The idea of north

“The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

My dad is visiting. Last night, as I began to head upstairs to put myself to sleep, I paused and said, “it doesn’t really feel like we are in Alaska, does it?”. “It doesn’t,” he replied. “I’m not sure where we are, but it is somewhere”. Cue Gustavus, an anachronism in the scheme of my own life, out of place in space and time, and a source of great interest among visitors to Glacier Bay aboard tour vessels and enormous cruise ships. For many people, Alaska is more of an idea than a reality. Even the catch phrase for this state evokes a sense of the numinous, of a fantastical and unknown realm – the last frontier. I spoke with a visitor on a cruise ship this past week who told me she had dreamed of visiting Alaska ever since she was a child, listening to stories of her grandmother’s travels across this vast land. Is Glacier Bay as experienced from 11 stories above the surface of the water what she had envisioned? Margerie glacier may sit 250 feet above sea level, but I have heard many a visitor profess it to be smaller and less impressive than they anticipated. One gentleman told his wife not to bother looking at the Grand Pacific Glacier. “Nothing to see there,” he told her. “Just a bunch of rocks.”

People seem taken with the idea of the superlative. Just this past week, a visitor came up to the traveling information desk we set up and asked which glaciers are the most impressive to visit in Alaska. She wasn’t content with those she had seen thus far on her vacation and wanted to ensure that the next time there would be no such oversight in her travel planning. I am not often rendered speechless, but this was certainly a moment that left me searching for words with which to respond.

On one occasion, as the ship of the day approached Margerie glacier, a woman asked me if she could come back inside after she saw the glacier calve, as if she needed my permission. I responded by recommending that she stay outside as long as possible to maximize her opportunity to experience what the Tlingit describe as “White Thunder”, should this event take place more than once during our one hour stint in Tarr Inlet. She expressed that should she remain outside for too long, she might lose her seat by the window inside. My initial response to this statement focused on the absurdity of this visitor choosing to remain indoors when she could experience this place more intimately, and on such a beautiful day, by standing beside the railing and observing the glacier firsthand. Upon further contemplation, I realized there was so much more to this person’s question, as well as her concern. Truly, what do visitors think as they sit beside the window or on their stateroom balcony and watch Glacier Bay pass by. Is there any reality to the passing scenery real? Or is it like watching a film clip while sipping a Bloody Mary?

I am able to travel upbay and witness wildness of Glacier Bay nearly every week during the summer season, so it important to attempt to empathize from the perspective of a person who may well experience the world from a different perspective and with a different worldview from my own. For someone who has waited his/her entire life to visit this place, a window seat is of the utmost importance. This is his/her one chance to experience this place. It is perhaps commensurate to a birder traveling to another continent in the hopes of glimpsing a rare bird – the Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica for my husband and me during our honeymoon birding adventure represented a similar experience.

I try to stay humble in my interactions with visitors, and I regularly remind myself that for much of my own life there were elements of the natural world that evaded me. I did not take notice of the sights and sounds of most birds until after college. Any moment on board these ships could be one of transformation for a visitor, inspiring him/her to look at the world from a fresh perspective. At least, that is the dream of the interpreter.

I have had many memorable experiences on board these ships, both uplifting and disheartening. One such experience involved four visitors who approached me with a question toward the end of the day on board the Norwegian Pearl. “What is the difference between a mountain and a glacier?” a woman in the group asked me. I must admit I paused for a moment, searching for a means of answering that would not come across as patronizing. She looked so genuinely curious, and so I began with a simple explanation of the general difference in the substance of each element and continued to describe how mountains and glaciers are formed and how they interact and work upon each other in the context of Glacier Bay.

The most revealing message from this and many other innocent, if at times seemingly absurd, uninformed questions from visitors is simply how very far removed we have become from our connection and understanding of the natural world that surrounds us. With so many people so wholly uninformed and unaware of the simple and complex elements and processes on this planet, how can we possibly hope to curb our destructive behavior on even a small scale? Even the language we use serves to further distance our species from this increasingly foreign world.

My own experience in this wild place feels relatively safe and contained. My travels upbay have typically taken place aboard a motorized vessel, and even the smaller vessels keep one distant from the surrounding wilderness. Thus far, I have been limited in my contact with Glacier Bay, and I have yet to fully experience an immediate proximity with this region of Southeast Alaska. Yet with each period of time I spend outdoors, if only stepping onto my back porch to listen for wolves howling in the distance or the cacophony of Sandhill Cranes filling the air with the sound of winged migration, I feel my connection to this place grow stronger and my cursory knowledge grow ever so slightly deeper.

Though my heart feels uncertain of my impending departure from Gustavus and Glacier Bay, I am comforted in knowing that my home is now here. The Black-billed Magpie and Steller’s Jay will greet me upon my return. The moose and wolves will sift through snowdrifts, and my family will nest in our new home and begin to meander along our own path in this northern realm.

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