I bet you didn’t know that Southeastern Alaska, which includes Juneau and Sitka, is located in a temperate rain forest. I sure didn’t, nor had I ever heard of temperate rain forests. Most of us are familiar with tropical rain forests, like the one we visited in Costa Rica, but here we were in an area where it rained more than 200 days a year and where the temperature never broke the 50s during our stay. It may rain for only part of each day, but the sun was rarely more than a fleeting presence. Friends loaned us outsize waterproof pants and we had silly-looking transparent ponchos, but we were still wet a lot of the time and our tiny cabin was often decorated with garments trying desperately to dry out.
Most “real” Alaskans don’t credit this area with being an authentic part of the country. Juneau and Sitka are closer to Seattle than to Anchorage or Fairbanks, so there are no -40F temperatures or prodigious snowfalls. Many years ago, we spent a week in Anchorage, where the terrain was very different. Consider that it’s the starting point for the Iditarod. I can’t say if the people are different too because this was the kind of trip where we didn’t actually meet any local people. I should mention that the folks who inhabit McPhee’s book don’t consider Anchorage part of Alaska either – too built up, with an urban/suburban feel, not the kind of place people in the lower 48 imagine escaping to.
On a damp, pre-rainy morning the skiff deposited us at one of the fish hatcheries that are scattered throughout the region to assure a continuing supply of salmon on into the future. This is the kind of stuff you sort of know about from your reading – fish returning to their place of birth to lay their eggs and have them fertilized before they die. It’s the process called spawning. But seeing the reality of this life and death drama actually playing itself out is majestic and depressing all at once.
We were fortunate to be in Alaska during spawning season for one of the five varieties of salmon. Don’t ask me which variety. I wasn’t taking notes because I was too busy witnessing the drama of the vast numbers of salmon returning to the place that was their home until they were large enough to be released before heading to the Pacific Ocean, not to return until it was time for the death dance we were witnessing. The pond below us was teeming with salmon in their final throes. Some had been removed earlier to be slit open to have their eggs harvested and mixed with sperm to add a degree of certainty to the fertilization process. A small boat was docked close to our skiff to receive a load of carcasses to be transported to Sitka where they will be processed as pet food. Funny to think that our cat might be the beneficiary.
At the outlet of the sluice that was feeding water and dying fish into the pond sat a very contented bear, the first one we saw up close on the trip. All he had to do was inspect the passing fish and pluck the most tantalizing specimens to feed on. His entire body was immersed in the water, creating a somewhat comical scene of that familiar bear profile going about his business, completely oblivious to our presence just twenty yards above him. We saw other bears during the week, but only from the considerable distance between the skiff and the shore.
I have to digress for a few lines here. This week the New York Times reported that 94 brown bears had been hunted down from the air as part of a controlled killing to protect a dwindling caribou population, despite the fact that there was no evidence that the bears were responsible for the decline of the herd. Anyone who has seen these regal creatures up close will share our outrage at this slaughter.
There were other skiff adventures that I’ll mention briefly. I have always associated jellyfish with warm tropical waters, but there they were floating serenely in our icy Alaskan bay – one white and nearly transparent, the other a deep red; I only caught a quick glimpse of that one. On that same outing our pilot navigated into a narrow crevice in the rock wall where he suspected sea birds were nesting. Sure enough, our arrival flushed out a pair of cormorants who were in our company for a brief few seconds. We also often encountered tiny sea birds, who were not great flyers judging from the fact that their flights never elevated them more than a few feet above the surface of the water. If you’re a serious bird watcher, I apologize for not being able to identify them, but for us the sheer pleasure of seeing them in their usually human-free environment was enough. It’s the same stance we’ve adopted toward the trees which give us pleasure, despite the fact that we can’t name them.
Finally, one morning the ship anchored opposite a small cluster of islands which were the home of large numbers of sea birds we could observe through the high-powered binoculars the ship provided. One of the smaller islands was packed with seals, lounging lazily as seals do, safe from any predators, and as oblivious to our presence as that feasting bear.
For folks with declining physical capacities, we were able to see a lot, thanks to the options available. Still, we were so aware that the physical limitations were not entirely a product of aging. They were also reflections of a life not lived sufficiently in our bodies. I didn’t learn to swim until I was ten or eleven, and even then, never comfortably. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was in graduate school. I never skied, ice- skated or roller skated. My experience in summer camps, where many city kids acquire some of these physical skills, was limited to a couple of 1-2 week stays. There are definitely a lot of experience boxes that I’ve left unchecked.
Being able to take advantage of those colorful two-seater kayaks would have added another dimension to our experience, as would some of the strenuous land trekking, but we did what we could for a pair of physically and experientially challenged 84-year-olds. I don’t know if there’s still anything left in the tank for future excursions. We’ve fantasized about going to the Galapagos, another destination served by Uncruise, but from our conversation in Alaska with one couple who had made that trip, I think we’ve aged out of that one. Let’s just leave it with a word of gratitude that we were able to do as much as we did on this memorable trip.