Category Archives: Hanson Island Winter

Escape From Hanson Island

For a week the weather services proclaimed that Wednesday, April 15th would be calm, clear, and peaceful. It would be a fitting and tranquil journey from the lab to Alert Bay, a promising start to what would be a week long expedition that would eventually lead to Gustavus, Alaska. On Tuesday night I checked the weather one final time, more out of sentimentalism than anything else, and saw Johnstone Strait caked in red. “30 knot southeasterly winds,” it boldly proclaimed. I rolled my eyes and glanced out the window, the cedar boughs were fluttering in a benign and apathetic way, I shut the curtains and crawled under the covers.

The next morning we awoke to the windows rattling, though the rain showed merciful restraint. We packed and began to debate tersely the best strategy for placing a bulky rabbit cage, a squirming cat, and countless bags and boxes unto the deck of a pitching boat.

An hour later the June Cove pulled around the corner, bobbing in the churning bathtub that was Blackfish Sound. We threw our belongings unceremoniously aboard with rabbit and cat perched atop the pile, and watched the lab fade from view. In the stress and rush to load the boat before the waves could put it on the rocks, there was little time for nostalgia and farewells. Instead of casting a final look at the lab deck, where I had been bombarded by sun, rain, and a rotating cast of marine life, I diligently jabbed a long two by four into the rocks as the bow of the boat slowly turned toward open water.

The water deepened and waves broke over the bow, foam and white caps littering the ocean. Paul peers through the blurred windshield as we hit the crest of a wave and slide down, the screech of nails emanates from Penny the rabbits cage as she slides back and forth. Completely unperturbed, she continuously tries to stand on her hind legs as the boat rolls, dead set on glancing out the window.

Paul glances over at where I stand, staring out the window into the crashing waves, willing the boat forward. He catches my eye and grins, “the escape from Hanson Island!” he shouts and the tension breaks.

Perhaps it was best like this. No tears, no long, lingering hugs. Leaving Hanson Island is removing a band aid, it’s best to just rip it off. Thirty minutes later we reached the relative peace of the dock, the first of four boat rides behind us. Again there would be no lingering as Paul needed to rush back to the lab before the tide ebbed too far, exposing the June Cove to a night of gale force winds.

And just like that, it was done. We stood where we had eight months ago, with an overstuffed Nissan Pathfinder and a pair of pets staring confusedly out the window while the wind buffeted us.

To our immense relief, our reliable Pathfinder sputtered, coughed, and after several heart stopping seconds, roared to life and we wove along the shoreline to Paul and Helena’s home for the night.

We curled up in the lap of luxury. Hot baths, ice cream, cold beer, electric heat, baseball, it may as well have been the Ritz Carlton hotel for all we cared. But it was hard not glance out the massive windows down Johnstone Strait as the light slowly faded, the outline of Hanson Island still visible and know that it would be months before we were forced to contend with the beautiful inconveniences that only life on an island can bring.

Perhaps the weirdest moment came when we finally crawled into bed. The room was as silent as a tomb and it was completely unsettling. For months we’d been passively listening through the night as the hydrophones reported the sounds of the ocean. The rushing water of a gale, the crackle of a dragging hydrophone, the low pitched growl of a tug, the whistles of dolphins, and the call of an orca that sent you flying from the covers. Now it was all gone, the silence leaving a strange ringing in our ears.

Rubbing Beach Ideologies

The water’s perfect, with the aqua green reflection off Vancouver Island’s mountains that I love. It’s as calm as a puddle, the sun shining high above in a cloudless sky. In the past couple weeks, the sun has finally begun to radiate a warmth that can be felt through your jacket. It’s not the benign passive glow of January but the first hint of summer’s rays, and it feels euphoric. It streams through the back of the boat, warming our backs as we glide down Johnstone Strait towards the mammoth mountains above Robson bight that stand like kings on their thrones. The strait’s empty despite the summery weather and our boat is nothing more than a toy in a massive bathtub.

We angle across the strait, the bow pointed past the bight towards the rubbing beaches. Fuel levels running the cameras needed to be checked, and it behoves one to never pass up the chance to visit the orca’s holy place. But as we pass the mouth of Robson Bight, something makes me slide the boat into neutral. Many somethings are breaking the surface of the water, like ink blots on a clean sheet of paper, disappearing and reemerging. The disturbances are far too small to be the orcas we secretly prayed we’d come across, but it was the next best thing. The pod of dolphins meanders slowly across the strait toward Swaine Point on Cracroft Island and we fall into line on the left hand side of the massive group that easily numbers 100.

Brittney stands on the stern of the boat, one hand gripping the vessel, the other clamped on the camera. In response to a signal we cannot here, the mass of dolphins swerve left, pointing west, pointing towards us. I slide the boat back into neutral and turn the ignition, at the mercy of the currents we turn perpendicular to them and wait. A flash of white catches my eye as like a ghost, the first dolphin glides underneath us, his body turned sideways, an invisible eye staring up at me.

