Exit from Exit Glacier

The summer I turned 19 I applied for a dinner cook position with a ecotourism guide outfit in Alaska called Alaska Wildland Adventures (AWA).  Despite a complete lack of any real culinary experience to speak of, the housekeeping manager hired me, and after my college finals were over, I packed my backpack, mountain bike, and fishing rod and headed up to their Kenai Riverside Lodge.  Although I might have had a vague learn-how-to-cook life-skills goal, my real reason for wanting the job was just to spend the summer in Alaska doing something other than fishing.  Mostly, I was going for the 12 weekends I would have off to go hiking by myself, have some adventures, and bring back a few good yarns.  This is one of them.

Our company had a contractual relationship with a whale watching cruise outfit out of Seward, whom I was told would allow AWA employees on board free of charge if they had extra room.  Naturally I thumbed a series of rides over to Seward one weekend and hopped on board their boat for an evening cruise.  It was awesome.  The cruise was about four hours, and I saw sea lions, sea otters, tidewater glaciers, puffins, and innumerable sea birds.  After a complimentary salmon dinner, we made our way back to port as the long Alaskan summer dusk painted the peaks surrounding Resurrection Bay with alpenglow.  I found myself in the quiet euphoria of being on the cusp of adulthood, on my own in a distant land, with all that I needed in my backpack.  I was happy and at peace.

I intended to spend the night on the Resurrection River, which is the outflow from the Exit Glacier, a popular tourist destination, and a lowland finger of ice that joins with the much larger Harding Icefield above.  On my way in that afternoon I had noticed that it was only about a mile outside of downtown, so I decided to not even try to thumb a ride, and just take in the evening walking the road up to the turnoff.  I was happily making good time, taking time to pet friendly neighborhood dogs, when an older blue pickup pulled off the highway abruptly a few yards ahead of me.  Sometimes drivers see you with a backpack and offer a ride, but it’s not often.  Suddenly, right behind the truck, a cop car pulled off too.  Uh oh.

I scurried down the embankment and up the swale and took up my walk on the adjacent railroad tracks, watching out of my periphery the unfolding scene.  The two sheriff’s deputies got out of their patrol car and a kid who didn’t look a day over 14 got out of the truck.  Usually when cops pull you over you don’t get out of your vehicle, but these cops didn’t really seem to care.  Then another car, going the opposite way pulled over, and a woman jumped out, crossed the two lanes of traffic, all the while berating the boy, who I now assumed was her son.  From the snippets I overheard, ‘Billy’ had taken the truck out again without her permission, and she thanked the officers by their first names for tracking him down.  No citations were given – everyone knew that Billy would get what was coming to him at home.  I grinned as a passed the city limits and the ‘Seward, AK pop. 400.’  Small town indeed.

I walked over the Resurrection River bridge, watching the evening light dancing on the braided river and its wide gravel plain, and then headed west up Exit Glacier Rd.  It was getting on 10pm but there was still ample twilight in the July evening, so I decided I’d just walk till it got dark, and then find an inconspicuous place to pitch my tent on the gravel bar below.  There was no real point in trying to hitchhike the 8.5 miles to the parking lot at this hour, and besides any vehicle going up this way were likely to be tourists in rented RVs.  Only 50 yards up the road, a heard a car turn off the highway and come up behind me.  It was loud, like it didn’t have a muffler, and I pictured a jacked-up rusted-out truck driven by a 20-something kid.  My curiosity got the better of me as I heard it slow down beside me.  I had two out of three right, but instead of a big truck, the 20-something kid who leaned over to roll down the passenger side window was driving a tiny Honda Civic hatchback.  And if it wasn’t fully missing the muffler, it certainly wasn’t connected to the rest of the exhaust system.

“YOU WANT A RIDE?”

I hesitated, because over the summer I had developed a few hitchhiking rules out of experience.  These included:

  1. Always lay your backpack on the ground parallel to the road so as to appear smaller.
  2. Stand your ground.  Walking with your thumb out gives drivers the excuse of thinking that you can get to where you’re going on your own.
  3. Always smile and wave to those who don’t pick you up, so that the next car sees you as a good guy.
  4. Be cleanshaven and wear non-threatening clothes like my baby blue AWA t-shirt.
  5. Once inside, be agreeable.
  6. Never get into a car that sounds like it’s going to explode.

