Category Archives: Gustavus 2016

Stop Talking About Polar Bears. Talk About Us.

The blog has been quiet lately. This hasn’t been intentional it’s just, well, I’ve always tried to keep this forum balanced. Too often I feel environmental writing gets dragged down into a “the end is neigh” rhetoric that beats the drum so often that the reader goes tone deaf. There is good out there, it’s just been hard to find. Sure, we can applaud Obama’s protection of the Arctic from drilling, but even that has a dark lining as many pundits have been quick to point out.

We’re so used to fighting a losing battle, that even victories are viewed through our pessimistic lens. I suppose I’ve been guilty of that too. It’s been easier to play fantasy basketball, read books, and watch silly TV shows than sink my teeth into anything. Which is dangerous. Apathy at this moment in history is a death blow and I cannot mobilize others to fight while I sit on my duff and drink my fifth cup of coffee this morning.

So lets talk about something that matters. Or more accurately, talk about not talking about something anymore.

We need to stop talking about Polar Bears.

“What?” I can hear you say. “But the polar ice caps are at a historic low! They’re starving and mating with Grizzly Bears! They’re the flagship species of climate change!”

Let me begin by saying that I agree with you. 100 percent. I have never seen a wild Polar Bear, I hope I have the opportunity someday (not too close if you please). And that’s the problem.

Let me remind you of America’s unfortunate waltz with insanity this year and that a man who prioritizes the Environment as highly as women’s vaginas and Russian hacking will soon be in office. We’ve been here before so I won’t bother with another 500 words on it. But as a refresher, the majority of American’s support three of Trump’s seven horcruxes: environmental policies, national parks, and lowering carbon emissions. These are opinions that span both sides of the aisle, though left leaning to be sure.

But it hasn’t mattered. The Polar Bear has been leading a movement that, well, isn’t moving. It’s not galvanizing public opinion or inspiring people to make drastic changes in their lives. This isn’t their fault of course. But scientists and well meaning people pointing feverishly at graphs of vanishing ice, rising carbon emissions, and photos of emaciated bears isn’t changing the minds of the suburban mid-westerner.

That sucks. It speaks to our self centered “out of sight out of mind” mentality. So we need to bring the flagship home. But I haven’t the faintest idea how to do that. Getting people outside is a common theme. “Coming home” as it were, getting in touch with our ancestral playground. But to the casual eye, the woods feel similar to how they were two decades ago.

I look over Blackney Pass and I don’t see the effects of climate change. My quality of life has not diminished. The grocery store is stocked with food, fresh water is everywhere, the jerry cans are full. The boat engine comes to life on the first pull. If someone who lives with his head to nature’s chest and can hear her heartbeat cannot easily see, how do we expect the suburbanite to recognize it? This is my fear. That each generation will experience these subtle changes, see them as normal, and move on.

There used to be toads on Hanson Island. Just twenty years ago Paul and Helena used to see them all over the place. I had no idea. It was a sobering realization that I could be so naive and immune to what the island should contain. It was much the same shock as when I stumbled across an old clear cut last year with the decapitated stumps of trees twenty feet in diameter. Imagine a century from now, some kid staring up at the skeleton of a blue whale and marveling that the world used to hold animals so grand.

If we’re going to wait until the quality of life is deteriorating in the suburbs of Cleveland, I fear it will be too late. It’s funny how environmentalists are viewed as tree huggers and hippies that would rather save a butterfly than a human life. The greatest twist in the tale of humanity is that we’re not trying to save the whales, we’re trying to save ourselves. I’m not learning about root cellars and gardening because I have a particular interest in being the next Samwise Gamgee, I’m learning because I believe there is the possibility that it will save my life.

It’s a scary and sobering realization. It’s something I wish more people thought about. Of course if more people thought about it we wouldn’t be here. Asking people to change for the Polar Bears or southern Resident Orcas is not enough. New cars, big houses, and the tidal waves of consumerism and manifest destiny drowns out their pleas with a deafening roar. This is the enemy. It’s easy to pin Exxon, Shell, the government, and other faceless entities to the cross. They’re not us. They’re the problem. We’re just along for the ride.

To steal our new commander in chief’s favorite phrase, “wrong.”

They exist because we allow them to exist. Our obsessive, “if you’re not growing you’re failing, American dream, more, more, more” mentality exists because of us. Stop believing you need everything nay, deserve everything, and it will disappear. Rip those shackles off. If these ideologies are defeated, the polar bears, Orcas, and us will be saved by default. Don’t save the Polar Bears, save humanity.

