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Two Bears for Mark

I’m curled in my sleeping bag, the Alder trees at the back of my tent shelter me from the early morning sun. I’m somewhere in the world between dream and reality. So when I hear the sound of Mark’s boots making their way through the Reed grass, I’m not sure if it’s real or imagined until I hear his voice. His tone is calm and measured, but something in it makes my eyes snap open and heart rate quicken before he finishes his sentence.
“David? I hate to disturb you, but there appears to be two brown bears walking towards us along the beach.”

Hate to disturb me? I glance at my watch: 6:45 in the morning. Not that it matters. I want to be disturbed if there’s pair of brownies on the beach no matter the time of day. I unzip my tent and am greeted by my two hundred roommates. They’re small and elusive, rusty red and jet black. But the high pitched beat of their wings all sound the same in my ears. I’m inundated with the gnats immediately. But I brush them out of the way, pulling my bug net and can of bear spray along with me.

Mark is cool and collected as he points down the beach to the place where he last saw the bears. A lot calmer than I’d expect a guy from New York city to be during his first Brown bear meeting. Actually that’s not fair. It’s not like Mark Adams has never left the concrete behind. He’s hiked the mountains of Peru, gone where no white man has ever been in Madagascar. When you write like he does, people send you everywhere.

Which is why we’re here in the early morning light at the north end of Russell Island in Glacier Bay National Park. Mark’s writing a book about Harriman’s Alaskan expedition in 1899 and John Muir’s travels. When he needed a kayak guide, I was blessed with the opportunity to lead him into the wilderness. To travel as Muir did, one paddle stroke at a time. To explain and describe the land and creatures as they passed. And of course, to bring us back in one piece. The first part had been easy. The bears would make it tricky.

I walk down the rocks, trying to get a better angle of the beach. What a sight I must be. The weathered and experienced Alaskan guide, rubbing sleep from his eyes and pulling up his pajama pants that are a size too big. The pants are absurd. Navy blue with a pattern of wolves howling at the moon. The sort of thing you wear on rainy Saturday mornings while drinking coffee. Not fighting bears.

I step onto the tallest rock I can find and stare into the tall Rye grass at the back of the meadow. My body’s awake but not my eyes. I rub them again, trying to focus and keep my expression calm and collected. This happens all the time of course.

Two little brown ears pop up among the grasses. Little satellite dishes that recede the thin long face of a brown bear. Instinct kicks in. I clap my hands and call out good morning. I don’t shout, I want to save some volume, just in case. The bear looks at me, head tilted sideways, politely curious. As if he’s rising on an elevator another bear appears next to him. They’re skinny and young. Probably just got kicked out by Mom within the last month. Four year olds. Teenagers. Young, dumb, ready to take on the world. I can relate.

They saunter back into the woods as I call. Nonchalant and relaxed. I turn and beam at Mark. We’ve talked a lot about bears the last couple of days. I’m glad we saw one. He’s got his little waterproof notebook out, scribbling notes. A few minutes go by and there’s no sign of the bruins. I put on more respectable pants and pull out the Coleman stove, putting water on for coffee. I’m forgetting something… mugs!

Leaving Mark with the stove and food, I jog back up the beach and to the tent, digging for the thermoses. No sooner do I reach the tents and Mark’s voice floats up the beach.
“David? Your friends are back.” Uh-oh.

I come back down the beach, my pace a little quicker this time. I find a big rock and jump on top of it. I spread my legs and stand tall. Stretching my thin 6’4” frame as far as I can. I shout, I clap, I wave my arms. The bears spare me a half-second look and go crashing back into the Alder. From my vantage point I can see the trees shaking fifty yards back from the beach. They’ve cleared out.
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(The beach the night before the bears. The bears came out of the Alder near the blue/green tent)
I reach Mark and the stove, setting the thermoses down and pouring the boiling water into a Nalgene we’re using as a coffee maker. While the coffee steeps I run back up the beach for socks. The bugs are eating my Chaco attired feet alive. I reach into a dry bag and freeze. Something is snapping twigs in the Alder feet from me. Boots forgotten I step back, clapping and shouting. I’d started at a six, my volume’s at ten now. I reach into my pocket for the bear spray. It’s not there. It’s on the beach with Mark.
As calm as I can I shout down the beach, “Mark, can you bring the bear spray up with you please.”
I feel caught. Food and author on the beach, tents and kayak near the trees. In my head I can hear the voice of the park biologist Tonya Lewis. “Don’t let the bears get your food.” I run back down the beach, clapping and shouting the whole time. A plan forms in my mind. Grab the food cans and stove. Pile it at the waters edge, break down the tents. Get the hell out of here. If they want the beach this bad, it’s all there’s. I meet Mark halfway, his arms laden with bear cans, the stove, and water bladder. I grab a handful of gear, turn, and feel my heart drop. The bears are back. Feet from Mark’s tent. For the first time in my life, there’s a bear between me and my kayak.

