Southeast Alaska sails into spring at a breakneck pace as daylight reaches double digit differences within a week’s time. The cold waters below the brightening sky fill with fish returning from their winter sojourns as locals head outside to prep well-composted beds and summit melting mountain passes. It is the place I now sit miles away from, but I close my eyes and I can hear the water and smell the sea brine and if I am lucky my skin pricks with the remembrance of spouting whales and calling ravens.
Southeast Alaska may not hold the typical view of the rest of the state, but consider that this is (land wise) the largest state in America, covering around 660 thousand square miles to make it twice the size of Texas and something like 400 times larger than Rhode Island. (Granted Rhode Island is really small!)
The west coast of Baranof Island looks out at Mt. Edgecumbe, the dormant volcano and tourist icon, and is home to the nine thousand folks of Sitka. Baranof also boasts 17 million acres of forest making it the largest national forest in the United States. Most of Baranof’s forest, known as the Tongass National Forest, is a temperate rain forest. Rain forest makes me think Costa Rica. While Tongass is not a warm and humid forest, there are enough trees and mountains to became completely immersed and loose yourself amongst the old growth trees that jet toward the sun. One of my many gifts during my winter in Sitka were my regular hikes. When accompanied by locals, I was treated to a few lessons on the trees and a few ways to remember which tree was which. The Sitka Spruce reaches its branches straight up as to celebrate its state tree status; the Hemlock sweeps its branches downward, bowing to the mighty spruce; and, the Adler Birch fills the space between its tall neighbors.
Lessons on fish have also come and with a similar generality. The return of various fish helps mark events. A new friend told me she met her husband during Herring season—this season typically falls at the end of March when a layer of white milky eggs foam and shimmer along the water’s surface. Another acquaintance moved up from the lower 48 and recalls she arrived during salmon spawning. That season coincides with the change in the smell of bear. To be specific, the smell of what the bears leave behind. In summer, the bear scat is sickly sweet due salmonberry consumption. In late summer and fall, the smell is a bit more foul as salmon are digested and then “processed” by the brown giants of the woods. How do these new friends know about the bear scat smell? Take a dog into the woods and he will quickly find scat for you, roll in it and return with bear essence perfume.
Fortunately, I have only experienced the tales of such doings. However, my new friend George perked up when a curious grunt met us on a path. George is a rather astute standard poodle. We headed out to hike on a windy day with threatening clouds. I in my rain coat and Tuff rain boots and hair tied back, and George in his smart red collar. On our way back down the trail, we both stopped in our tracks. George cocked his head to one side, my head spun. What was that grunt? No time to assess, time to do exactly the opposite of the “Be Bearwise” signs say to do: RUN!
I called to George to follow and thankfully he did. We galloped down the path and at one point I looked back to see George stopped. He bent his head to pick up something from the path. “Leave the stick George. Come on!” Trying to sound completely calm, I worried more about the safety of my friend’s dog than me. My tone may have been even playful, to conceal the reality that I could possibly make my own scat on the trail right then. George quickly caught up and once safety was obvious, I laughed at myself. George, the ever vigilant trail dog, wagged and bounced as he spat out my hair tie that had fallen during our escape. One bear evaded, one hair tie saved.
My bear batting average is now one for zero, but I hardly call it a victory. There is still a lot to learn about the bears (like learning to carry BEAR SPRAY!). In addition to my bear education, I’ve started learning about salmon. To be honest, prior to Alaska I assumed that all salmon were the same—yes, I got the difference between farm raised and wild and I have heard sockeye and coho, but a fish is a fish. NOT! One fisher friend translated the difference in salmon by holding up his hand: thumb for chum, pointer finger for sockeye (as in sock-in-your eye with your pointer finger), king for the middle finger for it is the longest finger; silver for the ring finger (also known as the coho), and pink for the pinky. I thought the memorization technique was clever and saddled this new knowledge with a kind of pride—repeating it anytime the opportunity to talk fish came up. (In Alaska, that would be daily!) Then I realized I had been taught the same information provided students—students of the elementary school. Thus, it is safe to say, I now hold slightly less salmon knowledge than the typical Alaskan third grader.
If I feel incomplete in my knowledge of fish, you should see how poorly I do on the kinds of fishing. I can rattle off some terms: Longliners, Trollers, Seining, Hook and Reeling. My expansive knowledge can tell you that some use nets and others fishing lines. No point in overwhelming my reader, so I will pause there.
Walking the aisles of McMurray’s, the Home Depot of fishing supplies, the various lures dangle from dozens of racks. They entice me with a curious desire to buy one of the colored bobbles, rubber stringed tails, or brightly painted plastic fish. I imagine it is akin to walking the markets in Paris and being overcome to try all the pastries. However, I know what to do with a pastry. What would I do if I bought a lure? Fish?
When I return to this sweet Baranof Island, I hope to find a pole in my hands, and not because I want to catch fish, but I want to understand how this works. The language I hear spoken in the coffee shop and at the post office swims around the vocabulary of lines and skiffs, sea swells and wind knots. It is just jumbled enough for me to be completely confused and intriguing enough to make me want to learn more.
The lengthening days of the spring season, coupled with a few days of shining sun, mandates everyone to head outdoors. The last week I was in town, I was treated to two boat trips by Captain Davey. He runs tours on his boat the Esther G, named for his wife Lisa’s grandmother. While on the water we were audience to all the tourist desires of Alaskan: dozens of eagles flying overhead, sea lions squawking to one another; otters carrying their babies on their bellies; and whales…oh, the whales. About a half dozen put on a show for us—from spouting and diving to deliver the fluke of their mammoth tails to four or five gathering to create a bubble net…that’s where the whales circle and blow to push all the fish together and then rise out of the water with their mouths open as they scoop the netted fish. It was one of those sights that I just let my mouth drop to the bow of the boat and have to recall from memory because there was no photo to do it justice.
While I have spent more time in the rain forest than on the water, I have not been exposed to one of the land-fish phenomenons. Fish do leave the water, and not just by net or by line. Eagles swoop in to catch their share. While the Eagles are deft in fishing, they are not always able to keep their catch. One friend reports hiking and having a salmon land on his path in the woods! Another said she traveled down the road and a fish slapped her windshield. I think Sitka could capitalize on Flying Fish!
They do capitalize on the Northern Lights, which evades so many visitors, perhaps because tourist season coincides with twenty some hours of light. But if you are lucky, I mean really lucky, you will be granted a view of our universe’s light show. For this Irish Lass, I struck luck around three am on St. Patrick’s Day. Standing with a friend on his balcony, I watched the sky dance with white ghosts who changed shape continually. My friend said if I whistled, I would see more. Perhaps I was falling for a joke, but there I stood long before daylight whistling up to the sky. That night will dance in my mind for the rest of my life.
As I bid adieu to Baranof Island and to the people who have made my stay so memorable, I will carry many special moments. That is what travel is, the experience of moments. One moment on a friend’s boat; another moment staring up at the
trees; a moment of floating in a kayak with a dear friend; a moment of appreciating that everyone keeps their doors unlocked; a moment to catch my racing heart and capture the view from the top of a mountain pass, and another moment to realize that there is still a place in the world that welcomes strangers and extends a generous heart like possibly no other island on earth. The Sitka folks know just how to handle the seasons: spice each turn of the months with plenty of lovely graciousness that allows light to spread.