Impossible Alaska

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

I find it almost impossible to write about Alaska. I’m daunted both by the enormity of the landscape and the intensity of my experiences there. I realize now, having just returned from my second Alaska trip, why I never really wrote about it the first time around: I simply couldn’t. I’m just not enough of a writer to be able to pin Alaska down to the page and really do it justice. Pictures don’t do it justice, not even videos - so how could words?

I can describe things to you, as best I know how, but it’s a struggle for me to make Alaska seem as real and wonderful in writing as it was in the flesh. It’s one thing to describe the electric blue of a glacier, with its dirty, tilted pinnacles of ice thrusting towards the sky and the whole great mass of it grinding downwards through the earth, but the size and power of such a thing is incomprehensible until you see it stretched out beneath you like some crazed science fiction landscape, or towering above your suddenly tiny and fragile boat.

And the sound of it… First you have to imagine complete silence - the protracted, breathless of silence of waiting for something to happen. Then out of nowhere, the whip-crack of snapping ice, a creak and a groan, and a tremendous kettle-drum rumble and boom ricocheting through the valley as ice tumbles from the face of the glacier and crashes into the water. And then silence again. They say once you hear that “white thunder” (as the Native Americans call it) you never forget the sound, and indeed, it’s rolled through my dreams on more than one occasion since watching Marjerie Glacier calving in Glacier Bay.

And what about the smell and the feel of Alaska? How can I describe waking up each morning to the smell of damp pines and saltwater in a way that conveys how vigorous and alive that smell makes you feel? How can I explain the gentle rock and thrum of the boat which underlies every waking and sleeping moment, a counterpoint that you eventually don’t even notice anymore until it suddenly stops, maybe because you’ve pulled into a tiny Alaskan port, or maybe because there are humpback whales off the bow and the captain has killed the engines so you can stand in awed silence on the deck and listen to a sound even more haunting than “white thunder”: the sound of a 40-ton sea creature - one of the largest animals on the planet - breathing placidly in the water next to you.

Even the taste of Alaska is probably beyond me to depict. It’s not just the taste of the sea spray or the fresh air, it’s the richness of spruce syrup, the tang of salmonberry jam, the pungency of wild smoked salmon, the sweetness of Dungeness crab. It’s a bit of tender white halibut washed down with an Alaskan amber ale. It’s a Norwegian cookie in Petersburg and a Raven’s Brew coffee at the Backdoor Cafe in Sitka. It’s kelp pickles and reindeer sausage and Alaskan sourdough rolls.

And then there’s the sense beyond taste, smell, sight, sound and touch, the sense you become aware of when all the noise and effort of “real life” fade into the background and you have the time and the space and the silence to just exist. Call it “being in the moment”, call it “inner peace” - whatever it is, it’s intense, and all-encompassing, and all too fleeting. When those whales breach, when porpoises race alongside the boat, when the sun flares and disappears behind snowy mountain peaks and the northern lights dance overhead throughout the night, then that sense kicks in, telling you that this place is like nowhere else on earth, and that this moment is like nothing you will ever experience again.

Comments

1

You surely haven’t done a bad job trying to give a glimpse of all the things that you say you can’t quite describe… I’m sure that as you said, the real experience is something that has to be lived to understand it fully.

But thanks for the writing anyway.

2

I closed my eyes, after reading your journal, and for a moment was I actually there…thank you for that….Mutti

3

I lived in Alaska for over 13 years in Anchorage. You hit the nail on the head. Words do not do its beauty justice. Until you have "experienced" Alaska, i.e. the last frontier, you will not understand what it means to experience a total peace and just enjoy existing in the wonder of that state.

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