Coming Home

For all its ocean facing windows, the lobby of the lodge is always dim. Dark wooden walls cast a permanent shadow that the orange fluorescent lights can’t begin to penetrate. An awning stretches over the long balcony, protecting al fresco diners from the rain, and blotting out whatever rays of sun make it through the gray clouds.
Those with their back to the windows have their faces vanish into dark, inscrutable shadow, features and expressions hidden and mask like. So when I walk into the lodge the pair are not immediately obvious. Their rain gear and boots hidden in the darkness. But their boundless enthusiasm as I approach squelches any doubt that it’s me they’ve been waiting for. As they sit back down and the paperwork appears the shadows hide the signs that should have been obvious. The mother’s shivering hands and arms, the wool hat pulled tightly over her head without a single curl or braid protruding beneath the material.
Her son scribbles names and home addresses well she berates him the way only a mother can. Not spitefully, but in the way that makes him, even at 24 roll his eyes and sarcastically mutter, “mooooom!”
As we rise it takes her a few extra moments to gather herself and lift her thin body off the couch. Only now in the better light does it become obvious and my expression, comprehending for only moments betrays me.
Yes. She’s going through chemotherapy, had been since she was diagnosed with lung cancer just three months ago.
“Never smoked a cigarette in my life,” she says as if I’d have the nerve or insensitivity to ask. “I lived in Juneau for three years back in the early eighties and I wanted my kids to see it before…” she trails off. She doesn’t tell me what stage of treatment she’s in and I don’t ask, I don’t want to know.
Like many, their fear and terror is covered by humor. They laugh long and loud at my every quip and comment, as if Dave Letterman and not Dave Cannamore was their guide.
“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to paddle,” she confesses.
“It makes no difference to me how far we go,” I answer, “I’m just so happy you made it back.” I’d float fifty feet off the dock all night if they want to.
We reach the sheds that house our kayak gear and a gentle mist begins to fall from the clouds that habitually threaten rain. The drops fall in a resigned, uninspired sort of way, the stormy cumulus far from enthused, sending precipitation earthwards as if it didn’t know what else to do that evening but soak  the leaves of the alders.
Her son is easily as tall as me, a cello player in San Francisco who looks like he could play small forward for the Warriors in his spare time. We firmly tell Mom to stay put and lug the double and single kayak down the beach toward the slowly flooding tide and she gently folds herself into the front cockpit. For the first time she doesn’t look tired and worn. Her eyes gleam with the excitement of untold patience after waiting for this exact moment. I push them clear of the rocks and follow, my kayak bobbing in their wake.
“I used to go kayaking all the time when I lived in Juneau,” she says as we move past the dock, aiming for the mouth of Bartlett Cove. “I would take my cat with me.”
I try to imagine Porter perched on the bow of my kayak, clawed paws slipping and sliding on the fiberglass, scratching the gel coat or worse, attacking the human responsible for depositing him in a vessel surrounded by his sworn enemy.
There are people that you want to see it all. Breaching humpbacks, hunting orcas, frolicking sea lions, sneaky seals, flying pterodactyls, and as we paddle I mentally will the inhabitants of Glacier Bay towards us. Calling to them to understand how precious their presence would mean to all of us.
We paddle and the conversation is easy. No factual tic tacs needed to stimulate talk between the two boats. Mother and son bicker good naturedly as he struggles to master the rudder peddles on his maiden voyage. Talk turns to baseball, two die hard Giants fans bemoaning their lack of starting pitching depth.
My stomach turns, replace San Francisco with Minnesota and this was my Mom and I. She in her early 50s, he his mid 20s. I’m about to open my mouth, to reveal the parallel when the whale arrives.
The bait ball had been swirling for fifteen minutes, the gulls’ insinuations and the protests of murrelets had become a white noise. The humpback had given no warning before ripping through the surface, sending white wings scattering as herring gull, kittiwake, and mew rise a few feet higher and out of reach of the ballooning mouth. The impact on us is instantaneous. No one hollers or calls out, it’s more of a silent, “ohhhh” from all three of us that stops our conversation mid sentence. The calm evening water allows the sound of the next breath to echo off the trees on the Lester shore, the water falling from the back and flukes as the whale rises higher momentarily before falling away beneath the waves.
The rain continues to fall at random intervals as we paddle, her stamina exceeding her expectations. As it falls heavier she leans back in her seat, face pointing upward, allowing the cool water to strike her face beads sliding down and into her lap. As we return an hour later, her stroke stronger than ever she looks reborn. I tell her about John Muir, how he slept on the glaciers when he was ill and walked down the next morning feeling like he had a new lease on life.
“Maybe theres more treatment in the wilderness than we know,” I suggest.
She likes the sound of that, “forget the chemo, just bring me a huge iceberg to munch on. Make sure theres some vodka to go with it though.”
She laughs as their boat nears the shore, I hop out and catch their kayak by the nose, raising it up to land softly on the rocks and barnacles. As the moment comes to step clear of the boat she pauses, not to gather her strength, but to savor. She runs her hands lovingly along the combing, her fingers brushing the forest green finish, a loving look in her eyes.
“It feels so good to be back here, you don’t know how much places like this mean to you until you don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to see them.”
She isn’t talking to either of us, but the silence that follows is total. Even the birds have gone silent as if in respect to this fiery and passionate woman.
It’s most telling where we run to when we can make out the expiration date on our lives. We don’t run to the Oracle, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge or any other man made marvels. We come home. To the place that, deep inside, we still acknowledge as sacred, as special, as holy, even if we’ve long forgotten exactly why. It’s why we marvel at glaciers and eyes gleam as we glass the water for that six foot dorsal fin. Because the natural world gives us something that we can never create, can never imitate. And when we know time is up, what better place to spend it, than right at home.

