The Changing World of Elfin Cove

Greg Howe seems to think the outboard is fine. I’m certainly not inclined to argue. He’s been here four decades, I’ve been here four days. If he thinks the engine is reliable enough to get us across South Inian Pass I’m going to believe him. But I’ve had an outboard die on me. Twice it’s put me on the rocks, once in British Columbia, another time north of Juneau. They make for great stories, but with an east wind of 25-knots and the open ocean an arm’s length away, I’m not ready to revisit the stomach dropping sensation of a coughing Yamaha.

Greg and Jane Button’s boat the Via has a covered helm with a bench seat for two people and another one directly behind that faces backward.

“Wear your rain pants. You’ll get wet.”

Brittney and I huddle on the seat and watch the Hobbit Hole disappear behind us. With no hesitation Greg takes us into Inian Pass, and for who knows what time, makes the 20-minute trip to Elfin Cove. In its heyday Elfin Cove was a commercial fishing hub. From there the treasures of the northern panhandle was at your feet. Salmon all summer, Kings in the winter, halibut right off the dock. Greg waxes about days with forty fishing boats in the Hobbit Hole’s inner cove. For not the first time I wonder if I was born too late. Trolling Inian Pass and Soapstone Point circa 1955 sounds like Nirvana. It’s a tale of tragedy told and retold up and down the coast. Even in Alaska, the last frontier, the land of opportunity, the land of inexhaustible natural wealth, locals can feel the spoon hitting the bottom of the bowl.

Elfin Cove is a shadow of its former self. The tale of west Icy Strait is not all that different from Northern British Columbia where we spent the last three winters. A place defined by fishing that has been strangled by dismal returns and a changing climate. Homesteads and outposts used to dot these places. Now they are only relics of an age come and gone. Another victim of the good old days. The Hobbit Hole and Elfin Cove stand as guardians of another time. And Elfin remains mostly as a seasonal town populated by sport fishing lodges.

The run across Inian Pass is eye opening. Steep cliffs are barren of vegetation thirty feet above sea level, marking the height merciless winter waves can hit. We hug the shoreline of Chichagof Island. I point across the pass to the mainland and the boundary of Glacier Bay National Park. The Brady Glacier glows in the gray light of winter. The open ocean, the swell visible as a steppe ten feet high awaits any foolish enough to run the outer coast. Hands down it is the wildest scene I’ve ever laid eyes on. How have I lived ignorantly at the step of this country for years and never ventured this far? This place is in my blood already.

We slip into Elfin Cove, a long narrow cut in the Chichagof Island shoreline where the wind funnels down the steep hillsides and adds frothy whitecaps to one-foot waves. Most of the buildings are up on pilings and hover over the water on high tide. A few are built into the mountainside, but it is a place of boardwalks. There are no cars here, there never will be. But beyond the charm of the place is the eerie vacancy. Clues of a previous grandeur are everywhere. A school, a post office, houses pockmarked up and down the inner cove. But there are no people.

That’s not entirely true. There are five people here in winter. The shop is open three hours a week. 1-2, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As we walk along the boardwalks I hop between feelings of awe and the eerie silence of another small community gone to seed. We pass fishing lodge after fishing lodge boarded up with No Trespassing signs hammered to the fence. Like their clients, the owners are South for the winter. They’ll arrive in the spring, fish the dickens out of Cross Sound, and then take their fish and money back South with them. It doesn’t feel right, the consumption of so much taken by so few. Greg’s an old commercial fisherman, a champion of Alaska’s fisheries, a commodity he calls, “the people’s resource.”

“Very few can afford to come up here and fish for a week.” he explains. “And those that do take more than they can eat. It gets thrown out in the spring, they come back, and do it all over again. More people can go to Costco and buy a fillet of Alaskan Halibut once a week. Which one is the better use?”

There’s a look of nostalgia on his face. Memories of people in Port Althorp and Gull Cove and Mud Bay. Of fishing boats working The Laundry and Soapstone and stopping at the Hobbit Hole for dinner. Like much of the old west, the big east has chewed it up and swallowed it. Three times he tells stories of the fishing life, the culture of “Icy Straits.” It’s a tradition I would love to see honored. Commercial fishing shaped southeast Alaska, for better or worse. It’s an occupation that brought many to Gustavus, Hoonah, Elfin Cove, and Pelican. It was our lifeblood, a means that opened the door to many of the current residents of this place.

Back at the Hole I poke through the detritus of the homestead. Countless fishing buoys, crab pots, line, and hooks fill a storage shed. There’s such a contrast between what this place was and what it will become. A place that feeds the bellies of humanity to one that feeds the mind. But indirectly, I believe the goal remains the same. To make people fall in love with this place. To keep them alive, and to convince the world that we cannot survive without them.

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Westeros

The Inians are splayed out like a handful of watermarks. Inians. Such an odd name. Even Zach isn’t sure where it came from. Like someone started to write Indian and lost interest halfway through. But we know where Hobbit Hole comes from. Zach’s mother Carolyn christened it long ago because “The Pothole” was just too secular, and Hobbit Hole is a much better name.

