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The Way to the Bay

Saturday, 26 August 2023, Gustavus AK

Finally, my most convoluted - and stressful - trip has entered its final days, reached its final park. Last night illustrated how easily glitches could arise. When I landed at ANC, I called the hotel at 9:45 p.m. to have their van pick me up. At 10:25 I called back to see why it hadn't arrived (they're only five minutes away), but my call went to voice mail, and their mailbox was full. Same story at 10:30, 10:35, 10:40. I swore that 10:45 would be my last call before hailing a taxi and taking it out of their room charge, but someone finally answered, apologized, and said they'd be right over. "The other receptionist clocked out at 10:00, and didn't tell us you were waiting."

Their shuttle returned me to the airport promptly this morning, and American upgraded me to Main Cabin-plus. The city was wet yesterday, and still spat drizzle this morning, reiterated by the blanket of clouds seen from my window seat. But as we approached Alaska's panhandle, the clouds thinned, and glaciated peaks pierced the ocean of white.

As we neared Juneau, blue skies appeared.

The Juneau terminal was tiny - good thing, since that gave me less ground to cover while looking for my next flight. The website I'd used ( simply confirmed my ticket on 'aex'. I followed the signs to the commuter airlines corner, where I saw the Alaska Seaplanes counter. Underneath their sign it said 'Air Excursions' - ahh, aex! The agent confirmed my reservation.

That chipped away at my anxiety. I now knew I could make the easy (but tight) connection back to Alaska Air on Monday. The gate agent weighed my duffel, my laptop roller bag, and my daypack, and declared me twenty pounds overweight - a $20 extra fee. Time to put my bags on a diet!

The flight to Gustavus only took 20 minutes - 20 impressive minutes.

Sunshine abounded, illuminating the green mountainsides,

reflecting off the water. Hopefully the weather holds for two days.

Most of the eight passengers on the plane were also chasing their parks. One woman had just finished #63 - a complete set! I encouraged all my co-fliers to come down for my talk on the parks tomorrow at 3:00 in the lodge - gotta drum up a crowd!

Gustavus is an authentic Alaska bush town. Two hundred-some people live here in rural splendor, surrounded by water, forests, and mountains. Visitors enroute to Glacier Bay support a couple of B&Bs, a general store, a post office, and an air strip. As I sat by the town's busiest intersection (dirt roads, of course) waiting 20 minutes for my return ride to the Cove, I counted a handful of cars, a few more pickups, an equal number of bicycles, and an old man riding an ATV who passed by three times (waved at me every time, too). - my journal, August 1991

I didn't notice much change after 32 years. My airBNB host picked me up and drove me the short distance to the cabin, then showed me around. "We've got a moose that lives nearby, across the stream. And once, while I rested on the bed in your cabin, I heard a scratch on the window [only 5' away]. I looked up to see a bear looking straight at me."

The tour included walking the property. "Do you like raspberries? [Boy, do I!] My garden is full of them. Pick as many as you'd like."

Since Gustavus is not compact, Bruce offered me a bike to bop around on. Bop I did, two miles over to the store for breakfast items, then back to eat at one of the town's two restaurants (the other was closed for a private party). Now I'm winding down, getting ready for park #56.

* * * * *

from my journal, Bartlett Cove, 19 August 1991
"It was truly a wilderness experience, nature both good and bad. Definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but for those willing to submit to nature and endure some discomfort, it can be magical.
“First, let me state the bad. The weather was never great (we did not see the sun), and clouds obscured the surrounding peaks most of the time. Ensconced in our kayak 'cocoons', though, the intermittent light rain was not uncomfortable. The low point occurred as the drizzle became constant just after we set up our tent [the second night], exiling us to twelve hours in soggy sleeping bags and breaking camp in the rain.
“The positives tipped the scale. Though cloudy, the skies continued to offer hope, and on occasion a few distant peaks were revealed. After an initial jostling start on a slightly tossed sea (any waves, even small ones, are an adventure when you've only plied protected harbors before), the sea calmed and was glassy smooth in several side bays, reflecting the islands surrounding.
The shorelines were inviting, with small streams bubbling from the rain forests, tall grasses protecting glades of tiny wildflowers from the rocky beach, and stands of wild strawberries ripening in the long days of August. The wildlife completed the scene: flocks of glaucous-winged gulls crying as they dove into the frigid waters; the excited chatter of the black oyster-catchers, waving their thin red bills as we drifted by their nesting isle; the numerous harbor seals that swam close by, eyeing us suspiciously and diving once we spied them; and out of sight, the sound of whales blowing, traveling unimpeded through the silence of the bay.
Whether paddling hard to cross an inlet in the face of an infrequent wind, or drifting noiselessly in the current with the wilderness passing by, it was a treat to be surrounded by such majestic (if largely unseen) scenery, far from the world of man."

