Friday, June 10, 2016

A Backcountry Accident

Well, I suppose that no proper Alaskan life experience is complete without a life-threatening accident in the backcountry, right?

Memorial Day Weekend 2016 started innocently enough... we gathered provisions and supplies and headed out from Douglas Harbor around 6pm on Friday evening. We were headed to a friend's cabin up the Taku River. This area is located south of Juneau and is surrounded by mountains, glaciers, creeks, wildlife, and general Alaska wilderness. It is only accessible by small watercraft and float planes.

Loading Jeff's boat in Douglas Harbor

The plan was to stay up the river until Monday afternoon, and we had a couple of fun, mosquito-bitten days of drinking, laughing, wake-boarding, fishing and exploring the area. There are several glaciers in the area, lots of creeks to explore, and the river continues up into Canada. We may have snuck across the border and invaded another country for a few minutes. Don't tell the RCMP!

Straddling the Canadian border. (taken about an hour before the accident)

One of the Twin Glaciers

Rainbow over the Taku River

Jeffie & Suzi

So here's how my weekend ended. On Sunday afternoon, my friends Jeff, Suzanne and boyfriend Jordan and I were setting up for a scavenger hunt of sorts that was to happen that night, and we got to the last location: a log jam/beaver dam on a creek that is known to many of the "river rats." We placed the scavenger hunt clue, and Jeff and Jordan got off the skiff to explore the woods nearby. Needing to go to the "bathroom", I got off the skiff to search for a private spot to do the deed. I tried to cross the creek by walking on a submerged log. I immediately slipped and fell onto a 6" remnant of a branch (caution: link contains mild gore!) that caught my left leg below the knee.

What I saw next was horrifying: my leg was split open and I was reminded of gutting a salmon full of roe. My first thoughts were that I was going to lose my leg or even bleed out. I grabbed my leg with two hands to keep it "together." I started yelling, "Emergency! Emergency! Emergency!" That's all I could think to do in that moment. Jordan and Jeff came as fast as they could (again, this was a treacherous log jam on a creek). It took several minutes to find appropriate materials to use to stabilize my leg.  I remember being offered a beach towel as a tourniquet, but very calmly I insisted that it would be adequate as we would be able to tie it tight enough.. We ended up using a pair of rain pants as the tourniquet (tied above the knee), but we wrapped my leg in the beach towel. Jeff used a chainsaw to cut away some debris to bring the skiff closer to me to help my transition into the boat. I didn't remember this detail until four or five days later which leads me to believe that there are other details that I blocked out, too. The mind does funny things while in crisis mode!

We were very far away from Jeff's cabin, let alone civilization and medical help, and there is no cell service in that area at all so the only thing to do was to get to the Taku Glacier Lodge: a popular tourist attraction which is serviced by watercraft and float planes. They have a dozen or so people on staff, and we knew that they would be able to contact Juneau via radio or sat phone. I sat in a rather precarious position on the bow of the skiff; holding as much pressure as I could on my leg. It took us approximately 20-30 minutes to reach their docks, but before we got there, I needed Jordan to help apply pressure to my leg and to keep me upright as some larger jet boats blew by us; generating some bad wake for us. We safely made it to Taku Glacier Lodge anyway, and their staff came down to meet us, and luckily, one of them was an EMT. Greg the EMT was able to provide some more advanced first aid on my wound while they radioed for a float plane to come get me from Juneau. Throughout all of this, I remained very calm. I was also in very little pain. Everyone thought it was remarkable how tough and courageous I was. I've received a lot of training in outdoor leadership, backcountry survival and wilderness first aid for my activities with Wilderness Volunteers, and I believe that training and experience contributed a lot to how I handled everything. I knew we had to solve one problem at a time while also thinking four or five steps ahead.

View from the Taku Glacier Lodge (taken on a trip there in 2013)
Pilot Randy of Ward Air arrived about 45 minutes later, and with a fair amount of difficulty, I got into the small 4-seat plane. Thankfully, Jordan was able to accompany me back to Juneau. The flight to Juneau took approximately 25 minutes, and what a way to travel in an emergency?! We flew over two big glaciers and lots of snow-capped mountains before descending into Juneau by way of the Salmon Creek reservoir. I enjoyed looking at all of the wolf and sheep tracks in the mountain snow as we flew over. I was beginning to feel like everything was going to be okay.

