Escaping the Mainland

June 1990, Holkham Bay, Tracy Arm – Fords Terror Wilderness, Alaska

I worked in Alaska one summer, between college semesters. The job wasn’t related to my coursework. Not even close. I had begun studying civil engineering nine months earlier. But over the next three months I’d wear the label of United States Forest Service wilderness ranger. Two of us explored a 1,000-square-mile block of mountains, glaciers and inlets. Fifty miles south of Juneau. The Tracy Arm – Fords Terror Wilderness.

I already knew the other ranger. James. We had met briefly at school. I had gone back to my old apartment to pick up my ten-speed bike. He was leaving. I was arriving. We talked for moment, discovered we had common interests in the outdoors, and spent a few weekends hiking and camping during that semester. One evening, sitting at a campfire, we hatched a plan to spend the next summer in the Alaskan wilderness.

I almost hadn’t gone back for my ten-speed that day. Had I gone another day or had I delayed by thirty seconds, I might have worked that next summer in Tulsa or Boise or Phoenix.

We would be the first rangers in that wilderness. The Forest Service commissioned us to reconnoiter the area, meticulously document everything we saw, photograph anything interesting, and at the end of the season, we would write a report of our findings – for $7.85 an hour plus a food allowance.

We spent the first week indoors learning how to splint a broken femur with an ice axe, how to stanch massive bleeding from the carotid artery, how to tell the difference between a runny nose and running cerebrospinal fluid. Just in case.

Day 1: We left Douglas Harbor this morning in a sixteen-foot Boston Whaler, a boat advertised as indestructible – cut one in half and both pieces still float. We had fifty miles of Stephens Passage to navigate. The weather was dreadful, exactly what the radio had predicted the night before: three-foot seas, winds at twenty knots out of the southwest. A Boston Whaler sits low on the water, giving it great stability, with the attendant risk of getting swamped in three-foot seas. We took turns bailing sea water. Only a few miles out of Juneau, we were soaked from rain and waves. By nearly imperceptible degrees, discomfort had become danger. We turned around and vowed to try the next day.

Day 2: We left Douglas Harbor again. The sun came out all day, and I came to recognize this as no small miracle in this part of North America. Folks in Juneau complain of sunburn and heat if they see the sun for more than two days in a row. We made the wilderness and Holkham Bay by early afternoon.

Holkham Bay is a unique place. Not by geology or terrain; there are likely a hundred other bays like this along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts, and thousands like it in Scandinavia and Tierra del Fuego. It is the appearance of an island in this bay that lends to its distinction – and what that island provided us, which the mainland could not.

Harbor Island rises in the center of this bay, at the intersection of two narrow inlets that reach deep into the coastal mountains – doppelgängers of Norway’s fjords. Here they have a less exotic name: arms. Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm.

Tracy reaches north and then east. Endicott, south. At their junction, the high cliffs give way to a low headland that juts into the bay, visible from Harbor Island. This terrain would allow us to land our boat on the mainland.

But we didn’t live on the mainland. We didn’t establish our basecamp there. We only visited. The mainland didn’t offer protection from the marauding brown bears that would otherwise raid and plunder our camp. And there was a creature on the mainland more vexing than bears, one that would chase us incessantly, antagonize us, and threaten our sanity: the mosquito.

Days 3 and 4: We set up basecamp on Harbor Island, and spent a couple days following the coast inland, observing from the boat. This gave us a feel for where we could go ashore, where we could access the mainland, the places we could go on foot.

Day 5 morning: We landed on the mainland, on the low headland between the two arms. The tides rise and fall by over twenty feet in this part of the world. This made landing on the flats problematic; we could anchor in two feet of water and walk ashore. But we might return six hours later to find the ocean a quarter mile from our stranded boat. Or the tide had come in and the boat was now beyond our reach.

To solve this twice-daily problem, we devised an anchor-rope system that allowed us to drop anchor far from shore, land the boat, jump out, and pull the boat back to deep water. We conducted limited tests on the retrieval of our boat. By heaving and then rapidly pulling the rope hand over hand, we could dislodge the anchor and pull the boat to shore. Wherever shore might be at that time.

Throughout the day, we fought our way across a trail-less mainland to Sumdum Glacier. Yes. Sumdum. The coastal native peoples invented this onomatopoeia to describe the hissing and thundering sounds they heard as the glacier crept along the bedrock toward… Sumdum Bay. From six miles away, on our little island, in the middle of the night, we could hear Sumdum Glacier. Sssssssum Duuuuuum.

On another day, when the Sitka office had queried our location over the radio, James and I were quite entertained to report that we were currently in Sumdum Bay, near Sumdum Island. I let my thumb off the transmit button and waited for a response. “Some dumb bay?” crackled over the radio. We took a moment to compose ourselves, then transmitted: “Ten-four. We are currently in Sumdum Bay, just below Sumdum Glacier. We intend to land at Sumdum Creek.”

The conversation ended with the other radio operator following our instructions to consult a map of Endicott Arm. The joke never got old. For us.

Day 5 late evening: We returned to the coast and heaved on the rope. The boat and anchor were about two hundred yards from shore. I heaved on the rope. James heaved on the rope. We both heaved on the rope. The anchor was stuck. We could wait six hours for low tide. But even then, the boat would still be a hundred yards from shore.

