A excerpt from a draft of a new writing project.
I didn’t want to go to Alaska. It was my wife’s idea. For two years she had been talking about taking the ferry there from Washington State. That’s a long ferry ride, and she was excited about such a trip, about the idea of camping in a tent on the deck of the ferry boat. She didn’t have anything much to say about what we might see or do once we arrived, and since she focused on traveling north during the two weeks winter break over Christmas I pushed back and dismissed the idea as well as I could. We took other trips. But still, she talked about the ferry. She found a book on it at the yearly Lutheran Church book sale in Half Moon Bay. I glanced through the book. I put it down.
The “ferry,” as I call it, has a name. It is the Alaska Marine Highway, which sounds like a road and is, in fact, officially a part of the National Highway System and receives money from the federal government. That’s a good thing because the ticket sales alone pay back only about a third of the $145 million cost of running the ferry system. The State of Alaska has been cutting back on funding, despite the oil money. Services are being cut, routes curtailed.
This year my wife qualified for a sabbatical, a six-week vacation her company offers employees every six years of employment. Great—but where to go? We considered Europe, but every time we looked at it it sort of looked like the usual rich, white guy vacation. We considered Hawaii. We considered.
Eventually, and to her surprise, I suggested we go to Alaska. I was looking for something different, something a tad more authentic, though I realize that any trip I take won’t truly be authentic, not until I’m working some shitty job in some shitty town, barely paying the bills. That’s authentic. Otherwise, no matter how you try you’ll still be just a visitor, parachuting in to see the sights.
My first idea was an adventure through Canada. Loop up from Montara into British Columbia and go all the way across by car, exploring what really amounts to a great white space on my mental map of the world. No one I knew ever did a trip like this, it would be new to us and new to everyone. We might even zip over to Iceland at the end, another destination on my wife’s dream trip list. Do it all, come back with stories. Maybe we’d even buy a Sprinter Van, the suddenly popular mini-RV and camp across the continent. Or maybe an Airstream trailer. Or maybe we’d camp for real in the 14×10 foot Kodiak tent I’d purchased nine months earlier but had since stored in the garage, unused save for a backyard, overnight test. I didn’t sleep in the tent as part of the test. It wasn’t that kind of test.
The idea of driving across Canada isn’t as dumb as it sounds. Draw a line horizontally across Canada and that line intercepts polar bears. That’s attention getting. The meeting of line and polar bears occurs at a town named Churchill, not named after Winston Churchill but, strangely, named after Winston Churchill’s illustrious ancestor John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough (Winston is the grandson of the 7th), who some historians consider the greatest British military commander in history. Winston was apparently named after John Churchill’s father.
The town of Churchill, less than one thousand residents, is at 58 degrees latitude, the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees. That’s a big difference. It gets cold in Churchill, that’s for sure, with deepest winter lows in the mid minus twenties, but summer and late summer temperatures are in the thirties and forties at night. Above zero. It gets in the sixties during the day–essentially the same as the colder months as where I live on the California coast near San Francisco. And they have polar bears. Did I mention the polar bears? I’ve never seen a polar bear in the wild but now I needed to see them. I needed to go to Churchill.
I bought a Fodors travel guide to Canada. Just flipping through the pages showed me the truth, obvious from the idea’s inception. There wasn’t much to do in Canada. You just drove and drove through endless forest, hoping for a gas station. And that lasted for weeks.
Not entirely accurate, of course. There’s the cluster of national parks around Banf, in the Canadian Rockies. There’s Newfoundland at the far end. There’s Toronto and Quebec. Eight weeks is a long time.
But Churchill, but the polar bears. Churchill is located on the Hudson Bay—already I’m feeling the historical depth of the area pulling me in—and the polar bears come down in large numbers, clustering as they wait for the water to freeze. And that happens in October and November, far later than our trip (and far colder and darker than I wanted out trip to be). That was a problem that I promptly ignored.
However, just getting to Churchill at any Time of the year would prove impossible.
The town of Churchill, quite perplexingly, has no road connecting it to the rest of Canada. I hadn’t considered that possibility while I was fantasizing about this road trip across Canada. I didn’t even know the possibility of this possibility. How do you have towns way out in the middle of nowhere without roads to connect it to somewhere? The town was normally served by rail and by ship—it’s on the Hudson Bay, after all—at least until the ice freezes and those thousands of polar bears embark upon the frozen surface.
But it would be perfect. The town had only in the 1980’s started thinking in terms of polar bears and tourists. It was still fresh. With so few residents and the town not yet overrun by the cruise ship passengers arriving at the port, All those hours of lumberjacks and the small timber towns as we drove thousands of miles across Canada would prove to be the tedious yet necessary prelude to the spiritual kingdom of the bear, its white fur—actually transparent—a beacon to searchers such as ourselves, bringing true wildness, dangerous wildness, up the very door of our vehicle. With luck a bear would scratch the paint or dent the fender, a badge for us, a medal in metal to display to others back home.
Or Churchill could just be a dumpy, small town, its redneck residents jerking each other off in their eagerness to degrade themselves and the land around them in the hopes of being a major oil shipping port, a get-rich-quick town which just happens to have white bears (and too bad for them when the icebreakers cut through the ice for the oil during the winter months).
When the parent company of the port raised rates too high for the cruise ships to dock the bears smiled a little more but the residents looked wistfully north to the oil fields. And then the parent company—a multinational corporation known as OmniTRAX but which is run by a man, apparently evil, named Pat Broe—abruptly closed the port. That was bad. Worse, the rail line heading south out of the town toward civilized Canada had washed out that same year and OmniTRAX, despite taking taxpayer money to fund the line, refused to fix it. Negotiations (some would call it blackmail) ensued, and continues to ensue as I write this.
Residents of tiny Churchill must have it tough. Milk it up to a $11 a gallon, a package of six pork chops—I’m picturing Costco but surely they don’t have a Costco—is $36. A pallet of dog food has spiked upwards from $800 to $4500. (At this point I confess a creeping disquiet, wondering what sort of place Churchill, and indeed Canada as whole, might be. Why do people buy pallets of dog food? What sort of dogs do they have? How many? Oh, wait. Dog-sledding, that’s right. They all drive around in dog sleds.)
Little Churchill was cut off from civilization even more so than was its historical average. And it was cut off from me, cut off from my route across Canada, leaving me with endless trees, with lumberjacks, but no destination. Despite Churchill’s many attractive possibilities—and I haven’t even mentioned the beluga whales—I needed a new idea. Canada was just Canada, it turns out.
Polar bears, of course, aren’t just in Churchill. They are also in Alaska. I thought of the bears and of my wife’s desire to travel on the Alaska Marine Highway. It was obvious: We would ferry up to Alaska and in Alaska we would see polar bears.