Category Archives: Gustavus 2017

Keep Paddling

The clothes are unfamiliar. Gone is the soothing feeling of my Patagonia base layers and the whisper of Grunden rain pants. Instead I’m in stiff dress pants and a collared shirt. I can’t recall the last time I wore a shirt that buttoned, much less one that had a collar. I’m out of my element. The interior of the country club is beautiful and immaculate. But as I walk to the microphone I wryly think that I would take an erratic covered beach over this anytime. I take a deep breath and remind myself that my belittling thoughts are nothing more than a weak cover for my own insecurities. Besides, this day has nothing to do with me. It’s my brother’s wedding. And I wouldn’t miss it if they held it on the surface of the sun.

It’s impractical to be mad at a bay. But dang it all, I’m sick of the wind. Even more, I’m sick of the National Weather Service promising ten knot winds when twenty knots gusts are pounding the dock. But despite the wind, the waves haven’t begun to build so I send a pair of double kayaks out from the beach and follow in my single. Two children, James and Caroline man the bow, their parents in the stern. They’re hardy and determined. Every year their father John and mother Laurie take them on a tour of the national parks. Last year Yosemite, this year Glacier Bay. The young son James can barely reach the water with his paddle but he pushes forward resolutely, head up, eyes unblinking, not daring to risk missing a thing. After adding an extra layer, his older sister Caroline pushes forward with the same resiliency, their mother relieved to be secured in the boat laughs with an easy grace.

The wedding was an open bar. Generally it’s a luxury I would abuse. But not today. Not with my toast still to come. I sip at an IPA and down water, unsure of when my brief moment on Jonathan’s day will come. The moment comes and I cross the ball room and grab the mic, a glass of water in my hand. I speak to total strangers every day, but this is as nervous as I’ve felt in front of a crowd. I can feel the the trio of notecards in my front pocket. Can practically feel the ink bleeding across the pages. I hope I don’t need them.

“Did my Dad tell you what he does?”

The question is so random and unexpected I stop paddling. Caroline stares across the gap towards my kayak, awaiting my answer. In the stern her mother continues paddling. I can’t tell if she’s listening or simply blotting out our conversation.

“No,” I answer, “but I haven’t asked.”

“He works for the EPA.”

It was a mark of how fast the world had changed. Just eight months ago this information would been little more than a punctuation point on the day. But now… it sends tidal waves of emotion through our conversation and our fleeting interaction. Suddenly the lines are drawn, the horrible reminder that we are at war for clean water, clean air, and a habitable planet. And her Father was one of the persecuted.

I don’t know what to say. I’m just a kayaker. But didn’t I say I was going to war too? Didn’t I say that if the park service was going rogue then I should too? But what am I doing? What have I done to combat the denial and anger and hatred and ambivalence that plagues our world? I feel a seed of guilt grow in my stomach. I look into Caroline’s eyes and wonder what that November night must have been like in their house. How many times they had wondered and feared for their father’s job and their livelihood.

I look ahead where John paddles with his son. James’ paddle barely reaches the water. But he’s still paddling. He’s still going, pushing the ocean behind him, bucking the wind and the current. Those big innocent eyes are opened wide. In the moment he looks fearless.

“How’s everybody doing?” The wedding guest’s indulge me with polite applause, a couple of the groomsmen give me a whoop. I smile and feel the knot loosen. I tell stories. Always tell a story when you can Kim Heacox once told me. I talk about spending time with Jonathan right after he met his bride, Lisa. How it was all he could talk about. How I could see the love in his eyes.

I look across the room to where they sit. Lisa’s hands are wrapped in his and she’s smiling. Lisa’s always smiling. I consider their future. They want kids. Probably sooner rather than later. I think about the world that awaits my nieces and/or nephews and in this moment of celebration, I feel a twinge of anxiety.

“Caroline told me what you do for work.”

I don’t know why I brought it up. But for some reason I needed him to know that I know and that I care. I care not just for his paycheck but for the world his kids will inherit. Would James one day have the honor of placing his young son in the bow of a kayak in Bartlett Cove? I’m sure John thought about it. I want him to know I do too.