From behind me I hear Brittney gasp in awe as the flood surrounds us. The camera falls limply to her side, how do you even begin to capture this? Some surface calmly, their bodies barely breaking the surface, while others rocket clear of the ocean seeming to hover frozen in time for the briefest moment before slipping smoothly back beneath the waves with barely a splash. Dozens cruise beneath us, the calm seas and clear water of early spring enabling us see dozens of feet below as the torpedoes shoot past. It takes nearly five minutes for all of them to go by, the sounds of their blows and splashes rapidly fading as we bob in their chop still under the spell.

The boy in me tells me to start the engine, race ahead of them, and do it again. But what a insult to the gift we’d been given, it was good, but not enough, we need more. How human, selfish. I push the thought out of my head and we continue the other way, past the bight and minutes later, land with a soft crunch, land at the rubbing beach. With no idea when our next trip here will be, we linger on the beach, feeling the pebbles slide and crunch beneath us, coaxing the few rays of light that penetrate the trees onto our faces. With just a week left before our return to civilization, our imminent return continues to dominant our conversations.

“There’s some things I miss,” I admit, “unlimited bandwidth, Alaskan IPA, hot showers, other people… but I don’t, crave these things. It’s funny how many luxuries we begin to assume are necessities.”

“How many people think they can’t live without texting?” Brittney asks, “or hot running water, or electric heat, or indoor plumbing?”

“It’s a state of mind, it’s all we know, we’ve never lived without so we conclude that they’re essential. It makes sense.”

“But we clearly don’t need them.”

“We were willing to let go.”

“Think some people can’t?”

“I think they can… I just don’t think they want to. It took me awhile,” I say, “I’ve learned to sit quietly here, that my brain doesn’t have to be constantly entertained by outside influences, like mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, or netflix. That sitting on the rocks watching the tide ebb can be enough, it’s almost meditative.”

We sit in silence for a moment, “I still scroll through Facebook mindlessly,” I admit.

She laughs, “I know.”

Across the strait on Cracroft Island the sound of a saw floats across the strait, a sickening crack, and a boom as another tree meets its’ end, the clearcut steadily grows, the gash opening wider, the runoff like blood flowing downhill into the ocean.

We fall back into silence, the sound of machinery dominating our ears, the incessant hum of a tug motoring slowly westward becoming prominent. Suddenly the land feels too crowded, we’re hemmed in by people, a tug and a tree crew is all it takes.

“It’s funny,” I point toward the tug and the clearcut, “this feels full now.”

I pause and look instead down the beach where everything is pure, there are no right angles here, no perfect circles. For a moment I want to run into the woods, into the last unlogged watershed on east Vancouver Island and disappear. To hide out till summer, with nothing more to do than watch the orcas swim by.

Hanson Island Life Lessons

Every week and a half the fridge begins to look bare, the tortillas are gone, the beer and wine but a distant memory. The marine weather report is lit up in crimson, gale warning in Queen Charlotte, storm warning in Johnstone Strait, rain, wind, small craft advisories. On a good day Alert Bay is just thirty minutes by boat away, weaving through the Plumper and Pearce Islands, sending torrents of frothy white water over the deep green waters is nothing short of cathartic. It’s just finding enough of those days that can be the struggle.

And so we look for “windows.” Six hour blocks where the wind dies, the rain lessons, and the boat floats. As the storm inhales for another blow you run for town before the next exhalation. But after eight months of this game, pulling the boat up and down the beach so water lifts it off the rocks at just the right time, it feels commonplace. The fact that we once lived half a block from a Rainbow Foods absolutely absurd. We’ve traded the convenience of stores, bars, and restaurants for the simple tranquility of wilderness.

In a few weeks we’ll be gone, on our way back to civilization. At least our definition of it which entails residing in a town of 350 people. But right now that feels more like a metropolis than hamlet. Certainly there are things we’re looking forward to, I mean, we’ve talked to just a handful of people face to face this year. No longer having to correlate tide height and wind with fresh lettuce will be convenient. And I really do miss Alaskan IPA.

But more than anything, I’ve learned a lot about myself over the winter. I landed my first paid writing gig, wrote thousands of words for a novel that I’ll probably let no one ever see, and am just a season and a half away from watching the show, “Friends” all the way through.

Brittney loves the website, mindbodygreen.com and there are some great articles and information to be found. She hates me for pointing out however that the site is often flooded with “top 10” lists. Top 10 ways: to know your man has a good heart, yoga pants, fat burning foods, etc. Now it’s all she sees… she may never forgive me. But I’m going to conform, and walk through the ten things that I’ve learned this winter on Hanson Island.

1. How ever much time you think you have until the boat is aground, subtract by ten minutes. You’ll save yourself a lot of disappoint, frustration, and expletives.

2. Mice will find a way into your house. Steel wool, blockades, and a cat will only do so much. Accept the inevitable, keep the counters clean, and check under the propane stove frequently.

3. It is perfectly acceptable to wake up in a cold sweat because you just dreamed that you could hear orcas and aren’t recording.

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4. No matter how much you hoot and holler at them, Stellar Sea Lions will not give you the time of day.

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5. Orcas love to call at dinner time, so you stuff your plates into a plastic milk crate box and lug it all over to the lab and have dinner with headphones on.

