Alaska on My Mind

Alvah learns that sometimes the little things can be just as fun as the big stuff and that some regrets aren't so regrettable. From The Roger Henry Files for our October 8, 2009 CW Reckonings

RH Alaska 368

Alvah and Diana take their old friend, Blaine Wright, to the face of Le Conte Glacier in Southeast Alaska.Diana Simon

Over the last 30 years, my friend from Montana, Blaine Wright, has joined me for sailing trips in Belize, Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, and New Zealand. When we were younger, the object of getting together was to scare each other half to death. I did pretty well with the back alleys of Belize City, crocodile-choked rivers, and shark infested reefs. He effectively countered with vertical ski slopes and white-knuckle backcountry flying. But we're more mature now, and there's no longer a need for this silly daredevilry.

Or is there? After all, this is Alaska, and people don't come here for "vacations." They come for "adventures." Because we have so many miles to make in a waning season, Blaine had planned to squeeze in on our Juneau-to-Sitka leg. However, just weeks before we were to sail, he front-flipped his mountain bike, resulting in a collapsed lung, a broken collarbone, and bruising to the core.

Thus I was forced to go a little easy on him when he finally arrived in Sitka. That meant no outside passage down the weather coast of Baranoff Island, which is almost certain to serve up a salty gale. No, I'd have to leave it to the bears to quicken his pulse, so we decided to retrace our route back through Peril Strait and work our way toward Petersburg via the Inside Passage.

With a wish list of wildlife sightings that included orcas, humpback whales, sea otters, Steller sea lions, Sitka deer, brown and black bears, eagles, and salmon (best viewed on top of a hot grill), we wandered through Chatham Strait and Frederick Sound.

Smoke from forest fires in British Columbia to the south obscured an amazing backdrop of jagged mountains, deep valleys, and cascading rivers. It rained a little too much, and I never did manage to get a halibut on the business end of Blaine's fishing line. But still, I think it's a trip he'll remember. I will.

In Alaska, just as in Africa, I tended to focus too much on the big things: the highest mountains, the biggest bear. But it was a few small things that touched me most.

A female river otter with a maturing pup dashed out of the woods near Roger Henry. While the pup was distracted under some trees, the mother dove into the water to fetch a fish. The pup turned, surprised to find her gone, and let out a heart-breaking cry. When Mom finally returned with a fish, the pup chirped in delighted relief. I almost cheered.

In Portage Cove, on Kupreanov Island, we heard two wolves howling back and forth to each other through the black of night. I was stunned to realize that this wasn't random guttural noises but real music smoothly rising and falling with sweet tonality.

Then we risked the final few days of Blaine's short visit with a side trip to Le Conte Glacier, south of Petersburg, in the hope of finding an active tidewater glacier.

A hundred fat seals littered the brash ice as we made the final turn in the fjord. We were treated to a crystal theater of cobalt-blue ice falling from steep mountain valleys directly into the sea. It's a journey that takes 10,000 years, from evaporated seawater to snow that's then pressed into glacier ice that wends its way with geological slowness to the sea. And we were there to watch a piece fall, completing its aeonic cycle.

Sometimes I get a little too excited. I pushed the boat up through the brash ice toward the glacier's wall. I wanted Blaine to get the full dramatic effect of this growling force of nature.

Diana made it clear that I'd get the full dramatic effect of another kind if I dared venture any closer. So we didn't get to experience a tsunami, but nevertheless Blaine's camera shutter snapped like a flag in the wind.

Reluctantly, we sailed back to Petersburg and put Blaine on a plane home. Then we turned the bow of Roger Henry to the south.

In a recent article for CW about our cruise through New Caledonia, I wrote, "I don't like leaving a land with regrets; it speaks of my mismanagement of a precious opportunity."

In that light, I can now see that by coming to Alaska, I was setting myself up for a fall. We knew it was supposed to be big and beautiful, and we specifically decided to hole up in Seward for the winter so we wouldn't have to rush through the state. And in fairness, a 14-month tour from the westernmost tip of the Aleutians to the Canadian border can't be called a dabble. And yet, as we crossed into British Columbia, I found myself looking back over the stern and feeling unsatisfied, harboring regrets.

It would take a lifetime to see all of Alaska. It would be a lifetime well invested. Perhaps leaving dissatisfied is a good thing, for it's a compelling excuse to return one day.