After a lovely overnight visit with Tony Tengs, my dear friend, newly emancipated after 26 years of service on the AK ferries, I was dropped off at the Juneau airport at 2pm on Saturday, June 30th.
This was the appointed time to meet my 11 fellow rhetoricians and 2 profs before we made the short hop via jet to the small (but not as small as it used to be) town of Gustavus, gateway to Glacier Bay National Park.
Four private vehicles met us at the airport to haul us and our gear a few miles to the Gustavus dock. We passed fields ablaze with fireweed and other wildflowers, with the gorgeous backdrop of the Fairweather Range, jagged and expansive, mantled in white that would remain the entire summer and into the first “termination dust” of autumn.
Many years have passed since I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful community in full blown summer. As a young adult, I worked at the Glacier Bay Lodge in the late 1970s, and on a small, 80 passenger cruise ship they plied the SE Alaska waters in the summer of 1983.
Subsequently, I had visited in the spring (after the SE Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau) or in the fall as part of an Alaska tour, but not during the golden and relatively raucous time of fireweed fields and Park and town abuzz with visitors, salmon runs and seasonal staff.
Todd’s “TAZ” water taxi service is well known in these parts, where small water-bound communities depend on water or air charters to get to the outside world, for work, play, appointments etc. Musicians from one or more of these communities may opt to group charter to SE AK music festivals, the State Fair in Haines, and other gatherings. Most of the smaller nooks and crannies of SE are not served by the Alaska Marine Highway System. And for the communities where the ferry DOES come, schedules sometimes change because of repairs and maintenance, or the scheduled runs are spaced too far apart to be practical.
Anyway, Todd and the TAZ provide a valuable service, and now our little group were the beneficiaries. In a few minutes, we and our gear were loaded, an assortment of suitcases, backpacks, duffels and a bit of beer (thanks to Zach) to fuel our upcoming 4thof July celebration. After a safety briefing, we were on our way to the Inian Islands.
As I sat on the upper deck with my back against the pilot house, I watched the Gustavus dock recede into the wide V of our wake. I took stock of our group demographics. All appeared to be of college student age, undergrad to doctorate. Exceptions were… a long time Tenakee resident and retired educator I’d seen before at the Juneau Folk Fest, author and rhetoric instructor Dan Henry, and myself.
As it turned out, there WERE many students among us, in various stages of earning their degrees, as well as a number of working naturalists and guides. Dr. Zach Brown, Gustavus native and director of the Inian Islands Institute, had completed his doctorate a couple of years before raising the nearly million dollars in funds required to purchase the property from the Howe brothers.
So, we were scientists and sociologists, but it didn’t take long before the musicians and theater buffs of the group made themselves known. Easily half the group, during the course of our week together, picked up one of the two two guitars and three ukes and EVERYONE sang, especially on the 4th of July, relaxed by a soak in the wood-fired hot tub and Zach’s beer. (We sang every song we could think of with the word “America” in it. “Make America SING again!”)
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After an hour plus on the TAZ, watching lightly inhabited or uninhabited (by humans) islands slide by, a few whale spouts and countless eagles and sea otters, we tied up to the floating dock outside the “Hobbit Hole”, our home for the next week.