Saturday, July 9, 2011

Notes from Alaska

Notes from my journal in Alaska.

Quote from Pico Iyer: “It can, of course, be dangerous to live too long in so protected a retreat, so far removed from daily strife. Any serious monk does not seek to leave the world but seeks merely to step out of it for a while, the better to see it, and return to it with new strength and clear direction.”

7 a.m. December 6, 2009. Frosty morning. Writing from totally inside my sleeping bag. Camped on a spit of frozen grass that doesn't get any light this time of year, spruces sparkling with frost like tiny Christmas lights. So strange that it's December now, and I came out here before Thanksgiving. I haven't thought of Christmas shopping, of warm buzzing shops and food and parties. I'm camping under tarps on the Alaskan coastline instead, enthralled by the ice that clings to every blade of grass, this cold, glittery otherworld; chunks of ice floating in the ocean we push through in our canoes. Last night, our fire seemed the only sign of life in this great expanse of sea and sky; a lonely speck of light in thousands of miles of wilderness.

December 7, 2009. Five days without a drop of rain. Freezing cold and dark by 3 p.m., starry skies and big fires of dry wood. I get up before everyone else and stand on a point of rock jutting out into the deep northern ocean, watching the first pink and orange hints of a sunrise appear. A seal pops his head from the calm bay and stares at me. Then the kids get up and it's nonstop action until they go to sleep again. The days fly by, one merging into another, paddling for miles across open ocean in clear, cold, slanting sunshine.
Yesterday we were paddling in good spirits; three green canoes with yellow spraydecks sliding by the dripping rock cliffs. In the distance, spews from a lone humpback whale. We watch and paddle on. Then, closer, behind the humpback, a pod of orcas appears, flipping their tales, black dorsal fins slicing through the water. Suddenly one, apart from the rest, rises just behind our boats and breaches! Incredible!

6 p.m. Friday night, February 26, 2010. Just enough gray light to write by, darkening with each word. An almost-full moon glowing behind a foggy haze, rising over white-shouldered mountains. The shaggy humps of the island-mountains loom darkly; steep mist-shrouded forests rising straight out of the water, rocks dripping wet, echoing. In the moonlight, the moutaintops glow white, pine trees standing out like carefully placed toy trees on a diorama. This is day 7 of staff field straining and there's been no rain all day; into camp by 3 p.m. after an easy 10-mile paddle. Behind me are the sounds of a busy camp—armloads of wood dropped on the rocky beach, laughter, the crackling of a driftwood fire, clank of the cast iron skillet. I'm sitting alone for a few minutes in a tiny cove blanketed with shiny purple mussels. Big red starfish left on the rocks by the receding tide, hot chocolate in my thermos. I listen to the water lap the shore and think about going back to Wrangell tomorrow, and of doing this for 50 straight days shortly thereafter.

We push into these dense forests like intruders hoping to discover a secret. Past the first line of defense, the heavy branches, you break through, pause, and raise your head. You find yourself in an oversized wonderland, a snowglobe of thick, cushy moss, ancient cedars draped with lichens, a glowing green that filters out all other colors except the delicate white snowflakes that sift softly through the canopy. Mossy hummocks decay into rich soil, soft earth, massive branches stretch high and wide. I'm in awe that this is what I do for work; I marvel that this is my life.

March 10, 2010. Wrangell town. “The only frontier left is the world of intangibles, of ideas, stories, music, art...” Mornings, I wake up slowly, look outside: more rain, the town near to floating away, it seems. I think of Adam and the others out in this and imagine it must feel like a punishment of sorts, forcing yourself out of your tarp every morning, paddling through the driving rain with freezing, numb fingers; searching vainly for dry firewood to make a smoky fire under a tarp, huddle around it as the dark wet ocean slaps at the rocks. I've been there. And yet I haven't. Here in town, I wake up slow, warm, to coffee and poems and music and a day's worth of dreams and plans. I play a game of cards and bump into friends at the store, a chance encounter that turns into an hour-long conversation. I take a bath in the middle of the day and run my fingers softly down my sides, watching my stomach rise and fall in the filmy water. I contemplate things, this week: my own body, the year 2010, things other people have written, things I've written, the splatter of rain on the window, the slow building drum roll behind a song. I have a cigarette with my morning coffee, then I go to the gym.

March 30. I was walking to the shop today when James drove by in the forest-service-green clunker and said he'd be back in 20 minutes. Waiting, I cut through someone's driveway and found a weathered gray log on stone pilings overlooking the harbor to sit on. Light and wind on my face; 45 degrees in Alaska and people are wearing shorts and tee-shirts. Below me is a working dock: orange buoys, a rusty oil barrel, a coiled hose, crab traps, lengths of chains and ropes. Crates, boards with nails sticking out, a ladder. Wrangell has made a conscious choice not to be gentrified; it has bravely refused the lure of the cruise ships. Now it's a matter of opinion whether it's suffering or thriving because of it.

