Category Archives: Gustavus 2015

Porter Supertramp

Porter stares longingly out the sliding door. Like a kid with his face pressed against the glass, watching the rain fall in sheets for the second straight week. Frustrated, he paws at the door until we open it. Outside he stops short of the soaked grass, rain pelting the tin roof, reminding him, all of us, that summer is over. With a dejected look he walks back into the warmth.
It’s been that sort of fall in southeast Alaska. Sometime in August the heavens opened the floodgates and it hasn’t stopped raining since. Puddles litter the dirt roads and driveways like little lakes. Rivers flow between them, connecting them, turning the road into a washboard, car shocks moaning in protest, CDs skipping.
And once again, we’re on the move. Packing this, debating that, Porter and Penny wide eyed with alarm. Moving again? At least this time the posters can stay on the wall, unneeded clothes can hang in the closet. Last summer every box and duffel had to return to the exact same spot in the Pathfinder or it wouldn’t fit. Not this time. We have a whole year of our lives meticulously planned. We know where we’re coming back to. Where our next paycheck is coming from. Sell outs.
But for now it’s time to wander. To cheer silently when the beat up old Pathfinder coughs to life. The cat taking his position in the driver’s lap, Penny poking her nose through the gaps in her house, always looking forward. It’s time for ferries, lunches out of plastic bags, for Prince Rupert to have hotels with lenient pet policies. Most importantly, it’s time for Hanson Island. For quiet coves and sleepy sunrises, Harlequin ducks chittering good morning. For silent walks through the forest, listening to the whispered messages of the cedars. It’s felt like a lifetime since we were there, or maybe just yesterday, it varies.
How much longer do we want to do this? Whenever we talk about what we’re going to do “going forward,” the subject settles on buying property, settling, wrapping ourselves in Gustavus’ warm embrace. Hanson Island stops us cold. Reminding us of town runs, sea lion haul outs, and transients on Critical Point at 3:00 in the morning. And we know we’re stuck. That houses will have to wait. We have the rest of our lives to be domesticated. To fence ourselves in. We’ll be ready someday. Ready to drop our roots among the birch on the glacial outwash near the bay we love so much.
But not yet. We understand that what we have on that little island is a once in a lifetime opportunity. That a chance like this will never come around again. How do you willingly give that up? I don’t think we can. So when people ask if this is our last winter there we smile and shake our heads.
“Probably not.” We answer. “Paul and Helena may have to kick us out.”
When do you know that you’re ready? What if we’re destined to bounce between two places that we love forever, unable to commit? What a beautiful problem to have. Some winter it’ll feel right. We’ll stay put. We’ll go to every Gustavus potluck, every fundraiser, make new friends, discover what we never knew we had. But Hanson Island will forever be a part of us. An essential nutrient in our life. A place we’ll always long for, always love.
Right now I can’t wait to get back. To wrap myself in that island as long as I can, to enjoy it for as long as possible, knowing that our time there has an expiration date. That worrying about it won’t make it any better. Nothing to do but take as deep a breath as I can, savor every sunrise, every 50 knot storm, every night hauling the boat up the beach on the rising tide. Because we’ll never get to live like this again.

Sea World, Blue World, Where in the World do we Go From Here?

After much posturing, debating, and protesting, the end of Sea World is in sight… kind of. Last week, the California Coastal Commission approved Sea World’s new “Blue World” expansion which would nearly double the size of the orca’s pools at the San Diego location. Approval comes with an enormous catch, Sea World would be forbidden from breeding orcas of wild lineage or housing more than 15 orcas in the new pools. We’ll bypass Sea World’s bleats about depriving the whales of their right to breed as “inhumane and unnatural” (nothing more natural than artificial insemination) to avoid the risk of choking on irony, and discuss where Sea World, and its opponents go from here.

“It’ll all be over in a few decades,” I thought. But rereading the Commissions vague restrictions I had more questions than answers. Sea World can build the tanks, but it cannot be populated with whales containing genetic material from wild whales or whales captured in the wild. Every Sea World orca, at least that I can find, has at least a grandparent of captive origin. The DNA of free whales runs through the veins of every whale in those pools. Technically, no one qualifies for the Blue World pool.

What the commission is implying I believe, is no offspring whose parents were born in the wild can reside in the new enclosure. No sons or daughters of Tillikum or Corky. Second generation, captive born whales would qualify for the new enclosure is my understanding. Which raises even more questions. For example, what does Sea World do with Corky, the northern Resident female from A5 pod who was captured in 1969? If wild caught orcas don’t qualify, Sea World would be looking at transporting her across country to Orlando or San Antonio. As would her tank mates Orkid, Ulises, Kasatka, Nakai, Ikaika, Keet, and Shouka. A massive whale shuffle would be on Sea World’s hands to move captive born animals to San Diego.

But the ruling also prohibits the trade or transfer of whales to and from the park. Does this include transfer of whales between San Diego and the other two locations? No article that I could find specifies. But if you cannot move any whales in or out of the San Diego location, why the stipulation on the genetics? The ruling needs more specificity before Sea World or animal rights activists can truly claim victory.

We have tragically reached a point where most of these whales cannot go home. For many, Sea World is the closest thing they’ll have. A cocktail of Icelandic, Resident, and even Transient have been stirred into the genetic cauldron leaving many of the park’s inhabitants with no identity. Refugees of the natural world. While the argument can rage about how Corky or Tillikum would fare if they were returned, there is no such case for the majority of Sea World’s prisoners. Where does an Icelandic/Resident mix go? And what pod would even consider accepting this man made whale Frankenstein?

The Commissions ruling is a ray of hope. It may not lead to the quick death of orca exploitation, but it’s a step in the right direction. I would love to see a more concise ruling on what Sea World can and cannot do with the additional 4 million gallons of tank they wish to build. If it means that those eleven whales in San Diego are the last ones that have to endure captivity on the west coast, fantastic. Maybe Sea World would even try to save face and agree to a net pen retirement for Corky. But if all it means is that Sea World has to shuffle whales a little more across the country, than little has been done but increase the number of mom and calf separations.

Sea World is slowly fading, but they’ve made it clear that they will not go quietly. An appeal will probably emerge, we’ll hear more about how wonderfully they treat their animals, and ticket sales will continue to drop. Let us continue to diplomatically educate those that buy tickets and boycott those that sponsor them (No Budweiser till Corky’s out!). The animal rights movement has moved at an exponential pace the past few years and I can’t wait to see where it leads next.

