The Extraordinary Ordinary
September 6th, 2019
(published in the Daily Memphian)
We walked along the edge of the water, my son and I, talking about this and that, beers in hand. We had to actually dodge dozens of bald eagles who were also walking along the shore, casually scavenging, and not paying much attention to us. Once in a while, one would pause to stare at us as we passed. And, my friends, an eagle can stare. Across the water, I could see three layers of snow-covered peaks. My son noted that I had stopped talking, rare for me, and that my jaw was hanging open in the moment.
“Yeah,” he said, “Pretty much mountains, pretty much everywhere.”
We were in Gustavus, Alaska, and Gaines had already been there for three months when Nora and I visited. He was working the summer after graduating college at Glacier Bay Lodge in Glacier Bay National Park, and what we were looking at was his ordinary, everyday experience.
We were there for just four of those ordinary days.
I saw the aforementioned eagles on shore, and I fed sea bass from my hand to eagles in the air from the transom of a small boat in the Icy Strait. I saw countless king crabs with four-foot wingspans off the dock one morning, and at least 30 30-ton humpback whales leap out of the water just off our port and starboard rails one afternoon.
I saw huge glaciers calving huge sheets of impossibly brilliant blue ice formed from snow that fell during our Revolutionary War, and a whole rocky island covered with thousands of Puffins. What we didn’t see during a full day on the water in sight of shore was a single sign of human habitation or endeavor other than two kayakers we picked up from an island.
I saw a big bull moose watch us pass from edge of the road on the way from the airport to the lodge, and I saw a 140-pound halibut on the end of my line that felt like I’d just hauled up a barn door from the bottom. What we didn’t see was an eight-foot Grizzly stand up on his hind legs and look through the window of our room at the lodge, but the people on the lodge deck did.
The modest lodge is the only hotel in the park, and the park is more than 3,000,000 acres in southeast Alaska, 2.8 million acres of it official U.S. Wilderness with 700 miles of shoreline. That’s about the size of Connecticut. Put another way, you could carve Yellowstone out of it and still have more than a million acres left.
The only road into the park was the shortest federal highway in the country then and probably now, less than ten miles from the tiny town of Gustavus to the lodge, and you can only get to Gustavus by air or boat. The Gustavus airport was the smallest in the country to allow Boeing 737’s to land, one flight a day in the summer when we visited and always in daylight. There were no lights. Our flight landed, taxied to the end of the single runway with the nose almost touching primeval forest, turned around like a big truck in a cul-de-sac, and returned to the ersatz terminal. There were two small buildings. One was for the single jet and staffed by one bored ticket agent and one bored TSA agent with one scanner. The other was for the many small planes and staffed by one sturdy woman with a sturdy pigtail who made the coffee, baked the muffins, tended the small bar, took the tickets for small prop plane passenger flights, loaded and unloaded the luggage, and kept the locals company on the front porch where they sat and watched takeoffs and landings.
Pretty much unique, pretty much everything.
That trip was 16 years ago, and I’m still reminded of it often, and I’m often surprised by what reminds me. This morning, I saw three finches scrambling for position on the bird feeder outside my screened porch. A few days ago, I saw our daughter hold her new nephew for the first time on his father Gaines’ birthday, and I saw his family and ours around the table at Pete & Sam’s.
I’m a Memphian, and the sights in Gustavus, and on my screened porch, and at Pete & Sam’s, are extraordinary.
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