John laughs. “It’s funny, I’ve had more people come up to me for the last few months when they found out what I do and assure me that they like me. That they think what I do is important.”

What does he do? He cleans up superfund sites. He was in the Gulf of Mexico for the oil spill, he makes place habitable again. And his department is looking at a forty percent cut. I’m about to ask him if he’s worried but stop. He’s here to escape. He’s here to savor the solitude and revel in the places that are wild and free. The last thing he wants to do is talk shop. But as we discuss superfund sites, Pebble Mine, and the Arctic Refuge he doesn’t sound like a man whose life is a risk. He sounds determined, even hopeful. Like his son he’s moving forward. One paddle stroke at a time, head up, eyes never blinking. Because life is like kayaking. There’s only one thing you can do. Keep paddling.

I finish my speech and set the mic down on the table. I take a swig of water and wipe the tears from my eyes. My brother’s are wet too and somehow that makes me feel better. I cross the room and wrap him in the biggest hug of his life. Somehow this has become my world. Incalculable highs and unfathomable moments where I fear all is lost. Like the wedding, like that day on the water with John and his family, they’re often within minutes of each other. An otter brings joy, the absence of the whales bring fear. The look on my brother’s face brings tears of gratitude, the thought of what could lay ahead anxiety.

But like John and James, there’s nothing to do but keep paddling. Keep fighting the current, keep bucking the wind. Just don’t let the boat go backwards. Because the day is coming when the tide will turn, the wind will shift, and the paddle will feel light. It may not be in my lifetime, but if it does for James, Caroline, and my unborn nephews and nieces, then it will all be worth it.

The End of the Road

The Pathfinder reeks of burning oil when she runs too long. She’s had it, and I await one of life’s cruel ironies as we wait in line for the ferry. Four years ago I made a deal with whatever deity was on duty, promising many things I’ll never own in exchange for this plucky Nissan getting us to Canada and back. But as she’s always down she comes to life with the screech of belts and uncategorized clatters. There’s still time to back out. Still time to run another direction. A direction that will let us keep running. There’s no shame in it. We’re still in our twenties for crying out loud. No one would think less of us if we disappeared to Central America for a year or vanished to Thailand for a season. But how do you continue to run when you know where home is, when you know where the road ends?

The end of the final road doesn’t look like a road at all. And you’d excuse us for missing it completely. To be fair, cars have rarely been our dominant form of transportation and I’m not at my best behind the wheel. Boats and kayaks have kept our lives afloat. May they continue to do so until someone tells us we’re too old.

But as theatrical as it would be, this journey cannot end at a pier or sandy beach. Instead we take a dirt road overgrown with willow, cat tail, grass, and fern. The ruts are deep and the brush grates against the bumper. At a sharp left the car pivots neatly in the groves as if it’s on the skids of a poorly made Disneyland ride. And then it ends. With no apology or explanation the road simply disappears, giving way to the world that will eventually swallow us all. A world of Pine and Alder, Blueberry and high bush cranberry, marsh and forest. The road, like our rambling, is over. Neither one of us ever had to discuss it. We simply knew that it was time to stop. We didn’t want to do it anymore.

***

The sun is bright and the reflection off Icy Passage makes me squint. My pupils, like my heart, were made to live where the rain is frequent and the sun is scarce. We trace the outline of the shore, the glacial outwash that holds Gustavus behind, the ridges and mountains of Excursion Ridge and the Chilkat Mountains ahead of. Fresh snow sits on the peaks, but down here it feels like Spring. Myself, Brittney, Jen Gardner, and Patrick Hanson gallop like moose calves. We plunge through last years Reed Grass and it gives way with a satisfying crunch. Here the cynicism of the world isn’t just stripped away, it is torn from the soul, replaced by innocence and wonder.

We come out of the Reed Grass and onto the sandy beach. On the low tide the stories of the last six hours are exposed. Tracks trace back and forth, weaving between the sand and tidal mud that squishes with delight beneath our boots. We follow the moose, the deer, the river otter, and the wolf.

