For His Old Branches II

The rain falls as a fine drizzle, turning the surface of each rock and log smooth and slick. My body feels unbalanced, the chainsaw in one hand, oil and two stroke fuel in the other. Beyond the crunch of my boots against the loose rock the world is silent. Blackney Pass stands calm and tranquil. The vista slows my heart and mind. This view. How easy to glance past it after all these months. The islands and channels are worn into my mind like the creases and callouses on my hands. Swanson, Harbledown, Baronet, Cracroft, Blackfish. What names. They stir the imagination, fall smoothly from lips and tongue like water over stones. For years I stared at maps, brushing my fingers over their namesakes, their crude imitations of green and blue put to paper. Now? I see them every day. May the novelty never fade.

I bend over the chainsaw and pull the cord. Through my ear muffs I can hear and feel the vibrating base of the saw as it comes to life. Oil, fuel, and metal. In my hands, with the simple pull of a trigger, I become master of the woods. Capable of felling trees that have patiently grown for a millennia, evicting squirrel, thrush, and deer as the roar of progress and the thunder of manifest destiny march through the woods. But for this I have no desire. I could no sooner fell a growing Cedar than take a man’s life.

I head down the beach. I’m searching for a sacrifice. For a gift willing to disappear from the physical world through the chimney of our cabin leaving only a small pile of ash as a talisman. The log is weathered and worn, maybe a little water logged. But its location is good, and cutting this one opens up space to negotiate the nicer, friendlier logs behind it. I pull the safety, click the button, and the war cry of humanity echoes off the standing trees. I cut with my head down, the trigger pressed halfway. The sharpened chain cuts clean and smooth. No knots. No warping. What a tree it must have been. Before it was reduced to this. Reduced to laying naked on the rocks, it’s branches stripped, its roots severed. I love reading the stories of the old hand loggers. The one’s that went up Tribune channel just north of here. Each tree was selected with care. It had to be. For each one had to be felled just right and rolled into the ocean. Clearcutting wasn’t just unnatural, it was impossible. Hard work. Anything but glamorous. That I could do. No one hand logs anymore. Carve a road into the hills and forests. Strip the forest. Every. Last. Tree. This log I’m cutting is nothing more than a refugee.

Brittney joins the ritual. She wraps her arms around the rounds as they roll free and patiently walks them up the beach, dropping them with a thud that shakes the forest floor. The rain continues to fall, mixing with the sweat on my brow and back. Cutting wood always makes me perspire. I have no idea why. I’m just standing here after all.

I work with my back to the water, the incline slightly uphill. After a time I stop and rise, stretch my back, and turn. A tug and its massive tow fills the strait. It chugs south with diligence. The rumble of the massive diesel engines echo in my chest. My eyes fall on the tow and a snarl spreads across my face. A log tow. Hundreds, maybe thousands of logs lay piled a hundred feet high. A hundred logs high and a hundred wide. Plucked from the raincoast, heading south to await their fate. As what? I’d be lying if I said I knew. Homes? Mulch? Toilet paper? It makes little difference in the moment as a wave of disgust washes over me.

The chainsaw vibrates and slides over the rocks, bumping against my foot, reminding me of my hypocrisy, that I’m standing in three inches of sawdust. That I live in a wooden cabin. That the kayak my father is lovingly crafting for me is made of it. What if the wood for my kayak was once on a barge like this? What if it had been pulled south, past this lab. So that I could one day paddle the inlets it had once looked over.

What’s enough? What is ethical? What is right? The oil companies had a field day a few years back when Shell’s big oil platform pulled into Seattle. Hundreds of big hearted, environmentally conscious people took to the water in kayaks, many of them plastic. Floating thanks to an industry that allowed them to be there. Does that make them hypocrites? Does it muffle or mute the cause they stand for? Do I have a right to feel angry when a log tow goes by? Is it enough to say that I’m doing what I can and accept that it’s impossible to not impact the environment negatively in some way?

There’s no answer from the ocean. Hard to hear with these ear muffs on and the saw rumbling. Avocados from Mexico, bananas from California. Oil, carbon, trees, methane, melting ice caps, Republicans. Dear God. And I’m worried about a couple of trees?

“Do what you can with what you have.”

Who said that? Roosevelt I think. Teddy or Franklin? I can’t remember.

