The Final Ride

Six days. That’s how much longer we have here. Six more quiet mornings with the sounds of Thrushes and squirrels in the woods. Six more nights of boat noise as tugs and fishing boats crawl up and down Blackfish Sound. I am acutely aware that I’m doing things for the last time. A final round with the chainsaw, a final walk through the woods, a final trip down the strait.

My last boat ride to the lab was yesterday. A moderate westerly beat me up as I went into Alert Bay. So instead of taking my usual trail that weaves through the Pearce and Plumper Islands, I took the more exposed route through Johnstone Strait. The sun shone from a brilliant blue sky, the strait’s southern side turned a deep green as the forests of Vancouver Island reflected across the waves. Looking down the strait there was no sign of human life. No boats, no houses, no cell towers. Just mountains, water, and trees. As it had been for centuries. May it always look the same.

It may seem weird to have a nostalgic stretch of water. But this run from Alert Bay along the strait and to the lab does for me. It’s the route I took the first time I came here. I was packed on the June Cove with four other volunteers and Paul. As the June Cove notoriously does whenever I arrive, it wasn’t working too well. We puttered along the strait at six knots, anything faster and the engine would cut out. I had no idea where we were going or how long it was supposed to take. So I put my trust in the cranky engine and sat atop the the cabin to watch the mountains of Robson Bight slowly grow taller.

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I moved faster yesterday, whipping across the south end of Weyton, dodging driftwood and willing one more dorsal fin to break the water. I came here hoping, maybe even expecting my dedication and effort to be rewarded with magical and unforgettable Orca encounters. After nearly 24 cumulative months here I’m still waiting for my “Free Willy” moment. But now I don’t expect it to happen. And just as important, I don’t need it to. Proximity doesn’t equal intimacy. Three years on a whale watching boat will teach you that.

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During that first boat ride in 2008 I rode through the world oblivious. I had no concept of Climate Change, no understanding that Canada was in the cruel grip of the Harper Administration, a manifestation of the, “if it can’t be grown it must be mined,” ideology. All I knew were Orcas and that captivity was bad. As far as I was concerned, that was the only environmental movement that mattered. Now the uncut portions of Hanson Island feel like a miracle. The thousand year old Cedars a symbol of hope instead of a novelty. I love this place fiercely with some protective parental instinct. It’s hard not to take every threat and oil spill personally.

The boat flashes along the Hanson shore. Somewhere on the beach are First Nations artifacts. According to Walrus, the anthropologist who lives in the woods near us, there is a rock carving of Raven the creator hidden somewhere on the beach. It aligns perfectly with the sunrise on the winter solstice. I’d considered trying to find it. But what is man’s insatiable desire to see and touch everything? To literally leave no stone unturned? I like the idea of just a few people knowing where it is. The knowledge that it exists is enough for me. In an age where we move with such haste to smother the world with concrete and progress, some mystery is a good thing.

At the east end of Hanson is a pair of tiny islands. Coveted by kayakers, the pass between them is plenty deep for a small boat. Protected by both the east and west winds, the channel is the perfect hovel for sea birds. Harlequin’s adore it, as do the Mergansers and Herons. An eagle’s nest adorns a Cedar tree on the northernmost tip and offers a view of Blackfish, Blackney, and Johnstone. This confluence brings life. The mixing and upwelling of currents traps food and brings cold, nutrient rich water to the surface. It draws herring, salmon, eagles, gulls, ravens, crows, humpbacks, salmon, seals, sea lions, Orcas, and Me. It’s a powerful stretch of water with the ability to change lives and send them careening off the tracks into the unknown. It threatens our existence, and makes us question why we’re here and what matters. Anyone who does not feel their heartbeat quicken as a Humpback roars through a bait ball while gulls circle overhead has no spirit.

The boat turns left and for the first and last time, I lay eyes on the lab. Smoke curls out the chimneys and wraps their wispy fingers around the trees like the fingers of a lover. The lab deck hovers over the water on the high tide. Here one can learn to love without intruding. You have to let go, be contented with watching those black fins disappear around the corner, accept that there are more important things than getting as close as possible. The trees mute the sun and the cove shines like a sapphire in the evening light. Harlequin’s scoot across the bow with indignant squeaks. The engine dies and I step onto the beach for the first and last time, eyes wide and mind open.