How I’m supposed to convince people of this I have not the faintest idea. So instead let me leave you with this final nugget.

I believe Orcas are smarter than humans. From the moment an Orca is born, it has everything it could ever want: family, food, security, shelter. It’s beautiful. After decades of research and millions of hours studying them, scientists have but a handful of instances in which Orcas were aggressive to each other. What they have, is a society with no in-fighting, violence, poverty, or hunger (except for the plummeting salmon stocks which is not their fault). If I told you that there was a place you could live without those hardships, you’d want to learn all you could about it. Take that into 2017. Hug your loved one, eat good food, watch out for another, settle conflict peacefully.

Be an Orca. Maybe they should be the flagship species.

Cover Photo Credit: Sylvain Cordier/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

The Birthday Post

For the first time in a year, I got carded. Granted, some of that may have something to do with spending the last six months buying drinks from the same two people (not a lot of choices when there’s only two “bars” in town). But on the eve of my 28th birthday, it served as some sort of inverse reminder. Youth is fleeting. Now I know, my elders and betters will roll their eyes at such a proclamation.

“28? You have your whole life ahead of you.”

To which I say, of course. But we must all admit, that in a society obsessed with youth, with staying young, where waging war against wrinkles is a billion dollar industry, it’s hard not to look at your birthday as some sort of landmark. A road sign twisted and rusted on the highway of life, reminding us that this precious gift slides by far too fast.

I’ve spent the last few days in Seattle. A fine city as far as cities go. It’s big on brew pubs, grunge music, and Macklemore. Though it could do with some deer, perhaps a pack of wolves prowling along I-5. It’s my little snapshot of how normal people live. You know, the ones with satellite TV, high speed internet, and cars that don’t resemble the rusted hull of the Titantic.

I stood in a mall with glistening floors and walls. Music blared through speakers, a movie preview played on a loop from a cluster of wide screens, dozens of adds battled for my attention. But as I dutifully manned my post by the Old Navy entrance, I watched my fellow mall patrons and decided on a little sociological experiment. How many, I wondered, would be on their phones?

The answer was almost all of them. Eyeballs sucked to the screen as if Apple had designed a gravity app more powerful then the moon. What, I wondered could they all be looking at? I didn’t have the phone Brittney and I share. And I must admit there was a decent chance that if it had been in my pocket instead of her purse I may have pulled it out. And what would I have done? Jumped on the internet I guess. Refreshed espn.com even though I knew that there was nothing there I needed to see. People sat side by side on benches, heads bowed as if in prayer, not saying a word. Couples walked hand in hand, free hands holding the creations of Samsung. What are we doing on these things?

Which leads me back to my birthday road sign. If life is so precious, so fleeting and quick, why don’t we spend more time in the present? Why are we so quick to escape to an alternate reality? Later we pass by a Windows PC store. Near the door stood a man. He’s facing the big pane windows but he can’t see him. Something looking like a futuristic toaster is secured to his face. The heck?

“Alternate reality,” Uncle Chris explains to me.

No way.

Maybe it’s just the next wave of video games. Essentially that’s all it is. A really realistic game. And if they made a sports one? Heck yes I’d try that out. Again I must admit to my love of a certain baseball computer game. It’s my escape when I can’t read about Trump, climate change, or acidifying oceans anymore. My own, if you will, alternate reality where the Minnesota Twins finish above .500. So really I’m no different. And maybe that is the wakeup call.

And perhaps that’s what I’ve learned in the last year. That despite my little migratory life from the seat of my kayak, I’m not all that different from the mall patrons and commuters of the city. And that’s ok, that’s a good thing. If I’m no different then those I want to reach, then getting them to listen, to put down their phone and read what comes out of my head should be easy. Maybe one of them will load raincoastwanderings from their phone! The irony.

Because I want the mall dwellers to read what I write. I want to inspire and touch people’s lives. The mall is not a bad place just as a phone that can tell you what time the Vikings play isn’t. What I want, what I aspire to, is to remind people that there’s a big blue and green world beyond the sliding doors. A world you can enter without strapping a toaster to your head. And that, most importantly, we cannot live without it. That the natural world, like every day we are gifted, is precious.

Fairweather Therapy

I run. I do it a lot, probably not as much as I should, but a respectable amount. I run to clear my head, to keep my heart happy, to think, to calm the hell down. Somedays it’s easy, somedays it’s hard. So in a lot of ways, running is like life.

