Category Archives: Gustavus 2016

Subject to Change

I’m paddling through a minefield. Not a dangerous one mind you. Not one that threatens me immediate harm. No, this is a magic minefield. A minefield of humpbacks. They’re serenading me, us. Every few seconds we hear another breathe. The water’s north of Young Island in Glacier Bay are full of them. How many? Five? Ten? Twenty? Thousands? It doesn’t matter. They are many. They are here. They are near.  To the left of our kayaks the latest whale breaks the surface. He’s fifty yards away, his nose pointed straight at us. My God. For the millionth time in my life I watch the back arch, the body hesitate, and the tail rise high in the air. As tall and proud as a Spanish clipper. She’s diving straight towards us. My heart pounds, my legs feel weak. I strike the surface with my paddle, my stroke noisy. I want him to know where I am. For there to be no doubt. We point the bows of our kayak towards the nearest point of land half a mile away. There’s nothing to do but paddle, our course subject to change.

Subject to change… I’ve heard that before. Or did I read it? I read it. Just this morning, killing time before the trip. Pouring over the nautical charts of Glacier Bay. The maps that make my mind race and imagination cartwheel. All of this magic bay’s coves and inlets. Here a delineation in the shoreline. A potential beach to pull out on. A potential site for a miracle to occur, for a life to change. At the base of a glacier, represented by white are the words: “area subject to change.” Subject to change, I love that. As if NOAA finally threw up their hands and gave up.

“Forget it, we’ll never get this right. Just tell them we don’t know.”

Perhaps the bay is still speaking to us. Out of the mouths of the epochs with the voice of the ice age. Reminding us, prodding us to not get comfortable. We need upheaval, to be subject to change. To not just wait for the significant calving events of life, but to embrace them. We need galloping glaciers but we need retreating ones too. The wisdom and strength to accept them.

Five minutes go by. Still no whale. He could be in front of us, behind us, below us. Every stroke could be bringing us into her path or away from it. In a kayak there’s nothing to do but paddle. With me is a family of four. Mom, Dad, their college aged son and daughter. From the mountains of Utah. But they paddle strong, their hearts are wild, their minds open. Glacier Bay is rocking some minds today. I hope it’s doing the same to them. Somewhere is a forty foot submarine. Carbon based, cloaked in blubber, eating half a ton of food per day. I don’t want to distract her. Attached to her tail is a muscle. The caudal peduncle. Fun to say, but it fails to give credit to what it can do. It’s the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom. To send a humpback rocketing from the water like a rocket it generates the same amount of energy a 747 does taking off. Anything carrying that sort of power needs respect, demands it. Teeth or baleen.

Three miles up the Lamplugh Glacier. The site of a massive rock slide. Last Sunday half a mountain fell onto the glacier. How much? 68 million SUV’s worth. Who knew a sport utility vehicle could be such a great unit of measurement. They’re the passenger of the glacier now. Of the most powerful geologic force nature can muster. You can have your volcanoes, your earthquakes. Give me the glacier. Carving, destroying, creating. In no hurry. For what artist works on any schedule but its own? The news makes me quiver. I take some radical steps, a few creative liberties. What happens when that rock reaches the glacier’s face? It will surely fall to its feet. 68 million SUVs worth. But I know how glacier’s advance. They need a protective layer of rock and dirt at their base. A lateral moraine that insulates from the salt water. If enough snowfall is accumulated above, the glacier can advance, impervious to the melting power of the saltwater. What if the Lamplugh charges… no, gallops, a galloping glacier sounds better. What if it charges across the west arm, obliviating Russell Island and roars south, changing everything about Glacier Bay that we’ve known for 50 years. What if this simple rock slides makes my world, this bay, subject to change?

Still no whale. I glance at my watch. Eight and a half minutes. The unknown more nerve wracking than the knowing. Every few strokes I tap the side of my boat.
“We’re here!” I think.
I hope my taping transmits this message. A rumble, a deep bass. I swivel around. There she is. Close, so close. Fifty yards. Pointed straight at us again. She’s massive. Of course she is. Humpbacks exhibit sexual dimorphism, the females bigger than the males. Guide mode switched on, I almost blurt out the factoid for no good reason.
“Right behind us!” I call. I try to keep my voice calm. But how are you calm with forty tons directed right at you? Ahead of us is the kelp, the closest thing to a sanctuary. This is my world. Wanting, desiring, craving to be close… but not too close. I still want control of the situation, to know that I’m out of the way. She couldn’t care less. We paddle hard, the whale invisible behind us. Forty feet that disappears with nary a ripple. Add it to the list of Glacier Bay miracles.