The Last of the 36s

Every four years or so a new catalog comes out. Not a clothes catalog or card catalog but a whale catalog. A yearbook of sorts. Every whale in the Northern Resident Population represented. Their face is their dorsal and saddle patch, organized into neat, orderly matrilines that define their lives.
The previous catalog came out in 2010 and was never out of reach on the Hanson Island observation deck. Its pages tattered and folded, annotations and revisions scrawled in black ink noting deaths, births, and disappearances. Over time the ringed binder that held the thick pages together began to fray and tear until the page holding the A5 pods tore at the plastic binding. Surge, Fife, Havannah, and the others threatening to tumble clear of the book and onto the wooden planks.
The time to retire the 2010 catalog has arrived. The updated 2014 edition sits on my computer now, hogging a considerable amount of disk space, documenting all 298 of the northern resident orcas. The first page of the report has always been reserved for the A36s. But as I scroll to the matriline a hollow emptiness fills the page. There’s just one whale left. Kaikash, A46. The tell tale cut on the top third of his dorsal. I can hear his calls echo through the white, unblemished page where two other six foot dorsals used to stand. His brothers Cracroft and Plumper have passed on, leaving Kaikash as the lone surviving grandchild of A1, better known as Stubbs.
Having a bond to an individual whale may seem silly. But when you know them all by name, their history, their voices, it’s hard not feel a connection. Even though they have no idea I exist. But those three brothers; Plumper, Kaikash, and Cracroft kicked my anthropomorphism into overdrive. Kaikash and Cracroft were the cool ones, the lady killers. Plumper, with his less imposing name, the awkward middle child. But they stuck together. Plowing up and down the strait, massive dorsals held high. The boys club, not a female in sight, persevering without mom.     That’s how they looked to me on a rainy August day in 2007. I didn’t know who they were yet but it didn’t matter as they swam past me and my kayak, making me forget all about basketball shoes and hardwood glory. Turning my life upside down. Leading me to OrcaLab, to whatever it is that I do with myself.
Cracroft past away in 2010. And last August Plumper struggled against the tide in Blackfish sound, gave up, and drifted back the way he’d come, his brother following loyally. Which left Kaikash to fend for himself. The death sentence for most orcas, unable to survive without mom, brother, sister, and cousin. But here he is. That dorsal still defiantly displayed on page one, the final relic of the A36s, of my rebirth, of my story. I can’t imagine there’d be a blog without those three.

Last summer I hammered away at the chopping block near the lab. As the tide rose and the sun beat down a kayak group pulled into the back of the cove. I stared in amazement. Hundreds of miles of beach and they have to pick the one that’s inhabited? I keep swinging, halving and quartering the rounds, wooden shrapnel flying left and right. After lunch an older man picks his way across the beach and boldly walks up to the wood shed.
“Excuse me.” He calls, waving his arms.
I pull out my headphones, sweat running down my face. “Yeah?” He better not be asking me to wait until they leave to keep chopping.
“This is OrcaLab right?”
I nod, “sure is. I’m not sure where Paul is right-”
“Oh that’s ok. I know you’re all busy. I just wanted to ask one question. Years ago my family adopted a whale through a foundation, I think he swam around here. He was A5.”
“That was Top Notch.” I answer.
“Was?”
“Yeah… he died, quite awhile ago, shortly after his Mom. That’s how it usually happens unfortunately.”
He bites his lips, eyes on the ground like he’s dropped something. “I figured,” he mumbled, “thanks.”
So it goes in the Orca world. Friends we barely even know saying goodbye. Vanishing. No wakes, no farewells, just an empty spot on the page, and a greyed out square.

I move past Kaikash’s lonely spot and keep flipping through the catalog. “298 is a lot of whales,” I think, “more than there’s ever been since the study started.” I reach the page with the A4s, and my melancholy vanishes. There she is. Springer, A73. The miracle whale. From death bed to motherhood. Her baby Spirit’s picture just below, a strong black line connecting them. Nearly every pod has young calves, a good sign. More stories to be told, more memories to be made. Death just as much a part of living as birth. They all start out like Spirit. I smile and close out of the catalog.
“They’re just like us,” I think.

A Year of Transition

Dear God, I’m 27. I’m not sure what I thought I’d be when I looked through the crystal ball a decade or even five years ago, but this wasn’t it. I thought I’d have a steady job, a respectable career, and would be staring unblinkingly into the headlights of fatherhood. The reality couldn’t be more different. I’m a seasonal job hopping, wanna be John Muir apostle and nature writer who still spends far too much time playing this game. But for the first time since I walked off the UAS campus and had my respectable career tossed back in my face, I have direction. Or as close as my life comes to direction nowadays.

Last summer I went golfing with Brittney’s uncle in Washington. While we waited for the ferry home, I laid in the back of the car and my heart started pounding.
“I’m gonna be 26 this year,” I thought. “I’m closer to 30 than 20.” I had my first mini panic attack. “What am I doing with myself?”
My crisis followed me up the B.C coast, to Hanson Island, and hovered in the back of my mind like a dark fog. What are you going to do? I’d scoffed at the question when people asked me that. Loved the stunned look on their face when I’d airily toss back, “whatever I want to.”
But seriously, what was I going to do next? I was all too aware that our bank account was drying, that the coming spring would bring some serious questions and answers that would magnify like ripples on a lake.

The warm July sun worked its way across Orca Lab’s observation deck warming the weathered cedar planks. I sat cross legged on the deck, arms on top of the lowest railing, chin on my wrists, staring blankly out at the water. I was supposed to be counting humpbacks, noting sea lions, looking for the tell tale scimitar shape of a prowling orca. But the landscape swam before my eyes and I pondered the same persistent worry.
The breeze fluttered, I thought about how much I loved it here. Loved being on the water, near the whales, the cedar forest, and the people. That was what made Orca Lab what it was. Paul, Helena, the never ending parade of volunteers from every corner of the world that gave Hanson Island its unique flavor. Where else had people touched my spirit like that? What place had the potential and power to do it again and again?
Gustavus.
I sat upright, my head banging against the middle railing, a dull thunk rattling down the cedar. I let the bruise go unnoticed as I begin to pace from one end of the deck to the next. The breeze whispers in my ears, “Gustavus. You’re going to go back, you’re going to be a kayak guide, and you’re going to write.”
Moments later the stress and fear that had taken up residence in my lower stomach melted away, draining through my pores to be caught on the westerly breeze, never to be seen again. Was it God? The universe? My own fevered mind racing through the card catalog of the brain for something that would satisfy?
I grabbed my phone and with shaking hands, tapped out a message to Brittney. “We should go back to Gustavus.”
Minutes later I had my answer, “yep.”

People pay me to write now. Not a lot, in fact I make peanuts or less than peanuts most of the time. But my computer and note pad are never far away and I scribble down ideas for novels, blog entries, and ridiculous limericks I don’t let out into the daylight. This summer, with a ball of anxiety, I sent the first 3,000 words of my wanna be memoir to Kim Heacox.
“There’s work that needs to be done here.” He wrote back, “but there’s some good stuff too. Don’t get discouraged, everyone needs to rewrite…. except F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s a lot of writers out there who don’t have the fire, keep writing.”
“I want to have the fire,” I answered.
I share my life with a beautiful women, two fantastic (fur) babies, and split my life between two places that pull at my heartstrings, demanding my eternal affection. Just fourteen months ago I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. Now, I’m worried that I won’t have time to do it all.

