Islands, rocks and eagles

Ketchikan Airport (after leaving Wrangell) – whiling away a few hours between the short island hops needed to get img_9132from place to place in South East Alaska. A stuffed bald headed eagle watches me from a nearby glass case and there is, of course, a basketball game playing on the big screen in the little airport’s only food outlet. Two more hops tonight before we get into Sitka a bit before midnight and settle in.

Such a change to come from the ice and snow of upper Alaska down to the bottom of the state, not too far from Vancouver. The mountains still have snow on their heights, but there’s no snow in the towns. Temperatures have gone from minus 10 to minus 20C in Anchorage to hovering between -1 and about +10 in the day here in the south east – balmy to our hosts, still on the chilly side for Cas and me after the February heatwaves we left behind.

In Wrangell we visited Vivian and Howie, a couple we befriended in Sitka two years ago who’ve since shifted to Wrangell where Vivian grew up (and is related to three quarters of the small population). They live at Mickey’s Fish Camp (named for Vivian’s Dad who lives with them), five miles out of town, where the sea laps almost to the deck at high tide.


Subsistence living is everyday life out here – fishing for salmon, halibut and shrimp, gathering the vast assortment of berries that grow here, smoking, preserving, bottling and – most importantly – sharing with family, friends and tribe. We saw Mickey smoking salmon chunks in the smoke house out the back, and ate platefuls of the resulting product, rich with alder smoke. Plus commiserated with Vivian and Howie over Alaskan problems like getting sick of shrimp and running out of recipes for halibut.

Vivian is an artist as well as writer and poet, and we were desperately hoping she’d take us to where she gathers material for her mosaics – the old town dump, decommissioned in about 1950, accessible only at low tide, a treasure trove of ceramics, sea glass and weird metal items. I collected about 10kg of vintage glass, patterned fragments of ceramics, and superbly rusted and twisted bits of metal. Then had to discard 9.5kg of it, but have kept some choice bits and pieces to bring home, customs permitting. We also visited Wrangell’s petroglyph beach – containing around 40 of these stone carvings, around 10,000 years old.

Crikey the Kangaroo came out of his two year hibernation and entertained kids at Head Start – the local preschool for Tlingit and Haida youngsters – with tales of Australia and requests for help – he needed to know how to get warm in Alaska, and who to make friends with. That visit was also a chance for us to meet some of the local Tlingit people

img_2140 and – led by Carol – ask permission to come onto their lands – a custom Carol feels strongly about, emerging from her work with Indigenous communities in Australia. The request was received very warmly and we were invited to come to a school celebration of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day – marking the civil rights campaigner whose landmark speech in the Alaskan Senate in 1945 saw the passage of Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act – the first of its kind in the USA.img_0871-2

When Vivian reported our activities on Facebook she called us the Australian Ambassadors – which led the local radio station to call and ask for an interview. It’s a small town – we obliged!

Daydreaming, beach-combing, fish-eating, strolling. Smelling sea, salt, smoke, spruce, hemlock, fish.img_6663Soon we board again and hop to Juneau, wait an hour, then hop to Sitka and fall into bed. Tomorrow the writing begins! Diving into the new novel. Wish me luck.

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Snow and Ice

img_9943Out of Australia’s sweltering February, a day’s skip through Honolulu’s temperate winter, and into the snowy landscape of Anchorage… yes, I find myself (along with aunt  Carol) back in Alaska – my third trip in ten years.

The plan: to make a solid start on my next novel during a four week stint house-sitting for a friend in beautiful Sitka, where I’ve been twice before on writing residencies. The prelude: a visit to the snowy middle of Alaska (Anchorage) and the south eastern island of Wrangell to catch up with friendships made two years ago.

We were lucky. Anchorage was a fairyland of deep powder snow (apparently last winter was warm and horribly icy). Our friend Lindsey whisked us out to her log cabin about 40 minutes from town in a valley called Eagle River.

To us straight-from-the-heatwave Australians this was utter utter heaven. The end of the road, forest and mountains all around, deep snow, hiking trails, frozen river.