Against my better judgement I got into the car.  After all, it was only 8.5 miles to the Exit Glacier visitor center parking lot, and it would be pretty nice to get an early start already at the trailhead in the morning. What’s the worse that could happen?

It was even louder inside the car. Deafening really.  Shouting at each other was the only way communication was possible.  He introduced himself,

“I’M STEVE!”
“CHRIS!”
“WHERE YOU HEADED?!”

I explained where I was headed and my backstory, and it turned out he was from Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle.  From what I could gather above the roar of the engine, he was up here for the summer living with his Dad who had a house in the sub-development on our right.  I guessed he was kind of lonely, picking up random guys on the road and all, and he confirmed it when he asked if I wanted to ‘party later with him and his dad.’  In accordance with Rule #5, I said sure, and figured once I got to the glacier I’d make my exit.

“HEY REACH BEHIND YOU!  THERE SHOULD BE A BOTTLE OF GIN BACK THERE!”

Sure enough, an old bottle of Seagram’s with half the label gone was rolling around behind my seat, and as I brought it up, Steve gave me a wild toothy grin.  I took a swig, and forced it down.  After a debaucherous freshmen year in college, I had the highest tolerance I’d ever have, but I’d never acquired a taste for gin.

“HEY PASS THAT OVER HERE!”

I watched my left hand holding the bottle, as if dismembered from my rational brain, move toward Steve and pass him the bottle.  Steve took a swig and then motioned to a bottle of Sunny D in the cup holder between us,

“THERE’S SOME CHASER!”

I took a gulp, trying the rinse my mouth of the gin, but it had gin in it too.  Great.  Steve passed the bottle back, and thinking that it was probably safer to have me drunker than him, I eyed the remaining 4 shots or so and started guzzling.  I’m sure Steve was pretty thrilled at having found a drinking friend.

Around now the paved roadway gave way to washboard and I could look up the braiding plain of the river valley for the glacier.  What I noticed most of all though was the complete lack of a guardrail.  The roadway bobbed and weaved around the curving topography, and finally I caught a glimpse of the glacier in the fading daylight.  Almost there, thank god.  We passed by the unattended entrance gate, and into the expansive gravel parking lot.  Each space seemed to be able to accommodate a 30 foot RV.  As I was preparing my “I think I’m going to call it a night, thanks for the ride” speech, Steve starting doing donuts in the parking lot.  The engine screamed, gravel pinging inside the wheel wells.

“WOOOOOOHOOOOOOO!”

Steve let off the accelerator and pulled the car down a service road.

“I GOTTA PEE.”

He opened the door, leaving the engine roaring, and emptied his bladder into a stand of Sitka Alders two steps from the door.  It was a long pee – epically long actually, and I realized Steve had probably had a good deal to drink before I had gotten into the car.  This only made me more relieved to have made it alive to this point.  I prepared my speech.  Steve shook, buttoned up, and got behind the wheel.  He tried throwing it into reverse, but botched it, and as if the lack of a muffler wasn’t enough, the grinding gears probably emptied the surrounding forest of all wildlife for miles.  He finally got it, and we lumbered backwards back to the parking lot.  Steve was still under the impression that we were heading back down the road to party with his dad, so I turned toward him to thank him for the ride.

“LISTEN, STEVE, I-”
“HEY, WHO’S THAT?!”

Steve was looking over my shoulder.  I looked out my window, and despite there being nary a car in the parking lot,  indeed there was a man in a plaid shirt walking up the service road from where we had just pulled out.

“SEE IF HE NEEDS A RIDE!”

So with the bottle of gin in my right hand, I rolled down the window with two fingers and yelled at the man.

“HEY MAN, DO YOU NEED A RIDE?!”
“No, I work here.”

I..work…here.  The words hung in the twilight air like mugshot numbers.  Before I had time to think, Steve slammed it into first, floored it, and then into second.

“WHOAH WHOAH WHOA, HOLD ON! HE’S COOL, HE’S COOL”
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  DID YOU SEE THE WAY HE WAS LOOKING AT US?”

He was right.  The guy, who we both assumed was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service park ranger who lived on site, did give us the stink eye.  And though, I wasn’t sure, I thought I had seen him in the side mirror run back down the way he had come when Steve gunned it.  But still, it wasn’t like he was going to chase us in his car or something.  All of a sudden, we were heading back down the road we had just driven up.  It was dark now, and stars were winking in and out of the passing trees.  Then around a bend, an unmistakeable pair of headlights appeared in the rear view.

