Tag Archives: Alaska

Clay and Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Brittney.”

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

“Welcome sweetheart.”

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

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

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The Bartlett River Miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“David? Can you come help me?”

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

“Keep the tension on the line.”

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

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

I swing.

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

“What a beautiful fish.”

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

“I want to do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skid Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough.

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

Hank drops the structure in our driveway.

“Where you want it?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“But with all that friction from the rubber?”

“It’d be a nightmare.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wettest Paddle

My gloved fingers fumble with the catches on the stern hatch. I bury my chin deeper into my rain jacket, a vain attempt to stem the never ending stream of water that’s been barreling down on us for 48-hours. I don’t know where we are, and I’m nowhere near curious enough to dig the map out of its dry bag. But I’ve stared at it enough to know what I’m looking at. Or more accurately, what I should be looking at.

Mount Wright, a 6,000 foot cathedral that guards the east arm of Glacier Bay is just two miles to the south, but it’s taking the day off. As is Adams Inlet, the first of three inlets that alternate on each side of the arm. After years of waiting I was finally seeing the fabled east arm. The inlet known as Muir Inlet, our superhero and the patron saint of glaciers. I had set off with Brittney and three friends, set on finding God in a glacier and Muir in a sun ray. But so far all I’d found was rain. Rain and clouds.

The hatch cover finally comes free and I pull from its depths three identical bear cans. We’re not stopping long. We’d been paddling for just over three hours and watched the wind and rain approach from the West. Naively we tried to outrun it, but you can’t outrun anything in a kayak except your common sense.

Brittney comes over and digs through one of the cans, pulling out tortillas, cheese, and kale. For a moment we stare at the tortillas as a gust of wind buffets us. We’re on a ridiculous little glacial outwash that will soon be obliviated by the rising tide. Eagles and Ravens perch eerily on a cemetery of uprooted stumps and logs. We slice the cheese and tear the kale.

“Now.”

Brittney opens the ziploc bag and I grab a pair of tortillas. As soon as they’re free she slams the seal shut, but too late. The surviving tortillas will be taking rainwater with them. We wrap the cheese and greens inside in record time and sit huddled against the wind, devouring our lunch before it disintegrates in our hands.

Worst rain I’ve ever experienced. I scribbled in my journal later that night. Hands so wrinkled and pruney they resemble elevation contours on the map. 

But we’re counting ourselves lucky. Because the wind is coming from behind, sweeping us up the arm and toward McBride Inlet. In a bay defined by change, McBride is the champion sprinter. A map from 1990 shows no inlet at all, but a glacier that dominates the upper end of the arm. Almost 30-years later she’s described with adjectives like “catastrophic retreat.” She’s left a narrow mouth at the base of the inlet that at low tide you could lob a rock across. On a flood the inlet turns into a vacuum sucking in water, ice bergs, gulls, seals, and wayward kayakers.

Lunch takes less than five minutes. One of the first lessons of Glacier Bay is that the best way to stay warm is to paddle. It may seem counter intuitive—surely huddling under a tarp is warmer—but all gear, no matter how rubberized or seam sealed, will eventually fail in a torrent such as this. Best to keep moving and turn your upper body into its own personal Toyo. So we hop back on the Muir Highway and let the wind whisk us north.

There’s four of us now. That morning Ellie was forced to return early after slicing open her thumb. After getting her on the day boat we’d set out from Sebree Island, knowing it would be our second 20-mile paddle day of the trip. Three of the four are kayak guides: myself, Brittney, and Jessie Markowitz. We’re equally crazy, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that none of us are going to be the one that taps out first. That left Jessie’s boyfriend Jake, an accomplished outdoorsman, skier, and climber in his own right as our voice of reason. And as he was positioned in the front seat of a double, there was precious little rebelling he could do without rudder pedals.

We hop from point to point, Jessie and Jake’s double setting the pace. Every few minutes I glance behind me, praying to see a lift in the weather. The fog and rain has socked in the entire bay. And while we’d never admit it, all of us kind of wished we were the one with the sliced thumb on the warm day boat with all the coffee we could drink.

