Some days the sun comes up and shines on the Alaska Range and I think of the beautiful places I’ve lived. It’s not a lucky thing, or blessed, but reality. I wake up at 3:30 a.m. to daylight and a young moose on his knees sampling the grass. He hob-knobs along until something spooks him to his feet and he runs off – he’s a long way from a Sitka black tail cruising the beaches of Hoonah Sound. The other day it rained. Not hard, not long, but it fell from the sky and it was wet. The air is different when it rains, not so much about being clean as it is about being fragrant. I can smell the dirt, the moss, bark and buds, and other green, growing things. Life, I guess; I smell life. I’m in a place where I hear people remark about The Mountain – McKinley or Denali, as you prefer – and how thrilling it was to see the majesty of it from base to summit on a clear day. I agree that it’s majestic alright, but I don’t tell them about the mountains in southeast, the incredible awesomeness of timbered granite rising from sea to sky, how deep the water is where your boat can come right up to rock of it because there’s no beach – that mountain is still descending into the depths below, straight down into the depths. That impresses me.
I deal with people every day, sometimes from as early as 4 a.m. and through the evening until 10 p.m. I go to bed after baking huge loaves of bread for the next day – sandwiches, french toast, breakfast, lunches. I make lots of breakfast, fill sacks with it to go or send lunches with folks who have no idea how long a 10-hour day on a bus can be. I get lots of comments on the stares they get when they open their sacks and pull out huge sandwiches on homemade bread, a couple cookies, fruit, juice, some chips, and the looks of longing and envy from the passengers who were unfortunate enough to rely on the tour-provided lunches. I smile and say thanks, glad you liked it, and think of how good it was when I packed a cooler for trapping or fishing and we’d sit in the boat and unwrap a plain old peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a Thermos of coffee, and some stale cookies or doughnuts as dunkers. Back then I dreamed of a fresh orange to go with, so juicy it would dribble down my chin and, even with a coating of fish slime, I’d not give a second thought to licking my fingers. Maybe not all fishermen feel that way about food on the water, the need for juicy fruit, but when it gets stormy fruit is what I crave. And here I pack large lunches for guests to take on a bus ride, enough to satisfy the slightest hint of a stomach growl and take them through the day until they hit the pub or the pizza place or the frozen Costco salmon bake.
Some days I don’t mind. Some days I can banter and BS and regale with the best of them. I go with the flow and make small talk, but days like today I’m glad for the three empty rooms, the fewer mouths to feed, less conversation and demand for my attention. I like the people mostly, and there are many I won’t remember in two days, but I’m a loner by nature, a recluse at heart, a solitary individual stuck in Grand Central Station surrounded by noise and populace and speed. I offer brief respite and try to retreat from their vacation but more often than not I am found, cornered, and drawn into their amazement, their complaints, their itineraries and curiosity about the place we live in, this massive Alaska.
Today I miss the mountains, the trees, the beaches, rocks, rivers, and tidelines of Southeast. I yearn for spongy forest floors and old man’s beard, witches hair, and ferns. In my mind I taste salmonberries, small sweet wild strawberries, and spruce tips dripping with rain, sweet and pungent green. I miss the gray skies, the sodden air and splash of rubber boots in tide pools. I haven’t turned over a rock to find sculpin or starfish or hermit crab in ages, too many. I miss the smell of flotsam and jetsam and dead things the tide drags up. It’s how I grew up, walking the tideline, discovering life and death, the overturned daily living, and how it ended up after being tumbled about only to lay sprawled among sand fleas and flies and popweed until some kid kicks over the mass of it and discovers new treasure. More than anything, I miss life at tideline.
Here, today, it’s overcast and guests are returning to share tales of the wildlife they saw – moose, caribou, dall sheep, grizzly bears and cubs, foxes, lynx, ptarmigan, and all kinds of critters we see and don’t notice because it’s part of our every day. I’m glad for them, those who will return to cubicles and offices and warehouses where grating music is piped in endlessly and a janitor cleans up the droppings of the day. I’m thankful for my life, so different from theirs.
They say you can take the girl out of wherever, but you can’t take wherever out of the girl. Some days, I long for the life in rain country. Nothing offers the peace of a gray, rainy, misty day like island life in the Alexander Archipelago. Mossy old cabins with cranky wood stoves, an outhouse or a bush for comfort, a hissing lantern to light the night. The smells, the temperatures, the moist air, the resonant drip of rain or rivulet, and jungley old growth, undergrowth, clearcut or rocky beach are dear to my soul. I feel that some day I shall return, for good, and find the perfect, moss-covered stump where I’ll sit in silence and listen to life around me. Some day. One day. In the meantime, I listen to tales of moose and bear and flights over Denali which culminate with a burger at the local brewery.