Southeast Alaska

Southeast Alaska

Alaska… Alaska is a place I’ve dreamed about my whole life, or, at least since I left Alaska when I was three. Going back was in part driven by a desire to take myself to the margins of the human-developed world, to the edge of a real wild, to be immersed in that immense environment. In part, I was traveling home, to the land I took my first steps in, to the land I spoke my first sentences in. To a land that has imprinted on me a deep fascination with the world of conifer and ice and rock and snow that lives up north. 

It was a dreamworld. We didn’t start by going home, we started by visiting an island in southeast Alaska and living there for 3 weeks. It was truly a special opportunity… One that could easily have slipped us by had we not sought it out, had our hosts not created the opportunity for us. Can you imagine it? Somewhere out there, nestled into the spruce trees right on the rocky coast of a southeast Alaskan island rests a wooden home, inconspicuous and striking all at once. It sits right above a beach of rocks, and looks out across a passage towards Admiralty Island. It is filled with tiny beautiful things, with books, with amazing food, with musical instruments, with beads, with art, with stories, with words, with family, with life. On the window seat, below the musical washboard and above the record collection, in line with all the words of the books facing me, I could stare out at that ocean passage, watch the humpbacks breath as they moved past each day, watch the stellar’s sea lions rolling and snorting on the ocean’s surface, watch the harbour seals eye movement on the beach cautiously, only their heads silently and with almost no movement breaking the water. Out on these islands there are bears, wolves, bald eagles, river otters scampering across rocks, deer, and all matter of smaller life. And caught up in the wonder of it, I worked and dreamed away three weeks of southeast Alaskan life.

We stayed in a cabin up behind what I came to call the ‘big house’. Our cabin had no running water, no electricity, it had a sink on the front porch with no taps, and that drained into the foliage behind it, it had a bin underneath the sink that collected rainwater from the roof, it had a lofted bed and a couch and a table and a dresser and a big old wood stove. It had the night sky and the rising sun painted across the ceiling, little crystals and rocks and bits and pieces of what someone thought special or beautiful sitting on the window sill. And it was perfect. 

Each morning I woke I would need to pee, so I would climb down from the loft, pull on my sweater and my jacket, my gumboots and step out the door. Walking down the little path to the outhouse there would be firewood or rocks, bark or tree roots to stop the trail becoming too muddy. Large broadleaved plants splayed out from the ground around red dogwood berries and tiny green leaves. Then there were mossy tree roots leading to trunks leading to great tall spruce and cedar and hemlock. At waist height and higher there were huckleberries and blueberries growing. Everywhere was brown and green and alive and resting and waiting and enticing. Every morning was beautiful. At the cabin we would lift little bins or glasses of water out from the rainwater collection to wash our faces and brush our teeth, and in the afternoons we would start the wood stove to warm our cabin for the evening and keep it dry. There was nothing more we needed or wanted, and I quickly realised after leaving this home that having too much more can rapidly make my mornings dull, disconnected, shut off, bundled up in a safe little box of nothing, separated from the natural world.

Of course, we had the big house for other comforts. For charging computers and finding time to write, for tea and home cooked meals. For extra company and stories. These moments were filled with dried herbs, homemade tinctures and teas, homemade sprouted and milled flours, dreamy waffles, home raised rabbit and homemade corn bread. I could have lost myself in the herbs and teas and books and words, and I did at times, but there was work to do too. We were losing at least 5 minutes of day light every day, and the blueberries were starting to die back. Simon and I split wood and stacked it for the winter. Cleared slash from a site where spruce were taken out because they were dying (too many warm winters combined with spruce aphids). We gathered blueberries and chanterelles, helped landscape and start a new path for the tractor, and helped store food for the winter. Time passed slowly and quickly. The woodpiles grew larger and larger. Strangers became close friends. And I learned things about myself, about the world, about people, and about life. 

When we arrived there was sun and wind for days, but then one evening the rain came. It rained all night and all day. It was raining when we woke up and I listened to it coming straight down vertical from the sky. I love that sound so much, vertical rain. Such a novelty after living in Wellington. It rained and rained and rained. Where there had been mud on the little paths, water gathered in pools. Where there were small slopes in the paths, rivers formed. I mentioned the pools to Simon and he said he wasn’t sure they counted as pools if the ground water was simply rising up and taking the land back. Little springs bubbled up where there were none before, and the world was transformed into green and water.

And one night the skies cleared, and a dream came true. Lying asleep in our lofted beds, we were awoken suddenly when our names were called. We called back, and heard ‘there are northern lights’.

Our response was immediate and quick, clambering down from the loft, pulling on layers and racing down to the big house and the beach. The big house looks west. We looked north up the passage, and sure enough, there was a light mist twisting in the sky. I was beside myself with joy. Almost hysterical, quietly wildly elated. The fine white light stretched out towards us and took on a green sheen. It stretched away behind the house and touched the horizon somewhere beyond the trees, creating an arch. Swirls penetrated up from the north and then started to oscillate like sound waves were punching along and through them. They turned pink along the edges and suddenly all the light took to the sky in undulating waves of light green and pink. 

I was surprised to see that the aurora creates rays like the sun. Rays of light shooting down from the sky directly above us, light and white, almost transparent like light cloud, but in dancing rays floating like music.

The aurora seemed to disperse and quiet down as quickly as it had picked up, but we were patient enough to wait for another show, and then drifted back to bed in elated stupor to dream of the Alaskan night sky.

This was our southeast Alaskan life… There is so much more and so much it is difficult to pick and choose what to share. We kayaked and we fought our way through bush and muskeg. We visited the glacier where a black bear fed on salmon in the stream and a huge waterfall crashed on the beach left by retreating ice. We shared meals and laughter, beach fire and work, music and poems and stories and thoughts. We learned and we grew and we stepped back out into the world, dazed at the prospect of becoming so close to a family and then going so far, with no guarantee of when or ever we’ll be back.

Southeast Alaska was a dream. A dreamworld of wild animals, wild blue berries, wild forest, wild ocean, crackling woodstoves, towering spruce, and words. I left with dirty jeans, stronger arms, greater knowledge, and a deeper understanding of the quiet blessings of life, which without daily awareness might otherwise go unnoticed and unappreciated. And we headed north… 

See southeast Alaska

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