Our Greatest Fears

My first memory is knives. Millions of them, cutting through my body through every angle. My body sinking and air replaced by water before my life jacket pulls me back to the surface. The current carries me and I glance back toward the canoe, a snapshot burned into my memory. The leaves contrasted with the dark gray of the rocks and river, the mountains with their yearly dusting of termination dust. And the canoe, millions of miles away, my mother clutching the side, her eyes wide with a fear I should feel but don’t. All I feel is a numb detachment, as if I’m watching my body get swept down the Eagle River, my spirit already hovering above, ready to depart.

A splash interrupts my serene drift downstream, the sound comes closer and closer intermixed with the rush of the river and the gurgle of my breath as water and air combine in my mouth and lungs. Seconds later Dad has me in a vice like grip, holding me as high above the water as he can calling for mom and the canoe. Unceremoniously I am dumped, shivering and shaking into the boat, Dad gasping for breath and Mom paddling for the shore as hard as she can.

Years later, my first memory is still the closest I’ve been to my last. Perhaps my free fall down the mountain could qualify, though it likely would have resulted in just shattered limbs and intensive physical therapy. Now, decades removed, I still remember the knives, the frigid water immobilizing my arms and legs, and my mothers face, the look of terror and loss as I drifted away, and Dad’s courageous breaststroke, holding me above the water while he sank deeper.

All that has changed is my own fear and terror. The memory forms a pit in my stomach, my legs weak and mouth dry and drowning has become my greatest fear. Because at some point your body gives in, you stop fighting the current, you stop treading water. Your fatigue becomes greater than your desire to live, and you give in to the unrelenting attack of the ocean. Sinking below the surface your lungs begin to burn, millennia of evolution, screaming at you to open your mouth, to inhale, and eventually, you succumb. But there is no salvation, no relief, just gallons of water rushing in, pulling you deeper and deeper into the dark.

And yet I love the water, live on it, and follow at a fanatical level, the animals that have mastered the medium. I am an oxymoron, drawn to what I fear. As if I believe if I spend my life on it, in it, beneath it, that I will somehow master my fear. But perhaps it’s best if I never do, if I, for the rest of my life, had something holding me back just a little bit. That sensation of terror, for fear often fosters with it, a respect for that which also terrifies us. Reminds us to never underestimate it, take it for granted, or abuse it.

And yet I have seen mans fear of the of the world turned, not into respect, but into anger and violence. Fear the bear? Kill it, for you cannot fear what is exterminated. But with no bears a walk in the woods is no different than a walk down the street. Yet another disconnect from a past that we have already forgotten. Do not fear the wild, or what you don’t understand. Instead see it as an opportunity to grow, expand, change. Shooting a bear with a camera is infinitely more rewarding than with a gun. Killing one from 300 yards and putting it on your wall doesn’t make you a man, an Alaskan, or a bad ass. At least, it shouldn’t.

If we have nothing to fear we have nothing to respect, and if we have nothing to respect we have nothing to hold in awe. And if we have nothing to hold in awe, than what the hell are we doing out here anyway? We may as well move to the city, get real jobs, and refer to the local park as the great outdoors. Yet where is the excitement? The adrenaline? Our connection with the world that had been essential to our survival until just a couple brief centuries ago. It has been replaced by the 800 channel television, 3G networks, and quarter pounders with cheese.

Yet what is more dangerous, the brown bear in the forest or the type two diabetes, high blood pressure, and inevitable heart attack that awaits our constantly growing species. No one is picketing or protesting the quarter pounders or corn syrup laden drinks, calling them murders or killing machines. Perhaps we should implement fast food control much the way we have predator control. Helicopters circling over the golden arches, rifles poised, shooting carryout bags out of the hands of customers. Or for those that insist on fair chase methods, we can just run up behind them and grab the bags from their hands, throwing them to the ground.


Wanderlust Knows No Age

Cindy moves slowly along the rocks, one hand on her cane the other in mine as we move slowly step by step up the tideline. The steps to the guest house are just feet away when we stop for a breather. There is no fear or discomfort on her face, no sound of frustration in her voice. She had come all the way from Houston, Texas, she knew what she was getting herself into. With a determined look, her jaw set, we begin again, down the jagged rock, feet probing for a flat spot laid smooth long ago, past the loose pebbles and with two quick steps, onto the deck. Her face relaxes immediately, a smile spreads across her features. The same look we all must have had when we finally realized we had made it. Her husband Gene follows and together we all climb the stairs into the guest house.

