I stood shivering outside the Juneau airport, fighting down a sneezing fit, having just enjoyed my second COVID-19 test swab in three days. Fewer than 24 hours before, I’d boarded a jet in Orlando, Florida, temperature and humidity both in the 90s. Here, around midnight on a late August evening, it was 40 degrees cooler and spattering drizzle—familiar southeast Alaska weather, but pretty far from what most would call welcoming. But as I waited for the motel shuttle bus, facing up the Mendenhall Valley in the chilly darkness, a surge of gratitude coursed through me. I was home.
Just a month before, making it back to Alaska had seemed out of reach. COVID cases had surged in Florida to all-time highs, and putting 3,500 miles between me and Sherrie seemed a fraught proposition. What if one of us caught the virus, or if some sort of travel ban kept me from returning? Not to mention, finding a pre-travel COVID test with a quick turnaround—necessary if I didn’t want to sit around for precious days, quarantined in some Alaskan motel—seemed impossible. I’d become resigned to not returning until at least the following May; and maybe not then. I’d already passed the longest I’d been away in four decades—10 months—and though I’d accepted the reality of the situation and was making the best of it, I also felt a gaping hole in my chest.
It was actually in the process of writing my previous On The Edge column that I realized just how much I needed to get home, even if just for a couple of weeks; and the time was now. I had my heart set on returning to Ambler, 50 miles above the Arctic Circle and hundreds of miles off the road grid. I launched into making reservations and figuring logistics, and finally found a place to get my pre-travel virus test. The last step, notifying the village COVID coordinator of my travel plan and getting a go-ahead, was a mere formality—so I thought. But the village council, in response to a statewide uptick in cases, had just voted to impose a two-week lockdown, no nonessential travel into Ambler. The entire region had taken the virus seriously from the start, and this was the latest step. I asked for an exception, pointing out that I planned to double test and quarantine out in the country, and was turned down. I probably could’ve ignored the order and come anyway; neighbors and friends said as much. But whether the air service in Kotzebue would allow me to board the mail plane was another matter; and what if someone in Ambler—population around 300, so far completely virus free—came down with the disease after my arrival? Here I was, coming from one of the nation’s hotspots. Neither the politics nor the optics were appealing. Dispirited, I shut down my plan.
So, I settled for our other Alaska place, 1,100 miles south of Ambler, out the Haines Highway. Though hardly deep wilderness compared to the upper Kobuk, the mountain-cradled Chilkat country ranks as postcard gorgeous, and once out of town or a few hundred yards uphill, plenty wild. Though I’d spent late spring and summer there the past five years, most of that time had been away, doing my cruise ship gig, or regrouping to join the next ship, while scrambling through chores. Plus, I’d never spent September there—peak season for fall colors and wildlife on the move, and getting out in the country, because I was always in Ambler by then. Of course, I’d be flying into Juneau, where I’d get my van out of mothballs, load up on supplies, catch up with old friends and a familiar landscape, all in 24 hours. The next morning, I’d drive onto the ferry for the 90-mile ride up Lynn Canal.
In the morning, photographer Mark Kelley picked me up at the Super 8 Motel and naturally, we headed straight up-valley in clearing weather toward the Mendenhall Glacier. We wandered the familiar trail winding over Steep Creek, recalling bears and years past, paused to watch an eagle against the backdrop of Mount McGinnis and chat with our buddy and book designer Matt as sockeye salmon swirled below the bridge, then headed out toward Nugget Falls. There, by trailside, Romeo the wolf’s memorial plaque abided like another old friend, looking as it had a decade before when it was installed. I remembered that luminous day, much like this one. No time seemed to have passed at all.
Necessary, familiar chores followed—reviving my old van that had been sitting for months, then a serious power shopping expedition to Costco, and onward to hook up with Vic Walker. We headed straight for Sheep Creek, on the far side of downtown. I donned a pair of borrowed, leaky waders and we joined dozens of locals casting for silvers. Vic nailed a big, bright fish; and its twin slammed into my spinner, just 10 feet from my chilly toes. A slashing run, and he was gone. But never mind—it was enough.
In fact, my entire journey felt complete already. I still had almost a month ahead out the Haines Highway, a time that would prove rich beyond my hopes. But on that first day, still in Juneau, I felt I could jump on the next plane south and feel I’d seen, done, and most importantly, felt all I needed. I’d come home in just a day.