Around Wachusett Inlet the rubberized raingear begins to fail. I feel the water seep into my mid-layer and with a shudder feel the first needle-like prick of rainwater reach my back. But Wachusett looks beautiful, a thin layer of fog is set afire by the sun, enough to give you hope and we bob in its mouth for a few long moments. The inlet cuts seductively right a mile in, leaving you wanting more. I know better. On the best of days Wachusett blows like the dickens, I don’t want to see the sort of wind that’s around that corner. We keep pushing. Past Kim Heacox’s old stomping grounds in Goose Cove, past Sealers Island and towards Nunatak.

We take a breather and find Brown Bear tracks as big as my outstretched hand in the sand. After the rain, a bear seems tame. Alaskan visitors have a Goldilock’s complex with bears. They want them not too far, not too close, but just right. Just right usually being within range of a 300mm DSLR.

Keep paddling. The Arctic Turn I’m paddling lives up to its name. No rudder, no skeg, no problem. She turns with a simple bend in the hips, drag free. We pass false point after false point. Each time convinced that this one will be McBride Inlet. Ice bergs float by, encouraging us further. Sirens in the fog, beckoning towards their home. Further, just a little further.

Everything hurts. 

We near yet another point. Jessie and Brittney are convinced that this one is the mouth of McBride. I’m not convinced. You have a lot of time to discuss these things when you’re traveling at 2.5 miles per hour. We round the corner to find more trees. No inlet, no Glacier God, no ghost of Muir dancing in the outwash in a wool trench coat. We pull out the map and Cliff Bars. I check my watch: just over seven hours of paddling. My hands feel fused to the paddle. And yet, and this is the weird thing, it feels so good out here.

What is wrong with me? I’m frozen, cold, most everything from the waist down went numb a long time ago. Whatever isn’t numb is wet. We’re convinced the next point leads to McBride. I suggest a vote. Brittney, Jessie, and I try to say yes first. Jake sighs, shrugs his shoulders, and sticks his paddle in the water. Welcome to the bay.

We hit the next point, turn, and there it is. Bergs swirl in the mouth of McBride. We paddle for shore, and the rainfall intensifies. And I yell at the Bay. At the Bay I love so much. How dare you punish our persistence like this? After everything we just did?

But of course Glacier Bay has little regard for my well being and prune covered hands. This place does not give, it sharpens and refines, just as the glaciers have done to her. Just as they will again if we’ll allow it. Just as they do to us.

We pull the boats above the tide and a miracle happens. The rain relents, the clouds being to lift. White Thunder Ridge emerges on the other side, dramatic slate gray cliffs loom further north. It is a beauty that must be witnessed. A beauty that can only be appreciated after paddling through fog and rain for seven hours. Like a bride on her wedding day the view is worth the wait.

Dry clothes are currency, and we lay out everything we can. We set up tents and pray the rain stays away. A sucker hole appears-a knot sized patch of blue sky—but  it brought friends. We cheer the blue colored beauties and cook pasta. We eat outside the confines of a tarp. And we fall under the spell. I find myself wandering in a daze down the beach. A mystic force pulling me towards the ice like some sort of ancestral magnet. How, I wonder, could people experience this and not be changed? How can someone look into the face of nature and be brought to their knees? I’m convinced that 100 senators in 50 doubles for a couple days would clear up a lot of problems.

But for a few days we’ll be blissfully ignorant of North Korea, Charlottesville, and the rest of the world’s silliness. Just us and McBride glacier’s offspring filtering out the inlet and sweeping south.

Unnaturally Natural

A fine rain is falling, but its presence brings only smirks. In most places a steady rain would spell the end to any bonfire. But not here. If you’re going to wait for a nice day to play outside you could be waiting a long time. Besides, it’s not every day that Kim Heacox turns 66 and you’re asked to play percussion for a medley of Beatles tunes with the names changed to some variation of “Kim,” “Kimmy,” or “dude.”

