The Luxuries of Wilderness

The boat grazes the rocks and rocks and Brittney steps onto the bow. The gentle landing is short lived as a three foot wave picks us up and throws with a dull thud against the shore. Line in hand Brittney leaps clear of the bucking boat and lands nimbly on the jagged rocks of Cracroft Point. The engine pulled up and the line unsecured, the boat is at the mercy of Johnstone Strait, a strait that seems apathetic towards the BC weather’s promise of a calm afternoon. White caps dot the surface and their thunderous crashes against the point’s steep shore is intimidating. I grab the bag and leap for the shore as another wave lifts the boat and sets it down, landing just clear of the water as the wave swirls around my boots.

Brittney handles the line like a cowboy handling a mustang, goading the boat into a small crevice in the rocks and out of the path of the largest breakers. She’s got this. Without a backwards glance I scurry into the woods, wielding a bottle of oil in one hand and a flathead screw driver in the other. The generator demands an oil change. A few feet inside the treeline the sound of the wind and waves is muffled, as if I’m listening to it with a pillowcase pulled over my head. Trying not to rush, I flip the generator on its side and unscrew the covering.

It’s incredible how much goes into keeping this place running. And even more amazing how inept it can make you feel. Between the electronics, the power sources, and internet connections, not to mention the mechanical nuances of boat repair, tree climbing, diving, and deciphering whatever voodoo it is that allows us to stream the hydrophones 24/7. Paul and Helena are probably the only two people on earth that know how it all works. It’s staggering to imagine anyone else with the combination of skills they’ve acquired in thirty some years. In the last two winters I’ve learned how to set up inverters, decipher internet connections, and giving myself more than a couple of nice shocks as I learned the difference between AC and DC. I’ve nicked the tip of the iceberg.

The oil comes out as black as night and as thick as molasses. Better late than never I suppose. I funnel the remaining oil into an old bottle and refill the generator with clear, syrupy  10W-30. Brittney appears at my side, the boat nestled in its crib.

We glorify wilderness. We consider ourselves disciples from the school of John Muir and Edward Abbey. And yet… look at what goes into surviving out here. Granted, I wouldn’t be crouched over the generator if there wasn’t an internet connection to maintain. But I can’t imagine the time and effort that it would require without 50 horsepower strapped to the boat, or a grocery store 45-minutes away. Even the men that sparked my love of wilderness had some indulgences. Abbey spent a lot of time living in a trailer, a propane stove and cot at his disposal. Heck, even John Muir had a rotating cast of savvy and tree smart Tlingit’s escorting him on his paddle trips through the Alaskan archipelago. Is the glorification of wilderness a luxury? Would Travels in Alaska and Desert Solitaire been written without them?

The oil in the funnel burps and I sit the generator upright, dipping the dipstick into the oil reservoir, the pale gray plastic coming back with a clear, reassuring shine. Would I deify the forest and ocean if my days were dedicated to ensuring my survival? I don’t know. Muir was mortified at the audacity of his Tlingit guides to shoot at deer on the beach as they paddled past. He would rock the boat so that there shot would go wide. A respect and love of nature to be sure. But for his Tlingit guides, it had to be analogous to going to the fridge only to have someone slam it shut. Not everyone has the luxury of hardtack and tea.

I screw the covering back on the generator and pull the start cord. It roars to life on the second try, spitting blue/white exhaust into the air, the southeast breeze sending it into the forest. Is my love of nature threatened by the very things that help me adore it? The avocados from Mexico and bananas from Belize that spare me the cumbersome task of crawling through the woods in search for all that is edible. Would I miss the forest for the trees and the tasty mushrooms that grow on their trunks?

This isn’t meant to belittle Muir or Abbey, two men I admire as both writers and preservationists. But would such men have been the same if they’d stalked across the western frontier a century earlier? Would that convenience have existed if Muir had been born a seal hunter? The glaciers not a monument to be marveled but a threat to his existence? Perhaps it’s as simple as saying that they were the right people, at the right time, writing the words that needed to be written to stave off humanity’s insatiable consumption of the very thing that makes us whole.

