Stepping Back

When I first came to Orca Lab in 2008, I expected some sort of sign. Some sort of intimate and personal encounter with the whales to justify the sacrifices, work, and effort I had gone through to reach this place. Orcas, it turns out, have little interest in storybook endings. They went about their lives as if I were invisible. It was odd, the orcas owed me absolutely nothing, but so convinced was I that some spectacular, “ah-ha” moment would arrive, that to leave without having gotten within 200 yards of a whale was, not a disappointment, but a hit to the ego.

“Don’t you ever get tired of watching whales?”

It was a common enough question working on a whale watching boat, and I suppose it should have been predictable. I mean, the majority of my clientele had work that they actually looked at as, well, work. I just saw it as a free whale watch every day, like someone had offered me season tickets along the third base line for free. How could you get sick of that?

The question would always rise to the surface just as the humpback was slipping below, meaning I had 5-7 minutes to explain why no, I don’t get sick of watching massive aquatic mammals breath. I’m nothing more than a commercial while the show dives 200 feet below us for another mouthful of herring. The guy who banters on stage while the band tunes their instruments.

“They’re like potato chips,” became my generic reply, “you can never say enough.”

But for those that would probe, that actually wanted to know and weren’t just making conversation after realizing that no, your iPhone will not get service out here, I’d go a step further.

“Because you never know what might happen. If someone calls and needs you to take a trip… you take the trip. The last thing you want is to come home to a phone call, and find out you missed the trip of the lifetime.”

But 100 yards stands between the deck and a trip of a lifetime. For the many who have read the stories of Erich Hoyt, Paul Spong, and Alex Morton, it’s a tantalizing distance. We want a moment like Morton had, being led by the A5s through the fog, or Erich Hoyt in his rowboat, bobbing in the bight, surrounded by whales.

But that age of orca research and watching has come to an end. With restrictions and limitations enforced, we’re at the mercy of the whales to swim that football field distance and set the stage for the sort of encounter we crave. Perhaps we love them too much. Our addiction as harmful to them as potato chips are to our arteries. We crave these moments, and stand breathless on the deck of a swaying boat, hoping for a flash of white, a bubbling surface, an eruption of carbon dioxide as the whale breaks the water feet from us.

And it does happen. After three years and countless hours on the water, I had a few holy s— moments; I was splashed by an orca, had one circle the boat, it’s oval eye patch staring into my soul, and had 14 humpbacks materialize from nowhere, surrounding us in a bubble net of desperate herring. And all it took was thousands of hours, and the sheer luck to be in the right place at the right time.

Six years later I returned to Hanson Island, reluctant to share some of the most intimate whale experiences with my fellow volunteers. I had been extraordinarily lucky to have a job that allowed me to buy a lottery ticket every day and cash in on the minuscule odds. But that summer, I found a much more rewarding and fulfilling experience. As much as I’d loved my time on the water, a wriggling feeling of guilt had grown as I thought about the deafening noise my coworkers and I made in their home.

The whale watch industry grew and with it, the pressure on the humpbacks and orcas until every daylight hour was spent in the company of at least one, and almost always several boats. I couldn’t measure how much of a disturbance I was causing, but the uneasy feeling in my stomach told me however much it was, my conscience was not ok with it. I began to despise the 700 HP engines on our stern, giving us the authority to decide when the whales could be free of us. Were these experiences worth the boat noise and fuel? The hours hovering above their kitchen table, knowing if it was up to them they’d probably have us disappear?

Instead of intimate face to face encounters, I craved anonymity. I wanted to see, but not touch, observe but not alter, be it from 5 yards or 500 didn’t matter. Perhaps I’m biased. After all, I can still see that orcas tail rising off the stern of the boat, sending water cascading over us. But nothing felt as rewarding or special as a misty, fog drenched morning at Cracroft point.

As the tide ebbed I inched down the rocks, slipping and sliding over the kelp, my camera slung over a shoulder, a lens the size of a baseball bat swaying ominously. Stopping just shy of the water I looked east down the strait, the sun cutting slashes in the clouds ahead of the oncoming rain storm. Right along the Cracroft shoreline I saw them, the A23s and A25s plowing through the strait, pointed directly at me. I raised the camera, Paul’s words ringing in my ears, “get A60s photo.”

The group filed past, exhalations like gunshots ricocheting off the rocks. An image of A60s dorsal flashed in my mind, like the face of someone I hadn’t seen in years, the big notch two thirds of the way up the dorsal made him easy to ID, and as the picture filled my head, his dorsal filled my lens.

