Category Archives: Gustavus 2017

Unnaturally Natural

A fine rain is falling, but its presence brings only smirks. In most places a steady rain would spell the end to any bonfire. But not here. If you’re going to wait for a nice day to play outside you could be waiting a long time. Besides, it’s not every day that Kim Heacox turns 66 and you’re asked to play percussion for a medley of Beatles tunes with the names changed to some variation of “Kim,” “Kimmy,” or “dude.”

After a final rousing chorus of “Hey Dude” we pile our plates with the ridiculous bounty Hank Lentfer and Anya Maier have pulled out of their garden and the woods of Lemesurier Island. Of the six dishes on the table (including deer and two types of potatoes), only the Macaroni and Cheese did not originate within ten miles of the plates. Guilt free food at its finest.

Hank has a fire going and we crowd around, impervious to the precipitation that is still trying to crash the party. Someone has fashioned Kim a crown from construction paper, and after his second beer he begins to issue edicts:

Edict #1: “Pee off your porch at least once a day.”

Edict #9: “Pee off your porch at least twice a day.”

Edict #21: “There shall be an edict #22.”

The most adorable monarchy of all time.

It’s not the first time that I’ve gathered around a fire with these people and marveled at how on earth I became their friends, and now their neighbor. Both the Heacox’s and Lentfer/Maier’s are within a well thrown baseball of our property while wunderkind Zach Brown and his ambitious Inian Island Institute are just down the aquatic street.

As we talk and the beer flows, the cloud adorned ceiling drops lower and lower until the fog is perched on the tops of the Spruce trees like a hat. The guitars come out. As sure as there will be rain, there will be guitars at a Gustavus gathering. Van Morrison, Buddy Tabor, and more Beatles rise up to meet the clouds. In a world that seems to have spun out of control the handful of us around the fire seem temporarily insulated. The fog wraps around us like a blanket, shrouding us from the insanity that has become American politics. Fear melts away, anxiety vanishing with every verse.

In my slightly inebriated state I look around the bonfire, convinced that I have discovered the meaning of life.

As humanity turns to a more urbanized existence, I wonder if we’re robbing ourselves of one of our birthrights. Like processed sugar, man has not subsisted off a diet of high density living for that long. Certainly not long enough to evolve a tolerance for it. It would be nearly impossible to emulate this sort of gathering in Seattle, let alone New York, Boston, or countless other meccas. But after living as either nomads or in small, tightly woven communities for so long, it’s hard to imagine that an essential part of what makes us human is lost when we are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of others. Yes, people have parties in the city all the time. But in the stoic and lifeless walls of a building where eyes drift to iPhones every couple of minutes, does this feed the tribe desire seeded deep within? Almost every person who visits Gustavus falls in love (though most insist they could never live here). And yet few can put their finger on what it is that attracts them. Perhaps the cocktail of tribal bonding and wilderness setting flips the switch within that we have been steadily burying since a certain industrial revolution.

Hank plops down next to me. I’m only partially joking when I say he’s the blueprint for what I want to be when I’m 40. I used to envy people’s cars, now I envy Hank’s garden and root cellar which are an aspiring gardener’s fantasy. His garden is no more than 600 square feet, but from it he, Anya, and their daughter Linnea grow enough potatoes, carrots, and beets to get them through the winter. It’s late June and they’re still chipping away at last year’s potato harvest. Their freezer is stocked with deer from Lemesurier (affectionately referred to as “Lem”) and halibut. I gobble down deer roast and answer questions around my fork.

“You got the shitter set up yet?” Hank has the gift of brevity in addition to gifting us their old outhouse which has the dimensions and weight of a medieval battering ram.

“Not yet, I still need to get it into the woods somehow. But it’s upright and we got a tarp on it to keep the rain off. I still feel like you christen it for us.”

He laughs and Zack plops down next to us, clinking the Obsidian Stout in his hand against the one in mine.

“We just had the septic in our place go out.” He says, eyes in the fire. “We thought that the pipe was just frozen for the winter but…” he takes a long pull on his beer, “turns out that it’s… seeping into the yard.” He sighs and smiles. Nothing keeps a smile off Zack’s face for long. “It’s incredible. The work and effort that we go through for the luxury of pooping indoors.”

I look over Hank’s shoulder to where Anya sits listening and we share a smile.

“Every time we hang out we talk about where we shit.”

Me and Brittney’s first decision when we bought our land was that we would rock a composting toilet forever, save 15 grand digging a leach field and installing a tank, and score free manure in the process. If it’s good enough for the Lentfer/Maier’s it’s plenty good for us.

Zack’s still mulling the incredulity of it all. There’s a bit of Socratic flair in him, questioning everything. “It’s so unnatural, and then it goes into a tank and gets shipped to where? Seattle?”

Hank nods and Zack shakes his head, “so unnatural,” he repeats.

