I don’t know how to write about Alaska. This is kind of a problem since I fancy myself a writer and I just got back from a 12-day trip to Alaska. A 12-day trip during which I got to see amazing things: a humpback whale spouting off the bow in stormy seas, office building-sized chunks of ice crumbling from a glacier, a herd of caribou galloping across an autumn tundra, white-faced Denali looming like a grim deity over a blasted landscape. I wanted to write out the trip as a travelogue, but each time I tried to start, I felt overwhelmed. There was too much to talk about. I didn’t know where to start (so, as you can see, I started with not knowing where to start).
Alaska is too big. Too big for pictures, too big for words, too big for us. It’s humbling. All of it. The towering mountains, the mist-shrouded fjords, the endless tundras, the dark of the forests, the massive predators that roam the twilit trees just outside your flimsy little tent.
To step into the woods in Alaska is to step back into the food chain and realize that you are no longer at the top. Not even close. Here be monsters, much bigger and stronger than anywhere else. A grizzly bear in Yellowstone may weigh up to 600 lbs, while coastal grizzlies in Alaska often reach 1,200 lbs thanks to a diet rich in salmon. In other words, they are twice the size of the biggest Lower 48 grizzly. And that’s not even counting Alaska’s Kodiak bears, which are like super-grizzlies, or polar bears, which make Siberian tigers look like kittens. In the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where our group camped for two nights, the grizzly population is so dense that there is one every square mile. You are truly in their country.
This sign was conveniently located next to the campsite outhouses, so you could read it, and then go shit yourself in fear in relative comfort.
We saw no bears in Kenai, but in Denali a grizzly bear was spotted in our campground the day before we arrived. I admit, I did not sleep well that night. It was especially fun when I woke up around 3 a.m. and it was pitch black and the wind was howling and I realized I had to pee and that it could not wait until morning and that I was going to have to go out there, into the bear-infested darkness, and take my pants off.
Like I said, humbling.
You feel small in Alaska, but not like you do when you look at the stars and try to comprehend the infinite. There you feel small as an animal, as a creature of thin flesh and pulsing blood with too little hair, too little muscle, and too delicate a stomach to really make a go of it in that wilderness.
And it’s not just the scales of space and size in Alaska that humble you, it’s also the scales of time. Nature works at a mad pace there. In Valdez, we camped not far from Valdez Glacier. If you were to walk up and touch Valdez Glacier, you’d be touching ice that is tens of thousands of years old; snow that fell from the sky when the whole of humanity still lived on the burning plains of Africa. At the foot of the glacier is a wide lake carved out by the river of ice. The lake is 700 feet deep, but only 44 years old. We’re used to nature’s wonders being impossibly ancient, like the glacier, but sometimes they’re startling new. My parents are older than that 700 foot deep lake.
I am older than much of Columbia Bay, where we went sea-kayaking among the icebergs that drip daily off the face of Columbia Glacier. Since 1983, Columbia Glacier has retreated 12 miles, creating the entire ice-filled bay we kayaked around for hours. It’s somewhat unsettling to stand in a deep fjord that has been around longer than your entire species. It’s even more unsettling to stand in a deep fjord that has only been around as long as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
It’s a disturbing and maddening and humbling land, but it’s also beautiful; probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Sublime, as the Romantics would call it. I can’t wait to go back. Like the 17th Century travel writer Joseph Addison said of the Alps, the wilds of Alaska, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.”