I held my breath to steady the camera, and pushed the shutter, immortalizing Fife on a 6 GB chip. He couldn’t have been any closer than 150 yards, a distance many in the whale watch industry would yawn at. But a tear slid down my face as he disappeared. A few years ago I’d have wanted Fife to know I was there, to see some acknowledgement of my love and interest. Now… I wanted anything but that. Just to have a brief window into his world, and know that his calls were blowing out the speakers back at the lab was plenty.

The whales slipped by, milling briefly in the entrance of Blackney before steaming north. As if waiting for them to pass, the rain arrived, drenching me as I stood on the deck, reveling in the knowledge that they had no idea I was there. The group slowly faded from sight, there fins merging with the streaks of rain and background of the islands. But I continued to watch until they vanished from view. After all they’re like potato chips, you can never say “I’m full.”

Advertisements

Quiet Places, Open Spaces

Shadows stretch across the bay, the surviving sunlight turning a deep gold against the water and trees on the far side. We sit on an old, rotting 2×4 propped up by rocks, watching the island in the middle of the bay transform into a peninsula as the tide ebbs away. Around us boxes of food stand in pyramids, accentuated by a case of beer and a bag of dog food like a massive sack of flour.

But Walrus is in no hurry to start the haul up the hillside to his cabin shrouded in the woods. So we sit, beers in hand, with nothing more pressing than watching the water slowly drain out of Dong Chong Bay.

A great blue heron materializes out of the woods, it’s prehistoric shrieks echoing off the steep vertical cliffs around us, alighting on the island. A raven swoops passed and alights on the branches of a birch tree above. He speaks softly to the bird in a tongue I don’t recognize. Undoubtedly it’s the native language of the First Nation people that called Yukusam (the native name for Hanson Island meaning “shaped like a halibut hook”) home. The words seem to permeate from the trees and ocean, as alive and authentic as the island itself. If the trees could talk, it would be in this voice. Not the voice of my ancestors who had arrived and hunted, logged, and eternally altered the very land we loved.

The large, rocky plateau we sat on was far too smooth to be the work of the ambitious and almighty glaciers that long ago preceded us. They deposited erratics and islands with the callous randomness of an artist flinging paint at the canvas. This was deliberate, a stronghold for the logging trucks and chainsaws that Walrus had fought and defeated.

Even in this beauty, in the perfect stillness, it seems pertinent to mention it and Walrus nods in affirmation, as if he needs any reminder of what took place here.

“In the U.S we put aside these pieces of land as wilderness that can’t be touched, developed, or mined.”

Walrus lets out his high pitched laugh, “but is anywhere untouched?”

“Exactly.”

I remembered camping in the Beardslee Islands in Glacier Bay. Alone, surrounded by acre upon acre of wilderness. Only to watch commercial jets rumble over, their contrails leaving white slashes across the blue sky. The cruise ships rumbling by, black exhaust spewing above the mountains, wakes unconcerned with the wilderness boundary. Untouched wilderness indeed.

He wanders over to the case of beer and hands me another, the crack of carbonation drifts across the water. With an indignant call the heron rises from the rocks, wings beating a slow rhythm as it vanishes.

“How can we even classify something as wilderness?” He asks.

“That’s the thing. Are we trying to recreate a land before Europeans? Or native Americans?”

Regardless, the ghosts of North America cannot be revived. The mammoth, the Stellar Sea Cow. We talk about how the great plains were once home to 12-foot bears, lions, and camels. An indescribable amount of biomass and apex predators. Until man arrived and claimed the top of the food web for him alone.

“Extinction started with the arrival of man, not Europeans of course.” He cautions.

“Of course. It’s a European arrogance, that we can put back together the pieces that we’ve ripped apart.” I say. “It’s the best we can do I suppose though.”

“When the Spaniards arrived in central America, they found the Mayans already had chickens.” He looks at me, his long grey beard crinkles into a smile, his eyes dazzle beneath long curling eyebrows, “they just assumed, hey, they’ve got chickens here just like back home!” He pauses and takes a drink, “of course they were Asian chickens,” he finishes laughing, letting the message sink in.

“You don’t read that in your history books. Or Columbus’ Haitian massacres, or the sculptures depicting people of African descent. We weren’t first, but we in some way won. So we get to claim credit, and dust our transgressions under the rug.”

He smiles again and we tilt our beers back, I’m talking conservation and anthropology with one of the founders of Greenpeace.

“That’s one of the difficult things about anthropology and natural history. It’s a lot of extrapolation and assumption, we can’t know much for sure.”

“Which is why we need time travel,” he says.

“I know where I’d go,” and I point out the mouth of the bay, to sparkling waters of Blackfish Sound, “right here.”