6:24 p.m., April 13. One week into Program 4; me and 12 guys between the ages of 13 and 36. I'm sitting away from the group on a boulder-strewn beach, barnacles and strands of popping seaweed clinging to every rock. Huge chunks of soggy driftwood thrown here by storms. Across a short, still bay is a pine-silhouetted shoreline in at least 50 shades of green, rolling mountains beyond mounded with snow. Seals swim silently in water as calm as a lake, and wispy purple-gray clouds streak across a pale sky. Big wool thrift-store sweater under rubber overalls, feet clad in Xtratuff boots too valuable to put a price on. The beauty is that we stay out here as long as we do; we could stay out here indefinitely, I sometimes think; never go beyond this life of moving from one place to the next every day, concerned only with food and water, heat and shelter. I feel prepared and confident, quietly pleased that my rubber outer shell renders me impermeable to the sharp edges and wet salty winds of this remote coast.

5:54 p.m., Friday, May 25. 2,000 feet above Anita Bay and Zimovia Strait with views to Canada, the coastal mountains jagged and hazy on the horizon. Will mountains ever cease to stun me into silence? Will I ever get over them? Closer, Virginia Peak just across the bay starts at the dark blue sea with a line of aspen, barely yet green with spring. As the mountain rises, it blends into the darker green of pines, then gives way to the bare rock and sheer white of the alpine zone. Behind us, blanketed in pure white, is Navy Peak: our destination, looming, reminding us of what's ahead. It's still days away; travel in this country is slow, especially with a group of teenage boys.

Sitting at the edge of camp, the ocean spreads out thousands of feet beneath my boots, glassy on this sunny day, dotted with small white boats forming “V”s of wake behind them as they move slowly across my vista. From here, I can see the shades and textures that make up the eternal waves and tides and currents that rule our days down there. Instead of highways and intersections, we've come to understand this world in terms of straits, bays, channels, inlets, islands, coves. Which ones the tide pushes through most strongly, which the winds howl down, where the deep spots for dropping crab pots or spotting whales are. From above, from this new and unexpected vantage point, it all becomes clear and lucid, the swell and pull of the marine world. My feet are dry and warm and sun hits the back of my neck. Our orange-and-white mountaineering tents are perched on a snowy edge, on an open mountaintop surrounded by patches of stunted spruce that melt the snow at their base, starting already to bud. A stream trickles somewhere under the snow—I can hear it, and know I've got to get up soon to find it and fill up our water with one of the boys.

We worked hard to get here, to a place few others care to see. We climbed through muddy forest deep in skunk cabbage and over mossy logs the size of mattresses, fell and swore and sweat. Up into the muskeg, sloshy and moist, buggy as hell. We've fallen down countless slippery slopes, slogged through mud to our knees, sank in muskeg holes, pushed through forest we couldn't see through, branches scratching at our faces. Then into the snow, just a little bit of it at first, in patches, slushy; then more and more until we got to a ridge that made the boys cry and swear – and eventually call out words of encouragement to each other as we crept along its edge. Now we're close to the sky, blessed with sun.

May 16, evening, in my tent. Two nights ago, the steady drip started in the middle of the night and never let up. We slept in until 8 and awoke in the middle of a cloud. Gray fog swirled over the precipice, our view swallowed up. Packed up camp with grumpy kids in a rain just this side of snow and climbed straight into the mountains, hunched under heavy packs, a silent line of figures marching against the gray. We stopped at a flat spot when we couldn't go any further, no visibility to orient ourselves in relation to the peak we're shooting for. Hiking up a hill before dinner to warm up, I looked down on our four orange tents huddled against the driving wind, a cluster of gear and people small and exposed against the endless clouds, the stark rocks, fields of snow, twisted and bent trees.

But this morning the sun burned off the mist and fog, and suddenly we realized we were on the edge of a bowl with peaks rising all around, alpine clarity rinsing our vision clean, freshly washed air, waterfalls tumbling down. From there we hiked down a ravine then back up again, higher, to base camp. Tomorrow we'll try to summit. So much work to get up here, navigating such a jumbled topography of muskeg and forest and snowy cliffs.

But I love these wild, open places; this open alpine tundra bathed in evening light. We're camped in a broad, rolling expanse, bare rock cover interspersed with sopping puddles of moss and lichen; fragile plants clinging to life, patches of snow melting. Water trickles everywhere, but we are all dry and happy again after last night's wretchedness. I walk to the edge of a point and below the sweeping white ridgeline of Navy Peak is a wall of snow trickling down to brown rocks, sloping into muddy rivulets, draining through tall brown grasses to a lake far below, fed by a rushing stream, perfectly reflecting the bowl of mountains that surrounds it. I stand on one of them, somewhere. 

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