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.

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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.