A Terrifying Fascination

Game 7 of the world series has ended and I lay on the couch listening to the wind outside, contemplating going to bed. Another strong gust hits and the windows begin to tremble, the town run we have planned for tomorrow isn’t looking very promising. I stretch and yawn, glancing across the room at our rabbit, Penny. She’s already curled up on her bed, 12 hours of sleep clearly wasn’t enough for her. I’m ready to do the same when the speaker on the shelf above the sink changes everything.

Usually when orcas start calling it’s distant, subtle, a mere whisper as they enter the range of the hydrophone. That first call makes you pause, stop, and listen, unsure whether you really heard something or just imagined it. This time of year there’s always the debate of whether it’s a humpback or an orca calling, especially at night when the humpbacks do the majority of their singing. Tonight there was no debate, no passive listening, no questioning whether I had actually heard something or not. Calls erupt through the speaker, loud and excited, overlapping one another. It’s definitely not a humpback, and I’ve never had a residents call make my blood run cold. It’s transients, the phantoms, masters of stealth, who never utter a sound and yet concoct elaborate and ingenious methods of tracking and hunting down their prey; seals, sea lions, dolphins, and porpoise. But for once they’re aren’t quiet, whatever they’ve just eaten must have been delicious and they’re calling just as loud as their resident counterparts do.

By the time I reach the lab and punch the record button the calls have reached a fevered pitch, maybe it’s knowing what these creatures are capable of, what I’d seen them do in the past that made them sound so eerie. But to me, their happy calls will always remind me of the laughter of some villain in a movie. Sadistic, high pitched, the type of joy you can take no pleasure in, that nothing good could come out of them being so happy. I’m sure the sea lions and harbor seals would agree with me. But their calls, were not altogether unfamiliar to me. I’d heard this before.

I was supposed to be studying the humpbacks of Glacier Bay, but my orca obsessed reputation had long ago preceded me. So when the orca whale biologist, Dena Matkin recorded and documented the first known sea otter fatality by a transient in southeast Alaska, she graciously shared the recording with me. As she hit play and the calls begin to reverberate off the walls of the office, everyone froze, maybe its because we knew what the whales had just done, maybe it was something else, but it gave us all goosebumps. Now, four years later they elicited the same response from me. Fear, horror, and fascination, everything, after all, must eat I reminded myself the same way I had gently told my passengers that day on the whale watching boat.

The sky is blue, the ocean of Icy Strait incredibly flat. Two hours out from Juneau, our 33-foot whale watching boat, the Islander, cuts a slow and methodical path east towards home. Off our port are six orcas, calm and relaxed they too, make their way east. I stand at the bow relieved, ten excited passengers on the boat with me. But right now I’ve transformed from tour guide to burgeoning nature photographer. A splash right below the bow pulls my attention away from the pod. A group of Dall’s porpoise materialize right below the surface, riding our wake. The resident or transient debate ended. Surely, if they were transients over there, the porpoise would not be so willing to ride the waves. I glance back at the orcas, staring intently at the dorsal, trying to decide if they were pointed enough to possibly be transients. I look to check on the porpoises, they’re gone, and a scream comes from behind me.

The orcas had closed the distance to the boat in two heartbeats and rocketed out of the water on the other side of us. The porpoise were already gone, streaking away from the hard charging orcas. With no hesitation, our boat captain throws the boat in gear, trying to keep pace with this daily dance of the food chain playing out right in front of us. The boat barely bounces on the calm seas and I hold the camera to my eye, trying to follow the action. The Islander’s going 32 knots, and both species are outrunning us. The whales bear down on the fleeing porpoise, spreading out, trying to flank them and cut off their escape.

On the boat there’s chaos, the engine roaring, passengers screaming, the voice of my friend and boat captain, T, screaming at me, “get the shot, David! You better get that shot!” Without warning, the two orcas in the middle of the chase leap high into the air, their white bellies reflecting in the high summer sun. They jump again and again, trying to pin the porpoise beneath their massive bodies. The strength, power, and speed with which they reacted was amazing, awe inspiring. As quickly as it began, it’s over, the orcas suddenly milling, flashing back and forth over the same spot, the surviving porpoise still swimming as fast as they can. We come to a stop and bob at the surface again. Adrenaline pounds through my body and my fingers shake as I scroll through the photos, a few of them showing one of the whales frozen in time forever above the surface of the ocean.

