Category Archives: Gustavus 2015

The Spirit Walker I

The water shimmered, reflecting shades of gray and green in the morning light. Fog hugged the peaks of the Beartrack Mountains like a cloak, wrapping their peaks in an ever flowing blanket. A determined ray of sun stabbed through the fog and mist, its finger crawling along the liquid mirror of the ocean, moving up the barnacle covered rocks emerging from the midnight high tide. The ray moved beyond the rye grass, turning their grains gold as they floated past, their early morning dew glowing like flakes of gold. It moved past the strawberries above the tide line and the tattered remains of an unmade bear bed abandoned just hours ago, its mattress of moss still warm. From the flat plane beyond a trio of Spruce trees the light finally rested against pale yellow canvas.
Within the tiny tent came the rustles of early morning life, a cough and a groan emerged as cold, stiff appendages protested the early disturbance. Here it was warm, comfortable. Eventually the growl of a zipper floated across the landscape joining the early morning calls of the ravens, murrelets, and gulls. A head adorned in gray wool appeared, brown and white curls peaking beneath, emerald green eyes squinting even as the few fingers of light retreated back beyond the clouds.
Reed stepped clear of the tent and staggered slowly around the trees, ambling down the beach, his gait slow and uneven as he stumbled over loose rock. One hundred yards down, buried in the rye grass lay a pair of black, cylindrical bear cans. Prying the lid off one of them, Reed settled himself upon a broad flat rock and watched the sun struggle to reappear as water rose to a boil making the oats in the sauce pan quiver and dance.
Stretched before him lay the middle and upper segments of Glacier Bay. From his vantage point on Young Island the land opened out before him like a picture book. The long seductive legs of the Y shaped bay tapered off in the distance leading to the destructive and creating forces of the glaciers. After 50 years there were few estuaries, inlets, and passes that he had not explored, slept in, or felt the stinging ice of a sudden storm seeking out every weakness in his jacket and tent. In his mind he could trace the land like the lines on his weathered and wrinkled hands.
Today marked the beginning of his seventh decade on earth. Nearly every summer had been spent here. Biologist, writer, guide, educator, and student. The more time he spent with the bay the less he seemed to know. She was full of surprises. Storms the most skilled meteorologist would be flummoxed by. Dispatching bears, precipitation and tide rips to do her bidding. She weeded out the unprepared and those too quick to romanticize her beauty and splendor. She stole kayaks off the beach with 19 foot tides, hid armies of Devils Club beyond the tree line, and set loose armadas of mosquitos with every opportunity.
Reed had learned from her, evolving as the bay itself evolved. The ice that was her architect never ceasing to carve, create, and destroy its own work of art, biding its time until it grew tired of the masterpiece and sent glaciers charging south to wipe the canvas clean.
A fine mist began to fall and Reed tilted his head back, letting the minuscule droplets fall on his face, the water dripping from his long grey eyebrows, his bleach white beard absorbing the moisture like a sponge. He managed a deep breath and felt the stabbing pain in his chest again, the knife twisting into his lungs, the throbbing magnifying in intensity as it had been for months.
Thirty minutes later, his tent and gear stored fore and aft, he slid his kayak into the shallows sending out ripples that stretched before him to mark the trail he’d follow. With a grunt he struggled into his fiberglass boat, hearing and feeling his knees crack and pop as he manipulated his long legs, stretching them out before him, toes groping for the rudder pedals. Jamming his paddle into the fine sand he pushed clear of the beach, the keel whispering as it brushed over the rocks on the still falling tide. Working against the ebb he paddled north, into the bay that had dominated his life, it was fitting that it should end here.
The minutes bled into hours, time marked only by the creeping movement of the sun still hidden beyond the clouds. The rain came and went as a fine mist, too impatient or lazy to commit. As the day slowly passed, the years seemed to vanish, the pain in his back melting, the stiffness in his legs forgotten. The melody of his youth escaped his lips, the songs of John, Paul, George, and Ringo floating across the water to fall on the boughs of the spruce and hemlock he paddled past.
For lunch he joined the otters in the kelp bed, wrapping stalks of bull kelp around the hull, anchoring himself in place as he produced bread, peanut butter, and a carefully rationed beer. These aquatic forests reminded him of the Tlingit, the rightful tenants of the bay. It was in these forests that they had gone to seek shelter when the wind blew too hard, blanketing themselves in kelp to nestle within the hulls of their boats patiently waiting for the ocean to relax. Such was their faith in the sea, their breadbasket, livelihood, and highway, that even in her most angry moment they would not abandon her.
Freeing himself from the kelp, Reed paddled on, a laminated map pinned under bungee cords in front of him, spelling out the names long ago given to the land in a fruitless effort to bring human order to a world we cannot even begin to understand. Each one conjured up memories, a comfort food for the brain. Long ago he’d started to rename the points, bays, and coves for what he had experienced and witnessed. Just as the Tlingits had given the bay practical names, so had he. They had christened the bay with descriptions and stories. “Place where the glacier broke through,” and “giant rock beneath the green bluff.” He had followed their example, and as south Marble Island grew larger and larger he entered, “passage where the orca hunted sea lion.”
He continued north, infant waves growing in the mid afternoon that had long ago hidden any evidence of what had taken place on an early Spring day years ago. Reed had been just twenty-six, his first season as a kayak guide when they’d stumbled upon the dramatic production of the food chain. The watery wolf pack had exploded from nowhere; perhaps from the underworld in which they’re latin name was derived, to send torrents of white water high into the sharp blue sky. In the chop and whirlpools they rammed their victim, the sea lions eyes wide with terror as the four of orcas circled, dove, and resumed their attack, the youngest looking on.
