Lessons of the Beardslees

Paddling in a double kayak is about rhythm, matching your stroke to your partners. The rise and fall in perfect synchrony: dip, push, pull, lift, switch. After a while it becomes meditative, the landscape and hours slipping by, the sun slowly pivoting across the blue sky. Feet in front of me Brittney sets a steady pace, the kayak’s bow cutting silently through the Beardslee Islands, briefly disturbing the calm surface of the ocean before the ripples dissipate, covering our tracks.
Eight inches below the water is glass. It’s surface reflecting the islands, the mountains, our very being back at us with the distortion of refraction. Twisting our reality ever so slightly but no less authentic. We cut across the mouth of Secret Bay and jut briefly north along the Young Island Peninsula. Strawberry Island stands at the mouth of the Beardslee Entrance. The gateway to a maze of homogenous islands. The birds eye view of our maps reveal their distinctive points, coves, and bays.
But when you paddle within them, their uniqueness vanishes, replaced by gradual rocky beaches leading up to forests of spruce, hemlock, alder, and cottonwood. Weaving through, it’s easy to imagine getting lost in a land of identical land masses that punctuate the water ways. Easy to get confused in a sea of conformity as you try to match the point on the map with the four similar ones you just paddled past.
But by the time we reach the entrance it all becomes clear. The lower bay leaps out from behind the islands and my eyes follow contours of the land north where the glaciers lay, advancing and retreating, never sleeping. You could spend years studying the geography of the bay and never know all of it. The price you pay for living in a land that is constantly changing. From the other boat Leah points toward a small cove that overlooks the entrance, the sun warming the rocks. I push down with my left foot and the boat concedes to my request, the stern swinging right.
A few hours ago we’d slipped through the cut on an uninspiring 10-foot high tide using the back door to slip into the Beardslee’s. In places the keel of our kayak whispered as it kissed the blue mussels and barnacles barely submerged at the high tide. A few years ago our boat would have safely passed through on a ten foot high, but with the land rising at three quarters of an inch per year, nothing can be taken for granted here. Maps routinely became obsolete within years, riverlets between islands viewed within varying degrees of suspicion, nothing was real until you’d paddled it, seen for yourself how much the bay had truly changed.
Our boat kisses off the rocks on the ebbing tide as we stretch stiff legs and backs like an old man rising from his favorite chair. A curtain of reed grass four feet high stands like a fence at the top of the beach. We stop and scan for a moment to see if our landing has stirred up a pair of black ears attached to a tan muzzle, but all is quiet save for the chorus of the birds, and the steady drone of a boat as it chugs north through Sitakaday Narrows, sharing the sound with the lower bay.
Names rattle off my tongue like long lost friends; Tlingit Point, Drake Island, Geikie Inlet, Marble Mountain. Somewhere above them are the glaciers of the west arm where undoubtedly, a pair of cruise ships throws wakes onto the beaches as they churn through Tarr Inlet.
“All that time on the water,” wrote Kim Heacox, “and never close to it.”
It made me sad to think about. How much of this place can’t be experienced from ten stories above. Isolated, withdrawn, with controlled heating, air conditioning, buffets, casinos and gift shops. But how many really did want to take a big drink of the land? Run their hands over the rocks, feel the laughter of the waves as they played with your boat, hear the Sea Lion roar, the Oystercatcher giggle? Unless things had changed drastically in the past few years, not many.
So we talk about what we can control, the people that do want to take a drink, see their reflection refracted back on the mirror of the ocean. Leah talks about finding common ground, guiding is more listening than speaking some times.
“No one ends up in Gustavus by accident,” I offer. “It’s deliberate.”
Leah nods, “a lot of the time we’re preaching to the choir. The people that want to go paddling care deeply about places like this, enough that they really want experience it. It’s up to us to inspire them to take what they see here and go home and in turn, inspire those that otherwise wouldn’t.”
It’s true, the climate change pharisee, the six figure oil employee isn’t the padding type. If they were they probably wouldn’t be what they are.
From the mouth of the west arm comes a great white monster, a cruise ship materializing, even dozens of miles away it plows south like a great floating skyscraper.
In the fall Leah travels to Canada and leads polar bear viewing trips. It is here, that she must fight to find common ground, to listen instead of speak.
“There are some that want to see the bears, but if they had to chose between their SUVs and oil development or polar bears, they’re taking the car. You have to find something in that moment they they’ll connect with, because for a lot of them, they’re not worried about what will happen to these places in the future.”
I feel cynicism and frustration rise in my chest. 70% of Americans claim to support environmental policies. But we’ve elected a congress that hasn’t passed a conservation policy in years.
Save the world. As long as it’s convenient.
I look back into the Beardslee’s the route we’d taken hidden and concealed by the optical illusions of dozens of points, coves, and forests. Every island looking the same, but in actuality so different.
The cruise ship grows larger, on board are thousands of people that look just like us, perched on the rocks. Perhaps that was the challenge, the goal of the naturalist and conservationist. To stop looking from above at these people where every difference was so obvious. To stop looking at the map of the Beardslee’s as it were, and to actually paddle it. So that we could both see that, we weren’t all that different.
“We have to find common ground,” Leah repeats, “even if it’s just for a moment.”

