By Mandy Nguyen, AP’19

I don’t come from a life where I can pluck salmon berries from their bushes—bursting red, orange, pink—and pop them into my mouth. The abundant natural life and resources here are overwhelming. I feel rich here, in a way I feel I have no right to be.

The first day we went fishing in our kayaks, we headed towards The Laundry, a stretch of water named for it’s crisscrossing currents that Tlingit people have historically fished in. As we paddled, the giant snowy foothills of the fair-weather mountains at Glacier Bay emerged and greeted us with a whip of cold air. I gaped at the view as my kayak partner cast her line into the turquoise waters. A fish snagged onto it in less than a minute, and she pulled up a rock fish. Then another. Then another. All around us, the other kayaks were pulling up fish, whooping and cheering at the shared bounty which we were to fillet and eat that same day. In an hour, we had caught enough to feed the homestead when two pillars of water shot into the air and the slow arc of a tail sliced through water not far from where we were.

I don’t know how to describe the instantaneous switch of the mind when you realize two humpback whale are heading towards you. Time slowed down to match each stroke of the whales’ tails, and their slow, laborious curve out of the waters and back, as they swam past us, hardly fifty feet away. Our kayaks gently bobbed as they passed, and in my stupor, I felt that I wouldn’t mind being capsized by something as beautiful as them. They spouted a few more times after passing us, and we sat there silently, looking out at the whales as they swam away, their backs gleaming in the tinny light of the southeast Alaskan sky.

Gaping at whales, learning to fillet fish, weeding the garden, following deer trails in the old-growth forests, exploring the history of the native Tlingit people, whose historical land I stand on, and the implications of being here—this is my education now. I came to the Glacier Bay Session because I wanted to explore what my relationship to the natural world could be, but I didn’t expect to feel as decentered, destabilized, and as joyful I as I have. I’m content to spend hours hunched in the damp earth, transplanting little lettuce sprouts to proper garden beds. I’m often stunned by the beauty of the fog curling over the mountains which surround us, the gentle rumble of the creek, and the crisp air of the old growth forest. I’m learning what stewardship and respect for life other than your own might mean when you consider yourself as part of the natural world rather than something apart from it.

I also think that maybe you can’t learn some things until you feel them. Can’t answer some questions until you live them. What does it mean to respect life different than your own? What about non-human life? What does the blueberry bush or the sea lion mean, especially when you’re this close? I’ve never experienced nature like this, and my mind is having a difficult time catching up with my heart. But I don’t mind. This is the education I prefer.

Mandy Nguyen is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. She grew up in San Jose, CA, and recently graduated from Minerva Schools at KGI.