Somewhere Unoccupied

It’s good to be back. I squirm and fidget in the plastic seat, trying to make my life jacket sit against the combing. Again and again the jacket slides up. I give up, letting the combing press against my lower back. It doesn’t matter. Bartlett Cove is paper flat. Clouds are thrown across a deep blue sky at random. The only sound is my paddle in the water. Glacier Bay. I’d tell you to never change, but change is all you do.

On days like today I stop just beyond the dock. I look out into the mouth of the cove and drink in the lower bay. I stare out into Icy Strait, at the islands of Lemresier and Chichagof. I feel my heart slow down, my chest inflate, my body at peace. It’s a sensation that only a kayak can bring. Maybe it’s the angle, seeing this place from the vantage point of the Murre and Murrelet, otter and sea lion. Perhaps it has something to do with the knowledge that it is up to you and not diesel fuel and outboards to get where you want to go. Or maybe it’s something deeper. Something buried deep within our chromosomes. A treasure within each of us, waiting to be discovered.

Whatever it is, life is different from the seat of a kayak. It magnifies the soul while reminding you how small you are. What a wonderful reminder. There are no advertisements, no one telling you what you deserve or what you need. What you need is all around. Beyond Lester Point the upper portions of Glacier Bay come into view. The east and west arms beckon. A labyrinth of tide rips, adiabatic winds, and endless waves of mosquitoes await.

 Come on in. But leave security and your ego at the door. Leave your boots on. Keep your eyes open. Breath deep. Be free.

Some of the most memorable moments of my life have happened here. Just off the shore of Lester and Young Island. They’ve chiseled me like a piece of wood. Sculpted and refined me. A project never finished. There was the day the sea lion surfaced a foot behind me. That cunning, malevolent look in his eye, teeth curled into a snarl.     He still gives me the shivers. Still makes me tense when a sea lion approaches. Orcas in the middle of the channel. The perfect end to the perfect day. A humpback in the mist, the sound of his breath reaching out through the infinite nothingness. A siren, beckoning me closer. If I dare.

Swim with me. Commune with me. Guess where I’ll be next. Take another shifty look beneath your paddle. Look for my shadow.

The humpbacks. Too many memories and stories to retell them all.

“What’s the closest you’ve ever been?”

Such a simple question in theory. But mere numbers cannot begin to convey what it feels like to watch the water come alive. To watch it quiver as the head and back of a 40 ton creature breaks the surface ten feet away. To describe the simultaneous rush of euphoria and terror. Your gut screaming for you to run and to stand still. How three seconds can last lifetimes. What it’s like to watch a tail as wide as a Cessna break the surface. The sound of rushing and dripping water. And than… gone. Just like that. No trace, no markings save for some rippling water. It defies description. How does something so big just… disappear?

Somehow, through the beauty and grace of the universe, this became my job. To paddle among these animals. To learn the tides and eddies as intimately as a lover. And to pass that love on to others. To pull them gently from their comfort zones and into a world that continues to persevere. And above all, to show them that wilderness is something to worship. To love and cherish. That all we need to do is tap into those ancient desires deep within each of us. It’s not something to be feared, for respect and terror are not exclusive. Follow her rules, read her tides, understand her weather, and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams.

This is home. Perhaps I cannot trace my ancestry back to the fog choked mountains of southeast Alaska. But I’ll love it as if I can.

These are the Places You Will Find me Hiding

In a land defined by mountains, Gustavus stands alone. Gustavus, prairie country. Well, as close as you can get to prairie country up here. At the mouth of Glacier Bay is a strip of land. An old glacial outwash that the glaciers of old used as a dumping ground for the remains of the rock they had ground to a pulp. What remains today is a stretch of land so flat the bubble on the level falls dead center. All around is regularly scheduled programming. Chichagof Island and its mountains to the south, the Fairweathers to the west, the Beartracks to the north, and the Chilkat mountains and Excursion ridge to the east. Distant yes, but never out of mind, even when shrouded in the blankets of clouds that dominate the sky.

It’s fitting that Gustavus is southeast Alaska’s little geographic rebel. One of the few towns that don’t have to concern themselves with building into a mountain or around pesky fjords or bays that jut into sharp cut glacial rock. Nothing but sand, trees, and moose to build around. Because like the land, the people of Gustavus are unique. A cast of people that have chosen love, laughter, cold beer, and blue grass over profit, capitalism, manifest destiny, and Justin Bieber.

This is a town where people still wave as they drive by, failure to do so the highest of insults. Where a run to the local store for a bag of oats turns into a 45-minute conversation about everything or nothing. No one brushes past with downcast eyes, avoiding contact. Smiles are plentiful, good vibes abundant, the people seem ageless. Yesterday I learned that a lady I’d took for somewhere between 30 and 35 was celebrating her fiftieth birthday by traveling to Iceland. In a nation obsessed with youth, with looking young, and banishing wrinkles, maybe Gustavus is the fountain of youth. Maybe smiles, a gracious heart, and a quick laugh can do what plastic surgery cannot, and for a much more reasonable price.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the normal American lifestyle. But from my limited exposure in what many would perceive to be a normal existence, the term community has become little more than window dressing. A way to lump together a group of people that happen to live in the same area. This is not Gustavus. Gustavus is a place where community is still community. To enter into this place is to become part of a family 400 strong. Want to spend a winter here? We’ll help you find a place, chop wood, fill the chest freezer with halibut, salmon, deer, and moose.

A couple of years ago a young man moved here. He knew no one. Two weeks after arriving, his house burned to the ground. Within hours, someone had moved a yurt onto his property for shelter. Food was left on the front porch, money and building materials donated.

“I don’t know any of you folks,” read the thank you letter he posted at the store, “but to all of you, thank you. I am truly moved and touched.”

Home. This is home. How can it not? How can we—myself and Brittney—not want to be a part of this? Suburbia? Fine for some I suppose. Who am I to say how others should live? But give me the place where I know everyone by name. Where, should the worst ever happen there will be 400 pair of hands to pick me back up. It’s impossible not to feel happy and blissful here. We’re isolated, but never alone. We are a people of guides, fisherman, businessmen, woodsmen, parkies, lodgies, seasonals, and locals. Democrats, Republicans, Christian, Mormon, Druid, Pagan, Atheist, John Muir apostles. But we are all residents of Gustavus. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.