I grab the bear spray from Mark and charge up the beach, calling at Mark to follow me. In my panic, a tapestry of expletives flow from my mouth like water down a mountain. “You… bear! Get the… away from my… kayak!”

One of these bears is brave. Too brave for my liking. While one slinks into the woods just out of view, the bolder one moves between the tents. Three more strides and he’s at the kayak. I grab a baseball sized rock and close the distance to forty feet, Mark at my heels. “Look as big as you can.” I tell him.

I shout more words you can’t say in church. I pull the safety off the bear spray. The rock cocked like I’m Nolan Ryan, the bear my Robin Ventura. I’ve never fired bear spray at a bear before. Had proudly told Mark 36 hours ago that bears were misunderstood, shy gentle creatures. Leave it to nature to make me look bad.

I’m ten yards away. First and 10. Russell Island Bears versus Gustavus Kayakers. It’d be a route if it comes to that. I finger the bear spray and shout again, I feel my throat getting raw. At last the bear turns.

I’ve looked into the eyes of many wild animals. Orcas, humpbacks, moose, sea lion, seal, deer. But only a bear’s gaze has the ability to make me feel like I’m two feet tall. Nothing is more untamed, more wild. Daring you, defying you, to tell it otherwise. “This is my house,” they say. “Do you want to see what happens in my house?”

I don’t, and I have a feeling neither does Mark. Although his guide getting ripped limb from limb would make a hell of a chapter. The bear turns and gives a little huff. My knees go weak. The bear spray rising above my hip. Dimly I register that there’s no wind. A clear shot if it comes to it. The bear turns and starts to walk away from the kayak. My heart’s in my throat. Keep walking, keep walking.

He slips into the Alder like a phantom. But for how long? I cover the last few feet to the tent. Mark has stood calmly by the whole time. No panic, no fear. What’s going on inside is a mystery, but he’s a heck of a lot calmer on the outside than I am.

We drag our tents through the meadow and over the rocks, our sleeping bags and clothes still inside. We’ll dismantle them near the water. Right now I want as much room between me and the Alder grove that I can.

Fifteen minutes later we float 100 yards offshore in our double kayak. I glance at my watch and laugh. I’d set a timer for the coffee. It’s been steeping for 52 minutes. I hand Mark a thermos, a Cliff bar, and an apple as he scribbles notes. “Got it get it down while it’s hot.” He says.

The bears are on the beach, right at the water’s edge, digging for tidepool Sculpin and munching on Blue Mussels. They’re a lot cuter with 150-feet of water between us. My heart rate slows. This is all they wanted. Two hungry bears, learning to survive without mom. Trying to find a route to the low tide and the protein. We were just in the way.

I rub the side of the kayak, relieved and relaxed. I didn’t want my career defined by one wrecked kayak. The morning is gorgeous. The water is turquoise, that electric color that only the glaciers can mix. As we float Mark pays me the highest compliment he can. “This may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been… nice choice.” As the bears work their way back into the woods I grin like a hyena and strike my paddle against the smooth surface.

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New Zealand Thanksgiving

We were hot, sweaty, and exhausted. Sand and dirt coated our arms and legs. My skin that had been browning was beginning to look suspiciously red. We were miles along the Abel Tasman trail on the northern tip of the south island of New Zealand at the end of November. It was paradise with gorgeous tropical beaches falling into the turquoise waters of the channel between the two islands. Palm trees and ferns dotted the trail as we wove over the hills and along the beaches, never too far from the picturesque view of the water. The aches in our backs had long ago gone numb and we moved with the hunched postures of those with perhaps a little too much weight on their backs.