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The Lab

Inside the lab, all I can smell is cedar. It’s the first thing I remember about it and I imagine it’ll be the last thing too. The tall legged chair has a low back that digs into my Sacral vertebrae. Paul didn’t have 6’4” Wookies in mind when he designed this place.

Precious little has changed about the lab since I first walked through its doors nine-years ago. The computers have gotten fancier and the tape deck has been replaced by the miracle that is digital recording, but that’s about it. The windows are still stained, the dorsal fin shaped piece of driftwood still sits in the corner, the Auckland Town Hall “Save the Whales” poster is still tacked to wall. It took place at 7pm on June 10th, 1981 if you were wondering. I was -7.5 years old.

No, this place feels the same. The Orcas still call at all hours of the day. Tonight they’re in the strait. Cracroft Point in both ears, Parson Island in my left. A ping in both ears, an echo in the left. A whistle in both, an echo on the left. I close my eyes and I can see them. By their volume and echoes I can place them. Vancouver Island side, probably milling which would explain the random changes in volume. I lean back in the chair, feel it dig into my back, and let the whales take me away.

And as I do, the dull ache returns. Not in my back, but in my chest. The one that’s emerged each time I’ve looked at something fondly the past week. That nasty, horrible reminder, that my time’s almost up. I’ve spent 23 non-consecutive months here. It would be cliche to say it feels like I just got here yesterday. But dang it, it does.

I came for the Orcas. I came to learn everything I could about them at the feet of a master. I came because I thought Paul Spong held the secret to spending your life studying them. Nine years ago I arrived wanting to learn how to be someone else. Now, I’m leaving finally ready to be myself. I am not a scientist. I’m not cut out for research papers or grant proposals or laboratories. I’m not cut out for non-profit fundraising and holding onto my own foundation by the fingernails. I wanted to be. Thought I was supposed to be. But I’m not. I’m no more a scientist than a basketball player.

And that’s ok. Orca Lab told me that lovingly, patiently. Over countless nights in the lab, watching Parson Island fade into darkness. I may stand at the side of great scientists and leaders and advocates, but that is not my voice. My voice, my home, my Hanson Island as it were, is right here. With my fingers tapping against keys, uninhibited by the rigors and (necessary) walls of science. We need both. Science tells us we should care. But it is our emotions that make us do so.

And so saying goodbye to this place will not be as simple as closing the door to the cabin for the last time and missing the southeast storms and snap of cedar in the fire. It’s saying goodbye to the place that gave me purpose. I’m not unique in this regard. I’d wager that everyone that has set foot on this place has a story they can tell about how their life has been altered by Orca Lab, Paul, and Helena. What unspeakable beauty is there in that? That in a world where hatred, arrogance, and selfishness seems to be growing at an exponential rate, there is a place that can teach us how far love and compassion and appreciation can carry us.

“I feel most secure when the woodshed is stocked and there’s a fresh loaf of bread on the shelf.” – Paul Spong.

Owed Nothing, Given Less

It still doesn’t quite feel like Spring. At night the wind still blows and swoops beneath the elevated porch to chill the wooden floor. My toes are still perpetually cold, the rain still shivers as it runs down the spine. The ocean feels empty. I find relief in the cold. We inhabit the one thin band of North America that’s colder than average. While the rest of the continent is thrown into climate chaos it feels as if we’ve been set aside. The Raincoast anointed and protected. We shiver and run the woodstove while Gustavus is bombarded by blizzard after blizzard. It feels as it always has. And with it returns my desire to disappear from a world on the edge of chaos.

How many times through the history of man has a generation stood on the precipice and wondered if this is the end? We’ve had the Plague, Nazi’s, ice ages, a Cold war, and Vikings. Human history is littered with beastly actions and selfish desires. Perhaps that is what makes this whole affair so sour. It is but a cruel reminder that we are not improving. I have accepted that mankind will never be satiated. Whatever we can reach we will punch, scratch, and devour until we get it. Whether it’s oil in the Refuge or the last piece of cake at a wedding. Evolution has sculpted us to look out for ourselves first, our family second, and others never. That doesn’t make us different. That makes us animals.

But as our opposable thumbs allowed us to rise above the crushing weight of Darwin’s theory, the fundamentals of human ecology shifted. We no longer had to look out for just ourselves every waking moment. Civilization at its core is designed so that we would no longer have to live such a cut throat existence. We shouldn’t have to be like Brown Bears, who murder the cubs of others so they can mate with the sow and pass on their genes. We could rise as one. Carry each other and embrace our differences. Together we could be stronger, tougher, invincible.

