A Goodbye to my Backyard National Park
It’s been almost a month since I reluctantly packed up my things and left Gustavus the same way I arrived (running late, and with too much stuff). Start to end, I was only headed 50 miles east to a new life Juneau, but by way of an epic road trip through the Yukon, across the waters of Lynn Canal, and with a brief, boozy detour to New Orleans. That’s a story for another time, however, because I’m not quite done reminiscing about my winter in Glacier Bay.
Living with a national park outside your door is surreal. Before I came to Alaska, national parks had been a distant wonder. I had only been to a handful of parks. Each was a whirlwind of rushed activity that ended too soon, like standing at the edge of a vast ocean and never getting to jump in. The thought that you could make a wild place your home and spend your days getting to know it is something that seemed confined to the sun-bleached pages of an Ed Abbey novel.
The trails and restless tides of Bartlett Cove became familiar and comforting in their ever-changing grandeur, and beyond was 3.3 million acres of fjords and glaciers that is still as mysterious to me as it was the day I arrived. Just knowing it was out there, stretching for miles in every direction, was an exhilarating thought. Some days, when the fog descended in a wet, oppressive cold over the trees and I didn’t feel like going out into it, it was enough to pull up the shades, crack the windows, and listen for the cry of eagles or the somber conversations of owls.
I spent my final weeks at the park in a frantic, over-scheduled attempt to fit in what I could. Two friends from Anchorage came for a short visit, and of course received the royal Southeast Alaska treatment: oppressive rain with the occasional tease of sunshine. I spent a day aboard the Glacier Bay research vessel, the Fog Lark, helping out with oceanographic monitoring up bay. We were the only vessel on the water, dodging icebergs as we made our way up the west arm, then the east. So few people get to float through those waters in the winter, and the bewildered gazes of the wildlife we startled was as exhilarating a reminder of where we were as the katabatic winds coming off the glaciers.
In the chaos of leaving, I managed to sneak in one last moment of appreciation for my winter home. I was rushing through last minute chores the night before I left when the very persuasive procrastinator in the back of my mind convinced me that 20 minutes of cleaning was worthy of at least an hour break. It had been raining on and off all day, but I pulled on a raincoat and headed down to the beach anyways. As the road curved towards the shore, I could just make out the highlighter pink glow of clouds through the trees. I half-jogged out to the biggest rock I could find and climbed up to watch.
Alone on the miles and miles of coast with a front-row seat to the best show there is, it struck me as an incredible privilege to sit with the stoic blue herons and the otters bobbing offshore. There are places where the barriers between the wild world and the human world are thin, and if you stay still and quiet enough, melt away altogether.
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver