August 29, 2010

The Other Four Senses

It certainly is getting closer to the time when I must look forward, not back; the time when I think about where I’m going instead of where I’m leaving. So I’ll wrap up my little project of observing Alaska through all five senses. After last week’s entry on sight, here’s a quick look a life in Juneau with the other four senses.


Costco was already in Juneau when I moved here and I basically had no qualms about shopping there. But many long-time locals will tell you that in spite of the high cost of food and goods in Alaska they initially boycotted the giant cement block when it first infected the town. But eventually Costco’s prices won over many locals and their relatively unblemished tomatoes won over the rest. After all, anything other than the most strict subsistence life in Alaska largely requires importing food. A lot of food. From far away. That food arrives primarily by a multi-day barge trip and the produce shows it. I’ve received many-a-voice mail message sharing which store has just-ripe avocados or fresh, crisp apples; that’s treasured information.

However, more and more Juneauites are successfully attempting small gardens, though they require a lot of TLC in this climate. And of course, the surroundings here are filled with edible goodness too. In July and August, fishing season is in full swing. Small carrots are plucked out gardens by proud gardeners. Berries are everywhere: Salmonberries, huckleberries, blueberries, nagoon berries, cloud berries, thimble berries and more. Entire weekends are devoted to picking them. The berries are made into jams, pies, pancakes and scones.  Those with the knowledge harvest mushrooms too. For these two months in particular, tables are filled with more local deliciousness and less Costco. We marinate the wild salmon my husband caught with soy sauce, brown sugar and garlic and grill it on a cedar plank. We snack on alder-smoked salmon while we wait. We mix a salad from local gardens. We toss berries that we picked with cinnamon and cloves, make a crust with butter and flour on the bottom and walnuts on the top, and throw it all together as a scrumptious pie.

Such a meal is a satisfying treat like nothin’ else. Round it off with a cold, locally brewed beer, and you got yourself an evening feast. If sun is blessing the deck, you’ve got yourself a party or a potluck with friends around to eat it and drink it all with you.


The feel of the rain on my skin, soaking into my hair and dampening my face is a sensation I have come to love in Southeast Alaska. It makes me feel a part of the scenery, immersed in the atmosphere. Life with so much rain can be a chore sometimes but this place wouldn’t exist without it. And it keeps the crowds away.

A friend and I, both recent transplants from drier places, had plans to go for a hike one October day several years ago. That morning, I awoke to the wind howling and the rain coming down in sheets and buckets, both. The phone rang. “Should we hike up Mt. Roberts?” she asked. We agreed that trail was good for the day’s element’s – under big trees, on a hillside protected from the wind, a beautiful trail that would make a satisfying hike until the rain soaked through everything, leaving sticky warm under-layers pressed against your skin and chilled hands void of dexterity. We met at the trailhead in boots and raincoats, carrying thermoses of hot drinks. Plans are often determined by the weather, but the threshold for cancellations sits high in Juneau!

I won’t lie and say the rain doesn’t get to me in Juneau. It does. It’s rough and depressing sometimes. I know a couple that moved from Texas to Juneau and it rained for 90 days straight. They worried they had made a big mistake. But it’s the rain that fills Southeast Alaska’s cup with glaciers and streams, dense forests and abundant wildlife. Kayaking has become one of my favorite rainy day activities. Watch rain drops make an ever changing-pattern as they plunk onto the surface of the water all around you. Feel the rain dropping onto the top of your head, down onto your nose and across the backs of your hands. All while paddling silently and rhythmically to glaciers, near whales and through channels with the tide crawling underneath. Every bit of it is about that which water creates.


I love wandering the working harbors and admiring the boats from the decrepit old fishing boats, to the sleek new sailboats and everything in between. The smell is one of fish, salt water, sea shore and diesel fuel; it’s nature and hard work combined - the lifestyle of a fisherman. Not far from the harbors are the beaches and summer’s social months, another smell emanates from there – that of campfires and bonfires. A great Juneau pastime seems to be gathering friends and sitting around a camp fire. Passing around snacks, drinking beer, chatting, everyone moves closer as the night air cools down. The smell of campfire pervades my hair through several washes. The smoky scent rests on my skin and digs in deep in my clothes. One hoodie is reserved for campfire gatherings because it will smell that way all summer anyway.


 I spent a few summers telling tourists all the facts about the enormous size of humpback whales, equating them to football fields and their diets to 10,000 quarter pounders per day. I have seen many humpback whales in close proximity from land, from a boat, from a kayak, from a small airplane. I have seen them breach, bubble feed, and roll around slapping their long, pectoral fins on the surface of the water. But nothing imprinted the magnitude of their size on me more than the night I did not see a whale at all.

I was with two friends, K and S. We were practicing that great tradition of sitting around a campfire on a beach, blinding ourselves by staring into its flames. As we spoke quietly of this and that, we were interrupted by a sudden, loud, close and eery noise, similar to a “whoosh” but more like a “poooofph”. We stopped talking. We sat in silence. We heard it again. “What is that?” S asked. No answer. No one moved. “Poooofph,” it came even louder this time. I jumped up. “Is that a whale?” I asked in one breath. “That’s a whale!” I said incredulously in the next breath. We ran the short distance down to the tideline, over the rocks, through the darkness. There we stood, and there it came again, “Pooofph.” Only this time it was followed by a “hhhhhhheeehh” – a carvernous, hollow sound. A gasping, massive inhalation. In my mind, I recounted the words I had uttered to tourists dozens of times: A humpback whale has lungs the size of a Volkswagon. We stood perfectly still, as if any movement might scare the behemoth creature away. The tide must have been very high and the beach must have dropped off sharply just beyond the water line. The whale was very close. “Pooooofph”… “Hhhhhhheeeeehhh”……. “Pooofph”… “Hhhhhheeeeehhh.” On and on this went, until it slowly became softer, more distant, and then disappeared. The whale had left the bay.

We stood there still, unwilling to move or to speak should we end or ruin this moment. It was a dark night that night, no moon. We never saw the whale’s great gleaming back or the mist from it spout and exhalation. This was the most attention I had ever paid to the sound of a whale breathing. 
I have been closer to whales, I have even heard their song through hydrophones. I have seen momma and calf pairs come up right next to my kayak. I have been on the bow of a boat when one of these great beasts unpredictably launched itself out of the depths of the sea and came crashing down, the water splashing over me as the captain threw the boat in reverse. But this night, standing at the edge of the sea, without the sense of sight to measure the moment, I heard the spirit of the whale. I heard its grace. I understood its size from the sound of its inhalation, gulping down that oxygen for the next dive. That night, I truly understood the grandeur and the magnitude of such a creature. Now, when I see a whale, I sometimes close my eyes. Poooooofph... Hhhhhhhheeehhhh.

1 comment:

  1. I love the whale story. I felt like I was there!