I usually write my travel posts when I’m still away on a journey, while my senses are overflowing with stimuli and my mind is oddly out of joint thanks to the distance – both physical and psychic – between my destination and the familiar territory of home. But while I was away most recently, I kept chewing on the sum total of “ALASKA” and trying to decide how to boil down this epic landscape punctuated with glaciers and rough wilderness experience into a single bit of contemplative writing. It’s not an easy task.
I could begin by describing some of the native people encountered at a small settlement named, Wales – the westernmost settlement on mainland Alaska with a population of less than 150 individuals.
Thanks to a last minute change of plan, the ship found herself heading into Alaska with 80 guests and another 10-15 staff and crew wanting to come ashore. The day before our landing I used the satellite phone on the ship and literally called the general store to find out if there was anyone in the community who could help us arrange some kind of welcome and/or activities for the guests.
The people of Wales exhibited generosity and their accommodation of us was astounding. We didn’t arrive until close to 10 am, but the whole community was out on the beach waiting for us from 8:30 am onwards.
The local dance group rallied to give us a performance using traditional drums and a few items of clothing handed down from previous generations like reindeer boots and wolf skin gloves. It was a wonderful welcome to an isolated homestead on the fringes of Alaska’s great wilderness.
It also occurred to me to write about the bears. This summer of 2014, will always be the “Summer of the Bear” to me; whether in reference to the great Russian bear lifting it’s might head and growling after a long political hibernation, or in regards to the scores of bears we saw from Zodiacs (and landside) in Far Eastern Russia and Alaska.
I hate to say it, but the bears I saw looked hungry – eating grass like grazing cows, tearing at pieces of kelp, mashing colonies of barnacles with their paws and lapping up the salty gruel right off the intertidal rocks, gnawing on whale vertebrae like a dog with a mighty bone. Locals say the salmon run was poor last summer and late this summer – not much to go on without real data, but I’d be interested know if it’s true.
Bears exhibit such personalities and such a range of emotions that watching their wordless interactions, it is perfectly clear what dynamics they are encountering, exchanging, absorbing and reacting to amongst the individual animals. I enjoyed watching them in moments of careful concern between relatives, as well as in flashes of aggression and competition for food. The safety of a Zodiac bobbing just offshore is the perfect place to watch these ursid goliath brown bears.
Finally, I wanted to paint a picture of the awe-inspiring landscapes of the volcanic Aleutian Islands, shrouded in fog and the indelible scent of thousands of breeding auklets creating a tangerine flavored haze around the islands. Yes, the air smelled like orange blossoms when enough of these birds were around – and I promise this is real!
Not to neglect the backdrops of places like St. Paul, St. Matthew and Hall Islands in the Pribilof Islands – these are mysterious, private places that share just a taste of their spectacular wildlife in the form of Northern Fur Seals, mosaics of brilliant wildflowers and bog plants, and thousands upon thousands of sea birds on steep, cliff coasts.
A highlight wildlife encounter for me was a split second when two of our Zodiacs drifted near a huge flock of frenzied gulls and kittiwakes feeding on a dense bait ball of pinky-finger sized minnows. I was listening to the splashing of birds and fish near the surface and the squawking of the kittiwakes announcing their presence with that piercing shriek of “Kitti-wake!” when the entire school of fish ever-so-slyly slipped under our boats to find life-sustaining shelter from the barrage of beaks above. It was brilliant to see all those tiny fish outsmart the seabirds, if only for a moment until our wakes left them behind and out in the open and vulnerable again.
There is so much more I could say about Alaska, but that will have to do for now. It’s more than a single state belonging to the United States of America, it’s a mind-set, a tapestry of mountains, rivers, plains, and home to some of the most outlandish riches in terms of wildlife that a person can imagine. Viva the 49th State of the Union.