Photo Essay: Let the beauty we love be what we do.

First posted in June, 2004

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

- Jelaluddin Rumi,
Thirteenth Century
Sufi poet and mystic

I've just returned from a three day trip away from phones and faxes and e-mail. I could do a whole post on how coming back to the world and catching up on news makes me realize how wonderful it was to have three days of blissful ignorance, but instead I'll just tell you about my trip.

Monday, April 14, 2004 - 5:25

We departed this morning at half past eight under cloudy skies in the Eliris, a thirty-five foot sailboat, bound for Icy Bay. Winds were variable, and we tried to go under sail, but found that we needed to rely heavily on the engine. Even motor sailing we made only five knots. We traveled about a mile or so offshore, circumventing the eight hundred square mile Malaspina Glacier, but were rarely able to make out the low white lens of ice on the horizon; there was simply too much fog. I spent a great deal of time out on deck, feeling the breeze on my face, experiencing the hum of the motor, enjoying the conversation of new friends, and gazing into that mist - I know what lies beyond that curtain. I wonder what it must have been like to have been part of Vitus Bering's 1741 expedition when they saw the fog lift and "discovered" the Alaskan mainland along this stretch of coast. It was July 16, St. Elias Day, and they named the most prominent peak that they saw in his honor. In displacing the Tlingit word for that mountain (Yasetaca), they gave the first European name to something on the northwest coast. What it must have been like to see that splendor for the first time.

Wildlife sightings have been rather nonexistent thus far on the trip. We spotted a dead whale about an hour and a half ago (floating at approximately 5944'N, 14104'W), far too gone to identify. It appeared to be about 10m or so in length; my best guess is a juvenile grey whale. There seemed to be little or no predation on the body aside from a flock of sea birds that we scared off, so I suppose it was probably killed by a vessel, given the fact that it appeared too young to have died of old age. It is, of course, pointless to speculate.

(NB: I had photos of the whale and other things for this leg of the trip, but must have somehow trashed that disk. Fortunately, the photos I need most are fine, and there are many photos found later in this entry...)

The day seems to have flown. It feels as though we just departed Yakutat, and yet we've been traveling for nine hours. We have another three to go, more than likely; you don't cover distance very quickly at 5-6 kts.

Glancing up from my journal just now, I saw a whale spouting between us and the shore. Three blows , then a long dive.

The food has been fantastic. I can see that days and days on this boat with the inability to exercise much would catch up with me. Granted, on their way to Yakutat, this group stopped to make an ascent of 15,300' (4663m) Mt. Fairweather, which more than qualifies as exercise. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I'm only along for the ride for two and a half days, so I'm going to more or less ignore my normal eating patterns. James made us egg on toast for breakfast (admittedly, my second breakfast of the day, as I'd eaten a couple of hours before we left town). We had mid morning tea. Noon brought cream of broccoli soup with a lovely rye bread, with Irish cream-laced hot chocolate for dessert. We've snacked a bit on Japanese rice mix and have had yet more tea. Roberta jokes about how much propane is consumed in support of having a Brit with a tea addiction on board, but it's really pretty much in line with how much tea I normally drink. It's been pleasant, lounging on the deck, reading, sipping Earl Grey, watching the scenery, talking. Roberta offered me the helm earlier this morning, thinking I would get a kick out of it; I've driven boats before, so I was not excited with the idea. "If you want a break, I'll be happy to take the helm, but if you're offering it to me for entertainment, I'll pass." They've had a number of people come and go on their voyage, many of whom have had no prior boating experience, and she's found that operating the helm is a fun task for some of them. Fair enough. I find boating to be similar to flying - it seems exciting to operate the vessel until you are responsible for doing it, and then it seems a chore and you wish you could instead watch the scenery and take photos.

James and I spent time earlier this morning discussing his time working in the field of mineral exploration. He's moved on to avalanche research, and starts his PhD when the trip concludes. We happily found the same page with respect to natural resource consumption - that it is a necessary evil, but that it should be recognized that some areas are simply off limits. Six more months of oil gained from tapping a federally-protected region of land means little in terms of long term energy goals; unfortunately, when we get desperate, no one in power will probably take that attitude.

James aboard the Eliris

We discussed my career and what National Park Service law enforcement does. It's a conversation with which I grow more and more bored each time I discuss it with someone new, but I feel it's necessary to dispel myths, so I gladly engage on that topic when the need arises.