With All Five Senses

We are visual animals. What we see is what we get. Our sense of smell, taste, hearing, and touch takes a backseat to what hits the retina, is fragmented and sent to our brains. And yet the world is so much more than what we see. Or why would we ever get off the couch, board the plane and travel? We don’t want to just see it for ourselves, on a deeper level we want to taste, hear, touch, and smell. And yet… when we arrive our supporting senses again fall away.

For nearly half a decade I’ve watched the behemoth vessels of Princess, Holland America, Norwegian and (gulp) Disney, trace the inside passage. From ten stories up the panoramic view must be breath taking. Never ending acreages of trees, oceans, whales, birds, and bears drifting below the eyes of those that have never seen the natural world in its element. Before their eyes is what brought them here. Is that enough to make one appreciate the land? To change lives? To understand what all can be lost if we don’t change and change fast?

Do we need more? Trees and mountains may inspire as they roll by. But they are visual descriptions, easy to imagine, see, digest, and forget. From atop the ship or within the walls of the lodge, so much is lost. Layers upon layers of the natural world lay hidden just beneath the surface, invisible.

They require us to step off the gangway, out the door, and into the woods and fjords. When we do we find what was hidden was the smell of the ocean, masked by exhaust. The sound of the gulls covered by engine noise. The bite of glacially fed canals, the taste of salt drifting seductively below. We must leave behind 4G and wi-fi and sit in our ancestral home while we still can

I can’t pretend like I’ve always known this.

For three years I worked as a whale and bear guide in Juneau, side by side with the great white boats. While every day brought transcendent moments of beauty, a part of me felt empty. With the rumble of boat engines we felt compelled to add our own commentary and exclamations to the scene. It’s understandable as excitement bubbles over. But the anthropogenic noises of the boat, our feet, and the babble from other boats added layer upon layer to the acoustic scene until the sound of the whales was nearly extinguished. The click of the camera the running questions, the chirp of the iPhone removed the intimacy.

I didn’t think I could be a kayak guide. Didn’t think I’d be able to handle watching whales vanish over the horizon while I paddle slower than I walk. I went into the summer unsure of how I’d adapt. Many days I came home without seeing a plume of whale exhaust, or the shadow of a bear. But when I did, an extraordinary thing happened.

Without the white noise of man’s busy hands, we fell silent. No horsepower no clicking cameras, no thundering feet on metal, no screams and shouts. We were muted by the silence of the natural world. A world so still that from 50 yards you can hear a bear’s claws on the rocks as it turns over boulders. A moment so powerful you don’t as much hear the whale breath but feel it as it explodes from the deep end of the kelp bed yards from your bow.

Sometimes we’d just bob meditatively on the tide. Glacier Bay holding us in a trance, hearing the voices we needed to hear; Murrelet, sea lion, harbor porpoise. It would be rude to interrupt.

I began to understand.

It’s not the pictures of the whale that I need. It’s the sound of their breath, audible from miles away. The slimy comfort of the kelp fronds wrapped around my kayak. The smell of salmon so strong that it permeates the ocean’s surface as they pulse beneath the surface. It’s blueberries on my tongue, Common Murres in my ears, whale breath in my nose.

It took slowing down, not speeding up. Paddle strokes over four strokes. Smaller boats, smaller town, smaller mindset.

One of the first questions of the day is invariably, “what will we see today?”

“Nature is unscripted,” I explain, “I can only tell you what we may see.”

“But,” I go on, “I promise you’ll feel the tide, hear more than you ever imagined, and won’t get the smell of salt out of your nose for days. Believe me, in the end, that’s what you really want.”