The little archipelago is sandwiched between some of the wildest water on earth. To the west is Cross Sound, which should be renamed “Small Craft Advisory Pass.” Even on days where the wind blows from the east ten knots or less, the ocean swell sends six foot waves crashing against the westernmost islands.

Icy Strait lies to the east, an indomitable stretch of wild water in its own right. Bracketing and connecting these two bodies of water are North and South Inian Pass. The nautical map we’re studying holds a warning both exciting and intimidating.

“Tidal currents in north and south Inian Pass can reach 8-10 knots. Mariners should use extreme caution.”

Extreme caution? Who knew there were categories of caution. What exactly would constitute minor or moderate caution? Staying home would be exercising all the caution. But if that was the case, there’d be no reason to be here.

We load a pair of double kayaks. Brittney, Zach, Laura, and myself have the hair brained idea of exercising minimal caution and paddling to the westernmost island in the Inians, an unnamed chunk of land stretched vertically as if the very pounding of the oceans storms had flattened it. It’s an island that, as far as we know, hadn’t been walked on by Xtra-Tuffs in a long time.

We name it Westeros, which sounds like a rejected Middle Earth landmark, and set off. From atop the main island yesterday, Zach and I saw an exposed peak on Westeros. A peak that would offer a 360-degree view of open ocean, Chichagof Island, the Inians, and the Fairweather Range/Glacier Bay. We cross the half-mile wide channel between Westeros and the other unnamed island in the Inian cluster. This channel was nicknamed “the laundry” by commercial fisherman because trying to cast nets in the channel on the flood was like being in a washing machine. A rock cliff on the east side is covered in graffiti, the signatures and dates of the boats that had anchored here. A good luck charm they said, at least until a boat sunk the day after scrawling their name on the granite.

We find a beach to land, tie the kayaks to the alder, and disappear into Narnia. There is a sense of wildness here that is not captured many places. A sense, some sort of intimate knowledge that man has not treaded here. And if he did, he did so with a light touch, without staying long enough to leave a mark. We scramble up a hill covered in the loose shale of the island. Atop sits the bones of a fawn. The tiny scapula and ribs bleached, the white stained with the green of the forest that is consuming it. The ribs are the length of my middle finger, delicate and innocent.

Trails criss cross the hills and cliffs. The deer are here. Zach looks slightly disappointed at leaving the rifle behind. After our big Coho day in September, harvesting a deer seems like the next natural step.

We follow the trails whenever we can, trusting they know the easiest way up steep cliffs with loose rocks, rotten tree trunks, and squirrely roots. The vegetation is not what I expected. Banzai shaped mountain hemlock and shore pine dot the island, grasses grow on the south facing slopes, muskeg gives off the impression that we are walking through a frozen Serengeti.

“How many people,” I wonder aloud, “can say they have walked in a place where no one else ever has?” The percentage has to be less than 1%. For the frontier is no more. Google maps has plastered everything, for better or worse. But here one can escape this discouraging fact. Here there is just us, the deer, and a Rock Ptarmigan in winter plumage. White as a ghost it sits beneath a banzai hemlock, it’s head twitching back and forth as we creep past and above it for the summit.

It has been 24-hours since I stood on the peak of Westeros and it is that summit that has made me appreciate John Muir all the more. For Muir wrote beautifully of course, but his amazing ability to capture the natural wonderment of this place and convey it in words is second to none. I am simply not gifted enough to do it justice. But imagine a 360-degree view, each 90 degree turn offering a completely different vista of breath taking beauty. An open ocean view that spans to a horizon that is almost dizzying. Horizontal vertigo, it pulls in and pushes away at the same time, like the swell that pounds at Westeros.

Chichagof. Tall hills covered in snow, unpassable thickets of devils club. Streams thick with salmon eggs. Brown bears slumbering in caves and beneath deadfalls. The Inians and the Hobbit Hole, the last of the homesteads. And the Fairweathers. Oh those big snow coated mountains, shining so unashamedly bright they hurt the eyes. Brady Glacier flows at the feet of La Perouse and Crillion. Peaks that are over 11,000 feet high. All hail the glacier makers. What would the leaders of this world think if, just for an hour, they could sit here and do nothing but slowly spin. Would development, profits, winning, still feel tantamount? What if they ate the most delicious sandwich ever made? Ate the carrots of the victorious and guzzled the tea of salvation.

“I feel like this peak needs a name.”

“Not everything needs to be named.” Brittney says. True.

The wind whips from the east. Clouds form in eastern Icy Strait and begin to come our way. Laura points out a Lenticular cloud forming like a hat atop La Perouse. Zach wanders about and finds his favorite Alder tree. It’s chilly up here, it is January after all. It may snow tomorrow. I hope it does.

With a reluctant final glance at La Perouse and its headgear, we begin to make our way back down toward the kayaks. Past the Ptarmigan and along the trails of the deer. Returning the island to its rightful owners.

“This forest is old,” Zach quips, quoting Legolas’ description of Fangorn.

“How old is it?” I ask.

“Very old.”

May it always be that way. We linger on the bones of the fawn again before we slide down the final hill and return from our commune with the gods of Cross Sound. The reality of sea level. There is a shared sorrow at the passing of the little deer. The unspoken irony that Zach wishes to go hunting tomorrow. That we hope he gets one. The painful reminder that to live is to die. And to die is to feed another. I remember Laura landing her first Coho. The grim look on her face as it lay at our feet. Her hand reaching out for the fillet knife.

