All posts by David & Brittney Cannamore

We came up with the dream in a bar overlooking Auke Bay in Juneau, Alaska. On my fourth IPA and her third glass of wine. We should find a way to get paid to live. Not in a condo or a house, a mansion or a castle, but on a rock. In a house made of wood and little else. Preferably alone, and definitely in the middle of nowhere. Where heat comes from the fire, the water from a spring, and the bathroom.... well we'd figure out how that worked later. Three months later we got our first care taking offer. Paul Spong and Helena Symonds agreed to let us watch their slice of heaven on Hanson Island off northeast Vancouver Island. This blog is our way of chronicling our journey there, and once we arrive, our link back to the rest of the world. Appeasing our parents, and hopefully, entertaining you along the way. Enjoy.

Tangible Progress

Light is fading. Beneath the tarp the tape measure’s black dashes are starting to blur together. Brittney huddles over the top of the tape, her nose almost touching it. Every few seconds I hear the carpenter’s pencil scratch against a two by four. I bend another 20-foot piece of rebar and drop it into the forms. For the last two years the cabin has been a figment of our imagination. It exists on graph paper, our minds, our hearts. But soon it’s will be physical. A sign of what Melanie Heacox calls, “tangible progress.”

For the last hour snow has been falling. Under normal circumstances the first snowfall would be cause for celebration. An excuse to drink coffee and watch the world go white and quiet. Tonight I’m cursing it. Concrete needs to stay above freezing after it’s poured. Special blankets can be placed on top of the pour, holding the heat produced by the chemical reactions of the setting cement. All we need is four hours above freezing to mix, pour, and scree. Snow seems problematic. But maybe snow on concrete day is a sign of good luck, rain on a wedding day.

The light drains like water from a bowl. Brittney sets the tape measure on the table and we stand there for a moment. The forms are a foot wide and six inches high, a square trench 17-feet in length. Tomorrow they’ll be filled with 1.2 cubic yards of Portland cement, sand, and rock, we think. We hope. With a chill I remember Elm’s words a month ago when the house site was cleared and leveled.

“You screw up the concrete you may as well put the house somewhere else.”

Gulp.

We drive back to the little second story apartment we’re renting for the winter. We’ve brought the bags of concrete with us so we can put them in front of of the wood stove for the night and keep them as warm as possible. After a day of setting rebar, measuring, and general scrambling we’re both drained. The final act of lugging the 94-pound bags of concrete is a fitting conclusion. I’m struck by the irony of carrying our house in our arms, keeping it warm for one more night. It seems like a small penance to pay for what could be decades of faithful weight distribution and sturdiness beneath our feet.  I lie awake far too long. My head filled with 4:1 ratios, stem walls, square, level, right angles. Build a box.

Morning comes. The snow stuck but the day is dawning clear and crisp. A little too crisp. We lug the concrete back down the stairs to the car and wrap it in a tarp like Christmas presents. How bold it had felt to travel up and down the Pacific Northwest, all we owned in the back of our car. There had been times we didn’t know where we’d be in six months, where the next steady job was. I remember that freedom being more exciting than daunting, child’s play compared to this. As we close the car doors and back out the driveway I’m aware my mouth is dry, my stomach churns. There was no going back, no running now. We’ve never built a birdhouse. Now we’re building a cabin? What have we gotten ourselves into? Muir’s words float through my head, “we must risk our lives in order to save them…”

Gustavians are notoriously late. Like wizards they arrive precisely when they intend to. But when you tell them concrete pouring is at noon, they show up at 11:50 and bring wheelbarrows, shovels, soup, and beer. As I watch Craig, Emily, Zach, Laura, Elm, and Patrick walk up the clay infested trail towards the house site, the fear that has had a hold the last 24-hours disappears. We’re not alone. We’re never alone. Elm and Craig have poured concrete many times before. Elm fires up the small gas powered mixer and begins shoveling in sand, rock, and cement. He goes by feel, an artist who knows when it’s right.

When the recipe is just so we hurry wheelbarrows beneath the churning machine and half push half carry them to the forms. A curious dance begins, the clock begins to tick. One advantage to pouring in 39 degree weather is the concrete sets slower. More time to shore up a corner, fill an edge, scree it all flat. For the next hour and a half I don’t breath. I don’t think I blink. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow falls into the forms. My knees are soaked, gloves dripping with concrete. It’s going well though I’m insanely glad I bought one last bag of concrete that morning. Zach, Laura, and Craig have to leave at 1:30 to catch a boat. They stay until the final minute. So does Emily who’s late to her daughter’s parent-teacher conference and arrives with concrete on her forehead. As Patrick helps us dump the last wheelbarrow and Elm shuts off the mixer the gorgeous silence of this place returns.