I’ll admit I was nervous. Not just because we were representing Paul and Helena’s life work, though that was reason enough to panic. But because I was still living in the dark and terrible corner of the stereotype. I had met countless couples from Texas, some with huge belt buckles and ten gallon hats as they ambled down the cruise ships gangway. Nearly all were courteous and friendly, that wasn’t my worry. Too many though, wanted to know how much it cost to kill a brown bear. Had I? Why not? Any of these mountains being mined? Tell me about this oil money you guys get every year. I’d find myself morphing into part car salesmen, part street corner evangelist. Trying to explain the non gun toting, non developing appeal of the Alaskan wilderness. That the world would not collapse if the Arctic Refuge remained what it was, a refuge. That shooting bears with a camera was a much more rewarding and intimate experience. And no, I don’t want to discuss any of Alaska’s governors, former or current. The worst was the climate change question. It was phrased the same nearly every time, “do you believe in global warming?” As if it was a religious cult akin to voodoo.

I’d explain that yes, the world is in a natural warming phase but that man kind was helping it along. “It’s like steroids in baseball,” I’d say (it always does come back to baseball). “Barry Bonds didn’t need to take them to hit homers, but it sure helped him.” I’d stare into their faces, as if hoping to see a flashing light bulb appear over their heads. More times than not though, it was a smirk, they’d heard “natural warming phase,” that’s all they needed to hear.

Cindy looks out the window, drinking in Blackney Pass, a humpback surfaces, a sea lion splashes, she looks born again. “I’ve waited 13 years to see this place!”

They had won the two night stay on Hanson Island for their contribution to the June Cove boat fund. And two bad knees and Gene’s replaced hip wasn’t going to stop them. I smile, instantly relaxing, I should have known I suppose. Anyone willing to work this hard to reach this place didn’t deserve to be lumped in with their geographic region. I remember travelling to New Zealand, how I would tell people in the hostels I was American and the reception I received. So I just started saying Alaska, half the people seemed to think that it was part of Canada anyway. I didn’t bother correcting them. Poor Tomoko and Momoko, our fellow volunteers had to have the same nightmare. They were from Japan and any mention of Japan and whales had to instantly lead to an avalanche of embarrassing issues. The Cove, Whale Wars, and the IWC, just to name a few. We were all victims of the stereotypes our homeland depicted. And all guilty of the same assumptions.

We walk into the lab after dinner, the place from which everything they had seen, heard, and read about Hanson Island originated. They move as if they’ve just entered a church, quietly, respectfully. Cindy looks down at the sheet of paper that diagrams the six hydrophones and our location, her fingers tracing the outline of the shore line. I show them where they saw the orcas earlier that day on their way to the lab and all three of us jump as a sea lion throws its whole body out of the kelp just feet from the shore again and again.

Quietly they began to share the stories of their lives. Not about home in Houston, but there travels north. “We just keep winding up going north for some reason.” Cindy says as she admits with a small smile that she picked a programming company not for its competence but because they were based in Vancouver. They were drawn to the same world as us. A world of water too cold to swim in but too beautiful to stay away from. Of islands, strung together like diamonds on a necklace, each hidden cove and bay full of mystery. And of course the whales. They’d seen more of southeast Alaska than I had it turned out and it was my turn to listen greedily of stories from Tenakee and remote lodges on the island of Admiralty.

“We got to Seattle and decided we weren’t ready to go home once,” Cindy recalled, “so I went to the ticket counter and asked for the next flight back to southeast. He wanted to know where I wanted to go, I told him I didn’t care. We’ve been all over, but always independent, we’ve never taken a cruise ship up there,” she proclaims proudly.

“Bless you.” I answer with a smile.

Here were people that found joy and beauty in the same way we did. There bodies may no longer allow them to sleep under the stars on the rocks or among the trees, but they weren’t about to let that stop them from exploring. To stop marvelling at the breath of a humpback, the wing span of an eagle, or the simple and perfect beauty of a sunrise over the water. “I wish we would have started doing stuff like this sooner,” she says, “you two keep exploring, do it while you’re young, there’ll be plenty of time to worry about life later.”

After two short nights here they were gone. Leaving the same way they’d come, determinedly and carefully moving down the rocks and onto the boat. Looking back I wish I would have thanked them for the impact they’d made. The barriers they’d torn down, that it was because of people like them that I loved guiding so much and find myself missing it since they’ve left. I want to share peoples discoveries again. To lead them carefully to the salmon stream with a bear poised on the beach. Around Point Retreat where I know orcas are waiting and turn with a big smile and ask, “you heard of Sea World? Do you want to see how it’s supposed to be.”

