Thursday, May 29, 2008

Alaska's Inside Passage

The ghosts of conifers glide by the portside windows in the gray light of dawn. Once outside, the eastern sky turns to hues of phosphorous blue, while gradual threads of violet and magenta weave their color onto the clouds. God is finger-painting the sunrise today.

I move to the stern of the ship and sit on the steps leading to the closed off deck, tempted to re-enact the scene from “Titanic.” Coffee in hand, I am warm in my heavy wool sweater. A soft breeze combs my sleepy head.

“It’s over there,” says a man’s voice. I look up at the deck above me and realize he’s talking to me. “There, in the back. Quick, the sunrise.”

I turn to the portside again and catch my breath. God’s been busy. The light is streaked with all the colors of the spectrum; mountains of gray and dark blue, merging with the silver of the ocean, provide the stunning backdrop. On the aft of the ship, I stand with a handful of others to welcome the day.

The light changes right before our eyes; from light yellow to thick, glossy gold; from fuschia to light pink; from midnight to neon blue. I rush only a little to get Paul up. He’ll die if he misses this; but he’s already sitting up from the floor where we’ve all been sleeping.

“Quick, it’s the sunrise. You’ll miss it,” I urge him.

He rises from the ground groggily and then suddenly points out the starboard windows: “Orcas! Look! Over there!”

I don’t see them at first, but we’re both rushing out the doors in opposite directions. My way is closer to the deck and I catch the sea-crested fins of three whales.

This is a place of healing. This is where you will be reminded that God knew what he was doing when he created this world. As the light reaches the darkest skies, I mourn for that special moment when all is private between Him and I; where people quietly smile their good mornings, knowing we are all sharing the same secret before the rest of the world is awake.

“Hi,” I say, giggling euphorically toward the sea. I don’t care who sees me. I salute the world with my coffee and bestow good graces on the scenery before me. “Good to be with You, again. I’ve missed You.”

The sea, speckled with whitecaps, rolls beneath us gently. Our ferry -- the M.V. Matanuska -- is enormous so it’s difficult to feel the rugged waters. By watching the horizon, I can see that we are swaying a little from side to side. It’s another beautiful day and I marvel at our luck. I expected the need to don on my winter gear up here, but it’s pleasant. Certainly, it’s not the Mediterranean, but today, I’m looking forward to turning thirty. Hell, if it’s nice enough when we reach Haines, I may just sunbathe in the nude anyway.

It’s always good to make friends with the kitchen help. The dog hasn’t been eating but once a day and I want to make sure he stays healthy. Tsyhan (the Ukrainian word for “Gypsy”) is a 15-year-old Husky-Wolf mix and is locked in a carport for the first 72 hours of this ferry ride from Bellingham to Ketchikan. So the cooks are saving me a little bacon grease to coat his food in order to tempt him to eat during one of our infrequent visits below deck.

We are docked in Juneau, Alaska on the morning of my 30th birthday. It’s just after seven a.m.; Paul and I meet down on the car deck to get the dog prepped for his walk ashore. We’re both still sleepy and Paul announces that he won’t be joining me.

“The city is twelve miles from the ferry landing and we only have an hour and a half,” he explains.

It’s fine with me; I look forward to the walk either way -- anything to get out of the sluggish habit of this ship.

John, a young army cadet from Texas on his way up to Anchorage for cold weather military training, joins my impromptu morning stroll. We walk along the dark, gray bay, the streets wet from either rain or melted snow, but it’s not too cold; about mid-forties. The dog jaunts along happily while John and I exchange stories, one of us stopping in mid-sentence to watch two eagles take toward the charcoal-swept skies. Fishing boats edge their way along in the opposite direction.

About two miles from where we’d started, we see a bent sign with the familiar national forest icon for a hiking trail. One heads up the mountain toward snowcapped peaks; the other toward the bay. I’ve had enough of the water and want to explore the forest instead. The incline continues for a couple of miles through moss-saturated cedars, a pine needle cushioned floor, a cold, fresh creek and one dark canopy overhead. We reach a small waterfall as dawn turns light gray, giving us the affect of a peaceful yet mysterious forest. It’s beautiful. There is no other word for it. Juneau’s Tongass National Forest is beautiful.

A bend in the trail leads us to higher, water saturated ground. Just before I step on it by accident, I notice the fresh bear paw print in the mud. “John,” I whisper, choking, “Look!” His sea green eyes are cast in brilliant light as I see the flash of excitement.

“It would be so cool to see a bear!” Then, as if to comfort me, “They’re afraid of humans though and this time of year, they’re not hungry.”

I assess the size of the dog again, especially since nobody knows we’re here.

A few feet further up, John and I catch the fog-crusted peak of a mountain ahead of us. It’s part of the Mendelhall glacier area. Time is running out and we have to hurry to make it back to the ferry. When we reach the dock, it is just in time for the final call. From the back of the ferry, back with Paul, we sip hot coffee and watch the Mendelhall glacier grow; it’s neon blue face appearing to be a moving, living waterfall instead of frozen ice. Porpoises bob about between the boat and shore, some closer to the boat, some closer to shore. We see a number of humpback whales blow air first and then dive deep under, their wishbone tails flipping up in a salute before disappearing into the ocean -- where the water has turned from silver gray to sea green; we marvel at how it matches the color of John’s eyes, exactly.

Gorgeous, castle-like lighthouses; crisp blue mountains; the same evergreens; waterfalls etched in the mountain faces, hundreds of sea lions and inland glaciers pass us by. We seem to be the ones who are standing still. It drizzled lightly and now it’s begun to snow a little. This is the Alaska I imagined.

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