TENAKEE SPRINGS — Many of my neighbors close their homes and fly away for winter, leaving not long before the sea lions arrive. I understand the appeal. During mid-winter in Southeast Alaska, when darkness creeps under my eyelids and burrows into my self-worth, I want to fly away too. I watch these families take off as the salmon spawn and the rain begins in earnest, and I think perhaps they've figured out happiness. Perhaps they're doing it right.
Yet within the dark, the wet cold, the overcast for weeks at a time, I gain something that is hard to put a finger on. A vulnerable, secret feeling of euphoria that's not quite happiness, but something else completely.
Growing up in Juneau, I fell in love with street lamps on misty nights. I would shut the door to my best friend's house after an evening cuddled under a blanket to watch a movie, or after a delicious meal with her family. A night full of warmth, chatter, food, then suddenly I'd find myself on an empty street, walking home. Drizzle splashed on my face. I saw other homes lit up, but they couldn't see me as I walked by. My body felt full from the evening's warmth, as if I radiated light into darkness. It was those teenage moments, when rain sparkled in the streetlights and no one else but me was there to see, that I first gathered in the secret of winter.
When I was a bit older, I worked, once a week, in an Alaska dive bar. At 3 a.m., the bar closed. With a final shove from the bouncer, the last of the crowd would disappear, the door lock behind them. The place was suddenly so silent. Empty bar stools and tables of half-filled beers. Red and gold lamps that radiated light in small, concentric circles.
The bar seemed longer than it had been when bodies had leaned against it. My co-workers and I would look at each other for the first time all evening. We could hear revelers out on the street, but somehow the muted noise just added to the interior quiet. There was a shared intimacy to have experienced both the loud and now the juxtaposing quiet. We'd each take a shot, then start cleaning. I worked at that bar because of 3 a.m.
That's what winter feels like.
I admit a certain kind of joy when the world empties. An introvert's dilemma; an admission that, when said aloud, can hurt the friends and family I find such delight in taking leave from. Yet I am the one who is adamant that my partner and I live in a community, not in the emptier country he might prefer.
It's not that I love emptiness and hate the hubbub of people, love winter and hate summer. The joy exists in the juxtaposition. When each neighbor says their goodbye in the fall, I think, "it will be lonely without you." Then, in a few days, I look around and realize how lovely it is to be reacquainted with myself or the few other beings who live here.
Winter is the softness of falling snow while pulling in a crab pot. Winter is the moment the radio clicks off, the overwhelming silence. Winter is an empty ferry in big waves. The memories that don't make for good stories or Alaska-brochure pictures and therefore are all my own.
A short skiff ride from where I now live, sea lions congregate for winter. Perhaps I wouldn't love them so much if they scooted up onto those rocks year round. Perhaps it's because they come here in winter when whales and tourists and bears and neighbors are scarce. Perhaps I love them because we're both here.
The first time I went to see the sea lions was in February. It was the noise that tipped me off that we were skiffing toward a crowd. From a distance, their bodies looked small, lolling on the rocks like mermaids of Never-Never Land. However the cacophony of braying, belching, bleating and roaring couldn't be muted by the ocean between us.
As we neared I could see them more clearly. On the smooth basalt rocks of Cannery Point, between the wall of evergreens and the ocean, 40 or 50 monstrous creatures sprawled, waddled, but mostly raised their heads to the sky and brayed.
There is something awe-inspiring about mammals on shore. The sheer weight of an animal that normally does not have to contend with gravity. Its blubbery mass now unsupported, like an elephant without legs. They had no easy way to traverse the rocks they'd chosen. Most of them moved just their necks, craning, snapping, barking. But a few moved around: Up the rocks from the water, starting with their heads to gain momentum, they heaved their rippling flesh and pushed their giant bellies in an effort to scoot along. They reminded me of obese break dancers doing the worm. If they traveled atop barnacle-laden surfaces, I imagined it would mean quite the road rash. Perhaps this is why sea lions usually come out of the water on designated rocks: Their predecessors have long eradicated any mollusks and crustaceans, making land travel awkward, but painless.
We watched the sea lions, our skiff drifting. There were all sizes: yearling pups, pregnant females and smaller males (larger males stay at rookeries, where the sea lions mate). The ones that had been on land longest had turned blonde, no longer the slick dark color of a wet hide. Some waddled up the rocks. Some scratched with their flippers at the backs of their ears. Some sprawled like dogs on a couch, limbs or head lolling off edges. Some snapped and lunged for each other, sometimes doing so over the top of a sleeping pile.
It was a cold, sunny day. The water was blue-black and calm. Along the shore, gold sea grass lay dormant. Behind it, red alders looked ragged without their leaves. It was a low snow year, so there was no blanket to cover the winter brush.
We huddled into our layers and let the boat rock. We didn't speak, though the sea lions made plenty of racket. Eventually, we turned the skiff on and drove home.
There isn't anything more to my sea lion story. Anyone who comes here in the winter can easily watch them on their haulout. But you do have to be here. In winter. When everyone else is gone.
Megan Bush lives in Tenakee Springs with her partner and two dogs. She is finishing her first book, a memoir about her family's experience with schizophrenia.