The Alaska Marine Highway Ferry is nicer than I had thought it would be. My cabin is large enough to spread my arms and legs in 45-degree angles to my trunk, and thoughtfulness is nestled in here: reading lights on the top and the bottom bunks, heaters under the dome of the solarium where people pump up pool rafts for three-nights rest, plug outlets and hot water and linens folded into sharp triangles in every room. When we push heavy into the sea, the air comes pulling through the top deck, cold and clean, and I remember now what Alaska feels like. It feels like you’re so alone, you really need to be near people you love.
Bellingham’s quaintness becomes a cluster of khaki behind us and soon there is nothing but silver and islands and sun. It doesn’t set until after 10, and in the late light, I’m talking to a man about writing and volcanoes, which I’ve been thinking about for weeks.
Before I left Denver, a friend was telling me that Old Faithful in Yellowstone is 60,000 years overdue for erupting. This has terrified me since I heard it. “If it does erupt, you better be halfway across the world,” he said, “because the ash cloud is going to block out the sun and kill most of the existing population.”
It’s easy to forget this omnipotence when the radio works and the car crosses bridges and you can close your bathroom window when the breeze is a little too cool. But when you’re on a boat or when you get talking about the tiny string attaching you to a furiously rotating and changing earth, things are not so controlled or calm, they’re horrible and scary-pretty and bigger than anything you’ve ever thought about, muchless done.
Hanging over the fourth floor deck of the M/V Columbia, this man asks why I’m going to Sitka because he’s going there, too. I’m going there to live and fish and try harder at being there than I did last year; he’s going there to hunt a volcano.
“I drove from North Carolina to summit Mount Edgecumbe,” he says. I'm surprised because Edgecumbe is no Everest. It sits northwest of Baranof Island like an overturned cereal bowl with a top of snow running over its rim and down its slopes in long, wide drips. This guy's friend is a vulcanologist who flies into bigger monsters like Redoubt and Vesuvius, testing rocks and snapping shots of their powdery slides. Edgecumb takes only a day to climb without equipment, and I'm impressed someone would make a trip for its humble height.
Later, in the cocktail lounge straight out of a 1970’s Joan Didion novel, with gold and black wallpaper, hundreds of globular lightbulbs hanging bare from the black ceiling over booths with backs so low, your shoulderblades touch the person’s at the table behind you, I find the same volcano man again.
We have Alaskan ambers in two frosted mugs while the sun flashes through the window seams and rows of seats in the forward lounge. I want to know everything about volcanoes, and Ed seems to know everything about them and wishes to know nothing about me. He talks, I listen. It is often this way with men who are attracted to Alaska; they are attracted not only to the grandeur of the place, but also to their own grandeur as they attempt to conquer the state’s features. I have felt like an amateur in many ways for my whole life, but I feel an exterior insistence on my own inexperience even more when I’m in Alaska because I'm young and I'm a woman. I wonder if anyone ever feels like a professional or if they just talk themselves into feeling like one.
When I ask Ed about Old Faithful, he says it’s on a ridge that has been always moving west. “It’s nowhere near erupting,” he says. “Geology is slow.” His accent is southern with a metal north-of-the-deep-south edge. “People don’t realize that it’s much slower than we can even comprehend. Measuring it and predicting it doesn’t really show us anything.”
When we dock at a town where I can use my computer, I find that The National Park Service would beg to differ: their measurements do not detect any pre-eruption matter. Nonetheless, one of the most frequently (absurdly) asked questions is: What is being done by the NPS to prevent a possible Old Faithful eruption?
We decide to have dinner with a few other travelers in the nice restaurant on the back of the boat for the full experience of being onboard. While we wait for our “Tour of the Sea” dinners, an otter slides by, slick and chocolate, his hands folded on his chest contentedly, and looks straight up at our eyes above the white tablecloths. There is just the heaving of the boat's breath as we look out at the pink and blue and bald eagles cutting through it. Ed shows me a picture of his two daughters, around my age. I ask him if it's hard having daughters and he says yes. Women are, I think, can be more difficult than men.
Then there’s Ellis, a fisherman who lives on San Juan Island during the year and fishes for 20 days at a time in Wrangell, who never stops talking. He’s next to me from the minute I start drinking my tea at 7am til the time it’s empty, and I drink slowly. He must be in his late 60’s, but he has this boyish glee about boats and the fish he’s caught as a gillnetter and the trips he’s taken on this very same route in a 38-foot skiff. He shows me his calloused fingertips from picking knots and talks faster when he talks about storms. I am almost entirely quiet for two hours, while he talks about the Fish and Game folks who came and ripped his floorboards up to see if he was properly disposing of waste. With his nephew, we walk to the other side of the ship to see a preserved 102-pound salmon mounted on the wall, and under its belly, they tell each other, but they’re really telling me, the stories they’ve known for a long time: the biggest one they caught, the one that got away, all the others that didn’t.
There is a lot of pride onboard, but the more people I talk to, I realize there is little to no bitterness on these boats and I can take hours of cheerful braggery over the slightest bit of cynicism. I meet a young woman around my age with dark brown hair in two long braids who offers to put my stuff in her truck and let me hang out with her and her friend in Ketchikan where I have 20 hours and my four months of stuff and nothing to do. Getting off the boat feels final and a little bit unfair when the new people with their luggage bump down the gangway with all their own things rolling against mine.