Something’s Out There
A Bicycle Journey into the Wild
D. S. White
CHAPTER ONE: WHEELS ON THE WATER
A DAY AT SEA
The Inside Passage is an endless line of islands in the sea. It is a fjord, the Norwegian word for the narrow saltwater that lies between two close bodies of land. I was headed for the far end of the Inside Passage, 950 miles north of my home in Puget Sound.
The boat was crowded. Some of the people were here for adventure. Some expected to find jobs. Some had cabins and were here on vacation. Others slept on the floor. While I mingled with the crowds in the fresh morning air, I began to talk to some of these unusual people and I found their stories equally as fascinating as my own.
Several men had come from Kentucky to look for fishing jobs in Alaska. One admitted to me that he didn’t know much about it, except for what he’d read on the Internet. After leaving port, two of the men discovered they were prone of seasickness. A life at sea was not going to be a viable option for them.
Brian and his wife had been to Alaska before. They were from the Carolinas and were familiar with being out on the water. On one trip they had taken a small boat up a section of the Yukon River. They had purchased the boat from a local villager and set out for three weeks of adventure. On this trip, they were headed for a drive around Prince of Wales Island, wondering what they might find there.
Allen had a job waiting for him as a forest ranger working at the Misty Fjords National Monument. Previously, he’d worked as a volunteer in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. Now he was going to patrol the Alaskan coastline by kayak. He had also brought a bicycle with him to ride around Ketchikan, where the ranger’s offices were located. He told me he had only been in a kayak a few times before.
I ran into John again and we talked at length about his life in Alaska. He had been living in Thorne Bay for ten years now. We found a map on the wall and he showed me how to get there, inviting me to stop by. There was already another school bus on his property and he said I could stay in it. I’d never gone camping in a school bus before. I wanted to know more about how he survived in the wild in such a curious fashion and said I would look out for him on my way south at the end of the summer.
Having read Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer, it occurred to me that a bus might be a common form of lodging in Alaska. According to the book, Chris McCandless went to Alaska to live off the land. With only a small caliber gun and a limited knowledge of edible plants, he walked out into the wild and never came back.
I wondered about the differences between John and Chris, and why one was able to survive and the other wasn’t. If anything, John looked the part of a real Alaskan, with his long hair, gray beard and aging face. I wanted to find the Stampede Trail near the border of Denali National Park and hike out to Fairbanks 142, the abandoned bus that Chris had lived in. I would explore the area and attempt to understand what went through Chris’s mind as he slowly starved to death in a remote place.
I also wondered if, at any time on my own journey, I would find myself in a similar situation of life and death survival. Each day I expected to move farther and farther from the known world, attempting to blend in with the natural landscape as much as possible. Inspired by Thoreau, I envisioned myself pursuing a lifestyle that utilized both my outdoors skills and my education.
I was staying on the sun deck in one corner of the solarium, along with Allen, Brian and his wife. Brain was reading a thick book all about how to sail a boat around the world. We discussed what a voyage like that would be like. It could last for years, he said, a deep longing in his eyes. They were going to begin preparations for such a journey once they returned home from Alaska.
It was great to be around so many like-minded people. We all knew how to scrimp and save, and the dream of the adventure ahead kept us going. I asked Brian’s wife if she had ever tried to write down any their experiences. She said that she would have, if only she had known how to write. I realized that many people travel the world day in and day out and the rest of us never know anything about it. I took out my journal and made another entry, more determined than ever to record the events of my time in Alaska:
Sometimes rain and cold and wind and sometimes sun and warm and calm.
Looking ahead, we can see clear blue skies, and in time, we’re below them.
Then, it’s back to overcast weather again. There were no real storms to speak of, while on board. At night it got the coldest.