Above the Wild World of Glacier Bay
The past few months of living in Glacier Bay, I’ve taken any opportunity I can to see more of the park. In true Gustavus fashion, the more my roommate Addy and I explored, the more people reached out to offer us gear to borrow and chances to do something new. We’ve been ice skating on a pond near the post office where the town gathers to play hockey on frigid days. We’ve walked in the footprints of wolves, exploring coasts that see more wildlife than people most days. Entrusted with sea kayaks and some sage words of advice on how not to capsize, we listened to the satisfying crack of our paddles through brittle ice as we paddled the waters of the cove.
A few weeks ago, we had a chance to join a short adventure that had been on my list since I arrived. Although we had kept ourselves busy exploring the coast and the trails near home, the Coloradan in me was dying to get up above sea level. Though surrounded by a a stunning crown of mountain peaks, Gustavus and Bartlett Cove sit on a broad, flat stretch of land that was once a glacial outwash plain. Excursion Ridge, the only quasi-mountain you can reach from town without a plane or boat, had loomed over us tauntingly for weeks. We couldn’t take a government car on the road leading up to it, and even if we could, there was no trail to follow or obvious route through the miles of deep snow and forest. A local wilderness enthusiast was leading the boy and girl scouts up there on the weekends, though he had been getting more interest from adults than kids, and we invited ourselves along.
The morning of the hike was a postcard bluebird day. We met the other adults, and the three teenage girl scouts that had shown up. The boy scouts had all bailed, blaming late night video gaming or better things to do. Or, if you asked Larry, they weren’t too keen to be shown up by the girl scouts again as they had been during the last outing. We were a motley but enthusiastic crew. Larry, a spry and energetic ~60 year old with a bellowing laugh and a well-worn mental map of every twist and turn of the woods we were headed to, three tough-as-nails adventurers disguised as 14 year-olds, and a few hikers who were eager to explore some new territory.
As the girls showed the way ahead of us, we crossed a frozen river and clambered through dense spruce and hemlock groves. We strapped on snowshoes and broke trail across blinding white meadows with sunshine on our backs. It was one of those electrifying days where the farther you go, the more you want to keep going. Snow-capped mountain peaks rose into sight above the tree tops. A pair of wolverine tracks marked the path we followed. There was plenty of silliness and laughter, as you’d expect from our young guides, but also the unmistakable imprints of the impassioned outdoor role model they were following. They pushed each other to conquer fears and go further than they had before, all while squeezing in an impressive rendition of the Mamma Mia soundtrack. Those badass young girls reminded my why I love the outdoors. There’s a pure and simple joy in persevering through hardship towards something bigger than yourself.
After some scrambling up an amazingly steep slope someone had dubbed the Moose-calator, we reached a high clearing. Between the trees, far below, were the waters and islands of Icy Strait in hazy midday light. Haloed by mossy hemlock branches were the Fairweather peaks, the Beardslee Islands, and the entire bay beyond. I took in my first glimpse of the upper reaches of the park quietly. I tried to translate the vista around us into pictures, but gave up quickly. Some things are better experienced than captured.
The snow conditions were not great, so we turned back not far from the top of the ridge. The long hike down passed quickly between friendly chatter and glissading down the steepest snowfields (at alarming speeds). By the time we arrive back to the road, the clouds began to glow faintly pink with the telltale signs of an epic sunset. Without much discussion or thought of the 10-mile day behind us, Addy and I ran to a nearby clearing in the trees. It was just one more in a long series of sunsets I had watched over those mountains, and yes, dinner and comfort and warmth was calling, but it was one I wouldn’t miss.
The show that played out in a dramatic kaleidoscope of color above the trees and the knife-edge peaks was a good one. It confirmed my personal mantra as of late (you never regret a sunset), and more importantly, the winding, seemingly random series of decisions that brought me to Alaska. Some days, it’s easy to question how I arrived where I am, and if I should be doing some thing more or different or better. Not that day.
It was a surprising relief to wake up to gloomy weather this past weekend. On days of endless sun and clear horizons, the pull of the wild world outside is irresistible. Laundry goes unlaundered, dishes unwashed, taxes undone, and the memory cards of pictures stack up. Well, my taxes are still undone (I’m only human), but I’ve had a much needed chance to catch up on the less glamorous aspects of life. When wilderness beckons outside every window, it’s hard to get anything finished.
Really, though, there are worse problems to have.
“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
— Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies