I get off the ferry in the relentless drizzle. Again, I had been the only non-local on the boat, eliciting many a sideways glance from the adults and the usual more blatant interest from the small children.
Arriving at the muddy brown port, it was easy to know who the rental car was for. At his nod, I approach the slight man next to the Suburu outback. He looks me up and down, looks at my lack of luggage and says, ‘This is it?’
Without waiting for response he continues, ‘There are four spare tires in the back though given how little you weigh and your lack of luggage, “ strong stare, “you’d be hard pressed to blow a tire, but you never know.” And then, “Be careful if you go south, they won’t want you there, but they likely won’t hurt you.” He hands me a Spot GPS with instructions to use it and an admonition: “I’m sure your father would like to recover the body, at least.” With that, I was blissfully on my own.
A week earlier I’d been on a much larger ferry, crossing the Alaskan Sea, sitting up late at night chatting with whomever happened to be around. You can tell the locals by their boots, muck boots of a brand I’ve only seen in Alaska. They mark someone for me, someone who will have stories, stories I won’t yet know. Two grizzled older gentlemen have been sitting at a table in the bar for hours. I ask if I can join them. They have the weathered look of long-outdoors, the bend-but-never-break feel of men who have lived hard lives in the wilderness and have never noticed it might have been hard. But they glitter and shine behind their skins and their eyes flash and I can feel the mischief within.
As the sky began to lighten after its nightly few hours of dusk, I ask them about magic and wonder, power and fear. And we got to talking about the strange places one goes, or sometimes finds oneself, a place where there is something utterly indefinable. something that imprints itself upon you. Glancing back and forth at each other, they began to describe a place on an island off the coast of Ketchikan, a place they’d gone to as wild boys, in their late teens, when they worked the logging roads and had no care for their lives in the ways that young men do not.
Their voices lower and I have to lean in and they say very little, as though they are picking their way across stones. “All the way at the south end, walk up and back, towards the west coast, through a forest, eventually you’ll see a totem park, overgrown in the woods, and you will know you are heading in the right direction. But you will feel it long before that.” No description of what it was, what was there, just a hushed awe and a sense of power. Not fear. Awe, and wonder. Suddenly jolted, they look at me with wariness. “Don’t go there,” they said. “Just don’t.”
When we docked in Ketchikan, I’d been on boats for weeks, away from tourists, away from towns, and away from the teeming of a life I wasn’t ready to return to. I stood on the dock for a moment, pondering the unexpected despair that is welling up in me as I neared the lower 48 and a future of extended time away from the sea and her stories. With the bustling town behind me, I stare out at the ferries, at the weather, at the wildness that suits me so well. Without deciding, I walk over to the tiny ferry whose horn is blowing to announce her departure. I pick up a one-way ticket and I head west, away, again, from the life to which I am to return. We cross the Hecate Straight in the midst of gloriously explosive weather, bliss rippling through me as the winds and waves picked up. Lost in my own reverie, it takes almost the entire trip to realize I am heading straight into the origin of their story.
Ketchikan sits on the inside passage, in the southeastern bit of Alaska. The Tongass National Forest, which is managed from Ketchikan, is 17 million acres of temperate rain forest. The Misty Fjords, a series of icy lakes, waterfalls, snow-capped peaks and glacial valleys clings to its edge, creating a sense of enormity and isolation. To the west are a series of islands, originally populated by the Tlingit and Haida. The Hecate Straight is so rough that even though its 60 miles away it may as well be another world. There are remnants of these cultures still in existence, but as always, the interlopers were destructive. Much of what is left are the shadows. Shadows built from trees. Ketchikan has tourists; the fjords, sheep and mosquitos; and the islands, the islands have history, the kind of history you feel as the hair stands up on your skin and you glance around wondering what it is you cannot see.
And I have no idea where I am going, except south. It’s late in the morning, but there is little darkness here, at this time of year. I’ve learned in Alaska that if I leave people alone, they leave me alone, so I am unconcerned about where I will sleep or what I will eat. I am becoming less of the city human I was, and more of the essence of who I am. I embark because embarking is what I do.
I am told this island I am on has over 2500 miles of roads, most unpaved logging roads. Whatever image comes to mind of unpaved, take it away and replace it with a dirt road barely wider than a logging truck, strewn with gravel, gravel the size of your fist, sharp, and jagged.
There are logging contracts which allow for clear cutting and these effects can be seen everywhere. Gaps in the forest, stacks of massive logs, some a hundred feet long, with diameters taller than I, it is the presence of the force of man. As well, the force of nature, as storms rip across and tear out swathes of forest, leaving blank spots. From the air they look like giant footprints, trees ripped out or tamped down to dirt level. From below they are odd gaps, incomprehensible to the outsider I am.
Everywhere there is the damp scent of cut cedar and spruce, and despite the endlessly spitting rain, I drive with my windows open. When I come to fields of the stacked stripped logs, I stop to get out and lean against the edges, inhaling like an addict. A ship board accident a few days back has given me a black eye, and I am thankful when no locals stop to see who is this person, sniffing the ends of trees, a bit feral. I don’t need them to stare at me with unspoken curiosity and a tinge of worry. I take a selfie with a massive log, perhaps the only one of the trip, and I look wild and injured and deeply free. I look at the picture for a bit then delete it. South I go, into the driving wind and spitting rain.
I see no one, only the occasional truck overloaded with trees ripping towards me, full tilt. The trucks careen with log lengths, in the slamming rain, and there is no care for a tiny mud-covered car, so low to ground and so unexpected I suspect if one crunched over me, he’d just assume I had been a bigger than usual piece of stone.
Then there are the trucks which come up behind me, heading south. Empty of logs they fly across the roads at speeds that will never allow for stopping. There is no real space for me to get out of the way. The storm is howling and I do not hear the truck until it blows its horn as its tires edge up against my car, squashing me into the drainage ditches on the sides of the road.
I continue to not die, so south I continue to go. I drive with both hands gripping the wheel to control the car, alert to the dangers but absent from myself. About two hours in, after yet another near death experience, as I ponder this insanity and wonder if I should turn back, I realize “I am not afraid of anything.” “Idiot,” I mutter to myself. But I am more than halfway, I am certain, so I do not turn back.
Three and a half hours later, I find a town. A town of five houses and an enormous pile of rusting mechanical trash. Cars, washing machines, twisted metal, on the beach of a cove. I faintly recall hearing a famous author lived and wrote in one of these five houses. I park and climb out of the car, pull on the rest of my rain gear and stuff two things into my pocket, a bar of licorice and a granola bar. I can’t tell where to go, but the obvious way would be north, along the beach, and so I go.
As I walk the track between ocean and forest, there is a small path, and I come to a series of five more houses to my right. Small wooden houses painted five different colors, with long grass and flowers keeping their distance from he trail. The rain is thick giving the deep sense of being cocooned in an unknown wilderness, a place without, without people or time. I keep walking and when I look up, there is a forest in front of me, tall trees, deep and dense. Looking left and right, I am unsure where to go. I stand for a while, pondering, then I turn east and walk along the edge til I can walk no further. Nothing obvious.
Turning around to head to the sea, I almost smack my nose into the bare chest of a very lean man. Wearing only work pants, with long hair and a slight beard, streaming wet in the pouring rain, He has on nothing else, no shirt, no shoes, but seems oblivious to his state, the weather, or the cold. I take a step back so I can look up and see his face. Weathered, angular, white. He is mesmerizing. He turns and stretches out his left arm, pointing west, towards the sea, a bit inland. I lean around him to see what he is pointing at and can make out a slight break in the entrance of the forest. I can smell him in the warmth coming off his skin; earthy, human, a dash of spice.
I pull back, to nod my thanks, and he is not there. I look around from where I stand. Across the grassland there is a broken down barn, a yard strewn with tires and metal, wildflowers and puddles, and then the sea. Nothing moves but the wind and the rain, nothing lives but me and the surrounding nature. I turn in a complete circle. Nothing. I turn again, in another complete circle, in the other direction. Still nothing. For a moment I stand in the rain, and feel the water on my face. I close my eyes and feel the force of the forest, of the ocean, of this place, of this man. Of my trip through solitude and water, and of this exact moment, this place, this now.
I stretch up out of myself with a crack, and I walk to where he pointed. There is a break in the trees, just enough to walk through, and on the other side, a slight trail coated in needles. I look at my watch. All sense of time had left weeks ago, with the sun approaching dusk at 1am and dawn at 3am. Duration is the only marker that I still keep.
