Tuesday, August 26, 2003

More Blogfodder From Alaska

Days 4b-6, I think. We'll start with Skagway day.

Skagway is the first incorporated town in Alaska, over 100 years old, a remote and still-tiny place where once thousands swarmed to a gold rush that made many more dead than rich. Now for five months a year the town’s 870 permanent residents and a transient summer worker crowd of over two-thousand host thousands a day off the cruise ship; lines. Today there were three ships in town, a light day for the locals, but it’s the end of the season and a Sunday; the stores – mostly the same as in Juneau, plus a few museums and shops reflecting the gold-rush heritage.

Darcie, Willow and I got a late start, and had to make a 12:30 scenic train ride to the Canadian border high in the mountains along the old goldrush routes, and it was raining, and it was cold. But we managed the morning okay, I think, buying little, seeing much. Wary of cruise-ship ubiquity, we’ve begun to shop only in those stores which have “locally owned business” in the window; today, this meant a funky espresso bar filled with long-haired locals and small runny-nosed children and the biggest oatmeal cookies ever, and a quilting store for Darcie, but otherwise treating the shinier stores as museums, not purchase-places. Much more satisfying, and it was getting too weird to keep bumping into the rest of the extended family in town, anyway.

The scenic railway was scenic and a bit longwinded, with a well-meaning tourguide (local) on the loudspeaker who seemed to know her stuff but with little rhythm for the job. The train was packed with the same faces we’ve been seeing on our boat all week, reinforcing the false but ever-strong impression that Alaska is really just one big Disneyland ride for this finite group of folks. Lots of pictures of bridges and gold-rush scenes and glacier-runs will surely follow when I’m home and the network access is cheaper.

After our return down the mountain, sick of tourist glitter, we spent as much time trying to find the real Skagway as we did the Juneau-clone shops. The small roads off the main strip were quiet and mostly residential; we bought Darcie, who had forgotten to pack a swimsuit, an almost-bathing-set of shorts and a sports bra at the local Patagonia store, and spotted the real Skagway: pizza places, Laundromats, supermarket, diner. Watched salmon die slowly upstream in the small clear waters on the edge of this tiny town; watched a small boy catch one with his bare hands out of a roiling glacier-runoff river, too, just for show. Walked home in the rain, past the seals under the gangway, through the security system at the ship’s entrance, and back to the lap of luxury, where AG and Al told us of their unseen children back home while making toys of napkins and paper scraps for the baby, their new surrogate.


Morning; Day 5. Glacier Bay. The water is a deep turquoise and still, its surface the texture of slightly grained glass. To either side of us islands float below landslide-scarred mountains topped with ice and snow. Two pointy-nose creatures – probably sea lions, possibly dolphins – when I went out for my first morning look; a whale off the starboard window at breakfast with Willow while Darcie read and relaxed in the cabin bed. And over everything: glaciers.

The glaciers come over the valleys between mountains like frozen waves the same green-blue color as the water they’ve created. Before them like landslides a grey grit forms, the residue of mountains pushed and scraped over eons towards the sea – imagine sliding into home at a glacial pace, so slow that no dust rises, and you’ve got the basic concept. On the scenic railway ride yesterday our inept guide mentioned that, like a finger pushed into a sponge, glaciers tamp down the land – thus, land where glaciers have melted away or passed rises up slowly like bread dough, or that same sponge taking back its shape: you can see the faint evidence of the process along the shore, where rocks have cracked apart in tulip shapes, spreading out as if from pressure far below.

We won’t disembark today; Glacier Bay is a protected area, a state park from water to mountaintop. Instead, there are special “events” on board – mostly sales of merchandise, where old ladies swarm upon overpriced stuffed moose and wolves like a K-Mart blue-light special, but also pea soup served on the Lido Deck at 10. Several rangers boarded earlier this morning and will narrate as we travel through the idyllic scene. Sports will not be held on the top-most deck as usual, for fear that balls of any type might fly overboard and disrupt the natural beauty, not to mention confuse the heck out of the food chain. Dinner is supposed to be a special sea-going formal event, with lobster and other oceanographic delights.

