Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneTo Glacier Bay
April 13At 7 A.M. Maren and I join Peter, our skipper, and David, a photographer and avid paddler. We heave equipment into a stubby boat, untie the dock lines, and motor from shore. It is calm and smooth in Auke Bay, and we are reeling with the first moments of adventure. But gradually, as the water opens to Lynn Canal, the waves come and, within ten minutes, explode over the bow."Lynn Canal can sure scream," Peter says, gripping the wheel."Boosh. Boosh. Boosh. Maren and I hold on to the superstructure for balance, bending our knees with the dips and rises as if riding horses. I scan the shore, looking for campsites.Seeing these expanses, the vast stretch of Lynn Canal and Chatham Strait opening to a continuous wind tunnel from Skagway to the open Pacific, we hurl questions at ourselves. Again we mistrust the two-dimensional fantasy of maps, see fiction in the notion that the Inside Passage is a tranquil waterway. It is the paradoxical horror of not knowing exactly what we have gotten into yet knowing exactly. Despite our winter of training, we feel a lacking, an ineptitude as abysmal as the Chatham Strait Fault below us. A crest of salt water beats on the plastic windows, and I jerk away."When you leave Glacier Bay, I would think about getting a ride across Icy Strait," Peter says. "Someday, somebody is going to die there."My knees nearly buckle as the boat plows into a wave.A humpback whale breaches in a smooth arc of splash water. Humpsterdumpster!" Peter shouts."Getting ready for the tourists," laughs David.Visitor season is waxing in southeast Alaska, and we have the first charter of the year to Glacier Bay, speeding toward the peaks of the FairweatherRange. Once we round the Mansfield Peninsula, the waves reach from behind, and the engine gurgles as if drowning, then surges as the propeller is lifted free of the water. At last, as we turn westward into Icy Strait and the lee of the northwesterly, the waters flatten, and the boat seems to leap into high gear."Spirit Walker, Spirit Walker..."Peter radios.Static."Spirit Walker, Spirit Walker..."This is someone I would like to meet about now. But by the time start to I ask who this Spirit Walker is, Peter is on the radio again, hailing Glacier Bay headquarters to announce our arrival.Our kayaks are strapped to the back deck, hulls to the sky as if capsized. Last night I discovered a moon-shaped dent in my kayak's hull. Oil-canned. I felt weak. We had planned for everything -- but not this. After retracing the journey north, I concluded that when the ferry passed through the swells in Queen Charlotte Sound, my kayak had shifted, coming to rest on a piece of plywood. I thought nothing of it at the time, but we were over the engine room. The deck was warm, the kayak heavy, and together, the heat softened the fiberglass resin and the force reformed the hull. During a phone call last evening, the manufacturer prescribed a series of boat bakes, which will take place over campfires with crude driftwood braces punching out the shallow dish. For now, though, I do not know how the kayak will perform, and the very problem magnifies otherworries tenfold.We throttle wide around Pleasant Island Reef, around the low knobs of Pleasant Island named in 1879 by W. H. Dall of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey for its gentle shores -- a name that stuck from a first impression. British Captain GeorgeVancouver, who explored and charted this coast between 1792 and 1794, searching for the Northwest Passage, left a much greater legacy all along the Inside Passage in a blanket of place names that often recall the extreme gloom and peril, elation and pleasantry, of his person and his voyage. From an instructive angle, these names impart the moods, incidents, and mistakes of a traveler to this coast and in this way announce what may he ahead for us: Point Carolus. Point Retreat. Cape Caution. Rather than Icy, I would name this strait "Apprehension" or, if conditions worsen, "Out of our Gourds."Slowly the mouth of Glacier Bay opens. When Vancouver and his survey crews were here, Glacier Bay was little more than an indentation. The Neogliacial, or Little Ice Age, glaciers, had only begun to retract. Since that time, the glaciers have withdrawn rapidly nearly one hundred miles to the upper reaches of the inlets, where we will find them leaving a broad bay of shieldlike islands ice free. Past the town of Gustavus, we make the big bend north into Glacier Bay, into the wind, into the waves, on the trail of retreating ice. At Bartlett Cove we stop to check in with Randy King, chief ranger, who spreads the large nautical chart across the floor. "You have bear canisters?" he asks. "It's required in the park.""Six." Maren says."Firearms?""No," she says, her face falling. And the whole bear question rushes in again, dark thoughts the stuff of "Just bear spray. Repellent.""Seasoning," someone says. "Shake 'n Bake.""No firearms are allowed in the Park)" Randy continues"Just don't keep food in your tent. Cook in the tide lines."As we talk, Randy's wife, Sally, brings a tray of hot drinks, and we cupthe warm stoneware. Everyone talks about the joys of kayaking, the serenity the trip will bring, and Maren and I laugh and nod as best we can. Then we slurp the chocolate syrup from the base of the mugs, say our farewells, and speed north from Bartlett Cove's old forest of Sitka spruce to the lesser forest on Sebree Island in midbay, where the fifteen-mile-wide face of the Grand Pacific Glacier had last been in 1860.
"For five months in the spring and summer of 1996, Maren and I traveled the Inside Passage...It was a long and beautiful journey, a season of bright sun and dark cloud, above-average rainfall, and broad shoulders...It was a time before home ownership, before children, an open window and all we had to do was leap through. And we did...The very name, Inside Passage, seemed to carry an intimacy, a knowing. It would be a personal voyage. As much as anything, it would be a journey home."
About the Author
Byron Ricks is a native of the Midwest and a graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa.An outdoor leader, he has written for Outside magazine, Men's Journal and other publications. He lives with his wife, Maren Van Nostrand, an outdoor educator and environmental planner, near Seattle, Washington.