A mist sat over the water, making the heron’s reflection on the silent surface a shadowy neutral as if the world had been sketched in detailed gray-scale. It looked like it was going to be a chilly day. I sat on my porch a while longer watching the tide subtly rise. It was nearing time to head to work. However excited I was to head to a job I enjoy, I was hesitant to leave the perfect secluded silence of my sanctuary.
I slowly stood, called the dogs, and started my day.
Things began normally enough on the job. I look forward daily to groups of cruise ship passengers interested in seeing Alaska from a different perspective than cruise ship sponsored jewelry stores and fake gold rush building facades. Each passenger is told something about the person who will meet them at the dock for their adventure on the largest bald eagle preserve in the world. Some are told that I was a veteran before they meet me, some are told I’m a salsa teacher, some are told I received a purple heart, some are told I’m Rita, wearing red hot Latin flavor, but this entire group had been told my name was Karl, and I was tall and funny looking.
They definitely walked past me at the dock, and seemed thoroughly confused as I herded them in like wayward kittens. I tried to convince them that they were with the right person.
The jokes ensued.
No. My name is not Karl.
Yes, I’m funny looking.
No, I’m not tall.
I had seven passengers in my raft for the actual float trip. There was a family of four in the front, including two daughters 21 and 23, an older pair of sisters in the back, and a single woman from Pennsylvania that sat directly to my back left. As I introduced them to my office, looking towards the incredible scenery, I was asked what brought me all the way up to Alaska. I gave an abbreviated version of my story, laughed, and made a sweeping gesture towards my office’s interior decorating.
I told nobody about my service, about being wounded, about my passing up government work for freedom, nothing. I said simply that not everyone has as much time as they think they do in life, and so why wouldn’t I spend mine in a place as breathtaking as Haines, rowing down a calming glacially fed river with magnificent views of glaciers, eagles, bears, wolves, salmon, terns, otters, and life as much as I could?
I then turned the question on them.
“Why are you here?”
The family in the front responded with a simple, “Why not Alaska?”
The sisters in the rear said that they wanted to get there before they ran out of time because they were tired of waiting.
But it was the lady from Pennsylvania that truly caught my attention with her response. As soon as I asked, I realized that subconsciously I already knew the answer. There aren’t too many reasons an elderly woman would be found alone with a glint of sadness in her eyes on a cruise ship and by herself on a romantic rafting tour of the largest bald eagle preserve in the world.
“My husband and I always wanted to come to Alaska. He, too, realized he didn’t have as much time as he thought…He would have enjoyed this so…so…” she trailed off before finishing, “very much,” she nearly whispered with tears welling, “This trip is for me, for us, for him.” She trailed off, looking quietly into the distance. The boat went silent. For several moments, nothing was heard but the soft rustle of silt against rubber; the soothing sound of the river gently caressing the bank, tempting it to let go, tumble down, and be swept away, and finally a quick slide and a splash. A small shelf freed itself from the confines of structure and embracing freedom, rode the current in a million separate particles.
There was nothing to be said. We all understood.
I understood better than they could ever have imagined.
I fought back tears as my mind raced through memories of friends who would never again get to see something so incredible as the Cathedral Peaks, Kicking Horse Valley, or a twelve pound bald eagle shredding and devouring a salmon within feet of a raft.
There were four young men that came to mind instantly. The picture used at their memorial still weighs on my mind. Four sunglasses clad, healthy men…three of which were still in their young twenties, who loved each other like brothers, always insisting on being in the same truck with one another, posing for the camera in different tough guy positions. One with both hands in the air, looking to the sky seemingly asking for deliverance, all four of them silly and tough. All four of them radiating youth and promise. All four of them no longer on Earth. Their truck was barely recognizable when it was towed back to the FOB and left on display in the “graveyard.”
A young father who lost his life two weeks from before seeing his newborn son for the first time over mid-tour leave.
A boy shot by a sniper through his temple on his 20th birthday.
A boy next to whom I sat, discussing how lucky he was to be coming to our FOB as opposed to his COP. I told him he was lucky to get to work with the CIED team. It sure would beat his other job. Days later he was crushed under the vehicle when it hit an IED.
A group of young men burned alive inside an MRAP.
A boy who thought he could stop a truck from tumbling down a cliff and keep himself out of trouble, but ended up going down with it.
A boy dies of “non combat related injuries” towards the end of the road with less than a month left in Afghanistan.
None of these guys will ever be able to celebrate life as we can…in this world. They can only live on in our memories.
“I need to travel more before I, too, run out of time,” my passenger from Pennsylvania told me as she stared in awe, mouth slightly agape, at the small salmon stream that opens up into a view unparalleled of the vast alluvial fan and towering mountains capped with fresh snow. “I need to do many things.” We all do. Many things need to be done.
Everybody dies. Only a handful of people truly live. This woman from Pennsylvania cried for her husband as I’ve cried for humanity. She touched my heart as I can only hope to touch others in time. We shared a moment on the raft, eight of us, contemplating the beauty of being capable of living each day how we choose. It is truly a gift to live, and that day every single soul with me on the boat understood that. Embrace each moment as is it’s your last, as you never know when the last may come. Remember, tomorrow’s not guaranteed.