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  • Patsy Clark Urschel

Still Following the Piper

Updated: Jun 25, 2021



When last I wrote, we were preparing to leave Petersburg for the season. By mid-April, we were in Juneau to meet some friends, re-supply, and spend some time working on the Endeavour. We had a rare two-week stretch of sunshine and warmth and worked like beavers without pause. Our eaves were in a state of decline and it took the full two weeks to grind, sand, fill, epoxy, and layer on three coats of white enamel. We painted the bulkheads, the deck channels, and finally the lower deck itself. The top deck got its own treatment, as Bill prepped it for the new excursion boat, ripping out the cradle we used for the old dinghy and installing something more appropriate for our new excursion boat. And that’s just the external stuff. Our only time away from the boat was to head to the hardware store or walk the pooch. It was that fun. But we left Juneau with a gleaming vessel. It may sound kind of corny but working on the boat ourselves as we do feels like sacred and important work: sustaining the machine we make our home in so it can continue to sustain us. I won’t say it’s always a pleasure but the feeling of satisfaction we garner from the work is worth every effort we expend.



Juneau


Other things have expanded our life, too. Scout, the excursion boat that Bill designed, and our friend Josef brought to life through the wonders of welding, has significantly altered what, where, and how we explore this year. The jet outboard has lent us access to several more layers of wilderness so that the rivers that used to stop us on shallow rocky bottoms are now navigable by planing off three or four inches of water. These rivers often snake their way into lakes or tidal basins, which in turn, may lead to even more rivers and lakes, like a set of maritime Russian dolls. Add to that the fact that last light extends well beyond 11 pm this time of year, and we’ve now got method, means, and opportunity to tap into something deeper, quieter, and wilder.



Bella's world has opened up, too.

 

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

 

While I’m increasing my comfort with sharing a bear’s territory, Scout has provided a solid and satisfying compromise: we get as far back into the rivers as we can, switch off the outboard and drift in silence. One night, we left the mother ship later than usual, bundled up against the chill, and made for the river mouth. As we followed the river, at every bend we anticipated some sort of blockage to bar our progress, but Scout got us through huge tree snags, rapids, and extremely shallow water to bring us to a perfect bear habitat. Within a short time, we were rewarded with a big hulk of a grizzly and sat drifting, unnoticed, as he lumbered so rhythmically across the meadow with the stateliest gait, it seemed to have its own soundtrack. We stayed until the bear disappeared and the darkness threatened and left feeling as if we were let into a secret world to which no one else had access.


Getting into the tight spots with Scout

 

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” — T.S. Eliot

 

When my friend Malory was here visiting from Seattle, Bill took us in Scout, kayaks in tow, back through a river to a sprawling lake, dropped us on an accommodating rock island, and left us to kayak back. Later in the day we piled into Scout to see if there was anything beyond the lake that our charts weren’t quite registering. We found an intricate network of riverways that led us eventually to another sprawling lake. Not on the chart, these stretches of territory seem like unopened gifts.


Lake Bay

Lake Bay Homestead


A couple of weeks ago, while anchored in a stunning cove in Thomas Bay, we made an early morning excursion in Scout to a nearby glacier amidst a cold drizzle. As we neared the glacier, we almost turned back with the wet and cold, but our stubbornness won out, we stayed the course, and made it just inside the glacier’s moraine within ten minutes. The moraine marks the original outfacing parameters of a glacier and as it recedes, the moraine remains like a beachhead. As the glacier calves icebergs, they became trapped in the confines of the moraine rather than floating out into open water, creating an iceberg purgatory of sorts. As we slowly snaked Scout through the icebergs, I felt a surreal sense that we were visiting an ancient graveyard, with tombstones of varying shapes and sizes, lined up in a solemn regiment of sloughed off ice. The bergs weren’t drifting as most were resting on the moraine itself, so there was utter stillness save for the “drip drip drip” of the melting icebergs, the light rain on our jackets, and the dog skittering about for a better view.







There are three things that grab me by the scruff and make me sit taller here in Alaska: rock, glaciers, and icebergs. Here, we had all three in abundance with cliffs soaring over a thousand feet, the massive glacier itself, and all its iceberg offspring, nestled in nature’s holding pen. But there were terrestrial wonders, too. As we came to the edges of the moraine on the far side, we saw some clearly visible animal tracks in the sandy beach that turned out to be an enormous moose trailed by a large wolf. Had we turned back because of the cold, we would have missed this little story, too.


Tracks on Baird Glacier


That morning is now indelibly fixed in my heart and mind as a pinnacle moment of stark and arresting beauty. It’s often difficult to truly and fully capture images in a way that viewing them later evokes the original experience, but the footage I took at Baird is an exception. When I look at it, I feel the same reverence, awe, and connection that I felt when I first saw it. These tableaus of nature are like intricate and arousing pieces of art and they move me in profound ways. I’m grateful for the images – both the original and the record.


 

"The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper."

-W.B Yeats

 

The vastness we travel through seems smaller this year as we meet more fellow travelers on the water and in ports. With satellite text, we can stay in touch, which is a marvelous state to travel in: alone but connected by tethers to other water travelers. On the day we visited the glacier, we also responded to a friend who let us know our mutual friend, a lighthouse keeper, had a bum generator and was using a hammer to grind his coffee beans (horrors!). We were a handful of hours away and loved the idea of seeing a lighthouse nestled on a rock in the middle of nowhere. I mean, who wouldn’t?


