The mud in Southeast Alaska is everywhere. From Vancouver to Skagway a lush, near-ostentatiously green forest covers every conceivable surface with a teeming, tumbling, vulgarity of foliage. The Tongass National Forest is like a skunky Eden, ancient pine and spruce trees standing clustered tight as hair on a head, their verdance made that much more outstanding by the complement of thick, gray sky. It’s a North American rainforest. It rains 300 days a year, in one fashion or another, in my hometown. If the Inuit people have more than 200 words for the various elegant permutations of snow, the fishermen in Southeast Alaska have half again as many swear words for rain.
There is the putative rain that everyone knows, a tumbling shower from amassed clouds, a mixed blessing of ruined hairstyles and refreshed lawns. Then, there is the torrential downpour, bending fat blossoms under the combined weight of nectar and water, cracking peony stems and laying ferns flat against the ground like splayed bodies clinging to the surface of the earth. Drizzle — the most onomatopoeic word for a weather phenomenon, that half-hearted report from the heaven that everything, everywhere is gray and dull — is the meteorological equivalent of “meh,” spelled in water. But there is another type of rain, a sort of surreptitious precipitation that starts as gentle and refreshing as the misty spray from a waterfall, tiny cool droplets tickling the skin and seemingly innocuously disappearing. But there, along your eyebrows, a heavy bead of water leans ominously toward your eye, the ponderous descent changing its trajectory to head it straight along your nasal fold into your mouth. And there, along your temple, droplets as sure and regular as cold, portly beads of sweat begin to accumulate and race down your face into the neckline of your inadequate sweater. And your sweater! Wool and practical, has suddenly gone from misted with tiny, fruit-fly-sized droplets to saturated, impregnated on the very molecular level with water. Water fills your boots this way. Water drips from your nose like a dysfunctional faucet. Water drips between your teenaged breasts and makes the underwire of your bra cold and wretched. By the time you get to school, just a 30-minute walk — you are as wet as a newborn calf, and every bit as disoriented and gangly.
It feels like it’s always raining, somehow. Even on the sunny days, a pass of a light shower, or an hour of misty warning reminds you that the rain is always waiting, that this is the rain’s forest, and you are a guest. Grow accustomed to the water, or drown.
Drowning is surprisingly uncommon for an island community, in part because they taught us to swim in school: even my tiny, 2,500-person community had its own swimming pool, inside the school, and we all began learning to swim in second grade. By the time I was in third grade I was on the swim team. It seems like we all were. No one couldn’t swim. But the ocean is not like a pool, captured and waiting — literally a known quantity. The ocean is at work, all the time. The predictability of the tides is misleading, convincing us that there is some measure of control we might impose on the water — be here, now. Carry our boats out to the fish, now. It’s a dangerous ruse, and a kind of intimate gaslighting — sometimes the tide is late. High. Low. Early. These are subtle innuendos about the nature of the ocean: whispered threats and flirtations from the mouth of the planet.
We are cautious, judicious. I mean, usually. Sometimes we are caught unawares, literally lulled to sleep by the undulating syncopation of waves against our little boats full of flesh. And then, coaxed by wind or whimsy, some perturbation in the abyssal deeps, the water reaches out and tears our boats apart, like clapping a balsa-wood flyer between two meaty hands. Just like that. We’re returned to the water.
We’re always returning to the water. We have to — it’s more of us than we are. Or maybe our water is our connection to this planet — our shared percentage — the electric potential for the expression of our souls moderated by this holy, intrinsic water.
But mud, I was saying. The roads of nearly every island community in Southeast Alaska in the 1980s were dirt — many still are — which, in a rainforest, readily converts to mud, even with the most steadfast application of gravel. In the winter, when the moderate rainforest temperature swaggered above 40, the snow would melt, and so would the mud. The clean white cover of winter would denature, the edges mucked and darkened, and eventually, everywhere a grey-brown sludge gathered and humped, like giant piles of entropy.
The spring is a season heralded by water — more water! as if we hadn’t had enough water! Should we send it off in pails to our friends in Arizona? Should we bottle it for bronzed celebrities to sip on the shores of the Maldives? This wealth of water, too much to even appreciate, grows exponentially in spring, and the roads become more liquid than solid, the state and city road crews fighting a losing battle with the kinky relationship between dirt and water.
