Moonlit Orcas: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 4

ImageThe pub was empty in the early afternoon, a fine misting rain fell outside fogging the windows. It was early August, my first beer in a bar sat in front of me (God bless Canada’s drinking age) and it was quiet save for the low hum of a the muted baseball game, Blue Jays/Mariners in the background. For once in my life I wasn’t watching baseball, I hadn’t checked a Twins score in a week, granted this was partly due to the internet being down at the lab. Paul had dropped me off in Alert Bay an hour ago, leaving me with a handshake and the assurance that I was welcome back any time.

And now, after all the build up, all the preparation and all the work to get there, my time on Hanson Island was done. Five weeks that felt like a blur and still do. I really should have kept a journal. But two moments still stand out, burned into my memory. Most notably and embarrassingly was the first time I was dispatched to collect firewood:

A good bit of our time was spent collecting wood. Salvaging it, chopping it, and stacking it. Cedar was the prized cut. Burning hot, it was reserved for the wood stove, the catalyst in Helena’s phenomenal bread. Logging had been one of the biggest economic powers for decades and drifting trees came up and down the channel with the tide, like pleasure cruisers out for the day. They were terrifying to maneuver a boat around. As the logs floated they absorbed more and more water, causing them to slowly sink below the surface until they sat almost completely submerged, out of sight but not out of reach of a boat’s unsuspecting propellers. Should one of these logs happen to drift close to the lab though, someone had to be dispatched to retrieve it. It wasn’t just about getting enough wood for the day, or the week, but for the winter when you could go through a whole tree in a day trying to keep the biting winter wind out of the house.

The second evening on the island, one of these drifting logs floated down Blackney Pass on the ebbing tide sitting high in the water, still reasonably dry. Anxious to prove that I wasn’t just a brilliant research assistant but one of those rugged Alaskans everyone had heard so much about I leaped into a kayak and paddled out toward my quarry.

It had a deceptively larger diameter than I had anticipated though with the bottom of the log a good foot below the surface. Holding the coil of rope in my hands I very carefully leaned over to loop the rope around it and nearly fell straight into the water, soaking my entire left side. Here I was, in the fading light, in a leaky kayak with no life jacket, completely ill prepared for the task at hand. Slowly working my way down the log I reached the nub of a branch that had been sawed off. A good half foot remained though and I tied the rope around it. I’m not sure what knot I was tying but all my loops and knots and bows were sure to stay. Very slowly I paddled back toward the lab, It was amazing how far the current had taken me from the cove in just a few minutes.

Adrenaline now beginning to kick in I tried to paddle back upstream, my paddle on the right side interrupted by the log on every stroke. For a moment panic surged through my body and I imagined the log and I floating helplessly into the wide expanses of Johnstone Strait. Keeping the paddle on my left side though I paddled as hard as I could like it was a canoe. The kayak bumped into the log on every stroke, keeping me straight but slowing my progress. After about five minutes I was back at the mouth of the cove when an explosion from behind almost sent me back into the drink. I tried to turn around to see what on earth was behind me but the kayak rocked yet again and I gripped the log for dear life, my knees knocking together. What on earth was I doing out here? Was this my life now? Risking life and limb for some firewood? The humpback, that’s all it could have been behind me, never surfaced again and I very shakily paddled the rest of the way into the shadows. Only to stand up and fall into the water, my head banging on a barnacle encrusted rock. In the adrenaline I hadn’t realized my feet had fallen asleep. I dragged the log above the tide line, giving it a swift kick I regretted immediately. From the windows I could see Paul and Evan doing their best not to laugh when I looked their way. Welcome to the island rookie.

More beautiful and romantic were when the orcas came into range at night. Paul’s hyrdophones heard every noise in the ocean for miles around and didn’t discriminate. Boats, dolphins, tugs, waves crashing into the shore, and of course the orcas. Any time they made a peep it was up to someone to go to the lab, hit record, slap on the headphones, and listen. I learned to love the sleepless nights, watching the moon slowly move across the sky, reflecting off Blackfish sound as the early morning summer light slowly reappeared. Stay up long enough and just maybe Helena would surprise you with cinnamon rolls, steam still streaming out of them, icing oozing over the sides.

