Go With the Floe Gliding through time in Glacier Bay by Kim Heacox
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AS IT TURNED OUT, THERE WAS A CABIN in Reid Inlet. It belonged to Joe and Muz Ibach, who had used it as a summer home for nearly 20 years as they prospected for gold. Richard and I were determined to find it.
A timpani of rain played on our kayak. In the presence of seals, we signed with our hands so as not to alarm them. We heard the puff and blow of a harbor porpoise, the muted music of birds. We sensed something descended through the ages. With so many landscapes having been shaped by man the past 10,000 years, it was nice to find one that could still shape us.
Onshore that night, near the Ibach cabin, we found a plover that walked away when we approached. But once we sat still, it came within a couple of feet and issued a thin peeping call. We might have picked it up and cupped it in our hands.
In the wilderness you learned what was authentic and what was not. To boot up meant to put on your boots, not turn on your computer. A mouse was still a mouse. Software was warm socks. Hardware was your kayak. You slept on the ground until you were uncomfortable in a bed. You breathed fresh air until you suffocated indoors. You laughed from your toes and flew in your dreams. You found that you could sing the high notes, that true wealth was not a matter of adding to your possessions but of subtracting from the sum of your desires. You understood what was enough and what was too much and why the prophets went into the desert alone. You accepted impermanence, or at least you thought about it. You regarded the powerful and the large but also the small and unheralded. You thought about relationships more than names, stories more than statistics. You learned an economy of motion in each synchronous stroke, watching the paddles rise and fall, the blades up and down, the droplets dripping away with unspeakable grace. You found that every tool had a simple yet profound value: map, knife, tide table, tent, tarp.
Ah yes, tent and tarp. Day four, and we had had rain from everywhere and nowhere; a maelstrom and a mist; a reign of rain and a find-every-leak-in-the-tent rain; rain to texture a leaf and make a flower nod, to make a glacier grow.
"It is now about half-past nine and raining pretty hard," wrote Harry Fielding Reid when he returned to Glacier Bay in 1892. "We have concluded that there are many infallible signs of rain in this region. If the sun shines, if the stars appear, if there are clouds or if there are none; these are all sure indications. If the barometer falls, it will rain; if the barometer rises, it will rain; if the barometer remains steady, it will continue to rain."
With the barometer steady, Richard and I paddled out of Reid Inlet into the West Arm of Glacier Bay. Shawls of fog rendered the mountains into an impressionist's view. Every point was a vanishing point. I thought, "It should always be like this." No painting would be right in Glacier Bay were it not a watercolor and no photograph true were it not a black and white. Looking south toward Icy Strait, then north beyond Russell Island, we breathed the distance and attempted to grasp the full history of glacial advance and retreat.
When Reid did his work here, a great tidewater glacier commanded this view, six miles across, broken in the middle by Russell Island as it emerged from the retreating ice. Reid lost his boat to the tides three times that summer of 1892. Each time he had to swim for it. Once he nearly drowned. John Muir stayed in California that year and founded the Sierra Club. Walt Whitman died and Rudolf Diesel, a German inventor, patented the internal-combustion engine. A century later America would have 10,000 exhaust pipes for every poet, and people would wonder why the climate was changing.
The next morning we rounded an islet off Russell Island and flushed 30 scoters that circled back to see what had frightened them, their wings beating a complaint. "Maybe our only kayak is one too many," I said.
I mentioned something about regretting my own birth. Too many people in the world. Extinctions everywhere. More dogs in Juneau than wolves in Alaska. Our chocolate running low. No more whiskey. The Beatles breaking up.
Richard said, "Let's go find a cliff and jump off it."
THE NIGHT WAS MOONLESS when the rain stopped and the stars had their way, and we slept onshore with the sea-tossed shells and the tangled kelp, and nothing seemed urgent because nothing was. Whales swam into our dreams. I heard a spouting in the distance, a deep breathing through the fog.
"Was that a whale?" I asked Richard the next morning. "Or was it a dream?"
He whispered an echo from Ishmael, "And I alone am escaped to tell thee."
The only kayak in Glacier Bay, we too were alone, and escaped, left to wonder how long it could last, this wildness and grace. Not forever. But at that moment it was the most beautiful place on Earth. The ice, the sea, the rain. In that transitory, enchanted moment, it was perfect.
Kim Heacox is the author of several nonfiction books and the novel Caribou Crossing. He lives in Gustavus, Alaska.