And than humbly step aside, my work completed. Allowing the animals, the smells, the sounds, the view to do the rest of the talking for me. Speaking more eloquently, beautifully or convincingly than I could ever dream.

But most importantly they left me with this. The next time I’m working a trip and the couple announces they’re from Texas, I won’t fear their questions on oil, brown bears, or the refuge. Instead I’ll think of Cindy, with tears in her eyes as she talks about watching A37 swim past the lab on what may have been his last night on earth. Of Gene’s insistence that, “we’re just going to stay here forever.” And of the two of them, refusing to let age stand in the way of their adventures, making their way up and down those rocks never wavering, knowing exactly where they want to be.

My Second Birthday

My eyes snap open and my legs kick me out of the sleeping bag. I’m instantly awake, sitting straight up, my head grazing the roof of the tent. Next, to me I can see Dad’s outline, sitting up as well. We both sit motionless, suspended in time. Neither of us speak, we know what we’re listening for. Thirty seconds go by before we hear it again. A series of gunshots retort from the strait just yards from us. The sounds echo off the trees, seeming to bounce off the very sides of our canvas tent. The noise fades, and still neither of us speak, not daring to mention what may be in the water next to us. Something very big is swimming by. Finally, I break the silence.
“I think it’s them.” I whisper. Dad doesn’t answer as the gunshots erupt again, this time we’re both counting. “Seven?” I ask.
“That’s what I had,” he answers, “Two really big ones, and four or five smaller ones.” His affirmation is all I need. I unzip the fly and climb out. The air is heavy with moisture, but it’s not the sticky humidity of the equator. This is the raincoast where precipitation falls daily. The very air seems saturated with it, turning the whole landscape green, making everything grow higher, bigger. But tonight it’s a little clearer and a smattering of stars poke around the clouds. But the moon remains under a blanket of thick cumulus as I grope my way cautiously toward the water’s edge. The strait is still and silent, cloaked in the night, revealing nothing.

I slowly put one foot in front of the other, not entirely sure where the rock ends and the ocean begins. There is no gradual increase in depth, step off the edge and into twenty feet of water. As I creep forward I keep my head up, eyes squinting, staring into the inky blackness. My feet reach the edge and test the tolerance of gravity. I lean as far over the side as I dare, trying to position myself as close to the ocean below as possible. Somewhere, probably less than 300 feet from me is a pod of orca whales.

And in this moment I am born. I fall to my knees, the carved rock digging into my legs. But I am in a place beyond a little discomfort in my bones. It took nearly two decades but I’d found my home. The damp chill, the smell of the forest, and the noise of these orcas as they surface infuse my whole body. The moment spins into my very DNA, I am where I belong.
All I have are my ears and I cup and orientate them every which way, not wanting to miss a thing. I want to stay here, frozen in time forever. People could come and go as they wish, seasons could change, as long as I’m permitted to stay. As my life spins and refocuses, part of me slowly dies. The basketball scholarship is suddenly irrelevant. College in general transforming from opportunity and necessity to pointless obstacle. I have everything I’d ever want or need right here. A tent, wilderness, ocean, whales. Rich beyond my wildest dreams.
Silently I beg the whales to come closer, to break the surface within my sight. But a family of orcas has a much higher calling than the desires of a boy leaning over the rocks that they’ve swam past for generations. As the blows grow faint I let the darkness and whales envelope me, change me. I sit on the rocks trying to catch every last sound, holding onto the dream of seeing them long after they’ve passed. Their breathing now barely audible over the lapping waves.
* * *
The water is fifty degrees, 500 feet deep, and rolling beneath me. Yet I feel safe, entombed in fiberglass. The Necky kayak stretches seven feet ahead of me and another seven behind. She is a blinding, pupil wrecking, turquoise color. But after four days on the water I feel confident with a paddle in hand working my way up and down Johnstone Strait, British Columbia.