I pull the boat out of its protective crevice and the ocean roars up around it. I hold her as steady as I can until Brittney leaps aboard. With a heave I push the boat clear of the rocks and slide across the ocean soaked bow, clamoring over the top and into the relative protection of the cabin. The engine roars to life. A marvel of human engineering and brilliance. But without the miracle of organic compounds slowly compressed over millions of years it would be nothing more than a five hundred pound paperweight.

Maybe the Tlingit and Kwakiutl Indians loved wilderness the same way the European nature writers did, simply in a different way. Perhaps their love had  matured after centuries of marriage to the natural world. Their love expressed in the familiar and comfortable way a couple does after being married for thirty years, while Muir, Abbey, Brittney and I are in the honeymoon stage, breaking free of the society and concrete that compresses our chests and sends us running for the woods.

Water rolls over the top of the boat as the nose dips into the trough of a wave. Blackney Pass is sheet of white caps. I steer for Parson Island, we’ll take the longer, more comfortable way home.

 

 

 

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The Hanson Island Equivalent of the Milk Run

Johnstone strait is empty. A gentle northwest wind ripples down the passage, pushing my tiny boat east. Have I ever seen the strait completely devoid of human existence? I can’t remember, I certainly haven’t in summer. There were nights when the the fishing fleet anchored against the Vancouver shoreline drowned out the stars with their anchor lights. I’d lay on the deck at the Cracroft Point outcamp looking across the strait, the lights bobbing like little lanterns from Robson Bight to Telegraph Cove.

But today it’s just me, in my glorified bathtub of a boat. The wind and damp air makes me shiver beneath my sweater. The strait feels odd in winter, devoid of boats, kayaks, and Orcas. I glance hopefully at the green carpeted shoreline of Vancouver Island, looking for the rhythmic rise and fall of a scimitar shaped fin.

The mountains free fall thousands of feet straight into the ocean. Their peaks smothering the sun as we pivot around the winter solstice. But their shadows turn the strait emerald green. It was this color that I remembered more than anything during my six year hiatus from this place. The trees bearded in lichen, their shadows falling into the water. They silhouette the black and white backs of the whales when they’re here. Complimenting each other perfectly, like the entwined fingers of two lovers.

The boat plows through a rain cloud and drops pepper the windshield. I’m on my way from Alert Bay to the lab, with a couple of pit stops along the way.

“On your way home, could you run the generators at CP and Parson Island?” Paul asks as if he’s asking me to pick up a gallon of milk at the store.

Our power issue has become something of a saga. With all of technologies marvels, line of sight is still tantamount to keeping our daisy chained internet connection established. The signal runs from Alert Bay and on a line above me and the boat to CP, its white lighthouse and the lab’s green shack materializing out of the fog. The signal is bounced from CP across the water a mile to Parson Island. This allows the connection to round the eastern corner of Hanson Island. From Parson it’s a straight shot to the lab. But if we lose power at either CP or Parson, the system crumbles like Jenga. And with the solar panels choked for sunlight, a spotty inverter at CP, and a cranky generator on Parson, keeping the HD cameras up and streaming has become a daily battle. The rain abates as the boat brushes up against the rocks at CP. The tide is low and I crawl on hands and knees up the rocks and into the woods where the generator lives, connected by extension cords to the insatiable solar batteries.

It’s only three in the afternoon but the sun long ago vanished behind Vancouver Island’s mountains. The rain cloud I’d passed is barreling for me. With little ceremony I pull the cord on the generator, set the choke, and climb back into the boat. The 50 hp Yamaha engine roars to life and I pull away from the rocks, leaving nothing but waves lapping against the shore.

The journey up Parson Island to the batteries takes you up a cliff face and through a rich display of Cedar, Spruce, and Hemlock, adorned in lichens that stick to your hat and drip water down your back. The fog settles in  as I step out onto the cliff face where the camera, radio, and batteries are stored. Hanson Island just a quarter mile away vanishes behind the veil. With much protesting the generator powers up. Its voice like that of a smoker, coughing, hacking, and wheezing as it dispels precious power to the battery bank.

