Frum Outdoorsman: Rare but Possible

The wanderings and adventures of an orthodox Jew

Archive for the ‘Alaska’ Category

Remembering the Northwest Territories

Posted by Frum Hiker on February 7, 2008

I have never been so aware of my devotion to Hashem than on my trip to Alaska. In August of 2007 I undertook trip that many people dream of, but never actually complete, or they opt for the cruise and miss out on all I was to see and bask in. I say this because, the drive is a lonely one, literally coming to towns every 150 miles or so, along the Alaska Highway (Alcan). There is just nothing ordinary about it, you have never really been in the true middle of nowhere until you make the drive. Northern British Columbia and Yukon Territories are so vast and empty it’s a marvel that anyone calls it home. Prior to 1942 with the construction of the Alaska Highway, it was a truly desolate, with just a few mining and logging communities, towns were non-existent and most of the residents were natives or living in the Bush. The bush is the term used to describe someone that lives in a community or area that is not accessible by road, and usually only accessible by plane or snowmobile. Till today there are thousands of people living in the bush, and thousands more that live in places that are accessible in the winter through the building of “ice roads”, its unbelievable and I was driving right through it.

In fact a quick look at a map of the north country will reveal that for most of the Alaska Highway, it is completely void of human activity on either side for a thousand miles in either direction. This is why I was completely aware of every little spark of kedusha that I brought to this isolated piece of land.

It didn’t hit me so hard until I was davening shachris on the side of the Liard River in southern Northwest Territories. There was this long single lane bridge with a wooden planked surface, it was rather odd and the Milepost even had something to say about it. The Milepost is a guide to the north country, and is put out every year, it is extensive and a must for anyone traveling the north, usually the north is referred as anything above the 60th parallel, which is at over a thousand miles due north of the United States northern border with Canada which is at the 49th parallel.

Anyway I was overlooking this vast swift moving flat water river, sandy shores butted up against the greenest, thickest forest of pine I have ever seen. In fact the whole area is this unbroken plain of pine trees that are rather short, due to the extreme northern cold climate and northern location. There is a point at which the trees end, and nothing can grow besides for grasses and shrubs, but we were not headed up that far. I was standing off to the side of this long bridge while my driving companion Danny debated if he wanted to go fishing for some breakfast.

The road we were on was dirt, in fact there are hardly any paved roads in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and we were on a short detour, because in my mind you cannot come to the north and skip out on being somewhere that is so hard to get to. NWT stretches north to he arctic ocean and also borders Nunavut, Canada’s newest province, most rural and hardest to get to. The lure of NWT for me was its shear size and lack of people, 41,000 people live in an area almost ten times the size of California, that is just too insane to pass up.

We had decided not to drive so far into it, since the roads are unpaved, and although they aren’t too bad, I did want to make it to Alaska, and most of NWT is flat and I fiended the mountains of the Yukon and Alaska.

It really wasn’t a question of whether I was the first person to daven on route the side of the bridge right outside the Northwest Territories. But I had begun to think of a bunch of different ways to bring kedusha to the ground we walked on. Brachos instantly became more pronounced and excuses were made to say a bracha, more kinds of food were eaten, picking wild flowers to make brachos and going to the bathroom more so we could say asher yatzer, it was unreal really and the mood lasted throughout the trip. Every time we sat down to eat or make camp, there was a little learning that may not have been done, have we been in a more populated location.

The road became rough and down the center of it was a small pile of gravel and earth, it was making it hard to drive faster then 30, then a road grader approached up and flattened out the road, nearly swiping my car and all its contents into the ditch that was on the side of the road. Every few minutes we pass a cut in the trees with no apparent purpose, but according to the Milepost they were snow roads, only opened when enough snow had fallen to allow trucks and snowmobiles to travel over the roots and fallen trees.

My car came to a halt in the middle of the road, nearly skidding off it, for a herd of Buffalo had just appeared out of the thickets, I hadn’t realized anything could fit in the forest. The huge brown hairy behemoths, just grazed as if were weren’t even there. I love Buffalo, especially in the wild, which in the lower 48 is rare, save for Montana and South Dakota which have several herds. We took some pictures and stared at wonder at the large beasts, just taking big bites off the bushes on the side of the road.

A little further on we came to a simple road sign that said Welcome to the Northwest Territories. It was a simple affair and since we were almost out of gas, we continued on to the small town or outpost may be a better word, of Fort Liard. I just wanted to see some people that actually called this place home, and see the license plates. The license plates in NWT are shaped like a grizzly bear and I found that interesting.

