While I love mountains, with their massive size and impressive countenance and sheer arrogance, I usually do better admiring them from afar. I have a fear of heights and the thin air seems to make me feel unwell – my breathing is labored and since my breathing mimics a panic attack, my brain seems to think I should be feeling far more anxious than I am and begins to really get nervous. Most times I have tried to enjoy mountains I have gone from almost sea level to a peak in less than a day, I’ve been assured by guidebooks if I had only let myself get acclimated longer I would have been just fine. We never reached the accessible peak in El Yunque in Puerto Rico because I got nervous and couldn’t breathe and so got more nervous and pictured my then five-year-old son falling over the edge of a cliff and I made us turn around. In Alaska this last summer we went from the coastal city of Anchorage to Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park (at 4,000 feet in elevation) in the span of twenty-four hours and I was suffering. It didn’t help that I had also picked up the stomach flu from one of the boys who had picked it up on the airplane ride in, but that is a different story. The mountains are beautiful and so vast that I finally realized that there are places on earth we won’t ever be able to truly destroy-we would kill ourselves off first before we could uproot Denali-and that is comforting. I now really understand the feeling of being built upon rock instead of sand, solid and unmovable. But the mountains aren’t mine, not the way the sea is.
Seward, Alaska is about a two and a half hour drive south of Anchorage. You leave town by Highway 1 (there are really only a few highways connecting all of Alaska) which winds for about an hour around a massive ocean inlet called the Turnagain Arm (named so because explorers looking for a Northwest Passage thought they had it found it but became landlocked and had to regretfully turn again). Two lanes cut between the Chugach Mountains and the ocean, leaving little room to not feel claustrophobic or nervous. Well, for me, my husband seemed unphased driving past harrowing cliffs. Once you leave the immense Turnagain Arm behind, you wind through more mountains and past yellow diamond signs that warn of avalanches in the winter. It is not winter and I am grateful for once that the Chicago suburbs are flat and home to a million plows and salt trucks. Finally it doesn’t seem as if the mountains will ever end when you come upon the sea, abruptly enough you can imagine driving off of a pier because you glanced in the rearview mirror at the wrong time. You have arrived at a port town, a hub for cruise ships and fishing fleets, an access point to fjords and glaciers and water that is clean and cold and a strange crystal green.
Here is where we needed to come to see the other half of “things we may never again see in real life”. Denali gave us mountains, and gold rush cabins, grizzly bears and caribou. Seward will give us whales, bald eagles, puffins, glaciers. I have prepared. We have sea-sickness bands, all of us. We have leggings and winter coats and hats and gloves (things that took up a whole other suitcase, things we will only need here). We are set to board a tour boat with catamarans (which I am told help to prevent seasickness). There is an outside deck, and an inside cabin with huge windows where, when we get cold and tired, we can rest and sip hot chocolate or tea and just be taken to beautiful places. This is more exciting to me.
My childhood was spent on boats, every summer until I was twelve. Each Saturday we would drive an hour or so north to the Chain-Of-Lakes. We had speedboats, the first one I was on as a toddler I am told looked like the Batmobile. There was Big Red, then a white and teal boat that I know traveled to Missouri with us one family reunion, and finally the Over-Ripe Banana Boat which was banana yellow with inexplicable brown glittered panels. Admittedly the names for the boats were my own, but maybe I shared them with my family at the time. My mom would pack a cooler and eventually four children up in our mini-van, my dad would drive us to the slip then steer the boat all day. The three of us who took after the Italian side in looks would be slathered in SPF 8 before getting strapped into life jackets, my Irish red-headed brother got SPF 50.
The two things that made me happiest on the boat was when we would be going fast enough to feel wind pushing back our hair and to get to stare endlessly at the sparkles on the water as sunlight hit the tiny peaks of waves. I could spend hours just experiencing those two things.
My husband had declared early on in planning this trip that we needed to find a whale-watching tour, and that we would go as far as necessary to find a tour that could all but guarantee we would. Nobody, on their website, would be so foolish as to promise that you would get to see orcas and humpback whales, but I had read enough reviews that I felt fairly certain we would. I secretly would have still been overjoyed to be on the water without spotting any aquatic life, but I knew he wouldn’t have. I held my breath, just a little, for his sake.
