Out of the Office: Nature in a time of pandemic can heal

As I write this I am in my third day of working at home — or, as I like to think of it, an embedded journalist covering the Diamond Ridge beat here in the hills above Homer. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and because I am in one of those risk groups (older than 60 with an underlying health condition), I decided it would be best if I telecommuted. For this column, I really am out of the office.

Isolating at home doesn’t mean total house arrest. That’s how on Sunday I found myself gearing up and skiing on a beautiful sunny day on the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club’s Marathon Trail.

We all know the drill now for hunkering down: minimize travel, avoid unnecessary trips, wash our hands frequently and practice social distancing. That doesn’t mean we can’t go outdoors. Unlike the crowded spring break beaches of Florida, here in Alaska, though the trailheads might be crowded, once we put on our skis, snowshoes or boots, we can easily stay 6 feet or more from others — especially if you’re on skis.

As long as we avoid crowds and keep our distance from other people, getting outdoors can be healthy in dealing with the threat of COVID-19. In an email about the coronavirus from the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, they write, “We believe that it is important to spend time outside, and in doing so you can relieve stress and anxiety, feel better from physical exercise, gain valuable Vitamin D (and ‘Vitamin N’ – Nature) and so much more.”

Not that we Alaskans need convincing about the benefits of nature. Why live in Alaska if you don’t appreciate the amazing beauty and wonder of this state? Why suffer the cold and darkness of winter if you haven’t figured out how to enjoy snow?

Like it has been for most of you, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for me. The last few weeks have been one grind of bad news. My wife and I presciently canceled a planned trip to France two weeks ago when it looked like traveling overseas would be a bad idea. Now with entry into Europe closed to foreigners, we couldn’t go even if we dared. As case counts and deaths climb worldwide, we grow more anxious, like watching the track of a hurricane and not knowing if it will become worse and slam us straight on.

I have family in Norway I worry about and family back East, all dealing with their own challenges. My nephew Andrew is an emergency room doctor in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, right on the front lines. He’s tough and capable, but I know he and his wife, Melinda, a physician’s assistant, and their colleagues have to be going through some tough challenges.

So what do you do when it looks like the world might be falling apart?

You ski.

The ski club’s annual marathon had to be canceled because of the pandemic, but the awesome groomers had done an amazing job of putting in a trail from Lookout Mountain to Diamond Ridge Road. The trail goes right through our property, too. I could not resist the lure of sunshine and a fresh trail, so off my wife, Jenny, and I went.

On the list of things that make me smile (chocolate, coffee, dogs, a good book and fine whisky), I would add “spring skiing.” The Marathon Trail winds through forest and over fields. One of my favorite sections includes a long downhill looking toward lower Cook Inlet and the Iliamna and Redoubt volcanoes. When we hit the trail, just one person had gone ahead of us: our friend Janet, it turned out.

Days after the equinox, the spring sun had risen high enough to warm, and as I rounded a turn facing east, sunshine bathed my face. I could feel that vitamin D powering up, boosting my immunity and making me stronger. We passed three or four skiers grinding up the last climb to Diamond Ridge. We didn’t have to worry about keeping the proper social distance. A good skate skier with long strides makes her own space.

Seeing those skiers sweating and working, I also saw something we haven’t seen for a while in this weird time: smiles. Fresh air, sunshine and exercise can do a lot to lift depression. The day remained so fine, my wife and I made it a twofer, and met my sister for a stroll on Bishop’s Beach.

There, people walked their dogs or walked with kids. The changing weather from clouds on Saturday to sunshine on Sunday brought a nice swell and a brisk breeze to Kachemak Bay. A handful of surfers braved the cold waves.

A Homer beach lends itself to staying apart. No one set up cabanas shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand. We bundled up in hats and gloves and didn’t have to worry much about touching contaminated surfaces.

Our hope in this time of uncertainity is that by restricting travel, avoiding unnecessary trips, distancing ourselves from others, covering our coughs and washing our hands frequently, we will be able to survive this pandemic. So far we have weathered the worst of the storm, but we don’t know if the dark clouds on the horizon will hit us or slide away.

We can know this, though. Along with the support of our neighbors and the kindness of strangers, we will get through. Nature and the outdoors remains ever more important. As it always has been in this beautiful and amazing state, nature will be our salvation, our hope and our lifeline. Grab as much of it as you can — 6 feet apart, of course.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

Michael Armstrong demonstrates how to use ski poles for social distancing while skiing on the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club Marathon Trail on Sunday, March 22, in the hills above Homer. (Photo courtesy of Janet Fink)

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