Different View, Same Soundtrack

I wake to the gust of cold wind on my face, the breeze a soothing tonic against my cheeks, encouraging me to dig deeper into my sleeping bag propped on the deck chair of the ferry’s solarium. It’s not even seven but the horizon already glows with rosy morning light, soothing confirmation that we’re still moving north. I poke my head out and look over the rails, my heartbeat slows. Gone are the buildings, the roads, the lights that had bombarded us from the shore as the sun went down with nothing more than the occasional lighthouse to interrupt the parade of rocky beaches and mighty cedars.

I stare out at the blue road ahead, the trees slowly melting by. Less than 24 hours ago we had been sitting in traffic, trapped on the I-5 with nothing but outlet malls and tail lights for company. I could feel my world realigning with the compass pointed resolutely north away from the alien world of cities, suburbs, and concrete. I return to my sleeping bag drinking in the cool spring air, and go right back to sleep.

The mountains feel like old friends, familiar faces as the ferry steams into Juneau. Auke, Thunder, and McGinnis, call out in greeting as we drive down the ramp, bleary eyed but exhilarated to be home. The Mendenhall Glacier still stands guard at the foot of the towers, with Thunder and McGinnis mountains guarding its’ flanks. How good it felt to be back, the comfort, the familiarity, the mountain’s friendly faces, extinguished any longing for Hanson Island. If I couldn’t be there, this was the next best thing.

24 hours later, we were finally done. The Pathfinder sputtered to life one final time, taking us up one final ramp and into the town of Gustavus. Town however, may be to generous. The lone stop sign lies a mile and a half inland from the ferry dock, affectionately known as, “four corners” the only intersection in town. Everywhere you look are mountains, but unlike Juneau, they lie benignly in the distance. The town is midwest prairie flat, a quirky anomaly in a region in which towns are built on, around, and through mountains. In spite of their distance, the mountain’s names come back to me easily like a familiar song that you haven’t heard in years. The mountain ranges of the Fairweather, Beartrack, and Chilkat surround us to the west, north, and east. To the south, across Icy Strait, is Chichagof Island, its own collection of mountains give the impression that we are in a massive bowl surrounded on all sides by distant peaks.

We slow to a stop and consider our options. Two of the four roads lead to the two ways out of town, the ferry behind us, and the airport, the third leads down a dirt road, the left hand turn is the longest, stretching north past unassuming roads dotted with log homes and protected by thick canopies of spruce and hemlock. Seven miles down later it ends in Glacier Bay, the crown jewel of southeast Alaska. It seems fitting, that in a land renown for its’ natural beauty, it’s most marvelous feature would lay, unassuming, next to a tiny hamlet accessible only by air and sea.

Here there would be no tour buses, no fleets of helicopters or airplanes, no navy of whale watching boats. If you wanted to be here, there would be no shortcuts. In the summer months a pair of cruise ships would ply the waters of the bay, rushing up the west arm of the Y shaped bay to sit in front of the Margerie Glacier. But for those that wanted to truly be here. To trace the footsteps of John Muir, Stickeen, and others, there would be no port of call.

It was perfect. Years ago someone asked me to describe what Glacier Bay and Gustavus was like: “like someone dropped a bunch of people here in the 70s, and airlifted in a bunch of Beatles vinyl.” Every passing car waves, every face lit into a smile. Moose poop frames our yard along with a gentle blanket of willow and baby birch trees. The scene is so different from the one we left on Hanson Island, but no less beautiful. No less peaceful, no less… us.

Our first morning brings a striking similarity. As I crack the door to let the cat resume his life of roaming through the forest, a Varied Thrush calls out from a nearby Spruce and is immediately answered by another. One week and a thousand miles later, the same birds continue to serenade us, reminding me, that, no matter which country we’re in. We’re home.

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Escape From Hanson Island

For a week the weather services proclaimed that Wednesday, April 15th would be calm, clear, and peaceful. It would be a fitting and tranquil journey from the lab to Alert Bay, a promising start to what would be a week long expedition that would eventually lead to Gustavus, Alaska. On Tuesday night I checked the weather one final time, more out of sentimentalism than anything else, and saw Johnstone Strait caked in red. “30 knot southeasterly winds,” it boldly proclaimed. I rolled my eyes and glanced out the window, the cedar boughs were fluttering in a benign and apathetic way, I shut the curtains and crawled under the covers.

The next morning we awoke to the windows rattling, though the rain showed merciful restraint. We packed and began to debate tersely the best strategy for placing a bulky rabbit cage, a squirming cat, and countless bags and boxes unto the deck of a pitching boat.

An hour later the June Cove pulled around the corner, bobbing in the churning bathtub that was Blackfish Sound. We threw our belongings unceremoniously aboard with rabbit and cat perched atop the pile, and watched the lab fade from view. In the stress and rush to load the boat before the waves could put it on the rocks, there was little time for nostalgia and farewells. Instead of casting a final look at the lab deck, where I had been bombarded by sun, rain, and a rotating cast of marine life, I diligently jabbed a long two by four into the rocks as the bow of the boat slowly turned toward open water.

The water deepened and waves broke over the bow, foam and white caps littering the ocean. Paul peers through the blurred windshield as we hit the crest of a wave and slide down, the screech of nails emanates from Penny the rabbits cage as she slides back and forth. Completely unperturbed, she continuously tries to stand on her hind legs as the boat rolls, dead set on glancing out the window.

Paul glances over at where I stand, staring out the window into the crashing waves, willing the boat forward. He catches my eye and grins, “the escape from Hanson Island!” he shouts and the tension breaks.