But despite the beauty and the freedom, it was hard not to feel homesick as we finally dropped our packs at the end of the day. It was Thanksgiving back home, and it was hard not to think of houses packed with friends, family, food, and football. Brittney and I knew this day would come when we had put together our three month trip to New Zealand. That we would be, first the first time, away from everything that made the holiday memorable. We sat on the beach watching hikers trudge up and down the beach and kayakers scooting back and forth at the mouth of the bay.

Digging through our packs we debated what should do the honor of being Thanksgiving dinner. There was a couple packages of some pre cooked pasta, and two boxes of curry; one red, one yellow, complete with compressed zip-locks of chicken and the smallest servings of rice I’d ever seen. We decided nothing could be more traditional than pre cooked curry as we had sadly polished off the macaroni and cheese two nights before. Unceremoniously we dropped our dinner into water suspended perilously on top of the camp stove and watched dinner roar to a boil.

We stretched out in the shade of the trees and polished off Thanksgiving dinner in about five minutes. Slowly the sun began to fade, and the stars, devoid of artificial lights began to creep out, the trees casting shadows from the full moon rising over the ocean. Exhausted with another 15-miles on our legs we crawled into our tent, putting an end to our first southern hemisphere Thanksgiving. Or at least, so we thought.

I was asleep before my head hit the canvas floor of the tent, my eyes felt like they had just closed when I felt Brittney shaking me awake again.

“Did you hear that?” She asked sitting upright in the tent, her head grazing the roof. “It sounded like an animal screaming outside.”

Groggily I listened for maybe half a second, muttered, “no,” and promptly fell back asleep. Minutes later something pulled me out of my sleep again, but this time it wasn’t my wife’s hand on my shoulder, but something outside, rustling around our tent. Our tent had an extended fly, allowing you to be outside the interior while staying out of the elements. It was in these small gaps that we’d been keeping our backpacks with our food, wallets, clothes, and everything else vital to our survival in this unexplored frontier that was New Zealand.
Just on the outside of the fly on my side, was the rustling. A million worst case scenarios begin rushing through my sleep addled brain. Was it the gruesome threesome from The Strangers? The aliens from Signs that had terrified me since I saw the movie when I was 11? Or just your typical escaped lunatic dead set on murdering innocent Alaskan raised hikers in there sleep? No, it had to be that German quartet that had set up there tent across the clearing from us. As my mind slowly slogged through the possibilities, the sound grew closer until the fly moved, whatever it was, it was inside the fly. I’d propped my pack upright, leaning against the tent, its’ silhouette dark against the light background of the fly. As I stared at the outline, it suddenly fell away from me toward the opening, the collision muffled by the grass.

I could hear the pack being rummaged through as I’d left the top open. Camping in a land devoid of bears, my packing had become plenty lazy. This was beyond fear now though. My trail mix, the elixir of life was in the top of the bag, it must be saved. I sat upright, my fingers fumbling for the zipper, and bellowed with as much intimidation as I could muster, “hey!” In a spasm Brittney came awake, flailing her arms and legs as she threw the sleeping bag from her.

I finally locate the zipper only to realize my legs are still pinned within my own bag, I kick, trying to free myself. In the moonlight I can see my bag of trail mix, seemingly pulled by an invisible hand free of the back pack.

“What is it?” Brittney asks, her voice filled with terror.

I search for words of comfort to reassure her, to let her know that I had the situation under control, that her husband was here to protect her. “I… I don’t know!” So much for bed side manner.

I break free of the sleeping bag and spring from the tent. A small shadow was dragging the bag of food toward the forest, with another yelp, the creature dropped the trail mix and retreated to the woods. Brittney was clambering over my shoulder trying to see, unsure if she should fight, run, or laugh at me. “It’s ok,” I say, searching for something reassuring “it’s… it’s kinda cute,” still with no idea what the heck it was.

Trail mix securely back in the backpack we dug out head lamps and looked into the trees to find at least seven pairs of glowing orange eyes emitting from the forest. We stare at each other, “what are they?”

“They don’t have lemurs here do they?” (Hey we were still basically still asleep).

