Category Archives: Gustavus 2015

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.

Lessons of the Beardslees

Paddling in a double kayak is about rhythm, matching your stroke to your partners. The rise and fall in perfect synchrony: dip, push, pull, lift, switch. After a while it becomes meditative, the landscape and hours slipping by, the sun slowly pivoting across the blue sky. Feet in front of me Brittney sets a steady pace, the kayak’s bow cutting silently through the Beardslee Islands, briefly disturbing the calm surface of the ocean before the ripples dissipate, covering our tracks.
Eight inches below the water is glass. It’s surface reflecting the islands, the mountains, our very being back at us with the distortion of refraction. Twisting our reality ever so slightly but no less authentic. We cut across the mouth of Secret Bay and jut briefly north along the Young Island Peninsula. Strawberry Island stands at the mouth of the Beardslee Entrance. The gateway to a maze of homogenous islands. The birds eye view of our maps reveal their distinctive points, coves, and bays.
But when you paddle within them, their uniqueness vanishes, replaced by gradual rocky beaches leading up to forests of spruce, hemlock, alder, and cottonwood. Weaving through, it’s easy to imagine getting lost in a land of identical land masses that punctuate the water ways. Easy to get confused in a sea of conformity as you try to match the point on the map with the four similar ones you just paddled past.
But by the time we reach the entrance it all becomes clear. The lower bay leaps out from behind the islands and my eyes follow contours of the land north where the glaciers lay, advancing and retreating, never sleeping. You could spend years studying the geography of the bay and never know all of it. The price you pay for living in a land that is constantly changing. From the other boat Leah points toward a small cove that overlooks the entrance, the sun warming the rocks. I push down with my left foot and the boat concedes to my request, the stern swinging right.
A few hours ago we’d slipped through the cut on an uninspiring 10-foot high tide using the back door to slip into the Beardslee’s. In places the keel of our kayak whispered as it kissed the blue mussels and barnacles barely submerged at the high tide. A few years ago our boat would have safely passed through on a ten foot high, but with the land rising at three quarters of an inch per year, nothing can be taken for granted here. Maps routinely became obsolete within years, riverlets between islands viewed within varying degrees of suspicion, nothing was real until you’d paddled it, seen for yourself how much the bay had truly changed.
Our boat kisses off the rocks on the ebbing tide as we stretch stiff legs and backs like an old man rising from his favorite chair. A curtain of reed grass four feet high stands like a fence at the top of the beach. We stop and scan for a moment to see if our landing has stirred up a pair of black ears attached to a tan muzzle, but all is quiet save for the chorus of the birds, and the steady drone of a boat as it chugs north through Sitakaday Narrows, sharing the sound with the lower bay.
Names rattle off my tongue like long lost friends; Tlingit Point, Drake Island, Geikie Inlet, Marble Mountain. Somewhere above them are the glaciers of the west arm where undoubtedly, a pair of cruise ships throws wakes onto the beaches as they churn through Tarr Inlet.
“All that time on the water,” wrote Kim Heacox, “and never close to it.”
It made me sad to think about. How much of this place can’t be experienced from ten stories above. Isolated, withdrawn, with controlled heating, air conditioning, buffets, casinos and gift shops. But how many really did want to take a big drink of the land? Run their hands over the rocks, feel the laughter of the waves as they played with your boat, hear the Sea Lion roar, the Oystercatcher giggle? Unless things had changed drastically in the past few years, not many.
So we talk about what we can control, the people that do want to take a drink, see their reflection refracted back on the mirror of the ocean. Leah talks about finding common ground, guiding is more listening than speaking some times.
“No one ends up in Gustavus by accident,” I offer. “It’s deliberate.”
Leah nods, “a lot of the time we’re preaching to the choir. The people that want to go paddling care deeply about places like this, enough that they really want experience it. It’s up to us to inspire them to take what they see here and go home and in turn, inspire those that otherwise wouldn’t.”
It’s true, the climate change pharisee, the six figure oil employee isn’t the padding type. If they were they probably wouldn’t be what they are.
From the mouth of the west arm comes a great white monster, a cruise ship materializing, even dozens of miles away it plows south like a great floating skyscraper.
In the fall Leah travels to Canada and leads polar bear viewing trips. It is here, that she must fight to find common ground, to listen instead of speak.
“There are some that want to see the bears, but if they had to chose between their SUVs and oil development or polar bears, they’re taking the car. You have to find something in that moment they they’ll connect with, because for a lot of them, they’re not worried about what will happen to these places in the future.”
I feel cynicism and frustration rise in my chest. 70% of Americans claim to support environmental policies. But we’ve elected a congress that hasn’t passed a conservation policy in years.
Save the world. As long as it’s convenient.
I look back into the Beardslee’s the route we’d taken hidden and concealed by the optical illusions of dozens of points, coves, and forests. Every island looking the same, but in actuality so different.
The cruise ship grows larger, on board are thousands of people that look just like us, perched on the rocks. Perhaps that was the challenge, the goal of the naturalist and conservationist. To stop looking from above at these people where every difference was so obvious. To stop looking at the map of the Beardslee’s as it were, and to actually paddle it. So that we could both see that, we weren’t all that different.
“We have to find common ground,” Leah repeats, “even if it’s just for a moment.”

