Alaskan Adventure: Part 3



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.  In Part 2, we embarked on a 2-day guided kayak expedition.  This is the conclusion of my story as a young woman looking for adventure on an Alaskan kayak trip.


After an overnight kayak excursion to Pleasant Island, whale sightings and a heart-pounding race back to the beach to beat an approaching storm, Gina and I were ready to play tourist on dry land again and headed to the A-frame cabin we had reserved nearby.


The main building at the Bear’s Nest Bed and Breakfast really sums up the lifestyle in places like Gustavus in this region of Southeast Alaska. It was built to last, with rustic features and a few bikes leaning up against the porch railing. The wildflowers intermingled with grasses and trees make it a picturesque setting.

Bear's Nest Bed & Breakfast - Gustavus, Alaska
Things that are not so lovely about places like Gustavus include the price of groceries and just about everything else that has to be flown in. The innkeeper explained that a gallon of milk is over nine dollars. A loaf of bread is $4.50, and a bag of chips can cost over five dollars. Just like any frontierswoman, residents and visitors to Gustavus must plan ahead or pay the price.

Nonetheless, I am sure that Gina and I were imagining the same scenario. I could picture leaving my life in the suburbs behind to make myself into wild woman. I would pick my own berries, skin animals for clothing, and never look at another Xerox machine or prepackaged instant soup bowl again. 

The truth is, I was already aching to be home at this point. I missed my husband more than I could have thought possible and I just knew I would soon be bitten on the butt by a spider perched on the seat of the composting toilet in our cabin. I was anxious from being in fight or flight mode for days on end. Thankfully, we had already arranged for some low-key sightseeing the next day on the Tracy Arm Fjord Glacier Cruise.

Aside from the sea lions, bald eagles, and orcas to be spotted, the glaciers themselves are the most magnificent part of the region. The color of the water and the glaciers are both surprising to most people seeing them for the first time.


The water is an impossibly bright blue-green, while the glaciers are white, blue, and brown from mud that sullies what most people expect will be the grandest and purest white wall of ice. There are, in fact, many glaciers in the region, and if you are there at the right time, you can hear a grinding and cracking that sounds like thunder when they calve. This refers to the process of chunks of ice and snow from winters past breaking off and crashing into the sea.


In the midst of all this beauty the most memorable thing about that day for me was my smug feeling of superiority over all the other tourists on the boat. I shook my head and thought, “They’ll never know the real beauty of the land like I do.” When they rushed to side of the boat to snap photos of an orca, I was just praying I’d get the chance to say, “Well, you haven’t seen an orca until you’ve seen one from fifty feet in a kayak.”

Most people are aware of Alaska’s enormity as a landmass, but few realize how diverse the landscape is within the state itself. We chose to visit just the part closest to the Lower 48 because it seemed manageable on the map and required much less travel time than if we were to visit any locations farther north. In reality, what looked like a short distance between Juneau and Sitka was actually a 10-hour ferry ride.  So even this tiny corner of the state engulfed a suburbanite such as I.

The boat ride was just what we needed before we took another less pleasant boat ride that night. We spent 16 more hours on a ferry from the Glacier Bay area to Sitka. We passed towns with names like Hoonah, Tenekee, and Angoon. It was not a luxury liner, and the only places to sit were deck chairs. As it was an overnight trip to Sitka, the chairs were claimed quickly. Luckily, we spotted two open chairs under a heat lamp on the upper deck. I have never felt more like broiled fish than when I was tossing and turning on this ferry in the channel under an intensely hot set of bulbs.

After yet another exhausting night, I was rewarded with the dread of one more night of camping. The second campsite was peaceful, gorgeous, and swarming with mosquitoes that had a taste for the corn-fed Illinois blood. As I sat at the picnic table with a net over my angry face, I mentioned to my hard-working and patient companion that it might be best if went into the city for the night so I could get some rest.

