Wild Serenade

Last week, my Crossing Bridges post referred to a sailboat trip in Southeast Alaska ten years ago, during which I learned the circumstances under which my friend Phil had never learned to swim.  This week's post tells the backstory of that trip.

A drowsy lawyer snuggled in his blanket in the galley of a sailboat, hands wrapped for warmth around a steaming mug of fresh coffee.  The enticing aroma of bacon wafted through the small cabin space as Amy prepared a simple but hearty breakfast.  The lawyer’s friends, Jerry and Phil, followed the beckoning odors and came drifting from their berths into the galley, quietly filling their own mugs and settling down to join him.

Bahrr-ohhh-nne!  Bahrr-ohhh-nne!  The deep tones resonated from the open hatch above their heads, echoing into the sleeping compartments behind and prompting David and Sam to poke their heads from behind curtains and doors.  The lawyer shrugged in response to their quizzical expressions.  Then came banging and crashing sounds, accompanied by whoops and exclamations, indicating that the boat was being boarded.

Nels and Miles came scampering down the aft ladder into the main cabin, doubled over with laughter and displaying the didgeridoos that had been the source of the atonal chorus that had startled us a moment before.  And so began another day aboard Arcturus.

I was the sleepy lawyer, of course, and had taken time from what was then my law practice in Chicago to fly to Sitka, Alaska, a few days before.  My frequent Alaska companion, Jerry, was along on the trip, as was our mutual friend Phil, who was also one of my law partners. 

The first evening, we met up with the owner and skipper of a 54’ ketch, Arcturus, for an early dinner.  Sam explained that a ketch is a two-masted sailing ship in which the mizzenmast is located forward of the rudder.  Then he had to patiently review that a mizzenmast is the nautical term for a mast that is stepped aft of a taller mainmast.  A few naïve questions later, we could almost see his eyes doing gyrations in their sockets as he wondered about the three landlubbers who were about to set sail with him.

Sam also explained that his boat, Arcturus, was named after one of the brightest stars visible in springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, its name in turn coming from an ancient Greek word that describes someone who watches a bear.  The star Arcturus is aptly named because it follows Ursa Major, the Great Bear constellation, across the northern sky.  It is easily spotted during its celestial season by the mnemonic of tracing the “arc” of the Big Dipper’s handle until you come to a bright reddish star:  that’s Arcturus. 

The next morning, Jerry, Phil and I found our way to the small boat harbor where Arcturus was docked.  Sam welcomed us aboard and introduced his first mate, Amy, who was also his girlfriend and business partner in an investment management business in Juneau. 

David Banks, at the time the state director of The Nature Conservancy of Alaska, was also on board, along with the nephew of a TNC staff member.  Miles had just graduated from college with a degree in biology and brought the boundless energy and enthusiasm of youth to our group, compensating to some extent for the lethargy of a jet-lagged lawyer and his friends. 

We were about to embark on a weeklong expedition, motoring and sailing along the outside of Southeast Alaska’s barrier islands, from Sitka to our final destination -- the little town of Gustavus outside the entrance to Glacier Bay. 

There was to be one other member of our crew, who joined us shortly after we arrived on board, hoisting himself nimbly from dock to deck like Errol Flynn swinging in the rigging of the Sea Hawk.  The newcomer was Richard Nelson, the noted ethnologist, biologist, environmentalist, naturalist, sound engineer, teacher, best-selling author, national radio program host – and, soon enough, good friend.

On the morning of the didgeridoo serenade, Nels had quietly awakened Miles and they had slipped away in kayaks as Arcturus rested at anchor in a secluded cove off Chichagof Island.  They found a bountiful bed of bull kelp nearby, the elongated blades growing up from the bottom of the bay, and Nels showed Miles how to cut the long cylindrical tubes into an ersatz Alaskan version of the musical instrument that originated in Australia. 

Bahrr-ohhh-nne!  Bahrr-ohhh-nne!  The concert would have continued for quite some time but both Nels and Miles were dangerously close to passing out from hyperventilation as they tried to master the continuous breathing technique needed to keep the droning action of the didgerees going.  In the end, they wisely opted for Amy’s bacon and pancakes instead.

Miles plays an Alaskan bull kelp version of an Australian instrument, the didgeridoo.

Miles plays an Alaskan bull kelp version of an Australian instrument, the didgeridoo.

A kayak-level view of Arcturus at anchor in a Southeast Alaska cove.

A kayak-level view of Arcturus at anchor in a Southeast Alaska cove.