The Spirit Walker III

In the tent his eyes opened, a slimy sensation filling his mouth. He spat and saw scales and tail burst from his lips and spray the tent. The dead herring fell to the floor, its oily scent filling the room. The image of her remained burned into his retinas, vanishing slowly with every blink, the warmth of her head on his chest still tangible in the cool morning air. He hugged his legs to his chest, desperately trying to hold the sensation that spilled from his memory, the touch of her feathers… hand, against his. The pride in his chest as he handed her the herring, the way she called his name. And for the first time since they’d said goodbye, he didn’t feel alone.
The pain in his chest was worse today, his breathing only possible in brief, sharp gasps. His paddle strokes felt ragged, uneven, and awkward. The viscosity of the water seemed to have increased ten fold while he slept, as if he was paddling through syrup. The tide was flooding however, the bay itself pushing him onward, offering one last prod north, as determined as he was for him to reach the glacier. He passed, “beach where the bear caught the moose calf” and thought of the innumerable prints still sitting in his house snapped in desperation at the fruitless prospect of capturing the intensity and power of the scene.
For the first time, there was no camera strapped to the deck, there was no point in documenting, no future in which to flip through the album, no time to reminisce. From ahead he heard the ice before he saw it, cracking, groaning, and falling, Margerie and Grand Pacific Glacier bustling about their construction site, never satisfied with their work, never content to leave the land stagnant or utter the phrase, “it is finished.” They demanded constant remodeling, to reexamine what had been done and what remained to be altered. He had grown to emulate them, never settling, never stationary. Constant motion, constant change. Even in his retreats he opened new ground, new landscape for his own personal growth.
With a final stroke he rounded the corner where they stood in all their glory. Perched upon their thrones, overlooking the kingdom they had been carving for more than 200 years. He cruised past scores of ice bergs comprised of snow centuries old. Their journey like his was almost over, this stage of it at least. As they were pulled south they would shrink, evaporate and melt, until even the largest and proudest  were liquified and sent into the atmosphere or the ocean currents, pressing onward to their next voyage.
A reckless abandon overtook his spirit, and despite his labored breathing he paddled for the glacier’s face. Each stroke was savored, each twinge in his back exalted, never had the hard plastic seat cutting into his back beneath his life jacket tasted so sweet. His life jacket. With cruel decisiveness he unzipped it and stuffed it between his feet, letting his chest expand as far as it would allow.
His arms trembled as he neared his chosen beach that stood just to the left of the great icy throne. The serac steeples and arete cathedrals towered above him, beckoning him closer. But as he rode his own tiny wake into the shallows he hesitated, the finality of his journey descending upon him. For a final time he disentangled himself from the boat that had been his livelihood and salvation. Companion and confidant.
He pulled the forest green vessel above the rocks, tying the bow line to a boulder, assured that someone would be along for it eventually. The last thing he wanted was to tarnish the place whose unblemished face he’d fallen in love with half a century ago. So long ago by human measurement, and yet… he looked up at the wall of ice comprised of snow that had fallen before the nation had even existed. And even that registered as nothing more than a geologic heartbeat in the creature of deep time.
Arms still shaking with fatigue, he began to climb, his legs steady beneath him as he scrambled up the steep ridge, his fingers clenching tightly to whatever offered purchase, his boots digging into the tiny crevasses carved by the great glacier. Sweat poured in torrents, his chest seared with every breath, but he greedily insisted on inhaling every molecule of the rich, chilled oxygens savoring. Drinking more than breathing.
Reed heaved himself up the ridge’s peak and level with Margerie’s surface. “Margerie,” he thought, “such a domesticated name for something so powerful and wild.”
The bay held glaciers named for men and universities. Men of European fame and institutions. Named for the imprint of man, to prove that they had been here, gifted with the opposable thumbs that had made us judge, jury, and executioner. But not here, this would not be tamed. No matter how many cruise ships, tour boats, and kayaks stood in her shadow, cameras aimed at her massive face, waiting for her to sing. To tell us what we longed to hear even if we weren’t listening. Margerie didn’t do it justice, in his mind he renamed her, “glacier where I say goodbye.”
Reed placed a shaking foot on the ice, the first time he had stepped on any of the glaciers that he had idolized for so long, that had made his home. On his hands and knees he caressed her, his shadow stretching across as the sun peaked through the clouds to say its farewell. His vision swam as his breath caught in his throat, his lungs struggling valiantly against all odds to obey the command to breath. Nature has little interest in theatrics.
Curling into a ball Reed wrapped his arms around his legs, tucking his chin into his chest, the beloved wool hat tight around his head, green rain jacket zipped beneath his chin. His brain called for the oxygen that his lungs could no longer provide, neurons firing as he said goodbye. He had made it, in a small way he had won. A final flash of inspiration crept through his mind, John Muir’s words ringing in his ears as his body relaxed, “what chance did a low grippe microbe have up here?” and a weak smile melted onto his face.
A final tendril of breath escaped his lips, caught the breeze rushing down the glacier and rose into the sky. Higher and higher his final breath climbed, spinning in tight circles around the peaks of the Fairweather Range, catching and percolating with the warm, moisture laden air blown east from the Alaskan Gulf. Caught in the clouds it returned, suspended a thousand feet above the head of the glacier where the temperature plummeted below freezing until the cloud’s bounty was overcome by gravity. Reed’s final breath fell as snow, a single flake that tumbled and twisted in the great gusts of wind nurtured by the ice.
Soundlessly it settled high above the bay, falling among its brothers and sisters, compacting and pressing tightly together, forming ice so dense it reflected blue. And together they surged. Millions, billions, trillions of their brethren fell, piling higher and higher. And the Glacier Where I Say Goodbye charged south. Within twenty years it had swallowed up Tarr Inlet, pushing the Murrlets still bobbing in the deep green coves elsewhere. A century later it had decimated the west arm and pulsed past the middle bay. Unsatisfied the ice continued down, destroying what had been his home, the canvas becoming a pure white, a landscape of endless possibility. With a final thrust, the glaciers reclaimed the last of their bay, a tower of ice two thousand feet high smothering the land. Reed’s snowflake hovering on the pinnacle of an arete, suspended above Icy Strait which once again lived up to its name.
The glacier groaned, cracked, and hollered, the great chunk of ice broke free and fell end over end, leaving a massive crater in the strait that filled with great towers of white water that broke against the ice. Slowly the medial moraine fell away and the glaciers relented and retreated once again. The land reborn, uncovered, untouched, untrammeled. Two hundred years after his arrival, Reed finally floated away. The bay to which he belonged beginning to grow once again.

