Katmai National Park, Alaska

Today is the 100th birthday of our National Park Service.

Visiting every National Park, Monument, Recreation Area, Forest and Historic Site is on my bucket list. Thanks to my adventurous husband, we have visited a lot of these national treasures already. But there are a lot more to visit and some I want to go back to and explore more of.

Today, in celebration of our National Park Services 100th birthday, I want to share with you one of the National Parks we visited in 2005. I have a hard time picking a favorite park, as they are all unique and beautiful. So, I have picked one that is one of our most memorable family adventures—Katmai National Park in Alaska.

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The memories that we created at Katmai National Park and the unique adventure we had there, makes this a standout park for me……and I would dare say it is for my husband and my boys as well.

What an adventure we had…..from our first flight on a float plane to landing on the water and seeing a mama bear and her cubs on the beach near us to the fabulous meals we enjoyed and the bears EVERYWHERE……this was an adventure we would not soon forget.

Our preparation for the overnight to Katmai National Park was easy…..we left most things in our rental car at the airport. All we could take was our change of clothes and toiletries…….NO FOOD was allowed in our bags or in our cabin while we were there…..Yes, NO FOOD in the cabin we would be staying in….YIKES! Would the bears REALLY enter our cabin if we had food? I wasn’t about to find out so I made sure neither boy snuck any snacks!

Finally we boarded the plane from the dock. We were on the last flight because we were staying overnight. The day trippers were on the earlier flights to give them more time with the bears. The flight was not as bad as I had expected and the scenery below us was beautiful. Watching out the window as we came in for our landing we could see a big bear soaking in the water near the beach……and as we stepped out of the plane onto the beach we were told to go straight into the welcome building because there was a mama bear and her cubs on the beach…..safety first.

Welcome to Katmai National Park!

We had a bear safety presentation where they told us to make sure we clapped and said “hey bear” as we walked the trails to the river viewing platforms…..that way we would not surprise any bears! Oh my!

We then were taken to the lodge to check in and given the key to our cabin. It was a cute little cabin with two sets of bunk beds and a bathroom. This was going to be fun. From our front door we could see part of the river and the trampled grass from the bears walking by…….Yes, bears roamed around the cabins.

The trail to the viewing platform took us across the river where a park ranger stopped us at a platform…..there was a bear on the trail ahead and the park ranger was holding us all at this point until the bear moved on……safety first!

The bear moved on and so did we. We walked down the dirt road with others and then took the turn into the woods, following the path to the river and the viewing platforms. At this point the four of us were alone……so the boys sang songs……all kinds of songs so that we wouldn’t startle a bear. And then we arrived…..

The viewing platform was built up off the ground and the ramp going up to the platform had a small rope across it…..like THAT would keep the bears out! And then we passed through the bear proof door. Okay, safe now. We stopped at the first viewing area and watched a young bear trying to catch a fish……he splashed and stuck his head under the water, trying so hard to catch the salmon swimming around him……but he never did. He was fun to watch.

Then we continued down the raised walkway toward the viewing platform at the falls. Suddenly, beneath us was a bear……he had a salmon and was looking for a spot to eat it. He walked right under us…..we could have reached down and touched him. AMAZING!

Then we exited through the bear proof door, out onto the platform and we were greeted with a spectacular view of the falls and the many bears in the river seeking salmon to eat.

We were not alone on the platform as the day visitors were still there. We watched those bears for a very long time—young and old, in the water and on land. The platform we were on had a ramp that went down to the ground and again, just a rope across to keep the bears out……hmmmmm…….

And then we headed back to the cabin for a rest and dinner with plans to go back to the falls after dinner.  Dinner was a delicious buffet with steak and salmon–heaven! 

After dinner we headed back down the trail.  The day visitors had left and with them went the park rangers that had been out on the trails and viewing platforms…….there was no one to stop us if a bear was blocking our path and no one with bear spray or the air horn to help if we needed it..…..it was just the four of us and the bears.  It was 8pm and we had the trail to ourselves. The boys sang crazy songs to let the bears know we were coming so we would not startle them. While they sang, my eyes and ears were on alert for any movement in the bushes we passed.

We arrived at the viewing platform and made our way out to the falls. We were alone with the bears. We stood on the platform watching over 20 bears in the river and on top of the falls. We watched them eat, relax and play.

We watched an old bear on top of the falls catch a fish that tried jumping up the falls—AMAZING! When he walked off with his fish to eat it, a young bear took his spot……but the young bear was too impatient to catch the fish and kept a watchful eye toward the older bear so he could leave before the older bear came back. It was so cool to watch.

And then at one point a mama bear with her two cubs came walking up to the river, right below where we stood on the platform. They were so cute!

Nowhere else in the world could we get this close to wild, huge brown bears. And they could have cared less about us…..all they needed were the salmon that were running upstream to spawn. Even the seagulls could get close to the bears without fear of being eaten….that Is how focused the bears were.

