For 14 years, I've been a wilderness ranger in a remote corner of southeast Alaska. What started as a summer job, something to fund my Western travel adventures, somehow turned into a career. Just as unexpectedly, I've learned about the powerful bond that can form between people and a place.
This wilderness I've come to know surrounds two fiords, narrow fingers of the Pacific Ocean that reach deep into Alaska's coastal ranges. Where they begin, the fiords resemble much of the Northwest Coast, with lush rainforest towering over steep shores. But the ends of the fiords, 30 miles away, are decidedly more Pleistocene in appearance, with glaciers pouring into the ocean from British Columbia's mountainous border. It's a paradise for kayakers, who can paddle from the rainforest to the Ice Age in a few days.
When I first came here as a restless 20-something, I wasn't looking for a relationship. But today I find myself entirely caught up in the place. The landscape, once mere scenery, has become rich with detail and infused with personal meaning.
This vast forest is an example. In the early years, I saw it from my kayak as a green blur, a verdant contrast to the snowy peaks above. But today, the same view carries images of specific trees I've come to know. There's the ghoulish old hemlock that overhangs a stream with outstretched branches, as if trying to spook the passing water. Or the straight, fat spruce scarred to 40 feet high by the claws of a black bear. I periodically visit these trees, just for the joy of seeing them again.
And here's a favorite meadow, tucked beneath abrupt mountains. Brown bears come here in spring to raise their cubs, and geese gather to molt in late summer. One year, wolf pups were denned under a big root wad in the nearby woods.
I can no longer see this landscape without such details. They fill my head as I paddle the fiords: A once-nondescript gravel beach is where life begins for young oystercatchers each June; in the woods behind a scenic cove, a well-worn bear trail climbs to secret beaver ponds. I know where to see avalanches tumbling down in the spring and spawning salmon in the fall. Each August, my wife and I return to favorite hills to gather blueberries.
The land is alive with history -- my history. Visiting one island, I still see the 25-year-old kid I used to be, running down a deer trail and arriving breathless on a beach, just in time to see my first breaching whale. Near one of the glaciers, I recall when collapsing ice sent out unusually big waves that nearly stripped me from the shore as I clung to a rocky ledge. There's the ice-peppered bay where my wife and I were married on a boat among our closest friends and family. With so much history here, I feel like the place owns me.
But it's also a part of me. I swig straight from the streams, sending the silty essence of glacier-carved granite into my body. The berries we pick flavor our cereal and pancakes all winter, tasty nutrition from this regal forest.
I've even gone to battle for this place. From the lower levels of a dysfunctional federal bureaucracy, I labor against all odds to fit wilderness stewardship among the agency's other priorities. I've nervously testified in front of the Alaska state Legislature, explaining why a state inholding in the middle of wilderness should not be turned over to a corporation for development. Today, the inholding remains the province of birds, bears and salmon because a group of us gave voice to the land.
All of this is still new to me, as I wasn't raised to value place. And herein lies the irony of my story. To learn about the bond possible between land and people, I had to cross the continent from my hometown and stumble my way into a job inside federally designated wilderness. In this sense, I'm very American, traveling to faraway parks and wilderness areas to connect with nature. But the bigger lesson, which took me years to learn, is how to make that connection at home, to the land already there, right under our feet.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in southeast Alaska.