Finding place

  • Tim Lydon

 

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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: