The Last 500 Miles

It has been a four day tornado of awesome. Starting with Jonathan and Marissa flying to Seattle and somehow, in 96 hours cramming a soccer match, multiple concerts, packing, cleaning, driving, and boat riding. After hearing more live music in two days than I had, maybe in my life time we said good bye to the two of them at 11 pm on September 1st, and prepared for the alarm set to go off at 5:30. Bleary eyed, hungry, and under caffeinated, we crammed the pets and as much junk as we could fit into the pathfinder. After talking of little else for a year we finally began the final journey north. By 8:30, we were nearing the Canadian border, a knot growing in my stomach as we pulled up to an open booth and hand over our passports. The woman’s eyes narrow as I try to explain in a semi coherent manner, exactly what we would be doing in her country. After much writing, nodding, and cryptic questioning, she hands us a slip of paper. “Pull your car over to the side and give this paper to the officer.”

Not that I was surprised, wouldn’t drug smugglers have some story about house sitting for several months? With little choice we drop Porter in Penny’s cage, pray that he behaves himself, and walk into the border building. Where, I get to explain again, what the hell we’re doing. “What’s the name of the guy you’re house sitting for?” The guy behind the counter asks.

I take my eyes off the massive hand gun on his belt. “Paul Spong,” I answer, “he runs the research lab we’ll be walking.”

He scribbles, “and if I do a web search, will he come up?”

“He has his own wikipedia page,” I say. Brittney laughs nervously, the guy however, is not impressed. My humor never seems to pass mountie muster. After reiterating again the location and explaining that yes, technically we’re unemployed, and have been now for a length of time I’m ashamed to admit. We’re mercifully free to go.

We speed north, power sliding into the Tsawassen (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) ferry dock with five minutes to spare. We have two glorious hours to sleep and eat before the ferry hits Nanaimo on Vancouver Island at 12:15. And so begins another race. We have to be in Port McNeil by 5:15 to catch the ferry to Alert Bay to meet Paul to get a ride to the island on five hours of sleep and borderline delirium. We pass through a rain storm and into brilliant sunshine, reaching Port McNeil in golden late afternoon light with thirty minutes to spare. As we wait in line for our second ferry ride of the day, I stare at the white caps in the harbor. It looks rough. The ferry steams us into Alert Bay. Fatigue slowly beginning to set in, after two mosh pits and far to little sleep, interrogations, and a race up Vancouver Island we still had one more boat ride to go, with the pets of course, still in tow.

We reach Alert Bay with one goal in mind; find Paul. I look out toward the government dock as we slowly drive down the main road. There’s no sign of the silver June Cove. Actually there’s no boats at all. The dock is being pounded by waves making the whole structure swing side to side. There’d be no begging for directions at the information centre this time though. We drive straight to Paul’s house to find him in the kitchen. Calmly toasting bread and cheese, a polite look of surprise on his face as we stagger in the door, exhausted smiles on our faces. He hugs both of us and explains the water is far to rough to reach the island today. 12 hours after starting, we’re both fine with that. We throw a tent up in the yard and curl exhausted into our sleeping bags, Porter curled between us.

Now, for the first time in three months, we are settled. All four of us. There has been a lot of odd and peculiar things brought to Hanson Island since Paul first moved here in the early 70s, but I’m pretty confident in claiming that we are the first people to haul a rabbit cage off the boat and onto the rocks. In the chaos that was unloading the June Cove I failed to take a picture of what had to be a confused and shell shocked Penny, perched on her back legs ears up and eyes wide open as she rotated on the spot, the sea breeze blowing through her hair. As she always seems to though, she took everything in stride, if she ever panicked she certainly didn’t show it.

How I wish we could say the same for Porter. A healthy dose of kennel anxiety left us to terrified to put him in his own air kennel for fear of the unspeakable mess he is loath to create every time we try to cram him in one. We settled on putting him in Penny’s house with her for the 45-minute boat ride from Alert Bay to Hanson Island. Before the boat even left the dock, he peed. Two minutes after, well, you can probably guess what he did next. We dumped him rather unceremoniously in the guest house that will be our home for the coming winter with explicit directions to where his litter box was and he hasn’t stopped purring since. Whether he truly loves the house, or is simply ecstatic to be off the terrifying aquatic spaceship I honestly don’t know.

Our little cabin is magnificent. The cabin, also known as, “Yashi’s” after Paul’s son, sits just above the intertidal zone, with a small scattering of trees between the deck and the ocean. Giant bay windows on the ground floor open up to gorgeous Blackfish Sound with the usual activity of the neighbors; humpbacks, sea lions, and orcas. Come night time though the windows become somewhat less glamorous as they’re far to happy to let the heat out and the chill in. A tiny stairway lined with the expected orca paraphernalia of paintings and sculptures leads to the bed room whose small windows also look out over Blackfish.