We’ve barely left the beach when the rain begins anew. For three days the sky has rotated between gray and drab gray. We’re surrounded by water. Salt from below, fresh from above. The rain jacket has become a permanent accessory and those of us in the kayak tour have begun to recognize one another by the color of our rain gear. But I’m dry, or at least would be if I’d wiped out the cockpit of my boat. The puddle of water from last nights rain finds the wool lining of my pants and slowly begins to saturate it, the water greedily sucking at my body heat, leaving my skin cold and blue.
But no matter. It’s my last day in the strait and I intend on drinking as much of it as I can. Our group inches out of the small cove we’ve camped in. The place is nothing more than a tiny pinprick, a comma in the novel that is the shoreline of Cracroft Island. I’m not sure I could find it today if I tried. How is it that I have been here only days and it already feels as if I’ve known this place my whole life? The orcas have been absent since they crept by two nights ago. And now the boat to take us back to the world is on its way. Time is running out.
I glance east down the strait and my heart stops. I blink and it’s vanished. But if it’s already gone, than it must have been… and the fin appears. Tall and proud, like a sword being pulled from it’s sheath it rises. Higher and higher into the air, pulling a smooth jet black body out of the water. The orca’s blowhole snaps open and the exhalation ricochets off the cove, the trees, the mountains, my ears. His two brothers appear behind him, gliding past the kayaks, indifferent to our presence. That’s fine, I’d have all the time in the world for them.
* * *
The light fades and the islands across the channel become silhouettes. Seven years and three miles north of that soggy August day, I’m still here, another summer in Johnstone Strait. I’m not with a kayak group this time but working at a research lab, appropriately christened Orca Lab. A scruffy beard is physically all that’s changed from the wide eyed boy crouched on the rocks. Though, I have a porch to sit on now; no sore knees for me. Basketball is far behind me, college too, as I’d spent years trying to find anything that compared to hovering in the darkness, waiting for them. But it always came back to where it started: Johnstone Strait.

The last vestiges of sun disappear, the water becoming almost invisible. As if they’ve been waiting for darkness, the sound of gunshots reach me for the countless time. The blows come rapidly, too quick and numerous to count. The sounds of the orcas interlace with the array of life in the water before me. In front of the lab, dolphins splash, sea lions roar, humpbacks trumpet, and gulls squawk.

Like the pod that passed as phantoms in the night years ago, they have little time for me. Like this place they are wild and untamed. They have taught me it’s okay to feel the same. That I’d rather be here than have a career. That waking to squirrels dropping pine cones on your tent is much better than a neighbors music. That coffee and oatmeal on intertidal rocks beats an hour long commute. That warm running water, washers, and corner stores are overrated luxuries. That here I can be myself. That this is my home, born and raised.

The pod weaves through the throng of marine life and continues south, heading for the same tiny cove where it all began. I listen to them slowly fade away, leaving me with the sea lions and humpbacks splashing and diving in the night. And still, after years of whales swimming past, in sunshine and in rain, I can’t pull myself away just yet. My sleeping bag is waiting, beckoning just feet away. But I’m not ready to stop listening to the symphony of animals playing in front of me. They pulled me out of my tent seven years ago and they can still do it every time they pass. There’s a magic to hearing them in the dark, bringing me back to the night of my birth. Seven years ago all I wanted was to see them. But now something has changed. Now I’d be content just to listen forever. With all the light stripped away, leaving me in the total darkness. Where all I need are ears.

Why Do They Only Breach Close at Night?

We may have to change the name of the blog. It hasn’t rained since we got here. After driving off the ferry in Nanaimo in a torrential downpour, it has been sun and blue sky ever since. It’s wonderful to sit on the deck in just a t-shirt as mid September approaches, though I’m already bracing myself for the inevitable monsoon  that I’m sure is coming. The raincoast has brainwashed me. Even when the sun shines, I’m sure mama nature is just piling up additional rain to make up for it. See what you’ve done to me Juneau!

There is the small problem as well as the water pressure in the sink has noticeably gotten weaker and weaker in the past few days. All our fresh water is gravity fed from a spring, connected by a never ending tube of garden hoses that wind their way up a hill and through the spruce and cedar trees. There’s just five of us here and any bathing is done via the salt water tub, so fortunately we’re not using much right now. Nevertheless, a nice steady day of rain would help me breathe a little easier.

All has descended into relative quiet though. It has been nearly 24 hours since the orcas called, they’re somewhere to the north, suddenly reclusive and introverted after two weeks of tracing the shorelines of Johnstone and Blackfish. The water feels empty without them. Chelsea and I did seem them yesterday on the way into Alert Bay on the weekly pilgrimage to civilization for food and beer. Relaxed and at peace with the world, the A30s and A42s traced back in forth off the north end of Swanson Island near a place called Bold Head. We couldn’t resist stopping to watch. The contrast was shocking. Counting us three boats floated off the island, watching the two pods. I thought back to what whale watching was like in Juneau when someone saw a six foot dorsal fin. The never ending parade of boats, in a mob like blood thirsty consumers on black Friday. For a moment I felt guilty as I watched A38 rise to the surface off our bow, even from 100 yards he looked massive.  After all, I’d been part of it, had taken every opportunity to see the orcas when I could, because, try as I might, I just couldn’t look away. But here there was no ethical battle being waged inside. We were just one of three instead of thirty. We watched the families rise and fall for a few minutes and continued on our way.

