Category Archives: Hanson Island Winter 2

When The Storm Breaks

The weather breaks. The sun tears through the cloud curtain. First a lone ray of light strikes Parson Island, than another, and another as like fingers thousands of miles long, they creep across Blackney Pass until they fall on our windows. The aftermath of a 50 knot storm. Porter sticks his whiskered nose out the door. He’s suspicious and disgruntled after being confined to the cabin for two days as rain pelted the windows and the walls rattled.
We step onto a beach littered with logs washed ashore in the night. Fir bark, affectionately known as “fishermen’s coal” punctuates severed trunks of cedar and spruce. We pile the bark greedily in our arms. In a few days they would dry and capable of supercharging the fire at night when temperatures are dropping below freezing.
The bark drying on the sheltered picnic table near the cabin, I grab an ax and send splinters of wood flying. Heating by wood stove offers the luxury of warming you up twice. Once when you cut it, and again when you burn it.
I used to take heat for granted. Why wouldn’t you when for 25-years all you had to do was turn a knob, flip a switch and be rewarded with steamy warm air emitting from the magical grate in the floor? That heat, that energy had to come from somewhere. Coal? Hydropower? A wizard in the wall? I couldn’t tell you. But here I’m intimately connected to where my heat comes from, my electricity. Sunshine means the computers charge, the hydrophones switch on, Netflix is operational.
Too many cloudy days and we pay the price. Hydrophones flicker, cycle, and scream in their static voices until we turn them down. To keep the lights glowing and Orca Live streaming we turn to the massive red monstrosity in the shed. The generator, good old unleaded gasoline and 10W30 motor oil. As the unprecedented climate change intensifies, there’s a sensation of guilt each time I pull the choke, turn the key, and see pale white exhaust shoot into the atmosphere. At least I know where it’s coming from I guess. Thankfully, on sunny days, the generator sits unused, ignored. For what can be more renewable and reliable than those rays of sun beating down from above?
“When we know where our food, our energy comes from,” says Zachary Brown, founder of the Inian Island Institute in Alaska, “we no longer take them for granted. When we have an intimate connection to these commodities, we pay attention.”
Food for us is a different story. Banana’s from Belize, avocado’s from Mexico. At least the Kokanee and apple’s are Canadian. We do what we can. We grow kale, collard greens, and potatoes that are waiting patiently for Thanksgiving. It’s no different in the summer when we live in a town of 400 in southeast Alaska. A town with an award winning recycling program, where people have gardens instead of lawns, and avocado’s cost 5 bucks apiece. Avocados that arrive on the same barges that I shake my fist at in the winter time as the plod past the lab, filling the hydrophones with their roar, the air with their exhaust.
What’s the answer? What’s enough? Are my bananas and avocados ethically harvested? I’m vegetarian but should I be vegan? Maybe I should just eat the salal that grows between the cabin and the ocean.
Brittney used to agonize like this when she was in school. She’d come home from another humanities class: People and Plastics and Animal Rights courses. Nestle stealing groundwater, animals testing on rabbits, a fresh water crisis, orcas in captivity, taps running dry, corn fed factory farms. What to do, how to promote change, progress.
We aren’t superman. We can’t fight all of this. Instead we must select those injustices, those policies and acts that raise the hair on our neck. That quicken our pulse, that pull at our conscience. Whether it’s animal rights, oil pipelines, alternative energy, letting Corky come home, Syrian refugees. We must pick our battles, our medium for fighting them, and go to work.
Deep in the woods of Hanson Island lives a man. An anthropologist, a writer, an activist, a hero. He calls himself Walrus. As the forests of north Vancouver Island were leveled by the chainsaw, he took a stand by sitting down. He seated himself on a logging road that wound into the heart of Hanson Island, of Yukusam, and could not be moved. This was his fight, his passion. He won. He lives in a cabin now at the site of his barricade. “The longest active logging blockade in British Columbia,” he says.
This is the life of the activist. It’s Rachel Carson typing out Silent Spring as cancer ate at her because someone had to write it, Paul Spong camping in front of the Vancouver Aquarium, insisting that Skana go home, Michale Pollen and Food Inc, Marches for Lolita, Will Allen perfecting urban farming. Different people, different passions, huge change. May we someday be counted among them.

