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Snow

She lay in an old shipping container. The kind found on the back of trucks roaring up and down the concrete riverbeds we call interstates and highways. But this one had been laid to rest here. Tucked away in a corner of a lot in Bartlett Cove. Through the trees I can hear the wind, smell the air breeze, ear cocked for the sound of a humpback. How out of place the egg white box of metal looks here. No flowers or grasses growing around it. Just a strip of gravel turning dusty in the early July heat.

Inside lie her bones.

I feel a thrill of excitement as Chris Gabrielle pulls a key from her pocket and unlocks the deadbolt. Together we lift the big metal latch, its joints creaking and groaning as the big door slides open. I don’t notice the smell at first. But as Chris flicks a light switch and ignites a small bare bulb, it overwhelms me. It is musty, sweet but sickly. Something about it smells alive, even in her death. I walk into the container, breathing shallow, fighting the urge to cover my nose with my shirt.

After almost ten years, she still lives in some way. Organic matter and oils still seeping out of her ribs, humorous, and vertebrae. I can’t help myself. I reach out and touch one of the vertebrae. As big as a tire and bleached white, I run my hands up and down all that remains of Snow. Here along the racks and shelves, were all that was left of her forty-five foot, thirty-five ton body.

The year is 2001. Somewhere in the mouth of Glacier Bay swims Snow. Inside her new life is growing. Is she aware that she’s pregnant? That in half a year there will be a miniature her swimming and breathing? The baby will drink a milk that is 50% fat, the consistency of yogurt. I wonder if she heard the cruise ship. If she had any inkling of its approach. If she could have gotten out of the way. If the ship could have. The nose of a cruise ship is so far from the engines in the stern that they create “sound holes,” right off their bow. There’s a good chance Snow never knew what hit her.

Janet Neilson (then Janet Doherty) found her. Dead whales are rarely found. Usually they disappear. Sink to the bottom and vanish, presumed missing. But it’s as if Snow wanted to be found. Janet discovered her floating off Point Gustavus, not far from where an anonymous cruise ship passenger reported feeling a thump. They towed Snow to the beach, necropsied her body, and discovered a fractured brain case and crushed vertebrae.

Gustavus mourned, the park service gave press releases, security footage was seized, attorneys went to work.

“The crime wasn’t in accidentally striking the whale,” said a park employee, “the crime was in failing to report it.” I’m not sure Snow would agree. Neither do I.

In the middle of the shipping container is an old iron claw bathtub, the porcelain chipped and rusting. But it doesn’t leak, at least not yet. Chris hands me a great bucket of industrial kitchen degreaser and instructs me to fill the tub with the stuff and soak Snow’s bones one at a time. Oil, she explains, is still seeping out of her bones. The goal was to remove the rest of the organic matter from the bones so that they could be preserved for years. An exhibit was being prepared down by the beach. Where in a way, she could live forever.

On sunny days I climb onto the roof of the container, lining her ribs up neatly to bleach in the never ending Alaskan sun. I soak the vertebrae overnight in the degreaser, greeted each morning by the strong smell of leaching oil, a pearly iridescent sheen on the surface of the tub.

Down another road, behind a locked gate is her skull. My stomach twists the first time I see it. I run my hand across the deep fracture in the skull. If a passenger felt the collision, than surely the crew did as well. But who wants the headline: “Cruise Ship Kills Whale in National Park?” Bad for business. But thirty-five ton bodies don’t always disappear. I pressure wash her skull, obliviating the moss attempting to grow on her. When the yard empties I crawl beneath the skill and lay in her mouth, imagining. Rows of baleen, gallons of sea water, tons of wriggling herring.

And I’m indebted to them. The cruise ships I mean. Wouldn’t be here without them. Wouldn’t have had summer work in Juneau when I graduated from college. Would not be sitting at this wooden table in Gustavus watching the storms roll through, the moose calves grow up, and the rain pound on the roof. I owe my beautiful little life, in some way, to an industry that makes me uncomfortable. That kills whales, that leaves a massive carbon footprint. That shows a million people Alaska every year, even if it is a watered down, fast food version. 14,000 people a day in Juneau. But what’s the alternative? I can’t take 14,000 people kayaking in Bartlett Cove. Is seeing this place from ninth story better than not seeing it at all?

Edward Abbey would say no. But I should be confident enough to form my own opinion. But I can’t. Because like this bay, nothing is black and white. A single receding glacier does not signify climate change, just as an advancing one does not disprove it. We must step back, way back. Look at the big picture objectively, rationally. We don’t like the big picture. Step far enough back and we become mitigated, aware of how insignificant we are.