Even the humpbacks have slowed down, after a week that saw double breaches and a even one surfacing in the cove just feet from shore, their prey must have shifted. But last night, as the tide ebbed and Brittney and I sat in the cabin, a sound like thunder roared from the ocean fifty feet away. There was only one thing that could make water sound like that. We stood on the deck as the moon broke the clouds, illuminating a single strip of the black water below, and a shadow, darker even than the ocean rose. The humpback’s blow echoed off the islands and we could just make out the back as it arched and pulled the flukes into the air. A minute passed before as silent as the night itself, there came a great rush, a blow, and the humpback flew out of the water, its silhouette framed by Parson Island across the pass, the frothy white splash illuminated beautifully in the dark leaped twenty feet in the air as gravity pulled the whale back to the surface. Just another small moment of joy in the world of Hanson Island.

There’s little planned between now and the 16th of September when we go from care takers and volunteers, to hosts. Throughout the year, Paul and Helena have been fund raising by offering what they call, “perks.” Donate X dollars, get a CD of orca calls. Donate 5X (see, algebra!) and get a trip to Orca Lab. Cindy and Gene put up 5X, and decided September 16th-18th would be the best time to visit. Paul and Helena politely explained that they’d be out of the country still at the IWC. “That’s ok,” they said.

Well than. Hopefully the whales come back and make an appearance for a few days, because theres only so many times we can show them the cedar trees and rubbing beach videos. Of course, if you’re willing to travel all this way, I’m willing to bet you’re perfectly happy to sit in what will still hopefully be sunny weather and watch the humpbacks, sea lions, and harbour seals cruise slowly back and forth in front of you. The night before they left, Paul  and Helena gave us a list of tasks and chores to keep the lab running in their absence as well as food and dinner ideas for when our guests arrived.

As the sun set and darkness claimed the living room and everyone began to clear the table, I asked the question I’d been meaning to for days. “These people that are coming,” I ask, “where are they from.”

Helena pauses for a moment, “the U.S,” she answers.

Something in her answer makes press further. “What state?”

A wry smile crosses her lips, Paul lets out a little chuckle. “Texas,” she answers.




The wisdom’s in the trees. Not the glass windows.

In a place where the earth moves slow and meticulously, the heaviness of my breath and the quick pace of my feet seem all too intrusive. As much as I try to steady my breathing and move with grace, I find that my feet get caught up in the rocks and stumps that thrust out from the soil. I fix my pace and tell myself to breathe, to listen. I know from my yoga practice how much more I gain when I learn to quiet my mind and breathe.

For all too long running has been anything but a spiritual practice. I’ve used it simply as a tool to improve the structure of my body. It has almost always been a way for me to compete with my former self, who I was the day before. How many calories can I burn today? How many more miles can I go? And through these thoughts, I learned to love the act of running. I’ve always enjoyed that inner competition.

But not today. Today there was no need for keeping track of time, miles, or calories. Today I found myself in the presence of Grandma Cedar. She is the oldest and wisest soul on this island. I stopped upon sight of her and stood in amazement. As I sat at her roots, she said to me “Granddaughter, let your breath be still. Listen. What do you hear?” I closed my eyes and touched her bark. All of a sudden my ears began to flood with sounds. Not the sounds that I’m used to though. There were no traces of highways or cyclists. There was only the forest. As I listened closer, I could hear Grandma Cedar growing just as she has for the past 1000 years.

As I closed my eyes tighter, I could here her gently whispering to me, “Here, you are perfect. This moment and all of the moments after are perfect. Steady your breath and clear your mind. You have much to learn, my granddaughter.”