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6. Bath Days are a gift from God and should be worshipped as such.

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7. Mink will live under the house, they’re cute but smell terrible, your cat will want to make friends, the mink will not acquiesce. 11081015_10155300238395858_6083581184589343527_n

8. Porch baths in December are a necessity. Treat them like a Nascar pit crew changes tires. If you’re not out and back inside in under five minutes you are a) doing it wrong and b) probably borderline hypothermic.

9. Bring pets. You’ll need someone to talk to when your wife gets mad at you for ruining her favorite website.

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10. There is nowhere on earth like this place, nothing can replace it or come close. So enjoy every moment you have here regardless of the time of year.

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For His Old Branches

We push deeper into the middle of the island, weaving our way along the ridge. In an organized line the three of us hike, me in the lead, followed by Brittney, Porter the cat right on her heels. When she disappears over a small hill to look at a patch of moss that shines a fantastic neon green he plops on a fallen Hemlock and softly meows until she reappears. There are no machines, no airplanes, no cars. The only sounds are of the forest’s creation. Squirrels quarrel from their respective trees, all talk and no action. The Varied Thrush in between acts as a mediator, his single melodious note drowned out by their stubborn chatter.

It’s all therapy. The springy moss gives the sensation of walking on clouds, the world a tapestry of browns, golds, reds, and more shades of green than I knew existed. Fir, Hemlock, Spruce, and of course Cedar shield the sun. I stop at one Cedar and see a deep six foot slash that begins near my knees and travels up past my eyes. Long ago, someone cut into her. Not out of spite, anger, or the egotistical need to announce ones presence. But to weave a basket. By strategically stripping the bark in this way, the natives brought not death, but growth, their cuts encouraging the trees to grow at a faster rate. They’re known as culturally modified trees (CMT) and they litter the island. At least the parts that have never been logged, which is sadly less than half.

We stumble onto the scene of such a crime after plunging through a valley and onto the next ridge. Spruce dominant the scene here looking massive and impressive until our eyes fall upon the skeletons. Cedar trees twelve feet in diameter stand decapitated ten feet from the ground. Deep one foot notches denote where the logger stood and cut until the massive tree succumbed to gravity. Like the CMT, it says, “man was here” but with much more finality and violence. The cuts are from generations previously, the sun long ago blocked by the growth around us, the stumps being swallowed back into the earth, crumbling to powder. I look up at the spruce and feel relief and gratitude knowing neither them or the successors to follow will meet the same fate here. It’s progress. Hope. That their deaths were not in vain, that perhaps we’re moving forward.

Back home, I sharpen a chainsaw, fill it with oil and a 50:1 fuel to oil mixture. I can feel the trees watching me and Walrus’ words float into my head.

“When I got here, I could feel the pain this place had experienced. How many chainsaws these trees had heard, and I vowed never to use one on Yukusam.”

It’s a gesture that means sacrifice and plenty of extra work, though many I suppose would call it foolish, irrational, pointless. After all, trees can’t hear. At least, I don’t think they can. But his words, his dedication, his conviction stick in my head as I set the choke and begin to pull the handle, feeling the machine sputter before dying again. A magnificent piece of Fir has washed up along the beach, probably 50 feet long it offers nights of cozy warmth. But nearby, his brethren still stand. Branches coated in needles reach out towards me, their ends curved upwards toward the sun, like a crowd with outstretched arms, their palms skyward in peaceful protest. I sit the saw down and move up the beach a few steps. If they can hear, I want to make sure they hear me.

“This saw is not meant for you,” I whisper, and even in my solitude I glance behind me for human ears. “This tree can no longer grow, photosynthesize, or give life to the forest. If it could I would never touch it, just as I promise to never touch you. Forgive the sounds of the saw, I’ll leave you in peace as quickly as I can.”

I kneel by the saw and crank the handle again, it roars to life and soon, sawdust is flying from the tiny metallic teeth, forming neat golden piles on the beach. I move down the line, making cuts every foot and a half, dodging knots and pausing once to tighten the chain. In half an hour it’s over and true to my word I shut it off as soon as I’m done. Once again the cove and forest is filled with nothing but the sounds of the thrush and the squirrels.

An Expected Visit, An Unexpected Goodbye

Paul announced the news in his usual, casual way, “a few people may be visiting the lab in early March from Greenpeace.” Made sense, we knew Greenpeace was holding a ceremony in nearby Alert Bay, and given Paul’s and Walrus’ ties to the organization, we figured a couple would want to stop in. Truth be told, the thought of playing host and hostess was welcome.

A few days later we received a call from the organizer of the trip. “How many people are coming?” Brittney asked.

“15 to 20.”

Our eyes went big, after months of just the two of us and the occasional passing boat, 20 people felt like a full fledged invasion. We were gonna need to bake more bread.

For the next few days we scrambled, polishing and sweeping out the pine needles and cedar boughs from the corners and wiping away the months of salt spray thrown against the lab windows by 40 knot storms.

