I have been traveling up and down the bay for nearly three months, boarding by various means vessels of varied size, shape, and clientele. On board these ships, when donned in grey and green, I take on a personage not entirely my own; however, the lens through which I experience people and place, along with my personalized means of engaging those with whom I cross paths, remains completely and fully Marieke, or ranger m, as I most often introduce myself. There are far too many vowels in my name, and I have spent enough time with visitors squinting and scrunching their face into contorted shapes and textures in an effort to read my name tag!
I board these vessels as an interpreter, attempting to tell the story of Glacier Bay in ways that offer visitors the opportunity to make a personal connection to this place such that they become stewards of this and other national parks and the natural places in their own communities. Of course, my interactions with visitors range from 5-10 minute dialogues with cruise ship passengers to storytelling with youth in cruise ship children’s centers to a full day replete with series of conversations with visitors who travel upbay in some of the smaller tour vessels and have the opportunity to spend upwards of 17 hours with park interpreters.
I have known on some level for many years that the profession and lifestyle I embody is not one typical of most individuals, and this dichotomy has been magnified considerably in my brief experience here at Glacier Bay. Visitors are fascinated by my existence here and ask questions that run the gamut about my home in the tiny enclave of Bartlett Cove, the community of Gustavus, whether I have electricity and running water, and so on and so forth. My detailed explanations elicit an equally varied range of facial expressions and verbal responses. The thought for many of having to order groceries and have them shipped from Juneau often provokes such alarm that you would would think I had responded that park interpreters spend the season camped out in tents in the shadow of Margerie Glacier.
My entire career working at North Cascades and now here at Glacier Bay, I have often heard visitors confide a deep desire to pursue a career as an interpreter and express to me how very lucky I am to work in such beautiful places. I think many don’t realize the kind of frugal lifestyle necessary to follow this oft-times romanticized career path. Of course, I wouldn’t trade it, and I am reminded of my luck in living in places on the edge of wilderness through my interactions with visitors who spend a lifetime moving from one contained space to the next, dreaming of visiting the last frontier and seeing an orca or wolf.
Glacier Bay represents the wildness that once existed throughout North America, and the community of Gustavus, where everyone still waves when they pass each other on the street – be it on foot, bicycle, or within an automobile – and people depend on each other out of kindness and necessity, is a rare commodity in our modern world of developed, structured, and organized spaces that attempt to contain the wildness that keeps our primal, fiery spirit alive and burning.
I can vividly recall a moment that has stayed with me from my first day on board a tour vessel. It was a brief interaction between two visitors – a grandmother and grandson – but it has haunted me ever since and served to remind me during low moments just how lucky I am to have taken the road less traveled and ensconced myself in wildness. The vessel was traveling slowly along Russell Cut so visitors could search for an elusive symbol of wildness, the grey wolf. A dark wisp of a wolf had been spotted moving quickly along the intertidal area just below the tree line. It seemed to float above the rocky shore and soon disappeared into a thicket of shrubs and willows. An older woman called out several times and finally in near desperation to her grandson for him to come and observe this creature that most visitors only dream of witnessing in the wilds of Glacier Bay, and I will never forget her words to him, “this may be the only wolf you get to see in your whole life”.