Tag Archives: Alaska

Tangible Progress

Light is fading. Beneath the tarp the tape measure’s black dashes are starting to blur together. Brittney huddles over the top of the tape, her nose almost touching it. Every few seconds I hear the carpenter’s pencil scratch against a two by four. I bend another 20-foot piece of rebar and drop it into the forms. For the last two years the cabin has been a figment of our imagination. It exists on graph paper, our minds, our hearts. But soon it’s will be physical. A sign of what Melanie Heacox calls, “tangible progress.”

For the last hour snow has been falling. Under normal circumstances the first snowfall would be cause for celebration. An excuse to drink coffee and watch the world go white and quiet. Tonight I’m cursing it. Concrete needs to stay above freezing after it’s poured. Special blankets can be placed on top of the pour, holding the heat produced by the chemical reactions of the setting cement. All we need is four hours above freezing to mix, pour, and scree. Snow seems problematic. But maybe snow on concrete day is a sign of good luck, rain on a wedding day.

The light drains like water from a bowl. Brittney sets the tape measure on the table and we stand there for a moment. The forms are a foot wide and six inches high, a square trench 17-feet in length. Tomorrow they’ll be filled with 1.2 cubic yards of Portland cement, sand, and rock, we think. We hope. With a chill I remember Elm’s words a month ago when the house site was cleared and leveled.

“You screw up the concrete you may as well put the house somewhere else.”

Gulp.

We drive back to the little second story apartment we’re renting for the winter. We’ve brought the bags of concrete with us so we can put them in front of of the wood stove for the night and keep them as warm as possible. After a day of setting rebar, measuring, and general scrambling we’re both drained. The final act of lugging the 94-pound bags of concrete is a fitting conclusion. I’m struck by the irony of carrying our house in our arms, keeping it warm for one more night. It seems like a small penance to pay for what could be decades of faithful weight distribution and sturdiness beneath our feet.  I lie awake far too long. My head filled with 4:1 ratios, stem walls, square, level, right angles. Build a box.

Morning comes. The snow stuck but the day is dawning clear and crisp. A little too crisp. We lug the concrete back down the stairs to the car and wrap it in a tarp like Christmas presents. How bold it had felt to travel up and down the Pacific Northwest, all we owned in the back of our car. There had been times we didn’t know where we’d be in six months, where the next steady job was. I remember that freedom being more exciting than daunting, child’s play compared to this. As we close the car doors and back out the driveway I’m aware my mouth is dry, my stomach churns. There was no going back, no running now. We’ve never built a birdhouse. Now we’re building a cabin? What have we gotten ourselves into? Muir’s words float through my head, “we must risk our lives in order to save them…”

Gustavians are notoriously late. Like wizards they arrive precisely when they intend to. But when you tell them concrete pouring is at noon, they show up at 11:50 and bring wheelbarrows, shovels, soup, and beer. As I watch Craig, Emily, Zach, Laura, Elm, and Patrick walk up the clay infested trail towards the house site, the fear that has had a hold the last 24-hours disappears. We’re not alone. We’re never alone. Elm and Craig have poured concrete many times before. Elm fires up the small gas powered mixer and begins shoveling in sand, rock, and cement. He goes by feel, an artist who knows when it’s right.

When the recipe is just so we hurry wheelbarrows beneath the churning machine and half push half carry them to the forms. A curious dance begins, the clock begins to tick. One advantage to pouring in 39 degree weather is the concrete sets slower. More time to shore up a corner, fill an edge, scree it all flat. For the next hour and a half I don’t breath. I don’t think I blink. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow falls into the forms. My knees are soaked, gloves dripping with concrete. It’s going well though I’m insanely glad I bought one last bag of concrete that morning. Zach, Laura, and Craig have to leave at 1:30 to catch a boat. They stay until the final minute. So does Emily who’s late to her daughter’s parent-teacher conference and arrives with concrete on her forehead. As Patrick helps us dump the last wheelbarrow and Elm shuts off the mixer the gorgeous silence of this place returns.

We stop and breath. Elm cracks a beer, his voice carrying through the woods, he sounds as excited as we are. It’s level, it’s square, just let it sit for a few minutes he advises. Brittney can’t stop. She grabs a 2×4 and lovingly runs it over the top of the forms, leveling the concrete beautifully. Kim and Melanie show up with smoothies and smiles. Kim congratulates us on a successful pour and compliments us on our site selection that overlooks the willow sluice. I remind him that if it wasn’t for him we’d never know this spot existed. So much owed to so many.