The rain has caught up. I wrap my arms around my knees and pull my hat tight over my ears, waiting to see if the generator will run reliably. The calm water swirls with countless eddies and currents, bustling this way and that, their origin and destination no one’s business but their own. Atop them sit murres and murrelets, gulls and auklets. The land is silent save for the gull’s squawks and the exasperated yells of the murres. The weather threatens snow. It feels cold enough. In the distance I can make out the tendrils of smoke from our cabin through the fog. But as tired and cold as I am, I’m not ready to go home just yet. The sun slides clear of the mountain peaks for a moment and turns the fog gold, the rain drops glow like diamonds.

From my vantage point I can see out into Johnstone Strait, the stretch of water that has changed and defined my life, has changed so many lives. But not in winter. In winter the land and ocean seems to hibernate. Queuing up for another summer that will bring the boats, the kayaks, the people, and the animals that pull them like great magnets. But for now, it’s great to watch it sleep.

Finding Light

Brittney has a great capacity for love. This compassion stretches deep through the animal kingdom. Every feather, every ball of fluff. Whether they have no legs, four legs, or eight legs, she cares for them all. A couple years ago she stopped killing spiders (or more accurately having me kill spiders) and insisted that they be relocated outside. Her fear of our wall climbing, web spinning roommates was no justification for murder. She still scrolls through the Juneau Humane Society website, cooing over ever whiskered face while our cat Porter looks at her with a betrayed look on his face.

Factory farming, greyhound racing, the egg industry, and of course, captivity all have room for remorse in her heart. And while many would turn their head, or acknowledge their plight and move on, Brittney doesn’t seem capable of that. She won’t rest until every “fur baby” is safe, happy, healthy.
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“Do you think they know that there’s people in the world that care? She asks as she fills out another petition to abolish greyhound racing. That there are people trying to help them?”

“I hope they do,” I say. Though I don’t know how they can.
I look at the picture on the screen, a greyhound with dark empty eyes alone in a crate, it’s head resting on a beam. It looks defeated. I feel sadness when I see this, but anger is my primary emotion. Anger and disgust. At the greed of man. Our selfishness. At the lengths we will go for profit. Our obsession and worship for the man made ideal, money. Somehow it’s become the measuring stick for our species. We’ll obliterate whatever is in our way to obtain it. Greyhounds, orcas, the very world we live in. How is it that we’ve forgotten that we cannot live without the natural world we insist on pillaging? Infinite growth in a finite world. Not the American dream, but the global fantasy.

I look back down at the picture, my mind returning to the present. The knot in my chest tightens, my heart rate increases. How could man look at this and not be enraged? Yet here is the proof that ambivalence lives.

It’s another storm ridden night at the lab. Similar Paul points out, to the night Corky was captured. It was a wave capped, howling winter gale when her family innocently swam into Pender Harbour and had their life change forever. In the name of corporate gain and human entertainment. How can we look at ourselves in the mirror?

Do you think they know that there’s people in the world that care?

Corky seems to. Why else would she withstand this torture, humiliation, and pain for so long? Does she believe there are others beside the ignorant masses that stand on the other side of the glass and snap photos with their camera phones?

“Corky’s plight makes me sad,” says Brittney, “but I feel more impassioned by factory farming, by animal testing. There’s millions of animals that die inhumanely, that live terrible lives. It’s 2015, but we’re more barbaric than ever.”

“Look what we do to our own species.” I answer, “we can’t stop murdering each other and we’re asking that same species to have compassion for other animals?”

Yet this is where we are. I pour whiskey over ice and settle on the couch. Here I am, in the middle of the natural world, and I can’t escape. ISIS, immigration, Donald Trump, SeaWorld, climate change. Running to the woods won’t make them go away.

“It’s important,” I remind Brittney, “not to get bogged down in the negative.” I’m reminding her as much as myself. “Our media, our world feeds off of negativity. It gets clicks, draws traffic in a way that heart warming, positive stories don’t. Seek these out, hang on to them. Celebrate the victories, the joy, the beauty. Because it is there. Even in darkness there is always some light.”
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The chainsaw roars. I follow the ebbing tide down the beach, accepting the sacrifice of a massive Fir tree. It’s a beautiful piece of wood, undoubtedly an escapee from a passing barge. It didn’t deserve to be cut, but at least its death won’t be in vain. The sharpened teeth on the saw litters the rocks with wood shavings as I cut into the sweet smelling wood.