We had a restful nights sleep and woke ready to see more bears and ready for our tour to the Valley of 10,000 smokes. After the tour we had to rush to get to our float plane for the flight out…..but we were held up by a “bear jam” at the river…..5 young bears frolicking in the river and on the trail delayed us getting to the lodge. When they finally wandered off we were free to go.

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Katmai National Park is an adventurers delight! We hope to go back one day with others who want to join us on a great adventure.

Happy 100th Birthday, National Park Service!

Connection

When I started this blog, I wasn’t completely sure how I would use it and I was nervous about sharing my deepest thoughts and the private parts of my life……..

But I took that leap and I started writing this past January.

My most recent blog post, was one of the most difficult to write and to share…….and I almost didn’t. Leaving myself exposed to the judgement of others is quite frightening, but sharing my families story is even more frightening….I am now opening up our story, our life to others. Not just family and friends, but acquaintances and strangers.

After posting my last blog and asking for others to join me in the conversation that will hopefully lead to REAL effective and affordable care for those who suffer from mental illnesses and addiction and for those who love them, I have been overwhelmed and humbled…….

Overwhelmed with the emotions brought from reading the many messages and emails from those who also suffer and from those who also love someone who suffers. And humbled that so many would share with me.  I am so grateful for the opportunity to connect with others who are riding this rollercoaster too, but sad that these diseases are so far reaching.  My blog has given me a connection to others in a way I could not have imagined, allowing me to be a part of the conversation with so many others and allowing me into their private worlds, letting us see that we are not alone and that together we can affect change.

I am not sure where this will all go but……I am going to keep on taking that leap………..and together we can we all just breathe!

It is time to start the conversation

I find myself here again.

Worry.

Dread.

Concern.

Fear.

Helplessness.

Actually, I find myself here in this place more often than not.

This year has been rough. Months of worry and fear.

And then………hope steps in. Something changes and there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The rollercoaster is slowing, coming to the end of the ride………and then……suddenly…….the rollercoaster drops, twisting and turning, gaining speed as it twists and turns and spins us in all directions, leaving us to wonder which way is up and when it will end.

I have been riding this rollercoaster for years now. How I wish I could exit. But I can’t.

Loving someone who suffers from mental illnesses—depression, bi-polar, mood disorder, panic disorder, ADD, addiction—keeps a person on the rollercoaster of emotion and events. Unpredictable. Incomprehensible.

My oldest son suffers from mental illnesses.

And I have come to realize that he will never have the life I dreamed for him when he was born, instead I have adjusted my expectations and have accepted that life is and will be more difficult for him. He is funny, big-hearted, intelligent, thoughtful, impulsive, inquisitive, adventurous, fearless, creative and opinionated. I love my son, unconditionally.

And sometimes I love him too much. His mental illness holds me hostage….the worry of what might happen if I am not here when he needs me, if I don’t give him a place to live, if I make him stand on his own two feet, keeps me on the rollercoaster…….and yet, I cannot continue to enable him.

I am lost. I have no idea what is right and what is wrong when it comes to helping. At what point am I enabling him to stay stuck where he is now? When do I stop helping and let him find his own way?

The thing is, his brain doesn’t work the way mine does, or his father’s does, or even his brother’s does. The world is different through his eyes. Normal is different in his mind.

Society tells us all what “normal” is. And those who suffer from any mental illness do not fit the societal definition of “normal”. And that leads to being judged, condemned, misunderstood, and feared……….which leads those who suffer to feel isolated and alone. And those who love them are left feeling helpless and isolated, judged by those who have never ridden the rollercoaster.

I love my son! And I cannot change his world for him. I cannot fix this for him. I cannot make his brain work the way society says it should. All I can do is love him……and try to find help for him in a world that doesn’t want to recognize or help those who truly need it.

This year the rollercoaster went into hyper-drive……sending our family whirling into the dark, twisting world of those lost to addiction and mental illnesses.

There are days, weeks and even months when I have no idea where my son is………I live each day in fear. Where is he? Who is he with? How is he eating? Where is he sleeping? Is this the day that the doorbell rings or the phone rings and he is asking for help? Or I am told he is in jail? Or the hospital? Or worse, gone forever?

And then he is home, getting help and I see glimpses of my baby………and then he is gone again………….

This is difficult to share with my closest family and friends and even more difficult to share with the world. I grew up in a time when family matters stayed behind closed doors and in the family. We didn’t talk about them. EVER!

But I think THAT is part of the problem in our society. We don’t talk about mental health illnesses unless something tragic happens…….and then it is only to judge the individual and the parents.

We need to start the conversation NOW!

