This morning is misty, authentic Southeast Alaska. This is my phrase of choice when I share an early morning chat on a board cruise ship shrouded in mist and fog. I share my joy (perhaps a bit facetious) with visitors that they will have the privilege to experience the true Southeast Alaska during their time in Glacier Bay. Ok, it is a cheap, tongue in cheek shot, but it typically receives at least a few chuckles from the crowd and I am sure much rolling of eyes. “Will we see anything today,” was a question we heard throughout much of the morning yesterday. Yet, without fail, the further north we traveled, the higher the veil of mist rose until what first seemed a fjord with low-lying, coniferous forests revealed tidewater glaciers and dark mountains dripping with pioneer shrubs and trees, alpine glaciers, mid-summer snow not yet melted, and critters great and small following well-trod paths of their own somewhere out of sight but not out of mind.
I find great comfort in knowing they are there, as I find comfort in watching cycles of life take shape in places that grow more familiar by the day. Through the mist, which my housemate describes as “a dry rain,” I carried an oversize bundle of laundry along a path used by many species. On my way back, I noticed a pile of moose skat that has been present since my arrival in late April. Two pale, delicate mushrooms, covered with a wet sheen, had sprouted in the middle of the decomposing mound, and another mushroom stood boldly alone a few feet away. It seemed apropos with the summer fast drawing to a close and seasonals beginning to think about life after Glacier Bay that life should continue unfazed by our ever unfolding human dramas.
Of laundry and synchronicity
It is interesting to me how many moments of clarity I experience during exchanges with folks who frequent the park housing laundry room. It is so lovely and toasty in that room that one tends to linger, and each time I wander in to switch loads of laundry or transfer one load form washer to dryer, I run into someone and am never disappointed with the path our conversations follow.
Late morning, on my second trip over, I ran into one woman whose season is coming to an abrupt end. Rather than leaving next Friday, she was just informed that she will be leaving Monday and is working on preparing herself for the transition from life in Bartlett Cove to San Antonio, and I must admit that I am not envious in the least of this turn of events. I realized long ago that I was not meant for life in a big city or even large town. My mind is already so full of thoughts and musings that are challenging to quiet that I find myself disconnecting from the present world around me. The noisy, fast pace of town and city life would certainly overwhelm my last shred of resistance.
I speak to this phenomenon in an interpretive program I developed at North Cascades I titled “Tuning in to Wildness”. The program begins with an interactive activity between interpreter and audience called “name that sound,” for which I play multiple recordings of sounds you can hear at North Cascades National Park Complex. Sounds include those typical of a Pacific Northwest wilderness – bobcat, varied thrush, cascading water, black bear, raven, and so on – as well as those that may be surprising and certainly invoke laughter at times – car horns honking, motorcycle, applause (at the end of my program, of course), etc.
I talk with each audience about how we as a species under appreciate our sense of hearing and the influence of sound on our entire being. A photograph of a bobcat invokes very different emotions than the sound of this wild creature. Yet we walk around with blinders, letting the sounds of the world blur into a white cacophony of noise from which individual sounds are no longer differentiated. National parks are places that not only preserve unique sounds that may not be heard elsewhere in the world. They also are places that preserve the possibility of wildness and the sense of unknown that goes along with it. It is both of these concepts that keep my own being alive and attuned and something that many visitors with whom I have connected on board cruise ships and tour vessels begin to ponder as we travel up and down bay together.
Back in the laundry room, this young woman and I spoke of the uncertainty we experienced before traveling to this strange place in rural southeast Alaska, she leaving the life of a large city for the first time and me leaving a community I felt strongly connected to and comfortable in its familiarity. And here we both stood contemplating the ways we had changed and a sense of empowerment and independence in taking that step, surviving, and thriving to the extent that we had no desire to leave and feeling for people who spend their whole lives in one place, never experiencing the exhilaration of traveling to a foreign land and finding home in the most unlikely of places.
I remember leaving my upper Skagit home, the emotional and psychological challenge of leaving my family and my comfort zone, and worrying about whether I would find a sense of place and community in this foreign place. Here I sit merely a few short months later, and I have already developed a strong connection with this community of land and water, brown bear and raven – wildness uncontained. I also feel a newfound sense of self and pride in having traveled here on my own and created a whole new life for myself with a hopeful future.
Mere hours later, upon returning to the laundry room, I met up with two other women, one of whom heard our voices and came to say hello. Coming from a place where people often live in solitude and hide from the outside world, I am so moved by this community where people regularly seek the company of others and look after each other in this enclave here at the ends of the civilized world.
She told us that a neighbor in park housing had just learned of a medical emergency involving a family member only a couple weeks after confiding to her of a fear that something would happen to someone in his family. She spoke of the strangeness of the coincidence, and I shared my own thoughts about the synchronicity of our thoughts and energies in the universe. The other woman spoke of how often this happens around us and how our species seems to overlook this trend in our world. She spoke of the backcountry as a place where we are more in sync with our senses and our surroundings, where our whole being is more closely attuned to a world that is greater than ourselves and where our individual existences are woven into a wild, synchronous web of life, if only temporarily. The woman who had heard our voices and come to join us mentioned that this attunement also seemed more apparent in the local community in ways that it no longer does in other communities in which she had lived.
Summer is fleeting here, and I already feel a sense of loss for my friends who will soon be leaving. However, this place takes a hold of those who make the effort to travel here. The first woman I spoke with in the laundry room spoke of working at another national park year summer and then said she could already feel this place drawing her back, though the full impact may not hit her until after she has left, perhaps when she is muddling through traffic and cursing at the drivers around her. I will look forward to hearing about her transition from one wild place to another.