Today it’s hard. It’s hard and it shouldn’t be. But I’m uncalibrated, a compass needing to realign to true north. I’m stressed, I’m worried, and somehow it feels easier to sit on the couch and not move. But it won’t make this any better. I drag myself out the door and lace up my shoes, slapping an escort of biting “no-see-em’ gnats that sprint to skin like moths to light.

In three minutes I’m glad I’m doing this. The world shifts back into focus, mind syncing with heart. I can think clearly as the trees scroll by and the music pounds in my ears. Sometimes I think about kayaking, other times writing, or I’ll indulge myself with thoughts of the ridiculous computer baseball game I’m too engrossed in. But not tonight. Tonight the Shabin dominates my mind. The Shabin and the 4.13 acres that comes with it.

The acreage is wet. But all land in Gustavus is wet isn’t it? It’s part of the deal. We can afford it. We’re ready. I think. Think. I’ve been doing too much of that. Thinking and projecting. Rubbing the grime off my crystal ball, trying to make damn sure I know what I’m doing.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

I don’t want to make a mistake. This isn’t a starter home, this is going to be home. Forever. When you got one bullet you need to be positive your aim is clear. And I’m not sure yet. It’s daunting, this home ownership thing. In a way it’s riskier then anything I’ve ever done. The consequences far reaching, the way out hard and difficult if we miscalculate. Hence the run, to let it all go for thirty minutes. At least that was the goal.

I reach four corners. That’s what we call the intersection here. The intersection. What a ridiculous way to describe the place where the four roads meet. Clove Hitch Cafe and Fireweed Gallery on my right, the gas station in front of me. Left to the airport, right to park, straight ahead to the ferry terminal. I go straight, don’t even bother to check for traffic. God I love it here.

Past the Sunnyside Cafe. I glance into the windows as I run by. Someone waves enthusiastically through the window as I pass. I’m pretty sure it’s my friend Jen. I wave back with all the enthusiasm I can muster, trying not to break stride. In Gustavus no one just goes to Sunnyside for groceries. You go to talk, to laugh. To be filled with something besides organic apples and romaine. Community. How man places can say they have that? What happens when most people get their groceries? A faceless cashier whose name you’ll never know.

“How are you?”
*beep*
“Good, you?”
*beep*
“Great.”
*beep*
“$8.95.”
*swipe*
“Have a great day.”
“Thanks, you too.”

That doesn’t happen here. Brittney and I stood in Sunnyside for 20 minutes last night. It took us three to find what we needed, another 17 to talk with Kristiann and Aishu behind the counter. I love that. Love that I leave every building a little happier then when I entered.

Past the Sunnyside and down the road. Through the trees on my right I can see the setting sun on fire in the western sky. The trees hide them but I know the Fairweather Mountains are out. That if I run far enough I’ll be rewarded with evening light and a setting sun behind the mountains. I pick up the pace and soon I’m even with the golf course.

You heard me right. Gustavus, population 443 has a freaking golf course. Because Morgan Deboer loves this place. For years he owned the waterfront that the Gustavus dock is built on. But as the land continued to rise, his property line was pushed inland. Morgan thought the new waterfront and acreage should be his, the state of Alaska didn’t. So he went to court with Gustavus behind him. And he won. His thank you? A golf course. And an open invitation to have bonfires on his beach. No charge. Thanks Morgan.

Ahead is the ferry dock. I look to my right and my spirit soars. The sky is a canvas painted with colors no artist can emulate. Life changing red. Soul lifting orange. Inspiration yellow. White cloaked Fairweathers in front set the scene.

I reach the end of the ferry dock and stop. Not by choice. Not by a conscious act. I cannot move. Cannot pull myself away from the atmospheric miracle that is this sunset. I drink it in like I’m dying of thirst. This may be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I pan to the right. There’s a sudden dip in the mountains and hills where the magic bay and her magic glaciers have carved them away, hanging valleys filled with water.

I pan left toward the mouth of the bay. What must it have been like? In 1794 George Vancouver was here. The bay was five miles deep, the glacier five miles wide. No northwest passage here. Just life altering ice. Gustavus wasn’t even a blink in her eye. Just a sandy outwash, a dumping ground for silt.

It feels like Gustavus was set aside. For the few lucky enough or blessed enough to fall under her spell. The little outliers. Flat land in southeast Alaska. Whoda thought? The acreage we’re looking at is flat. But here, with the Fairweather’s on fire with evening light and Gustavus splayed out before me, it feels insignificant. The most popular bumper sticker in Gustavus reads like this:

                                           “What’s your hurry? You’re already here.”
Gustavus, AK

I feel foolish. I’ve spent the last 48 hours agonizing over interest rates, mortgages, and price per acre.     Perhaps I’ve lost track of what makes this place magic. That no matter where we end up, what spot of land we call home, it’s going to be here. We get to be surrounded by these mountains, these people, forever. I feel so much better. John Muir talked about “glacier gospel,” finding God in nature. For a night I’ve found therapy in mountains and sunsets, a reminder of why I’m here.

