When the first real snow of winter settles into the Taiya Valley, an understanding comes with it, and the knowledge that the elements are going to slug it out between themselves for a few weeks. It is not uncommon here to have snow one day, and then rain or slightly above freezing temperatures the next. Even here, at the end of the Alaskan panhandle, snow doesn’t stay too long unless it is in the high country or late winter.
Walking along the confluence where the Skagway River and the Taiya Inlet meet during this time of the year typically results in views of several dozen harbor seals. Wonderful to watch and observe, these grey furred mammals flop, lounge, feed and pop their faces out from the surface and of the water and look at you with a curious yet guarded stare. Looking up from the water gives views of eagles flying, then coming in to land along the edge of the water, striking handsome and stoic poses.
This valley may not have an abundance of culture or modern amenities, but it has a grace and primeval beauty. This wild mosaic replaces the longing for movie theatres, malls, and mega-marts. Choosing a “Chilis” or “TGIFridays” over watching harbor seals swimming and feeding under the watchful eyes of the Chilkat Mountains seems like a fool’s choice. Desiring Starbucks over eagles riding the thermals above, folly.
Up here every day is an adventure. The abundance of wildlife and wilderness can provoke a sense of jadedness. When you see three-dozen eagles and ten or twelve harbor seals every day, there are times you don’t take much notice. Even when the malaise hits you, sighting a brown bear scooping a salmon out of the river while an eagle soars over its head snaps you out of the funk and fills you back up with awe. When the sun goes down, and the temperatures drop, looking out to the night sky sometimes gives you a show of lights that dance across the sky in greens, yellows and reds. Northern lights seem to be the neon showcase for the splendor of the Valley’s abundance.
Working in the backcountry is a privilege, and one that gives front-row seats to many things most people only see on television nature-shows. Being in the action of wild animals is something you don’t forget. For example, being in a 17-foot sea kayak in the presence of 40-foot humpback whales is an experience that stays with you. When a whale surfaces within five feet of your kayak, an immediate flush of feelings hit you. Feelings of humility, awe, terror and peace flood you, temporarily taking you off guard. Not going out and seeing this is cheating yourself of one of the world’s great experiences.
On your first whale encounter, whether from shore, on a boat, or in a kayak, you feel a tension in your shoulders and crackling energy. Primal, life-affirming reflex comes over you when the whale exhales, sending the plume high into the air. Scanning the water’s surface for waves yields a glance at the whale’s back. It is easy to become transfixed while the whale stays at the surface for a few seconds, sounding off to find new schools of krill or small fry. It glides, seemingly effortlessly, through the seas. If the whale is particularly active, maybe a pectoral fin will flop on the surface, or maybe the huge jaws will open and lunge across the water, filtering out the brine and keeping the krill, filling a small portion of the gigantic appetite it is trying to appease. When the back begins the arch, it signals an end to the encounter. The whale is getting ready to dive and go deep, and when the fluke pops up out of the water and disappears below, satisfied feelings settle in and you realize you have just been allowed a sight of one of the world’s great beings and enigmas. Living without these experiences makes you poorer. These happenings are one of the greatest gifts of being on the planet. Embrace them.
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