I’m reading Deep Water Passage, A Spiritual Journey at Midlife, by Ann Linnea. She’s been an outdoor person since childhood, and in 1992 at age 43, she decided to kayak Lake Superior, considered to be the largest inland fresh water lake in the world. Her story is described as an “inner and outer wilderness journey,” a “rite of passage,” and an “ordeal, descent, vision, and transformation.”
That’s what I wanted when I left for Alaska–a transformation, a new vision. I knew that ordeal might fit into the equation as well, but inner and outer wilderness journey sounded just about right.
I had wanted to go to Alaska for decades, this particular trip for a couple of years. The original intent was to see the beauty and grandeur of Alaska. But it became much more of a quest for physical and emotional healing. The years taking care of mom, the ankle injury in 2008, the loss of mom and the distance from my family, and then the surgeries and setbacks, had taken their toll.
And now, a week before our departure, I had a swollen and inflamed tendon and was told I had to wear a walking boot. I was concerned about how I would do on the boat. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone, including Ben. I called our skipper, Mike, who was already in Alaska and expecting us in a few days. I told him I was on crutches and in a walking boot. I said I wouldn’t be dancing on the bow, but felt sure I’d do okay. He assured me I was welcome onboard and from the outset, he recognized the challenges I was facing, but remained steadfast and supportive throughout the journey.
I knew I had to take the chance, that I had to risk going, risk hurting myself more, risk making a fool of myself. As Linnea said, “…I had to risk my life to save it.” Of course, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but there was that sense that if I didn’t go, I’d forever regret it.
I went with the hope that more than having an experience in Alaska, that I could chart a new course. We originally planned on being on the boat eight days, but a few months before departure we signed on for an extra two and a half weeks. Ben was ecstatic, but I knew intuitively that I needed that extra time.
The first day out of Juneau we traveled in a driving rain. I wrote in my journal, “no soaring vistas, no great insights, but as Stan, our traveling companion with wife Rita, says, ‘We must have internal sunshine.’”
Stan and Rita are retired Army nurse practitioners. They own a sailboat, but signed on for the Juneau to Ketchikan leg because they weren’t prepared to travel to Alaska alone in their boat. They had traveled the world as nurses and had just returned from Florence, Italy in March and were headed to Burma in the fall. They were interesting and smart and funny people. I liked them a lot.
Day two we traveled Endicott Arm to Dawes Glacier, my first up close and personal visit with a glacier. I was in awe, my only words were “Wow. Wow. Wow.”
The next day we went up Tracy Arm to see South Sawyer and North Sawyer Glaciers. Gary and Sandy, the couple in the other boat, came with us because dodging icebergs on the way to the glacier isn’t that much fun in their boat. They, too, are bright and interesting people, and great fun. They had retired from interesting careers and had traveled the world. They had even ridden motorcycles in the small Southern California mountain town of Julian where my family lives. I liked them a lot, too.
Throughout the afternoon and into happy hour, an easy commararderie had developed between everyone. I, however, was lugging around an Eeyore spirit. ”One can’t complain. I have my friends. Someone spoke to me only yesterday.” I felt like the proverbial lump on one of the floating logs so prevalent and dangerous in the seas we traveled.
I had traveled, but not like Stan and Rita, Gary and Sandy. They had enduring marriages of 46 and 38 years. I was on my third marriage (and best, of course), but I felt the loss of continuity they had enjoyed. I had had interesting jobs, but not long productive careers that wielded retirement accounts. I was fun, but not as fun. It went on and on, this sordid comparison game I so loathed.
As we passed beneath enormous cliffs and cascading waterfalls, I was acutely aware of a nagging inner dialogue and a hyper-vigilance I had experienced ever since growing up in an alcoholic and abusive home. I prayed that this feeling of separateness would pass, that the inner landscape would begin to match the outer landscape, expansive and free, that I would allow myself to be the delightful person I knew myself to be.
For the next five days we had rain. Gary and Sandy’s boat developed engine problems and they decided to stay in Petersburg for repairs, while the five of us traveled on. We would meet them in Ketchikan.
