I scramble over moss-covered boulders slick with rain, tortellini hissing nearby on a white gas stove balanced among beach stones. Behind me, blue and yellow tents hunch in a damp meadow, domes bright against a dark wall of rainforest. Kayaks rest against driftwood logs on cobble sloping to soft water.
This is the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, 635,179 protected acres deep in the heart of Southeast Alaska. I’m here as part of a new artist-in-the-wilderness program sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service. For nine days, I’m accompanying two kayak rangers on field patrol, shadowing them in their duties to steward this vast area. The goal of the program is for artists to participate in wilderness research, monitoring, and education projects alongside rangers to gain an appreciation of public lands and foster artistic exploration. I’ve come ready to write: a palm-size notebook stuffed in my pocket, another in my backpack, more in dry bags wedged inside the kayak’s fiberglass body.
It’s precious to be here, paddling glacial waters. To inhabit the wild and feel it inhabit me. But I’ve left something precious behind as well–my eighteen-month-old son. It’s my first time away, on a trip for myself, since he was born. As the trip begins, the questions rise and fall, tumbling their way through my heart. What will this expedition be like as a mother? Can I be here without guilt, and in turn, can I return home changed by this experience?
As I look down into tidepools suspended in clefts of bedrock, something surfaces within me. Curiosity. Wonder. An alignment with my essential nature. It’s a buoyant sensation, this freedom ballooning in my chest. Something I haven’t felt in a long time.
Taking the Leap
A week before the trip, I was full of doubt. Every day with our toddler was brimming with growth, as new words spilled out from a little voice trying out sounds. Cumber for cucumber. Rajah for raspberry. Pico for pinecone. What would I miss out on?
One night, I lay in bed with my son as he flopped around, resisting sleep. I grew impatient and frustrated as the minutes ticked by–10, 20, 30. Roll, flop, moan–the body next to me in constant motion. My mind wandered, haunted by the looming to-do list.
I was jolted back to the present as my son curled against my neck and began softly touching my face. “Nose, nose, nose,” he whispered in the dark, his finger landing on my nostril. “Eye, eye.” Then the tiniest little voice. “Cheek.” He lay his cheek against mine and I broke apart. A moment passing on swift wings, indescribable. I decided I couldn’t possibly leave him, even for a week.
When he finally fell asleep, I fretted and moaned to my partner Kevin. I can’t do it. He’ll change so much. He won’t understand why I’m not here, why there’s no milk. I was overcome with guilt.
“We’ll be fine, hon,” Kevin assured me. “Go out there and celebrate what you love.”
This was the reminder I needed. His permission helped me give the same to myself. Here was a chance to remember the woman I had been before becoming a mother, to reach out to her, reconnect. A woman who loved to kayak, to hike, to pitch a tent on a beach in Southeast Alaska and fall asleep in the arms of gravel and moss. It had been two years since I’d paddled for any length of time, two years since I’d been on a multi-night camping trip. I needed this.
As the trip neared, I began to get excited. A pile of gear took shape on our living room couch. Not the usual stack from the current routine: diapers, wipes, sippy cup, Cheerios, string cheese, stuffed monkey. This time it was long underwear, headlamp, paddle jacket, tidebook, pack towel, pocketknife, rubber boot insoles. I was gearing up for an expedition, packing for me.
In the Company of Longing
The first few days in the field, I throw myself headlong into the place. I follow the rangers as they scramble cliff faces and paddle through ice. At low tide, I wander the beach of a small island, circumnavigating ground usually covered by the sea, enthralled by piles of sea anemones and the endless arms of seastars. I feel completely present, grateful for the discoveries that each day holds. I scribble madly, as I can–on beaches, on ledges, in the tent before I give over to sleep.
Mid-way through the trip, an ache creeps in and I’m ready to call home. Camped a half mile from the face of a tidewater glacier, I climb a granite dome to dial home on the satellite phone. The first two tries don’t work. They bounce into space, missing their target. But the third connects, and with a rush of relief I hear Kevin’s voice.
“Tell me everything first,” I say, knowing the line could cut any moment. “Then I’ll talk.”
