Alaskan Adventure: Part 2

In the first part of my story a fellow middle school teacher and I set out in June of 2003 seeking peace, solitude, exhilaration, and adventure all in one trip to the wilderness of the Southeastern Alaska rainforests.

A few days after settling into Juneau's cool, damp climate, we ventured out on the next leg of our trip.  We had planned a two-day kayaking and camping excursion with a local guide in Gustavus, a small town that is only accessible by small boat or plane.

When I say “small,” I mean the Gustavus airport consisted of a mobile home-type building and a path cleared in the trees for a landing strip. Our plane seated just six passengers and I had the unique pleasure of riding next to the pilot while my companion Gina tried to keep her lunch down in the back seat. The style of seatbelts and the fact that I could push any button or lever I wanted just by reaching out my hand was unsettling. 

I believe that I held my breath for most of the fifteen-minute flight and I am certain that I did not breathe at all during the takeoff or landing. The plane rattled and jostled while we flew through clouds, which broke every now and then to reveal the emerald forest below. After a white-knuckle flight we glided down until we were close enough to the ground to feel like we needed to stick out our feet Flintstone style and start running when we touched down.

The plane ride was an adventure I had not counted on, but was pleased to have survived. We did however, have huge expectations for the next part of our journey. We hired a local guide through a company called Spirit Walker Expeditions and met with him to discuss our trip. He looked exactly like you’d expect with a full beard and plaid shirt and the standard Alaskan calf-high rubber boots. While we sat at an enormous rough-hewn wooden table, Gary showed us on a wall map where we would put in our kayaks at the Gustavus dock and then our route all the way across the bay to Pleasant Island.

We could tell right away that Gary was a wonderfully balanced and wise spirit. He was just the type of person we needed to lead two rather inexperience kayakers on such an expedition. He was kind and reassuring, and answered our many questions about wildlife. Here are a few of the questions I wanted to ask but didn’t:

Am I going to die?

Does this kayak have a motor?

Can you paddle your kayak and mine too?

Are we there yet?

Getting in the kayak I felt like something like a modern-day Voyageur. We began paddling with gusto and were immediately entranced by the waves, the smell of the water, the ravens screaming to each other, and the eagles peering out into the distance from the pier.

After the first hour, we had just barely become used to navigating the waves and steering the kayak while making sure not to miss all the beauty around us, when Gary said, “I can’t believe it!”

Whether this was his four hundredth whale encounter or his first, his excited whisper and dramatic gesturing made our hearts race. He was pointing out to the middle of the bay and said, “It’s a humpback!”

Gary, our guide, pointing to a whale just outside the harbor.

It was enormous. It was amazing. Gina and I smiled at each other and felt like everything it took to get here had been worth it. The whale was arcing her back getting ready to dive and come our way, so Gary quickly led us in a different direction. He recounted stories of people he’d known that had been tipped over by a passing whale. Some had happy endings.  Others did not.

During our long day of paddling we saw just that one humpback, and this one sighting was a surprise even to Gary who traveled these waters regularly. We did come across several orcas, though. Commonly known as killer whales, they are approximately 27 feet long at their largest and weigh 4 to 6 tons. These whales do not just eat plankton, as the humpbacks do. They eat fish, squid and other sea mammals. Every orca spotting made me feel like a very vulnerable land-loving mammal. Nothing gets your blood pumping like being within striking distance of a huge predator.

As with any inexperienced person in the wild, what looks like just a short distance is usually not. The beach we were pointed at seemed to be floating further out to sea.

As we did start to near Pleasant Island we were paddling through a bed of bullwhip kelp. It was thick, slimy and bizarre. Sea lions can wrap themselves in it to sleep in the water and humans can eat it in survival situations. I took this as a suggestion for hors d’oeuvres. With Gary’s approval, I took a bite and tasted exactly what I expected – the sea. It was crunchy, slippery, salty and probably very nutritious.

It was not long then before we were able to set foot on dry land once again.

Our view from the kayaks approaching Pleasant Island

There was nothing I could do but resign myself to the fact that I was cold, wet, hungry and didn’t care if a dozen or so people happened to be peering at me through binoculars. I almost laughed thinking of some lovely couple hoping to spot a bald eagle and instead, well, you know.

After pulling the kayaks out of the tide’s reach and setting up camp, Gary explained some simple necessities. We would pack everything in airtight canisters to keep all the scents from attracting wildlife. We would choose an agreed-upon spot for bathroom needs and pack out everything we brought in.

After bobbing along in a kayak just 50 feet from a humpback whale, I was in euphoric shock.  I was in awe of nature and my tiny place in the world. And I had to poop.

As I assumed the position behind some dangerously pointy rocks, I was able to relax just enough to relieve myself. Just when I started to feel better about this whole experience, I spotted an enormous cruise ship sailing in the channel. Fantastic.

We enjoyed smoked halibut fettuccini and cranberry bread for dinner. This gourmet food and the utensils to cook to eat it with were all stowed in our kayaks along with our tents and other gear. We then had some free time to roam around and check out every corner of the beach in peace. 