Sunday, 27 August 2023

That long-ago trip still ranks as the most memorable kayak adventure I've ever had. Now I returned to see if I could recapture even a hint of that world on a short, guided tour. I bustled about in the cabin, making sure I had everything needed before walking over to meet Rachel (my guide) for the ride to the park. Then, as I exited the car at the park, I realized: Damn, I forgot my water bottle!

We met the other four paddlers in the lodge (where I bought a replacement Aqua Fina): Janet and Holly; Bill & Cheryl.

Rachel led us down to the shore, where she fitted us with rain pants, boots, and sea skirts. She then took us to the kayaks,

where she explained the details of our trip and adjusted the rudders for us. Now carry the kayaks over the rocky beach, hop in, attach the sea skirts - and we're off!

Typical Alaskan weather, gloomy and overcast. Rachel - controlling the rudders in the kayak we shared - led us into the cove, then turned us toward the cove's mouth. We glided through the placid waters, keeping an eye out for wildlife.

We had three hours on the water, out and back. Otters entertained us; a sea lion surfaced within sight and quickly dove; a pair of bald eagles landed on the adjacent shore. As always, paddling relaxed me - so much so that it didn't bother me when I discovered I'd mounted my GoPro backwards. No video for today!

Though the clouds hid the peaks as it had decades ago, Rachel promised that today it would clear up. Obeying her word, the clouds began burning off as we paddled back to our beach. By the time we pulled back onto the rocky shore, we could see glorious mountains all around.

Of course, I invited everyone to my talk in the lodge that afternoon.

I needed to let the serenity of the park work its magic on me. To do so, I had to work out my last connection. "Yes," the lodge's desk clerk told me, "you can leave your bags right here tomorrow, and when you get off the day boat, we'll have a shuttle going directly to the airport. There'll be other boat riders catching the same flight as you." (Actually, I ended up as the only passenger, but the driver still needed to pick up incoming guests.)

I made sure my flyer advertising my talk was still on the community billboard, then wandered upstairs to scope out the auditorium. Ranger Karley showed me the room. Great! All set for 3:00.

With two hours to kill, I walked down the short beach trail, admiring the newly revealed scenery.

I came around one bend to see Michelle (from Thursday's Arctic parks flight) hiking toward me with her father. We chatted for a few minutes, and I invited them to my talk. She said she'd seen me earlier with the kayaking group, but had not wanted to interrupt me.

At the end of the trail, I started out on the Bartlet River trail, passing through the lush Alaskan rain forest - green everywhere, mosses hanging from trees and carpeting the ground.

The trail began gently, but soon the surface buckled with roots and jutting rocks.

In hiking boots I may have continued, but after ten minutes with my canvas shoes, I turned back, not willing to risk turning my ankle or worse.

I returned to the lodge at 2:40, so went to the auditorium, turned on the lights, and waited. And waited At 3:15 I turned off the lights, closed the doors, and wandered over to the let the ranger know. Ranger Karley had been joined by another - Ranger Elizabeth, who had worked hard to get my permit approved. "Since you don't have an audience," she asked, "can we at least guess the answers to the trivia questions on your flyer?"

So it wasn't a formal talk, but I entertained the rangers for half an hour with tales of my trips. Afterwards, they encouraged me to hike the Forest Loop, an easy one-mile trail (part boardwalk) through the Sitka spruce/western hemlock woodlands.

Just the escape I needed.

I took my time strolling the path, stopping often to frame a photo or just inhale deeply of the fragrant air. At the blackwater pond, a bench on the boardwalk invited me to sit a spell.

A fresh breeze rippled the pond's water. I felt my stress melt away. No worries, the world will take care of things.

I hung around the lodge until 5:30 so I could splurge on my final dinner in Glacier Bay - my final dinner in Alaska. (I had to eat, anyway, and I heard from many people that nothing is open in Gustavus on Sunday nights.) I recall 32 years ago, when Nick and I started our three-week vacation in the great north by feasting on halibut and salmon. I opted for salmon again.

Back in Gustavus, I packed my bags for the umpteenth and final time of this trip. My mind struggled to adjust to the dichotomy - I'm packing up for an imminent series of flights home, but I've still got an all-day boat tour planned for tomorrow.

I packed until well after dark, then made one more stab at seeing the Northern Lights. The aurora forecast online said Gustavus was on the cusp, and the skies were clear. I took the cabin's flashlight to guide me over to the stream, which offered an unobstructed view to the north. My eyes slowly adjusted to the night's light, but I could see no aurora. I did, however, hear a few noises just upstream - and given the tales Bruce had shared, of bear and moose in the area, I quickly retreated to the safety of the cabin.

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