God’s Cathedral

There is a place on the island where you can see history. Feel it travel through your feet, up your spine, sending tingles down your arms. You travel back a thousand years in the blink of an eye and remained rooted hundreds of years before Columbus even considered leaving. And yet all is quiet and still, the words whispered. The story and message imagined and interpreted within. The walk to the time machine is a short one. Winding through stands of rebellious young Hemlocks, shrouded in the shade of their brothers above, crawling year by year upward. I’ll be long gone by the time they see the sun. Here and there a strand of blue is wrapped around a tree, the words, “culturally modified” scrawled across it. They are not the largest, but they are the most important. The historical importance of these trees to the Namgis first nations people has saved the island from logging, a tiny shrine to the old growth stripped by the mountainside on Vancouver Island just a few miles away.

For all her size you don’t see her until you hop the stream, round the final corner, and the shadow towers above you. 12 feet in diameter, hundreds of feet high, she is more impressive than any building any architect could create. The land around her base is bare, her children, teenage trees, shurbs, and huckleberry rise up nearby in the protective shadow of her arms. All is still, the silence so complete you can hear mosquitoes on the other side of the clearing. It’s like walking into a church, you speak in whispers, move quietly, sit down silently. Holier than any church man could conceive. Gods first and true temple, standing, waiting to be worshiped in for a mellinium. Grandma cedar is the pulpit the trees her congregation, it would be arrogant to call us angels.

Everyone I take to see her has the same reaction. Visitors, cameraman, authors, journalists, stare upwards, mouth open, their necks craning farther and farther back, searching for the peak of her branches. Again and again the photographer falls to the floor turning his camera this way and that, trying every conceivable angle in a vain attempt to capture the beauty and tranquility of the scene. Every glance at the LCD screen leaves him shaking his head, hands running through his hair, than back to the forest floor for another attempt.

While the light reflects bright and harsh off the water a quarter mile away, here it is soft and green, the eyes and mind relax, and you drift to a time before anyone knew this existed. The clearing transforms and a sheet of ice replaces the trees. Creaking and groaning it moves, imperceptibly, year after year, resignedly giving way to bedrock, slate, and erratics. It drops a massive rock near the cove, an erratic that will someday be the wall of my home. Water fills the passes and straits that will become the homes of salmon and seal, humpback and herring. Grandma cedar begins to grow. When exactly is not important, what’s 100 years when we’re speaking of thousands? As she rises she sees and hears all. She sees the Namgis settle and camp. Catching salmon and seals, revering the orca and raven. There songs and fires echo and reflect off her face, the jumping light and songs drifting across what would someday be Blackney Pass. They may war with each other but they are at peace with nature. She sees the otter, the humpback, the people, obliterated, her landscape changed forever. Her kinfolk felled to make wooden tables like the one I write on now. The hypocrisy burns as I sit in a house made entirely of wood.

She sees a man in a kayak, a flute at his side, paddle into the cove at her feet. He walks to the erratic on the beach, running his hands down the cool stone, an image born in his head. A house appears, than another, yet the structures seem to melt into the forest. Wrapped in the cloak of grandma’s congregation. People come and go in the following years, nothing more than a fleeting second in her eyes. But whoever touches the shore is brought before her, to pay their respects, honor the matriarch of the forest and remember where we have come from. She changes lives without an audible word. She speaks in riddles, symbolism, and nothing more. The message you take away is the one you are looking for.

And now I stand before her, staring up at the tips of her branches that seem to reach to the heavens. Touch her trunk, feel her age, her power, a talisman of the past. Of how things were, how things can be if we allow them to. I fall to my knees, in silent worship and thanks for this place. For Muir had his glacier, Heacox has his kayak, and I have this island.

We’ll Sleep in November

Orcas have no concept of day and night. And as I wrote earlier this summer, sitting up, in the perfect darkness as calls echo through the headphones can be beautiful. Especially if you know in two hours you can crawl into a sleeping bag and sleep, knowing you don’t need to be back at the lab for eight hours. This is the luxury of Orca Lab in August, when there’s eight of you splitting shifts and ensuring nobody gets overworked and run into the ground. For a few days in late August and early September there were two, yes two, volunteers remaining as school drove most of the summer volunteers back to the city. Naturally, the northern residents decide that this would be the perfect time to start calling around the clock. For four days Tomoko and Momoko, both from Japan, were recording constantly, trading off every couple hours to eat, sleep, and than put the headphones back on.

