(Alaska finale, and the great seasick event:) When the salmon run was winding down, the fishermen were packing up and heading out, and my co-workers were saying their goodbyes, we were all ready to go. The hours had been long and the work exhausting. Everyone was tired and ready to return to their place on planet earth. I remember some folks lugging around suitcase-sized boxes of salmon packed down with ice, and thinking, "how in the world are they going to get that home?" (Alaska is REALLY, REALLY far from even the nearest point in the continental U.S. That ice was going to melt fast. I'm pretty sure that was a bad decision. ) Folks were going in every direction, carrying gear, backpacks, duffel bags, packages. Excitement was palpable.
Some were going to make their own way back to the states. Several guys I had become friends with were striking out on their own. They had heard that there was a market for "Alaskan Truffles", an elusive ground-root found in the wilderness. They were going to head out with little more than a map, a tent and their sleeping bags. They had almost convinced me to join this next adventure, but I decided to explore elsewhere.
Those guys had an interesting task ahead of them. The coastal area of western Alaska is networked with rivers and waterways. Traveling through this enormous region means constantly catching ‘water rides': ferry after ferry. Just as plane travel is common in the Alaskan wilderness (lack of roads necessitate flying from community to community, often landing on water in adjoining bays), "ferry" travel is also common. I just did not feel like tackling walking, hitchhiking, and ferry-boating my way across this vast state.
So I was as excited as anyone when the massive ship engines rumbled back to life. We all went to the top deck and watched as the weary crew untangled us from the massive moorings and we slowly slipped away from Alaska.
Now, my natural assumption was that the ride HOME would be as calm, peaceful, and enjoyable as the ride HERE had been. However, there would prove to be a major factor that had changed – and we wouldn't discover that until it was too late.
Apparently, when traveling TO Alaska from Washington, the normal route is to hug the coastline – from Canada to Alaska. This is relatively shallow water and conditions are normally stable.
But on the way FROM Alaska back to Washington - for reasons still not clear to me - the captain took the ship OUT TO SEA. That would make it a remarkably different trip, as the Gulf of Alaska/North Pacific is much, much more violent and stormy than the coastal waterways.
We were about an hour away from land when I first noticed that the floor seemed to be a little wobbly. "Hmmm", I prophetically thought. "That doesn't seem right." It was about to get way worse.
Within fifteen minutes, the deep ocean swells had our giant ship going in every direction. I was quickly initiated into what the term "yaw" meant on a boat (basically: rolling, pitching, side to side movement). This wasn't a gentle rocking back and forth. This was the entire room swiveling in every direction. And it Would. Not. Stop.
Now, making matters worse, most of us had celebrated leaving Alaska by heading straight to our amply-stocked cafeteria. We ate with much gusto - a trend we had developed while working long hours. (You ate when you could, as much as you could.) This would turn out to be another bad decision.
I had never been on the deep seas before, and had zero experience with sea sickness. This was a crash course. Because my food was about to come crashing out all over the place.
I remember finding myself in the ships large, industrial men's restroom/shower area. There was an unexpected moment of clarity amongst my nausea, when I realized "there's no more space in here". Anywhere. Guys were lying in stalls, on the floor, over and under sinks, and laying in the shower. And for the sake of those with weak stomachs, let me just say, ours were constantly emptying themselves. It was a mega-vomitorium of cataclysmic proportions.
I also remember one person – one lone crew member – standing, leaning against a wall – just grinning at us. This seasoned (Cunning? Smart? Ruthless?) individual knew we would be in choppy seas, and had purchased a box of "seasickness patches" (the kind that go behind your ear). And he was letting us all know that for $20, he would sell you "one patch". Outrageous. Highway robbery. And by the time I could roll over there to try and buy one, he was sold out.
What seemed like 24 hours later, we slowly quieted into calmer waters. By then, we were all empty anyway and eating again wouldn't happen for a long, long time. But it was quite the finish to a long summer. I might have lost my lunch, but I was still full of memories.
I remember the air was cleaner than I could believe, crisp and sharp. The sky seemed more blue, the water more clear and cold, the greens more vibrant. It was untouched by smog or pollution. The people were real. Gritty, raw, and real. It was what I imagined the earth should be like, before we started messing with it.
I would go on to spend several months living in Seattle. One sunny day soon after, I was driving near a Tower Records when a DJ informed me on the radio that local band "Nirvana" was releasing their first major CD entitled "Nevermind". I drove and found one of the stores, bought that revolutionary CD, and was amazed. That sound was a musical milestone. One of my Alaska buddies used his savings to buy an old VW camper-van, and he and I traveled the west coast back to his family home in Oakland. We would visit folks at the University of Oregon (home of the Ducks and my first taste of quality microbrew); we drove through the towering redwood forests of northern California (unbelievable); we saw the dramatic coast change from the emerald greenery of Washington to the massive tumbling stones of Oregon and northern California to the sweeping soft sands of southern California.
It was an epic adventure, and I haven't been able to cover even a fraction of what was seen and experienced. It gave me access to a sweeping part of our nation that most people will never see. I was on my own, relying on God to lead and protect me. I had triumphs and mistakes, celebrated and recovered, and have learned from them.
I also was taught how much I value the place that I'm from and the people I reunited with.
Alaska was a great place to visit, but home is always better.