We stop and breath. Elm cracks a beer, his voice carrying through the woods, he sounds as excited as we are. It’s level, it’s square, just let it sit for a few minutes he advises. Brittney can’t stop. She grabs a 2×4 and lovingly runs it over the top of the forms, leveling the concrete beautifully. Kim and Melanie show up with smoothies and smiles. Kim congratulates us on a successful pour and compliments us on our site selection that overlooks the willow sluice. I remind him that if it wasn’t for him we’d never know this spot existed. So much owed to so many.

Eventually Elm and the rest of our help return home, leaving the two of us to finish the leveling and wrapping it blankets to keep it warm. After this it’ll have to sit for a week. That’s fine with me, I’m ready to breath, turn my attention to wood and nails and table saws. The sun begins to set and we stand in the middle of our crawlspace, grinning at each other. It feels as if we’ve entered some sort of exclusive club. We’d earned our concrete badge. From here on out our mistakes can be corrected with a cat’s paw and hammer.

We pile the leftover food in the car and drive home. I glance at the weather forecast and one last grin crosses my face. There’s nothing but freezing temperatures for the weeks to come. We’d literally grabbed the last window of the year. Nothing like waiting to the final minute. Professional procrastinators.

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The Building Tree

The smell of two-stroke fuel fills the air. Hands slick with chain oil, metallic teeth glinting in the sun. Behind me the forest is calm, quiet, unassuming. The trail, marked in pink fluorescent tape, billows slightly in the wind. It’s only twenty yards from where I stand to our house site. A site that we’ve exterminated of stubborn willows and optimistic shrubs. I’d be lying if I said it felt good clipping them.

But it’s child’s play compared to what I’m about to do. I grab the chain saw, set the choke, and give the string a confident pull. I’m out of my league. 12 months ago I couldn’t have told you the difference between a joist and a stud. Now, tucked beneath the pages of The Independent Builder is a stack of graph paper, erase marks and crinkles bleeding into the pages. But somewhere along the way, a structure appeared, represented by lead to be built with wood. It looks so pretty and neat with those perfect squares and right angles. Making it come to life will be another matter.

The saw vibrates in my hands as I walk towards my first obstacle. I take no pleasure in felling these trees. But it’s something I’m familiar with. I know how to notch them, make them fall just so. If our winters in British Columbia and the Inian Islands taught me anything, it was how to make a Stihl roar. The first tree is a pine. It looks withered, old and bent. A few stubborn green needles continue to poke from the limbs. If it isn’t rotting already it will be soon. Whatever life it has left ends now. Because I said so. Because 18 months ago we walked onto this property and decided this was where we would live.

With a guttural growl Stihl comes to life, fine papery shreds of bark and wood fly into the air, the sweet savory smell of the forest. Within seconds it’s over. The pine tips and cracks. I lock the saw and scurry for cover. It falls where it’s supposed to, the concussion quieter than I could have anticipated. In the years to come we’re going to need help. Pouring concrete will be like speaking a foreign language; intimidating and embarrassing. At least our inevitable mistakes with wood can be fixed with a cat’s paw if we catch them fast enough.

But this, the Stihl digs into the next tree and it begins to sway, this I can do on my own. No one needs to coach me anymore. And for the first step, simply clearing a path to the house site, it means a lot. It displays at least a modicum of competence. And for my ego if nothing else, that feels good.

Within an hour the path is clear. The final tree falls atop its comrades, the Stihl is extinguished, the surviving forest quiet. I walk back down the gap I’ve created with the simple grip of a trigger and a bit of fuel. Right in the middle of the trail stands one final Charlie Brown tree. The hemlock is only five feet tall, not even worth the saw. But as I stare at it I can’t shake the sensation that it’s staring back. Our land is wet. Last September when the rain pounded Gustavus our water table was plus 18 inches in some spots. The price one pays for a glacial outwash. A few big spruce have bucked the odds to grow 100 feet high. But this is the only hemlock I’ve found. I would no sooner cut this tree than kick a kitten.

But it can’t stay here. The excavator comes in a matter of days, if I don’t take it now it will be run over by the wheel’s of our personal progress. There’s only one thing to do. It must be relocated. We’ll find a quiet and (relatively) dry spot for our building tree. I’m aware of the irony. Saving this little tree when I just felled ten. A home built with the old growth of Chichagof and Home Shore. In no way does rescuing the hemlock acquit me of my lumber consumption. I’m not sure why it means so much. I walk past the homesite to one of the big spruces. The spruce that we vowed we’d never cut. I run my hands along the bark, “I think you need a friend.” 

Standing Still

The April sunshine should feel good. I should be sprawled in the grass soaking up the rays like a hungry plant that’s been inside too long. But I feel none of it. What a picture I must make, a whiskey bottle hangs loosely in one hand, my gait awkward and uneven on the rocks. A cool ocean breeze floats through the hemlock but inside I’m stifled. I can’t breathe, a weight presses down on my chest that the liquor can’t alleviate. I stumble and collapse against a washed up log, long ago it was left high and dry, left to rot at the whims of the universe. I feel a kindred spirit with the rotting wood and crumbling bark. I savor another sip of the brown stuff, close my eyes, try to breath. How did I get here?

