We are a people of lists. Some can’t go through the day without a string of pertinent “to-do’s” to guide them.
People have missed dental appointments, planes and even job interviews because they either didn’t check their priority lists or didn’t bother to make them in the first place.
We are living in the age of the organizer, the planner, the time budget. But there are some happenings that we can’t jot down on our list.
Take, for instance, those moments of sheer wonder and magic when it seems the breeze of Paradise blows our way and we awaken to the realization that this life is really a miracle. These moments don’t happen often, but when they do, they inspire us to chime in with the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote, “Life is real, life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal, ‘Dust thou art to dust returneth’ was not spoken of the soul.”
On this Thanksgiving and Advent season I hearken back to special moments in places on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula where I caught a glimpse of untarnished, unadulterated Beauty.
In the summer of 1979 I went to Shuyak Island. I stayed at Port Williams, where King Crab Inc. ran a processing plant for many years. During the day I rode around the area in a Boston Whaler, operated by Kelly, a caretaker at Port Williams.
One evening camper Bill Johnson showed up in his kayak to get some fresh water. He invited me to join him on his ride to Big Bay. We traveled on the Shelikof Strait, which was as calm as a lily pond that night.
I heard the sounds that had been drowned out by the noise of Kelly’s kicker earlier that day. With that quietness, came a heightened sense of sight and sound. Sea otters lazily basked on the water. Porpoises somersaulted in front of us. On the beach a deer ate grass. “This is like the world before the Fall from Eden,” I told myself.
Such serenity. Such peacefulness.
The next summer I worked a gillnet site in the Uganik system. One night, way past midnight, I fought with kelp and debris in the gillnet while I untangled fish and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I was exhausted. I couldn’t wait to get the job done so I could go back to the cabin and sleep those few hours before I’d have to get up and do this all over again. I was in a foul mood and cursing the kelp when a new school of fish hit the net. I noticed a glint of light behind me. I turned around and what I saw actually took my breath away. I let out an Ahhh. The sun was setting on the mountains of the Alaska Peninsula and its rays projected across the
Strait into the bay. The mountains and clouds were bathed in golden light.
My first thought was, “The gates of Paradise.” The ancient Greeks could easily have mistaken it for Mount Olympus. It’s a magical moment that I still remember.
I got to spend time on the Alaska Peninsula in the summer of 1997 when I was hired as a chef at Katmai Wilderness Lodge in Kukak Bay, a part of Katmai National Park. Joe Allen, who was a fishing guide there at the time, said that once I spent a summer in Kukak Bay I’d be getting Katmai fever every spring.
As I looked at photos of the beautiful setting, I could see what he meant. But I was disappointed. I went through the whole summer and, though I was in awe of the beauty and splendor of Kukak Bay, my enthusiasm wasn’t at a feverish pitch. But the magic finally came one day as John Bartolino, another guide, and I closed up camp.
I was in the kitchen looking out the window and right away I noticed two brazen blue jays — autumn newcomers to the bay — chasing each other in exuberant cacophony. I felt the sterling goodness of autumn. Joy and sadness were in the air, one on the tail of the other, just like those crazy blue jays that I watched from the lodge window. That was it. The magic. It finally came on my last day.
There were many wonderful moments I enjoyed the following years. A couple of years later, at the end of the season, a volunteer and I at Kukak ate dinner on the Dream Catcher, a boat owned by Perry and Angela Mollen. Once again the atmosphere worked its spell on me. We didn’t hear the generator anymore, which ran frequently at the lodge. There were no planes in the area. We had sweet conversation to the sound of water lapping against the boat, of seagulls signaling the coming winter. You want to take moments like that and wrap them in a package or store them in a bottle before you descend from the heights and go into the valley of everyday life.
Shuyak, Uganik and Kukak were beautiful, but when I first stepped foot on Sitkinak Island south of Kodiak I wasn’t impressed by its geography. It was a drab, fall day in 1979. I had gone there to do a story about the caretaker at the old LORAN station. More than 20 years later I went back to Sitkinak to cook at the ranch operated by Bob Mudd and his son, Nathan.
It was late October, shortly before the 2010 midterm elections. The airwaves and internet were flooded with heated debates and editorials on the candidates and political issues. At Sitkinak, we were not immune from the political maelstrom. The internet and satellite radio let us know what was going on in Seattle, New York, Washington, DC, and other places where politics was the topic of the day.
But on Sitkinak Island, life went by a different rhythm, a different standard. There were no yard signs showing devotion to this candidate or that candidate. The scalpel of politics cuts away at friendships and alliances. But we didn’t allow differing ideologies to divide us on Sitkinak. We learned to become one with the land and each other, cohabiting the island with the fox, the deer, the birds and the cows that chewed peacefully on the beach grass.
There is something about the wilderness that cuts away like a knife. Only this scalpel united instead of divided. It united us as we learned to live by the wilderness rules, its temperament and its rhythm. It reminded us that we are just a bleep on God’s eternal radar screen. But, oh, how much wonder, joy, sorrow and sheer excitement occur within that tiny bleep.
On Sitkinak Island there was a sadness that comes at twilight, when the mountains on the cape and across the bay become mere lines on the landscape. They began to disappear from us like dear friends who had passed from this life. We became friends at Sitkinak. The Mudds, Edy DeLeon and his crew, the inspector, Clarence Siroky — all of us. We worked together here in the hinterland. Norwegian, German, Guatemalan, Mexican, Filipino.
On Thanksgiving, I listened to the conversations at the dinner table. Bob, Nathan and Clarence talked about getting charged by bulls. At the other end of the table Edy and his primarily Hispanic crew were involved in a different conversation. I caught Spanish words here and there, trying to figure out the import of their dialogue.
When the sun cracked through the ominous clouds and shone on the restless ocean, we were all touched by the majesty of the Creator. In our own languages we said “Awesome!”