A Worthy Excuse

The sun finally glides below the outstretched tendrils of stand of spruce trees that line the yard, casting our house abruptly into twilight. A twilight that arrives at 8:00. Down the hall the washer growls and snarls as it tosses salt soaked wool and polyester in preparation for tomorrow.
On the edge of the couch I crouch, hunched over a laptop, back bent strangely as the muscles still struggle to loosen after digging into the seat of my kayak. The beer’s helping though as I take a sip, squint through my sun fatigued eyes, and type furiously.
Deadlines are never fun. What I really wanted to do was submit to the waterfall of hot water that Brittney was reveling in at that very moment. But the paper I’d snagged off the freelance website was basically done, good enough in fact.
The laptop snaps closed decisively and Porter raises his head a quarter of an inch, fully attuned to the room’s shifting energy. He shoots an optimistic look towards the sliding door and his playground beyond. A land of voles and dogs on what he hoped were reinforced tethers.
“And coyotes.” I remind him as I slip through the door and slide it shut behind me.     Too apathetic to even shoot me a steely eyed glare with his glacial eyes, he drops his head back to the edge of the couch, tail twitching indignantly.
In Gustavus virtually everything is within two miles and the Pathfinder sits neglected in the dandelion infested gravel driveway. A pair of easter green bikes lay haphazardly placed on the small concrete slab we’ve taken to calling a porch. 
    Brittney’s chain falls off reliably every half mile while the ring that holds my handlebars has been replaced by duct tape, the hand grips pointing down towards the ground, leaving me to grasp the very center of the handles like some lost and befuddled Lance Armstrong. But it moves when you peddle and the grocery store with our version of “lightening fast” internet isn’t far away.
How ironic, that in a few months, we’d be on an island in which we comprise two-thirds of the population and we’d be luxuriating in fiber optic cable internet. Granted, indoor plumbing and hot running water will have gone the way of the amish, but Netflix would be but a click away.
While here, in the crux of civilization, population 360, you had to bike a mile to reach a connection that would load your gmail sometime between now and sunrise.
The gravel road is inundated with dust. Even rain forests can have droughts, we just measure them in days instead of weeks and months while the salmon swim in holding patterns waiting for the rivers to rise and open the doorway home.
I glide through the stopsign at the lone intersection as the clock strikes nine and glance over my shoulder. Saturday night and the only restaurant in town was shutting down, another wild weekend. I look back ahead and hear my breaks squeak. Unbeknownst to me. My twilight cycle is not solitary.
A high patch of grass sits fifty yards ahead on the road’s left bank, a comma between two gravel driveways. Settled in the middle is a Gustavus lawn mower. The moose glances up nonchalantly, its mouth moving in the hypnotizing manner of ungulates, somehow horizontal and vertical simultaneously. At my sudden stop she takes an uncertain step towards me.
If she wants the road it’s all hers and I slide my bike to the left and onto the drive, opening up an avenue up the road or across toward the wooded ditch on the far side. She considers her options for a moment longer, and with an air of completely deserved entitlement begins to saunter across the road for the ditch, her hooves echoing on the concrete.
I watch her slow gait away, wishing she could stay longer instead of conceding to the higher powers of the willow on the far side that demanded her attention. Never breaking stride she vanishes into the wooded ditch, deceptively hidden from view like a magician’s illusion.
Hoping back aboard the bike I peddle past, she’s completely invisible, but this is not a stealthy phantom and her heavy footfalls let loose the crash and crack of brush cracking and bending to her will.
The yard in front of the store is thankfully moose free and I open the laptop to finish the days work, my mind already in a lava hot shower, steam billowing like campfire smoke.
“Here’s the assignment,” I scribble fast, “hope it works for you. Had to wait for a moose to clear the road before I could send it off.”
I smile at the beautiful inconveniences of my eden and hit the send button as the moose crashes through ditch 100 feet away.