For most of my adult life I have rambled. A modern hobo with a 75 liter pack in place of a branch and tied handkerchief. I reveled in it. Up and down the coast. Again and again. British Columbia, Juneau, Gustavus, the Inian Islands. Surely this was the way to live; free and uninhibited. From one wood cabin to another. Again and again I scoffed at the “every man.” The poor saps in their cubicle jails. Shackles of security holding them down. Worker bees. Drones. The nine-to-fives. A pity.

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

The ramblings of a young man.

A knot from the log presses into my back. It does little to alleviate the fear that clutches at my chest. For the past two months we’ve operated under the illusion that the Hobbit Hole would be our home for the next three years. Full time caretakers at last.

It would come with stinging consequences. Eleven months a year here meant precious little time with our tribe. We dreaded the conversations we’d have to have with our dearest friends. That we felt called to be here, to help the Inian Islands Institute get off the ground. That a growing desire to be educators had taken root. But there’d be no denying that three Gustavus-free years would change the bonds that we had tightly forged. Was it really a sacrifice we wanted to make?

This would be our last hurrah. The job as caretakers promised to pay well. Enough that we could return in three years and get the house built that existed only in SketchUp. We’d at last admitted that building a house on a guide’s wage wasn’t feasible.

But two hours ago Brittney walked down the stairs, terror and pain in every syllable, “we didn’t get it.”

***

Zach Brown and I sit in the garden. An afternoon sun playing over the water. He’s one of my best friends. I thought he’d be my boss for the next three years. But there was someone better. I’d heard the resume of the couple that got the position over us. They were what we had feared. They deserve to be here. The time has come to confront my failure, acknowledge that Zach and his board made the right decision. That Brittney and I never expected preferential treatment. That we still love him, Laura, this place, their vision. That we’re still in. But it’s hard to keep the bitter taste of disappointment out of my voice as we work through it.

Hank Lentfer, student of cranes and supplier of beer appears from the house and hands us each an IPA. It loosens our tongues, we say what needs to be said. It’s time to move on. It’s time to let go. I turn and look at the house, the deep green paint melding into the forest. The open lawn, the shop with the pool table on the second floor. It isn’t mine. It never was.

In the moments after we learned we hadn’t gotten the job I flew into a rage. I pounded the floor, screamed, and terrified the cats. Selfish words poured from my mouth. Phrases like, “we deserved this,” and “it was supposed to be ours” came fast and easy.

I didn’t deserve this. I didn’t earn this. Zach did. By hiking a thousand miles and paddling a thousand more. By fundraising and dreaming and believing. He may not have physically built the structures of the Hobbit Hole, but he has earned every stud, beam, and piling that they’re composed of.

***

Our final week at the Hobbit Hole. I’m back at the fallen log, my brain clearer and the pain a little easier. It still hurts, still in mourning, but I’m confronting the world with clear eyes and sound mind, perhaps for the first time. 

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

I long for the days in our rusted Pathfinder. Waiting for the next ferry in the parking lot of a Prince Rupert Tim Hortons. The warmth and comfort of knowing that everything I need is in the car with me; Brittney, the cat, the rabbit, a laptop to write on, what more did I need? How liberating, how comforting, how… safe?

The realization slowly sinks in until I must acknowledge it. I’m not the risk taker I pretend to be. What exactly were the chances I was supposed to be taking? For most of my twenties I could have bailed out at any moment. Our careers and choices could zig-zag across the world if we wanted to. There was nothing stopping us. We could change our stars on a whim.

But we fell in love with 4.2 swampy acres of glacial Gustavus outwash and decided we were ready when I knew I wasn’t. Perhaps life’s greatest risks isn’t running but standing still. What if those worker bees were the brave ones? I was always running, moving. Becoming a full time caretaker would have provided the security I had denounced for so long. Now, with a mortgage and uninsulated cabin, I crave it. I’m more scared now than I’ve been in 10 years of rambling. The irony bites hard on the ego gland, devours it whole.

***

Home. Four corners, the Shabin, Excursion Ridge, nightly beers with Patrick Hanson.  The Fairweather mountains still punch holes in the clouds, defiant white peaks blockading a blue sky. When you miss out on what you thought was a dream job—the coronation of your twenties— and still have Gustavus, it’s time to give thanks.

For years I have coasted on what other’s have built and earned. Paul Spong’s Orca Lab, the Hobbit Hole, places I have occupied and never fully deserved. This spring the universe has grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and looked me square in the eye.

“David, it’s time to stop running. It’s time to build something of your own.”

