DOUGLAS -- "Our life is your vacation" is the caption for a photo recently posted on our neighbor Megan's Facebook page.
Megan and her boyfriend Ian are standing on the sunny deck of a whale-watching boat, dressed for a wedding on Colt Island. Last year my husband, Karl, and I took a similar voyage to a wedding on the same island. Our boat, hired by the bride and groom, was late to the wedding. Two pods of transient killer whales showed up, and the captain shut down the engines for the whale-enthralled family of the bride from Massachusetts.
When it's sunny in this Southeast Alaskan rainforest, our life can feel like someone else's vacation. That's what happened last month, when I looked at my smartphone and rubbed my eyes at the daily forecast: 72 degrees and sunny. I felt like the bored weatherman played by Steve Martin in "L.A. Story."
Riding my bicycle home from work, the sights were extraordinary — the mountains emerald, the buttercups golden, the sunset on steroids lavender. At a friend's idyllic guest house on the water, my colleague Keni fell asleep to the sound of waves whooshing at tideline. "It sounded like a spa but it was real life," she whispered, eyes dreamy.
'Dropped in from outer space'
If we who live here are so enthralled, what's it like for visitors? The thousands who see the Inside Passage from cruise ships just once before they die? What do they make of this place, where by the whim of the weather, the mountaintops crown the stratosphere and the sun sets crimson as the full moon rises?
I introduced myself to a couple strolling the Juneau cruiseship dock — Clark and Nancy from suburban Southern California on a 25th-anniversary cruise, a gift from their grown children. They'd just returned from a guided hike near Mendenhall Glacier.
"What does Southeast Alaska feel like?" I asked.
"It's like you're dropped in from outer space. It was breathtaking coming up the channel," said Clark.
"It's just so different," added Nancy. "We're having a drought in California, and the greenery is amazing here."
"My daughter noticed 10 shades of green," said Christy, a manicurist who moved north a few years ago from Reno. "I couldn't live in a more beautiful place." Christy's salon overlooks Auke Bay harbor, where the sight of bald eagle parents tearing apart a salmon and taking turns feeding it to their chick brought her to tears. She's "overwhelmed by this place every day."
Karl and I were enjoying our anniversary dinner in the restaurant at the top of the Mount Roberts tram, looking out on Douglas Island and Gastineau Channel as the sunset merged with the first rain shower in days. A young man approached our table, wearing a ball cap and a damp T-shirt. He introduced himself, "Darby," in Juneau from Washington, D.C., for a week of training with the Coast Guard. He'd just hiked up 1,800 feet through a canopy of spruce and hemlock trees.
"It was incredible," he said over and over, absolutely thrilled. "You could hear the rain but you couldn't feel it." Then he looked down at his shirt. "I just soaked it up. The ferns, the bushes, everything along the trail seemed so much bigger, so green. It was like the movie 'Avatar.'"
DOP or FOMO?
Not all visitors are so impressed, like the rotund duo from Australia perched on a cement block in front of the library, heads down, poring over coupon books for the dime-a-dozen jewelry stores that blight the street near the gangplank from which they disembarked. Slow moving and dazed, they appeared oblivious to the looming and majestic Mount Juneau.
I do my version of the same thing. Sometimes you have to put your head down and pay the bills or do the dishes. I call it DOP, or Denial of Paradise. Perhaps DOP is the antithesis of FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. I'll get home from work and deny the fun in the sun to be had at Sandy Beach in favor of my laundry room, which seems OK at the time. The problem is the torturous post-DOP lament, when it hits that you'll never get back that particular full moon over the water. Ever.
I felt better about Memorial Day weekend after I took a water taxi with friends to Haines. On the way home, Captain Zack dropped us on a small island at the mouth of Berners Bay, where we settled on the shore of a glassy cove in our portable beach chairs. I had no desire to do anything but close my eyes and bask in the sun, listening to humpback whales exhale.
At least one tour operator is charging big bucks to "listen to the songs of the whales echoing from the sea as you drift to sleep." Online, I stumbled on a self-proclaimed shaman marketing his annual Shamanic Retreat in Alaska, for which he charges the would-be-enlightened $2,275 for the privilege of camping out for a couple of days. He quotes a happy customer: "Imagine the power of seeing bald eagles every day, of participating in ceremonies while whales frolic nearby, and of taking in the power of spectacular sunsets."
Those of us who live here can do that for free. In that case, your spiritual pilgrimage is our life.
Freelance writer Katie Bausler is a devoted resident of the island kingdom of Douglas.