The Hardest Goodbye Yet

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


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


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


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


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


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


Thanks Alaska

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

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

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

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

Cryptic Canadian Road Signs

We awake early on day two, relieved to discover we’d made it through the night without a bear investigating our cat food soaked tent. We disassemble the tent like a pit crew. If we learned one thing from New Zealand, it was how to get our beloved little tent stuffed back into it’s bag in just a couple of minutes. We throw everything back into the car and leave Teslin Lake, a million mosquito’s, and a quart of blood behind by nine o’clock.

Fifty miles down the road leads to gas stop number one. Being the OCD type that I am I’d mapped out our feel stops in a meticulous and embarrassing way weeks in advance. Fueling in Canada is a giant tease. You glance at the price and your heart leaps. Here we are, in the middle of nowhere, and gas is just a buck fifty-three! What riches! We’ve budgeted for nothing. Honey! Run in and buy the finest box of wine this gas station has to offer!

But than reality returns, you’ve been fooled by America, it’s damn stubbornness, and the Imperial system. There are 3.79 liters in a gallon. $1.53 x 3.79 = $5.80/gallon. There is weeping, gnashing of teeth and you stand there, pump in hand, begging the numbers to stop ticking up.

The weather is fantastic with just enough clouds punctuating the sky to keep the sun from baking us as we make our way south along the Alaska highway. Whomever is riding shotgun has one primary objective, keeping Prince Porter happy. He continues to bounce back and forth between driver and passenger and occasionally makes a bid to crawl under the wheel toward the gas and break pedal, just to make sure we’re paying attention.

When I was one, my parents and I moved to Alaska and we spent ten days driving the Alaskan highway with me strapped firmly in my car seat. As I grab Porter after his fifth attempt to control the gas pedal I solemnly vow to never attempt that with my hypothetical children. One hyperactive kitty was enough. At least we could scruff him if we had to. For Penny the rabbit, life had not changed in the slightest. She lounged comfortably right behind the driver’s seat. Food, water, and litter box less than half a jump away. Every time I glanced back I was met by two big brown eyes staring intently into the back of my seat.

The biggest battle though was the CD player. The 1996 Pathfinder had been welded long before the reign of MP3s, bluetooth, and FM transmitters. Our phones and iPods sat helplessly in our backpacks. So we went old school, burning CD after CD and cranking the volume out of the one good speaker on the passenger side. Tragically, she must have been built before anti-skip technology as well, and every jolt or bumpy road would cause the CD to skip so maddeningly one of us would angrily punch the power button. We turned off the Alaskan highway and onto highway 37, the Cassiar highway and began to head south. This was so entertaining we almost didn’t need music anymore. The road narrowed, the concrete cracked, and the dividing lane disappeared. Two miles in we rounded a corner sending gravel into the trees. I looked ahead to see a miniscule red square crudely propped up on sticks next to the road, maybe six inches high. By the time I opened my mouth to ask Brittney’s opinion we’d flown past it and into the hidden pothole it was “marking.” Thus was our introduction into Canadian caution signs.

We spent the day navigating the highway, constantly watching for red caution squares. We reached Kinaskan Lake campground that evening and were greeted by a gorgeous lake reflecting the sun, clouds, and mountains. We “splurged” on wood for a campfire. When gas is $5.78/gallon, five bucks for wood feels like a steal. Porter promptly dove into the woods attempting to hunt squirrels and failing terribly. A feeling of peace began to fill me. The stress and doubt of the day before slowly being replaced with excitement. We were living the life that we had talked of since we’d returned from New Zealand. We had to be the oddest vegabonds the campsite had ever seen with the prowling kitty and curious bunny that kept sticking her head out of the tent. But as the fire crackled and the evening light made the lake glow, I knew we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Alaskans Who Don’t Have Guns

The Canadian customs officer glances at our passports, and peers through sunglass covered eyes into our rusting, beloved pathfinder. I’m acutely aware of the not so sweet smell of cat urine permeating from the back seat. We’d unceremoniously shoved Porter into his cat carrier ten minutes ago and he responded in kind, promptly pooping and peeing to voice his displeasure. We’ve been on the road an hour.

