning late, after some much earned and deserved rest. The skies were no longer pouring, and our rest day was going to be a peaceful one. Kelly and Tyler again flipped pancakes for a few hours until, one by one, the kids had to tap out from eating too many. We all had a wonderful day to simply catch our breath and dry our clothes. This was another day for introspection, reading, journal, and of course, our group’s favorite game “Death Sack”. A lot of the reflection was needed, as we had been surrounded by stunning mountains for over two weeks, but never without an activity or a place to go. Here, we were able to finally just sit and think. Alaska has such a raw, unrefined beauty. Its tallest mountains and steepest sides are not covered with beautiful trees, but rather, bare rock. It isn’t quite like an alpine environment of, say, the Alps or even Colorado. Its rivers are braided and usually quite silty or plain brown. And then there are other things, like unrelenting mosquitos and flies, terrible weather, and the cold. Despite all of this, it is a place of unrivaled and powerful beauty. A deep Moonup this night helped the group reach this conclusion, and we all went to bed feeling like we finally understood a part of Alaska that had been in front of us the whole time, but one that we had to put in hard work to find a satisfying answer.

The next morning four separate bush planes landed near our camp to drop off our rafting guides, gear, and everything else we would need to brave the 30 mile stretch of the Chickaloon river. We could think of no better way to leave the Talkeetnas than by some gnarly rapids and amazing meals from our rafting guides. Thankfully no one went for a swim (though Trey did hug Brett for dear life as their raft nearly flipped), everyone stayed warm in our dry suits that made us look like the Michelin man if you didn’t “burp” them. The next morning, yesterday, we awoke to yet another amazing meal (breakfast burritos!) curated by our rafting guides. It was a cold morning on the river, which certainly woke us up and got us energized. We traveled back to Anchorage to our campsite in civilization. Strange as it was to see cars and McDonald’s after 10 days “off the grid”, it was a welcome sight. Last night was the last Moonup that our group will share together. It is hard to put into words the emotional heights that we achieved as a group and expressed in our final, three-hour long Moonup, underneath a tarp, with rain once again blessing us with its presence. This group was an unbelievably close unit, one that never complained, and one that is sure to come home a little bit different, but in the best way possible. We thank you so much for giving us a blessing of a group, 11 teenagers who are now best friends and who have accomplished an unreal amount of challenges in just three short weeks.

Stay wild my friends, 

Shelby, Tyler, Kelly


Ice to Meet You!

June 22, 2017

Howdy from the Last Frontier,

It’s been a short, but eventful, two and a half days since you’ve last heard from us here in Hick’s Creek, Alaska. Our dynamic crew has climbed and conquered every inch of the great Matanuska Glacier, trying their hands at ice climbing the slick faces and trekking through its jaw-dropping features.

Tuesday began with some more classic Alaskan weather. Leaving a warm sleeping bag and a cozy tent to eat breakfast in the pouring rain is never fun. But thankfully our Moondancers now have the ability to set up rain tarps and tie knots, such as the trucker’s hitch and the bowline. Rain is truly no match for our handiwork!

Underneath our patchwork of tarps at the Nova River Runners basecamp, the squad chowed down on eggs, sausage, cereal, yogurt and fruit. Lady and Natalie, our fearless Leaders of the Day, kept the morale high and we packed our daypacks for a day of ice climbing.

Armed with crampons, Alpine-grade glacier boots, harnesses and helmets, we set out towards the glacier nestled beneath the magnificent Talkeetna and Chugach mountains. Our Nova guides were awesome, leading us into the depths of the frozen wonderland towards our own private climbing wall. We learned fast that walking in crampons isn’t easy, with Lady catching an edge and taking a tumble right out of the gate. Luckily, her track-star skills came into play and she caught herself like a gazelle.

With three ropes set up for climbs of varying difficulty, we were oriented on the proper technique for using ice tools (think “Mission Impossible” meets “Cliffhanger” ice axes) and crampons to scale the walls like rabid spider monkeys. Emma, although timid about climbing at first, fearlessly snatched the axes from the guide’s hands and took off up the wall to show everyone how it was done. She absolutely crushed it. Carter decided that tying on his crampons tight was just a suggestion, and after one fell off halfway up the wall, he decided to push on and see if he could muscle his way up the face, to no avail. After properly fixing his gear, he took off up the ice wall giving his signature peace sign and grin at the top. Natalie, despite her elbow feeling sore from a previous athletic injury, kept spirits high from the sidelines, cheering everyone on during the difficult climbs.

Trey and Barrett truly mastered the art of ice climbing. Barrett was the first to attempt our hardest wall, consisting of a slick overhang. She got tired of swinging her crampons into the ice and decided to just ice pick her way up the wall like something out of American Ninja Warrior. Trey’s football coach would have shed a tear seeing him do pull-up after pull-up, keeping his body in top physical shape, while conquering the most difficult route.