I spent long hours sitting in the cockpit soothed by the beauty of gray waves and sky. If we got hungry, we went below and prepared food, or Mike prepared a plate of crackers and cheese, lunchmeat and hummus. We ate together, we cooked together, we read charts, someone drove the boat and someone wiped rain from the windshield. We read books, and Mike worked crossword puzzles, Rita his walking dictionary. We settled into a rhythm. And I rested.
I read Mike’s book by Joseph Cornell, Listening to Nature. In the late 70s, I read Cornell’s earlier book, Sharing Nature with Children. I did stillness meditations, bringing increased awareness to my surroundings—inner and outer.
Then, in a moment of Zen-like awareness, I realized that the separation I had been feeling was illusory. All of it.
A friend used to say, “You are making shit up.” And I was. Always had.
Stan and Rita, Gary and Sandy, Mike and then John who joined us in Ketchikan when Stan and Rita went home, were kind, loving, generous, fun and interesting people. They did not hold themselves away from me because I “was on my third marriage,” or because I walked with a limp and couldn’t do what they did. They allowed me space to be who I needed to be without judgment. They did not judge my physical limitations, but helped me without enabling, and cheered my progress.
And, of course, it wasn’t all about me. In each, I recognized that they, too, had areas of pain and vulnerability. At this juncture, mine was just more obvious.
I began to share more. I allowed me to be known. I told stories and sometimes I had to butt in to finish them because everyone was so eager to tell their own, but it worked. Each person fed my spirit in subtle but distinct ways. My body – and spirit — began to rebound.
When I transitioned from walking boot to hiking boots, to getting off and on the boat without help, to walking the dock, I was elated. When I walked like a maniac with crutches through downtown Ketchikan, Sandy asked me why I was going so fast. I said I didn’t like to hold anyone up. She encouraged me to slow down and be more careful.
When I experienced a setback, Mike began doing soft tissue massage to loosen the ligaments and tendons in my calf. Ben, not to be left out of the kind, generous, interesting people club, rubbed my feet every night. Stan suggested exercises. After John came on board, he was gracious and kind.
After a week of rest staring at the waves, I started learning about and reading navigation charts. I drove the boat at different times and began to learn the navigation instruments. Sometimes I would go below and make a sandwich and eat while reading charts or checking out our destination for the day.
My favorite time of day became “beer 30,” or happy hour, when the six or seven of us (depending on where we were on the journey), would gather on one of the boats and eat snacks and have a drink, or two, and laugh ourselves silly. Our travels became timeless and two and a half weeks into the trip, I lost track of days. I also learned that I liked whiskey the way John prepared it.
When we arrived in Butedale, B.C., an abandoned 1930’s cannery, Mike took us on a tour. I put on my calf-high rubber boots (Alaskan slippers) I had hoped I’d get to wear and he led us through the woods to the rundown cannery. Mike held my hand on parts of the trail, stabilizing me as I traversed the awkward path.
I began venturing into the raft, going on small journeys around the coves we visited, laughing and playing with Ben. At Fury Cove, we walked on a shell beach and took photos of each other.
On the last day, I drove the boat for three hours and as we came into Port McNeill, Mike asked me if I wanted to dock the boat. At first I said no, and then decided, “why not, now’s my chance.” He guided me in docking his 43-foot boat, Illumine. Granted it was an easy dock with the skipper at hand, but I was grinning ear to ear. And later he paid me a supreme compliment by telling me that when I put the boat in reverse, I did it “just right.”
The next day, Gary, Sandy, Ben, John and I, took the ferry to Alert Bay, an island across the channel from Port McNeill. There, Sandy walked with me for nearly a mile, slowly, at a pace that was comfortable, while I used the walking sticks for balance. I was delighted and grateful for her sensitivity.
When we said our final goodbyes the last day, I nearly cried at having to leave these dear people who had become my friends. As Gary said at breakfast one morning, “We are family.”
The inner and outer journeys were more than I could have imagined. The scenery was spectacular, but the inner recognition that there is no separation nourished me more than I even realized while on the trip. I returned knowing that a shift had taken place, a new chapter was underway.
Mike said it best in an email after he arrived home. I got the feeling that this trip was more than just a beautiful ride for you – some emotional growth as well? It was fun to be part of that and I hope you are continuing.
Yes, Mike, it was more than a beautiful ride. Thank you.