I’m not what you’d call a water person. In fact, except in its frozen forms, I feel pretty averse to spending time in or near large bodies of water.
People attribute my hydrophobia to all kinds of things: I didn’t grow up near water, I should have been put in swimming lessons as a child, my parents must not be good swimmers.
The first and third things are mostly true; Golden, Colorado is about as landlocked as it gets, and although my mom can swim quite proficiently, my father, to whom I bear the most physical resemblance, only dog-paddles.
The second item is not true, and in fact may be a root cause for my lifelong fear of water. Despite several weeks-long sessions of swim lessons between ages five and ten or so, I never progressed beyond the lowest level—the Guppies, we were called. The humiliation of being the tallest, oldest, least buoyant Guppy has continued to haunt me since tweenhood.
Fortunately, this was never much of an issue in my teen years and early adulthood, probably in large part because those formative years were spent so far away from big water. I could avoid invitations to water parks by citing my disgust at what I imagined were filthy swimming pools, filled with other people’s pee and littered with floating band-aids, lost in the hourly skirmish of manufactured waves.
A friend whose family had a cabin in the little mountain hamlet of Grand Lake—you can probably deduce its namesake—often invited me to spend afternoons aboard their boat, from which I peered nervously into the brackish water below and hoped for swift passage back to dry land.
Still, I’ve managed to power through—and even, occasionally, enjoy—a few near-water experiences. Another friend’s dad was the proprietor of a whitewater guiding company for a number of years, and each summer a group of us were taken on what was essentially a float trip, camping out the night before and cruising down a few-hour stretch of the Upper Colorado River the next morning, hitting a few gentle Class II rapids along the way. As we got older and my friend logged enough hours to be a professional herself, we were allowed to make the trip in our own raft, then unaccompanied by any adults at all. With a map drawn on a napkin, we managed to find a hot springs, where we brought cheap beer and flirted with the off-duty guides. I looked forward to the trip every summer, in spite of its proximity to moving water.
Summer afternoons on the Upper C and a few sea kayaking trips during my first year in Alaska were enough to persuade me that I might not mind open water so much from the relative safety of a vessel, however small it might be, though I certainly didn’t want to end up taking a swim.
I’ve often heard people say they miss open water when they don’t live near it, and I’ve never understood. I supposed it was something akin to how I missed mountains when I couldn’t see them, but the claustrophobic feeling ocean-lovers described felt so foreign to a landlubber like me. The open ocean, to me, is terrifying even in description, and so feeling trapped when I couldn’t see it didn’t make any sense.
After nearly two years, though, I’ve begun to associate the ocean less with the horror I feel at imagining being stuck in the mud flats and more with the view as I drive down the Seward Highway on a sunny day: the sparkling water, the zen garden drawn in the sand when the tide’s out, the occasional beluga. And there’s something sort of mesmerizing about the juxtaposition of mountains and ocean, two of nature’s most dangerous and beautiful enterprises.
Views notwithstanding, springtime in Southcentral Alaska is a tough season. What little snow we got this year is melting fast, revealing a winter’s worth of garbage and dog shit in every parking lot and pullout. The bluebird skies of March and early April have clouded over and begun to sleet. Everything is wet.
When the aforementioned sleet ruined a Saturday afternoon’s plans this spring, Bix suggested we take a walk on the beach. Incredulous, I demanded to know what kind of beach, and whether it was very safe to walk there—after all, the mud flats are notorious for trapping unwitting tourists when the tide comes in.
Point Woronzof, situated below the bluffs just north of the airport, thrusts into the water where the Knik Arm meets the Cook Inlet, which, should you be pulled out with the tide, will take you all the way out to the Gulf of Alaska. On a clear day, you can see Susitna, the Sleeping Lady. On an even clearer day, you can see all the way into the Tordillos, whose hulking volcanic forms appear formidable even from seventy-five miles away.
On this gloomy, rainy day, we couldn’t see any farther than Fire Island, first spotted by Captain Cook himself. It’s since been an Air Force base and a wind farm, but it wasn’t history we were interested in as we walked along the beach at Point Woronzof. It was the future, tenuous and uncertain as it was.
It’s hard to finish one thing when you’ve mentally moved onto the next, and I’ve been feeling restless as we make ready to pare down our worldly possessions until everything we own can be crammed into the back of a Forester. Let’s pack up and go, already, I keep thinking.
We sat on an old bit of driftwood to drink coffee and skip rocks and watch the planes take off. The tide came in, muddying our boots and shuffling the flat, smooth stones underneath them. It happened slowly at first, methodically, and then quickly. Soon our makeshift bench was nearly underwater and it was time to get up and keep walking.
I didn’t feel the urge to stick my toes in the frigid seawater, and I certainly didn’t wish to be out any farther than ankle-deep, but I didn’t mind being so near the water. The tide goes out and comes back in, ceaselessly, timelessly. It doesn’t care about what I’ve lost or what I’ll gain or when we’re moving or whether I’ll be back. It just is.
I guess I could stand to try that, too.