I woke up at 3:00 in the morning on Wednesday, June 27th, to go to the bathroom. It was still light out. When you’re this far north, the sun never really sets. It dips below the horizon, but comes right back up. At 5:30 the boat’s PA system announced that we would be able to get off in Yakutat from 6-8. As I left the tent Soph rolled over and said to me “Wake me up if there is a beautiful glacier.”
I looked at my phone and it said that it was 1:25. Apparently there is interference with the cell systems there and it messes with your clock. While waiting to dock I spoke with Shea. I have seen her and her partner roaming around the boat. They have a rugged and beautiful traveler look to them. He is tall and fit with messy blond hair and stubble. A bee keeper. Smokes cigarettes thoughtfully. She is shorter and a bit exotic looking, almost Alaskan, but maybe a pale New Mexican.
“I’ve been to Detroit,” she said after asking where I’m from. “Got robbed there.”
“Alright! You’ve earned your credentials.”
“Yeah, it sucked. They stole all my shit and I was pissed. But I went by there again and decided that I needed to find something nice to remember the place by. I fell in love with all of the urban farms. I really think Detroit is the city of the future and its past needs to be a lesson to the rest of the world of what not to do.”
Travelling is the downfall of prejudice according to Shea. We talked about how when you force yourself to get on the ground in the sort of places that scare you your world becomes bigger while the world as a whole starts to feel smaller. You gain the confidence to go to a place where you don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture, but you do know that you’re likely to find a friend that will help you find your way. Millenial white girls would call that trusting in the universe………
There isn’t much in Yakutat, but a pleasant surprise when you hop off the boat is a woman in a little wood shack with maps of the town and souvineer mugs and shirts for sale. All proceeds go to the schools.
Fat Grandma’s is the only place open at 6 in the morning. You can buy a decent shot of espresso, a trashy used romance novel, paper stems for making suckers, and a few other random things. The scones are raved about, but I found them to be too sweet..
At seven, the grocery store opened. That was a rude awakening. $4 for an avocado, $3 for an almost rotten red pepper, and $15 for less than half a pound of pecans. Everything was at least twice as much as in the lower 48 and sometimes triple the price. The woman behind the counter said this was expensive even for Alaska because of the remoteness of the town. I bought some bananas and carrots, but decided there really wasn’t enough to make a decent meal out of and that it would be cheaper to eat the fine cuisine on the boat.
Back in the cafeteria, I saw a man in line who I had noticed was sleeping in the solarium with a pair of panniers by his sleeping bag. “You touring?” I asked. “Yeah, Minnesota to Anchorage. Name’s Ivar.” He looked like a cycle tourist. Scruffy hair and 2 month beard. Worn but clean clothes. Eating a giant breakfast of eggs, sausage, hashbrowns, and toast and loving it. I look forward to being so deprived of calories that that garbage tastes good. We swapped stories and thoughts on gear, logistics, etc. It reassured me that we are well prepared for the weather and the bears.
Later in the day we crossed paths and had a nice chat on the solarium deck. Ivar had been in the military for a few decades. Special ops and diplomacy in the Middle East. After retiring, he was hired into the private sector to develop large infrastructure projects in that region. He speaks fluent Arabic. After retiring from the world of Boss suits, first class flights, and fine dining, he is trying to figure out what he wants to be.
“When I was 17 I did a 4 month cycle tour across the US and Canada. I don’t want to say that this has been a disappointment, but it’s not what I had thought it would be. After 40 years you forget about a lot of the bad parts and have this romanticized vision of the past. And you never forget that initial feeling of freedom. I think I made the mistake that I would have that same feeling.”
It was interesting to hear his thoughts. On some level I can relate to the idea of altering the past into a narrative that makes me smile every time I think of it and then tyring to recreate those days. For fuck’s sake, fifteen years ago I took a train to Seattle, a bus to Bellingham, and the Marine Highway to Ketchikan. From there my friend Murph and I hitched a ride to Girdwood for the same festival that Soph and I will be at in a week and then ended in Homer, where we will set off from in just a few days. If you ask me about it, I will tell you about getting lost on mountains, hiking to abandoned towns, working on fishing boats, and having a beer by the river at 3 in the morning and being amazed that the sun was still out.
Cliché tales of youth and stupidity. Meeting a young woman in Girdwood who said she was going to Homer. She drank so much she passed out at the bar so we threw her in the back of her truck and decided to drive there through the night. It was a stick and I didn’t know how to drive one, but Murph was too drunk to drive so I learned. Driving all night to Denali and not having enough money to get in, so we slept in the grass by the park entrance. Waking up to a kid on the rocks fifty feet above us saying to his father, “Dad look at that person sleeping on the ground, is that a hippy?” His little sister joining in, “Look, there’s another one here, they’re everywhere!” I could probably dig up some frustrating memories from those days as well, but what fun would that be.
I think what is different for me is that I’m not trying to feel the way I did then. I tried that a few years ago and it didn’t work. You become a different person and you can only experience something for the first time once. I don’t know what lies ahead and I’m not particularly concerned about it. I’ve never been good at predicting the future and rather than hone those skills my focus has always been to maintain a certain degree of malleability in the present. I like the idea that when this is over I could decide to put a suit on again or pick up a hammer.
Grandma was looking better in both strength and demeanor. She was starting to move around without the cane, although she still kept it with her.
Thursday morning we landed in Whittier. The town sits in a little bay inside of Prince William Sound and is surrounded by mountains covered in glaciers. An icy wind is constantly blowing down from above and out to sea. We bumped into Peter at the lone coffee shop. This was the end of his ferry ride. We thanked him for helping with Grandma, gave some awkward hugs, and said goodbye.
The setting is amazing and the town isn’t really noteworthy. There is a massive old building that the military built for the equivalent of $35 million in the 1950’s, used for a few years, and then abandoned. It could house every resident if it were habitable. Bruised oranges are $1.50 per pound in Whittier.
Friday morning we landed on Kodiak Island. We stopped by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge information office and got treated to an informational video on the area. It is the second largest island in the US (Hawaii is the first). Kodiak grizzlies have evolved in isolation for over 12,000 years and are their own sub-species of brown bear. They can can stand 12 feet tall and weigh over 1,000 pounds. This is almost 50% larger than the largest grizzlies we could encounter on the main land. It is also home to the largest Coast Guard base in the country, is a training ground for Navy Seals, and is a strategic outpost for launching missiles. After about an hour of walking my legs started to get confused. A week at sea will do that to you. It feels a bit like gravity is swelling below your feet.
We packed the tent up after getting back on the ship. I took a nap, did a bit of writing, and we sat for one last meal on the M/V Kennicott. One of the crew members that had helped my grandma around the boat dropped by our table and gave us some cookies she had baked. She told us a few stories about riding out 25 foot waves in 100mph winds. Type 3 fun……
The sun came out from the clouds for the last hour of our ride. We stood on the deck as we passed through the Katchemak Bay and into Homer. Surrounded by mountains covered in snow I had a small sinking feeling in my gut as I realized it wasn’t going to be all sunshine and beaches. Still, I’m excited to get moving. We’re staying in a yurt right by the Bishop beach. I took a drive around Homer before going to bed. The sun was still shinging at 11:00 and I remembered why I fell in love with this place almost 15 years ago. Maybe you can get that feeling again.