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Sunday, September 01, 2013

"Camai" from Alaska!


I’ve had some great travel this summer: from the picturesque beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts and the bustling island of Martha’s Vineyard, to the canyons and deserts of Arizona. But Kodiak Island, Alaska could be one of our country’s best-kept secrets.

South of Anchorage, tucked away in the Gulf of Alaska, Kodiak Island was born in a geological eruption, a volcano, and is a jagged piece of real estate lacking roads and harboring crazy weather patterns. At 100 miles long, it’s the second largest island in the US. Only about 6,000 people live here, half of who belong to the Coast Guard. Indeed, Kodiak Island is home to our largest Coast Guard facility, thanks to its proximity to Russia and here to protect Kodiak’s massive fishing. Verdant mountains landmark Kodiak, the biggest town, and across the bay, ripples of blue mountains as far as you can see. It is a stunningly beautiful place.
Kerry and Laurie at the Coast Guard 

It’s also a challenging place to raise a son with hemophilia. I came here to visit my dear friend Kerry (Fatula) Halter, who lives in Kodiak with husband Ron and son Stephen. Kerry and I met years ago at a hemophilia event, and you know chemistry… we just clicked and have been good friends ever since. She moved from Pennsylvania, where she was executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of NHF, back home to Kodiak, her birthplace, two years ago. She and I had been plotting ever since about having me come and visit. My schedule finally permitted, and I took the 15+ hour flight from Boston to Alaska, my first trip there.

Stunningly beautiful Kodiak Island
Alaska is different, no doubt about that. You sense at once upon landing in Anchorage that this land, these people, embody the American can-do and pioneering attitudes. This is their land, their lifestyle, and ain’t nobody going to tell them what to do! It’s the perfect life for an outdoors person: hunting and fishing are key occupations and diversions. Everyone in the airport seemed to be wearing camouflage. I must have missed that memo. And there was an abundance of men; Kerry later told me in Alaska the ratio is one woman to four men. Lest you think these will improve your odds of getting a date, know that these are real mountain men, bearded outdoor types who work hard and play hard, and seem happy outside in the cold and rain as much as inside having a beer at a local brewery. And people are friendly and forthright. It’s a fascinating culture switch. Kodiak appeals to me on many levels!

Laurie and Kerry 
Kerry and I started our four day visit with a rainy, shrouded day on Thursday, in which I couldn’t see anything. No mountains, no bay, no fishing boats… nothing. She stressed how beautiful Kodiak is, but I was just happy to be here. Stephen looks great! I had last seen him two years ago, and he has matured into an articulate 10 year old who has adjusted well to his move. We celebrated by going to the Coast Guard station, where Ron works in aviation, to the theater to see “Pacific Rim.” So it’s my third time to see this movie, but worth it as it’s a fun and explosive summer CGI movie by the renowned Guillermo del Toro.  All three of us whooped when the opening scene subtitle read “Alaska,” where the "Kaijus" begin attacking, and much of this long opening is set in Alaska. But I wondered why I never paid attention to the word Alaska before. I saw the movie twice  and never paid any attention that it was set in Alaska. I realized sheepishly that like most Americans, we pretty much ignore our 49th state, even when it’s being ravaged by giant alien creatures. Granted, our largest state (and I mean large, totally dwarfing hefty Texas) only harbors 1 million people, half of whom live in Anchorage. You never hear much from Alaska, and probably, Sarah Palin did much to remind everyone that we have a 49th state.
One of the fun outdoors activities:
4-wheeling!

Despite its stunning beauty, Kodiak is not always an easy place to live: prices are astronomical ($5 a gallon for gas?) as everything needs to be flown or shipped in. Fresh fruit? Kinda rare. Kerry warns me that before purchasing any fruit, it must be squeezed for freshness, and to check expiration labels of everything. There are few roads outside of the main city, and you need to fly a charter plane here and there. Planning ahead is key.

This is especially true with hemophilia. Stephen is the only child with hemophilia on the island. His HTC is in Anchorage. Clinic visits take planning. The Coast Guard will fly them for free in a noisy, unglamorous C-130 (that’s a big plane!), but only one parent can fly and it flies on certain days of the week. Otherwise they have to take a commercial flight. Now flying from Boston to Anchorage is not as expensive as you think, about $490. I could pay that much trying to get to Newark sometimes. But the one hour flight from Anchorage to Kodiak?
Alaska is famous for
its salmon

$500, thank you very much.