The wolf. We stop at the tracks, some as large as my outstretched hand and gaze upon the holy grail of Alaska prints. Patrick’s mind is already in overdrive. It’s always in overdrive. He is more excited over the first Rosy Twisted Stalk than most men are in a year. The prints are catnip to us, and Patrick is already talking about camping just above the tideline in the grass and sitting patiently for a day or two until they come back. I find it hard to imagine him sitting for two minutes. He’s a mover, but he’s staying put in Gustavus. So is Jen thank goodness. They’re staying for the same reason we are. Because they weighed the possessions of the world in one hand and wolf prints in the sand in the other and asked, “why?” Granted, we like microbrews, Disney movies, ice cream, and Parks and Rec. But darn it all if we could live without days like this with mountains above our heads and wolf tracks at our feet.

We reach the mountains where a stream splashes into the grass and a fence of Alder paves the way for Spruce and Hemlock. “True southeast rainforest,” says Patrick, and he dives in. We follow. Our cracking of branches punctuated with tenuous calls of, “hey bear.” We step into the clearing beneath the branches and into Narnia. Devil’s club is just beginning to bud and Fiddlehead Ferns are poking their heads out from their moss blanket. We pick some, leave others, and fantasize about what we can cook. We walk home with maybe a pound of greens, but from the looks on our faces you’d have thought we’d found a thousand dollars.

***

At the end of the road is the Shabin, occupying three hundred feet on 4.19 acres. We prune the willows that are invading the road and stare up at the Cottonwoods that bookend the clearing. And we talk. We talk a lot about what we want to do. And Brittney and I keep coming back to sharing it. What if we could make this the end of the road for someone else too? Brittney, Jen, and I walk through the stand of old Spruce behind the Shabin. It’s the driest spot on the property with a ditch on one side and and a Willow swail on the other. We’re going to have to take some of these big beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to think about it. Can man live without destroying it?

We step out of the Spruce and into the open light of the swail. The morning light glistens off the standing water and we talk about what a great place this would be for a bench. A place to come and watch the Chickadees, Juncos, and Moose ply their trades. What if this is where the four of us spend the rest of our lives? I imagine a bench on the edge of the woods, plopping down with these people, beers in hand, and watching a moose rooting for reeds.

I can see our cabins through the woods behind me. A garden in the clearing. Maybe a smoker and a writer’s studio. Maybe I should get the ruts out of the road and the clearing drained first.

Kim Heacox once asked me why I was ready to drop my roots. There’s no right or wrong answer. Kim galavanted around for years and has seen Antartica, Russia, the Galapagos, and has designs on spending time in Rome. Even now, when his demographic is scheming moves to Florida and weekend golf dates, the travel itch remains unscratched. I don’t feel it the way he does. I don’t feel the need to travel across Russia by train or disappear for months at a time. I want my roots to grow deep here until they’re planted so far down that nothing can move them.

I want to follow those wolf tracks into the mountains and trace every cove of Glacier Bay. I want to watch the Orcas crash through Icy Strait again and again and again. And I’m ready to do it now. I’ve sampled the world and loved it. I’ve had my trail mix stolen by raccoons in New Zealand and been lost in Costa Rica. I’ve been peed on by Howler Monkeys and dealt with more frumpy border guards than I can count. I’ve loved every single moment. I’ve cherished my rambling. But I’m ready to come home. I’m ready reach the end of the rambling road. I’m ready to turn off the ignition and plant 500 carrots.

Which doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier. In all likelihood it’s about to get a lot more difficult. My carpentry experience ends with making leaky garden boxes, and my landscaping knowledge is even more embarrassing. But if I’m going to fail, or at minimum screw up (and I will screw up) I want to do it here. I’d rather fail in Gustavus than succeed in Seattle. Because if I fall here there’ll be a dozen hands to pick me up, put the hammer back in my hand, and tell me to get back at it. Virtually every person in this town has been where we are right now. Each one of them arrived at the place where all the roads end and realized that was right where they needed to be.