The Magic of the Town Run

The tide is ebbing, and the boat is stuck, like some hauled out metallic sea lion. An expletive escapes my lips and with one final push the boat slides over the rock and floats again. The vertical rock face seems to have just enough of these little ledges, and like some magnetic force, always seems to suck the boat right to them.
With the boat free, the loading begins. Empty gas cans, dead batteries, and garbage bag filled to burst with pungent clothes. Brittney appears, laden with more black hefty bags filled with trash and tied securely. The Hanson Island rule is: bags with garbage are tied, bags with laundry are left untied, an important step. Just ask the volunteer who tied his laundry bag, sentencing it to doom in the landfill.
By the time everything is piled in, there’s precious little room to reach the seats. The boat already makes me feel like Gandalf in a hobbit hole, but filled to the brim makes it feel like crawling through a cole mine. Finally I manage to pretzel my legs behind the wheel and the boat floats free, drifting into the middle of the cove.
The engine roars to life on the first turn and we idle slowly past the kelp bed and into Blackney Pass. Free of kelp and rock, the engine roars to life, struggling to break free of the water and get on step with the heavy load. But the water is a flat calm this morning and we hang a left, bound for Blackfish Sound, Weynton Pass, Pearse Passage, and finally Alert Bay.
It is the most magical of days, the town run. An afternoon of hot baths, Paul’s sandwiches, and people. So many people. Just up the street from the dock is a tiny lot where the beloved pathfinder has sat patiently all winter. Ever week and a half she resignedly comes to life so that we can drive the one mile along the shoreline to Paul and Helena’s house.
I feel like a kid coming home from college. A massive bag of laundry in hand, anticipating food, beer, and canned goods. After months of taps producing nothing but frigid water, feeling hot water spew into the tub makes me flinch. We had eschewed baths in favor of pouring hot water over ourselves a couple times a week on the deck. Scrubbing frantically while we shivered in the wind and the rain. So when it’s my turn, I nearly fall asleep, the hot water lapping at my face.
From the house you can see Johnstone Strait, the Hanson Island shoreline appears merged with the trees of Cracroft and the Plumper Islands. The water stays flat, but the sun is already beginning to set.
Alert Bay is far from bustling, but feels as congested as a city as we squeeze along the narrow road.
“So many people,” Brittney says as we wait for two cars to go by.
The grocery store is nearly sensory overload. For days we’d talked about the things that we’ve been craving but unable to reach. Now we just stare blankly at the shelves, a crumpled list in hand. Overwhelmed we pile heads of lettuce, carrots, potatoes, tortillas, and of course coffee into the quickly growing pile. Tragedy strikes when we reach the popcorn and find the shelves barren.  For a minute we’re too stunned to speak, mouth open in shock and horror. No popcorn? Why did we even come into town? Sadly we head for the checkout our overflowing cart suddenly feeling empty.
Loading the minuscule boat becomes a cramped game of tetris. Anything that can fit into the tiny hold in the bow is shoved unceremoniously in. Filled gas tanks and charged batteries bring the water’s surface a couple inches closer to the window. Bags of food, lettuce leafs poking curiously out the top are stacked as gently as possible on top of the clean laundry.
After some coaxing, the boat obediently gets up on plane and sends us rocketing home on the flooding tide. We reach the lab just as the light begins to fade but the slowly flooding tide has left us well short of the cove. Grabbing as much as we can, we walk and stumble up the rocks, dumping groceries and water jugs on the deck, leaving the batteries and fuel tanks for a higher tide.
Opening the door of our house, a white and brown blur shoots past as the cat sprints for freedom, incensed at his day long imprisonment inside. The rabbit is even more excited and wastes no time inspecting every bag until she finds the apples and attacks with the ferocity of a Great White Shark. By the time the boat is tied and the groceries stored, it’s dark, the fire slowly warming the house once again.
We collapse on the couch, town days always seem to wear us out, probably all the hot water. Now if only we could find a pizza place that delivered.

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Collect Experiences. Not Things

For the first time in years I want something that I cannot have. The number in my bank account is woefully too small to buy the house that Brittney and I have been salivating over for the past two days. It’s not a mansion with enough square footage to fit a basketball court. Nor does it look out over some ridiculous ocean side vista. It’s just a humble, quaint, hobbit approved house on a tiny road in Gustavus, Alaska. And I can’t have it.