We hiked out into the woods with Lindsey and the indefatigable Devito, crunching through the snow, a light snowfall dusting down on us. Saw the cabins where hikers can stay through the year (superb, but Spartan). Met my first moose. I went on alone after the others turned back, and on my own merry way home, re-encountered the moose blocking my path. Interesting moment – I’ve been warned how dangerous they can be. Eventually I was able to get around her without incident, except for quite an elevated heart rate.


We headed over to meet Lindsey’s neighbours that night and had one of those magical evenings that sometimes happen while travelling – when a bunch of strangers feel like your best friends by the end of the night. We played a hilarious game of dice, laughed our heads off, made future plans to meet up in various world locations, and staggered home at 1am.

Next morning – up! With Lindsey and Rachael (from the night before) we headed out to see Matanuska Glacier – a couple of hours drive away. So fascinating were the conversations that we missed a turnoff somewhere and found ourselves almost back home again. Set out with renewed determination and arrived at the glacier by 3pm. Lindsey somehow talked the manager into giving us a summer-only tour rate and taking us out himself to hike to the foot of the glacier and explore its edges. The Alaskans skipped along merrily – Cas and I marched gingerly over the icy bits in our cleats and I was convinced my hands and feet were freezing off – but it was so powerful and awesome it didn’t matter.

I’ve seen glaciers and crevasses before in Antarctica, but never got up close. This time we walked into the temporary ice caves that form in the glacier’s foot during the summer/winter melting and refreezing. Blue, glassy ice sculpted into planes. Hard to describe. Divine. Unforgettable.

Rather more forgettable the next day – up at 5, into the airport, onto the plane for the hop-hop-hop trip south to Wrangell. Got through the first hop OK and then mid flight were diverted to Seattle. Went from being 1300km north of our destination to 1300km south. At least we had a nice hotel. My wallet, unfortunately, ended up in a different location all together, adding to the litany of lockouts and forgettings that have dogged me on this trip – clearly turning into a senior now.

Back on the plane in the wee small hours and here in Wrangell at last – no snow, plenty of rain, tall forests, coastline, bald headed eagles, ravens.


More soon! Love Jesse xxx



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Five go down to the sea

Picnic is packed, lashings of ginger beer at the ready, Timmy the dog is waving his tale and five-go-down-to-the-seabarking madly, and Julian tells everyone to buck up and hurry, it’s time to go down to the sea. Yes, the school holidays have rolled around and the Famous Five are back together again and ready for their newest adventure.

Enid Blyton would, I hope, have thoroughly approved of the Five Writers, Five Towns, Five Days road trip adventure, taking Byron Writers Festival out to the regions, running free events for schools and communities in the Northern Rivers.

Although Enid might have scratched her head at the five of us – an historical fiction and fantasy writer (Kate Forsyth), slam poet (Miles Merrill), genre hopping novelist (yours truly – but you can call me George), an extremely IMG_3480elegant beat novelist from Western Sydney (Luke Carman), and a burnt out teacher with a fire in her belly for educational change (Gabriel Stroud). Plus our intrepid leader Zachary Jane, a tireless mix of roadie, driver, bookseller, author, chair/MC and all round holder-together of the thing.

First stop Coffs Harbour Library, with a large and enthusiastic audience of readers and writers who wanted to know EVERYTHING. Talking about beginnings – and each reading from the start of our works – we wooed them with 16th century Scotland, meandered through the origin of Hansel and Gretel, hit them in the guts with the voice of contemporary LiverpooIMG_5216l and left them weeping with a description of one teacher in the classroom and her despair.

Anyone not weeping was only there for the spread, which was awesome. The librarians treated us like old friends and bought out lunch of the best salad in the world.

[Resident poet Miles is AWOL – apparently this is what the 555 poets do – a late entry to make sure they’re noticed. He’s arriving by plane this morning and we’re planning the hazing ritual.]

Evening – Latitude 360 restaurant down at the Jetty and an intimate group that let us get up close and personal about where ideas come from, what drives you to write, if you choose the stories – or if they choose you. Luke says he doesn’tIMG_5964 even write stories – he wrote enough sentences to make half a million words and the publisher said yes, but cut it by 90% so we can publish a short book. That was the most amazing achievement on the table for our first day I reckon.