Dear lord does that scare me. I just learned the difference between a stem wall and a slab-on-grade. Now I’m building something? Deep breaths, they come easier than they did a month ago. What do I need to do first? Foundation, get a good foundation. I open the construction book, a notepad on my lap and read about concrete pilings, my pencil scribbling notes with the fervor of a procrastinating grad student.

***

Down one of Gustavus’s many dirt roads is an art gallery. On some weekend evenings it doubles as a music hall. Tonight it triples as a potluck complete with free beer. The place is packed as one musician after another comes to the stage and belts our their best. This town has to have more musicians per capita than anywhere on earth. But as the evening begins to wind down, one man in particular makes his way to the stage.

Justin Smith has collar length hair, a ball cap pulled over his head, skinny torso, and a long gait that helps him cover the aisle in a few strides. A buzz fills the crowd, when his name is announced the place erupts. I’m crammed onto the floor next to Patrick. We’re both clutching a beer. It’s not our first or second, I don’t think it’s our third. We share a wild look.

“Dude, he’s gonna play.”

Open-mic nights go way back in the annals of Gustavus lore. As much a part of our culture as deer hunting on Pleasant Island and picking strawberries. Eight years ago, at my first music night I watched spellbound as Justin and Kim Heacox belted out Cream’s, ‘White Room.’ Kim pounded the piano keys so hard his fingers bled. Justin made his guitar do things I didn’t believe possible.

But as the years have gone by, Justin hasn’t played as much in public. He’s raising a son that is the apple of the Goode River Neighborhood’s eye and just moved into the house he and his wife Jesse built. Another in a long list of role-models and heroes. He speaks quietly into the microphone, his voice soft and understated. Humble eyes and a sheepish smile pan the crowd.

But those that have heard him play know what is coming. Patrick and I bounce on our knees like it’s Christmas Morning. And for the next fifteen minutes he plays. Three instrumentals of his own creation. Listening to Justin play guitar is like reading the climax of a novel. The crowd leans forward, hanging on every note like turning pages. And for the first time, I’m relieved we didn’t get the job. This is home. In the good times and bad, sickness and health. Whether I’m ready or not, this is where we need to be.

Climb That Mountain

It’s been almost four years since the inception of Raincoastwanderings. I had no delusions of grandeur, of it drawing a large audience or translating into a job at Orion or Outside. It wasn’t going to make me Krakauer or Kerouac. And just as I predicted, it hasn’t. The biggest posts get maybe a couple hundred views, and I assume most of those are from my dear mother loyally visiting on different browsers to inflate the numbers. But that’s ok, for almost four years my mantra has been, “if one person is reading, I’ll keep writing.”

Raincoastwanderings has been a sort of public practice for me. If I knew one person was reading, that was enough for me to sit down and try to construct a narrative that was appealing and entertaining. Flooded with typos early on (and still making frequent appearances), I look back at some of those old posts and grimace. But this blog online journal marks the moment I sat down and vowed that I was going to make a legitimate go at this writing thing. The community that has supported and encouraged me over the years is humbling. So to all of you who have put up with me spamming your Facebook feed and inbox, thank you very much.

With that said, Raincoastwanderings is going on hiatus. Over the past few months it’s been difficult to give the site the attention it needs as I’ve been consumed with editing and submitting my first novel. That process is done for the moment and I’m now in the position of waiting and praying that some editor believes as much as I do in my 80,000 word baby. The good news and bad news is that for the next two months I still don’t foresee having much time for Wanderings.

I’ve been contracted by a travel company to edit and rewrite the Denali section of their upcoming travel book. The chapter is due in late June and it’s the opportunity that I’ve been working towards since I started writing. There is absolutely no way that I would have this chance without this forum and the people that have loyally followed it. So again, thank you for your encouragement, kind words, constructive critiques, and good humor. It has been a blast to keep this going all these years and I fully intend on returning to it once I hit ‘submit’ on the Denali chapter. Until then, I do intend on writing occasionally for the Inian Islands Institute and my work will hopefully be posted in their online journal. If you’re so inclined you can check here for occasional updates on the amazing work they’re doing.

Several Christmases ago, a certain individual (who rest assured is not reading this) climbed atop Mt. Soapbox and let me know that I couldn’t, “ride my skateboard forever.” Five years later I’m getting paid to ride the skateboard I’ve allegedly outgrown. And if the book ever gets published, he’s going to wake up to a box of them on his front porch, sitting on a skateboard.   

In the words of Jack Kerouac, “because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that damn mountain.”

Thank you all. Bless the harbor seals.

Concerning Snowflakes

The snow has been falling all night, silent and unassuming. It kisses its brethren as it completes its free fall. It has no control over where it plummets, it can be a glacier, a snow ball, a soft white ornament upon a tree limb, or it can land in the unforgiving waters of South Inian Pass, fusing with its liquid cousins.

