I am back from my adventure where I learned to kayak on the glacial lakes way up in southeast Alaska, without personal horrors of over-turning and drowning in the glacial run-off from Margerie or Pacific glaciers! The state is three times the size of ginormous Texas. (That is a favored neologism, bigger than gigantic and enormous.) An intrepid sportswoman, I wanted to kayak on my own, but I settled for sitting in the front and navigating the teal-blue craft through the mirror-calm waters where about every 40 meters we would spot the distinctive blow-breath of a humpback in the distance, or the right up-close adorable schnozz of a harbor seal, curious about these interlopers in his private preserve.
Though my partner was a long drink of water, standing some 6’4″, somehow he managed to fit into the hole in the back and managed to use the paddle with dexterity, even though he had had some sort of rod implanted in his leg from an injury years ago. Stephen was pleasant to kayak with despite his proclivity to steer directly at any other craft within eyeshot. He thought it funny to threaten the peaceful paddling of his wife or strangers. I had to scramble to avoid hitting more than one of these hapless gliding innocents. He thought it amusing to tell people to look at us rather than the bears on the shore, so he got all the good pictures. Still, with Stephen in the rear I was not afraid of capsizing, falling out, or drowning.
And now, the secret of kayaking: The hardest part (if the weather is mild, and the water is not turbulent) is getting in or out of the stubborn thing. Once in, you’re good to go, and the serenity and Zen of the sport is healing balm. But keep a buddy on land to help you alight. Or keep your upper body strength at max to lift yourself from that devil well where your legs lie forgotten for several hours at a time.
We observed much natural wildlife — black and brown bears, humpback whales, sea otters, dolphins, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, owls, warblers, wrens, finches, geese, moose, and so on. The scenery was elegiac, similar to but different from the glorious scenery I doted on in Antarctica. The towns I visited had manageable populations 3,000, 12,000, 9,000, or the biggest, 30,000 people. These are quaint and colorful fishing villages, people sized, and the lore of the fishermen was fascinating to me, as I worked for many years as a staffer on a hunting and fishing magazine. I spoke with men and their families who fished salmon, halibut, and pollock, those tasty fish that go for huge numbers nowadays. A good-sized halibut, for instance, sells for $4-6 a pound, and a single fish, halibut, can bring in $400 or more. Many of the fishermen of some decades ago became millionaires. Their homes up there, among the firs and the pines stuck so far north in the winter-frigid zones (it gets to -40 and -50 degrees in the ‘cold’ months), are amazing to see.
Springtime in Juneau
Life in these villages is quite expensive with rents not too far different from those in big cities down in the Lower 48. I must have brought the good weather, as the sun shone much of the time and temperatures wavered between 35 and 55 Fahrenheit. It rained a good bit, but I had the right gear to laugh at that minor inconvenience. My local guide, Kim, told me they have two seasons in Alaska, in the temperate rain forest I was berthing in: “We have the rainy season. That’s now. And the rainier season… that’s all the rest of the time.”
The fishermen go out to sea in their sturdy fishing vessels, with winches and hawsers and nets, staying out for 4 to 5 days, bringing in their huge catches to offload before the fish go bad. Sometimes company tenders go out to meet them so they can bring the haul faster to market. We enjoyed king crab, but even up there, so much work to eat. I am all about sustainable development, meaning that the hunter and fisher must be responsible with their practices and not over-fish and over-hunt. The sea otter, with its luxuriously silky, millipore fur was almost hunted to extinction by the Russians 150 years ago. They are experiencing a bounce-back now, but it has taken them many years to recover. Likewise, the fish we love to chow down on is caught responsibly with only so many pounds of catch permitted and many laws on the books about
permitting escapement for the fry so that thoughtless over-fishing does not destroy the populations.
I mentioned pollock, earlier. The secret to ‘fake’ crab and shrimp in all the supermarkets is pollock, stamped out and plugged and tinted and colored and sold for those who cannot afford the real thing. When I was a child in England fish was cheap and not many people seemed to eat very much. My mother baked and cooked it all the time, though back then it was not our favorite. She knew even then how healthy it was. And even though we preferred chicken or beef or turkey, it was in its way lighter and more delicious than we gave it credit for.
Did I have any shrimp in Alaska? NO! Do not go for shrimp because shrimp (prawns) are not captured with responsible techniques, but by dragging the bottom, harming the beds of many fish and their fry. The careful fishermen in Alaska , and conscientious expeditions will not catch or serve them. Nor, for that matter, will they serve farmed salmon, whose flesh is mushy and not as vibrant and tasty as fish from the wild. The honest fishermen of the north disapprove of the limited allures of farmed fish in general. Their craft has been an honest living for millennia and they don’t support the elimination of the wild in their wilderness diet.Well, there. I have told you far more than you cared to learn, right?
My new job is a short bike ride or even walk to work, a great savings in time and commuting treasure. It’s a good company and a solid opportunity. But all in all, I wonder if I would in the end prefer the more stripped-down, beatific, water-pendant life in quaint Ketchikan or St. Petersburg, where the populations are smaller than that in my Upper West Side condo.