Since graduating from college, I’ve been rebelling against the status quo. Bouncing from seasonal jobs, spending months in New Zealand and Canada and loving every minute of a life that we seem to create one step at a time. But as we’ve wandered, we’ve begun to feel the need to have a home base. A place where kayak gear, camera equipment, and pets can pile up without fear of how on earth they will fit in the Nissan Tetris in a few months. So we looked up houses in Gustavus and began to covet really bad. Houses are never an impulse buy. Thank God. Because I was looking all over the screen for the, “buy now” button like it was ebay.

We took a little crash course in down payments, mortgages, and interest rates. What else are you going to do a 9 pm on an island where you represent 66% of the population? Slowly we began to accept the hard truth that the dream was a long ways away. Though it didn’t stop us from scrolling through the photos one more time (so much natural light!).

In Victoria, British Columbia is the Phillips Brewery, the only microbrew beer I can find in Alert Bay’s tiny liquor store. Besides having a Peanut Butter Stout, which is freaking amazing, the inside of their bottle caps have the phrase, “collect experiences, not things.” For the first time in a long time I want, “things,” or more accurately, “thing” in leu of, “experiences.” Weird.

Of course, if we hadn’t been jet setting, going to baseball games, and had, you know, worked the past seven months, we might be able to make it happen. But I sit in a house perched on the rocks over Blackney Pass. A storm beginning to build after a calm red sky morning. Yesterday was monopolized by calling orcas, sea lions bark and roar at all hours of the day, and the stars pop with no interference from streetlights. Sure, I could be sitting in that house today and I’m sure we’d love it. We’d also have a thirty year financial commitment that would really make it tough to live up to the website’s namesake.

I’m sure someday we’ll truly be ready for that sort of endeavor. But when we do, I want there to be no regrets, that it’s done on our terms, on our time. That we don’t sit in our house with fantastic natural lightening and wonder what could have been. Someday we’ll have a doormat that says, “Cannamore” and a sign that says, “all guests must be approved by the cat.” But until than, I’ll savor the adventure, the sweat, the and cursing as I try to cram one more duffel bag in the back of the car.

Collect experiences, not things. Experiences after all, don’t need a house to be stored in.

Envisioning a Happy Ending for Lolita

For the past few days my facebook feed has been inundated with posts concerning the protest on the behalf of Lolita, the imprisoned southern Resident orca at the Miami Seaquarium. The activism and awareness spurred from the documentary Blackfish continues to gain momentum and the pressure continues to mount on those that guard the tanks.

The scene of Lolita breaching in cold north pacific waters surrounded by her family, the San Juan islands in the background is certainly a powerful, and romantic one. An image and ending almost too good to be true. Yet we are many steps away from that reality, and on borrowed time.

The conversation unfortunately begins and ends with those that, for legal purposes, “own” Lolita. The proposals seem to be gravitating toward the idea of the aquarium deciding that the time has come to retire Lolita from the show business as a way of thanking her for her decades as a forced laborer. Some have suggested the positive media coverage would offset the loss of those that attend the aquarium solely to see the orca. It would be an incredible gesture, and sadly, a dramatic change in philosophy. She remains a massive source of income for them and it seems unlikely they would willingly part with her.

Just last year a U.S district judge threw out a case proposed by the orca network, PETA, and others protesting the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) renewal of the aquarium’s license. Claiming that the marine parks tank was too small and in violation of the USDAs standards. The case was dismissed as the judge determined the animal welfare act (AMA) did not specify requirements for those already holding USDA permits. It is a frustrating and despicable minefield of red tape and bureaucracy that now seems firmly on the aquarium’s side. There appears to be no hope in the near future of government intervention forcing the release of Lolita.

Meanwhile National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is proposing Lolita be included in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since she remains a member of the Southern Resident Population. Public comment closes on the 24th of this month, if she does indeed qualify as a protected member of the population, the hope is that she would no longer be allowed to be used as a revenue stream. Should the motion pass, I’m confident the aquarium would fight tooth and nail to ensure that she remains where she is. A long legal battle would probably ensue, where, as we know, the system moves very slowly. The courts have already sided with the aquarium once for much flimsier reasons and I’m hesitant to believe that they would redeem themselves this time. I pray I’m wrong.