In the last few years, being described as one of these little miracles has somehow become an insult. How dare someone feel unique? Special? Gifted? Perhaps they’d prefer us to be like raindrops, uniform and generic. Falling with a splatter onto grass or metal roof to be destroyed on impact.

By the time morning comes a foot and a half of miracles has fallen. Most times in southeast Alaska the snowfall is heavy with liquid as the forecast plays hopscotch with the freezing point. But it stayed cold last night and the flakes are as fine as sand and light as feathers. It’s been more than a month since it rained and the accumulation is getting out of hand. We’re running out of places to put it. I grab a shovelful and send it flying into the big drifts we’ve made. Last week wind gusts over fifty barreled into the archipelago like a battering ram. Just to the west we could hear the constant surf and wind like the constant roaring of a beast. Inclement weather is soothing, gives one purpose here. Tie down the boats, batten down the yurt and dock, bring everything that can be moved indoors. The snow is no different. It falls with the peace of doves but bites with consequence.

It’s a rough winter to be a deer, the second such winter in a row. We went up the mountain a few days ago to find the woods and clearings devoid of sign. Every deer on the island, perhaps in southeast is hugging the beach, walking the fine line of the tide that wipes the land clear of snow twice a day. They’re nibbling kelp and seaweed, trying to hang on till spring, whenever that’ll be. Winter has little interest in the calendar.

At the core of every snowflake is something real and organic that the crystals can glob onto. Like everything else, they need something to revolve around, some definition. It means that somehow, in some way, there’s a carbon based something floating with the clouds and moisture, waiting for the dew point to decide its fate. Without this organic compound, this purpose, the snowflake is doomed, it cannot form, cannot accumulate, its tremendous power and potential negated. Unlike their raindrop relatives, they must be defined by something real.

I continue to dig us out, wondering what it is that will define me. There’s a snow blower here. I could fire it up and complete the task in minutes. But it doesn’t seem sporting, doesn’t seem right to introduce the sonic domination of man to the scene. To remove the snow with the carbon dioxide byproducts that are making blizzards like this a shadow of the past. As my father would say, it’s the principle of the thing. Sweat clings to my sweater and drips from my wool hat.

The Hobbit Hole is still. Tiny ripples form in the wake of a merganser, a soft chortle of a raven floats among the trees. The clouds start to lift. I live in a world of soft pastel. White accentuates everything. Above the west end of the Hole looms North Island, frosted, frozen, and imposing in winter’s time machine. Spruce, hemlock, yellow cedar in a state of suspension. For years the yellow cedar of southeast Alaska has been fading. They rely on thick blankets of snow to insulate sensitive root systems. As our winters have turned to more rain than snow, they’ve suffered through every cold snap like tomatoes in an early frost. Even the mightiest are vulnerable at their roots. This is the power of snow, the ability to torment the deer but save the cedar. There is no middle ground.

I shovel over the bridge and down the dock. At some point the weather will warm. Probably sooner rather than later. And as beautiful as it is, it will bring some relief. Our hydro system is struggling to bring in even the bare minimum of electricity. Snow has a finite life. In time it will succumb to the elements and melt, evaporate, and be reincarnated. Maybe we’ll be so lucky. If we’re fortunate, we too will not simply die but be reabsorbed, willing participants in the cycles of the planet.

I scoop a handful of crystals and gaze at them. Snow has the unique ability to be beautiful  both by itself and surrounded by its brothers and sisters. Able to stand out alone and in a crowd. May all of us be so lucky. Alone we are stunning, but it is only when we come together that our presence can be felt. I wish we all had the power to determine where we landed. But a lot of us don’t. A lot are condemned to the waters to melt before they have a chance.

The red metal roof of the house is covered in snow, the dark green paint the same color as the water and trees around it. The low clouds and struggling sun hold a power humanity cannot tap into. A self-sustaining resource of the eyes and soul. The scene has the power to refresh and reinvigorate. I breath deep and feel the oxygen of the outer coast spread through my blood cells. What a place to have landed. What a place to reside until I melt.

Two Hikes

Several years ago, when I lived in Juneau, I rented a house near the Mendenhall Glacier. Framing the southern side of the valley was Thunder Mountain. A steep and imposing peak with impressive avalanche shoots and Spruce covered ridges. After a couple months living in its shadow I gave in to temptation and attempted to scramble up one of the avalanche paths. It was mid-summer and the foliage was thick with devil’s club, skunk cabbage, and alder. Halfway up, the moderate grade shoved me onto a near vertical pitch. Consumed with the climb and drunk on sunshine, I continued fifty feet further than I should have. By the time I realized what I had done, I had trapped myself in a stand of alder and was climbing their branches like a step ladder.