Whatever they were, they were clearly not aliens, masked murderers, or lunatics. Food securely at our feet behind the impenetrable zipper we crawled back into our bags and tried to fall asleep to the pitter patter of the, “lemurs” (ok they were opossums).

When the East Wind Blows

I’m used to the cold, you kind of have to be if you lived in Alaska your whole life. Anything above 80 degrees shuts my body down, but the cold has never bothered me. After enduring two winters in Fairbanks and dragging my partly frozen carcass through 40 below weather to class, I’d never really considered anything else as, “cold.” I figured this winter would be more of the same. Sure, the weather would dip below freezing occasionally, or as the people of Fairbanks know it as; “September,” but between blankets, thick socks, and the fire I figured it wouldn’t be that bad. I even began to tell people back home that I was looking forward to a warm winter for once. Three days ago the wind shifted to the east and the clouds vanished, leaving us with brilliant blue skies, and a 15-knot gust on a direct flight from the frigid B.C. interior. The mercury began to plummet, and we began to shiver.

Forty below isn’t so bad when you have a heated, sixty-five degree classroom or dorm to duck into that can go from frozen to toasty with a simple turn of a dial. If we want to be warm, we were going to have to work for it. Our big downstairs windows don’t discriminate, letting the view and cold air in while sucking out the fire’s precious heat. We we’ve been chopping wood and kindling, hunched over the chopping block until our lower backs go numb, and scour the beach for bark. The bark from the fir tree comes off in slabs, some as small as your hand, some as big as your torso. Nothing burns hotter than a few dry slabs of bark, capable of sending the mercury skyrocketing ten degrees in an hour if you stack the wood just right.

And through it all, the world outside looks beautiful and cloudless. Just like a glorious sunny day in August, the sapphire and baby blues of the ocean and sky contrasting with the rich greens of the islands. Except of course stepping onto the deck now takes your breath away for a whole different reason. Perhaps the animals feel the change too. The humpbacks have suddenly started to filter out, leaving us with just a couple of sightings a day as opposed to dozens just a week ago. Even the sea lions don’t seem impervious as there’s been far fewer of them huddled on the rocks, though it’s hard to imagine that the water could be much warmer.

At night Brittney, the cat, and myself have huddled beneath a pair of comforters, keeping the draft away and the heat in. None of us are quite ready though, to share our bed with a rabbit that seems to use the bathroom once every thirty minutes. It is the frustrating thing about ensuring your pets comfort, you can never be sure if they’re too hot or too cold. Our solution to keeping the rabbit thawed has been tedious; involving climbing out of bed every hour and half to stoke the fire and add more wood to keep the temperature at a humane level. It’s not a bad routine, if I could just convince my groggy head to turn off the alarm and get up instead of just completing step one.

A reprieve lays insight, with clouds and rain returning in just a couple of days and with them, slightly warmer temperatures. I never thought I’d be happy to see the clouds and rain again, especially after our soggy October. I’ll miss the view with the spotted white capped mountains perched on the mainland to the east a fantastic sight, especially in the evening as the sun sets. But I’ll be relieved to no longer stress about potential frozen water lines, hypothermic bunnies, and habitually numb toes. From now on, Alaska will never feel quite as cold, as long as I have a house with whistling heater vents to come home to.

Nature Knows No Guilt

Everything must eat, this I know. Nearly everyday I witness fish being taken by eagles, gulls, seals, sea lions, and orcas. I’ve stood in awe as humpbacks gaze up at the sky and lazily open their gigantic mouths in order to basket feed. And I’ve greedily photographed almost all of these occasions with excitement.

This morning David watched from our cabin windows as an immature bald eagle swooped down and picked up not a fish, but a gull. He had seen this happen once earlier this summer and was not nearly as shocked as I. We watched as the young eagle landed on the rocky face that extends our cove out into the channel. With the gull in its talons, the eagle began to pick away at it. Unusual prey we thought, but normal behavior. I ran over to the lab and grabbed the camera in order to document this unexpected event. As I hurried back to our porch, the eagle took flight, still clenching the gull in its talons. But as the eagle landed on its perch, we noticed it had dropped the gull into the cove.

