• Patsy Clark Urschel

Guest Post by Chris Clark-Johnson

As The Endeavour bobs, covered in snow and reflecting the warm light of the Petersburg dock, I sit in my cozy apartment in Portland, Oregon counting down the last days of 2021. I graduated from college this year. Aside from a global pandemic and an ongoing crisis of identity in my homeland, this year has been good to me. The music has been good to me. And Alaska has been good to me. I boarded Endeavour in late June and stayed for six weeks as she made way from Sitka to Seward for a research trip.

If you read most of the posts on this blog you have a sense for what the Alaskan wilderness looks like from behind the Endeavour’s rails, from off the bow of the Scout. I’ll share a few photos from my trip here, but dig around on this site if you want a dose of Alaskan beauty. When the idea of my writing a guest post came up, I struggled to imagine what I could add to an already excellent account of both the SE Alaskan wilderness and the adventurer’s lifestyle. Now that some time has passed, I believe my role here is to take advantage of a rare opportunity to intimately see what the values of this lifestyle can teach someone briefly caught in its orbit. We don’t all have the ability to cut geographic ties and satisfy our wanderlust to the extent Patsy and Bill have, and we certainly can’t all access the thrill of being aboard an old T Boat, let alone one captained by the MacGuyver of Santa Barbara himself. But for any of us who have settled on a path in life which seems to necessitate taking a certain kind of excitement off the table, I invite you to consider with me whether we might be overlooking the availability of spontaneity and curiosity in our daily life.

Heading for our first supply run in Yakutat, we stopped for a while in Slocum arm, my first exposure to truly wild Alaska. I was deeply moved by the sensation of being so out of reach. Living in the city all my life and reaching adolescence in tandem with the proliferation of smartphones, disconnection is an unfamiliar feeling. I quickly settled into it, and was struck equally by the energy on the boat. When the anchorage is right, the weather is good, and the work is clear, the Endeavour functions in beautiful harmony. Bill is often below for the first hours of the day, presumably poring over obscure charts and downloaded encyclopedia entries and planning something. My mother is baking, reading, and plotting her own course for the day. Curiosity abounds here, and is often a more powerful engine for the ensuing adventures than the Detroit Diesel sitting in the heart of the Endeavour. Bella the boat dog is ever-present and shares this profound curiosity. She’s always where the action is, and often standing in just the wrong spot.

Living on the boat means working on the boat, and I found the spirit in which the work gets done worthy of note. Bill’s understanding of Endeavour’s systems is deep, and every task is handled with the understanding that each problem has a solution, and that solution is typically hiding somewhere in the engine room. If a problem comes along whose solution isn’t evident, then the means for discovering it are within reach. This attitude has always been present on the boat since I first stepped foot on the decks half a decade ago, but seeing it up close in the wild was special.

Once plans had been made and food eaten, it was typically time for what might be the first of a handful of excursions into the territory. Again, poke around this blog to find many high quality examples of these. For now, think of vast hills, thick woods alive with the sound of leaves and critters, oozing sand underfoot where the land meets the water, the cold air carrying grass and pine and salt into the nostrils. And for each of these outings the single common priority (beyond safety, naturally) was curiosity. We might’ve been following game trails, tracing a stream, or looking for a clearing spotted from the boat, with Bill occasionally muttering into his field recorder and Patsy or me reaching down to carry Bella across water too deep for her short (but sturdy!) little legs. I remember these moments as I walk on the streets of Portland, feeling a different wind and smelling different smells but knowing that this place is built upon the same Earth by the same forces that shaped everything else, the fjords included. I’m reminded that the concept of “nature” as distinct from the products of humanity is simply a heuristic, that it’s all natural by virtue of simply being and is therefore subject to the same open-minded exploration that seems to come so naturally when surrounded by the handiwork of glaciers long gone.

Speaking of, I’d be remiss to leave out the glaciers; good God, the glaciers. I had never seen a glacier that I could remember before this trip, and after seeing more than I can count I’m delighted to report that the last was just as riveting and profound as the first. Spotting one is a thrill, drawing nearer even more so, and words fail the experience of standing at the base of a terminus stretching far above one’s head, reaching out and touching the too-smooth surface of one of these ancient presences. These things changed me. They effortlessly elicited the sense of curiosity and wonderment that drove me to ask as many questions as I could, to go out on every expedition with room for one more body, for any other option simply made no sense. It’s led me to wonder how this kind of natural, almost child-like curiosity could fit into my life back home, where there are no towering ice rivers aglow with wisdom.

I’m lucky in that I have music as a bottomless object for my searching. But I think we all have something that, if we let ourselves, we can dive wholly into and reach that beautiful state of simple discovery. What is it for you? In our culture, emphasis is placed on career, routine, and stability. These can all be very useful means to certain ends, but I believe human beings can and should aim a lot higher in the pursuit of self-actualization than accumulation of wealth and a predictable day-to-day structure. Not to knock these things as goals; your priorities are up to you. But time aboard the Endeavour has convinced me that we could all benefit from greater helpings of spontaneity and curiosity in our lives, no matter our path.

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