God in Alaska
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
By Father Mark Mary

So how much rope do you think well need? At my fathers question, my brother stood dumfounded in the aisle of the grocery store. My father had come up behind him in the produce section and asked him about what supplies would be needed to settle up in Alaska, which had been my fathers dreamto live in the last frontier. My brother was more concerned about his upcoming high school prom than making a new start in Alaska. Brandon searched Dads face for some sign that he was joking as he listed off different supplies needed to settle in an untamed wilderness.

It was my Dads dream to go to Alaska and live off the land. You definitely need rope for a project like that. Dad was an engineer for the government, a civil servant, and he never made it to Alaska, succumbing to cancer in his late forties. So when I was offered the chance to help give a retreat on the Eucharist with Susan Conroy up in Juneau Alaska, I jumped at it. The desire to see Alaska had already been planted, and this was a rare opportunity for me.

There are no roads into Juneau. You either take a plane, a boat or walk into the southern coastal town. I know images of mountain men, log cabins, pelts and trading stores come to mind. But it is the capital of Alaska, and the town paper had the latest on Bristol Palin and Levi Johnstons on again, off again relationship. It had every convenience, including a local college. Cars are brought in by ferry, and huge cruise ships drop off thousands of tourists everyday in the summer. We even had a couple of scoops of gelato at an ice cream stand. So, it was not the frontier my father had in mind, but the beauty was breathtaking.

Rainforests surround the town. The huge quantities of rain, snowmelt and glacial runoff produce spectacular waterfalls. Streams can start at the top of the 4,000 foot mountains as part of the runoffs and cascade into waterfalls down the sides of the mountains sheared off by glaciers. The forests have huge trees (white pine) with something like Spanish moss hanging off of them. Cool breezes come down the steep mountains through the forests producing pure, fresh air that seem to fill and refresh your lungs with each breath.

The salmon were beginning to run upstream to spawn. They were big, much bigger than I had imagined. They say the streams get so full, that the salmon jump out of the water yelling to the fishermen Take me! Take me! Actually, my Dad and I joked about the salmon doing that years before in our discussions about Alaska. We thought there might be a chance of seeing some bears when we went to a couple of streams to see the salmon. Alaskan Brown bears are tremendous in size and there are many in the area not far from Juneau; on Admiralty Island, for example, there are 1-1.5 bears per square mile.

We never saw any bears. But a very kind family took us humpback whale-watching on a small boat that allowed us to get fairly close to the whales. We could actually smell their breath as they gave giant exhales when they surfaced. With a diet of krill and herring, you can imagine the smell. The excitement was to see them surface, breathe three or four times and see them arch their back as they made a steep dive showing their tails as they disappear into the deep water. There were also seals, dolphins and orcas that we got to see.

The bald eagles were all over the place. It was always stirring to them in flight or perched up on some tree limb. They just look majestic. As we hiked up Mt. Roberts, not too far from the top, one plummeted past me. He had pulled in his wings close to his body and was rocketing down the side of the mountain. I actually heard him before I looked up and saw him. It sounded like the wind noise one picks up on a microphone on a breezy day.

The hike on Mt. Roberts was one of the highlights for me. I did not go to the top, but near the top I did reflect how, in Gods Providence, I was kind of fulfilling a dream of my father. There is a cross there on the side of the mountain, and it is a replica of the one a Jesuit priest put there in the early 1900s. It is amazing how something so simple can lift our minds and hearts to God. It finally started to sink in what a Providential gift this trip was for me. I could not help but feel connected to my father as I climbed a little higher and looked out over the vast expanse of the Alaskan mountains and the Gastineau Channel, carved out by glaciers thousands of years before.

There are still remnants of the 4,000 foot glaciers that once covered the area 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. We visited the Mendenhall Glacier not far from where we were staying with a family. The core ice is a beautiful cobalt blue due to the purity and density of the ice. It actually calved while we were there (meaning a big piece broke off) and sent waves through the runoff lake. Later, we spoke to a gentleman who had lived in the area for 58 years, frequently goes to the glacier, and had never seen it calve. But the trip was truly complete when we kayaked on the glacier lake the last night I was there. I felt a little tipsy in the kayak, but it was a thrill to be out there with friends among the icebergs.

The retreat, at the Shrine of St. Therese, for the young people went well, and I was filled with hope in meeting them and hearing some of their stories. Despite the challenges of our age, we continually see the seed of the Gospel taking root anew in the soil of the hearts of the young. I expect great things from them. Also, my host family and the organizers for the retreat, Stephanie and Justin Forbes, witnessed to me about the power of the Eucharist that enabled them to live the Churchs teaching on marriage. I am always amazed at how you can go anywhere in the world and find a deep fellowship among Catholics in their Eucharistic faith. The Eucharist truly unites us all in Christ.

So, I actually got to go to Alaska and give a retreat on my favorite topic, the Eucharist. In some way, I felt Dad was there and God was smiling down on us. As a friend often reminds me, God is so good to us. He loves us as a father loves his children, and He speaks to us in various ways.

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