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August 18, 2017 / annakpf11

Alaska

DSC_0270“…perfectly beautiful are these blessed evergreen islands, so numerous that they seem to have been sown broadcast…” —John Muir, Travels to Alaska

Our seaplane pilot, a slender, clean-shaven and short-haired young chap of few words, looks us over with a careful and—I hope—experienced eye. He assigns each of his five passengers a specific seat for optimal weight distribution fore and aft and side to side. The other female passenger and I are sent to the rear of the plane, in sling-back seats formed by the heavy canvas curtaining off the luggage. I clamber in and fasten my seat belt. Dave is assigned the place in front of me, a burly native man settles next to him, and the fifth passenger, another local man, slides into the co-pilot’s chair. The plane is so small that if I wanted to, I could reach past Dave and tap the pilot on the shoulder.

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The engine ignites, earplugs are handed around to dull the buzz and drone, and before I know it, we are gliding down the liquid runway and rising into the sky. I don’t learn until later that our plane dates from 1957. Just as well.

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Blue and green vistas open beneath us.

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A slight yaw, as the plane gains altitude and passes over a mountainous island. I take a deep breath and focus on the beauty of the scenery, rather than how high up we are, or how likely we are to crash. I think of our stunt pilot friend in Sydenham, and his tales of flying small planes as a young man in South Africa, navigating by rivers and landscape.

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A half hour later, the plane banks around a corner of Chichagof Island and cruises up the inlet to our destination of Tenakee Springs, population approximately 100. (Though in winter, this number shrinks to around 60 hardy souls.) Our journey, by car and three plane flights, has taken ten hours.

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Gordon and Anne wait for us on the dock, silhouetted by evening sunlight. Dave and I have known them independently and together for almost 50 years, connected by an interlocking net of shared experiences and relationships that make them feel like family.

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Arriving here feels like a small miracle, a happy convergence of people, time and place. New strands will be added to the web that connects us, including Anne’s sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Jim, who arrived here yesterday. We will meet them shortly. But first, we are escorted to our rental cabin.

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We drop our luggage and walk to Gordon and Anne’s place, just a few minutes down the road. Mary and Anne have prepared a dinner of salmon, rockfish and crab (fresh caught by Gordon and Jim), accompanied by salad, squash, and ears of sweet corn Dave and I have brought from California.

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Over dinner, we renew old friendships and make new acquaintances. We transition to “Tenakee Time”. Days are long in summer here, short in winter, at a latitude roughly the same as northern Scotland. We walk back to our rental cabin holding hands, in honeysuckle-scented twilight. Tenakee is known for its natural hot springs, and as we pass the bathhouse, echoed conversation drifts out the lantern shaped skylight. Since there is no shower or tub in our cabin, I predict we’ll try these hot springs sooner rather than later.

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In the morning, Dave leaves early for a rendezvous with Gordon and Jim. They will take Gordon’s boat across the inlet and check a fishing line set yesterday. I take my camera for a walk along the beaten earth track that is the town’s only thoroughfare.

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A weathered, haphazard collection of dwellings grouped along a lane, Tenakee Springs is inaccessible by road, and most residents prefer it that way.

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People go about their daily business on foot, by bicycle, ATV, or boat.

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The track I walk continues beyond town in both directions for several miles but eventually yields to the forest.

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Access to the outside world is via seaplane or boat, weather permitting. A passenger ferry calls in twice a week, and the voyage to Juneau can take 4 hours or 14, depending on ports of call and weather. Most supplies arrive by boat or barge. Some would call it isolated; others call it peaceful.

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From one side of the road, views of water and mountains across the inlet, from the other, glimpses into the Tongass National Forest.

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A dense array of undergrowth borders both sides of the street, bright green berry bushes punctuated by fuchsia spears of fireweed.

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I snack on thimbleberries, tart and sweet, so soft they must be eaten directly from their stalk, and firm, round salmon berries, so named, I imagine, for their resemblance to red salmon roe.

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I walk for an hour, passing houses ranging from seemingly uninhabitable shacks to stylish vacation homes, and everything in between.

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Now I am hungry. The Mercantile doesn’t open until noon, so I head for the bakery, where I enjoy spinach and mushroom quiche and hash brown potatoes to rival any in the lower 48.

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All interested parties please take note: the bakery building and business are for sale, including all kitchen equipment, the well-appointed two-bedroom upstairs apartment, and fabulous views across the inlet. Only $380,000 (owner financing available) will buy you this piece of paradise and a thriving business opportunity. More details available at chrisdarius.home@gmail.com, or 907.736.2262. If I were 35 years younger, I would be tempted.

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In the afternoon, we hike through the forest to a salmon stream frequented by bears. Gordon leads the way, a canister of bear spray affixed to his belt.

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Ancient mulch underfoot softens the impact of each step. Ferns border our path. Cedar, hemlock and pine trees tower overhead.

