Boat, sweet Boat

Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
Trip End Feb 03, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Alaska
Thursday, August 16, 2007

Slick as oil, the otter dives just as I focus on him

The water, the color of milk painted with silver ripples, betrays by circles the otter's movements.

He comes up, this time in a patch of green reflected from the shoreline. He's chewing on something orange, seaweed or coral.

Dad idles the engine and swings the Dive Master to starboard. Mom has joined Dan and I in the picture-taking frenzy on the back deck, trying to fill up the new memory card Dan and I have brought her from China. We are in Alaska for the second half of August, enjoying my annual visit to my parents and severely taxing our photographic talent.

Our otter friend drifting nonchalantly away while chewing his late afternoon snack, we continue our passage across the Icy Strait and into Dundas Bay, a long multi-armed bay next to world-famous Glacier Bay.

When Captain Cook and other explorers ventured to Southeast Alaskan waters in the 1700s the glaciers the bay is named for would have extended almost to the sea; now, they are receding while Brady Glacier to the west is coming forward. Entering Glacier Bay in the present-day requires a permit and advance planning, so my parents decide to check out Dundas Bay instead.

We find it crowded with more sea otters.  I lived in Southeast Alaska during high school and for a few years of my nomadic childhood, but can only remember seeing otters once or twice before. Mom, a lifelong wildlife watcher, was in heaven.

Some otters are diving for food, others are playing in pairs, diving and surfacing and barely noticing my parents' live-aboard motor boat purring along past them and into the bay. A few times Dad concedes to stop the boat again so we can photograph more of the animals. We see a few mother-cub pairs, the fuzzy babies balancing to nurse on their mothers' floating bellies

Dad anchors the boat in a small cove where he suspects the fishing will be good.  We slap mosquitoes and let our lines tickle the bottom, mix drinks and listen to my parents' music and feel the evening come over the mountains behind us.

I watch the water deepen into shades of darker green. Dan hauls up fish after fish, throwing some back but enjoying catching them. It's a great trip.
We all took a turn at the helm of my parents' fishing-converted-to-live-aboard boat as we circulated through the Southeast Alaska I had never had time for as a teen-going to the little towns of Elfin Cove, Hoonah, Pelican.

Pelican and Elfin Cove are tiny, houses optimistically planted on foothills or pilings along the shore, connected by boardwalks the residents tell us are buried six feet under with snow in the winter.

Every day on our trip we see the Southeast Alaska of postcards, sighting humpback whales, puffins, sea lions, seals, and of course, our sea otters.

Dan fishes nonstop the whole time, trolling a line when he can, and leaving baited hooks out optimistically even while we're at dinner. He caught several halibut, including the trip's largest, lots of bottom-dwelling fish my parents call "double uglies" and even a few crab and starfish just with his line.
With pots set overnight, we also reel in a few hauls of dungeoness crab,   succulent and plenty, one king crab, and one lonely shrimp.  Bliss.


For the second week of our visit we based in Auke Bay, part of Juneau, where I went to high school.
My parents and family friends treat us to three days of non-stop Mexican food, breakfast, lunch and dinner. We take Dan through the obligatory run of museum, glacier and tram that every person who visits Juneau should see.

And one day our friend Bruce the pilot takes us up in an eight-person float plane on a breathtaking, bumpy ride over the Juneau Ice Field. We land on an alpine lake, the water the color of a blue-green crayon, and enjoy a beer standing on the floats of the plane. The small plane roars its way over the glaciers and peaks, and on our way back to town we see a herd of 20 or so mountain goats grazing on a rocky cliff.

Back on land, it was strange for me to revisit Juneau, which I once knew well.

Years away have erased some of the connections I should make--which streets intersect, which of my high-school friends are married with children, which shops have closed down.

Everything was familiar, but some things so different. A WalMart is opening where K-Mart used to be. The gift shop where I worked summers in high school still has the same fabric and mugs displayed in the windows, just different faces behind the cash register. The coffee shop where I spent so many mornings writing in notebooks and drinking bottomless house blend has remodeled, cleaned up. The mall my friend Pilar and I spent hours roaming  has more shut stores than open ones anymore, but the places we bought Doc Martens and fingernail polish still serve a teenage clientele.

I ask Pilar, who still lives in Juneau, incessant questions about which of our high school friends are married, with children, divorced, away. Some of her answers amaze me, others just seem funny.
And, as always when coming back to the United States from abroad, there's that funny reverse culture shock: Souvenir shopping for Alaskan prices on Chinese salaries was a bit depressing,  The whole idea of tipping wait staff is foreign now, as are Western table manners--using a knife and fork is so awkward!  Public restrooms are clean and carry their own toilet paper; you can't just walk across the street wherever you want, you have to use a crosswalk; beer comes in pitchers, not buckets of bottles; and everyone understands everything we say.

And of course, just as these tiny cultural markers of the West re-familiarized in my brain, we were back on the plane headed for Hong Kong.

Our next trip: Beijing for the October National Day holiday.

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Where I stayed
Dive Master
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Comments on

Great Pictures
Wonderful pictures and writing Beth, you really capture the feeling of Alaska. Jim -Juneau

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