Hardly thinking anything of it, I returned the camera back to the lab to notice David staring into the scope where the gull had been dropped. “It’s still alive and floating just below the eagle,” he said to me. As I lowered the scope to take a look, I felt myself start to panic. With ruffled feathers and immobile wings, I watched this gull getting pushed up against the rocky shoreline by the growing waves and flooding tide.

In a flurry, I began to run back towards the bird. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but I knew I wanted to try and help. I carefully ran across the rocks and kelp until I saw it floating near the rocky cliff. Both wings were limp at its sides and its feathers were in disarray. The last gull I’d been that close to had washed up in our cove a few weeks prior and we buried it in the woods. In an attempt to avoid another funeral, I decided to use my sweater to pick this bird up out of the water and bring it to shore. In a span of about three seconds I had convinced myself that I could nurse this poor thing back to health and somehow rehabilitate it.

As I waited for the waves to push the bird up in order for me to safely grab it, I wished so badly to be able to communicate with it. I needed it to know that I was trying to help and that I wanted it to live. Instead, it worked as hard as it could to paddle away from me. In that moment, I felt ashamed that I thought any attempt I made could save this bird.

As I sat up on a high rock watching it bob in the water, I accepted that this is nature. This was not the same death that consistently breaks my heart with animals that are mass produced in factory farms or trophy hunted. The pain, suffering, and fear that those animals experience is not something I can compare to the death of an animal that has never been touched by humans. This dance I witnessed between the gull and the eagle was not something I needed to fix, feel guilty over, or apologize for.

-Brittney

My Declaration

I sit in paradise. The only sign of human life out the window is the lighthouse on Parson Rock two miles away. The storm rages, the wind blows, shaking the windows. The land is untamed, dangerous, and beautiful. Humpbacks stubbornly push through the waves to breath and feed. The gulls hover as if suspended like marionettes, riding the gusts above a churning ocean. Cougars prowl on Swanson and Cracroft Island, some have never laid eyes on a human being. It is the land that I’ve been drawn to my whole life. The freedom and the salt spray, the forest so full of life you can feel the energy of millions of lives all around you though they’ll never speak a word.

But how long will it stay like this if we elect people who don’t care? At what point does the environment become something that we’ll stand for. As a new wave of climate change deniers take center stage, America continues to fall further and further behind the rest of the world. We have spoken. Money, oil, and development mean more than quiet places and open spaces. A full wallet speaks louder than a full soul. I would say that we’ve lost our way. But it’s hard to find a time where we knew where we were going. It creates quotes such as this from James Inhofe: “The Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

The bible is not a shield Mr. Inhofe. Nor is it justification for development and pipe lines. We are charged as care takers of this world God created. That does not mean that it is our to be pillaged.

What would they think if they just visited some of these places. Not just saw them but experienced them. If they got down on their hands and knees and felt the rocks beneath their palms. Smelled the sea and the forest. Inhaled the oxygen straight from the trees. Took the time to sleep on the ground, watching the stars blossom into view, with no streetlights or car horns to invade the senses. Perhaps sleep with a root buried in the lower back. If they could be paralyzed by the perfect beauty of the sunrise climbing the peaks of the mountains, spilling out over the beach, intertwined with the crashing of the waves. Would they care than? Would they see that material riches are not enough to satisfy the human soul and spirit. That nature and wilderness is not a luxury. That it’s a necessity whether we realize it or not and all that experience it is never the same.

I am not Republican, I am not Democrat. This isn’t about us versus them, at least, it shouldn’t be. We all share this planet, we’re all on the same side whether we realize it or not. I am of the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Creators of National Parks and the Endangered Species Act. The party of John Muir and Rachel Carson, Kim Heacox and Lynn Schooler, writers who dare to speak for a world that cannot speak for itself. Because tragically the mountains cannot stand before congress, nor can the bears and whales. But we can, I will. And as I read the statements of those that now represent these places it has become clear what I will spend my life fighting for.

I could spend my whole life here, sitting suspended above the rocks, watching the sea crash against them. Or sitting in the old growth forest that has been growing and falling for millennia. But how selfish would that be of me. To live and enjoy while its future hangs in the balance. I want this place, these lands to change someones life the way that it has changed mine. I want someone to paddle in Glacier Bay, 100 years from now while humpbacks lunge feed around them and sea lions flash beneath their kayak. I pray to the same God as Mr. Inhofe for that, because in the end, we’re all on the same side.