Those nights by yourself gave you plenty of time to think. I was due to return to Fairbanks in the fall, a place that could not be more different from the water drenched rain coast of British Columbia. I loved the climate, how the forest turned green with just a few hours of rain, every square inch filled with life, the greenery stretching all the way to the ocean before finally conceding to the power of salt water and tides. I needed to come back, not necessarily to this place, but to this climate. It was in the lab one night that Juneau first crept into my conscious. I had taken a chance, running off to a place I’d never seen, to live with people I didn’t know, and encounter things I hadn’t prepared for. Like rampaging humpbacks, invisible cougars, and those goofy boat engines and I was anxious to do it again.

One of my final night shifts saw the orcas take an unexpected turn into Blackney Pass and continue north into Blackfish sound, moving right past the lab. Helena and I were both up, and we put the headphones down for a moment and stepped onto the porch. The ocean was flat calm, there were no boats or waves, no light save for the half moon above us. From miles away we could hear them in the perfect silence. Their blows gliding across the ocean, echoing off the rocks.

We said nothing, words would have ruined it as we listened to them come closer and closer, Helena taps my arm, and in the moonlight I could see her pointing to a spot on the water, right where the moonlight was widest. A shadow moved across the beam of light, than another, and than three more as the pod all surfaced, their silhouettes illuminated for the briefest moment. And than the phantoms were gone, slipping back into the inky ocean. There’s the rustle of water as the waves close over the whales’ backs, and all is silent again. As if they were never there. I turn to Helena, a pair of tears running down my cheeks, my heart in my throat. I wanted to thank her and Paul for opening up their home, for letting me taste this life, for letting me be a part of something so much bigger than me but all I could do was smile.

I rub the fog off the inside of the window and make out the outline of the ferry pulling into the Alert Bay dock, the first step on my way back to the real world. I set the empty beer mug on the table, grabbed my duffel back, crusted with mud and dirt now, and trudge into the rain. On the ferry I snap a picture of the Alert Bay sign through rain streaked windows, and feel the boat slowly, painfully pull away. I slip on my headphones and settle back for the 45-minute ride, silently vowing to myself that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be here.

Crawling the Last Few Miles: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 3

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The engine sputtered, coughed, and died as the June Cove glided slowly to a stop on the calm water, bobbing in the channel between Alert Bay and Hanson Island. From my seat atop the cabin I spun around and peered down at the stern deck. There was no smoke or flame, nothing that would indicate we would need to start practicing a frantic dog paddle. The door to the helm slid open and Paul opened the engine hood, looking down into a maze of wires and metallic mystery. He pulled his wool hat off, running his hands through his thinning, long dark hair. Years later Paul would describe the Mercury engine as a, “big bloody monstrous thing.”

But right now the monster was pissed, we were almost exactly halfway between the lab and the Alert Bay boat harbor, and the sun was setting. After performing what he hoped would be an accurate amount of mechanical wizardry Paul moved back to the helm and the engine coughed and sprang back to life. The four other volunteers and I smiled as the June Cove slowly picked up speed. Less than a minute later though the engine quit again.

Again Paul marched onto the deck, this time glancing up at me and the kiwi, Shane who was perched on the roof of the cabin with me, “how well can you boys paddle?” he asked, a little laugh in his eye. Shane and I exchanged uneasy grins and I smiled back nervously, imagining how my mother would feel if I was lost at sea my fourth night in Canada.

Three more times the June Cove roared to life and died. A pod of Pacific white sided dolphins had begun following the wounded vessel, giggling no doubt at mans’ vain attempt to conquer this aquatic medium. Finally Paul threw up his hands and told us to get comfortable, the engine would run as long as the RPM’s were kept painfully low, and we slowly puttered to the lab, I swear a kayak passed us along the way.

An hour later we rounded the final point, and there, perched heavenly on the rocks just above the cove was the lab. Tucked back and nearly invisible among the fir and cedar trees was the house. Big bay windows overlooked the cove and Blackney pass, a tiny chimney sat on top, silt gray smoke pouring out, it was the picturesque homesteaders cabin. A board walk ran just above the jagged rocks of the intertidal to the “lab.” Much smaller, the lab had a wraparound porch that overlooked the pass giving a 180 degree view of the water and anything that moved up or down it. On the board walk was Paul’s wife Helena, her slender frame and flyaway white hair visible even from the water, a large husky at her side sent booming bark after bark flying across the cove, a marvelous welcoming committee.

Six years later there is still so much that vividly stands out from that first night. The mac and cheese and garden salad we had for dinner. Watching the sun set through those big beautiful bay windows, and just how easy the conversation was.