Note 3 things:  Gary, our guide, is doing the dinner dishes behind me. I am happy because I am not doing dishes. And, you can actually see an orca spouting to the left of my head in the distance!

After walking and journaling for a while, Gary called us over to the fire and handed us each a steaming cup of delicious hot chocolate and schnapps. While we sat on a log with cocoa in hand we could hear the orcas slapping their tails on the water and sounding off through their blowholes. It was a hypnotic rhythm of waves and whale sounds.

Then it was off to bed while it was still light, as the sun didn’t set until around 10:30 p.m.

Once in the tent, you might imagine that this was a welcome respite from the day’s activity, but it was not. Before we left, I had foolishly decided to read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It was a purely lovely, and at times, a thrilling book about the author’s hike along the Appalachian Trail. 

The problem with this choice was the inclusion of many bear attack stories in the book. That night, I lay in one of the most peaceful spots in the world shaking with terror at every little noise. I was positive that at any moment I would be trampled by a moose, or would feel the cold nose of a giant bear nudging my body just before I was trampled or mauled to death. While my traveling companion slept soundly, I just laid there exhausted, waiting to meet whatever wild animal would find us.

Some might say that these moments define a person. If this is true, I am a huge scaredy cat. I love my own bed, a hot cup of coffee in the morning and without these things I felt useless. Luckily the night did not last forever and I welcomed the sunrise as I never had before. Watching the glimmer of the morning light on the water and hearing the enchanting sounds of a local whale pod going about its business, I hugged my knees and felt so relieved. 

We explored our little island some more and had a hearty breakfast. Before we left Pleasant Island, Gary showed us some of the tidal pools on the beach. At first glance they were just collections of sea anemones, snails, crabs, and barnacles in the divots of rocky outcroppings. As he pointed closely at each of the colors and functions of the creatures it became clear that they were small ecosystems. The eddies and swirls in the water and the tiny life forms were all living out their days on an Alaskan beach unaware that we were marveling at them from above.

It was soon back into the water for us. We powered through the waves and kelp beds once more and narrowly beat a storm back to the Gustavus dock. After hauling our kayaks back to the truck and thanking Gary profusely, we were genuinely eager to see the A-frame cabin we had reserved for the night.

More to come in Part 3, including my total, toddler-style melt-down!

Alaskan Adventure: Part 1

Many people, especially middle school teachers, fantasize about leaving their lives behind and venturing off to a remote part of the world just to get away. In 2003, after another long and dreary Chicagoland winter I did just that and it changed me forever.

After I found my life’s love, but before I had children, I started to feel a little restless. I knew that soon I’d have new priorities and my life would no longer allow me to travel to far away places or pursue new interests at a moment’s notice. I had to get out somewhere and gather my thoughts one last time. I wanted to feel a peace and experience a beauty that only comes from nature, but I didn’t know how to get there.

When a colleague and I were talking about places we’d like to visit in the teacher’s lounge one day, Gina said, “I have always wanted to visit Alaska.” She described unspoiled land and pristine waters. Instead of going to that happy place in my mind for a while, sighing, and returning to an empty classroom, I couldn’t shake this unsettled feeling.

Looking out over the parking lot and snow-covered cars, set against the gray sky, I suddenly also had that goal. It didn’t take long for us to decide that there was no other time in our lives to take such a trip. Two women trekking through the woods sounded empowering and liberating. We paid no heed to the fact that we really didn’t know each other. We believed that we must be like-minded enough if we both wanted to do this crazy thing.

We decided June would be the perfect month for the weather and Southeast Alaska was close enough to visit by connecting flight from Seattle. We felt that two weeks would give us enough time to do some serious kayaking, hiking, and camping. We went back to work looking forward to planning out our itinerary after school.

Later that night, giddy and a little incredulous, I casually mentioned to my husband that I would be taking a trip to Alaska with a friend for a couple of weeks in June. He looked at me with a smile, as if to say, “You’re so funny.”

“I’ll probably need a hiker’s pack and a good pair of shoes,” I said with a straight face. He almost had a heart attack. I laid out our itinerary for him and assured him that this was no joke.

The reason my husband was so surprised was two-fold. Early on in our marriage he still did not expect these random adventures to pop up in our ordered life together. Also, I did not like bugs, weather, or the outdoors in general. This fact was definitely the more surprising of the two reasons, considering Southeast Alaska is a rainforest full of mosquitoes and wild animals.

The first of many challenges in preparing for such an adventure was learning how to survive in a kayak. To be certified in time I needed to pass a four-hour course in the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. It was not a particularly warm April morning and even with a wetsuit, the water was shockingly cold. To be successful, I had to learn to maneuver relatively well, make turns, not run into other paddlers, and not tip over. Once this was second nature, the teachers asked each candidate to rescue another paddler and also to be rescued. This test required a graceful combination of two kayaks, a paddle secured between them and a lot of heaving oneself into a tiny hole in a rocking boat. I experienced a whole new level of satisfaction after purposely tipping over into the river and making it back into the boat.