As the Naiad breezed around the corner and we picked our way down the rocks, slipping over exposed kelp and seaweed on the falling tide, it felt like summer. As if I was standing on the docks, waiting to pick up my group for a day of whale watching. One by one, a range of generations and ethnicities stepped onto the island, making their way towards the house. I heard Paul’s words escape my mouth, “please be careful, the rocks are incredibly treacherous.”

Walrus stepped off the boat and began to weave a path into the cedar as if he couldn’t stand another moment apart from his precious forest. There was no real plan, and people wondered hither and thither. It soon became clear what the first order of business had to be. Unbeknownst to me, Bob Hunter’s daughter held the last of her father’s cremated remains in her hands, wishing to lay part of him to rest in the quiet cove on the flooding tide.

Brittney and I stood amongst the crowd huddled along the shoreline as the now flooding tide shuffled us slowly back. We listened to the eulogies to the man I had never met, but heard so much about. One of the original founders of Greenpeace, Bob Hunter had led a life that turned my eyes blurry and my cheeks wet with tears. He’d battled the nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska on Greenpeace’s maiden voyage, seal hunters, whalers, published books, and who knows how much more that would lay unwritten and untold.

“It was Paul who convinced him to stick his head in Skana’s (a captive orca at the Vancouver aquarium back in the 1970s) mouth,” remembered one speaker. A small grin spread across my face, as in my mind I could see Paul goading him toward the edge of the tank, a mischievous grin on his face.

As the ashes fell in the gentle breeze onto the waters surface, a First Nations man banged on a traditional drum, the bass echoing across the water and ricocheting off the silent old growth that stood sentinel over the proceedings. Goosebumps erupted across my body to hear the soundtrack of the land revive and return. An eagle soared over and a sea lion poked its head out at the mouth of the cove. As if they too recognized the sound, the song that spilled into Blackfish Sound, resonating in their hearts, a reminder of simpler times.

The songs ended, Bob’s ashes scattered on the turquoise waters, piercing rays of sun cutting through the surface, a gentle breeze rustling the tips of the trees. They couldn’t have picked a better day to say goodbye and we felt incredibly honored to be allowed to bear witness to this intimate and precious moment.

Worth So Much More

More than a century ago, steamers laden with starry eyed prospectors plied the inside passage in a desperate race to reach Skagway, Dyea, and the promise of massive gold deposits in the Yukon. Of the 40,000 to stampede across the permafrost, ten percent found gold, one percent struck it rich. The rush ended with hardly a whimper in just three years.

But thhe gold rush is not over. One hundred and fifteen years later, the human race continues to be seduced by the presence of minerals hidden in rock, with the promise of wealth and money. All in the name of happiness, security, prosperity. Once again, the sites lie within the Canadian boundary and once again the road runs through Alaskan waters. Instead of steamers and ferries crossing the border, it is salmon.

The Unuk, the Taku, and the Stikine represent three massive, salmon rearing, transboundary rivers that cross the border of Northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska. They represent one of the last few places on earth where the delicate balance between ocean and land remain in perfect symmetry with salmon serving as their powerful arbitrator. They draw life from the forest and in turn, rejuvenate the rivers, oceans, animals, and humans they touch. Directly and indirectly, they fuel a 2 billion dollar per year industry that radiates throughout the panhandle via tourism and fishing. And we are spitting in their face. Threatening to destroy a miraculous and beautiful gift that has been our heartbeat since the last glacier receded.

As Canada continues its rapid deregulation of environmental protections, tar sand developments, and other atrocities against the natural world, the policies begin to directly threaten us on the other side. Currently, no fewer than nine mines are either being proposed, developed, or are under review in northwest British Columbia. All of which are connected or adjacent to these  massive, life giving rivers. Mankind has gold in their hearts, and we cannot stand the thought of it laying uselessly in the earth. Not when there is profit to be made.

Many have pointed to the relevant and convincing argument that Alaskans stand to inherit none of the profit, and all of the risk of these mining projects. The money flows into Canada while acid mine drainage flows into the inlets and bays. Holding pits and dams would be responsible for holding millions of gallons of these toxic pollutants indefinitely. Indefinitely, is a hell of a long time.

And yet we hear assurances from involved mining companies such as NovaGold, Chieftan, and the now infamous Imperial Metals about their environmentally safe practices, technologically sound designs, and pride in their development and design. At least, that’s what Imperial Metals had to say about their Mount Polley mine.

On August 4th, 2014, around 1 am the Mount Polley dam in the Cariboo region of B.C burst. Four days later, the four kilometer sized tailings pond had sent its’ 10 billion liters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of metals-laden fine sand into Polley Lake. Like a nightmarish game of dominoes, its impact was felt hundreds of kilometers away along the Fraser River, home to one of the largest Chinook runs on the west coast.

It’s been called the biggest environmental disaster in British Columbia’s history, and it could be decades before the full effects are felt and realized as the metals embed themselves in the environment and climb the stairs of the food chain, magnifying their impact with every step. This is the inheritance of the Cariboo region descendants. The guiltless victims of the four horsemen we worship; progress, profit, power, and greed. Like Prince William Sound, the region will never be the same again, the casualties of practices deemed safe and environmentally friendly.

