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.