Within two hours of hitting the beach and dropping the pets in the house, the main event arrived. For Brittney it was the first orcas she’d seen in a year and they didn’t disappoint. Plodding slowly against the tide the A30s and A42s paraded by, one hundred yards from the shore. Escorted by Pacific White Sided dolphins and humpbacks tracing back and forth0 on the far side of the channel. At long last everything was perfect. The wait, the driving, and the planning was all behind us now. As the A30s rose to the surface, fin after fin rising and falling I turned to Brittney with a grin, “don’t think it’s always this easy.”


When All You Have is Ears

In the blink of an eye, the summer is over. My four weeks on Hanson Island has come to an end. I’ll be in Seattle for the next two weeks, before Brittney and I will load up food, clothes, and pets for one more drive to Alert Bay and begin settling in for our winter on the island. Orca Lab left me with one last incredible moment though. A magical night that I will never forget.

My last few days at Orca Lab were spent at the tiny out camp on Cracoft Point, referred to simply as, “CP.” The camp is nothing more than a tiny little platform two paces by nine paces built at the very top of the rocky intertidal. A few stairs lead to the shelter. A room of roughly the same size and width as the platform. Crammed into it though is a bunk, desk, kitchen, and more electrical gear than radio shack. CP has housed underwater cameras, remote cameras, hand held cameras, and hydrophones. The reason, like in real estate, is location. An underwater cliff looms just off the platform, a good push and you’d be in 100 feet of water, surrounded by a vibrant kelp bed. As the orcas go by they often pass just meters off this kelp, sometimes just 20 yards from where you stand. I can’t think of anywhere else on earth where you can be so close to orcas without harassing them.

You can sleep in the shelter. But on rainless nights, there is nowhere better than the platform. Wrapped in my sleeping bag with it pulled over my head to keep offending mosquitoes and mice out of my hair, I was rocked to sleep by the sound of the waves crashing into the rocks ten feet below me. My slumber didn’t last long. As the tide rose the humpback moved closer and closer to CP. The vibration of his breathing reverberating off the rocks. I give up trying to sleep and lay there, listening to this behemoth. It was impossible to know how close he was in the darkness. There’s a rush of water, the briefest moment of silence, and than a tremendous concussion as the whales breach brought it back to the oceans surface. I leap to my feet just in time to see the conclusion of the splash, white water glowing in the darkness.

Leaning forward I strain my eyes, trying to make out the whale, searching for a black shape on black water on a cloudy night. For ten minutes the whale moves back and forth in front of me, just out of my range of vision. Initially I’m almost sad this isn’t happening in the daylight when I could stand, camera in hand, capturing every surfacing, preserving it forever. But in the middle of the night there was no pressure to photograph. There was nothing to do but sit in the stillness with my ears as my only guide.

The edge of the kelp bed is barely visible, perhaps thirty feet from where I sat, the water level just a couple feet below me as the tide finally begin to ebb. So it was nearly at eye level when this aquatic night owl roared past the surface, mouth agape just beyond the kelp, a jet black shadow passing left to right. For forty tons, he’s incredibly quiet. There’s a rush of water that sounds like rapids, and the splash at the end of the lunge, and that was all. It took maybe three seconds before the water swallowed him back up, covering his tracks, as if there had never been anything there but water and kelp. Heart pounding, adrenaline flying, eyes wide open, I wait breathlessly for the next plot twist.

The humpback breaches again, just out of sight, and the show’s over. For two hours he continues to move, back and forth off the platform feeding. I’ve been kept awake by roommates, music, the cat, and a rattling furnace. But this was the first time a whale refused to let me sleep and I’d never been so happy to be sleep deprived.

The Book That Changed Everything

Growing up my heroes were athletes. It made sense, as sports obsessed as I was and the best players on my favorite teams were nothing short of demi-gods. Kevin Garnett, Cris Carter, Joe Mauer, and countless others for their ability to play a game and get paid millions of dollars in the process. They seemed like nice enough people in my biased 12-year old eyes and that was more than enough for me to spend many hours on the couch watching them run, jump, and sprint. But as I grew up, my hero worship began to transition. Writer/biologist/conservationist Alexandra Morton became one when I was 18, her book “Listening to Whales” becoming something of my biological bible during my freshman year in college. Paul Spong of course, a scientist, pioneer, and now, for all intents and purposes, my boss as well as friend. And others, mostly in the whale/orca research community. People like John Ford, Mike Bigg, Jan Straley, and Dena Matkin, many of whom have been passionately following the whales of southeast Alaska and British Columbia for decades. Sometimes working on grants from the government or universities, other times dipping into their own pockets to fund the work that they just couldn’t stay away from. They’ve funded research programs and non profits, and some of them I’ve  had the honor of interacting with. Some just a passing email, and a few I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with.