“Destination?” He finally asks.


He gives our car another glance, his eyebrows furrowing doubtfully. I resist the urge to tell him that she may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts and that she can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Do Canadians even watch Star Wars?

“Visiting?” He asks looking past the hissing kitty to the boxes piled within the Nissan Tetris.

“Moving,” I answer. If he’s giving one word questions I’m giving one word answers.


This is becoming more complicated than I expected, I say something about wanting a change, how we’ve lived in Alaska our whole life and wanted to try something different but he looks skeptical. What? Don’t people do that around here.

“Where’re your guns?”

I’m confused, I have a pet rabbit in the backseat, clearly I am not a hunter. “We don’t have any.”

Now he’s completely thrown. Every Alaskan stereotype has just blown up in his face. We’re one bad, “Russia from my house” joke away from destroying U.S/Canadian relations. “Why don’t you?” he asks.

So it is a stereotype type game than is it. Perhaps I should call him officer Do Right, ask where his red uniform, goofy hat, and 2×4 to the face were. But I want to make it to Teslin Lake without a full body cavity search. “We just don’t.”

Ten long seconds slip by, than without a word he walks into his little house, passports in hand. I look at Brittney in the passenger seat who looks as surprised as I do about the lengthy questioning. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” I think, “but this guys’ sure making me feel like I did.” Finally our Canadian friend trots back out of the house, returns the passports, and is already walking back inside as he tells us, “drive safe.”

The Canadian side looked just like the U.S side as we wove our way down the valley and toward the town of Carcross. We free Porter from the clutches of his cat carrier and allow him to again roam free. For the next four days he would shift from my lap to Brittney’s with occasional forays onto the little bed we had so painstakingly constructed and set aside for him the night before we left.

But we were finally on the road, putting miles behind us. As the adrenaline from our high stakes border crossing wore off though we finally began to feel the effects of the 3:45 alarm that morning. We’d been parked in front of our ferry promptly at 5 am for the seven o’clock departure and sucked down as much caffeine as possible so we could say goodbye to our beloved Juneau. It had been fourteen hours since that alarm though, and the four hours of sleep the night before were catching up.

We cruise through Carcross and turn off the main road bound for Whitehorse and instead make our way up a skinny two lane one, a shortcut to the Alaska highway. The realization of what we’re doing begins to hit home. I glance in the rearview mirror and see every material possession I own. Some books, some clothes, camera, rock climbing gear, and…. that’s it. What on earth am I doing? It finally connects that I don’t have a home. I drive a few more miles missing Juneau, the glacier, the Rookery, everything that made life so comfortable and easy. I take a few deep breaths and look in the passenger’s seat.

Brittney has her head back and eyes closed, a look of peace and joy on her face. In her lap, his head resting on the door, is that stinking cat that we love way to much. And just behind me, her cage taking up more room than any of our stuff is Penny the bunny. I may not have a house, but in that rusty, beat up, and reliable Nissan Pathfinder was all I needed to make anywhere I am home.

Our car zips up the road and makes it onto the Alaskan highway, we hang a right, bound for the Timberpoint Campground, the first of four nights we’d spend on the road. We finally reach the site at 7 to find a wide stretch of mosquito infested grass overlooking a lake. We’re so tired we don’t even care and set up the tent in record time. With the wind beginning to howl and the rain becoming heavier we make perhaps our biggest mistake of the day. We cram ourselves, the pets, their food, and litter box into our tiny two person tent. The wet cat food is immediately flipped over and a gust of wind rips our poorly hammered stakes out of the hard rocky ground, making the whole tent shake violently.

With the pets still inside Brittney and I rush out, dragging the tent across the ground to a spot we pray is softer. Of course we don’t have a hammer so we grab the next best thing; the nalgenes, and begin furiously pounding the stakes into the earth. As the wind roared, the cat meowed, and the mosquitoes still managed to bite us in the face I look over at Brittney, her face down swinging with all her might.