I Couldn’t Live Here

As we pull out of the drive of the bed and breakfast, I crane my neck around to make eye contact briefly with the middle aged couple seated in the middle seats of my “soccer mom” minivan. The first few minutes are usually the generic cordial introductions.
“Where you from?”
“New Jersey.”
“How long have you been here? How long are you staying?”
“Two days, three more nights.”
“Are you liking it so far?”
The wife laughs, “it’s nice… but there’s no way I could ever live here.”
Her brashness stops me. Not that many people don’t allude to their opinion that Alaska is nice to visit before the scary villain of winter returns. I can understand how living in a temperate rainforest could literally and metaphorically dampen people’s mood. It makes me grumble from time to time.
But to so eagerly announce her decision with little prompting makes me dig deeper. I acknowledge the rain, the snow, the sun’s lazy winter transect as it plays leapfrog with the mountain peaks.
“Oh it’s not that,” she insists. “It’s just…” she glances out the window as we move through Gustavus’ lone intersection, “there’s nothing to do here.”
Again, the outdoor fanatics would have to disagree. There were mountains to climb, a certain 65-mile long bay to paddle, fish to catch, deer to hunt. But it wasn’t fair to expect a 45-year old accountant residing in the shadows of concrete and skyscrapers to ooze enthusiasm at the prospect of bushwacking up Excursion Ridge.
“If your not a big outdoors person I can see that,” I allow. “Even though a little more time in the woods would do wonders for us all,” I add quietly.
She gives a little sniff, “yea, I definitely wouldn’t be able to stand being here more than a week or so.”
I take the bait. Keeping my voice pleasant I turn my head again and the van drifts briefly over the center line.
“I understand that,” I say, trying not to sound offended, I couldn’t spend one hour in New Jersey after all.
“But let me ask you something. If you had to spend a winter here, what do you think you’d miss about New Jersey? I’ll even be generous and say that you have a house within cell phone range and internet, I won’t make you drive to the library to check your email.”
The van goes quiet while she thinks, the sound of the wheels on the pavement echoing through vehicle as we near the park. Heading out to do what defines so many people in this town, the reason many live here, the reason many can’t imagine living anywhere else.
After ten seconds of musing she answers, “oh… I don’t know, you know… just like, going to the movie theater and stuff.”
“Entertainment, new movies” I nod, “I can understand that.”
“Yea, but I guess we really don’t go to that many movies.” She glances at her husband, “when was the last time we went and saw a movie?” He answers with a shrug. “Well there’s other stuff,” she continues, “shopping, the mall… though I don’t do a lot of shopping.”
The car goes quiet again as I wait for her to continue.
“I guess just having the option…”
“The option to do things that you never do?” It’s out of my mouth before I can stop it and I bite my lip. This is going to be a long paddle.
“I don’t mean to pry or anything, I’m just curious what people think they’d miss.” Silence answers my feeble attempt to cover my break in character. Perhaps I’d offended the malls and movie theaters that she holds as dear to her as we hold the mountains and waters here.
I’m too protective of this place, too quick to be riled when others don’t see it the way I do. Perhaps far too biased to pass judgement on what the acceptable line of appreciation is. Not everyone has to want to live in a sleepy town of 400, thank God or it wouldn’t be 400 people after all.
What made my 45-year old accountant’s declaration so difficult wasn’t in her opinion (though her lack of tact was matched only by mine), but her inability to defend her position. That we as a society can have so little personal attachment to the region that we live, simply settling there because that’s where our parents did, where a job took us, yet so ingrained that inhabiting something different makes us shudder. It struck me how home can resonate so little with some, how many other people can’t pick one unique thing that they’d miss? Granted, I’m just piling on New Jersey now, but New Yorkers have been doing that for years. She and her husband did come to Gustavus after all, off the beaten path (though she later expressed regret that they didn’t take a cruise).
It’s important to turn this around, to look through my tree shrouded cocoon of southeast Alaska. I can understand the value in visiting places that we have no intention of ever living. Seattle’s nice, for a while, but I know that I could never live there. I love the music scene, Safeco field, the brew pubs… oh the brew pubs. But would lose my mind waiting 20 minutes to get onto the I-5 every morning, I know I couldn’t handle it.
The difference lies in knowing what I’d miss if I did move there. I’d miss my 30 second walk to work, exchanging waves with every car that drove by, intimate open mic nights every other Saturday, the bay, the whales, the bears moving through the backyard… the list could go on.
I’m sure if she thought about it long enough she could find a unique thing or two about home that she’d miss if I exiled her to Gustavus for the winter. Or maybe not. Maybe she’d fall in love with the countless potlucks people throw here, the dreamy silence of the falling snow with little to do but sip coffee and grab whatever artistic medium calls to her like it does for so many here in the winter. She may never want to live here, but I bet if she did, she’d miss the movie theater less than she thinks.