“OH SHIT!”

I reached for the seat belt and buckled in as Steve flashed me a crazy smile.

“YEAH MOTHERFUCKER!  IT’S SEAT BELT TIME!”

He slammed it into fourth.  Then fifth, and we still hadn’t made it back to the pavement.  We fishtailed around washboard corners, and I gave a side long glance to the speedometer, which read 65mph.  The beams of our headlights illuminated the curving roadway, and the blackness beyond the edge.  I kept imagining my parents having to fly up to Alaska up to identify my body, and found myself strangely thankful that Steve at least probably had a lot of experience driving drunk.  The headlights behind us disappeared, and I barely relaxed my grip on the Oh-Shit handle when we finally hit pavement.

“HEY, YOU STILL WANT TO PARTY?!”

I was speechless.  Steve applied the brakes, downshifted, turned left down a side gravel road into a subdivision, then a right, then another right, which deteriorated into dead end.  For the first time that night he shut the engine off, and we sat in the darkness, feeling very sober.  It was pretty awkward.  To fill the silence, I motioned to the house on the left,

“Is that your dad’s place?”

But before he had time to answer, the forest blazoned with flashing blue and red.  Apparently, we were parked in the woods below the elevated Exit Glacier roadway.  Above us, a state trooper SUV flew by in front of us, lights blazing.  It was obvious that the park ranger had called us in and asked for support to cut us off.  We didn’t say anything.  Steve just started up the car after the trooper had passed, stayed to the subdivision back roads until I was totally disoriented, and then pulled out onto a paved road.

“I THINK IT’D BE BEST IF WE GO OUR SEPARATE WAYS.”

I nodded, not caring where I was, and opened the door.  He pulled away, and stopped at a stop sign.  He seemed to be waiting, and as I caught up to him, he leaned over and rolled down the window again.

“UM, HEY, SORRY ABOUT ALL THIS.”

I waved the remark off as if to say “No big deal, I had a great time, really.” He pulled out and headed back for the highway, and as I listened to him drive away, I realized he would be the easiest car on the Kenai Peninsula to find.  I looked around and to my horror, I realized I was right back where he had picked me up.  I had made absolutely no progress.

I ducked behind a tree and changed my clothes and hat, so to appear different from any description on an APB (as if there were a bunch of other young guys with backpacks walking around at midnight on the Exit Glacier Road). Then I began walking back up the road, ducking behind trees anytime I saw the glow of headlights.  I eventually found a gravel mining bridge that got me over the main river channel, and I walked up the gravel plain away from the road until I found a berm I could lay my sleeping bag behind.  The last thing I wanted was my blue tent being visible in the morning in a sea of gray, so I just got in my bag and looked up at the stars wondering how such a pleasant evening could turn so quickly.  Never again, I told myself, would I bend that last hitchhiking rule.  As I closed my eyes and drifted off toward sleep, the river coursed by me in the darkness, shuttling unseen rocks downstream toward the bay, softening the ringing in my ears and washing any gin left in my system with them.

Message in a Bottle

If you’ve ever read Thoreau’s Walden, you might recall a passage in the chapter ‘Solitude’ that goes, “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.”  Thoreau wasn’t much for small talk.  He wanted to come away from every meeting with a person, having bounded over their walls to arrive at a perfect understanding of their quintessential self.  Thoreau was obviously an idealist, and being a solitary hermit on a certain lake, may not have acquired a realistic understanding of how vulnerable and exhausting this method of daily interaction might be.  Ironically though, for being a hermit bachelor, he inadvertently commented on a common phenomenon particular to long term couples. 

In a relationship it is our stories that are the musty cheese we feed each other.  Not directly to each other any more, mind you, but to guests or friends.  In fact, to determine if you have entered into “long term” relationship status, a simply barometer is the ability to anticipate which story your partner will bring up in response to a certain train of conversation.  We all have them, and if you are married, you’ve heard the same tired stories a hundred times before, and by now can tell them as accurately as though they were your own.