The Spirit Walker II

That night he lay in his tent, flat on his back, watching the flimsy ceiling growing darker and darker as the sun vanished for its brief summer intermission. For the first time in decades he was scared to close his eyes. It was not fear of bears or the mystical kustaka that held his eyelids open but his own mind, a terror at what would happen to be transported again. The minutes moved leisurely by, apathetic to the knot of tension in his stomach and the anxiety in his head. As the first tendrils of morning light began to materialize Reed could fight it no longer, his eyes shut, blackness enveloped him, and his spirit left.
It was loud here. The foul smell of rotten fished filled his nostrils, his body crushed by the squirming masses on either side. The roars and barks of his neighbors seemed to travel from his ear flaps down his spine, the sound waves of the deepest calls rumbling in his chest. But he could breathe easy here. And when he opened his mouth he felt a deep bellow radiate from his chest, rushing up his wind pipe, past his massive canines and into the throng of brown fur surrounding him.
There was no peace here and he hated it. Couldn’t understand how those around him could sleep in the noise and smells that seemed to be their own living organisms. He looked across the passage to the distant beaches and rocks. It looked peaceful and quiet, perhaps there was even salmon. That was how haul outs started wasn’t it? One brave pathfinder seeking something bigger, better, more. He was that pathfinder, that rebel.
With a gigantic heave he leaped clear of the rocks, the sound of his peers echoing in his ears before being muted by the concussion of his splash. He let his body sink beneath the waves, worshipping the silence and peace. Finally he flapped his long flippers and felt his body glide forward. The water flowed smoothly past his long whiskers as he rose back to the medium of breath and life, thrusting his nose above the surface and exhaling.
The passage was not wide, surely it would take less than an hour to swim, and he lolled near the surface, rolling onto his back, letting the sun warm his outstretched flippers before turning back on his belly to swim a few feet more. Everything was quiet and still. A voice drifted across the water as he rose above the waves, orientating. There was his face, a hand outstretched pointing toward him, mouth open in exclamation. For a wild moment he considered swimming over in greeting, than the water exploded.
He felt his stomach burst, his spine snap, his body helicopter, his human face cartwheeling before his eyes. With a feeble splash he hit the water, saw the muscled black and white mass of supremacy dive into the ocean beside him. Desperately he swam for the shore, his breath coming in gasps, electric shooting pain radiating down both flippers. He had to make it. Had to reach the rocks, start the new rookery, prove it could be done. Behind him he could hear them breath, saw a flash of white slide beneath him, saw the fin cut the water beside him. And in the kayak he sat there. Helpless, unrecognizing, accepting that to live meant to die. That he was a living sacrifice so that his predator could live to swim another day. He closed his eyes, paddled furiously, and braced for the next strike from below.
The searing pain in his gut brought him back to consciousness. His chest heaving, his arms held out above him. still paddling furiously. But the pain was in his stomach, not his lungs. Where the orca had hit him? Where he had hit himself? Where he had watched the orca hit the sea lion? Were all three of them true? Were any of them? Light filled the tent as he unzipped the sleeping bag, pulling his wool shirt up to his neck to stare at his undulating belly. A great bruise covered his lower abdomen, shades of purple, blue, and yellow sprawled across his skin. With a shaking hand he brushed the wound and pulled his hand back as if seared. It was tender, as if he’d been head butted by a massive animal.
Reed brought both hands up to his eyes, rubbing them as if to clear his mind, to exorcise whatever sorcery had inhabited his body. He was alive, he was Reed Brown, 70 years old, male, and human. Not sea lion, not orca, human. As his life faded, the bay seemed set on absorbing what was left of it into its very being. Somehow the thought settled him, calmed him. He saw himself not as a visitor, or passerby, but a living and vibrant family member of the land he cherished. He took another steadying breath; feeling the ache flow from his lungs to his stomach, and unzipped the tent, on tenderhooks for whatever else the vision may have left for him.
But the stretch of bay was innocent and unassuming, and Reed swallowed his breakfast of oats and raisins without tasting a bite. As he paddled away from shore he glanced into the water, shining emerald today in the partly cloudy skies and let his mind drift, imagining the black and white thunderbolt rocketing toward daylight, the exhilaration of the hunt, the terror of the collision, the necessity of it all.
Reed looked ahead toward Tlingit Point where it stood at the base of the two arms and paddled on, pushing the fantasy and nightmare of swirling, unseen creatures from his mind.
He made good progress as he paddled resolutely onward, stubbornly insisting on paddling the full 65 miles from Bartlett Cove to Margerie Glacier at the northern tip of the West Arm. The paddling did what the medication had never been able to do and he once again began to feel invincible, half a century younger, pushing the ocean behind him with every stroke. The sun moved across the sky, dipping for an innumerable time beneath the Fairweather mountain range. Still he paddled on, savoring every stroke, ever riverlet of water that fell from his paddle’s blade, marveling at the perfect vortexes that materialized behind him as his paddle churned the surface. At long last fatigue reemerged from the muscles in his back and shoulders and he succumbed to the limitations of his body, bringing the kayak to rest near Tidal Inlet. The clouds had fallen away, leaving the sky the palest of blues in the late evening light. Eschewing the tent Reed curled up beneath the limbs of the alder and faded into sleep.
He awoke early, feeling surprised at his dreamless sleep. With the practiced movements of countless mornings he devoured breakfast and continued his vigil up the bay’s timeline of his life. He slipped past the “the bay the moose swam across,” the “mountain where the wolves howled,” and finally past, “the beach where she said yes.” Here he stopped in mid afternoon sun, walking the beach toward the massive glacial erratic. When he had asked it had stood at the top of the tideline. Fifty years later the rising land had pulled it into the meadow, the bay, like life, never stops changing.
But it would take more than her isostatic rebound to hide the memories Reed held here. He found the small groove in the rock where he had kneeled, holding out the small gold ring to her, could still see her face glowing even as the rain fell in torrents, their rain jackets like their lips pressed tightly together. Here he uttered his first words since setting out.
“I’ll see you soon, beautiful,” he whispered, a withering hand running down the rock, squeezing a hand he couldn’t see or feel.
Unable to stand in this place a moment longer he turned and sprinted for the kayak and pushed clear of the beach, apathetic to the crunch of fiberglass on the sharpened rocks as he paddled hard for Russell Island, Tarr Inlet, and Margerie.
He paddled in silence the rest of the day, watching the brush shrink away to bare rock that stood creased and scratched by the receding ice, leaving its own graffiti on the land’s geologic story. The east side of Russell Island was alive with life. Dozens of Marbled Murrelets bobbed in the sheltered water of the island, their peeps filling the landscape with the flawless communication of the mated pairs. With practiced grace they dove together only to be separated below by the allure of herring. Breaking the surface they would call to one another until their voices brought them back together. Not until they were side by side would they dive again, filling their bellies until they could barely fly, skipping over the water like flat stones, struggling to gain the lift that would take them to their homes in the old growth forest.
A small sandy spit crawled into view, an inviting bed of moss and shrubs just beyond the tide line. For the countless time Reed brought his kayak onto the beach where so much had happened. It was the beach with too many names to number. But this time there was no ambling bears, no screeching heron, no comfort in his empty tent. He sat up into the early morning hours, listening to the murrelet’s call, watching the lovers come together, suspended on the ocean’s surface tension for a second that lasted eternity, and than dive together once more.
The clouds crawled back over the mountains, the respite was over, and rain began to fall again, rainwater collecting in pools along the creases in his jacket. Finally he submitted to the call of the thermarest, and crawled into the shelter of the tent. Exhausted his eyelids fell like stones through the ocean and he felt his weightless body float through the soft tap of raindrops on the roof, tasting the sweet liquid on his tongue.
He bobbed gently on the water’s surface. The smallest ripple buffeting his body like four foot seas. But he glided with practiced grace over each crest, watching the horizon and mountains disappear from sight in the trough before coming into sight as the ocean held him above. She was near, and his head darted in precise and practiced movements back and forth, even in a crowd of their kin she was unmistakable with her lone patch of bright white feathers along her back.
Reed called out her name, his voice a singular note that peeped through the crowd of feathers, wings, and beaks, seeking out the only one who would know it was him. She answered instantly, the sound serenading his spirit and he paddled vigorously towards her, calling out her name again and again.
“Reed!” Came the reply, “Reed!”
And he saw her. Bright black eyes dilated with excitement as if they’d been apart for months in lieu of minutes. A tiny wave sent him barreling into her, their tiny torsos bumping together as he let out a final call of greeting. For a minute they sat still, staring into one anothers eyes, letting the higher powers of tide and current take them where they wished. Below their friends dived in the wake of herring that fled beneath the surface. He gazed into her face, his 8 ounce body feeling even lighter in her presence. With another call they dove, wings outstretched, brushing gently against each other they plunged into the frigid medium, lightening flashes of herring zipping past their vision. He dove away from her, turning hard to the right, following the fish down, weaving through schools of surging salmon, their eyes wide in surprise, constantly awaiting the next threat, the next predator.
A minute later, a single herring clenched tightly in his beak, he allowed buoyancy to pull him back to light. Even with his mouth full he called, the sound muffled by the dangling fish, saltwater dripping from its tail back to the ocean, the tiny ripples spreading out into the crowded cove. In a sudden rush she broke the surface next to him, her beak empty and he hurriedly forced the fish into her mouth, imploring her to eat, to nourish the egg steadily growing inside her. She let out a tiny bleat of thanks and nestled against his feathers, the current and tides resuming their control over their lives.