James hiked part of the Appalachian trail with his girlfriend last year, another thing we have in common. Small world, really. This led into a conversation on general outdoor recreation topics, and he told me about their recent ascent of Fairweather and his avalanche research. This led to a discussion on the pros and pitfalls of academia, to which he's probably committed. He embraces it, though admits that Publish or Perish is a very real component that he wishes were not so important. That's the very thing that drove me from academia (forensic anthropology) to being a park ranger, and I can rant on this topic at length.

He and I also discussed our significant others a great deal. His girlfriend joins him on the trip in a few days, and my boyfriend flies in next week. We're both rather pathetic in talking about them, perhaps, but it was a comfortable conversation topic that persisted on and off throughout the trip. Comforting, I think, because we're both away from people we love and miss, unable to communicate at all with them while in the wilderness, and so talking of them makes it seem not quite so difficult.

Isa at the helm

Isabel is a lovely woman. I met James and Roberta a couple of weeks ago, when they stopped work to report that they had reentered the United States after traversing Mt. Fairweather into Canada (one other ranger in our office and I are both deputized customs officials for said purpose). They found we had a public Internet terminal and a book store and came back more or less daily over the two weeks they spent in Yakutat waiting for Isabel to appear for the next leg of the trip, so I had gotten to know them quite well. Isa, however, was new to me, and I worried how she'd feel about the fact that James and Roberta had invited me to Icy Bay without discussing it with her first. She minded not at all, and we got on exceptionally well. She is evidently a bit of a household name in France, boating being a favorite activity there. She has a weekly radio show in which she discusses marine-based issues, but seems very pleasant and down to Earth despite having sailed the globe. She and Roberta have sailed together in Antarctica quite a bit, and Isa is also no stranger to Alaskan waters. She flew in from Paris the day before, but seemed to be unaffected by jet lag.

Roberta had had a bout of insomnia the night before, and spent much of the day below deck trying to sleep. When Isa was not checking charts, she was at the helm, and together with James the three of us chatted along on many topics: current events, relations between our countries given the war, travel, and a favorite topic of mine - differences in language. For instance, the pronunciation of the word 'glacier' changes subtly as you move east to west. The word itself is French, and they say (I have no real way to produce phonetic symbols here, so bear with me) 'glah-see-ay,' the British 'glah-see-yer,' the Canadians 'glay-see-yer,' and the Americans 'glay-sher.' Admittedly, I go back and forth between the Canadian and American pronunciation on this word, having only ever really used it during my recent years living so close to the US-Canadian boundary, and I prefer the Canadian pronunciation. At any rate, it's simply an interesting thing to discuss; I always love talk of languages. Turns out that all of us on board speak some level of French, and though we're primarily speaking English on the boat, we mention things in French from time to time. I'm always happy to interact that way, and rarely have reason to do so.

Roberta does make appearances above deck to say hello from time to time. She's extremely pleasant and it's fun to make her laugh - she hasn't so much a giggle as a sort of all-consuming tittering that overtakes her, and it's a pleasant song that makes me laugh as well. She has a similarly contagious smile.

All three are very pleasant sorts with whom I am greatly enjoying my time. I'm generally not so social, but I am certain I will enjoy the two and a half day trip with these three on such a small vessel. The Eliris is well appointed for its size, though - it has sleeper births for six (though a great deal of that is currently stuffed with gear), a small galley, and even a head - it's such a luxury to have a toilet, and I wasn't expecting that. All in all, it's pretty cush. I almost feel guilty; this is hardly 'roughing it.'

I felt sleepy mid-afternoon and went below deck to take a nap about two o'clock. I managed a nice hour of sleep. I was cold, but the door was open and I was uncovered; I suspect I'll sleep quite well tonight in my sleeping bag.

Terns are circling the boat just now. It's boggling to think that they spend their 'winters' in Antarctica, having perhaps the longest migration path of any bird at 22,000 miles (35,405 km). It's difficult for me to understand how they have any time at all to do anything but fly from place to place.

