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.

Keep Paddling

The clothes are unfamiliar. Gone is the soothing feeling of my Patagonia base layers and the whisper of Grunden rain pants. Instead I’m in stiff dress pants and a collared shirt. I can’t recall the last time I wore a shirt that buttoned, much less one that had a collar. I’m out of my element. The interior of the country club is beautiful and immaculate. But as I walk to the microphone I wryly think that I would take an erratic covered beach over this anytime. I take a deep breath and remind myself that my belittling thoughts are nothing more than a weak cover for my own insecurities. Besides, this day has nothing to do with me. It’s my brother’s wedding. And I wouldn’t miss it if they held it on the surface of the sun.

It’s impractical to be mad at a bay. But dang it all, I’m sick of the wind. Even more, I’m sick of the National Weather Service promising ten knot winds when twenty knots gusts are pounding the dock. But despite the wind, the waves haven’t begun to build so I send a pair of double kayaks out from the beach and follow in my single. Two children, James and Caroline man the bow, their parents in the stern. They’re hardy and determined. Every year their father John and mother Laurie take them on a tour of the national parks. Last year Yosemite, this year Glacier Bay. The young son James can barely reach the water with his paddle but he pushes forward resolutely, head up, eyes unblinking, not daring to risk missing a thing. After adding an extra layer, his older sister Caroline pushes forward with the same resiliency, their mother relieved to be secured in the boat laughs with an easy grace.

The wedding was an open bar. Generally it’s a luxury I would abuse. But not today. Not with my toast still to come. I sip at an IPA and down water, unsure of when my brief moment on Jonathan’s day will come. The moment comes and I cross the ball room and grab the mic, a glass of water in my hand. I speak to total strangers every day, but this is as nervous as I’ve felt in front of a crowd. I can feel the the trio of notecards in my front pocket. Can practically feel the ink bleeding across the pages. I hope I don’t need them.

“Did my Dad tell you what he does?”

The question is so random and unexpected I stop paddling. Caroline stares across the gap towards my kayak, awaiting my answer. In the stern her mother continues paddling. I can’t tell if she’s listening or simply blotting out our conversation.

“No,” I answer, “but I haven’t asked.”

“He works for the EPA.”

It was a mark of how fast the world had changed. Just eight months ago this information would been little more than a punctuation point on the day. But now… it sends tidal waves of emotion through our conversation and our fleeting interaction. Suddenly the lines are drawn, the horrible reminder that we are at war for clean water, clean air, and a habitable planet. And her Father was one of the persecuted.

I don’t know what to say. I’m just a kayaker. But didn’t I say I was going to war too? Didn’t I say that if the park service was going rogue then I should too? But what am I doing? What have I done to combat the denial and anger and hatred and ambivalence that plagues our world? I feel a seed of guilt grow in my stomach. I look into Caroline’s eyes and wonder what that November night must have been like in their house. How many times they had wondered and feared for their father’s job and their livelihood.

I look ahead where John paddles with his son. James’ paddle barely reaches the water. But he’s still paddling. He’s still going, pushing the ocean behind him, bucking the wind and the current. Those big innocent eyes are opened wide. In the moment he looks fearless.

“How’s everybody doing?” The wedding guest’s indulge me with polite applause, a couple of the groomsmen give me a whoop. I smile and feel the knot loosen. I tell stories. Always tell a story when you can Kim Heacox once told me. I talk about spending time with Jonathan right after he met his bride, Lisa. How it was all he could talk about. How I could see the love in his eyes.

I look across the room to where they sit. Lisa’s hands are wrapped in his and she’s smiling. Lisa’s always smiling. I consider their future. They want kids. Probably sooner rather than later. I think about the world that awaits my nieces and/or nephews and in this moment of celebration, I feel a twinge of anxiety.

“Caroline told me what you do for work.”

I don’t know why I brought it up. But for some reason I needed him to know that I know and that I care. I care not just for his paycheck but for the world his kids will inherit. Would James one day have the honor of placing his young son in the bow of a kayak in Bartlett Cove? I’m sure John thought about it. I want him to know I do too.

