Several years ago, my friend Jerry and I joined six other companions on a sailboat expedition in southeast Alaska. Over the course of a week, we motored and sailed along the outer coast of Kruzof and Chichagof Islands from Sitka to our destination, the little town of Gustavus outside the entrance to Glacier Bay.
The trip was informally affiliated with the Alaska chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which had made a significant investment in a community-based coastal conservation project, preserving about 2,600 acres of unique forest, wetlands and beaches near Gustavus in 2004. Among other things, the protected area provides critical stopover habitat for the sandhill cranes that migrate through the area.
The project had come about through the efforts and activism of local environmental leaders, including Hank Lentfer, the author of Faith of Cranes, and Kim Heacox, who has written many books including his recent John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire. Both of those books are reviewed in previous posts on this blog, at Speaking Out and Fire and Ice.
An unusual aspect of the Gustavus Forelands Preserve is that it is actually growing in size. The land was severely depressed, in the physical sense, by the weight of massive glaciers during the last Ice Age, and it is literally rebounding with the removal of that pressure over the more recent Holocene period. Scientists have established that the lands around Glacier Bay evidence the fastest rates of this isostatic rebound in the world.
As a result of this glacial uplift, thin strips of additional shoreline are exposed on the protected tract each year, rising out of the ocean and expanding the coastal beach, thus far outpacing even the rising of global sea levels. This dividend of new land is visibly evident in the progression of plant species along the coast: as the surface rises, new varieties are able to colonize closer to the water's edge, and the age and size of the terminal plant life is concrete evidence of the ongoing glacial rebound. Talk about a return on investment!
As we approached Glacier Bay near the end of our voyage, Hank Lentfer came to meet our boat in his skiff along with his friend, Bob Christensen. When they climbed aboard to join us for breakfast one morning, we were anchored in a cove off Icy Strait, near the entrance to Glacier Bay. Given the springtime of the year, you can well imagine that the surrounding water was only slightly shy of freezing.
So of course it was just too tempting. Fulfilling their role as the providers of local color, Hank and Bob were soon stripped down to, well nothing actually, and commenced cannonballing off the port bow into the well-named Icy Strait. Several intrepid members of our crew took inspiration and joined them.
Apparently this behavior is not unusual for Hank. In rereading Faith of Cranes for my recent book review, I came across this passage: “I stood naked on the bow, gave a whoop, and dove in. The cold clamped down like a giant fist. I stroked back to the boat, hauled myself over the gunwale, and sat panting and dripping. ... It feels so good as soon as you’re out.”
I regret to say that I personally opted to stay warm and dry, not to mention clothed. One of the lessons I have learned in wilderness is to seize moments for adventure when they arise, because they likely won’t come around again. I’m not sure I would do it differently next time, but I would like to think so. It would feel so good once I was out.