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.
Looking at the calendar, over a month has passed since my last post here. Where does the time go? I would like to say that I was in the midst of some grand adventure, but that would not be true! Life. Just life happening, and dealing with the daily grind, the obligations, and the 9-to-5. It can be a challenge to keep grounded and your head above the water. Venturing further into my 40s, I am becoming more aware of this struggle, and questions of what next. What do I want the next chapter in life to look like, what story will it tell?
At the end of each day, what keeps me sane and going, are these 2 goofballs, and all their antics, barking, and playtime.
Thoughts and memories buried deep
in our minds originating from time so long ago
and across vast distances we become lost in the
numbers and mathematics, but the light and energy
is seared and imprinted like a birthmark of unknown origin.
And we may not know or discover this deep knowledge and history
until some external stimuli, perhaps a sight, a smell, or music, burrows
into the locked portals and brings to light the shadows grounding
our origins to this place and beyond.
Imagine what life would be from this moment forward if we moved away from the chatter and negativity our mind is swimming within and realize we are born from the stars, that all life on this planet is born from the same material and roots, and that we each have a purpose.
Imagine what tomorrow would bring if in the moment now we changed our thoughts, our preconceived notions, our anger, our fear, our angst.
Our life would change instantly in that moment. And so too those immediately around us, and within our sphere of influence. And tomorrow as we venture out and interact with others the momentum continues as our approach and voice has become calmer and we have gained a deeper understanding as we are all born from the stars.
In that moment, we move to the other path and it will not be easy, and it will take time. The experiences, habits, and thoughts that pushed us here and now, must be removed from the mind, held in the light of sun and moon, and reexamined. With honesty we take a close look at ourselves and choose what to keep and what to discard, making room for the new pieces of us that we vow to take back into the world.
This process, a self-reflection fracturing, allows the fragments to realign and grants us the opportunity rebuild our self into the being we want to be, into the being shedding burdens and making the best of the time we have left. Setting the stage for a return and a rebirth carrying with us the experiences bathed in a new mindset, a new view of the world, opening the door to ascend from the empty fields and onto the next level.
That crossroad we come to
in moments of stress and blocks,
the struggle choking rational thoughts,
the behavior, the actions – this is not me.
How did this happen?
How did I get here?
Change is subtle and patient.
One day we vow to find balance,
to live and act a certain way,
to be, most importantly, better than
Then time takes over,
and one winter morning, awake before the alarm,
thoughts are consumed with the upcoming day,
week, and months, items and events beyond
control, but consuming, pushing
away everything that is important, that matters.
Closing eyes tight, breathing, trying to push
this away and overcome the thoughts, but it has wrapped cold bony
fingers around the mind and wont let go.
I am losing sight of the path,
I am losing focus of the empty fields.
Each day folds into another as the weeks
and months pass with little notice
and soon another year rises beyond the horizon
and I am forced to confront where I am in this life
and if this is where I want to be, is this the path
I started down before?
How do I break from this cycle?
How do I wrestle back control and stake claim
to the life I am meant to live?