Tag Archives: southeast

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.

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Every Minute From This Minute Now, We Can Do What We Like Anywhere

I do most of my thinking while I’m jogging. And most of that time I’m trying to decide what to write about next (or baseball, I think a lot about baseball). Since the day we started the blog, I’ve been mulling how to write my farewell to Juneau. I could write about my ten favorite memories, or the people that have impacted or changed my life the most, or whales, I almost decided to just default to whales. But how can you capture a place, it’s meaning, and it’s significance by simply rattling off a list of names, locations, and events? For me, that doesn’t do Juneau justice.

 

Driving down Egan towards the bridge I stared south to the mountain range beyond the Taku River, trying to commit the image to memory and not swerve into oncoming traffic at the same time. But no matter how hard I tried to memorize the view, the shape of the peaks, their contrast with the field of greenery on Douglas Island, and the suns’ sparkling diamonds on Gastineau channel, the image fades. We look away and become distracted, the picture blurring and distorting. In a year you could show me a picture of that channel and the mountains beyond and I would probably recognize it. But heaven forbid I try to describe or recreate the picture in my mind.

 

It is, tragically, how our memories are. The harder we try to hold on to pictures and moments, the quicker they seem to slip into some buried folder in the back of our minds. Instead, I will try to remember the way Juneau made me feel. The emotions it dug up, the feelings and passions it drove to the surface, and the influence it will have on me for the rest of my life.

 

I came here because it was still Alaska, it had a university, and it wasn’t Fairbanks. It was my three step selection process and precious little thought went into it. I just knew I had to get out, try something new, and that I couldn’t handle another winter of darkness and 40 below. I arrived brimming with nerves, self doubt, and little confidence. I felt pressure to prove myself in class, find a research job, and be successful. It was turning me into a nervous wreck. I had to have life figured out and understood, and had to have it now.

 

But Juneau started to quell those demons before the ferry even hit the dock. My welcoming committee featured paired breaching humpbacks on a 70 degree day. I began to feel a level of peace and belonging just a few nights later, camping on the beach as the echos of breathing humpbacks ricocheted off the rocks. I began to relax and listen to myself. I accepted David for David. From curly hair to gangly limbs. I became comfortable in my own skin, and stopped asking “what should I be getting out of life,” and instead wondered, “what do I want out of life?”

 

And I think those are the emotions I’ll leave Juneau with. I have grown to embrace myself for who I am and where I’m going. I know that I don’t need an office or a career if I don’t want one. That as long as I’m happy with myself and my direction it’ll be alright. So now, five years later, it’s almost unbearable to leave. And when I stop and think that everything I own is going to be crammed into a car in just two short days it makes my head spin and eyes well up. But Juneau made me this way, shaped me to one day leave her. She gave me the bravery and strength to walk away. And for that I’ll be forever grateful

 

So Saturday morning I will stand on the stern deck of the ferry and watch Auke Bay pull out of sight. I’ll follow the road past Eagle Beach, Bird, Gull, and Benjamin Island, and slowly past Berner’s Bay. I’ll soak in as much as I possibly can and one last time, remember exactly how Juneau made me feel.