So when myself, Brittney, and a girl named Chelsea arrived relief seemed to be in sight, kind of. As nice as it would be to be able to just sit down, fiddle with the soundboard, and immediately learn exactly how to follow a pod of orcas through a maze of six hydrophones, it’s not quite that easy. There’s a learning curve to understand what you’re hearing, on what hydrophone, and how to minimize that blasted boat noise. All while filling in the log book, and maybe operating a remote camera. And that learning curve gets even steeper at 3am when you’re wiping sleep from your eyes and trying to remember if you heard that last call in your left headphone or right. So for the first few days, nights fell to Tomoko, Momoko, and I. I’d doze from 10-11, get up, and drag myself back to the lab, Brittney tagging along to practice. From 11-2 we’d sit, perched on the high seats in the lab, straining our ears for orca. Nearly every night they’d arrive and the orca filled hours went by quickly. The orca free ones snailed by as you listened to the same tug chug slowly up Johnstone Strait knowing that it would pass from one hydrophone to the next over the next two hours. We’re back up at eight and at the lab as we tried to give Tomoko and Momoko the break they so richly deserved after days of sleep deprivation.

But for the two of us, the lab was just a fraction of our to do list. Since we’re going to be here for the winter, we couldn’t just know how to record and listen to whales. Our quick lesson in Orca Lab 101 was accelerated due to the fact that Paul and Helena left yesterday for two and a half weeks to attend the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting in Europe. Being off the grid we don’t have the luxury of flipping a heater on, turning on the hot water tap, or running to the store for the butter we forgot to grab. If you want to be warm through the night you’d better be able to make a hot (and efficient) fire. Baking a loaf of bread means coaxing a wood stove to life and somehow knowing when it’s 350 degrees. A shower means heating water in the iron bath tub outside for four hours. And if you forgot something at the store, you’ll just have to find a way to live without it because it’s a 90 minute round trip by boat.

And yet, as I found myself handling the chainsaw, learning the safest route to town, and habitually checking the temperature in the house to make sure that it was warm enough for the pets I began to find it incredibly rewarding. Never before had turning the heat on or running to the store for lettuce felt so good. If anything they were burdens, born out of necessity. But all of that changes out here, where you are directly responsible for everything you need. Heat isn’t provided by some mythical source that pipes through those grates in your floor. It comes from the log you cut, split, and stacked, you’re there for every step and it gives you a new found appreciation for something as simple as keeping the house warm.

For many it may seem backwards, after all, we’re in many ways living the way people would have one hundred years ago (with some obvious technological exceptions: chainsaw, wireless internet, refrigerators, four stroke engines). Society has advanced, why would you want to go backwards? Maybe progress is overrated. We’ve lost touch with the origins of what we eat, how we stay warm, and where we came from. And are we really better off now than we were?

It’s obviously not a black and white answer. I’m very happy with the fact that I will never have to worry contracting the black plague or typhoid fever and that even in this remote location I know that the Vikings won yesterday 34-6. I don’t think everyone should drop everything, sell whatever doesn’t fit into a Nissan Pathfinder and head for the woods. I don’t have the world figured out and hope I never do. But there is value in reconnecting with the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter, and playing a part in their acquisition besides running a credit card or turning a dial. There’s a beautiful simplicity in this, even if there is a ton of work that goes into maintaining it. I am supremely confident it is much less stressful than sitting in two hours of rush hour traffic.

After a crazy first four days on the island, following a crazy four days getting to the island, things finally seem to have slowed down. Wood is stockpiled, everyone’s fridge is full, and Brittney and Chelsea are handling the lab side of things splendidly. So last night, after heating salt water in the bath tub on the rocks outside all day, I climbed in, looking out over Blackney Pass as a humpback criss crossed in front of the cove. My adoring wife even brings me a beer (God I love her) and I lean back in the most magnificent hot tub ever conceived by man. In the cities of the world I’m sure there are some very happy, very satisfied people. But I contend, that for those blissful thirty minutes, no one on earth was happier than me.

The Last 500 Miles

It has been a four day tornado of awesome. Starting with Jonathan and Marissa flying to Seattle and somehow, in 96 hours cramming a soccer match, multiple concerts, packing, cleaning, driving, and boat riding. After hearing more live music in two days than I had, maybe in my life time we said good bye to the two of them at 11 pm on September 1st, and prepared for the alarm set to go off at 5:30. Bleary eyed, hungry, and under caffeinated, we crammed the pets and as much junk as we could fit into the pathfinder. After talking of little else for a year we finally began the final journey north. By 8:30, we were nearing the Canadian border, a knot growing in my stomach as we pulled up to an open booth and hand over our passports. The woman’s eyes narrow as I try to explain in a semi coherent manner, exactly what we would be doing in her country. After much writing, nodding, and cryptic questioning, she hands us a slip of paper. “Pull your car over to the side and give this paper to the officer.”