There was no malice in these creatures, Reed thought as he sat paralyzed 200 yards away, no sadistic pleasure in their hunt. This was life. The only way to survive, to continue the game that had been set in motion eons ago when their parents had followed the retreating glaciers. Had watched as they pealed back the curtain to reveal the labyrinth of islands and channels that would be their home for centuries.
The battle raged for an hour but there was no debate over how the drama would unfold. No sudden plot twists, no unexpected hero overcoming the odds. Nature has little interest in theatrics. Minutes later the ocean had covered up the deed, washing away any evidence, and on the sea lion haul out a mile away, life continued, unchanged.
A gust of wind tugged him back to the present, the tide shifting to flood, the breeze bounding north with the current like a sled dog. The pain in his chest intensified, his toes numb from bracing against the boat. Aiming perpendicular to the rising waves Reed paddled gamely for shore, the trees gaining definition and height as he pulled closer.
By the time the keel had kissed the shore the sun had finally broken through the dissipating clouds, turning the ocean from gray to sapphire and punctuated with rising white caps as the wind grew in intensity. Reed hauled his kayak up the beach. His feet slipping over slick seaweed that held to the rocks like glue. With a final heave he laid the kayak to rest beyond the beach grass in the protective shadow of the alders that signified safety from even the most motivated high tide.
His gear stashed and food stowed down the beach, Reed stretched out on the smallest, smoothest rocks he could find, letting the wind dry the sweat from his cheeks and forehead. Removing the wool hat he ran his hands through his thin and wispy hair. The medication would have made the last of it fall out they’d told him. If he was going to go, he was going with every last strand of hair he could hold on to. The rocks felt more comfortable than any mattress, the pounding of the waves more soothing than any fan. He closed his eyes and laid back, and felt himself drift away.
The pain in his lungs was gone. His body smooth, muscular, and powerful. His legs felt fused together as they pumped in unison. In the darkness he could feel the cold, rushing liquid speed past his face. And though he knew the water could be no warmer than 50 degrees he felt no chill, no shiver radiating up his spine. Just out of sight to his left and right swam his family, his identity, his pod. A whispered voice, high pitched and authoritative floated through the currents and Reed angled his rostrum up as he felt a gentle burn building in his lungs. The water lightened, turning from black to deep blue, a rush of air and his nostrils flexed, opening his airway, spent oxygen returning to the atmosphere. With a gasp he sucked in a fresh breath, sinking below the waves, feeling his dorsal fin cutting the surface and tickling his back. His mother dove beneath him. Her call commanded him to follow and he obeyed without question feeling his sister and nephew behind him, somewhere ahead was his brother. From his moment of birth he wanted for nothing, had lusted for nothing, born into a family that would supply him with all he would ever want.
His mother whispered again and the chatter from his nephew died away, the pod went silent. Oxygen from his last breath would have to sustain him as it pounded through massive arteries. He could hear it now in the ocean’s stillness, a splashing straight ahead and above. The sea lion bobbed on the surface, paddling away from the haul out, bound for who knew what. His timing couldn’t have been worse. Reed’s mother was a master, a specialist in his kind, she had a family to sustain, and if the intuition in her womb was true, there would be another to feed in a matter of months. For five minutes they swam on, a single pump of his tail propelling him further than ten strokes would with his paddle. His mother’s flipper brushed against him, his brother’s dorsal fin grazing his stomach, everything he’d ever need was here.
With a single screeching yelp, they shot upward, bubbles rushing past his face, the light returning, a single ping forward bounced back in a heartbeat, it was a sea lion, it was above, it was dinner, it was survival. He hit it dead on, feeling it’s bones crack against his rostrum, felt it fall away as he broke clear of the water, into dazzling light, saw his own human face alight with shock, wonder, and amazement, the snapshot burning into the back of his head as he fell into the waves, heard his nephew’s excited chitters and dove into darkness for his next charge.
Reed’s eyes snapped open, with a great gasp he exhaled as if coming to the surface after a deep dive. For a moment his head jerked back and forth, orientating. The sun was dipping beneath the mountains of the upper bay, turning the sky crimson, the wind had submitted to the atmosphere’s higher calling, the ocean settling as it prepared for a restful night.
Reed stretched out his flippers…. no, his arms and reached up above his head, his fingers brushed against something that was not rock and his hand froze. He could feel something long and wiry, and another object, firm and pointed. He grabbed a handful of the artifacts and brought them to his face, eyes wide in shock. Rolling onto his side he stared at the sea lion whiskers and claws on the rocks next to him.
Reflexively he stared back out at “passage where orca hunted sea lion,” the memories flooding back. He shook his head and felt water drip down his neck. Bringing a hand to his thin hair he found it soaking wet. As he wiped the water from his mouth he let out a scream as his hand pulled back, a deep red red liquid staining his skin. The tide had risen several feet as he’d slept – is that what it was? – and he staggered to the waters edge. Cupping water in his palms he splashed his face watching the water turn red as he feverishly scrubbed his cheeks and beard clean.
Getting to his feet Reed felt his knees shuddering. With as deep a breath as his lungs would allow he tried to steady himself, to dam the tidal waves of adrenaline ripping through his body like the ocean in full flood on a spring tide. Climbing the beach he returned to the pile of claws and whiskers, each arranged in a neat pile between the rocks where he’d laid. For the longest time he stood on the beach until the water lapped at his feet. Finally Reed knelt down, water spilling over the top of his boots and gently plucked a whisker and claw between thumb and forefinger, carrying them above the water’s reach toward his camp, his mind spinning, his head dizzy.

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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.

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.