A pillar of Christianity is that we are imperfect and that Jesus does not require us to be. We need forgiveness because we’ll keep screwing up. I look down at the log and feel a shiver run down my neck as the sweat and raindrops cool on my shirt. I think about the book I’m writing, that I want to see published. More than one if I can pull the wool over the eyes of an editor. Books that will be published… on paper since stone tablets went out of style years ago.

Just because I’m an imperfect environmentalist doesn’t mean I shouldn’t, or can’t talk about it. For if we wait until we’re not harming it at all, we’ll be delivering the message on horseback in between long treks through the forest, hunting with sharpened sticks and rocks. Next summer I’ll sit in my wooden kayak, and I’ll do so without guilt. From its seat I can be an agent of change. I can touch the lives of thousands of people as I lead them into the wonder of Glacier Bay. Reminding them gently, patiently, that if we lose this we lose ourselves.

I pick up the chainsaw. I’d be lying if I said I felt good about it as the sawdust started to fly again. One by one we carry the rounds up the hill and to the chopping block to where our woodshed (made of wood) stands. Beyond it is the forest. A forest rebounding from logging. At its heart stands Grandma Cedar, the ancient tree that has survived so much, has seen it all. A forest that, if we keep talking about it, will never hear the sound of a chainsaw in its depths again.

Unexpected Good News is the Best News

I wanted to write about something happy. Something hopeful and uplifting. But for the last couple months, it’s been hard not to feel cynical. What with all the political news, the hate and xenophobia that has infested and captivated all of us whether we’re for it or against it. Even here, on Hanson Island. I quit social media cold turkey for a few days. Every time I logged on I got mad, frustrated, defeated.

But not today. Not tomorrow, probably not for the rest of the week. I needed good news, needed a victory, something to reinstall my faith in humanity. It was SeaWorld of all places, that delivered it. Yesterday the aquarium giant announced an end to the breeding of captive Orcas and “circus style” performances. The finish line is still in the distant future, but at least it’s now visible.

There is of course, a PR spin on this, pivoting around the tenants of “world class care” and “more natural encounters.” We can peruse and scrutinize this is we want, but it’s been clear since the moment that Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau’s ponytail, that SeaWorld couldn’t continue in its current state. Ever since it’s been a gradual slide. From the proposed ending of the circus shows in San Diego, to the “Blue World” proposal. Yesterday, SeaWorld in a way, admitted defeat. Though they’ll never come out and say it, announcing an end to captive breeding and by association, an end to Orca’s in captivity is admitting what animal activists have been saying for years. There is no ethical or conceivable way to keep a massive and intelligent animal in captivity.

Tilikum’s pending death may have had something to do with the announcement. The loss of one of their few breeding males would make the genetic logistics of their breeding program even more difficult and SeaWorld may have been planning for such an announcement. This is all speculation of course. Maybe they looked at their plummeting stocks, attendance records, and a new generation raised on Free Willy and realized there was no future.

But today, I’m not concerned with why SeaWorld is doing what they’re doing, or what their motives were. Today is one of celebration with potential domino effects sweeping across the globe. The end of breeding includes SeaWorld subsidiary Lolo Parque, home to four other Orcas and puts added pressure on the Miami Seaquarium, a small aquarium that is home to  Lolita, a southern Resident who has been in captivity nearly as long as Corky of the northern Residents. Without big brother to hide behind, the spotlight falls more brightly on Miami to, if nothing else, end their performance shows.

With SeaWorld’s focus on low adrenaline and educational shows, the door remains cracked for Corky to come home. After more than 45-years in captivity the prospect of Corky rejoining the A5s and swimming a hundred miles a day seems daunting. But just west of OrcaLab is a long, deep cove called Dong Chong Bay. It was here that Springer, an orphaned and lost Orca was successfully reintroduced to the wild. It would be both poetic and fitting for Corky to live out her days in the bay, chasing wild fish, hearing and associating with her family under the excellent care and attention that SeaWorld has touted for years.

As we celebrate, it’s important to remember the war is not over. Dolphins, Sea Lions, otters, penguins, and polar bears remain large parts of the SeaWorld empire. And while Orcas have deserved the lion’s share of the activism and spotlight, the time has come to tell them that more can be done. The dolphin trade remains one of the more despicable and darker aspects of human kind, with the dolphins life in captivity no better than the Orcas.

