Hanson Island Life Lessons

Every week and a half the fridge begins to look bare, the tortillas are gone, the beer and wine but a distant memory. The marine weather report is lit up in crimson, gale warning in Queen Charlotte, storm warning in Johnstone Strait, rain, wind, small craft advisories. On a good day Alert Bay is just thirty minutes by boat away, weaving through the Plumper and Pearce Islands, sending torrents of frothy white water over the deep green waters is nothing short of cathartic. It’s just finding enough of those days that can be the struggle.

And so we look for “windows.” Six hour blocks where the wind dies, the rain lessons, and the boat floats. As the storm inhales for another blow you run for town before the next exhalation. But after eight months of this game, pulling the boat up and down the beach so water lifts it off the rocks at just the right time, it feels commonplace. The fact that we once lived half a block from a Rainbow Foods absolutely absurd. We’ve traded the convenience of stores, bars, and restaurants for the simple tranquility of wilderness.

In a few weeks we’ll be gone, on our way back to civilization. At least our definition of it which entails residing in a town of 350 people. But right now that feels more like a metropolis than hamlet. Certainly there are things we’re looking forward to, I mean, we’ve talked to just a handful of people face to face this year. No longer having to correlate tide height and wind with fresh lettuce will be convenient. And I really do miss Alaskan IPA.

But more than anything, I’ve learned a lot about myself over the winter. I landed my first paid writing gig, wrote thousands of words for a novel that I’ll probably let no one ever see, and am just a season and a half away from watching the show, “Friends” all the way through.

Brittney loves the website, mindbodygreen.com and there are some great articles and information to be found. She hates me for pointing out however that the site is often flooded with “top 10” lists. Top 10 ways: to know your man has a good heart, yoga pants, fat burning foods, etc. Now it’s all she sees… she may never forgive me. But I’m going to conform, and walk through the ten things that I’ve learned this winter on Hanson Island.

1. How ever much time you think you have until the boat is aground, subtract by ten minutes. You’ll save yourself a lot of disappoint, frustration, and expletives.

2. Mice will find a way into your house. Steel wool, blockades, and a cat will only do so much. Accept the inevitable, keep the counters clean, and check under the propane stove frequently.

3. It is perfectly acceptable to wake up in a cold sweat because you just dreamed that you could hear orcas and aren’t recording.

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4. No matter how much you hoot and holler at them, Stellar Sea Lions will not give you the time of day.

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5. Orcas love to call at dinner time, so you stuff your plates into a plastic milk crate box and lug it all over to the lab and have dinner with headphones on.

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6. Bath Days are a gift from God and should be worshipped as such.

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7. Mink will live under the house, they’re cute but smell terrible, your cat will want to make friends, the mink will not acquiesce. 11081015_10155300238395858_6083581184589343527_n

8. Porch baths in December are a necessity. Treat them like a Nascar pit crew changes tires. If you’re not out and back inside in under five minutes you are a) doing it wrong and b) probably borderline hypothermic.

9. Bring pets. You’ll need someone to talk to when your wife gets mad at you for ruining her favorite website.

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10. There is nowhere on earth like this place, nothing can replace it or come close. So enjoy every moment you have here regardless of the time of year.

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For His Old Branches

We push deeper into the middle of the island, weaving our way along the ridge. In an organized line the three of us hike, me in the lead, followed by Brittney, Porter the cat right on her heels. When she disappears over a small hill to look at a patch of moss that shines a fantastic neon green he plops on a fallen Hemlock and softly meows until she reappears. There are no machines, no airplanes, no cars. The only sounds are of the forest’s creation. Squirrels quarrel from their respective trees, all talk and no action. The Varied Thrush in between acts as a mediator, his single melodious note drowned out by their stubborn chatter.

It’s all therapy. The springy moss gives the sensation of walking on clouds, the world a tapestry of browns, golds, reds, and more shades of green than I knew existed. Fir, Hemlock, Spruce, and of course Cedar shield the sun. I stop at one Cedar and see a deep six foot slash that begins near my knees and travels up past my eyes. Long ago, someone cut into her. Not out of spite, anger, or the egotistical need to announce ones presence. But to weave a basket. By strategically stripping the bark in this way, the natives brought not death, but growth, their cuts encouraging the trees to grow at a faster rate. They’re known as culturally modified trees (CMT) and they litter the island. At least the parts that have never been logged, which is sadly less than half.

We stumble onto the scene of such a crime after plunging through a valley and onto the next ridge. Spruce dominant the scene here looking massive and impressive until our eyes fall upon the skeletons. Cedar trees twelve feet in diameter stand decapitated ten feet from the ground. Deep one foot notches denote where the logger stood and cut until the massive tree succumbed to gravity. Like the CMT, it says, “man was here” but with much more finality and violence. The cuts are from generations previously, the sun long ago blocked by the growth around us, the stumps being swallowed back into the earth, crumbling to powder. I look up at the spruce and feel relief and gratitude knowing neither them or the successors to follow will meet the same fate here. It’s progress. Hope. That their deaths were not in vain, that perhaps we’re moving forward.