The Official Map and Guide passed under our cabin door overnight shows sight-possible flora and fauna: wolf, moose, bear, mountain goats, Horned Grebe, Guillemots, three types of whales. We might watch for them, Darcie and I, at the cabin window, or fighting the crowds on the observation decks with their blankets and their binoculars. But Mom has agreed to take the baby for a while later this morning so that Darcie and I can have some time together, just the two of us: odds are good my eyes will be elsewhere, and the blog that follows, perhaps, thinner than usual, for you can’t blog everything – sometimes, you have to just live your life, and enjoy it, keeping the best most private moments safe inside yourself.


Noon, I think: I now carry four timepieces, counting the laptop and palm pilot, and each reports a different time. Up Glacier Bay to an inlet where a glacier ends sharply at the water, a wall of striation topped by spiky points. The ice booms and cracks the air; pieces fall into the water, in slices and in frozen boulders both, roiling green water, sending up spray, making ice caves where before there were none. Many pictures taken as the ship turned around; from here, everywhere we go is part of the long way home.

The deck-side pea soup was spicy and hot; the air was, is cold. Willow returned just moments ago; we could hear her wailing for her Mama all the way down the hall; now she sleeps and Darcie stands at the rail outside, watching the glacial ice floes pass alongside us. It’s quiet, save for thousands of seagulls on the rocks above; they fly close past our balcony when we are inside but stay away when we watch for them, as nature tends to do.

A peaceful morning, then, the beginning of a homecoming too long coming. Turning around means thinking ahead, perhaps too far, but there you go, it can’t be helped. Still to come before we return to school as the students arrive: Ketchican tomorrow, a Sea Day to follow, then a day and a half in Vancouver again; finally, a day of flight – Vancouver to Boston via Dallas, oddly enough – and an evening in Boston repacking, combining Bangladesh and Alaska and Vancouver into one set of luggage and one single car trunk (and boy, I really hope I remember how to drive a car); a long drive home on Sunday morning; home at last and two flights up a hundred times to get all the luggage into the house.

And then work, looming on the horizon like a glacier, and just as heavy. The school year begins Monday, just far enough away for the creep of nervousness and stress to have begun its itch in the back of my head last night as I lay in bed with my family, trying to sleep. If it weren’t for the frenetic pace, the lack of privacy, the Disney culture, the thousand time zones, I’d rather be on vacation forever, but what is a vacation but the act of vacating one’s place in the world; how can one vacate something that never exists? It is this time that makes the other valuable, and vice versa; this life is good and strange and powerful, but it will be good, I think, to come home again.


Notes from aboard ship, too short for their own entry:

Other than the 8:00 dinner seating – far too late for any self-respecting thirteen-month-old – Willow is in her element. She wanders the ship with each of us in turn, calling out her favorite word (Hi!) to everyone she sees, pouting if they don’t respond or turn their heads. But most do. The average traveler here’s a senior citizen, her grandchildren already past this precocious age; surely most realize that they’ll not likely live to see another generation back home, and even those whose grandchildren are still in their own infancy haven’t seen them for ages. Hundreds of people know Willow’s name, and ask about her if one of us appears without her. No one knows my name, and that’s just fine.

People who live in harbors or otherwise inland don’t realize that the ocean isn’t the same from horizon to horizon. As we travel past glacier-fed fjords and inlets we pass over clear lines in the water, each marking a change in color, texture and chemistry. At first I thought these were the remnants of ships long passed; now I know better. The spectrum here would fit on a single Aquamarine crayon, but once you’re in it, the palette is vast and broad. The unseasonable sunshine in this temperate rainforest zone makes it easier to see, too.