Gulls atop an ice berg

Tuesday, April 15, 2004 - Noon

Yesterday evening was wonderful. We made anchorage behind Moraine Island (which is actually a peninsula) sometime around eight or eight-thirty, and fired up the grill that is mounted to the back rail of the ship. A friend of mine had given Roberta a freshly-caught salmon, which we had with asparagus and red potatoes. I had brought some wine - the agreed upon arrangement for my share of the trip expenses - and we completely consumed a 1.5 L bottle of rather cheap cabernet sauvignon that I'd brought as a 'back up' in case we drank the better wine I'd brought. Everyone was surprisingly pleased with the Vendage, which is what I keep on hand at home as my standard table wine. We opened a bottle of home made wine that Dan, a previous crew member, had left behind; the corks on all the wine he left are far too short, and most haven't sealed properly. The first bottle made not a bit of sound when it was extracted from the bottle - never a good sign. James tasted it anyway, then Isa, then me. Roberta tittered uncontrollably for a bit, lamenting on how she unfortunately hadn't taken a photo of the horrible expressions we'd each made. We decided to pour that bottle out altogether and try a second. This one made a bit of a pop, but was far from good wine - James mulled it with oranges and spice, though, and it became surprisingly drinkable, though that may have been facilitated by the decent wine we'd already consumed. We just sat up talking, getting acquainted and reacquainted, and turned in at midnight or so. Roberta is quite fond of the lie-in and rowed ashore in the dinghy so that she could sleep without being disturbed by our "early" morning movements. Slightly intoxicated, she forgot to take a ground pad, but slept well nonetheless.

I woke at six, my standard time, and found everyone asleep. I tried and successfully caught a nap, but woke again at seven. At quarter past I gave up and started reading (Rumi). Isa rose at quarter of eight, then James shortly thereafter, and we enjoyed our morning coffee out on the deck. The clouds had lifted somewhat, and Guyot Glacier was visible sprawling across the hills to the west.

The three of us discussed the war again, more directly this time. It's wonderful to discuss this among friends, particularly given our varying nationalities - a woman of France, a Brit living in Canada, and an American. Different sides represented in a nice microcosm. I was able to confirm my speculation that the people of France and America are still fond friends, even if our governments disagree. I brought up the fact that most of my friends oppose the war, a comment that in particular surprised James, as most Americans with whom he's spoken seem to not necessarily agree with the war but support it and are not opposed. I had no tactful way of saying that I feel I'm better informed than many, and that the social circle with whom I associate are similarly informed, but James rather eloquently articulated that for me only moments after I thought it, and I was able to agree with his assessment. They asked me if I thought it would make a difference in the coming election. I had to admit that sadly, I didn't think it would. It's my personal feeling that most Americans are rather uninformed with regard to a vast number of global issues, and that in their ignorance (a bad thing) and fierce patriotism (not necessarily a bad thing), they are rather blindly acquiescing to Bush and his agendas. We all agreed that it was fine to love your country, to be proud of many things it's done, to be patriotic, but not to be blindly supportive across the board of policies which ebb and flow depending on administration. They brought up something which I've only recently (say, in the last six months or so) realized - that the United States is the sole dominant superpower. I remember the Cold War of my youth, of standing on seemingly equal footing with the United Kingdom and France, of being not only allies but equals, and I'm sort of sad to finally wake up to the fact that those days are long over. I don't think we should be the only ones in control; it bothers me deeply, to be honest, and I try not to think about it.

We did dishes from last night, Isa and I, while James made breakfast burritos (yum). We had tea. Roberta appeared earlier than expected to have the last bits of the burritos. I did dishes as we pulled anchor and motored upbay toward Taan Fjord. Isa was at the helm for our 10.30a departure. James cleaned the decks and spent a great deal of time up on the bow watching for ice bergs - the bay has only experienced breakup in the past two weeks, and the ice is rather thick in spots; we have to be careful with our fiberglass hull.

Roberta is sitting near me, quietly absorbed in Dr. Miller's published reports on Icy Bay; we're headed to the faces of the tidewater glaciers here to measure their present termini for him, a professor under whom Roberta has studied glaciology. I met him in 2002 during the International Glaciology Symposium here in Yakutat; he's a wonderful, energetic sort - still active in his field despite being over eighty years old. He made an ascent of Mt. St. Elias (18,003'/5,487m) at the head of this bay in the mid forties. At that time, Taan Fjord was rather nonexistent, consumed by the Tyndall Glacier. The last six miles of our trip today will be entirely within uncharted waters, as the cartographers have not kept up with the glacier's recession. I have my camera and GPS ready to go for our arrival at Tyndall.

