The day I left Alaska, it started to snow. I could hear it rustling against the walls of my cottage like someone trying to get in. Out in Sitka Sound, the ocean was whipped to a frenzy, white spray foaming on the rolling back of the steep waves. "We can leave because it's not quite a gale," one of the flight attendants said. But the plane had overflown Juneau already and in truth, leaving Alaska is never quite as easy as it may seem.
It didn't take long for Sitka to start weaving a spell. I heard myself start saying things like, "Let's all meet up at Baranof Warm Springs next winter!" and, "Yes, I'd love to kayak with you next summer in Whale Bay." Like before, the island became the whole world, the mountains the only mountains that matter. That is what happens when you live on an island. You have to make an effort to leave, get on a boat, buy a plane ticket. It is hard to see beyond its boundaries. To counteract this, if you want to (and there are some who don't want to) you have to step off once in awhile. "Island fever," we used to call it, or "getting off the rock." You could tell when someone had stayed too long. On the other side of this island, people would sometimes run into the woods as we motored into shore. They melted into the trees, leaving no sign. Other times they would wave frantically, talking a mile a minute, reluctant for us to leave.
On my birthday, Carolyn and I hiked up to a frozen lake. The day was perfect, cloudless and still, the snow piled deep where wind had pushed it, the lake a drowsy blanket. Though a landslide had piled up massive trees on the far side of the lake, it was easy to believe that nothing really had changed here in my absence, that I could slide right back into living here, as easy as that.
|Ths is kind of hard to see, but a skin of ice formed over the waterfall. Water was running underneath it. It was cool! Trust me.|
As the plane left the runway, buffetted by wind, the island was quickly shrouded in clouds and snow. At the next stop on the milk run we sat for hours in the plane while the runway was cleared, ice was removed from the wings and the auxiliary power was repaired. "I hope we don't get stuck here," my seatmate whispered. We looked out the windows into the grey sea and blowing snow. When I lived here, getting stranded happened all the time. I was stuck in towns, in remote campsites, and in drafty cabins. Once we could hear the floatplane droning overhead, unable to land on our lake. "Have a nice evening," the pilot finally told us over the radio and my companions and I stared at each other. We had only planned to be out for the day. We shrugged, built a fire, and harvested a bright orange fungi called Chicken of the Woods (which would probably have tasted better with butter). People talked about walking out to salt water where a boat could retrieve us, but we knew that there were slippery cliffs, bears, and devils club between us and the shoreline. Going a mile could take all day. Better to stay put.
When we took off for Seattle, I was a little bit disappointed. As much as I wanted to go home, there's something about Alaska that I can't quite shake. It's the one that got away, like the person you knew you couldn't live with but that made you sparkle. I don't belong there anymore; after two days of running my knees ached from the moisture in the air. The isolation and the same ecotype would drive me crazy. But still. But still. We all have those places, don't we?