“I want to do it.”

Brittney repeating the same action a week later. Patrick running his hand down the lateral line of a Coho. The one Coho I landed, stared into its eyes, and then returned. Because for some reason I couldn’t swing the pliers, couldn’t cut the gills. This is life out here. How life should be. Forgive my arrogance.

We paddle out from shore and ride the swell like a couple of murrelets. A sea otter with its pup bobs in the chop. And I am grateful, profoundly grateful that my life includes these people, those mountains, this ocean. The opportunity to come home with dirty Carhartts, numb fingers, and red noses. Zach and Laura’s mission is to ensure that more young people can do the same. That this island cluster would change lives. And as we turn the corner and into the wind, I know it already has.

So This is the New Year

I still wake up hearing them. I still catch myself stopping on the creaking stair, ears cocked, listening to a speaker that’s hundreds of miles away. You don’t quit Hanson Island, and it doesn’t quit you. How can you?

It’s the only place I’ve ever looked up from a stove to see a dorsal fin emerging from the water. It is the place that breathed life into me. That held me close and let me go. That told me that I could do and be whatever I wanted to be.

Gustavus, Alaska feels tame. The biggest hardship is our cistern froze last week and the liquor store is open just six hours a week. Where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the thrill of grocery shopping knowing that if you forget it today you’ll go without for the next two weeks?I’m not entirely serious. Last week I interviewed for a job and the interviewer asked me what my favorite part of Gustavus was.

“Well having a 5,000 square mile national park right outside my door is pretty neat.”

It’s just… different. Not better, not worse. Hanson Island will always be where I cut my teeth. My introduction to the blue and green world. In that way it’ll always be significant. It still astonishes me that we spent three winters there. Approximately 20 months that feel like little more than a blink. Time close to the earth always seems to go fast. You sleep better, eat better, laugh harder, and scream louder. And the time slides by until you’re looking out the window at the rain, know Paul Spong will be there with the June Cove any minute, and wonder where the time went.

I’ve spent most of this winter reading “how to build a house” books, learning the difference between joists and beams, and why 2x6s make good frames (it’s all about insulation).  I’m editing a novel, preparing to send it off, and praying that someone out there digs it. It’s exciting. It’s just… different. Not better, not worse. The roots are sinking in, and most of the time it feels good. For the first time since leaving Juneau we’re surrounded by the people we love. Dear friends who like us have found sanctuary in the outwash of glaciers. But every now and then I walk the beach and stare south, beyond Icy Strait and Chichagof Island. My eyes see past the Myriads and Baranof, through Ketchikan and Bella Bella to rest on a little cedar cabin on the edge of the tideline.

And I see Harlequins bobbing in four foot chop. I smell the rich wood finish of the lab. I hear the ocean’s voice through the speaker next to my bed. I taste salt. I feel the waves pounding the little boat in Blackney Pass. And for a moment I can’t stand it. I’ve got to move, I’ve got to go back. Past one more bleary eyed Prince Rupert border guard and through the Great Bear Rainforest. Part of me will always be 17, crouched on the rocks of Cracroft Island in the dead of night, listening to the A4s swim west.

***

Kim Heacox is a writer, an activist, and will dance and sing at every available opportunity. He’s also my next door neighbor. And he has plans. Like most of us who give a rip about quiet places and open spaces, 2017 was not a pleasant experience. But that’s not stopping him. He and his wife Melanie have a beautiful house and a fantastic library. All their buildings are connected by boardwalk, the road to their house weaves through the forest to spare the largest trees.

They have no intentions of keeping it for themselves however. At some point it will become the John Muir Wilderness Leadership School, the house (one of the few in Gustavus built to code for this very reason) will become a flashpoint of young writers, activists, and leaders. In my head I imagine the place becoming for someone what Orca Lab was for me. A place to find yourself. A place of epiphanies and euphoria. A place of inspiration. A place where perhaps one day I can play the role of Paul Spong; teaching that if cold science doesn’t work, if you look into the world and see something looking back, the best thing to do is grab a flute and play a song. I’m not a scientist. I learned that long ago. But I could be a teacher.

Gustavus is full of people like Kim. Zach Brown is 31-years old and in three years raised more than a million dollars. Now he has the Inian Island Institute, an old homestead an hour west of Gustavus. The perfect place for young people to lose themselves of find themselves, whichever one they need. Because if more people could find their “Hanson Island” the better off the world could be. Reach’em while they’re young. Before the allure of profit margins and mansions can sink their teeth in.

***

It’s Christmas Eve. Gustavus is wrapped in snow. But over the last few days the temperature has plummeted toward 0°F. Just a little way out of town is the only uphill trail, on the flanks of Excursion Ridge. Patrick Hanson and Jen Gardner pick us up and we kick off our “orphan Christmas.” The sun peaks over the top of the ridge as we climb. The Fairweather Mountains, the tallest coastal range in the world lords over our little hamlet. Glacier Bay is just visible, crawling up to the mountain’s feet.