The next challenge came when I realized that I would need to pack all I needed for a 14-day trip into one bag that I could carry all day every day. This included a sleeping bag, warm comfortable clothes, rain gear, a knife and first aid kit, my camera, film, and only as many toiletries as I needed to feel human. I also remembered to leave enough room for a few small souvenirs. Gina was kind enough to make space in her pack for a small camp stove and the tent.

On the day of our departure, after a nervous goodbye at the airport, my husband released me into the wild frontier of security checkpoints and ticket counters. By the time we reached the gate, I was already exhausted.

The commercial flight, which connected in Seattle, was uneventful.  As we finally descended into Juneau I looked out the window and gasped.  We were flying into a thick verdant forest.   had seen trees before, but not like this.  The sheer expanse of the forest was breathtaking.  The rich green was a new color to my eyes.  I was smitten and terrified.

After hailing a cab to the hostel, we were dizzy.  Arriving in foreign terrain put us on edge, as did the lack of sleep.  We headed straight for our beds.  The hostel had an entrance room specifically for unloading and storing year-round rain gear and "Juneau tennies," or calf-high rubber boots "ideal for hiking in muskeg, going to the symphony, or reciting wedding vows" one local explained.

It wains an average of 220 days a year and the temperatures, even in June, only reach the low 60's during the day.  You can imagine the wet chill that accompanies almost every trip outside.  Residents of Southeast Alaska affectionately refer to rain as "liquid sunshine."  The trade-off for dreary weather is 130 miles of hiking trails within the city limits and the freshest air a person could ever breathe.

After some sleep and some amazingly strong coffee, we were excited to get out and hike. We had planned to visit three cities and one small town, hiking and kayaking as much as possible while taking in the local art and culture. Our first day hike was up Mount Roberts. The trailhead was just a half-mile from our hostel and we were surprised to see that people had built their homes right up to the edge of the mountain. Some houses even clung to the base of it. We followed a marked trail and planned to start sweating out an entire school year’s worth of stress while we familiarized ourselves with what hiking in Alaska really meant.

The first things I noticed was how I was out of breath before we had even reached the trailhead. In Juneau, some of the streets are too steep for cars and actually dead-end into staircases. For this reason and because of the heavy mist hanging in the air it is called the San Francisco of the North.

View of Juneau and the Gastineau Channel 
from the top of Mount Roberts
On our hike we saw bald eagles, bear tracks, and small waterfalls, all on Mount Roberts. It was an easy two-hour hike for experienced locals to get to the top, but since we were taking time to photograph ourselves in the most rugged scenes possible every few minutes, it took us all day to go up the mountain and back down. That night after treating ourselves to a salmon dinner and some local beer, we decided to check out a Cuban band at a local bar. It felt amazing to be salsa dancing at that moment in that place.

The people hanging around on the streets of Juneau were generally cruise ship tourists. At night, when the tourists were all back aboard their ships, the local crowd (three or four men staggering between bars) was a little unsavory. The empty eyes of drunks in a strange city would send shivers up anyone’s spine, but Gina and I already felt so vulnerable that we called it an early night and walked briskly back to the hostel.

The next day we spent kayaking in the clam waters of Auke Bay, very close to Juneau. It was quiet, beautiful and the perfect place to test our paddling skills. 

As we were starting to feel a little more adventurous, on the third day we rafted on the Mendenhall River with the Auk ta shaa company, and it was just as exhilarating as we’d hoped. 

Before an Auk ta shaa raft trip on the Mendenhall River

Do I look nervous?  I was...

A.J. Falls off a mountain trail near the Mendenhall Glacier

I made it!  (in front of Mendenhall Glacier)

To get a bird’s eye view of the Mendenhall Glacier, we hiked a mountain trail that spiraled above it and then walked right up to the glacier on the strangely soft muskeg at its feet.
Me on the muskeg beside a mountain stream 
near the Mendenhall Glacier
We learned later that muskeg is a cushion of dead plant matter that is often a deceptive ground cover. Moose, entire tractors, and parts of roads have been swallowed by muskeg that was simply a sort of carpet over water. Fortunately, we had no idea what muskeg was at the time and we still lived to tell about it. We finished the day with seafood chowder, reindeer sausage, and a summer ale back in town.

The next morning, Gina woke up terribly ill with what may have been food poisoning. After she was set up in a hotel room with some juice and crackers, I was on my own to roam around until she started feeling better. At this point, I was a little panicked. I ate some ice cream, wandered around outside a salmon hatchery, and then, on a whim, had my nose pierced. 

It hurt. (I promptly sneezed it out a month later, and did not bother to replace it, much to everyone’s relief.) After I killed several hours eating ice cream and fish and punching a hole through my nose, I decided I was clearly not capable of being left alone and so I waited for Gina in the lobby of the hotel.

After a few days settling in to Juneau and the rainforest climate, the next leg of our trip was a three-day kayaking and camping excursion with a local guide in Gustavus, a small town that is only accessible by small boat or plane.

The next two installments detail the rest of my Alaskan adventure, including a whale encounter and a revelation.