By Danae Sollie, AP’19

Yesterday we said a lot of goodbyes. Goodbye to the hobbit hole. Goodbye to each other. Goodbye to the deer.  The deer was in our lives for the shortest amount of time. We were introduced after Zach’s early morning hunt on Chicagof island and for the next day and a half spent many hours cleaning and processing the beautiful animal. We knew the deer intimately, had seen each individual muscle peel out elegantly from its fatty sheath, and that night slept satisfied with its meat in our bellies.

Hank led us through the forest, carrying the hide of the deer. We walked for about ten minutes through the skunk cabbage, devils club, and western Hemlocks until Hank laid the deer in the grass. Together we fed it its last meal and spoke individually; I thanked God for the gift of the deer and the gift of life, a concept that was all too fresh in my mind.

A little over a week earlier we left the hobbit hole for a four-day kayak trip around the island. The skies were clear, the water was calm, and Mone kept me laughing from the front seat of our kayak. We quickly made it to Earl Cove and set up camp, leaving us time to hike and explore the area. Seven of us set out up the creek, our XtraTuffs allowed us to wade through the middle of the creek when the overgrowth of its banks became too thick. As was Inian Island tradition, we filled our mouths with salmon berries along the way. After an hour and a half, we decided to climb to the ridgeline over the south side of the Creek. IT was a steep ascent, but the view was spectacular. Old Hemlocks stretched to the sky, their massive roots overgrown with soft moss. We made our way over the deer trail along the ridgeline until we could see the tents below us and the beach ahead. Zach led the way down, trying to pick out the best trail through the steep descent. With Ben ahead of me, and Kelsey Behind, I grabbed a hold of the Hemlock, my XtraTuff’s gripping its roots.

That was the moment everything changed. The footing that I thought had been secure proved otherwise and my boots slipped off the root. The ground below me, an incline, descended at an angle that initially caught my boots, but then sent them tumbling down, head over heels.

There were three moments that stick out distinctly from this experience. The first: thinking I had regained my footing. As I tumbled, I wondered why I wasn’t stopping, shocked that I continued to somersault over the moss. But there was a moment I thought it was going to stop, a quick moment of relief. And then there was nothing. Nothing below me, nothing to grab on to: this was the second moment. My body was ejected over the ledge. For one second of clarity I recognized the Devil’s club well below me.  There wasn’t time to feel the shock of the situation. All I knew was this was not good, and I instantaneously faced the possibility of death.  My body continued to turn through the air, followed  quickly by my scream. I don’t remember the impact, but the third moment came seconds later as I faced the reality that I was still alive. The intensity of the experience and reality of what had just happened hit me full force. Dear God Please help me. Dear God please help me. Dear God please help me I spoke the prayer out loud over and over. I wasn’t sure if I was paralyzed. I wasn’t sure if I was dying. But I was sure of where my help comes from and I was crying out to him.

Zach reached me first, with Laura close behind. Everything was so bright as I laid stomach down amongst the devil’s club. I held my head in my hands, recognizing it as the first place of pain. When I pulled my hands away from my pounding head, they were streaked red with my blood. How bad of shape was I in?

Over the next ten minutes Laura did a quick full body exam, I apologized to her and Zach multiple times, and we slowly came to the conclusion that none of my lower limbs were broken meaning I could get up and make my way to the beach to be picked up. My arms slung over Zach and Laura, we made our way slowly to the beach, a few of the other students pushed down the devil’s club blocking the path in front of me.

While I waited on the beach, I remember a comforting amount of laughter and the most beautiful rendition of the song Stayin Alive I have ever heard. A friend of mine held my hand, another my head, I could hear the tears falling down her face. Through it all I felt no fear. I remember squeezing my friends’ hand and saying “its ok, God’s got me.” I knew that I was not the only one looking out for me. I had Laura, who held my head as I bled. Colter who helped me into the boat and cared for me during recovery in Juneau. Michelle who allowed me, a total stranger, into her home and went beyond to feeding and caring for me. But above all that I knew I had Jesus, who already had my life secure, and who I knew was with me on that beach.

I was transferred from the beach to the boat, from the boat to the seaplane, from the seaplane to the taxi, and from the taxi to the emergency room. Seven hours after the fall I had the all clear from the doctors. No broken bones, no brain damage, no internal bleeding. Just fourteen stitches on my nose and forehead, two staples in the back of my head, a concussion, and quite a few incredulous looks from the nurses and doctors who checked me over. I shouldn’t have been alive. I shouldn’t have even be walking. That day I had fallen off a thirty to forty-foot cliff and lived to talk about it.

As I write this all down, tell my story, it seems like someone else’s. As if I’m writing in the third person, telling of another girl whose world crumbled from beneath her. Someone else whose body turned over in the air. Someone else who, upon hitting the ground, seemed surprised to have lived and not died. But as I lay awake at night, and as I hike the trails of Juneau, it is apparent that someone was me. We ride up the tram up to mount Roberts: I can’t look over the edge. We hike along the ridges of the mountain: and I hug the side of the trail farthest from the edge. My back aches. My head hurts. My lacerations sting. Of course it was me. Of course its my story. I wear Alaska on my face.

It was in leaving the hobbit hole that I realized how much I had gained there. After forty-eight hours of observation in Juneau I got the all-clear to head back to the island. Only in my return did I recognized the hobbit hole as home. As the sea plane landed in Elfin Cove and I saw Laura, Morgan, Abe and Uni, a smile overtook the far corners of my face. The same thing happened as our boat pulled into the cove and I was blessed to be able to hug the eleven students that had been strangers two weeks ago, and were now dear friends. I had left and come back, and in that process realized my love for this place and for its people.

Life and death, I experienced some of both and it ended with the deer. The deer that had once been full of life and was now dead. I had heard the other students speak their thoughts on the taking and the processing of the deer. I was reminded of the deer hunts I had been on growing up. Reminded of the thankfulness I always had for God’s provision. The thankfulness I now had for his provision that day throughout a freefall. For the first time sine the fall, tears filled my eyes.

So what did I learn from the Arete Project? So so much. I could fill pages and pages with small moments, deep conversations, and intense thought that have no doubt shaped me. But what I really leave this place with is gratitude. I am grateful for the welcoming staff of the Inian Islands Institute showing me their home and their way of life. I am grateful for the experiences of climbing the mountain, kayaking next to sea lions and whales, of pulling the halibut onto the boat. I am grateful for the friendships, from jumping in the ocean every night, to vigilant conversation about our homes, struggles and joys. I am grateful for Laura, who led discussion and showed compassion and honesty each day to each of her students. I am grateful for Colter, who taught me how to tan a fish, and pulled staples out of my head. I am grateful for Michelle who took me in as a complete stranger and two days later we said goodbye as friends. But Above all I am grateful to my Jesus, who has given me this wild and beautiful gift of life, and allowed me to stay here, stay safe, and stay grateful. After all, in the words of the BeeGees, I got high and I got low but its alright its ok, I lived to see another day, just stayin’ alive.

Danae is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. She studies biology at Hillsdale College.