After Vancouver unleashed her many delights upon David and me for three days and two nights, we boarded the Island Princess for a seven night cruise. The first two days took us along the inside passage, which was magical, mysterious, and wrought with unidentifiable flying objects.
First stop – Ketchikan, where I was incredibly excited to fly through the trees like a monkey. Although I was far less balletic than my primate brethren, I did, in fact, fly through the trees via a zipline hung as high as 135 feet. The views were outstanding, I got past my height fears pretty quickly, and want to do it again yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It was flippin’ awesome.
The next morning, we were delivered to Juneau to meet our Bike and Brew guides. Turns out our driver, Melissa, knows my friend, Tony Tengs, from Haines. Small world, especially in the Northern territories.
After 9 miles of cycling and great views of the Mendenhall Glacier and Tongass National Forest, we were invited to take a walk down to the Visitor Center, which was bustling with tour buses and tourists alike. About 500 yards before the entrance to the visitor center, a quaint little bridge with a small pathway was on our left, about ten feet ahead of us. David and I were strolling along, taking it all in, when I looked up to be met with a brown bear, not ten feet away. I stopped dead in my tracks, hit David on the arm, and slowly started backing away. It was incredible to have this majestic creature present herself, but I wanted to respect her space, on her terms, in her land. David stood still as I walked backwards, and momma bear went back down her path. Moments later, she emerged with her two cubs, crossed the street, and continued along the river.
Later in the day, we were fortunate enough to meet up with our friend Quinny, who offered us an astounding view from the cabin of his boat and a day in the life of a local Juneau-ian. About eight hours of side-splitting laughter and soaking in the rays of kindred kin, we were back to the big floating city, like the rest of the cruise people.
The following morning greeted us with the charming town of Skagway, where I had visited 16 years before for one day. David and I strolled the town, met some locals making fun of the ‘cruise boat people’ at the local coffee shop, and bought some gear at the local outfitter store. Soon, we would be catching a ferry over to Haines, an off the beaten path destination and site of the life-changing experience I had taken part in 16 years before. This was my first visit since, and it felt like being in my own version of A Christmas Carol, looking out the rear window of a past, seemingly not my own.
Tony met us at the dock, a new incarnation in Haines since my last visit, and quickly continued our local flavor tour. After lunch at the famous Bamboo Room with superb halibut and chips, we strolled over to the Haines bookstore, Babbling Book. There, I picked up local writer Heather Lende’s book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, which chronicles life and death in small-town Haines. (A great book, BTW. My friend Tony makes a couple of appearances, and his family’s Bamboo Room and Pioneer Bar is in every chapter, it seems.)
Next, we visited the “sacred grounds”, as Tony called them, a.k.a. the site where I camped for two months in the summer of 1991. Although it was basically the same, many years have pebbled the path to include some neighbors and a reopened cannery just across the Chilkat inlet. As Tony drove on, we talked a bit about the last 16 years, and as much as Haines has remained the same, development poses a threat to the way of life there, too. It seems this reality is quite hard to escape.
After meeting some local artists and cruising around town, we headed to the old set of White Fang, the Disney movie that was shot in Haines, now home to many local businesses. While visiting the Haines Brewing Company, we met Paul Wheeler, the owner and brewmaster, and highly enjoyed all of his beers, especially the Spruce Tip Ale. Sadly, we needed to catch the five o’clock ferry out of Haines in time to meet up with our cruise mates, and I somberly watched as Tony’s truck drove away until I couldn’t see it anymore. I noticed that he’s not a man that looks back. I am not surprised.
Thursday night on the boat was such a stark contrast from what we had experienced with our friends over the last two days, but our dinner guests made me feel lucky to have been assigned to such a great group. Throughout the course of the cruise, we had the good fortune of meeting Jim and Ann from outside of Austin, as well as Ross and Urte, living now in Fairhope, Alabama. Breaking bread with them and hearing their stories was incredibly easy, nice, and calming somehow.
The next three days were full of cruising in and around Glacier Bay, College Fjord, and towards Whittier, Alaska, where we disembarked for a train to Denali. Denali deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that the pod of 15 or more Beluga Whales along the way, Caribou, Moose, Dall sheep, Eagles, and the outrageously, neverending and enormous Alaska Mountain Range is a humbling and incredible experience. This, the land and creatures communing in life’s tapestry, is my church. Returning to the daily reminder of consumption, greed, and business as usual is difficult, but this experience also inspires me to follow my bliss.
There are so many great things about Alaska, but one of the best things has to be the fact that it’s simply so far away–literally–from the business as usual reality we endure in the lower 48. The idea that there are more grizzly bears than registered voters in Alaska thrills me. For in a place that raw and that real, the mind moves to another, less complicated, place.