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.