Finding Home in Southeast Alaska

1 / 2
Discover the wilds and wonders of Alaska through the eyes of two men a century apart in “Chasing Alaska.”
2 / 2
Alaska is still changing. Even when you can’t see it.

After trading the comforts of the Lower 48 for the vast, mythical Last Frontier, one man accidentally finds family history. Chasing Alaska (Lyons Press, 2013) follows author C.B. Bernard’s journey to Southeast Alaska, his discovery of a similar journey taken by an Arctic explorer ancestor, and his efforts to understand the ever-changing north and our relationship with the land. This excerpt was taken from chapter 1, “Change.”

Tonight there is no wind . . . and we are moving steadily west.

Southeast Alaskans call it a sucker hole when a patch of blue opens in the clouds and suckers you into thinking the sky is clearing. Tourists fall for them regularly. The locals know better, beaten down by the unrelenting rain that saturates these islands. There seems little chance of such false promises as I leave the harbor, no fragments of clarity, the sky resolutely overcast. Shadows paint the mountains with undertones of menace, though sun brightened the same snow-bitten peaks just yesterday, a rare cloudless winter day in Sitka. I’d hoped for two in a row. As my lazy wake spreads, other boats nod their assent of my wish–less modest here, perhaps, where you measure misery by the calendar and dodge raindrops 230 days a year. The two weeks of uninterrupted sunshine that greeted my arrival in town served as opening act for the downpours, deluges, and drenchers that headlined the next fifteen without reprieve.

My God, I thought. What have I done?

Liquid sunshine, they call the rain here, an intentionally optimistic euphemism, but it’s more like a houseguest who won’t leave or paranoia you can’t shake. Want to survive Southeast Alaska? Learn to ignore rain, or embrace insanity. I’m no optimist, but I believe the mind’s instinct for survival resets certain counters each night out of psychological necessity–every day is a new one–and I awoke this morning looking for the sun. Maybe I’m still too new here, still in the habit of New England’s finicky forecasts, but I’m still susceptible to sucker holes. On the way to the harbor, a dull glow to the east gave me hope. Clouds bullied it into hiding before I even parked my truck. The sky and water over Sitka Sound are the same flat gray, without boundary or texture, erasing the horizon. It may be months before I see the sun again.

Under the bridge and into the channel. In the no-wake zone the boat’s gas engine rumbles and stutters beneath me, rattling floorboards, vibrating the cabin and dash, angry at being roused from its slumber, desperate for more throttle–and me on my second cup of coffee, commiserating.

The first, fat drops of rain hit the windshield timidly, one at a time, testing for resistance, smearing under their own weight. Soon the rain soaks the glass in overlapping sheets, falling with abandon for more than a minute. Even at full speed the wipers can’t keep up. I silence them and notice no difference. Rain drums the flybridge overhead, the windows around me, the tin chimney of my galley stove. It batters the stern fishing deck and the rigid-hulled inflatable lashed to the transom. It pelts the 10-horse kicker I keep for trolling and for emergencies, and if I close my eyes, the rain on the cowling sounds no different than rain on an air conditioner in a city window. Except I couldn’t be much farther from a city if I tried.

It’s January 2001, the first weeks of the new millennium, and I’ve been in Alaska for a year and a half.

Not so long ago geologically, ice covered most of Southeast Alaska. More than a thousand clustered islands form the Alexander Archipelago, including Baranof Island, on the western edge of which sits Sitka, my new home. Just about all of them, and the fjords, channels, and straits surrounding them, lay beneath the heavy glaciers of the last great ice age. Then one day it all began to melt. As the glacial cap released its water, the sea level rose hundreds of feet, flooding massive swaths of lowlands. The irresistible forces of tectonics and something called isostasy–the rise of landmasses formerly depressed by the weight of ice sheets–forged the dramatic structures that give the landscape its geomorphic curb appeal. Glaciers sculpted the land as they receded, leaving striations in the rock, farewell notes in the ancient language of the natural world. What once was ice became ocean.

Then the sea dropped once more, and ocean became dry land, though traces of it remain well inland–and well above the modern sea level. Scientists have found beach gravel deposits near Juneau at elevations of 750 feet. Stunted tundra grew on the new land, giving way first to pine then the sprawling temperate spruce, cedar, and hemlock rain forests that cover it still. Alaska was changing.

Soon the first humans colonized Southeast. More than 10,000 years later, their descendents remain. Of course, now they share it, for better or worse, with the others who arrived over the centuries, exerting their own irresistible forces to shape the land, including–most recently and in order–Russians, Americans, and tourists. Alaska teems with people and interest groups who lay claim to it: charter fishermen and commercial fleets; oil industrialists, environmentalists, and naturalists; hikers and kayakers; reality television producers; loggers, miners, hunters, and trappers; wildlife photographers; recluses and outcasts; apologists and militiamen; Native corporations and shellfish co-ops; Realtors; the Palins. I’m no different. Like countless others before me, who labored over canonical portraits of Alaska, I want to share all I can about this Great Land and the collective stories of just some of its people. But, selfishly, I want to have an effect on a place that’s had such a tremendous one on me. Alaska has marked me as indelibly as the ice has marked its own stunning landscape.