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We stick together, looking right and left, front and behind, eyes peeled for bears. When we near the stream, tall trees give way to berry bushes, and dark splodges of bear scat litter the trail. “That looks fresh,” remarks Gordon. Anne and I start up a dialogue of nervous chat, adhering to the cardinal rule: “Never startle a bear.” Five minutes later we step unscathed onto a bridge spanning a small expanse of shallow water. “Usually you can see salmon all over the place here,” says Gordon. “But not today. We might not get to see any bears.”

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But Mary is watching the opposite shore with an intent look in her eye. “Bear!” She points to a bulky dark shape, rubbing its back against a tree. The bear gives itself a thorough scratch, then drops to all fours and looks straight at us, light brown snout, dark eyes, and round pricked ears clearly visible. Then it lumbers into the stream, where it glances about as if looking for salmon. A young sow, we decide, as she pauses and tilts her head up to sniff the air. We admire her classic Ursidae silhouette.

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She crosses the creek and heads in our direction. Has she caught our scent? We are downwind, but a bear’s sense of smell is believed to be the best of any animal on earth; nine times better than a bloodhound’s, and 2,100 times better than a human’s. She has probably spotted us as well; it is a myth that bears have poor eyesight; evidence shows they see as well as humans in daylight, and their night vision far surpasses ours. Presumably she can hear us too; we are speaking at normal volume (on purpose), and a bear’s sense of hearing is at least twice as acute as ours.

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The bear continues to approach along the water’s edge until without warning, she veers into the bushes. This is worrying, for now we are not sure where she is, and if she decides to linger and forage for berries, she will effectively cut off the path by which we came. I notice a chill lump in the pit of my stomach, and remind myself to breathe. A few tense moments pass. Then, movement in the bushes, and the bear reappears beside the creek, closer now, and still moving toward us. From this distance, I can easily make out her thick, curved claws as she steps almost daintily between stones. Gordon unclips his bear spray, and we all draw together in the middle of the bridge. The bear splashes through the water underneath us, and then, when she is quite close, turns and gives us a long, beady-eyed stare.

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Then she turns away and ambles across the rocky stream. Her brown pelt ripples and shines as she picks her way over wet stones, moving upstream, away from us, and in the opposite direction of our route home. For this, and for the heart-stopping privilege of witnessing her wild being-ness, we are glad.

In the evening, we dine on fresh fish tacos made with halibut found this morning on Gordon and Jim’s long line. (They caught two, one weighing 50 pounds.)

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After dinner and dishes are done, Gordon and Dave retreat upstairs to band practice, while the rest of us share thoughts and stories on the deck.

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Just before bedtime, I grab soap and a towel and walk to the bathhouse for my first soak. Dave visited earlier this afternoon, and has instructed me in the simple protocol: leave your clothes and towel hanging on hooks in the spacious, wood-panelled changing area before walking through the door posted Nude Bathing Only. Inside the tub room, a cavernous, concrete structure built over a fissure in the earth, descend a few cement stairs to a six by nine foot concrete-ringed pool set into the floor. Inhale the mild scent of sulphur and shampoo, soap up, and rinse by scooping water from the pool into a plastic jug and pouring it over yourself. Sit on the wide concrete rim of the bath and slide into the water, heated to 106F. I sit on one side of the pool and stretch my legs across to the opposite side, immersed up to my chin. Small bubbles rise from the depths, evidence of the constant flow—7 gallons per minute—of piping hot mineral water rising from steep rock cleft. The tub room’s high ceiling and concrete construction create an echo chamber of sorts, and sound reverberates to such an extent that it is difficult to carry on a comprehensible conversation. Just as well, for after a few moments in the hot water, body and mind melt into profound relaxation.

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Friday night, the whole of Tenakee Springs, plus out-of-town guests, gather to celebrate Ben’s birthday. A local resident, he has been dead several years. But that’s no reason to stop throwing the party.

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A potluck supper precedes live music, and in the afternoon I prepare my contribution: a three-bean salad accompanied by fresh lettuce and garnished with nasturtiums. Olive oil, fresh lemons, and canned beans purchased from the Mercantile; fresh lettuce, basil and nasturtiums all harvested from our front porch garden.

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Rain sets in as soon as the supper begins, and guests cluster under makeshift awnings. Dave and I fill our plates and find a place to sit with Anne, Mary, Gordon and Jim. Moisture pours off the tarp suspended above our picnic table, punctuating our dinner conversation with periodic waterfalls. We don’t mind; after all, this part of Alaska is a coastal rainforest.

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Soon the music starts up, and people begin to dance. It’s important to note that Dave and Gordon played rock n’ roll music together in a band when they were in high school. To be reunited 45 years later, in this amazing and remote place, well, words fail me, but I think they both feel the significance of the moment. I certainly do.

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“The power is in the juice,” chants the crowd. A bearded man hands me a jumbo-sized plastic jar full of vodka, lemons, sugar and water. Anne has forewarned me about this. I give the container a vigorous shake and then take a tentative sip. Very sweet indeed.