Mud is everywhere: caked on your boots, packing the traction on the bottom like playdough in a mold. It’s glumped in your wheel wells like ice, falling off in thunderous glunks when your tires hit the pavement, whapping spattering reports along the side panels of your vehicle. All the teenaged boys will be washing their trucks this weekend, like an army of shivering morons with soap on their jeans and the very wrong impression that there is any connection between their sparkly truck and their masculinity.
The mud is hiding under the ocean, revealed like long, smooth gray legs beneath the gray-green skirt of water as it departs. It shimmers enticingly in the unexpected sunshine, beckoning you to walk down and see how little is left of the water between you and the island across the bay.
When the tide is up, that other island is a ten-minute skiff-ride away. Maybe you could swim it, like the English channel, but no one does. The current is powerful, and the water is desperately, deadly cold. The ocean is something we mostly try to stay out of. Out of fear, respect, or comfort? All three. Also, jellyfish suck — little greasy entities that feel warm at first, but then burn like an ember tucked into the waistband of your raingear.
But now, the tide is out, and the mud glistens endlessly — you can’t even see the water between the two islands. It’s there — some very narrow channel — maybe 15 yards across, in some places — but it’s recessed, and far, far away, across the mud flats. From here, standing on the rocky edge of the beach, it’s as though you could simply walk across.
When I was a young girl, maybe eleven? Twelve? The tide had retreated between the two islands to the limit of its ebb. I was alone with my sister and brother. I’d woken up with that fire inside of me to explore — Alaska is nothing but opportunities to explore. That was good, but occasionally bad: after hiking to the top of mountains to picnic, shooting handguns at coffee cans in the penumbra of a stand of ancient pine trees, and eating a cream-cheese and ham sandwich while dangling my legs off the edge of a dock above the floral tumult of anemones clustered on the buoys beneath me, my need for adventure had grown edgy and sometimes dangerous.
I swung from the limber tops of old pine trees, one to another, eventually, inevitably, falling from the sky to land thunderously on my butt on the forest floor. I climbed the ladder hooked over the roof of my two-story house, clinging to the old wood for my life, and watched the Northern Lights from the top of the top of the world. I jumped off roofs into the snow, out a second-story window, and hung onto truck bumpers to be pulled across icy roads and flung into snow banks. And I wasn’t even that bold.
That day, I remember. It was summer. My sister, five years younger than me, wanted to go everywhere with me, a goal I categorically did not share. She was small — smaller than the other kids her age, a diminutive brunette wearing my old Toughskins corduroy pants, rolled twice at the ankle. She was shy but wicked — her intellect a closed shell around her thoughts. But not to me: she talked to me. Her love for me was evident on her face — her shrewd green eyes following my every move with undisguised pride and appreciation. I took her for granted with the casual brutality of an older sibling, irritated by her adulations, batting her away like a gnat while I sought the attention of older kids. It’s an ordinary story, but so purely agonizing to remember — the aching sincerity of her love for me, just exactly as I was. Has anyone before or since ever loved me like that? I understand parental love now from the perspective of a mother of three, and it is boundless. But sibling love is much more terrestrial and interdependent — unconditional in durability, but conditional in appreciation and relationship. She chose me, thousands of times. She is still choosing me, through years of disaster, triumph, and growth. We are not the same people we were that day, setting out on the beach, in the mud. But some part of our love is. It feels like a prize.
That day, I wanted an accomplice, and she was ready. Mary had her little black boots on, typical uniform for the youth of Petersburg, and I was wearing my mom’s Xtratufs, a type of advanced rubber boot, made for long standing and light hiking as well as mucking about in the sogged and inclement climate of Southeast. We set out without jackets, because although it was misty, it wasn’t raining, really, and the sun (the sun!) kept peeking through the gray blanket of sky that surrounded our adventure in a steely frame. I don’t know why that day in particular, after a decade of staring at that channel, at this stretch of mud, I decided to see if we could make it across.
My bedroom faced the channel, called the Wrangell Narrows, or “The Narrows” for short. I sat staring at that glimmering swath of water every single day of my life. I could see for miles in either direction, my eyes tracing the outline of the shoreline of Kupreanof Island, from which precipitously ascended Petersburg Mountain, the peak of which resembled a sleeping woman, all sloping, feminine curves, her head on her hands, hips rising gently beneath the clouds. I used to try to lay like her, in my bed, figure out the precise position of my body to match her, one body miles below another, two women sleeping, side by side, on an order of scale.
