Gusto in Gustavus, Alaska Day 11

After we get back from the long boat tour of Glacier National Park, we need to stretch our legs so we take a short hike through the forest. It’s a gorgeous trail, filled with the plants we are learning are what tame and build soil out of the naked rock and soil left behind by the glaciers: mosses, and early wild blueberry, lichens, ferns, spruce and hemlock, and Queen Anne’s lace. We take inadequate phone photos of wood ducks in a tiny pond left by the glacier, and try to get some captures of tiny sparrow-like birds that hop in the understory, and a squirrel—and I find fresh bear scat and a ripped-up log.

“It’s moose droppings,” Mike says, seeing the whites of my eyes.

“Oh no. Moose don’t tear up logs looking for grubs.” The poop is shiny and wet and bright green. I take a picture of it for identification purposes, and start clapping and singing as I go along the trail. At dinner I show the photo to our waiter.

Bear poop. Apparently he's been eating greens

Bear poop. Apparently he's been eating greens

“Oh yeah. That’s bear. They’re all around right now, with the early blueberries and strawberries going. We heard of two sightings today.”

Oh, great. I go into the gift shop and lo and behold, there’s bear repellent, in a canister as big as a fire extinguisher. “It’s forty dollars and you can’t take it on the plane,” the helpful young woman behind the counter says. She holds a dog-eared romance novel and wears rhinestone glasses. “You can use it while you’re here, and then donate it to the ranger station.”

I opt not to buy it for the immediate area around the lodge seems pretty safe, and I don’t have any plans of hiking alone.

This morning dawns overcast and drizzly (surprise!) and Mike and I hike out along the beach this time. I use the word “beach” to loosely describe the scree of rocks of various different sizes and types, different from Hawaii’s rocky beaches in that the rocks are still rough from their glacier grinding, not worn by water and waves. The tidal surge here is huge, about eighteen feet, and this morning the tide is low, leaving a wake of seaweed, clamshells and assorted other slime, but very little life as I’m used to seeing in say, California tidepools.

The sky is a roiled ceiling of clouds, and there’s not another human for miles in any direction. The morning is refreshingly cool, and I can’t hear anything but birdsong and the crunch of gravel under our boots as Mike and I walk along the smooth jade water of Bartlett Bay. Suddenly I hear that distinctive loud, half-swallowed croaking cry, and a bald eagle buzzes down, circling and looking down, close enough to toss a pine-cone at.

Off to the left, I hear a distinctive sighing blow, and fifty yards off the beach is a humpback, cruising along in the shallows. We just get done running over to climb on a boulder to see it better when a pod of dolphins swim by, and once again the eagle circles us.

I feel the vastness, but now it’s not a formless void waiting to swallow me up. It’s wide and wild and beautiful, just because, and it’s filled with all that should be there.

It’s hard to put into words how I feel seeing the whales, probably the same whales that come to Maui, according to the naturalists we’ve heard. If we could photograph the “thumbprint” of the distinctive marks under their tails, we could identify them in a database that’s been compiled. To have been able to see some of the forty-eight whales in all the world who do bubble-net feeding do their thing outside Juneau, feels like such a privilege. Having one of these gentle giants from our warm Maui waters rise beside me on a beach so far from home brings tears to my eyes.

We walk back through the deep moss of the forest, Mike vigilant for bears with his camera ready, me vigilant for bears for another reason, but thankfully the trail is peaceful and quiet, less wildlife moving around than in the afternoon.

After a little nap, we rent ocean kayaks and paddle around the area. It’s great to be on the water, so calm compared to Maui. I’m nervous at first, never having paddled a serious kayak before in foul-weather gear: they set us up with boots, rubber waders, rain slickers, a rubber skirt. The thought of tipping over in all that gear in freezing water is not appealing. Mike and I paddle out hoping by some miracle we’ll see orcas; but we see otters instead. The adorable little dudes pause in their eating and frolicking and somehow, without seeming to move, are always too far away for us to get a really good look at. It feels amazing to be on the water, hearing the blow of nearby whales, our friend the local eagle circling us again, and we wonder why we don’t have a kayak and do this on Maui.

We’re sick of the (overpriced, mediocre) food at the Lodge, so Mike scouts around and gets us reservations at a big surprise in the hamlet of Gustavus: the world-renowned Gustavus Inn’s five-course, locally sourced gourmet meal.

The Inn is a big old house in the center of town that we get dropped off at by the Lodge’s smaller van. The first thing that grabs my eye is the giant garden, filled with flowers and a rainbow of lettuces, beans, peas, beets, kale and more. We are seated family-style, and make friends with a young couple, Jess and Jake, who work here in Gustavus as kayak guides. The fact that “locals” are half the customers tells us we’re in for a treat.

We swap adventure stories as we eat the courses as they are brought to us: fresh homemade sourdough rolls (“the starter is a hundred years old,” our server tells us) multi-green salad, baby bok choy with carrots, Cajun-style fresh wild salmon, mashed potatoes with the colored skin on, finished with banana cream and crème de menthe pies, everything made that day by the town’s locals. The Inn actually earned a James Beard American Classics award a few years ago, and it’s definitely merited.

We find out later, being driven around by the talkative Strawberry of Strawberry’s Taxi Service, who offers to “show us the town,” that Gustavus has a lot more going on than meets the eye initially. A golf course, carved out of the rugged fields with a mower. A busy dock where the ferry and the locals battle seagulls and eagles on a daily basis. A community garden, fenced so the moose don’t eat everything. A liquor store owned by a fisherman with set hours from 4-7 pm certain days of the week. “There’s always a line the minute it opens,” Strawberry says regretfully as we pull in front of the unprepossessing building with the art made of chainsaws in the turnaround. A store at the corner still operating the original gas pumps from the 1940s, when the town, airport and ruler-straight roads were built as a WWll support outpost.

By the time we’re getting out of Strawberry's minivan taxi at the Lodge, Mike and I are talking about buying a cabin here and joining this close-knit, warm, oddball community with its moose antler decorations on every lawn.

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