Breathing Deeply in Alaska - North America’s Last Frontier
“The mountains are calling and I must go” John Muir
It’s a quote we’ve all heard, shared and resonated with. Its truth remains close to our hearts that when adventure calls, be it from the mountains, the skies or the seas, we must inextricably obey, often for the sake of our own sanity. But why? What does adventure give us that it becomes so impossible to resist? I followed the commandment and the footsteps of the man who wrote it, famed naturalist John Muir into the wilds of Alaska to find out.
Muir is one of my favourite historical figures. A Scottish-American born in 1838 he was not only a writer whose eloquence lends itself to endless quotation, he was and still is, revered amongst our kin as an environmentalist. We have Muir to thank for much of the pristine nature we enjoy today. As one of the earliest advocates of National Parks, he protected and created environmental change in the industrial age when so much of it could have been destroyed. Ever heard of a place called Yosemite? You can thank him for that.
The inspiration for some of Muir’s writings stemmed from here, in the corner of Alaska I now find myself in. Sitting on the extremities of North America it has long been on my bucket list, particularly the South East Panhandle, the home of Glacier Bay. Known for its diverse terrain, soaring mountains, deep forests and abundant promise of raw adventure, it’s here that you can spend days, months, probably years without seeing another person should you chose. A place so vast, that its largeness is impossible to articulate, a world seemingly safe from the creep of civilisation with mighty landscapes that remind you just how inconsequential you are, as you stand small and humble before them.
The Panhandle is made up of more than a thousand islands sitting peacefully amongst seventeen million acres of wild temperate rainforest making up the Tongass National Forest – the largest in the US. There are so many natural features here that many of the lakes, mountains and islands still remain unnamed, instead simply numbered as a means of identification. With a shoreline of nearly 30,000kms, its land mass is so densely forested that it is almost impassable so the best way to explore it is by boat.
I arrive in Juneau and board my home for the next week, the ‘Safari Endeavour’ a small passenger ship run by an expedition company called ‘UnCruise’ named for the exact reason that it doesn’t feel like a typical cruise experience. It’s more a rambling adventure from a luxury, floating base camp that keeps you warm, dry and extremely well fed, whilst taking you on mini expeditions and daily jaunts into the wilderness. One morning you might be ‘bushwhacking’ through untouched forests with no trails, calling out “hey bear!” at the top of your lungs to give ample warning to the abundant population of resident Grizzlies, or spending your afternoon circumnavigating a confetti of small islands by kayak, dipping your paddle into velvety waters and spotting for curious seals cheekily trailing at a safe distance. The next day, you might be rugged up at the face of a calving glacier, navigating a sea of bergie bits (tiny pieces of iceberg) in a zodiac or huddled on the front deck of the boat wondering at the soaring cliffs, sculpted by ice ages of the past. We voyage to new corners of this wilderness daily. With no dedicated itinerary or route, we are entirely at the whim of the weather, taking advantage of a sheltered cove here or a blue sky there. In that sense, each cruise is completely unique.
That fickleness is symptomatic of this place; it has changing faces in constantly changing weather. Often it’s heavily laden with fog and spitting rain, wild and frosty but intermittently, the sun will explode through the clouds blasting light through magical forests and into the inky waters, revealing bears feasting on shellfish, rich shores, pods of humpbacks breaching through deeper passages and an unparalleled wealth of bird life.
At first the weather annoyed me. When it was grey and foggy I wanted ‘to turn the lights on’ in order to see what I was looking at, I needed to know exactly where I was in relation to the landscape I was moving through. How tall were the mountains we were passing? Where would we go tomorrow? However, as the days yawned by, I realised that this was part of the adventure and appeal of Alaska. I would need to surrender myself to the wilderness and let go completely, to merely observe rather than control. These were deep and special places that mostly lay hidden. Places I couldn’t dominate at my whim or navigate at my discretion. I was not the boss here and the more I accepted and respected that, the more beautiful it became.
I want to emphasise again that these landscapes are neither small nor manageable and the only thing that seems able to contain them are the clouds. The swirling fogs keep you secure under their blanket, calm and at peace rather than overwhelmed by the sheer scale of everything. It’s like you are at constant risk of sensory overload so nature reveals only a portion at a time, enough for you to fully savour all that you are seeing before parting the clouds to reveal the next bite. This understanding, that these lands are simply too mighty to fathom and too powerful to be tamed is reassuring in a world so set on human conquest. While I was thirsty to capture that essence with my camera, I came to realise that it is less a picture and more a feeling that comes from being here and try as you might, it cannot be transcribed in pixels alone.
We cruise into Glacier Bay, one of Muir’s favourite places and are greeted by an enormous grinding mass of ice that is shaping the earth before our eyes. Watching building sized blocks split and shed from the aqua blue face into the sea is like going into the back room and sharing a rare glimpse into God’s workshop, wondering at the machinations of how the mountains and valleys are built, shaped and created, inch by inch coming off the press. Muir summed up their life cycle perfectly-
“Glaciers back in their cold solitudes, work apart from men, exerting their tremendous energies in silence and darkness. Coming in vapour from the sea, flying invisible on the wind, descending in snow, changing to ice, white, spirit like, they brood outspread over the predestined landscapes, working on unwearied through unmeasured ages, until in the fullness of time the mountains and alleys are brought forth, channels furrowed for the rivers, basins made for meadows and lakes, and soil beds spread for the forests and fields that man and beast may be fed. Then vanishing like clouds, they melt into streams and go singing back home to the sea.”
I feel privileged to witness Alaska’s raw power and realise that time here has a very different meaning to the way we tend to define it and while the tides continue to suck at the shores, clouds move through the mountains and waterfalls thunder from unseen snowfields all of their own accord, moments here, start to stretch into decades, minutes into centuries and years into millennia. It puts everything in a new perspective and makes me wonder if perhaps we worry too much over silly things in our fleeting existences?
The real beauty here is not necessary in a scenic sense, it is more in its ability to make you feel humble. Alaska doesn’t care if you are here, nor will it care when you are gone but it does give you the opportunity to reflect, something we rarely do back in the “real world” and since I’ve been here, I’ve been wondering whether we set out on adventures to achieve something or is it rather to regain our rightful balance in the world?
“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news”- Muir