On our ride home, one van was jamming to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (arguably our unfortunate theme song for this trip) and the other was fast asleep. Brett slept harder in those 15 minutes than any of us achieve in a full 8 hours under the midnight sun. We were thankful to have a lazy afternoon once returning to the basecamp. All of this running around, from kayaking to ice climbing across the Alaskan landscape, sure had the leaders ready for a cat nap. When we woke up, we expected our gang to be sound asleep just like us, but we were amazed to see the opposite. They were all up and at it, playing games, hanging out and getting closer as a unit.

We’re definitely savoring the luxuries of front country cooking before heading into our backpacking section on Friday. For dinner, Lady and Michael helped whip up a massive spread of lemon parmesan chicken, orzo, zucchini, and garlic bread. During Moonup, we as leaders were blown away by the maturity and poise of our young students. The LOD’s posed a tough question, “What has been your greatest challenge in life thus far?” Each student poured their hearts out, feeling safe and comfortable amongst their new family to discuss the things that really trouble them. It is never easy to talk about the difficult things in life, but sometimes talking through these hardships connects individuals and brings them together, closer than before. We ended the night with everyone giving each other hugs, howling at the moon and snuggling into bed, our ankles a little sore from tearing up the glacier this afternoon.

 We slept in on Wednesday and had a quick breakfast before heading back out to the Matanuska for a trekking expedition. Exploring the features of the glacier is like spending time in the movie Ice Age: the crevasses and stark geological formations make it seem like Manny and Sid could be right around the corner. The students got a chance to peer into the glacier’s depths by staring down a Moulin as well as purify their dirty skin with some spa-grade glacial silt. The cold weather has kept us from sweating too much, which the students think is a blessing because we haven’t showered in 8 days! During lunch we played “Look Up, Look Down”, where Kaitlyn, Brett and Natalie showed us that there may actually be skill involved in this primarily luck based game.

On the way home, we stopped for some impromptu (okay you caught us, it was planned…) ice cream at the Long Rifle Lodge. The students, caked in mud, piled into the small restaurant and slugged scoops of Moose Tracks and Caramel Caribou ice cream.

This evening we celebrated the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice! While we were stumped as to why most of our students don’t celebrate this with their families at home, we wanted to show them how Alaskan’s recognize the changing of the solar tides. We threw on our nicest Patagonia attire and whipped up a cornucopia of food: burgers, hot dogs, coleslaw, potato salad, chips, watermelon and two types of pound cake. Trey told us he thought he might not get enough to eat on Moondance, but when he called it quits after two burgers and three hot dogs, we knew we had done our jobs right. Lily and Brett were expert fire-masters and started up a warm campfire for us to sit around during Moonup. Brett’s hat fell off while trying to blow life into the fire and all the students were giddy to see that he actually had hair underneath that blue Patagonia hat. Even we were convinced he wears it to sleep.

Tomorrow we head deep into the Talkeetnas for the climax of our trip: 8 days of backpacking and two days of epic white-water rafting. With bags packed to the brim with food and gear we will set off to hike around 7 miles a day, taking in the stunning mountains as we hike through the Alaskan tundra. The students are excited to see some wildlife, everything from Moose to Caribou to maybe even some bears. At the end of the section, we will rendezvous with our Nova guides at a bush plane airstrip alongside the Chickaloon River. Out of the planes will come our rafts, dry suits and fresh food. It will be the perfect ending to our adventures here in the Last Frontier.

Look out for an update from us in about 12 days!

Happy Trails,

Shelby, Kelly, and Tyler

Shoutouts:

Natalie: Hey Zach, hope mom and dad are treating you well. Give Sammy and kitty a kiss for me. I’m having a fan-freaking-tastic time

Lily: Happy birthday mama!!

Carter: Hey Mom, Northern Lights is fun. Can you get me a New York pie pizza when I get home?

Barrett: Happy early birthday mom. Having a great time!

Lady: Happy early birthday Jack, loving Alaska!

Kaitlyn: Safe travels to Alaska! Have a nice flight. Love y’all!

Julia: I’m having fun and don’t want to go home!

Michael: I’m having a great time but I miss you! Hope Katy’s math final went well

Trey: I’m having a great time out here. Hope the family is doing well. Tell Zoey I said hey and I miss her.

Emma: Love ya’ll. You should’ve seen me on the glacier!

Brett: I’m having a great time. I hope ya’ll are having a great time too.


Prince William Sound - Conquered!

June 20, 2017

Greetings Lower 48er’s!

