This is the thought that came to my mind in June, when I was making this trip to the Pacific Northwest for the first time this summer. As our plane approached Seattle, I could see all the way down into California to Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta, on up to Mt. Hood in Oregon, followed by Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier in Washington state. Five perfectly formed volcanic mountains, n all their snow capped glory, for me to see. Now, maybe for other people this is commonplace, something they are used to, but as for me, it made me catch my breath and whisper a prayer of thanksgiving. And ask the question I posed above.
And here I am again, asking that same question. The Pilot has been making this trip to Seattle and Juneau all summer, and while I was able to accompany him back in June while our children were at camp, this is the first time the kids have been able to come along. For me, there’s just something about being able to share these experiences with my children. From the perspective of homeschooling, of course, it is indeed a unique educational opportunity. We saw salmon spawning in the rivers, bald eagles wheeling and calling out overhead, and saw the flukes of humpback whales as they prepared to dive, all from a boat on one of the channels that leads to Juneau. We saw seals vying for our attention, swimming and playing near the pod of whales that held us enthralled. We learned more about the natural world around us in one afternoon than we could in weeks of reading and studying. But I think the true educational value goes beyond that. I hope that their hearts were stirred by what we encountered yesterday in a way that will change them forever, make them more connected to why we’re here and what our place in this world is. I realize that may not happen for them right now, but perhaps it will in the long run. I know that I am changed by what I saw and experienced yesterday.
I can’t imagine how you could be that close to some of the earth’s most amazing creatures and not have your heart, some part at the very core of you, moved beyond words…
So I’ll back up a little to the basics of how we got to that place. Here I am again, in Juneau, Alaska, in the summertime, tagging along on one of the Pilot’s trips. It has a very different feel to it than last time I was here, due in part to the fact that last time there was a Native Heritage celebration going on and the town felt more connected to its native roots, with both the good and bad that come along with that. This time, the town was quieter, more connected with the intense beauty of the natural world around it instead. The salmon are running right now, and I saw more than one person carrying a freshly caught, freshly cleaned salmon, wrapped up and cradled like the treasure that it is. Impossibly green, the mountains around us rose into the crystalline blue skies, which was another of yesterday’s astonishing gifts since most of the time it is cloudy and rainy here. The cruise ships weren’t docked on a Monday morning, so I had the town to myself, without the usual press of cruise passengers hurrying to shop and dine, as I walked around looking for a place with green tea and Wifi.
We had flown in from Seattle the night before, and after spending a little time in the local saloons (yes, they call them that) and making a late night stop for tater tots (not kidding, and they were delicious), we turned in for the night and woke up early to begin a morning of hiking for everyone but me. I chose cafe sitting and people watching instead; I love my family, but sometimes I just need my peace and quiet. But then, early afternoon, we met back up and caught a shuttle to the docks outside the town of Juneau, where we boarded a boat called Big Mike and met our curmudgeonly boat captain. He then took us, at a brisk clip, out into the channels around Junuea in hopes of seeing whales. We were assured that we would see some, either humpback or orcas, possibly both.
We were not disappointed. Whales were everywhere. I truly had no idea what to expect, thinking that I wouldn’t really be able to experience these enormous yet gentle creatures; they are underwater and I’m, well, not. But then I saw the telltale spouting above the water of our first whale for the day… my reaction, completely involuntary, brought me out of my seat and caused me to squeal with delight. All of us onboard (save the captain, who was obviously very jaded to the delights of whale watching) ran outside the boat’s cabin to try to get a better look. As it turned out, there were about five of the cetaceans, hanging out together because that’s what families and friends do. They would surface together, and five moisture-filled puffs of air would suffuse the air above the water. They would spend a little time milling about there, giving all of us time to ooh and ah and snap photographs, and then you would see the “hump” of their backs flex and bend, followed by their tails lifting out of the water as they prepared to dive. This was followed by several anxious minutes (at least for me) as we waited for them to return, keeping our eyes glued to the spot where we’d last seen them but knowing that they could come up anywhere. Thankfully, they came up repeatedly, and we were able to watch them for at least an hour.
At one point, they were so close to our boat that I could hear one of them groaning in some sort of communication with his friends. Wouldn’t you love to know what they were talking about? Because I know that they were talking. I just know it. I’m not one of those arrogant humans who thinks that we have the corner on the market on communication. No, these guys were enjoying their day, just like we were. Who knows- maybe they were watching us right back!
But as they moved around us in their quiet choreography, our group became progressively more hushed. What had inspired leaping and shrieking in me initially gave way to a more meditative state of mind, and I didn’t want to talk or even really to take any more photos. I just wanted to revel in the feeling of something larger than me, something that would get me out of the crazy swirl that my thoughts can sometimes be and certainly have been lately. The ocean always does that for me, but this took it to a new level and I sensed my body and mind slowing down, as I felt the ocean and the whales inhaling and exhaling right along with me.
For the first time in a long, long, time, I. Just. Breathed.
The best part? At one point I glanced at my children seated behind me, and I could see from their faces that they were feeling the same things that I was, even if they didn’t have the words to give those feelings voice. And that is the most valuable type of education that I could ever give them.
Learning how to be.
Learning how to breathe.