Sunday morning – I woke up early to a very pink pre-dawn sky – got out of my cosy bed and scampered out into the chill to try and take some photos, as anything to do with sun is quite rare here. Good weather was forecast and we heard from Island Institute Board Member Brooke Schafer that the boat trip she’d been hoping to take us on was a goer. Brooke and husband Paul have shares in a great little runabout boat, and by 11.30am we were kitted up in our warmest clothes, stuffed into lifejackets, and motoring out of Crescent Harbor into the waters of Sitka Sound, with Brooke’s Mum Elizabeth joining us too.
Sitka is on Alaska’s Inside Passage, a route for oceangoing vessels that weaves through the many islands of north America’s Pacific coast, from southeastern Alaska down to northwestern Washington state. Sitka is the only town that actually fronts the Pacific Ocean, so once you head out of the harbour you can see open ocean, dotted with the little rocky islands that scatter the Sound. At your back: snow capped mountains and hills forested with tall hemlock and spruce.
We sped across the water towards Kruzof Island, the large, uninhabited home of Mount Edgecumbe. This snow-capped volcano is one of the dominant features on the skyline – you look across to it almost anytime you face the water and I love picking it out from different viewpoints. We began to see whale spouts – we’ve been told several times that not all of Alaska’s humpbacks go to Hawaii for the northern winter – many stay around here, and there they were. They do feel like old friends with their familiar arching shape.
Paul took the boat close in to shore and we jumped barefoot into the shin-deep water. Feeling that chill on my ankles gave me a flashback to my polar plunge down in Antarctica. How was I ever brave enough to do that? But as I squawked and splashed for shore, I remembered we were with Alaskans – Brooke and Paul had been snorkeling the day before – and tried to be a little more stoic.
Applied socks and boots to chilled white feet, ate two slices of cake to warm them (the Alaskans kept exclaiming about what a warm day it was and taking off too many clothes), and inspected the beautiful camping cabin on the edge of the beach. Of course there was a good bear story to go with it – apparently a bear once decided to rip the cabin to pieces, while people were inside.
With that story ringing in our ears we set out on the forest trail skirting the shore and emerged on a long black sand beach, fringed with forest. Carol and I have both been fascinated by stories of tsunami debris washing up from Japan in recent years. I read a novel before leaving home (A tale for the time being – Ruth Ozeki) about a north American author living on this coastline who finds a diary in a washed up lunch box, written by a Japanese teenager, and that really got me interested – and Carol did quite a bit of research before we left home. It was a weird feeling when one of the first pieces of plastic I found was a dispenser bottle for cream of some sort – battered, but with the Japanese characters still visible.
We would both like to work with local kids on art and stories around this debris – I’m not sure it will happen on this trip, but sounds like a good reason to come back, doesn’t it? The Sitka Sound Science Centre is taking local kids out for rubbish collection and science related to the debris – we hope to talk to them this week about incorporating art and creativity into that work.
Of course the beach was also full of exquisite driftwood, huge logs, stones, shells, seaweed – I could have beachcombed for days. Stuffed my pockets with treasures (which will all have to go back to the sea when we leave here) and found a pitted metal ball that looked like a buoy of some sort. Or an unexploded land mine. Don’t tell me I have an overactive imagination. Two hours was a teasing taste and Cas and I had to almost be yanked bodily away from it to go back to the boat – watched over by a noisy bald-headed eagle. Maybe he didn’t want us to leave either.
On the way back – a whale was close enough that Brooke cut the engine and let the boat drift so we could hear its explosive breath as it surfaced, and watch its smooth back
rolling under the water again. A sea otter let us come just a few feet away before it waved its flippers and dived. I tried to pick the island where I stayed in a shack for two nights on my last visit seven years ago – couldn’t quite spot it (though that experience is carved on my memory forever).
As we pootled into Crescent Harbour a sea lion dived a few times in front of us – just another Alaskan moment, of the sort this place is so good at putting on. Yes it has been a whale of a weekend.
Today is Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. Elizabeth was a Tlingit civil rights activist whose advocacy, and speech to the territorial Senate in 1945, were instrumental in the passage of the 1945 Anti Discrimination Act – the first law of its kind in the entire United States. Many of Sitka’s school kids will be marching in her honour today and we’re looking forward to joining the celebrations.