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  • Patsy Clark Urschel

Grateful To Be Here

Updated: Dec 14, 2021


Hammer Slough in Petersburg

We’re settling in for our second winter here in Petersburg. The wind is up today and peppering our faces with what the weather people optimistically call “a wintry mix.” As we headed back to Petersburg in October, I felt a wintry mix of dread invading my psyche when I thought of the coming rain and dark and an extra 20 pounds on my frame. Last winter taught me a few things about needing a plan and some structure to give the days shape and purpose, so this winter feels a bit different, more optimistic. But ask me again in February.


For now, I am following the lead of my friend Julie, who uses strings of lights in every corner to cheer the dark months ahead. This year, I have stuffed fine strings of multi-colored lights in jars – bright little fireflies that frame my amaryllis, itself slowly inching its way upward as the days get shorter. There’s no room for a tree inside the boat, so I’ve strung boughs twisted with tiny lights across one of the salon picture windows, and from this hung a handful of my favorite ornaments. Star-shaped lights are draped over another window and my mahogany counters are now lined with dots of mellow, white light. On the aft deck sits a tiny tree made up entirely of glowing blue lights. It rests inside a heavy, ancient drill bit that came from Saudi Arabia when Bill worked on an oil rig. It's heavy enough to withstand the winds that blow through. Here's hoping the lights can help pierce through a portion of the dark.



 

“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” Anne Frank

 

After a long and adventurous season away, I feel truly glad to be back. It’s ridiculously picturesque here now, with main street’s holiday lights ablaze, the huge, decorated tree by the courthouse shining bright, and a fresh 21 inches of snow blanketing the town and the surrounding muskeg. We try to get out every day to revel in the snow and how it’s completely transformed the landscape. Short-legged Bella is hopping through the deeper bits in the footprints we leave in our wake. The mounds of snow have not completely masked the smells of the land that she investigates so thoroughly, so we often need to wait for her to catch up. When she precedes us on the trail, she serves as our ambassadress of good intention to others passing by.


One of my favorite spots on the Petersburg Nature Boardwalk

The harbor is quiet, especially at night. Last night, though, someone from a neighboring fishing boat brought us a lovely pile of cooked Tanner crab, because they saw our lights on and thought we might like it. During the day, a few stalwart souls are heading out seeking winter king salmon, are subsistence crabbing, or taking their fishing boats out to hunt deer. If we walk from the dock out towards Sandy Beach Rd and the whale observatory, we can still see humpbacks feeding in Frederick Sound. The bears have mostly retreated, and the deer are coming down from the hills in greater numbers to forage. The ravens, eagles, and sea birds are well-represented, and their sounds echo across the narrows here outside the boat. Yesterday, we heard a single moose call echoing across the muskeg. Manufactured or real, it was beautiful.


North Harbor just before sunrise

From South Harbor. You can see Devil's Thumb (center) which is nestled in the Boundary Range in the Stikine Icecap.

A friend from Seattle asked me the other day whether I ever longed to feel my toes in warm sand during an Alaska winter. Of course, the thought arises; sun on the skin feels so luxurious, especially when you don't experience it that often. But warm weather places don’t speak to my heart and soul very clearly, the way this place does or others like it do. Up until we left for Alaska, we would spend three weeks every January exploring the icy fjords of British Columbia. We loved the remoteness, the quiet, and solitude that came with it. We loved the jagged immediacy of living so close to the edge of comfort and safety, while still finding ways to be both comfortable and safe. While we were living in Seattle, I never pined for my toes in warm sand the way I longed for those icy fjords.


After the first foot
In the midst of the second foot

While it can be scary sometimes, there is a sharp joy and palpable sense of vitality in living so close to and relying on earth’s natural cycles in such an intimate way. Paying attention and adapting to tides, wind, current, and the climatic and geologic realities of melting ice and shifting tectonic plates puts the often-irrelevant, non-essential contents of my brain into perspective. Sleep walking through any of it seems unthinkable. We’re both wired in a way that comfort and convenience, while nice, are not what motivates us daily. We’re good at making do without a bathtub, mail delivered to our door, a car, or a large living space. What we don’t want to live without is feeling enlivened by simplicity, freedom, challenge, and our ever-evolving (and revolving) surroundings. I'm so grateful we get to do this together.

 

“Being alive is not a miracle, feeling alive is.” Amit Abraham

 


This past July, when we were in Seward waiting for our glaciologist team to arrive, there was a strong 8.2 earthquake just off the Aleutian chain, where the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate meet. It was powerful enough to trigger the US Tsunami Warning system for impacted areas, including Seward. If you’ve ever heard the sirens, they are hard to ignore, as is the repeated verbal recording urging residents to move to higher ground. We grabbed our emergency go bag and Bella, headed north on foot, getting a ride midway up. Once there, Bill took some time to research the nature of the warning and realized a potential tsunami would be about 50 minutes away, if it arrived at all. Because being tied up in a harbor is about the last place you want to be in a tsunami, we decided to run back to the boat, untie, and get to deeper water to ride out whatever was coming (which is the recommendation for all mariners anyway). In the end, the water only rose about a foot, but none of it felt particularly traumatizing or strange. Rather it felt like a crash course in dealing with a particular kind of emergency. Learn and adapt and take nothing for granted seems to be our motto these days.

 

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin

 

Yesterday we ran into an afterschool group on the trail on our way back from the post office. By 3:30, it was already dark and each of the kiddos was bundled in snow gear, their headlamps bobbing and reflecting off the snow and onto the trees. Five days a week they are out there learning and adapting in the most essential way; finding ways to play, pay attention to what nature is telling them, and honor some of the cardinal rules of the outdoors: stay warm and dry, stick together, and bring plenty of water and snacks.



 

“There is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

-M.F.K. Fisher

 

Like so many others, tackling the baking holy grail of artisanal sourdough bread has been one of my pandemic coping skills. For months, I was able to produce serviceable bread but it wasn't the kind that would turn your head in a bakery window or make you drool. I started messing with the method I'd been using and after much experimentation, failure, and YouTube tutorials, I completely altered my process and recipe and along the way promised myself it was okay to suck at something while I began to learn it. Now that I have the basics down, it's just pure fun. Similarly, imagining and preparing food for our scientists and guests this past year has brought me more satisfaction and pleasure than I would have imagined. It's one of my favorite features of my life on board, producing good food in such a tiny space with very few fancy tools.


Our non-profit Alaska Endeavour is snapping into life more and more each day. Check out the site at www.alaskaendeavour.org when you have a minute. We're both excited by the trips we have confirmed and those that are being fleshed out. This summer, we're heading all the way past the Aleutian Islands to the Bering Sea, where we'll be hosting a documentary film crew and a scientist studying the walrus haul out at Round Island. I have a feeling our season will start in mid-March and continue well into October. Rather than traveling anywhere this winter, we will hunker down here and prepare for a busy season next year.


We're wishing you all a wonderful solstice and holiday and a new year filled with learning and adaptation.





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