Captain Jeffrey – A Teacher’s Reflection

A few weeks ago Jeffrey and his sixth-grade teacher, Ted Eldridge were reunited on the David B in Juneau, Alaska. Ted just sent us a short reflection on his experience aboard the boat as well as his emotions and observations of reconnecting with a child who is now all grown-up and who followed his dreams. Thank you Ted for writing this and letting us share your experience.

Captain Jeffrey
By Ted Eldridge

The glint in his eye was familiar, streaming in sparks of gold-green as he cast a glance of recognition and welcome toward us.

The same lean, fit figure I remembered moved nimbly around the deck of the boat; tall, with broader shoulders now. The 11-year old hand I had grabbed to hoist him from a rock to the bank at camp years ago now grasped mine and effortlessly pulled me up from the dock to board his boat. His greeting was in a lower register.

Jeffrey at the Wheel
Jeffrey Smiles at the Wheel of the David B

Jeffrey’s smile split wide open across a clean-shaven, chiseled face. A tuft of brown hair spilled over the neck band of his T-shirt, bearing the yellow, red and black logo of his Northwest Navigation Company. He was now the skipper of the David B.

I had known Jeffrey as his sixth grade teacher. Just as then, conversation was easy between us. The young boy was still to be found these thirty years later. Competence, curiosity, sensitivity and the playfulness that characterized his intensity as a sixth grader were immediately apparent in the forty-two year-old man. His sense of wonder had not been diminished by the years.

It was a remarkable thing to reunite long after letting go of a student. Twenty seven came into my class room that year with hungry minds and electrically-charged bodies hoping I would support their dreams. They could hardly wait to be catapulted into a bright future. For nine months I became part of their families. They became part of mine. We shared space and ideas for at least half their waking hours. I lost a little of myself in my efforts to nurture their motivation to learn. Energy I gave recharged my life over and over.

On the second day aboard the David B, Jeffrey took us below deck to the engine room to show us the centerpiece, the throbbing three-piston heart of the 1929 motorized vessel that he and his wife, Christine, had restored.

I had known Jeffrey would face the dilemma of those with unlimited potential and a vast array of interests, that of choosing what to do in life. Two of those interests had stood out that sixth grade year – a need to know how things work, a tinkering instinct fed by the accelerated accessibility to technology at that time, and a passion for the dramatic, rugged elements of the natural environment, ignited by frequent family backpack trips to the Pacific Northwest. I was intrigued with the prospect of knowing what he had done.

And, here he was – sharing with the five of us who had gathered on his boat the how and why of rebuilding and operating the David B in the deep, icy waters off Alaska’s southwest coast. It didn’t surprise me – it fit perfectly.

Hanging around the Galley Table
Hanging around the Galley Table

Most of us, it seems, settle for less than our childhood passions might take us. We are afraid to pursue them fully or find roadblocks thrown before us that are beyond our control. We do our best to live good lives and find some level of fulfillment – what we might describe as happiness or, at least, contentment.

And, then, there are those few among us who soar. Just as I knew he would the year he was 11, Jeffrey is soaring.

Alaska had never been on my list of vacation destinations. It was distant. It was cold. It was monotonously barren. Photographs and video footage of jagged mountain peaks, glaciers and grizzly bears had been enough. Enough, that is, until twenty-first century technology and the social network called Facebook put me in contact with Jeffrey. Over three decades after we had shared a sixth-grade year, Jeffrey suggested I consider a week’s cruise on his boat, the David B, with his wife and four or five other passengers. The trip would begin and end in Juneau and take us through the Inside Passage of Alaska’s south coast.

The invitation caught my attention. The opportunity to travel on this little boat for a week in a place where I had never been with a small group of people I didn’t know was my kind of adventure. And, most compelling, was the prospect of taking such a trip with Jeffrey – getting to know first-hand who he had become.

Jeffrey offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse. I booked passage through Northwest Navigation, the two-person company Christine and he had formed, and made flight arrangements from Savannah to Juneau.

Dawes Glcier
Dawes Glacier

It was one of the significant experiences of my life. Seven days on the water in the confined space of a small boat chugging through remote wilderness areas with just six others is a set of conditions that create a bond like no other. Sharing meals, kayaks, hiking trails and conversation during the week on the David B confirmed what I had thought I had known of Jeffrey those many years ago. His memories of his sixth grade year similarly affirmed what, as an educator, I had banked on to make a helpful, lasting impact on a child. I taught assuming there would be no way of knowing that. Kids move on. The trip on the David B with Jeffrey was the feedback I had never expected to receive.