The freezing temperatures have coated everything in crystalline hoarfrost. Snow flakes stand out, perfect little gems. Delicate but incredible versatile. Recent research suggests that at the center of each flake is some sort of microorganism, some microbe the frozen liquid could glob onto. At the center of Gustavus is the people. Something that everyone that has arrived here can attach to. It’s not always easy, but if you allow this place to form you… what can you become?

We reach a shelf on the ridge and Patrick, as he always does, has snacks. A sip of coffee, a bite of gingerbread, a shot of whiskey. It is Christmas after all. From here Gustavus doesn’t appear to exist. Nothing but trees, mountains, and that bay. More than 100 years ago, A.L Parker climbed this same ridge, but from the other side. And when he looked down on the Gustavus plain, he knew that he had found his home.

I can understand why. Something in that smooth, flat plain surrounded by mountains screams at our most human instinct. I look out over the strait and south. I X-ray through the archipelago and Queen Charlotte Entrance. I still see that cabin. I always will. I’ll be back. Patrick cracks a beer and hands it to me. It is Christmas after all. And if I have my way, I won’t be coming back alone.

Above the Flood Plain

There’s only one hill in Gustavus. Like everything else it’s accessed via a dirt road, and only a dirt road. It’s known as The Hydro. Because it’s here, at the headwaters of Excursion Ridge that we get our power. The road leads up the ridge to the hydro damn and offers one of the only bird’s eye views of the surrounding country.

One can continue up over the top of the ridge and look down at the inlet with the same name. Or swing north, through the valley and up the Chilkat Mountains. And if one is especially endowed with testicular fortitude, they can continue north and follow those big beautiful mountains all the way to Haines. Among the young folk fly rumors about the old timers that have done just that. The same people who built there homes before the Hydro was even laid. Measuring and cutting wood by the light of oil lamps or barking generators. A different generation. The Jedi Knights of Gustavus. Tonight we have no desire to walk to Haines, much less view Excursion Inlet. Tonight all Brittney, Jen, Patrick, and I want to do is watch the sun set beyond Icy Strait.

The road is packed hard from several days of freezing. Winter set in with little warning. Summer’s swan song came in the form of the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced this side of the Tropics. Six inches of rain in 24-hours. It flooded the very road that connects the Hydro to town. But it’s been a week of sun. Sun and cold that has kept the heater going and me questioning the viability of storing our dishwater outside where it happily freezes. No matter. Layered in wool and down, we push up the hill, using muscles that aren’t often utilized here.

In a world defined by glaciers, it seems incredible that only Gustavus would give way to a massive flood plain. Elsewhere the glaciers cut into the mountains and leave dramatic hanging glaciers, mountain pools, and rounded summits. Except here. From halfway up the uniqueness of our home stands out. We’re surrounded by mountains. Fairweathers to the west, Beartrack and Excursion to the north and east, Chichagof to the south beyond Icy Strait.

As the glacier pushed down in the late 1600s it stretched across the floodplain Gustavus now occupies, stopping short of Excursion Ridge but reaching Icy Strait at what is now the mouth of Glacier Bay. Gustavus and the Bay is virgin land. The ridge we climb is as old and wizened as the finest old growth in Juneau. In just a few short miles the world has changed from Shore Pine and Alder to Hemlock, Spruce, and even Yellow Cedar. An entirely different world.

We reach the ledge where the trail cuts into the ridge and offers unobstructed views of home. The whole lower Bay, Gustavus, and Icy Strait stretch out like a tablecloth. Here is a perspective kayaking can’t offer. The sun plummets beneath Lemeursier Island, that big old sentinel in the middle of the strait, shielding us from the worst the Pacific Ocean’s winter storms have to offer. In centuries past it was a fort for the Huna Tlingit, giving them a vantage point and an early warning of visitors. Today it’s designated wilderness, combining with Pleasant and the Inian Islands to mark the southern border of an expanse of wild land that stretches all the way into Canada and back into Alaska.

I look at the flood plain that is my home. The home the glaciers made for us and can just as easily take away. Aside from a solitary tendril of smoke rising near the Salmon River, there is no sign of habitation. A community of nearly 500 people hidden in the pines. Placed next to the millions of acres of protected land it seems small and insignificant.

The sun disappears entirely and I wonder, not for the first time, what that glacial architect must have looked like. In 1750 the glacier (later named the Grand Pacific and still visible at the terminus of the West Arm) stretched 65-miles south of its current location and all the way into Icy Strait, stopping just short of “Lem” its fingers stretching out like a man in the dark, groping for the shore. What would have happened had it found a toe hold? Would it have been able to envelop the whole island? Or would the powerful currents of the strait ripped it apart? Having extended too far, she retreated, leaving us with a land rich in high bush cranberries and salmon.

As we watch the final vestiges of light fade away, I give a silent thanks to the glacier for this place. We talk, we laugh, we drink whiskey, we take the inevitable silhouette photos (I am unaware that it’s supposed to be a funny pose and stand stoically for the first one). And we utter the phrase we say almost every day. A phrase that reminds us how stinking lucky we are to have found our way here.

“We get to live here.”

Clay and Rain

Rain beats on this cabin like a drum. Even gentle little sprinkles sound like an oncoming tropical storm. And when the October downpour begins we have our own personal Metallica concert complete with a double bass drum.