Which leads us back to the aquarium doing it on their own. Yes, Sea World stock is plummeting, marine park public opinion is at an all time low, and yet, Sea World’s response seems to be to throw more money at the problem and I imagine Miami’s response would be the same. It continues to confound me what my fellow man will do for profit but it is most likely the only voice that they will answer to. We must continue to ensure that revenue continues to fall, in hopes that they realize they must cut their losses and salvage what public opinion they can. They must reach a point however, where the cost of keeping Lolita is higher than what she brings in. It feels so taboo, dishonorable to make Lolilta’s case come down to money, but I fear it’s the only outcome with a happy ending.

So we will protest, we will hold signs and picket. Give copies of Blackfish to our friends that continue to attend the parks. Support animal advocacy groups, volunteer, and write our congressmen. Real change is happening and I pray that it comes before it is too late for Lolita, Corky, and the others.

The best case scenario may be a net pen, the waters of Juan de Fuca on her skin. After forty years of swimming in slow circles, it would be a miracle to see her travel hundreds of miles with her natal pod. She could hear the calls of her family, her relatives, and maybe remember what it means to be a wild whale after all these years. It’s hard to admit that she may have changed irrevocably, who wouldn’t after all those years alone. I may never buy a ticket to an aquarium, but would happily hand over my money to stand on the shore and see her in a cove, on the open water. No corny music, no tricks, no bleachers, no applause. Just a whale trying to be a whale again, chasing fish, and vocalizing without fear of the calls echoing off concrete walls. And know that the age of captivity, is coming to an end.

We Have Neither the Plans Nor Disguises

My last Christmas in Eagle River I went to the same holiday party that I’ve been going to for years. No longer though, was it acceptable for my friends and I to drag the TV into one of the bedrooms, hook up the Gamecube, and beat each other silly in Super Smash Brothers, taking time only to race back upstairs through the maze of grown ups for another piece of pie. Now in our mid 20s it was time to negotiate through the kitchen, making small talk and drinking enough to make it all seem interesting.

Balancing a plate of food I bumped into person after person I had hardly spoken to since high school. Time and again I would compress the last five years of my life into a succinct three minute presentation. That I had graduated college, was not in grad school, and was working seasonal jobs and globe trotting as much as possible. Most were receptive, some excited at the prospect of spending a winter on an island isolated from the rest of the world, understanding the romanticism and beauty of living a simplistic life for months at a time. Others, did not.

As the night wore on and we continued to shift conversation partners, I bumped into a man I hadn’t seen since high school. A middle aged father of two, he had for a time been a volunteer in the youth group of my church as I was growing up. And so I began my presentation, summarizing my summers on whale watch boats, farming in New Zealand, and my upcoming year in British Columbia and Orca Lab. Anyone whose ever given a presentation, at school or work has felt the wriggle of insecurity as you begin to talk, and know that it isn’t going to end well. His face evolved from one of surprise, than shock, and finally, condescending.

“How old are you now, David?” He asked.

“25.”

“When are you going to start taking life seriously?”

I pause, taken aback by his bluntness. What would constitute taking life seriously? Did I have to make X amount per year? Or own a house of a certain square footage? Or perhaps I had to have a job that I didn’t love. I avoid a philosophical debate and chose to just announce that I’m happy with my life, young, and having fun.

“Well, yeah,” he allows, “but it’s like riding a skateboard.”

A skateboard? Whatever he had in that glass I wanted some.

“You see those 13, 14 year olds riding around and that’s ok. But if you see, like a bunch of old guys riding around on them… you can’t do it forever. You start to wonder when they’re going to grow up.”

Convoluted and ambiguous metaphors aside, my pride began to flicker, my eyes narrow, the cocktail shrimp on my plate forgotten. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard inquiries such as this. About once a week during the summer, some older man would try to explain to me why I couldn’t go on this way forever. But there was something about hearing it from a man who knew me, someone that I had been friendly with that made this time different.

But as I walked away a few minutes later, I began to feel pity instead of anger. I imagined if one of his kids came to him someday with the same wanderlust that had overtaken me. What kind of reception would he receive?