But while I went to school to be a “scientist” I have found another group of people that are just as passionate about the wild as those aforementioned. They to, are protecting the open places and quiet spaces, but in a completely different way, with the power of pen and paper. The inside passage is dotted with inspiring authors creating beautiful literal tapestries about the magic of the raincoast. Authors like Lynn Schooler of Juneau, and Alex Morton who can fall into this category as well. If they made trading cards of these people I would avidly collect them like I once hoarded baseball cards. But, looking back at the last seven years of my life, when I began to transition from athlete to whatever the heck it is I am now, one mans work has altered my life more than any other.

I bought the book for my Dad, I think it was for his birthday or something. I briefly skimmed the synopsis on the back. I’d plucked it from the “Alaska” section in a bookstore I can’t remember, ran my credit card, and walked out the door. The book was, “The Only Kayak” by Kim Heacox. I’d never heard of her in my life. Months passed and I transferred to UAS in Juneau. That winter I applied for a job studying marine mammals in Glacier Bay National Park with the National Park Service. Two months, a rigorous background check, and one fingerprint (?!?!?) test later, and I was approved. I skipped back home to Eagle River briefly before the start of my summer job and desperate for new literature, scanned my parents bookshelf. There was the book, I’m not sure if Dad had read it or not. But examining it more closely discovered that Kim Heacox was a man, and the book centered around Glacier Bay. I must confess I “borrowed” the copy and still have not returned it.

That night as I jetted toward Juneau, I opened, “The Only Kayak” for the first time. I didn’t stop reading until the Mendenhall Glacier and Fred Meyer rolled into view and the plane touched down. I was hooked, devouring page after page as Kim opened up his entire life, as well as the bay and people he loved so deeply. The book came across as positively genuine and intimate. It begins with Kim’s first journey to Glacier Bay, his first kayak trip, and his subsequent evolution through the years from seasonal ranger, to photographer and writer, with his heart focused on the protection of Glacier Bay and Southeast Alaska. I finished my first reading and began a second, and have paged through it countless times since.

That summer in Glacier Bay I met Kim at the semi weekly music, pizza, beer drinking social at a pizza place in Gustavus that tragically no longer exists. With the same nerves that I may have had walking up to Kevin Garnett 15 years ago, I introduced myself and told him, rather cornily I’m sure, how much I loved his writing. He looked so humbled, almost embarrassed by my praise, and struck up a conversation with me. He told me how glad he was that I had found this place, that he hoped I would be happy here, and to enjoy every inch of the precious bay.

I found myself drawn to Kim and his work, because I see so much of myself in his story (or perhaps I just chose to see it that way). His coming of age epiphany occurred when he was 25 when he arrived in Glacier Bay. My momentous decision to return to Hanson Island, to continue down the path of vegabond occurred at the same age. He met the love of his life, married her, and the two of them are inseparable. And at my age he longed to be a writer and photographer.

“Don’t write about this place [Glacier Bay],” his friend Richard advises him, “it’ll never be the same.”

“No one reads my writing,” Kim answers.

“Good thing.”

Last summer my parents had the privilege of meeting him at a book signing in Palmer for his latest book, “John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire.” They walked away with the same impression; a gentle, passionate, genuine man who truly cares about people and the future of Alaska. My Dad (ironically after I stole his copy of Kim’s book) mentioned me and Brittney, how we’d both worked in Glacier Bay and loved it. Kim remembered me. Kim Heacox, remembered me! I had bumped into him once since that night in Gustavus when he’d walked into The Rookery.

“Guess who just walked into the Rookery.” I texted Brittney assuming I’d spark some jealousy.

“Kim.” She replies.

“How on earth did you know?”

“Who else would you get so excited about?”

Kim recalled our brief exchange of words that slow October afternoon and went a step further with my father, offering to help us settle and move to Gustavus if we ever so desired. This gracious offer has sat in the back of my mind ever since, and Kim, if you ever read this, we may just take you up on that offer someday.

There’s No Rosetta Stone For Orca

In the inky blackness of night, a northern resident pod of orcas moves into Blackfish Sound and toward the lab, heading toward Johnstone Strait and the rubbing beaches. With no hope of identifying them visually, I lean against the railing of the lab, ears turned toward Burnt Point and Blackfish sound, listening for the sound of their blows, that echo like shotgun blasts for miles in the dead of night. There’s a whoop from behind me, muffled by the glass of the lab. I turn and in the dim light of the desk lamp, see Paul’s wife Helena, arms raised, a grin across her face. “R calls!” She hollers at us.

The R pod, rarely seen even in the summer, were on there way. There presence as unique as the noises they make which features several unique calls shared with none of the other northern residents. The celebration is short lived though. Over the next several minutes, as more and more calls move from orca to hydrophone to headphone, even Helena, who has listened to the residents for 30 years, is less convinced of what she’s hearing. The orcas turn before they reach the lab, the chance to listen and count the number of blows and add another piece to the puzzle is lost. We’d have to wait for morning to solve the mystery.