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Waiting For Corky

“On no they’re not.”
“It’s true,” I answer, “they’re phasing out the circus performance bit. They say they’re going to do a more education and conservation based thing… of course, it’s SeaWorld, so who knows what that means.”

Paul and I stand on the rocks feet above Robson Bight. Two steps and we’d be free falling fifty feet to the bottom. Free whales swim here. They go right past the rocks we stand on, an arms length from shore. Every time I come here I try to will them into the bight. It’s never worked. Orcas are very into themselves.

But now our minds are not on the hydrophone resting in the kelp, or the batteries on the cliff that fuel it. They’re on a whale thousands of miles away that deserves to be here. Paul furrows his brow, there’s skepticism in his expression, doubt after decades of banging against the gates of SeaWorld, asking that Corky be allowed to come home.

“Maybe it’s just a spoof article,” he says. “Where did you read it?”
I confess that I can’t remember the source. But I’m convinced it wasn’t the Onion.
We pick our way down the rocks for the boat and the lab.
Paul lets out a laugh. “Wouldn’t that be something? SeaWorld stops performances, yesterday Obama vetoes the Keystone pipeline. What is happening?”
“Maybe we’ve been transported to a parallel universe.” I offer.
“That’s it. What’s going to happen tomorrow?”
    “Donald Trump is gonna get eaten by wolves.”
“And through a loophole in his will all his money gets donated to conservation.”
“He meant to write all proceeds to the conservative party but misspelled it.”

Deep down, SeaWorld hasn’t changed. Their orcas are still commodities, big swimming black and white dollar signs. SeaWorld isn’t changing. They’re rebranding. And what choice did they have? They’ve lost a third of their visitors. Their value is worth half what is was before Blackfish. The ship is sinking and there aren’t enough lifeboats. But rather than call for help, SeaWorld has decided to bail water until they’re six feet under. This isn’t surprising. It’s still despicable. But it’s encouraging. They’re grasping at straws.

SeaWorld continues to operate under the delusion that they will be relevant and profitable a decade from now. Accepting the Blue World proposal by the California Coastal Commission would have given the San Diego park an expiration date. No new orcas. The beginning of the end.

But SeaWorld has no intention of letting Corky, the captive northern Resident of A5 pod come home. It’s a step closer to retirement for her though as human commanded tricks will not be part of the new Orca show. But Corky doesn’t have time. She’s been in that tank for four decades. Her time, and a chance at a happy ending is running out. These new, low adrenaline performances won’t start until 2017. By the time SeaWorld determines that this new marketing scheme isn’t going to save the company, it may be too late.

But as SeaWorld circles the drain, perhaps they’ll be willing to accept anything that will salvage whatever positive PR reputation they have left. What better way to change hearts and minds than retire a whale?

I don’t know if Corky can survive in the true wild. She’s been swimming tight circles for so long, I don’t think she can physically stand up to the rigors of being a wild whale. But a net pen in her native land? Where she can taste the ocean. Hunt wild fish and hear the sounds of her family. Who wouldn’t get behind that?

“They can do Corky shows live from Dong Chong Bay (the bay just west of Orca Lab on Hanson Island) and broadcast it over the internet.” Paul offers as we pull into the cove next to the lab.
He’s says it like a joke but it’s not. What it would mean for her to come back. After all these years, and have her living next door. A few hours later all is quiet. The water calm, the sun setting. Paul is back in Alert Bay and it’s just me and Brittney.

Suddenly we both sit up, our heads cocked. When you live at OrcaLab you develop this passive listening. You aren’t aware that you’re tuned into the hydrophones but you always are. And when an orca makes a noise, it makes you jump.

And there they are. What are the odds? We tear over to the lab and pull on headphones, our trembling hands adjust the dials on the soundboard. They’re in the Bight, right where Paul and I stood talking about Corky just five hours ago. Now her family, A5 pod is there. Swimming feet off the rocks I’d been standing on.

Goosebumps spread up my arms. They shouldn’t be here in early November. But here the A5s were. Back in the strait on today of all days. Keeping Corky’s bed warm for her. As their calls echo off the underwater cliffs I fight back a lump in my throat, trying not to feel guilty. After all, it’s Corky that should be here, not me.