So to kick off this category, here is one of my slices of musty cheese:

As children, anytime my parent’s took us out in Limpet, our sluggish wooden Poulsbo boat, my brother and I would bring along two-liter pop bottles stuffed with messages, sealed tight with duct-tape, and hurl them into the Puget Sound with dreams of hearing back from far off tropical lands.  We included our names, a self-addressed stamped envelope, and a request to write back and let us know where they found the bottle.  People almost always wrote back, but being from Bainbridge Island, we were always disappointed when they wrote back from Silverdale, Port Orchard, or Bremerton.

One day in January, though, when we brother was in the third grade, he received a bona fide letter postmarked from Antarctica.  That’s right: Antarctica.  In it, the writer described how, as a marine biologist for NOAA, he had been counting seals on an iceflow off the Antarctic Peninsula, when he happened upon my brother’s bottle.  He went on to describe what he did, and what Antarctica was like, but none of us could get past the basic fact that my brother’s bottle had made it to Antarctica!  Our family was floored.  My brother brought the letter to show-and-tell and blew the other hapless kids with their pet garter snakes out of the water.  The letter became the stuff of family legend, and as such, it secured a place alongside out birth certificates and my parent’s will in their safety deposit box at the bank.  The story remained the same for the next 20 years.

When I was a junior in college, I was reading a National Geographic and came across an article about a retired UW ocenographer named Curtis Ebbesmeyer who studied flotsam.  Specifically, he inferred the trajectory of ocean currents based on the arrival of unusual things landing ashore on the north-eastern Pacific’s shorelines.  He did this though a informal network of beachcomber’s who kept him appraised of what they were finding through his newsletter and website.  The article described how Curtis was able to map the Pacific’s currents and velocities based on the arrival of red, white and blue hockey equipment that washed ashore Washington and Oregon’s coast in the summer of 1995.  He knew where they came from, having contacted the shipping company whose vessel lost that cargo container in a storm, and he compared its origin to reports he received of sightings of the stuff on the coast.

Well, I saw this stuff too.  I was hiking out near Cape Johnson with my parents that summer in 1995 on the Olympic Coast and came across what I thought were lacrosse gloves.  Since many of my friends at the time played lacrosse, and the gloves looked so good for having been in the ocean, and because the cost of lacrosse gear was not covered by our school, I remembered seriously considering packing it out.  I also kept a journal at the time, so I had an exact date for Curtis, which I included in my report to him.  He was skeptical, because this was the earliest landfall date he had for this event, and six years had passed, but I assured him that I had documented it in my journal and I was 100% confident in my observation.

As our emails back and forth were winding down, I brought up the miraculous story of my brother’s bottle.  I think he could tell that this held a special place for my family, so he let me down gently with a quick primer on ocean currents and the improbability of anything from our neck of the woods to make it out of the Puget Sound, much less to Antarctica.  Even if it would have gotten out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and headed south, anything that made it to the equator would be blown west toward Indonesia, and that would take years not months.

By this time, as a geography major, I should have known this, but childhood logic dies hard when not confronted with cold fact.  So I asked my mom to see the letter again the next time I was home, hoping to find some clue that could explain how my brother’s crayon-written letter could have found its way back home in a letter postmarked from Antarctica.

The postmark looked legit, and the writer seemed sincere.  But then I noticed two things that didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out.  The first was the letterhead.  It was the ship’s letterhead, and like many of NOAA’s ships, it’s address stated that the ship’s home port was Seattle’s Sand Point facility.  The second was the postmark’s date – December 14th, about 3 weeks before my brother’s birthday, which he had included in crayon for some reason in his letter.  I’m guessing three weeks would be about the amount of time for a letter to get from Antarctica to Washington State in the 80s.

So as best as I can figure, this NOAA marine biologist is walking down the beach during the summer in some unremarkable corner of Puget Sound and comes upon my brother’s pop bottle.  Instead of writing back immediately, he pockets the letter, brings it along with him on his journey to Antarctica, and writes back to my brother that he found his bottle bobbing in a ice flow, just in time for my brother’s 8th birthday.  Sure he lied, but like Santa Clause or the toothfairy, it brought a bit of unexpected magic to a little boy’s world.

What I love so much about this story, is that it so easily could have been destroyed by the truth – the postmark could have just been faked or the guy a crackpot.  Instead, some stranger packed my brother’s letter to the other end of the world, taking the time to make a boy he would never meet feel really special.  So instead, the story took on a new light, and became less a tale of miraculous ocean currents, and more about the kindness of strangers, and I believe the story is, by far, the richer for it.