“The sheer power of the scene amazed me….. I had until now, never realized the true power of the killer whale. I sat there feeling amazed and blessed that the orcas never loosed this power on humans.” – Alexandra Morton521617_10152100638914852_1036290620_n

An Unexpected Hiking Partner

The wind howls and the waves charge, crashing against the shoreline, shooting up the steep edges of the cove before slowly draining back into the ocean, preparing for another attempt. But a quarter mile away in the woods, the sounds are muffled, the wind denied entrance by the protective arms of the trees. The only evidence of the winds raging up and down Blackney Pass is the rustle and swaying of the treetops towering high above. And the three of us yes, three, myself, Brittney, and Porter the cat tromp deeper into the forest. Away from the wind and waves and into the serenity that only the forest can give.

It had been Brittney’s idea originally. After all, the massive windows of our cabin overlooked the ocean and the forest, and poor Porter had been desperate to step outside and meet the squirrels and birds for himself. We’d tried the same thing two summers ago when Brittney was a kayak guide in Gustavus, and Porter had, after earning her trust, vanished without a trace for five stressful days. He was found just two streets over, hunkered down in somebodies wood shed. We decided he had a crummy sense of direction. But it now seemed unfair to be surrounded by this untouched land and confine him to the cabin every day, so she started to take him outside. And something funny happened, he started to follow her, like a dog would follow you when you go hiking. And just like that we had the most peculiar and unlikely hiking buddy imaginable. A nine pound cat willing to hop over logs, scale massive glacial erratics, and bound through the velvety club moss like he’d been doing it his whole life.

Just a mile beyond the ocean, the sounds of the storm vanish completely. The temperature rises, and it’s tempting to just collapse into the downy soft moss and stare up into the trees forever. The forest has been allowed to grow for so long, unhindered by logging that the undergrowth completely disappears, the shrubs unable to gain a foothold thanks to the selfish fir and cedar above, devouring the sunlight.

The whole land used to be like this. The forests of Cracroft, Vancouver Island, and the Broughton Archipelago sported massive trees and a maze of trails beneath leaving passage for man and cougar, deer and bear. Hanson Island was spared, thanks to the collective effort of many, and I whispered a word of thanks as I climb over a fallen log, tiny hemlocks growing stubbornly on it’s trunk, yearning to be like their idols above. There is something refreshing and healing about these old forests.

While the ocean is constantly ebbing, flooding, and crashing against the land, the forest is nearly always still. The ocean changes suddenly, sometimes without warning. The forest is gradual, methodical, in no hurry at all. Secrets fall to the bottom of the sea, vanishing from sight as they plummet downward. The forest is an open book, its stories and tales remaining visible for centuries. They are the ying and yang of ecosystems, and yet they compliment each other perfectly with forests protecting salmon streams. The trees are rewarded by the precious nutrients the salmon return with and give back to the forest as their bodies decay. A perfect thank you gift for guarding their stream.

A massive cedar tree lays on its side, stretching for dozens of feet in each direction. Even in death you can still picture how proud it must have been in life, towering over the island, looking out over Blackfish Sound like a sentinel. You can almost hear the final crack and crash it made as it finally surrendered to gravity and plummeted to the moss below, the impact echoing in your ears. Decay has set in, and the bark peals away in my hands, falling through my fingers like sand. But on the trunk sit more tiny hemlocks, taking advantage of the light now penetrating the canopy. As the cedar falls, it ensures more life will follow, clearing a hole for the sun, allowing the saplings to grow. The next generation of the old growth forest.

Porter sees none of this, he just weaves through the hemlocks, meandering to the end of the cedar and with a nimble leap, lands on the moss below, his big blue eyes darting everywhere, ears orientating to every crack and whisper of the wind. The wind howls above us again, this time with more force, and the trees sway ominously, the forest suddenly full of creaking as trunks rub against each other. I feel the first rain drop fall down the back of my neck. The wind gusts again as we head for home. Even the forest isn’t impervious to forty knot winds.

