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Down by the Riverside

Aialik Bay

     So, I promised you a story. Aialik Bay.
     I wanted to go. And I didn't want to go.
     We'd made reservations for a kayak tour of this remote, pristine bay in the Kenai Fjords National Park with Kayak Adventures Worldwide out of Seward, Alaska. This late August excursion was to be one of the highlights of our three-week Alaska vacation in 2019. The outfitter's website promised we might see harbor seals, puffins, and other wildlife. Maybe the glacier would calve right before our eyes. I'd been anticipating the trip for months.
     And yet.
     I was a much better canoeist than kayaker.

     I was afraid of deep, cold water.
     Michigan's Lake Superior gives me the heebie-jeebies, and this was the North Pacific Ocean. I flipped in a kayak once while paddling around Grand Island in Lake Superior. I rolled over and came up for air three times before I remembered to tear off the spray skirt and perform a wet-exit. "I thought I was going to have to do a 'dead-man rescue' on you," one of my paddling companions had said. I didn't trust myself in a kayak.
     When our Alaskan kayak guide, Glo, asked each us during the pre-trip shakedown what goal we had for the trip, I did not tell the group what I'd written in my journal the night before:

     · Hope to survive.

     · Hope not to capsize.

     · Hope not to fall behind.

     · Hope to have strength for the whole trip.

     · Hope the wind doesn't come up.

     · Hope not to pee my pants.

I said, instead, that I hoped to see a sea otter close up. We boarded the water taxi that would take us to Aialik Bay. As the taxi pulled away from the dock, up popped the head of an otter, six feet off the bow. "It's only 8:05 a.m.," I said to Glo. "What are you going to do for the rest of the trip?"
     Well. The water taxi took us alongside steep, forested basalt cliffs and snow-studded peaks. In Spire Cove, we squeezed between islands with weirdly wonderful graywacke rock formations. We saw harbor seals on a ledge, stellar sea lions on a rock, and a bird that one of the other guests identified as the rare kittletz murrelet. The captain of the taxi pointed out sea stars on the rocks right at the shoreline. Then he slowed to circle a horned puffin floating on the waves.

     After two-and-a-half hours, the water taxi deposited us on a sheltered beach south of Slate Island in Aialik Bay.  Glo removed the tarps from the sea kayaks stored there, and we dragged them down the steep beach, the flat oval stones sliding sideways under our feet.
     Fortunately, the water in the bay was very calm. I don't know what I would have done had there been waves. The kayak moved smoothly and easily through the water. Glo showed me how to space my hands on the shaft of the paddle to ease the strain on my shoulders. What a relief.
     We paddled toward Aialik Glacier for almost an hour. The glacier seemed so close to us, but appearances were deceiving. Glo told us that the face of the glacier was a mile wide and twenty stories high. And what we were seeing was just the terminus of the glacier—a great wall, a colonnade of vertical bluish shafts and shards topped with spikes. Several times we heard a sound like thunder and part of the glacier fell into the water, creating waves that finally reached our kayaks in gentle swells.
     Glo had us raft up half a mile from the face of the glacier, far enough away that the waves would not capsize us if a big portion of the glacier came down.     

     We kept our kayaks in formation for forty-five minutes, eating turkey sandwiches and watching the glacier calve repeatedly. Sometimes a harbor seal swam by. We were surrounded by large and small chunks of gray and blue ice, what Glo called "berg-y bits." She told us not to collide with any piece that was bigger than our cockpit. "That could do you some damage," she said.
     I picked a small piece of ice out of the water and bit it. It tasted clean and pure.
     As I gazed at what one writer called the "impossibly huge" face of the glacier, I imagined rivers of snowmelt flowing somewhere beneath what I could see. I remembered learning in physics class that even in the most solid-seeming structures, something is always moving. Every piece of matter is made up of atoms, electrons circling the neurons and protons in the nucleus like planets orbiting the sun.

     Something is always moving.
     Fear and anxiety do vibrate within us. Let them go. Let them ride like pieces of gravel down the cold, unseen river into the sea. Put your paddle in the icy water and keep going. Maybe you'll see a puffin. Or a seal. For certain there will be deep water. And above you, even more enormous than the face of the glacier, will be the wide arc of the aquamarine sky. 

"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." Isaiah 43:1 (RSV)

Playlist: "How Firm a Foundation," early American hymn, 1787.

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