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A Northwest Passage
E.M. Swift
February 22, 1993
A group of kayakers discovered that the Ice Age is alive and well on Glacier Bay
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February 22, 1993

A Northwest Passage

A group of kayakers discovered that the Ice Age is alive and well on Glacier Bay

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The icebergs became fewer and fewer, and the views began to soften. Greens began to replace grays and browns. Barren moraines became hillocks and knolls. The land, regenerated by rainfall, was reclaiming itself. We passed Muir Point, which 100 years ago was under 3,000 feet of ice. Today it is blanketed with spruce and hemlock. Except for the distant St. Elias Mountains, which looked like crumpled tinfoil against the horizon, the bay reminded me of the upper Great Lakes or any of Canada's boundary waters. Rocks the size of goose eggs, endlessly varied in color, lined horseshoe-shaped coves. Spruce trees grew to the water's edge.

The woods were different too—younger, wetter, more mysterious. A hundred years ago this was all barren rock. Now the forest was quiet, cool, damp, rich, its floor carpeted with a thick bed of moss that muffled our steps. Of course, the moss also muffled the steps of any bear that might be lurking about. Delicate ferns brushed against our knees. Hobbits, I imagined, hid in the shadows. So many shades of green. So many smells. Delicious black currants grew along the beach. Here, under the towering Sitka spruces, in an area virtually untouched by the sun, red watermelon berries and exotic mushrooms sprouted underfoot. One mushroom was cherry red; it looked as if it belonged in a cartoon. Devil's club, a terrifying, broad-leafed plant with three-inch spines on its stem, grew in the under-story. A yard high, it had a perfect cone of red berries at its head.

Mark kept asking about whales. Unfortunately, David told him, it was late in the season for whales. The humpbacks that come into the bay every summer to feed on crab larvae and krill had already begun their migration south. "We saw one last trip," David said. "If we do see any, it will probably be when we get to Strawberry Island."

We did have our bear encounter, though it was a bit of an anticlimax. Just before dusk, in a place called Spokane Cove, a big black bear ambled untheatrically along the far side of the stream on which we were camped. It continued strolling up the shore of the cove, ignoring us. No one felt compelled to huddle together and wave his or her arms. No one, I was happy to see, climbed a tree. The bear was poking around the rocks for carrion. It stayed in sight for a few minutes, unperturbed by our presence, and then disappeared into the woods.

That night, as usual, we brushed our teeth, dutifully deposited our toiletries in bearproof canisters, checked out the stars and prepared to say our goodnights. But Jonathon had other ideas. He suggested we play Two Truths and a Lie. It was an interesting game for a group of strangers. The idea was for each person to tell three stories. Two had to be true. One had to be a lie. Everyone then guessed which was which.

Had we done this the night of our orientation, I probably would have caught the next plane home. The first thing we learned was that David, our guide, had once hitchhiked across the country in a clown suit. Terrific. Lead on, John Wayne Gacy. One of the women in the group, at the age of 12, had consumed an entire bottle of whiskey and become so violent that she was hauled off to jail in handcuffs. Steve, an Englishman, once had bet someone he could climb a church tower at Oxford. He fell 45 feet onto the stone courtyard, broke his shoulder, broke his hip and scrambled his insides so badly that his heart stopped. CPR saved him. Here's the scary part: A couple of years later Steve tried it again. Different church tower, same result, if slightly less horrific. He fell and broke his ankle. To this day his mother believes he broke it skiing.

Then came Amanda. By now I'd learned that her husband was not a banker at all but a college English professor. I'd learned that she was a grandmother. But Amanda remained, in my eyes, sophisticated, elegant, refined. Even when she was wearing her no-see-um-proof bug net, I could picture her shopping at Saks in San Francisco. While the rest of us were by now looking pretty frayed around the edges, Amanda continued to look as if she'd just kayaked in off the pages of an Orvis catalog. A most distinguished lady.

Her first story was about having sung a duct in high school with Joan Baez. Her second was—I don't remember her second, but it was true. Her third was about a black-tie dinner she had thrown years ago, back when she and Ted were living in the commune. (Laughter.) After cocktails Amanda and her cohost—another man, a friend, not Ted—took off their clothes and ordered their 25 guests to do likewise. (More laughter.) The guests followed instructions, and starkers, they all proceeded into the dining room. Amanda served them a spaghetti dinner but without utensils. (Peals of laughter.) Amusing things happened during the meal. (Ted nodded in confirmation.) Spaghetti proved to be a fabulously versatile medium. The culmination of the dinner was ice-cream sundaes served in the hot tub.

Smiles froze on our faces as we riffled through the pages of our memories to determine if Amanda had said or done anything in the previous five days to lend credence to such a tale. I could think of nothing. Not a word. Not a hint. She must have read about it in a novel. As it turned out, Granny Amanda could really spin a yarn. Not a word about the duct with Joan Baez was true.

When the sixth day dawned without rain, Jonathon officially declared it a drought. It was the longest stretch of sunny weather in southeast Alaska since June.

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