She lay in an old shipping container. The kind found on the back of trucks roaring up and down the concrete riverbeds we call interstates and highways. But this one had been laid to rest here. Tucked away in a corner of a lot in Bartlett Cove. Through the trees I can hear the wind, smell the air breeze, ear cocked for the sound of a humpback. How out of place the egg white box of metal looks here. No flowers or grasses growing around it. Just a strip of gravel turning dusty in the early July heat.
Inside lie her bones.
I feel a thrill of excitement as Chris Gabrielle pulls a key from her pocket and unlocks the deadbolt. Together we lift the big metal latch, its joints creaking and groaning as the big door slides open. I don’t notice the smell at first. But as Chris flicks a light switch and ignites a small bare bulb, it overwhelms me. It is musty, sweet but sickly. Something about it smells alive, even in her death. I walk into the container, breathing shallow, fighting the urge to cover my nose with my shirt.
After almost ten years, she still lives in some way. Organic matter and oils still seeping out of her ribs, humorous, and vertebrae. I can’t help myself. I reach out and touch one of the vertebrae. As big as a tire and bleached white, I run my hands up and down all that remains of Snow. Here along the racks and shelves, were all that was left of her forty-five foot, thirty-five ton body.
The year is 2001. Somewhere in the mouth of Glacier Bay swims Snow. Inside her new life is growing. Is she aware that she’s pregnant? That in half a year there will be a miniature her swimming and breathing? The baby will drink a milk that is 50% fat, the consistency of yogurt. I wonder if she heard the cruise ship. If she had any inkling of its approach. If she could have gotten out of the way. If the ship could have. The nose of a cruise ship is so far from the engines in the stern that they create “sound holes,” right off their bow. There’s a good chance Snow never knew what hit her.
Janet Neilson (then Janet Doherty) found her. Dead whales are rarely found. Usually they disappear. Sink to the bottom and vanish, presumed missing. But it’s as if Snow wanted to be found. Janet discovered her floating off Point Gustavus, not far from where an anonymous cruise ship passenger reported feeling a thump. They towed Snow to the beach, necropsied her body, and discovered a fractured brain case and crushed vertebrae.
Gustavus mourned, the park service gave press releases, security footage was seized, attorneys went to work.
“The crime wasn’t in accidentally striking the whale,” said a park employee, “the crime was in failing to report it.” I’m not sure Snow would agree. Neither do I.
In the middle of the shipping container is an old iron claw bathtub, the porcelain chipped and rusting. But it doesn’t leak, at least not yet. Chris hands me a great bucket of industrial kitchen degreaser and instructs me to fill the tub with the stuff and soak Snow’s bones one at a time. Oil, she explains, is still seeping out of her bones. The goal was to remove the rest of the organic matter from the bones so that they could be preserved for years. An exhibit was being prepared down by the beach. Where in a way, she could live forever.
On sunny days I climb onto the roof of the container, lining her ribs up neatly to bleach in the never ending Alaskan sun. I soak the vertebrae overnight in the degreaser, greeted each morning by the strong smell of leaching oil, a pearly iridescent sheen on the surface of the tub.
Down another road, behind a locked gate is her skull. My stomach twists the first time I see it. I run my hand across the deep fracture in the skull. If a passenger felt the collision, than surely the crew did as well. But who wants the headline: “Cruise Ship Kills Whale in National Park?” Bad for business. But thirty-five ton bodies don’t always disappear. I pressure wash her skull, obliviating the moss attempting to grow on her. When the yard empties I crawl beneath the skill and lay in her mouth, imagining. Rows of baleen, gallons of sea water, tons of wriggling herring.
And I’m indebted to them. The cruise ships I mean. Wouldn’t be here without them. Wouldn’t have had summer work in Juneau when I graduated from college. Would not be sitting at this wooden table in Gustavus watching the storms roll through, the moose calves grow up, and the rain pound on the roof. I owe my beautiful little life, in some way, to an industry that makes me uncomfortable. That kills whales, that leaves a massive carbon footprint. That shows a million people Alaska every year, even if it is a watered down, fast food version. 14,000 people a day in Juneau. But what’s the alternative? I can’t take 14,000 people kayaking in Bartlett Cove. Is seeing this place from ninth story better than not seeing it at all?