I talk about trying to imagine Dong Chong without logging roads, the orca lab site before the lab, my desire to see this place in as natural a setting as possible. “Post ice age of course,” I finish.

He nods, “I bet it’d be something.”

“Salmon so thick you can smell it on the wind,” the very thought gets me excited, “blackfish so thick you can walk across their backs,” I say quoting Billy Proctor, the legendary jack of all trades that had lived in and around the region since the 30s. “In another age of conservation maybe.”
We lapse into silence, drinking in the scenery, the peace and tranquility that cannot be quantified. No bottom line, no profit margin or material good could ever begin to explain what these places mean. Because they live not on paper but inside. The by products of the wind and trees, ocean and waves, saying more without a word than I ever can. Causing a spiritual upheaval I can only begin to explain.

It’s for this reason, that we’re coming back next winter I tell him. Like Paul, he’s spent decades on Yukusam, unable to find anywhere else that compares for the same unwritten reason.

“It’s going to be almost a year since I had a real job. It’s been incredible.”

A knowing smile pushes through the beard, “it’s hard to think about going back to it isn’t it?”

“You have no idea.” I answer, knowing full well he knew exactly what I was talking about.

John Muir, Stickeen, and the Biggest Decision of Our Lives

My favorite John Muir story involves a tiny dog named Stickeen. Fanatically loyal to Muir, Stickeen followed the famous naturalist everywhere, even the glaciers could not separate them. On one trip a storm hit. The light was fading, and they were still far from home. Between them and camp lay a large crevasse in the ice, a narrow bridge across offered the only hope of passage.
Muir scooted across and turned to find Stickeen still on the other side, sprinting back and forth as the wind howled, panicked and too terrified to follow. Muir knelt down and reach out his arms calling to his companion.
“Hush your fears little one, no right way is easy in this rough world, we must risk our lives in order to save them.”
For a moment Stickeen remained perched on the edge of the precipice, and in a flurry sprinted across the bridge, past Muir and began to yip and run in circles in ecstasy.
For years John Muir’s words have resonated inside me, echoing in my head with every major decision I make. I tried to avoid making decisions simply because they were safe or comfortable, probing deep inside for what I really wanted.
With this credo echoing in both our hearts, we walked, hiked, and hitched through New Zealand. Bounced from seasonal job to seasonal job. Crammed everything we owned into the Pathfinder and drove for five exhilarating days to Seattle. And of course, spent the last six months blissfully happy on Hanson Island.
Slowly we’ve watched our time remaining tick away, somehow, we have just two months left, and the thought of leaving already left a lump in our throats.
In our wildest dreams, where money is no object, we knew we’d come back. But even here, the financial demands of life can reach us. Student loans, IRAs, and that house in Gustavus beckon. It became our next goal, to save up and buy that house, if the elephant in the room (winter work in a town of 350) could be addressed.
Than Paul and Helena changed everything, offering to help us return for another winter if we wanted to. Thus began the hardest decision we’ve ever made together. We tried to imagine returning to Alaska, kayak guiding in Glacier Bay and than… what? Making coffee in Juneau I suppose. Which was all well and good, but we both knew that at night, crammed back into our shanty studio apartment, we’d look out the window to find ourselves surrounded by street lights. And our souls would ache for this place. For the sound of the waves on the rocks. The Harlequin ducks bobbing like rubber duckies into the cove every morning, the mischievous mink that taunts the cat from under the house.
We budgeted. We convinced each other that one decision was correct, and than the other. Finally, we would lapse back into fits of indecision. Pulled between starting to put down roots, and fearing that we’d eternally regret not returning to the island. We talked long into the night, unable to decide. Until this morning when Paul asked us if we’d reached a decision. We looked at each other across the table, a pained look on both our faces. We knew saying no meant we may never see this place again. And we knew that we couldn’t live with that.
There will be houses to save for later. Winter work questions to answer, money to make, roots to set down. But in our hearts, the wanderlust called for an encore. To sprint across that ice bridge one more time. To risk our lives. And to save them.

“We’re coming back!” we replied.
And like Stickeen a century ago, jumped and ran around the cabin while the wind and rain pelted the windows.

