I don’t think I could ever explain my life in Portland to the people I get to know on field projects. It would be as hard to explain my field life to Portland. But I’ll try.
I’m in Alaska two months, working for the Forest Service. I’m doing plant surveys, which uses my botany skills. I’m based in Ketchikan, though most of my work is much more remote. I’m out all week where there is not even phone service.
The land around here look like Oregon at 4000 feet elevation. Imagine being on a mountain lake in the Cascades, the hills all around in green forest. The alpine starts a mere thousand some feet higher. From my bunkhouse room in Ketchikan, I look up at a little peak called Deer Mountain, an afternoon hike. The pale green alpine meadows stretch above the dark green forest. There is still one patch of winter snow high up on that mountainside, though that white dot shrinks week by week.
Now imagine your mountain lake stretches for miles, zigzagging through every valley, till it cuts up all the land into a series of islands, inlets and fjords. Make your lake salt water, and there you have this part of Alaska. There are few roads; the sea channels are too wide for bridges. So it’s mostly getting about by boat. Or seaplane.
We boat out to the work area Mondays. When I was coming up here, friends said, “Oh, you’ve got to do the Misty Fjords tour!” Well, I get the tour of misty fjords a couple times a week, and paid to do it. Misty means it rains a lot, and even when it doesn’t rain it’s wet. So a lot of work in rain gear.
The remote quarters is a barge. This sounds grim, but isn’t. The “barge” is a very nice two-story house, floating on the water. On the water makes a lot of sense. No mice, no bears trying to get in the windows. And a tugboat takes it to town for winter maintenance.
I work alongside people surveying for wildlife, forestry, and fish in the streams. Along side, to get out to the sites, on overgrown logging roads. Then, they are going up the creeks in hip waders, or scrambling the ridges giving bird calls. I’m pretty much alone in the forest.
My procedure is to go through the forest looking for any rare plants. By now, I know all the normal Alaska plants, so anything unusual would stand out. Sometimes, an atypical formation of leaf catches my eye. But then it turns out to be only a common plant, chomped by deer so it looked odd. Or something like that.
Entering the forest is like crossing the veil into another world. At first, I would look at it from the road, an impenetrable wall of brush and boulders. I could not see how a person could actually get into that. But now, I scramble in. In twenty yards, I’m in a dim grotto beneath tall trees. Moving through this is not so much walking, more like the sport of parkour. Southeast Alaska forests are an obstacle course of head-high huckleberry brush, gigantic fallen logs, root wads, ferns, skunk cabbage, devils’ club, and rock formations. Fortunately, it is mostly layered in thick green moss, like foam rubber. So, when you stumble, you bounce.
This whole land was covered in glacier not too long ago. I get the impression, the ice, one day, just melted, leaving a wild terrain of jagged peaks, jumbled boulders, cliff-sided ravines, and random hollows. Then it rained. Soon, everything was covered in thick green moss and trees. Water filled the hollows to make lakes and swamps, then found its way, as best it could, into streams and creeks. The drainage patterns seem to defy gravity.
There are lots of bears. I have not seen a bear, except occasional ones as we drive around a corner. The bear looks at our oncoming rig, turns, and lopes off into the brush. I have not seen a bear when I am on the ground. But I know they’re there. Scrambling through the forest, I see lots of bear “sign”, some of it still steaming, with flies buzzing around.
I am not much afraid of bears. I have worked in the woods for years, and every bear I’ve ever come across was running away from me as fast as it could go. Bears have learned that things smaller than themselves can still be dangerous, such as porcupines. Bears that encounter humans associate us with things mostly bad. Bears have an even better sense of smell than dogs, a range measured in miles. I imagine them complaining how we stink up the forest with our boot rubber.
I am not much worried about an encounter with a bear, though maybe I should be. I do carry pepper spray. A better precaution is just letting the bear know I’m there. I try to make lots of noise, so there are no unpleasant surprises. It’s likely that when I arrive, a bear will move discreetly one hill over, and I will never know.
The euphemism, “wearing bear repellent” means not taking showers, and thereby letting yourself smell very much like a man. I personally think that’s a very good idea. The more the bear can smell me, and knows exactly what I am, the less likely I am to ever see that bear.
Back at the barge in the evening, we cook dinner. Some people fish off the deck. There’s games and videos for relaxation, till bedtime. The long Alaska daylight comes back about 3 AM, so you can wake to a bright sky, but still have hours to snooze till time to get up.
Everybody I work with is great. Maybe it’s something about government service weeds out any jerks. I guess you have to be dedicated, to put up with all the bureaucracy. There are some beautiful men, but I think no more than Oregon. After a while, it all feels like brothers and sisters.
When we boat back to town on Friday, the white towers in the distance make it look like Ketchikan is a space-age city of the future. But what you see is not the town at all, but the cruise ships. They are huge, taller than any of the downtown buildings. Locals diss the ships, but to me it’s all new and intriguing.
As we motor by, I study the cruise ships. They are so big, it takes a long time to pass one and I have plenty of time to look. They are stacked deck on deck, with a row of orange lifeboats clustered on each side, like barnacles above tideline. Each of those lifeboats is larger than the boat we’re in. On the top deck there are may be giant-screen TVs, or even whole water parks.
These tourist ships move during the night from one tiny Alaskan town to another. During the day, they’re docked, and the passengers stream ashore. A big part of the economy is tourism. Locals gripe that only in the evening, after the boats leave, you get your town back. But me, from bustling Portland, I don’t know the difference.
Ketchikan does Fourth-of-July. There is a parade, which I got the best part of by walking along side the lined-up floats. It was not hard to find. Ketchikan, like most southeast Alaska towns, consists of mostly one single street, chiseled in between the mountains and the water. The Forest Service quarters is on that street, so I stepped out the door, and there was the parade lineup.
I wonder who first thought up the theme of ten-years-after? It’s great, I’m sure, for all small town parades. Being as this is 2019, there was the float for “Class of 2009”. Decade after decade, they counted down. I picked the one closest to my graduation, “Class of 1969”. I figure the floats are populated by honorary X-9’s, in addition to those on the exact year. Even better, as you get along in life, you may be forgiven if you can’t even remember your exact year.
Of all the groups, the Native Americans are, of course the most interesting. Though, to me, the most cryptic. About when I got to the front of the lineup, the parade started, and I got to see it all over again in motion. The native people came along, chanting something utterly crosswise to the rest of the ambience. A song of religion? Of community? Of anger? And what did the blood-red face paint mean?
Portland parades are thronged. You get where you are going to watch it, and you stay there, unless you are willing to virtually swim through people. There’s something to be said for low-key small town festivities. At no time was there any difficulty strolling along the sidewalk, even with the whole town on the street.
Finally, the last float went by, and the smells of cotton candy and Filipino barbeque gave back to the clear salt scent of the sea.
That night, I climbed the 3rd Avenue hill and watched the fireworks out over the channel. Small craft spangled the water like fireflies. One of the tour ships had positioned itself offshore for a better view.
The official fireworks were not the only display. The public had been warned that the forest was very dry — incredibly, it had scarcely rained in a week. But some people couldn’t resist. As I headed back down the hill, fireworks erupted from right on the roadside. Some people, parked in the narrow verge on clifftop, were shooting off fountains and florals to rival anything in the official display. I mentally wagged a finger at those yahoos. At the same time I warmed to their generosity. I mean, those things cost money! I passed by, in a lull between guys lighting off a volley, then running for cover. In the fading glow, high-fives and fist bumps.
I walked on, figuring discretion is the better part. Well down the hill, I looked back. The multicolor fountains of incandescence were replaced by a calmer light display. The flashing red and blue of a cop car.