It is a very American ideology. That we must have a plan, that we must be secure, safe, comfortable. We build walls of comfort and safety and along the way, forget what it means to be alive. But it is all ok, because it has been deemed acceptable and normal to live this way. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, retire, die. It is a blueprint followed by most, and for many, perhaps that’s ok. For some, maybe they are perfectly happy and content to live in the same house and go to the same office every day for forty years, punctuated by their annual two week vacation.

But for a growing number of the younger generation, it isn’t. We’ve seen too many of those walls turn into bars, a prison with no escape. Guarded by the henchmen of mortgage, debt, and car payments. Maybe they’d be happier if they pulled their old skateboard out of the closet from time to time, gave it a whirl, and remembered what it felt like to be young and free. As I’d neared this age of reckoning and college wound down, I began to feel this noose begin to tighten. I wondered if there was another way, a different trail down the road of life. Bumpier, perhaps, but a lot more fun. Slowly I loosened the noose until finally I became ok announcing that there was no plan. That I wanted to be an environmentalist and a writer and as long as I was doing something to better the wild world and wasn’t curling up under park benches at night, it’d be ok.

And so to the man that I doubt will ever read this. I plan to ride that skateboard until a wheel snaps off and sends me careening into the briar patch. Who knows, maybe it’ll never happen, maybe it will. But every second is going to be a fulfilling ride that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

In the House of Tom Bombadil

The trail winds through new and second growth foliage, their branches stretching like eerie arms onto the skinny trail, refusing to be thwarted by mans’ fruitless trials to contain them. Rocks thrust out of the mud, their surfaces slick with moisture. The continual December rainfall creates a steady trickle downhill, creating mud poles that go halfway up our boots. The forest is quiet besides the steady drip of rain bouncing from one leaf to another as they plummet to the trail and moss. We push further and further into the middle of Hanson Island, a weak winter sun battling the clouds.

After fifteen minutes of steady uphill hiking we round a bend and are met with a fence composed of a brilliant maze of branches. A gate sits partway open and we slide through and step onto the well trodden ground of what the weather beaten sign nailed to a tree announces is the earth embassy, a small crown of willow branches hanging above it. A few small buildings and a woodshed dot the clearing as we approach slowly. It’s a peculiar thing, to march into someone elses isolation. With no way to warn them that you’re coming. After months of solitude, the echo of our feet pounding up the trail had to sound like thunder.

Passing the door to the first building we hear a call from inside, a growl, a bark, and the door creaks open, giving way to a massive mountain of orange and white fur. The fur ball is recognizable as Kessler, the Hanson Island dog that had been exiled from Alert Bay, and now lived with the man we’d come to see. A man known to me only as Walrus.

We step out of the rain and around Kessler and into a library. Books cover a massive shelf in the entrance and litter the walls, meticulously categorized by subject. Conservation, religion, and history with subcategories such as: Greenpeace, Animism, and Mayan culture. There’s just enough room for a desk nestled right next to the door where Walrus sits, a journal out. He’s everything an old man living in the woods should look like. A massive grey beard coats his face. Even his eyebrows are preternaturally long, sticking almost straight out as long as my pinkie before finally succumbing to gravity and curling at the tips.

A sweet, musty, woody, smell permeates the tiny shelter and stepping behind the massive bookcase reveals an open space with a wood stove and table covered in fruit, crackers, and a bottle of rum. While I’m sure somewhere out there lives a reclusive old hermit who cringes at the very thought of social interaction, Walrus is not that man. His life in the forest seemed to give him remarkable preservation, and despite having reached an age where many would be comfortably retired, he’s bouncy and quick witted with an easy laugh that seems to go on forever. He is a marvelous cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and any assortment of bearded, woodsmen, Tolkien characters.

His house was a jigsaw puzzle of scrap wood that he had scrounged from the surrounding woods. Small and efficient it was easy to keep warm when the temperature dropped below freezing. The site had been picked for him he explained, when he’d pitched his tent directly on the path we had just walked up. Decades ago it had been a logging trail and Walrus had stood resolute, refusing to allow them to have the island.

