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Field Notes
Douglas Chadwick
Photograph by John Swallow
Douglas H. Chadwick


Being in Southeast Alaska means that during an ordinary boat run across a bay to replenish supplies at a village, I might have the killer whale sighting of a lifetime or pass humpback whales rounding up herring with nets made of bubbles from their blowholes. As I'm hiking toward a salmon stream that promises to be thick with bears, every one of my senses is tingling, and every raven cry a message that commands my attention, I suddenly find myself in the calm, emerald embrace of a grove of spruce so big and old and awe-inspiring that this becomes a destination in itself.

Southeast Alaska doesn't just hold highlights here and there. It offers them everywhere and brings their wild powers together in a fusion of seascape and landscape overflowing with life.


Given the tremendous volumes of water flowing through channels and fjords, always changing with the tides, and mountain weather with great winds blowing off the glaciers through canyons onto the sea's surface, a boat trip around a corner can take you from a flat calm surface into a gnarly mess of waves. It happened to me all the time.

One day, during a long run in a none-too-big skiff, our crew started off lazing on the deck in sunshine reflected off mirror-like water and ended up two hours later in a fight to keep from being swamped by steep rollers in a rain-battered channel with no cove to hide in. The skipper was racing the engine full throttle, but the swells kept drawing us back into their trough. Escaping each one was an all-out battle. Days later, he mentioned to another member of our party, "I don't know if Doug realized how close we were to disaster back there." Hell yes, I did. If the skipper had angled just a little too far sideways to a single wave or had the engine quit, we'd have capsized and probably died of hypothermia in the icy waters, no matter how much flotation gear we were wearing.


On the uninhabited north end of Kuiu Island, where my companions wanted to look over recent and proposed timber-cutting sites, there were many miles of logging roads but no working motor vehicles. So we offloaded bicycles from our skiff and pedaled up and down the mountainsides to reach distant areas. Thick brush posed an obstacle on some of the older roads. Since Kuiu has one of the densest black bear populations known anywhere, a more interesting challenge was avoiding all the fresh bear poop to keep from skidding while coasting fast downhill—not to mention avoiding the bears themselves, which I surprised coming around some turns.