It would be dark in another hour. Rain began to fall, and we didn’t have any equipment with us. No tent. No sleeping bags. No axe to cut limbs to build a shelter. We had eaten all our food. Even under our rubberized rain suits, our clothes were wet from the incessant rain and from hiking through damp undergrowth. We had a butane lighter if we decided to build a fire. If we could start a fire.

We looked longingly at our boat. We were stranded on the mainland. People get stranded on islands, in broken-down pickup trucks, in foreign embassies, in bad relationships. They don’t get stranded on the mainland. I felt the irony of our situation – to be stranded in a place associated with safety, with surplus, with security, with protection from the elements.

We had none of these. We were castaways on the mainland. James and I examined our options: We could build a fire, try to keep it going in the rain, wait for low tide and see if we could unseat the anchor then. We could swim the two hundred yards in the freezing ocean, flecked with icebergs, and risk a fatal muscle cramp on the way. Or, we could call Juneau or Sitka on the radio, ask for help, and apologize for the Sumdum jokes.

We couldn’t bear to request help. What would the trail crews say? They were adept at building trails; we had an aptitude for wilderness survival skills. Or at least we flattered ourselves with this. We discussed the radio-rescue option, and agreed it was the worst one. A last resort. We would risk starvation and exposure to safeguard our deluded pride.

We’d swim it. I’d swim it. James was the better woodsman, but I was the better swimmer. I swam in high school. I could go two hundred yards in two minutes. Once I got to the boat, I could pull up on the anchor rope while James pulled from shore. And if the anchor didn’t come loose, I could cut the rope and we’d only be out an anchor.

Rain. Cold wind. Boreal darkness was approaching. House-sized icebergs floated in the bay. I scanned the dark water for the pod of orcas that had tracked us earlier, and listened for their rhythmic breathing. All quiet. I stripped down and swam for it.

Halfway. At one hundred yards I thought I would rest for a moment, to catch my breath. But even as I stopped, I felt my muscles tightening, beginning to cramp. I could only manage shallow breaths in the icy water.

One hundred yards to go. Stuck on the mainland. Who get’s stuck on the mainland? I blinked and wiped the salt water from my eyes. I could swim faster with my face in the water, breathing on the side, every three strokes, just like at a swim meet in Broken Arrow or Little Rock. In the southern summer. I put may face in the dark water and swam.

I swung my arms. Anchors. I kicked. My legs felt like chains. I thought of the island. The dry tent. The gas stove. The hot food. The rock overhang, where we could build a fire and dry our clothes. We had to escape the mainland and its paradoxical dangers. The island would provide refuge, safety, protection.

An iceberg loomed just beyond the boat, bobbing in the saltwater. Five parts ice. One part rock salt. The ice cream maker would seize at any moment, and the ice cream would be finished. My mind drifted from ice cream to bowls of hot chili, steaming fish chowder, warm corn bread and a Spaniard with a funny name: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.

Cabeza de Vaca left Spain in 1527 with six hundred men bound for America. They left two hundred men in Hispaniola, and sailed to Florida. He crossed what would become the deep south and the southwest United States. Then he went far into Mexico.

I swam on, more slowly, barely getting my arms out of the water. I was over halfway now. It would be useless to turn around. Too far. I turned toward the shore. Just to look. James seemed small. The water felt warm on my back. But I knew it wasn’t warm. I knew this trick hypothermia played on the mind.

Ten years after landing in Florida, Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Mexico City. Of the original four hundred men who had landed in Florida, only four remained. Some had left the expedition. Deserters. Some had been separated on rafts during a hurricane. Some were killed by natives or died from disease. Some had drowned.

Seventy yards to go. My hands went numb. I thought my ears would shatter if I bumped them. I wanted to turn around. The butane lighter might work. We could build a fire under a giant spruce tree. We could set a spruce tree on fire. We could set the whole mainland on fire.

Cabeza de Vaca discovered he had a gift. He could heal the sick. He raised a man from the dead. He had come on the expedition as the chief treasurer. He was a financial controller, not a priest. Yet he had become a curandero, something very different from a priest. He used folk medicines and other means far removed from the traditional healings conducted by priests. He used the methods practiced by the natives. When he published his account many years later, some accused him of sacrilege. They said the work of a curandero was not the same as a priest. His work was unorthodox. Some suggested excommunication.

Fifty yards to the boat. I had to rest. I thought I could just float on my back for a moment. But the freezing water had cooled the blood that now reached my core. My heart felt like an anvil in an empty blacksmith’s shop at midwinter.

Cabeza de Vaca’s gift preserved the lives of many people. It may have preserved his own. Many years later, the Church appears to have censured him for having exercised a gift that was reserved for others, for having diverged from common practices, for having left the perceived safety of established institutions and traditions, for escaping the metaphorical mainland of his day and finding refuge on an island.

I reached the boat and used my remaining strength to pull myself in and heave on the line. James heaved on the other end. The anchor came loose, and I pulled furiously, keeping the anchor suspended while moving the boat toward the shore.

Around midnight, on the island, we built a fire under the rock ledge. From that little alcove, in the waning twilight, we could see the mainland. Only then did I again remember Cabeza de Vaca. He was a practical man, detached from dogma and tradition. I held him in my mind as the quintessential pragmatist. He escaped the mainland. He found refuge on the island.


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