So there’s this volcano near Sitka. Mt. Edgecumbe. It’s dormant. On cloudy days you can’t even see it, but on sunny days it’s on every horizon, a striking, majestic, empty thing. What once was dangerous now just sits there looking nice for tourists, like a military fortress turned into a museum.
April 1, 1974 was a sunny day, clear enough for Sitkans to see A TRAIL OF SMOKE drifting from Edgecumbe’s rim. Oh. No. Hide your kids, hide your wife; it’s about to get Vesuvian up in here. So the Coast Guard helicopters investigate, and they find 100 rubber tires burning in the crater. The words “April Fool” are spray-painted on the snow.
The mastermind behind this prank had been planning it for 3 years—all that time just waiting for a sunny April Fool’s Day. He even called the Sitka Police Department and the FAA to get clearance (though he obviously forgot to call the Coast Guard). You know that scene in Finding Nemo when Gill tells our little protagonist, “Fish aren’t meant to be in a box, kid. It does things to ya,” and then the yellow fish gets wayyyy too excited by a bunch of bubbles? A Sitkan winter is that wet, rainy little box. It does things to everyone. It makes people drop tires into volcanos. It makes them tenacious. It makes them creative. It makes them totally crazypants. The people of Sitka are trapped indoors all winter, so they spend their free time dreaming up ways to mess with people. I LOVE THEM.
Not three weeks ago, I was dreaming the sun on my shoulders. Not just daydreaming—I was quite literally dreaming about it at night on a regular basis, like some unattainable thing that couldn’t possibly happen to me. It happened on Easter. We’re FREE! It’s springtime! We’re out of the aquarium, we’re bobbing on the ocean in our plastic bags, and we’re asking ourselves,”…now what?” What to do with this warmth? What to do with this sunshine?
Sit on the roof, obviously.
The April sun has turned this overhang into an unofficial part of my bedroom. Not sure what the weather’s like outside? There’s an app for that, sure, but there’s also a roof for that. Got a scone that needs eating? Eat it on the roof! Is your roommate on the phone in the other room? Get on my level. Use the roof to show up on her windowsill Peter-Pan style! SO MANY POSSIBILITIES.
And somebody lied about April showers, because there haven’t been any. I spent Easter afternoon dying eggs and then reading on our back porch in a tank top (Blue Like Jazz. Everybody read it now. For serious. I mean, I’m not done yet, but the Author’s Note alone is like a juicy little blueberry of writerly brilliance). I’ve biked out the road. I’ve played on a swing set. I feel like I might burst from gratitude.
This warm-weather fun began the first weekend of April. First there was dance class (which continues to delight me. Our current playlist is so Disney I can’t even take it. We do an entire combination to the Ellen’s Energy Adventure theme song. Ellen DeGeneres! Bill Nye! TOGETHER, cracking jokes and talking about energy conservation in their mid-nineties haircuts!)
Anne and I got out of dance just in time for everyone’s favorite spectator sport: the herring opener. Herring season is kind of a big deal in the fishing community, and it has nothing to do with the fish themselves. It’s all about the eggs. Herring eggs are a Native delicacy, and they also fetch big money in foreign markets like Japan. Natives have a clever, sustainable way to get the eggs: submerge pine branches in the rivers where the fish breed. Pull them out a few days later, and they’ll be covered in little herring offspring. Commercial fishermen just pull the fish into their nets, slice them open, and cut out their eggs. Why? Because you get more money that way. Amurrica.
From what I understand (which, let’s be real, is very little), herring season is like a reality TV competition. Fishermen come from around the world to participate. When the season opens, crews are given two hours of prep time; by the end of those two hours, they have to be out on the water, in position, ready to lower their nets. Then the season actually opens and the real work starts: everyone has a finite amount of time (sometimes less than half an hour) to catch as many fish as possible. Last year, one boat pulled in $1 million worth of herring in the first opener. They paid off my student loans in half an hour. I’m in the wrong business. But there’s a catch (fishing pun!): if your net stays in the water too long—even 10 seconds too long—you lose it all.
