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.