A Worthy Excuse

The sun finally glides below the outstretched tendrils of stand of spruce trees that line the yard, casting our house abruptly into twilight. A twilight that arrives at 8:00. Down the hall the washer growls and snarls as it tosses salt soaked wool and polyester in preparation for tomorrow.
On the edge of the couch I crouch, hunched over a laptop, back bent strangely as the muscles still struggle to loosen after digging into the seat of my kayak. The beer’s helping though as I take a sip, squint through my sun fatigued eyes, and type furiously.
Deadlines are never fun. What I really wanted to do was submit to the waterfall of hot water that Brittney was reveling in at that very moment. But the paper I’d snagged off the freelance website was basically done, good enough in fact.
The laptop snaps closed decisively and Porter raises his head a quarter of an inch, fully attuned to the room’s shifting energy. He shoots an optimistic look towards the sliding door and his playground beyond. A land of voles and dogs on what he hoped were reinforced tethers.
“And coyotes.” I remind him as I slip through the door and slide it shut behind me.     Too apathetic to even shoot me a steely eyed glare with his glacial eyes, he drops his head back to the edge of the couch, tail twitching indignantly.
In Gustavus virtually everything is within two miles and the Pathfinder sits neglected in the dandelion infested gravel driveway. A pair of easter green bikes lay haphazardly placed on the small concrete slab we’ve taken to calling a porch. 
    Brittney’s chain falls off reliably every half mile while the ring that holds my handlebars has been replaced by duct tape, the hand grips pointing down towards the ground, leaving me to grasp the very center of the handles like some lost and befuddled Lance Armstrong. But it moves when you peddle and the grocery store with our version of “lightening fast” internet isn’t far away.
How ironic, that in a few months, we’d be on an island in which we comprise two-thirds of the population and we’d be luxuriating in fiber optic cable internet. Granted, indoor plumbing and hot running water will have gone the way of the amish, but Netflix would be but a click away.
While here, in the crux of civilization, population 360, you had to bike a mile to reach a connection that would load your gmail sometime between now and sunrise.
The gravel road is inundated with dust. Even rain forests can have droughts, we just measure them in days instead of weeks and months while the salmon swim in holding patterns waiting for the rivers to rise and open the doorway home.
I glide through the stopsign at the lone intersection as the clock strikes nine and glance over my shoulder. Saturday night and the only restaurant in town was shutting down, another wild weekend. I look back ahead and hear my breaks squeak. Unbeknownst to me. My twilight cycle is not solitary.
A high patch of grass sits fifty yards ahead on the road’s left bank, a comma between two gravel driveways. Settled in the middle is a Gustavus lawn mower. The moose glances up nonchalantly, its mouth moving in the hypnotizing manner of ungulates, somehow horizontal and vertical simultaneously. At my sudden stop she takes an uncertain step towards me.
If she wants the road it’s all hers and I slide my bike to the left and onto the drive, opening up an avenue up the road or across toward the wooded ditch on the far side. She considers her options for a moment longer, and with an air of completely deserved entitlement begins to saunter across the road for the ditch, her hooves echoing on the concrete.
I watch her slow gait away, wishing she could stay longer instead of conceding to the higher powers of the willow on the far side that demanded her attention. Never breaking stride she vanishes into the wooded ditch, deceptively hidden from view like a magician’s illusion.
Hoping back aboard the bike I peddle past, she’s completely invisible, but this is not a stealthy phantom and her heavy footfalls let loose the crash and crack of brush cracking and bending to her will.
The yard in front of the store is thankfully moose free and I open the laptop to finish the days work, my mind already in a lava hot shower, steam billowing like campfire smoke.
“Here’s the assignment,” I scribble fast, “hope it works for you. Had to wait for a moose to clear the road before I could send it off.”
I smile at the beautiful inconveniences of my eden and hit the send button as the moose crashes through ditch 100 feet away.

