Epilogue: Returning
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234 Epilogue Returning Where else is there to go after the land? To the blue sky? To memory?  — ​Rick Bass, The Lost Grizzlies The loss of memory will be an eternal loss of meaning.  — ​Bill McKibben, The End of Nature I first glimpsed for myself a level of natural abundance akin to what had mesmerized early explorers in the Americas  — ​ and ultimately lured wave after wave of European settlers  — ​ in August of 1982, my first summer of six years living in southeastern Alaska. Solstice had passed just a month before, the longest day of the year. This far north, even after a day’s work you could launch a kayak and still get in a good five hours of fishing in full daylight. In fact, at the height of summer, darkness never quite arrives in Juneau. At latitude 58.3019 — ​ well below the Arctic Circle — ​ sun sets ever so gradually behind the mountains, but before twilight afterglow subsides, sky begins to brighten. A friend had lent me a thousand dollars to buy a folding kayak perfected by a German firm nearly a century earlier and designed expressly not to roll. I had vowed never to use a canoe that could be swamped all too easily — ​ or worse yet, capsize — ​ in the cold waters of the North Pacific. With its ingenious wooden frame, canvas hull, and built-­ in inflatable flotation, the Klepper struck me as a far safer choice for sea kayaking. ­ Moreover, “a clever operator,” the quaint translation of directions read, could ­ assemble the craft in less time than you might imagine, far faster than I have ever actually managed. In fact, when broken down, the boat could even be 235 Epilogue: Returning checked as luggage on commercial flights. I stowed my kayak all summer at the very end of Thane Road about five miles out of town, tethered to a tree just above the tideline on a neighbor’s beach. Max, an elderly gent of Norwegian descent and a lifelong Alaskan, knew these local waters intimately as a commercial fisherman. He suggested that in a day or so I could paddle to a historic Civilian Conservation Corps cabin within sight of the Taku Glacier in the forest near West Turner Lake  — ​ stocked decades ago with landlocked sockeye salmon known as kokanee. After waiting until both weather and tides seemed right, I set out. In a small craft, it is prudent to hug the shoreline; at such latitudes, water temperatures remain cold enough year-­ round to swiftly trigger ­ hypothermia. To reach the cabin, however, I would need to cross to the far shore of Taku Inlet, traversing open water for a mile or more. It seemed irresistible enough to be worth the risk, and I would not be disappointed. Sheer stone cliffs soared above the southern shore, where in summer colonies of seabirds roost in their untold multitudes, at moments wheeling in impromptu flocks high above. On arrival at the mouth of the river that connects West Turner Lake to the inlet, I found salmon were at the very height of their run, returning like all anadromous fish to spawn in freshwater. The whole spectacle seemed miraculous to me as a newcomer to the north. The channel was so choked with fish that the current turned muscular, raising the entire river, its surface riddled from bank to bank with fins. I realized that this was the same abundance that explorers, colonists, and pioneers had once marveled at across much of the continent. When would I ever get the chance to return and witness this again? After a soggy night on flats just above tideline at the mouth of the river, the rain let up. Seals feeding just offshore watched me with a curiosity that seemed almost human. I was soon startled to discover that I was not alone. Perched on a rock just upstream was what I least expected, another human being: a semiprofessional wildlife photographer. Like me, he had become entranced watching the inquisitive seals bob and feed. He and two companions from the Upper Midwest had booked the ccc cabin by the lake for a week and arrived by floatplane a few days before. But given dire weather forecasts, they had radioed for a plane to retrieve them that afternoon. They offered me use of the cabin for the following four days, which seemed at the moment a stroke of fate. Reimagining Environmental History 236 While weathered in at West Turner Lake, I holed up in that cabin...