Giving Up Control

Forty feet, forty tons, one ton per foot, half ton of herring per day each carrying as much fat as a Big Mac. For three summers I handed out quantitative factoids like science flavored tic tacs, sometimes three times a day with my brain sliding into auto pilot. I’d try to encompass the life history of a humpback whale before the engines roared above 3,000 RPMs, drowning out my voice.

And yet, there is a detached feeling from the bow of a boat, the railing a secure barrier between man and whale. You see them, hear them, hell, sometimes you can even smell them, the rotten smell of herring or the curiously enjoyable scent of cucumbers after they’ve been scarfing capelin. But you are separated, protected by that steel hull, the constant grumble of the boat engines. Yet the safety comes at the price of intimacy. There are memorable moments of course, the alarming sight of basketball sized bubbles encircling the boat, the high pitched scream of the feeding calls reverberating through my boots.

“John! We’re in the net!”

“Oh my,” the captain answered, sliding the boat smoothly into reverse, clearing the net just as ten mouths break the surface, herring and saltwater running down their throats.

But nothing compares to a humpback at sea level, from the seat of your kayak. With nowhere to run or hide, the whale in complete control of the encounter. The extraordinary recipe of fear, excitement, and pleasure as the tail rises, vanishes, and you realize that its pointed directly at you. Do you go forward? Backward? Turn towards or away? Is the whale going to swim straight or zig zag? Your mind pulls you deeper into the wormhole. Is it feeding? Lunging? Your stomach tightens, what if it lunges, you glance shiftily in the water below your boat, here? In your mind you see the massive maw, rocketing through the column like a rocket. There are no engines, no barriers, you are completely and entirely in their territory. What happens next is up to them.

“It’s not that I think they’d try to hurt me.” I explain, “it’s that they don’t have to try, all they have to do is shrug their shoulders and… you’re airborne.”

So you just bob in the currents, eyes shooting back and forth. You have five to ten long, spell binding, exhilarating minutes, like a drawn out suspense scene in a Hitchcock film, waiting. “You gotta breathe,” you whisper into the silence. No matter where the whale surfaces you just want it to happen, to break the tension.

On calm days you can see the shadow first, than a bulbous bulb of water as the whale rises, the water’s surface tension covering the body like cellophane. Until finally it breaks the surface, spent air shooting into the air like a volcano, the bass of the exhalation resonating in your chest.

