Back in the days when I was so little that I had only one baby sister and our family could still fit in our Jeep, all of us set off for the shores of
Cook Inlet. It was
rare that my mother was involved in one of these expeditions and there was a
festive feeling to the outing, even though the trip was probably quite
utilitarian. As well as offering an unlimited supply of clams for anyone with a
shovel and a tide table, the beach also yielded soft, brownish-black coal that
burned too quickly and left too much ash, but it was easier and much more fun
to gather than firewood.
It was too cloudy and windy for the baby to spend much time outdoors, but rather than lose the pleasure of the day, my father suggested that we drive along the beach for a while and see what we might find.
At first the sand was as smooth to drive on as asphalt; the tide was out and miles of grey satin stretched in front of us and as far as we could see to our right. On our left was a high bank with grey-green beach grass sprinkled with wildflowers and trees that had been windblown into gnarled shapes. Piles of driftwood, smashed together in storms, made intriguing little houses that were just my size and the large rocks that towered near them looked like small castles. I stared as we drove by, imagining the people who lived in these shelters and wondering if they ever ate anything besides clams.
The tracks of vehicles occasionally formed driveways up from the beach, barely visible in the tall grass. The bank became higher and the tracks vanished, leaving no signs that anyone else had ever been where we were now. We passed a cabin that was snuggled into a large number of straight and substantial spruce trees. It had been built on the slope of a hill that was forested right up until the sand took over. No smoke came from the stovepipe and no vehicle was parked nearby. “Bill Quick’s place, “ my father said, “he’s gone Outside for a while.”
I was sorry nobody was home; my legs were tired of sitting and this looked like the perfect place to play while my parents had a cup of coffee and visited. The jeep was bouncing more than it had been a few minutes before; we were hitting rocks that stretched out in pancake shapes under our wheels. Some were riddled with holes, looking like grey Swiss cheese, others were folded into weird layers like solid pieces of cloth. My father had to concentrate on steering through them and our journey was no longer smooth. “We could break an axle on these damned things,” he muttered and my mother said very quietly, “The tide’s coming in.”
“There’ll be another cabin along the way,” my father said, searching for strips of unbroken sand. But as he drove, the hills turned into high, steep bluffs on our left. To the right an edge of waves was devouring the wide field of sand that had been there an hour or two earlier.
“We’re closer to Homer than we are to Anchor Point,” my father said and he stopped smiling. The flat rocks gave way to a kind of rough gravel and pebbles hit our windows as my father increased his speed. The bluffs had become cliffs. I could see cabins high above us, but there was no way to reach them. My father stopped just long enough to grab a five-gallon can of gas from the back and quickly refueled the jeep. My mother said nothing at all but she grabbed my hand and her grip was tight.
The day was fading fast and my father had to turn on the headlights. By the time that we drove away from the cliffs to a trail that took us to the highway, it was dark. We followed the road through the trees into Homer’s
Street, where a café was still open. I was given a
bowl of ice cream and I’m sure my parents each had a very stiff drink. Not until years later did I ask exactly what had gone on during that trip and why it ended with ice cream. My father admitted that he had forgotten to check the tide tables before taking his wife and children for a drive on a beach that had the second-highest tides in North America, next to the Bay of Fundy's. Like many Alaskan adventures, it could have ended very badly indeed.