Back home, I sharpen a chainsaw, fill it with oil and a 50:1 fuel to oil mixture. I can feel the trees watching me and Walrus’ words float into my head.

“When I got here, I could feel the pain this place had experienced. How many chainsaws these trees had heard, and I vowed never to use one on Yukusam.”

It’s a gesture that means sacrifice and plenty of extra work, though many I suppose would call it foolish, irrational, pointless. After all, trees can’t hear. At least, I don’t think they can. But his words, his dedication, his conviction stick in my head as I set the choke and begin to pull the handle, feeling the machine sputter before dying again. A magnificent piece of Fir has washed up along the beach, probably 50 feet long it offers nights of cozy warmth. But nearby, his brethren still stand. Branches coated in needles reach out towards me, their ends curved upwards toward the sun, like a crowd with outstretched arms, their palms skyward in peaceful protest. I sit the saw down and move up the beach a few steps. If they can hear, I want to make sure they hear me.

“This saw is not meant for you,” I whisper, and even in my solitude I glance behind me for human ears. “This tree can no longer grow, photosynthesize, or give life to the forest. If it could I would never touch it, just as I promise to never touch you. Forgive the sounds of the saw, I’ll leave you in peace as quickly as I can.”

I kneel by the saw and crank the handle again, it roars to life and soon, sawdust is flying from the tiny metallic teeth, forming neat golden piles on the beach. I move down the line, making cuts every foot and a half, dodging knots and pausing once to tighten the chain. In half an hour it’s over and true to my word I shut it off as soon as I’m done. Once again the cove and forest is filled with nothing but the sounds of the thrush and the squirrels.

An Expected Visit, An Unexpected Goodbye

Paul announced the news in his usual, casual way, “a few people may be visiting the lab in early March from Greenpeace.” Made sense, we knew Greenpeace was holding a ceremony in nearby Alert Bay, and given Paul’s and Walrus’ ties to the organization, we figured a couple would want to stop in. Truth be told, the thought of playing host and hostess was welcome.

A few days later we received a call from the organizer of the trip. “How many people are coming?” Brittney asked.

“15 to 20.”

Our eyes went big, after months of just the two of us and the occasional passing boat, 20 people felt like a full fledged invasion. We were gonna need to bake more bread.

For the next few days we scrambled, polishing and sweeping out the pine needles and cedar boughs from the corners and wiping away the months of salt spray thrown against the lab windows by 40 knot storms.

As the Naiad breezed around the corner and we picked our way down the rocks, slipping over exposed kelp and seaweed on the falling tide, it felt like summer. As if I was standing on the docks, waiting to pick up my group for a day of whale watching. One by one, a range of generations and ethnicities stepped onto the island, making their way towards the house. I heard Paul’s words escape my mouth, “please be careful, the rocks are incredibly treacherous.”

Walrus stepped off the boat and began to weave a path into the cedar as if he couldn’t stand another moment apart from his precious forest. There was no real plan, and people wondered hither and thither. It soon became clear what the first order of business had to be. Unbeknownst to me, Bob Hunter’s daughter held the last of her father’s cremated remains in her hands, wishing to lay part of him to rest in the quiet cove on the flooding tide.

Brittney and I stood amongst the crowd huddled along the shoreline as the now flooding tide shuffled us slowly back. We listened to the eulogies to the man I had never met, but heard so much about. One of the original founders of Greenpeace, Bob Hunter had led a life that turned my eyes blurry and my cheeks wet with tears. He’d battled the nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska on Greenpeace’s maiden voyage, seal hunters, whalers, published books, and who knows how much more that would lay unwritten and untold.

“It was Paul who convinced him to stick his head in Skana’s (a captive orca at the Vancouver aquarium back in the 1970s) mouth,” remembered one speaker. A small grin spread across my face, as in my mind I could see Paul goading him toward the edge of the tank, a mischievous grin on his face.

As the ashes fell in the gentle breeze onto the waters surface, a First Nations man banged on a traditional drum, the bass echoing across the water and ricocheting off the silent old growth that stood sentinel over the proceedings. Goosebumps erupted across my body to hear the soundtrack of the land revive and return. An eagle soared over and a sea lion poked its head out at the mouth of the cove. As if they too recognized the sound, the song that spilled into Blackfish Sound, resonating in their hearts, a reminder of simpler times.

The songs ended, Bob’s ashes scattered on the turquoise waters, piercing rays of sun cutting through the surface, a gentle breeze rustling the tips of the trees. They couldn’t have picked a better day to say goodbye and we felt incredibly honored to be allowed to bear witness to this intimate and precious moment.