I never thought this day would come. I assumed SeaWorld would go down with the ship, beating the drum of education and quality care until they disappeared from existence. But, out of nowhere, they did the right thing. And for that they need to be applauded, commended, and encouraged to do more.

Dear Tilikum

Dear Tilikum,

First, I apologize for not writing this sooner. I’m sure you could have done with some more reading material with all your down time. I mean, how many times can you read the Harry Potter series before your eyes start to cross? What have you heard about this Harry Potter world in Orlando? Seems a bit silly if you ask me. Anyway…

May I call you Tilly? Tilikum just seems too aggressive. An unfair name for an unfair life I suppose. I don’t know what they’re telling you when they drop herring down your throat, inject you with antibiotics, and do whatever horrors they must to keep an amazing animal like you alive in such horrid conditions, but it’s not your fault.

None of it. You understand?

Anyone torn from their family, abused by strangers, and penned up in the dark night with the walls inches from their flippers would do the same. Let no one tell you different. In our desperate hours we do desperate things. You, like the rest of the wild world, is best left alone. To be revered, admired, and loved from a distance. Something we want to reach out and touch but can’t, or at least shouldn’t. He who loves a flower does not pick it to watch it whither and die in a jar. You water it, tend it, keep the weeds away. You should have been no different. Left to flourish in your aquatic garden. Left to swim next to your mother for your entire life, your birthright.

From the moment you were born you had everything you needed. But humans are an unsatisfied race. We’re not a happy race. We’re angry, we’re violent, we do unspeakable things to each other just because we have different ideologies, different skin colors. And sometimes, a lot of the time, that cup overflows, the toxic water splashing onto the innocent, precious species of this earth. Species like yours. Orca’s learned long ago to live and let live. Residents, Transients, Icelandic, Offshore. No wars, no clashes, not until we pushed you all together, in a tiny pen, and told you to get along.

I know you’re not feeling well Tilly. I don’t know how dire it really is. It’s hard to trust anything that SeaWorld releases. But it seems like you’ll be leaving us soon. I hope you’re not in pain, that you can breathe easy. I wish I could say that I hope you get well. But I don’t. The release of death is probably the most humane thing that can happen. Let that spirit go. Leave that imprisoned body. At long last, be free.

Do Orca’s have an afterlife? Here in B.C they’ve documented what may have been an Orca burial. Observers saw a mother disappear near a cleft in the rocks with her dead calf and return to her pod without it. Is it a burial ritual? Or are we anthropomorphizing you? Our arrogant human egos selling you short yet again? Wherever you’re off to next, I know it’ll be better, I hope you love it. Few Orca’s deserve it more.

When you take your last breath, when you finally fade away, please remember this. You are not alone. You are loved, and there are millions of people across the globe standing up and screaming at the injustice that has been your life. Your life, your death, will not be in vain. And the day is coming when the tanks will be empty. When the Orca will no longer be a commodity but a wonder. A sentient being instead of an asset. We’re going to keep fighting Tilly, in your memory, in your honor. I pray you know that there are humans that are good and decent to all creatures great and small.

Rest in peace Tilly. You are missed, you are loved, you are not forgotten.

Photo Courtesy of: http://kepplar.deviantart.com/journal/HELP-FREE-TILIKUM-425641192

The Garden: A Plea for our Parks, Monuments, and Refuges

I wonder if Abbey ever felt this way, or Muir, or Roosevelt. A sort of melancholy joy that all of this is fleeting. Perhaps I worry too much. It’s hard not to. In a time when we need wildness more than ever, it’s never been more threatened. One need look no further than the skulking figures of the right, elbowing and jostling each other for the opportunity to be commander and chief. Debates have become nothing more than four amateur comedians, dropping punchlines and waiting for the laughs that aren’t coming. But between the childish jokes of genitalia and chest thumping, they have declared war. Not on ISIS, hispanics, the middle class, or China. But on us. On the final fragments of American history.

The Party or Lincoln has become the Party of More. Blame it on Reagonomics, the Koch brothers, Ted Cruz’s jowls, it doesn’t really matter. Regulate a women’s body, regulate marriage, but God forbid that the steam rollers of industry should be slowed. Away with the EPA, usher in the era of fracking. What goes into the bank account matters more than what goes into our bodies. Away with the public lands, those worthless wastes of space, those dollar bills hanging from the branches, just waiting to be plucked.

“If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them.” Ronald Reagan said.