St. Elias made brief partial appearances,reflecting in the berg-laden waters

Seas in the main bay are a bit choppy but not bad; still, it demonstrates how great an anchorage we had last night - there was no real movement to speak of as we slept last night. The inner bay appears to be positively choked with bergs - it will be interesting to see how close we can approach.

Harbor seals watch the boat from afar

Tuesday, April 15, 2004 - Early evening (6:30

So, as evidenced by the above waypoints, we were able to get quite close to the glacier. Roberta and I took the boat's small (~2-3m long) inflatable dinghy to the eastern lateral moraine, pushing our way through the ice slowly by use of a 9hp motor and using a broom to push ice bergs away from the hull and prop.

(A moraine is, basically, a deposit of dark, rock-laden ice on a glacier that occurs when the glacier tears rock from a mountain as it winds its way downhill. Lateral moraine are at the sides, while medial moraines, not mentioned herein, are found somewhere between the edged of a glacier, indicating that at some point upstream two glaciers have combined into a single river of ice.)

The eastern lateral moraine

A rapid, swiftwater river flows out the eastern side of the glacier between the lateral moraine and the red, ferrous bedrock of Hoof Hill, which kept the area free of ice but made for tricky currents in such a small boat (particularly considering our indecisive motor, which was fond of quitting altogether). We were able to get a GPS waypoint from the boat about ten meters from the glacier (yes, terribly close).

The Eliris waitedfor us patiently
among the bergs

We then motored back through the ice to the Eliris (we were unsure of the depth of water and felt it better that the Eliris remain in the icier but deeper waters) and had them transport us to the opposite side of the fjord. Along the western side of the fjord we were able to be dropped in ice-free waters and easily made our way to a beach near the western lateral moraine. After crossing a small creek, I was able to get some photographs and waypoints of this side of the glacier. There was another fantastic river flowing down this side of the glacier as well, flowing from a rather large moulin.

A river pouring fourth out of a moulin
at the western lateral moraine

Roberta hiked a bit up the western edge of the glacier where it was grounded to get more waypoints, while I stayed low to take panoramics (not yet stitched together) and witnessed a few rather nice calving events.

Roberta crossing the creek from the glacier to join me at our dinghy

I am now back aboard the Eliris, with more Earl Grey in my cup. Dave Matthews is on the stereo. Isa is again at the helm. The tide seems to have cleared the ice a bit - it's easier going this time as we work our way out of the fjord (it seemed far more difficult when we were entering). We were unable to do all three glaciers, but I saw the one about which I had the most interest. We intend to attempt an anchorage behind Kageet Point this evening, within a cove just inside Taan Fjord ('Taan ' means 'sea lion' in Tlingit, incidentally, though we've seen not a single one of those elusive animals). Tomorrow, early probably, they'll drop me on the other side of Kageet Point and go survey the other two glaciers in the bay, Guyot and Yahtse, but we have one more night of fellowship first.

Roberta on ice watch at the helm

It looks as if James is making shepherd's pie for supper. Squee!

Wednesday, April 16, 2004 - 9.50

Last night we did indeed find a suitable anchorage on the back side of Kageet Point. As an aperitif, we cracked a bottle of Pineau that Isa had brought from her home in La Rochelle (to which I now have a standing invite - huzzah!). We then opened one of the better bottles of wine that I'd brought, another (slightly better) cabernet sauvignon. James was creative with his shepherd's pie and included many non-standard ingredients (broccoli, for example), but this only added to it's yumminess. After supper, Isa taught us the French card game Tarot - a game, not at all like fortune telling, but rather similar to euchre or spades. It required a special deck of cards with a fifth suit that had an additional face card (le cavalier, or horseman) as well. It had one final additional card, belonging to no suit in particular, a joker of sorts that's useful to play when you don't want to give up a higher value card. The game was rather fun - I should perhaps attempt to find a deck.

Considering the time it had taken us to reach Tyndall (granted, it's at the head of a very long fjord, having receded six miles from when the nautical charts were last updated, meaning that we were navigating in the blind), they decided we should get an early start; two glaciers to survey yet, and they're staying an extra day to do so. Given that my flight out is mid-day, they'll drop me first thing and I will unfortunately miss out on Guyot and Yahtse. And so Roberta remained aboard to sleep and we turned in around midnight.

At about four in the morning, we were awakened by a loud noise against the hull - either a collision with a drifting ice berg or we'd lost our anchorage and run aground. Fortunately, it was the former, and a mere glancing blow at that. This morning we found it grounded ashore, but the Eliris is fine.

