Mark's Alaskan Adventures Episode 1

Howdy from Alaska, truly one of the most amazing and diverse places on the planet. I know we all avoid group emails and forwards like the plague, but this is the best way for me to tell everyone some amazing stories about my first 2 monthes here in Anchorage, Alaska. So stop your whining and read this email.

I live in suburban Anchorage in an old convent with six other volunteers. There are four of us guys, and three girls. The guys live in the spacious basement, two bedrooms are the old chapel and confessional, and of course the foos ball room. My roommates work around Anchorage at various social services, similar to my job at Bean's Cafe, a soup kitchen and day shelter. Loads of former Jesuit Volunteers and otherwise friendly and generous people live in Anchorage, making our experience all the better. My housemates are great and we've been trying really hard to have a simple, prayerful and fun community. Teddy is from St. Paul and works at 4A's (a local AIDS agency), Dan is from New Jersey and works at Covenant House, Dave from Omaha works at a food pantry. As for the girls, Janet from Spokane works at Bean's with me, Cindy from Scranton, PA works at a nursing home and Christy from Cleveland works a AWAIC (a program for abused women.) As you can see, we're a pretty diverse group and our jobs give us quite a bit of latitude and experience in understanding the tough straits so many Alaskans find themselves in.

Bean's Cafe is an amazing place. My job as a social services assistant involves so many little things. Making referrals to other agencies, assisting in making phone calls, distributing mail, first aid, transportation and visiting. Basically, it boils down to informational and emotionally support, but I'm beginning to realize that the basic thing I'm doing is passing out respect and dishing out dignity. It's hard to explain how I donít feel the least bit uncomfortable with our homeless clients. I think I could probably be the mayor of this town, if my clients were the type who voted!! So many daily ups and downs, plus getting fat on soup kitchen food, I really learning to assume less about people and how to walk with them in their daily struggles. The struggle with alcohol in Alaska for natives and whites alike isn't something you can be prepared for at all.

Iíve been pretty down about Autumn in Alaska, considering itís about a month early, a month shorter, and the trees only turn yellow, but I stand corrected (a tough thing to do when youíre this stubborn). In a way, Alaskaís Fall has a tougher challenge than the Northeast. There are so many different shades of yellow, from pale willow leaves to brilliant arctic flowers. The reds and oranges may not come from oaks and maples, but the tundra vegetation is arrayed in crimson reds and tiger oranges. Where there are trees, greens and yellows dance, while higher on the mountains, the reds, oranges and browns take over. My community got a chance of a lifetime pass to drive into Denali National Park two weeks ago. Thereís a ninety mile dirt road into the park, itís usually only traversed by the park bus. One of our volunteers here at Beanís won a lottery pass to drive in, but she couldnít use it. One of the benefits of being recognized volunteers is that people are incredibly generous to us. Locals call the big mountain Denali, theyíre not big fans of the name McKinley. I have to say, for the highest mountain in North America, it didnít look that big, more like a snow drift in the Topís parking lot!! We had a record wildlife day. Bull and cow moose, arctic ground squirrels, caribou, dall sheep, a pitiful red fox, a few rough legged hawks, molting ptarmigans and snowshoe ahres, oh yeah, 3 wolves and a bunch of grizzlies. I was joking that my ideal nature sighting would have been a bear eating a moose with an eagle sitting on a caribouís rack and maybe some wolves to boot, but it turns out we got an even better show I was getting out of our van to check out a cow moose and accidentally hit the horn with my elbow. I take a few pictures of the moose and two wolves just saunter across the road. One was noticeably bigger than the other. That was a rare sight.. We saw a few bears from far away, not to impressive. We got to a certain point where all these cars were pulled over. There were two grizzlies in the distance, up a slight draw, one a dark, shiny black color and the other a light tan. I watched from afar, taking advantage of my telephoto lens. My roommates and I were standing a bit off the road, staring in wonder, when somebody from behind us yelled, ďMust be from the lower 48!Ē Our excitement and appetite for the perfect picture sort of disguised the fact that the bears were coming closer, much closer!! Long story short, the bears crossed the road , picture that one moment where I realized how incredibly stupid I was being and how close I was to a ton of teeth, claws fur and appetite!! I can still hear the outrageous screams of my roomates to get back in the van, the haunting voice of the ranger to stay close to my vehicle. Anyways, I have some killer National Geographic quality shots of these bears. Perhaps I can figure out a way to send out these pix. A good time was had by all. That about sums up how awesome Denali was and how cool Alaska is. They say that if charged by a bear, the think to do is stand completely still, theyíre bluffing. Right!!

Well, hope I realize this is a long email, so feel free to read it in installments, heck read it again and again.

Send long underwear,

Mark