There were seven of us around the table that night representing five countries and different walks of life. Shane the New Zealander, slowly traveling around the world. Tomoko and Momoko, two girls from Japan where Paul was revered by many for his anti-whaling stance (and obviously hated by some). And Evan Landy, who, like me, was a biology major with an orca fascination that, like me, boarded on obsession. Helena was, interestingly enough, the only Canadian born citizen among us, who had been a school teacher in Alert Bay before meeting Paul.

I fell asleep that night not in the tent I had lugged all those miles, but on the wraparound porch overlooking the ocean, the occasional waves lapping at the rocks and the soft underwater noises emitting from the speakers connected to the six hydrophones strategically placed around the lab. Passively listening for the orcas to come into range.
I dozed off almost instantly, reveling in the smell of salt on the air, the intimate sounds of the ocean, both above and below, and the magnificent realization that I was finally, actually, here.

This Isn’t a Goodbye, It’s a See You Later

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Although I’ve only lived in Juneau for five years, this place is my home. If a place could understand how much it meant to me, this is what I would tell it:

Thank you. You have demanded more of me in such a short amount of time than any other place I’ve been. The day I dropped my mom and sister off at the airport after they accompanied me on my move down, it finally hit home that this was my chance. I was alone and ready to make my mark on the world. This was the first time I experienced this feeling and it was sweet.

I’ve met some of the best people since that day. People who have shown me how to channel my passion and energy, and people who have taught me not to take myself too seriously and that it’s good to laugh at all of life’s imperfections.

My first year here was hard. I felt out of place, too young, and too ignorant. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I decided to stay but what I do know is that it had a lot to do with the people that I interacted with every day.

A few months back, I got a tattoo of a Sitka spruce on my arm. Many people have asked me its significance and I usually don’t have the time to explain. I usually say something about how I’ve always loved the forest but that is only a part of its story. That tree represents my growth in this place. It is meant to be a constant reminder to me of the love and passion I have learned to have for life and adventure. To remind me to always follow my heart and to honor my soul.

I am sad to leave you and the people here but I know I’ll be back. You have completely captured my heart and helped to shape me into the person I am today. I hope that all of you reading this can think of your personal Juneau.

I want to encourage all of you to follow your hearts; age be dammed. Honor your dreams and believe in what your soul tells you. Often times it knows better than our mind. This will require you to open yourself up to vulnerability. This is a good thing…

One of the most profound and yet simple things somebody has every spoken to me was at the end of a yoga class as I laid in shavasana:
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” –Lindsay Bloom

 

-Brittney

 

Orcas’ Love the Beatles Too: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 2

Car after car drove slowly by, rolling to a stop at the ticket window, the line slowly growing until at least ten cars were waiting to catch the evening ferry from Port McNeil to Alert Bay. I was consciously aware that any car could have Paul Spong behind the wheel, and my lack of preparation was embarrassing. Briefly I considered just walking up to the counter and asking if they knew the good doctor. But some piece of pride, the same piece that insisted on camping on the ground with hungry cougars prowling about kept my butt firmly on my bag.

I stared into each car, in what I’m sure was a very creepy manner, trying to make out a silhouette, as if he’d be holding a sign to the window announcing: “Dr. Paul Spong! Orca Guy! All lost kids from Alaska please follow me!” I gave up trying to see inside the cars and instead started to wonder, “what sort of car would Paul Spong drive?”

Born in New Zealand, he’d earned a P.H.D in the neurological field at UCLA, and moved to Canada in the 70’s to take a position at the University of British Columbia. Part of the contract involved doing work with Skana, one of the first orcas to be successfully captured and was being kept at the Vancouver Aquarium. Paul devised a simple experiment intended to measure the visual acuity of the giant mammal. But his life changed forever when, after thousands of trials, Skana began to give the wrong answers. Not randomly, but one hundred percent incorrect.

For the first time, Paul found himself the subject or the experiment and he was enthralled. His workload piling up at the lab, he couldn’t pull himself away from the whale. He quickly learned that auditory stimulation was a much greater reward for Skana than food. What came in the following months was a melody of tunes as Paul played everything from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Bach. Skana loved them all. Paul was forced to accept that Skana was much more intelligent than any other terrestrial mammal he’d come in contact with. She was almost certainly, going crazy in her little pool, her calls reverberating and echoing off the concrete walls, with just a few humans for company. Capable of speeds up to 30 knots, Skana was resigned to swimming in slow circles day after day. It was apparent to Paul what needed to be done: Skana needed to go home.