At the end of the log I stand and stretch the ache in my back, looking over Blackney Pass, over paradise. I drop the chainsaw and feel my heart lift. Blackney teems with life. Hundreds of gulls swarm a fifty yard patch of ocean in numbers so thick they look like a great feathered cloud. The bait ball has not gone unnoticed. An armada of eagles roar in from the trees, great black wings punctuating the ball of white. I count at least thirty eagles, shuttling back and forth between the trees near the cabin and the ocean. Again and again they swarm overhead, the silvery flashes of sand lance clasped tightly in their talons. Life, sustenance.
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Brittney and I fall under their trance, the log lays forgotten at my feet. A lump rises in my throat. Why does this feeding frenzy have tears coming to my eyes? Because after everything the land has endured. Clear cutting, fish farms, live captures, predator control. They’re still here. The orca’s are still here. Is the world perfect? No. But here is a victory, here is joy. Here is a chance to celebrate.

“Do you know what I see?” I ask pointing out at the surging biomass before us.

Brittney looks at me, her eyes softened, the light glowing in her pupils.

“Hope.”

 

My Life as an Orca DJ

It starts with dolphins. They giggle like jackals, punctuated by the dull thuds of their echolocation. I shut my eyes and let the sounds of dolphins, crashing waves, and 30 knot winds rock me back to sleep. Moments later my eyes open. I sit up, Brittney’s feet swing out of the bed. The dolphins aren’t alone. The hee-haw of a donkey floats through the speaker that sits on the shelf just above our bed. G clan’s back.

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“My turn,” Brittney mutters like the mother of a new born and staggers down the stairs, out the door, and to the lab. Moments later her voice comes out of the speaker as she begins the recording, mixing with the sounds of swirling water and cackling dolphins.

“This is Brittney, this is Hanson Island 2015, digital recording number…” my head hits the pillow and I drift away.

For the next few hours I fade in and out, coming to just long enough to see Brittney isn’t back and that the whales are still calling. They’re faint, maddeningly faint, but there. Three hours after they first pulled Brittney from the bed I rise. It’s a moonless December night with the clouds building for another low front, 7 am and still pitch black.

Brittney takes little convincing to go back to bed. She’s been at it since four and the whales seem to have barely moved. Their voices still distant in Johnstone Strait, at the limits of the Critical Point hydrophone. What compelled them to sit in one place and talk about it for so long? I wrap my sweater around me and feel the lab vibrate as another gust hits the south facing windows. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and brace myself as another tug rolls into range. The sound grows to a deafening roar, the orca’s voices extinguished. Feeling guilty I pull the headphones off and rub the headache emerging from my temple. If only they had such luxury.

The tug moves on and they’re still there. G clan somebody. I31s perhaps? Even Paul and Helena can’t say for sure. These late nights remind me of summer. When late night recording sessions were the norm rather than the exception. It’s warmer in July though. And the sun’s there to keep you company starting at about four in the morning. I am the night shift orca DJ, playing the hits of the A, G, and R clan on 92.1 the WHALE.

At long last the darkness lightens a shade, the whales almost inaudible, Vancouver Island distinguishable as a darker shade of black against a slowly lightening sky. The sun finds a gap and a splash of color transforms the world from black and grey. It’s all worth it. The water and mountains light up like ta water color and the orca’s go quiet. Maybe they too are watching the sun rise.

The sunrise doesn’t last long, extinguished by another fog bank rolling in. Waves topped with whitecaps intensify, the rain strikes like pebbles. Twenty minutes with no calls, than twenty-five, thirty, are they gone? A couple summers ago the A36s played a horrible trick on me, sitting silent in Robson Bight until I would end the recording before letting out a whispered giggle, letting me know that they were still awake and I should be too.
The I31s don’t have their sense of humor though. I end the recording and walk back to the cabin. The tree tops swirl and the waves thunder into the rocks twenty feet away on the high tide. My job, my office, my life. And to think a few years ago I was ready to work in a lab, studying herring bioenergetics. Let someone else wear the labcoat. I’ll go to the office in slippers and flannel.