Then back to the bar for a yarn about the meaning of literature, can it be revolutionary, why are we writing at all, and should we order another round before closing time.

Zac is starving herself (too busy to eat), there are lashings of champagne, and we’re headed out for a scrumptious Enid Blyton breakfast this morning before being led, like lambs to the slaughter, to perform for children in the food court in a local shopping mall. Then into the Courthouse Hotel in Mullumbimby tonight for lively yarns, theatresports without the blood, and lashings of chips. More news tomorrow if I survive the experience.

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Last drinks in Scotland

temple1A very nice Bloody Mary – my drink of choice at airports – has gone down a treat and I’m whiling away the final hour until Andi, Ruth and I board the flight from home. Having IMG_6164covered the entire series six of Downton Abbey on the way over, I’m not too sure what I’ll watch, but travelling home with Andi and Ruth is an unplanned pleasure of this trip.

After our time at North Berwick – when we celebrated our tenth anniversary by relaxing, daydreaming, reading, and doing some Blackadder-related sightseeing in the Borders, Andi and I headed over to the West birthday1Coast to catch the last couple of days of our original holiday plan – joining our darling Mullum mate Ruth at Ardfern and hanging out with our mutual friend Lucy (Ruth, Lucy and Andi all worked together at Zentveld’s Coffee). What a gorgeous time. So lovely to be in the company of close friends. We stayed in a sweet B&B in the village, celebrated Ruth’s birthday, gently saw some of the local sites (one of the most significant
archeological areas in Britain) and gave kitchen1blessings and wishes for Ruth’s new house, laying a stone circle under where the hearth will be.

I’m glad to be coming home. It’s been an amazing time – huge highs, a few lows, changes of plans, unexpected activities, up time and down time. I know it’s hard for Andi to come home – she won’t want to rest, and will be wanting to DO things. But it will be great to be back in that lovely place we inhabit.

Thanks everyone for following our adventures. I know I’ve gone on about our fundraising for kids’ literacy a fair few times – you can get in now and give before 30 June for an IMG_6131immediate tax benefit, or wait a few days and give in the new financial year if you like. Your support is much appreciated. Please click here to donate – every small bit counts.

See you back home! Jesse xxx

IMG_6140 IMG_6131 cow1 craignish1

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Let’s not have a short-fall

Well, we only made two thirds of the Southern Upland Way, but please don’t let this hold you back in donating to the kids’ literacy charities we are supporting through our hike – Room to Read and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Dig deep folks – think of it as a show of support for Andi – and a great outcome from our trip if we can raise a big donation for both organisations. Every little bit helps, so please click here to donate.

Hiking was, in fact, central to the formation of Room to Read – this guest post from Mihiri Udabage of Room to Read Australia outlines how our funds will go towards post-earthquake education in Nepal – and any funds given before 30 June will be matched by a sponsor. Please read on. (Photos courtesy of Room to Read)

Room to Read Nepal 1 Room to Read Nepal 2 Room to Read Nepal 3 Room to Read Nepal 4Room to Read started its work in Nepal in 1998 after Microsoft executive, John Wood, met a Nepalese education officer who invited him to visit a school high in the hills while he was on a hike. Taking a tour of the small school, John was confronted with the harsh reality of education in rural Nepal: a dilapidated schoolroom with little more than backpacker castoffs as reading material. Sensing his visitor’s dismay, the headmaster spoke the nine words that would forever change John’s life: “Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books.”

John started his mission with an email to friends. With the subject line ‘Books for Nepal – Please Help’ he commenced a book drive that would be the catalyst for his return to Nepal the following year, with his 72-year-old father and a train of eight donkeys bearing 37 boxes of books. What started as one man’s efforts to provide much needed books to a single rural community is now Room to Read, a global organisation transforming the lives of millions of children in ten countries in the developing world, by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Since then Room to Read has:

  • constructed 1930 schools
  • established 17,534 new libraries in schools and communities
  • published 1,158 original picture books
  • distributed 15,641, 734 books distributed
  • given long term scholarships to 31, 636 girls

While the organisation now has operations in ten countries, Nepal remains close to its heart.  In partnership with District Education Offices, Room to Read is donating books to over 4800 schools in 14 earthquake affected districts. The original book titles, published by Room to Read, will be used to set up Temporary Learning Centres. Room to Read Library Management Facilitators and Literacy Coaches will be conducting counselling classes and reading activities in earthquake affected schools to support the students to deal with the trauma of their ordeal and help them return to school.

