Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Misty Fiords Wilderness, Southeast Alaska

"...An area of wilderness is further defined to mean... [an area] retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..." -- Wilderness Act of 1964

Punchbowl Cove, Rudyerd Bay, Misty Fiords Wilderness, Alaska

According to the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, "There are two ways to experience 'the Mistys'" [Misty Fiords National Monument -- a 2.3 million acre swath of snow-capped mountains, lush rainforest, deep freshwater lakes, salmon-full streams, colorful kelpy and sea-starry shoreline, and trademark soaring fjords and swirling mist located in the southeastern-most corner of Alaska]: "...from a floatplane, where you get a true eagle’s eye view; and on a cruise tour, where you can actually feel the vibration of nature."

As spectacular as it must be to see the monument from far above -- to peer through the windows of a small floatplane, marveling at how steeply the fjords' walls rise out of the sea, how tenaciously the forest fills every semi-flat spot, how brightly the lakes nestle into hanging valleys, and how hungrily the mist swallows it all -- that's not the only way to get an "eagle's eye view". The dozens of eagles I encountered in Misty Fiords were perched in trees or soaring low over the shoreline, scouring shallow inlets for salmon and other possible prey. Their squawks and squeaks would hardly be audible over the roar of a plane's engine, their fierce presence hardly apparent from thousands of feet up.

And as enchanting and informative as it must be to see the monument via cruise tour -- to stand on the observation deck of a fast, powerful boat, listening to the interpretive guide's explanation of the area's natural and cultural history while seeing firsthand how high the cliffs loom, how far the silvery waterfalls tumble, how lush and green the forest is, and how thoroughly the damp chill soaks into everything -- that's not the only way to "feel the vibration of nature". During the week I spent at Misty Fiords, I felt waves rising and falling, raindrops pattering down, loons wailing. I shivered, swimming in one of the freshwater lakes. I laughed, watching the antics of seals. I touched a waterfall, held a jellyfish, hiked up and canoed out to see an island in a lake in an island in a lake at what felt like the far, foggy edge of the ordinary world. Nature didn't so much vibrate as it hummed and thrummed with mystery and wildness.

Loons, Nooya Lake
Low tide, outlet of Nooya

Old-growth temperate rainforest, Winstanley

Island in a lake on an island in a lake, Punchbowl

"Wilderness", more properly. I made the brief trip to Ketchikan last August to explore the Misty Fiords Wilderness Area, which makes up 2.1 million acres of the monument (all but a 152,000-acre tract reserved for potential molybdenum mining.) Usually, motorized traffic is prohibited in designated Wilderness Areas, but the planes and boats are technically in the air and saltwater, not on land (though a limited number of floatplanes are permitted to land on the freshwater lakes.) I'll save the rants about noise pollution for another day (briefly: think of the sound of a small plane engine, then imagine it reverberating between the walls of a deep, narrow fjord, cacophanous within the natural ampitheatre) and don't mean to belittle the experience of visitors who only have a few hours to zoom out to the monument between stops on a cruise through Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage (surely, briefly glimpsing the place is better than never knowing it exists at all?) (?) But to truly see and feel the wildness of the wilderness -- of any wild place -- takes weeks, if not months, years. It takes time, effort, and humility to shed the anxieties and banalities of "civilized" life and remember the rhythms and realities of the natural world.

Rhythms: paddle in the water, wavelets on the shore. Setting up the tent, taking down the tent. Day, night, day.

Realities: rain, wind, whitecaps, bears. Soreness, coldness, exhaustion, hunger, fear. Freedom. Day, night, day.

Campsite, Punchbowl Cove
As a "Voice of the Wilderness" Artist-in-Residence, I had the rare opportunity and great fortune to join two U.S. Forest Service wilderness rangers on their kayak patrol of Rudyerd Bay, arguably the most scenic and certainly the most-visited area within the monument. Although that meant that I didn't have to navigate unknown terrain -- the rangers already knew the best spots to camp, the worst stretches to cross, the locations of interesting features (a pictograph! a skookum chuck!), and the conditions of the few short USFS-maintained trails (very primitive, but worth every step to reach the scenic destinations) -- I still had to pull my weight, quite literally.

Having spent most of my time in wilderness areas traveling alone and on foot, the first few days took some getting used to -- kayaking felt awkward and uncomfortable; the cookstoves were hard to light; conversations consisted mostly of me saying "Wow!" (As in: "Wow! Look at the clouds!" "Wow! Look at the waterfall!" "Wow! Look at the moss/seals/eagles/cedars/sea stars...") But by the fifth day, when we took an afternoon off to rest and watch the mist swirl around the cliffs of Punchbowl Cove, I finally felt at peace. I sat by the salty, kelpy shoreline, studying the landscape and experimenting with sketch styles, then retreated to the lush green forest, to scrawl letters on soggy rite-in-the-rain paper. Over dinner -- the same food I'd eaten each previous night, yet somehow more delicious -- the rangers and I discussed wilderness management, mused about wilderness, then ultimately sat in silence, letting the wildness soak in. That was what I'd come for.

The next day, though, we were reminded that wilderness is not all serenity and joy, but also rawness and power; wind, water, and rock. Waking to a world thick with fog, we packed our kayaks and paddled out of a glassy-calm Punchbowl Cove, only to find the main channel of Rudyerd Bay roiling with whitecaps. I promised that I felt strong and capable enough to venture forth, into the Bay then out into the unprotected waters of Behm Canal, but was well beyond what I'd bargained for -- on edge, exhausted, exhilarated, for the next several hours. Although not comparable to Thoreau's epiphany on Ktaadn or Muir's tree-top storm in the Sierras, this stretch of kayaking afforded a touch of the sublime. Forget conceptions and preconceptions, definitions and desires; I lost track of what what sky and what was sea. I knew only to dig my paddle in again and again, if only to prevent being blown backward or overturned. Long, slow, hard-earned progress; long, slow, well-earned joy.

Rough day on the Behm Canal

By the time the patrol was over -- a few more glassy days, sunny days, mist lifting to reveal the true height of the fjords -- I was thoroughly enchanted by the place. Even more enticing: to know that I'd only been to one small sliver of the 2.1 million acres of shoreline, forest, mountains, fjords. It would take a lifetime to see it all, especially considering that the interior is inaccessible to floatplanes and tourboats. To amend the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau's exhortation: "to experience 'the Mistys', travel by kayak, where you get a true eagle's eye view, and on foot, where you can actually feel the vibration of nature."

Sigurd Olson: "There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe [or kayak], a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace."

[Addendum: Part of me hopes that most of that 2.1 million acres remains unseen, protected not just for kayakers, hikers, and human visitors desperately seeking beautiful scenery and/or a sense of the sublime, but for the sake of the loons and the bears, the seals and salmon, the grand old cedars and soft old moss. Can it be enough to know that the wilderness is there, mist swirling around rock?]

“Tourists, beware, go back.  There is nothing to see here, only mud and insects and large biting mammals…rain and snow and sleet and wind.  This is a place of the spirit, no place for the flesh, and a place of the imagination, but no place for a real life. Believe in this place, and pray for it, but turn back, do not come here…” -- Rick Bass, The Wild Marsh