The land of the north wind

For my birthday weekend, a friend flew up from the lower 48 to take me on an adventure further north. We journeyed up the Lynn Canal for seven hours from Juneau en route to a place I had heard him describe for many years – the mysterious enclave called Skagway – a mystical realm of Alaska I never envisioned I would have the opportunity to visit. After my previous day of cruise ship madness, I sat down on the edge of the bed upon our arrival and envisioned Alaska dreams. But it was not to be. Uncle Dave, a dear friend who I adopted into my “extended,” Pacific Northwest family, was ready to explore the town. I should take a moment here to note that uncle Dave far exceeds my own reserve of energy on a day when I haven’t been on my feet responding to questions about calving glaciers, green and cloudy water, elevation (yes, we are at sea level), and seasonal variation in Southeast Alaska. “Do you have summer here?” is a favorite. He is also well over 6 feet tall, which translates into at least 4 tiny ranger marieke steps to his 1-2. I am sure we are quite the sight, though when he went walking with purpose down main street at 10pm that night, with little me bounding (well, bounding might be pushing it) along behind, there were precious few folks out and about. Just my style!

Finally, a brief sleep before our 6am wake up and breakfast, which I can always roll out of bed for. It has been many years since I made the leap to journey to a foreign land, and I am beginning to believe that there is a certain part of ourselves that comes alive with this kind of exploration of the unknown. It is what draws so many to Alaska, the last frontier. This is a theme I recently talked about with a fellow ranger who is working on a wolf program to share with visitors to Glacier Bay. This idea of wildness and wilderness, two concepts which have grown ever foreign in the vocabulary of the modern, western human, and certainly for the vast majority of Americans, is one that seems to lay dormant in this day and age of technological and consumerist distraction coming at us from every angle. We wake up in a contained, controlled space, head out in a box with wheels, spend the day indoors in another contained, controlled space, and head home, only to wake up and repeat the same basic variation of the previous day over and over again.

For me, the thought of a life so contained has always caused great anxiety. I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, but I could not imagine being trapped in a classroom for the rest of my life, aging in yearbook photos, and dreaming of taking my students outside as I had hoped against hope that my own teachers would do when I was in high school. So I gave up on the idea of being a teacher until a few peers in college suggested that I look into environmental education. It was here that my lightbulb epiphany or serendipitous career path revealed itself in the form of a two-month internship at North Cascades National Park with North Cascades Institute. How easy it was to fall in love with the mountains, the raging Skagit River – particularly during flood season, an elation of energy and excitement in watching the sheer, raw power of water juxtaposed with the determined, yet futile efforts of humans to control it time and again – and the interpretive park rangers, replete with flat hat and fully clad in grey and green. The following summer, I started my own NPS stint as a Student Conservation Association (SCA) ranger – a bit less regal in my frumpy volunteer uniform and without an official flat hat but elated nonetheless – and seven years later I find myself with the shining golden nugget of the NPS, a permanent position in a vast wilderness.

Speaking of golden nuggets, I suppose I should return to the story at hand – Skagway, “the land of the north wind”. My initial impression of this place was some kind of bizarre movie set for a western film. However, the numerous fur and diamond shops quickly transformed this vision to a strange kind of consumerist, cruise ship western where people duel over free gifts from the jewelry stores and the last magnet from the park gift shop.

Over the course of the day, I grew endeared to this strange place with such a push and pull history of struggle, extraction, debauchery, and exploitation. True, many humans came here in search of wealth and renown, yet most left empty-handed. What remains are symbols of something more than these terse adjectives I have used to describe a place I hardly know, having spent less than 24 hours in its presence. These are examples of what our rash species can accomplish when stubbornly determination sets in – the White Pass and Yukon Railway, photographs of men on near vertical climbs through snow, wind, and discomfort (to put it mildly), staking out a claim in a land most people only experience as a fleeting daydream but never get up the gall to drop the comfort and seeming stability of their lives to realize.

Before leaving, Dave and I had the opportunity to experience the power of the wind which gives Skagway its name. We took turns standing on a bridge over the river, dramatically bracing ourselves against this invisible force. We then had the opportunity to have the truly authentic Southeast Alaska travel experience, waiting for many hours and finally for a larger plane to arrive from Juneau when smaller planes were forced to turn back, before we could depart for a bumpy, magnificent ride that reminds one of the preciousness of life and the inevitability of mortality.

A question that is beginning to take shape in my mind of dissertation and doctoral work is what draws so many living species to Alaska, focusing on this corner of Southeast called Glacier Bay. Is it the ocean currents, extreme tides, and presence of abundant food that calls Humpback whales from the warm waters off the coast of Hawaii and transient pods of Orcas, the promise of a safe nursery for Harbor seals to nurse their young upon icebergs formed from calving glaciers, or invisible currents in the sky upon which arctic terns and shorebirds fly with such delicate, tenuous balance? What draws more than 400,000 visitors to board planet princess cruise ships to experience the bay from 11 stories above the surface of the water? What a strange experience to witness wilderness from a distance, like rolling film before our eyes and from the seeming safety and controlled atmosphere of a cruise ship stateroom. I am not criticizing cruise ship sea-goers by any means. The conversations I have been blessed to hold with people from all walks of life and from every corner of the globe – the other day I met two women who journeyed here all the way from Singapore – have provoked questions of the wildness within and need for our species to experience something greater than ourselves, a world beyond our control, with the promise of the unknown, of life and death, such that many visitors seem to begin thinking about their own lives and life choices from a new perspective.

Of course, an interpretive park ranger’s dream is that words or stories shared with visitors will elicit this kind of response. The greatest challenge is that of the unknown in the evanescent relationship between visitor and ranger. Across this country, park rangers come into contact in formal and informal interpretive interactions with millions of visitors and hold conversations in a spectrum of languages and settings. The influence or impact we have from attempts to plant tiny seeds of ideas is rarely revealed. However, it is the hope that a visitor will continue to dream of Glacier Bay and will in turn take notice of the wildness in their own backyard and communities that keeps me climbing that 15 foot rope ladder each week, greeting visitors and answering every kind of question imaginable, and collapsing into bed at the end of the day.

A single moment on board the train to White Pass encapsulates this hope. The train is still at the end of the line, shrouded in mist, tiny droplets of water resting like a blanket on neighboring plants and rock. I stand on a platform between railcars, listening to the haunting song of a Hermit Thrush, invisible but for its descending stream of flute-like notes. A gentleman from the next railcar tentatively peeks out from the warmth of his car to the cool misty world and peers along the surface of the water beside the tracks. I hesitate and then ask if he can hear the Hermit Thrush singing. When he shakes his head, I describe it and watch as he listens intently for a few moments, nodding his head as he takes notice of this phantom of nearly 3,000 feet, a resident of wild and developed places alike, a stranger until this moment for this visitor to Alaska. He turns to me and thanks me for pointing out this bird, listens for a few moments more, and slowly, with hesitation, reenters the railcar and the human world.

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