Glacier Rocks, Dirty Socks, Paradox, II

There’s an obvious fallacy, a selfish agenda to the prescription that can be found in the woods and secluded beaches. If the America public revolted against our vacation masters and went rogue. It we became independent travelers who once again slept on the ground and found our own way in lieu of setting foot on massive boats. How small 3.3 million acres of wilderness would become. The town of Gustavus swelling like a ballon and bursting as the masses flocked for the kayaks. The roads choked with car rentals, every Denali campground overbooked for years to come. In our lust for solitude, for wilderness, for our very roots, we eliminate any hope of finding it. There simply are not enough places left to support such a revolution.

We are no longer capable of supporting such a demand, hypothetical or not. Parks and wilderness areas are little more than satellites, little havens like Yosemite, Denali, and Yellowstone where wolves still roam and enjoy their birthright. But step outside these sacred borders and watch the canine be transformed. From symbol of wildness to pest, thief, scourge of the rancher and hunter. Fur, teeth, and claws mutating into a species not to be revered, but controlled. Our opposable thumbs giving us sovereign right to rule.

With so little acreage remaining, there is little choice for many but to blitz through with the concrete blurring beneath, the ocean rushing by ninety feet below.

“You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the gosh darn contraption,” wrote Edward Abbey using slightly more colorful language, “and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.”

But in the end, tourism won over the traveler. It’s cheaper, easier, safer. Certainly the first of these doesn’t garner enough attention. Many feel that financially the great white boats are the only way they’ll ever have a chance to see Alaska. Some combination of frugality and an unwillingness to endure the hardships of traveling cheaply and independently. Unwilling to sleep on a paperthin air mattress beneath canvas when a mattress and the rumble of engines beckons. The limitations of oats cooked above the gas stove compared to the all inclusive all you can eat, all you can drink, 24 hour a day buffet. The prepackaged, lowest common denominator overshadowing the simple and sublime.

But what do we come to Alaska for than? For the comforts of civilization? For floating casinos while the mountains cruise by? For bacon and eggs instead of oatmeal and peanut butter? Shouldn’t we be coming here to escape the familiar, the known, the comfortable? We have our whole lives to stay in pampered hotels, eat whatever we want, or play blackjack in Vegas. Hundreds of thousands of people migrate to Alaska every summer, their desire for the wild clearly not satiated. But something stops us short of truly acquainting ourselves at a deep, intimate, and personal level. How safe it is from the observation deck, where we can shelter when the wind gets too cold and there are no bears between us and the bacon. No worries, no cares, no magic. No John Muir epiphanies.

The revolution will never happen, we are tamed, domesticated. Skyscrapers block out the sun, roads smother the forests. We walk on pavement until the grass feels unnatural, the sun foreign and suspicious after years under fluorescence. Reality TV to forget our reality. Too much time looking for 3G, not enough tranquility. Facebook over of travel books.

Of course, we can’t afford to travel like this anymore anyway, so what’s the point of all this? To spend so much time prescribing a cure that people either don’t want or can’t have. I suppose it’s because every time I see a cruise ship pass by the lower bay I’m reminded of how much has changed, how there’s no going back. I feel no resentment towards those onboard, simply traveling the only way they know how.

I know the alternative, the west Arm overrun with fiberglass, a line waiting to pass through the Beardslee Cut on the high tide making my stomach turn all the more. The great contradiction of the wilderness guide. Secretly hoping not too many people listen to what he preaches, knowing his church cannot handle such a congregation.

“If everybody needed what you need, the wilderness would die.” Richard tells Kim Heacox in The Only Kayak.

“They do need it, but nobody’s telling them.”

“You are, with your writing.”

“Nobody reads my writing.”

“Good thing.”

Glacial rocks, dirty socks, the paradox.

Glacial Rocks, Dirty Sock, Paradox

Every spring the great migration resumes, animals of the sea and air swimming and winging their way north. In the recent decades a new species has taken up the route, plowing resolutely north with the hopeful promise of long summer days before retreating south as the waves build, the sun dims, and the rain pelts like daggers. Like the Arctic tern, many will shift their attention to the southern hemisphere, other rushing for the promise of lawn chairs, t-shirts, and mai thais of the Caribbean, following not the food but the money. The cruise ship has become the newest migratory species.

But from May through September they reside in the Pacific Northwest, their roosts in Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco, their feeding grounds the towns of Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway, sustaining on a diet of generic cotton t-shirts bearing the ports name, postcards, and diamonds mined on the other side of the world. Many pass by quiet Gustavus, its dock offering no hope or promise of future ports, the town’s walls barred against such an invasion of 1500 people into a town of 350. To reach Gustavus is a deliberate act, an independent flight or ferry ride from Juneau. One does not wake up, stagger down the ramp, and ask where their tour is meeting.