“I apologize for what happened,” Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch said following the breach. “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.”

How hollow and pointless. Yet in not so many words he admits what we already knew, that open pit mines on this scale are incapable of ensuring the protection of the natural world around them. Since 2012, Imperial Metal had received five citations of violation, the engineering company that designed the pond warned them that the pond was operating beyond capacity and pulled out of the mine operation 3 years before the catastrophe with no explanation.

Mr. Kynoch, you knew this could happen, but it’s tough to hear with gold in your ears and copper in your eyes. All this done in a place with an exponentially larger population density than their recently open mine in Red Chris along a tributary of the Stikine River. Yes, no criminal charges, no moratorium on development, Imperial Metal was allowed to plow forward and put the well being of the salmon and the Alaskans that thrive on them in their greedy hands.

When it comes to environmental issues, Alaskans are often divided. The refuge, offshore oil, and other controversies have split us into the unyielding camps of Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, progressive and tree hugger. But when it comes to salmon, we have been united. We have pushed and will continue to fight the threat of the Pebble Mine development in Bristol Bay, saying no to short term financial gains in favor of the most productive and healthy Sockeye Salmon fishery in the world.

It is vital that we fight again, that these salmon streams, our home, our way of life remains as unspoiled and protected as possible. The alternative is unthinkable. A CEO two decades from now, standing at a podium, offering empty words of regret as mine tailings and acid drainages rush down the Taku to meet the Sockeye. For Imperial Metals they will simply state their sorrow, pack up, and head for the next deposit, leaving us and our descendants to pick up the shattered pieces of existence.

For Americans and Canadians alike who wish to get involved, visit.

http://www.salmonbeyondborders.org/what-you-can-do.html

Stepping Back

When I first came to Orca Lab in 2008, I expected some sort of sign. Some sort of intimate and personal encounter with the whales to justify the sacrifices, work, and effort I had gone through to reach this place. Orcas, it turns out, have little interest in storybook endings. They went about their lives as if I were invisible. It was odd, the orcas owed me absolutely nothing, but so convinced was I that some spectacular, “ah-ha” moment would arrive, that to leave without having gotten within 200 yards of a whale was, not a disappointment, but a hit to the ego.

“Don’t you ever get tired of watching whales?”

It was a common enough question working on a whale watching boat, and I suppose it should have been predictable. I mean, the majority of my clientele had work that they actually looked at as, well, work. I just saw it as a free whale watch every day, like someone had offered me season tickets along the third base line for free. How could you get sick of that?

The question would always rise to the surface just as the humpback was slipping below, meaning I had 5-7 minutes to explain why no, I don’t get sick of watching massive aquatic mammals breath. I’m nothing more than a commercial while the show dives 200 feet below us for another mouthful of herring. The guy who banters on stage while the band tunes their instruments.

“They’re like potato chips,” became my generic reply, “you can never say enough.”

But for those that would probe, that actually wanted to know and weren’t just making conversation after realizing that no, your iPhone will not get service out here, I’d go a step further.

“Because you never know what might happen. If someone calls and needs you to take a trip… you take the trip. The last thing you want is to come home to a phone call, and find out you missed the trip of the lifetime.”

But 100 yards stands between the deck and a trip of a lifetime. For the many who have read the stories of Erich Hoyt, Paul Spong, and Alex Morton, it’s a tantalizing distance. We want a moment like Morton had, being led by the A5s through the fog, or Erich Hoyt in his rowboat, bobbing in the bight, surrounded by whales.

But that age of orca research and watching has come to an end. With restrictions and limitations enforced, we’re at the mercy of the whales to swim that football field distance and set the stage for the sort of encounter we crave. Perhaps we love them too much. Our addiction as harmful to them as potato chips are to our arteries. We crave these moments, and stand breathless on the deck of a swaying boat, hoping for a flash of white, a bubbling surface, an eruption of carbon dioxide as the whale breaks the water feet from us.

And it does happen. After three years and countless hours on the water, I had a few holy s— moments; I was splashed by an orca, had one circle the boat, it’s oval eye patch staring into my soul, and had 14 humpbacks materialize from nowhere, surrounding us in a bubble net of desperate herring. And all it took was thousands of hours, and the sheer luck to be in the right place at the right time.

Six years later I returned to Hanson Island, reluctant to share some of the most intimate whale experiences with my fellow volunteers. I had been extraordinarily lucky to have a job that allowed me to buy a lottery ticket every day and cash in on the minuscule odds. But that summer, I found a much more rewarding and fulfilling experience. As much as I’d loved my time on the water, a wriggling feeling of guilt had grown as I thought about the deafening noise my coworkers and I made in their home.

The whale watch industry grew and with it, the pressure on the humpbacks and orcas until every daylight hour was spent in the company of at least one, and almost always several boats. I couldn’t measure how much of a disturbance I was causing, but the uneasy feeling in my stomach told me however much it was, my conscience was not ok with it. I began to despise the 700 HP engines on our stern, giving us the authority to decide when the whales could be free of us. Were these experiences worth the boat noise and fuel? The hours hovering above their kitchen table, knowing if it was up to them they’d probably have us disappear?

