Friday, December 10, 2010

channel markers

Here I am as a "Fort Wench", circa 1985.

This is who I used to be.

I think about my distant past sometimes. It recedes from me more each day, similar to how the shoreline faded into memory as I drove the skiff away, a fat wake of foamy salt water marking my path. Out in the islands, the mainland was just a whisper, somewhere I used to live. On the road or on the sea, it was easier to forget places I had been, to always look forward to the next one, to figure out who I would be there.

In Neva Strait there were triangle-shaped markers and buoys to show the correct course, a slalom ride through rocks and shallow patches. Stray off those and you could be high and dry or your prop gouged by submerged boulders. There was etiquette too: red right returning, I chanted to myself, steering the boat to the right as I came back to town. I passed seiners heavy with salmon, gleaming white trophy boats with helicopters on the back, and sailboats full of adventurers. In the straits, it was a lot like driving on a highway.

Traveling out from Sitka, we had our landmarks too. There was the flank of Kruzof with the wind-pounded Sea Lion Cove, where the surfers went. There were the Scraggy Islands with their inaccessible golden patch of beach. There too the flamingos someone tossed up in a tree as a joke. The charts could be vague, the rocks uncharted, but we almost always knew where we were.

Not so for my erratic wandering around the planet. I have not had any markers or signs; I have just picked what felt right. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Each place I went was like starting over, like learning to walk. In Nevada, they knew about rappeling and how to jumar out of caves. In Florida, they could weave sun hats out of palmetto and cut out the heart of a cabbage palm for eating. In Alaska, they knew how to start fires in the rain and how to collect herring eggs during spawn. I never stayed long enough to learn how to do any of these things very well.

1989 after fire season with the other women on the crew. Acid washed jeans and a perm, oh my!

Someday I want to go back, even though I’ve read enough to know you can’t go back and have it be the same. But then, I don’t want it to be the same. I want to walk the trails of Mackinac to see if there is any trace of the puffy-haired girl I was there, who took a canoe with Karla and Jimmy across the shipping lanes to Round Island and rode on the back of a snowmobile on the ice. I want to visit the Elwha Dam when they finally tear it down, remembering the day I decided to run twenty-two miles up a trail just to see if I could. I want to see if John-Be-Free still visits the caves in the Grey Cliffs and if Bill still flies a J-3 Cub over the desert looking for gold.

In Alaska we took small boats everywhere. We watched our GPS and our charts, and sometimes the old timers told us stories that made up the landscape for them. The island where a couple shipwrecked in winter and only the woman was found, her mind gone. The constricted bay where two kayakers flipped, their bodies turning to ice. Places where they cheated death. Hot springs. Huge cedar trees. Alder tunnels made by bears. As they told these stories, they became ours too. We pointed them out to the new people, trying to sound like natives.

The point of all this is, what I am trying to say here, is that when you move a lot, instead of staying put, you have this twisting map of places you have been. I want to follow it back sometimes, to see where I came from and how each place changed me.

But just like weaving through a maze of islands, it is easy to get lost in this kind of thinking. Maybe it is better to commit each marker to memory and move your ship forward. Sometimes the water won’t let you go back in a little boat. Instead you surge forward with the flood tide.

The only thing I can come up with is to write it all down, to keep it close to my heart. Even if I went back, it wouldn’t be the same. People I knew have moved on, married, changed. I like to think of each place the way it was, dazzling and new. I like to keep moving forward with the tide.

shooting practice, 2006


  1. Mary, I think the one of the many things that sticks out about you from knowing you way back when (beyond the amazing places you have been, the adventures you have had, the solitude you seem to feel at times) is that how many friends you have made over the years. When we met up a few years back I loved how the dinner guests all had stories of shared times with you. You may go along weaving in and out of lives, but you have woven with a string that remains attached as you wander on through your life. I am happy to be a memory that occasionally gets the chance to reconnect with you. :-)

  2. Oh I like that, Eunice. I'm going to steal it (and thanks)

  3. What Ewe-niss said. Expresses so well what we have noticed and appreciated about have made many kinds of friends in many places, many different venues, in different ways, and you stay connected to them. So each of them is a part of who you were then, and who you are now. That's a gift.

  4. Mary, your choice to move down this way has truly blessed me. I may never have gotten to meet such a beautiful lady. I am so glad our paths crossed and look forward to being able to visit and hike with you more. Love the pics.


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