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Fall 1994, Volume 11.3

Essay

 

Marybeth S. Hollemen

Awakening


Marybeth S. Holleman (MFA, University of Alaska, Anchorage) teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Her nature-oriented writings have appeared in
North American Review, Alaska Geographic, Greenpeace Magazine, Outdoor America, and Alaska Magazine. Her commentaries have aired on NPR's All Things Considered.

 

During his first days of life I barely uncovered my new son for fear he would get too cold. I kept Jamie swaddled in a blanket, his thin arms and legs held tight against his torso. It took both my husband and me to give him his first bath—one to hold his fragile head and unfold his tiny body, the other to gently pat his skin with water.

How could I then, six weeks after his birth, take him out into a wilderness known for its cold wet weather and fatally freezing waters? When I was only pregnant, a friend assured me babies can adjust to changes much easier than we think. I was the one who might not be ready for a camping trip, she said.

Certain I would want to go, I made plans for a late August trip to Prince William Sound. I did what I could to accommodate my baby. Rather than our 15 foot inflatable boat—small, open, close to the water—we would take a charter. And rather than our two-person tent to keep the rain out and the warmth in, a cabin with a wood stove awaited us.

Still I had doubts. Was I pushing the limits of a baby's adaptability? Of parenthood itself? I suspected I was, and felt not just a little selfish. Yet I could not keep from going.

Every summer, we make at least one trip to Prince William Sound. These trips are much more than vacations—for me it is the essence of wilderness, a place where I can clear my head of all that is unimportant in my life. Stripped of job titles, possessions, acquaintances, the responsibilities of everyday life, I rediscover my own essence. Thrilled to be a mother, I nevertheless didn't want motherhood to deny me something I held so dear.

On trips to the Sound, we always went where we wanted when we wanted. We rarely spent more than a day in any one place, choosing instead to explore coves, islands and passageways. Two summers ago, we headed toward Port Nellie Juan on Prince William Sound's western side, 30 miles by water from Whittier. Wind and rain slowed us down; water sprayed our faces and dripped down our necks; waves made the boat bounce up and slam down with such force that seawater drenched our gear. Still, we reached South Culross Passage just north of Port Nellie Juan that afternoon. After several landings, we found a beach suitable for camping and pitched our tent. For the next four days our sojourns were limited only by the amount of fuel our boat could carry. One hot sunny day was spent climbing a mountain on Culross Island. Another day we explored the coastlines of Eshamy Bay and Crafton Island, returning in the evening under a fog so thick we nearly missed the entrance to Culross Passage. This time would be different. Two weeks before the trip, I tried to imagine being in a small boat on the Sound with my son and had recurring images of him slipping out of my arms and falling into the water. Chills traveled my spine as I remembered the experience of a friend a few years ago. Returning to Seward in his boat, Peter found two cold wet boys shivering on the beach, and a swamped boat and drowned father in the water. The boat he found was like his own; it was like ours.

The morning we arrived in Whittier to meet our charter was sunny with a strong wind. The whitecaps would have made rough going in our boat. I felt relieved to have the charter—until I saw it. The Sound Runner was only two feet longer than our boat. It did boast a covered front and more space for gear inside, but it fell far short of the big, comfortable cruiser I had imagined. We also discovered four other passengers would join us. Seven adults plus my baby plus our gear—which included our deflated boat, an outboard, tanks of fuel and gallons of fresh water—seemed a dangerously heavy load.

When I asked the boat's captain, Jerry Sanger, if the boat should carry so much weight, he only said, "Let's wait and see if she gets on step. If not, we'll turn back." As images of Jamie falling into the water crowded into my mind, I considered staying behind. My desire to be out in the Sound pushed those images back—but not out of sight. We all piled in and headed down Passage Canal. After several tense minutes, the boat leveled and began gliding across the surface. I settled back against my seat.

I sat on the end of a bench in the bow, just under the open-ended cover, with Jamie bundled up and held tight against my chest in a papoose-like carrier. I strained my back against the jarring ride to keep him comfortable and shielded from the wind. Several times water splashed over the side onto my leg, but as long as it missed Jamie I said nothing. Though we passed through some of my favorite landscapes, I barely looked. Instead I watched the waves hitting the boat and listened to the steady drone of the engine.