John laughs. “It’s funny, I’ve had more people come up to me for the last few months when they found out what I do and assure me that they like me. That they think what I do is important.”

What does he do? He cleans up superfund sites. He was in the Gulf of Mexico for the oil spill, he makes place habitable again. And his department is looking at a forty percent cut. I’m about to ask him if he’s worried but stop. He’s here to escape. He’s here to savor the solitude and revel in the places that are wild and free. The last thing he wants to do is talk shop. But as we discuss superfund sites, Pebble Mine, and the Arctic Refuge he doesn’t sound like a man whose life is a risk. He sounds determined, even hopeful. Like his son he’s moving forward. One paddle stroke at a time, head up, eyes never blinking. Because life is like kayaking. There’s only one thing you can do. Keep paddling.

I finish my speech and set the mic down on the table. I take a swig of water and wipe the tears from my eyes. My brother’s are wet too and somehow that makes me feel better. I cross the room and wrap him in the biggest hug of his life. Somehow this has become my world. Incalculable highs and unfathomable moments where I fear all is lost. Like the wedding, like that day on the water with John and his family, they’re often within minutes of each other. An otter brings joy, the absence of the whales bring fear. The look on my brother’s face brings tears of gratitude, the thought of what could lay ahead anxiety.

But like John and James, there’s nothing to do but keep paddling. Keep fighting the current, keep bucking the wind. Just don’t let the boat go backwards. Because the day is coming when the tide will turn, the wind will shift, and the paddle will feel light. It may not be in my lifetime, but if it does for James, Caroline, and my unborn nephews and nieces, then it will all be worth it.

The End of the Road

The Pathfinder reeks of burning oil when she runs too long. She’s had it, and I await one of life’s cruel ironies as we wait in line for the ferry. Four years ago I made a deal with whatever deity was on duty, promising many things I’ll never own in exchange for this plucky Nissan getting us to Canada and back. But as she’s always down she comes to life with the screech of belts and uncategorized clatters. There’s still time to back out. Still time to run another direction. A direction that will let us keep running. There’s no shame in it. We’re still in our twenties for crying out loud. No one would think less of us if we disappeared to Central America for a year or vanished to Thailand for a season. But how do you continue to run when you know where home is, when you know where the road ends?

The end of the final road doesn’t look like a road at all. And you’d excuse us for missing it completely. To be fair, cars have rarely been our dominant form of transportation and I’m not at my best behind the wheel. Boats and kayaks have kept our lives afloat. May they continue to do so until someone tells us we’re too old.

But as theatrical as it would be, this journey cannot end at a pier or sandy beach. Instead we take a dirt road overgrown with willow, cat tail, grass, and fern. The ruts are deep and the brush grates against the bumper. At a sharp left the car pivots neatly in the groves as if it’s on the skids of a poorly made Disneyland ride. And then it ends. With no apology or explanation the road simply disappears, giving way to the world that will eventually swallow us all. A world of Pine and Alder, Blueberry and high bush cranberry, marsh and forest. The road, like our rambling, is over. Neither one of us ever had to discuss it. We simply knew that it was time to stop. We didn’t want to do it anymore.

***

The sun is bright and the reflection off Icy Passage makes me squint. My pupils, like my heart, were made to live where the rain is frequent and the sun is scarce. We trace the outline of the shore, the glacial outwash that holds Gustavus behind, the ridges and mountains of Excursion Ridge and the Chilkat Mountains ahead of. Fresh snow sits on the peaks, but down here it feels like Spring. Myself, Brittney, Jen Gardner, and Patrick Hanson gallop like moose calves. We plunge through last years Reed Grass and it gives way with a satisfying crunch. Here the cynicism of the world isn’t just stripped away, it is torn from the soul, replaced by innocence and wonder.

We come out of the Reed Grass and onto the sandy beach. On the low tide the stories of the last six hours are exposed. Tracks trace back and forth, weaving between the sand and tidal mud that squishes with delight beneath our boots. We follow the moose, the deer, the river otter, and the wolf.

