There’s only one hill in Gustavus. Like everything else it’s accessed via a dirt road, and only a dirt road. It’s known as The Hydro. Because it’s here, at the headwaters of Excursion Ridge that we get our power. The road leads up the ridge to the hydro damn and offers one of the only bird’s eye views of the surrounding country.
One can continue up over the top of the ridge and look down at the inlet with the same name. Or swing north, through the valley and up the Chilkat Mountains. And if one is especially endowed with testicular fortitude, they can continue north and follow those big beautiful mountains all the way to Haines. Among the young folk fly rumors about the old timers that have done just that. The same people who built there homes before the Hydro was even laid. Measuring and cutting wood by the light of oil lamps or barking generators. A different generation. The Jedi Knights of Gustavus. Tonight we have no desire to walk to Haines, much less view Excursion Inlet. Tonight all Brittney, Jen, Patrick, and I want to do is watch the sun set beyond Icy Strait.
The road is packed hard from several days of freezing. Winter set in with little warning. Summer’s swan song came in the form of the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced this side of the Tropics. Six inches of rain in 24-hours. It flooded the very road that connects the Hydro to town. But it’s been a week of sun. Sun and cold that has kept the heater going and me questioning the viability of storing our dishwater outside where it happily freezes. No matter. Layered in wool and down, we push up the hill, using muscles that aren’t often utilized here.
In a world defined by glaciers, it seems incredible that only Gustavus would give way to a massive flood plain. Elsewhere the glaciers cut into the mountains and leave dramatic hanging glaciers, mountain pools, and rounded summits. Except here. From halfway up the uniqueness of our home stands out. We’re surrounded by mountains. Fairweathers to the west, Beartrack and Excursion to the north and east, Chichagof to the south beyond Icy Strait.
As the glacier pushed down in the late 1600s it stretched across the floodplain Gustavus now occupies, stopping short of Excursion Ridge but reaching Icy Strait at what is now the mouth of Glacier Bay. Gustavus and the Bay is virgin land. The ridge we climb is as old and wizened as the finest old growth in Juneau. In just a few short miles the world has changed from Shore Pine and Alder to Hemlock, Spruce, and even Yellow Cedar. An entirely different world.
We reach the ledge where the trail cuts into the ridge and offers unobstructed views of home. The whole lower Bay, Gustavus, and Icy Strait stretch out like a tablecloth. Here is a perspective kayaking can’t offer. The sun plummets beneath Lemeursier Island, that big old sentinel in the middle of the strait, shielding us from the worst the Pacific Ocean’s winter storms have to offer. In centuries past it was a fort for the Huna Tlingit, giving them a vantage point and an early warning of visitors. Today it’s designated wilderness, combining with Pleasant and the Inian Islands to mark the southern border of an expanse of wild land that stretches all the way into Canada and back into Alaska.
I look at the flood plain that is my home. The home the glaciers made for us and can just as easily take away. Aside from a solitary tendril of smoke rising near the Salmon River, there is no sign of habitation. A community of nearly 500 people hidden in the pines. Placed next to the millions of acres of protected land it seems small and insignificant.
The sun disappears entirely and I wonder, not for the first time, what that glacial architect must have looked like. In 1750 the glacier (later named the Grand Pacific and still visible at the terminus of the West Arm) stretched 65-miles south of its current location and all the way into Icy Strait, stopping just short of “Lem” its fingers stretching out like a man in the dark, groping for the shore. What would have happened had it found a toe hold? Would it have been able to envelop the whole island? Or would the powerful currents of the strait ripped it apart? Having extended too far, she retreated, leaving us with a land rich in high bush cranberries and salmon.
As we watch the final vestiges of light fade away, I give a silent thanks to the glacier for this place. We talk, we laugh, we drink whiskey, we take the inevitable silhouette photos (I am unaware that it’s supposed to be a funny pose and stand stoically for the first one). And we utter the phrase we say almost every day. A phrase that reminds us how stinking lucky we are to have found our way here.
“We get to live here.”