We reach the kelp’s open arms and I exhale. The family coasts in behind me. Their faces are alive. Exhilaration with a sprinkle of fear. Perfect, just the way it should be. Just the way Glacier Bay, Alaska as a whole expects it. I don’t want to feel safe out here. I don’t want to be in charge. Thank God there are still places where man does not dominate. We paddle on. For that’s all you do in a kayak.

I glance at the daughter. She’s in the back of the double kayak, her father in the front. She’s not that much older than I was on a certain misty and overcast day in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. The day everything changed. When an Orca by the name of Kaikash surfaced off the bow of my kayak and sent the compass of my world spinning out of control. Who knows whose life will change with the flip of a switch, with a single surfacing, a single rock slide, a single galloping glacier. But when it does, who will be brave enough to accept it and embrace it with open arms.

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Past, Present, & Future

For thirteen of the last fourteen days, I have paddled. No complaining mind you. Every morning, as the alarm beeped at 6:45, I rolled out of bed, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and reminded myself how lucky I am.

I get to kayak today. I’m gonna get paid to kayak.

Something at our genetic and biological level embraces kayaking. Our brains float in just enough liquid to roll with the flow. A roll and flow that kayaking mimics perfectly. Sit down in the seat, push yourself away from shore, and feel your heart slow down, your spirit lift, your mind breath. A soothing tonic. There is no road rage in a kayak. How can there be?

Here, inches above the water, the world makes sense. The tide ebbs and flows. You move with it, against it. Learn to worship the wind one moment and curse it the next. No other medium of travel brings you as close to the natural world. Marvel at the sea lions until you realize, they’re coming at you. Too close, too much. And it’s gone. The moment evaporating like a mist in the sun. Above all, kayaking forces you to be present. To exist in that moment and none other. There is no multi tasking. As the world demands that our hands be doing two things at once, our minds pulled in four directions simultaneously, the kayak demands our full, undivided attention.

But today is a day to see the whole 65 mile bay aboard a vessel that goes faster, much faster. Traveling by boat feels foreign. The shoreline goes by as a blur. From the top of the 60-foot catamaran, a level of intimacy is lost. A humpback blows, but the sound is swallowed by the engines. Kayaking is macro photography. On your hands and knees, the lens inches from the subject. If Edward Abbey had come to Glacier Bay he’d write about motorized vessels the way he wrote about cars in his precious Arches.

“Crawl on your hands and knees, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see something.”
“Paddle 20-miles a day, until your fingers are cracked and swollen. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll see something.”

On the Baranof Wind is a melting pot of humanity. Americans, Canadians, Indians, Chinese. Young and old. Couples and families. Retirees and trampers. “Everyone deserves to see this place,” I think.

Along for the ride is a guy named Lucas, working in Gustavus for the summer by way of New York and Portland. A wooden pendent hangs by a piece of rope around his neck. His long hair pulled back, a pencil shoved in the knot to keep it under control. In his eyes I see young love. The spell that Alaska has cast on thousands of young men and women throughout the years. That glint, the Chris McCandless gleam. The spark the wants to climb every mountain, fjord every river, climb every tree, love every moment of the marvelous gift called life. In his hands are a video camera and boom mic. He’s here not just to document the bay, but the people onboard. It’s not lost on him that there’s no small irony to be found under Glacier Bay’s erratics. Those of European descent jostling and clamoring for a view of the Huna Tlingit homeland. The homeland that was set aside without their consent. The homeland that had survived four glaciations, their breadbasket set aside for the wonderment of the conquistadors.

Lucas’ idea makes me squirm. Maybe that’s the point. As we move up into the bay I remind myself that, as much as I consider this my home, it was never mine. I’m the visitor. The wanderer, the tramp, the (gasp!) immigrant. Love it as if it is yours. Treasure it.  After years of animosity and distrust, the Park Service and the Huna Tlingit seem to have reached an understanding. Gull eggs are once again being harvested, a traditional long house now stands in Bartlett Cove, to be opened on August 25th, the 100th birthday of the Park Service.

“How interesting,” Brittney says as we talk on the back deck, “that the day the Huna Tlingit’s come home is on the park service’s birthday.”

I’d never thought about that. Was that respectful? Appropriate? Does it paint the park service as the heroes, a “look how far we’ve come!” sort of thing? Am I thinking about this too hard? How easy it is to look up from the seat of your kayak and criticize those above. After all, with no park I’m not here. It’s easy to throw stones until you realize that you’re taking the rocks out from under your own feet. 1500 people are going to be at the unveiling on August 25th. I’ll probably grab a kayak, bob in the middle of the cove to watch the proceedings. Seems an appropriate place.

