Exit from Civilization
Anchorage to Tyonek – May 22 to May 28, 2013
Anchorage was cars and grit and a roar louder than the wind. It was an unseasonable snowstorm, walking sidewalks shrouded in a sleeping bag to protect a napping Lituya, turning the heads of cars as I fought back the last remnant of my mostly dead self-consciousness. It was relaxing indoors with new and old friends as we waited for Knik Arm to calm.
Since we had no access to internet for the last half of the trip on West Cook Inlet, I’m putting up a series of blog posts that will take you from Anchorage to the end. This is the first installment.
I don’t usually enter into battles with inanimate geography. But we have a history with Knik Arm. In the winter of 2008, that scant two miles of water shut us out–for two weeks–with a crush of swirling ice floes. It forced us back to our skis, where we retraced our tracks on the piles of plow-thrown snow next to the Glenn Highway.
This time, mud sucked both shoes off of both kids feet as we readied to launch. We entered Knik Arm in the steep curves of a muddy slough barely wider than the boats. We plugged the creek in the narrowest spots, damming the water until it flowed up and over the sterns, pouring in, and drowning the cell phone in Hig’s pocket.
But Knik Arm itself was unreasonably easy. And I was still unreasonably proud of myself when we reached the other side. Not an accomplishment, but a turning point. Between east side civilization and the wilder west edge of the inlet. Heading out into mud flats that dwarfed Chickaloon Bay and Turnagain Arm.
The Middle of the Ocean
The tide hit the base of the sand castle first. It undermined the crumbling foundation, curled around the walls, and poured into the space behind them. It flooded up the steep banks, up to where the expanse of rippled sand steamed in the sun–up to the edge of our waiting rafts. Katmai wondered what would happen to the ‘sand mice’ that inhabited his castle. Had they learned how to swim?
Then the island was gone, a stream of hissing bubbles ascending to the surface through the rising tide. A dozen belugas joined us at the edge of the current, whooshing and splashing as they fed in the eddy line. Mirages stretched the distant shore into a city of skyscrapers. Mt Susitna hovered like an island above a cushion of mirror-like water. Trees floated on nothing, some uncountable number of miles away.
We were in the middle of the ocean.
We were flotsam in the currents, tugged by the vast Susitna River and the even vaster Cook Inlet. We looked for specks on the horizon, lining them up against the flanks of Mt Susitna and watching how they moved–trying to get some clue as to our speed and direction. We didn’t know how far we were from shore, or what shore even consisted of.
Neither did the seal.
It left its sandbar to beeline for the packrafts with a plaintive “Raaaarh, raaaaarh!”, nosing first Hig’s yellow boat, then my red one. Clearly a baby. Clearly alone. The lost seal followed us to another sandbar, where it hauled itself out, shivering in the warm sun. And then as the tide caught up with us, it followed the boats.
It hadn’t mistaken us for its mother. It had mistaken us for land, desperately seeking a haulout on the slippery tubes of the rafts. The water was rising on the outer edge of the Susitna delta, and everything solid would soon be miles away. It followed us for a good 10 minutes, porpoising up and down as it swam–keeping track of us in the silty water. Its speed was an easy match for ours, hopefully a sign that it had the energy to survive the cold water a while longer. Its cries were awful to listen to, and I couldn’t help but feel relieved when it finally swam away for another sandbar. Even there, it had only one more minute of dry land.
We didn’t see the end of the story. So I’ll give you Katmai’s version.
“There’s this seal called the Perdonner Seal, and it finds baby seals that have been lost from their mothers, and it protects them. It protects them and brings them to the Showing Seal, that shows them how to fish and do everything. They go to this place called Baby Practice, that’s like the ocean but it has rock walls all around it, and fish get put in, and the Showing Seal shows the babies how to catch them, and then they practice until they know how to do everything seals need to do.”
We adults are rarely so optimistic. Not about baby seals. And not about the Inlet that surrounds them.
Failures seem irreversible. Lost seals die. Eroding coasts crumble. Climate changes. Shrinking stocks of fish, crabs, birds and whales dwindle further with every generation. And by believing in that inevitability, we help to make it true.
Just beyond the Susitna Delta, we ran into the only two communities on the west side of Cook Inlet; Beluga and Tyonek, where we asked them what we’ve been asking everyone; Their vision of Alaska’s future.
Larry, Beluga: “If we beat the coal mine, I think this area will degrade, rather than build up. This is the biggest power plant in the state. But it’s old. And the gas field is depleting. And they’ve built a brand new power plant in Anchorage. I think we’ll see soon, within 10 years, a gas line to Anchorage from the North slope. And then this plant will be obsolete. They won’t need the dams on the Susitna. Chackachamna will be obsolete, the coal gasification will be obsolete. One of these days I think we’ll see water as a resource here. Governor Hickel had the idea back in the day, and everybody laughed at him. But one day it’ll be like Seward’s Folly. Everywhere down in the lower 48 they’re polluting their water or its drying up, with the fracking and the runoff…”
Judy, Beluga: “Down in Yakima, I wouldn’t touch the sloughs I used to swim in as a kid. I wish they would just leave us alone. We’ve seen what they’ve done in the lower 48, and can’t we just leave one place not polluted and developed? Some place that people can go walking. That your kids and their kids will be able to.”
Frank, Tyonek: “It sucks. They talk about economic development. But we’ve been there and done that, and you see what happens… Our culture was the first to be impacted here. Our fish are depleted. We didn’t even catch one king today. The woodchip mill destroyed the silver run in the creek by putting gravel and birch bark over the wetlands, and brought in lots of new bugs on that ship. I don’t think it will turn around.”
Humans can think about the future. But sometimes I feel that we act more like the baby seal, swimming towards every new sandbar with a shortsighted hope that the world isn’t changing after all, weaving back and forth for an extra five minutes above the water.
Trying to ignore the tide.