“If you’ve seen one hundred dollar bill, you’ve seen them all.” I say. “The only thing more foolish than trying to drink your money is trying to breath it.”
10329274_10152863254909852_4693130274254238988_n
Herein lies the danger. Herein lies the tragedy. Ted Cruz has already tried to put an end to the miracle that is public lands—our national parks, our monuments, and wildlife preserves. America’s greatest gift to itself. It twists my stomach into knots. Take my healthcare but not the bay, not Denali, not the Arctic Refuge, these shrines to the world that made us. I’ve met several people who, on their deathbed, ran north. To Alaska. To see the land wild and free. Not to see oil wells or mining sites. But that seems to mean little. Give him a big enough eraser and he’ll wipe them all out. Those wastes of space. All those trees and bays and wolves and bears. Refuges and refugees, two concepts that fall on deaf ears. Give me your poor, your tired, your weak… nevermind, some oil subsides will do fine. Conservative and conservation, similar in spelling alone.

This is our own fault. Nature, wilderness, is mythic to some, a fairy tale to many. Something that may or may not exist somewhere beyond the city limits where the concrete may or may not end. An ideological Bigfoot. It’s somewhere our phone’s don’t work and wi-fi fades away. Many never see them. And we’ve lost all connection to how bad we need them.

Air? It comes from the air of course. Food? From the grocery store. Water? It comes from the tap. Trace the journey of these substances and you arrive at the same place. Soil growing food, trees producing the air and filtering our water. Forgetting that relationship is toxic. Ask the children of Flint, Michigan. Ask the families of Butte, Montana about the “pennies from hell.”

“Growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness,” wrote Edward Abbey.

Let us define mankind not by what we can extract and obtain, but by what we can leave alone. Let us not define ourselves by our consumption, but by our self control. Do we have the courage, the willpower to push ourselves away from the petroleum feast, to announce that we’re full? There are bigger things, more worldly things, and yes, more Godly things than maximizing profit on every square foot of land.
10151271_10152867795959852_442814964723618859_n
What if we stopped looking at the world like a factory and instead like a garden? A plot that must be nurtured, cared for, fed, and watered. Treated with the understanding that what we take out must be replaced. Minerals and matter must be returned to ensure that the carrots, potatoes, and lettuce of life return bigger, fresher, and tastier next year. Foolish is the farmer who doesn’t renew his soil with fertilizer, who stuffs his rows of lettuce tightly together, believing that the highest quantity planted will equal the maximum yield. Shame to the farmer who doesn’t let a field go fallow. Let the land rest, let it breath, let it be land for a year. And like us after a deep breath, it will work harder, the benefits in a year outweighing the one that was lost.

But the world doesn’t work like this. We can’t stand the thought of letting a portion go fallow. Of not maximizing our yield right now. Forget the future. The future is now isn’t it? The TV told me so. Those that see the world as a garden are shouted down. We’re labeled as extremists, alarmist, other harmful -ists, standing in the way of progress. Good old progress the shield of the conservative politician. But you’ll never hear a politician, pounding the lectern, demanding that he be allowed to frack the tar sands of Utah labeled extremist. He’s just living in the real world. A world where the economy can grow forever. Infinite growth, finite world. His birthright. If we’re not moving forward we must be going backward.
10312681_10152863254884852_4060311875310743348_n.jpg
Will our offspring a century from now look back on us with admiration or disgust? Will we be revered like the minuteman or demonized like the slaveholder? The one’s that took a renewable world and saw it only for what it could do in that very moment. At least we made some money. But is that how we want to be remembered, is that what we want inscribed upon our gravestone?

 Here lies the modern world. The bottom line looked good.

Surely even the most selfish cannot desire to be remembered like this. Let’s be remembered for our love, for our sacrifice, for our restraint. Let a tree be a tree. A refuge a refuge. A fishery a fishery.

“Any fool can destroy trees,” wrote John Muir. “For they cannot run away.”

To which I add, any fool can do something for profit. It takes a man of true character, true conviction, to see a resource, to see personal wealth, and leave it where it is, acknowledging that there are some fields that should always be fallow. We’ll survive without it. The farmers to follow will thank us.

