Midnight Humpbacks

Another year with no trick or treaters on Hanson Island. I shudder to imagine what we’d do if we heard a knock on the door right now. We’d glance terrified at one another, bodies taut, legs weak, hands shaking. What the hell? No one whose ever knocked on the door of a cabin on the rocks at 10:00 at night has ever done so with good intentions. But the night is calm and seems to be low on ghoulish or spiritual skullduggery. After a stormy month, it’s nice to hear the quiet. There’s not even boat traffic. All that comes out of the hydrophones is the occasional gurgle of water and the unexplained static like crackles.

But despite the quiet and despite the darkness, we’re not alone. Outside the door are sea lions and seals and mink and dolphins, and tonight, humpbacks. They never seem to favor the Hanson shore during the day. When they could be photographed and possibly identified. No, they wait until the sun disappears and the clouds devour what little moon there is. But in the pitch black, we can hear them. Their deep booming breaths shake the window as they surface somewhere out beyond the curtain of night.

And time and time again I rise from my seat and step out onto the porch. It’s not like I can’t hear them from inside. But somewhere embedded in my DNA is an instinct as natural as breathing. Go to the whales. I stand on the edge of the porch, my bare feet gripping the slippery wood. Out of habit I count the blows. One… two… three… Three!? When was the last time there was three humpbacks in front of the lab? In between their surfacings is the sound of sea lions. Their exhalations are minuscule next to their cetacean neighbors. They’re like flies. They zip and dive around the humpbacks, why no one really knows. Maybe their picking off stray fish, using the whales for protection from Transients, or maybe it’s a game. Some sort of Sea Lion chicken to see who can get closest to a 15-foot flipper and not get bludgeoned to death.

There’s something about whales at night. I love whales at night. Let’s be honest, I love them at all hours, but something about hearing them but not seeing them hits me hard. Humpback or Orca, hydrophone or above water makes no difference. I love to listen. It goes back to a night more than ten years ago, not far from where I live and write.

Eleven Years Ago:

It’s past midnight. The only dark stretch of this July night. I’m asleep in a two man tent with my Father when my eyes snap open. I sit upright in my sleeping bag, that DNA kicking on for the first time. I know what I heard, the only question is; was it in my dream. I only have to wait a few seconds when I hear it again.

Blows. Lots of them.

I spring out of my sleeping bag—Dad right behind—and step out onto the rocks. Johnstone Strait is ten feet away and five feet down. And somewhere in that eternal blackness, they’re swimming. Orcas. I hear them but can’t see them. It’s infuriating. We’ve traveled hear to see them, not hear them swim tantalizingly by just feet away. From my knees I stretch out into the nothingness above the water, eyes straining, heart praying. But they’re moving on. Going west.

Two days later I got my wish when the A36s, a trio of male Orcas swim past in the morning. From the seat of my kayak I watched Kaikash, Plumper, and Cracroft cruise by. If only I’d known their names that day. I would have paddled out and introduced myself.

Today I don’t mind. Let them approach in the dark and scurry across to the shadow of Harbledown Island in the sun. Even as I write the humpbacks continue to move back and forth in Blackney Pass. Sometimes close, sometimes further away. But in the stillness I can hear them, mixing with the sounds of the hydrophone, the crackling of the fire, and the snoring of the cat.

Home.

Somewhere along the way, this place became home. One of them at least. It can be easy to take some of the miracles of Hanson Island for granted when it’s at your feet 24-hours a day. But not tonight. Not when the humpbacks surface and reawaken the boy inside that fell in love with it all eleven years ago.

The Question

There’s not much in the way of trails around here. Not that it’s too important on this island. Enough old growth is still around that the undergrowth is open in a lot of places. It’s easy to get lost, easy to get carried away walking through those big old trees. Especially on days like today after a heavy rain last night. The afternoon sun slashes through the trees like a sword through fabric, illuminating the mist rising from the moss choked floor. Water droplets cling to cedar needles like diamonds on a necklace. An iridescent glow in each one holding a little flicker of the sun.

Today I’m poking along a stretch that’s part trail part tree root. I hop a stream threatening to be promoted to class five rapids after the downpour. Soon after the trail becomes more defined. I take a deep breath. It feels so good buried in the woods. In Japan they have what they call forest bathing. In simple terms it is nothing more complicated than being in the presence of trees. The idea is that the air doesn’t just taste better in the woods, it actually is better. Essential oils like phytoncide found in trees actually improve immune system function. The forest isn’t just a tonic for the soul like the apostles Muir and Thoreau wrote about. It’s like taking vitamins.

