Jul 22, 2006

GLACIER BAY, Alaska: A chunk of ice peels off the glacier, slapping into the sea like a house-sized bromide pill.

The boat's naturalist turns to a young man nearby, eyes alight. "What do you think?" she asks.

"I just want to get out of here."

She's taken aback. This east-coast art student has the zeal of a new convert. "Well," the ranger huffs. "We only stop here for a half hour."

"No, no," he's horrified. "I want to get out there. In my kayak." He points to the vessel, secured to the deck.


I too want off the boat. All this "ass-based" tourism is making me antsy. Cabin fever's setting in amid an 3.3-million-acre nature preserve.

Of course, I don't exactly have the skills or time or gear to paddle here either. Not now, anyway.

Tim Cahill did, the lucky begger, dodging the bergy bits – the fountain-drink slush of calved ice – and playing chicken with the blue-green snout.

"The wall, it seemed, was a kind of psychological vacuum," he wrote in The Howlings. "I began paddling in, fast, dodging the icbergs. Too close: I felt helpless, as if I could not stop."

He escaped, shaking with exhilaration – and shame for the stupidity of the act. Until he later recalled sled dogs howling under the moon. "The same odd, uncivilized impulse ... exists in human beings as well: the dumbly atavistic urge to put the body at risk in the face of the simply awesome, to connect with it somehow. It is the way people bark at the northern lights."


I tell the naturalist about the article, reprinted in Pecked to Death by Ducks. She gives me a fishy look: irritated, but not quite secure enough to shush the backchat. Oration – not dialogue – is clearly her strong suit.

"Wouldn't you love to paddle out there?" I ask.

"I probably won't have a chance," she says. "I'm going back to graduate school soon."

"I think about that sometimes," I admit. "But I can't corral myself back into the classroom when there's so much to see, to do, to write about."

"Yes, erm, well," she mutters. "Good luck with that."

The ranger edges away – already pontificating about global warming – and I turn to the tidewater glacier.

Next time, I think, we'll meet face-to-face.

Bergy bits in my hair and a happy howl on my lips.


  1. "Ass-based" tourism. Why, Ms. C., have you coined a phrase?

  2. I hope so!

    But it could be a hard sell into the lexicon: I can't really see "Newsweek" tackling the topic, for example.