The Parson Island Relay

The breath catches in my chest, my legs wobble, and my arms shake. I try to take another step forward and feel the ground slide beneath me. Mud and its ally gravity pull me to the ground. My elbows bounce off the cedar boughs and spruce branches that carpet the hillside, my head bangs against the cardboard box in my arms. I groan and lay motionless for a moment, grateful that no one but the trees and squirrels were present to see my fall. The sound of a humpback surfacing floats through the trees from Blackney Pass 100 feet away. I roll over and look up at the tops of the trees, massaging my chin and wiping sweat from forehead.

For the last twenty minutes I’ve been participating in a maniacal relay. In the six cardboard boxes are batteries. Batteries that are getting heavier every time I pick them up. Between the soothing breaths of the humpback and my more labored ones, I’ve developed a rhythm. Fifty steps. Drop. Return. Grab the next. Fifty steps. Drop. Return.

Paul and I had unloaded the batteries on Parson Island, the island across Blackney Pass from Hanson Island and OrcaLab. Now he’s scurrying back to the lab to grab Brittney to monitor the boat as the tide falls. Free us to  move the tedious batteries up to the Parson Island camera site. As we move the batteries into the woods we’re already panting, sweating, and shedding our wool sweaters. It’s a quarter mile to the camera site, most of it uphill.

“They say,” Paul gasps, “that battery technology has really improved the last few years…” he weighs the battery in his hands, “I don’t feel a difference.”

I have to agree. I could wait for Paul to get back so we can carry the batteries up the hillside together. But I’ve never been patient.

Which is why I’m laying on my back, staring up at the treetops, letting the remnants of last nights rain fall from the needles and onto my face. Despite the burning in my legs and the distance still to go, it’s impossible to not be moved by the sublimity of the scene. An eagle chitters and the humpback explodes to the surface again, its breath sounding like a trumpet, the echoes bouncing off the rock cliffs. I smile and permit my eyes to close for just a moment, feel my spirit sink into the forest floor. I could lay here forever.

“Everyone deserves to see this.”

Which is coincidentally, why I’m here in the first place. The new camera atop the Parson Island cliff demands more power than the eight Kirkland brand car batteries can provide in the winter when the sun disappears for days on end. The batteries in my arms should help the camera stream throughout the winter with minimal help from the balky generator stashed under tarps and rocks.

Fifteen minutes later, the batteries are at the top of the hill. The sound of an engine floats across the water, Paul’s back. We relay the batteries together. Past a thicket of Salal and around Cedar trees. The sunlight moves through the forest, the only marker of time as the afternoon wears on.

“After scurrying over rocks, hauling batteries up hills, and everything else you make me do,” I say, “I’ll never be able to have a real, respectable job… thank you”

He laughs and claps me on the shoulder, “come on boy, no rest for the wicked. And apparently,” he lifts another battery into the rubbermaid tub we’re using as a sling, “we are really wicked people.”

As we work the humpback continues to trace the Parson shore line. It’s surfacings the perfect background music. Soothing and relaxing to counteract our labored breathing as the relay continues. Finally we break through the salal bushes and onto the cliff overlooking Blackney Pass. The water has become a mirror. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so calm, like liquid glass gently vibrating. I can hear the mutterings of murre’s. Random rays of sun stab through the clouds like knives and illuminate the gentle rain that has begun to fall. I’m struck dumb by the beauty. How can this not change people? We unpack the batteries and begin to hook them up. Maybe this camera will.

Thirty minutes later the job is done. With our arms full of soggy and decomposing cardboard we move back down the hill. I know this trail far too well now. Walking it twelve times will do that. We board the boat and disturb that perfect stretch of water. The humpbacks have moved away from Parson Island toward Johnstone Strait. Any day now they’ll swim east down the strait and set course for Hawaii. Leaving us with the sea lions and harbor seals for company.

We leap neatly from the boat and onto the rocks and look out over the water. Brittney gasps. An incredible rainbow has sprung into being. As Paul motors away back toward Alert Bay he slow the boat, his phone extended through the window, photographing the picturesque scene. Even after forty some years it’s still not old to him.

I sit down on the rocks and drink it in. This. This is what makes me happy, fulfilled. Hauling batteries through the woods, humpbacks in my office. Porter gives a soft meow and jogs up beside me, rubbing his face against my arm. My hand goes to my forehead and I feel the dried sweat glued to my skin. Now if only I could find some hot running water around here for a quick shower.

