It’s seven A.M. and the Alaska Ferry, M.V. Le Conte is leaving the Auke Bay terminal in Juneau and headed for my second home. Forty seven years ago, with a young family, I made this same trip in a Grumman Goose sea-plane. Since my assignment as a Park Ranger at Glacier Bay National Monument in 1968, the magic of the place has drawn me back every year but one. Back in the day, there was no ferry and no visiting cruise ships. The eight passenger Grumman amphibians either landed on the old military field at Gustavus or plunked down in Bartlett Cove, ran up on the beach at the newly constructed Glacier Bay Lodge and unloaded the luggage from the cargo hold in the nose of the plane. Today, with the fog down on the water, this is probably a lousy day to fly in a small plane, so Narda and I are taking the ferry.
In 1974, I left the Park Service and took a self-funded “sabbatical” year and, with my family built a cabin with a chain saw and hand tools. The cabin has lasted well. Unless bears have ripped into it, everything should be fine and awaiting a couple of weeks of deceleration. Even if they have, as long as they are not in residence, it just means clean-up and repairs; not uncommon in the north. Bears have never bothered my cabin. Rigorous care with food waste can keep them from bad behavior. The little community of Gustavus runs the best waste recovery and recycling programs of any community I know of: big or small.
The Gustavus portion of the foreland was carved out of the National Monument because of homesteads occupied by some hardy souls trying to scratch a living from the land and hoping to strike it rich on mining prospects up in Glacier Bay. The glaciers have retreated sixty or seventy miles in the past two centuries, and early miners could follow mineralized zones with no soil or vegetation covering them. Plenty of minerals were found but no big mining operation ensued before the congress made it a National Park, and mining was closed down. Today people prospect for fantastic views of the glacier ice calving small icebergs into the water, and frequent views of whales, bears and many extraordinary birds.
Gustavus has become a gateway town for visitors to the National Park and a home to artists, writers and people who want to live (semi) off the grid. During summer, a daily Alaska Airlines Jet brings people out and there are many options for small plane connections all over Southeast Alaska. A small hydroelectric plant supplies almost everyone with electricity. My cabin is one of the last hold outs. I suspect if I wintered over here, I’d plug into the grid, but it is peaceful out in the woods and in summer. I can read by the light of the long days just by sitting at the window. There’s a hand pump and rain gutter for water, and an outhouse back in the woods. Narda got tired of bucket-bathing on the pallet behind the cabin and made me put in a shower tent for privacy. We hand-cut firewood each summer, and ride our bikes to get groceries or to visit, and I always come back home more fit than when I arrive.
Sometimes I can climb a ladder and stick my head out the upper window to make a cell phone call, but it usually requires a bike ride to areas a mile or so away that can get cell signals. A bike ride four miles to the volunteer run library gives internet access and entre to a wonderful supply of reading material. There are stores for groceries and supplies and a gas station for the cars, trucks and boats. I keep a fourteen foot outboard skiff available to catch fresh fish and for trips to islands in Icy Straits. There is also a folding double kayak in the cabin for wilderness paddles in the park.
I consider myself a lucky person. Three of my grandkids, my parents and one sister and lots of Narda’s Family have visited and shared the beauty and solitude.