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Watching Alaska pass by, traveling by jet, van, ferry, foot and paddle

  • Author: Erin McKittrick
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published November 3, 2013

At one moment, the cottonwood leaves are brilliant yellow. A few minutes later, the trees are bare. Now there is snow on the ground. A handful of caribou run alongside us, their snorts turning to steam in the chill morning air. We slow to watch them, neck and neck with their run, until they peel off and we rush past. The snow disappears. Drunken black spruce morphs into tundra, then back into cottonwood flats. Rivers pour out from underneath us. My vision is accelerated -- the view inside my camper van gathering hundreds of miles of beauty in the space of an afternoon.

?This is Alaska, blurring past at high velocity. Homer connects to Kenai connects to Seward connects to Anchorage, Talkeetna, Fairbanks, and Haines -- in the space between the painted lines.

?After Haines, travel speed is punctuated. Tagged vehicles wait in numbered rows, then are assembled into a careful puzzle in the belly of a ferry. I curl up between rows of chairs, lost in a disjointed slumber through indistinguishable darkness. The ferry, part of the Alaska Marine Highway, seems slow now. It moves with a deep low rumble that feels unhurried, almost soothing compared to the high-pitched engine of the camper van.

?Dawn illuminates a wide channel lined with patchwork islands -- dark green forests and lighter green clearcuts stamping their pattern on the slopes. We motor into the distance of gray-blue hills, their tops cut off by fog.

?It's October in Southeast Alaska. I can tell where we are by the raindrops streaking down the ferry window and by the trees that nearly brush the sea. I can tell where we are by the droopy silhouettes of hemlocks, the scent of yellow cedar, and the beaches built of long and slaty rocks.

?But the ferry isn't slow enough. I don't know where we are. I can't name any of the islands we're passing or the channels we're moving through. Puzzle pieces of water and land are scattered around me, but none of them connect.

?At this speed, the world is disjointed. Towns are connected by highway signs and the small paper notes that sit in the window of the van on the ferry. Within the towns, houses and bookstores are connected by the tinny voice and turn-by-turn directions of a smart phone.

?By modern standards, we're barely moving. I'm on a book tour and between ferry and event schedules I will spend more than a month in the space between our Seldovia home and the southeastern edge of Southeast Alaska. The jet that cruises between Seattle and Anchorage covers the distance in just a few hours -- so quick I may not look up from the pages of my book. At any motorized speed, passengers can travel without looking. And drivers can't look much beyond the lines.

?My regular speed -- the speed at which I've spent the most time traveling -- is a little over 200 miles per month. I move with the push of my feet on the beach or the pull of my arms on a paddle, shuffling along with two small kids at the speed of some ancient human migration. At that speed, Kenai is more than two weeks from Anchorage -- separated by the obstacles of mudflats and connected by tidal currents and trails. The weather's likely to switch a few times before we get there, the snow barely touching the windshields of the cars rocketing past. But I can't ignore it. Not the snow or the mud or the shifts of the forest and the shapes of the hills.

?Looking through the rain-streaked window of the ferry, I imagine myself climbing through the forested ridges that rise beside us. Or riding my packraft over gentle waves, then landing on a grey slate beach, walking over rockweed and mussels to cook a meal at a waterfall. Watching the ravens. Knowing, every moment, where I am.

?Erin McKittrick is an writer, adventurer, and scientist based in Seldovia, Alaska. Author of Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska (for which she is on tour in the Pacific Northwest) and A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot Raft and Ski. You can find her at Ground Truth