So visits to the HTC are expensive. Thankfully, in any medical emergency, the Coast Guard will fly him no matter what.

And emergencies are to be expected as Stephen also has an inhibitor. I watched him last night loading up his factor, and preparing to have it pushed into his PICC line. What was it like having hemophilia on the island? “It’s ok,” he replied matter-of-factly. "I can mix my own factor but need to have it pushed in." [I was not about to do that; Kerry and Ron were out getting us a movie for the night] He chatted about sleeping over his friend's house, going to the rodeo that day; in short, he leads as normal a life as anyone. Quite remarkable. No fears about having hemophilia with expert medical help so far away.
Stephen mixes his own factor
He put it further in perspective for me. “If I were still living in Pennsylvania, I’d still have to drive an hour to the HTC, so it’s the same thing pretty much.” Wise child!

And he has connections; the Alaska Hemophilia Association in Anchorage is well established, and is operated by Kerry's aunt, Louise Cobb! But Stephen has to contend with things most school kids do not. Kodiak is home to the famous Kodiak bear, a massive brute. There are thousands of them on this island. One was spotted once in their neighborhood, and so Kerry had to accompany Stephen everywhere, particularly to the bus stop, armed with Bear Spray (pepper spray), which works effectively to deter a bear attack. Still, it was frightening.

Fossil Beach
But Stephen also takes advantage of the outdoor life that Kodiak offers. He fishes; salmon is rampant here and we witnessed thousands of salmon clogging the rivers, spawning. He flies; he gets to drive the family’s 4-wheel vehicles up and down the beaches and through the woods. The 4-wheelers are risky for a child, but Stephen will grow up knowing how to manage one. I imagine he will grow up learning how to hunt as well. Kerry and Ron were talking about hunting, and how delicious fresh venison is.

Hiking to Fossil Beach
On Friday the clouds cleared as fast as they arrived and the day was mild and sunny. We drove an hour away to Cliff Point beach, where we drove the 4-wheelers, beach combed and picked at washed up jellyfish and thousands of shells. We then explored Fossil Beach, a stunning beachhead guarded by two massive cliffs of volcanic rock. Here are large rocks that were flung from the center of the earth in one or two cataclysmic eruptions long ago, with shells and even tree trunks deeply embedded in the stone. When you touch them, you touch the earth’s geological history. Despite the setting sun and cooling air, the boulders were warm to the touch, like living, breathing organisms.

Kodiak as so much to offer. I wish all Americans could see this extraordinary treasure. Yes, life is a bit more challenging due to hemophilia, and inhibitors, but Stephen is managing just fine, thanks to his proactive mom, the readiness of the Coast Guard to assist (thanks to Ron!) at any time, and Stephen’s own can-do spirit which compliments well the culture and attitude of Alaska, and his new life in Kodiak.
Prehistoric shells, embedded
in volcanic rock
Laurie in rock heaven!



We've got cows; a bison
grazing


Sunset at Fossil beach

Great Book I Just Read
Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier [Kindle]
by Tom Kizzia 

A true but horrifying story of "Papa Pilgrim" who dragged his wife and 14 kids to a 420-acre mining claim embedded in Alaska’s Wrangell–St. Elias National Park. McCarthy's townspeople were intrigued by the ultrarighteous preacher and his charming pack of fiddle playing kids, but when Papa bulldozes a 13-mile road through the park, and claims public land as his own, the federal government takes an interest. Eventually there is a showdown, even as his children, now teens and adults, try to break away from their father's abusive and hypnotic hold over them.  Papa is none other than Robert Hale, born and raised in upper-class Fort Worth, Texas, who is suspected of murdering the daughter of future governor John Connally when he was 20. This exciting piece of reporting is a caveat for those who cave in to anyone spouting religion, politics or any doctrine: Think for yourself. If it doesn't look right, it isn't!  So many suspected something was wrong with the family but chose to look the other way, because Papa was a "Christian." And children suffered horribly. Four/five stars.






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