Day after day, I watched. Water out, water in. Ships out, ships in. Boats bobbing and loose on their lines, then snug and tight as the tide carried all that water somewhere, busy as a single mother. I’d watch the water recede, unfurling the muddy shore before me: first the enormous expanse of seaweed, piled in curly ridges, like unruly masses of jade-green hair. Then, the rocks, descending like rounded stairs, adorned brightly with moss, starfish, and clusters of limpets and barnacles, into the mud. And at last, the mud. Grey, sitly, silky mud, like the uncanny edges of an unfinished claymation set. It was both Atreyu’s Nothing and the ocean’s kept secret — endless leagues of mud. You can feel it — how boundless it is, stretching along every island shore, beneath every ocean inlet, from continent to continent, this mud. It’s the original stuff, the primordial ooze, the last vestiges of the first dirt, made by volcano, who spewed out lava that cooled into rock, which was eroded into dirt, then sand, then this. If the ocean was a body, the mud would be its skin. But the ocean isn’t a body. The ocean is something else.
We walked down the road about a mile, where the Narrows were the most narrow, and crossed the street. The tide was at its lowest, and we eagerly jumped the guard rail and clambered down the rocky embankment to the beach. We made swift progress, eager to see if the grownups were wrong: you could walk across the Narrows to Kupreanof. They just hadn’t chosen the right spot, or maybe they were too cowardly and old. Maybe it would just take the right kid to show them there was an easier way. Regardless, we hurried like we were finding treasure.
After slipping and tripping through the seaweed piles, we struggled to keep our speed up, descending the rounded boulders. They were black and slick with some kind of fine sea moss, and we fell over and over, getting covered in black smears and mud. Mary kept up with me, knowing I wouldn’t wait for her — determined to stay by my side. Finally, we reached the line of demarcation between the rocks and the mud, and began our trudge across the shining gray magnitude. We went farther than we’d ever gone before. It wasn’t what it looked like from my window — a smooth, flat field of mud. It was inscribed with eddies and whorls, like little river beds carved into the ocean floor. Here and there, gigantic rocks were planted like sleeping trolls in the muck, like queer little underwater mesas, hidden in the hills and dunes of the mud’s stealthy geography. We were giddy with discovery, and I felt a strong fellowship with my little sister by my side, her pants covered in mud, shielding her little face from the sun with her fat little hand.
“Let’s climb that rock, and see how far we have to go,” I told her. And without discussion, we made our way to a gigantic chunk of basalt, rounded by a glacier and however many tidal caresses. It was hard to climb, because its sides were so round, but we finally made it up. It was glorious. We could see the arc of the Narrows around us, and there, ahead of and ever farther below us, the Narrows receded to maybe 20 meters wide. We were wrong. We could never have crossed even that narrow a channel. The current was clear, even from where we stood, the water tearing through the contracted gouge in the mud. We sat and regarded this, wordlessly, for the length of two apples, the ones I’d tucked hastily into my backpack as we headed out the door earlier. The water sparkled in what had become full sun, and we watched as the Narrows grew fatter and faster, incrementally. After a little while, we decided to head back.
I don’t know why I’d never turned around to regard the other rivulets and channels we’d scaled on the way to that rock. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me, after so many years of watching the tide come in on many different beaches, that sitting at a high point, this far from shore was not a position of advantage. But now, scanning the back of the rock, the only side we could scale (because it had at least a few craggy purchases) was already licked by the tide. The little rivers carved into the mud were now literally rivers, rushing with tidal ocean water. My heart leapt in my chest when I realized how far we were from shore, and how deep some of these channels already were. Mary saw, too, her face whiter than white, looking at the maze of rushing estuaries, criss-crossing any path back to shore. We had to go, and go right now, or we would be surrounded by tide, and then swallowed by it. We were too far from shore for anyone to hear us, and too low compared to the shoreline for anyone to see us.
I climbed down the back of the rock, and by the time I dropped off the last foothold, the water was nearly a foot deep around the back of the rock, which was canted toward a watercourse that circumnavigated the rock and the mound of mud it was perched upon. I reached up for Mary’s hand, and she shook her head. I can’t tell if I have colored the memory with my shame for treating her like I did, or if her eyes really darkened, comparing the security of trusting me against the empire of data suggesting the imprudence of doing so. But she reached for me, and sort of tumbled into my arms. I feigned confidence, but Mary misses nothing. She knew I was scared, but pretending not to be. So she pretended not to be, too.
