Jason's missive from 'merica #8

Trip Start Feb 27, 2013
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United States  , Alaska
Saturday, June 1, 2013

24th May, 2013.

Summer is here. Elsewhere this might mean investment in a new wardrobe or increased sessions down the gym. Here it means tattoos. I walk along the corridor from meeting to meeting and bump into colleagues (or ‘co-workers’ as they are called here) comparing tats and discussing the next angel or bird of paradise they are to have applied to their body. Normal volume of conversation means it is their forearms they are decorating, hushed tones means somewhere rather more interesting. I now walk to and from the ferry terminal on the Seattle side . . . this takes me through Century Square. It is a relatively open, typical city square with little playground, fountain, civic art, plantation of silver-birch with trunks sprayed purple and an ever-present fug of ganga . . . tonight I almost floated home.

“Why are you dressed like that daddy?” It’s been a little while since I last went for a run. The island is verdant . . . one can sense the vegetation bursting open. Lilly and I took the green lane to the right of our house where the view begins to open onto the bay. 800 yards later the Yacht Club appears and 800 yards more, one heads through the woodland and wham . . . there is the harbour with its private moorings. A low-slung clinker sloop screams beauty amongst a bay of bobbing white fibre-glass. A crab makes its way down one of the posts driven into the mud to keep the pontoon in place and the mussels suck with all their might in cahoots with their barnacle friends as I give them a prod. It has been up in the 80’s for almost a week now (Jess has even acceded to turning off the heating) and the island is greener than the greenest county in England.

Some poor bugger threw themselves off the ferry the other night. The boat put the brakes on and reversed back. Others in the area came to join in the search. For 30 minutes two ferries, speed-boats, yachts and coast-guard scoured the choppy, grey sea. Then we all turned around and went home. I am embarrassed to say how quickly I became desensitised to the odd occurrence in London when someone threw themselves in front of tubes and disrupted the service for half a day. But it’s different here, so matter-of-fact . . . it was a personal decision so he got what he wanted . . . period. But that’s how things are over here . . . not malicious, just matter-of-fact. As ever, now as the horse has bolted, the boat is teeming with police.

I found myself on the upper ‘sun-deck’ on the way in to work today as I’m taking Lilly into the office before dropping her off at the dog-sitters whilst we go on our Alaskan adventure. We were soon joined on the port-side by a chap carrying a guitar on his back who was in turn, joined by another, also with guitar on his back. They passed the briefest of pleasantries (“morning Jack”, “morning Ted”) and hoiked guitars out of cases. The leaner of the two called out a tune and off they went, playing and singing country-folk completely oblivious of everyone and everything around them. They played the full half-hour, then as the tall buildings of Seattle’s Business District came within spitting distance, packed up, exchanged goodbyes as brief as their hello and went their separate ways. On the far left out towards Magnolia is a big boat with sloping stern. In my head I hear Bella’s “we’re going on big boat tomorrow” and “we see big bear tomorrow”. Tomorrow is now today . . . I work until 11h00, drop Lilly off at Sasha’s (Lilly’s first act is to wee on her sitting room carpet) and board the big boat where I meet the girls.

29th May, 2013.

On Monday we had a chill-out morning aboard the Solstice passing through Tracy Arm Fjord en route to Skagway. Either side of us, mountains extend out of the water as steeply as they must descend into it. Snow is abundant on the peaks and glaciers spew icy water onto a looking-glass sea strewn with mini icebergs. The horizon is as dramatic as anything in the Alps. We are in frontier-country and it feels like it. And when indoors, I know what it feels like to be Keira Knightly, Pippa Middleton (or of course Jessie Ollivier) for when we go down to dinner the whole room stops in admiration . . . the only difference being it is my daughter they are looking at (dressed in one of her wardrobe of dresses) rather than me. Complete strangers walk up to us on deck and address Bella by name.

