Tag Archives: Alaska

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.

Accepting Happiness

Five years ago today we walked through a dew soaked forest. Not much has changed. Everything has changed. This particular forest is in Juneau, Alaska, on a peninsula sandwiched between the ocean and Mendenhall valley. The east wind carries the breath of the glacier. The land thaws and stretches at the close of winter. There’s a cleansing smell to the forest in Spring. New growth blooms, the plants thaw and produce a rich sweet smell. You don’t breath as much as drink. I feel high on the fresh oxygen of the forest.

It was a time of new beginnings in more ways than one.

Brittney and I get off the trail and into cell phone range. She has one thing on her mind. She’s ready to start our family. She pulls out her phone, dials, and asks the question. Yes, we can bring him home.

We drive to the humane society and collect Porter. He growls, he hisses, he cowers in the corner of my beloved Ford Ranger. But he’s ours. We’re taking him home.

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Home is a trailer. A trailer with smoking electrical outlets, tree trunks for a foundation, and an empty propane tank. The bedroom is barely large enough for a mattress. It’s a dump. A wonderful dump that costs $500/month.

I’ve been out of college for a year and am going nowhere. It feels good. Whale watch guide in the summer, Kennel Supervisor at the Gastineau Humane Society in the winter. There I met Porter, introduced him to Brittney, and watched her fall in love with him at first sight.

We carry our handful of possessions into the house. Laptops, cat, mattress, a couple bags of clothes. We eat Subway that night. I prop my laptop on a crate and low and behold, find someone’s unprotected internet connection. I should feel guilty about that. But I’m too excited to put on the Timberwolves game (they were playing the Blazers, they won) and wolf down a foot long Chicken Bacon Ranch.

Porter prowls the house as we eat. He walks into every room, sits, rises, and resumes his prowling. After an hour he walks over to us and looks into Brittney’s face with a mixture of suspicion and hope. They stare at each other and Brittney taps her knee. With a leap he lands on her lap and curls up.

Brittney looks at me with tears of gratitude. My heart swells and I look around this dump of a house perfectly content. It remains one of the most peaceful and happy moments of my life, for the simple reason that such simple things could bring such immense joy.

That moment has shaped me.

Whenever I begin to worry about money, or security, or the future, I think back to that night. And I remember that no amount of cash, no job and no amount of “success” will ever bring that sort of tranquility.

And so I look at the world, and I don’t understand. Every day I’m inundated with angry people. I read articles about people in positions of power with millions of dollars to their name. People that have achieved every possible definition of worldly success. Yet they are not satiated. They don’t seem happy. They appear petty and angry, defensive and apathetic. They display all the characteristics of the middle school bully desperate to cover up their own inefficiencies by belittling those around them.

I see people worth millions of dollars slurping at the glass of capitalism. Sucking up every dollar they can find like the Coke at the bottom of their glass. Will that extra drop unlock the key to happiness?

I see people get up every day and go to work at jobs they hate so they can buy things they don’t need. I see people buy what they call starter homes. When Brittney and I went to pick out her wedding ring the lady behind the counter referred to our choice as, “a nice starter ring.”

I guess that makes me a starter husband.

I look at the world and I don’t understand. I don’t understand how people can kill each other for believing in a God they don’t. I don’t understand how people can be enraged over what bathroom a transexual uses or what gender a person wants to kiss. I don’t understand how people can use their precious few decades living in fear and making the lives of others miserable.

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There are rags to riches stories. At least by American standards they’re rags to riches. Riches of the wallet. Riches of the driveway where a brand new Ford pickup sits. Riches of the living room where a plasma screen TV sits. A Christian nation that has forgotten the story of Solomon. Cram whatever you want into your life, it will never be enough. Perhaps we think it’ll be easier to pursue happiness with a V8 engine.

I don’t understand, I have never understood, I’m done pretending to understand.

Last summer we walked into the Shabin. It’s not all that different from the trailer we walked into on Porter’s first night except the outlets don’t smoke.