That’s the beauty of the kayak, the hiker, the backcountry camper. You have no choice but to confront your own significance. At how small you are away from the billboards and street lights. It’s uncomfortable. Change always is. Tough to be uncomfortable from the ninth story.

I don’t know what the answer is. Abbey wouldn’t be impressed.

Snow stands whole once again. Without her flesh she looks serpentine. Two tiny bones bent at obtuse angles are suspended by wires two thirds of the way along her vertebrae and a foot below it. They’re all that remains of her legs. In time evolution will remove them from whale’s entirely. Like our appendix they are vestigial, no longer of any use.

Every day a park ranger gathers a crowd in front of Snow to give a presentation. People flock to the talks until the trail is not passable. They are independent travels, for the cruise ships do not dock here. Our kayak sheds are right next to the skeleton and I often squeeze through the raptly listening crowd. Like the cruise ships and wilderness, the talk makes me uncomfortable. I hear the ranger joke about how Snow embarked on, “the longest over land migration a whale has ever done” to be rearranged and put back together by a professional.

The crowd titters and laughs, something about it makes my blood boil. I hear them talk about the collision as a horribly tragedy. But in the same way a loved one developing an illness is tragic. Unavoidable, no way to prevent it. Never have I heard a ranger say that the cruise ship failed to report the collision. That it was not until security footage was seized and viewed did they admit to striking the whale. Perhaps they do and I have simply missed it. I don’t wish to criticize or demean. For the rangers do a job I know I couldn’t. I don’t know why I think people need to know that part of the story, but leaving it out feels like an insult to her memory.

On one of the displays is a grainy picture showing the bow of the ship, a gray pixelated sliver in the water shows Snow, her back arched, attempting to dive. Maybe she did know.

“Snow moments before tragedy,” reads the caption. Meanwhile ten miles away two cruise ships a day enter the park, passing Point Gustavus, bound for the glaciers of the west arm. Do the passengers on board know the story? Do the rangers share that story when they board every morning at the south end of Sitakaday Narrows?

I don’t know what the answer is.

All I know is that it hurts my heart to have Snow here, condemned to life as a silent ambassador. How much more she could be, churning up the waters of Bartlett Cove.

Another sunny July day. Six years since Chris opened that container and introduced us. We walk the familiar trail toward the kayak sheds. Past the old Tlingit canoe, Snow’s display coming into view.

“Have you met Snow?” I ask.

Everyone has the same reaction, a quick intake of breath, mouth open, rooted to the spot. Their first view of Snow is head on, as if she’s diving right toward you, forcing you to confront her here and now. They snap pictures and lean across the ropes, aching to touch her. Invariably the question comes.

“How did she die?”

“A cruise ship hit her.” My guiding style is one of light hearted comments. Jokes and stories over facts and figures. But not here. No over land migration jokes at Snow’s expense. Here just the full truth. “They knew they hit her but didn’t report it.”

I don’t like starting the day with something so sad. But at the same time, what a reminder that we cannot expect to leave the world the way we found it. The warming acidic water of the world should be a good enough reminder. Every kayak on the beach crushes barnacles and mussels. The leave no trace etiquette is an impossible dream. From man to mosquito, no creature was meant to leave an environment as they found it.

We linger a moment longer and turn toward the beach where I hand out life jackets, spray skirts, boots, and paddles. The water is alive with life. Sea otters cracking open shells on their stomachs, sea lions growl in frustration, a timpani of birds. I slip into my kayak and feel the world slide into place. My heart rate slows and my breath becomes steady. I don’t know what the answer is, and in this moment I don’t need one.

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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.