But when he did present his findings, a storm of controversy followed at the aquarium. They didn’t want Skana to be a sentient intelligent being. They wanted the equivalent of an aquatic dog that would do tricks and keep people coming through the turnstiles. Paul was quickly becoming public enemy number one and was finally given an ultimatum: “you can check into a psychiatric ward willingly or not.”Undaunted by his controversial findings (orcas were at the time considered little more than mindless killing machines), Paul walked out the door. Within months, he found what he was looking for. Wild and free orcas to follow and study, in their natural habitat.

Now, 30 years later, he was driving onto the Port McNeil ferry for what to be the thousandth time while I was desperately trying to decipher, what kind of car a pioneer in the world of orca research would drive. Finally an old slightly rusted Subaru looking car pulled onto the pier, every seat save the drivers’ was stuffed with boxes so high, I couldn’t see inside at all. There was something about it though, the character, the age, or just the fact that I couldn’t imagine Paul driving a huge lifted pickup with a bunch of logs in the back that convinced me.

The car stopped thirty feet in front of me. I walked over just as Paul got out to hand his ticket to the teller, “You’re Paul Spong aren’t you?” I asked. He turned and looked up at me.

“He’s shorter than I thought.” Was the first thought that crossed my mind.

“I’m sorry, do I know you,” he asked. For the briefest moment my stomach fell. There’d been a miscommunication, I wasn’t supposed to come, I had the wrong guy, I’d braved Cinnabon, the bus station, and cougars for nothing. But a look of recognition crossed his face, “Oh that’s right, you’re David, yes?” I smiled, and felt the jittery weak kneed feeling you get when you shake the hand of your hero.

“Yea Paul, I’m David, it’s great to meet you. I can’t believe I’m here.”

Boats, Busses, and Cougars: My First Journey to Hanson Island. Part: 1

In the last nine months I’ve learned how to carry three plates of food at once, how to make a passable latte, and how to describe where the hell Hanson Island is in the amount of time it takes to make change for a tall caramel mocha with whip. But since there are no lines or lunch rush on the internet, I’ll happily go into more detail now about the island, the lab you can find there, and the man that started it all. There aren’t that many ways to reach the island, it’s not like Alaska Airlines and Northwest offer nonstop service or anything. So I’ll share the way 18-year old David got there in the summer of 2008:

A flight from Anchorage to Seattle, a celebratory cinnabon and a thirty minute flight got me to Vancouver with thirty pounds of sugar in my stomach and a maze of public transportation between me and my hostel. Three buses and two trains later, lugging a fifty pound Army duffel bag (I had yet to discover the miracle that is expedition backpacks) and I was in the heart of Vancouver. I couldn’t find that hostel again if I tried. My reward was a room the size of a closet, that had last been cleaned sometime during the Reagan Administration, and a broken air conditioner that seemed to welcome in the late June humidity with open arms; I’d never felt better.

The next morning, I boarded a greyhound bus leaving from the most stereotypical bus station of all time. Complete with filthy bathrooms, empty liquor bottles and an abandoned bag of weed under one trash can. The greyhound took me to the ferry and across the channel to Vancouver Island and another seven hours north to the tiny logging town of Port McNeil. The road along the eastern side of Vancouver Island is punctuated by coastal towns; Parksville, Courtenay, Fanny Bay (giggles), Cumberland, and Campbell River. Right after Campbell River though, highway 19 veers sharply inland through the rigid, majestic mountain range that composes Vancouver Island’s backbone. For two hours there are no towns or ocean views, just a never ending tunnel of trees, with whitecapped mountains peaking through the green framed windows. Port McNeil, is the second to last stop on the line, with only Port Hardy further to the north. It’s also the nearest the bus could get me to Hanson Island. With bus to submarine conversion technology still being decades away.

I planned to spend the night in Port McNeil and it was just another mile walk, dragging my duffel behind me to the campground and the campground host who, upon learning that I planned to sleep in a tent, felt it wise to inform me that there were three black bears…. and a cougar prowling about the campsites on a nightly basis.

Cougar? What the hell is a cougar? Black bears, fine. Alaska was filled with the mischievous spry critters. In the trees, in the undergrowth, occasionally in a garbage can. But cougars were a whole different animal, no pun intended. I was one year into a degree in wildlife biology and I had no clue what to do with a large cat. I could explain how it’s muscles received oxygen and how it’s cells had divided as it grew in it’s mother womb, but nothing that would help me if it came knocking on my tent flap at three in the morning.

