The game led south

October. Moving month for fairies around the world. Today, I have taken to the skies in solidarity on my own journey south. I am still having difficulty comprehending how the past five months passed with such speed. Summers spent working at a national park tend to fly by with little time to reflect or evaluate your state of being, and this summer has proved little exception.

It was with a heavy heart that I left Gustavus yesterday afternoon. I sat for as long as possible on my back porch, watching the Dark-eyed Juncos and a Fox Sparrow feeding on the seeds the greedy Steller’s Jays had carelessly tossed onto the ground. A Sharp-shinned Hawk cruised overhead (a new yard bird), and a Black-billed Magpie hopped from branch to branch ever upward in one of the large cottonwoods beside the house.

A friend drove me to the airport (more of a large room than an actual commercial port of entry) and bid me farewell with the words “when you get back in November, there will be half as much daylight as there is now”. I was so despondent over leaving Alaska that even those words sounded inviting and far less ominous than intended. A rainy but not too bumpy 20 minutes, and I was speeding down the runway toward the Juneau airport.

A familiar face greeted me in Juneau. My kindred Ketchikan friend’s mother, who is a calming presence and source of inspiration, was waiting for me as I walked through the sliding doors. It was wonderful to sit and talk with her and her husband about Southeast Alaska and the greater state politics, look at pictures of her daughter’s new baby just born into life in Alaska further north, and talk about family struggles and histories over halibut tacos and red wine. The most remarkable moment of the evening was the opportunity to hold a copy of the Alaska Sportsman from 1945, which featured a cover photo and article of my friend’s grandfather, who joined friends to go trout fishing at Reflection Lake and experienced quite an adventure, replete with multiple prize-winning catch and bear encounters to boot.

Though just a hop over a saltwater puddle from Gustavus, Juneau has a very different feel. I have spent little time there, but it felt strange even to look out the window and see the twinkling of lights reflecting into the dark waters of the Gastineau Channel. Some of the recent advice I have received from residents of Gustavus has been to make sure that I never leave the house without a headlamp. I recently invited a number of women over for dinner at my new house, and it was charming to see the row of xtratuffs and headlamps placed side by side.

As the night descends earlier and earlier in the late summer, interpreters heading to
Park headquarters for an early morning ship have walked into moose and trees. Furthermore, what may seem like a simple outing to the post office or the library, in and out in five minutes or less, is inevitably extended when you cross paths with a friend or neighbor. By the time you have finished your conversation, it may already be dark outside.

Dark as an adjective is insufficient to describe the night in Gustavus. There are no road lights and no light pollution to speak of, so when the sun goes down the community is covered by a blanket of darkness so thick your eyes cannot adjust to even feel your way from your house to your car. The past month of September offered a respite from the darkness, with skies so clear the moon lit the entire night sky and provided ample light by which to take a late night stroll.

I am beginning to understand why seasonals journey back to Glacier Bay year after year. I asked a woman I recently met to tell me about the path that led her to Gustavus. She told me that she was working in the lower 48 after having spent a season working at Glacier Bay, and as the spring drew near she could feel the humpback whales and the birds migrating, and she felt drawn to this place where everyone and everything in the world she loved were heading.

As I sit on the plane typing away, Gustavus seems less and less real to me, yet I know that it exists and I feel a strong pull from the people and the birds and my new home. I know they will be awaiting my return.

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