You have to be fast. There’s a lot of swearing. At stake are millions of dollars. All this TV show needs is a host! I vote Ron Swanson.
The herring opener draws crowds in Sitka every year, because no matter how much you object to their methods, you can’t deny that it’s fun to watch (I feel the same about watching the cast of Jersey Shore try to cook things, again supporting my reality TV hypothesis). This year, it might have been a little less fun than usual; the herring were further from shore, so we weren’t quite as close to the action. Still, it was exciting to see the boats trailing each other out to sea, joining in a kind of mass exodus toward the horizon.
The next day, we watched the Raptor Center release three bald eagles into the wild. Two stayed fairly low to the ground, while the third (the one they said probably wouldn’t go anywhere) took off toward the horizon without fear. You go Glen Coco. Defy expectations.
We went exploring afterward and ended up on an impromptu hike, for which I was utterly unprepared. It was sunny and I wasn’t wearing my Xtratufs, so of course we had to ford a stream. Thanks for the piggyback ride, roommates.
The hike ended with a wonderful wonderful wonderful text: Kelsey’s coming to Sitka!!! YESSSSS. After my amazing trip to visit her in LA, I know Sitka’s got a lot to live up to, but I cannot wait to share this place. I hope the sunshine sticks around till then.
On the subject of BC reunions, I’ve reached a conclusion. Sitka’s like a college campus. I realize that I compared Sitka to high school a few months ago, and mixing similes is a Terrible Writing Crime, but I’m doing it anyway. I can’t help myself. This town is just so compact! Martine and I were in the kitchen a few weeks ago, making baklava and singing along to the Les Mis soundtrack. I had a sudden hankering to watch Annie (musicals always make me want more musicals, and I always want JACK BRISTOW DANCING ON TABLES). Five minutes later I was wandering the library in my sweatpants, fifteen minutes before closing time. So college.
We had a sleepover in the kitchen two weeks ago. Sleepover might not be the right term. When I was six, my Kindergarten Campout was derailed by a hurricane, so we camped in the gym instead. The first and only Kindergarten Camp-In. This was kind of like that. For 48 hours, we confined ourselves to the kitchen; the only acceptable escapes were the bathroom, the back porch, and our jobs. Our friend Nick walked in to find us all sitting on our sleeping bags, and he stood there on the other side of our taped-off kitchen doorway gaping at the mess before exclaiming, “You’re not undergrads anymore! Let it go!” (But we live on a college campus, Nick!)
We made homemade ice cream. We played Boggle and Uno. We defeated the panorama function on Anne’s camera (if you jump into the frame a little late, you look like a floating head). You’re right, Nick; we’re not undergrads. We’re eight year olds. Kitchen camping is the BEST!
It only needs one slight adjustment: softer floors. I never felt fully rested when I dragged myself from my sleeping bag each morning. I can’t say I loved feeling sore, but that’s kind of the point. The camp-in wasn’t just for kicks and giggles, although there were many giggles and a few kicks that week. Real estate is expensive here, so a lot of Sitkans live in trailers. Huge families are packed into homes the size of our kitchen. The camp-in was a tribute to them, a chance to consider what they live with every day.
I know that whatever we did, whatever silliness ensued on that kitchen floor, does not even begin to approximate the complex joys and challenges of their lives. But I also know that, meager as it was, it helped me connect with my students. I drive absent kids to school a few times per week, and I don’t always find them at home with their parents. Sometimes I find them with friends, cousins, guardians, falling from couch to couch in search of a safe place. I can’t fix this. I think the best thing I can do is just choose gratitude every day and see where it takes me.
In keeping with that, we all went to Juneau this weekend for Folk Fest, and I am grateful for friends, ferry rides, fiddles, flash mobs, and brunch.
This message brought to you by the letter F and the month of April.