I’m walking this trail to see someone who knows that better than anyone. I’ve written about Walrus several times before. For those that don’t know who this incredible man is, here’s the cliff notes version. Walrus is a walking talking hybrid of Radagast and Dumbledore. He inhabits what he likes to call, “Canada’s longest active logging road block.” He settled on Hanson Island after years in Greenpeace and helped Hanson Island—Yukusam in the Namgis tongue—gain protection from logging. Today he has a long white beard, eyebrows as long and thick as caterpillars, and a high pitched laugh that is infectious.

In my backpack is ten pounds of dog food for his creme colored bear of a dog named Kessler and fruit, carrots, and granola for his master. I tighten the straps of the pack and dig in my boots on the muddy trail as the incline steepens. Walrus’ road block came to rest about a hundred feet shy of the highest point on the island. Every now and then I hike food up the hill to him. It became dire last week when Walrus walked down the hill to the series of rubber totes he keeps near Dong Chong bay to collect some food he’d left only to find that something had gotten to Kessler’s food. 10 pounds worth. Be it bear or wolves we still don’t know. But neither of us has seen a deer in weeks. And deer don’t disappear because of mischievous black bears. So we’d brought Kessler an emergency bag of dog food last week. And had restocked for him in Alert Bay a couple days ago.

As I climb my mind drifts, thoughts mixing with the ravens and Stellar’s Jay above me, my mind drifting to what I’d been reading before I left the lab. In the last week a tanker ran aground near Bella Bella. The support vehicle sent to assist swamped. The containment booms set out to minimize the impact were as useful as a fishing net. The spill was minimal, as minimal as one can be at least, an insult to the very phrase, “low impact.” A low impact oil spill is like minor surgery. It isn’t minor if you’re the one getting cut open.

I’d followed the stories through a guy named Mark Worthing. A Walrus disciple and friend of Orca Lab who has committed his life  to keeping the final stands of old trees in British Columbia standing. In his free time he fights back against the proposed oil tanker line that would cut through the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the pearls of world. The only region in North America where wolves were not almost exterminated. It’s a place where people find Spirit Bears in the woods and God in a sunset. It’s also a maze of islands, reefs, and rocks that gets hammered by 50 knot winds in the winter. All it takes is one tanker. One mistake. One gashed hull. And it’s gone. Ask Prince William Sound. And so Mark fights, because life would seem pointless if he wasn’t fighting for something much bigger than himself.

And then there’s Zack Brown back in Alaska, founding a research and education institute on the Inian Islands to the west of Gustavus. He hiked and paddled from San Francisco to Gustavus in a tidy three months. He’s a voice for climate activism, a voice for change, and he does so eloquently, something that doesn’t always happen when we speak passionately. I used to idolize athletes, now I idolize activists. If only they made trading cards.

My legs are shaking. I set the backpack down on a rock and plop down in the mud next to it. Sweat runs down my face, steam rises from my back. What am I doing? I gave some money to Bernie Sanders, ride my bike when I can, talk about saving the world. But is that enough? It’s a question every conservationist has asked themselves. We see a world that’s in danger. In danger of being steam rolled over by the great construction firm of progress. Lumber over woods. Oil over spirit bears. And we wonder if what we’re doing is adequate. It’s hard when our efforts aren’t visible. Riding your bike doesn’t correlate to a healthy calf in the southern Resident Orcas. Nor does eating vegetarian ensure a healthy salmon run.

I pull the pack back on and start back up the incline. It’s a question I’m still struggling with as my breathing becomes more and more ragged. I spend my summers representing the natural world from the seat of my kayak, and the winter writing about it. My audience is only a couple hundred people, maybe that’s a start. Maybe the people I show sea lions and humpbacks to in the summer are starting dominoes back home. Maybe they took something back from Glacier Bay besides pictures and cover photos.

I round a final corner and Walrus’ cabin comes into view. His area is ringed with a Salal fence, the flexible trunks of the bush intricately bent and woven together to keep the deer away from the garden. Does it work? It does not. You would think a 90 pound dog would keep them out. But Kessler has been known to watch deer amble by ten feet away with nothing more than a sniff. He jogs up to me as I approach, ears up, tail down. We go through this song and dance every time. He can never remember me. He gives a half bark, turns and runs. From the cabin I hear Walrus call out and I smile. The question still lingers, but for today I have a purpose. I’m bringing the caretaker of Hanson Island lunch. And for now, that’s enough.