We landed at the Juneau airport water runway and were met at the dock by my Uncle Tom. He also works for Ward Air, and Pilot Randy had radioed back to Juneau to tell Tom that I was coming in injured. Tom drove Jordan and I to the emergency room at Bartlett Hospital where the next adventure was to begin.

At this point, approximately 2 hours had passed since the accident. My leg wasn't bleeding much, the wound was covered up by a substantial bandage that Greg the EMT had applied, and I was really calm so I think the hospital staff did not quite understand the severity of the wound when I first wheeled in. Again, I was not in much pain, but I STILL needed to pee! I was also freezing cold. I fell into creek water when I slipped, and my pants and underwear were still wet. Jordan was able to take me into a bathroom where I learned for the first time in my life just how handy those handicap rails by the toilet are when you are incapacitated. Ah, the sweet release of going to the bathroom after having to pee for more than 2 hours. One problem solved.

Shortly thereafter, they took me to an examination room. The nurses and doctors removed the bandage and immediately determined that I needed surgery. Being the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, they had to call in a surgeon and operating team to the hospital. Word of my wound got around the ER, and I was visited by several nurses who wanted to check it out for educational purposes. I thought it was very funny how everyone wanted to see it! One nurse commented, "Wow! You are one TOUGH chick!!" Meanwhile, I was shivering like crazy from the wet clothes. They brought me warm blankets, but I still couldn't get quite warm enough. We ended up cutting off my pants. That helped some.

The surgeon and team arrived a little while later. Their big concern was to make certain that all of the foreign matter was cleaned out of the wound. They said my bone looked okay (it was exposed), but there was some damage to the muscle and I had a severed vein. I was put under general anesthesia, and the surgery took a little over an hour. When I woke up, I had 26 stitches and a penrose drain in my leg. I remember that I started shivering again, but some more heated blankets and a shot of Demerol fixed me right up! I was released from the hospital a few hours later with a pair of crutches and a prescription for some serious antibiotics.

Throughout all of this, I've had Jordan at my side. I've been so lucky to have such a caring and attentive companion with me! He's been driving me around, taking care of Butters, carrying my coffee to work and my trombone to symphony rehearsals. He's played the role of nurse in helping me with the daily change the dressings on my leg and making sure I take my antibiotics on time. I'm very lucky to have him!

I think the two of us have mostly recovered from the emotional trauma that followed the accident, but for several days, I couldn't stop thinking about the accident, how my leg had looked, and how close I was to severing a major artery. The accident could have had a much worse outcome. The day after the accident was Memorial Day, but I wanted to get right back to work on Tuesday as well as Juneau Symphony rehearsals. I felt a strong need to stay busy to keep my mind off of things. I also felt well enough to function at work and rehearsal. It just took me a while to get around.

Kitty Nurses on duty!

Juneau Symphony rehearsal 2 days after the accident

For those of you who aren't too squeamish, you can see some progress pictures of my leg: HERE.

You will notice a triangle-shaped area that was doomed from the beginning. About 9 days after surgery, the doctor needed to remove that necrotic tissue. We are trying to avoid the need for a skin graft on that area, and they installed a negative pressure-wound therapy system (Wound V.A.C.). The idea is that the machine applies gentle negative pressure to a deep wound which promotes blood flow and tissue regeneration. It should also help to close up the wound area. I have to have it attached to me 24/7 for several weeks. I will also need to see the doctor every other day so that he can change out the dressing. I am really thankful for this because Jordan and I had a really hard time dealing with the leg hole while I had it for about 2 days! Coincidentally, one of my old classmates from Rice University has been working for KCI, the manufacturer of these devices, for the past 7 years! We have already had an interesting chat about it! With a little luck, I will be able to avoid another surgery.

So there you have it. A true story of wilderness survival in Alaska. I'm so legit now. I've included an interactive map below with a few key locations from this story. The map shows where we left from in Juneau, Jeff's cabin (yellow house icon), accident site (red skull and cross bones) and the Taku Glacier Lodge location (float plane). The red line indicates the flight path of the float plane ride back to Juneau (approximately).