I’ve had nosebleeds every day since leaving Bangladesh, most recently in the hot tub last night with the baby. Mom thinks they’re allergy-related, but if they are, why not in Dhaka, where the air was dirtier than I’m used to, and filled with unfamiliar microscopic things? I suspect the dry air has something to do with it; also, surely, the drastic changes in temperature I’m experiencing on a daily basis. Whatever the reason, if this goes on I may have to get my nostrils cauterized upon my return. In other health news – salmon tastes great but seems to give me the perma-runs, and I think I’m getting a cold. I know, thanks for sharing.

Best store so far, although I haven’t even been in it, as it was closed when we got back from dinner in Juneau: Wm Spear Design, home of The World’s Most Wonderful Enamels. As the website hopefully shows, local Alaskan artists Bill, Susan and Deanne makes and sells pins and zipper-pulls of the most glorious detail and type; check out, especially, the one called The Night My God-Dammed Drink Caught Fire, and the medical science selection, which includes full-color realistic-slash-anatomical-textbook-like lungs, hearts, livers, synapses, and spinal columns. I’m thinking one of the cross-sections, either an epidermal pin or a tooth; feel free to buy me one if you feel especially generous today.

Speaking of which and before I forget, you can learn much about the way the local economies work here along the cruiseline routes by asking shopkeepers what time their stores close – generally, instead of having regular hours, they’ll tell you closing time depends on how many ships are in port on a given day, how large they are, and how good business is in the mid afternoon. The reason Wm Spear Designs was closed the other night was that there were only three ships in port, a low number – it’s late in the season here, only a few weeks away from the end of it all. At the proprietor’s suggestion, I tried to keep the internet café open late enough to revisit the other day in Skagway by asking crewmembers to go there in the later afternoon, but they were all out playing soccer on the gangway instead, so there was not time to re-blog from town before leaving.

The oceanic wildlife here is incredible and, if you look for a while, vastly populous. In rapid succession just now on the balcony I saw: a larger-than-I-thought-they’d-be sea otter, happily paddling along on its back; a whole sequence of twice-leaping straight-in-the-air blacksilvery fish, large enough to be salmon or perhaps a halibut; a long, deep shadow under the waves, most probably a whale of some sort. All came within thirty feet of the cabin as we sped along out of Glacier Bay towards tomorrow’s Ketchican stop; the waves are growing choppy as we push on out of the bay into the open water along the Alaskan coastline.


Day 6; Morning in Ketchikan, which I’ve been spelling wrong all along. The water’s gone back to a typical deep sea black-and-blue; the only things I saw on my morning deck-sit were the more remote local houses along the water, small fishing boats, a few gulls in the distance, and a splash in the water which could have been something interesting but was equally likely a wave. It’s very dark in here, as Darcie pilled all the curtains before sleep, but bright outside – today marks the first morning of a sail home, so the sun will be in our faces for the next two mornings as well. The sky is blue and clear, not a cloud visible.

An hour later we’re nestling into port slowly, a be-tie-d man on radio assisting from shore (“okay, just a meter or two…if we can hold it here we should be drifting in in just a moment”); I write from the cabin balcony as Darcie and Willow dress behind me. Port smells like fish and fishing boats and looks bright and welcoming; some stores are familiar, but they’re not all along one big strip as they were in Juneau and Skagway, and the homes here run up along the hills in back in a manner most welcoming after a full day at sea. There’s also a much larger fishing industry happening here, as evidenced by the several long docks of sun-white boats across the gangway below us. And by the fish, of course: now dressed, Darcie spots and shows to Willow a school of big old fish swarming below; salmon, I think, so perhaps there’s also a fish ladder around here somewhere.

We meet the rest of the extended family in a half hour outside the cabins to wander together into what looks like a fairly dense and interesting town, then a day of wandering with Darcie and Willow, and possibly joining Dad and Jesse for The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, which we can see from the cabin balcony, after lunch. The sign across the way here says Internet, so it seems a good chance that this will be the last blogentry ‘till Vancouver; think of me as we pass back into Canada, and I’ll try to blog again on Thursday.

posted by boyhowdy | 7:40 PM |

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