Hanson Heartbeat

The windows creak and groan. The world outside them is pitch black but I know tree branches the shape of withered arms stretch their wood clad fingers toward the cabin’s walls. The ocean pounds. It sounds so close I expect the next wave to come barreling over the porch and set us adrift in the sound. It’s the first storm of many, I’ve spent the summer dreaming about them. There’s something in the forty knot winds and blasting rain that’s soothing, secure. Hunkered down with the fire roaring and the cat asleep on the back of the couch. Just as long as the boat’s ok where it’s tied up in the back of the cove. It is isn’t it? I should go check.

By morning it’s subsided. The low pressure monster taking a deep breath, preparing for the next exhale. Harlequin ducks poke their multi-colored heads out from behind the rocks, Sea Lions return to the haulout, Herons again perch on the worn out kelp that has been buffeted by waves for the last 12 hours. And like all the critters, we poke our heads out our door. All the roofs are still in place, the lab still humming along. All that’s changed is the growing collection of fallen branches and golden fingers of the Cedar trees that populate and soften the forest floor.
harlequin
If only the rest of the world was like this. Half a day of insanity and turmoil before everything returned to it’s relaxed state. Humpbacks in the pass, seals munching fish, deer scavenging for the kelp that just couldn’t hold on anymore. But human nature doesn’t work like this. Every day some new scandal flashes across the screen. It is the quintessential train wreck. I want to look away so bad but can’t. My stomach tightens as I scroll through article after article, my heart pounding against my ribs, eyes becoming glazed and unfocused.

How has it come to this?

Assault, repealing amendments, threats of political violence, the laundry list could go on for pages. Dear God, what century is this?

I step out onto the rocky face opposite the lab. The point here sticks out into Blackney Pass just a little further, but the difference is noticeable. Sea lions cruise by, calm and serene. They’re exhalations are like small explosions, as if there’s something stuck in their throat. After watching them gulp salmon whole it wouldn’t be a surprise. But it’s just business as usual for the pinnipeds. Eat salmon, have a nap, yell at your neighbor on the rocks.

Six big boys swim past not ten yards off the rocks. Even from the relative safety of the point I stiffen. I’ve spent enough time in a kayak to know these guys make me uneasy. I’ve been followed, growled at, and watched them zoom inches below my seat, feeling the kayak rise and fall as they passed. But they seem as unsure as I am. They stop off the rocks and we stare into each others eyes.

They’re a comical looking animal when you see them straight on, bobbing like corks. They have this perpetual look like they’re always surprised. Like the monster just jumped out of the shadows in a slasher movie. I wait for them to dive away and leave me be. But they stay. The curious magnetic quality of sea lion dynamics occurs, more and more appear out of nowhere. Appearing from their hidden trap door on the ocean floor. Seven, eight, nine, ten. We speak without making a sound.

There calmness unsettles me. I want to scream at them. “Do you realize what’s going on? Do you know what could happen on November 8th? Didn’t you read what he said now?”

The group blinks in polite puzzlement before disappearing beneath the waves. Thirty seconds later they’re back. My breathing is unsettled. I went for this walk for two reasons. To harvest mushrooms and leave the rest of the world behind for a bit. You’d think that’d be easy on Hanson Island, but it isn’t. There’s a sense of helplessness being so far away from it all in times like this. There’s nothing you can do but refresh the news and pray. I stare at the sea lions and they snort in my direction, nostrils flaring.

 I wish I could be more like you.

Wish I could be content with some salmon and a smooth rock to lay my head. Though I’m glad I don’t have to watch for a black pointed dorsal coming up behind me all the time.

    “So be like us,” they answer. “Just let go.”

    “I wish I could.”

    “It’s easy.”

    “I wish it was.”

    “Stop wishing and do. Control what you can control. Chop some wood, watch us swim, count the humpbacks. Be present.”

The sun streams in through the clouds. Vancouver Island is hidden but the clouds in front of it sparkle with late morning sun. There are chocolate pancakes in my belly. I write fifteen feet from the ocean. An ocean in which, right now there are two seals, a sea lion, and a humpback visible (who I should probably photograph and ID). I’m in control of our power, our fresh water, and some of our food supply. My heat comes not from propane but wood. I am in the most beautiful place on earth. If I cannot let go here, where can I?

I think of the miracles of this world, of this place. That humpback will soon leave for Hawaii. A 3,000 mile journey without a Lonely Planet book or compass. He or she will hit it square on the dot. No questions asked. Amazing. I memorize the beauty in the sad eyes of the harbor seal and the bouncing optimism of the Harlequins. The prehistoric cackle of the heron, the Pterodactyl incarnate.
heron
Breathe, be still, be present.