But this little Shabin heats up quick, even if it loses it just as fast through single pane windows. It’s windows look out on trees, trees, more trees, and occasionally moose. We’ve heard wolves howl, grouse bellow, and magpies chitter. We’ve picked the cranberries and begun to wage war on what will be a never ending drainage problem.

I’m not sure what most people do first when they buy their first home. But somehow I don’t think the first priority is digging up the front yard. Before a cabin, shoot, before running water, we want a garden. It’s not a quaint little hobby here or an excuse to get our hands dirty. In a town where a ripe Avocado recently went for five dollars and 22 cents it’s a necessity to supply as much of your own food as possible.

The problem is, Gustavus isn’t all that conducive to growing food. It supplies food at bountiful quantities with fish, moose, berries, and wild greens. But for those that want to do a little less Paleo and a little more Agro, the trouble lies two centimeters beneath the “topsoil.”

Clay. As thick and gray and heavy as you can imagine. Three feet of it in some places. Some places are drier than others of course and some are blessed with property jutting up against the Salmon or Goode Rivers which provide drainage and swap the clay for a more palatable sand. But we are not so lucky. We’re on the wet side of a wet town in a wet climate in a temperate rainforest. When it pours our front yard becomes a lake and the path to the outhouse a stream. All thanks to the impenetrable clay which could give Patagonia a run for their money in the water resistance category. Rainwater hits the clay, balloons back to the surface, and drains as fast as a grouse crossing the road (which isn’t very fast).

There’s a few options. We can build everything on stilts and resign ourselves to never wearing anything smaller than an Xtratuff, or we can try to drain it, raise it, and work around it.

***

The shovel goes into the ground with a satisfying crunch. One advantage to the clay layer is there’s little in the way of roots. I jump on the shovel and feel it sink all the way down. After carving out a square foot I try to pry it out of the ground. In my mind I can already see the little clearing as a finished project. My neat little ditch running parallel to a garden overflowing with food, the envy of Gustavus. I blink and return to reality.

At some point in the not that distant past someone cleared out this little area, probably to lend a little light to the Shabin that sits on the northwest side. And perhaps of accomplishing what Brittney and I are setting out to do: feed themselves. But if they ever considered draining it they didn’t get very far. A couple truckloads of fill (a fancy word for sand and dirt that you pay for) had been brought in on the premise of raising the ground and creating a drainable surface. Besides bringing in some invasive reed canary grass however, the strategy had failed.

Fall’s not the best time to assess your land quality around here, everything’s soaked through. Step off the concrete and you’re in boot territory regardless. But even a handful of sunny days has failed to drain our future garden site. Each step brings water to the surface. Our water table is literally zero.

I grip the shovel tightly and heave the first square foot of clay free. It’s so heavy and waterlogged that I have to squeeze the shovel and bend at the knees to keep it from slipping out of my hands. I chuck it into the canary grass behind me on the premise of someday cutting it with a more arable soil for the garden. As I become acquainted with ditch digging Brittney brings wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of fill across scrap wood and dumps it on the roadcloth laid out in a rectangle. We figure a 17 x 17 foot garden is ambitious enough to start. Between the ditch and the fill we hope to drag the water down and rise above it, at least at this spot.

***

Since the glacier released it, our 4.2 acres have remained virtually untouched. Outside of the punched in road, the clearing, and the Shabin, not much in the way of “progress” has gone on here. We walk among the pines, watch them give way to hundred year old Spruce, and transition beautifully into an old Willow Sluice where Snipes nest in the Spring and Moose bring their calves. It may be wet and soggy, but they’ve managed just fine.

“We’re not owners, we’re guardians,” Brittney insists.

To her this is not our land simply because a piece of paper says so. Every jay, moose, and coyote is welcome in her domain. She has room for all of them and couldn’t sleep at night knowing she had displaced others for the betterment of herself.

“If you go with a stem wall (a building method where you build your house on a concrete pad),” Kim Heacox says, “they’ll come in and go to your home’s footprint and dig and dig and get all that clay out, and they’ll make it disappear.”

It sounds great on paper. A house built on sand and concrete. Contrary to the old bible parable, a house built on sand is just fine as it compresses nicely and doesn’t buck during frost heaves. We walk our home site and look behind us at the thick grove of trees that includes a couple of those hundred year old Spruce’s. We’re not sure how a Bobcat and Caterpillar gets through that, but it doesn’t bode well for our roommates. What if we did piers buried past the clay line and built our home on top of that? Working with nature instead of manipulating it.

***

By the end of the day we’ve carved out 170 square feet of garden space. We stand on our little gray island. Mud and water are incredibly still seeping up through the road cloth, but it’s a heck of a lot better. This is the only patch of land we plan on seriously altering. We figure feeding ourselves is a good enough reason.

That night I sit in at the table in our little Shabin. I look out the window and jump. Seven feet tall and chocolate brown, a moose stands feet from the ditch, munching away at the yellowing leaves of a Willow.

“Brittney.”

She creeps over and we peer out the window, speaking in whispers that she can probably hear.

“Welcome sweetheart.”

