“-est”… That’s how I’d describe Alaska. It’s the United States’ furthest northwest state, with the Aleutian Islands reaching further west than Hawaii. It has North America’s highest mountain – Mount McKinley – the largest national park, the largest national forest, the globe’s third longest river system, and the world’s largest sub-polar ice field. The state is larger than most nations: divided in half, each half would still make the largest state in the Union. Lake Hood, four miles outside Anchorage, is the largest float-plane base in the world. Alaska boasts the northernmost railroad, in Fairbanks, the continent’s northernmost town, Barrow, and the southernmost tidewater glacier, Le Conte. It’s the lightest, darkest and perhaps boldest, harshest, prettiest place on the planet.
I heard the groans and felt the snap of calving glaciers.
My first trip to Alaska revealed characteristics of the Divine I’d never before imagined. Laden with supplies, I hiked across spongy tundra trying to imagine empty-handed Alaska Natives dwelling for more than 3,000 years in what appeared to be useless, barren land. I witnessed a bold land of non-stop daylight, heliotrope flowers, soaring eagles, black bears, blond grizzlies, moose, foxes, Dall sheep, caribou, snow hare, jumping salmon, humpback whales, puffins, and more. I heard the groans and felt the snap of calving glaciers. I watched forty-foot tides sweep over the deadly mud flats surrounding Cook Inlet and viewed lingering evidence of the 1964 earthquake – the most powerful quake in North American history.
Alaska’s 1964 earthquake was the most powerful quake in North American history.
Alaska holds several personal “-ests” for myself and for Heidi – my traveling companion/knowledgeable tour guide/adventurous daughter. The funniest unfolded while we sat on the back of a 95-foot catamaran during a half-day cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park.
Our boat departed from Seward and then slowly traveled through Resurrection Bay where we, and some 200 excited passengers, snapped photos of sea life, clouds, and ice. The cruiser was built for sightseeing, with a two-level, glassed-in cabin and a three-level observation deck. Meandering about with other passengers we moved up and down, port and starboard, bow and stern trying to get the best photos. Every time we’d head back into the warm cabin, I’d smell an inviting lunch – their famous Prime Rib and Salmon Buffet with dessert bar.
Our boat departed from Seward and then slowly traveled through Resurrection Bay.
The travel booklet stated, “Guests will travel through a small section of the Gulf of Alaska as we round Cape Aialik and enter Aialik Bay…” Sounds great, huh? The problem was that the small section of the gulf was actually a 26-knot sprint across open seas and it wasn’t real pretty. Heidi and I decided to ride out the rough waves on a bench in the stern. Saltwater spray rained in as wind whipped at our clothes and stung our faces.
We frantically held on when the cabin doors flew open and out they came. Green, stumbling passengers raced against their stomachs and the rocking and bobbing swells of the sea in a mad dash to reach the railings. It was butts and guts as people bent over in uncontrollable heaves. Rubber-gloved crew members with cast-iron stomachs quickly arrived on-scene passing out barf bags, moist towels, and ginger ale. More passengers, more crew, and more barf bags found their way to the crowded stern. Ahhh, the ambiance! I had a couple of close calls myself and it had nothing to do with being seasick.
Finally, we moved into Aialik Bay and all was calm again. Wobbly passengers found their way back to cabin seats, comforted one another and cursed their decision to cruise the gulf.
It was that subtle whiff of their “famous Prime Rib & Salmon Buffet with dessert bar” that triggered a gross thought. After the events just witnessed, the smell of salmon baking was not nearly as tantalizing, and I couldn’t help but visualize what would happen on our return jaunt. This thought did not seem to slow anyone else down as large portions of food were served and eaten. After spending some time viewing sea lions and glaciers, the captain announced the dreaded words, “In approximately ten minutes we’ll begin our trip back across the open sea.”
Just in case my suspicions were correct, Heidi and I headed to the stern and made ready on our familiar bench. In no time we were hanging on as the ship bounced and swayed, bucked and lurched at 26 knots. Here they came! Again cabin doors flew open as green, gluttonous passengers raced for the rails. (I wonder if the sea life was gathered below knowing lunch was about to arrive.) Heidi and I huddled together desperately looking for land or some distant point of interest as a diversion from the mayhem.
Then a woman came staggering out the door, panic stricken, olive green, and grabbing at thin air. Heidi jumped up, “Here! You need to sit down, now! Sit here,” giving up her seat. The nauseated woman plopped down, then steadied herself by leaning against me, propped up by my back. I could only see Heidi’s astonished face and the butt of one gentleman who went up on toes, back down, then up on toes again as he continued to retch overboard the “famous Prime Rib & Salmon Buffet with dessert bar.” Then I felt it: a heaving, rippling spine pressing up against my spine. Next was a pitiful gag, then another strong heave pressing in on my back.
I asked Heidi, “Is she actually…?”
Again the faithful crew appeared with barf bags, towels, and hoses to spray down decks and railings. It seemed an eternity, but finally we found an even keel in the calm of Resurrection Bay (true to its name). Sick passengers began to regain themselves.
Right on time we sailed back into the Seward port, eagerly disembarked (Heidi and I were first in line to get the hell off that boat!), then caught the train back to Anchorage. After a few moments, Heidi and I looked at each other and began the deepest belly laughs ever. “Did all that really just happen?”
Laura JK Chamberlain is a freelance writer and author of the award-winning children’s book, The Story of Norman. Her memoir, They Built a Family, was included in NPR’s book, This I Believe On Love. She’s a mother of five and grandmother of six.