When we piled out into the dust and cool of the morning we were barely a quarter-mile from the end of the road. Unlike the sprawling blanket of spruce and meadows covering the glacially-crafted elevations we’d seen from the windows of the de Havilland Otter the evening before, we were now face-to-face with southeast Alaska. Wilderness. The end of the road. I stood for a fistful of seconds, surveying the dense growth just off the front bumper of our SUV and turned to identify the one person out of the other six I’d need to outrun if that dense growth produced a brown bear.
To get here, our caravan out of Auke Bay, just north of Juneau, followed the blacktop as it wound its way along the coast, guarded by spruce, boulders and dense fern undergrowth on both sides. Between the trees, glimpses of wide saltwater, sharp-shouldered islands, a small, postcard-like scatter of boats seining for silvers and kings. The further we drove the road narrowed. We reached a flagman who held us up to follow an escort truck through a few construction zones. I hung an elbow out my window and watched the rumbling busyness of heavy equipment and men in hard hats and boots busting up massive knots of bedrock to widen and improve passage. The road narrowed even more. A few miles further, as we pulled into the lot, the road curved left ahead of us and disappeared into the immense green.
Pulling on waders, passing bug-dope, stowing water bottles and bear spray in our packs, lining rods and tying on flies like bets placed on a stud hand you haven’t even looked at—the seven of us fell into hopeful, impatient, nervous chatter about pinks, dollies, chum, brown bear and the immensity of what we were about to witness.
But in this moment I felt decidedly, suddenly, disconcertingly under-prepared. Packing lists, advice, cross-country flights and drives north out-the-road listening to bluegrass only get you to the water. Steps along the heavy-canopied peat and spruce paths and into the blind, milky artery flowing from glacier to salt would be my own from this point. Intentions, intuition, instinct and mis-steps would be my own. The road had narrowed more than the blacktop we drove in on. My mind was down to a game trail in a wilderness of its own. I was used to feeling inconsequential – a residential hazard of my upstate New York roots where everyone is holding onto their own small, posted patch of heaven in the face of gluttonous taxes, commercial development and manicured Stepford-suburbia sprawl. Our wild, undeveloped places seem to get smaller with every punch thrown in their defense. But in the grand scheme of Southeast Alaska, of the Tongass and it’s millions of salmon and spruce acres—my inconsequence had more to do with realizing just how small my existence on this planet really is. I was reminded of how I felt on trips to Idaho and Oregon, northern Michigan and the Keys, Colorado and Montana. I closed my eyes and returned to the quiet wonder of my upstate New York childhood when I would escape and spend my days haunting the dense, still-undeveloped shorelines of my favorite fishing spots.
The more I let myself embrace the weight of my existence vs. the magnitude and beautiful unknown of this place and this moment, the bigger I felt. I grew with each whistle that echoed into the primeval growth or pierced the brilliantly dense fireweed for brown bears in day-bed drowse, and each step that found the river bottom, alive and ever-shifting. I began to understand that my steps here, or anywhere on this planet, are not, in fact, inconsequential. Under the vigilant sidelong eye of a host of bald eagles and stoic indifference of snow-covered mountains, I discovered the end of my own road. And the narrower it got, the wider my horizons became.
This is the first of three pieces I’ve written since my trip to the Tongass National Forest this past July as part of Trout Unlimited’s Blogger Tour. As far as the other two, one is in the online magazine – Revive Fly Fishing and the other showed up on this blog a handful of posts ago. I’m working on getting back – even further north – so I have more to write about.