Three young boys come onto the deck led by Mom. They’re between 5 and 9 years old, dressed in matching royal blue rain jackets. One has a pair of binoculars and scans the shoreline near Tlingit Point. The water is glass, the mountains visible. The bay feels alive, drinking sunbeams. Perhaps it matters less where we’ve been and more where we’re going. Too much has happened in the last two hundred years. Too many mistakes. Assimilation, sea otter hunts, greenhouse gases. Trying to rebuild it seems too much, an impossible task. Like trying to recreate the bay before the Grand Pacific came charging down and sent the Huna across Icy Strait. Maybe that’s the lesson this ever changing land is teaching. That change is inevitable and it’s what we do with those irreversible changes that matters. Let’s celebrate the partnership of the park service and Huna Tlingit. Together maybe this place can change lives for the next 100 years. Thousands of impressionable brothers in matching rain jackets being molded by the glacier the way the mountains and inlets are.

I lay on the top deck of the boat. The sun is beating down on me, there’s just enough of a windbreak to block the worst of the headwind. Even with my eyes close I know right where we are. Just north of Geikie Inlet which John Muir named for a scientist buddy. I love how well I’ve gotten to know this bay. An old friend with more mysteries and stories than I’ll ever discover. It can all disappear at the whim of the glaciers. I like that.

The boat turns sharply. I prop myself up on my elbows and look toward the shoreline. Hanging in the air is the vapor of a blow. I get up and lean against the railing, for there is no such thing as too many whales. Seems odd that we’re turning to watch a humpback. We’ve passed two dozen today and time is running short.

Two more blows in rapid succession. Even from a distance I know they’re not humpbacks. I can’t say how. But after ten years of chasing them, of scanning every bay, inlet, cove, and fjord for them, I can feel it more than see it. A scimitar shaped dorsal breaks the water, than another, and another. My heart rate quickens, my vision narrowing. Are they always going to do this to me? I know any minute now the captain will make the announcement. That the holy grail of marine life is two hundred yards ahead. Justifiably there will be a stampede as everyone strains for a glimpse of the Orcas. Everyone deserves to see this place and the lords of the ocean in their true and wild home. But for a moment I savor it, for a moment it’s just me and them. Made possible by this boat, by this place. May it always change but always stay the same.

Two Bears for Mark

I’m curled in my sleeping bag, the Alder trees at the back of my tent shelter me from the early morning sun. I’m somewhere in the world between dream and reality. So when I hear the sound of Mark’s boots making their way through the Reed grass, I’m not sure if it’s real or imagined until I hear his voice. His tone is calm and measured, but something in it makes my eyes snap open and heart rate quicken before he finishes his sentence.
“David? I hate to disturb you, but there appears to be two brown bears walking towards us along the beach.”

Hate to disturb me? I glance at my watch: 6:45 in the morning. Not that it matters. I want to be disturbed if there’s pair of brownies on the beach no matter the time of day. I unzip my tent and am greeted by my two hundred roommates. They’re small and elusive, rusty red and jet black. But the high pitched beat of their wings all sound the same in my ears. I’m inundated with the gnats immediately. But I brush them out of the way, pulling my bug net and can of bear spray along with me.

Mark is cool and collected as he points down the beach to the place where he last saw the bears. A lot calmer than I’d expect a guy from New York city to be during his first Brown bear meeting. Actually that’s not fair. It’s not like Mark Adams has never left the concrete behind. He’s hiked the mountains of Peru, gone where no white man has ever been in Madagascar. When you write like he does, people send you everywhere.

Which is why we’re here in the early morning light at the north end of Russell Island in Glacier Bay National Park. Mark’s writing a book about Harriman’s Alaskan expedition in 1899 and John Muir’s travels. When he needed a kayak guide, I was blessed with the opportunity to lead him into the wilderness. To travel as Muir did, one paddle stroke at a time. To explain and describe the land and creatures as they passed. And of course, to bring us back in one piece. The first part had been easy. The bears would make it tricky.

I walk down the rocks, trying to get a better angle of the beach. What a sight I must be. The weathered and experienced Alaskan guide, rubbing sleep from his eyes and pulling up his pajama pants that are a size too big. The pants are absurd. Navy blue with a pattern of wolves howling at the moon. The sort of thing you wear on rainy Saturday mornings while drinking coffee. Not fighting bears.

I step onto the tallest rock I can find and stare into the tall Rye grass at the back of the meadow. My body’s awake but not my eyes. I rub them again, trying to focus and keep my expression calm and collected. This happens all the time of course.