Not that I was surprised, wouldn’t drug smugglers have some story about house sitting for several months? With little choice we drop Porter in Penny’s cage, pray that he behaves himself, and walk into the border building. Where, I get to explain again, what the hell we’re doing. “What’s the name of the guy you’re house sitting for?” The guy behind the counter asks.

I take my eyes off the massive hand gun on his belt. “Paul Spong,” I answer, “he runs the research lab we’ll be walking.”

He scribbles, “and if I do a web search, will he come up?”

“He has his own wikipedia page,” I say. Brittney laughs nervously, the guy however, is not impressed. My humor never seems to pass mountie muster. After reiterating again the location and explaining that yes, technically we’re unemployed, and have been now for a length of time I’m ashamed to admit. We’re mercifully free to go.

We speed north, power sliding into the Tsawassen (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) ferry dock with five minutes to spare. We have two glorious hours to sleep and eat before the ferry hits Nanaimo on Vancouver Island at 12:15. And so begins another race. We have to be in Port McNeil by 5:15 to catch the ferry to Alert Bay to meet Paul to get a ride to the island on five hours of sleep and borderline delirium. We pass through a rain storm and into brilliant sunshine, reaching Port McNeil in golden late afternoon light with thirty minutes to spare. As we wait in line for our second ferry ride of the day, I stare at the white caps in the harbor. It looks rough. The ferry steams us into Alert Bay. Fatigue slowly beginning to set in, after two mosh pits and far to little sleep, interrogations, and a race up Vancouver Island we still had one more boat ride to go, with the pets of course, still in tow.

We reach Alert Bay with one goal in mind; find Paul. I look out toward the government dock as we slowly drive down the main road. There’s no sign of the silver June Cove. Actually there’s no boats at all. The dock is being pounded by waves making the whole structure swing side to side. There’d be no begging for directions at the information centre this time though. We drive straight to Paul’s house to find him in the kitchen. Calmly toasting bread and cheese, a polite look of surprise on his face as we stagger in the door, exhausted smiles on our faces. He hugs both of us and explains the water is far to rough to reach the island today. 12 hours after starting, we’re both fine with that. We throw a tent up in the yard and curl exhausted into our sleeping bags, Porter curled between us.

Now, for the first time in three months, we are settled. All four of us. There has been a lot of odd and peculiar things brought to Hanson Island since Paul first moved here in the early 70s, but I’m pretty confident in claiming that we are the first people to haul a rabbit cage off the boat and onto the rocks. In the chaos that was unloading the June Cove I failed to take a picture of what had to be a confused and shell shocked Penny, perched on her back legs ears up and eyes wide open as she rotated on the spot, the sea breeze blowing through her hair. As she always seems to though, she took everything in stride, if she ever panicked she certainly didn’t show it.

How I wish we could say the same for Porter. A healthy dose of kennel anxiety left us to terrified to put him in his own air kennel for fear of the unspeakable mess he is loath to create every time we try to cram him in one. We settled on putting him in Penny’s house with her for the 45-minute boat ride from Alert Bay to Hanson Island. Before the boat even left the dock, he peed. Two minutes after, well, you can probably guess what he did next. We dumped him rather unceremoniously in the guest house that will be our home for the coming winter with explicit directions to where his litter box was and he hasn’t stopped purring since. Whether he truly loves the house, or is simply ecstatic to be off the terrifying aquatic spaceship I honestly don’t know.

Our little cabin is magnificent. The cabin, also known as, “Yashi’s” after Paul’s son, sits just above the intertidal zone, with a small scattering of trees between the deck and the ocean. Giant bay windows on the ground floor open up to gorgeous Blackfish Sound with the usual activity of the neighbors; humpbacks, sea lions, and orcas. Come night time though the windows become somewhat less glamorous as they’re far to happy to let the heat out and the chill in. A tiny stairway lined with the expected orca paraphernalia of paintings and sculptures leads to the bed room whose small windows also look out over Blackfish.

Within two hours of hitting the beach and dropping the pets in the house, the main event arrived. For Brittney it was the first orcas she’d seen in a year and they didn’t disappoint. Plodding slowly against the tide the A30s and A42s paraded by, one hundred yards from the shore. Escorted by Pacific White Sided dolphins and humpbacks tracing back and forth0 on the far side of the channel. At long last everything was perfect. The wait, the driving, and the planning was all behind us now. As the A30s rose to the surface, fin after fin rising and falling I turned to Brittney with a grin, “don’t think it’s always this easy.”