Why We Have Pets

Anyone who reads raincoastwanderings knows that Porter and Penny, our pet cat and rabbit are prominent characters in our life. No boat is too small, no car ride too long to prevent us from dragging them up and down the Pacific Northwest and to places no sane person would try to bring a rabbit cage. We do this, because to us, they’re as much a part of the family as we are. With all the inconsistencies and upheaval that our wanderlust driven lives create, they have become our anchor, stabilizing. Wherever we are is home. It wouldn’t be the same without them, there personalities, and the mystified looks of border guards and ferry passages exclaiming, “you have a rabbit?”
For me, this philosophy originated in my youth. We didn’t have cats or rabbits. We were dog people. Golden Retriever people to be precise. I learned to stand by pulling myself up on the hair of our dog Niki. She would stand patiently as I pulled out chunks of hair and tried to balance on wobbling legs. When I was about nine we got another retriever. We named him Buddy after Air Bud fame and he became my shadow. Sleeping on my bed, pulling me on my scooter, and catching the pancakes we balanced on his nose.
As sad as it was when Niki finally passed away peacefully in her sleep at 13, Buddy was the first real loss in my life I was old enough to comprehend and feel. Being far away and unable to say goodbye made it even harder. Between my tears, grief, and frustration, the concept of owning pets felt so pointless. I was angry that my dog had been taken after less than ten years. Why pour all this love and emotional attachment into something that you’ll outlive by decades?
Because when the garage door opened when I got home and there was no rusty red blur streaking from under the growing crack, I realized it was no longer a home. It was too empty, too quiet, too easy to walk across the backyard without the fear of tripping on tennis balls. Because Buddy had brought out the best I had. Unconditional love, acceptance, trust, a never-ending cauldron of joy. So with heavy hearts, we got another one. We never stopped missing Buddy, but we couldn’t stand a house without a dog.
We got a puppy. A rescue from a shelter a few miles north. We named him Jake though I can’t recall how we chose his name. I write all this because Jake passed away last night in my mother’s arms after fighting gallantly against Lymphoma for five months.
It’s not fair. It’s cruel. It’s a broken world. Jake was the unofficial third son. My brother and I nicknamed him Buster after the Arrested Development character. And in some ways he was Buster. He was a mama’s boy with two older brothers, and would go into fits of sorrow whenever Mom left the room. But you couldn’t deny his heart, his enthusiasm, and the patience that made him a wonderful service dog at Providence hospital. It was at the hospital that he shined brightest, touching the lives of countless sick and hurting people. He was everything you wanted your dog to be. And after seven years that went far too fast, there’s that painful emptiness in the Cannamore house again.
Why? We know we have to say goodbye before they do. There will be a last time I hold Penny in my arms, a final scratch behind Porter’s ears. There will be pain, there will be tears, there will be a hole in our life. But it’s better to recognize the hole than to walk around for the rest of my life pretending its not there.
The last thing Mom is thinking about today is another dog. It’s time to remember Jake. His bark, his irrational fear of heating grates, and those long gangly limbs that took up Dad’s side of the bed. But when the time comes to make the house a home again, there will be four more furry legs with floppy ears and golden fur. Armed with tennis balls and love. Rest soundly little brother. I’ll miss you.

A Movie Script Ending

An odd curse seems to precede my arrival to Hanson Island. Some dark foul spirit that blazes the trail and harbors ill will to Paul’s boat. In ’08, ’14, and now ’15 the June Cove has been struck with engine trouble just days before the ferry spits me out in Alert Bay. Thanks to this demon, I’ve still never arrived at OrcaLab on the day I intend to. Which is why the four of us  (Brittney, me, Porter, and Penny) found ourselves curled up in Paul and Helena’s Alert Bay home for Halloween watching the curves of Hanson Island fade into the darkness through the bay windows. So tantalizingly close.
It wasn’t all bad. We watched baseball, took one more hot bath, and handed out candy to the handful of trick or treaters that came knocking on the door. Still to be determined was when we’d cover the last few miles. Dave Towers (Yes Jared Towers Dad) was to be our taxi driver. But the southeast gusts for the following morning did no breed optimism. So we settled down for another day in the bay. We slept in. I found the Vikings game on TV. And was just getting comfortable when the phone rings.