Two little brown ears pop up among the grasses. Little satellite dishes that recede the thin long face of a brown bear. Instinct kicks in. I clap my hands and call out good morning. I don’t shout, I want to save some volume, just in case. The bear looks at me, head tilted sideways, politely curious. As if he’s rising on an elevator another bear appears next to him. They’re skinny and young. Probably just got kicked out by Mom within the last month. Four year olds. Teenagers. Young, dumb, ready to take on the world. I can relate.

They saunter back into the woods as I call. Nonchalant and relaxed. I turn and beam at Mark. We’ve talked a lot about bears the last couple of days. I’m glad we saw one. He’s got his little waterproof notebook out, scribbling notes. A few minutes go by and there’s no sign of the bruins. I put on more respectable pants and pull out the Coleman stove, putting water on for coffee. I’m forgetting something… mugs!

Leaving Mark with the stove and food, I jog back up the beach and to the tent, digging for the thermoses. No sooner do I reach the tents and Mark’s voice floats up the beach.
“David? Your friends are back.” Uh-oh.

I come back down the beach, my pace a little quicker this time. I find a big rock and jump on top of it. I spread my legs and stand tall. Stretching my thin 6’4” frame as far as I can. I shout, I clap, I wave my arms. The bears spare me a half-second look and go crashing back into the Alder. From my vantage point I can see the trees shaking fifty yards back from the beach. They’ve cleared out.
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(The beach the night before the bears. The bears came out of the Alder near the blue/green tent)
I reach Mark and the stove, setting the thermoses down and pouring the boiling water into a Nalgene we’re using as a coffee maker. While the coffee steeps I run back up the beach for socks. The bugs are eating my Chaco attired feet alive. I reach into a dry bag and freeze. Something is snapping twigs in the Alder feet from me. Boots forgotten I step back, clapping and shouting. I’d started at a six, my volume’s at ten now. I reach into my pocket for the bear spray. It’s not there. It’s on the beach with Mark.
As calm as I can I shout down the beach, “Mark, can you bring the bear spray up with you please.”
I feel caught. Food and author on the beach, tents and kayak near the trees. In my head I can hear the voice of the park biologist Tonya Lewis. “Don’t let the bears get your food.” I run back down the beach, clapping and shouting the whole time. A plan forms in my mind. Grab the food cans and stove. Pile it at the waters edge, break down the tents. Get the hell out of here. If they want the beach this bad, it’s all there’s. I meet Mark halfway, his arms laden with bear cans, the stove, and water bladder. I grab a handful of gear, turn, and feel my heart drop. The bears are back. Feet from Mark’s tent. For the first time in my life, there’s a bear between me and my kayak.

I grab the bear spray from Mark and charge up the beach, calling at Mark to follow me. In my panic, a tapestry of expletives flow from my mouth like water down a mountain. “You… bear! Get the… away from my… kayak!”

One of these bears is brave. Too brave for my liking. While one slinks into the woods just out of view, the bolder one moves between the tents. Three more strides and he’s at the kayak. I grab a baseball sized rock and close the distance to forty feet, Mark at my heels. “Look as big as you can.” I tell him.

I shout more words you can’t say in church. I pull the safety off the bear spray. The rock cocked like I’m Nolan Ryan, the bear my Robin Ventura. I’ve never fired bear spray at a bear before. Had proudly told Mark 36 hours ago that bears were misunderstood, shy gentle creatures. Leave it to nature to make me look bad.

I’m ten yards away. First and 10. Russell Island Bears versus Gustavus Kayakers. It’d be a route if it comes to that. I finger the bear spray and shout again, I feel my throat getting raw. At last the bear turns.

I’ve looked into the eyes of many wild animals. Orcas, humpbacks, moose, sea lion, seal, deer. But only a bear’s gaze has the ability to make me feel like I’m two feet tall. Nothing is more untamed, more wild. Daring you, defying you, to tell it otherwise. “This is my house,” they say. “Do you want to see what happens in my house?”

I don’t, and I have a feeling neither does Mark. Although his guide getting ripped limb from limb would make a hell of a chapter. The bear turns and gives a little huff. My knees go weak. The bear spray rising above my hip. Dimly I register that there’s no wind. A clear shot if it comes to it. The bear turns and starts to walk away from the kayak. My heart’s in my throat. Keep walking, keep walking.

He slips into the Alder like a phantom. But for how long? I cover the last few feet to the tent. Mark has stood calmly by the whole time. No panic, no fear. What’s going on inside is a mystery, but he’s a heck of a lot calmer on the outside than I am.