The moose strips the final branch clean and saunters down the driveway, her big hooves sinking in the gravel. A hundred feet down the trail she stops and resumes her grazing. I want her to stay forever.

The rain begins to fall again, that steady plunking against the metal roof. The ditch fills, the land seeps, the cranberries grow, and I watch from the shelter of our little porch.

The Bartlett River Miracle

September. In years past it’s meant digging out the crawlspace, filling the car, and early mornings in ferry terminals. But not this year. Or the year after this one. Or the next one. Now I’m digging out the fishing rod, filling the freezer, and spending mornings on the Bartlett River Trail.

Glacier Bay is a paddler’s park. There’s only a handful of maintained trails. The most popular of which is the Bartlett River Trail in Bartlett Cove. Just a few hundred yards from the lodge, it endures hundreds of footsteps as nervous visitors armed with bear spray make the mile and a half track to the mouth of the river.

But at seven in the morning in mid-September, we have the whole trail to ourselves. The speedometer on Dr. Zachary Brown’s pickup is busted, insisting that we’ve been going 115 m.p.h since he picked up me and Patrick Hanson. But car maintenance is never at the forefront of a Gustavian’s mind. Today we’re after something much more valuable. The three of us and Zach’s partner Laura Marcus park at the trailhead, grab our gear, and push into the woods. Our boots slosh through the mud, the only sound the creaks of backpack straps, the rattle of squirrels, and the quarrels of gulls.

We climb down a low sloping hill, an artifact of a different age, a glacial roadmap. Grand Pacific was here. Sitakaday, the ice bay is no more. But with loss comes life. We’re surrounded by Hemlock, Spruce, Devil’s Club, Blueberry, Hedgehog Mushrooms, dozens of species of moss and lichen. So much life, in large part thanks to the Sockeye, Pink, and Coho that run up the river every year with metronome-like precision. And I’ve come to take some of that life. We all have.

I spend my life in communion with this masterpiece, but as an observer. A silent watchman in the back of the room. But with the fishing pole clutched in the hand, I’m going to supplant myself in the middle of the performance. I’m no longer an audience member, I’m a player, and my role has the potential for catastrophe.

2017, a year that has infused those with a love of quiet places and open spaces with such terror, has a handful of marvelous anomalies. Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska had a banner year in the most abundant Sockeye fishery on earth. And the Coho of southeast are following suit. There are literally too many returning Coho for all of them to spawn. The commercial fisherman, sea lions, seals, bears, and eagles cannot eat them fast enough. Two vestiges of hope in a world where every environmental paper seems to be a harbinger of doom.

I lead our little quartet out onto the river. We’re a bunch of novices. Patrick carries a brand new rod he’s never casted and Laura landed her first Pink on the Salmon River the other day. Despite growing up in Alaska, neither Zach or myself are bursting with angling expertise. In fact I’d spent the better part of the month casting and retrieving with little to show for it. Thankfully Kyle Bishop took pity on me in a way few in the competitive world of fishing would have. He showed me his favorite fishing holes and advised me on everything from his preferred lures to proper vacuum packing techniques. From his generous shared knowledge and my tally of two Coho, I’m somehow the most “experienced.”

The first few times I’d fished the Bartlett I’d succumbed to an all too common mistake. As soon as I hit the river I’d begun to cast with the logic that all the fish must pass this spot. But Kyle had taught me differently. Don’t give in to temptation. Keep hiking, and when you think you’re there, hike a little more. And so we keep going, another forty minutes along the river bank. The trail shows signs of other commuters. River otter, black bear, coyote, and wolf. But the only occupants this morning are dozens if not hundred of Mergansers that lift off from the river as one, white wings shining in the early light.

We hop a tiny stream and past a wide river bed where hundreds of Pink salmon are spawning, carving long divots in the gravel stream to deposit eggs and sperm so there children can one day do the same. There work finished, they have nothing left to give. The flesh flaking from their bones, they succumb to the unrelenting current and drift back down the river until coming to rest on the bank.

At last I stop at the spot Kyle insists has been on fire all year. We begin the repetitive task of casting again and again. The high pitched whirl of line off the swivel, the gentle plop of the lure on the river, the click-clack-click-clack of the reel. For an hour we experience nothing but near misses. I nearly get one to the steep river bank but just as I reach for the salmon, the line snaps, taking the fish, my lure, and gear with it. We spread out up and down the shore, Zach disappears behind a big stand of Spruce. I’m situated between Patrick and Laura who stand about 200 yards away.

A huge splash comes from the river a dozen yards and front of Laura. I look over to see her reeling furiously, but nothing else comes of it. Assuming she either lost it or it was just one of the many leaping Pinks, I prepare another cast.

“David? Can you come help me?”

I drop my rod and, caution to the wind, grab my fillet knife and begin to run down the river towards her. There is a tension in our voices, a gritty determination with a tablespoon of excitement and, yes, fear. It’s a big fish. A big beautiful fish. And it runs on her, again and again making a break for the far side of the river. It’s undulating body sends up flashes of beautiful silver. But he’s no match for the rod of humanity. And at last he has nothing left to give. I hop down the bank ankle deep in water as she drags her catch over.

“Keep the tension on the line.”

