The pub was empty in the early afternoon, a fine misting rain fell outside fogging the windows. It was early August, my first beer in a bar sat in front of me (God bless Canada’s drinking age) and it was quiet save for the low hum of a the muted baseball game, Blue Jays/Mariners in the background. For once in my life I wasn’t watching baseball, I hadn’t checked a Twins score in a week, granted this was partly due to the internet being down at the lab. Paul had dropped me off in Alert Bay an hour ago, leaving me with a handshake and the assurance that I was welcome back any time.
And now, after all the build up, all the preparation and all the work to get there, my time on Hanson Island was done. Five weeks that felt like a blur and still do. I really should have kept a journal. But two moments still stand out, burned into my memory. Most notably and embarrassingly was the first time I was dispatched to collect firewood:
A good bit of our time was spent collecting wood. Salvaging it, chopping it, and stacking it. Cedar was the prized cut. Burning hot, it was reserved for the wood stove, the catalyst in Helena’s phenomenal bread. Logging had been one of the biggest economic powers for decades and drifting trees came up and down the channel with the tide, like pleasure cruisers out for the day. They were terrifying to maneuver a boat around. As the logs floated they absorbed more and more water, causing them to slowly sink below the surface until they sat almost completely submerged, out of sight but not out of reach of a boat’s unsuspecting propellers. Should one of these logs happen to drift close to the lab though, someone had to be dispatched to retrieve it. It wasn’t just about getting enough wood for the day, or the week, but for the winter when you could go through a whole tree in a day trying to keep the biting winter wind out of the house.
The second evening on the island, one of these drifting logs floated down Blackney Pass on the ebbing tide sitting high in the water, still reasonably dry. Anxious to prove that I wasn’t just a brilliant research assistant but one of those rugged Alaskans everyone had heard so much about I leaped into a kayak and paddled out toward my quarry.
It had a deceptively larger diameter than I had anticipated though with the bottom of the log a good foot below the surface. Holding the coil of rope in my hands I very carefully leaned over to loop the rope around it and nearly fell straight into the water, soaking my entire left side. Here I was, in the fading light, in a leaky kayak with no life jacket, completely ill prepared for the task at hand. Slowly working my way down the log I reached the nub of a branch that had been sawed off. A good half foot remained though and I tied the rope around it. I’m not sure what knot I was tying but all my loops and knots and bows were sure to stay. Very slowly I paddled back toward the lab, It was amazing how far the current had taken me from the cove in just a few minutes.
Adrenaline now beginning to kick in I tried to paddle back upstream, my paddle on the right side interrupted by the log on every stroke. For a moment panic surged through my body and I imagined the log and I floating helplessly into the wide expanses of Johnstone Strait. Keeping the paddle on my left side though I paddled as hard as I could like it was a canoe. The kayak bumped into the log on every stroke, keeping me straight but slowing my progress. After about five minutes I was back at the mouth of the cove when an explosion from behind almost sent me back into the drink. I tried to turn around to see what on earth was behind me but the kayak rocked yet again and I gripped the log for dear life, my knees knocking together. What on earth was I doing out here? Was this my life now? Risking life and limb for some firewood? The humpback, that’s all it could have been behind me, never surfaced again and I very shakily paddled the rest of the way into the shadows. Only to stand up and fall into the water, my head banging on a barnacle encrusted rock. In the adrenaline I hadn’t realized my feet had fallen asleep. I dragged the log above the tide line, giving it a swift kick I regretted immediately. From the windows I could see Paul and Evan doing their best not to laugh when I looked their way. Welcome to the island rookie.
More beautiful and romantic were when the orcas came into range at night. Paul’s hyrdophones heard every noise in the ocean for miles around and didn’t discriminate. Boats, dolphins, tugs, waves crashing into the shore, and of course the orcas. Any time they made a peep it was up to someone to go to the lab, hit record, slap on the headphones, and listen. I learned to love the sleepless nights, watching the moon slowly move across the sky, reflecting off Blackfish sound as the early morning summer light slowly reappeared. Stay up long enough and just maybe Helena would surprise you with cinnamon rolls, steam still streaming out of them, icing oozing over the sides.
Those nights by yourself gave you plenty of time to think. I was due to return to Fairbanks in the fall, a place that could not be more different from the water drenched rain coast of British Columbia. I loved the climate, how the forest turned green with just a few hours of rain, every square inch filled with life, the greenery stretching all the way to the ocean before finally conceding to the power of salt water and tides. I needed to come back, not necessarily to this place, but to this climate. It was in the lab one night that Juneau first crept into my conscious. I had taken a chance, running off to a place I’d never seen, to live with people I didn’t know, and encounter things I hadn’t prepared for. Like rampaging humpbacks, invisible cougars, and those goofy boat engines and I was anxious to do it again.
One of my final night shifts saw the orcas take an unexpected turn into Blackney Pass and continue north into Blackfish sound, moving right past the lab. Helena and I were both up, and we put the headphones down for a moment and stepped onto the porch. The ocean was flat calm, there were no boats or waves, no light save for the half moon above us. From miles away we could hear them in the perfect silence. Their blows gliding across the ocean, echoing off the rocks.
We said nothing, words would have ruined it as we listened to them come closer and closer, Helena taps my arm, and in the moonlight I could see her pointing to a spot on the water, right where the moonlight was widest. A shadow moved across the beam of light, than another, and than three more as the pod all surfaced, their silhouettes illuminated for the briefest moment. And than the phantoms were gone, slipping back into the inky ocean. There’s the rustle of water as the waves close over the whales’ backs, and all is silent again. As if they were never there. I turn to Helena, a pair of tears running down my cheeks, my heart in my throat. I wanted to thank her and Paul for opening up their home, for letting me taste this life, for letting me be a part of something so much bigger than me but all I could do was smile.
I rub the fog off the inside of the window and make out the outline of the ferry pulling into the Alert Bay dock, the first step on my way back to the real world. I set the empty beer mug on the table, grabbed my duffel back, crusted with mud and dirt now, and trudge into the rain. On the ferry I snap a picture of the Alert Bay sign through rain streaked windows, and feel the boat slowly, painfully pull away. I slip on my headphones and settle back for the 45-minute ride, silently vowing to myself that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be here.