Five Finger Lighthouse


Lighthouses in Alaska are no longer fully tended by the Coast Guard and instead rely on volunteers to oversee and maintain them. Our destination lighthouse was Alaska’s first and last manned lighthouse, managed by the non-profit Five Finger Lighthouse Society. The small island it perches on is free of mammals (other than the keeper) but has so much shimmering life on it, it’s astonishing: a towering eagle’s nest, rare orchids and moss, Indian Paintbrush and fireweed, and an ecosystem largely undisturbed by humans. Humpback whale research has been conducted on the island, bringing us, among other things, the understanding that Humpbacks have an organized and hierarchical method to their bubble feeding, with one whale acting as a conductor to the others, vocalizing instructions to coordinate the complex effort.


Coffee duly delivered, we made our way in Scout back to the Endeavour and headed for our evening anchorage, a sweet spot nestled between two islands, a fitting end to a remarkable day. Incidentally, I have found that the day after a thrilling adventure includes a bit of a hangover. I guess it’s not particularly surprising given the feel-good neurotransmitters that flood our systems in these moments, when the body says, “Hey, you’ve had enough for now; we’re halting production.” That’s fair.



We've finished a run down the west side of Kuiu Islands and this past week, slowly made our way up the east coast of Baranof Island, toward Peril Strait, where we’ll pick up my son Chris in Sitka. I’m often struck by the individuality of each island in SE. The topographical differences between these two neighboring islands are stark, with Kuiu’s rolling hills and tiered alders and Baranof’s jagged, soaring, and snow-covered peaks. Each cove or bay has its own vibe, too. When Bill and I are deciding on our next anchorage, we don’t always end up staying at our first choice. It’s not like running through a checklist, although we do this to a certain extent (protection from all weather, no other boats, shoreline for Bella). We’re not exactly sure what we’re responding to when we reject even a bay that has all the physical attributes we need, and we’ve talked about it at length. It’s a feeling we get and in this entire past year, we’ve never disagreed on what our respective “vibometers” are reading. It’s like following the piper’s flute; we don’t always know the tunes, but we can discern their rightness, and act accordingly.


Good vibes only


The pandemic seemed to clear the Alaskan waters of recreational craft in 2020 but the boats - charter, recreational, and cruise ships alike – are beginning their return. A week or so ago, after anchoring in a snug spot on largely uninhabited Kuiu Island, we woke to the presence of a National Geographic eco tour ship. The larger cruise ships will follow after July 21st. We’re happy for the folks who count on these ships for their livelihoods but will miss feeling like we’re the only boat on the water.


Totem Bay in golden hour

Totem Bay


So. For now, we’ll continue to appreciate (and bank on) a reduction of the kinds of stimuli that filled our days back in the city. In the absence of it, we’re free to tune in to what’s in range of our binoculars and plain old eyeballs and let that replace the internet and telephone for longer and longer stretches. Stimulus and response in our city life felt conflated to a point where I habitually formulated responses to stimuli that hadn’t even occurred yet. Talk about flagrantly unnecessary efficiency (or dangerously misguided self-care). For me, taking the time to understand my own response systems isn’t just navel gazing, it feels like a chance to become more fully human and for me that means synthesizing the sublime with the mundane so that I don’t overly identify with any of it. I don’t choose the rate that my neurons fire or the material they conjure any more than I choose my emotional states. But I do have the power to manage them.


Petrof Bay inTebenkof Bay

 

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there."

- Rumi

 

In other words, I’m not startled when I encounter my humanity amidst the steep rock walls, otters, or the vivid red of Indian Paintbrush: “This is my life…yay!” But I am when I soak in the beauty of this terrain at a leisurely pace and my internal compass is rooting around for something, anything else. Like a long chat with a good friend, or a sunset on a city skyline. Then, it’s something closer to, “Oh, no – I’m dissatisfied!” Those are the times I have to resist storing these moments of disequilibrium and inner conflict as a fact that must be dealt with definitively. We are not orderly creatures; just because it seems like we should be in heaven doesn’t mean we’ll always feel as if we are. And just because we are momentarily dissatisfied (frustrated, impatient, etc.), it doesn’t mean we are unhappy in a larger sense. This year has taught me this is a fundamental conundrum. Living this way is at once exhilarating and problematic. With no means of escaping that which rankles, I have to sit with it and understand that all of it is well within the realm of human thought and feeling. When you can’t run away, you start figuring out how to accept and live with it. That’s powerful.

Ketchikan stand off

Scenary Cove, Thomas Bay

Hollis Petrof Kassan (pc: Ray Troll)

Gut Bay, Baranof Island



Poppies by Mary Oliver

The poppies send up their

orange flares; swaying

in the wind, their congregations

are a levitation


of bright dust, of thin

and lacy leaves.

There isn’t a place

in this world that doesn’t


sooner or later drown

In the indigoes of darkness,

But for now, for a while,

The roughage


Shines like a miracle

as it floats above everything

with its yellow hair.

Of course nothing stops the cold,


black, curved blade

from hooking forward –

of course

loss is the great lesson.


But I also say this: that light

is an invitation

to happiness,

and that happiness,


when it’s done right

is a kind of holiness,

palpable and redemptive.

Inside the bright fields,


touched by their rough and spongy gold,

I am washed and washed

in the river

of earthly delight –


and what are you going to do –

what can you do

about it –

deep, blue night?


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