We have no tape measure so we measure its square footage by laying head to foot. It’s two and a half David’s long by a Brittney and David wide. It’s not much. But it will keep us warm. It will give us the chance to learn how to build a home of our own. More importantly it will allow us to live as self-sufficiently as possible. Four acres can make a hell of a garden. Starter gardens. There’s something I can get behind.

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We step out of the Shabin and onto the small covered porch. A wind rustles through the Cottonwood Trees and the leaves whisper their affirmation. The nearest highway is 65 miles away, the airport is closed for the night, the only sound is the trees and Thrush. A Great Blue Heron flies over, its prehistoric cry fills the silence.

I feel as if I’ve unlocked some sort of magic. I wonder what creates this feeling in others. Maybe V8 engines and seven figure incomes can elicit such emotion, but I doubt it.

Maybe the key to happiness is not pursuing it but instead accepting it. Accepting that a foot long sub, a free internet connection, a rescue cat, and the love of your life is all you really need.

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With a Single Breath

Several years ago, Brittney and I were walking along a trail in Juneau. Like most of city’s trails, it wasn’t far from the ocean. We worked our way through muskeg, over bogs, and past Devils Club when I heard it. I’d reached a point in my life where breathing whales stopped me in my tracks. Even if I wasn’t sure at first why. I stopped at the top of a hill, the water visible through the trees below.

“Did you hear—?”

A sound like a gunshot rips through the trees.

“Go.” She answers.

We’re gone. Half running half falling down the hillside. I stop on the edge of a bluff, my arms cartwheeling. I turn left and run parallel to the beach, that seductive sound carrying my feet. A small depression levels the drop off the bluff and I leap into nothing, my feet skidding on the soft mulch. I land on the rocks below. I look back up into the trees and my bride to be.

“Turn right at the big Spruce!”

The water is still fifty feet away, a minefield of rock between me in the water. I trip and stumble with every step. But I don’t want to take my eyes off the water. A small thump behind me tells me Brittney’s found the “slide.” She looks up, eyes alight, face mirroring my own.

“Where are they?”

A female Orca breaks the surface, her breath echoing off the rocks, off my soul. I tear down the beach after her. an impossible race I have no chance of winning. But in the company of Orcas, everything seems possible.

***

For the first time this year, it feels like Spring. We sprawl in the sun just behind the lab. Blackney Pass is glass, the water vibrant, the sea lions noisy as ever. Harlequin’s in the cove, eagles in the trees, the cat hunting mice in the Heather bush. Heaven on earth.

And we hear it.

After three years here, we’ve created a silent language of sorts when it comes to Orcas, whether we’re watching them or listening for them. When something whispers through the speaker our first glance is at each other, as if confirming that it wasn’t in our head or the creak of a chair. A silent debate begins, “was that what I think it was?”

We look at each other, a quiet intensity passes between us. Without a word we rise to our feet and walk onto the deck. Spend some time looking for whales and you start to scan the water without thought. There’s a smooth circle of ripples off to my left, just beyond the cliff that marks the far side of the cove. On a day as calm as this nothing can touch the water in secret. Nothing can slip past. It could have been a loud Sea Lion, or a boat or—.

Hello beautiful.

The Orca breaks the surface 150 yards off the shoreline. We turn as one and dive for the lab door. I grab the camera. Brittney taps frantically on the keyboard, willing the computer to life. With the miracle of technology, the whole world is about to know there were Orcas heading for Johnstone Strait. I hit the lab deck again and try to take a deep breath. My body’s shaking with excitement and my first set of pictures come away blurry.

I’ve lost count of the number of Orcas I’ve seen in my life. But they still do this to me. Last summer we found Orcas on a kayaking tour and I left Brittney and the clients in the dust. They give me tunnel vision. They’re my drug. It’s been this way for ten years, I’ve given up expecting it to change. I don’t want it to ever change.

The scientist in me reigns in the euphoric teenager. I begin to count, estimate speed, run my eyes along the trailing edge of the dorsal, looking for nicks and scars in the saddle patch. They’re spread out and moving fast on the flooding tide. When they surface after a dive I turn back and yell at Brittney so she knows where to point the remote camera.

“Hump of Harbledown! First Bay! Mid gap!”

What will I do with all this Blackney Pass geography when we’re gone?