“Hey Dave, it’s Dave. How’s the weather looking out your way?”
I walk to the window and stare out at the strait. There’s still whitecaps, the trees in the yard dance. Maybe not as bad as an hour ago? “I think it’s dying down, it’s supposed to be a little better this afternoon.”
“Great! Can you leave in an hour?”
My eggs are just starting to bubble in the frying pan, I’m wearing pajamas, all we have for food is a bag of oranges. “Can you make it two?”
“No problem… oh and it’s an open skiff. Be sure to dress warm.”
David hangs up and I stare at the phone. A rabbit and a cat in an open air skiff? I think back to last fall when we tried to put Porter in Penny’s cage. The mess, the horror, the terror, I’m still getting over it.
90 minutes later our bags are piled in the boat. Penny’s cage is between my legs, a towel draped over the corner that’s facing the bow as a windbreaker. Porter sits on Brittney’s lap, wrapped in a jacket, a look of incredulity on his face. David looks over our little menagerie with a mix of amusement and confusion.
I shrug, “we couldn’t just get a dog like everyone else.”

We cruise out of the harbor and round the corner, heading east into Johnstone Strait. The wind has vanished, the sky is dry, I breath a sigh of relief. Porter buries his face in Brittney’s jacket, but Penny stands on her hind legs, trying to see around the towel. She’d drive the boat if we let her, fearless.
We weave through the islands and passes, their names echoing in my head like old friends. Pearce Passage, Plumper Islands, Blackfish Sound. I can trace the route on the palm of my hand. It’s been a week and a half with three ferries, one border crossing, and too many trips through the backpack digging for clean socks, but as we round the final point and the wooden buildings come into view, every second is worth it. My chest feels light, my fingers tingle. Was it joy? Relief? Excitement? As if every positive emotion is swirling inside simultaneously.
“Dr. Spong,” I’m beaming as we embrace and I look over his shoulder at our cabin. Smoke billows from the chimney, Helena leans nonchalantly against the railing. Brittney and I try not to get too close to her. Not out of animosity, but because of her vicious pet dander allergy that makes my sweater a chemical weapon.
In a matter of minutes our bags our piled in the living room near the wood stove. Every smell, every memory coming back tack sharp. The speaker connected to the hydrophones pumps in the sounds of swirling water and a distant tug. Sonic comfort food. Macaroni and Cheese for the ears. Within the hour we’re splitting wood, scanning for humpbacks, falling back into the beautiful rhythm of the island. I walk past Brittney bent over the chopping block, Porter sprinting up in down the hill, his euphoria matches ours.
“Do you feel like you’re floating three inches above the ground?”
The shadows grow long, the sun dipping behind the island painting the mountains in a soft glow. I step out onto our porch, drinking in the view. A mile down the sea lions roar and bark, the noise rising to a crescendo. With no warning dozens of them launch themselves into the water. I furrow my brow, what on earth is making them all – and I see them.
Dorsal fins. Five of them. Just off the rocks, smooth curved dorsals with knife sharp points. Biggs. Transients. Oh my God. For a heartbeat I’m rooted to the spot, too stunned to move. On our first night? Muscle memory takes over. I skid across the deck, throwing open the door to our cabin and scream, “Biggs at the sea lion haul out!” I’m gone before Brittney can respond, tearing over to Paul and Helena’s, heart pounding, I haven’t seen orcas in months. I repeat the message and head for the observation deck, camera in hand.
The light is so dim every photo is like a blurred and pixelated photo of Sasquatch. There a mile away. It doesn’t matter. As the last of the daylight fades we strain our eyes to follow the group as they go around the corner, leaving the sea lions in a frenzy. The movie script ends, the whales vanish, and we stand in near darkness. No roads, no cars, no stores. Just us, the trees, the ocean, each other. Back where we belong.