We stopped at the one gas station, we had since stopped thinking of gas cost because everything is marked up in the north and you can forget about brand names. Most of the gas stations were merely a bunch of cabins with a pump sticking out of the earth. We walked in the store and realized that most of the town were natives.

Then we went to the one store, a native crafts store, and browsed. We looked in the guest book and sure enough some folks had written their names in Hebrew and were from Israel, whether they were religious we will never know.

Posted in Alaska, Jews, Life, Rural America, Torah Thoughts | 7 Comments »

Canadian Border crossing seraches

Posted by Frum Hiker on January 28, 2007

Through my numerous road tripping adventures I have had to cross the Canadian border many times. Mostly uneventful regular questions, quickened heart beats, balls stuck in my thoat and a casual look in the trunk is all I get. But there have been several occasions on which I have had to undergo extensive waiting around while a team of dogs or team of latex glove wearing officers tore apart my car and put it back together again. Of Course on those few occasions I usually was on some sort of adventure and a team of border patrol agents looking through your two weeks of dirty underwear and dried apricots just added to the adventure.

My first horrific border crossing adventure took place in 2002 crossing into British Columbia from the State of Washington. I was on my first massive road trip with my buddy Yosef. We had a loaded up car with two heavy downhill bikes, and loads of backpacking gear in the back. A fully packed Volvo with New York plates always garners suspicion I guess. We slowly made our way across the international peace park that was one big garden with people walking their dogs and stretching their feet during the Sunday morning exodus into Canada. We were pumped up and sort of in a rush to ride the infamous North Shore of Vancouver, hundreds of miles of the greatest mountain biking in the world surrounded by huge old growth forest and a tons of obstacles built legally by the rather large bike riding population. We had been wandering around Utah and Idaho before coming up to the Northwest for shabbos in Seattle. It was a cloudy day as we pulled up to the border crossing booth. The regular run f the mill questions turned into not so regular as they gave me a sheet of paper, signaling that Iwas required to go inside for further questioning. This is relatively normal and just takes a few extra minutes. I had expected something of the sort being that we were far from home and two punk looking kids going to the marijuana capitol for a couple weeks.

They proceeded to ask how old we were and how we knew each other. I was 20 and my buddy was 16 which raised suspicious eyebrows from folks who don’t know the normality’s of the yeshiva school system. Thrown into a dorm with all ages you associate with all ages. His mother was told to fax over his birth certificate, fine now let us go, but of course it wasn’t good enough. They also told us that we needed more cash then we had on us in order to be in the country for two weeks. We hadn’t planned on spending any money except on gas and maybe lift tickets for Whistler Mountain. Nevertheless we were told to go back to America and get $500 cash, which we did after convincing some gas station owner to charge a credit card and take 3% for himself and give us the cash.

On this same trip a few weeks later it was time to return to America. We were coming through the border crossing in western Montana above Kalispell and once again we were pulled off and this time a full on search took place. Assuming that no one in their right mind would spend a few weeks in British Columbia without trying to bring some weed back over the border they proceeded to take everything out of the car and thoroughly go through my maps, film canisters and every other small space that is good for drugs transport. They were very friendly and it was nice being in that garage out on the high plains, 2000 miles way from home hanging out with a couple border agents who had a 75 mile commute to work at a border crossing station that was only open 9-5 or something like that, as opposed to the larger 24 hour establishments. The border agents put all the stuff back and wished us nice trip through wonderful Montana.

While living in Rochester I used to drive guys from the yeshiva to Toronto pretty frequently. I had a few rules, $75 cash up front first of all, no drugs or paraphernalia, no smoking or drinking inside my car and no buying alcohol at the border. Of course not everyone listened and one time they paid the price. On one such trip we were crossing into Canada via the Lewiston border and they pulled us in for paperwork check after all what were four 15-17 year old boys doing with some 21 year old guy? So they searched everyone and came up with a bottle of alcohol that one of the boys had bought at the duty free, no they didn’t card he said to the border guard, and no we weren’t going back to get our money back I said. So the kid had two choices, go back and return it or dump it out. I chose for him and dumped out his $20 worth of booze onto the pavement.

