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A place to see for yourself

Inian Islands Institute welcomes author and team-member Judith Aftergut as this month’s guest blog writer!

I lean my bike against the worn green wood siding and knock on the door of a house near the Salmon River in Gustavus. It is my second summer near Glacier Bay. My first summer, I worked as a housekeeper at the Lodge. This second year, I plan to write magazine articles and to interview old timers.

A tall man, slightly stooped, opens the door and invites me in. I’ll call him Mike. We sit at his kitchen table and he offers instant tea. He is in his 70s, the age I am now.

I’m young and full of uncertainties, doubts and trepidations. My first question is impossible to answer, especially right off the bat: “What have you learned from living here all these years?” He chuckles, looks at me and speaks a sentence that sticks in my mind for the next 40 years:

“If I tell you what I see, you won’t see what you see.”

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A Different Kind of Wilderness

It’s go time.

Inian Islands Institute is an official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a business plan, a Board of Directors, and a big vision.  And I, the newly-hired Executive Director, am back in the San Francisco Bay Area where it all started, armed with a fistful of flyers and a big earnest smile, setting out to raise $2.5 million to buy our land and create our school.

Of course, as an environmental scientist who’s spent far more time in the company of penguins than millionaires, I’m feeling a little out of my depth.  Stepping off the train in Palo Alto, I wondered, wide-eyed, how do I even begin this monumental task?  I’ve received no shortage of good advice about “cultivating donor relationships” and “making asks,” but that all felt very abstract and far away from this lonely, busy train station.

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Caretaking, part II

Last week I told about the day-to-day doings out at the Hobbit Hole, so now I thought I’d tell a bit more about the place itself.  There’s something about this homestead that seems to draw people here, body and spirit, through the years.  I doubt I have the wisdom to say exactly what that something might be – it probably verges on the ineffable.  But maybe writing this post will bring me closer to understanding the nature of the something.  In turn, maybe that will help me to understand myself, and why I’ve taken on the vast project of Inian Islands Institute with such abandon.  Thankfully, in seeking the nature of the something, there is no shortage of material to explore!  The Hobbit Hole is such a treasure-trove, I swear this post is going to write itself. Read more

Caretaking, Part I

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been winter caretaking out here at the Hobbit Hole.  The “inhobbitants,” Jane, Greg, and Fred, have migrated south, leaving me alone in the middle of the Wilderness, tasked with ensuring that this remote property keeps running the way it ought to.  And I exuberantly welcomed the chance to spend a month out here on my own — because for all the time I’ve spent thinking about this place, I’ve never spent more than a few days out here at a time.  I’ve never truly lived this life.  And if I’m going to lead the charge to turn this remote property into an institute for education and research, I’d better get to know the ins and outs of the place, its rhythms and cycles, as a sailor learns every inch of her boat before a long voyage. Read more

Day 113: Home

Holding my breath, floating upside-down just a few boat lengths from the gathered friends on the Gustavus shore, I thought to myself: darn, my long paddle is in danger of ending as ignominiously as it began.

The 20-mile crossing from the Hobbit Hole to my hometown had been fogged in for most of the day.  With my buddy Nate, I’d taken a compass bearing to point us across the 5-mile wide mouth of Glacier Bay, the far side being totally awash in low grey clouds.  But by the time we reached Point Gustavus, things were lifting and brightening up, revealing the long shore of the Gustavus forelands — I was now just a few miles from home.  My first reaction wasn’t nostalgia or bliss or relief, but surprise: after 2000 piedmont miles walking and kayaking along the steep coastal mountain ranges of Western North America, I was struck by the thought that Gustavus is flat as a damn pancake!   My hometown is built on the outwash plain of the great glacier that 200 years ago filled what would become Glacier Bay.  Although mountains surround us, here the shifting braids of the silt-laden glacial river laid down one of the only flat stretches along the entire coast.  After all the miles of impossibly steep rocky coastline I’d passed, desperate to find a little beach were I could take shelter, how easy it would be to land my kayak here and lay out my tent on a nice, flat, welcoming campsite! Read more


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