“We’re doing well, hon, really well. We’re at the glacier now and we’re eating cherries.” My eyes fill with tears. I can hear my son burbling in the background.
The incongruity of the moment sweeps over me, as I realize that we are both looking at centuries-old ice pouring from two adjacent icefields. I’m standing on land so raw there are no plants, no soil. Deep in a wilderness fiord, I’m on geologic time, not nap time, playdate time, or story time. I might as well have traveled into another dimension.
As I hold the satellite phone up to my ear, our voices fly up into the atmosphere traveling thousands of miles to find each other. Ironically, as the crow flies, we’re only about fifty miles apart. By modern standards, my child is so close, and yet I am worlds away.
The night before I left, in little bit of obsessive-compulsive mother behavior, I wrapped small gifts for each night I’d be away. Atagan has opened two trucks so far, Kevin tells me. “He carries them around the house talking to you,” he says. Hearing this, the tears come again. Why am I not there?
He puts the speaker on and I talk to Atagan, telling him I’m at a glacier too. I love you, I miss you, I’ll be home soon. The phone cuts out, I call back, it cuts out again.
There is a longing that stays with me as the connection dies–my psyche pulled from the depths of this fiord back to my family, propelled from raw wilderness to the back of the Subaru where a small boy clutches cherries in both fists.
For a few interminable moments after the call, my emotional body hovers between that life and the one before me. I desperately want both at once–is it possible? They feel like divergent archetypes. One woman delights in freedom and adventure, in living with an uninhibited spirit; the other is rooted to home, to duty: nurture, attend, protect.
Before the trip, I had told friends I was looking forward to focusing solely on writing and taking off my ‘mommy hat.’ I had thought I was coming to shed that role, to hop back into my old skin, the independent explorer of my pre-baby days. What I quickly discovered was that being mother isn’t a role one leaves behind. It’s not something weather-dependent, shrugged off and on like a raincoat. It’s deep inside the cells now, from the first blood vessels that wove themselves between my placenta and my son, to the sweet milky moments nursing when his small hand spreads like a star across my breast, to the giggles we exchange as we make animal noises–barking, growling, hooting, cawing, mooing. There’s no leaving this kind of love.
And here, in a bare glacier fiord, mothering is everywhere. Near the tent, depressions in the gravel–tern nests from early summer. Small mountain goat droppings next to big ones, littered over the rock faces where we climb. Mama moose tracks with a calf at her side. A seal pup almost as rotund as its mother, hauled out on a rock ledge at the waterline near our camp, barking a mewling cry.
Metaphors, too, surface daily, as surge waves from tumbling ice become in my mind the surges of contractions. With fierce momentum, surf hits our campsite: slam, subside, slam again. I am carried back to my own labor.
Playing with Danger
I paddle solo for the first time on the last day of the trip. While the rangers attend to some business at base camp, I head across the bay to a place I’ve been curious about: an abandoned Alaska Native village site. Edging up against the slant of pebble beach, I peel off the sprayskirt and pull myself out, one foot at a time. There’s a subtle difference to the trees here, an opening in the forest filled with bushes rather than the mature evergreens that line this coast in unbroken growth. That’s about all that tells the story of what was once a Tlingit village when looking inland from the beach. I’m eager to roam around and look for more evidence of the human lives once spent here.
The rangers have their own name for this beach: the bear coast. Laced with salmon streams, packed with berry bushes, book-ended by beach meadows, it’s perfect for brown bear. Paddling over, I don’t think much of it. After all, there are bears practically everywhere in Southeast Alaska. This was no different. I’m armed with a marine radio and a can of bear spray.
But when I turn from my kayak and face the bushes, my senses elevate a notch. There is no bear. Not at this moment. But there has been. As I look for an entrance into the thick woods, the obvious route is the one used by bears. Salmonberry and thimbleberry bushes are trampled in a wide swath, creating an opening into the darkness. Just where I am headed–or am I? I stand, unsure. It’s a beautiful stretch of shore in varying shades of green. Tall magenta spires of fireweed rock in a slight breeze. A rufous hummingbird buzzes in, whirring from blossom to blossom and hovering over one, two, three stalks of flowers. Peaceful, yes, but the presence of bear is strong in the air. It’s electric, taking up residence in my bones. And it’s then I feel the overwhelming need to return to my son.