The other passengers, four women from Maryland and Boston, were on a day trip to see glaciers and sea otters.

"How old is your baby?" one asked me.

"Six weeks."

"You're brave," she smiled.

"Perhaps too brave," I murmured.

Finally the Sound Runner veered toward shore and Harrison Lagoon came into view. As we motored closer, I could barely make out the cabin among thick underbrush and spruce. The tide was low, baring a wide rock beach punctuated by sun-bleached stumps. Sanger maneuvered the boat through the narrow lagoon entrance, around a crescent-shaped gravel spit, and up onto a rocky beach on the backside of the cabin. I stepped off the boat and felt land beneath my feet and Jamie sleeping comfortably. Though the sun shone in a cloudless sky and calm waters replaced whitecaps, we spent the rest of the day making the cabin our temporary home. Half our gear was for the baby—I brought too much, I knew, but had no idea which pieces were unnecessary. We took turns entertaining Jamie and gathering firewood, unpacking sleeping bags and clothes, pulling out cookware and food for dinner. The bare walls and floors of the cabin didn't muffle sound like our house, and several times noises startled Jamie into crying.

That evening we ventured as far as the gravel spit which swung out into the lagoon right beyond the entrance. In slanted sunlight, we watched a small flock of glaucous-winged gulls and two young bald eagles circle and swoop over a stream mouth on the far shore. A pair of grebes dove for food in the middle of the lagoon. One eagle, his black body and pure white head evidence of his adulthood, perched atop a dead spruce on a gravel beach directly across from us. Seeing these animals was like seeing old friends again, ones treasured but rarely visited.

That night, the little wood stove couldn't keep the night air out, and I couldn't sleep for worrying that Jamie would be cold. I brought him into my sleeping bag. Tucked securely under my arm beneath the covers, he was so warm he sweated, but he slept well. I slept fitfully, waking often to change positions without disturbing him, or to make sure he was breathing.

We awoke to another clear sunny day. While Andy put our inflatable boat together, I walked with Jamie down to the beach on the Port Wells side. The scene before me seemed to say, yes, you were right to come back to the Sound. Across the water mountains topped with snow soaked up the morning light. Offshore, several sea otters were diving, floating, and eating. Some were only a few feet offshore, closer than I'd ever been to one. I wanted to sit and watch them, but Jamie cried as soon as we reached the beach. The otters dove for safety, resurfacing much farther out.

When the boat was ready, we headed for Barry Arm to watch glaciers. As we left the cabin, I thought back to our first trip to Prince William Sound. We made the rainy cold trip to Blackstone Bay in a few hours. Along the way, rough seas splashed into the boat; seawater coated me and washed inside one of my rubber boots, numbing my toes. When we reached the head of the bay, my body was stiff. Andy cut the engine, and we drifted in front of Blackstone Glacier, watching a blue sky spread from the icefield down the glacier to our boat. I removed my boots and stretched my legs out on the bow. We spent hours in the boat, basking in the sun and watching ice fall from the glacier's towering face. Ever since that trip, one of my favorite things to do in the Sound is to motor as close as we dare to the face of a tidewater glacier, then cut the motor and drift, watching and listening to age-old ice make its way to saltwater. Some cracks and groans bring forth falling columns of ice, which in turn create huge swells, wide and deep, that make the world tilt when they reach our boat.

The closer we got to Barry Arm, the stiffer the wind blew. I faced backward in the boat so the wind would not be directly on Jamie, even though he was completely covered. I zipped up my coat around him and felt like I was carrying him in my belly once more. I could not see the approach to the glacier, could not see the icy face become larger and taller, filling up more of the sky. All I could see was our wake through the increasingly dense field of ice floating in dark blue waters.

Andy cut the engine, and I turned to face the glacier. For a few minutes we sat quietly, listening to the ice and watching for some to break free. The sun warmed my wind-chilled body; I began to relax. Then Jamie awoke and began to fuss, whimpering and wiggling in his confining space. He was hungry. I tried for a while to nurse him but had to remove my life vest to do so. Around us, icebergs shifted and cracked. Then one off the side of our boat rolled over, expanding like a surfacing whale, as the wake of a calving berg passed it. Instead of being fascinated by the size of the iceberg, by the light passing through its clear blue caverns, I began to fear one nearer us would roll and flip our boat. I remembered hearing of a kayaker who was tossed into the water by a rolling iceberg; I again imagined Jamie falling into the water. We headed for shore.

