Jennifer and I were marooned, baffled by the blue rubbery hide and wooden skeleton of the Klepper kayak, a small whale we needed to reconstitute. I'd carefully penciled instructions as Jennifer's husband assembled and disassembled the collapsible boat so deftly on that sunny lawn back in Fairbanks; now the directions appeared to be written in Sanskrit. The only lingering kayakers, a French couple visiting Alaska, pushed us aside, talking over our incompetence and the fallibility of German design. There is no pity like French pity. Our image of ourselves as tough Alaskans --- Jennifer was born in Fairbanks, and I'd grown up beside the ocean, for Gods sake --- turned out to be as collapsible as the boat, and more difficult to reconstruct. We also had forgotten the kayak's rudder, the spray skirts that would seal us into the boat and shut the waves out, and a tide table to help us time our departures. These oversights meant we spent most of our trip zigzagging, bailing, and paddling against the current.
That first day seemed so promising --- flat water that mirrored a pewter sky a charm of seals that followed the kayak. The campsite offered just a few disadvantages. Two men tenting down the beach did not mind openly dropping their trousers on the low tide. Crazed black flies orbited our faces as we ate. A portable propane heater I'd bought to stave off hypothermia sputtered and died on first use, becoming instant ballast. But we pitched our tent in a meadow of lupine and chocolate lily, sure we'd find our rhythm once we left people behind.
The next day, the rain began. It rained every day after that. Most days the wind blew, too. This was not the soft rain of "good quality" that Muir rhapsodized about. Of course I knew it rained in Southeast Alaska --- my mother had urged us to play outside whenever the sun broke through so we wouldn't develop rickets --- but this was the hard, cold rain that chills the soul as well as the body. This was rain you couldn't escape, only endure. With the rain came further trials, minor but amplifying, like swells surging into whitecaps. My dry suit sprang a leak, so that I spent much of the trip with a soggy rear end. Jennifer slashed her hand with a knife and spent much of the trip with a finger wrapped in damp, bloody gauze. Everything we brought grew wetter and wetter, and everything we wore got smellier and smellier. I peppered our food heavily to disguise the perpetual grind of sand between the teeth. One afternoon Jennifer spontaneously tested the can of bear repellent spray against the wind, and a fiery veil of red pepper laminated our faces for the rest of the day. When I saw bear dung by our campsite, I said nothing.
Tired of sitting in the rain, oppressed by the hovering layer of clouds, we cocooned ourselves in the tent rather than huddle around a cook pot or attempt one more beleaguered fire. Convinced we heard many, many bears pacing along the beach, each turning with interest toward the tent, we warbled sketchy versions of Episcopalian hymns (Jennifer) and the Carpenters' greatest hits (me). One afternoon we paddled the kayak from the beach camp to an island about fifty yards offshore, positive no bears would bother venturing there and we might get some sleep. Moments after stepping ashore, we stood staring at a large, fresh pile of scat. "I may not be a naturalist, but I know bear shit when I see it," Jennifer said. That's when we resigned ourselves to the fact that Glacier Bay belongs to bears.
Nearly every day we lost or found something. I fumbled a package of flour tortillas overboard and watched as water ballooned into the plastic and sank our only bread to the bottom of the sea. A boat seat went missing, and I perched on a lumpy folded tarp for the rest of the trip. I found a perfectly good Nikkon camera behind some bushes where someone had dropped it while peeing. Probably that's what happened, anyway, as it had been quite a few years since bears had killed and eaten kayakers in Glacier Bay. The fact that other people were roaming the backcountry misplacing important items cheered me. My period started. We chipped at beached icebergs to melt drinking water. Our shoulders ached, and our fingertips grew tender from exposure to brine, rain, and wind. The colder and wearier we became, the more we chafed against each other's personalities. Jennifer's perky "Good morning!" made me want to throw myself in the bay. She called me sullen. I thought her natural bossiness lent her the charisma of a supply sergeant.