Worth So Much More

More than a century ago, steamers laden with starry eyed prospectors plied the inside passage in a desperate race to reach Skagway, Dyea, and the promise of massive gold deposits in the Yukon. Of the 40,000 to stampede across the permafrost, ten percent found gold, one percent struck it rich. The rush ended with hardly a whimper in just three years.

But thhe gold rush is not over. One hundred and fifteen years later, the human race continues to be seduced by the presence of minerals hidden in rock, with the promise of wealth and money. All in the name of happiness, security, prosperity. Once again, the sites lie within the Canadian boundary and once again the road runs through Alaskan waters. Instead of steamers and ferries crossing the border, it is salmon.

The Unuk, the Taku, and the Stikine represent three massive, salmon rearing, transboundary rivers that cross the border of Northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska. They represent one of the last few places on earth where the delicate balance between ocean and land remain in perfect symmetry with salmon serving as their powerful arbitrator. They draw life from the forest and in turn, rejuvenate the rivers, oceans, animals, and humans they touch. Directly and indirectly, they fuel a 2 billion dollar per year industry that radiates throughout the panhandle via tourism and fishing. And we are spitting in their face. Threatening to destroy a miraculous and beautiful gift that has been our heartbeat since the last glacier receded.

As Canada continues its rapid deregulation of environmental protections, tar sand developments, and other atrocities against the natural world, the policies begin to directly threaten us on the other side. Currently, no fewer than nine mines are either being proposed, developed, or are under review in northwest British Columbia. All of which are connected or adjacent to these  massive, life giving rivers. Mankind has gold in their hearts, and we cannot stand the thought of it laying uselessly in the earth. Not when there is profit to be made.

Many have pointed to the relevant and convincing argument that Alaskans stand to inherit none of the profit, and all of the risk of these mining projects. The money flows into Canada while acid mine drainage flows into the inlets and bays. Holding pits and dams would be responsible for holding millions of gallons of these toxic pollutants indefinitely. Indefinitely, is a hell of a long time.

And yet we hear assurances from involved mining companies such as NovaGold, Chieftan, and the now infamous Imperial Metals about their environmentally safe practices, technologically sound designs, and pride in their development and design. At least, that’s what Imperial Metals had to say about their Mount Polley mine.

On August 4th, 2014, around 1 am the Mount Polley dam in the Cariboo region of B.C burst. Four days later, the four kilometer sized tailings pond had sent its’ 10 billion liters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of metals-laden fine sand into Polley Lake. Like a nightmarish game of dominoes, its impact was felt hundreds of kilometers away along the Fraser River, home to one of the largest Chinook runs on the west coast.

It’s been called the biggest environmental disaster in British Columbia’s history, and it could be decades before the full effects are felt and realized as the metals embed themselves in the environment and climb the stairs of the food chain, magnifying their impact with every step. This is the inheritance of the Cariboo region descendants. The guiltless victims of the four horsemen we worship; progress, profit, power, and greed. Like Prince William Sound, the region will never be the same again, the casualties of practices deemed safe and environmentally friendly.

“I apologize for what happened,” Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch said following the breach. “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.”

How hollow and pointless. Yet in not so many words he admits what we already knew, that open pit mines on this scale are incapable of ensuring the protection of the natural world around them. Since 2012, Imperial Metal had received five citations of violation, the engineering company that designed the pond warned them that the pond was operating beyond capacity and pulled out of the mine operation 3 years before the catastrophe with no explanation.

Mr. Kynoch, you knew this could happen, but it’s tough to hear with gold in your ears and copper in your eyes. All this done in a place with an exponentially larger population density than their recently open mine in Red Chris along a tributary of the Stikine River. Yes, no criminal charges, no moratorium on development, Imperial Metal was allowed to plow forward and put the well being of the salmon and the Alaskans that thrive on them in their greedy hands.

When it comes to environmental issues, Alaskans are often divided. The refuge, offshore oil, and other controversies have split us into the unyielding camps of Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, progressive and tree hugger. But when it comes to salmon, we have been united. We have pushed and will continue to fight the threat of the Pebble Mine development in Bristol Bay, saying no to short term financial gains in favor of the most productive and healthy Sockeye Salmon fishery in the world.

It is vital that we fight again, that these salmon streams, our home, our way of life remains as unspoiled and protected as possible. The alternative is unthinkable. A CEO two decades from now, standing at a podium, offering empty words of regret as mine tailings and acid drainages rush down the Taku to meet the Sockeye. For Imperial Metals they will simply state their sorrow, pack up, and head for the next deposit, leaving us and our descendants to pick up the shattered pieces of existence.

For Americans and Canadians alike who wish to get involved, visit.

http://www.salmonbeyondborders.org/what-you-can-do.html