Lessons of the Beardslees

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

A Deathbed Lesson in Living

For my entire life I’ve been blessed to live in a place that other people visit. Not the Bahamas, or southern California, or Europe; Alaska. The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun and whatever other catchy tagline we’re using these days (Palin’s Pasture?).
For three summers I had a front row seat to those retracing the routes of John Muir, the gold rush and sled dogs. I worked in Alaska’s capital, Juneau as a whale watch guide, deckhand and bear guide (bear viewing that is, not hunting).
I was fresh out of college, and had just had the rug pulled out from underneath me. I had lined up an entry level position with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) only to have the federal budget frozen and my position unceremoniously tossed out four weeks before I was supposed to begin.
I didn’t know the first thing about guiding. But I knew whales, the ocean and my Dad had once been charged by a Grizzly so I felt qualified. Virtually the entire tourism industry in southeast Alaska centers around the cruise ship. The 2,000 passenger floating hotels that market themselves as holding everything you could ever want.     Upwards of 15,000 people can flood Juneau off the boats in the summer; a town with a population of about 33,000.
I fidget on the dock. Bright orange polo tucked into Carharts, black and orange ball cap jammed on top of curling blond hair. I feel like a 6’4” carrot. Slowly couples begin to gather around me; from Germany, Texas, Boston, and Australia. I hand out the weight sheets to ensure the planes are balanced for the flight portion of the tour and try to make conversation. A beer or two would’ve helped.
My last couple staggers slowly down the gangplank towards me. It’s immediately clear that all is not well. The husband’s steps are uneven, his breath ragged, he looks exhausted and beaten. Cancer will do that.
As we board the bus bound for the airport his wife pulls me aside. Yes, her husband was terminally ill, his life expectancy could be measured in months. But if I could, please, try to treat them as normally as possible.
I climb the steps behind her and collapse into my seat mind whirling. I was supposed to be in a lab, or a research boat measuring the bioenergetics of forage fish. Fish that couldn’t tell me their physical condition. That there last wish was to see the glaciers of Alaska.
What the hell had I gotten myself into? What did this man care how big a humpback whale was? How long a brown bear slept or how much fish they could devour in a day?
The trip slides by as the plane sends us over the glaciers and over to an island called Chichagof which has one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Naturally we see none. Nature doesn’t understand the concept of the storybook ending.
In the small native town of Hoonah, a boat collects us and we begin the three hour trip back to Juneau eyes scanning for whales. Slowly I begin to pluck up the courage to talk to him. His name is Dan, he’d lived his whole life in Houston, Texas and had just been diagnosed a couple of weeks ago.
He’d rejected chemotherapy and other treatments, emptied their bank account, and was seeing as many of the places he’d dreamed of experiencing before the sickness shackled him to a bed. Alaska had been his number one pick.
Juneau had been their boats first stop. “No pressure,” I told myself. I apologized that the bears hadn’t shown, that the glaciers had been partially obstructed by clouds.     He shrugs, “it’s just enough to know that I’m here.” he answers.
Twenty minutes later a humpback blasts out of the water like a rocket, sending a crescendo of foam across the surface and we cheer like our team just won the Super Bowl. There’s a spark in Dan’s eyes, a glint of joy and life that I can still see four years later. For a few seconds he looks reborn until another coughing fit sends him back into the boat’s cabin.
An hour later we’re within sight of Auke Bay, Juneau’s largest harbor. From the water, the Mendenhall Glacier looms over the boats bobbing along the dock. Even from two miles away it dominants the skyline like a giant frozen sky scraper. The boat captain screams the boat to a halt and ushers me onto the deck with Dan and his wife.
“Get their picture with the glacier,” he whispers.
They lean against the boat’s railing, the ice framed perfectly above them. I swallow a lump in my throat and blink away tears. For the second time Dan looks half his age as he dots a kiss on his wife’s cheek and wraps an arm around her as I click off a shot. The moment passes, the boat revs, and they slowly move back inside, wrapping their down jackets tightly against the wind.
Minutes later we’re on the bus, headed for the cruise ships 15 minutes away. I search for something comforting or inspiring to say. Some magic words that could somehow make their plight better. Instead I just listen as they talk about their kids, their work, their life. My ears doing more than my tongue ever could.
Feet from the dock Dan looks out the window and sighs, “it’s a magnificent place you have here, David.”
“Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s all of ours. It grabs hold of something deep inside of us, resonates, makes us whole.”
He nods, “I wish I would have seen it sooner so I could climb the mountains. Maybe go fishing, you hunt?”
I confess that I’ve never killed anything bigger than a salmon.
“Well don’t wait,” he said, “live out your dreams while your young, don’t wait for your come to Jesus moment.” His wife sniffs and he gives her a little squeeze.
The bus stops, I shake Dan’s hand and hug his wife. Slowly they walk away, inching up the gangway, his last words echoing between my ears.
Don’t wait, live now. See what needs to be seen. Breath the air, walk the trails, climb the mountains, swim the rivers. Don’t let life get in the way of living.
Four years later I sit in a cabin perched on the shores of British Columbia, living. NOAA never called back, hallelujah. Maybe I’ll get a real job some day but I doubt it. Not after seeing that look in Dan’s eye as the humpback broke the surface, telling me everything I’d ever need to know.