The sun slides behind Mount La Perousse and as the rays of light disappear the chill of night arrives on the northerly breeze. It is late August after all. Time to get home. Home, how good it feels to say that and know that it’s at the throne of those mountains, in the tight embrace of that bay.

The Shabin

There’s not much left of the road. Just two indention’s overgrown with weeds and grass. Blink and tilt your head and you can almost make out the tire tracks. But alder trees are growing in between the divots and it’s clear that no one has driven a car back here in a long time.

In my hand is a scrap of printer paper, a series of hastily scribbled squares and rectangles drawn on it. One of those rectangles is my future home, maybe. Brittney follows along right behind me. Just ahead is a man I admire and love. A man I want to be like, but with my own flair, my own style. After all, there’s only one Kim Heacox just like there’s one David Cannamore. At the youthful age of 65, Kim’s enthusiasm remains boundless and I find myself wondering what he must have been like when he was 30. I know I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with him.

He leads us through the properties acres, referring to it over and over again as, “our property.”

Our property.

My god. Is it really possible? A small cabin sits near the land’s southern border next to the remnant of the road. The rest is Spruce and Pine forest with a bit of bog, a bit of marsh, and sprinkled with berries. Oh the berries. High bush cranberries, neigoon berries, even some low lying blueberries. I pass an alder no more than knee high. I run my hands through its branches. The leaves are manicured and nibbled. A moose has been here recently. It feels like home.

We can’t stay away. We drive the two miles back to the little slice of heaven. We forgot the tape measure, so we measure the cabin’s tiny room the only way we can. I lay down on the wood floor and so does Brittney, her feet brushing my scalp. We can almost lay down all the way. Calling it a studio  would be generous. No running water, no toilet.

I doubt many would understand the appeal of a dry cabin devoid of plumbing. Cabin may not be the best description. It’s part cabin part shack. A shabin as it were. But both of us see it for what it can be. Knock out a wall, raise the roof, put in a loft. Definitely a bathroom. What are we missing? A sink! Should install a sink at some point.

But for the right price… we’ve lived rustically long enough. What’s a few more years?

I think about the homes we walked past in the Seattle suburbs. 700,000 dollar monstrosities on a quarter acre in tidy suburbs. Each home copy and pasted from the last. Each subdivision given some charming name like Shady Acres or Pebbled Brook. I don’t want a 30-year mortgage. I don’t want property tax. I don’t want my neighbor’s music echoing through my walls.

Give me simple. Give me peace. Give me trees and blueberries. In our minds it’s already ours and we haven’t even called the owner yet. The owner we know is looking to sell. You’re crazy if you think I’m telling you where in Gustavus it is.

It’s scary. Sure we’ve talked about buying a house in this city filled with magic for three years. But to be this close, our feet draped over the edge, just one step from going over. Maybe buying a house is like having kids. If you wait until you’re ready you’ll never do it. But I also know that this is what we want. That we’re ready to make this home.

August Fog

For the first time this summer, there’s a bite to the breeze. When I step out the backdoor. The air tastes like Fall. It brings forth images of Cottonwood Trees changing color. The taste of Pumpkin flavored beer, pumpkin spice lattes, shoot, pumpkin flavored everything. Fall comes early in Alaska. The first week of August reminding us that each season but winter is short, to be savored.

With it comes rain. The rain that justifies our existence as a rainforest. A rain that makes everything green. A chilling nasty rain with curled lips and sharp teeth that bites at the back of your neck and crawls beneath the most impenetrable Gore-Tex.

But on days like today, when it doesn’t rain, oh what a beautiful setting. Bless the rare calm, and foggy mornings of August. Blue sky above, the land ensconced in curtains of fog.

There’s something magical about paddling in the fog. The shutters pulled over our eyes, every other sense becomes sharpened.

You smell your way through fog.

On low tide mornings like this one the odor of anoxic mud crawls into my nose. A rancid guide leading me back to shore when the trees disappear behind the milky white sheen. My ears orientate like a dogs, the cries of a crow lead me across the mouth of a cove. Land nowhere in site, paddle toward the crows.