The shore was of the finest sand I've seen in Prince William Sound. Most beaches are rocky or pebbled at best. Here the sand's fine texture and glinting black color absorbed the sun's rays and molded to any shape. I leaned up against a rock on the sand, holding my baby close. I could still see about half of Barry Glacier. As Jamie nursed, I saw a huge column of ice break loose and fall, like a lightning bolt, into the water.

On the return trip I watched the glaciers recede. As the ice field tapered off into a few chunks, Andy called my attention to a sea otter toward shore. It was a female, a mother with baby on her belly. For a few minutes we watched. Then, rather than dive and disturb her pup, she paddled off.

Though the sun was still high in the sky when we returned to the cabin, I spent the rest of the day inside with Jamie, napping in the warmth of our sleeping bags. The boat trip had tired us both. Andy left us to follow the coast down to an old gold mine we had both been curious about. I made him promise to take pictures and then drifted off to sleep.

The next morning dawned clear, but a cloud bank in the south assured me it would not last. I walked the beach alone. The sea otters, twice as many as the previous morning, were again close to shore. Flat water, no waves breaking the silence. I could hear the otters eating. Most crunched on crab or sea urchin; one made a tap tap tap as it used a rock to break open the shell of its breakfast. I crouched on the beach and watched them. Only one or two nearest me turned to look in my direction; they paddled away halfheartedly. Then another sound broke through the silence—the sound of Jamie crying. I hurried to the cabin to feed him.

Clouds began to move in, though our cabin was still showered in sunlight. Andy took the boat and explored the rock jetty we passed on the way to Barry Arm. He was gone for hours. Several times I took Jamie and walked the beach. Clouds began to lower and soon a fine mist fell, yet I could still make out the jetty and Andy's boat tied to the rocks. Him, too, I thought. I wondered what he was finding out there.

On past trips we spent hours walking around tidewater pools, poking among seaweed. These pools, I've found, take time to see. It is like entering a dark room and waiting for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. You must sit still, and sit still some more, and slowly you will begin to see small creatures—rockfish, sea stars, periwinkles, anemone—living out their lives.

On his return, Andy said he spent hours watching a young bald eagle. The eagle sat on the rocks as the tide came in around him. He did not move, Andy said, as the water curled up around his feet, then his body. Finally, when it was up around his neck, he stretched up, shook out his wet feathers, and flew a few feet. Then he swam back to dry land, using his great wings as paddles. Andy had thought the bird was injured, but he was probably still learning to fly well.

I left Andy with Jamie and again walked the beach, from the Port Wells side around to the spit and the lagoon. Clouds blanketed the mountaintops, and a soft rain dimpled the water. A raft of sea otters floated offshore. In the quiet waters of the lagoon, I spotted the harbor seal I'd seen every day since our arrival. The seal moved silently across water so calm that the mountainside of green, lit by sunlight beneath clouds, was reflected perfectly in it. Only the seal's wake rippling the water gave away the reflection's illusion. At the end of the gravel spit, I stood still and watched the incoming tide cover pebbles at my feet. I turned and saw through the fine mist a white spot on the beach. It was a feather—nearly completely white, with just a few brown speckles, the feather of a young bald eagle. I brought it to Jamie.

The next morning, a light rain fell. We were to be picked up that afternoon, but I was not ready to pack. I bundled Jamie and walked to the beach. Once again, the harbor seal slid across the lagoon and gulls and eagles fished in the stream. Once more we walked out the gravel spit, then through the smooth curved forms of upended tree stumps. The sea otters were again close to shore. Some turned to look at us as we approached, but did not move away. Jamie and I watched as one dove, reappeared, and brought food to its mouth. It nibbled a bit, then rolled in the water, cleaning the remains from its belly. Two others, fairly young by the dark fur of their heads, porpoised through the water, chasing each other. One barked at the other, then made a series of flips in the water, its body forming a circle, head to tail. Jamie gurgled softly, then made a little bark of his own.

 

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