The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Tuesday, June 4

Alaska's Inside Passage

It looks like any other airport. “Maybe this one is a little smaller,” I think. I pass out of Security and make my way towards baggage claim. Slowly the escalator descends. Foot by foot, a floor to ceiling wall of windows is revealed.
Snow capped mountains - Juneau, Alaska
Wow! Before me is a grand vista of majestic snow capped mountains. It's like a Cinerama. I'm living large. I'm in Juneau, Alaska.
Often cloudy mist hugs the valleys
Weather changes throughout the day.
Here the sky dazzles with a mix of bright blue and clouds.
I think it begs to be painted.
For the next 10 days, I'll board a ship touring the Southwest corner of Alaska's Inland Passage. Our ship is a small one – about 126 feet.  She can hold 30 passengers, but I'll have just 18 cohorts plus crew on this trip.
Kayaking back to the Island Spirit
 They like to call it an un–cruise like a B&B on water. We'll be able to slip into coves where larger cruise ships holding 2000+ cannot imagine going. I'm psyched for the adventure.

An on-board naturalist promises sightings of eagles, whales, porpoise and maybe even a few bears. Captain Jeff tells us that we're on our way to Ford's Terror.
Looking towards Ford's Terror
It's an exceptionally narrow passage. An early explorer got trapped in churning water when the tide turned and rushed out. His name was Ford and consequently the name – Ford's Terror. 

Take a video tour here

We'll ride in on a high tide and hopefully out on the same.

Right now, we're traveling up a fjord called Endicott Arm. The small ship goes slow as we dodge chunks of ice – small icebergs actually. Excitement on the deck grows as we take pictures. One passenger jokes about lifeboats and the Titanic. “Where are the violin players?” I'm glad we had a safety briefing.
Stunningly beautiful flows of ice
Off in the distance is the massive ice wall of Dawes Glacier. Strangely it's colored in shades of aqua and blue. I've never seen anything like that color in nature before.

Distant Dawes Glacier is still moving mountains
  The captain tells us that he will inch forward to within a quarter mile, but dares not go further. He's not so concerned about ice falling or calving, as they say, but being struck by a shooter coming up from below.

Takea look here  Believe me ¼ mile is close enough...simply breath taking.

That night we make the tide into Ford's Terror and drop anchor for the night. The ship is equipped with massive batteries which have been storing energy all day and now the engines are silenced. What remains is Alaskan wilderness just like native people heard – Wind and a near-by waterfalls cascading from cliffs above. I crack my window to let the sounds and cool air flow in. I'm in the wilderness.

Days are filled with kayaking. I paddle to the foot of a waterfalls and get to withing 10 feet of it's splashing descent. The mist sweeps across my face and I spot a small rainbow. My spirit grins.

Alaska is a magical place.  With so much plastic, concretre and asphalt in modern life, being here realigns the senses.  Peer into the water and it's crystal clear.  Smell the air and there's no hint of diesel fumes.  Listen to the breeze sweep across mountains.  Feel the sun peek from behind a puffy cloud and warm your face.  Alaska is massive as well as nuanced with so many experiences.  I'm beginning to realize that I'm only skimming the surface.

But oh my, how I'm enjoying this adventure.

Overhead I see eagles soaring. One lands on a tree and I decide to paddle closer. The eagle tolerates my approach as I marvel at the bird's grandeur.

Our naturalist tells us that eagles are at the top of their food chain. Since the banning of DDT, they have re-established themselves. What an eagle wants, an eagle gets.  I decide to paddle on.

On another day, I'm paddling around an island when I hear a whooshing sound. Humpback whales are surfacing in the distance.  The sound I hear are their blow holes.  Suddenly, I hear and see a humpback surface about 300 feet from the bow of my kayak.  Talk about being up close and personal.  I decide to keep my distance as best I can and watch him gently surface and feed on herring. It's a remarkable sight.

Afterward I just drift along listening to the world around me. It's a cacophony of bird sounds puntuated by a distant whoosh.  Delicate and beautiful. I'm feeling one with nature now.

Each day I paint a watercolor in my journal. I discovered last year when I went to the Pine Ridge and the Lakota Tribe that it's a good way to soak in experiences. It's my way of feeding the spirit. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Here are a few of the sketches that I produced.

It's a clear day and distant mountains gleam with snow

Sea Lions fill the rock island.  Each bull has a harem of 15-20.
They are very possessive as we learn when we get too close. 
A small one gravel street village with a year-round population of 35.
No cars.  Bikes rule except for the fire truck.  
Twilight fills the sky, land and water with color

Even with pictures in watercolors, my Alaskan adventure cannot be easily shared. It's more than mountains and wilderness, more than ice and waterfalls, more than mammals below or birds above.

I think Alaska gives a glimpse into mystery beyond words and images. It shows me nature's power to both create and destroy.  It transports me into the magnificent cycle of life and death and re-creation or might we say resurrection.

For millennium, glaciers have either moved forward taking giant boulders along for the ride or retreated calving icebergs into the watery seas. Now many are rapidly receding hundreds of feet each year. Creation and destruction are battling within the blue ice.

Humpback whales cooperate with one another. They leave solitary feeding to create a circle of bubbles deep under the water. This bubble ring corrals herring into large clumps so that they can be more easily eaten. I witness the frenzy of life and death swimming in the water.

Moored in remote coves, I see jagged snow capped mountains reflected in pristine waters. Waterfalls cascade across their face cutting grooves and eventually deep fjords into the granite. I think that even these mighty mountains will one day be made low. Nothing in nature and life remains the same.
With Mendenhall Glacier receding more than a football field each year,
Nugget Falls now gushes down the mountain. 

As I soak in the environment around me, a grand metaphor comes to mind.  Being in Alaska is like brushing up against the mysteries of eternity. When that happens, I think we are never quite the same.