As always I’m accompanied. Today it is the minimum two people. Mark and Laura. Middle aged, bouncy, and happy. The sort that are easy to talk to because the silences are never awkward. Everything is wonderful in their eyes. The fog, the water, the sea lion that interrupts my bear story. They make my job easy. The sort of people you wish you had every day. We paddle near the shoreline and let the fog wrap around us like a sweater. The smell of the beach and the noise of the crows guiding us.

Boats pass unseen in the fog. The intrusive foghorn of a cruise ship echoes off the mountains and trees every few minutes.

We float in a kelp bed two miles from the dock. Our paddling has been serene and relaxed. I’m in no hurry. If you’re in a hurry, kayaking isn’t for you. Easier to let the world come to you then to try to catch the world.

“Are you worried about the possibility of losing the glaciers because of global warming?”

The question comes from the husband Mark. It does after you talk about the retreat of the glaciers. How, in 1794, Glacier Bay was nothing more than a five mile divot on the north side of Icy Strait. Yes I know, no internal combustion engines spewing carbon into the atmosphere in the 18th century.

There’s something different about the way that Mark phrases the question though that gives me pause. Are you worried about the glaciers?

The glaciers? I mean, I guess so. It’s funny, I live in a land defined by them, created by them. If anyone should worry about the well being of the glaciers I guess it should be me. And I am, now that I think about it. For Glacier Bay with no glaciers is a sorry end indeed. What would we call it? Muir Bay National Park and Preserve?

But when I think about climate change, about the cliff that we’re either a) barreling towards or b) careening over (depends on who you ask), glaciers aren’t the first thing I think about.

“What I think about,” I say, “are murres.”

“Murres?”

“Murres, among other things.”

I explain about the blob, which they had never heard of. About thousands of murres washing ashore on the beaches of southeast and south-central Alaska. I describe their delightful noises, the joy of a muttering murres, their exasperated yells. We all seem to have that animal that touches us in a way no one else understands. Brittney loves Black Oyster Catchers. Hank Lentfer loves Sandhill Cranes. And I have Common and Thick Billed Murres.

“For me, Glacier Bay without Murres is no longer Glacier Bay.” I say. “Maybe that’s short sighted of me. But imagine if you stopped paddling, and it was quiet.”

We do just that and are serenaded by a timpani of birds. Marbled Murrelets, Canadian Geese, crow, raven, phalarope, and oyster catcher.

People talk about getting out in nature. “Getting away from it all.” We call it. The peace and quiet of wilderness. But here’s the thing, nature is never quiet. To walk into the woods and hear nothing would be… empty, desolate, unsatisfying. Nature isn’t supposed to be quiet. There should always be a squirrel rattling, a bird calling, a sea lion swimming.

What we’re really talking about, is getting away from ourselves. Away from the world we created. The artificial one sculpted from metal and concrete. The birds and squirrels and sea lions are not noise, they are music to our ears. And a world without them, glaciers or no, is no longer a world.

Snow

She lay in an old shipping container. The kind found on the back of trucks roaring up and down the concrete riverbeds we call interstates and highways. But this one had been laid to rest here. Tucked away in a corner of a lot in Bartlett Cove. Through the trees I can hear the wind, smell the air breeze, ear cocked for the sound of a humpback. How out of place the egg white box of metal looks here. No flowers or grasses growing around it. Just a strip of gravel turning dusty in the early July heat.

Inside lie her bones.

I feel a thrill of excitement as Chris Gabrielle pulls a key from her pocket and unlocks the deadbolt. Together we lift the big metal latch, its joints creaking and groaning as the big door slides open. I don’t notice the smell at first. But as Chris flicks a light switch and ignites a small bare bulb, it overwhelms me. It is musty, sweet but sickly. Something about it smells alive, even in her death. I walk into the container, breathing shallow, fighting the urge to cover my nose with my shirt.

After almost ten years, she still lives in some way. Organic matter and oils still seeping out of her ribs, humorous, and vertebrae. I can’t help myself. I reach out and touch one of the vertebrae. As big as a tire and bleached white, I run my hands up and down all that remains of Snow. Here along the racks and shelves, were all that was left of her forty-five foot, thirty-five ton body.

The year is 2001. Somewhere in the mouth of Glacier Bay swims Snow. Inside her new life is growing. Is she aware that she’s pregnant? That in half a year there will be a miniature her swimming and breathing? The baby will drink a milk that is 50% fat, the consistency of yogurt. I wonder if she heard the cruise ship. If she had any inkling of its approach. If she could have gotten out of the way. If the ship could have. The nose of a cruise ship is so far from the engines in the stern that they create “sound holes,” right off their bow. There’s a good chance Snow never knew what hit her.

