Each year I try to get away for at least a week or two and find some place where I can disconnect. A place where I can’t interact with anything electronic or digital. Twenty years ago it was a desolate spot in the Sierras or, perhaps, a road trip through Turkey with some buddies. These days it’s proving much more challenging to find.
Regardless of the location or activity, I always experience the same feelings. The first three days are jarring as I am forced into rapid decompression. It’s the psychological equivalent of this as I am ripped from my Twitter feed, radio news programs, video streaming, blogs, iPod and never ceasing emails.
But then something special happens.
This year eight of us, including me, my son, four friends and two guides* (who are now friends as well), decided to explore a 75 mile stretch of Alaska by kayak. For eight days we paddled between the islands and inlets of Prince Williams Sound completely removed from the “real world.” As expected, the first few days were less than pleasant. Everything felt uncomfortable and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something, that I should be somewhere else.
Then everything changed as I relaxed and my focus widened. I found myself laughing as I watched fat bellied guillemots bouncing across the water as they tried to get airborne. I delighted in the sight of cartoonish puffins diving across the bow of my kayak. And, I discovered that spending time skipping rocks with my son was one of the most important activities in my life – even if he always won.
Near Mears Glacier we camped less than a 1/2 mile from the epicenter of the 1964 earthquake – one of the worst earthquakes in recorded history with a magnitude of 9.2 that shook the western U.S. for over four minutes. Across the inlet from our campsite we could see a grove of grey, skeletal trees, an almost fifty year old reminder of when the quake caused the ground to suddenly drop 6-8 feet and their roots became exposed to the salt water.
As we travelled over the course of the week we were accosted by hundreds of sea lions swimming so close you could smell their breath (seriously fishy) and watched dozens of sea otters questioning our presence. We witnessed a bald eagle repeatedly attempting to grab a chick from a colony of kittiwakes; tried to follow a humpback and it’s calf, but settled for floating quietly in our kayaks and listening to their haunting calls; and regenerated our spirits in days of endless light.
On our approach to Columbia Glacier, we lunched on the glacier’s terminal moraine –the outer edge of where the glacier had once reached. It was an inspiring view until one of our guides informed us that our location was where the glacier rested – in 1982. It has since receded ten miles. Then the view became sobering.
We also had plenty of interactions with Alaska’s state bird. Way too many. But even they could not diminish the warm glow that I felt. It was if I was tuning my spirit to something in the evolutionary past.
When we finally returned to Valdez I reluctantly pulled out my mobile phone and turned it on. After the screen powered up, I let out a long, deep sigh.
I once again had five bars.
* A special note of thanks to Zak and Barrett from the team at Pangaea who kept us from getting lost (one of my personal specialties as friends will attest) and extremely well fed. Who knew you could make a cheesecake using a glacier stream for refrigeration? They were quite simply – amazing. And, you know you are going to like a guide when within five minutes of meeting him he tells you this joke: “Why do mermaids wear seashells? Because they outgrew their “B” shells.” (Insert your laugher here.)
(And a special thanks to “B” for the photos.)