Alaska was spectacular. I ran out of superlatives within the first two days. But, the real thrill of this journey was getting to know Jeffrey again – on a different level, in his element, as he soared.

Late each night that week, after the others had retired to read or sleep below deck, I wrote at the galley table by soft, amber cabin light. The distant call of a raven or hiss of a humpback whale blowing were the only sounds, other than the occasional creak of the David B as it gently rocked in the quiet cove Captain Jeffrey had selected as the right spot to moor for the night. I had time to think about this extraordinary circumstance – of me, the teacher, meeting up with and sharing a week with Jeffrey, the student.

Ted Writing on Deck
Ted Writing on the Deck of the David B

To a posting I made on Facebook upon my return, I received a response from Zach, another exceptional student in that same sixth grade class 30-odd years ago. He wrote, “… and the student becomes the teacher.” He was right. And, I was grateful for it.

Ah, that all teachers could come to have such a time with even just one student.

Looking For Bears

On our Northbound Alaska Inside Passage Cruise this year we were joined by returning passengers Brian and Angela, and Ann, a delightful and fun woman traveling on her own from England. We also had our friend Jim, a occasional-crew member on board.

Since Brian and Angela made their reservation in the winter I’d been talking with Brian about some of the things he and Angela would like to do while on the David B. At one point he mentioned that he would be celebrating his birthday while he was on the David B and how much he would like to see a brown bear in the wild. Jeffrey and I knew it was very likely that we would be seeing a brown bear, but then there is always that nagging worry that we’d be unlucky and the bears will be elsewhere. We’ve been skunked before on bears and we hoped that this trip would have at least one good bear sighting.

We left Ketchikan and headed north. We had 7 days to find Brian a brown bear and hopefully do it on his birthday. We scoured the beach with binoculars and along the way we saw bald eagles, seals, seal lions, an orca whale, humpback whales and lots of deer. We also found hundreds, if not thousands of rock bears – the kind of rocks shaped like bears make your heart race thinking you’ve just found a bear- but no bears. As the trip continued Jeffrey and I began to worry that there just weren’t any bears to be seen. In Petersburg, we asked our friend Andy if he’d seen very many bears this year. He reported that the salmon were running late and that there hadn’t any bears at his place.  Finding Brian an unhabituated wild brown bear became an obssession for me a Jeffrey. We anchored in Donkey Bay and Gambier Bay, both on Admiralty Island where there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 1600 brown bears. We were pretty sure we would have a good chance of seeing a bear come down to the beach.

One morning at Donkey Bay, Jeffrey, Jim, Brian, and Ann walked along the shore in search of bear signs. Brian found a spot where a bear had slept the night before and all around the bear’s bed were bear droppings, including a very fresh one. That was enough for the explorers and they promptly returned to the boat. It was Brian’s birthday and no bears.

 

Twin Meadows Brown Bear
Brown Bear Foraging at Twin Meadows - Click for a Bigger Image

With only one day left to find Brian his bear, Jeffrey and I had that sinking feeling that the bears were just not around. On our way back from watching Dawes Glacier, we knew we had just one more really good spot to try to find a bear. Jeffrey gave Brian our best pair of binoculars to scan the shoreline of Twin Meadows. It was our last shot and we hoped we would be lucky.

Finally an “Ah-ha!” came from Brian as he pointed to the beach. Slowly, Jeffrey maneuvered the David B in for a closer look. We all rushed up on deck with binoculars in hand to share the moment we searched for for so many days. No one talked as we stood on deck while Jeffrey inched the David B in close enough to watch the bear. It was a special treat and a huge relief. The bear paid no attention to us as it worked its way along the low tide line of the beach, digging and turning over rocks in search of food. I looked back at Jeffrey just long enough to see him smiling from the bridge deck. We were close enough to watch the bear without binoculars.

For me watching this bear was very special. It was a soft reminder that wildlife does not always cooperate and what we see on TV is a very different experience from what we see, hear, and feel in real life. We all worked hard looking for this bear and because of that work the moment of discovery was really the sweetest.  I will always remember this bear and the smile of Brian’s face when he first spotted it. For him, I hope it was the birthday present he had hoped for; even if it was a day late. Watching bears with Brian, Angela, Jim, and Ann was such a joy because they all seemed to fully appreciate the serendipity of watching bears in the wild.