Except that isn’t what happened.

For that DNA is still encrypted within us to get what’s ours, what we deserve, what we’re owed. We’re still trying to eat each other’s young.

“The world owes you nothing,” my Father once told me.

But what world was he speaking of? We talk about it not being a perfect world, a hard world, an ugly world, a difficult world. A world that is unfair and harsh and unforgiving. And when I walk the concrete world I agree. Indeed that world owes me nothing. In fact if I want anything from that world I must pry it from its cold dead hands.

A couple weeks ago my brother was in a car accident. He wasn’t hurt, but his car was totaled. In no way was he at fault for the accident. Yet at the end of the day his insurance company gouged him for $2,000 while he wound up with an older car than he had.

The world owes you nothing.

The world that profits from the misfortunes of others is a broken one. A world where pharmaceuticals and insurers dangle the carrots their patients need to survive over a pit of debt and overage bills. A world rich off the loans of millions of students. Forget owing you nothing. That world doesn’t even offer anything.

But as I sit at this table, in this little wooden house, and watch the tide rise and fall. I see a world that is not harsh or unforgiving. I see a world that is simply the way it is. The ocean is not out to profit from my misfortune. If I make a mistake while I paddle or ride on its surface, it will punish me. And punish me harshly. But not for the benefit of itself. The ocean is not getting rich off my mistakes. It is simply the ocean. The wind is howling, and at any moment a tree could come crashing through the window. It could shatter the glass, pin me to the ground, snap my back in two.

This I can live with. I’ve accepted that at some point this beautiful green and blue world could pull the oxygen from my lungs and extinguish my soul. Better them than the pharmaceuticals or Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

My world owes me nothing, because it’s already given me everything. It’s given me fresh air and clean water. Soil to grow my food and an ocean that brings me salmon. A forest full of lumber to build shelter and a never ending parade of adventure and mystery. The world we left provides more than the world we’ve created. It didn’t have to be that way. We could have done civilization right. But whether you believe we’ve been here 6,000 years or 600,000, whether it began in a garden with a snake or a puddle of primordial ooze, we have failed. And we are paying the ultimate price.

The older I get the more simplistic I wish to become. I dream of gardens, of water tight roofs and insulated walls that keep the heat in. I dream of late nights with my best friends drinking home brewed beer. I dream of big laughs, big dreams, and the irreplaceable joy of looking at life and saying “enough.” I dream of a world where land is not seen in terms of quantitative value but spiritual value. That we would discuss how a place feels instead of what we can squeeze from it. I dream of a people that sees a green and blue world and feels an innate desire to come home.

Because we’re coming home no matter what. This. This concrete world we’ve created, it’s going to come crashing down. It could be tomorrow, it could be in a century, but it’s going to happen. And we’ll go down with it. With one last weekend of football and a cold Bud Lite. And when the lights go out and the faucets run dry, what will be left? Will the world that owes you nothing be there to pick you up?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m not just trying to save the trees, whales, and bears. I’m trying to save myself. It’s a selfish fight. I’m still in this for myself. I’m not that different. In a few months the sound of a chainsaw will rip through our four acres of paradise. Cottonwood, Spruce, and Hemlock will fall with a crash so that I may build and live where they stood. Man is a destructive species.

I’m building to prove to myself that man can still do it. That self sufficiency is not just the stuff of hippy co-ops and and cheap jokes. But I’m also doing it because I don’t have a choice. I have been weighed and measured by the concrete world and found wanting. So I will build on the world that has accepted me, that will accept any of us. Mother nature is a forgiving caretaker. She makes but one request. Take care of me, respect me, and in turn, you will have all you’ll ever need. Don’t mistake need for want. There is no iPhone tree. When the lights go out and the cell towers fall, I’ll be looking for a carrot and a cistern.

Accepting Happiness

Five years ago today we walked through a dew soaked forest. Not much has changed. Everything has changed. This particular forest is in Juneau, Alaska, on a peninsula sandwiched between the ocean and Mendenhall valley. The east wind carries the breath of the glacier. The land thaws and stretches at the close of winter. There’s a cleansing smell to the forest in Spring. New growth blooms, the plants thaw and produce a rich sweet smell. You don’t breath as much as drink. I feel high on the fresh oxygen of the forest.

It was a time of new beginnings in more ways than one.