By 7 a.m we knew it was not the R’s that we had hoped for, but the I15s that had riled up Helena and all of the assistants in the early morning hours. The I15s were notorious for, “imitating” a pair of R calls and had been duping eavesdropping scientists for years. The following evening the I15s moved serenely by the lab at their slow, tranquil pace they were known for. Instead of just passing through they halted, almost directly in front of the lab and stayed for almost an hour. Spyhopping and surfacing, as if they were apologizing for the dirty trick they’d played on us the night before.

The I15s apologize for the previous nights skullduggery.
The I15s apologize for the previous nights skullduggery.

Two days later, we awoke to the real thing. The R4 pod entered Johnstone Strait and stayed for two days before departing to the west, attending to whatever business they have in the Queen Charlotte Strait and beyond. The I15s imitated the Rs calls, two days later the Rs arrived. Convenient coincidence or something at a much deeper level? Four decades into research and we still haven’t the foggiest idea.

There’s a fundamental problem with trying to understand what these orcas may be “saying” to each other. Each pod has roughly 12 calls in their repertoire and are used over a variety of behaviors. Some are used exclusively during social interactions, others primarily during resting, but their language is fluid and it is clear that the same call can have different meaning depending on the context that it was used. It leaves us with an almost impossible task. To watch an animal that spends only five percent of its life where we can visually observe it, and try to guess what’s going on beneath the waves as they call to one another. Paul believes the next step is to find out who in the pod is talking. Is it the matriarch doing most of the talking, calling the shots? Or are her sons, daughters, and grandchildren part of an open democratic forum? One thing is certain, there decisions are not random. They don’t just happen to chose to go past the lab, or leave the strait, or go for a rub. Those big developed brains are doing something, calculating, and analyzing their environment.

And so here we sit, forty years after Paul, Michael Bigg, and other orca pioneers started. We have discovered their tightly wound social bonds, the order and structure of their society, we know what they eat, and the sounds we make. But we may have pushed our research of these animals to the breaking point while we wait for technology to catch up. How can we determine who in the pod is talking? What are they doing

underwater when their calls are emitted? There are things such as the critter cam, a small camera that attaches via suction cup to the animal which would allow us to, “see” what the orca sees. It’s an obtrusive and ethically questionable idea. And in their murky, underwater world, how helpful would it be to try to see what an acoustically driven animal sees. What we need is a device, that could be somehow attached, unobtrusively to the animal that could record when the individual calls, its position in the water column and there location. If we could start to associate not necessarily their behavior, but their location in their three dimensional world, perhaps we could begin to take the next step in knowing exactly what the hell is going on down there. We are a visually driven species studying an equally intelligent acoustically driven species living in a medium completely alien to us. This could take awhile.

Secret Lives of Orcas


One of the most common spells people fall under when viewing wildlife is anthropomorphizing the animals that they are watching. It is hard not to place human emotions, actions, and tendencies upon them. It helps us relate and and better understand the world among us. I’m as guilty as anyone, comparing bubble netting humpback whales to, “a bunch of buddies fishing together.” But in the scientific world, anthropomorphism can cloud your judgment, creates bias, and foul up even the most well thought out study. But when it comes to dolphins, orcas in particular, it’s hard not to make an exception to the rule.

Orca whales have the second largest brain on earth, behind only the sperm whale, a creature nearly twice its size. While we like to think of humans as the most intelligent race on earth, the orca’s brain contains a part even more well developed than our own. Orca have an extra fold of tissue between the limbic system and neocortex which humans do not posses. While research is still in the beginning stages, scientists like Dr. Lori Marino believe the additional lobe has something to do with processing emotions, thinking, and a heightened sense of self. The idea is fascinating, an animal that may be capable of recognizing itself from others, and may be processing the world in a way, while different than primates, could easily be equivalent or above us.

Which brings us to a question we may never be able to fully answer. If orcas have such a heightened sense of self, are emotionally and socially as advanced as us, isn’t it possible that they could, like us, have rituals and traditions? A whale equivalent of Christmas and the last day of school? In the northern resident community of orcas that make there way in front of Hanson Island every day, there is a behavior that is seen only in this population of 250 whales.

Just to the east of the lab on Vancouver Island is a series of beaches. Unlike the rocky steep coastline that dominates the intertidal here, the beaches are a gradual slope composed of tiny, thumb sized pebbles. On almost every pass by these beaches, the orcas stop, and rub themselves on the smooth tiny stones. Speculation runs rampant for why and when the northern residents started rubbing (it has gone on for at least 50 years). Some suggested they were sloughing off parasites, most just shrug there shoulders and assume they must like it. A creature, an entire population doing something just for the joy of it. Like it was a sport, a holiday, a tradition. Precious few people could tell you why we give presents at Christmas, have turkey at Thanksgiving, or hot dogs on the fourth of July. We just do. What if the northern residents were just like us. There ancestors did it, their mothers do it, so they follow suit as well.