Eventually Elm and the rest of our help return home, leaving the two of us to finish the leveling and wrapping it blankets to keep it warm. After this it’ll have to sit for a week. That’s fine with me, I’m ready to breath, turn my attention to wood and nails and table saws. The sun begins to set and we stand in the middle of our crawlspace, grinning at each other. It feels as if we’ve entered some sort of exclusive club. We’d earned our concrete badge. From here on out our mistakes can be corrected with a cat’s paw and hammer.

We pile the leftover food in the car and drive home. I glance at the weather forecast and one last grin crosses my face. There’s nothing but freezing temperatures for the weeks to come. We’d literally grabbed the last window of the year. Nothing like waiting to the final minute. Professional procrastinators.

Advertisements

Standing Still

The April sunshine should feel good. I should be sprawled in the grass soaking up the rays like a hungry plant that’s been inside too long. But I feel none of it. What a picture I must make, a whiskey bottle hangs loosely in one hand, my gait awkward and uneven on the rocks. A cool ocean breeze floats through the hemlock but inside I’m stifled. I can’t breathe, a weight presses down on my chest that the liquor can’t alleviate. I stumble and collapse against a washed up log, long ago it was left high and dry, left to rot at the whims of the universe. I feel a kindred spirit with the rotting wood and crumbling bark. I savor another sip of the brown stuff, close my eyes, try to breath. How did I get here?

For most of my adult life I have rambled. A modern hobo with a 75 liter pack in place of a branch and tied handkerchief. I reveled in it. Up and down the coast. Again and again. British Columbia, Juneau, Gustavus, the Inian Islands. Surely this was the way to live; free and uninhibited. From one wood cabin to another. Again and again I scoffed at the “every man.” The poor saps in their cubicle jails. Shackles of security holding them down. Worker bees. Drones. The nine-to-fives. A pity.

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

The ramblings of a young man.

A knot from the log presses into my back. It does little to alleviate the fear that clutches at my chest. For the past two months we’ve operated under the illusion that the Hobbit Hole would be our home for the next three years. Full time caretakers at last.

It would come with stinging consequences. Eleven months a year here meant precious little time with our tribe. We dreaded the conversations we’d have to have with our dearest friends. That we felt called to be here, to help the Inian Islands Institute get off the ground. That a growing desire to be educators had taken root. But there’d be no denying that three Gustavus-free years would change the bonds that we had tightly forged. Was it really a sacrifice we wanted to make?

This would be our last hurrah. The job as caretakers promised to pay well. Enough that we could return in three years and get the house built that existed only in SketchUp. We’d at last admitted that building a house on a guide’s wage wasn’t feasible.

But two hours ago Brittney walked down the stairs, terror and pain in every syllable, “we didn’t get it.”

***

Zach Brown and I sit in the garden. An afternoon sun playing over the water. He’s one of my best friends. I thought he’d be my boss for the next three years. But there was someone better. I’d heard the resume of the couple that got the position over us. They were what we had feared. They deserve to be here. The time has come to confront my failure, acknowledge that Zach and his board made the right decision. That Brittney and I never expected preferential treatment. That we still love him, Laura, this place, their vision. That we’re still in. But it’s hard to keep the bitter taste of disappointment out of my voice as we work through it.

Hank Lentfer, student of cranes and supplier of beer appears from the house and hands us each an IPA. It loosens our tongues, we say what needs to be said. It’s time to move on. It’s time to let go. I turn and look at the house, the deep green paint melding into the forest. The open lawn, the shop with the pool table on the second floor. It isn’t mine. It never was.

In the moments after we learned we hadn’t gotten the job I flew into a rage. I pounded the floor, screamed, and terrified the cats. Selfish words poured from my mouth. Phrases like, “we deserved this,” and “it was supposed to be ours” came fast and easy.

I didn’t deserve this. I didn’t earn this. Zach did. By hiking a thousand miles and paddling a thousand more. By fundraising and dreaming and believing. He may not have physically built the structures of the Hobbit Hole, but he has earned every stud, beam, and piling that they’re composed of.