I start down the path, my mind wandering, listening to the smells, the small animals, and the strange electrical zing of this old forest. I meander for quite some time, a singular path, no way to go awry, I move as silently as possible to not disrupt the world I am in. Suddenly I am stopped short, my mind screams BEARS.! YOU ARE AFRAID OF BEARS! Yes, indeed, afraid of bears. (Phew, something I am afraid of!). As I remember this I look down a the path ahead of me and see a bear print so enormous I start laughing. I pull out my bag, which is … empty. No anti-bear anything, nothing that makes noise. Also, no Spot GPS; I’ve left it in the car. I shrug, nothing to be done.
However! BEARS! I set about the idea that I must make noise, so I do not surprise a bear. (It is cub season, this would be a bad idea, but I am in black bear country, so I am also being a bit of a wuss. Mostly one sees the very cute bums of black bears, as they run away from humans. Still. Bears. I won’t give up my fear so easily.). I decide to sing, and suddenly my mind has no songs. The first to appear is Row, Row, Row Your Boat, which I discard with disdain, childish and overly existential.
Only one other song appears, a kirtan about Radhe and Govinda, a beautiful love song. I have no idea how it comes to be in my head, but I know I seem to know all its words. It will do. I walk under the deep forest canopy quietly singing of love, when I am suddenly caught up short. I am singing love songs to BEARS. This could end terribly. I am not trying to woo bears. I call out, to the bears I imagine are just past my vision, the bears who are surely swooning for me, for this song, for love, and I holler, “BEARS! FALL IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER, NOT ME. And on I go, singing and walking, careful to notice the scents and the scat, in case my singing hasn’t made the bears all swoony for each other, I want to know which paths are theirs.
It is probably several hours before I see the first totem. It is nestled between trees, and it looks like it has grown into the forest with the forest, it is a dolphin. As I continue to walk there are more, stacks, singles, turtles carved closer to the ground. I am not familiar with the Haida and what the totems mean or how they are read. I do not know their gods, their stories, their people, their myths. I am not even sure these are Haida, not Tlingit. I walk close to them, I walk around them, but do not touch them. I talk to them, I ask them questions, but they do not talk back. I explain to them how I came to be there, they have nothing to add.
The light begins to change and I see a clearing in front of me. There is a path to the sea, and a building. Skirting the building I get to the coast. The shore is stacked with log length trees. It is a massive playground of grey carcasses, like hundreds of whales have washed up on shore over decades. The trees on the bottom are slowly dissolving into dust, the top, newer, firmer. I climb up and over the eight-foot wall, traverse the coast by tree for a bit, as far as I can get, in each direction. I return to the opening I had come through and I stand at the path, the one that goes from the sea into the clearing, I turn to the sea. I watch massive waves and an intense storm roll across and I try to imagine the Haida, a people in a 100 foot cedar canoe coming in to the shore to do whatever they did in this place, this place that feels sacred, important.
I solemnly walk back up the path from the sea to the sole building. It is a low and square with an opening on the side to the sea, half the width of the wooden building. At the back wall there are three carved totems. In the center there is a square with grass and above the square the ceiling is open to the sky. Light and water stream in. I imagine people sat around the edges of the square, I can almost see them there, a gathering of men.
The building exudes power, sacredness, sanctity, and I won’t go in it. I lie down on the ground at the door, head south, angled to watch the interior, and inhale the electricity of the place. I watch the rain fall on the grass. I think understand what the men on the ferry were saying,
It feels like nothing I have ever felt before. Power and sorrow, strength and loss. The stories that came before, the stories that have yet to be, and those that never will. It feels as though history has folded over and over herself until all the layers are here. I can feel a bubbling through the layers, into my body, as I lie here on the earth, I absorb the histories and only the saltiness of the rain makes me aware that I have tears.
Eventually I get up and rotate. I lie the other direction, head north, still watching the interior. I get up, and walk around the building several times, stop again at the opening, I feel a longing to enter, but a compulsion to not cross the threshold.
I sit another hour or so, on a wooden table part way to the sea, and then, with so much time passed, it is time to go. I retrace my steps through the forest, silently this time, until I emerge on the other side, nothing like I was when I began.