With a Single Breath

Several years ago, Brittney and I were walking along a trail in Juneau. Like most of city’s trails, it wasn’t far from the ocean. We worked our way through muskeg, over bogs, and past Devils Club when I heard it. I’d reached a point in my life where breathing whales stopped me in my tracks. Even if I wasn’t sure at first why. I stopped at the top of a hill, the water visible through the trees below.

“Did you hear—?”

A sound like a gunshot rips through the trees.

“Go.” She answers.

We’re gone. Half running half falling down the hillside. I stop on the edge of a bluff, my arms cartwheeling. I turn left and run parallel to the beach, that seductive sound carrying my feet. A small depression levels the drop off the bluff and I leap into nothing, my feet skidding on the soft mulch. I land on the rocks below. I look back up into the trees and my bride to be.

“Turn right at the big Spruce!”

The water is still fifty feet away, a minefield of rock between me in the water. I trip and stumble with every step. But I don’t want to take my eyes off the water. A small thump behind me tells me Brittney’s found the “slide.” She looks up, eyes alight, face mirroring my own.

“Where are they?”

A female Orca breaks the surface, her breath echoing off the rocks, off my soul. I tear down the beach after her. an impossible race I have no chance of winning. But in the company of Orcas, everything seems possible.

***

For the first time this year, it feels like Spring. We sprawl in the sun just behind the lab. Blackney Pass is glass, the water vibrant, the sea lions noisy as ever. Harlequin’s in the cove, eagles in the trees, the cat hunting mice in the Heather bush. Heaven on earth.

And we hear it.

After three years here, we’ve created a silent language of sorts when it comes to Orcas, whether we’re watching them or listening for them. When something whispers through the speaker our first glance is at each other, as if confirming that it wasn’t in our head or the creak of a chair. A silent debate begins, “was that what I think it was?”

We look at each other, a quiet intensity passes between us. Without a word we rise to our feet and walk onto the deck. Spend some time looking for whales and you start to scan the water without thought. There’s a smooth circle of ripples off to my left, just beyond the cliff that marks the far side of the cove. On a day as calm as this nothing can touch the water in secret. Nothing can slip past. It could have been a loud Sea Lion, or a boat or—.

Hello beautiful.

The Orca breaks the surface 150 yards off the shoreline. We turn as one and dive for the lab door. I grab the camera. Brittney taps frantically on the keyboard, willing the computer to life. With the miracle of technology, the whole world is about to know there were Orcas heading for Johnstone Strait. I hit the lab deck again and try to take a deep breath. My body’s shaking with excitement and my first set of pictures come away blurry.

I’ve lost count of the number of Orcas I’ve seen in my life. But they still do this to me. Last summer we found Orcas on a kayaking tour and I left Brittney and the clients in the dust. They give me tunnel vision. They’re my drug. It’s been this way for ten years, I’ve given up expecting it to change. I don’t want it to ever change.

The scientist in me reigns in the euphoric teenager. I begin to count, estimate speed, run my eyes along the trailing edge of the dorsal, looking for nicks and scars in the saddle patch. They’re spread out and moving fast on the flooding tide. When they surface after a dive I turn back and yell at Brittney so she knows where to point the remote camera.

“Hump of Harbledown! First Bay! Mid gap!”

What will I do with all this Blackney Pass geography when we’re gone?

The Orcas swim in twos and fours. A pair of big males bring up the rear and disappear around the southern corner bound for the strait. The camera system is now so intricate that we can almost literally hand the Orcas off from one camera to another as they go down the strait. Brittney’s already found them on the next camera off of Cracroft Point. And they’re beginning to talk.

We hear a melodic pin and we both give a shout. We know these guys. Or at least recognize them. Pings are a signature of G clan. I11, I15, and the G pods. A few minutes and several excited calls later Helena sends us a message. It’s the I15s. They’re a Johnstone Strait staple in the summer time. But maybe they’re making a February pilgrimage a tradition. They came through almost exactly a year ago.