Hunkering Down

The internet has returned. After scaling trees, swapping transmitters, and bushwhacking a new trail through a jungle that would do the Jurassic period proud, we have returned to the 21st century. It was something simple, it always seems to be with technological nightmares like these. So now we won’t have to trouble with 15 minute boat rides through three foot swells, praying that the weather holds long enough for Brittney to do her homework. After weeks of frustration, cursing, and gnashing of teeth, Paul announced the breakthrough much too casually, opening our door and quietly saying, “we have a connection,” before walking away as quickly as he came. Though now with the internet working I don’t know what we’ll talk about, brainstorming possible solutions has dominated our conversations for the last month. Our wood pile is full, the gas tanks are filled, and the stress of making it to Cracroft Point every day is gone. Perhaps now we can finally start to answer the question we’ve been trying to answer for a year, “what are you going to do all winter.”

The humpbacks continue to commute back and forth in front of the lab, and will for at least a couple more weeks so they’ll continue to keep us busy and entertained. We’ve come to know many of them well in the past two months; Ridge, Guardian, Inunkshunk, Ripple, Conger, and KC. The ocean will seem empty when they’re gone. The rest of the animal kingdom seems mostly unaffected by the oncoming winter months. Massive flocks of gulls continue to dive bomb innocent schools of herring, sometimes in numbers so thick the surface of the ocean becomes a white blur, their squawks and yells drowning out even the sea lions. The sea lions and seals will still trace the shoreline poking into and out of the coves, a constant hunt for the chum salmon that continue to resolutely run through Blackney Pass and into Johnstone Strait.

Besides snooping into the business of pinnipeds and gulls, I plan on spending a lot of time trying to stay warm by any means necessary. Tea, fire, Bailey’s and coffee, I’m sure we’ll try all of them before the winter is up. Besides that I’ll continue to write, try to read the while Alert Bay library, and follow the various Minnesota sports teams as they all finish in last place, again. It’s surreal to think about the fact that for the first time since I was five, I’m faced with a winter with no real obligations. No school, no job, nothing. There’ll be work around here of course, chopping wood, keeping the electronics going, praying to God the internet doesn’t explode again. But it’s hard to think of these as work when they’re tied to your survival.

Yet this is what we set out to do. To immerse ourselves in the challenge, the joy, and the beauty that surrounds us. Even when the fog clings to the islands until they disappear and the rain falls with no end in sight, this place still glows. It’s hard to imagine living in a city after a couple months here. Perhaps by the time the humpbacks return and the orcas call again I’ll have the novel written I’ve always wanted to complete. Maybe I’ll have mastered a yoga pose besides child’s pose. Perhaps I’ll manage not to drive Brittney completely crazy. Whatever happens, I want to come out changed and I hope it’s for the better.

Nothing Better

Rain streaks the windows, a melodious tap marks the origin of the leak near the fireplace. In the loft it’s cold, the fire’s warming prescence muffled by the stairs and small hallway. Above is the muffled pounding of millions of rain drops, waging an unceasing battle to break through the roof like their brethren traveling down the chimney. With great effort I pull myself out of bed, the chill sapping my body of the heat the blanket provided. But it’s at least five degrees warmer downstairs where the fire still smolders, hot coals glowing behind the window. I throw another log on the fire and check the temperature. 18.3 degrees celsius, not bad for a stormy 2 am. I remind myself that it’s only the beginning, that it’s going to get a lot colder before it gets warmer. Penny’s house is wrapped in Brittney’s 5 degree down sleeping bag, she might be warmer than any of us. Though Porter looks pretty content curled on the couch in front of the fire, nose buried in his fury paws.

The leak isn’t bad, just a slow but steady drip where the wood finish of the house meets the stone pillar of the chimney. But my common sense isn’t awake even if my body is, and I finally just put every pot from the kitchen at the base of the chimney. Let the drips fall where they may, some of them have to hit stainless steel.

It has become our nightly routine, the alarm going off every two or three hours. Get up, slip downstairs, check the temperature, fuel the fire, go back to bed. We’re long past the days of turning a dial for warmth, fiberglass insulation nonexistent, I prefer it this way. Because come morning there will be no commute, no time clock, no “I have tos.” I climb the stairs, every other step creaking, a stomping like a herd of elephants behind me announces that the cat has decided to move upstairs too. I crawl back under the down comforter, the rain pounds even harder. Porter curls up on Brittney’s pillow, almost smothering her face.