For years the rubbing beaches have been walled off from humans, an ecological reserve giving the orcas a glorious respite from the boat noise in their favorite place in the strait. But there’s no rule about placing cameras there. And for the first time, Paul Spong and Orca Lab have set up two cameras over one of the rubbing beaches. When the sun shines down on them it looks like a tropical paradise. The shallows reflecting turquoise out from the shore line, the harsh rocks and steep edges at the points turn the strait back into its normal substrate. It’s like a private beach for orcas, with there own ecological wardens, chasing trespassers away. I had given up the hope of ever seeing them rub. Accepting that it would have to be something to read about, and listen to the sound of raking pebbles as they pass over the hydrophone.

But now there’s footage, probably a few hours already of orcas, gliding serenely into view slowly and gracefully pumping powerful flukes, blowing bubbles to become negatively buoyant, and sliding smoothly across the pebbles, in ten feet of water, a stones through from shore. Sometimes they stay for an hour, other times the family will pass through just once, but it’s all captured on film. Following every move of this tradition generations old, even if it’s just for a brief moment. We are peering through the key hole, getting the faintest glimpse at the private, personal lives of an animal, just as intelligent as us.

Photo Credit: Stefan Jacobs

Up All Night With the A’s and I’s

It feels like I’ve just closed my eyes when the hatch to the loft opens. “David, there’s calls,” Lily whispers. Not my problem, I’m not on until 3 am and I just fell asleep, it was just 10:30. I grope for my phone; 3:03. You have got to be kidding. I clamber down the ladder in the pitch black, probing with my toes before I commit to each step, trying to forget about the quarter sized spider that had been prowling the ladder before I drifted off to sleep. I reach the floor and open the door to the lab, like everything else here, it’s adorned with a huge painting of an orca whale against a blue “ocean” back drop. It’s pitch black outside, two small lamps on the desk illuminate the log book and the DAT tape recorder. Lily slips by, her 12-3 shift over and I slip on the headphones.

The lab has six hydrophones in the water, strategically placed around Hanson Island and to the east into Johnstone Strait. If an orca whispers within 20 miles, we know about it. Which is wonderful most of the time, right now I’d rather they just go away until the sun rises. For a few minutes there’s silence. No boat noise, no orcas. I press the headphones tight against my ears as the sound of water gurgling passes by the hydrophones. You listen to all six of them at once, manipulating the sound board so that ones without calls only come in the left or right headphone. Right now the hydrophone, “Critical Point,” is in the center. This particular area is to the east of Hanson Island in Johnstone Strait. Depending on they’re direction, they could be out of range in 20 minutes, or in range of the Cracroft Point hydrophone for hours.

A whisper of a noise fills both headphones, it’s them. Who and how many I don’t know, but I have three hours to figure it out. The first call is followed by a louder second one, the orcas’ voices echoing off the steep canyon walls of the strait. They’re answered by a different, beautiful call even closer to the mic. This call I know. Every pod has calls unique to it, this one belongs to a pod of 6, known as the A42s. Every orca in the population has an alphanumeric name (I76, A23, B15 etc) coded based on its pod. But we’ve given them common names as well (Current, Stormy, Eve, and Springer) as if we’re talking about our friends. The more distant calls answer, growing louder, excited, another unique call sounds like some sort of demented underwater donkey (HEE-HAW!).

And just like that the mystery is solved. Two pods, the A42s and I15s, are somewhere in Johnstone Strait, chatting back and forth, their conversation private save for one bleary eyed guy, staring out into absolute blackness five miles away. The fatigue slowly ebbs away and I fall into the rhythm of these two families. They’ve been traveling together, back and forth for the past three days, passing the lab occasionally. Now in the dead of night, their world is as quiet as I’ve heard it since I arrived. The whale watching boats are moored at the docks. The tugs, cruise ships, and fishing boats gloriously absent. It’s just them and me. For the next hour and a half they float on the flooding tide, slowly moving south.

In front of me, Blackney Pass slowly materializes, the sun slowly rising through the thick bank of clouds. The water is flat calm, the mountains and hills across the pass on Parsons, Harbledown, and Compton Island reflect and shimmer in the water in front of me. At 5:55 the door to the lab opens, my relief has arrived. “Are they calling,” Anaj asks, looking at my raccoon eyes. I nod and stifle a yawn. “Have you been here since three?”

“Yea, they’ve been quiet for about 15 minutes now,” I answer, suddenly I’m exhausted again.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry,” she answers, a look of pity on her face.

“It’s fine,” I reassure her, “it was perfect.”

I told you to be patient, fine, balanced, and kind.