The Spirit Walker I

The water shimmered, reflecting shades of gray and green in the morning light. Fog hugged the peaks of the Beartrack Mountains like a cloak, wrapping their peaks in an ever flowing blanket. A determined ray of sun stabbed through the fog and mist, its finger crawling along the liquid mirror of the ocean, moving up the barnacle covered rocks emerging from the midnight high tide. The ray moved beyond the rye grass, turning their grains gold as they floated past, their early morning dew glowing like flakes of gold. It moved past the strawberries above the tide line and the tattered remains of an unmade bear bed abandoned just hours ago, its mattress of moss still warm. From the flat plane beyond a trio of Spruce trees the light finally rested against pale yellow canvas.
Within the tiny tent came the rustles of early morning life, a cough and a groan emerged as cold, stiff appendages protested the early disturbance. Here it was warm, comfortable. Eventually the growl of a zipper floated across the landscape joining the early morning calls of the ravens, murrelets, and gulls. A head adorned in gray wool appeared, brown and white curls peaking beneath, emerald green eyes squinting even as the few fingers of light retreated back beyond the clouds.
Reed stepped clear of the tent and staggered slowly around the trees, ambling down the beach, his gait slow and uneven as he stumbled over loose rock. One hundred yards down, buried in the rye grass lay a pair of black, cylindrical bear cans. Prying the lid off one of them, Reed settled himself upon a broad flat rock and watched the sun struggle to reappear as water rose to a boil making the oats in the sauce pan quiver and dance.
Stretched before him lay the middle and upper segments of Glacier Bay. From his vantage point on Young Island the land opened out before him like a picture book. The long seductive legs of the Y shaped bay tapered off in the distance leading to the destructive and creating forces of the glaciers. After 50 years there were few estuaries, inlets, and passes that he had not explored, slept in, or felt the stinging ice of a sudden storm seeking out every weakness in his jacket and tent. In his mind he could trace the land like the lines on his weathered and wrinkled hands.
Today marked the beginning of his seventh decade on earth. Nearly every summer had been spent here. Biologist, writer, guide, educator, and student. The more time he spent with the bay the less he seemed to know. She was full of surprises. Storms the most skilled meteorologist would be flummoxed by. Dispatching bears, precipitation and tide rips to do her bidding. She weeded out the unprepared and those too quick to romanticize her beauty and splendor. She stole kayaks off the beach with 19 foot tides, hid armies of Devils Club beyond the tree line, and set loose armadas of mosquitos with every opportunity.
Reed had learned from her, evolving as the bay itself evolved. The ice that was her architect never ceasing to carve, create, and destroy its own work of art, biding its time until it grew tired of the masterpiece and sent glaciers charging south to wipe the canvas clean.
A fine mist began to fall and Reed tilted his head back, letting the minuscule droplets fall on his face, the water dripping from his long grey eyebrows, his bleach white beard absorbing the moisture like a sponge. He managed a deep breath and felt the stabbing pain in his chest again, the knife twisting into his lungs, the throbbing magnifying in intensity as it had been for months.
Thirty minutes later, his tent and gear stored fore and aft, he slid his kayak into the shallows sending out ripples that stretched before him to mark the trail he’d follow. With a grunt he struggled into his fiberglass boat, hearing and feeling his knees crack and pop as he manipulated his long legs, stretching them out before him, toes groping for the rudder pedals. Jamming his paddle into the fine sand he pushed clear of the beach, the keel whispering as it brushed over the rocks on the still falling tide. Working against the ebb he paddled north, into the bay that had dominated his life, it was fitting that it should end here.
The minutes bled into hours, time marked only by the creeping movement of the sun still hidden beyond the clouds. The rain came and went as a fine mist, too impatient or lazy to commit. As the day slowly passed, the years seemed to vanish, the pain in his back melting, the stiffness in his legs forgotten. The melody of his youth escaped his lips, the songs of John, Paul, George, and Ringo floating across the water to fall on the boughs of the spruce and hemlock he paddled past.
For lunch he joined the otters in the kelp bed, wrapping stalks of bull kelp around the hull, anchoring himself in place as he produced bread, peanut butter, and a carefully rationed beer. These aquatic forests reminded him of the Tlingit, the rightful tenants of the bay. It was in these forests that they had gone to seek shelter when the wind blew too hard, blanketing themselves in kelp to nestle within the hulls of their boats patiently waiting for the ocean to relax. Such was their faith in the sea, their breadbasket, livelihood, and highway, that even in her most angry moment they would not abandon her.
Freeing himself from the kelp, Reed paddled on, a laminated map pinned under bungee cords in front of him, spelling out the names long ago given to the land in a fruitless effort to bring human order to a world we cannot even begin to understand. Each one conjured up memories, a comfort food for the brain. Long ago he’d started to rename the points, bays, and coves for what he had experienced and witnessed. Just as the Tlingits had given the bay practical names, so had he. They had christened the bay with descriptions and stories. “Place where the glacier broke through,” and “giant rock beneath the green bluff.” He had followed their example, and as south Marble Island grew larger and larger he entered, “passage where the orca hunted sea lion.”
He continued north, infant waves growing in the mid afternoon that had long ago hidden any evidence of what had taken place on an early Spring day years ago. Reed had been just twenty-six, his first season as a kayak guide when they’d stumbled upon the dramatic production of the food chain. The watery wolf pack had exploded from nowhere; perhaps from the underworld in which they’re latin name was derived, to send torrents of white water high into the sharp blue sky. In the chop and whirlpools they rammed their victim, the sea lions eyes wide with terror as the four of orcas circled, dove, and resumed their attack, the youngest looking on.
There was no malice in these creatures, Reed thought as he sat paralyzed 200 yards away, no sadistic pleasure in their hunt. This was life. The only way to survive, to continue the game that had been set in motion eons ago when their parents had followed the retreating glaciers. Had watched as they pealed back the curtain to reveal the labyrinth of islands and channels that would be their home for centuries.
The battle raged for an hour but there was no debate over how the drama would unfold. No sudden plot twists, no unexpected hero overcoming the odds. Nature has little interest in theatrics. Minutes later the ocean had covered up the deed, washing away any evidence, and on the sea lion haul out a mile away, life continued, unchanged.
A gust of wind tugged him back to the present, the tide shifting to flood, the breeze bounding north with the current like a sled dog. The pain in his chest intensified, his toes numb from bracing against the boat. Aiming perpendicular to the rising waves Reed paddled gamely for shore, the trees gaining definition and height as he pulled closer.
By the time the keel had kissed the shore the sun had finally broken through the dissipating clouds, turning the ocean from gray to sapphire and punctuated with rising white caps as the wind grew in intensity. Reed hauled his kayak up the beach. His feet slipping over slick seaweed that held to the rocks like glue. With a final heave he laid the kayak to rest beyond the beach grass in the protective shadow of the alders that signified safety from even the most motivated high tide.
His gear stashed and food stowed down the beach, Reed stretched out on the smallest, smoothest rocks he could find, letting the wind dry the sweat from his cheeks and forehead. Removing the wool hat he ran his hands through his thin and wispy hair. The medication would have made the last of it fall out they’d told him. If he was going to go, he was going with every last strand of hair he could hold on to. The rocks felt more comfortable than any mattress, the pounding of the waves more soothing than any fan. He closed his eyes and laid back, and felt himself drift away.
The pain in his lungs was gone. His body smooth, muscular, and powerful. His legs felt fused together as they pumped in unison. In the darkness he could feel the cold, rushing liquid speed past his face. And though he knew the water could be no warmer than 50 degrees he felt no chill, no shiver radiating up his spine. Just out of sight to his left and right swam his family, his identity, his pod. A whispered voice, high pitched and authoritative floated through the currents and Reed angled his rostrum up as he felt a gentle burn building in his lungs. The water lightened, turning from black to deep blue, a rush of air and his nostrils flexed, opening his airway, spent oxygen returning to the atmosphere. With a gasp he sucked in a fresh breath, sinking below the waves, feeling his dorsal fin cutting the surface and tickling his back. His mother dove beneath him. Her call commanded him to follow and he obeyed without question feeling his sister and nephew behind him, somewhere ahead was his brother. From his moment of birth he wanted for nothing, had lusted for nothing, born into a family that would supply him with all he would ever want.
His mother whispered again and the chatter from his nephew died away, the pod went silent. Oxygen from his last breath would have to sustain him as it pounded through massive arteries. He could hear it now in the ocean’s stillness, a splashing straight ahead and above. The sea lion bobbed on the surface, paddling away from the haul out, bound for who knew what. His timing couldn’t have been worse. Reed’s mother was a master, a specialist in his kind, she had a family to sustain, and if the intuition in her womb was true, there would be another to feed in a matter of months. For five minutes they swam on, a single pump of his tail propelling him further than ten strokes would with his paddle. His mother’s flipper brushed against him, his brother’s dorsal fin grazing his stomach, everything he’d ever need was here.
With a single screeching yelp, they shot upward, bubbles rushing past his face, the light returning, a single ping forward bounced back in a heartbeat, it was a sea lion, it was above, it was dinner, it was survival. He hit it dead on, feeling it’s bones crack against his rostrum, felt it fall away as he broke clear of the water, into dazzling light, saw his own human face alight with shock, wonder, and amazement, the snapshot burning into the back of his head as he fell into the waves, heard his nephew’s excited chitters and dove into darkness for his next charge.
Reed’s eyes snapped open, with a great gasp he exhaled as if coming to the surface after a deep dive. For a moment his head jerked back and forth, orientating. The sun was dipping beneath the mountains of the upper bay, turning the sky crimson, the wind had submitted to the atmosphere’s higher calling, the ocean settling as it prepared for a restful night.
Reed stretched out his flippers…. no, his arms and reached up above his head, his fingers brushed against something that was not rock and his hand froze. He could feel something long and wiry, and another object, firm and pointed. He grabbed a handful of the artifacts and brought them to his face, eyes wide in shock. Rolling onto his side he stared at the sea lion whiskers and claws on the rocks next to him.
Reflexively he stared back out at “passage where orca hunted sea lion,” the memories flooding back. He shook his head and felt water drip down his neck. Bringing a hand to his thin hair he found it soaking wet. As he wiped the water from his mouth he let out a scream as his hand pulled back, a deep red red liquid staining his skin. The tide had risen several feet as he’d slept – is that what it was? – and he staggered to the waters edge. Cupping water in his palms he splashed his face watching the water turn red as he feverishly scrubbed his cheeks and beard clean.
Getting to his feet Reed felt his knees shuddering. With as deep a breath as his lungs would allow he tried to steady himself, to dam the tidal waves of adrenaline ripping through his body like the ocean in full flood on a spring tide. Climbing the beach he returned to the pile of claws and whiskers, each arranged in a neat pile between the rocks where he’d laid. For the longest time he stood on the beach until the water lapped at his feet. Finally Reed knelt down, water spilling over the top of his boots and gently plucked a whisker and claw between thumb and forefinger, carrying them above the water’s reach toward his camp, his mind spinning, his head dizzy.