 

Our squad arrived in different intervals late on Wednesday to the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. We, the trip leaders, anxiously awaited their arrival. Among the sea of geriatric tourists and rugged hunters waiting for their luggage, our students stood out by their typical Moondance uniforms: dressed head to toe in Patagonia and looking slightly lost. As we rounded our group up and waited for later arrivals, the ice was beginning to thaw with a game of “Yeehaw” and dinner ordered to the airport. After we arrived at our campsite, we held our first “Moonup”. Moonup is a nightly gathering of the entire group to discuss a quote, share compliments (or “nugs”) to other Moondancers, answer a question of the night and discuss the plan for tomorrow. After Moonup, the kids get acquainted to their 3 person tents, their new homes for the next 3 weeks.

 

The first morning in Alaska was spent over a meal of bacon and eggs and learning how to properly pack a tent. We were blessed by an unusual blue bird day on our 2 hour bus ride to Whittier past the Turnagain Arm- a bay that has the second highest tidal flux in the world. With time to kill in Whittier after we set up camp and before our briefing with Alaska Sea Kayakers, we explored the town and a short hiking trail beside a river of glacial runoff. With the necessary travel day under our belts, a proper lesson in “Leave No Trace”, we were ready to hit the open waters and explore Prince William Sound. After a Moonup lead by our only two alumni in the group, Julia and Carter, who collectively have 4 Moondance trips under their belts, we were ready for so much needed rest.

 

Waking up to another unusual blue bird day, we packed up our gear and headed down to the waterside to ready our kayaks. With the students in tandem kayaks and our leaders in singles, we loaded up personal gear, food, supplies, and tents. As we pushed off, clouds started to roll in, and we were in for some classic Whittier weather. Fun fact- Whittier was chosen as an Army outpost in WWII because of its persistent and perennial low cloud cover, making it difficult to bomb. With rougher seas than imagined, 9 miles to cover on the first day was trying on the group. Our Leaders of the Day, Trey and Kaitlyn, carried our map, pointed out the route to the group, and kept the stoke level high when energy was low. A great example of this was Trey eating a PB&J sandwich with ham to make sure we wasted minimal food at lunch. After arriving to a Tolkien-like campsite draped in mossy oaks and beautiful raised tent platforms overlooking the bay, spirits were raised. After dinner, we learned how to properly brush our teeth in the backcountry, dispersing the toothpaste in a fine mist and over a large area. This is where Brett outshone the entire group, stunning our leader Shelby.

 

Day two of sea kayaking proved much easier than the previous day. The mileage was longer, but the singing of Taylor Swift and High School Musical led by Natalie made the morning’s 6 mile stretch fly by. Again, our Leaders of the Day, Emma and Michael, executed a brilliant reading of our map and kept everything positive. The magic of Alaska was revealed to us in full when we rounded the last point before our campsite to expose Beloit and Blackstone glacier. The group was floored. This was the moment when we felt like we were in Alaska with a capital A. The group set up camp in view of the glaciers, and cooked dinner with the most beautiful backdrop any of us have dined in front of. Before Moonup, Lady, an unbelievable drawer, shared her sketches of the Prince William Sound she had been doing. Both Lady and Lily then led our Moonup, which wrapped up an incredible day on the water.

 

Our third day of sea kayaking proved to be the most enjoyable day yet. 4 miles to the terminus of the glacier from camp with a strong headwind proved a difficult paddle, but to see glacial calving up close was an excellent motivator. On the way back to camp, we stopped for lunch at Lawrence glacier, which no longer meets the sound. A half-mile hike brought us to the footsteps of this glacier, where we were able to physically touch this moving (albeit slowly) and living frozen river. Yet another powerful moment for the group, made even better by a parting of the skies to reveal a dreamlike blue sky. Tyler, one of our leaders, was deeply impressed by how much Michael knew and shared with the group about the glaciers and their “father” John Muir. Two miles of paddling back to camp and we had a peaceful last night of sleep on the Prince William Sound.

 

Today, we woke up, broke down camp and packed our kayaks, and took a reflective silent paddle for two miles for our morning on the water. After so much conversing, singing and laughing on the water, it was a near-meditative experience that gave the group time to enjoy each other’s company without words. Once back on shore, Barret took charge of loading our van with all of our group gear- an incredible display of great “Expedition Behavior”. We are now headed back through Anchorage and out to Palmer, where we will enjoy two days of ice climbing and hiking on glaciers before we set off for our backpacking expedition.


Here we come AK!

June 15, 2017

Hello Northern Lights families,

We wanted to let you know all students have arrived safely in Anchorage and are preparing for their first transfer this morning. Their Alaskan Adventure is underway! Stay tuned for updates!

-Moondance Administrative Team 


Students

  • Natalie
  • Brett
  • Emma
  • Kaitlyn
  • Julia
  • Trey
  • Lady
  • Michael
  • Lily
  • Barret
  • Carter

Staff