Edward Abbey would say no. But I should be confident enough to form my own opinion. But I can’t. Because like this bay, nothing is black and white. A single receding glacier does not signify climate change, just as an advancing one does not disprove it. We must step back, way back. Look at the big picture objectively, rationally. We don’t like the big picture. Step far enough back and we become mitigated, aware of how insignificant we are.
That’s the beauty of the kayak, the hiker, the backcountry camper. You have no choice but to confront your own significance. At how small you are away from the billboards and street lights. It’s uncomfortable. Change always is. Tough to be uncomfortable from the ninth story.
I don’t know what the answer is. Abbey wouldn’t be impressed.
Snow stands whole once again. Without her flesh she looks serpentine. Two tiny bones bent at obtuse angles are suspended by wires two thirds of the way along her vertebrae and a foot below it. They’re all that remains of her legs. In time evolution will remove them from whale’s entirely. Like our appendix they are vestigial, no longer of any use.
Every day a park ranger gathers a crowd in front of Snow to give a presentation. People flock to the talks until the trail is not passable. They are independent travels, for the cruise ships do not dock here. Our kayak sheds are right next to the skeleton and I often squeeze through the raptly listening crowd. Like the cruise ships and wilderness, the talk makes me uncomfortable. I hear the ranger joke about how Snow embarked on, “the longest over land migration a whale has ever done” to be rearranged and put back together by a professional.
The crowd titters and laughs, something about it makes my blood boil. I hear them talk about the collision as a horribly tragedy. But in the same way a loved one developing an illness is tragic. Unavoidable, no way to prevent it. Never have I heard a ranger say that the cruise ship failed to report the collision. That it was not until security footage was seized and viewed did they admit to striking the whale. Perhaps they do and I have simply missed it. I don’t wish to criticize or demean. For the rangers do a job I know I couldn’t. I don’t know why I think people need to know that part of the story, but leaving it out feels like an insult to her memory.
On one of the displays is a grainy picture showing the bow of the ship, a gray pixelated sliver in the water shows Snow, her back arched, attempting to dive. Maybe she did know.
“Snow moments before tragedy,” reads the caption. Meanwhile ten miles away two cruise ships a day enter the park, passing Point Gustavus, bound for the glaciers of the west arm. Do the passengers on board know the story? Do the rangers share that story when they board every morning at the south end of Sitakaday Narrows?
I don’t know what the answer is.
All I know is that it hurts my heart to have Snow here, condemned to life as a silent ambassador. How much more she could be, churning up the waters of Bartlett Cove.
Another sunny July day. Six years since Chris opened that container and introduced us. We walk the familiar trail toward the kayak sheds. Past the old Tlingit canoe, Snow’s display coming into view.
“Have you met Snow?” I ask.
Everyone has the same reaction, a quick intake of breath, mouth open, rooted to the spot. Their first view of Snow is head on, as if she’s diving right toward you, forcing you to confront her here and now. They snap pictures and lean across the ropes, aching to touch her. Invariably the question comes.
“How did she die?”
“A cruise ship hit her.” My guiding style is one of light hearted comments. Jokes and stories over facts and figures. But not here. No over land migration jokes at Snow’s expense. Here just the full truth. “They knew they hit her but didn’t report it.”
I don’t like starting the day with something so sad. But at the same time, what a reminder that we cannot expect to leave the world the way we found it. The warming acidic water of the world should be a good enough reminder. Every kayak on the beach crushes barnacles and mussels. The leave no trace etiquette is an impossible dream. From man to mosquito, no creature was meant to leave an environment as they found it.
We linger a moment longer and turn toward the beach where I hand out life jackets, spray skirts, boots, and paddles. The water is alive with life. Sea otters cracking open shells on their stomachs, sea lions growl in frustration, a timpani of birds. I slip into my kayak and feel the world slide into place. My heart rate slows and my breath becomes steady. I don’t know what the answer is, and in this moment I don’t need one.