We need to stop judging those individuals and the ones who love them. When a child has an uncontrollable outburst, instead of judging and telling the parents “you need to send him to military school” or “you need to spank him more”, we should offer understanding, a hug….anything that helps rather than isolates. (yes, we heard those often and sadly, my son heard those words from “well-meaning friends”, too.)

We as a society need to talk about mental health issues rather than ignore them, hoping they will just disappear. I don’t know how to get it started, or what the answers are, but I know that it has to start……..NOW…………TODAY.

I have met some people over these past few months who have touched my heart. Out of the blue and without knowing my struggles this year, these brave individuals have shared with me their personal struggles with mental health illnesses and with addiction. I believe that God brought them into my life to let me know I am not alone, my family is not alone and my son is not alone……….that this is something many others struggle with.

My hope is that by sharing this now, I can help someone else as well. And maybe by sharing, others will have more compassion toward my son and toward the many others who also suffer. Maybe the conversation will get started and help will be more affordable and more accessible to all who suffer some kind of mental illness……..We need to start talking and start taking action to get affordable mental health care, with doctors who can really help, who know what they are doing……instead of the doctors that now work with the low income population who don’t care about those individuals and judge them instead of truly helping them.

So, I am starting the conversation now. I am no longer hiding from the reality that is my world. I am asking everyone to join me in this conversation because alone I cannot change our society, but together we can really make a difference…..for my son and for all who suffer and all who love them.

I pray every single day for my son.

I pray every single day that help comes, that compassion is found, that understanding for all who suffer is found, that the stigma is abolished and in its place is compassion, understanding and help.

I pray every single day that my son will find his own way in this world.

I pray every single day that my son will be okay when my husband and I are no longer here, that someone will be there for him, that someone will love him.

And I pray every single day that the conversation gets started and keeps going………while I just breathe…….

A Shared Journey

A journey is anything that takes us from one destination to another—physically, spiritually or mentally.

We travel many journeys in our lifetime—some of them consecutively, some concurrently. Some journeys end naturally and some we need to end so that we can move on to the next journey. Some journeys take us places we never imagined and some keep us stuck in the same place.

I have taken many journeys in my lifetime—physically, emotionally and spiritually—some with family, some with friends, some with strangers and some alone.

Those journey’s I have taken alone have been difficult, scary, lonely and have often led to discoveries about me—who I am and what I am capable of.

But sharing the journey makes it a little easier, a little less frightening, and a little less lonely.

Often, when we are going through difficult times, we feel alone, as if we are the only ones experiencing this type of event or these emotions.

I have felt that way many times in my life—When my mother died and I traveled the journey of grief alone….no one could know what I was feeling. In dealing with the sudden rise of repressed memories of long ago abuse, I traveled alone on the journey of remembering and ultimately forgiving. Yes, most of my deepest, painful journeys are when I thought I was alone.

Being overweight and trying to navigate the winding, bumpy road of weight loss had me traveling a journey alone……or so I thought.

No one could know what I was feeling. No one would understand the shame I felt being at the heaviest weight I had EVER been. No one else had ever hidden food from others, eating in secret and then hiding the evidence. No one had ever eaten the last of the frosting in the can and then run to the store to buy a replacement before anyone noticed and then had to eat half of the new can to make it look the same as the old. No one could understand what it felt like to get dressed up in a ball gown, make-up on, hair done and feel good about themselves as they arrived at the Air Force Ball…… only to have a group of women point at and loudly say how ridiculous that FAT woman was and how sorry they felt for her husband. No one could comprehend the shame and embarrassment felt when a child pinches your arm and says loudly to you—boy, you are really FAT!

No. NO ONE would or could understand what it felt like to be overweight—the shame, the embarrassment, and the worthlessness. And traveling the journey of obesity and eventually the journey of getting healthy was a journey I traveled alone.

Until…….

I walked through the door of the Weight Watcher meeting on a Thursday morning for that 5th time.

Each week as I sat through the meetings, I began to feel less alone. These were all individuals on a similar journey and they understood. I was not alone. That feeling lifted a weight off my shoulders.

And then I heard someone share that they had finished a bag of cookies and didn’t want their family to know so they ran out and bought another bag of cookies and ate cookies on the way home so that the bag would be the same. Wow! In that moment I realized I was not alone! I was not the only would who had done this!

Finally, someone else got it.

And when someone shared about their struggles, instead of being made fun of or told it was just a matter of willpower, we all got it! Each of us were traveling a journey of our own, finding ourselves, discovering what worked for us. Yet, we were on a shared journey and we were not alone.

To this day, I still go to Weight Watcher meetings. I still need that safe place…….to know that I am not alone. And though I am a lifetime member of Weight Watchers, having reached my goal over 8 years ago, I still struggle and my meeting is where I find support, kindred spirits and inspiration.

And the meeting is where I know I am not alone……that I travel this journey with others.

This shared journey is one I will travel with friends and strangers for the rest of my life.