Janet Neilson (then Janet Doherty) found her. Dead whales are rarely found. Usually they disappear. Sink to the bottom and vanish, presumed missing. But it’s as if Snow wanted to be found. Janet discovered her floating off Point Gustavus, not far from where an anonymous cruise ship passenger reported feeling a thump. They towed Snow to the beach, necropsied her body, and discovered a fractured brain case and crushed vertebrae.

Gustavus mourned, the park service gave press releases, security footage was seized, attorneys went to work.

“The crime wasn’t in accidentally striking the whale,” said a park employee, “the crime was in failing to report it.” I’m not sure Snow would agree. Neither do I.

In the middle of the shipping container is an old iron claw bathtub, the porcelain chipped and rusting. But it doesn’t leak, at least not yet. Chris hands me a great bucket of industrial kitchen degreaser and instructs me to fill the tub with the stuff and soak Snow’s bones one at a time. Oil, she explains, is still seeping out of her bones. The goal was to remove the rest of the organic matter from the bones so that they could be preserved for years. An exhibit was being prepared down by the beach. Where in a way, she could live forever.

On sunny days I climb onto the roof of the container, lining her ribs up neatly to bleach in the never ending Alaskan sun. I soak the vertebrae overnight in the degreaser, greeted each morning by the strong smell of leaching oil, a pearly iridescent sheen on the surface of the tub.

Down another road, behind a locked gate is her skull. My stomach twists the first time I see it. I run my hand across the deep fracture in the skull. If a passenger felt the collision, than surely the crew did as well. But who wants the headline: “Cruise Ship Kills Whale in National Park?” Bad for business. But thirty-five ton bodies don’t always disappear. I pressure wash her skull, obliviating the moss attempting to grow on her. When the yard empties I crawl beneath the skill and lay in her mouth, imagining. Rows of baleen, gallons of sea water, tons of wriggling herring.

And I’m indebted to them. The cruise ships I mean. Wouldn’t be here without them. Wouldn’t have had summer work in Juneau when I graduated from college. Would not be sitting at this wooden table in Gustavus watching the storms roll through, the moose calves grow up, and the rain pound on the roof. I owe my beautiful little life, in some way, to an industry that makes me uncomfortable. That kills whales, that leaves a massive carbon footprint. That shows a million people Alaska every year, even if it is a watered down, fast food version. 14,000 people a day in Juneau. But what’s the alternative? I can’t take 14,000 people kayaking in Bartlett Cove. Is seeing this place from ninth story better than not seeing it at all?

Edward Abbey would say no. But I should be confident enough to form my own opinion. But I can’t. Because like this bay, nothing is black and white. A single receding glacier does not signify climate change, just as an advancing one does not disprove it. We must step back, way back. Look at the big picture objectively, rationally. We don’t like the big picture. Step far enough back and we become mitigated, aware of how insignificant we are.

That’s the beauty of the kayak, the hiker, the backcountry camper. You have no choice but to confront your own significance. At how small you are away from the billboards and street lights. It’s uncomfortable. Change always is. Tough to be uncomfortable from the ninth story.

I don’t know what the answer is. Abbey wouldn’t be impressed.

Snow stands whole once again. Without her flesh she looks serpentine. Two tiny bones bent at obtuse angles are suspended by wires two thirds of the way along her vertebrae and a foot below it. They’re all that remains of her legs. In time evolution will remove them from whale’s entirely. Like our appendix they are vestigial, no longer of any use.

Every day a park ranger gathers a crowd in front of Snow to give a presentation. People flock to the talks until the trail is not passable. They are independent travels, for the cruise ships do not dock here. Our kayak sheds are right next to the skeleton and I often squeeze through the raptly listening crowd. Like the cruise ships and wilderness, the talk makes me uncomfortable. I hear the ranger joke about how Snow embarked on, “the longest over land migration a whale has ever done” to be rearranged and put back together by a professional.

The crowd titters and laughs, something about it makes my blood boil. I hear them talk about the collision as a horribly tragedy. But in the same way a loved one developing an illness is tragic. Unavoidable, no way to prevent it. Never have I heard a ranger say that the cruise ship failed to report the collision. That it was not until security footage was seized and viewed did they admit to striking the whale. Perhaps they do and I have simply missed it. I don’t wish to criticize or demean. For the rangers do a job I know I couldn’t. I don’t know why I think people need to know that part of the story, but leaving it out feels like an insult to her memory.