While driving from Rochester to Detroit once, I had realized I had forgotten my Passport a bit too late. It was late at night and of course being the bored agents they of course decided to give me that fateful colored slip of paper to the station house where they decide to search or question you. I had my license but no passport. So they proceeded to give me a little New York State geography exam which fortunately due to my knowledge of useless information passed with flying colors.  

My latest escapade to Alaska yielded many interesting border crossing adventures. Due partly to the fact that we had two guns for bear protection to claim each time we went in and out of Canada and due partly to the fact that we went in out of Canada a few times due to travel between the Yukon-Alaska and British Columbia. The many border crossing along with the fact we were three kids driving in a car 5000 miles from home on the northern edge of the continent allowed the border agents to be entertained by our stories as we watched them read Shira’s diary and look through our eclectic food supplies all the while telling us how their hunting a fishing season was going so far.   

The first border crossing we had to make on this trip was from Montana into Alberta on our way to Edmonton. This being the first time we would cross we knew would be the longest as well, mostly due to the strict Canadian gun control policies and the fact we had a .30 caliber rifle and a 12 gauge shotgun to quell our fears of 1500 pound brown bears pouncing on us while we davened shachris beside our cooking oatmeal. So the carefull person I am I checked and re-checked a bunch of times the exact protocol for crossing into Canada with guns, which on the east coast is a big deal, while in west Canadians are much more right wing and therefore more used to a tolerant of gun carrying citizens.

We pulled up to the border of Alberta and Montana, and I was immediately brought back to a few years back when I was searched at a smaller border crossing a few miles west of here. They of course made us pull around and told us what paperwork we needed for exportation of guns out of the US and then importation into Canada, luckily the forms were one time fees and good for a few months. Of course now that they had us in the station building they figured they would search these three scruffy gun carrying kids who were off on a grand adventure to Alaska 3500 miles away from this location. My Subaru outback with a full size wheel lashed onto its roof rack, a bike also up there and the most stuff you have ever seen packed into the back of the car was pulled into a large garage with a large viewing area for us to cringe as they tore apart the car and went through our most private of possessions. One guard found Shira’s diary and proceeded to read a whole bunch of her innermost thoughts, lucky bastard. Then my maps and atlases and books and one of our duffle bags were searched. It wasn’t a full fledged search and since we weren’t of the brown skin variety it apparently didn’t need to be. I have noticed many a time a brown dude with his car seat cushions on the floor next to his car, dogs sniffing under the wheel wells and mirrors shoved underneath the chassis to check for whatever a brown skinned fellow might want to smuggle into Canada. The border agent dd casually ask us if we smoked herb while talking to us about his large gun collection, we didn’t fall for his trick. We laughed about the addition of this adventure on the soon to be craziest drive any of us would ever do and relished in the thought that maybe they would find something objectionable and interrogate us and we would get to spend a night in jail. No such luck, a few minutes after our search parted and a few bewildered questions of “why aren’t we hunting?” because we had guns, but we hadn’t planned on hunting, we could tell many of the agents were jealous of the fact we would be in the Northern regions without using the opportunity to hunt some of the large game up there.

On this long trip we crossed into and out of Canada up to 8 times since certain parts of coastal Alaska are only accessible through Canada. On no other occasion were we actually searched, the border stations are usually on the road far away from civilization and they have nothing better to do, but for some reason, I ventured because by having our paper sheeted temporary gun permits we were deemed as responsible citizens.

On one occasion we did receive a lengthy questioning from a border crossing agent who just didn’t seem to want to let us back into Canada. We were coming from Haines, Alaska a coastal town that had one road in and the same road out, probably one of the nicer roads in Alaska that lead you from thousands of feet above sea level surrounded b y towering peaks, down to sea level with those same mountains twice as high. Anyway apparently the border agents in Canada don’t like the fact that the road to Haines runs through their province and Americans use their road system to get in and out. Some ridiculous rivalry situation that probably has to do with the fact the closest city is 1000 miles away. So she badgered us with useless questions ranging from why were we in Haines, to why we were coming back so soon, the weather was crappy and we wanted to be in the Yukon that’s why, eventually she scoffed at us and let us go.

Its funny because none of my border crossings was hairy accept for that one time in British Columbia in which we had driven 3000 miles only to be told that we needed more cash and they thought I had kidnapped my passenger. Its scary thinking that the whole trip can be messed up by a  moody border agent. Its all luck in my mind, border patrol agents range from nice sweet ladies who wish you luck in your endeavors to mean nasty old men who are suspicious o anyone under the age of 40 as a drug smuggler.     