Instead of intimate face to face encounters, I craved anonymity. I wanted to see, but not touch, observe but not alter, be it from 5 yards or 500 didn’t matter. Perhaps I’m biased. After all, I can still see that orcas tail rising off the stern of the boat, sending water cascading over us. But nothing felt as rewarding or special as a misty, fog drenched morning at Cracroft point.

As the tide ebbed I inched down the rocks, slipping and sliding over the kelp, my camera slung over a shoulder, a lens the size of a baseball bat swaying ominously. Stopping just shy of the water I looked east down the strait, the sun cutting slashes in the clouds ahead of the oncoming rain storm. Right along the Cracroft shoreline I saw them, the A23s and A25s plowing through the strait, pointed directly at me. I raised the camera, Paul’s words ringing in my ears, “get A60s photo.”

The group filed past, exhalations like gunshots ricocheting off the rocks. An image of A60s dorsal flashed in my mind, like the face of someone I hadn’t seen in years, the big notch two thirds of the way up the dorsal made him easy to ID, and as the picture filled my head, his dorsal filled my lens.

I held my breath to steady the camera, and pushed the shutter, immortalizing Fife on a 6 GB chip. He couldn’t have been any closer than 150 yards, a distance many in the whale watch industry would yawn at. But a tear slid down my face as he disappeared. A few years ago I’d have wanted Fife to know I was there, to see some acknowledgement of my love and interest. Now… I wanted anything but that. Just to have a brief window into his world, and know that his calls were blowing out the speakers back at the lab was plenty.

The whales slipped by, milling briefly in the entrance of Blackney before steaming north. As if waiting for them to pass, the rain arrived, drenching me as I stood on the deck, reveling in the knowledge that they had no idea I was there. The group slowly faded from sight, there fins merging with the streaks of rain and background of the islands. But I continued to watch until they vanished from view. After all they’re like potato chips, you can never say “I’m full.”

Quiet Places, Open Spaces

Shadows stretch across the bay, the surviving sunlight turning a deep gold against the water and trees on the far side. We sit on an old, rotting 2×4 propped up by rocks, watching the island in the middle of the bay transform into a peninsula as the tide ebbs away. Around us boxes of food stand in pyramids, accentuated by a case of beer and a bag of dog food like a massive sack of flour.

But Walrus is in no hurry to start the haul up the hillside to his cabin shrouded in the woods. So we sit, beers in hand, with nothing more pressing than watching the water slowly drain out of Dong Chong Bay.

A great blue heron materializes out of the woods, it’s prehistoric shrieks echoing off the steep vertical cliffs around us, alighting on the island. A raven swoops passed and alights on the branches of a birch tree above. He speaks softly to the bird in a tongue I don’t recognize. Undoubtedly it’s the native language of the First Nation people that called Yukusam (the native name for Hanson Island meaning “shaped like a halibut hook”) home. The words seem to permeate from the trees and ocean, as alive and authentic as the island itself. If the trees could talk, it would be in this voice. Not the voice of my ancestors who had arrived and hunted, logged, and eternally altered the very land we loved.

The large, rocky plateau we sat on was far too smooth to be the work of the ambitious and almighty glaciers that long ago preceded us. They deposited erratics and islands with the callous randomness of an artist flinging paint at the canvas. This was deliberate, a stronghold for the logging trucks and chainsaws that Walrus had fought and defeated.

Even in this beauty, in the perfect stillness, it seems pertinent to mention it and Walrus nods in affirmation, as if he needs any reminder of what took place here.

“In the U.S we put aside these pieces of land as wilderness that can’t be touched, developed, or mined.”

Walrus lets out his high pitched laugh, “but is anywhere untouched?”

“Exactly.”

I remembered camping in the Beardslee Islands in Glacier Bay. Alone, surrounded by acre upon acre of wilderness. Only to watch commercial jets rumble over, their contrails leaving white slashes across the blue sky. The cruise ships rumbling by, black exhaust spewing above the mountains, wakes unconcerned with the wilderness boundary. Untouched wilderness indeed.

He wanders over to the case of beer and hands me another, the crack of carbonation drifts across the water. With an indignant call the heron rises from the rocks, wings beating a slow rhythm as it vanishes.

“How can we even classify something as wilderness?” He asks.

“That’s the thing. Are we trying to recreate a land before Europeans? Or native Americans?”

Regardless, the ghosts of North America cannot be revived. The mammoth, the Stellar Sea Cow. We talk about how the great plains were once home to 12-foot bears, lions, and camels. An indescribable amount of biomass and apex predators. Until man arrived and claimed the top of the food web for him alone.

“Extinction started with the arrival of man, not Europeans of course.” He cautions.

“Of course. It’s a European arrogance, that we can put back together the pieces that we’ve ripped apart.” I say. “It’s the best we can do I suppose though.”