The wolf. We stop at the tracks, some as large as my outstretched hand and gaze upon the holy grail of Alaska prints. Patrick’s mind is already in overdrive. It’s always in overdrive. He is more excited over the first Rosy Twisted Stalk than most men are in a year. The prints are catnip to us, and Patrick is already talking about camping just above the tideline in the grass and sitting patiently for a day or two until they come back. I find it hard to imagine him sitting for two minutes. He’s a mover, but he’s staying put in Gustavus. So is Jen thank goodness. They’re staying for the same reason we are. Because they weighed the possessions of the world in one hand and wolf prints in the sand in the other and asked, “why?” Granted, we like microbrews, Disney movies, ice cream, and Parks and Rec. But darn it all if we could live without days like this with mountains above our heads and wolf tracks at our feet.

We reach the mountains where a stream splashes into the grass and a fence of Alder paves the way for Spruce and Hemlock. “True southeast rainforest,” says Patrick, and he dives in. We follow. Our cracking of branches punctuated with tenuous calls of, “hey bear.” We step into the clearing beneath the branches and into Narnia. Devil’s club is just beginning to bud and Fiddlehead Ferns are poking their heads out from their moss blanket. We pick some, leave others, and fantasize about what we can cook. We walk home with maybe a pound of greens, but from the looks on our faces you’d have thought we’d found a thousand dollars.

***

At the end of the road is the Shabin, occupying three hundred feet on 4.19 acres. We prune the willows that are invading the road and stare up at the Cottonwoods that bookend the clearing. And we talk. We talk a lot about what we want to do. And Brittney and I keep coming back to sharing it. What if we could make this the end of the road for someone else too? Brittney, Jen, and I walk through the stand of old Spruce behind the Shabin. It’s the driest spot on the property with a ditch on one side and and a Willow swail on the other. We’re going to have to take some of these big beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to think about it. Can man live without destroying it?

We step out of the Spruce and into the open light of the swail. The morning light glistens off the standing water and we talk about what a great place this would be for a bench. A place to come and watch the Chickadees, Juncos, and Moose ply their trades. What if this is where the four of us spend the rest of our lives? I imagine a bench on the edge of the woods, plopping down with these people, beers in hand, and watching a moose rooting for reeds.

I can see our cabins through the woods behind me. A garden in the clearing. Maybe a smoker and a writer’s studio. Maybe I should get the ruts out of the road and the clearing drained first.

Kim Heacox once asked me why I was ready to drop my roots. There’s no right or wrong answer. Kim galavanted around for years and has seen Antartica, Russia, the Galapagos, and has designs on spending time in Rome. Even now, when his demographic is scheming moves to Florida and weekend golf dates, the travel itch remains unscratched. I don’t feel it the way he does. I don’t feel the need to travel across Russia by train or disappear for months at a time. I want my roots to grow deep here until they’re planted so far down that nothing can move them.

I want to follow those wolf tracks into the mountains and trace every cove of Glacier Bay. I want to watch the Orcas crash through Icy Strait again and again and again. And I’m ready to do it now. I’ve sampled the world and loved it. I’ve had my trail mix stolen by raccoons in New Zealand and been lost in Costa Rica. I’ve been peed on by Howler Monkeys and dealt with more frumpy border guards than I can count. I’ve loved every single moment. I’ve cherished my rambling. But I’m ready to come home. I’m ready reach the end of the rambling road. I’m ready to turn off the ignition and plant 500 carrots.

Which doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier. In all likelihood it’s about to get a lot more difficult. My carpentry experience ends with making leaky garden boxes, and my landscaping knowledge is even more embarrassing. But if I’m going to fail, or at minimum screw up (and I will screw up) I want to do it here. I’d rather fail in Gustavus than succeed in Seattle. Because if I fall here there’ll be a dozen hands to pick me up, put the hammer back in my hand, and tell me to get back at it. Virtually every person in this town has been where we are right now. Each one of them arrived at the place where all the roads end and realized that was right where they needed to be.

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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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.

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