I got up a bit after seven. Read a bit, then, when it neared 7.30 and I knew the others would soon be up, I got ready and began collecting my things. We motored around Kageet to the airstrip and I radioed my office to confirm my flight while munching on left-over shepherd's pie for breakfast (num!).

A DeHavilland Beaver leased to Yakutat Coastal Airlines is scheduled to pick me up at 1.30p, part of a National Marine Fisheries Service harbor seal survey. It's really amazing luck that I'm getting a free flight out - in "payment," I merely have to watch the sky for other aircraft as we fly fourteen transects - Dave with his head buried in the GPS to maintain the line of flight, Shawn busy counting seals and dealing with his laptop and cameras.

We took a group photo on the stern with a cloudy Mt. St. Elias in the distance, exchanged hugs, loaded my gear into the dinghy, and James brought me ashore.

James, Myself, Isa, and Roberta

I am presently sitting on the beach, cushioned by the sand and leaning back against a piece of driftwood. I'm fifteen or so feet from a series of wheel tracks left in the sand by planes who've landed recently to drop off or pick up kayakers. The Eliris is now gone, and I am alone. Well, mostly alone. I've been watching black oystercatchers fly overhead and poke among the rocks at low tide. A group of a dozen or so surf scoters are playing in the small amount of surf, hoping, perhaps, that it will churn up a meal. A seal occasionally surfaces, but I don't think it's seen me yet. I've got great visibility to see any bears coming, so that's really not a concern. There are some tracks nearby, but they're faded beyond recognition. I would guess that they belong to a wolf, but they seem too small. I've never seen a coyote in these parts, but I'm sure that's not outside the realm of possibility (I need to check into that, as the animal track field guide I have with me tells me nothing of range distribution). For a snack, I am nibbling on a little tuft of beach greens. Mmm... salty. Looks like it's starting to rain, so I'll write more later, perhaps.

Wednesday, April 16, 2004 - 11.30

The rain never really amounted to much. It's in the fifties (10-15C), variable winds, partly (mostly) cloudy with eight to ten thousand foot (~2500-3000m) ceilings. The sun did shine on me briefly while I was sitting in half lotus on the beach meditating on a semi-elliptical/flat rock that I found. I normally don't take things from the park, but it's not against the regulations here, it's been a special weekend/day for me that I'd like to remember, so I'm bringing it back with me - I see so many things when I look (into) at it. I did some yoga; it's lovely to gaze forward during triangle and see a bit of surf and ice bergs, then transition to revolved triangle to see Mt. St. Elias. I am one of the most fortunate people on Earth.

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose)
St. Elias in the distance

I just heard the distant thunder of the (Guyot) glacier calving and half a dozen black, long-necked birds (guillemots maybe?) just flew past perhaps ten feet above the water. I took a stroll. Found the remains of a rather recent camp fire, and also found where something has been cleaning sea urchins and crabs for supper, possibly a bear, though I see no tracks. The tide is coming in.

I am anything but bored as I sit here observing the world. Rocks on the beach vary from red to brown to blue grey to grey. Beach greens and grass contribute vibrant shades of green. Beach pea and various discarded mussel shells contribute bits of purple. The surf comes and goes, sometimes more sound than visible wave, sometimes a crescendo of white.

I recall the first time I camped here, how I worried about the placement of my tent; I knew it was high enough, but the water is loud and carries and sounds so close. I wonder if I'll ever see this place again, or if this is my last visit to the bay. Sad to lose so much familiar beauty, excited to think of what other wonders lie ahead.

I seem to have lost the top/press from my French press in the process of coming to shore. Damn.

It got fairly warm for a bit. I napped, curled against the softness and support of my pack. It was pleasant.

There are tiny red spiders everywhere.

These waves churn everyday, endlessly, regardless of who listens or observes. The ice bergs shift on the tide. It is raining to the west, I can see it. And I hear thunder, but the only thunder we have here is generally that of the ice. Perhaps a berg is turning somewhere nearby that I can't see.

A gull landed nearby. I've sat still so long, buried in my book and napping, that I no longer concern him. He's surely looking for food, as animals must always do, and yet he's walking slowly - strolling, actually. Calm and measured steps. Occasionally pecking the ground, but only occasionally. He seems more intent on enjoying the day.

I hear a plane.