***

Our final week at the Hobbit Hole. I’m back at the fallen log, my brain clearer and the pain a little easier. It still hurts, still in mourning, but I’m confronting the world with clear eyes and sound mind, perhaps for the first time. 

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

I long for the days in our rusted Pathfinder. Waiting for the next ferry in the parking lot of a Prince Rupert Tim Hortons. The warmth and comfort of knowing that everything I need is in the car with me; Brittney, the cat, the rabbit, a laptop to write on, what more did I need? How liberating, how comforting, how… safe?

The realization slowly sinks in until I must acknowledge it. I’m not the risk taker I pretend to be. What exactly were the chances I was supposed to be taking? For most of my twenties I could have bailed out at any moment. Our careers and choices could zig-zag across the world if we wanted to. There was nothing stopping us. We could change our stars on a whim.

But we fell in love with 4.2 swampy acres of glacial Gustavus outwash and decided we were ready when I knew I wasn’t. Perhaps life’s greatest risks isn’t running but standing still. What if those worker bees were the brave ones? I was always running, moving. Becoming a full time caretaker would have provided the security I had denounced for so long. Now, with a mortgage and uninsulated cabin, I crave it. I’m more scared now than I’ve been in 10 years of rambling. The irony bites hard on the ego gland, devours it whole.

***

Home. Four corners, the Shabin, Excursion Ridge, nightly beers with Patrick Hanson.  The Fairweather mountains still punch holes in the clouds, defiant white peaks blockading a blue sky. When you miss out on what you thought was a dream job—the coronation of your twenties— and still have Gustavus, it’s time to give thanks.

For years I have coasted on what other’s have built and earned. Paul Spong’s Orca Lab, the Hobbit Hole, places I have occupied and never fully deserved. This spring the universe has grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and looked me square in the eye.

“David, it’s time to stop running. It’s time to build something of your own.”

Dear lord does that scare me. I just learned the difference between a stem wall and a slab-on-grade. Now I’m building something? Deep breaths, they come easier than they did a month ago. What do I need to do first? Foundation, get a good foundation. I open the construction book, a notepad on my lap and read about concrete pilings, my pencil scribbling notes with the fervor of a procrastinating grad student.

***

Down one of Gustavus’s many dirt roads is an art gallery. On some weekend evenings it doubles as a music hall. Tonight it triples as a potluck complete with free beer. The place is packed as one musician after another comes to the stage and belts our their best. This town has to have more musicians per capita than anywhere on earth. But as the evening begins to wind down, one man in particular makes his way to the stage.

Justin Smith has collar length hair, a ball cap pulled over his head, skinny torso, and a long gait that helps him cover the aisle in a few strides. A buzz fills the crowd, when his name is announced the place erupts. I’m crammed onto the floor next to Patrick. We’re both clutching a beer. It’s not our first or second, I don’t think it’s our third. We share a wild look.

“Dude, he’s gonna play.”

Open-mic nights go way back in the annals of Gustavus lore. As much a part of our culture as deer hunting on Pleasant Island and picking strawberries. Eight years ago, at my first music night I watched spellbound as Justin and Kim Heacox belted out Cream’s, ‘White Room.’ Kim pounded the piano keys so hard his fingers bled. Justin made his guitar do things I didn’t believe possible.

But as the years have gone by, Justin hasn’t played as much in public. He’s raising a son that is the apple of the Goode River Neighborhood’s eye and just moved into the house he and his wife Jesse built. Another in a long list of role-models and heroes. He speaks quietly into the microphone, his voice soft and understated. Humble eyes and a sheepish smile pan the crowd.

But those that have heard him play know what is coming. Patrick and I bounce on our knees like it’s Christmas Morning. And for the next fifteen minutes he plays. Three instrumentals of his own creation. Listening to Justin play guitar is like reading the climax of a novel. The crowd leans forward, hanging on every note like turning pages. And for the first time, I’m relieved we didn’t get the job. This is home. In the good times and bad, sickness and health. Whether I’m ready or not, this is where we need to be.

Concerning Snowflakes

The snow has been falling all night, silent and unassuming. It kisses its brethren as it completes its free fall. It has no control over where it plummets, it can be a glacier, a snow ball, a soft white ornament upon a tree limb, or it can land in the unforgiving waters of South Inian Pass, fusing with its liquid cousins.

