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.