After a final rousing chorus of “Hey Dude” we pile our plates with the ridiculous bounty Hank Lentfer and Anya Maier have pulled out of their garden and the woods of Lemesurier Island. Of the six dishes on the table (including deer and two types of potatoes), only the Macaroni and Cheese did not originate within ten miles of the plates. Guilt free food at its finest.

Hank has a fire going and we crowd around, impervious to the precipitation that is still trying to crash the party. Someone has fashioned Kim a crown from construction paper, and after his second beer he begins to issue edicts:

Edict #1: “Pee off your porch at least once a day.”

Edict #9: “Pee off your porch at least twice a day.”

Edict #21: “There shall be an edict #22.”

The most adorable monarchy of all time.

It’s not the first time that I’ve gathered around a fire with these people and marveled at how on earth I became their friends, and now their neighbor. Both the Heacox’s and Lentfer/Maier’s are within a well thrown baseball of our property while wunderkind Zach Brown and his ambitious Inian Island Institute are just down the aquatic street.

As we talk and the beer flows, the cloud adorned ceiling drops lower and lower until the fog is perched on the tops of the Spruce trees like a hat. The guitars come out. As sure as there will be rain, there will be guitars at a Gustavus gathering. Van Morrison, Buddy Tabor, and more Beatles rise up to meet the clouds. In a world that seems to have spun out of control the handful of us around the fire seem temporarily insulated. The fog wraps around us like a blanket, shrouding us from the insanity that has become American politics. Fear melts away, anxiety vanishing with every verse.

In my slightly inebriated state I look around the bonfire, convinced that I have discovered the meaning of life.

As humanity turns to a more urbanized existence, I wonder if we’re robbing ourselves of one of our birthrights. Like processed sugar, man has not subsisted off a diet of high density living for that long. Certainly not long enough to evolve a tolerance for it. It would be nearly impossible to emulate this sort of gathering in Seattle, let alone New York, Boston, or countless other meccas. But after living as either nomads or in small, tightly woven communities for so long, it’s hard to imagine that an essential part of what makes us human is lost when we are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of others. Yes, people have parties in the city all the time. But in the stoic and lifeless walls of a building where eyes drift to iPhones every couple of minutes, does this feed the tribe desire seeded deep within? Almost every person who visits Gustavus falls in love (though most insist they could never live here). And yet few can put their finger on what it is that attracts them. Perhaps the cocktail of tribal bonding and wilderness setting flips the switch within that we have been steadily burying since a certain industrial revolution.

Hank plops down next to me. I’m only partially joking when I say he’s the blueprint for what I want to be when I’m 40. I used to envy people’s cars, now I envy Hank’s garden and root cellar which are an aspiring gardener’s fantasy. His garden is no more than 600 square feet, but from it he, Anya, and their daughter Linnea grow enough potatoes, carrots, and beets to get them through the winter. It’s late June and they’re still chipping away at last year’s potato harvest. Their freezer is stocked with deer from Lemesurier (affectionately referred to as “Lem”) and halibut. I gobble down deer roast and answer questions around my fork.

“You got the shitter set up yet?” Hank has the gift of brevity in addition to gifting us their old outhouse which has the dimensions and weight of a medieval battering ram.

“Not yet, I still need to get it into the woods somehow. But it’s upright and we got a tarp on it to keep the rain off. I still feel like you christen it for us.”

He laughs and Zack plops down next to us, clinking the Obsidian Stout in his hand against the one in mine.

“We just had the septic in our place go out.” He says, eyes in the fire. “We thought that the pipe was just frozen for the winter but…” he takes a long pull on his beer, “turns out that it’s… seeping into the yard.” He sighs and smiles. Nothing keeps a smile off Zack’s face for long. “It’s incredible. The work and effort that we go through for the luxury of pooping indoors.”

I look over Hank’s shoulder to where Anya sits listening and we share a smile.

“Every time we hang out we talk about where we shit.”