“Hey,” I call over the wind and she looks up. “I may be reconsidering our life choices here.”

Brittney smiles, throws her head back and laughs.

Every Minute From This Minute Now, We Can Do What We Like Anywhere

I do most of my thinking while I’m jogging. And most of that time I’m trying to decide what to write about next (or baseball, I think a lot about baseball). Since the day we started the blog, I’ve been mulling how to write my farewell to Juneau. I could write about my ten favorite memories, or the people that have impacted or changed my life the most, or whales, I almost decided to just default to whales. But how can you capture a place, it’s meaning, and it’s significance by simply rattling off a list of names, locations, and events? For me, that doesn’t do Juneau justice.


Driving down Egan towards the bridge I stared south to the mountain range beyond the Taku River, trying to commit the image to memory and not swerve into oncoming traffic at the same time. But no matter how hard I tried to memorize the view, the shape of the peaks, their contrast with the field of greenery on Douglas Island, and the suns’ sparkling diamonds on Gastineau channel, the image fades. We look away and become distracted, the picture blurring and distorting. In a year you could show me a picture of that channel and the mountains beyond and I would probably recognize it. But heaven forbid I try to describe or recreate the picture in my mind.


It is, tragically, how our memories are. The harder we try to hold on to pictures and moments, the quicker they seem to slip into some buried folder in the back of our minds. Instead, I will try to remember the way Juneau made me feel. The emotions it dug up, the feelings and passions it drove to the surface, and the influence it will have on me for the rest of my life.


I came here because it was still Alaska, it had a university, and it wasn’t Fairbanks. It was my three step selection process and precious little thought went into it. I just knew I had to get out, try something new, and that I couldn’t handle another winter of darkness and 40 below. I arrived brimming with nerves, self doubt, and little confidence. I felt pressure to prove myself in class, find a research job, and be successful. It was turning me into a nervous wreck. I had to have life figured out and understood, and had to have it now.


But Juneau started to quell those demons before the ferry even hit the dock. My welcoming committee featured paired breaching humpbacks on a 70 degree day. I began to feel a level of peace and belonging just a few nights later, camping on the beach as the echos of breathing humpbacks ricocheted off the rocks. I began to relax and listen to myself. I accepted David for David. From curly hair to gangly limbs. I became comfortable in my own skin, and stopped asking “what should I be getting out of life,” and instead wondered, “what do I want out of life?”


And I think those are the emotions I’ll leave Juneau with. I have grown to embrace myself for who I am and where I’m going. I know that I don’t need an office or a career if I don’t want one. That as long as I’m happy with myself and my direction it’ll be alright. So now, five years later, it’s almost unbearable to leave. And when I stop and think that everything I own is going to be crammed into a car in just two short days it makes my head spin and eyes well up. But Juneau made me this way, shaped me to one day leave her. She gave me the bravery and strength to walk away. And for that I’ll be forever grateful


So Saturday morning I will stand on the stern deck of the ferry and watch Auke Bay pull out of sight. I’ll follow the road past Eagle Beach, Bird, Gull, and Benjamin Island, and slowly past Berner’s Bay. I’ll soak in as much as I possibly can and one last time, remember exactly how Juneau made me feel.

Our Best Ideas Are Imagained in Bars

I wrote Paul the next day, and after 48 hours of constantly refreshing my email, got the answer I needed, “you and Brittney are more than welcome to come work next summer.” We celebrated the only way Juneau folk no how. We threw on our nicest Xtra-tuffs, and found a bar. It was as if countless doors had just cracked open. We could do that expedition kayaking trip in Canada we’d always talked about, hike the Pacific Crest trail, move to Seattle, get a caretaking position. Caretaking, it always seemed to come back to that. There was such an idle romanticism about it. Imagining a winter in some tiny log cabin. The wind, snow, and waves buffeting and rattling the walls and windows, as we curled around the wood stove, spruce wood crackling heartily. It was an easy subject to get lost in by your third glass of wine and fourth IPA, but somehow, it just kept on returning to the front of our minds. Our best ideas are imagined in bars.