Coming Home

For all its ocean facing windows, the lobby of the lodge is always dim. Dark wooden walls cast a permanent shadow that the orange fluorescent lights can’t begin to penetrate. An awning stretches over the long balcony, protecting al fresco diners from the rain, and blotting out whatever rays of sun make it through the gray clouds.
Those with their back to the windows have their faces vanish into dark, inscrutable shadow, features and expressions hidden and mask like. So when I walk into the lodge the pair are not immediately obvious. Their rain gear and boots hidden in the darkness. But their boundless enthusiasm as I approach squelches any doubt that it’s me they’ve been waiting for. As they sit back down and the paperwork appears the shadows hide the signs that should have been obvious. The mother’s shivering hands and arms, the wool hat pulled tightly over her head without a single curl or braid protruding beneath the material.
Her son scribbles names and home addresses well she berates him the way only a mother can. Not spitefully, but in the way that makes him, even at 24 roll his eyes and sarcastically mutter, “mooooom!”
As we rise it takes her a few extra moments to gather herself and lift her thin body off the couch. Only now in the better light does it become obvious and my expression, comprehending for only moments betrays me.
Yes. She’s going through chemotherapy, had been since she was diagnosed with lung cancer just three months ago.
“Never smoked a cigarette in my life,” she says as if I’d have the nerve or insensitivity to ask. “I lived in Juneau for three years back in the early eighties and I wanted my kids to see it before…” she trails off. She doesn’t tell me what stage of treatment she’s in and I don’t ask, I don’t want to know.
Like many, their fear and terror is covered by humor. They laugh long and loud at my every quip and comment, as if Dave Letterman and not Dave Cannamore was their guide.
“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to paddle,” she confesses.
“It makes no difference to me how far we go,” I answer, “I’m just so happy you made it back.” I’d float fifty feet off the dock all night if they want to.
We reach the sheds that house our kayak gear and a gentle mist begins to fall from the clouds that habitually threaten rain. The drops fall in a resigned, uninspired sort of way, the stormy cumulus far from enthused, sending precipitation earthwards as if it didn’t know what else to do that evening but soak  the leaves of the alders.
Her son is easily as tall as me, a cello player in San Francisco who looks like he could play small forward for the Warriors in his spare time. We firmly tell Mom to stay put and lug the double and single kayak down the beach toward the slowly flooding tide and she gently folds herself into the front cockpit. For the first time she doesn’t look tired and worn. Her eyes gleam with the excitement of untold patience after waiting for this exact moment. I push them clear of the rocks and follow, my kayak bobbing in their wake.
“I used to go kayaking all the time when I lived in Juneau,” she says as we move past the dock, aiming for the mouth of Bartlett Cove. “I would take my cat with me.”
I try to imagine Porter perched on the bow of my kayak, clawed paws slipping and sliding on the fiberglass, scratching the gel coat or worse, attacking the human responsible for depositing him in a vessel surrounded by his sworn enemy.
There are people that you want to see it all. Breaching humpbacks, hunting orcas, frolicking sea lions, sneaky seals, flying pterodactyls, and as we paddle I mentally will the inhabitants of Glacier Bay towards us. Calling to them to understand how precious their presence would mean to all of us.
We paddle and the conversation is easy. No factual tic tacs needed to stimulate talk between the two boats. Mother and son bicker good naturedly as he struggles to master the rudder peddles on his maiden voyage. Talk turns to baseball, two die hard Giants fans bemoaning their lack of starting pitching depth.
My stomach turns, replace San Francisco with Minnesota and this was my Mom and I. She in her early 50s, he his mid 20s. I’m about to open my mouth, to reveal the parallel when the whale arrives.
The bait ball had been swirling for fifteen minutes, the gulls’ insinuations and the protests of murrelets had become a white noise. The humpback had given no warning before ripping through the surface, sending white wings scattering as herring gull, kittiwake, and mew rise a few feet higher and out of reach of the ballooning mouth. The impact on us is instantaneous. No one hollers or calls out, it’s more of a silent, “ohhhh” from all three of us that stops our conversation mid sentence. The calm evening water allows the sound of the next breath to echo off the trees on the Lester shore, the water falling from the back and flukes as the whale rises higher momentarily before falling away beneath the waves.
The rain continues to fall at random intervals as we paddle, her stamina exceeding her expectations. As it falls heavier she leans back in her seat, face pointing upward, allowing the cool water to strike her face beads sliding down and into her lap. As we return an hour later, her stroke stronger than ever she looks reborn. I tell her about John Muir, how he slept on the glaciers when he was ill and walked down the next morning feeling like he had a new lease on life.
“Maybe theres more treatment in the wilderness than we know,” I suggest.
She likes the sound of that, “forget the chemo, just bring me a huge iceberg to munch on. Make sure theres some vodka to go with it though.”
She laughs as their boat nears the shore, I hop out and catch their kayak by the nose, raising it up to land softly on the rocks and barnacles. As the moment comes to step clear of the boat she pauses, not to gather her strength, but to savor. She runs her hands lovingly along the combing, her fingers brushing the forest green finish, a loving look in her eyes.
“It feels so good to be back here, you don’t know how much places like this mean to you until you don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to see them.”
She isn’t talking to either of us, but the silence that follows is total. Even the birds have gone silent as if in respect to this fiery and passionate woman.
It’s most telling where we run to when we can make out the expiration date on our lives. We don’t run to the Oracle, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge or any other man made marvels. We come home. To the place that, deep inside, we still acknowledge as sacred, as special, as holy, even if we’ve long forgotten exactly why. It’s why we marvel at glaciers and eyes gleam as we glass the water for that six foot dorsal fin. Because the natural world gives us something that we can never create, can never imitate. And when we know time is up, what better place to spend it, than right at home.