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Darkness settles in around 10 pm, but the band plays on until midnight. (I learn this later, for I depart a few songs shy of the last number.)

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Cloudy skies allow neither moon nor starlight, and I have no flashlight, so I walk by braille, feeling the pebbles and uneven ground with the soles of my feet. Occasionally, I depress my camera shutter halfway to activate the pre-flash, thus illuminating a few feet of path ahead. A bit like driving on a dark road at night; you can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. I keep up a constant patter, telling myself the bears are surely asleep. (And if they’re not, they’ll hear me coming.) Moving in 3D darkness feels good, like a return to the senses, until I am suddenly startled by a near head-on collision with an anonymous cyclist. After that I activate the pre-flash more often. Eventually I reach the main part of town, lit by sparse streetlights, and from there it’s an easy stroll home.

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Before coming here, both Dave and I felt somewhat daunted at the prospect of adventure in this out-of-the-way place. But it hasn’t taken long for us to become captivated by this rustic paradise with its natural hot springs and mild climate (for Alaska); its relaxed, quiet, crime-free and diverse community; its evergreen forests, abundance of fishing and hunting, spectacular vistas across water to distant mountains, and its relatively low cost of living. (There is no property tax, no state income tax, no sales tax besides a 2% tax local to Tenakee, and arguably little to spend money on.)

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Time takes on an elastic quality. We make a daily pilgrimage to the bathhouse—separately—according to the different posted hours for men and women. We walk or bike everywhere, and nowhere we need to go is particularly far away. It feels good and smells good to be outdoors, even when it’s raining. I love this. It reminds me of village life in Sydenham.

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We flirt with the idea of living here, though I’m not sure we are quite rough and ready enough for this frontier town.

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Year-round would be a challenge, but perhaps a seasonal escape from San Francisco’s summer wind and fog? But Alaskan summers can be grey too, and August is the second rainiest month of the year. We shelve the idea. For now.

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On our last day, Gordon takes us to his workplace, accessible only by water. Spray flashes off the bow of his fishing boat as we cross the wide elbow of the inlet. “This is my commute,” he shouts over the noise of wind and motor. Several years ago, Gordon and his son, Sterling, negotiated permission with the US Forest Service to establish a sustainable timber company, selectively harvesting old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest. Gordon and Sterling choose their trees carefully, and mill the wood themselves, in a structure they built on a small parcel of forest rented from the government. They sell the fine-grain, high-quality yellow cedar to boat builders and artisans. To do this work, Gordon has invested in a fleet of vehicles: log pullers, earth movers, hauling trucks, and the like. He and Sterling keep the old logging roads they use in good repair, and sustain five employees, including themselves. It is a small operation, but it is the largest business in Tenakee Springs. And it is important work. Tongass National Forest is the world’s largest remaining old-growth coastal temperate rainforest, and clearcut logging puts it at risk. Razed forest grows back slowly into dense thickets of young trees that are nearly impenetrable to wildlife, and abandoned logging roads fill salmon streams with erosion and block the way for fish. There is a better way to sustain both the land and the economy here, and that is Gordon and Sterling’s aim.

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We round a small point, enter a cove and glide up to a floating dock. Tree-clad peaks rise steeply from the deep, glaciated valley, slopes scarred by clearcut logging. In the distance, a bear moves on the beach. We tie off the boat and walk up the ramp to where about twenty pickup trucks seem to be rusting in place.

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“This is the LTF,” says Gordon with a wry smile. “That’s a government acronym for Logging Transfer Facility. I’m the only one who has a permit to park here,” he says, “the rest are renegades.”

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Gordon has brought his rifle, and Dave takes practice aim. The gun is our insurance policy. If our truck breaks down and we have to walk out of the forest, we might meet a bear or two.

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For the next two hours, we tour the Tenakee Logging Company’s domain. The intention, the perseverance, and the sheer hard work involved in this operation impress me greatly. So does the landscape they are trying to protect. Some of these trees have been here since the Middle Ages. When Samuel Pepys wrote his diary, and plague and fire raged in London, the old trees had already been growing for 500 years.

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On the morning of our departure, I wake to the thrum and drip of rain and the whirr of a hummingbird outside the window. If the weather permits, we will soon board our seaplane and begin our journey back to the little town in the vast metropolis where we live now. I wouldn’t mind if we were delayed.

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The rain softens to a drizzle, and a patch of blue sky appears overhead. We fly to Juneau as scheduled, and I come away with deep admiration for Gordon and Anne and their family, for what they’ve done, and how they are living here.

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In Juneau, before we board our flight to Seattle, we have time to see the Mendenhall glacier. In 1934, you could walk up and touch the glacier from where we now gaze at it across a body of water. So much of the stuff I worry about seems unimportant when faced with the immensity of glaciers, and the pace of climate change.

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As we say good-bye in the airport, I try to express to Gordon how I feel about our visit, but I can’t find the words. This wild place, and our experience here, inspires awe as it defies description.

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