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Carthartic Trombone

This post has been a long time coming. I wanted to include this in my blog, but I also wanted to make sure it still stayed within the what's-it-like-to-move-to-Alaska theme. I rarely talk about my trombone playing on Katy Goes North, but I think you'll see why it's relevant to the blog if you stick around to the end. 

I started playing trombone when I was 10 years old, and I ended up going to college for trombone performance at The Shepherd School at Rice University in Houston. It was very unusual for the trombone professor, David Waters, to accept undergraduate students into his studio, but I pleaded hard enough and was accepted. My intention was to make my living playing trombone in a symphony orchestra, but during my freshman and sophomore years at Rice, I woke up to the reality that wasn't going to happen (basically an issue of too many trombone players/too few paid orchestra positions). I watched my older studio colleagues fly around the country for orchestral auditions and being unsuccessful time after time after time. I dropped out of the performance degree and ended up with a Bachelors of Music in Music History instead. While I was glad to have a degree from Rice, since then I have always carried a bit of shame for having quit trombone as a profession.

In the years following my graduation from Rice in 2002, I continued to play trombone here and there. I was in a few bands, but mostly my trombone collected dust- even during the four years I worked at The Boston Conservatory. I think I felt deep down that I wasn't good enough to play in public- especially around talented music students. THEN came my move to Juneau. I don't think I ever considered not bringing my trombone to Juneau when I did The Great Purge prior to moving. Even though I didn't really play any more, it didn't feel right to leave it behind. A musician's instrument is like another appendage. I wasn't willing to sacrifice a part of myself just for more room in the car. In fact, I had already been invited to play with the Thunder Mountain Big Band in Juneau before I even left Boston! I remember my first rehearsal with them. I was nervous and worried that too much time had passed without playing, and I wasn't good enough. There were wolverine and bear hides on the wall, and lots of new people to meet. It went okay, but I still wasn't sure I was good enough. However, the band leader, Ron Maas, pulled me aside afterwards and invited me to stay!

A few months went by, and eventually I was asked to join the community wind ensemble. Again, I really was nervous. This music was technically a lot harder, but they let me stay too. I started to feel more and more comfortable playing. It can take a while to get your "chops" back after a long time of no playing.

Big Band Studio

We even get paid for these gigs

First Wind Ensemble Concert - March 2013
Juneau has a symphony orchestra, and I assumed it would take years to get my foot in the door with them. However, by the winter/spring of 2014 I had proven to the music community that I was good enough and reliable and became a regular Juneau Symphony Orchestra trombone player! JSO is an unpaid orchestra, but it's the kind of music I enjoy playing the most. I couldn't be more thrilled to have the opportunity to play in an orchestral setting again.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 Trombone Section

 Additionally, I play in a couple of brass quintets and chamber groups, participate in several theater and opera productions as they happen, and I give private lessons to local kids.

I gave 8 weeks of my life to Perseverance Theatre in 2014 for a production of "Chicago"

The "Chicago" Band

So as you can see, I have become very active in a very active musical community. It's not uncommon for me to have rehearsals or concerts 5-6 times a week or more. There's also no real shortage of trombone players here - there are just THAT many opportunities to play.

A Low Brass Convergence - look at all those trombones and tubas!

In the fall of 2013, I discovered that David Maslanka had written a trombone concerto. I have been a fan of Maslanka's music since I first heard it in high school, and upon hearing a recording of the piece, I instantly fell in love with it. I wanted to get my hands on the trombone part to see if I could play it. Being a rather new piece, I had to request the part from Maslanka's website. I received a reply from Davd Maslanka himself, and a week later, I got more than just the music in the mail. He said that he had never been to Alaska, and if I got around to performing it, he would come up to work with me!

 This was an incredible opportunity- one that could not be turned down. I mulled things over for a while about how and when this could happen. I began scheming with my local musician colleagues, and what developed was a music festival featuring David Maslanka and other Alaskan composers. We took the opportunity to also bring guest musicians from down south to come participate and beef up our little community ensemble. I worked hard on this festival (and the concerto) for over a year. Mostly I was focused on fund raising and logistics, and every once in a while, I would remember that I'd have to get up on stage and play a whole dang concerto - in front of the composer no less!