Shortly after Paul’s answer, I’d sent word to Evan, the British fellow I’d met at the lab, announcing I’d be making my triumphant return. What happened next can be credited to God, karma, or the universe, but regardless, remains one of the biggest miracles of my life.


“They’re looking for someone to watch their place over the winter,” he wrote, “how cool would it be to be there for a year?”


I stared at the computer screen. This was a movie, stuff like this doesn’t just happen. Your dream job doesn’t just randomly appear in your dream location, two weeks after you decide you’re going back. Brittney barely got in the door before the question was out of my mouth, and I still may have been hyperventilating to much to get out anything beyond, “Paul’s… lab… caretake…. winter.” But when I finally calmed down enough to speak coherently again, I still couldn’t get the entire question out entirely.


“Yes,” she interrupted, “why are we even discussing this? It’s happening.”


The one trouble with communicating with Paul and Helena is, even in the year 2013, the internet on Hanson Island has a tendency to self combust on a semi weekly basis. This can lead to unanswered facebook messages, missed skype calls, and at times, weeks between successful contact. This was one of those times as I crafted a carefully worded letter via facebook, hit send, and waited. Days passed. I watched whales, Brittney paddled, and I checked my messages as soon as my butt hit the sofa every night. And it is funny how we get our answer when we least expect it and need it the most.


Which is exactly what I needed on a rainy and foggy August day. There was no flying, the whales were far from caffeinated, and I was escorting 14 people that varied from disappointed to fuming that Alaska had the audacity not to reenact a National Geographic episode for them. But what I remember the most was the rain. It was the classic southeast Alaska drizzle, clouds wrapped snugly around the trees, everything you touch drenched. Brush against a devils club leaf and you’d be wringing your pants out the rest of the day. Even after you wiped your hands on a towel, the moisture seemed to cling to your fingers, beading up and evaporating, making your fingers awkward and clumsy. The van’s windows fogged up immediately so when I tried to dramatically point out the first view of the Mendenhall Glacier, all anyone saw was gray. I smiled sheepishly as they walked off into the mist and rain, praying they would find a bear in the salmon stream. As soon as the door closed I slumped onto one of the seats and pulled out my phone.


It was just habit now to load facebook and hold my breath, waiting for the little message sign to pop up. I glanced at the screen, double taked, and looked again. And there it was, the message that threw the door wide open, tearing it off its hinges. The pets were welcome and so were we, all winter long if we could handle it.


The rain didn’t matter anymore, or the grumpy people, the long diving whales, or the fact that I had just knocked a bottle of water over and into my boot. In my mind we were already Canadians, already taking the June Cove into Alert Bay for supplies, perched on a frosty observation deck watching the sun rise. It didn’t matter that it was more than a year away, we were closer than ever to living out a dream that we had only dared talk about deep into the adult beverage of our choice. But more than anything it was empowering. We didn’t need careers, 9-5’s or a house to do what we loved. Just a little spot on a rock to call are own. To challenge ourselves, and see what we were really capable of.


I can’t imagine how those people must have felt, climbing back onto the bus, cold, wet, and frustrated. They must be still trying to figure out, why was their guide was suddenly so damn happy and grinning from ear to ear.

These Are the Places I Will Always Go

So, why than, did it take me six years to go back? What could possibly have kept me away from orcas by moonlight, leaky kayaks, and nights rocked to sleep by the whisper of an ebbing tide? My problem? I listened. In the months after I returned home I was told by teachers, my peers, adults, and the world in general that, while my journey was a great story and adventure, that was all it could be. I needed a real job, security, a 401K, a mortgage and three mini David’s running around eventually. And for years afterward I bought it, and tried to push myself into that square peg.