45543_488769164851_2875335_n

A Love Note for the Raincoast

Everyone has a natural habitat. A place that fuses perfectly with their soul, their love, their passions. Some may spend their entire life looking for it, opening and closing doors, rambling from place to place, searching for the location that moves in rhythm to their beating heart. I grew up in Eagle River, Alaska. A town that sits at the mouth of a valley, carved out by glaciers millennia ago. I loved watching the mountains turn the color of flames every fall as the birch trees downed their autumn best. Loved the female moose that would come down from those wise old mountains every spring to give birth in the safety of our neighbors yard. I loved my family, loved my friends, loved my school.

I had to get out.

Everyone needs to get out of their hometown, at least for a little while. If for nothing else than to look at some different mountains or buildings or street signs. I went north. To Fairbanks. 50 below and blowing snow.

“Not even close,” I thought.

I have since found a land where I fit snugly in its hand. In some ways, it’s not that much different from where I grew up. Glacier’s are the architect, but the valleys are filled with water, and rain falls more than snow. For years I hung a map of my natural habitat in my dorm room. Greens and blues dominated the map, towns and settlements little more than punctuation in the epic tale that requires nothing but imagination.
The raincoast, how I love it. From Vancouver Island up her spine of islands and into the shining face of the Alexander Archipelago, through southeast Alaska, following the march of the glaciers. And it is here that I pinball back and forth. From Hanson Island to southeast Alaska. Fjording fjords. Cruising past canals. Passing through passes. I could live a thousand years and never tire of exploring the silent coves and hidden secrets of this land, never camping in the same place twice, no two sunrises the same, each Orca encounter more enthralling and exhilarating than the last.

I love Alaska, I love British Columbia. For how can I refuse the chance to sit inches above the water and stare at the glacier’s that still stand guard at the headwaters of many an Alaskan fjord? And how can I ever turn away from the rich smell of cedar infused forest in the early morning light, the fog burning off of Blackfish Sound? The world becoming whole, feeling both old and new with each passing day.
8086_10151351163234852_1520975010_n
Early on in the winter we knew that six more months wouldn’t be enough. The glacier’s of our summer home beckon, our jobs as kayak guides await. But… what can I say? Hanson Island gets into your blood, syncs with your heart and spirit the way few places can. Can you love two places so fiercely you can’t live without either?

Early December, a rare calm day along the B.C coast. Brittney and I sit in the cabin, watching the sun struggle above the mountains of Vancouver Island. Before either of us open our mouths we know what the other will say. That two winters is not enough. That we need another winter with ears cocked to the speakers, waiting for the first whisper of an Orca’s voice. Another winter watching the deer trace the shoreline, sucking up every strand of kelp that washes ashore.
11008650_10155365472945858_1720255889708099310_o
“We’re so blessed,” Brittney says. “Our biggest problem is we can’t chose between the two places that we love.”

It’s true. For all our talk of buying property, settling down, being “normal,” Hanson Island doesn’t encourage normalcy. How can it? It’s founded on the tenants of faith in yourself, conviction, and passion. Pillars that don’t lead to nine to five jobs and mortgages in the suburbs. Every day I look out the window to where the lab stands on the rocks. I think of the time, the effort, the sacrifice, and risk that Paul, Helena, and countless others poured into this place. Out of a love for whales, for quiet places and open spaces, from a belief that man still can coexist with the world we seem determined to exterminate. To be a small piece in that, what a tremendous honor, to know these people not just as passing acquaintances, but as friends and mentors. It is this above all that pulls me back.

“I came for the place, I stayed for the people,” wrote Kim Heacox in The Only Kayak.

Ironically he was writing about Glacier Bay, the other place that pulls at our heartstrings. A place filled with beautiful people. A community defined by the bay, the Beatles, and bluegrass.
37367_467283714851_8103409_n
But we’re not ready to chose, not ready to force it. I want to drag myself out of bed at three in the morning because there’s Transients in Robson Bight. I want the tide and weather to determine when I go grocery shopping. I want to hear Paul’s smiling voice on the other end of the phone. When we walk away, we’ll never live like this again. Never have sea lions as neighbors, or have Harlequins knock on our front door. We are unique, we are blessed, we are insanely lucky.

Every day in the summer we’re asked the same question, “what do you do in the winter?”

And when we answer the follow up question is always the same, “what do you do there?”
292906_10151433415214852_720328661_n
How to explain that it is not what we do but why and for who we do it  that makes it so special. I watch the sun rise, listen to the ocean, talk to the trees, bond with the mink, and glorify the Orca. And above all, give thanks that I can have both places for another year.