Our east facing windows stream early morning light into our room. A rouge sun beam storms through the thin curtains and crawls up the bed. But if there’s sun the storm may be over. The scattered clouds are ablaze with golds and reds as the sun slowly moves above the mountains on Vancouver Island. A whisper comes from the speaker connected to the hydrophone system next to our bed. Three pods of orcas past through in front of the lab yesterday but didn’t make a sound. They rose in a perfect resting line, a phalanx of fins rising and falling as one. Sixteen orcas in all, and not a boat to be seen anywhere. The boy in me wanted to get closer, to follow them for awhile, but I could find no justification for it. They’ve waited months to have the strait to themselves, let them have it.

The whisper grows, delicate ‘pings,’ begin to echo through the speakers, the trademark call of the G pods. Brittney is up like a shot, without a backward glance she runs for the lab while I’m still looking for socks. What have I done to her? I brew coffee, feed the pets, and listen as the calls come closer and closer, the bright red clouds streaking across the heavens, reflecting into a pink sky above. The water is flat as a pond, it’s going to be a glorious day.

Face to Face

A seal bobs in the shallows of the cove next to our house. Floating silently, big wide eyes fixed on the rocks and washed up logs in the back of the cove. Where there’s seals there’s usually fish and I rush out the door, grabbing the net leaning against the wall that we always have close at hand. I pick my way down the beach, stepping and sliding over logs, their surfaces slick with rain. I clamber over one and try to push myself up, my hand slips, coming away with some nasty slime coating my palm. But after wearing the same pants for a week a little tree slime seems irrelevant and I wipe it on my pants leg.

The fish love to take shelter in the shallows, even huddling under the logs when they float on the high tide. It’s an aquatic Easter egg hunt and I peer under log after log, looking for a dark shadow, a burst of blue, a hint of silver. I find nothing as I near the far side of the cove. I look out over the water, the seal has vanished like a phantom beneath the waves. There are no sea lions, no humpbacks, just the lapping of the waves. I balance on a floating log and continue to pry the water with my eyes, the net held loosely at my side. The rain that has been falling for three days begins again, and with it the rush of wind, the beginning of a 30 knot storm that would blow in before the night was done, pinning Paul and Helena in Alert Bay for another day.

I reach the last fallen tree and gingerly step off, hearing the rock crunch against my feet, my toes tingling from the cold. I’d gone over the top of my XtraTufs putting the boat away last night and the insides are still lined with sea water. The sun disappears behind the clouds, concluding it’s brief appearance for the day, the solar panels have had little to do this week, but we’ve been keeping the generator plenty busy.

Something large moves in the shallows, than a flash of silver. At my feet is a salmon. Adrenaline rushes, my eyes wide. The chum is laying on its side mouth working feverishly, passing as much water as possible through its gills. One wide unblinking eye stares up at the sky and into the heavens. He’s dinner. I pull the net out, and take a step towards him, this was too easy. But something large and gray slithers across the submerged portion of the nearest log, making me stop my approach.

It’s a harbor seal, maybe five feet away, it’s belly dragging against the rocks of the shallows, whiskers a yard from the fish. It had to know I was there, his sharp ears and wide eyes would have told him long before he reached this point. And yet there he floated, trusting me. For the briefest moment I’m conflicted. Two steps, a yell, and a quick move of the blue net and the fish was mine. And yet, what would that say about me? What kind of man would I be to callously shove this seal aside so that I could have what it had chased. How was that any different from the profit hungry oil company, banging on the doors of the refuge? The hunter on Baranof Island, murdering a bear for its fur. This fish wasn’t meant for me and I knew it. I may want it, but I didn’t need it. I look down at the seal, still floating there, a wave hits shore and almost carries the pinniped into my feet, I’ve gone over the tops of my boots again.