Ketchikan . . . now there’s a place. At one point, three cruise ships were berthed. Led by the sound and sight of ‘airplanes’ (I have been unsuccessful in having Bella call them aeroplanes), Bella and I took ourselves off to the skanky part of town. Next to a run-down ‘mom & pop’ store selling curios (ie. tat) and opposite the white clapper-board Methodist Church, sat a slab of decking about the size of a basketball court. Square-cut logs lay randomly, reinforcing the no-parking signs that kept the foolhardy from leaving vehicles on timbers unsteady even under foot. Stilts held the platform about 50’ up and 6” square timbers kept us from falling off the edge. And there Bella and I sat with the best view in the house of a bay littered with knackered old sea-planes moored, taxiing, taking off and landing. A bomber-jacketed pilot with tatty baseball cap and cigarette hanging from his mouth had just landed from some Hemingway novel or other and was berthing up beneath us. Planes landed where no clear run of water was discernible, expecting others to clear the path. One chap, having given his craft a cursory once-over before take-off, jumped in and sparked the old girl up. Her go-faster stripes were faded off-white and she coughed black smoke as good cylinders dragged bad into action. With her engine misfiring, her propeller spluttered and the poor old thing was coerced to perform another mission. As she warmed up, the pilot increased the revs and she made her way to the centre of the bay, turning left, then right to avoid other craft. Then, bam, on went the thrust and the battle between propeller and drag from the floats commenced . . . it’s a hell of thing to watch. The sea puts up its fight to the very end, sucking the floats in, desperately trying to keep hold before the laws of physics do their worst and even this tired old workhorse made it airborne.

The last couple of days have shown off the final frontier’s mix of aching beauty and scale to some effect. Finally Marlborough J got what he was looking for, flying out on a sea-plane to fish a gorge so scenic it took me 10 minutes to get round to assembling my rod. We took a 4-seater de Havilland from a lake at Skagway’s airport for the flight 30 minutes south to a winding tidal inlet about 800 yards wide bordered by grassy flood-plains framed by more dramatic vertical cliffs to which Douglas firs clung by their toe-nails. It was so hot we were in shirt-sleeves. The salmon have not yet arrived (in 4 weeks, it will be perfect), so we were fishing for Dolly Varden feeding on the previous year’s fry. We saw no bears . . . unfortunately, we saw no fish either! I could however have stayed for a week trying.

The towns here are just like those from a John Wayne film, with wooden side-walks and square-gabled, clapper-board stores (although the saloons and whore-houses have been replaced by tee-shirt shops and jewellers). Skagway was the gateway to the Klondike for gold-rush prospectors looking to make themselves rich with all the lawlessness, shoot-outs and Wild West shenanigans this brings. The more visionary investors raised huge sums at enormous personal risk to build railways supporting the gold-frenzy, taking prospectors over the most dangerous of the passes towards the start of a 500 mile journey to the Yukon. And all this happened in the late 1890’s . . . so recent my grandmother was born only five years later. It is small wonder the pioneering, every man for himself mentality remains so strong . . . it is only 3 generations old. We took the White Pass train over narrow-gauge tracks that twisted up a route hewn from the mountainside by 35,000 men and laid over wooden bridges in various states of disrepair. Bears played with mountain goats on a hill-side haunted by the bluey light of nearby glaciers.

With no e-mail and little mobile coverage, this has been just what the doctor ordered for the three of us . . . Jess has played a blinder organising it. We have swum with Bella almost every day, watched her dance proudly with native Indians and receive gifts from lumberjacks on stage. Jess and I have had some lovely time together, either watching the world go by from our balcony or exploring what Alaska has to offer up close and personal. Apologies for being incommunicado for a little while but we are back now and will no-doubt inundate you with Skype calls etc as the weekend rolls on.

I don’t know who was most excited on our return, Bella on seeing Lilly or vice-versa. Once the screams and barking died down, Bella gave Lilly a big cugggie and kiss . . . Lilly reciprocated with one of her special Lilly licks. And Bella’s first activity when she returned home . . . trampeen.

Take care and lots of love,

Jess, Jason, Bella and Lilly.x

If you want to check out Jess’ travel-log (incl. photos), go here.
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