In the last few years, being described as one of these little miracles has somehow become an insult. How dare someone feel unique? Special? Gifted? Perhaps they’d prefer us to be like raindrops, uniform and generic. Falling with a splatter onto grass or metal roof to be destroyed on impact.

By the time morning comes a foot and a half of miracles has fallen. Most times in southeast Alaska the snowfall is heavy with liquid as the forecast plays hopscotch with the freezing point. But it stayed cold last night and the flakes are as fine as sand and light as feathers. It’s been more than a month since it rained and the accumulation is getting out of hand. We’re running out of places to put it. I grab a shovelful and send it flying into the big drifts we’ve made. Last week wind gusts over fifty barreled into the archipelago like a battering ram. Just to the west we could hear the constant surf and wind like the constant roaring of a beast. Inclement weather is soothing, gives one purpose here. Tie down the boats, batten down the yurt and dock, bring everything that can be moved indoors. The snow is no different. It falls with the peace of doves but bites with consequence.

It’s a rough winter to be a deer, the second such winter in a row. We went up the mountain a few days ago to find the woods and clearings devoid of sign. Every deer on the island, perhaps in southeast is hugging the beach, walking the fine line of the tide that wipes the land clear of snow twice a day. They’re nibbling kelp and seaweed, trying to hang on till spring, whenever that’ll be. Winter has little interest in the calendar.

At the core of every snowflake is something real and organic that the crystals can glob onto. Like everything else, they need something to revolve around, some definition. It means that somehow, in some way, there’s a carbon based something floating with the clouds and moisture, waiting for the dew point to decide its fate. Without this organic compound, this purpose, the snowflake is doomed, it cannot form, cannot accumulate, its tremendous power and potential negated. Unlike their raindrop relatives, they must be defined by something real.

I continue to dig us out, wondering what it is that will define me. There’s a snow blower here. I could fire it up and complete the task in minutes. But it doesn’t seem sporting, doesn’t seem right to introduce the sonic domination of man to the scene. To remove the snow with the carbon dioxide byproducts that are making blizzards like this a shadow of the past. As my father would say, it’s the principle of the thing. Sweat clings to my sweater and drips from my wool hat.

The Hobbit Hole is still. Tiny ripples form in the wake of a merganser, a soft chortle of a raven floats among the trees. The clouds start to lift. I live in a world of soft pastel. White accentuates everything. Above the west end of the Hole looms North Island, frosted, frozen, and imposing in winter’s time machine. Spruce, hemlock, yellow cedar in a state of suspension. For years the yellow cedar of southeast Alaska has been fading. They rely on thick blankets of snow to insulate sensitive root systems. As our winters have turned to more rain than snow, they’ve suffered through every cold snap like tomatoes in an early frost. Even the mightiest are vulnerable at their roots. This is the power of snow, the ability to torment the deer but save the cedar. There is no middle ground.

I shovel over the bridge and down the dock. At some point the weather will warm. Probably sooner rather than later. And as beautiful as it is, it will bring some relief. Our hydro system is struggling to bring in even the bare minimum of electricity. Snow has a finite life. In time it will succumb to the elements and melt, evaporate, and be reincarnated. Maybe we’ll be so lucky. If we’re fortunate, we too will not simply die but be reabsorbed, willing participants in the cycles of the planet.

I scoop a handful of crystals and gaze at them. Snow has the unique ability to be beautiful  both by itself and surrounded by its brothers and sisters. Able to stand out alone and in a crowd. May all of us be so lucky. Alone we are stunning, but it is only when we come together that our presence can be felt. I wish we all had the power to determine where we landed. But a lot of us don’t. A lot are condemned to the waters to melt before they have a chance.

The red metal roof of the house is covered in snow, the dark green paint the same color as the water and trees around it. The low clouds and struggling sun hold a power humanity cannot tap into. A self-sustaining resource of the eyes and soul. The scene has the power to refresh and reinvigorate. I breath deep and feel the oxygen of the outer coast spread through my blood cells. What a place to have landed. What a place to reside until I melt.