I busted my butt my sophomore year, taking 35 credits and somehow got the highest GPA of my collegiate career. And for the second time in my life, I decided to take a chance, and transferred from 40 below and 18 hours of darkness, to the rain soaked, humpback infested world of Juneau. And while the scenery may have changed, I still felt an obligation to the same life goals, because, well, that’s what you were supposed to do. I got a job in Glacier Bay my first summer in southeast studying humpbacks. It should have been my dream job, a foot in the door to a career with the National Park Service. But, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t relight the fire. My bosses were great, the venue breathtaking, and the work challenging. But I struggled with the scientific and calculated way everything was done. Standing on the boat, bobbing in the chop created by a juvenile humpback breaching again and again. I wanted to cheer, to whoop, the nature worship bubbling just below the surface. But I felt I couldn’t. Maybe it was unfair to compare the whole situation to my brief time at OrcaLab two summers ago, but it just didn’t fit.


I remember the first time orcas swam past the lab that summer. Paul, camera in hand leaning so far over the rail of the porch I thought he’d fall into the ocean, hollering at the whales as if it was the first ones he’d ever seen. I wanted that raw emotion, that childlike wonder and joy that bubbled over like a pot on the stove. But I kept searching, opening doors and closing them.


I returned to Juneau, met the love of my life, and married her. Two months later we ran off to New Zealand for three months and lived. Spending way to much money, learning how to milk cows, and having the most important conversation of our life. In a town called Rotorua, over strawberry milkshakes, we finally voiced what both of us had been burying, maybe for years. We didn’t want careers, the idea of being tied down to one place to long terrified us, and as far as kids… a cat and a rabbit seemed like plenty right now.


For me, the next location was obvious. It had been in the back of my mind for years, waiting for its chance to emerge. We returned to our seasonal jobs in the tourist industry. Brittney a kayak guide, and me a guide on a whale watching boat, our third season in tourism. In July we hiked Mount Roberts, flying past the tram, trying to leave the masses of people as far behind as possible. We reach a small outcropping of rock and get comfortable, our dialog has been brief and abbreviated. After hours in the woods together we know what the other needs. If you passed us on the trail you’d assume we were fighting. We don’t hold hands, there’s never much joking, laughing, or talking, not on our hikes anyway. It was more of a joint meditation, taking solace and peace in knowing the other was healing with every step. I remember going hours on the Abel Tasman trail in New Zealand with us barely saying a word and being so thankful I wasn’t alone.


We talked about the cruise ships, sitting below us in Gastineau Channel, and our never ending discussion about how we feel about the industry. Were we exploiting the land we loved or were we ambassadors? Was standing on one of 35 boats, preaching the wonders and magnificence of a humpback worth the bellow of twin 350 engines in the water? Words start tumbling out of my mouth, frustration, confusion, and guilt. The words of a man who can’t do it anymore.


Like she always does, Brittney just listened. Letting my words and troubles wash over her as the yoke loosened from my shoulders. She let me go until I was spent, head in my hands, still staring down at the boats. How did they still look so big from up here?


“You need a break,” she finally said. “If you don’t know that what you’re doing is right, that it’s not helping, we need to find what is right, what is helping.”


I nod, the next question holding hopes, dreams, and fantasy in its answer. “I need to go back.” I say, it’s not a statement, it’s a question. We were a team, bound at the hip, and I could do nothing if she didn’t go with me.


“Back to Canada, to Paul’s?”


“Next summer, I can’t believe it’s been five years. I never thought I’d be gone so long. I guess I kind of lost my way, but that’s alright,” I turn and smile, “it led me to you. I want to show you this place that means so much to me.”


She just smiles, “if that’s where you need to go that’s where we’ll go. I want to see it with you.”


Words catch in my throat, the emotions dragging them back to my stomach. Fortunately I didn’t need any as my wife, confidant, and best friend laid her head on my shoulder and wrapped her arms around me. I looked, south down the channel, past the cruise ships and habitation, toward the wild and untamed Taku and Stephens Passage. I could almost hear the orca’s calls, ringing in my ears. I thought of mornings on the observation deck, runs in the woods, Helena’s cinnamon roles, and even the ornery June Cove. It may have taken me five years to figure out, and six to finally put it together, but I was finally going home. And this time, I wouldn’t be coming alone.