Me and Brittney’s first decision when we bought our land was that we would rock a composting toilet forever, save 15 grand digging a leach field and installing a tank, and score free manure in the process. If it’s good enough for the Lentfer/Maier’s it’s plenty good for us.

Zack’s still mulling the incredulity of it all. There’s a bit of Socratic flair in him, questioning everything. “It’s so unnatural, and then it goes into a tank and gets shipped to where? Seattle?”

Hank nods and Zack shakes his head, “so unnatural,” he repeats.

I look around the fire to where Patrick Hanson is strumming out “Into the Mystic” while Jen Gardner and Linnea sing along, Kim is on edict number 30, a couple of people from out of town stare as if they’ve just landed on the dark side of the moon, and the fog insulates us from it all. Perhaps we seem unnatural to the world. Perhaps our willingness to do our business outside, eat the food we grow, and play hopscotch with the poverty line is crazy. But darn it all if it doesn’t beat two hour commutes and cookie cutter homes on a tenth of an acre. I like being the crazy one, the unnatural one. Because in doing so I think I’ve found that in reality it’s the most natural instinct we have.

Praying for Fish

The wind blows at a brisk pace, the surface of the cove turning white as the waves break. Rain pelts with the stinging intensity of Fall. But the date on my watch continues to insist that it’s mid-June. When you look at the climate map of North America the entire continent is swathed with more reds, yellows, an oranges than a sunset painting. Except for us. Except for the little sliver of blue that runs along the Pacific Northwest, bathing us in an unseasonable cold Spring. It’s so hot in Las Vegas they can’t even fly. Here it’s so cold I need a hot shower after every trip. We haven’t had a summer like this since 2012 when it felt like it rained every day and the clouds gripped the ocean.

And I’m on edge. Not necessarily because the ocean keeps moving beneath my kayak or my base layers keep getting soaked, but because I’m paddling alone. Maybe not in the way most would imagine, but the bay feels empty. I can count the number of Humpbacks I’ve seen on one and. Sea Otters that once choked the kelp at Lester Point are nowhere to be seen, I even miss the sea lions and their obnoxious habit of surfacing uncomfortably close to my rudder.

As we teeter on the edge of… I’m note even sure what to call it—climate catastrophe maybe?—anything unusual sets off alarm bells in my head. The rest of the world’s going to hell, why not here as well? And what’s difficult is I don’t even know if their ringing is justified. Just as climate deniers can smugly point to the enduring glaciers in the West Arm, I suppose I could hold up the missing Humpbacks and Sea Otters as poster children. But after three years of paddling here, I’m not arrogant enough to pretend I’m connected with the finely spun web of Glacier Bay ecology. Hell, otter and Humpback numbers could be dropping no matter how many Hummers clogged the freeway, both species’ numbers have been rising for decades. Like us they may have shot past their carrying capacity (ambiguously referred to as “K” in the scientific community) and are now realigning. The Humpbacks could be elsewhere, the otters too. The late Spring could have thrown everything off. The point is, I don’t know. And like most people when confronted with the unknown, I tend to fear the worst.

Over the last week the water has finally gone still. I can hear the Thrushes in the trees and the gulls riding the tide in Sitakaday. On calm days the sound of a boat engine is common. But for the moment it’s just the four of us. And today we’re not alone. Harbor Porpoise are everywhere. They announce themselves with a rapid fire “pssh whoo,” a full exhalation and inhalation in under a second. They roll at the surface just like Orcas, their charcoal gray backs sparkling in the weak sunlight. I’ve lost count of the number we’ve seen since we struck out this morning. It has to be at least fifteen in little clusters of three to five. Calves roll in perfect synchrony with their mothers, pods split and break the surface with shocking speed as they chase the precious bait fish that the entire food pyramid is balanced precariously on.