Two Hikes

Several years ago, when I lived in Juneau, I rented a house near the Mendenhall Glacier. Framing the southern side of the valley was Thunder Mountain. A steep and imposing peak with impressive avalanche shoots and Spruce covered ridges. After a couple months living in its shadow I gave in to temptation and attempted to scramble up one of the avalanche paths. It was mid-summer and the foliage was thick with devil’s club, skunk cabbage, and alder. Halfway up, the moderate grade shoved me onto a near vertical pitch. Consumed with the climb and drunk on sunshine, I continued fifty feet further than I should have. By the time I realized what I had done, I had trapped myself in a stand of alder and was climbing their branches like a step ladder.

My 24-year old ignorance was replaced by genetically infused fear thousands of years old. Just a week ago, a seasonal had scrambled up the ridge near Eagle Glacier to the north of town. One false move, one slip in his Merrill’s and he fell to his death. Like him, I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. I’d broken the cardinal rule of the outdoorsman. My knees shook, my arms trembled. Somewhere to the west, 65 miles away, my fiancee was kayaking, oblivious to the fact that the love of her life was so recklessly risking his.

I began to downclimb. Most mountaineering accidents occur on the descent. I was no different. A foot slipped, a branch cracked, and I began to free fall towards a gully 60-feet below. I’ll never forget the sensation. As I fell my terror was replaced by a serene, almost disarming calm. I no longer felt afraid. I reached out with one hand and grabbed an alder branch as thick as my forearm. The branch bent, bobbed, cracked… and held. From above came a strange rustling followed moments later by a sharp pain on the back of my head. I watched the offending branch and my baseball hat complete the forty-foot plunge into the shoot. The branch gave a sickening crack as it struck the boulders. I hung, as weightless and helpless as an astronaut on his first spacewalk. Helicopters bound for the glacier zipped by. Cars roared by on a road a thousand feet below. And I gripped the branch that was preserving my life.

***

I throw rain pants, a sweater, and a vest into the backpack I’ve had since I was 21. The straps are fraying, several of the buckles are broken. But I can’t bear to give it up. She’s more duct tape than nylon at this point. But I carried my life in her through New Zealand, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska. Some things are more important than efficiency.

I no longer have a fiancee. But I do have a wife. And I make no bones about where I’m going today. I’m going up the peak to the south of the Hobbit Hole. There’s two feet of snow at sea level and who knows how much at the top. I’m dying to find out. Worst comes to worse, they can follow my footprints. It’s deliciously quiet here. We’re used to solitude. But even when we lived off the coast of B.C, boat traffic inundated our ear drums. Walks through the woods were often interrupted by the dull drone of a diesel engine as a tug plied the inside passage. Here we endure the occasional 737 flying at 20,000 feet but that’s it. The thick snow mutes the silence even more. No squirrels, no birds, just my boots stepping through the frozen crust.

I weave through hemlock, spruce, devils’s club. My breath comes in gasps, I sweat beneath the wool that keeps me warm when I stop. Deer tracks surround me, all pointed downhill. Perhaps they know something I don’t. Three days ago we woke up to blowing snow and flakes as big as thumbnails. It snowed for 16 hours straight, pushing the deer down from the ridges to the beaches. I reach a steppe and come out into the open. It’s like stepping into the deep end of the pool. My boot plunges deep into the snow and doesn’t stop until the crust is at my hip. I struggle out and throw the next step forward in an awkward plunge. I head for a steep ridge. It’s nearly vertical and this all begins to feel familiar.

***

I watch my shoes swing beneath me with a benign neglect. I’m hypnotized by my hat three dozen feet below, nestled between a couple of boulders and covered with dust. Blood drips from my left hand which grips the branch so tight my knuckles turn white. My body completes it’s flight of fight checklist, determines that I’m no longer in immediate danger of death, and give me permission to freak out. The change is instantaneous. I hyperventilate. My legs begin to shake. I have to move. My stupidity knocks at the back door of my sub-conscious, reminding me that I’m an idiot and lucky to not be laying in that gully with a shattered leg or two. I pull myself up and my feet search for a foothold. To my right is a thin ridge, just wide enough for a couple of spruce trees to get ahold.

I move hand over fist, my feet skittering madly to keep up. At last I feel dirt and root beneath them, I kneel and grip the ground. I want to curl up and never move. I’m never letting go. In my mind I imagine my body hitting the rocks. How far would I bounce? How damaged would I be when I finally came to rest. And with a shudder remember that no one would ever find me.