But I was eighteen, naïve, and feeling invincible. I threw down my credit card and asked for one cougar free campsite. Walking to my site I passed two teenage girls, excitedly reliving their thrilling encounter last night with….. the cougar. I’m sure they were exaggerating its snarling and charging behavior though. My night was cougar free and I fell asleep with steak, potatoes, and rice in my belly thanks to the sympathetic retired couple across the camp who took pity on me after my bowl of cooking ramen fell into the fire. Putting my tent away the next day I happened to look up and found a black bear looking back as he stood near the dumpster fifty feet away. After all the jungle cat talk though a bear felt almost tame, I shrugged and went back to packing my tent.

All I had to do now was catch a ferry to Alert Bay, the miniscule village on the comma shaped island of Cormorant Island, just a couple miles to the east. But that was as far as B.C’s public transportation would take me. Because my final destination was not a city or a town, there is no dock, road, or parking lot. Just a tiny little unnamed cove with a trio of small buildings constructed in homage to the 1970’s back to the earth design.

This is the place known as Orca Lab. Paul Spong and Helena Symonds home and research station. Strategically placed at the mouth of Johnstone Strait, the lab overlooks Blackfish Sound, the highway in which 200+ orcas swim down every year, chasing salmon. I had arranged to meet Paul at the ferry terminal and sat on my duffel bag bouncing in anticipation watching cars drive onto the ferry bound for Alert Bay and realized that I had one small problem. I had no idea what Paul Spong looked like.

Nissan Tetris: 20 days to go

Everything we own has to fit in a 1996 Pathfinder. This includes, one cat (Porter) who feels it is his god given right to move freely throughout the cabin, fasten seatbelt light be damned. A rabbit (Penny) and her cage (excuse me, Brittney insists we call it a house), and the two of us. Our bed is long gone, we’ve never owned a dresser that wasn’t made of cheap plastic, and our entertainment system has been those two fur balls we’ve shared our lives with the past two years.

So when we moved out of our cozy (a nice word for cramped) studio apartment in January to house sit until moving day, I thought decluttering would be a breeze. The mattress and end table were gone within hours of a craigslist post and seemingly bag after bag of discarded and forgotten memorabilia was dropped unceremoniously into the dumpster. So when the day came to move our few remaining possessions from the Mendenhall Apartments into the house we’d call home for the next few months, we were terrified to discover it still took three loads to remove everything. We were over capacity, by a lot. And Penny’s cage house wasn’t even set up when we moved it.

And so we’ve spent the last few months enjoying the luxuries of modern civilization such as electric heat, big screen TV’s, ESPN, and Fred Meyer while trying to part ways with more of our stuff. And yet there are things that, incredibly are just hard to let go of. A stack of birthday cards that spans a decade, a high school basketball shirt, and a pile of text books that weigh half a ton but I kept swearing I’d go back and read some day. But in the past two weeks we’ve finally said goodbye to all of them and the moment of truth is three weeks away.

The pathfinder, dubbed “Tui” after the sweet singing song bird of New Zealand needs a serious cleaning before we can actually test how much she can carry but I’m now confident it’s all going to fit. If not, we have until June 28th to say goodbye to whatever else needs to go, whether we deem it significant or not. We spent last night pouring over the highway between Skagway and Seattle, piecing together campsites, food options, and trying to realistically estimate how many miles we can cover with a hyperactive cat crawling all over us. If all goes to plan, the Seattle skyline should come into view some time on July 2nd, the first 1,731 miles under our belt.

I’ll be in Seattle for two weeks before setting out for what will, ultimately be the final destination for the four of us come October; Hanson Island, British Columbia. Through this website we hope to maintain a link to the outside world, and give people a glimpse at what we’ll be doing on our own little slice of heaven throughout the coming winter. We feel we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to grow and challenge ourselves in a way that we never have before, and I for one, could not be more excited or nervous.

It’s my hope that, with just under three weeks before we board the ferry and say goodbye to the city and people that we’ve grown to love so much in the past five years, I can give some background on the place we’ll call home, and how we came up with this hair brained scheme in the first place (spoiler alert: alcohol was involved). But for now, the words of John Muir, one of the greatest explorers of our time seem most appropriate, “We must risk our lives in order to save them.”

David Cannamore