Herring, Sand Lance, and Capelin, the holy grails of the marine ecosystem, their oily bodies the difference between life and death for countless species. From King Salmon to Humpbacks and most everything in between relies on their noble sacrifice. They are one of those unfortunate species placed on earth for the sole purpose of reproduction and food supply. They ask for little, but one thing they demand is cold water. It’s a request that’s becoming harder and harder to provide as first “the blob” and then a harsh El Nino winter have brought unseasonably warm water the Pacific Northwest. If anyone is benefitting from this chilly Spring I hope it’s them.

Which is why this pack of porpoise is so significant. Is this the canary in the coal mine? Have the oily sacrificial lambs returned with a parade of marine life in tow? I imagine the cove as it was two summers ago, so packed with whales, porpoise, and pinnipeds that I could scarcely paddle across the mouth without something bumping my kayak. If heaven truly does appear differently to each of us, then I expect that will be mine. A perfectly balanced ecosystem, thriving at maximum efficiency. Show me how many Humpbacks Glacier Bay can support. How many Orcas can pack Johnstone Strait. Give me salmon runs so thick their odor travels on the ocean breeze.

A trio of porpoise surface just to the right of the kayak. Beneath the waves their dark bodies seem to tremble. They move as if pulled by a higher calling and for a few precious seconds I have the pleasure of watching them shoot back and forth just beneath the surface, so close I could place my paddle over them. In the blink of an eye they vanish and resurface a hundred yards away. The moment so fleeting but no less magical because of it. I watch them vanish, their short spunky breaths still audible on the still water. A scientist in Norway recently determined that Harbor Porpoise spend almost every waking moment foraging. As I watch them criss cross back and forth I pray they find everything they’re looking for.

The End of the Road

The Pathfinder reeks of burning oil when she runs too long. She’s had it, and I await one of life’s cruel ironies as we wait in line for the ferry. Four years ago I made a deal with whatever deity was on duty, promising many things I’ll never own in exchange for this plucky Nissan getting us to Canada and back. But as she’s always down she comes to life with the screech of belts and uncategorized clatters. There’s still time to back out. Still time to run another direction. A direction that will let us keep running. There’s no shame in it. We’re still in our twenties for crying out loud. No one would think less of us if we disappeared to Central America for a year or vanished to Thailand for a season. But how do you continue to run when you know where home is, when you know where the road ends?

The end of the final road doesn’t look like a road at all. And you’d excuse us for missing it completely. To be fair, cars have rarely been our dominant form of transportation and I’m not at my best behind the wheel. Boats and kayaks have kept our lives afloat. May they continue to do so until someone tells us we’re too old.

But as theatrical as it would be, this journey cannot end at a pier or sandy beach. Instead we take a dirt road overgrown with willow, cat tail, grass, and fern. The ruts are deep and the brush grates against the bumper. At a sharp left the car pivots neatly in the groves as if it’s on the skids of a poorly made Disneyland ride. And then it ends. With no apology or explanation the road simply disappears, giving way to the world that will eventually swallow us all. A world of Pine and Alder, Blueberry and high bush cranberry, marsh and forest. The road, like our rambling, is over. Neither one of us ever had to discuss it. We simply knew that it was time to stop. We didn’t want to do it anymore.

***

The sun is bright and the reflection off Icy Passage makes me squint. My pupils, like my heart, were made to live where the rain is frequent and the sun is scarce. We trace the outline of the shore, the glacial outwash that holds Gustavus behind, the ridges and mountains of Excursion Ridge and the Chilkat Mountains ahead of. Fresh snow sits on the peaks, but down here it feels like Spring. Myself, Brittney, Jen Gardner, and Patrick Hanson gallop like moose calves. We plunge through last years Reed Grass and it gives way with a satisfying crunch. Here the cynicism of the world isn’t just stripped away, it is torn from the soul, replaced by innocence and wonder.

We come out of the Reed Grass and onto the sandy beach. On the low tide the stories of the last six hours are exposed. Tracks trace back and forth, weaving between the sand and tidal mud that squishes with delight beneath our boots. We follow the moose, the deer, the river otter, and the wolf.