“When the Spaniards arrived in central America, they found the Mayans already had chickens.” He looks at me, his long grey beard crinkles into a smile, his eyes dazzle beneath long curling eyebrows, “they just assumed, hey, they’ve got chickens here just like back home!” He pauses and takes a drink, “of course they were Asian chickens,” he finishes laughing, letting the message sink in.

“You don’t read that in your history books. Or Columbus’ Haitian massacres, or the sculptures depicting people of African descent. We weren’t first, but we in some way won. So we get to claim credit, and dust our transgressions under the rug.”

He smiles again and we tilt our beers back, I’m talking conservation and anthropology with one of the founders of Greenpeace.

“That’s one of the difficult things about anthropology and natural history. It’s a lot of extrapolation and assumption, we can’t know much for sure.”

“Which is why we need time travel,” he says.

“I know where I’d go,” and I point out the mouth of the bay, to sparkling waters of Blackfish Sound, “right here.”

I talk about trying to imagine Dong Chong without logging roads, the orca lab site before the lab, my desire to see this place in as natural a setting as possible. “Post ice age of course,” I finish.

He nods, “I bet it’d be something.”

“Salmon so thick you can smell it on the wind,” the very thought gets me excited, “blackfish so thick you can walk across their backs,” I say quoting Billy Proctor, the legendary jack of all trades that had lived in and around the region since the 30s. “In another age of conservation maybe.”
We lapse into silence, drinking in the scenery, the peace and tranquility that cannot be quantified. No bottom line, no profit margin or material good could ever begin to explain what these places mean. Because they live not on paper but inside. The by products of the wind and trees, ocean and waves, saying more without a word than I ever can. Causing a spiritual upheaval I can only begin to explain.

It’s for this reason, that we’re coming back next winter I tell him. Like Paul, he’s spent decades on Yukusam, unable to find anywhere else that compares for the same unwritten reason.

“It’s going to be almost a year since I had a real job. It’s been incredible.”

A knowing smile pushes through the beard, “it’s hard to think about going back to it isn’t it?”

“You have no idea.” I answer, knowing full well he knew exactly what I was talking about.

John Muir, Stickeen, and the Biggest Decision of Our Lives

My favorite John Muir story involves a tiny dog named Stickeen. Fanatically loyal to Muir, Stickeen followed the famous naturalist everywhere, even the glaciers could not separate them. On one trip a storm hit. The light was fading, and they were still far from home. Between them and camp lay a large crevasse in the ice, a narrow bridge across offered the only hope of passage.
Muir scooted across and turned to find Stickeen still on the other side, sprinting back and forth as the wind howled, panicked and too terrified to follow. Muir knelt down and reach out his arms calling to his companion.
“Hush your fears little one, no right way is easy in this rough world, we must risk our lives in order to save them.”
For a moment Stickeen remained perched on the edge of the precipice, and in a flurry sprinted across the bridge, past Muir and began to yip and run in circles in ecstasy.
For years John Muir’s words have resonated inside me, echoing in my head with every major decision I make. I tried to avoid making decisions simply because they were safe or comfortable, probing deep inside for what I really wanted.
With this credo echoing in both our hearts, we walked, hiked, and hitched through New Zealand. Bounced from seasonal job to seasonal job. Crammed everything we owned into the Pathfinder and drove for five exhilarating days to Seattle. And of course, spent the last six months blissfully happy on Hanson Island.
Slowly we’ve watched our time remaining tick away, somehow, we have just two months left, and the thought of leaving already left a lump in our throats.
In our wildest dreams, where money is no object, we knew we’d come back. But even here, the financial demands of life can reach us. Student loans, IRAs, and that house in Gustavus beckon. It became our next goal, to save up and buy that house, if the elephant in the room (winter work in a town of 350) could be addressed.
Than Paul and Helena changed everything, offering to help us return for another winter if we wanted to. Thus began the hardest decision we’ve ever made together. We tried to imagine returning to Alaska, kayak guiding in Glacier Bay and than… what? Making coffee in Juneau I suppose. Which was all well and good, but we both knew that at night, crammed back into our shanty studio apartment, we’d look out the window to find ourselves surrounded by street lights. And our souls would ache for this place. For the sound of the waves on the rocks. The Harlequin ducks bobbing like rubber duckies into the cove every morning, the mischievous mink that taunts the cat from under the house.
We budgeted. We convinced each other that one decision was correct, and than the other. Finally, we would lapse back into fits of indecision. Pulled between starting to put down roots, and fearing that we’d eternally regret not returning to the island. We talked long into the night, unable to decide. Until this morning when Paul asked us if we’d reached a decision. We looked at each other across the table, a pained look on both our faces. We knew saying no meant we may never see this place again. And we knew that we couldn’t live with that.
There will be houses to save for later. Winter work questions to answer, money to make, roots to set down. But in our hearts, the wanderlust called for an encore. To sprint across that ice bridge one more time. To risk our lives. And to save them.

“We’re coming back!” we replied.
And like Stickeen a century ago, jumped and ran around the cabin while the wind and rain pelted the windows.