When Room to Read Writer Ambassadors learnt of the devastation affecting the region, they rallied, dedicating the 2015 World Change Challenge to the children of Nepal. A goal of $40,000 will see 40,000 books distributed in Nepal, in support of Room to Read’s Literacy Program—a three-pronged approach to improve literacy by investing in teacher training, producing quality early reading materials and providing safe and productive learning environments.

Your support of the Writer Ambassador World Change Challenge 2015 will help Room to Read get the children of Nepal back to school and back to education. Thanks to Nuix, all donations from Australia until 30th June will be matched dollar for dollar. We stand by that promise made fifteen years ago to return with books. We cannot afford to let the fury of the earthquakes bury the hopes and dreams of Nepal’s children.

Mihiri Udabage

Room to Read Australia

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The fallout

IMG_5786Midsummer night’s eve and I’m in a cosy seaside flat in the town of North Berwick, about an hour of Edinburgh, watching the clouds scudding against the sky and the seagulls wheeling around outside the window. There’s some late afternoon sun setting the kitchen taps agleam. Andi is snoozing in the next room, resting up after the drive here from Edinburgh.

Tomorrow morning it’s a week since she fell and broke her wrist, but we are still quite shell shocked and subdued. As most of you know, she stumbled off the gutter and fell on the road as we were leaving Melrose for our 12th day of walking. It’s ironic considering how careful we’ve been on the challenging trails, and how much first aid gear we were carrying in case of accidents in remote areas. She was about 7 minutes from the main hospital for the region. Thankfully.

IMG_5794Scottish kindness has kicked in – from the council worker who loaded us into his truck and drove us to hospital, to our hike organiser who found me places to stay nearby for four nights in the midst of Borders festival season, to the B&B owner who personally drove me to the next place when she didn’t have room for another night. I can now see why UK residents love the NHS and why it had a starring role in the Olympics opening ceremony – the health care was fantastic, kind, personal, and free. The only slight gripe was the long wait between admittance and surgery (a day and half). Everything else has been great.

IMG_5841So – Andi had surgery to put a permanent plate plus a temporary pin in her wrist and came out of hospital on Thursday (having gone in on Monday). In more local kindness, friends of friends who saw our predicament on Facebook offered for us to stay with them in Edinburgh and made us welcome for the weekend while we took stock and figured out what to do next (and showed us the best coffee in town – they write a fantastic blog about coffee in Edinburgh). Our hike would have finished on Friday and we had planned to head right up north to Findhorn on Sunday, but had to cancel that. Have opted instead for a quiet few days here in North IMG_5830Berwick (more kindness – the owner gave us a free day in the booking), before taking Andi back to Melrose for her follow up appointment on Thursday. I’ve cancelled the final week of my trip and will fly home with her next Sunday.

Mostly doing OK and very grateful that Andi didn’t have worse injuries. But both of us do have some down moments about missing the rest of our walk and our other holiday plans. And of course some fears about the future.

Thank you everyone for your messages of love and support – they have IMG_5846been so appreciated by both of us.

Over and out for now – love from Jesse – off to protect Andi from the North Berwick lobster. xxxx

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Palace bulletin – Andi

Quick update for friends not on Facebook. All is good. Andi is out of surgery and it went well. She has one pin on loan from the NHS and one metal plate plus screws that will live in her wrist as a permanent souvenir of our holiday. I guess going through airport security will never be the same. One or two more nights in hospital and a return visit in 10 days for a checkup before flying. Now, let’s see if we can get a flight upgrade when we head home… Thanks so much for all your messages of love and support – she looked through them today waiting for surgery and was very chuffed. As was I. Jesse xxx


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