And so a stupid grin spreads over your face, soft exclamations escape your lips as you sit under its spell until the back arches towards the sun, the tail hovers parallel to the sea for a brief moment, water dripping from the trailing edge, and finally vanishes, into the world that we cannot follow. For a few moments you bob in the whale’s wake, your heart pounding, fingers tingling, adrenaline coursing. And than you start to wonder… should I go forward? backward? The curtain has fallen, the next show will begin in ten minutes. Try to find something pretty to look at while you wait

Different View, Same Soundtrack

I wake to the gust of cold wind on my face, the breeze a soothing tonic against my cheeks, encouraging me to dig deeper into my sleeping bag propped on the deck chair of the ferry’s solarium. It’s not even seven but the horizon already glows with rosy morning light, soothing confirmation that we’re still moving north. I poke my head out and look over the rails, my heartbeat slows. Gone are the buildings, the roads, the lights that had bombarded us from the shore as the sun went down with nothing more than the occasional lighthouse to interrupt the parade of rocky beaches and mighty cedars.

I stare out at the blue road ahead, the trees slowly melting by. Less than 24 hours ago we had been sitting in traffic, trapped on the I-5 with nothing but outlet malls and tail lights for company. I could feel my world realigning with the compass pointed resolutely north away from the alien world of cities, suburbs, and concrete. I return to my sleeping bag drinking in the cool spring air, and go right back to sleep.

The mountains feel like old friends, familiar faces as the ferry steams into Juneau. Auke, Thunder, and McGinnis, call out in greeting as we drive down the ramp, bleary eyed but exhilarated to be home. The Mendenhall Glacier still stands guard at the foot of the towers, with Thunder and McGinnis mountains guarding its’ flanks. How good it felt to be back, the comfort, the familiarity, the mountain’s friendly faces, extinguished any longing for Hanson Island. If I couldn’t be there, this was the next best thing.

24 hours later, we were finally done. The Pathfinder sputtered to life one final time, taking us up one final ramp and into the town of Gustavus. Town however, may be to generous. The lone stop sign lies a mile and a half inland from the ferry dock, affectionately known as, “four corners” the only intersection in town. Everywhere you look are mountains, but unlike Juneau, they lie benignly in the distance. The town is midwest prairie flat, a quirky anomaly in a region in which towns are built on, around, and through mountains. In spite of their distance, the mountain’s names come back to me easily like a familiar song that you haven’t heard in years. The mountain ranges of the Fairweather, Beartrack, and Chilkat surround us to the west, north, and east. To the south, across Icy Strait, is Chichagof Island, its own collection of mountains give the impression that we are in a massive bowl surrounded on all sides by distant peaks.

We slow to a stop and consider our options. Two of the four roads lead to the two ways out of town, the ferry behind us, and the airport, the third leads down a dirt road, the left hand turn is the longest, stretching north past unassuming roads dotted with log homes and protected by thick canopies of spruce and hemlock. Seven miles down later it ends in Glacier Bay, the crown jewel of southeast Alaska. It seems fitting, that in a land renown for its’ natural beauty, it’s most marvelous feature would lay, unassuming, next to a tiny hamlet accessible only by air and sea.

Here there would be no tour buses, no fleets of helicopters or airplanes, no navy of whale watching boats. If you wanted to be here, there would be no shortcuts. In the summer months a pair of cruise ships would ply the waters of the bay, rushing up the west arm of the Y shaped bay to sit in front of the Margerie Glacier. But for those that wanted to truly be here. To trace the footsteps of John Muir, Stickeen, and others, there would be no port of call.

It was perfect. Years ago someone asked me to describe what Glacier Bay and Gustavus was like: “like someone dropped a bunch of people here in the 70s, and airlifted in a bunch of Beatles vinyl.” Every passing car waves, every face lit into a smile. Moose poop frames our yard along with a gentle blanket of willow and baby birch trees. The scene is so different from the one we left on Hanson Island, but no less beautiful. No less peaceful, no less… us.

Our first morning brings a striking similarity. As I crack the door to let the cat resume his life of roaming through the forest, a Varied Thrush calls out from a nearby Spruce and is immediately answered by another. One week and a thousand miles later, the same birds continue to serenade us, reminding me, that, no matter which country we’re in. We’re home.