A Deathbed Lesson in Living

For my entire life I’ve been blessed to live in a place that other people visit. Not the Bahamas, or southern California, or Europe; Alaska. The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun and whatever other catchy tagline we’re using these days (Palin’s Pasture?).
For three summers I had a front row seat to those retracing the routes of John Muir, the gold rush and sled dogs. I worked in Alaska’s capital, Juneau as a whale watch guide, deckhand and bear guide (bear viewing that is, not hunting).
I was fresh out of college, and had just had the rug pulled out from underneath me. I had lined up an entry level position with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) only to have the federal budget frozen and my position unceremoniously tossed out four weeks before I was supposed to begin.
I didn’t know the first thing about guiding. But I knew whales, the ocean and my Dad had once been charged by a Grizzly so I felt qualified. Virtually the entire tourism industry in southeast Alaska centers around the cruise ship. The 2,000 passenger floating hotels that market themselves as holding everything you could ever want.     Upwards of 15,000 people can flood Juneau off the boats in the summer; a town with a population of about 33,000.
I fidget on the dock. Bright orange polo tucked into Carharts, black and orange ball cap jammed on top of curling blond hair. I feel like a 6’4” carrot. Slowly couples begin to gather around me; from Germany, Texas, Boston, and Australia. I hand out the weight sheets to ensure the planes are balanced for the flight portion of the tour and try to make conversation. A beer or two would’ve helped.
My last couple staggers slowly down the gangplank towards me. It’s immediately clear that all is not well. The husband’s steps are uneven, his breath ragged, he looks exhausted and beaten. Cancer will do that.
As we board the bus bound for the airport his wife pulls me aside. Yes, her husband was terminally ill, his life expectancy could be measured in months. But if I could, please, try to treat them as normally as possible.
I climb the steps behind her and collapse into my seat mind whirling. I was supposed to be in a lab, or a research boat measuring the bioenergetics of forage fish. Fish that couldn’t tell me their physical condition. That there last wish was to see the glaciers of Alaska.
What the hell had I gotten myself into? What did this man care how big a humpback whale was? How long a brown bear slept or how much fish they could devour in a day?
The trip slides by as the plane sends us over the glaciers and over to an island called Chichagof which has one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Naturally we see none. Nature doesn’t understand the concept of the storybook ending.
In the small native town of Hoonah, a boat collects us and we begin the three hour trip back to Juneau eyes scanning for whales. Slowly I begin to pluck up the courage to talk to him. His name is Dan, he’d lived his whole life in Houston, Texas and had just been diagnosed a couple of weeks ago.
He’d rejected chemotherapy and other treatments, emptied their bank account, and was seeing as many of the places he’d dreamed of experiencing before the sickness shackled him to a bed. Alaska had been his number one pick.
Juneau had been their boats first stop. “No pressure,” I told myself. I apologized that the bears hadn’t shown, that the glaciers had been partially obstructed by clouds.     He shrugs, “it’s just enough to know that I’m here.” he answers.
Twenty minutes later a humpback blasts out of the water like a rocket, sending a crescendo of foam across the surface and we cheer like our team just won the Super Bowl. There’s a spark in Dan’s eyes, a glint of joy and life that I can still see four years later. For a few seconds he looks reborn until another coughing fit sends him back into the boat’s cabin.
An hour later we’re within sight of Auke Bay, Juneau’s largest harbor. From the water, the Mendenhall Glacier looms over the boats bobbing along the dock. Even from two miles away it dominants the skyline like a giant frozen sky scraper. The boat captain screams the boat to a halt and ushers me onto the deck with Dan and his wife.
“Get their picture with the glacier,” he whispers.
They lean against the boat’s railing, the ice framed perfectly above them. I swallow a lump in my throat and blink away tears. For the second time Dan looks half his age as he dots a kiss on his wife’s cheek and wraps an arm around her as I click off a shot. The moment passes, the boat revs, and they slowly move back inside, wrapping their down jackets tightly against the wind.
Minutes later we’re on the bus, headed for the cruise ships 15 minutes away. I search for something comforting or inspiring to say. Some magic words that could somehow make their plight better. Instead I just listen as they talk about their kids, their work, their life. My ears doing more than my tongue ever could.
Feet from the dock Dan looks out the window and sighs, “it’s a magnificent place you have here, David.”
“Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s all of ours. It grabs hold of something deep inside of us, resonates, makes us whole.”
He nods, “I wish I would have seen it sooner so I could climb the mountains. Maybe go fishing, you hunt?”
I confess that I’ve never killed anything bigger than a salmon.
“Well don’t wait,” he said, “live out your dreams while your young, don’t wait for your come to Jesus moment.” His wife sniffs and he gives her a little squeeze.
The bus stops, I shake Dan’s hand and hug his wife. Slowly they walk away, inching up the gangway, his last words echoing between my ears.
Don’t wait, live now. See what needs to be seen. Breath the air, walk the trails, climb the mountains, swim the rivers. Don’t let life get in the way of living.
Four years later I sit in a cabin perched on the shores of British Columbia, living. NOAA never called back, hallelujah. Maybe I’ll get a real job some day but I doubt it. Not after seeing that look in Dan’s eye as the humpback broke the surface, telling me everything I’d ever need to know.