Into the wild woods …

“Because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach ….. I went to the woods.” Henry David Thoreau

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Alaska 1999

Islands slide silently by on oiled tracks like big old blue whales dozing in quicksilver, their massive humps arching, overlapping at the edges, or alone – blue on blue.

Land melts into water, water into sky, sky into forever. Indistinct. Hard edges rubbed away by vaporous mist.

A short sharp night, mercury dawn. The air thickens white, stitched loosely with gold. An island rears up. Sudden, shocking, then disintegrates. A mysterious shape-shifter, in a monochrome world.

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Warm in my sleeping bag on the ferry’s deck, I close my eyes, just for a moment, and the veil is lifted – brushed away like so many cobwebs to reveal mountains dusted with icing sugar, purple against a slate grey sea.

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Time unravels like forgotten knitting – the mountains forest green now – bottomless crevices packed tight with ancient ice. A waterfall birthing melted snow splashes down the sides into deep green water, reflecting sky.

Twilight comes late. Jagged black cutouts on a drop cloth awash with pastels – pink, aqua, mauve, deep blue – two perfect stars a delicate counterpoint.

Travelling north – chasing a dream, like those who went before in search of gold.

I am a solo adventurer riding the Alaska Marine Highway, a network of ferries that travel tirelessly throughout the Inside Passage. It is possible to book a cabin on many of the great vessels, but it would be a pity when a cheap walk-on ticket allows you to unroll your sleeping bag on the deck.

Can you imagine the wonder of waking in the middle of the night to see a snow covered mountain drifting by close enough to touch? Or to look up and see millions of diamond stars wheeling across the sky? Or to sit watching the sun slowly settle into the water around midnight, only to rise again a couple of hours later? Or to see a black bear ambling up a waterfall in search of berries? Out here it is my reality.

Those who sleep on the deck, and there are many of us, have access to lockers and coin-operated hot showers, vending machines, and a cafeteria or dining room. The larger ferries carry marine biologists who give lectures, point out wildlife, and answer a million questions. Most of them can’t imagine working anywhere else.

Once you learn to sit quietly and take a good long look around, you notice the old fisherman tying his flies, the earnest musicians softly playing their guitars. You see young families, native Alaskans, grandmothers, hikers and backpackers. Remember, there is nothing but time when you are travelling on the water, and everyone has a story to tell.

When I left Seattle (the Columbia sails from nearby Bellingham) my best friend thought my plan for the summer was crazy, his flat mate thought it was daring and adventurous. I put it down to them being city dwellers. It wasn’t until later that I realised how rare it is for a woman to travel alone, and independently, through this great wild land. By then of course it was too late – I was on my way.

I will always be grateful that, at least this once, I chose the road less travelled.

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I changed from one ferry to another, stopping off at towns and fishing villages along the way. I hiked for miles and miles through the beautiful woods and mountains of Southeast Alaska, singing songs as I walked so I wouldn’t startle the bears that lived there. It seemed to work, however, there was one walk from my cabin at Bear Creek Camp into town, when I could almost feel those bears closing in on me. Displaying a bravado I didn’t feel, I launched into a spirited chorus of ‘Que Sera Sera’. I have often wondered, in the times since, whether I stayed safe because my singing scared those bears away – or if they were so breathless from rolling around laughing they were too tired to stalk me.

Throughout my journey I met the most amazing people. I was taken into the hearts of the Haida, Athabascan and Tlingit people. From them I learned to track bears, spot a beaver lodge and find where the bald eagles feed. I fished for salmon and learned about beading and carving totem poles. I listened to their stories and shared some of mine.

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As I travelled, I was overcome by the sheer beauty and stillness of the land, but what I felt went deeper than that. Alaska touched me on a soul level. There was a heartbeat that ran through everything – the trees, the mountains, the water, the rocks – and it ran through me. It was a feeling of homecoming – of belonging. It was a remembering.

Like Thoreau, I too went to the woods …. and found myself there.

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