The Orcas swim in twos and fours. A pair of big males bring up the rear and disappear around the southern corner bound for the strait. The camera system is now so intricate that we can almost literally hand the Orcas off from one camera to another as they go down the strait. Brittney’s already found them on the next camera off of Cracroft Point. And they’re beginning to talk.

We hear a melodic pin and we both give a shout. We know these guys. Or at least recognize them. Pings are a signature of G clan. I11, I15, and the G pods. A few minutes and several excited calls later Helena sends us a message. It’s the I15s. They’re a Johnstone Strait staple in the summer time. But maybe they’re making a February pilgrimage a tradition. They came through almost exactly a year ago.

Whether this is significant to the I15s or not, they sound happy to be here. Their calls echo off the underwater canyons and swirl through our heads. They always sound so happy. For the next hour we watch them push deeper into Johnstone Strait. There’s one final camera we can find them on, the Critical Point or Robson Bight camera. Situated on a cliff at the east edge of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve we find half of the I15s mid channel.

But as I watch the calls intensify, they’re far too loud to be from the cluster I’m watching. I pull the camera back out and am rewarded with three Orcas breaking the surface just off the rocks. My body stiffens and I clumsily pan the camera from left to right, trying not to screw up the shot. Remotely it’s hard to track with them. Gauging distance is tough when you’re not in the flesh. It’s not the first time I’ve promised countless worldly possessions to spend a summer on the cliffs overlooking the Bight. Paul thinks I’m joking when I tell him I’m willing to spend a summer there as a “monitor.”

“That’s what the camera’s for.” He says.

“Yea… I know.”

Born too late. The wild west of Orca research has come and gone. No more hiding in the Salal at the Rubbing Beaches either. Passages of Erich Hoyt’s and Alex Morton’s books still make me green with jealousy.

The three Orcas—two females and a calf—are so loud the calls come through the headphones with static. But I don’t dare turn away for the few seconds it would take to turn it down. I grit my teeth and watch them break the surface again. I pan the camera further but can see nothing now but leaves and branches. End of the line. Two hours after sighting them, they’re out of sight.

The calls fade away as they leave the range of the hydrophone and I’m left with an empty expanse of water and the islands of Harbledown, Swanson, and Parson painted with a golden light that would make Midas envious. Snow still clings to the mountains on Vancouver Island, but with the warmth and the I15s, it feels like summer.

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Midnight Humpbacks

Another year with no trick or treaters on Hanson Island. I shudder to imagine what we’d do if we heard a knock on the door right now. We’d glance terrified at one another, bodies taut, legs weak, hands shaking. What the hell? No one whose ever knocked on the door of a cabin on the rocks at 10:00 at night has ever done so with good intentions. But the night is calm and seems to be low on ghoulish or spiritual skullduggery. After a stormy month, it’s nice to hear the quiet. There’s not even boat traffic. All that comes out of the hydrophones is the occasional gurgle of water and the unexplained static like crackles.

But despite the quiet and despite the darkness, we’re not alone. Outside the door are sea lions and seals and mink and dolphins, and tonight, humpbacks. They never seem to favor the Hanson shore during the day. When they could be photographed and possibly identified. No, they wait until the sun disappears and the clouds devour what little moon there is. But in the pitch black, we can hear them. Their deep booming breaths shake the window as they surface somewhere out beyond the curtain of night.

And time and time again I rise from my seat and step out onto the porch. It’s not like I can’t hear them from inside. But somewhere embedded in my DNA is an instinct as natural as breathing. Go to the whales. I stand on the edge of the porch, my bare feet gripping the slippery wood. Out of habit I count the blows. One… two… three… Three!? When was the last time there was three humpbacks in front of the lab? In between their surfacings is the sound of sea lions. Their exhalations are minuscule next to their cetacean neighbors. They’re like flies. They zip and dive around the humpbacks, why no one really knows. Maybe their picking off stray fish, using the whales for protection from Transients, or maybe it’s a game. Some sort of Sea Lion chicken to see who can get closest to a 15-foot flipper and not get bludgeoned to death.