I grab the line just above the Coho’s head and reach into my thigh pocket for my needle nose pliers. They’re small but heavy, and the thin handle gives me confidence I can land the blow that will end the fight once and for all. But before I do, I stare into his eyes.

Fish always look surprised. Those wide, unblinking eyes, mouth slightly open like someone has just jumped at them from a dark corner. I wonder how the hook feels in his mouth. How tired he must be to stop fighting. How I’m about to finish a miraculous story that started four years ago in this very stream. How this fish has been bucking the odds since before it was born when gulls were scooping up the eggs around him. How many nets, mouths, and lures it had dodged until, a dozen miles from home, he bit down on Laura’s. So close. There’s still time.

I swing.

The pliers make a dull hollow sound on his skull like a finished loaf of bread. I swing again. And again, and again. He stops squirming. I slip my fingers into his gills and out his mouth and with a final heave drop him on the river bank at Laura’s feet.

“What a beautiful fish.”

They truly are. Brighter than silver dollars on the sides and bellies, emerald green with black speckles on top. They seem to be fluorescent, the skin changing color as you turn them in the light. I explain how to cut the gills to ensure he bleeds out and doesn’t suffer.

“I want to do it.”

I expect nothing less of her. But before she does, Laura lays her hands on his head, whispers a few words of gratitudes, and with steady hands cuts the gills. I pull her lure out of his mouth and we set him on the grass.

“He may thrash a bit more,” I tell her, “but don’t worry, it’s just his nerves firing. He’s not suffering.”

Down the river the other way, a splash erupts in front of Patrick. Another one. I take off down the trail and the saga plays out again. Fight, let it run until it’s too tired to do anything but float in the current, bring to shore, lift, hit, gills, grass.

Patrick kneels before the fish and runs a hand down the lateral line. He strokes the fish, his head bowed as if in prayer. He cuts the gills, and sets it in the grass. We want every fish to die with dignity and grace, as little pain as possible. Each gift, each miracle treated with the upmost respect. Does it matter how an animal dies? I think so.

The bite is on. Again and again beautiful streaks of silver break the water. This is just the beginning. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions are behind these, some still queuing up in Cross Sound.

“How amazing that in 2017 there can still be this kind of abundance,” Zach marvels. In a few hours we have eighteen Coho on the river. We also have a three mile hike back. We line the fish up and take a picture to remember them buy. But no one wants to pose rod in hand over our kills. No one has designs of turning them into Facebook cover photos. Before we fill our backpacks, we sit down on the bank and eat lunch.

“I feel like we should say grace.” Says Laura. We agree. “Whether it be God, nature, or just plain luck, we thank you for this marvelous gift, that will sustain us through the winter and has brought us closer together as friends.”

The work is just beginning. Over the next two days we’ll dress, clean, fillet, package, smoke, and can every one of them. We’ll use the back bones for soup stock, take the scraps and sculpt them into burgers. But for now we sit and watch the river flow by and watch the Coho continue to swim by, pushing up against the tide so that, four years from now by God, nature, or just plain luck, we can do this again.

Skid Row

There’s a lot they don’t tell you about home ownership. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how bloody expensive indoor plumbing is. I’m not sure what it’s like for those in a “real” town, but here it’s downright horrifying. There’s no sewer system in Gustavus. Nah, we value Icy Strait far too much to simply let our drains flow into the ocean. Our dinner comes out of there for crying out loud. So we learned about septic tanks, and that leech fields don’t involve nasty little critters that suck blood. This is much worse. In the immortal words of Hank Lentfer, “if you wanna shit indoors, it’ll cost yah 17 grand.”

But we have an ace up our sleeves. No building codes. That’s right. No codes, and no property tax. And that will be our saving grace. No home inspector will give us a loan, sure. But if we’re saving 17,000 on something we don’t value all that much, we’d consider that a win. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering where I’ll spend the next fifty years pooping. Before this summer I’d thought a lot about where my water came from, where my food originated and how it was treated before it reached me. But I’d given little thought to where it went after it exited and reached the porcelain throne.

Like a lot of our ideas and schemes, it originated with the aforementioned Hank Lentfer and Anya Maier. The same couple that just hooked up running water in the last handful of years, have the best garden I’ve ever laid eyes on, and are considered borderline superheroes in the Cannamore household. In what must be considered the highest of honors, Hank and Anya gifted us their old outhouse.

This thing is a beast. To say it’s overbuilt would be an understatement. That’s not a criticism, Hank is a hell of a wood worker, and when it came to this outhouse he cut no corners. It’s a freaking battering ram and weighs about as much as one.

“Oh yea, it’s all yours,” he says beaming. “We just… well I never imagined moving it.” After a couple decades of dedicated use, it sure doesn’t look like it’s in a hurry to move. Pier blocks are nailed into all four legs and embedded deep in the ground. Hank hands me a Cat’s Paw and a crow bar and we begin to swing at the nails. Bit by bit, the nails holding the blocks and a roof the size of a Cessna come loose.

By now Patrick Hanson has shown up and Hank’s daughter Linnea is overseeing the whole operation. We remove the roof without a hitch and stare at the structure. I give it a gentle push and feel the weight of multiple 2 X 6’s, 6 X 6’s and plywood.

