Tag Archives: Glacier Bay

The Wettest Paddle

My gloved fingers fumble with the catches on the stern hatch. I bury my chin deeper into my rain jacket, a vain attempt to stem the never ending stream of water that’s been barreling down on us for 48-hours. I don’t know where we are, and I’m nowhere near curious enough to dig the map out of its dry bag. But I’ve stared at it enough to know what I’m looking at. Or more accurately, what I should be looking at.

Mount Wright, a 6,000 foot cathedral that guards the east arm of Glacier Bay is just two miles to the south, but it’s taking the day off. As is Adams Inlet, the first of three inlets that alternate on each side of the arm. After years of waiting I was finally seeing the fabled east arm. The inlet known as Muir Inlet, our superhero and the patron saint of glaciers. I had set off with Brittney and three friends, set on finding God in a glacier and Muir in a sun ray. But so far all I’d found was rain. Rain and clouds.

The hatch cover finally comes free and I pull from its depths three identical bear cans. We’re not stopping long. We’d been paddling for just over three hours and watched the wind and rain approach from the West. Naively we tried to outrun it, but you can’t outrun anything in a kayak except your common sense.

Brittney comes over and digs through one of the cans, pulling out tortillas, cheese, and kale. For a moment we stare at the tortillas as a gust of wind buffets us. We’re on a ridiculous little glacial outwash that will soon be obliviated by the rising tide. Eagles and Ravens perch eerily on a cemetery of uprooted stumps and logs. We slice the cheese and tear the kale.

“Now.”

Brittney opens the ziploc bag and I grab a pair of tortillas. As soon as they’re free she slams the seal shut, but too late. The surviving tortillas will be taking rainwater with them. We wrap the cheese and greens inside in record time and sit huddled against the wind, devouring our lunch before it disintegrates in our hands.

Worst rain I’ve ever experienced. I scribbled in my journal later that night. Hands so wrinkled and pruney they resemble elevation contours on the map. 

But we’re counting ourselves lucky. Because the wind is coming from behind, sweeping us up the arm and toward McBride Inlet. In a bay defined by change, McBride is the champion sprinter. A map from 1990 shows no inlet at all, but a glacier that dominates the upper end of the arm. Almost 30-years later she’s described with adjectives like “catastrophic retreat.” She’s left a narrow mouth at the base of the inlet that at low tide you could lob a rock across. On a flood the inlet turns into a vacuum sucking in water, ice bergs, gulls, seals, and wayward kayakers.

Lunch takes less than five minutes. One of the first lessons of Glacier Bay is that the best way to stay warm is to paddle. It may seem counter intuitive—surely huddling under a tarp is warmer—but all gear, no matter how rubberized or seam sealed, will eventually fail in a torrent such as this. Best to keep moving and turn your upper body into its own personal Toyo. So we hop back on the Muir Highway and let the wind whisk us north.

There’s four of us now. That morning Ellie was forced to return early after slicing open her thumb. After getting her on the day boat we’d set out from Sebree Island, knowing it would be our second 20-mile paddle day of the trip. Three of the four are kayak guides: myself, Brittney, and Jessie Markowitz. We’re equally crazy, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that none of us are going to be the one that taps out first. That left Jessie’s boyfriend Jake, an accomplished outdoorsman, skier, and climber in his own right as our voice of reason. And as he was positioned in the front seat of a double, there was precious little rebelling he could do without rudder pedals.

We hop from point to point, Jessie and Jake’s double setting the pace. Every few minutes I glance behind me, praying to see a lift in the weather. The fog and rain has socked in the entire bay. And while we’d never admit it, all of us kind of wished we were the one with the sliced thumb on the warm day boat with all the coffee we could drink.

Around Wachusett Inlet the rubberized raingear begins to fail. I feel the water seep into my mid-layer and with a shudder feel the first needle-like prick of rainwater reach my back. But Wachusett looks beautiful, a thin layer of fog is set afire by the sun, enough to give you hope and we bob in its mouth for a few long moments. The inlet cuts seductively right a mile in, leaving you wanting more. I know better. On the best of days Wachusett blows like the dickens, I don’t want to see the sort of wind that’s around that corner. We keep pushing. Past Kim Heacox’s old stomping grounds in Goose Cove, past Sealers Island and towards Nunatak.

We take a breather and find Brown Bear tracks as big as my outstretched hand in the sand. After the rain, a bear seems tame. Alaskan visitors have a Goldilock’s complex with bears. They want them not too far, not too close, but just right. Just right usually being within range of a 300mm DSLR.

Keep paddling. The Arctic Turn I’m paddling lives up to its name. No rudder, no skeg, no problem. She turns with a simple bend in the hips, drag free. We pass false point after false point. Each time convinced that this one will be McBride Inlet. Ice bergs float by, encouraging us further. Sirens in the fog, beckoning towards their home. Further, just a little further.

Everything hurts. 

We near yet another point. Jessie and Brittney are convinced that this one is the mouth of McBride. I’m not convinced. You have a lot of time to discuss these things when you’re traveling at 2.5 miles per hour. We round the corner to find more trees. No inlet, no Glacier God, no ghost of Muir dancing in the outwash in a wool trench coat. We pull out the map and Cliff Bars. I check my watch: just over seven hours of paddling. My hands feel fused to the paddle. And yet, and this is the weird thing, it feels so good out here.

What is wrong with me? I’m frozen, cold, most everything from the waist down went numb a long time ago. Whatever isn’t numb is wet. We’re convinced the next point leads to McBride. I suggest a vote. Brittney, Jessie, and I try to say yes first. Jake sighs, shrugs his shoulders, and sticks his paddle in the water. Welcome to the bay.

We hit the next point, turn, and there it is. Bergs swirl in the mouth of McBride. We paddle for shore, and the rainfall intensifies. And I yell at the Bay. At the Bay I love so much. How dare you punish our persistence like this? After everything we just did?

But of course Glacier Bay has little regard for my well being and prune covered hands. This place does not give, it sharpens and refines, just as the glaciers have done to her. Just as they will again if we’ll allow it. Just as they do to us.

We pull the boats above the tide and a miracle happens. The rain relents, the clouds being to lift. White Thunder Ridge emerges on the other side, dramatic slate gray cliffs loom further north. It is a beauty that must be witnessed. A beauty that can only be appreciated after paddling through fog and rain for seven hours. Like a bride on her wedding day the view is worth the wait.

Dry clothes are currency, and we lay out everything we can. We set up tents and pray the rain stays away. A sucker hole appears-a knot sized patch of blue sky—but  it brought friends. We cheer the blue colored beauties and cook pasta. We eat outside the confines of a tarp. And we fall under the spell. I find myself wandering in a daze down the beach. A mystic force pulling me towards the ice like some sort of ancestral magnet. How, I wonder, could people experience this and not be changed? How can someone look into the face of nature and be brought to their knees? I’m convinced that 100 senators in 50 doubles for a couple days would clear up a lot of problems.

But for a few days we’ll be blissfully ignorant of North Korea, Charlottesville, and the rest of the world’s silliness. Just us and McBride glacier’s offspring filtering out the inlet and sweeping south.

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Praying for Fish

The wind blows at a brisk pace, the surface of the cove turning white as the waves break. Rain pelts with the stinging intensity of Fall. But the date on my watch continues to insist that it’s mid-June. When you look at the climate map of North America the entire continent is swathed with more reds, yellows, an oranges than a sunset painting. Except for us. Except for the little sliver of blue that runs along the Pacific Northwest, bathing us in an unseasonable cold Spring. It’s so hot in Las Vegas they can’t even fly. Here it’s so cold I need a hot shower after every trip. We haven’t had a summer like this since 2012 when it felt like it rained every day and the clouds gripped the ocean.

And I’m on edge. Not necessarily because the ocean keeps moving beneath my kayak or my base layers keep getting soaked, but because I’m paddling alone. Maybe not in the way most would imagine, but the bay feels empty. I can count the number of Humpbacks I’ve seen on one and. Sea Otters that once choked the kelp at Lester Point are nowhere to be seen, I even miss the sea lions and their obnoxious habit of surfacing uncomfortably close to my rudder.

As we teeter on the edge of… I’m note even sure what to call it—climate catastrophe maybe?—anything unusual sets off alarm bells in my head. The rest of the world’s going to hell, why not here as well? And what’s difficult is I don’t even know if their ringing is justified. Just as climate deniers can smugly point to the enduring glaciers in the West Arm, I suppose I could hold up the missing Humpbacks and Sea Otters as poster children. But after three years of paddling here, I’m not arrogant enough to pretend I’m connected with the finely spun web of Glacier Bay ecology. Hell, otter and Humpback numbers could be dropping no matter how many Hummers clogged the freeway, both species’ numbers have been rising for decades. Like us they may have shot past their carrying capacity (ambiguously referred to as “K” in the scientific community) and are now realigning. The Humpbacks could be elsewhere, the otters too. The late Spring could have thrown everything off. The point is, I don’t know. And like most people when confronted with the unknown, I tend to fear the worst.

Over the last week the water has finally gone still. I can hear the Thrushes in the trees and the gulls riding the tide in Sitakaday. On calm days the sound of a boat engine is common. But for the moment it’s just the four of us. And today we’re not alone. Harbor Porpoise are everywhere. They announce themselves with a rapid fire “pssh whoo,” a full exhalation and inhalation in under a second. They roll at the surface just like Orcas, their charcoal gray backs sparkling in the weak sunlight. I’ve lost count of the number we’ve seen since we struck out this morning. It has to be at least fifteen in little clusters of three to five. Calves roll in perfect synchrony with their mothers, pods split and break the surface with shocking speed as they chase the precious bait fish that the entire food pyramid is balanced precariously on.

Herring, Sand Lance, and Capelin, the holy grails of the marine ecosystem, their oily bodies the difference between life and death for countless species. From King Salmon to Humpbacks and most everything in between relies on their noble sacrifice. They are one of those unfortunate species placed on earth for the sole purpose of reproduction and food supply. They ask for little, but one thing they demand is cold water. It’s a request that’s becoming harder and harder to provide as first “the blob” and then a harsh El Nino winter have brought unseasonably warm water the Pacific Northwest. If anyone is benefitting from this chilly Spring I hope it’s them.

Which is why this pack of porpoise is so significant. Is this the canary in the coal mine? Have the oily sacrificial lambs returned with a parade of marine life in tow? I imagine the cove as it was two summers ago, so packed with whales, porpoise, and pinnipeds that I could scarcely paddle across the mouth without something bumping my kayak. If heaven truly does appear differently to each of us, then I expect that will be mine. A perfectly balanced ecosystem, thriving at maximum efficiency. Show me how many Humpbacks Glacier Bay can support. How many Orcas can pack Johnstone Strait. Give me salmon runs so thick their odor travels on the ocean breeze.

A trio of porpoise surface just to the right of the kayak. Beneath the waves their dark bodies seem to tremble. They move as if pulled by a higher calling and for a few precious seconds I have the pleasure of watching them shoot back and forth just beneath the surface, so close I could place my paddle over them. In the blink of an eye they vanish and resurface a hundred yards away. The moment so fleeting but no less magical because of it. I watch them vanish, their short spunky breaths still audible on the still water. A scientist in Norway recently determined that Harbor Porpoise spend almost every waking moment foraging. As I watch them criss cross back and forth I pray they find everything they’re looking for.

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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The Spirit Walker III

In the tent his eyes opened, a slimy sensation filling his mouth. He spat and saw scales and tail burst from his lips and spray the tent. The dead herring fell to the floor, its oily scent filling the room. The image of her remained burned into his retinas, vanishing slowly with every blink, the warmth of her head on his chest still tangible in the cool morning air. He hugged his legs to his chest, desperately trying to hold the sensation that spilled from his memory, the touch of her feathers… hand, against his. The pride in his chest as he handed her the herring, the way she called his name. And for the first time since they’d said goodbye, he didn’t feel alone.
The pain in his chest was worse today, his breathing only possible in brief, sharp gasps. His paddle strokes felt ragged, uneven, and awkward. The viscosity of the water seemed to have increased ten fold while he slept, as if he was paddling through syrup. The tide was flooding however, the bay itself pushing him onward, offering one last prod north, as determined as he was for him to reach the glacier. He passed, “beach where the bear caught the moose calf” and thought of the innumerable prints still sitting in his house snapped in desperation at the fruitless prospect of capturing the intensity and power of the scene.
For the first time, there was no camera strapped to the deck, there was no point in documenting, no future in which to flip through the album, no time to reminisce. From ahead he heard the ice before he saw it, cracking, groaning, and falling, Margerie and Grand Pacific Glacier bustling about their construction site, never satisfied with their work, never content to leave the land stagnant or utter the phrase, “it is finished.” They demanded constant remodeling, to reexamine what had been done and what remained to be altered. He had grown to emulate them, never settling, never stationary. Constant motion, constant change. Even in his retreats he opened new ground, new landscape for his own personal growth.
With a final stroke he rounded the corner where they stood in all their glory. Perched upon their thrones, overlooking the kingdom they had been carving for more than 200 years. He cruised past scores of ice bergs comprised of snow centuries old. Their journey like his was almost over, this stage of it at least. As they were pulled south they would shrink, evaporate and melt, until even the largest and proudest  were liquified and sent into the atmosphere or the ocean currents, pressing onward to their next voyage.
A reckless abandon overtook his spirit, and despite his labored breathing he paddled for the glacier’s face. Each stroke was savored, each twinge in his back exalted, never had the hard plastic seat cutting into his back beneath his life jacket tasted so sweet. His life jacket. With cruel decisiveness he unzipped it and stuffed it between his feet, letting his chest expand as far as it would allow.
His arms trembled as he neared his chosen beach that stood just to the left of the great icy throne. The serac steeples and arete cathedrals towered above him, beckoning him closer. But as he rode his own tiny wake into the shallows he hesitated, the finality of his journey descending upon him. For a final time he disentangled himself from the boat that had been his livelihood and salvation. Companion and confidant.
He pulled the forest green vessel above the rocks, tying the bow line to a boulder, assured that someone would be along for it eventually. The last thing he wanted was to tarnish the place whose unblemished face he’d fallen in love with half a century ago. So long ago by human measurement, and yet… he looked up at the wall of ice comprised of snow that had fallen before the nation had even existed. And even that registered as nothing more than a geologic heartbeat in the creature of deep time.
Arms still shaking with fatigue, he began to climb, his legs steady beneath him as he scrambled up the steep ridge, his fingers clenching tightly to whatever offered purchase, his boots digging into the tiny crevasses carved by the great glacier. Sweat poured in torrents, his chest seared with every breath, but he greedily insisted on inhaling every molecule of the rich, chilled oxygens savoring. Drinking more than breathing.
Reed heaved himself up the ridge’s peak and level with Margerie’s surface. “Margerie,” he thought, “such a domesticated name for something so powerful and wild.”
The bay held glaciers named for men and universities. Men of European fame and institutions. Named for the imprint of man, to prove that they had been here, gifted with the opposable thumbs that had made us judge, jury, and executioner. But not here, this would not be tamed. No matter how many cruise ships, tour boats, and kayaks stood in her shadow, cameras aimed at her massive face, waiting for her to sing. To tell us what we longed to hear even if we weren’t listening. Margerie didn’t do it justice, in his mind he renamed her, “glacier where I say goodbye.”
Reed placed a shaking foot on the ice, the first time he had stepped on any of the glaciers that he had idolized for so long, that had made his home. On his hands and knees he caressed her, his shadow stretching across as the sun peaked through the clouds to say its farewell. His vision swam as his breath caught in his throat, his lungs struggling valiantly against all odds to obey the command to breath. Nature has little interest in theatrics.
Curling into a ball Reed wrapped his arms around his legs, tucking his chin into his chest, the beloved wool hat tight around his head, green rain jacket zipped beneath his chin. His brain called for the oxygen that his lungs could no longer provide, neurons firing as he said goodbye. He had made it, in a small way he had won. A final flash of inspiration crept through his mind, John Muir’s words ringing in his ears as his body relaxed, “what chance did a low grippe microbe have up here?” and a weak smile melted onto his face.
A final tendril of breath escaped his lips, caught the breeze rushing down the glacier and rose into the sky. Higher and higher his final breath climbed, spinning in tight circles around the peaks of the Fairweather Range, catching and percolating with the warm, moisture laden air blown east from the Alaskan Gulf. Caught in the clouds it returned, suspended a thousand feet above the head of the glacier where the temperature plummeted below freezing until the cloud’s bounty was overcome by gravity. Reed’s final breath fell as snow, a single flake that tumbled and twisted in the great gusts of wind nurtured by the ice.
Soundlessly it settled high above the bay, falling among its brothers and sisters, compacting and pressing tightly together, forming ice so dense it reflected blue. And together they surged. Millions, billions, trillions of their brethren fell, piling higher and higher. And the Glacier Where I Say Goodbye charged south. Within twenty years it had swallowed up Tarr Inlet, pushing the Murrlets still bobbing in the deep green coves elsewhere. A century later it had decimated the west arm and pulsed past the middle bay. Unsatisfied the ice continued down, destroying what had been his home, the canvas becoming a pure white, a landscape of endless possibility. With a final thrust, the glaciers reclaimed the last of their bay, a tower of ice two thousand feet high smothering the land. Reed’s snowflake hovering on the pinnacle of an arete, suspended above Icy Strait which once again lived up to its name.
The glacier groaned, cracked, and hollered, the great chunk of ice broke free and fell end over end, leaving a massive crater in the strait that filled with great towers of white water that broke against the ice. Slowly the medial moraine fell away and the glaciers relented and retreated once again. The land reborn, uncovered, untouched, untrammeled. Two hundred years after his arrival, Reed finally floated away. The bay to which he belonged beginning to grow once again.

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.

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.