Whether this is significant to the I15s or not, they sound happy to be here. Their calls echo off the underwater canyons and swirl through our heads. They always sound so happy. For the next hour we watch them push deeper into Johnstone Strait. There’s one final camera we can find them on, the Critical Point or Robson Bight camera. Situated on a cliff at the east edge of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve we find half of the I15s mid channel.

But as I watch the calls intensify, they’re far too loud to be from the cluster I’m watching. I pull the camera back out and am rewarded with three Orcas breaking the surface just off the rocks. My body stiffens and I clumsily pan the camera from left to right, trying not to screw up the shot. Remotely it’s hard to track with them. Gauging distance is tough when you’re not in the flesh. It’s not the first time I’ve promised countless worldly possessions to spend a summer on the cliffs overlooking the Bight. Paul thinks I’m joking when I tell him I’m willing to spend a summer there as a “monitor.”

“That’s what the camera’s for.” He says.

“Yea… I know.”

Born too late. The wild west of Orca research has come and gone. No more hiding in the Salal at the Rubbing Beaches either. Passages of Erich Hoyt’s and Alex Morton’s books still make me green with jealousy.

The three Orcas—two females and a calf—are so loud the calls come through the headphones with static. But I don’t dare turn away for the few seconds it would take to turn it down. I grit my teeth and watch them break the surface again. I pan the camera further but can see nothing now but leaves and branches. End of the line. Two hours after sighting them, they’re out of sight.

The calls fade away as they leave the range of the hydrophone and I’m left with an empty expanse of water and the islands of Harbledown, Swanson, and Parson painted with a golden light that would make Midas envious. Snow still clings to the mountains on Vancouver Island, but with the warmth and the I15s, it feels like summer.

10463863_10153151080414852_7687963241185135048_n

The Park Service is Going Rogue (And Kayak Guides Should Too)

Last summer was the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. In Glacier Bay National Park, they spared no pomp or circumstance. Every poster, every talk, every presentation was prefaced, footnoted, and concluded with a reminder that they had hit the century mark. It got kind of comical after awhile. When someone reminded me that it was the 100th anniversary I feigned surprise:

“Really? They should have told someone about it!”

It was all capped with the opening of a traditional Tlingit Tribal House near park headquarters, complete with carved canoes paddled by the Huna Tlingit across Icy Strait and into Bartlett Cove. The day dawned with fog choking visibility to less than a mile. Flights were canceled. Lisa Murkowski was trapped in Juneau, 65-miles from her photo op. Sweet sweet justice.

As I floated in my kayak that day and watched the triumvirate of canoes emerge from the mist and heard the chants and beating of drums, the hair stood up on my neck. It was one of the most impressive and moving moments I’ve ever experienced. A powerful reminder that this place has meant something of incalculable significance to humanity for centuries.

But I also felt a twinge of annoyance that the NPS had chosen to do this on their anniversary. After decades of animosity between the federal government and Huna Tlingit, I felt conflicted on how I felt that it was done on the Park’s day. Perhaps I was picking nits. After all, the NPS had footed the bill for the place. I’m just some punk kayak guide who fancies himself a writer and by extension is a critic of the human condition. I’ve questioned the Park’s intentions before, scoffed at the cruise ship industry running amok in the west arm, and the damn “UnCruises” and their new “high usage” back country areas.

Fast forward a few months.

All of a sudden my critiques feel like the meaningless spats between a married couple. Was I really complaining about the Park Service leaving their metaphorical dirty dishes in the sink? Was I really all worked up because now 50 people were allowed to walk along a trail next to Reid Glacier instead of 12? My life was so simple I had the time to bitch about the Norwegian Pearl interrupting my morning as I looked down Johns Hopkins Inlet.

Now I look at the Park Service the same way Rey looks at Luke Skywalker.

