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13 September 2010


Mother Nature bearing her breast.

This is Alaska.

There is a conduit, a portal, a tunnel to the center of the Earth that opens near the Arctic circle and funnels the heart of the planet to the surface. In Alaska, everything is bigger, more exposed, and has the capacity to deeply impress your soul.

Breaching whales, calving glaciers, soaring bald eagles, belching sea lions, constant rain and piercing sun. Ice and moon and stars. Mountains massive. The biggest darkness.

The place changes the people that go there, that experience this beauty, this raw awe. It has changed me. Twice I have gone and been profoundly affected. My recent journey was with my mother, sea kayaking and whale watching in the Icy Strait of the Inside Passage near Glacier Bay National Park. Days spent paddling on the water, with steller sea lions huffing and burping and splashing alongside us; harbor seals poking their slippery, silent heads above the surface to inquire of our nature with flaring nostrils; bald eagles coasting out of the old growth forest, chittering peal resonating off the still waters of the strait; jellyfish pulsating across our paddles.

A nighttime fire, full moon obscured by clouds. Humpback whales blaring, jumping, slapping, feeding, calling, crying through the darkness. Hours of prehistoric cacophony filling the strait. The voice of a 45 foot, 40 ton mammal is LOUD. The voices of many are louder. Their full moon symphony accompanied us to sleep.

Such a special place attracts and creates special people. Our guide and avid naturalist, Annette, led us through bays and channels, estuaries and rocky coastline while describing to us the vivid and detailed natural history of the place. She watched and understood. She not only knew the names but also the behaviors and interactions of all our surroundings, flora and fauna; the tides and currents and climates. She quietly absorbed while we absorbed, and enthusiastically shared when our gaping jaws and shiny eyes turned to her for information. She led us and befriended us.

Our hostess in Gustavus, Sally, advised us over delightful breakfasts of currant juice and nagoon berry jam, eggs from their backyard chickens and fresh coffee. She laughed with us in mornings and evenings and shared with us her life in Alaska, and a window into life in Gustavus.

Glacier Bay. Multitudinous glaciers, rivers of ice falling off mountains and spewing icebergs into the ocean. Fantastic fjords of aquamarine blue cut deep into valleys where waterfalls pour off cliff faces and tumble down steep slopes to churning water below. A lone mountain goat balances on a polished bedrock knob jutting hundreds of feet into the sky, a nearby eagle eyes him from his spruce-top perch. A blubber-fattened grizzly jaws and crunches and tears at the flesh of a washed-up whale, shimmering coat glistening in the sunlight. Buildings and parking garages of ice cleave from the Margerie Glacier splashing into the silt laden water and whipping waves out into the bay. Harbor porpoise travel through water and tufted puffins flutter by air.

This is Alaska.

10 more days in the north. Again I have been deeply moved, finding it difficult to leave and stirred up inside upon my return home. Alaska speaks to a deep part of me in a language I do not yet fully understand. It is a sacred place. And I can hear its call from afar...

"There's a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There's a land - oh it beckons, and beckons,
And I want to go back - and I will."

Robert Service, "Spell of the Yukon"