My mood was less than favorable this morning when I woke up. I didn’t feel nearly rested enough which, I half blame on the two occasions I woke up to two of the three cats I’m currently living with getting sick. This was followed by me waking up late to feed the pets, breaking a coffee mug, and spilling one of the prepared cat breakfasts all over the kitchen counter. Lets just say that this morning, the unrelenting meowing and husky whining that normally puts a smile on my face was hardly amusing. I half considered calling the day quits at 8:55 a.m.
Instead, I made my usual pot of coffee, did some laundry (thanks, Oliver), took Lily for a nice run around Green Lake, and went to the Yakima fruit market. As I was walking around checking items off my list, I had noticed an older woman also doing her shopping. She had the most beautiful, deep blue eyes I’ve ever seen and we ended up chatting about some tangelos. “Have you ever tried those?” She asked me. I responded saying that I hadn’t but anything that beautifully orange had to taste delicious. “Are you a vegan?” My face lit up and I responded with a smile accompanied by a nod. “I am too. Don’t you just love shopping by colors?” Finally, in this foreign state with billboards, endless traffic, and people around every corner I had found a kindred spirit.
I explained to her and another woman who had probably overheard us talking that I had just moved here from Alaska so for me, the fruit market is like heaven on earth. They both smiled and welcomed me to the area and wished me well. I continued chatting with my kindred spirit, who I later learned is named Sherry, for a few moments just about how I was fairing so far. I told her that it’s nice but the amount of people here and all that comes with them is taking some adjusting.
What was so amazing about those two women, particularly Sherry, was that even in a largely populated state, she made me feel like I was back home. For the past few days, the only verbal communication I’ve had with other people has been thanking the delivery guy for dropping off my pizza. So, I guess what made me feel so wonderful about my five minute interaction with this stranger was her effortless love and grace for a young, somewhat lonely woman.
I truly believe that these sorts of little life moments are immensely important to our wellbeing as individuals. I will probably never see Sherry again but I will remember her genuine and kind spirit for a long time. Its people like her that I find give me the best inspiration to have a gentle soul as well as an authentic compassion for other people.


Getting There is Half the Fun

Day 1:


I swing the car unto Main St, a chorus of honks behind me (never let a Juneau boy drive in the city). Up till now I’ve been disoriented, lost, the carefully worded direction from Brittney my only hope of finding the hostel I stayed in six years ago. In the rearview mirror I see a sign, draped over an overpass, announcing the entrance to Vancouver’s china town, and memories begin flooding back. I look right and there it is. The same green door, the same rusting lead based paint, metal numbers and a handwritten sign announce it as the entrance to the C&N Hostel. I step out of the car and onto the sidewalk, the same one I’d dragged my duffel bag along. Looking down the street is, yep, the sky train. The same one I’d thrown my bag into to keep the doors from closing. And the same bus station (no discarded bag of weed this time though the smell seems to have melted into the walls). With all the memories come the emotions; fear, excitement, anticipation, and a new one: loneliness.


Far to quickly I’m saying goodbye to Brittney, watching that beat up pathfinder we love so much pull away down main street away from me, the passenger seat empty. It feels so wrong and for the first time since I arrived in Juneau, I am totally, completely alone. I fight the urge to chase her down, open the door, and insist that she drive me home. But it’s not an option, these are the choices we made, that we needed to make, and Cannamore’s don’t quit. But they do drink beer.


Kokanee is one of those brews that I should have no business liking, it’s essentially the coors light of Canada (which would make Molson’s Bud Light I guess?). But it’s something of a comfort food for me, reminding me of Paul’s, Alert Bay, and everything I needed reminding of at that moment. I sit quietly in the noisy pub, the echos of pool, laughter, and obscenities ricocheting around me. I grab a paper and try to read it but my eyes fade in and out of focus. I just want to be there. If I can’t be with Brittney than I need to be on that island. The closest thing to therapy that I have.


I leave my tip on the bar and head back to my room, an old battered tv sits on top of the decrepit fridge, by a miracle of God, it turns on. And I begin mindlessly flipping through the seven channels available to me. An image of massive mountains blanketed in green, a woolly layer of fog beneath them makes me stop reflexively. I stare in awe as the narrator announces the location as Robson Bight, Johnstone Strait. I mouth wordlessly as frame after frame of orcas, orcas I recognize, remember, flash on the screen. Surfacing, diving, breaching. I was going back, my pain and sadness lessen somewhat, the dull ache remains, but whether you’d call it God, the universe, or karma, I had my sign. We were doing the right thing.


Day 2


Just how I left it. The coastal town of Port McNeil hasn’t changed, save for a new gas station, in six years. That ridiculous, “world’s biggest burl” is still there, probably because no one has any idea how to move it. Fishing boats still rise and fall with the tide in the harbor, the ferry to Alert Bay leaves at the same time, I don’t think they ever did mow the baseball field. I was prepared for the opposite. To be ready for things to be different than I remembered them as a naïve starstruck 19-year old. There’s still the same winding road just out of town that leads to the familiar campground. I find a tentsite, nestled snugly under the shadow of a massive cedar tree, and with a great sigh of relief let the backpack fall from my shoulders. After three weeks in suburbia and skyscrapers, my tent is beneath fir, aspen, and spruce. The smell of a forest, centuries old, more rejuvenating and refreshing than the strongest cup of coffee.