My 24-year old ignorance was replaced by genetically infused fear thousands of years old. Just a week ago, a seasonal had scrambled up the ridge near Eagle Glacier to the north of town. One false move, one slip in his Merrill’s and he fell to his death. Like him, I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. I’d broken the cardinal rule of the outdoorsman. My knees shook, my arms trembled. Somewhere to the west, 65 miles away, my fiancee was kayaking, oblivious to the fact that the love of her life was so recklessly risking his.

I began to downclimb. Most mountaineering accidents occur on the descent. I was no different. A foot slipped, a branch cracked, and I began to free fall towards a gully 60-feet below. I’ll never forget the sensation. As I fell my terror was replaced by a serene, almost disarming calm. I no longer felt afraid. I reached out with one hand and grabbed an alder branch as thick as my forearm. The branch bent, bobbed, cracked… and held. From above came a strange rustling followed moments later by a sharp pain on the back of my head. I watched the offending branch and my baseball hat complete the forty-foot plunge into the shoot. The branch gave a sickening crack as it struck the boulders. I hung, as weightless and helpless as an astronaut on his first spacewalk. Helicopters bound for the glacier zipped by. Cars roared by on a road a thousand feet below. And I gripped the branch that was preserving my life.

***

I throw rain pants, a sweater, and a vest into the backpack I’ve had since I was 21. The straps are fraying, several of the buckles are broken. But I can’t bear to give it up. She’s more duct tape than nylon at this point. But I carried my life in her through New Zealand, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska. Some things are more important than efficiency.

I no longer have a fiancee. But I do have a wife. And I make no bones about where I’m going today. I’m going up the peak to the south of the Hobbit Hole. There’s two feet of snow at sea level and who knows how much at the top. I’m dying to find out. Worst comes to worse, they can follow my footprints. It’s deliciously quiet here. We’re used to solitude. But even when we lived off the coast of B.C, boat traffic inundated our ear drums. Walks through the woods were often interrupted by the dull drone of a diesel engine as a tug plied the inside passage. Here we endure the occasional 737 flying at 20,000 feet but that’s it. The thick snow mutes the silence even more. No squirrels, no birds, just my boots stepping through the frozen crust.

I weave through hemlock, spruce, devils’s club. My breath comes in gasps, I sweat beneath the wool that keeps me warm when I stop. Deer tracks surround me, all pointed downhill. Perhaps they know something I don’t. Three days ago we woke up to blowing snow and flakes as big as thumbnails. It snowed for 16 hours straight, pushing the deer down from the ridges to the beaches. I reach a steppe and come out into the open. It’s like stepping into the deep end of the pool. My boot plunges deep into the snow and doesn’t stop until the crust is at my hip. I struggle out and throw the next step forward in an awkward plunge. I head for a steep ridge. It’s nearly vertical and this all begins to feel familiar.

***

I watch my shoes swing beneath me with a benign neglect. I’m hypnotized by my hat three dozen feet below, nestled between a couple of boulders and covered with dust. Blood drips from my left hand which grips the branch so tight my knuckles turn white. My body completes it’s flight of fight checklist, determines that I’m no longer in immediate danger of death, and give me permission to freak out. The change is instantaneous. I hyperventilate. My legs begin to shake. I have to move. My stupidity knocks at the back door of my sub-conscious, reminding me that I’m an idiot and lucky to not be laying in that gully with a shattered leg or two. I pull myself up and my feet search for a foothold. To my right is a thin ridge, just wide enough for a couple of spruce trees to get ahold.

I move hand over fist, my feet skittering madly to keep up. At last I feel dirt and root beneath them, I kneel and grip the ground. I want to curl up and never move. I’m never letting go. In my mind I imagine my body hitting the rocks. How far would I bounce? How damaged would I be when I finally came to rest. And with a shudder remember that no one would ever find me.

***

I stagger towards the ridge and stop at its feet. The snow four feet deep in places, more swimming than hiking. I look at the reassuring trail I leave behind. There’d be no mystery this time. I begin to climb, my feet digging for purchase beneath the snow while hands pull me up with the aid of salmon berry bushes and willow. There’s a melody to hiking through the snow mixed with the improvisation of jazz when a boot falls deeper than expected. I turn around halfway up to catch my breath and feel it catch in my throat. The view is bonkers. West facing, the ocean, the whole Pacific is sprawled at my feet. Three Hill Island and Soapstone Point guard the southern edge of Cross Sound. Cape Spencer to the north, just enough of a break in the clouds to see Mt. Crillion.

Already the landmarks feel like old friends. “Hello dear Port Althorp, hey Elfin Cove, how’s it going Middle Pass?”

I turn and continue to climb, by the time I reach the top I’m crawling. A thin ledge, two spruce tress wide greets me at the top.

***

I cling to each spruce and try to get my knees to stop quivering. I’m bleeding from four different spots, the pain beginning to whisper from beneath the adrenaline. There’s a welt on the back of my head where the branch made contact, my neck hurts. I’m a fool and Thunder Mountain was punishing me for my foolishness. The wild places teach harsh lessons, lessons you never forget if you survive. I prayed I’d have the chance to learn from my mistakes. As I climb down, the ridge I’m following widens until all I can see is trees on each side. The climb remains steep and down climbing is harder than going up. Gravity a much more willing participant.