The Life I Never Wanted

The email was terse, to the point, and completely unhelpful. NOAA, after offering me a job upon my graduation from college in three weeks, was withdrawing their offer, citing a lack of funding. Fear courses through my blood, my knees weak, I reread the email, sure that I’d missed something. I hadn’t. It has to be one of the worst responses ever to the question, “when’s my first day?” I grab the phone and call the ladies office that I was, in theory working for. As the phone rang and rang I mentally calculated the deposit on the apartment I’d just put down and my bank account with a number that Bob Cratchit would be embarrassed by. For the next two days I wrote emails and left messages at the office, trying to get someone, anyone to return one, to explain what had happened, to give me any direction. I’m still waiting.

Things were going so well too, I’d gone to college, met the girl I’d marry, and had the, “get a job” step all figured out. I was going to graduate and work for NOAA, at least to start, make some money and than go to grad school. Well on my way to a nice respectable, safe career. My job, measuring the bioenergetics of herring. I’d even talked myself into being excited about it. Studying whales, well, it’d been a nice dream, but it was time to be realistic I told myself. Time to grow up. There can only be so many Paul Spongs and Alex Mortons in the world.

After three days of blind panic my heart rate slowly returned to normal, I began to think rationally again and deleted all those terrible emails I’d written but thankfully never sent. Life was going to take a detour, just a small one I told myself. I needed work, and I told myself not to be picky, just find something to keep a roof over your head. And in that process I learned an incredibly valuable lesson, no job is beneath you, and just because you’ve never thought about doing it, or don’t think you can, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

I applied everywhere, restaurants, pizza delivery, tourism, I even swallowed what pride I had left and dropped an application off at Fred Meyer, the same place I’d worked after my freshman year of college. I felt like I was being pulled backwards. What happened next you could call God, or the universe, or karma, or just boring old luck. I landed the job I think I always wanted, was meant to have, I just couldn’t admit. I was going to be a whale watch guide.

Looking back it seems so obvious, such a natural route for life to take. But I was pulled into the American obsession of careers and security, my life filling up with, “had tos.” I had to have a year long job, I had to start saving money, I had to buy a house, I had to have a job with health insurance, all these things I had to have. And I’d bought it, swallowed the sales pitch, and had believed it my whole life. And I still did even after landing the job that paid me to watch orcas breach and humpbacks bubblenet. My destiny, I told myself still lay in herring bioenergetics. My clients encouraged such thoughts, a nice young man such as myself needed a real job eventually, needed to make something of himself. This whale watching thing is ok, just for right now.

So two months later, when three positions opened up at NOAA, I shined up my resume, and marched back into that building with the air of a conquering hero, ready to fulfill my destiny. A month later I’d heard nothing and finally picked up the phone, this time, someone returned my call. 18 people had applied for the three positions. Positions that required only an undergraduates degree in marine biology. Ten of the applicants had masters, four more had doctorates. I’d be shocked if my resume got a second look. I hung up the phone and headed for work, there were still whales to watch after all. What, I wondered, did the applicants look like for non entry level jobs? Did I really want to go to school for at least six more years so that I could find out the number of joules in a herring? To that moment I had never considered another possibility, never fathomed being anything besides a, “scientist.”

But by the time I’d pulled into the parking garage and dug out my rain jacket I’d decided; it wasn’t the life I wanted. I could do without the lab coats because I new, deep down, I couldn’t possibly be happy with one on. In five minutes there’d be twenty cruise ship passengers, looking up at me, expecting the answers to all of their Alaska questions, and I couldn’t even answer everyone’s first personal question, what’re going to do with your life?

A Terrifying Fascination

Game 7 of the world series has ended and I lay on the couch listening to the wind outside, contemplating going to bed. Another strong gust hits and the windows begin to tremble, the town run we have planned for tomorrow isn’t looking very promising. I stretch and yawn, glancing across the room at our rabbit, Penny. She’s already curled up on her bed, 12 hours of sleep clearly wasn’t enough for her. I’m ready to do the same when the speaker on the shelf above the sink changes everything.