Wielding an education in anthropology Walrus had scuttled over every nook and cranny of Hanson Island, learning the island’s history and secrets, searching for a way to save it. Culturally modified cedar trees (CMTs) cover the island, evidence of the first nations presence here long ago. They would cut long horizontal strips of bark from the tree, using the wood to form baskets and string. Their cutting encouraged the trees to grow even faster, creating a resource that renewed faster with use, a concept unheard of in our modern day “advanced” world.

Citing the CMTs for their cultural and historical significance, Walrus helped save the island from the carpet bombing that had befallen the nearby islands of Swanson and Cracroft. His camp quickly became something of a heritage site in addition to his year round home starting in the early 90s. A place where he welcomed grade school kids in the summer to learn about the history of the forest, and showed them around a massive garden where he grew everything from kale, to potatoes (if he can keep the jays out), to garlic. Garlic, he said, he’d give away as gifts. What a stocking stuffer.

There seemed to be little that he hadn’t done on the conservation battlefield. He’d fought wolf hunters in northern Canada, been a cook aboard the early Greenpeace boats that put themselves between whalers and their cetacean targets, and become something of a legend. His quiet manner and humbleness hid all of this though as he enthusiastically showed off his garden, Kessler constantly bumping against our shins waiting for his ears to be scratched.

We walked back down the trail toward Orca Lab a couple hours later, inspired and motivated. Someday I hoped that I could look back on the decades of my life and see the world a better place from my actions. I imagined the feeling of gratitude and joy Walrus had to feel when he woke up and looked about his forest home. Hearing the birds call, the deer trampling through the undergrowth, the leaves whispering in the wind, and knowing that it still stands because he had. His feet planted firmly on the trail, loggers and equipment barreling up the hill, unaware of the man they were about to face.

When the Outflow Arrives

Wool socks, down jackets, long underwear. All them and more have been deployed to combat the latest northeasterly outflow that has descended upon Hanson Island; freezing the intertidal pools, our waterline, and our toes. We had the bright idea last night of dragging our mattress downstairs from the loft and putting it at the base of the fireplace stacked with bark and fir, Penny’s house placed snugly in the corner. And while the cold seemed to paralyze us in the early morning light, numbing any motivation to rise from the comforters, the Orca’s seemed impervious to it all.

Shortly after nine we begin to hear the faintest Transient calls in Johnstone Strait, leading us to the lab where the temperature hovered just a couple degrees above freezing. After just half an hour of sporadic calling the sounds vanished as the whales disappeared into acoustic parts of the strait unknown. Silently I gave thanks that all I had to do to catch my breakfast was crack a couple eggs over a skillet. I don’t think I could catch a harbor seal in this weather.

But despite the cold, the view atones for it and than some. The palest of blue skies and the whispiest of clouds frame the mountains on Vancouver Island, their peaks clinging grimly to their traces of snow, illuminated in the weak December light. The solar panels greedily suck in the beams’ power, giving our generator a belated reprieve. Blackney Pass sits immobile, or at least as still as it can as the tides pull the waters north and south cutting trails in the surface like tiny intersecting roads. It’s still odd to have Orca Lab so quiet. Besides the occasional Transient celebrating its catch the speakers tell the story of cycling hydrophones, insistent tugs, and at low tide, the cries of eagles as they soar past.

The beauty and peace is priceless and there is little more soothing or funny than ten Harlequin ducks bobbing into the cove every morning chirping at one another as they cut tiny wakes through the water. They dive one at a time, vanishing in the blink of an eye, their bodies barely visible in the dark green water, wings flapping incessantly. When they come up for air they shoot clear of the water like little rubber duckies bouncing on the surface, tiny bits of food clasped in their beaks.

But the deep waters of Blackney feel empty with no Guardian or KC or any of the other humpbacks that felt like friends in September, leaving us with the thirty odd sea lions down the beach for company. Today they huddle like a single sentient being on their rocks, stinky but warm I’m sure. It leaves us with nothing left to do but read, drink tea, and chop wood at a frantic pace before running back inside to the warmth of the fire that has been dancing for three days straight. The thermal pane windows have been worth every penny, thank you: Paul and Helena.