Same Destination, Different Path

The sun breaks through, faces turning upward, mouths open, drinking in the sunshine.  A respite, finally. No better way to leave. We’re on the Alaska Ferry’s equivalent of the milk run. The grand tour of southeast Alaska with little concern for time of day. Juneau at 4 am, Hoonah at 9, Sitka in the evening, in and out of Kake under the cover of night. Weaving through the mouse maze. West, east, and slowly, tantalizingly south.
We’re not alone. High school volleyball and wrestling teams are bedded down in every lounge when we stagger aboard in the early morning twilight. It had been my idea to stay up until our 4 am departure from Juneau, a decision I’ve been regretting since midnight. Through bleary eyes, sleep clinging to our eyelids we maneuver the minefield of snoozing adolescents, looking for any gap on the floor for a pair of sleeping pads.
Mercifully teenagers aren’t early risers, and most of us are still asleep when the purser’s desk begins to scold us over the intercom in a voice reminiscent of Mr. Feeny. “It’s time to turn these lounges back into lounges! Chaperones, get those lounges cleaned up!”
He must get a kick back every time he says lounge. But as I look around the room at the draped arms and legs protruding out of the corners and between seats, I’d say the room is living up to its name the way it is.
By the time we’re squeezing through the minuscule pass between Baranof and Chichagof Islands, the sun is burning through the fog, the day turning from Late October to June in minutes. With the shore just yards away from both sides of the boat we curl up on the solarium and let Alaska dazzle us for the countless time. Ravens chatter in the woods like invisible sentinels. A pair of Kingfisher’s chase each other above the treetops, their punk rock haircuts matching the throaty screeches perfectly. A humpback surfaces. The hemlocks grow tightly together. Every now and than a flash of red among the green, a Cedar. An outlier, we’ll be surrounded by them soon. As if magnetically drawn by the sun’s cameo, the high schoolers filter to the open deck.
Electronics are sparse among them. In the cafeteria playing cards appear, they talk, joke, laugh, are kids. Not drones with their head’s pulled down to an HD screen with the world around them invisible. It makes me smile. No cell service, unplugged from the world but not each other. When phones do appear it’s to take pictures of the scenery, often with them and their friends in the foreground.
Selfies are the new currency of flirting. All a boy must do to receive the attention of his chosen girl pack is leap into the photo, eager to participate in the immortalization of the moment through the magic of sim cards and 10 GB hard drives. Can’t say I’d so anything different if I was them.
The water stays calm as we leave Ketchikan in the evening and push into Canadian waters. Once again, we leave under the cover of night as the ferry pulls into Prince Rupert at 4 in the morning. This means crossing the border and explaining what the hell we’re doing in this country will be done through two sleep deprived and bloodshot eyes. We’re fourth in line getting off the ferry and I scarf down our remaining two apples for breakfast in lieu of turning them over.     We reach the customs lady and I roll down the window. Usually Porter sees any open window as a gateway to his god given freedom. And after two days confined to the car I expected Brittney to have to pin him down to keep him from crawling up the lady’s uniform. But he sits politely on Brittney’s lap, the perfect gentleman, as if understanding the gravity of the situation and our history with cranky and stoic border guards.
But they seem as groggy as us. The only loss is the little pink can of mace Brittney has had on her key chain since she worked mornings at a coffee shop. Bear spray, we’re told, would’ve been permissible, but since her mace was designed to use on humans, we were a threat to the unsuspecting Canadian citizens.
The inhabitants of Prince Rupert spared a terrible mace induced terrorist attack, we drive into the sleeping town. It’s too much to hope that our pet friendly hotel would leave their door unlocked at 5 am. So we grab coffee and hole up in the parking lot, waiting for the sun to rise and the lights to come on.
It feels good to be transient again. With our bags piled up behind Penny’s house in the back of the Pathfinder, the cat on our lap. Home is the four of us together. Two hours later the door unlocks and we record history’s earliest hotel check in, dropping our bags on the floor and collapsing onto the beds. Penny leaps euphorically as she hops into every corner, free of her house for the first time in 48 hours. Everything must be smelled, tasted… and chewed. With a $200 pet deposit we watch her like a hawk.
Brittney retreats to the shower, our hot water days numbered, and I watch Porter try to keep his eyes open as he curls up on the bed. The simplicity of my joy, my contentedness, brings peace. We search for happiness everywhere, sometimes demanding much, sometimes little. Sometimes, it’s as simple as an early check in, a sleeping cat, and the knowledge that no matter where I go with these three, I’m already home.