My first backcountry trip with a baby, a journey along the remote outer coast of Glacier Bay National Park, left me with two lasting images. One was of my infant son, Huxley, nestled against my breast, his gaze tracing shadows of driftwood as they danced across the tent walls. The other was of a whale I’d never seen, a borrowed memory that would shape my earliest weeks of motherhood.

The trip began one morning in late August, when my husband and I were 10 weeks into parenting, navigating bleary-eyed mornings and endless dirty diapers, bouncing and breastfeeding, trying to discern who we might become as a family of three. A local pilot met us at the gravel airstrip near our off-grid log cabin, 12 miles and a choppy boat ride from the town of Haines. The last time we’d flown in his small plane we’d been dropped on an icefield with skis, climbing ropes, and 60 pounds of food. That morning, he shook his head as he loaded our assortment of packs, paddles, dry bags, diapers, life jackets, and a snowsuit-clad infant. “Help,” he joked, imitating Huxley’s wide-eyed stare. “Who are these people and where are they taking me?”

An hour later, the Cessna’s wheels touched down near the outlet of the Alsek River where it met the Lost Coast—a several-hundred-mile stretch of sand, sea, and ice whose contours we would follow on an abbreviated version of a coastal traverse. We stepped out of the plane onto a field of wild strawberries and watched curling green waves rise against a gauzy sky. I scanned the horizon for birds and whales as I gently rocked my son, who had woken with a start when we landed. He sat in my arms wide-eyed and cooing, transfixed by the wavering beach grasses and rhythmic sound of the surf while the rest of us stood quietly, the view too stunning for words.

Father hikes with infant son in a front carrier along the Lost Coast in Alaska with mountains behind
Patrick Farrell hikes with his infant son along the Lost Coast in the shadow of the St. Elias Range. Photo by Caroline Van Hemert.

A borrowed memory

After several minutes, the pilot broke the silence. 

“The most goddamned crazy thing happened to me near here,” he said. “I was flying over from Yakutat with another pilot and we saw a minke whale tangled in a fishing net.”

He explained how he and his friend had circled back to the airport, 50 miles from where we stood, grabbed a skiff, and boated toward where they’d last seen the whale. When they spotted it at a distance, they stopped the engine and waited.

“We hung back but it swam toward us right away. It clearly wanted us to help.” 

His gaze intensified when he described pulling a knife from his pocket as the whale bumped against their boat, raising its tangled flipper to the sky. The pilot had paused before lowering his blade, gently touching its dull side against the whale’s skin. 

“I held my breath as I sliced the first piece of mesh.” It wasn’t just the whale that was in danger; the animal’s enormous body could have easily toppled their boat and drowned them. As he spoke, the gentle ocean breeze played against my skin, which suddenly felt prickly with goosebumps. 

“And then,” he continued, “you wouldn’t believe it, but it rolled over and showed me its other side, also tangled. I still don’t understand how, but it knew our intentions were good.” He cut the rest of the net, snipping one strand at a time, as an animal nearly a hundred times his size floated quietly beside him. Soon he found himself staring eye to eye with the mostly freed whale as he carefully removed the last polyester fibers that had trapped it.

Minke whales are known to be playful and social, and will sometimes approach vessels out of curiosity. But to lay one’s body against the hull of a strange boat, look into the eyes of a man with a knife, and trust is something else entirely. The whale eventually swam away, but not without circling the skiff first in an apparent show of gratitude. For granting the whale its life, the men had received wonder in exchange; years later, on the precipice of a new life, we’d also been offered this parting gift.

“I’ll never forget it,” the pilot said, his reverence filling the quiet space that followed. 

Woman and infant son paddle a packraft along an Alaskan river
Caroline Van Hemert paddles with her son along the Ahrnkin River near Yakutat. Credit: Caroline Van Hemert.

The Lost Coast

Over the next six days, we crossed wide beaches that shape-shifted with the tides and followed bear trails along the forest’s edge. I lengthened my gait to match the broad depression of each step, worn over generations, while the smallness of our lives whispered from behind ancient, moss-draped trees. At this remote corner of the earth, backed by miles of glaciers on one side and the mighty Gulf of Alaska on the other, ours were the only human footprints we’d see. All day and night the surf echoed back to us, beating steadily against the shoreline. Among the coast’s far-flung deliveries were flocks of migrating shorebirds whirling in the wind, plastic debris inscribed with Asian characters, and shells and bones from an undersea world. Here, I felt both at home and on edge, the familiarity of being outdoors competing with the newness of motherhood. 

One afternoon, we discovered a slow-moving river running parallel to the beach, enticing us with its gentle current and the promise of a free ride. While Pat inflated our packrafts, I changed Huxley’s diaper beneath an alder, its fluttering leaves creating a natural mobile. I strapped him into the front carrier with his lifejacket and he napped on my lap as we paddled. Other than the steady splash of our paddles, the river was silent.

Tent with some driftwood propped up in the sand on one side
Driftwood wind shelter on the Lost Coast. Credit: Caroline Van Hemert.

But by late evening, a crisscross of paw prints on the bank had begun to multiply and a glimmer of worry wormed its way into our idyllic evening float.  When we spotted the first bear, I looked down to realize in a panic that the water was only two feet deep and the river separating us from the bear on the shore no longer offered a respectable safety margin. The bear, nearly black against the grass edging the river, watched us for a moment before clambering up the bank and out of sight. Dusk was falling quickly, and the odor of rotting fish filled the air; I felt the presence of bears nearby as distinctly as Huxley’s body against mine.

We found a place to pitch our tent, opting for the site with the lowest density of bear tracks, which, to my dismay, was far from none. Within an hour, both boys were asleep and I was braced, awake, waiting for what was starting to feel like the inevitable. I checked my watch as the hours slowly ticked by. When Huxley woke to feed at 4:30 a.m., the first light had begun to filter through the tent. He fussed briefly before latching on, one hand resting against my chest. The familiarity of this early morning routine lulled me into drowsiness, and I drifted off until the sun began to warm our sleeping bags.

Infant sleeping in a red packraft
Huxley Farrell naps in a packraft on his first backcountry adventure. Photo by Caroline Van Hemert.

An ephemeral world

After dreams of marauding bears that never came, I woke to a crystalline view of the St. Elias Range and 14,000-foot Mount Fairweather, whose summit I had stood atop three years earlier. In my arms was an infant whose needs had become my own. Between these two extremes lay the truth of my new life, the vulnerabilities of parenthood balanced against discoveries waiting to be made. From this perspective, there was no mistaking the uncertainty inherent in each day. Everywhere I looked—from wave-scoured hillsides to glaciers that rapidly surged and retreated; from thousands of birds winging past to my child curled against me; from a gruff pilot to a desperate whale—I saw an ephemeral world. For a week on that lonely coast, the fact of change felt ordinary and essential.

On our last morning, I watched a flock of cranes pass overhead, their V sinuous and fluid. Like ours, their course shifted according to the wind, the shoreline, and each other. Behind the birds, the sky glowed impossibly, heartbreakingly blue.

I’ve returned often to those first tentative days of motherhood, tracing them like disappearing tracks in the sand. More than how to breastfeed in a sandstorm or adapt to the staccato pace of traveling on a baby’s schedule was the realization that change signaled not a wrong turn but an opening. As I walked alongside my husband and tiny son, I carried with me a vision of the whale’s shining skin, its barnacle-clad back, its nod of thanks passed from one precious, fleeting world to another.

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