A Fine Finale

Calving glaciers pound out a glorious conclusion to Alvah, Diana, and Ryland's journey through the wilds of Alaska. "The Roger Henry File" for November 13, 2008

November 13, 2008


We came to see the wonder and feel the thunder of Holgate Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park. Diana Simon

The evening sky burned crimson behind the desolate Barren Islands.

Diana approved, “Red sky at night, sailors delight.”

I knew this would be our last offshore passage of the year, so I especially enjoyed my star-studded night watch. Dawn broke with such fine conditions that my nephew, Ryland, and I were able to finish our Trans Alaskan Cribbage Tournament out in the cockpit. Whatever disappointment Ryland felt at his crushing defeat was soon forgotten, because a special treat lay in store.


The Kenai Peninsula bristles with high, steep, and craggy mountains. They are beautiful, but Ryland lives in Montana and sees beautiful mountains every day. However, atop these mountains lies the Harding Ice Field, the largest in North America. Rivers of ancient ice pour down and around the towering peaks, then fall precipitously to the sea.

We sailed up the Aialik Fiord, through increasingly thick brash ice, straight for the Holgate Glacier. The soft thudding of the ice on the hull was familiar music to my ears. It took me back many years and miles to the ice fields of Greenland and the Eastern Canadian Arctic.

I was determined to get Ryland close to the glacier wall because I wanted him not just to see but feel the raw power of nature. This takes some judgment as calving ice can generate a series of huge waves. Years ago, on the very day we left the town of Upernavik on Greenland’s Northwest coast, a giant iceberg split in two, spawning a wave so large it overwhelmed the breakwater, sunk the fleet of small vessels, drowned the chained out dogs, and injured many of the villagers. The risk of capsizing is greater if you present the boat beam-on to these waves. So, I backed the Roger Henry through the floating ice towards the blue crystalline wall.


Diana asked, “What if a giant wave comes?”

“We’ll surf it to safety.”

In no way reassured, she demanded a halt at what was probably a more sensible distance. I shut down the engine and we sat in primordial silence. After a few non-eventful minutes I feared we had found a glacial dud.


Diana Simon| |During a rare fine weather window, the Roger Henry makes landfall on the Kenai Peninsula on the mainland of Western Alaska.| Then suddenly a sound like a canon shot ripped across the fiord. House-sized chunks of ice broke away from the high face and, in slow motion, plunged to the brashy waters below. The ensuing splash was spectacular, and the roar reverberated in our bones.

Ryland, normally as cool as they come, whooped in delight. Then another fell, and another. We had miles to go before the nearest anchorage. But even with the light fading we had to tear ourselves away.

After two days of progress north our weather window slammed shut. The waters off each cape roiled in turbulence, and cold rain slashed down.
Then, as we tacked into the protection of Resurrection Sound, the cold winds suddenly died and the steep seas fell calm. After 16 months and 12,200 nautical miles of hard sailing, within sight at the head of the bay lay our winter haven, Seward, Alaska.


I thought, “Oh Captain, my Captain, our fearful trip is done. The ship has weathered every wrack, the prize we sought is won.”

The same words, “It’s over,” fell from both Diana’s and my lips, but with completely different meanings.

Diana’s was a tone of bone-tiredness and relief. Mine was one of disappointment. For her this final landfall meant no uncharted rocks to gash our hull, no dragging anchor in the black abyss of night, no knock-down gales, no volcanoes to shake our world, hot water, clean bodies, and all the goods and services of a modern economy. For me, well, I wondered if life would loom as large once that first line hit the dock.

Diana Simon| |Ryland suffers a crushing defeat in the Trans Alaskan Cribbage Tournament, played in the cockpit of the Roger Henry while crossing the dreaded waters off the Barren Islands.| We dropped Ryland off at the Anchorage airport. It was too soon. When he first arrived in Dutch Harbor I told him the test of a true sailor is if he can tie a bowline behind his back, drunk, at midnight–because those are the conditions he will likely encounter when he needs that knot most. We had not finished his training or testing.

Through most of his life I have been away sailing. I have never sent him a birthday or Christmas present. But I hope the gift of this trip will make up for all the bric-a-brac he never received, because it will last him a lifetime.

Diana and I returned to Seward to build our new modern life. We leased a marina slip, organized electricity to the boat, bought a cell phone, subscribed to an Internet service, rented a P.O. box, and joined the library.

For her birthday, I took Diana out to a nice restaurant. The room was warm and still, the lights low, the music soft, and the glasses where actually made of glass.

Teasing her, I said, “Wipe that smile off your face.”

But she couldn’t, nor should she. She stood steady through a long and demanding journey. She has given me the most precious gift any partner can give another, and that is the support and freedom to pursue my dreams.

I leaned over and asked, “A little more wine, my dear?”

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