The wolf. We stop at the tracks, some as large as my outstretched hand and gaze upon the holy grail of Alaska prints. Patrick’s mind is already in overdrive. It’s always in overdrive. He is more excited over the first Rosy Twisted Stalk than most men are in a year. The prints are catnip to us, and Patrick is already talking about camping just above the tideline in the grass and sitting patiently for a day or two until they come back. I find it hard to imagine him sitting for two minutes. He’s a mover, but he’s staying put in Gustavus. So is Jen thank goodness. They’re staying for the same reason we are. Because they weighed the possessions of the world in one hand and wolf prints in the sand in the other and asked, “why?” Granted, we like microbrews, Disney movies, ice cream, and Parks and Rec. But darn it all if we could live without days like this with mountains above our heads and wolf tracks at our feet.

We reach the mountains where a stream splashes into the grass and a fence of Alder paves the way for Spruce and Hemlock. “True southeast rainforest,” says Patrick, and he dives in. We follow. Our cracking of branches punctuated with tenuous calls of, “hey bear.” We step into the clearing beneath the branches and into Narnia. Devil’s club is just beginning to bud and Fiddlehead Ferns are poking their heads out from their moss blanket. We pick some, leave others, and fantasize about what we can cook. We walk home with maybe a pound of greens, but from the looks on our faces you’d have thought we’d found a thousand dollars.

***

At the end of the road is the Shabin, occupying three hundred feet on 4.19 acres. We prune the willows that are invading the road and stare up at the Cottonwoods that bookend the clearing. And we talk. We talk a lot about what we want to do. And Brittney and I keep coming back to sharing it. What if we could make this the end of the road for someone else too? Brittney, Jen, and I walk through the stand of old Spruce behind the Shabin. It’s the driest spot on the property with a ditch on one side and and a Willow swail on the other. We’re going to have to take some of these big beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to think about it. Can man live without destroying it?

We step out of the Spruce and into the open light of the swail. The morning light glistens off the standing water and we talk about what a great place this would be for a bench. A place to come and watch the Chickadees, Juncos, and Moose ply their trades. What if this is where the four of us spend the rest of our lives? I imagine a bench on the edge of the woods, plopping down with these people, beers in hand, and watching a moose rooting for reeds.

I can see our cabins through the woods behind me. A garden in the clearing. Maybe a smoker and a writer’s studio. Maybe I should get the ruts out of the road and the clearing drained first.

Kim Heacox once asked me why I was ready to drop my roots. There’s no right or wrong answer. Kim galavanted around for years and has seen Antartica, Russia, the Galapagos, and has designs on spending time in Rome. Even now, when his demographic is scheming moves to Florida and weekend golf dates, the travel itch remains unscratched. I don’t feel it the way he does. I don’t feel the need to travel across Russia by train or disappear for months at a time. I want my roots to grow deep here until they’re planted so far down that nothing can move them.

I want to follow those wolf tracks into the mountains and trace every cove of Glacier Bay. I want to watch the Orcas crash through Icy Strait again and again and again. And I’m ready to do it now. I’ve sampled the world and loved it. I’ve had my trail mix stolen by raccoons in New Zealand and been lost in Costa Rica. I’ve been peed on by Howler Monkeys and dealt with more frumpy border guards than I can count. I’ve loved every single moment. I’ve cherished my rambling. But I’m ready to come home. I’m ready reach the end of the rambling road. I’m ready to turn off the ignition and plant 500 carrots.

Which doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier. In all likelihood it’s about to get a lot more difficult. My carpentry experience ends with making leaky garden boxes, and my landscaping knowledge is even more embarrassing. But if I’m going to fail, or at minimum screw up (and I will screw up) I want to do it here. I’d rather fail in Gustavus than succeed in Seattle. Because if I fall here there’ll be a dozen hands to pick me up, put the hammer back in my hand, and tell me to get back at it. Virtually every person in this town has been where we are right now. Each one of them arrived at the place where all the roads end and realized that was right where they needed to be.