I smile, inhaling salt air and high tide. My hands run up and down the trunk of a Cedar tree. I close my eyes, and feel myself, at long last, let go. Surrendering to the pulse of the island.

Photos By Brittney Cannamore

Tumbleweeds, Home, and Root Vegetables

It hasn’t rained in days. The air has been crisp and cold. The window each day in which the shining sun brings substantial warmth is minimal. It’s fall in southeast Alaska. And when it’s not raining, there’s no more lovely time or place in the world. So this time when we leave, it’s hard. It’s never been hard before. Because for the first time we have a home. A home than can be measured in years instead of months.

And yet…

The island calls. That blissful, green, old growth island with Cedar and deer and mink. Our spot in Gustavus doesn’t have a wood stove. And there’s something about cracking cedar over your knee, the vapor of your breath floating above a knitted hat. Something about coffee on the porch, the ocean ten feet away, the sound of sea lions drifting on a growing wind. The promise of an afternoon gale. Hanson Island, Orca Lab, the promised land. I cannot bear to pull myself away from Gustavus, yet I’m giddy at the thought that I will be snug in that little cabin on the rocks in 72-hours, a fire roaring and the heat spreading to warm every crack and cranny. I wouldn’t be in Gustavus if it wasn’t for the island

For this is a place that changes lives. Starting with Paul Spong way back in 1970 and has continued for more than four decades. Hundreds, shoot, maybe thousands have made the pilgrimage to this place and had their lives rocked and upended. This place changes people the way glaciers change land. And I count myself as lucky to have spent two years of my life on Hanson. I would not be the man I am today without it. And it is that which will make the final goodbye so hard. It has sculpted me into someone that holds the final green and blue vestiges of this earth as valuable as any mineral man has ever valued. It is this lesson why I must someday let go.

Hank Lentfer is me in 20 years. Or maybe I’m Hank Lentfer 20 years ago. I’d like to think so. He’s the man I want to be in a couple decades at least, let’s leave it at that. The guy with the quick wit and busy hands that can build or fix anything. He built his house, starting with a 16×16 frame and turning it into a wooden work of art. In my non Hanson Island life I’d see someone driving a Ferrari or BMW down the street and feel an inkling of jealousy mixed with a desire to have one of my own. In the post Hanson Island life I have the same feeling when I see Hank’s garden and root cellar. Inside the cellar are two garbage cans (they’re clean) stuffed with carrots he grew. Another two garbage cans worth of potatoes are nearby. Mason jars are stacked like Jenga blocks on the shelves holding everything from Coho to cranberries. Call it root vegetable envy.

For years Hank and his wife Anya went without hot running water and still have no indoor plumbing to speak of. There’s an outhouse out back or you’re free to just let’er fly off the porch if you wish. Heat comes from a wood stove, the fridge in the arctic entryway is a new acquisition. All these choices were made not out of financial necessity but by choice. Because contrary to the modern world’s opinion, they aren’t necessities.

There’s something inspiring and beautiful about doing so much with so little. But even more, I think there’s something so beautiful about being so happy with so little. It’s a desire Brittney and I both have, all we have to do is learn how. And who better to teach us then Hank and Anya?

All of that however, means saying goodbye to where it all started. A tree’s roots cannot cover hundreds of miles, not matter how sweet the soil may be.

But not yet.

For tumbleweeds need no roots, they travel with the wind, blown south to that little halibut hook shaped island every fall. Where there’s no root cellar but humpbacks sing in the evening. No glaciers but dew clings to the boughs of Cedar branches like diamonds on a necklace. The very smell of Cedar will forever remind me of Paul, Helena, and the A30s calling in the dead of night. Hanson Island’s fingerprints are all over my heart and soul, and there they’ll stay until my final breath. Whatever my life may bring, whatever words are ever published and bound between two covers will be because of Paul’s smile and Helena’s cinnamon rolls. Every paddle stroke is because the A36s blessed me with a passion that will stand the test of time.

My heart feels light and my soul jitterbugs as the ferry cuts through Lynn Canal bound for Juneau. In 72 hours I’ll hear Paul’s laugh, see Helena’s face, and drag that infernal rabbit cage onto the rocks off the June Cove. Because we couldn’t have a dog like everyone else. Because we couldn’t sit still. Because Hanson Island will forever hold us under its spell.