***

I stagger towards the ridge and stop at its feet. The snow four feet deep in places, more swimming than hiking. I look at the reassuring trail I leave behind. There’d be no mystery this time. I begin to climb, my feet digging for purchase beneath the snow while hands pull me up with the aid of salmon berry bushes and willow. There’s a melody to hiking through the snow mixed with the improvisation of jazz when a boot falls deeper than expected. I turn around halfway up to catch my breath and feel it catch in my throat. The view is bonkers. West facing, the ocean, the whole Pacific is sprawled at my feet. Three Hill Island and Soapstone Point guard the southern edge of Cross Sound. Cape Spencer to the north, just enough of a break in the clouds to see Mt. Crillion.

Already the landmarks feel like old friends. “Hello dear Port Althorp, hey Elfin Cove, how’s it going Middle Pass?”

I turn and continue to climb, by the time I reach the top I’m crawling. A thin ledge, two spruce tress wide greets me at the top.

***

I cling to each spruce and try to get my knees to stop quivering. I’m bleeding from four different spots, the pain beginning to whisper from beneath the adrenaline. There’s a welt on the back of my head where the branch made contact, my neck hurts. I’m a fool and Thunder Mountain was punishing me for my foolishness. The wild places teach harsh lessons, lessons you never forget if you survive. I prayed I’d have the chance to learn from my mistakes. As I climb down, the ridge I’m following widens until all I can see is trees on each side. The climb remains steep and down climbing is harder than going up. Gravity a much more willing participant.

To my left I hear something crashing through the bush. Bears litter the valley. Black bears primarily, though the odd brown bear will poke its nose in to chase the spawning salmon of Mendenhall River. But it’s a mountain goat that appears through a tangle of devil’s club. Branches of the bush stick to the thick tangled hair that’s somewhere between yellow and white. A pair of identical horns jut from the top of its head and curve forwards. The beast is maybe thirty feet away. It stops and turns its head slowly in my direction like a villain in a cheesy Hollywood production. Without a moment’s hesitation it begins to trot towards me. I stand at the edge of a drop of twenty feet, and the last thing I want to do is free fall yet again. But the goat seems to have every intention of running me off the ledge. More harsh lessons at the hand of Professor Thunder.

It’s at that moment, after twenty years in the woods and fjords of Alaska, that I realize that I don’t know anything about mountain goats. My body is drained, out of adrenaline, I do the only thing that feels logical and insane at the same time, I scream.

***

I follow the ridge up a little further. I’m having flashbacks of devilish goats, snapping branches, and serene free falls. The ridge takes a sharp turn to the right and into a thick tangle of spruce. This is far enough. A scattering of trees gives way to a wide open precipice that cuts between the summit I stand on and the next one to the north. I have no intention of looking over the ledge. I lean against the sturdy trunk of a tree, feel snow and dirt beneath my feet, and pull a water bottle from my backpack. Something small and blunt is still in the pocket, I dig deeper and pull out a small shooter of gin.

A smile becomes a grin. Miracle booze, the best kind. It’s barely eleven in the morning. But there are no man made rules in the forest. I crack the cap and empty the little bottle, savoring the burning liquid cooled by the ascent. It only makes sense to taste pine trees when surrounded by them. I give a silent thanks to Jen and Patrick who had filled my Christmas stocking with the little shooters and my own irresponsibility to stash one in my pack and forget all about it. I shoulder the pack and take one more longing look at the world around me. From here it was possible to see the world at its best. No mass shootings in Florida, no indictments in Washington, no missile tests in Korea. Just me, the trees, and that big ocean taking on all comers.

***

I want to go home. I want a hot shower, fluorescent lights, a big sandwich, a cold beer. The goat continues his advance, his hooves stick to the rock like velcro. I scream a tapestry of vulgarities that continue to hang over the mountain to this day. Five feet away his wild goat eyes weave to the right. He climbs onto the hillside a few feet above me. Those iris’s staring deep into me, mocking me, shaming me.

I step away, my eyes never leaving him, toes probing for the edge. I grab a root and scramble like a fireman down the rocks. I leap the last four feet and fall with a thud. Enough. I lean forward and half run, half fall down the mountainside, bloodied, beaten, and alive to climb another day.

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.

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.