She looked at me right from the tent stake she was wrestling and said, “I came here to camp and really be here. We paid the fee to camp here for the night and all our gear is set up.”

She was appalled at the mere mention of a hotel. We had, after all planned to breathe in every second of fresh air we could. I explained to her that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I pleaded with Gina to come with me.

(Unfortunately, Gina did not want to document our argument on camera.  Sorry, no pictures.)

I felt like a failure, a coward and a terrible person. After making it clear that she was going to camp whether I stayed or not, I marched up to the highway and hitched a ride to the nearest chain motel. Luckily, they had a room and decided not to take advantage of my situation by overcharging me.

From the series of boat trips, from this experience of being far from home, exhausted, a little frightened and emotionally drained, I seized a rare opportunity to see myself for what I was. As I examined myself in the hotel room mirror I had no makeup, no hair products, and no clothing but my hiking gear. There was nothing to distract me from really looking at me. I saw my dad’s eyes, my mom’s smile, and my own soft, but very strong body. I wasn’t picking myself apart, but just appreciating what my body had done for me.

Even though I had let my friend down, I had taken risks and survived. I had extended myself beyond my comfort zone. I could still be proud of myself.

I went downstairs with an armful of filthy clothes and found two Australian women in the laundry room, one with an arm in a sling. They were large, magnificent women. They probably did not waste much time checking themselves out in the mirror, I thought. One woman looked at the gear I was washing and asked, “You been out paddling?” with a strong Australian accent. After I told them where I had been and about the orcas and humpback we saw, the other woman began telling me about their most recent trip.

She explained that they were out miles away from civilization camping, hiking, kayaking without a guide. (This wasn’t their first trip.) One of the women had fallen and broken her arm. They had no choice but to paddle back to the dock in both kayaks, as they needed the space for supplies. This woman had paddled miles with a broken arm, and then simply slung her pack over her shoulder and hiked into town. My mouth gaping, I suddenly felt a little deflated. I did not imagine that she sat sulking on a bench with a silly net over her head, begging her partner to end her pain.

I returned to my room and just sat for a long while. After not really thinking, but just laying back and tuning into the still space within myself I realized that while these women had done something extraordinary and had an awesome story to tell, I could still be proud of how far I had come.

Gina eventually met me for breakfast the next morning and was kind enough not to harass me for leaving her to be eaten by bears. We spent a lovely day exploring Totem parks, museums, Russian Orthodox cathedrals, and kayaking in Sitka Harbor.

Notable sightings in Sitka included a resident sea lion tearing apart some kind of sea life just 100 feet from our kayak. We also paddled past Mel Gibson’s yacht and circled a few times just hoping he would wander out from the cabin in his robe once.

After I let go of the notion that I would be made into a fabulous and stronger version of myself on this trip, I actually started to enjoy it more. Gina and I figured out how to travel together even though we were very different people and quietly enjoyed each other’s companionship despite it. She might have even forgiven me for ditching her at the campsite, but as we were shipping a box of souvenirs home...... I accidentally mailed our plane tickets with them.

We did eventually make it home and after all was said and done, acknowledging that I may never be a rugged outdoorswoman allowed me to settle more comfortably into my own skin. What I did learn was that I could try outrageous new things and be better or worse than I’d ever imagined at them. I left for Alaska wanting to prove myself. It just happened in a way that surprised me. I was now able to kayak and hike and appreciate nature. But more importantly, I saw myself for who I was and accepted it. I learned to let go of expectations and give myself over to life once in a while. Living my life from this perspective brought with it a strong sense of peace and joy.

It's hard to think about anything mundane when you see all this beauty in one scene.

Now in the evenings after my kids are in bed and I am feeling just a little smothered by all my responsibilities, I dig out my Alaska pictures and read over my journal. I look at my rosy cheeks and exhilarated expressions and remember that it was the first of many journeys, tests, and joyful experiences.

I'm not sure if I'm prouder of kayaking in open water in Alaska or keeping that film dry for 2 weeks!

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