Nick Jans, pictured here in fall 2019 on the headwaters of the Kobuk-Noatak divide, was running rivers in Florida instead of Alaska during summer 2020. Thought COVID kept him south, Jans says that “Alaska is a state of mind.”
Peering through wraiths of mist, I power around the next bend. The greens of spring glow in the fog. On a sandbar ahead, what seemed to be a log shifts, rises, and sprints with startling speed. The nine-foot gator vaults into the tannin-stained water, and a couple of turtles bail off a log. I ease up on my jet ski, watching the landlord depart with a sidelong glare my way, then throttle up. There’s country ahead, and if I don’t keep moving, I’ll run out of daylight. I’ve come 40 miles and have gas for 90 more.
Whoa, wait a minute. Gator? Jet ski? Sure, Alaska’s been warming up, but…Where the hell am I, anyhow? Well, something between four and five thousand miles south—the upper Suwannee River in north central Florida. If you told me this past January that I’d still be here in June, let alone July and half into August, I’d have been pretty shocked. This is the longest I’ve ever been away, over 40 years. But this COVID deal juked lots of lives, mine one of them.
Princess and the rest of the big cruise ship companies did the right thing and shut down their Alaskan season; and just like thousands of folks linked to the tourist industry, I was out of a job. Luckily, my gig as an onboard storyteller was just part of our living; I still had writing, plus our retirement. Sherrie and I were fine.
I could have headed back as usual to our Haines place or Ambler on the upper Kobuk, way back in early spring. What better idea than to ride this virus out in country that defined distance? But as the trouble worsened nationwide, it didn’t make any sense to put all those miles between Sherrie and me. What if there were a lockdown or new testing restrictions, or one of us caught the bug? I decided, back in April, to stay put at our place in the semi-boonies west of Gainesville and take it one week at a time, casting an eye north, waiting for an opening.
Meanwhile, I had plenty to keep busy—endless projects indoors and out, large and small on our five-acre place, which could pass for a bird and butterfly sanctuary; and less than two miles away, the Suwannee River. While it might not be nearly as wild and far as the Kobuk country, the Suwannee, fed by dozens of clearwater springs along its 200-mile length, ranks as prime water by any standard. From its source in Georgia’s Okeefenokee Swamp, long stretches cut through tree-rimmed walls of honeycombed limestone—in places, small canyons. In others, lazy s-turns alternating with ledge-studded fast water. Crazy full of life, too: leaping sturgeon, birds, and turtles; wild turkey and deer along the banks, and more rarely, black bear.
So, there I was, doing what I’d be doing if I were north, mid-May into October: heading up a river until I ran out of time or burned half the gas, or the water got too thin, then reverse course. Scanning always for wildlife; binoculars, cameras, and fishing gear handy. These runs—anywhere from 20-some miles to a hundred-plus—are different south to north, but the same. There’s no better way to connect with a landscape, and to feel the pull of gravity, distance, and time than a river trip—the longer the better. It’s something I’ve known since I can remember. No accident that I’ve found a way, my whole adult life, to live with a good river close by, and the means to ride its flow. Down here, just sub in bass for char, gators instead of grizzlies, heat rather than cold.
Yeah, I’m bummed not to be north, but this’ll do fine for as long as it has to. After all, Alaska is a state of mind, and you can find it wherever you are. I glimpse it right in our yard in the mating dances of swallowtail butterflies, the swoop of a red-shouldered hawk, the glint in a blacksnake’s eye. It’s a rare day I don’t have a camera out, waiting and watching. Too, this is by far the longest time Sherrie and I have spent together since we met 22 years ago. From that perspective, all this feels more like a vacation than some hardship. We’re lucky and know it.
Meanwhile, I keep tabs on the Great Land through friends and the news. The state in general and the bush in particular have done a fine job of dealing with the virus, thanks in no small part to taking it dead serious from the outset. Even today (I’m writing this in mid-August) the entire Northwest Arctic, roughly the size of a midwestern state, with a total population of under 10,000, has registered just 44 cases and zero deaths over months. At the Kotzebue airport, you can get a virus test on the spot and have the results within hours. Yet folks are still nervous, and I don’t blame them. I try to imagine stepping off the mail plane in Ambler, fresh from one of the nation’s hotspots, and being welcomed home.
Right about now in the upper Kobuk country, the first willows are turning yellow, and soon, the Jade Mountains will be brushed with snow. I imagine myself headed up a different river, scanning for grizzlies and moose as salmon swirl beneath my keel, and listening for wolf howls from camp as the aurora flickers overhead. Until then, Alaska will be wherever I am.