In the Holy of Holies

The boat slides into the rocks and triggers a memory. Not a visual one, or olfactory, but auditory. The sound of pebbles racking against the hull of the boat almost makes me turn around, half expecting to see a dorsal fin gliding across the water behind us. Both boat and orca move the smooth, tiny rocks of this beach sound the same way. But today we were alone, just the two of us cautiously approaching the main rubbing beach of the Northern Resident orcas.

I step to the stern of the boat and look back over the water. It’s weird to see for the first time a place I feel I already know so well. High atop an old weathered tree hangs a white box looking for all the world like a security camera. For a summer that was my keyhole. And I would press my eye against it as close as I could, drinking in the scene. But now, for just an afternoon, I got to stand here and see and smell and feel a piece of orca lore. If the bight is hallowed ground, this is the holy holies.

Twenty minutes east of Robson Bight as the orca swims lays this beach where, for all eternity as far as we know, the orcas have come. This beach, an outlier itself in a land of jagged rocks, steep cliffs, and deep water. The beach is smooth and gradual, the reflection of the trees turning the water turquoise, like some tropical paradise. In the shallows, sometimes with barely enough water to cover them, the whales come and rub vigorously on the smooth, quarter sized pebbles that compose the beach.

I step up and over the top of the boat and onto the bow, the waves rocking the boat gently against the shoreline, emitting the sound of rushing pebbles with every crest. I hop lightly off the bow and feel them crunch and slide under my feet. I step clear of the surf and see my footprints imprinted in the rocks. Damning evidence of my intrusion into this mystical place. I lay on the beach and, like the orcas, begin to squirm and roll back and forth on the pebbles, their sounds filling my ears. If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough to me. Brittney laughs and rolls her eyes as she steps gently from the boat. We talk in hushed voices, as if we’ve just entered a church, and prod slowly up the shore.

We had a reason to be here. The rubbing beaches are strictly closed off to the public, giving the orcas their own private sanctuary much like Robson Bight. But someone had to pull the batteries of the long defunct rubbing beach hydrophone, the victim of a fifty knot storm in October that had torn the cable free. Without this premise we’d go nowhere near this place, even in December, when the orcas hadn’t neared the beach in a month, it felt almost taboo to stand here.

A steep cliff makes up one edge of the beach and stretches out to a point into Johnstone Strait. I boulder up and walk to the edge, the bottom still visible even on this massive 17.1 foot high tide. I find the batteries and the second camera, the one that looks straight down into the water off the cliff face where the orcas would cruise right past just before they reached the pebbles. Like at Robson Bight I see them in my minds eye, cruising peacefully past, bound for their favorite spot in the strait. We get the batteries off the cliff and perch on a massive log washed against the shoreline. We dig out some food and stare out at the water, this unassuming little stretch of earth that means so much. Camera in hand I snap pictures while I eat, hoping to capture as much of it as possible and failing to do justice. It’s tough to think about leaving so soon, and I a great longing fills me to see the whales here, just once while I hide unseen in the bushes. It’s a dream that will have to remain a dream, and I look up at the camera, thankful that it gives me the opportunity to enjoy it from a distance. We climb into the boat and gently push back into the water, gliding across the brilliant blue/green waves, bound for the gray surf of the straight, the southeasterly starting to turn up the current.

Before we go home there’s one more place I want to find, and we shoot across Johnstone Straight, heading for Cracroft Island. As we reach the shore I slow down and and we move slowly west toward Hanson Island. I see the hollow wooden skeletons of a camp. Structures with no roofs or walls, tiny wooden platforms and benches on the rocks. This is it. I stop and look at this unassuming little kayak camp. “This is my birthplace,” I thought.

It was here, seven years ago that I had visited, kayaked, and fallen in love with this place. Straining my eyes for that elusive dorsal fin that has dictated so much of my life. I look behind me and remember the A36s, cruising west past our camp, oblivious to the life they were altering forever with every surface, every breath. A part of me wants to find a place to land, to step ashore here and crouch where I did those nights when the A4s swam by, allowing me to hear but not see. But the wind has other ideas, as does the quickly fading sun of the second shortest day of the year. We pick up speed and continue west, picking our way through the deadheads and kelp, tracing the footprints of the orcas that would be back to chase the salmon. Like they have every summer. For all eternity.