The one thing I had convinced myself not to be disappointed about was not seeing the Aurora Borealis. It was going to be too light in the Arctic to see them, so I had not allowed myself to hope; I would have to return in winter.
But last night on the ferry from Haines, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington, a three and a half day journey through the same waters that the great explorers Cook and Bering sailed in search of the Northwest Passage, the same coastline that John Muir canoed exploring glaciers, they appeared.
I was standing on the open deck at the stern, talking to yet another fascinating person travelling this liquid migration route with me, when they started to form.
At first just a single, misty, sinuous wisp lifting from the northern horizon up into a deep blue sky, the Aurora quickly spread into a curtain of wisps, then reached long fingers up to touch the big dipper floating overhead. They weren’t the raucous neon captured in the photograph I snagged from the internet for this post. They were a quiet, gentle shimmer. A caress on the atmosphere. Eventually they settled into a low arc across the breadth of the horizon, their reflection glowing on the dark water.
As I stood on the deck, the Aurora before me, the North Star to my right, and the Milky Way overhead, I knew I was receiving Alaska’s fond farewell, and I offered mine in response, followed quickly with a promise to return.
It has been wonderful week of exploration since leaving Fairbanks. I have toured a bit of southern Alaska. Enjoyed the incredible native artifacts exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, and on the Kenai Peninsula, I spent a day lounging by the River, watching the gigantic, brilliantly red sockeye salmon jump out of the milky turquoise water and witnessing autumn’s return to the mountain slopes in front of me. In the morning, all had been green. By evening, many of the trees were shining gold, and at higher elevations green had passed through gold and onto red in the course of that single afternoon.
Indeed the summer has already passed in Alaska. The lodge I was staying at has now closed. The storm that had hidden Denali on my way south had dropped the first snow – what Alaskans call Termination Dust – signaling the end of the season.
It was also a week of much adjustment. Although there had been six of us on the rafting trip swapping stories and waxing philosophical, and I was loquacious enough in our discussions along the river, back in civilization I was having, indeed am still having, a hard time putting a complete sentence together to reserve a campsite or order a meal. I wanted to take a boat from Homer to camp in Kachemak Bay State Park. But having to fight for a parking space and navigate the tourist carnival that lines Homer’s legendary spit to arrange for the water taxi proved too much for me. I retreated to a campsite in the hills above Homer and enjoyed the vista of Kachemak’s mountains in solitude instead.
Thankfully there has been little to no cell signal and even less access to wifi this past week, so I haven’t had to cope with the full onslaught of my voicemail and inbox as the other Expeditioneers have already had to do. I am still luxuriating in the sea of stillness inside me that I discovered in the Refuge.
That is the only way I can describe it: stillness. It is a deeper sea than “calm.” It is the main reason, not the lack of connectivity, that you haven’t heard from me. It makes words slow to form, both by voice and by pen.
My mind, my emotions, my spirit are still ruminating, trying to absorb, and struggling to express the experience of being in the Refuge, surrounded by nature in its naked state, nature unclothed by the human tailoring of trails, roads, manipulation for convenience or profit.
What naked nature did, it turns out, is to unclothe me in turn. It stripped away the costume sewn out of the people, habits, responsibilities, business of daily living. And once divested of that costume, ask myself: Who am I in this totally foreign landscape? A land where even the sun’s trajectory is unfamiliar, sliding low around the sky, setting behind a peak and rising again on the other side of it, then setting behind the next and rising yet again throughout the day. What direction would I take when I woke up in a land with no trails to follow, no named peaks to brag I conquered, no guide for my steps but my instincts?
And the answer came: You are exactly who you are. You are not the family member, the friend, the romantic partner, the professional. You are not a woman in middle age facing an uncertain future. You are someone feeling a strong, steady tug at your heart pulling you down to the earth. A naked soul embraced by naked nature. I am a person humbled to be faced with my insignificance, yet comforted by being part of something so much larger, so much more profound than myself.
So the Aurora and I said our goodbyes as I headed south, back into the land of connectivity, responsibility, and uncertainty, with the hope that much better words will come to communicate the experience, with the hope that some of the stillness will remain, with the hope that the gifts of the Refuge, kept close in the little pocket that was created when I left a piece of my heart there, will suffice to sustain me until my return.