A Deathbed Lesson in Living

For my entire life I’ve been blessed to live in a place that other people visit. Not the Bahamas, or southern California, or Europe; Alaska. The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun and whatever other catchy tagline we’re using these days (Palin’s Pasture?).
For three summers I had a front row seat to those retracing the routes of John Muir, the gold rush and sled dogs. I worked in Alaska’s capital, Juneau as a whale watch guide, deckhand and bear guide (bear viewing that is, not hunting).
I was fresh out of college, and had just had the rug pulled out from underneath me. I had lined up an entry level position with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) only to have the federal budget frozen and my position unceremoniously tossed out four weeks before I was supposed to begin.
I didn’t know the first thing about guiding. But I knew whales, the ocean and my Dad had once been charged by a Grizzly so I felt qualified. Virtually the entire tourism industry in southeast Alaska centers around the cruise ship. The 2,000 passenger floating hotels that market themselves as holding everything you could ever want.     Upwards of 15,000 people can flood Juneau off the boats in the summer; a town with a population of about 33,000.
I fidget on the dock. Bright orange polo tucked into Carharts, black and orange ball cap jammed on top of curling blond hair. I feel like a 6’4” carrot. Slowly couples begin to gather around me; from Germany, Texas, Boston, and Australia. I hand out the weight sheets to ensure the planes are balanced for the flight portion of the tour and try to make conversation. A beer or two would’ve helped.
My last couple staggers slowly down the gangplank towards me. It’s immediately clear that all is not well. The husband’s steps are uneven, his breath ragged, he looks exhausted and beaten. Cancer will do that.
As we board the bus bound for the airport his wife pulls me aside. Yes, her husband was terminally ill, his life expectancy could be measured in months. But if I could, please, try to treat them as normally as possible.
I climb the steps behind her and collapse into my seat mind whirling. I was supposed to be in a lab, or a research boat measuring the bioenergetics of forage fish. Fish that couldn’t tell me their physical condition. That there last wish was to see the glaciers of Alaska.
What the hell had I gotten myself into? What did this man care how big a humpback whale was? How long a brown bear slept or how much fish they could devour in a day?
The trip slides by as the plane sends us over the glaciers and over to an island called Chichagof which has one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Naturally we see none. Nature doesn’t understand the concept of the storybook ending.
In the small native town of Hoonah, a boat collects us and we begin the three hour trip back to Juneau eyes scanning for whales. Slowly I begin to pluck up the courage to talk to him. His name is Dan, he’d lived his whole life in Houston, Texas and had just been diagnosed a couple of weeks ago.
He’d rejected chemotherapy and other treatments, emptied their bank account, and was seeing as many of the places he’d dreamed of experiencing before the sickness shackled him to a bed. Alaska had been his number one pick.
Juneau had been their boats first stop. “No pressure,” I told myself. I apologized that the bears hadn’t shown, that the glaciers had been partially obstructed by clouds.     He shrugs, “it’s just enough to know that I’m here.” he answers.
Twenty minutes later a humpback blasts out of the water like a rocket, sending a crescendo of foam across the surface and we cheer like our team just won the Super Bowl. There’s a spark in Dan’s eyes, a glint of joy and life that I can still see four years later. For a few seconds he looks reborn until another coughing fit sends him back into the boat’s cabin.
An hour later we’re within sight of Auke Bay, Juneau’s largest harbor. From the water, the Mendenhall Glacier looms over the boats bobbing along the dock. Even from two miles away it dominants the skyline like a giant frozen sky scraper. The boat captain screams the boat to a halt and ushers me onto the deck with Dan and his wife.
“Get their picture with the glacier,” he whispers.
They lean against the boat’s railing, the ice framed perfectly above them. I swallow a lump in my throat and blink away tears. For the second time Dan looks half his age as he dots a kiss on his wife’s cheek and wraps an arm around her as I click off a shot. The moment passes, the boat revs, and they slowly move back inside, wrapping their down jackets tightly against the wind.
Minutes later we’re on the bus, headed for the cruise ships 15 minutes away. I search for something comforting or inspiring to say. Some magic words that could somehow make their plight better. Instead I just listen as they talk about their kids, their work, their life. My ears doing more than my tongue ever could.
Feet from the dock Dan looks out the window and sighs, “it’s a magnificent place you have here, David.”
“Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s all of ours. It grabs hold of something deep inside of us, resonates, makes us whole.”
He nods, “I wish I would have seen it sooner so I could climb the mountains. Maybe go fishing, you hunt?”
I confess that I’ve never killed anything bigger than a salmon.
“Well don’t wait,” he said, “live out your dreams while your young, don’t wait for your come to Jesus moment.” His wife sniffs and he gives her a little squeeze.
The bus stops, I shake Dan’s hand and hug his wife. Slowly they walk away, inching up the gangway, his last words echoing between my ears.
Don’t wait, live now. See what needs to be seen. Breath the air, walk the trails, climb the mountains, swim the rivers. Don’t let life get in the way of living.
Four years later I sit in a cabin perched on the shores of British Columbia, living. NOAA never called back, hallelujah. Maybe I’ll get a real job some day but I doubt it. Not after seeing that look in Dan’s eye as the humpback broke the surface, telling me everything I’d ever need to know.