She suggested that I was too picky about the food. But we were deeply grateful for the companionship of a steady friend, because the most terrible thing of all was to imagine being in this dreadful place alone. You can read hundreds of accounts by those who journey through Alaska --- many inspired by Muir's rapturous prose. People create new versions of such stories all the time, as they become the first, the next, the latest, the oldest, the youngest to scale Denali, walk to the Arctic Ocean, bicycle the Iditarod Trail, hike the Brooks Range, roller skate the Alaska Highway, circumnavigate the Northwest Passage by kayak, dogsled alone to the North Pole. Such adventures sometimes produce what New York Times Magazine writer John Tierney famously called "explornography." He defined it as a new genre that "provides vicarious thrills --- the titillation of exploring without the risk of actually having to venture into terra incognita."At one time, societies sent out adventurers to extend the world, make it larger. Now we rely on a new kind of adventurer to provide us with hand-me-down experiences, a secondhand life, a virtual high. For me, it is the old chronicles that are pleasurable because they concern ordinary people who found themselves in an unusual place at an interesting time. There was so much to want, so much to find: a poke of gold, an accurate map, a bit of useful knowledge, a valley to trap, a congregation of believers, a homestead. Some didn't survive, of course. Some died in unheralded, unknown ways. But it's worth remembering that most Alaskans today usually die in distressingly ordinary fashion: traffic accidents, heart attacks, old age. Death waits all around us. So does boredom.
I am especially fond of Lt. Joseph Castner, an army man ordered to search out routes across the territory. Though far from the north's greatest adventurer, in some ways he is among the most valiant for his stubbornness, his earnestness, his sheer ordinariness. For ten months in 1898 - 1899 he trudged from Prince William Sound five hundred miles northward in an attempt to reach Circle City on the Yukon River. He crossed perilous bogs, and rivers heavy with silt, and brush so thick the sky was more idea than reality. It's not clear why his superiors thought this route was important, because others had already mapped and traveled some version of it. In any case, Castner failed spectacularly, though with a certain stoic dignity. Along the way he and his men ate their mules to keep from starving. They begged supplies from generous Athabascans who themselves struggled daily to live off the country. They tied canvas around their feet to replace their ragged boots. Mosquitoes drained them. Rivers nearly drowned them. The country dragged at them. Every hour's walking was an hour farther from home.
But Castner didn't give up until he and his two companions were so hungry that they forced themselves to eat a wolf (tastes like mutton, he reported) and retraced their steps to scavenge the rotting carcass of their dead mule General Jackson. "As my men often said, it would be impossible to make others understand what we suffered those days," he wrote. Having barely survived this march, the trio gave up on their destination and rafted to the safety of a miner's settlement. When winter arrived, making travel easier, Castner mushed a thousand miles across Alaska and the Yukon so he could report on his failed journey to his superiors. After narrating his ordeal, he concluded by describing Alaska as a "land whose many natural obstacles to travel made this one of the best years of my life."
One of the best years of my life. He meant it. Read the dry narrative of his military report, his faithful assessment of travel and troubles, and you'll see that this statement is the most heartfelt thing he says. What did he know that I didn't? What did Muir see that I couldn't?
All my life I have stood wondering at the edge of impenetrable forests, or flinging rocks across uncrossable rivers, or gazing at the mirage of distant mountains. Why them? Why not you or me? Sometimes during our trip I could glimpse how quickly trouble would come, not in giant steps, but in small, cumulative lurches toward some invisible threshold. One afternoon, trying to round a point where a nasty chop, roiling currents, and ornery gusts shoved the kayak around, we worried whether we should turn back and camp or blast through a narrow rocky passage toward more sheltered waters. It was the uncertainty that frightened me. Our voices tightened, pinching into anxious registers as we warned each other: Turn the bow more to the waves. Not that way! Paddle hard. Paddle harder! As the kayak lumbered through confused seas, I pictured the one treacherous wave that would slop over the side, swamping the boat and pitching us overboard. Then, the struggle to swim ashore through the killing cold, and should we survive that, the futile attempt to find dry matches that had drifted ashore, the trembling efforts to light a fire in the rain with wet wood, the slow surrender to hypothermia on a dark shore, the newspaper headlines about those poor, foolish women.
--- From The Accidental Explorer:
Wayfinding in Alaska