Published: July 2007
Melissa Farlow

Best

I'd heard about float houses, characteristic of Prince of Wales Island. I wanted to see one, so my contact in the area, Jason Clowar, used his boat radio to arrange to stop by for dinner with Shirley and Swede Ecklund, who live in one of the houses.

Swede was a logger, but a tree crushed him 20 years ago. He and Shirley became cooks at logging camps, where the loggers returned after a day of work. As the logging industry began to decline in the area, the pair kept cooking their family style dinners for friends and neighbors.

The meal was exquisite. I learned that Swede and Shirley have shared their lives with more than 30 foster boys over the years. The two teenagers who currently live with them are like part of the family, and Shirley ferries them to school every morning in her boat. They're an amazing couple with an interesting life that they see as ordinary. Meeting them was a great experience.

Worst

It was difficult to do aerial work, both because it rained so much and because tourists had reserved the available aircraft. So it was hard to find someone to take me in the air. But I found this wonderful man named Larry Musarra, a retired helicopter pilot with the Coast Guard and director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. He had a plane and offered to take me up any time to photograph the amazing glaciers and the beautiful islands. We went up two or three times. He was so accommodating, and I got to know him.

Larry and his wife, Lenné, invited me to join them on a boat trip to one of the islands for the weekend. We camped on one end and, the next day, rode bicycles eight miles (13 kilometers) across the island to some natural hot springs. We soaked in a hot tub, enjoyed a picnic, and rode back to our camp. The light was beautiful, and the day turned into a very special memory. I felt they had taken me in.

Soon after I left Tongass, I learned that Larry was dying of cancer. Not long after that, I spoke to him by phone, but it was our last conversation. At the end of the call, he said, "Goodbye, Melissa! I'll see you in another life." He died a couple days later. Even though I knew him only briefly, it makes me sad to think about such a loss.

Quirkiest

The glaciers in Tongass are amazing and very accessible. Mendenhall Glacier is right outside Juneau, but it's like being on another planet. The ice is melting, so there are waterfalls and cracks and various colorations. In what is becoming a tradition on the glacier, couples are using it to exchange wedding vows. One day I went there by helicopter to shoot a wedding, but it was still very strange to see the bride, Ann Arnsby, dressed in an exquisite gown, getting out of the helicopter. The groom, Karl E. Newkirk, followed, along with all the trappings of a formal wedding: a little table with a tablecloth draped over it, a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of champagne, and even an elaborately iced wedding cake.

The woman who arranged everything officiated over the ceremony. The couple spoke their vows, the woman switched on her boombox to play their favorite love song, and the pair began to dance. After a few more rituals, they loaded everything back onto the helicopter and took off. It was surreal.