Giving Up Control

Forty feet, forty tons, one ton per foot, half ton of herring per day each carrying as much fat as a Big Mac. For three summers I handed out quantitative factoids like science flavored tic tacs, sometimes three times a day with my brain sliding into auto pilot. I’d try to encompass the life history of a humpback whale before the engines roared above 3,000 RPMs, drowning out my voice.

And yet, there is a detached feeling from the bow of a boat, the railing a secure barrier between man and whale. You see them, hear them, hell, sometimes you can even smell them, the rotten smell of herring or the curiously enjoyable scent of cucumbers after they’ve been scarfing capelin. But you are separated, protected by that steel hull, the constant grumble of the boat engines. Yet the safety comes at the price of intimacy. There are memorable moments of course, the alarming sight of basketball sized bubbles encircling the boat, the high pitched scream of the feeding calls reverberating through my boots.

“John! We’re in the net!”

“Oh my,” the captain answered, sliding the boat smoothly into reverse, clearing the net just as ten mouths break the surface, herring and saltwater running down their throats.

But nothing compares to a humpback at sea level, from the seat of your kayak. With nowhere to run or hide, the whale in complete control of the encounter. The extraordinary recipe of fear, excitement, and pleasure as the tail rises, vanishes, and you realize that its pointed directly at you. Do you go forward? Backward? Turn towards or away? Is the whale going to swim straight or zig zag? Your mind pulls you deeper into the wormhole. Is it feeding? Lunging? Your stomach tightens, what if it lunges, you glance shiftily in the water below your boat, here? In your mind you see the massive maw, rocketing through the column like a rocket. There are no engines, no barriers, you are completely and entirely in their territory. What happens next is up to them.

“It’s not that I think they’d try to hurt me.” I explain, “it’s that they don’t have to try, all they have to do is shrug their shoulders and… you’re airborne.”

So you just bob in the currents, eyes shooting back and forth. You have five to ten long, spell binding, exhilarating minutes, like a drawn out suspense scene in a Hitchcock film, waiting. “You gotta breathe,” you whisper into the silence. No matter where the whale surfaces you just want it to happen, to break the tension.

On calm days you can see the shadow first, than a bulbous bulb of water as the whale rises, the water’s surface tension covering the body like cellophane. Until finally it breaks the surface, spent air shooting into the air like a volcano, the bass of the exhalation resonating in your chest.

And so a stupid grin spreads over your face, soft exclamations escape your lips as you sit under its spell until the back arches towards the sun, the tail hovers parallel to the sea for a brief moment, water dripping from the trailing edge, and finally vanishes, into the world that we cannot follow. For a few moments you bob in the whale’s wake, your heart pounding, fingers tingling, adrenaline coursing. And than you start to wonder… should I go forward? backward? The curtain has fallen, the next show will begin in ten minutes. Try to find something pretty to look at while you wait