Summer announced its hump day this week in a ruffle of pink blossoms, their pink flowers newly opened at the bottom of a stalk of fireweed. As the season progresses, these fireweed blossoms will bloom higher and higher up the stalk, leaving behind the dried husks of their past generation. When the last purple-pink flower blooms at the very tip of the stalk, then summer will have reached its end. The fjords will empty of whales, the puffins will pour off the cliffs and disappear into the ocean’s horizon, and night will wrap the land in cool relief. Northern lights will soothe the earth to sleep. The season will be over.
I dream about that change today, in the relief of a rainy day, back in my old coffee shop with an empty cup beside me. I won’t be here to see those changes through, as I will ready to leave Alaska while the last bloom of fireweed still shivers alone on an empty stalk. Like the whales I will migrate, back to relationships and family and away from sustenance, but a part of me dreams about the winter I will leave behind. In a place where people work all summer and sleep all winter, to leave at the end of summer feels like the absence of a good night’s sleep.
Instead I think about the moments of this season that have passed before, as brilliant as spots of fireweed. I think about the first sunset I truly watched in March, wrapped against the wind and looking down at the puzzle-pieces of thin ice on the harbor, when I remembered what it meant to love a place. I think of the wind whipping the bay into waterspouts, where rainbows bloomed in deadly swirls. I think of those same rainbows blossoming into the blows of humpback whales, as day by day brought more dark bodies into the bay. I think of the thunder of four whales rising in tandem from the water, their throats ballooning, so close I could see orange barnacles on grey pleats as their bodies splintered the grey-green water. Or of rising up from my book club to run to the steps of the bar, where from the doorway we we watched four humpbacks lunge feed in tandem.
I think of looking down into the blank surprise of an animal I have named the ghost whale, a near-albino juvenile gray whale who swam just under the surface and never surfaced, a secret known by other boats but that day seen only by my eyes.
I think of orca, soft and brilliant, the gleam of their black fins a knife through still water. I think of offshore orca, ripping through a seascape torn by dozens of black fins, and of the savage creativity with which an orca rose into the scar of his own blown bubbles.
Or I think of the bloom of a driftwood fire in a midnight sunset, alone with my tent and the forest to my back, a new book open in my lap. Or of waking on top of Mount Marathon to a world of raindrops frozen on new buds, their hard beads splintering the morning into rainbows as I made coffee in perfect silence.
Or the day a helicopter lifted me to the top of the glacier I had glimpsed in fragments, where a dog team carried me into a new appreciation of those who still choose to live hundreds of miles from the nearest road. A lifestyle as lonely as that of the wolverine whose tracks the mushers read behind their camp.
But beside these jewels of moments, it is the gentle normality that makes the summer special. Rain wrapping like a loved blanket. Buying gas for a camping stove at the fish house, with bear spray on the counter and fishing tips beside the door. Knowing the stories of the boats on the water and sharing a beer with their deckhands or captains after work, our conversations framed by the baleen overhead the and weight of that day’s halibut.
Seward fits me like a glove. I am at home here, and I think it comes from the fact that the land is forever in motion. No day is the same, no pattern of cloud shadows on the mountain overlaps with that from the hour before, no week carries the same flowers as the week before. As each moment blooms and dies it pulses us forward, flower by flower, as bright as fireweed against the sky. And I cannot wait for the next day to unfold.