“I’m glad you built this the way you did.” I tell Hank, “or there’s no way that we’re inheriting this.”

“Almost all of it.” Hank snatches a sign hanging above the throne that proudly anoints it as The Thunder Hole. “This stays.”

Fair enough.

At last we get the bright idea to put the outhouse on its side and rest it on the back of a boat trailer. Hank, Brittney, Patrick, Linnea, Anya, and myself drag it across the Lentfer/Maier’s meadow and hitch it to the back of the truck and endure the longest quarter mile drive in human history down the road to our place. Patrick, Brittney, and I follow in the Pathfinder while Linnea rides in the bed of the pickup, ensuring the Thunder Hole doesn’t tumble over the side. Together we make up the most ridiculous parade in humane history, sweet little Linnea the Queen of Thunder Holes.

Hank drops the structure in our driveway.

“Where you want it?”

That, is a great question. And we’ve been at it for three hours already, Patrick has to go, we’re all hungry, and most importantly, we’re out of beer.

“I… don’t know yet. We can figure that out later.”

No one argues, and so she sits for the next month, covered with a tarp as the never ending summer rain pummels southeast Alaska.

The outhouse is ten feet tall and five by four feet. Like I said, a battering ram. And our ideal location is over roots and rocks and moss. I don’t know if she can be carried. And I see no way a boat trailer can maneuver the route we have in mind.

***

Patrick Hanson is maybe six feet tall, has a curlier head of hair than me, wears glasses, and is my best friend. He is boundless energy and botanical knowledge. Part Hobbit, part six-year old, loyal IPA drinking buddy, and always generous with his time and enthusiasm. Which is why he now stands before Thunder Hole (currently accepting new name suggestions) with Brittney and myself. Also with us is Ellie. Ellie is in Gustavus for the same reason the rest of us are. Because the world left her wanting. Unlike most of us, she didn’t come here with a job lined up. She took an even bigger jump and simply showed up. She and her friend Jessie will be the first tenants of the Shabin. We’ve been homeowners for less than two months and we’re already slumlords. But first they need a place to poop. And we’ve agreed that the end of a driveway is not a savory location. It’s a bright quartet, but none of us have the faintest idea how to get a big, bulky, thousand pound piece of wood fifty through fifty yards of uneven forest floor.

Left behind at the Shabin is a cornucopia of goodies, including four car tires. Our original idea is supported by all, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one. We try to balance the outhouse on the top of the upright tires and wheel it through the woods. As any engineer could have warned us, this fails miserably. The tires immediately wobble and the whole structure nearly crumbles to  the ground.

We need another brain session. And a moral boost. No one will accept straight payment for their help in Gustavus. But no one, NO ONE, will pass up free beer as compensation. We crack some Sierra Nevada IPA’s and like all good laborers, stare at the problem.

“I mean we could just lay it on the tires and and push it across.” Someone suggests.

“But with all that friction from the rubber?”

“It’d be a nightmare.”

We pick up a couple of 1 X 4’s Brittney and I had salvaged. “What if we laid these on top of the tires and shuffled the tires ahead when we needed to?”

No one has a better idea and our beers our empty. May as well try. What follows is one of the most innovative and redneck operations I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on. Patrick and I heave, Ellie and Brittney ho, and slowly, painfully, the outhouse slides across the wood, and along the tires. Every five feet we grab the tires and roll them forward to the girls who lay them down beneath fresh planks and the process repeats itself. It’s ridiculous, superfluous, and wonderful. We whoop and holler and cheer with every tire rotation. Patrick adopts a southern accent as he is known to do when he’s excited or fishing. And after a couple more beer breaks, the outhouse is situated next to the pier blocks. All that’s left to do is stand it upright and pray that the holes I dug the day before were measured correctly.

“But it still needs a name. We can’t finish if it doesn’t have a name.” Brittney insists.

“Skid row.” Patrick drawls in his accent. “Yee-ha, where you going? I’m going to Skid Row man.”

We look at the tires and the outrageous “road” we just took. No one’s going to top that. Skid Row it is. We stand Skid Row upright and wouldn’t you know it, three of the pier blocks are dead on. That’s 75%, I get a passing grade.

I adjust the final block, and we set old Row down. We step back and look at our creation. We’re covered in clay, sweat, dirt, and our hands are coated in some weird black paint that rubbed off one of the tires. We’re also elated.

“We just saved 17,000 dollars!” I yell as I drop a garbage can beneath the throne and shower the bottom with grass and sawdust. “Whose first?”

We finish our beer and begin to walk back out the road. We keep shooting covert glances to our right at the outhouse perched in the woods, still swelling with pride. But fifty yards down the road, just before it bends to the right we stop. I glance at Brittney and I can tell she’s thinking what I’m thinking. Patrick voices our thoughts.

“Wow, you can kinda see right in there can’t you?”

It’s my fault, 100% my fault. I’m the one that orientated the pier blocks. But sure enough, Skid Row’s seat is just visible from the road, meaning someday, eventually, one of us will be seated their when visitors come calling. And we laugh. Because what else can we do? No one has any desire to move Skid Row from its new home.

“That’s what tarps are for.” I insist as we walk away.

And a $20 tarp sounds a heck of a lot better than a $17,000 septic system.