I try to rationalize with myself. This is my week in the wilderness. This is my solo morning. Carpe diem. I grip the bear spray and dive into the bushes where the bears have come before me. Step by step over matted grasses and beaten down leaves, I find myself more and more on edge. What is most unnerving is the density of the vegetation. You could literally come face to face with a large predator, no warning.
So I think sing, Aleria, sing! The first song to my lips is Baby Beluga. What would have been Joni Mitchell or John Prine a few years ago is now Raffi. I belt it out, glancing down at the marine radio slung to my waist, wondering if it can accidentally be left in the ‘on’ setting to broadcast a garbled children’s song to all vessels within earshot.
Once inside the dim understory of spruce and hemlock, I scour the woods for both signs of bear and the old village. The only evidence I find of inhabitants is a rectangular shaped depression in the duff, perhaps the sunken floor to an old gathering house or sleeping quarters. I wish I could peel back time, reverse the rapid growth of this forest and see into Tlingit life centuries ago.
But my dreaming is short-lived as I become more uncomfortable. I realize I’ve rarely traveled in dense brown bear country alone. Though it’s been a treat to sink into solitude and contemplation today, my unease is overpowering. I double-back to the bear trail leading to open beach, stumble into the light, into my boat, onto the water. Safe.
Feeling sheepish, I reluctantly face the fact that my tolerance for risk has changed. My perception of danger may never be the same. Before becoming a mother, I might have been slightly unsettled nosing about alone in bear country; now I feel the searing responsibility of survival, of being there for my son. It’s a new weight, a new vulnerability.
I’d felt it camping near the glacier too. Twice the rock niche where we staged our gear was inundated by tsunami-like waves from massive ice calvings. One day as we readied to leave, one of the rangers was brushing his teeth at the water’s edge when the waves rushed in with no warning. He scrambled for higher ground just inches ahead of the frothing surf gnashing at his ankles. Incoming waves surged higher and higher, sweeping away our tarp and water bag. The glacier cracked behind us, a reminder that natural forces had the upper hand, that we were merely visitors–small, warm-blooded, and fragile.
That day, I packed my kayak with shaking hands. At any moment a skyscraper-sized block of ice could fall again, sending another series of waves roaring into our cove. I stuffed gear into the hatches as fast as I could, thinking I have to make it home. This was a new kind of survival instinct, some kind of climbing maternal vine braided through my physical body, taking hold. I needed to come home to be a mom, for as long as my life would let me.
Remembering the Self
Many times since giving birth, I had feared that my inner explorer had died. I couldn’t find her. Trying to adjust to the intensity of infant and then toddler care, it was easy to compartmentalize. That part of my life is over. I’m a parent now.
So, at the end of the week, it’s hugely gratifying to know that she isn’t gone. Though I hadn’t anticipated it, the week took on the mantle of a pilgrimage. I had come to write and hike and paddle. To think about what it means to be wild. I hadn’t realized I would feel such a return to my “self-place.”
Watching chunks of ice rise like blue glass from the sea beneath the face of the glacier, I think here is a place to be re-born. Here I am at the source. What I’m being given this week is sustenance for the heart. For me and for my family.
At the close of the trip, I feel honed to the landscape around me, feral. Listening to rain fall on the nylon roof of the tent, I think of water and how it cycles. Lifted from the surface of the sea to fall from the sky, transformed. Same molecules, different structure. It seems to me that my “selves” will take turns too–rising and falling, giving way to the other. And that’s okay by me.
What I have realized is this: when you’re knee-deep in the demands of motherhood, even in the sweet snuggling glorious moments that you never want to end, another woman simmers inside you. She is mossy and wild. She sings when you listen. Her spirit is incandescent–she is the blue fire of glacial ice.
*Note: This essay came into being through the author’s participation in the U.S. Forest Service Voices of the Wilderness artist residency in the Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness of Southeast Alaska. For information on the program, visit http://www.voicesofthewilderness.blogspot.com/