I’ve been unable to contact Paul or anyone else at the lab since I left Vancouver and my lack of will power has left surprisingly low on cash. If nothing changes I plan on taking the 8:40 ferry to Alert Bay, at least than I’m a little closer. If I don’t hear from Paul tomorrow…. well, there really isn’t a backup plan, I can’t afford to drop another $15 bucks for camping, I may be sleeping under a bridge. A younger couple next to me continues to giggle, play cards, and be cute, making me miss Brittney all the more. I will punch them in the face if they don’t stop.


Day 3


My next night is not on Hanson Island. Still bleary eyed, I stagger off the ferry and into Alert Bay, hoping against hope to see Paul’s tiny aluminum boat, affectionately known as, “the car,” moored in the small boat harbor. No such luck. I’d awoken to an email from Paul, telling me to call when I could, and headed out in search of a pay phone. But damn the cellular age, every pay phone in Alert Bay had apparently been deemed a waste of space, and unceremoniously ripped from the ground. With 60 pounds of gear on my back (who knew chic peas could feel so heavy), I stagger to the visitor centre. I knew Paul had a house here, if only someone had the good grace to tell me where it was.


The teenage boy at the centre looks at my blankly when I ask for a payphone. The poor kid, he was here to point people to the totem poles and Namgis first nations long house. Not deal with lost vegabonds with dark circles under their eyes and shaking legs. As he searches for something helpful to say I have expect him to just start regurgitating totem pole facts out of habit. Against the odds I ask if he knows where Paul Spong lived. There are, after all, only 300 people that live here (imagine Gustavus confined to a two mile island). Now he’s really nervous, “I can’t give out personal information,” he stammers.


It makes sense, I suppose, but I can’t be the first goofball looking for, who Alexandra Morton lovingly called, “the chronically tardy New Zealander.” There was no convincing the kid to bend the rules just this once though, and, unsure of where to go, I start walking back towards the terminal. On a whim I walk into the boat harbor office to find a middle aged guy with dark hair and four days worth of stubble on his face. Sensing a kindred spirit I state my case.


“Oh Paul!” He chuckles, and glances out of habit out the window into the harbor. “I see more of you kids trying to get out there than you can imagine.”


Graciously he lets me use the phone, and I call the lab. Contact. Paul has two boats, the miniscule “car” and the much bigger June Cove. Just like the last time I was here, the June Cove is in the shop, leaving them with just the tiny, compact car sized boat to get around. As we talk, an older lady with flyaway white hair, alpaca sweater, and friendly face walks into the office. “I know where Paul lives!” She says after talking with the stubbled harbor master.


Paul tells me to sit tight in Alert Bay, he’ll come for me as soon as he can, and we hang up. The lady introduces herself as Linda, and happily offers to drive me to Paul’s place on the other side of the island. I find the hidden key to the door, and collapse on the couch. I feel exhausted as I glance at my watch: 10:45.


Day 4:


Tuesday morning and the waiting game continues. Paul’s house overlooks the western end of Johnstone strait, I can see Hanson Island in the distance. Cup of coffee in hand I scan the water with the spotting scope, hoping to see the car moving steadily towards me. But something else makes me forget all about it for a moment. The crystal clear water of the strait ripples, a phalanx of black pin pricks emerges and my heart skips. I wasn’t going to have to wait for Hanson Island to see my first orcas, they’d found me. The pod is several miles out and traveling east, away from me. I strain my eyes trying to keep them in focus. I follow them until my eyes start to water and return to my now chilled cup of coffee. I grab Paul’s phone and dial the lab again. On my third attempt I get through, “I’m leaving shortly,” he announces, “I’ll be there around 11.”I set the phone down, my heart racing, throwing backpack, coffee, and oatmeal back into the back pack, every few minutes I rush to the spotting scope like a kid checking to see whether Santa has come yet or not. I’m ready to come home.



The Hardest Goodbye Yet

There are some mistakes you only make in life once. Obvious things like petting a bear, licking a fire, and trying to get out of downtown Seattle at 5:15. In 45 minutes we moved a mile, staring at green lights but unable to move. We vowed to never be tempted downtown at this hour again. But as we watched the collage of red lights slowly move forward and listened to a melody of infuriated drivers screaming at one another, I silently gave thanks that soon my commute would be from my tent to the camp kitchen. My freeway the unmarked game trails of Hanson Island, my home the warm table next to the wood stove in Paul and Helena’s house, a can of Kokanee in my hand. But my freedom comes with a price, the hardest goodbye so far.


