There is something of this world in my blood, imprinted in my memory, absorbed by the electric mind of a toddler rapidly assessing and learning and storing information about the world around her as she grows, and then saved deep in the recesses for later reference. I know this because I can feel it there, like I have been haunted by this wild rocky pine clad wilderness on the ocean my whole life, quietly watched by moose and wolves.
When our plane came close to Cordova I was eager with excitement, my face glued to the window looking for hints of the world below. Eventually the cloud became scattered and we were offered briefs views of a vast flat land of tree and shrub and winding bits of river. I searched and searched for brown bears. A long road ran through this flat area and following it with my eyes to the north and west a town was suddenly exposed to us, embraced by mountains and poised right on the ocean’s edge, my heart did a little leap, and then it was expunged back into cloud.
We landed alongside that long straight road. My cousin picked us up and we followed the road back in to town, over rivers and past forests, catching glimpses of the great mountainous country that the rivers poured down from. We came along the side of Lake Eyak where the silty mountain water rushing into the lake turned it a brown white, and as we drove we saw that silty brown water leading to and mixing with clear sparkling blue from the other edge of the lake. My cousin explained that the rains heralding the end of summer had come. Within weeks the whole lake would be silt.
And then suddenly, we were there. This place that I have dreamed about visiting for so long. It was under rain and we rushed with our bags into the little home my cousin had booked for us, trying to keep our belongings dry. But we went back out again immediately to walk the streets, find lunch and our bearings. From the cafe on the water we watched otters and harbour seals playing in the marina. Along the streets we watched the lights from the town sparkle in the rain and blink at us. Large trucks threw up sprays of street water, and everyone walked in gumboots like this was normal, because, I expect, it was.
We had days of sunshine too, after this introduction and before the rains returned again. I learned quickly that I missed something about my mornings in southeast Alaska. In Cordova, back in a normal house, I could hear the clock ticking and the fridge humming. With curtains drawn because we were at street level, and artificial light welcoming my morning, I quickly started to feel dull and uninspired, whereas in southeast Alaska the cabin was quiet and still, the silence interrupted only by birds or rustling in the trees, and I missed starting each morning by stepping out the front door and into the trees. So I started my mornings in Cordova this way too, pulling on my boots and sweater and walking towards the marina. Outside the air was crisp and beautiful. Mist clung to the tree tops but rapidly dissipated with the sun coming, warm and quick. The town was still and quiet in the early morning. No people crossed the roads. No store doors opened and closed. Only the odd pickup drove past. And I felt vibrant and alive again.
After a morning catching up on internet life, we went walking. We were looking for something, a special place that decorated most of my childhood pictures of Alaska. A little green house nestled into the trees with a long staircase leading up to it. Mum had told me it was on the way to the cannery, and we didn’t know where the cannery was, but we knew Cordova wasn’t big and we knew where the cannery wasn’t, so we started off towards the other edge of town.
There are few places in Cordova that I hold memories from, despite being so young when I left. One is a road going up a hill. I remember running (toddling) up that hill, and berries! So many berries growing to my right. It was magical for me, the fresh air and the wild berries being dominant in that snapshot of time. Another memory is inside the little green house, giant rounds of colour hanging on the walls, and sitting on the floor, playing with a wooden board with holes in it, crying when my finger got stuck and mum rescuing me by helping me out. Or was she mom then?
And then there are other places that I know from stories and pictures. The polliwog pond is one of these, and it has captured my imagination since I can remember. A fantasy world where I romped around in my little gumboots, my blue spade and pail in hand, playing with the polliwogs and the insects.
It is a fantasy world, Cordova. The only roads out eventually end. Your only access truly away is by boat or plane. The hills enclosing the town look like immense mountains because of the extreme environment they exist in and despite that they wouldn’t be any higher than the Rimutaka range I stared at from my desk in Wellington. These Cordova hills tower, their rocky peaks reach above the tree lines and patches of snow still cling to their sides even in late summer. And all this sits on the edge of Prince William Sound. The marina in Cordova is full of fishing boats. The water is calm and looks out to low cloud and deep green islands. Sea otters spot the water’s surface and bald eagles float on drafts of wind sweeping back up the mountains.
We walked with direction, but not with strong intent, hoping to find the little green house and open to finding whatever was around each corner. I was enchanted by a waterfall tumbling over the side of a cliff edging this part of the road away from the shops. It wasn’t always there, instead, I suspected that it appeared when the rains came, and the road was built to divert the water away before it washed across the lanes. Across from the cliff were little houses, slightly elevated from the marina. We walked and the cliff sloped back and away, leaving room for houses to nestle into the hill on that side of the road too. I eyed each one excitedly, critically, and then without interest. I knew the split second I saw each one that they weren’t right. And then we turned the next corner and I was stopped suddenly, a childish excitement rising up my legs and through my heart. It was right there, the little green house! Looking exactly the same as it had in pictures from 26 years before.
Smoke puffed out the chimney and I imagined I could hear giggling children playing in the sand pit, dad working on the lawn, my cousins and my mother nearby. How could it still be that the house stood there so perfectly as if frozen in time? And looking now further along the road I saw it slope down and away from us towards the cannery, a small hill, and the roadside covered in a wild tangle of berry. This was, without a doubt, my hill. I had come home.