Brittney and I get off the trail and into cell phone range. She has one thing on her mind. She’s ready to start our family. She pulls out her phone, dials, and asks the question. Yes, we can bring him home.

We drive to the humane society and collect Porter. He growls, he hisses, he cowers in the corner of my beloved Ford Ranger. But he’s ours. We’re taking him home.

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Home is a trailer. A trailer with smoking electrical outlets, tree trunks for a foundation, and an empty propane tank. The bedroom is barely large enough for a mattress. It’s a dump. A wonderful dump that costs $500/month.

I’ve been out of college for a year and am going nowhere. It feels good. Whale watch guide in the summer, Kennel Supervisor at the Gastineau Humane Society in the winter. There I met Porter, introduced him to Brittney, and watched her fall in love with him at first sight.

We carry our handful of possessions into the house. Laptops, cat, mattress, a couple bags of clothes. We eat Subway that night. I prop my laptop on a crate and low and behold, find someone’s unprotected internet connection. I should feel guilty about that. But I’m too excited to put on the Timberwolves game (they were playing the Blazers, they won) and wolf down a foot long Chicken Bacon Ranch.

Porter prowls the house as we eat. He walks into every room, sits, rises, and resumes his prowling. After an hour he walks over to us and looks into Brittney’s face with a mixture of suspicion and hope. They stare at each other and Brittney taps her knee. With a leap he lands on her lap and curls up.

Brittney looks at me with tears of gratitude. My heart swells and I look around this dump of a house perfectly content. It remains one of the most peaceful and happy moments of my life, for the simple reason that such simple things could bring such immense joy.

That moment has shaped me.

Whenever I begin to worry about money, or security, or the future, I think back to that night. And I remember that no amount of cash, no job and no amount of “success” will ever bring that sort of tranquility.

And so I look at the world, and I don’t understand. Every day I’m inundated with angry people. I read articles about people in positions of power with millions of dollars to their name. People that have achieved every possible definition of worldly success. Yet they are not satiated. They don’t seem happy. They appear petty and angry, defensive and apathetic. They display all the characteristics of the middle school bully desperate to cover up their own inefficiencies by belittling those around them.

I see people worth millions of dollars slurping at the glass of capitalism. Sucking up every dollar they can find like the Coke at the bottom of their glass. Will that extra drop unlock the key to happiness?

I see people get up every day and go to work at jobs they hate so they can buy things they don’t need. I see people buy what they call starter homes. When Brittney and I went to pick out her wedding ring the lady behind the counter referred to our choice as, “a nice starter ring.”

I guess that makes me a starter husband.

I look at the world and I don’t understand. I don’t understand how people can kill each other for believing in a God they don’t. I don’t understand how people can be enraged over what bathroom a transexual uses or what gender a person wants to kiss. I don’t understand how people can use their precious few decades living in fear and making the lives of others miserable.

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There are rags to riches stories. At least by American standards they’re rags to riches. Riches of the wallet. Riches of the driveway where a brand new Ford pickup sits. Riches of the living room where a plasma screen TV sits. A Christian nation that has forgotten the story of Solomon. Cram whatever you want into your life, it will never be enough. Perhaps we think it’ll be easier to pursue happiness with a V8 engine.

I don’t understand, I have never understood, I’m done pretending to understand.

Last summer we walked into the Shabin. It’s not all that different from the trailer we walked into on Porter’s first night except the outlets don’t smoke.

We have no tape measure so we measure its square footage by laying head to foot. It’s two and a half David’s long by a Brittney and David wide. It’s not much. But it will keep us warm. It will give us the chance to learn how to build a home of our own. More importantly it will allow us to live as self-sufficiently as possible. Four acres can make a hell of a garden. Starter gardens. There’s something I can get behind.

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We step out of the Shabin and onto the small covered porch. A wind rustles through the Cottonwood Trees and the leaves whisper their affirmation. The nearest highway is 65 miles away, the airport is closed for the night, the only sound is the trees and Thrush. A Great Blue Heron flies over, its prehistoric cry fills the silence.

I feel as if I’ve unlocked some sort of magic. I wonder what creates this feeling in others. Maybe V8 engines and seven figure incomes can elicit such emotion, but I doubt it.

Maybe the key to happiness is not pursuing it but instead accepting it. Accepting that a foot long sub, a free internet connection, a rescue cat, and the love of your life is all you really need.

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