On one of the displays is a grainy picture showing the bow of the ship, a gray pixelated sliver in the water shows Snow, her back arched, attempting to dive. Maybe she did know.

“Snow moments before tragedy,” reads the caption. Meanwhile ten miles away two cruise ships a day enter the park, passing Point Gustavus, bound for the glaciers of the west arm. Do the passengers on board know the story? Do the rangers share that story when they board every morning at the south end of Sitakaday Narrows?

I don’t know what the answer is.

All I know is that it hurts my heart to have Snow here, condemned to life as a silent ambassador. How much more she could be, churning up the waters of Bartlett Cove.

Another sunny July day. Six years since Chris opened that container and introduced us. We walk the familiar trail toward the kayak sheds. Past the old Tlingit canoe, Snow’s display coming into view.

“Have you met Snow?” I ask.

Everyone has the same reaction, a quick intake of breath, mouth open, rooted to the spot. Their first view of Snow is head on, as if she’s diving right toward you, forcing you to confront her here and now. They snap pictures and lean across the ropes, aching to touch her. Invariably the question comes.

“How did she die?”

“A cruise ship hit her.” My guiding style is one of light hearted comments. Jokes and stories over facts and figures. But not here. No over land migration jokes at Snow’s expense. Here just the full truth. “They knew they hit her but didn’t report it.”

I don’t like starting the day with something so sad. But at the same time, what a reminder that we cannot expect to leave the world the way we found it. The warming acidic water of the world should be a good enough reminder. Every kayak on the beach crushes barnacles and mussels. The leave no trace etiquette is an impossible dream. From man to mosquito, no creature was meant to leave an environment as they found it.

We linger a moment longer and turn toward the beach where I hand out life jackets, spray skirts, boots, and paddles. The water is alive with life. Sea otters cracking open shells on their stomachs, sea lions growl in frustration, a timpani of birds. I slip into my kayak and feel the world slide into place. My heart rate slows and my breath becomes steady. I don’t know what the answer is, and in this moment I don’t need one.

Telling Stories

He wore cowboy boots. Amazing how quickly one can come to a whole list of conclusions by a shoe type, an accent. In this case the accent matched the boots. A drawl that can come from only one place. A drawl that says, “I will not be amused when you remind me that Alaska is three times bigger than Texas.”

So I skip it, not that it was ever funny. I worked with this boat captain several years back. Before every trip he would make the guests go around and say where they were from. When someone announced they were from Texas we’d burst out with all the pent up enthusiasm we could muster, “welcome to America my friend!” They either loved it or hated it. I haven’t used that line in forever. I gloss over that one too.

It’s a human reaction to assume you know things about someone by their geographic location. I’m guilty of it. Five years in the guiding world affirms a few things. Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, the deep south all fall into the same demographic. Big hats, cowboy boots, God bless America, our troops, the Bush family, etc. If it can’t be grown, it must be mined. Progress, capitalism, the Global warming dud, and now… Trump.

They introduce themselves. Bruce and Gail. Even their names sound like Texas. But they’re friendly, oh so friendly. Bubbly, energetic, polite, talkative. In their mid 60s and on their third trip to Alaska. They love it here. They’ll remind me of that ten more times before the day is done and I’ll appreciate it every time. They’ll marvel at the beauty, coo at sea lions and otters, stare with hungry eyes at a breaching whale a quarter mile away. To hear them talk it may as well have shaken their hand.

Perhaps they sensed it like I did. That when it came to politics, to life, our ethics, we stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. But here is the beauty, the magic, the power of this Bay. It makes all that stuff irrelevant. Here is common ground. The otters are arbitrators. What would it be like if our Senate and House of Representatives met here, inches above the water. Would some of this melt away? Let’s make a Republican paddle with a Democrat and see what happens. Forget crossing the aisle, see if you can cross Bartlett Cove.

For seven hours the talk is easy. The conversations are light. They own a ranch, 2,000 acres of Texas desert beauty. Bruce grass feeds his herd. He brings inner city kids out every year, teaches them to hunt the deer that flood their property. He show them everything from pulling the trigger to cleaning, packing, and preparing. Reminding them  that food does not appear on the Wal-Mart shelves through some sort of Harry Potter spell.

“Get’em away from their phones.” Says Gail. “Too many kids spend their whole lives doing this.” She mimes tapping away on an iPhone, her head bent low, chin to her chest. “They never look up to see the world. They walk right past it.”