Usually when orcas start calling it’s distant, subtle, a mere whisper as they enter the range of the hydrophone. That first call makes you pause, stop, and listen, unsure whether you really heard something or just imagined it. This time of year there’s always the debate of whether it’s a humpback or an orca calling, especially at night when the humpbacks do the majority of their singing. Tonight there was no debate, no passive listening, no questioning whether I had actually heard something or not. Calls erupt through the speaker, loud and excited, overlapping one another. It’s definitely not a humpback, and I’ve never had a residents call make my blood run cold. It’s transients, the phantoms, masters of stealth, who never utter a sound and yet concoct elaborate and ingenious methods of tracking and hunting down their prey; seals, sea lions, dolphins, and porpoise. But for once they’re aren’t quiet, whatever they’ve just eaten must have been delicious and they’re calling just as loud as their resident counterparts do.

By the time I reach the lab and punch the record button the calls have reached a fevered pitch, maybe it’s knowing what these creatures are capable of, what I’d seen them do in the past that made them sound so eerie. But to me, their happy calls will always remind me of the laughter of some villain in a movie. Sadistic, high pitched, the type of joy you can take no pleasure in, that nothing good could come out of them being so happy. I’m sure the sea lions and harbor seals would agree with me. But their calls, were not altogether unfamiliar to me. I’d heard this before.

I was supposed to be studying the humpbacks of Glacier Bay, but my orca obsessed reputation had long ago preceded me. So when the orca whale biologist, Dena Matkin recorded and documented the first known sea otter fatality by a transient in southeast Alaska, she graciously shared the recording with me. As she hit play and the calls begin to reverberate off the walls of the office, everyone froze, maybe its because we knew what the whales had just done, maybe it was something else, but it gave us all goosebumps. Now, four years later they elicited the same response from me. Fear, horror, and fascination, everything, after all, must eat I reminded myself the same way I had gently told my passengers that day on the whale watching boat.

The sky is blue, the ocean of Icy Strait incredibly flat. Two hours out from Juneau, our 33-foot whale watching boat, the Islander, cuts a slow and methodical path east towards home. Off our port are six orcas, calm and relaxed they too, make their way east. I stand at the bow relieved, ten excited passengers on the boat with me. But right now I’ve transformed from tour guide to burgeoning nature photographer. A splash right below the bow pulls my attention away from the pod. A group of Dall’s porpoise materialize right below the surface, riding our wake. The resident or transient debate ended. Surely, if they were transients over there, the porpoise would not be so willing to ride the waves. I glance back at the orcas, staring intently at the dorsal, trying to decide if they were pointed enough to possibly be transients. I look to check on the porpoises, they’re gone, and a scream comes from behind me.

The orcas had closed the distance to the boat in two heartbeats and rocketed out of the water on the other side of us. The porpoise were already gone, streaking away from the hard charging orcas. With no hesitation, our boat captain throws the boat in gear, trying to keep pace with this daily dance of the food chain playing out right in front of us. The boat barely bounces on the calm seas and I hold the camera to my eye, trying to follow the action. The Islander’s going 32 knots, and both species are outrunning us. The whales bear down on the fleeing porpoise, spreading out, trying to flank them and cut off their escape.

On the boat there’s chaos, the engine roaring, passengers screaming, the voice of my friend and boat captain, T, screaming at me, “get the shot, David! You better get that shot!” Without warning, the two orcas in the middle of the chase leap high into the air, their white bellies reflecting in the high summer sun. They jump again and again, trying to pin the porpoise beneath their massive bodies. The strength, power, and speed with which they reacted was amazing, awe inspiring. As quickly as it began, it’s over, the orcas suddenly milling, flashing back and forth over the same spot, the surviving porpoise still swimming as fast as they can. We come to a stop and bob at the surface again. Adrenaline pounds through my body and my fingers shake as I scroll through the photos, a few of them showing one of the whales frozen in time forever above the surface of the ocean.

“The sheer power of the scene amazed me….. I had until now, never realized the true power of the killer whale. I sat there feeling amazed and blessed that the orcas never loosed this power on humans.” – Alexandra Morton521617_10152100638914852_1036290620_n