I look around the fire to where Patrick Hanson is strumming out “Into the Mystic” while Jen Gardner and Linnea sing along, Kim is on edict number 30, a couple of people from out of town stare as if they’ve just landed on the dark side of the moon, and the fog insulates us from it all. Perhaps we seem unnatural to the world. Perhaps our willingness to do our business outside, eat the food we grow, and play hopscotch with the poverty line is crazy. But darn it all if it doesn’t beat two hour commutes and cookie cutter homes on a tenth of an acre. I like being the crazy one, the unnatural one. Because in doing so I think I’ve found that in reality it’s the most natural instinct we have.

Praying for Fish

The wind blows at a brisk pace, the surface of the cove turning white as the waves break. Rain pelts with the stinging intensity of Fall. But the date on my watch continues to insist that it’s mid-June. When you look at the climate map of North America the entire continent is swathed with more reds, yellows, an oranges than a sunset painting. Except for us. Except for the little sliver of blue that runs along the Pacific Northwest, bathing us in an unseasonable cold Spring. It’s so hot in Las Vegas they can’t even fly. Here it’s so cold I need a hot shower after every trip. We haven’t had a summer like this since 2012 when it felt like it rained every day and the clouds gripped the ocean.

And I’m on edge. Not necessarily because the ocean keeps moving beneath my kayak or my base layers keep getting soaked, but because I’m paddling alone. Maybe not in the way most would imagine, but the bay feels empty. I can count the number of Humpbacks I’ve seen on one and. Sea Otters that once choked the kelp at Lester Point are nowhere to be seen, I even miss the sea lions and their obnoxious habit of surfacing uncomfortably close to my rudder.

As we teeter on the edge of… I’m note even sure what to call it—climate catastrophe maybe?—anything unusual sets off alarm bells in my head. The rest of the world’s going to hell, why not here as well? And what’s difficult is I don’t even know if their ringing is justified. Just as climate deniers can smugly point to the enduring glaciers in the West Arm, I suppose I could hold up the missing Humpbacks and Sea Otters as poster children. But after three years of paddling here, I’m not arrogant enough to pretend I’m connected with the finely spun web of Glacier Bay ecology. Hell, otter and Humpback numbers could be dropping no matter how many Hummers clogged the freeway, both species’ numbers have been rising for decades. Like us they may have shot past their carrying capacity (ambiguously referred to as “K” in the scientific community) and are now realigning. The Humpbacks could be elsewhere, the otters too. The late Spring could have thrown everything off. The point is, I don’t know. And like most people when confronted with the unknown, I tend to fear the worst.

Over the last week the water has finally gone still. I can hear the Thrushes in the trees and the gulls riding the tide in Sitakaday. On calm days the sound of a boat engine is common. But for the moment it’s just the four of us. And today we’re not alone. Harbor Porpoise are everywhere. They announce themselves with a rapid fire “pssh whoo,” a full exhalation and inhalation in under a second. They roll at the surface just like Orcas, their charcoal gray backs sparkling in the weak sunlight. I’ve lost count of the number we’ve seen since we struck out this morning. It has to be at least fifteen in little clusters of three to five. Calves roll in perfect synchrony with their mothers, pods split and break the surface with shocking speed as they chase the precious bait fish that the entire food pyramid is balanced precariously on.

Herring, Sand Lance, and Capelin, the holy grails of the marine ecosystem, their oily bodies the difference between life and death for countless species. From King Salmon to Humpbacks and most everything in between relies on their noble sacrifice. They are one of those unfortunate species placed on earth for the sole purpose of reproduction and food supply. They ask for little, but one thing they demand is cold water. It’s a request that’s becoming harder and harder to provide as first “the blob” and then a harsh El Nino winter have brought unseasonably warm water the Pacific Northwest. If anyone is benefitting from this chilly Spring I hope it’s them.

Which is why this pack of porpoise is so significant. Is this the canary in the coal mine? Have the oily sacrificial lambs returned with a parade of marine life in tow? I imagine the cove as it was two summers ago, so packed with whales, porpoise, and pinnipeds that I could scarcely paddle across the mouth without something bumping my kayak. If heaven truly does appear differently to each of us, then I expect that will be mine. A perfectly balanced ecosystem, thriving at maximum efficiency. Show me how many Humpbacks Glacier Bay can support. How many Orcas can pack Johnstone Strait. Give me salmon runs so thick their odor travels on the ocean breeze.

A trio of porpoise surface just to the right of the kayak. Beneath the waves their dark bodies seem to tremble. They move as if pulled by a higher calling and for a few precious seconds I have the pleasure of watching them shoot back and forth just beneath the surface, so close I could place my paddle over them. In the blink of an eye they vanish and resurface a hundred yards away. The moment so fleeting but no less magical because of it. I watch them vanish, their short spunky breaths still audible on the still water. A scientist in Norway recently determined that Harbor Porpoise spend almost every waking moment foraging. As I watch them criss cross back and forth I pray they find everything they’re looking for.

Keep Paddling

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

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

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

“Did my Dad tell you what he does?”

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

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

“He works for the EPA.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Caroline told me what you do for work.”

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

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

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

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

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

The End of the Road

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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