We crossed the now cursive flow of water between the rock and the next swell of mud, the high ground between one rivulet and the next. I fought to maintain my balance, and keep her hand in my own. Why didn’t I carry her? She must have been so cold, and so frightened. But why didn’t I do so many things? Why didn’t I?, amen. My most threadbare prayer.
The sun lit the field before us with silver-gold lambent streaks, outlining the veins of turbulent water between us and the shore. I tried to calculate the safest way back, but there was no longer a safest way. Everywhere I looked was filling with water, surrounded by water, rushing with water. I grabbed Mary’s wrist in an iron grip and we ran, like two terrified, sodden animals, over the mud, through stream after stream, choking on water and falling in the mud over and over, until we were at last within 100 yards of the shore. Between us and the rampart of seaweed raged one last runnel of ocean tide, maybe six feet across, and deeper than the others we’d crossed. I wasn’t sure I could hold on to Mary if we stepped into the current. I was gripping her wrist like a bony vise. She started to cry.
“Can you carry me?” she asked. I was afraid if I carried her I wouldn’t be able to steady myself with my other arm, and if I fell, she’d fall, and we’d be swept away. I couldn’t look at her. My body was wrenched with panic. I didn’t know what else to do. So I started across, yanking her behind me, while she still cried. “You HAVE TO COME NOW!” I shouted at her, the panic coalescing into rage in my voice. “You HAVE TO.” She tried. She was so small. The water took her body immediately, pulling her nearly out of my grip. I can’t remember if she screamed or called my name, although that seems likely. Maybe she was silent, fighting the water. I can’t remember anything but how much I loved her, how scared I was that I would lose her. How desperate I was to be stronger, faster, or older. Somehow, she gripped me with her free hand, clinging to me as I fought across the water. The minute she could get purchase on the mud of the other side she started pulling me as much as I was hanging on to her, her tiny body as committed to my redemption and safe return as her own.
We didn’t stop running until we were halfway up the rock embankment, well out of reach of the tide, even at its highest. We collapsed, staring at the Narrows, full and brimming, foaming and roiling with the force of the water returning. Water out, water in. I searched the water in front of us for any sign of our rock, the high point where we’d been just minutes earlier, and it was already gone, lost under the water, returned to its secret place in the infinite gray of the mud.
The ocean is not a body. The ocean is something else.
Epilogue: Four years after this event occurred, I was staying the night with my father and his girlfriend in their house on the beach, and, out of boredom, picked up a copy of some Alaskan outdoors magazine they had lying around. In it, I read the story of Adeana Dickinson, an 18-year-old woman, a newlywed who had just moved to Alaska, who died, her legs trapped in the mud of the Turnagain mud flats. The depth and expanse of mud forms an intense vacuum, and forcefully pulling legs and arms out creates an impossible amount of suction. Adeana drowned with her husband and rescuers surrounding her, fighting hypothermia as they fought and failed to save her life. I will never forget her, or her story. If you are exploring mud flats along any ocean shore, go with an experienced guide. Wear tall rubber boots, and carry a trekking pole. Should you become stuck in the mud, don’t panic. Immediately call 911 and tell them you’re stuck, and your approximate location. The mud is not unlike quicksand, and although you’ll feel like flailing or thrashing, you must not. Slow, deliberate movements will prevent you getting stuck further, so slowly wiggling your foot or leg might allow you to methodically remove the stuck appendage before the mud crests the top of your boot, and creates suction inside the boot. If you can get your foot free of your boot, lay it extended on the surface of the mud, to give you more surface area to float on the mud, and to prevent it getting stuck again. You should get rid of any weight you can, like a backpack, etc. If your legs get stuck, lay the trekking pole on the mud behind the line of your shoulders, and gently lay back, distributing your weight as much as possible. Slowly wiggle your feet until you can maneuver them to the surface. This process might take a long time, which is why your first act should be to immediately call 911. Better to send the emergency crew packing, impressed that you’ve freed yourself, than to wait until the tide comes in and you’re out of time. For more information, visit eaglecreek.com.
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