The experiences and premise of this essay are from a 2007 expedition to Alaska through the guiding company Exposure Alaska.
“We speak of nature, of the natural world, as if that were something distinct from ourselves and the social world we appear to have made, seldom noticing that we are in nature and never out of it…” – John Haines, “Fables and Distances”
Point Adolphus and surfacing whales. Calving glaciers rocking Prince William Sound and kayaks at nature’s mercy. Vertical climbs into and up Matanuska Glacier. Wilderness backpacking above the tree line through wind and rain. Unnamed glacial lakes and fallen volcanic rock. The narrow winding road within the Matanuska Valley, bordered by the precipitous Talkeetna Mountains to the north and the Chugach Mountains to the south.
Where do these images live and breathe? Are they products of an over-caffeinated mind, or the hidden gems of faraway lands?
My fascination with Alaska began while reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Word after word, delving further into the story of Christopher McCandless, the images became more alive and vivid. My mind and imagination running nonstop, the marathon of the unknown. The Only Kayak by Kim Heacox further set the stage of a land I could no longer ignore, but had to experience firsthand.
Since first reading Into the Wild in 1997, I have been held captive by remote mountainous thoughts treating me to an emotional roller coaster. Many hours were spent reading and burying my attention within maps; retracing Christopher’s steps, where he slept and hunted, with Mt. McKinley looming in the background. The many theories of why he left everything behind, and his controversial demise, tempted me to explore the splendor that called to him.
Now that the grain of sand was laying at my feet, what next? Over the course of 1 ½ years, random Alaskan maps were intently studied, from page to random page: land formation, rivers, mountains, ranges, roads, elevations, glaciers, villages, and cities. New adventures wait at each turn for my index finger to trace the path and contours. More hours pass and thoughts turn to how mountains were named, how many have been scaled, how many wait, silent, within cloud cover, wind and whiteout secrecy; how many villages are undiscovered?
Writers block was settling over me for a long stay, and I needed a kick, a boost of new energy. I needed forced isolation to dig deep inside and write from the core and feelings of the subject seeping into my bones. I had written poems and prose based on what I thought was Alaska, information gleaned from books and movies. The presence of the words not only on paper, but within the location and landscape could only come from experience, from first-hand knowledge of my subject at the center of the piece. While working on a 50-page poem, I felt that something was missing, a key element to bring the various parts together, and engage the reader: authenticity.
- What do calving glaciers sound like?
- How does it feel to be inches above the sea in a kayak, surrounded by forest and ice?
- What do glaciers feel like? Taste like? Smell like?
- What does the sun look like? Color? Intensity?
- What is the color of the sky? Can it be put into words?
- When there is absolute silence, and nature nudges it way into your conscious, what do you feel?
- What does the air smell and feel like on exposed skin?
- What does the salt water in Prince William Sound taste like?
- What are the people like?
Flying into Anchorage
The shade obscuring the window will not open fast enough, and my spirit surveys the earth below: towering mountains competing with the sun shadows within carved valleys; tidal glaciers emerging from the interior, meeting forcefully with the ocean; small rivers that sluice and feed massive rivers spreading their wings into mudflats and the delta that creates smaller islands and unnamed features; the lush green specks that dot the dirty blue water of churned glacial silt.
Prince William Sound
The sunshine greeting us when we stepped out of the van in Whittier faded as we paddled from the dock. The Maynard Mountains vanished behind us and the higher mountain range took over, the sun disappearing behind grey clouds and rolling fog. Light rain splattered our spray skirts.
Low clouds obscure the morning white glazed glaciers, moments before the sun paints a blue hue and scatters light across the widening horizon. Standing upon a fallen, glacially deposited boulder amongst scattered fragments, I close my eyes. With sea breeze on bare skin, wind-swept saltwater, oxygen infused water and pine, cool glacial ice, deep sighs and the occasional tear are acceptable.
We stopped upon a rocky shoreline tucked behind a small peninsula jutting into the sound. Lying haphazardly were large rocks pushed down from the mountain reaching farther into the water. Behind were glaciers, radiating blue ice with compacted white snow and blinding sheen. Stepping gently out of the kayak, following the foot and paddle method, I pulled it onto the shore far enough out of the water to be safe from high tide. Facing the glaciers, everything falls away. Like emerging from the pool, water falls fast from the naked body, renewed and cleansed. The sun began to look brighter, more focused where the outlines, shadows, and glaciers are crisp and glowing.
Unbeknownst to me, after climbing back inside the kayak, low tide was nearing. The receding Sound, and growing shoreline, left the kayak beached upon a rocky outcrop, with water 20 to 30 feet away. It did not come to my attention until my travel mates, farther out in the Sound, floating peacefully, pointed out that I had, with very little effort, beached the kayak,
Two days paddling against cold water. Sore shoulders and muscles that were dormant back home come alive with each stroke. Our destination of Blackstone Glacier, through icebergs bobbing in synch and brushing the kayak, rises from the water 1-mile ahead. We wait for Blackstone to speak, for a piece of her beauty to break, and the calving ice to crash into the Sound.
Finally ice lets go of ice and the thunderous movement echoes between frozen walls, and open sea. The Sound accepts the new iceberg, releasing waves as a result. Moments later, we relax and give in to the cradling kayak, bringing us closer to the landscape and soundscape. Silence, everywhere there is silence, and there is music, the beautiful intense music of water moving, of icebergs floating, of cascading waterfalls down sheer cliffs. Seals take refuge upon a flat chunk of ice nearer the glacier and birds swoop in looking for a meal. After the sublime violence, nature returns home and it is our time to leave.
The sound fights against us, waves threatening
to overcome our spray skirts, dampen our spirits
as we near Decision Point, so close we can hear
our destination for the day, we know it’s near.
Beyond is Blackstone Glacier,
shaping the black mountains
and the horizon.
My writers’ block and lost purpose were left in Prince William Sound, sinking. Many lessons were taken away, including: write what you know; submerse yourself in your art; experience, explore and write about the sensory elements. Overcoming fear and going within your self can only happen from facing them head-on and throwing your body, mind and spirit at them. Climb a glacier to deal with a fear of heights or the intense scrutiny of an audience.
I could not have known how the landscape would take me in those 10 days, present itself, and send me off a drastically different person. I carried a part of Alaska home with me and remember some tidbit each day. I came away with a new poetic end-result, a changed focus and approach to writing.
The poet’s job is to present a window, a looking glass, into a moment, the landscape and soundscape, for readers to experience in their way. At the point readers begin a poem – the first line – they are transitioning from a window to a door, and stepping into the image, the senses and emotions that the poet hints at, a trail of crumbs nowhere and everywhere. Alaska opened my door on many fronts, and I am still walking through all of them.