Sep 01, 2018 - National Geographic Sea Lion
Alaska was weeping. The gray clouds swept above and around us as National Geographic Sea Lion plowed the waters of Misty Fjords National Monument. Rain fell intermittently as we made our way into the steep-walled channel, feeding the hundreds of waterfalls cascading into the deep green saltwater strait. It was a fitting stage for National Geographic Sea Lion’s final day in America’s northernmost state: the end of a summer journey that had begun over three months before.
Mid-morning found us approaching Owl Pass, the entrance to beautiful Rudyard Bay. We disembarked the ship on expedition landing crafts and kayaks, our small white wakes breaking the jade-colored surface. Bald eagles floated between ancient Sitka spruce and harbor seals poked their curious round heads above the water to gaze at our strange assemblage. We congregated on the far side of Owl Pass (this chronicler has yet to truly appreciate how the rock formation which gave the pass its name looks like an owl) and waited, expedition landing craft engines muffled and kayaks huddled in a small side cove. At last, the grand reveal! National Geographic Sea Lion sailed around the bend, splendid white against the green and gray cliffsides, appearing to emerge from the forest like some triumphant ghost.
Rudyard Bay was a treasure trove of spectacles. Waterfalls cascaded over a thousand feet in a series of black rock steps. Walls of iron-rich gneiss twisted torturously into ribbons, like a seismograph reading of the earthquake that might have formed them. Fog danced above the draping arms of cedars, bearing rain squalls that made patterns on the water as they approached us. We watched harbor seals surface and dive, salmon carving slowly through the shallow water above mud flats, and over a dozen bald eagles waiting patiently for an opportune fish to pass them near a tidal inlet at the head of the bay.
After the expedition landing crafts and kayaks had returned to the ship, a half-dozen of us adventured out into the bay on stand-up paddleboards. We dispersed from National Geographic Sea Lion like birds on the wing. In what seemed like no time, the ship had shrunk in the distance and my counterparts were tiny specks ensconced in yellow dots of lifejackets. Yet the bay itself only seemed to grow larger, the two-thousand-foot cliffs arching over my small craft until I might have been swallowed by the stone. I was alone on the water in a land shaped by water, listening to cascades falling hundreds of feet and watching the gentle trails of rain on the rising tide. It was an overwhelming, humbling end to our final day in Alaska and my season in this state, a farewell—to echo John Muir—in one of nature’s grandest cathedrals: an opportunity to revisit our small place as visitors to this world.
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