Finally, the seal turns his head, and looks straight into my eyes. For the briefest moment we’re connected. What must he be thinking. Many of my species would call him a pest, destroying nets, eating fish. God forbid that he live the way a seal’s supposed to live. And yet here he was, giving me a chance to do the right thing. Nature once again, giving us a chance to make amends. It was my turn to represent mankind to the animal kingdom, I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Go ahead,” I whisper, “take it, it’s your fish.” The seal turns away and with one movement, delicately grabs the fish by the tail and pulls it back into the deep water. I watch the little gray torpedo depart, gliding serenely through the waves, the fish clenched in his teeth. Ten feet from shore he surfaces, his head turned back toward shore. The tail hangs out one side of his mouth and he hovers for a second, starring at me, and is swallowed up by the sea.

Silly Trees

There are some things living in a city makes you take for granted. A wireless internet connection with enough bandwidth to withstand the greatest netflix addiction for one. Here it’s a different story. In many ways it’s an absolute miracle we ever have a connection at all. For now the connection is down, and the reason is trees. Yes, trees.

Our internet connection comes via a relay of Olympian proportions. From Alert Bay to the north, a radio tower sends a signal south down Johnstone Strait to the northern most point of Cracroft Island known as Cracroft Point (CP). Their a radio hangs from a gigantic fir tree, blinking green lights, a beacon of hope for facebook procrastination and football scores. It’s relayed to another 70 foot fir and from their the signal is passed over Blackney Pass and to Parson Island to the east. Mercifully, Parson Island is within line of sight of the lab, ending the marathon and giving us the wonderful gift of internet.

All it takes is one mishap, one bad connection, one depleted battery, one hungry squirrel that wants to find out what electrical current tastes like to bugger the whole thing up. For the entire summer the internet has cycled off and on. Like some sadistic deity that decides to make everyone nervous for an hour a day only to return it with no explanation. It was a problem Paul knew we’d have to tackle before winter. The connection is vital for streaming orca live, allowing people to listen to the hydrophone network 24 hours a day. So when it finally cut out completely a few days ago, Paul and I headed for CP, dead set on finding and fixing the problem once and for all. We knew the problem lay in one of the two trees that relayed the signal to Parson Island, the question was which one.

There is of course the question of how one maintains a radio signal bolted into the top of a tree as tall as an office building. Paul’s method is either simple, courageous, foolish, or some combination of the three. He hammered massive nails into the side of the trees making an impromptu step ladder to the top . Which meant I watched flabbergasted and terrified as this 75-year old man slipped into a climbing harness, and with a look of complete calm, began slowly working his way up the first tree. I am not scared of heights, but watching Paul move up that tree while bits of bark and branch plummeted around me was terrifying. Reaching the top he clips the harness in, and nonchalantly begins to fiddle with the radio. An hour of trouble shooting later, no connection. The next tree sits fifty yards away, a thick impenetrable garrison of alder forming a ring around the base. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been up that one,” Paul admits, “it makes me nervous climbing it. It’s so steep.” I crane my neck to look up the first tree that Paul just scurried up and down like an over caffeinated squirrel. There was nothing the man couldn’t do.

We enlisted Brittney the next day and returned, blazing a trail through the alder to the second tree. Without a backward glance Paul went up. I wanted to tell him it was ok, the blog’s not that good, Brittney doesn’t have to graduate, we can live without it. There’s no stopping him, like he’d just chugged a gallon from the fountain of youth. And still, after an hour of trail blazing and another hour of fiddling we’re right where we were two days ago, no internet. We have internet access at CP, a 20 minute boat ride, enabling us to maintain some contact with the outside world, write, and let Brittney work on school work. Far from a long term solution with hurricane force winds on the horizon. But while he hung so high above the ground that the sea gulls flew below him Paul found the potential villain.

“When I put this radio in ten years ago,” he explained, “we could see Parson Island across Blackney Pass. Now,” he gestures towards the stand of trees, “the trees have grown so high that I can’t see the island at all. I think some of the tallest ones are blocking the signal.” I stare through the thick brush, imagining hours of tree cutting the roar of the chainsaw already in my ears. I look at Paul, even at his age his energy and zeal are palpable, inspiring, his eyes gleam, “I see more trail cutting in our future!” So here we are trail blazing for internet. Never thought I’d write that sentence.

Waders are for Wimps

Even off the grid, where hot running water is nothing more than a mystical fantasy, there is luxury. And like everything else around here, it is earned. Balancing precariously on the rocks on the inside of the cove sits an old bathtub. Small towers of rocks on all four corners keep it level, just try not to notice the rusting bottom and slowly chipping paint. But fill her to the brim with seawater and meticulously feed a fire beneath the rusting base for a few hours and viola! Your very own saltwater hot tub.

The orcas vanished on September 17th and we’ve heard nothing from them since. We haven’t been without entertainment though. Just a mile down the beach, on a series of flat white rocks lives our new neighbors. They are loud, kind of smelly, and supposedly, will call the Hanson Island shoreline home for the better part of the winter. The Stellar Sea Lions have been patrolling the shore, sometimes just feet from us for almost a month now, their growls and barks becoming a consistent white noise that we’ve all had to learn to block out. But a strong fall run of salmon have led to several spectacular chases and catches from the neighboring sea lions and harbor seals. The sea lions especially love to attack from below, rocketing out of the water, a salmon clamped tightly in their jaws. Bouncing vertically in the water column they seem to bob like corks as they try to orient their catch so it slides down the gullet headfirst, all in one nauseating gulp.

The salmon scatter any direction they can, seeking shelter in the kelp bed or running into the shallows where the sea lions are hesitant to go. Two days ago we watched a fish, trapped against the shoreline in just a foot of water, while a sea lion circled just off the shallows. Seeing dinner floating meekly in the water I ran off the deck and over the rocks and hovered above the 18 inch salmon. In one move I lunged for it and felt my right hand grasp the base of his tail. With a single flick and a torrent of water, the salmon broke free of my grip and rushed into the kelp bed, willing to take its chances with the pinnipeds. Crestfallen, my pride in pieces I found two more salmon that day, and both times, spectacularly failed to corral them. Frustrated but determined, I found an old blue net in the shed and strategically placed it near the lab. Next time I wouldn’t go unarmed.

Which is how I came to be yesterday, watching the tide slowly fill the cove lounging in the saltwater bath. A sea lion with a large gash on his right flank routinely enters the bay, sometimes surfacing just twenty feet from my tub, eying me with perhaps just a bit of jealousy. A harbor seal, dwarfed by the sea lion we’d named “Patches” follows in his wake like a dog after its owner. I lean back and close my eyes, and hear a splash from the other side of the rocks. Glancing over the small mound I see a sea lion, pacing back and forth his attention directed at the shoreline. Praying for a shot at redemption, I climb gingerly and bare ass naked out of the tub. Paul and Helena were gone, it was just Brittney and I on the island, but nevertheless, my social conscious kicks in and I reach for the only thing I have to cover myself with, a bright pink towel.

Cinching it around my waist I move gingerly down the rocks, feeling their points and spikes stab into my feet. I try and fail to avoid slipping and breaking every bone in my body while still looking for the shadow of the salmon. I reach the water and see it, swimming slowly back and forth, fixed firmly in three feet of water. My heart races, all pain forgotten I run back up the rocks and grab the net and make my way back to the water, pink towel still firmly attached. My return startles the wayward fish and with a flick of its tail, disappears into deeper water. My heart plummets, a fall breeze washes over me and I shiver. Had I gotten out of my warm tub to fail again?

The water laps at my ankles, the net held limply in my hand. I’m about to turn back when the fish returns, moving into the same shallow pool that he just abandoned. Three rocks stand clear of the water on one side and I move as quickly and quietly as I can onto the furthest one, eyes locked on my prey. I reach the third rock and stumble, catching my balance before I fall, but my bumbling, and maybe a flash of pink startles the fish and he again flicks out of the pool. Patiently I wait, wishing I had stopped to put on some actual clothes, goose bumps erupting all over my body. For the second time the fish comes back and begins once again his slow circle around the pool. As slowly as the adrenaline in my body will let me, I dip the net into the pool and wait. The fish circles again, passes the net, and turns his tail to it.

This is it. I drop the net to the ocean floor and watch the salmon turn into the blue netting. I pull the net from the pool and in my rushed movements, the towel falls. For a moment I stand naked and frozen, the fish thrashing in the net now high above the water. How I wish there was a picture. Grabbing and refastening my pink garment I pick my way back up the rocks and reach for the walkie talkie, “honey, I know what we’re having for dinner tonight.”