On Assignment – The Raw Feed

Not all assignment moments are filled with northern lights, deep desert canyons, or wild grizzlies. Some are even more important. I was on assignment writing the National Geographic book TREASURES OF ALASKA with photographer Michael Melford, a project which meant a long time in the field and away from my family. We don’t often think of how much time away from family is required to be a travel writer but it can take a toll. So, I brought my then-twelve-year-old daughter Katelyn up for one of the legs of the trip – a week-long voyage through the maze of islands that is Southeast Alaska aboard a small ship called the OBSERVER. We leaned over the deck rail watching forty-ton humpback whales breach like exclamation points out of the ocean, got on our hands and knees to peer into the galaxy of tide pools, flew in a small plane out over other-worldly jigsaws of icefields, and all the while I watched the landscape sinking deeper into her young soul. She was falling in love with the land (and obsessively trying to keep water out of her boots) and it all came together on a simple hike we did on a rocky beach the last morning of the voyage, a moment I wrote about in a chapter called “A Land Made of Rain”:

During our last morning as passengers on the OBSERVER, my 12-year-old daughter Katelyn and I go ashore for some exploring. Strolling along, I watch her dart from tide pool to tide pool connecting the dots with her wonder and curiosity. She has truly become at home in this coastal reach of rainforest. She is far ahead of me when I see her walking unaware toward a stream that I know is roiling with spawning salmon. She steps too quickly to the edge and the stream suddenly erupts with fish, their tails whipping the water white with foam. Katelyn prances back toward me laughing and splashing water up over the tops of her rubber boots.

“A lot of people come to Southeast Alaska and never get past the gift shops on the cruise ships,” Steve Tarrant, the captain of the OBSERVER had told me earlier in the trip. “But when you get off the ship and touch this place, roll up your sleeves and stick your arm elbow-deep in a mossy log, or see a grizzly track in the mud, you become engaged with this place. You have to feel the rain. You have to get your feet wet. Then, it is like plugging into the 220. That’s the raw feed.”

I see a bit of that “raw feed” buzzing in my daughter’s eyes as she dances on wet feet back towards the OBSERVER, which is floating quietly in a shallow bay off Peril Strait. The clouds have come down, and a soft rain has begun to fall. While some raindrops plink like musical notes off the numberless shells strewn at the edge of the tide line, others slip silently into the calm water in the bay. The entire trip my daughter’s one big worry was getting water inside of her rubber boots. But at this moment, with the splash of salmon sloshing about in her boots and the “raw feed” of Southeast Alaska buzzing in her eyes, she hardly seems to notice. It is raining again in a land made of rain.”

  • Adapted from my book TREASURES OF ALASKA: LAST GREAT AMERICAN WILDERNESS (copies available by sending me a message)