Posted in Alaska, Road Trips, Rural America | 7 Comments »

Hiking in Kenai Fjords

Posted by Frum Hiker on December 26, 2006

As we crested the hill and burst through the treeline we noticed two fellow hikers gazing off into the distance. Even from our vantage point we could tell there was some sort of wildlife that they were looking at. We were just oustide Seward Alaska, Seward situated on the coast is at the mouth of a bay surrounded by glacier topped mountains. During the fall the tundra adorning the tops of the mountains turns bright red, with the non evergreen trees turning deep gold- providing one who hikes above treeline(which haqppens to be very low) with an amazing site. We were hiking up a trail past gray car sized boulders, the tundra was there up close and personal with deep shades of red and the last green plants holding on for their lives before they too, were forced by hard frost to change their precious green leaves to a deep shade of red as well. We were getting closer to the two men who appeared to have been standing where they were for quite a long time.

As we approached I wondered if they would thin k we were insane for hiking with a loaded shotgun. My friend Danny who is a heavy set fellow who resembles a lumberjack fits well with a shotgun strapped to his back- he looks like he could have been the machine gunner in the back during Viet Nam. They point to a rather large black bear about 200 yards in the distance. We whip out our binocs and proceed to look at this beast gathering its last food stores before it takes its yearly nap. The close proximity of this bear forces me to start looking around more and more. Then all of the sudden a second bear a little closer pops into view. They are both foraging the tundra for berries- I had in fact found some fresh ripe rather large raspberries on the way up. Prior to this in all my years hanging out in the woods I had never seen a bear. I had seen grizzlies in Glacier National Park in Montana- but that was also from several hundred yards.

We continued up and were brought to an amazing site. The massive valley we were hiking in became a steep rock filled halfpipe. The trail ended and we started making our way toward the massive blue colored glacier. Glaciers are said to be so dense that the only light that is let in is blue- or so a national park ranger had told me. We hiked up to the top of a ridge and were greeted with massive gorge that wasnt visible from below. On the bottom of the gorge was a lake of glacier water. The drop below us was a good 200 feet straight down and we had to scramble on this spine of a trail. Eventually we reached a point tat only technical climbers could get up. Simply amazing I thought as we sat up there in utter silence, solitude and beauty- as we took in the jagged spires meating the bays edge and the crisp blue sky. The city of Seward lay some 4000 feet below and we watched the small boat harbor as if we were looking at a frather large ant farm.

Posted in Alaska, Hiking | Leave a Comment »

3 Frum kids drive to Alaska

Posted by Frum Hiker on December 26, 2006

So as most of you already know I have recently been sharing my experiences on my recent road trip to Alaska. Many brave folks have made the 4000+ mile journey from the east before me, so why is it such a big deal?

Every morning when the temperature rose above freezing we would pull over usually around 10am or so, so that I could put on my tefilin and thank the good L-rd for the beauty that lay all around me. As I davened I always wondered to myself if anyone Jewish let alone religious had ever occupied this current site. Had any frum Jews ever driven the road from Fort Nelson, British Columbia to Fort Liard, Northwest Territories? Had anyone ever learned torah in Kluane National Park? Were we the first to daven mincha on the Byron Glacier in Portage Alaska?

All these thoughts entered my mind every time I did anything remotely related to my being frum. Every bracha we made, every prayer, every hinting towards torah- absolutely everything kept us wondering whether we were the first. We probably weren’t- there are always a few token frum folks who make the trek to Alaska every summer according to the Chabbad sheliach in Anchorage- he did mention that it was more common to see older retired folks then young ones like ourseleves. He also mentioned a frum girl who had hitchhiked from Boro Park to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska a few summers ago-that of course caught my attention and made me feel less hardcore.

We did know that no frum Jews resided in the Yukon or Northwest Territories. According to the Rabbi, there are 12 frum families in Alaska including two of whom live in Ketchikan and Sitka- both not accessible by road, located on the southern tip near Juneau- the capitol.

Our first contact with Jews above the 60th parallel was in Fairbanks when my companions and I decided to check out the Reform Temple – Ohr Hatzafon- very fitting if you ask me. No it wasn’t the jolt of torah and prayer I needed, but we met some fine folks of the Fairbanks Jewish community and an Israeli stationed in the Army base there – Fort Wainright. He took our number down and he said he would call after shabbos. Sure enough he called and invited us to a concert on the army base- having never been on an army base before, I was ecstatic, as were my companions.

The base was huge and Yitzchok, though he goes by Ike was pumped to have some of his own kind to hang out with for a night, especially since my two companions spoke fluent Hebrew. A death metal show on an army base is about as conducive to Yarmulke wearing as a KKK rally- so for the first time on the trip I wore a hat. I must note that throughout the whole month of my trip I felt 100% comfortable wearing my yamy and tzitzis out and proud, as well as davening on the side of the road in public view. Anyway, the concert was basically a barkmetal, death metal, lets blow some sh-t up extravaganza- all the while the movie street fighter raged on in the background. I personally am more of a melodic metal fan, but seeing a crew of tattooed army guys throwing each other around rather violently in the pit was a sight to behold. We then skipped out and wound up in some jam band, hippy, stoner, Birkenstock-bar. More my scene, my yarmulke was replaced to its rightful place, but I was so tired I just fell asleep on the couch while my friends chilled and spoke with Ike. I was woken up by someone tapping me on the head and proclaiming that he had never seen someone so wasted. “Dude that guys so flippin wasted”- indeed I was tired after a long day of trying to manuver around a hotel on shabbos with all doors needing your electronic keycard. Thats right my friends never stay in a hotel that needs keycards for the ground floor doors, elevators, STAIRS, bathrooms or anyother simple luxaries. These keycards were really invented by some sick anti-Semites if you ask me.

So I woke up and started talking with some locals. Jim, the craziest guy in Fairbanks apparently. “Hey Ill tell you guys some good stories he yelled”. He was severely doped up- I’m not much of a drug expert but my buddy told me it appeared as if he had some meth or speed. Anyway, Jim started telling hunting stories. Its odd that in a hippy bar people would tolerate this- but you see, Alaska is different- everyone hunts. So Jim starts telling us about the time his dad got stuck in the tree and the bear chased him right up, he shot the bear a bunch of times until it slid down the tree in a puddle of blood. Or about his friend paying $7000 just for the right to shoot a Polar Bear. On he went about the natives and Alaska and how many Moose he had bagged this year. As a parting story he told us that a bears’ favorite part of the human is the asshole- I hope its not true- but he told us the story of his dads friend who hadnt wiped well enough, and so the bear ate his asshole out literally- yes the bear killed him. That nights’ sleeping was mildly uncomfortable until someone declared his story to be bogus.

Our next Jewish north experience was in Anchorage where we spent Rosh Hashanah at the Chabbad. The Greenberg family is the sheliach there and besides letting us stay and eat every meal, they had some of the best food I had ever eaten. So we went to the Mikvah and shull, and it was quite interesting. The first night of Rosh Hashanah was dominated by everyone speaking in shull of how their fishing and hunting season was going. One man had caught a 150 pound Halibut that day and was very joyful After all was said and done the food was quite good, the company rather interesting and very hospitable, but the highlight of the Anchorage Jewish community was our chance encounter and ability to hang out with a Jewish Eskimo from Barrow Alaska. If you look at an atlas you will note that Barrow is the most Northern city in the continent. It sits on the Beaufort Sea- otherwise known as a part of the Arctic Ocean. The closest road to this desolate area of Alaska is the Pipeline road which ends at Prudhoe Bay- a 2 hour plane ride to the east. Any way I will withhold his name because he doesn’t like the attention. We were extremely interested in his culture and background so he invited us over and we watched whaling expedition videos from his town and we spoke of what it was like to grow up there. He had his fridge chock full of reindeer, whale, caribou, moose and other meats. He showed us his coat made of a wolverine. We spoke of life back east since he attended college in the east and Midwest and just chilled. Jewish Eskimo’s rock.

Then we were gone and once again we wondered whether we were the first  frum Jews to step foot in Jade City,  British Columbia population 12 or Moosleigh, Alberta or Crookston,  Minnisota. Then all  of the sudden I was eating kosher Pizza in Detroit Michigan enjoying every bite as if I had been trapped on a ice floe in the middle of the arctic. Relishing the  simple pleasure of not having to cook Osem meals that contain your weekly sodium content in every serving on my stove on the side of the road. I was back in civilization but most importantly Jewish civilization . When I walked into shull Friday night in Cleveland I was shocked at how much I actually missed frum Jews. I was so happy to be back.

Posted in Alaska, Road Trips, Rural America | 2 Comments »