We drag our tents through the meadow and over the rocks, our sleeping bags and clothes still inside. We’ll dismantle them near the water. Right now I want as much room between me and the Alder grove that I can.

Fifteen minutes later we float 100 yards offshore in our double kayak. I glance at my watch and laugh. I’d set a timer for the coffee. It’s been steeping for 52 minutes. I hand Mark a thermos, a Cliff bar, and an apple as he scribbles notes. “Got it get it down while it’s hot.” He says.

The bears are on the beach, right at the water’s edge, digging for tidepool Sculpin and munching on Blue Mussels. They’re a lot cuter with 150-feet of water between us. My heart rate slows. This is all they wanted. Two hungry bears, learning to survive without mom. Trying to find a route to the low tide and the protein. We were just in the way.

I rub the side of the kayak, relieved and relaxed. I didn’t want my career defined by one wrecked kayak. The morning is gorgeous. The water is turquoise, that electric color that only the glaciers can mix. As we float Mark pays me the highest compliment he can. “This may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been… nice choice.” As the bears work their way back into the woods I grin like a hyena and strike my paddle against the smooth surface.

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Somewhere Unoccupied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are the Places You Will Find me Hiding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling the Dice

Every guiding company has them. A page of carefully worded phrases meticulously written out by a lawyer in some office, far removed from the natural world. The infamous risk waiver. A bucket of ice water at the start of the trip. A necessary reminder that the world we are traveling to is unscripted. That it can be harsh, dangerous, and unforgiving. That even the best of us, the most prepared, the most cautious, are not immune.

For those of us that live it every day, we have our own, unwritten risk waiver. Every time we go out our doors and into the woods, up the mountain, or onto the water, we sign it. It’s our unspoken agreement with the world we love. An acceptance that it can betray us at any moment. For if it can happen to Forest Wagner, it can happen to anyone.

Forest lives in the woods. There isn’t a mountain he can’t climb, a fjord he cannot paddle, a situation he can’t handle. Two weeks ago he was attacked by a bear while leading a group of students near Haines in southeast Alaska. He wasn’t been foolish or careless, disrespectful or arrogant. You roll the dice enough with Alaska, and sometimes it comes up snake eyes. What are the odds that there’s a mama bear with spring cubs over that blind ridge? 1 in 100? 1 in 1,000? How many blind ridges do you hike over before the odds catch up?
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Forest’s influence and inspiration stretches across the state, across the globe. He’s taught thousands how to survive in the back country, inspired many to follow their passions as mountaineers, kayakers, river rafters, and skiers. From all accounts, even after he’d been attacked and bitten along his side and leg and fallen off a cliff face, it was he who spoke to the medivac on the cell phone. Calm, clear, and collected, he talked his students through the whole process. His own Wilderness First Responder.

“I can climb down if you need me to.” He told the medivac. As if he’d done nothing more than sprain his ankle on a morning run through the suburbs.

Why him and not me? Two days ago I hiked the mountain ridge behind my parent’s house. Bear and moose sign coated the game trail. Again and again I rounded blind corners. Bear bells jingling and bear spray bumping against my leg offered little comfort. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about Forest around every corner. Wrong place, wrong time. Our unspoken agreement, our signed risk waiver with the natural world.
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I wouldn’t have it any other way. Beneath the sugary, frosted coating that reality TV has given Alaska, nothing has really changed. To truly experience this land, to know it with genuine intimacy means to throw ourselves at its mercy, and accept that we may not receive any. Forest knows this, I know this, Brittney knows this, and so does any other guide or outdoor enthusiast that climbs her mountains and paddles her shores. For if the wilderness was always safe it would not be wilderness. With risk comes appreciation and respect. How charismatic would the bears and wolves be if they were harmless? Would we love them, photograph them, even their tracks worthy of our marvel and imagination? Would glaciers be sublime if they didn’t send blocks of ice as big as buildings into the water to crush and reshape everything in their path?
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So this summer I’ll strap on my boots and push my kayak into the water. I’ll grab my fishing pole and walk the salmon stream, knowing that I share the land with bears, moose, and whales. I’ll grab my dice, take the odds, and see what happens. The alternative is a life that is fraught with other dangers. Forest wouldn’t have it any other way.

He’ll be back, it’ll take more than a bear to pry him away from his natural habitat. I have no doubt he’ll summit Denali again, climb the alpine, and return stronger and more confident than ever. The wilderness needs ambassadors like Forest and the mountains of Alaska just wouldn’t be the same without him.