To my left I hear something crashing through the bush. Bears litter the valley. Black bears primarily, though the odd brown bear will poke its nose in to chase the spawning salmon of Mendenhall River. But it’s a mountain goat that appears through a tangle of devil’s club. Branches of the bush stick to the thick tangled hair that’s somewhere between yellow and white. A pair of identical horns jut from the top of its head and curve forwards. The beast is maybe thirty feet away. It stops and turns its head slowly in my direction like a villain in a cheesy Hollywood production. Without a moment’s hesitation it begins to trot towards me. I stand at the edge of a drop of twenty feet, and the last thing I want to do is free fall yet again. But the goat seems to have every intention of running me off the ledge. More harsh lessons at the hand of Professor Thunder.

It’s at that moment, after twenty years in the woods and fjords of Alaska, that I realize that I don’t know anything about mountain goats. My body is drained, out of adrenaline, I do the only thing that feels logical and insane at the same time, I scream.

***

I follow the ridge up a little further. I’m having flashbacks of devilish goats, snapping branches, and serene free falls. The ridge takes a sharp turn to the right and into a thick tangle of spruce. This is far enough. A scattering of trees gives way to a wide open precipice that cuts between the summit I stand on and the next one to the north. I have no intention of looking over the ledge. I lean against the sturdy trunk of a tree, feel snow and dirt beneath my feet, and pull a water bottle from my backpack. Something small and blunt is still in the pocket, I dig deeper and pull out a small shooter of gin.

A smile becomes a grin. Miracle booze, the best kind. It’s barely eleven in the morning. But there are no man made rules in the forest. I crack the cap and empty the little bottle, savoring the burning liquid cooled by the ascent. It only makes sense to taste pine trees when surrounded by them. I give a silent thanks to Jen and Patrick who had filled my Christmas stocking with the little shooters and my own irresponsibility to stash one in my pack and forget all about it. I shoulder the pack and take one more longing look at the world around me. From here it was possible to see the world at its best. No mass shootings in Florida, no indictments in Washington, no missile tests in Korea. Just me, the trees, and that big ocean taking on all comers.

***

I want to go home. I want a hot shower, fluorescent lights, a big sandwich, a cold beer. The goat continues his advance, his hooves stick to the rock like velcro. I scream a tapestry of vulgarities that continue to hang over the mountain to this day. Five feet away his wild goat eyes weave to the right. He climbs onto the hillside a few feet above me. Those iris’s staring deep into me, mocking me, shaming me.

I step away, my eyes never leaving him, toes probing for the edge. I grab a root and scramble like a fireman down the rocks. I leap the last four feet and fall with a thud. Enough. I lean forward and half run, half fall down the mountainside, bloodied, beaten, and alive to climb another day.

Otters and Men; Lichen and Trees

For the first time in a week, the wind acquiesces. The temperature crawls above freezing, and like bears from their dens, we step out into a world defined by snow drifts and frozen salt spray. A week ago half a foot of snow fell, but in one of nature’s more curious quirks, the forest floor remains mostly barren. The snow has piled in the few open muskegs and clearings. The other alternative was to be blown callously into the intertidal and ocean where a biting 33 degrees still melts snow.

We step off the beach and into the forest. After years in Gustavus, the old growth of the Inians feels like a novelty. And in winter what little undergrowth there is has been extinguished. Skeletal stalks of Devil’s Club stand bunched together. In a few months electric green buds will emerge from the top of these spiny towers. A member of the Ginseng family, the forest will take on the herby odor of the buds that can be collected (very carefully) and cooked. Preferably fried in oil and served with Siracha mayo. Watermelon berries and salmon berries will appear, the blueberries a little bit behind. But for now, the land is comparatively barren. But far from empty.

A squirrel chatters. A chatter that shouldn’t be heard here. It’s a long swim across Inian Pass to here. The squirrels of the archipelago hitched a ride on a boat, either intentionally or by accident. Greg Howe seems to believe that it was by choice. Some homesteader who missed the incessant giggle of the little furry reds.

I can’t condemn though. We’ve brought our own little invasive species. There’s us of course on the three acre homestead, and our two furry companions. I don’t know if all cats will hike if given the opportunity, but Porter and Minerva do. In the woods they’re unlocked. Scaling hills, scrambling up rocks, and clutching to the bark of trees. Eyes wide and paws alight. Confining our cats to the house feels like confining humanity to the cities. Sure, they can survive, but they miss such a critical part of what it means to be human or feline. We’d prefer to not upset the song bird population. And while Porter has never been much of a birder, Minerva, like Walter before her, is tenacious. She sports a bird-b-gone. A fluorescent, multi-colored collar that fans around her neck to alert birds to her presence. She is part court jester and part Dilophosaurus.