I needn’t have worried.
Within the first half hour we spotted a pod of orcas, a family that the fisherman and tour guides knew quite well as they like to visit the boat and steal fish off of lines. The patriarch of this group had a six-foot tall dorsal fin, and researchers had given him the name “El Dorado”. He led his family, calf in tow, not more than forty feet from the bow of the boat. We were all on the deck watching as their heads would peek up in a friendly gesture and then they would disappear and reappear either further or closer than you would have thought. It was disconcerting to not be able to predict where they would be, most of their journey beneath the waves unseen and their speed and depth and maneuvers all a mystery. They stayed with us for a good long while and we stayed with them until the captain felt we had had our fill and knew we had more to see.
Over the next six hours, we would sometimes skim the water at about 26 knots (I know because they had TVs with our coordinates and speed all throughout the cabin) fast enough that the wind would whip your hat off your head, but not so fast that you were automatically forced inside. Then we would loll in the ocean, trying not to frighten away immense sea otters floating on their backs in the middle of nowhere, or sneaking up on a pod of humpback whales. One adolescent whale (apparently the size of the creature made its age obvious to the captain when it wasn’t obvious to the rest of us) was showing off, leaping out of the water again and again, slapping his fins, doing the backstroke. We glided past the perches of sea lions and bald eagles, and I got to see my husband and kids rapt with attention the entire time. We got to find out that puffins flap their wings like they are graceless heavy hummingbirds when they try to take off. And we felt nothing but affection for their goofiness.
Told we would be going to the glacier next, I brought my youngest into the cabin to get extra layers put on, while my husband stayed at the bow of the boat, camera around his neck, sharing a moment with my oldest. Once we got to the glacier, where balls of ice snapped, crackled and popped in the water below us, their teeth were chattering. The crew used a net to fish one crystal ball out of the ocean for us to hold as we stared at this massive formation, thundering as its blue sides calved. We had been wearing short sleeves on shore, and now we were wearing leggings and winter jackets, hats and gloves. This was the last big thing on the itinerary for this tour, a culmination of ALASKA, writ large. The photo-op to show us later that we had been in this magical place, that we had seen these magical creatures. We had gotten to visit them, stopped by for a chat, enjoyed their home instead of forcing them to perform for our amusement in ours. We got to gaze up at a sheer wall of ice that had been crumbling and advancing for thousands of years without really diminishing. This was it.
The ride back was supposed to be the denouement. The bobbing rest of being brought back to shore again, complete with just-baked chocolate chip cookies and the opportunity to purchase a booklet of pictures taken near the Kenai Fjords we had just seen. I wasn’t ready to be done, though, and while most of the passengers and my own little family stayed inside I went back out to the bow.
This, the sea, this is mine.
Now was the time, though everyone on board had been friendly, gracious and excited as we were, I was finally free from having other people in my sightline. I could pretend that I was alone flying above the icy water. Away from the glacier, now, I took off my hat and let the wind whip through my hair, twisting and knotting and tangling it up however it liked. All around me was the sparkle of blue-green water, nearly three hundred and sixty degrees of dazzling expansiveness. The enormous rock formations loomed as we passed them, I filled my lungs over and over with beauty and speed and freedom. When I thought I had had enough I began to go back towards the cabin, but would stop and stay longer. Once forty-five minutes passed I felt guilt at wanting to pretend I was alone so long, and came back to see how my children and husband were faring. One of my children though wanted to go back with me, and I was overjoyed. I helped guide him bracing my feet against the rock and sway feeling more securely grounded than I had in a long time.
I wordlessly shared my beauty with him holding his shoulders and smiling. When he had breathed deeply enough, I consented to going back to rejoin the no less beautiful world of my family again. Then my other son wanted to have a moment with me on the bow, too, and I happily went back one last time. With him, I finally saw that we were really approaching shore, that this would be closing. It had to, and I finally felt ready to let it conclude. I hadn’t been ready to let it go before I really needed to, but now felt steady knowing I had received enough to sustain me for a long time after.
This is mine, this was something given to me that cannot be taken away.
And they didn’t even advertise this as part of the tour. They didn’t know how much I needed that.