They’re involved in wildlife conservation. Fighting to keep the areas near their ranch wild. Teddy Roosevelt Republicans. How amazing, that the father of conservation was conservative, was buddies with John Muir. I mention the parallels and Bruce nods.

“Amazing man. Did you know that while he was president he explored the Amazon? While he was their he got so sick that he told the others in his party to leave him behind. That they couldn’t afford to carry him… the president! Tell me if that’d ever happen now?”

The trip ends. But they’re not sick of me yet and invite me up to the lodge to have a drink. For a moment I hesitate. But I’m intrigued, so intrigued by what is happening here. By the opportunity to have what Melanie Heacox would call, “the interpretive moment.” Sometimes a cold beer in the revelry of a magic day is that moment.

Halfway through the first beer the door cracks.

“Where’s one place that you really want to visit in Alaska?” Gail asks.

“There’s a place,” I begin, “in the northeast corner of the state, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Only politicians use the acronym, slurring it into a gravelly, guttural grown, “Ahhnwarrrr.”

Gail’s face alights. “It looks beautiful.” She says. Like most people, she’s seen the pictures. They’ve been to Denali, the Alaskan Serengeti.

“This is supposed to be like Denali on steroids.” I say.

Bruce leans forward. He’s a talker, not one to sit back and listen. “What’s up there?” He asks.

“Everything and nothing.” The silence hangs for a moment and I step off the ledge. “In the refuge is the 1002 area. That’s where they want—”

“That’s where the oil fields are.” Bruce finishes. I nod but say nothing.

“That’s where it is?” Gail says with a gasp. “That’s where the oil is supposed to be?”

I nod again and watch her face change but don’t say anything, waiting for her to come to her own conclusion. But Bruce continues, “You could put what, five drilling platforms up there? Two acres each. Ten acres total. Take what you needed and… the land land grows back. We see it in Texas all the time. Three years after you leave you can barely tell they were there at all.”

Our talks all day have been civil. And even now there’s no threat in his voice. Nothing that’s inviting confrontation. If only we could always talk like this. Maybe we’d get somewhere.

“If it’s done responsibly—”

“Not always as easy as you’d think.” I say. I could talk about Caribou, I could talk about carbon dioxide in parts per million, sea level rise, or erosion. But something whispers in the back of my head. “Tell stories.”

“Let me tell you about how north slope oil exterminated a pod of Orcas. In Prince William Sound is a unique population of Orca Whales. They’re called the AT1 pod. When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, the AT1’s swam through the slick the next day.”

“Orca’s have no sense of smell,” I explain, “they had no idea what they were passing through… they haven’t reproduced since. There’s only a handful of them left. Three or four I think. Within a few years, they’ll be all gone. For me, I can’t put a price on that.”

It’s hard to tell what sort of impact the story has.

“One drunk boat captain.” Bruce says.

“All it takes is one.” I answer, “Prince William Sound will never be the same.”

I point out over Bartlett Cove, in the distance beyond the forests of Lester Island are the Fairweather Mountains. The view the three of us have been marveling at them all day. “There’s precious few places like this left on the planet. We need them. We can’t exist without them.” They agree, they understand better than most that nature equals life.

“Beneath the Brady Icefield,” I continue, which is just beneath the Fairweather’s, are mineral deposits. Possibly oil. This view we’ve been raving about all day, what if there was an oil well at its feet? What if a mine tailling dam burst? If we drill in the refuge, what’s to stop this place from being next?”

I’m not expecting a deathbed conversion. Not expecting them to change their voter registration to democrat. To start a non profit climate change research association. But I want to be heard. Just like they do. Like we all do.

“We’re coming,” I say, “from completely different ends of the spectrum. That’s ok.”

“We have no love for Trump.” Gail interjects.

“Bless you,” I smile. “But it’s important that we can sit and talk civilly about these things. That we do it respectfully. This is how change happens. This is how we keep amazing places like Glacier Bay, like the refuge whole.”

I doubt I’ll ever see Bruce or Gail again. And at the end of the day, doubt that anything in their minds has changed. Strip all this stuff away and we’d be friends. Were friends for an afternoon. They’re sweet people, loving people, giving people. They work hard, play hard, the sort of people that would pick you up and set you back on your feet without a second thought.

But that look in Gail’s eyes when she realized that Ahnwarrr was the refuge. That that was the place under siege. Maybe something stuck there, in the back of her head. And maybe next time it comes up she won’t see oil rigs, drills, or platforms. Maybe she’ll see the Caribou running across the tundra, and a young kayak guide, his eyes full of meaning talking about how badly he wants to run with them.