Well, it happened his past June, and it was magical. Besides how cool all of this was for me, it was a really special experience for the local musicians- to be able to work with legit, professional musicians and composers. Also wonderful was that our guests were treated to a trip to Alaska!

Performing Maslanka's Trombone Concerto with Ensemble June 20, 2015

Getting a hug from David Maslanka

The weekend of the festival, I had a cathartic moment that has changed something in me. I told people how I wished that I could share my success with my old trombone professor, David Waters, who I had quit on. He passed away in 2010. 

BUT here's the revelation that I had: perhaps if I hadn't quit trombone and switched majors back in college, I would have been on a very different trajectory in life. Perhaps I never would have moved to Alaska hence never having the chance to have these experiences. Maybe that decision 15+ years ago was exactly the choice I needed to make to bring me to this point in life! Of course, I still wish David Waters was alive today, but I don't carry the same sense of shame I used to. I'm here in Alaska, a place I adore, and I get to play trombone in an actual symphony orchestra! There is so much that has gone right for me in Juneau, and my music experience sits right at the top of the list.

David Maslanka privately said to me the weekend of the festival, "I see a change in you." He's a perceptive guy.

Here are a couple of links if you want to learn more about the festival:

Juneau Empire Article

Juneau Community Bands Website 

Monday, August 10, 2015

A big fish.

My first time halibut fishing! Weighed in at 52" and 70lbs. Not too shabby!

Thursday, May 21, 2015


It's... been sunny... for weeks. When will it end? I can't remember the last time it rained. I'm all tanned and confused. Up is down. Left is right. Dogs and cats... living together. It's total chaos!

That being said, I've snapped some good ones lately.
Darkness is scarce this time of year, but I was still able to see the northern lights last week. 

Migratory birds come through here by the thousands in the Springtime

Another northern lights picture last week

Sunset over the Chikats

Obligatory Butters/wildflowers picture

Obligatory Butters Beach Picture

Obligatory Butters/Wildflowers/Beach picture

Butters is also dead from sun exposure

Monday, March 2, 2015

Celebrating the 1st of March with some Northern Lights

Beautiful weekend of sunshine and temps in the 40s. We got a nice Northern Lights display. I hiked a mile or two up the mountainside behind my house to a meadow. The waxing gibbous moon was really bright and didn't even need a headlamp to find my way.

Friday, February 27, 2015

February Sunshine

The past 30 days have been rough for my Boston friends. They've been seriously dumped on (snow). Juneau, however, has been dry and sunny lately! We're in for several days of sunshine and temperatures in the 40s! We even have a great aurora forecast for the weekend!

My friends have flowers blooming in their yard. It's not even March, people!

...and the obligatory Butters at the beach photo.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Musings on Politics

These posts are getting fewer and further between. So sorry! I have just a quick thought to share tonight about politics. Don't go running!

Juneau's population is 30,000 and Alaska as a whole is 700,000. We have local assembly members, a mayor, state reps and senators, a governor and lt. governor,  2 U.S. senators and 1 U.S. representative. We bump into these people at the grocery store frequently- or at  least- know them through a friend. Especially in Juneau, we are not surprised to pass them on the street. I waited in line for a sandwich with Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott the other day. I've played trombone already for our new governor, Bill Walker. It's only a matter of time until I know him personally. This is how things work in Juneau! We are special for being such a small community in such a large space, but anyone can be this connected to local government if they want. They just have to put the effort in. I lived in Boston for 7+ years and never knew how the city was run- besides Tom Menino being mayor. I'd like to think that if I moved back today, I could be more involved because you CAN be more involved. Politics are not out of our reach!

The topics today in the office were: I was SO glad I attended the inaugural ball OR I was SO sad I did NOT attend the inaugural ball. I am in the latter camp. I will try to post some pictures tomorrow. So magical!

Thank you, Michael Penn and the Juneau Empire for this image!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Dogs in Sunshine

It rained for 40 days straight. 40. Didn't someone build an ark when that happened before? We all started to look like drowned rats. Then there was a BIG storm in the Bering Sea that changed the weather pattern for all of North America. The lower 48 got snow and cold temps, but Southeast Alaska got sunshine! Here are a few pictures (mostly of dogs) of how we celebrated the return of the big yellow disc.

Hoar frost everywhere!