Perhaps it was best like this. No tears, no long, lingering hugs. Leaving Hanson Island is removing a band aid, it’s best to just rip it off. Thirty minutes later we reached the relative peace of the dock, the first of four boat rides behind us. Again there would be no lingering as Paul needed to rush back to the lab before the tide ebbed too far, exposing the June Cove to a night of gale force winds.

And just like that, it was done. We stood where we had eight months ago, with an overstuffed Nissan Pathfinder and a pair of pets staring confusedly out the window while the wind buffeted us.

To our immense relief, our reliable Pathfinder sputtered, coughed, and after several heart stopping seconds, roared to life and we wove along the shoreline to Paul and Helena’s home for the night.

We curled up in the lap of luxury. Hot baths, ice cream, cold beer, electric heat, baseball, it may as well have been the Ritz Carlton hotel for all we cared. But it was hard not glance out the massive windows down Johnstone Strait as the light slowly faded, the outline of Hanson Island still visible and know that it would be months before we were forced to contend with the beautiful inconveniences that only life on an island can bring.

Perhaps the weirdest moment came when we finally crawled into bed. The room was as silent as a tomb and it was completely unsettling. For months we’d been passively listening through the night as the hydrophones reported the sounds of the ocean. The rushing water of a gale, the crackle of a dragging hydrophone, the low pitched growl of a tug, the whistles of dolphins, and the call of an orca that sent you flying from the covers. Now it was all gone, the silence leaving a strange ringing in our ears.

Rubbing Beach Ideologies

The water’s perfect, with the aqua green reflection off Vancouver Island’s mountains that I love. It’s as calm as a puddle, the sun shining high above in a cloudless sky. In the past couple weeks, the sun has finally begun to radiate a warmth that can be felt through your jacket. It’s not the benign passive glow of January but the first hint of summer’s rays, and it feels euphoric. It streams through the back of the boat, warming our backs as we glide down Johnstone Strait towards the mammoth mountains above Robson bight that stand like kings on their thrones. The strait’s empty despite the summery weather and our boat is nothing more than a toy in a massive bathtub.

We angle across the strait, the bow pointed past the bight towards the rubbing beaches. Fuel levels running the cameras needed to be checked, and it behoves one to never pass up the chance to visit the orca’s holy place. But as we pass the mouth of Robson Bight, something makes me slide the boat into neutral. Many somethings are breaking the surface of the water, like ink blots on a clean sheet of paper, disappearing and reemerging. The disturbances are far too small to be the orcas we secretly prayed we’d come across, but it was the next best thing. The pod of dolphins meanders slowly across the strait toward Swaine Point on Cracroft Island and we fall into line on the left hand side of the massive group that easily numbers 100.

Brittney stands on the stern of the boat, one hand gripping the vessel, the other clamped on the camera. In response to a signal we cannot here, the mass of dolphins swerve left, pointing west, pointing towards us. I slide the boat back into neutral and turn the ignition, at the mercy of the currents we turn perpendicular to them and wait. A flash of white catches my eye as like a ghost, the first dolphin glides underneath us, his body turned sideways, an invisible eye staring up at me.

From behind me I hear Brittney gasp in awe as the flood surrounds us. The camera falls limply to her side, how do you even begin to capture this? Some surface calmly, their bodies barely breaking the surface, while others rocket clear of the ocean seeming to hover frozen in time for the briefest moment before slipping smoothly back beneath the waves with barely a splash. Dozens cruise beneath us, the calm seas and clear water of early spring enabling us see dozens of feet below as the torpedoes shoot past. It takes nearly five minutes for all of them to go by, the sounds of their blows and splashes rapidly fading as we bob in their chop still under the spell.

The boy in me tells me to start the engine, race ahead of them, and do it again. But what a insult to the gift we’d been given, it was good, but not enough, we need more. How human, selfish. I push the thought out of my head and we continue the other way, past the bight and minutes later, land with a soft crunch, land at the rubbing beach. With no idea when our next trip here will be, we linger on the beach, feeling the pebbles slide and crunch beneath us, coaxing the few rays of light that penetrate the trees onto our faces. With just a week left before our return to civilization, our imminent return continues to dominant our conversations.

“There’s some things I miss,” I admit, “unlimited bandwidth, Alaskan IPA, hot showers, other people… but I don’t, crave these things. It’s funny how many luxuries we begin to assume are necessities.”

“How many people think they can’t live without texting?” Brittney asks, “or hot running water, or electric heat, or indoor plumbing?”

“It’s a state of mind, it’s all we know, we’ve never lived without so we conclude that they’re essential. It makes sense.”

“But we clearly don’t need them.”

“We were willing to let go.”

“Think some people can’t?”

“I think they can… I just don’t think they want to. It took me awhile,” I say, “I’ve learned to sit quietly here, that my brain doesn’t have to be constantly entertained by outside influences, like mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, or netflix. That sitting on the rocks watching the tide ebb can be enough, it’s almost meditative.”

We sit in silence for a moment, “I still scroll through Facebook mindlessly,” I admit.

She laughs, “I know.”

Across the strait on Cracroft Island the sound of a saw floats across the strait, a sickening crack, and a boom as another tree meets its’ end, the clearcut steadily grows, the gash opening wider, the runoff like blood flowing downhill into the ocean.

We fall back into silence, the sound of machinery dominating our ears, the incessant hum of a tug motoring slowly westward becoming prominent. Suddenly the land feels too crowded, we’re hemmed in by people, a tug and a tree crew is all it takes.

“It’s funny,” I point toward the tug and the clearcut, “this feels full now.”

I pause and look instead down the beach where everything is pure, there are no right angles here, no perfect circles. For a moment I want to run into the woods, into the last unlogged watershed on east Vancouver Island and disappear. To hide out till summer, with nothing more to do than watch the orcas swim by.