Nine months ago Brittney’s uncle offered her the chance to house sit for him while he selfishly went on his honeymoon to Europe for five weeks. With the island squarely in my sights I knew I couldn’t wait another month. I’d miss the peak of the orca summer season with my only consolation being a weekly pilgrimage to Safeco Field. I had to go back. But Brittney had to stay. Over the past couple years we’ve talked a lot about pushing ourselves, growing as people, taking chances, and stepping outside our comfort zone. Leaving Juneau was a huge risk, but we had each other. This coming winter will be a great challenge, but we’ll have each other. It’s time to see how brave we can be alone.


For the first time in her life, she won’t have a roommate (unless you count the three cats, dog, and rabbit) and she’ll willingly admit that it’s hard for her to be alone. Now she gets five weeks of it. But what is so admirably is that it wasn’t forced upon her, no one guilted or pressured her into the upcoming living arrangement, this is her choice. She’s choosing to face her fear head on, and overcome it.


Granted, there are millions of people in this city and countless yoga studios, it’s not like she’s under house arrest or anything. But anyone whose married knows you can spend all day with people and still feel alone at the end of it if the house is empty. I can track orcas all night, but whenever they let me sleep, there will still be just one body in our two man tent. In a way I feel trapped. The thought of leaving Brittney behind makes my whole body heart, but the thought of staying in Seattle for another month while orcas stream past the lab makes me squirm in my seat. For the first time since Brittney worked in Gustavus, we don’t belong in the same place. Our challenges lie 400 miles and a country apart.


There are two ways we can go about this. We can be miserable, consumed with the pain of knowing the other is so far apart (and yes, there are times we will give in to this). Or we can seize the opportunity that it is. A chance to grow as individuals, to become better people. Pursue those personal goals that have floated in the back of our mind that we haven’t had a chance to pursue yet. And yes, we will be the only people we’ll see for most of the winter, so some time apart may be a good idea for sanity this winter as well.


So tomorrow we’ll make the drive to Vancouver and say goodbye. I’ll board a bus Saturday and begin to make my way back to where I started. But today, I’m not going to think about it. I’m going to savor every moment with this wonderful woman that I get to share my life with, and take solace in the fact that I get to spend the entire winter, and the rest of my days, with her.

Thanks Alaska

I sat in more traffic in one afternoon than I had in the last five years. I watched a homeless guy grab a stack of free newspapers, turn to me, and ask if I’d like to buy one for a dollar. I’ve gotten lost, paid 22 dollars for parking and 9.50 for a Sierra Nevada. I don’t know what I expected.

After all, we did just move to a city that has four times as many people as the entire state we just left. I guess they all have to live somewhere. But the magnitude of change is staggering and I don’t know if I could ever get used to it. What’s more though, I don’t think I’d ever want to either. Every square inch, from Bellingham to Seattle has mans’ fingerprints. Shopping malls, on ramps, and suburbs sprinkled liberally up and down each side of the I-5. Somehow I imagined Washington feeling more… earthy, natural. And perhaps compared to L.A, New York, or Houston it is. There are parks of course, with beautiful running trails hugging the shorelines of the lakes, huge oak, fir, and cedar trees creating a beautiful canopy, scattering the light on the trail ahead. But it’s hard to be enamored when bike, jogger, and dog walker stream steadily past, and traffic from the nearby interstate thunders by. It is nature, but like everything else, mans imprint is noticeably present.

This is not meant to be 500 words slandering Seattle. I’ve met some fantastic individuals, the city is clean, the people environmentally conscious, and orca paintings are splattered over countless buildings. Alaska has simply spoiled me with natural wonder and peace. A quiet secluded cove, an imposing glacier, and a curious bear never that far from hand. Perhaps I didn’t realize how bad I needed that until I left. I miss how easily accessible it all was. That 15 minutes could get me to a picturesque stream, fly rod in hand, coho salmon bubbling below the surface. Here it takes two hours, the river damned two miles further upstream. I understand the amazed looks of people on my tour when I explain Egan is our highway. That getting stopped at a light was a traffic jam. That a glacier in your back yard is a huge deal. I understand why people come to Alaska in the first place now. Seeking something that’s still natural and wild. And, sadly, why they expect to be able to find it within two hours of leaving their cruise ship.

We’re not going back to Alaska though, at least not in the immediate future. But we do have the next best thing waiting for us, on that little island, nestled in the middle of what could easily pass as Southeast Alaska, just with bigger trees. If I want solitude, starting July 21st I’ll have it. Free of freeways, traffic jams, and warm running water. Maybe I’ll be craving some taste of civilization come next April. Will desire the luxury of heating the house by just turning a dial. But right now I kind of doubt it. Some people would call it “roughing it.” Or maybe just, “a great life experience while you’re young.” But now I think it’s the only place I truly belong and I blame Alaska for making me this way, and I’m eternally grateful for that.