For most the true treasure is not in the town, but in the great mythical bay standing just to the west. Where 3.3 million acres of wilderness offers that many set out for. The open box on the bucket list begging to be checked (next year we’ll knock Europe off the list!). An Alaska devoid of t-shirt companies and concrete. This is the Alaska of John Muir and Jack London, wild, and free, an untamed land in an overdomesticated world. But from nine stories up, in a cabin bathed in artificial light, the heater blowing merrily, how tame it can all still feel.

Like an low budget nature documentary the acreage glides past. Mountains, bays, and glaciers in a 13-knot parade. There’s no struggle against the tide or wind, no resigned paddle onward as every promising beach contains another Grizzly landlord. In the bay at 8, Margerie Glacier by noon, Icy Strait by evening. Eight hours, 65 miles, and on to who knows where. Never touching, never tasting, scarfing it all down as quickly as possible. Fast food tourism.

Yet. Whether intentional or not. They’re here. The door to wilderness and the sublime left ajar. The cruise ship the keyhole with thousands elbowing each other out of the way to press their eye against it. To see, even if just for a day a sliver of the Alaska they’ve read about. And in that sliver, lies opportunity. To express that to see Glacier Bay is not the same as living it.

Here lies one of the last places on earth waiting not to be changed but to change. To recreate us like the glaciers did. A reminder that we are never complete. That like a river of ice, constant motion is necessary. That are own natural succession is always in progress. That it’s never to late to surge like like the Grand Pacific Glacier hundreds of years ago, charging south as fast as a running dog. All we have to do is let it.

Many will glance through the keyhole, snap a photo, shrug their shoulders, and move on. But for some, perhaps a cruise is the first step, leaving them in awe, thirsting for more, something authentic. Those eight hours will leave them wanting to meet the bay on its terms, on its level, from the seat of a kayak, at the feet of the glaciers, discovering their inner Muir. If they return it’ll be on their own journey of self discovery, with a can of bear spray in one hand and a tide chart crumpled in the other. And when they return to the bay, it won’t be by accident.

The Sorcerers

The swelling in my lower back has vanished. The shooting pain in my left shoulder blade melted away with an hour of squeezing into my kayak. Glaciers slide by, deities of a higher calling. They speak in languages well beyond my ability to translate. They groan and crack, their breath cool on my face, stirring the marble colored water that swirls at their feet. In my narrow, 17-foot kayak Glacier Bay towers above, beneath, and around me. Intimidating mountains thousands of feet high, obliging fjords thousands of feet deep, serac steeples, arete cathedrals.
It’s been mere hours since the boat deposited Brittney, Hannah, and I at Ptarmigan Creek in the west arm, leaving us with the Reid and Lamplugh glaciers as neighbors. Bears as our landlords, Oyster catchers the shrill neighbors. Harbor seals, their eyes still recalling the centuries as sustenance for the Tlingit’s slide cooly beneath the waves as we paddle south for Reid Inlet, its glacier, and the sublime. It was impossible not to grin. Surrounded by beauty man can only dream of matching. Reveling in our insignificance, the glaciers and mountains reminding us that our lives are but a shiver in the lives of the epoch.

One Day Later:

The deep bay juts deep into craggy rocks, giving way to gradual, sandy beaches in the back. In our kayaks we sit just feet offshore. With one hand I hold my paddle jammed into the rocks on the ocean side to keep the kayak from being swept into the bay. The other endures the harsh edges of the barnacle smothered rock, keeping the fiberglass hull off the bottom.
Twenty feet away the water depth plummets to thirty feet and at the moment all the riches on the Coral Princess couldn’t tempt me to uproot my paddle and drift into deeper seas. The calm water ripples and 20,000 volts shoot from adrenal glands to toes.
A lunge feeding humpback glides smoothly out of the water yards away, the leviathan’s coal black rostrum lingering at the surface, every bump, curve, and scratch visible, burning its image into the back of my head. The tip of his nose is big enough for me to sit on like a slippery fish encrusted lazy boy.
None of us speak afraid of breaking the spell. As if to verbally acknowledge the miracle will cause the whale to disappear. We didn’t want the water to be safe, we wanted to hover on the precipice of the cliff, leaning as far over as we dared forever at the very edge of his table.
For an hour the humpback glides back and forth within 30 yards, our eyes leaving the water just long enough to glance below us, to confirm we could still see the rocks and sand, that we hadn’t drifted onto the plate. Finally the obligation to photograph overwhelms and I pull the camera free of the drybag. Even with the wide angled lens pulled back, he fill the frame, capturing the image but failing miserably to capture the intimacy, the proximity, the enchantment.