The spell of the woods takes hold. The ground is frozen solid, like walking on chunky green asphalt. Rattlesnake plantain, club moss, and sphagnum moss are still a resilient green even after the cold that’s frozen the top of the creeks solid. Brittney carries a woven basket, collecting fallen hemlock boughs and old man’s beard. She advises me to keep an eye out for any of the teal-blue lichen that’s fallen to the floor.

“Why do you only want fallen old man’s beard?”

“Because it takes a long time to form on trees. It’s more sustainable to only harvest that which has fallen.”

Fair enough. I had no idea. Lichens are a prime indicator of the overall health of a forest and the cleanliness of the air. Stealing the indicator of a forest’s health feels sacrilegious. Yet I was ready to do so blindly. What else, I wonder have I callously taken which was not appropriate? A great glacial erratic has planted itself firmly on the hillside. The size of a small house, a pair of mountain hemlock have secured themselves to the top. Their roots as large as pythons slither down the rocks, seeking the forest floor below. One root has made a sweeping U-shape a foot above the ground and attached itself to another tree. I stare at the miracle for a long minute. What on earth compelled the tree to do that? Why make that U-turn so close to the ground? Unless… unless it knew the other tree was there and knew it’d be firmer if they were connected. But how did it know it was there?

The secret lives of trees are secret indeed.

Brittney finds a skeleton. Another deer, larger than the one we found on Westeros. The skull is half the length of my forearm, the molars the size of thumbnails. Brittney is incapable of passing the shadow of another spirit without paying respect. She kneels and examines the bones, cups the skull gently in her palm. The bones are bleached and white, whenever this deer said goodbye to the physical world was long before our arrival. But for Brittney that doesn’t matter. She keeps me grounded. My U-shaped root holding me fast when I’d rather climb my erratic and head for the sunnier canopy.

Maybe the secret lives of trees isn’t that secret. Maybe, like us, a tree’s life is best when you hold the hand of one you love.

We weave back down the hill, through a stand of alder, and onto the beach. To my surprise, the property is only a few hundred yards away. After an hour among the spruce and hemlock I thought we’d traveled much farther. There’s been a flock of twenty Canadian geese that have made the hole their base of operations for the last two weeks. They bounce from beach to beach, servants of the tidal whims. But it is the resident sea otter that catches my eye. He’s eating. As usual. He doesn’t have a choice.

What the coyote and wolf were to the homesteaders and ranchers of the west, the sea otter is to southeast Alaska. They are a villain, simply for their biology. Because they have no blubber, they must eat constantly to feed their feverish metabolic rate that keeps them warm. Walking the low tide with Zach, he pointed out how much the tidepools had changed over the last ten years. Ever since the otters got a foothold and began to devour the clams, mollusks, sea stars, and most importantly, the crab of the Inian Islands and the panhandle. The diversity of the pools has plummeted. More seaweed, less of everything else.

It’s not their fault. Like us, like every creature on earth, they’re simply trying to live. And unfortunately, tragically, their consumption falls in line with what we want to eat as well. There’s satire, an Onion headline in mankind criticizing the over-consumption of another creature. The otter is not always a pleasant critter. They eat everything that moves, their mating habits are… uncomfortable and inappropriate. Yet they are just critters. Incapable of having the moral and ethical choices that we have. They don’t have that convenience.

I’ve often thought that we love orcas because we see them as ideal reflections of ourselves. They’re born into air-tight family units. They want for nothing. They’re identity is in those they love and live with. Nothing troubles an orca. They are perfectly content, comfortable in their own skin. If orcas are humanity at are best, perhaps otters are us at our worse. Consuming every resource we can get our paws on. Changing every ecosystem we touch, eating ourselves out of house and home.

The otter continues to bob up and down, every few minutes he dives for another snack. I think of the lichen of the forest. Like me he doesn’t know any better. How does he know that his dinner is changing the tidepools at my feet? How was I supposed to know old man’s beard needed so long to grow and flourish? And there I have my difference. If my species was going to continue to sprint past the limitations of evolution, then it was my responsibility to limit myself if nature wasn’t going to do it. It’s a tall order. The hardest word in the English language for man to utter is, “enough.”

Someday, the Hobbit Hole will no longer be able to support the otter. He’ll eat himself out of house and home. And what will happen then? The sea otter population of Glacier Bay has finally crested. About time. There’s more of the furballs in the bay than the entire California coast. Nature has begun to regulate. The familiar peaks and valleys of populations. Lesson one of any Population Biology class, the lynx and the rabbit rising up and down together. I don’t worry about the otters, I don’t worry about the crab. It’ll all even out in the end. I continue to hope, that when it comes to man and nature, the ledger will someday even out too.