[Modified from a post on June 1, 2012]
I haven’t lived in Juneau, Alaska, for over a decade. I’ve spent little more than a handful of weeks at a time there. Home for me these days is Olympia, Washington. [I am winding up my time from my most recent trip home – the first one in three years.]
For those that know me in person forgetting that I’m from Alaska is impossible. It is a part of my identity on par with being human or female. I am not my body, I am not my sex, yet I am completely embodied in those ways, and part of that embodiment is my upbringing in Alaska. It is because of my complex relationship with Juneau that I consider Place a form of spirituality.
First, there’s the Land itself. Juneau is nestled in the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rain forest. It covers all of SE Alaska (with the exception of Glacier Bay, which is run as a national park). We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of miles of old growth forest, ice fields, and fjords (the largest, deepest fjords outside of Norway). There’s a reason all of those massive cruise ships sail through every year: the place is impressive.
It’s also wet, dreary, mostly uninhabited, expensive, difficult to get around, and isolating. Juneau, the state capital, is unreachable by car (unless you put it on a ferry). Boat and plane are the only way in or out. This particular aspect of growing up in Juneau messed with my head until my mid-twenties. No matter where you go in Juneau – doesn’t matter the neighborhood, an 18 hour hike, north or south along the 60 miles of road – you are in Juneau. So when I went off to college and tried to wrap my head around land based communities, it was tough! I mean, how can you be in a new town just by crossing the street??
Around middle school, from ages 12-14 or so, I hated living in Juneau. Judging from the tv (always the best reflection of Real Life) life happened in California. opportunities felt far away. But that passed and I had more freedom to drive and hike and camp. I developed my own connection to the land and the waterways. I could recognize land formations, had my favorite fishing spots, knew which trees had eagles’ nests, knew when to avoid what places to avoid bears.
The play of light in the summer months was especially sublime. Alpine glow – the sun setting behind the various mountains but reflecting on the snow-capped peaks of the taller ones. Long, lazy June twilight, when the sky is dark for maybe 2-3 hours. Long, sunny evenings fishing in a cove, watching seals, otters, dear, eagles, ravens, all have their play too, while the sun reflects gold off the water. Northern lights in February or March.
And of course, there were encounters with bears and humpback whales. One reminding me I might not be at the top of the food chain; the other reminding me some mammals might be just as social and smart as us humans.
There is deep sadness in my heart that my children are not born and raised in Alaska, in Juneau. Olympia is a great fit for my family. My kids will be able to experience some of the natural wonder parts of Alaska when we visit. One week in the summer and the odd winter break aren’t really going to be enough (by my standards), but it’s something. What the kids won’t ever have, no matter how long the visits are, is the sense of People. Of Place. Of being From Juneau. Maybe Olympia is a place that people love to return to. We’ll see. I recognize that I’m speaking quite prematurely. But I’ve lived in a lot of places, traveled quite a bit, met people from all over, and I can say with certainty that there is no Place like Juneau.