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Alaska's Secret Garden

When I started fantasizing about moving to a ski-resort and bartending, I knew that it was time to give myself a break from my peripatetic work pace. "Go to Gustavus by Glacier Bay," a friend recommended when I mentioned that I'd been thinking about Alaska. "It's my favorite place in the whole world."

With that kind of recommendation, who was I to say no? Two weeks later, I was on my way north to a tiny town of 400 located at the mouth of the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Even from the air, Alaska looks like it's been shaped by a larger pair of hands than the rest of the country. Silver rivers cut through densely forested mountains only recently released from the tons of ice which left glaciers to stand like sentries over the vast wilderness.

It's a land to discourage even the most intrepid road builders. Which is why, when we land in Juneau, I head toward my connecting flight instead of to the rental car counter. Unless you want to charter a plane or a boat, booking a seat on Alaska Airlines sometime from early June to late August (the only times they fly there) is your best since.  While the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system does provide regular service from Juneau to Gustavus, except for Bartlett Cove, which has limited parking, Glacier Bay is not accessible by car and Gustavus is not exactly set up for camping—or cars for that matter.

Half-an-hour later, the plane lands smoothly on a short airstrip. I note the dirt roads and ask if the town is in the process of re-paving.

"Oh no," says the driver who picks me up at the airport. "The main road is the only paved one in town." I begin to feel as though I've side-stepped time.

Although this gateway to Glacier Bay sits on a sandy peninsula, it's ringed by dense forest made lush from 75-inches of rain a year. I take advantage of the daily naturalist-led walk. Moss, like old lace, drapes the spruce and hemlock, and carpets of green soften boulders deposited by glaciers which only retreated 200 years ago.

I grab a bike from the rack outside the front door of where I’m staying, throw my camera in the basket and pedal in the opposite direction to the pier. I arrive as the last of the day's catch is being hauled up the ramp. Rows of salmon lie side-by-side, while 50- to80-pound halibut gleam white in the sun. On the way home, I examine the crab traps, then stop further on to watch the light play on a field of fireweed and listen to the breeze.

It seems like I've just finished dinner when it's time for my 5:30 a.m. breakfast, the early hour due to the Glacier Bay excursion that's scheduled. I manage to wake up enough to enjoy sourdough pancakes with pine needle syrup and to chat with burly chef, Isaac Williams, whose prowess with both skillet and knitting needles has preceded him. Since he looks like the type who would throw logs or wrestle bears, I can’t help myself.

“Knitting?” I ask.

"A good man is never far from his knitting," he says, grabbing his basket of yarn to show me the latest work in progress. “It's a way to pass the long, dark Alaskan winter.”

Despite the dawn chill, I man the decks as the 300-passenger Spirit of Adventure pulls out of the cove. I scan the oceans for the fluke of a whale, feeling like Ishmael and thankful that, unlike he, I have binoculars. The whales prove elusive, but sightings of stellar sea lions, harbor seals, pelagic birds and mountain goats compensate. "There's an eagle," announces park ranger Larry Prussin pointing towards the shore. "To spot bald eagles, just look for a golf ball in a tree."

By 10 a.m., small icebergs begin to litter the water. The first glacier we pass is half a mile wide and goes back for another 12 miles. Lamplugh Glacier soars 150' in the air. Even more impressive is its color--blue--the intrinsic color of ice. Even though it's August, I find myself wishing for my down parka, woolen gloves and hat. "When you get near the glaciers, it's just like being by big open refrigerators," comments Prussin.

The captain kills the engines in front of Majorie Glacier with its jagged aqua pinnacles that jut towards the sky, and the boat sits silent at last in the icy wilds. We wait, hoping to see a glacier calve, no but large chunks break off. And while we don't get to hear the dramatic sound effects that accompany the formation of an iceberg, sharp pops—like cracks of a rifle—still give an awesome sense of the push of ice over land.

To my chagrin, I must leave Gustavus the following day, with no time to try sea kayaking or go berry picking along the deserted shores. And I still haven't seen a whale. I'm in for a surprise. Even though my flight leaves at noon, my host has arranged for me to go on a half-day salmon fishing charter.

As the 30-foot boat chugs out to Point Adolphus, rays of sun stream through the clouds, catching the fleet of fishing vessels in the distance. Coho salmon jump clear of the water, splash down and jump again, like rocks skipping across the surface.

"The females do that to loosen their eggs," says Captain John "Rusty" Owen, who majored in geology in college but whose knowledge seems to include anything having to do with the area's history—natural or otherwise.

"Will we see whales?" I ask. (So call me Ishmael.)

"That's the only guarantee I know of," he replies.

 

We reach our destination and let out the lines. It's late in the season, so the salmon fishing is less than terrific. (Best time to go is May and June for King Salmon, late June and July for Pink Salmon, and July through the third week of August for Cohos. Halibut run all summer long.) I could care less about the fish. Whales literally ring our boat. On one side, a mother and her calf roll lazily in the water, clearly on play mode. Two others swim towards us until they're just 40 feet away. Further out, another pair breaches simultaneously.

I am in whale heaven when five more suddenly appear side-by-side, their back fins arcing in synchronization, water blowing from their spouts. One turns toward the boat and seems to yawn. Or maybe it’s a smile. Either way, I can see lots and lots of pointy teeth along with barnacles on its chin. Suddenly the air reeks, like open cans of anchovies left out in the sun.

"Smell the whale's breath?" asks Rusty with a chuckle.

With only half-an-hour left before we have to pull in the lines and head for shore, we finally get a bite. One of the other guests onboard grabs the pole and reels in the world's biggest, most silvery salmon. The fight is not a long one, but it seems glorious nonetheless.

Seven hour later, I'm back home fighting the traffic out of airport. But on this one day, it just doesn't matter. I've spent the morning dancing with whales, in one of the world's secret gardens.