It happens to everyone, or at least I hope, when a moment happens that changes your life. Something happens inside of you, good or bad, and you accept your new reality. I have a few memories that I think about a lot that have shaped who I am, some of them good and some of them bad. There is one in particular that I tell people at my work about a lot. Most of the reason why I tell them is because when I tell them I want to be back in Alaska, everyone’s mind explodes and they can’t imagine not living in California or somewhere warm. Not that the Alaska I talk about is a cold place, but they all assume that it is. So here is one of my favorite defining moments.
I want to start by saying writing anything about Glacier Bay is extremely difficult. There aren’t many words in my vocabulary that really can describe it accurately. It’s the type of place that only being there will pull out the right emotions in you.
The town I lived in is Gustavus, which is the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park, and is something like 70 air miles west of Juneau. It was my first summer there and really one of my first times leaving my hometown (Except for vacations or trips) and it was incredible. There obviously is no photos that can show the vastness of being in a 600,000 acre national park that is surrounded by millions more acres of protected national, state and wildlife areas.
It was mid June and 9 other co-workers and I wanted to go camping one night when we got off work. I had already been here for about three weeks and had yet to go kayaking or camping, and this was going to be both. Me and three other of the campers were working the night shift at the lodge we all worked at and we were going to be getting off at 11 that night, so we all packed before our shift. It was only going to be for the one night and we were going to be coming back at around noon that next day, so packing for me was basically only a 12 pack of beer, a pack of cigarettes and a tent. When we got off, everyone had brought all of our kayaks down to the boat ramp below the lodge, as well as everyones gear, so all I had to do is change. High tide was at some time around midnight, so it was perfect timing.
I’ll never forget, as we were getting into the Kayaks (5 tandem sea kayaks) the water was as still as you could ever hope. When I saw it, I knew exactly why people described water conditions as glass-not one ripple anywhere. we started paddling out to an area called the cut which leads to the Beardslee Islands, our destination. It’s called the cut because you can only go through it durning the high tide, the rest of the time its cut off from kayaking by shallow water and rocks. When you go through the cut you are surrounded by trees everywhere as you are paddling through many small islands. No one was talking and it was fairly dark, and all I remember thinking about was how quiet it is and how far away I really was from California, and I loved it. When we got through the cut we linked all of our kayaks together, and discussed where we were going to go. The trip was being led by a guy named Mikey who had been in Glacier Bay for like 5 years, so we were really just going to follow him anywhere. This is when my defining moment started.
While we were tied up together everyone who smoked got a cigarette, and everyone got a drink. It was a mix of liquor, beer and wine. I had warm pbr and a cigarette. Same with the kayaker with me, Tiffany. She was my girlfriend at the time. We cheersed eachother and then everyone else. As we were all sitting there quiet, taking in what was the beginning of the sunrise I looked behind me at what is the Beartrack Mountains, and saw a completely full moon come out from behind trees and light everything up. It was incredible, you could read a book in it. The only thing making noise was seabirds and our kayaks clunking together with the tide. I watched the moon for about 5 minutes, and watched it slide away again, but behind the mountains and I was so sad to see it go. I shifted myself back forward and at that exact moment the sun was starting to show its pretty face from behind the Fairweather Mountains. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing because the Fairweathers are a very substantial range and completely snow covered, so they were bright pink with the sunrise. I remember someone saying “Holy fucking shit” really loud, and it really was the only thing that could have been said at a time like that. We enjoyed it for a while longer, but we were getting anxious to get out of the kayaks and start a fire and celebrate the beginning of our summer. we were only about a 10 minute paddle from our beach we were going to. That’s when things just kept getting better.
We were just starting to angle into the little beaches cove when a humpback appeared between us and the shore. It was my first whale I had ever seen, and I was only about 20 yards away from it. It was just swimming back and forth in the shallow water in front of us and it made me want to cry. I have been in the woods most of my life hunting and fishing and camping and had seen lots of wildlife… I never thought that seeing an animal could ever affect me like it did. I still don’t know what it is, but there is something about seeing nature at its finest that really makes you feel connected to everything around you. Well the whale swam off and we got out and started a fire and I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and family about what I had just seen.
Tiffany and I were setting up our tent before we went to enjoy the fire. But Mike and a girl named Mary were there feeding the fire. At this point I had an Alaskan Summer (a beer from Alaskan Brewery) and if you have ever seen the label, you’d know the significance of it in the end of this story. I was inside the tent unrolling my sleeping back, when I heard Mikey screaming frantically for everyone at the top of his lungs, “Orcas!!!! Ooooorcas!!”. We ran down to the fire and looked out over the water facing an island called Strawberry Island. I sat there drinking my Summer watching a pod of seven Orcas swimming past us to a larger area of water called the Sitakaday Narrows. We could see them for almost 10 minutes, and they were being followed by an NPS research boat (I don’t remember its name) which for some reason made it feel significant. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was thinking that the Park Service even thought it was special to see this kind of thing. Anyways it was like sensory overload and when the whales disappeared I said out loud that I belonged there. That period of 5 hours or so gave me a perspective on Southeast Alaska that will never change and it also has given me this drive to return there. In the year and a half that its been that I’ve been away I can feel a little piece of me dying every day. Its the true meaning of the quote from John Muir (Who coincidentally did thorough research there to compare to Yosemite and expressed his love for Glacier Bay)
The mountains are calling and I must go
Even though he said that about the Sierra’s, I always just like to believe it was about Glacier Bay. Sometimes I wish I had any pictures of this night, but I honestly like it better as a memory. That way its just for me and the people that were there! Also who knows, it might not of have been as spectacular as it is in my mind.