Four Days Later:

The real world. At least as real as we allow it. Back to work, back in our green boats, vacation over. The waters of Bartlett Cove filled with wonder no matter how many day trips you led. Beneath the waves teemed otters, humpbacks, seals, porpoise, and today…
“Brittney, there’s an orca.”
I don’t mean to sound sharp, don’t mean for the intensity and fire to spit out my mouth like a dragon. But orcas do that to me. Give me tunnel vision, making the rest of the world vanish. From my seat inches above the water I watch the smooth 6-foot dorsal of a male slide back into the waves 500 yards away, making its way into the cove. This doesn’t happen.
Guiding instincts kick in long enough for me to point while the 17-year old within, the one that ran to British Columbia for this very moment screams to paddle and paddle hard.
Our five boats cut through the water toward the mouth of the cove, in the distance the Fairweather Mountains glow in the early morning light as around the point come a trio of gunshots, three more roll into view. Cationic with delight my boat slides across still water, every stroke bringing me closer, hot on my keel is Brittney and six incredibly fortunate clients.
I try to explain the magnitude, that this doesn’t happen. They aren’t supposed to come into the cove. In my mind I beg them to stay. Keep coming in, almost there, almost there.
Behind me Brittney calls out and our little flotilla stops paddling, our boats succumbing to the tide’s authority. We sit in a jumbled array as like fireworks, the orca’s break the surface. The male continues his course down the middle of the mile wide cove. While three more break the surface between us and Lester Island. Another breaks off from the male and swims toward the boats.
I should call the park, dig out my phone, document, tell someone, but I’m past words. I’m 17 again, bobbing in a kayak off Cracroft Island, watching the A36s swim by. Nearly ten years later they still hold unimaginable power over me. Keep me coming back to the water, always scanning, always listening.
They’re watching us. A juvenile no older than five materializes thirty feet off my port, the sun catching her eye before she disappears. Her mother rushes in, corralling the rebel and guiding her away. The windless day is filled with the sound of their breath. Explosive exhalation and the harsh rasp of every inhale clearly audible. There’s no boat engines, no hollering, no clicking cameras. Everyone watches in great silence, knowing nothing can even begin to do them justice.

Making Alaska Safe for Cows

The concrete bends right, but straight ahead lies an unassuming road. Covered in dirt and gravel, trees arch across the entrance, casting deep shadows beneath the tunnel of greenery. No street sign marks the little road as we bypass the hairpin turn and shining sun for the shelter of the trees. Ten minutes later we reach the end of another skinny one lane road masquerading as a driveway, grass stubbornly growing down the middle track. A series of wooden buildings and a small stretch of lawn lay surrounded by the forest, the structures seeming to melt slowly into the woods’ outstretched arms.

The picnic table on the lawn groans under the weight of plates filled with venison, salad, rhubarb cobbler, and brownies. From the nearby trees the squirrels chatter jealously and I look up in down the table. I find myself surrounded by men of words, science, kayaks, and hilarity.

Across the table from me sits Kim Heacox, part John Muir part 13-year old boy though his birth certificate insists that he’s a few decades ahead. He’s the reason I’m here, the reason there’s a blog (I really don’t like the word blog, how about “Thought Journal”), the reason I write. On my left sits Hank Lentfer, responsible for the venison on my plate and several books in our library, followed by Zack Brown who had walked off the Stanford campus, PHD in hand and hiked and paddled until he reached the Gustavus shore. And finally, Peter Forbes, writer, non profit adviser, farmer. Nervously, I glance around the yard, undoubtedly there’s a kid’s table where I should be seated with my knees up to my ears.

Instead I find myself a part of a community that I have done nothing to become a member of. No initiation, no rights of passage, simply because of our deep love for this place, for the woods, for the future of the world. Because no one ends up in Gustavus by accident. You inherit a family you didn’t know you had. I cut my venison and listen as Kim’s boundless energy spirals the conversation from topic to topic.

“The best thing about visiting down south,” he says, “is the chance to watch all of those Alaska shows and see how we’re supposed to be living.” He finishes with such earnest sincerity that everyone looks up as if to confirm his sarcasm.

“I really like the one in Homer.”

“The guys with the cows! And the guns! Gotta move the herd across the flats before the tide comes in.” His voice twists into a passable southern accent, “is that a wolf?” he mimics a gun being fired, “got him!” And there’s humor in the tragedy of his recreation. “Gotta make Alaska safe for the cows!”

“The only problem, is that doesn’t look very good on a license plate. Alaska the Last Frontier sounds a lot better than: Alaska! Slowly Becoming Safe for Cows.” I say and his laughter is infectious.

It’s impossible to sit at the table and not be inspired. Hank and Kim’s books fill thousands of pages, tapestries of words and phrases I can only dream of writing. But here I was, doing my best to turn my mind into a sponge; listening, writing, and most important of all it seemed, laughing.

As the bugs fill the night sky and the sun ducks beneath the trees everyone slips into the house, the guitars come out, Zack pulls out a violin, and Eric Clapton makes the windows shake. I sit at the table, thumbing through an Orion magazine as Hank and Kim belt out Midnight Rider and as I glance out the window at the blue tinged yard in the evening twilight reach a beautiful epiphany.

It was Orca Lab all over again. A beautiful, undeserved gift. Replace the trees with ocean, the music with hydrophones, and it was the same. Emotion wells inside me at the incredible mentors, heroes, and now friends that had entered my life and the inspiration and motivation they’d filled within.