It’s like a mixture of “I Am Spartacus” and “This is Sparta!” Between the Badlands National Park going rogue on Twitter to the new “Alt-National Park Service” movement, I’ve never been prouder to be affiliated with the Park Service. Right now I’m just hoping there’s going to be a “backcountry” in four years and argue about.

Knowing the people I do that work for the NPS, this defiance shouldn’t be a surprise. For many, if not all of them, their work is not just a job. No, people work for the parks because they genuinely care. Trump didn’t expect that. He assumed they were a bunch of good little worker bees that wouldn’t say a word as long as they kept their jobs. Guess what buddy? You just kicked the hive to discover the bees were hornets, and they’ll be damned if you’re going to take America’s honey from them.

But he’s going to try to muzzle them. We’ve seen it already with the EPA and when he forbid the Park Service from tweeting after they posted a photo comparing how small Trump’s hands crowd was at the inauguration.

One of the biggest jobs in Glacier Bay during the summer falls to the Interpretive Rangers. A crew of patient, knowledgable, and energetic folks who step onto each cruise ship that passes the park boundary to tell people what the hell they’re seeing and handle such cracker jack questions as:*

“does the water go all the way around that island?”

“Is that glacier made of salt? Is that why the water’s salty?”

“Are there polar bears on the glacier?”

“Do you believe in climate change?”

(*these are real questions)

Ah, yes, climate change. First, stop asking, “do you believe?” This is not a religion. There is no Church of Global Warming. You can chose to accept the facts or not. They exist whether you “believe” in them or not. It’s science, irrefutable science.

For the past eight years, NPS rangers have been able to calmly and accurately regurgitate the facts of respected scientists from across the globe, explaining the uncontrolled growth of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, the uncontrollable rise in ocean temperatures, and the extreme unlikelihood that human beings are innocent.

But of course the angry Oompa Loompa isn’t going to let people discuss a Chinese conspiracy on his dime. Which isn’t actually anything new. Park rangers were forbidden from discussing the effects of Climate change during Bush’s second term. Maybe, just maybe it had something to do with Dick Cheney’s ties to the oil industry. Just maybe.

So the Park is once again going to be shackled by the irrational opinions of the man in the White House. So while the Park Service may have to have a more muted level of public resistance. Though I would anticipate several “off the record” conversations aboard those cruise ships this summer. But the kayak guides have no such shackles. We can say what we want and do what we want as long as we don’t harass marine mammals and get five star reviews on TripAdvisor.

So the mission statement has changed a lot from: give people a nice lunch, talk about John Muir, and maybe see a Humpback to a full blown: Edward Abbey and the Monkey Wrench Gang recruitment poster.

Wilderness guides have the incredible opportunity to impact people from across the globe (as long as they’re not from Middle Eastern countries where Voldemort doesn’t have any business ties). When people come in contact with the physical world and dig their toes in the sand or walk through a forest framed with Devils Club, their hearts and minds open. There is a golden opportunity to get through to people, or at the very least, get them to listen. I’ve convinced “if it can’t be grown it must be mined” Republicans that maybe, just maybe, Common Murres are worth more than coal, at least for an afternoon.

The point is, people listen to the guide. Partly because their lives depend on it, partly because it is insanely obvious that we give a shit about these places. We care so much about something so much bigger than us and it shines through. And if the Park Service really can’t talk publicly about the threats this wanna be emperor is creating for these places, it’s up to us speak even louder, scream it at the top of our lungs to everyone we meet.

People are desperate to act and fight back. Many of them will be rushing to their parks this summer to get a good look at America’s Greatest Idea in case they disappear. They won’t. The Park Service has made that clear. The American people have too. Did you notice how fast that bill to sell off public land disappeared? Being a guide has always been about trying to change people and impact their lives. That’s still the case. But it’s something bigger now. Now I’m arming people to fight back, to take their experiences and wield them as a weapon. And as the Park Service continues to resist, it will be an honor to stand beside them every step of the way.