Alaska has more than 600 named glaciers and nearly 100,000 anonymous others, most of which occur in the southern part of the state. Just 13,000 years after the last ice age, too brief to measure in geologic time, they’re still receding–and fast. Some, like those in Glacier Bay, have moved as far as 70 miles in the past century alone. Tyndal Glacier in Icy Bay averages a third of a mile a year. Others clock more modest paces, but in 2005 an aerial survey monitoring 2,000 glaciers found 99 percent of them in retreat. They may look static, ancient, permanent. They’re anything but. Ice flows through and beneath them as surely as water through the world’s great rivers, which means their ice is not the same ice as a hundred years ago. Alaska is still changing. Even when you can’t see it.

Those changes are not limited to the land. More has happened to affect the nature of Alaska in the past century than in the hundred centuries before it. The climate and the wildlife. The cultures of its people. The types of people who choose to call it home, and their reasons for doing so. Its accessibility to the rest of the world–in this age of technology, even the very definition of remoteness is evolving. Alaska is changing faster than ever. Some people work to instigate that change, to facilitate the transition into the new Alaska–to mold it into what they think it could be rather than embracing what it is–while others fight to keep things as they were. In that way, our relationship with Alaska seems no different than our relationships with the people we love.

Eighteen months ago, in July 1999, I lashed my canoe to the roof of my truck and pointed the bow upstream, north and west, toward Alaska. My target rings circled the small fishing town of Sitka, an Inside Passage afterthought on the outer edge of an island where the Tongass National Forest collides with the Pacific. The most direct route measured more than 4,000 miles. But I wasn’t yet thirty years old, swapping everything familiar for a new career, new life, new everything, so why go direct? One day I was writing for a high-tech firm in Massachusetts and living in the suburbs, the next driving cross-country to become a reporter for a small family-owned newspaper I’d never read in a town I’d never visited. I agreed to start work in five weeks. My girlfriend would follow later that summer. With only ten days’ notice, I packed my truck, said my good-byes, and left. There was a lot of ground to cover.

I spent nearly a month on the road. In Syracuse, Cleveland, and just outside Jackson, Wyoming, I stayed with friends. In Montana and British Columbia, I pitched a tent and lay awake in the dark, questioning my choices. I drowned a few flies at the end of a trout line, slept in motels that remapped the boundaries of cheapness, filled myself with gas station hot dogs and truck stop coffee, and visited the endless parade of landmark enticements in the northern states and western Canada. I saw dinosaur statues in Thermopolis, Wyoming; the world’s largest fly rod in Houston, British Columbia; and a bear waving at traffic just outside Banff. In Prince Rupert, BC, I spent a few days drinking with members of a motorcycle club working the railway across the country, and then drove aboard the ferry and pitched my tent on the upper deck, long past the point of no return.

Even in Alaska, where the scenery literally takes your breath in windless rushes, Sitka exists as geographic hyperbole. Mountains rise like the island’s spine from an ice field along its back. Granite ledges point to the sky, sharpened by time, peaks snowbound above a temperate rain forest so lush it appears carpeted. Rocky beaches hem the shore. Across Sitka Sound, a dormant volcano’s blasted-flat top seems a feat of human engineering. Relentless rainfall gives everything the blurry focus of watercolor on paper.

Books and magazines perpetuate Alaska as a mythical, savage place, equal parts nature documentary and wildlife theme park, but my first impressions revealed an urban side as well: houses, the occasional lawn, a small but bustling downtown of gift shops, cafes, and drugstores. But it wasn’t the suburbs I knew. On my first day, my newspaper ran front-page stories about a humpback whale that torpedoed a 78-foot sailboat at anchor and a brown bear that dragged two dogs into the woods. Welcome to Alaska.

Before I left New England, I filled a bottle in the Atlantic to remind me of my beginnings. It turned out I didn’t need it. If you go back far enough, all water flows from the same source. A few weeks later, my dad ran into a shirttail cousin who told him about a Bernard who left home for Alaska some years earlier, a French Canadian sailor who’d grown up with my great-grandfather. He didn’t know the details, and when we asked around the family, neither did anyone else. Those first months in Sitka, his story began to unfurl before me like a sail catching the wind.

Between 1901 and 1924, sailing out of Nome, Captain Joe Bernard explored the Arctic from Alaska to Canada’s Coronation Gulf. Many times he’d been shipwrecked, frozen in, or presumed lost at sea. The New York Times archives contained notices of his death premature by half a century. Unlike most of his peers in the age of Arctic exploration, Joe was self-taught, uneducated, and as a free trader, unsponsored by any government or other interest. Despite remarkable accomplishments and the respect they earned among his contemporaries, he was largely forgotten a century later.

I ended up in Sitka by chance when the local paper, the Daily Sentinel, made the better of two job offers, the other in Nome. It seemed like more than coincidence when I found records showing that Joe had moved to Sitka in 1970, two years before his death. The state buried him in a cemetery reserved for “pioneers,” sprawling, neglected acres stretched like a sleeping dog at the heels of a forested mountain. The cemetery, it turned out, abutted the house I rented, adjacent to a field where my neighbors and I ran our dogs each day. Vague city records couldn’t identify his grave, but after work each night I walked the rows of flat, granite grave markers with a flashlight, scraping away moss and mud until I found him. It was December 23, 2000, what would have been his 122nd birthday, his grave so near my house that from it I could read the numbers on my alarm clock through my bedroom window.

I’d put nearly 7,000 miles on my truck and parked it on top of my own family.

Excerpted with permission from Chasing Alaska by C.B. Bernard and published by Lyons Press, 2013.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.