I Couldn’t Live Here

As we pull out of the drive of the bed and breakfast, I crane my neck around to make eye contact briefly with the middle aged couple seated in the middle seats of my “soccer mom” minivan. The first few minutes are usually the generic cordial introductions.
“Where you from?”
“New Jersey.”
“How long have you been here? How long are you staying?”
“Two days, three more nights.”
“Are you liking it so far?”
The wife laughs, “it’s nice… but there’s no way I could ever live here.”
Her brashness stops me. Not that many people don’t allude to their opinion that Alaska is nice to visit before the scary villain of winter returns. I can understand how living in a temperate rainforest could literally and metaphorically dampen people’s mood. It makes me grumble from time to time.
But to so eagerly announce her decision with little prompting makes me dig deeper. I acknowledge the rain, the snow, the sun’s lazy winter transect as it plays leapfrog with the mountain peaks.
“Oh it’s not that,” she insists. “It’s just…” she glances out the window as we move through Gustavus’ lone intersection, “there’s nothing to do here.”
Again, the outdoor fanatics would have to disagree. There were mountains to climb, a certain 65-mile long bay to paddle, fish to catch, deer to hunt. But it wasn’t fair to expect a 45-year old accountant residing in the shadows of concrete and skyscrapers to ooze enthusiasm at the prospect of bushwacking up Excursion Ridge.
“If your not a big outdoors person I can see that,” I allow. “Even though a little more time in the woods would do wonders for us all,” I add quietly.
She gives a little sniff, “yea, I definitely wouldn’t be able to stand being here more than a week or so.”
I take the bait. Keeping my voice pleasant I turn my head again and the van drifts briefly over the center line.
“I understand that,” I say, trying not to sound offended, I couldn’t spend one hour in New Jersey after all.
“But let me ask you something. If you had to spend a winter here, what do you think you’d miss about New Jersey? I’ll even be generous and say that you have a house within cell phone range and internet, I won’t make you drive to the library to check your email.”
The van goes quiet while she thinks, the sound of the wheels on the pavement echoing through vehicle as we near the park. Heading out to do what defines so many people in this town, the reason many live here, the reason many can’t imagine living anywhere else.
After ten seconds of musing she answers, “oh… I don’t know, you know… just like, going to the movie theater and stuff.”
“Entertainment, new movies” I nod, “I can understand that.”
“Yea, but I guess we really don’t go to that many movies.” She glances at her husband, “when was the last time we went and saw a movie?” He answers with a shrug. “Well there’s other stuff,” she continues, “shopping, the mall… though I don’t do a lot of shopping.”
The car goes quiet again as I wait for her to continue.
“I guess just having the option…”
“The option to do things that you never do?” It’s out of my mouth before I can stop it and I bite my lip. This is going to be a long paddle.
“I don’t mean to pry or anything, I’m just curious what people think they’d miss.” Silence answers my feeble attempt to cover my break in character. Perhaps I’d offended the malls and movie theaters that she holds as dear to her as we hold the mountains and waters here.
I’m too protective of this place, too quick to be riled when others don’t see it the way I do. Perhaps far too biased to pass judgement on what the acceptable line of appreciation is. Not everyone has to want to live in a sleepy town of 400, thank God or it wouldn’t be 400 people after all.
What made my 45-year old accountant’s declaration so difficult wasn’t in her opinion (though her lack of tact was matched only by mine), but her inability to defend her position. That we as a society can have so little personal attachment to the region that we live, simply settling there because that’s where our parents did, where a job took us, yet so ingrained that inhabiting something different makes us shudder. It struck me how home can resonate so little with some, how many other people can’t pick one unique thing that they’d miss? Granted, I’m just piling on New Jersey now, but New Yorkers have been doing that for years. She and her husband did come to Gustavus after all, off the beaten path (though she later expressed regret that they didn’t take a cruise).
It’s important to turn this around, to look through my tree shrouded cocoon of southeast Alaska. I can understand the value in visiting places that we have no intention of ever living. Seattle’s nice, for a while, but I know that I could never live there. I love the music scene, Safeco field, the brew pubs… oh the brew pubs. But would lose my mind waiting 20 minutes to get onto the I-5 every morning, I know I couldn’t handle it.
The difference lies in knowing what I’d miss if I did move there. I’d miss my 30 second walk to work, exchanging waves with every car that drove by, intimate open mic nights every other Saturday, the bay, the whales, the bears moving through the backyard… the list could go on.
I’m sure if she thought about it long enough she could find a unique thing or two about home that she’d miss if I exiled her to Gustavus for the winter. Or maybe not. Maybe she’d fall in love with the countless potlucks people throw here, the dreamy silence of the falling snow with little to do but sip coffee and grab whatever artistic medium calls to her like it does for so many here in the winter. She may never want to live here, but I bet if she did, she’d miss the movie theater less than she thinks.