There’s something about whales at night. I love whales at night. Let’s be honest, I love them at all hours, but something about hearing them but not seeing them hits me hard. Humpback or Orca, hydrophone or above water makes no difference. I love to listen. It goes back to a night more than ten years ago, not far from where I live and write.

Eleven Years Ago:

It’s past midnight. The only dark stretch of this July night. I’m asleep in a two man tent with my Father when my eyes snap open. I sit upright in my sleeping bag, that DNA kicking on for the first time. I know what I heard, the only question is; was it in my dream. I only have to wait a few seconds when I hear it again.

Blows. Lots of them.

I spring out of my sleeping bag—Dad right behind—and step out onto the rocks. Johnstone Strait is ten feet away and five feet down. And somewhere in that eternal blackness, they’re swimming. Orcas. I hear them but can’t see them. It’s infuriating. We’ve traveled hear to see them, not hear them swim tantalizingly by just feet away. From my knees I stretch out into the nothingness above the water, eyes straining, heart praying. But they’re moving on. Going west.

Two days later I got my wish when the A36s, a trio of male Orcas swim past in the morning. From the seat of my kayak I watched Kaikash, Plumper, and Cracroft cruise by. If only I’d known their names that day. I would have paddled out and introduced myself.

Today I don’t mind. Let them approach in the dark and scurry across to the shadow of Harbledown Island in the sun. Even as I write the humpbacks continue to move back and forth in Blackney Pass. Sometimes close, sometimes further away. But in the stillness I can hear them, mixing with the sounds of the hydrophone, the crackling of the fire, and the snoring of the cat.

Home.

Somewhere along the way, this place became home. One of them at least. It can be easy to take some of the miracles of Hanson Island for granted when it’s at your feet 24-hours a day. But not tonight. Not when the humpbacks surface and reawaken the boy inside that fell in love with it all eleven years ago.

The Question

There’s not much in the way of trails around here. Not that it’s too important on this island. Enough old growth is still around that the undergrowth is open in a lot of places. It’s easy to get lost, easy to get carried away walking through those big old trees. Especially on days like today after a heavy rain last night. The afternoon sun slashes through the trees like a sword through fabric, illuminating the mist rising from the moss choked floor. Water droplets cling to cedar needles like diamonds on a necklace. An iridescent glow in each one holding a little flicker of the sun.

Today I’m poking along a stretch that’s part trail part tree root. I hop a stream threatening to be promoted to class five rapids after the downpour. Soon after the trail becomes more defined. I take a deep breath. It feels so good buried in the woods. In Japan they have what they call forest bathing. In simple terms it is nothing more complicated than being in the presence of trees. The idea is that the air doesn’t just taste better in the woods, it actually is better. Essential oils like phytoncide found in trees actually improve immune system function. The forest isn’t just a tonic for the soul like the apostles Muir and Thoreau wrote about. It’s like taking vitamins.

I’m walking this trail to see someone who knows that better than anyone. I’ve written about Walrus several times before. For those that don’t know who this incredible man is, here’s the cliff notes version. Walrus is a walking talking hybrid of Radagast and Dumbledore. He inhabits what he likes to call, “Canada’s longest active logging road block.” He settled on Hanson Island after years in Greenpeace and helped Hanson Island—Yukusam in the Namgis tongue—gain protection from logging. Today he has a long white beard, eyebrows as long and thick as caterpillars, and a high pitched laugh that is infectious.

In my backpack is ten pounds of dog food for his creme colored bear of a dog named Kessler and fruit, carrots, and granola for his master. I tighten the straps of the pack and dig in my boots on the muddy trail as the incline steepens. Walrus’ road block came to rest about a hundred feet shy of the highest point on the island. Every now and then I hike food up the hill to him. It became dire last week when Walrus walked down the hill to the series of rubber totes he keeps near Dong Chong bay to collect some food he’d left only to find that something had gotten to Kessler’s food. 10 pounds worth. Be it bear or wolves we still don’t know. But neither of us has seen a deer in weeks. And deer don’t disappear because of mischievous black bears. So we’d brought Kessler an emergency bag of dog food last week. And had restocked for him in Alert Bay a couple days ago.

As I climb my mind drifts, thoughts mixing with the ravens and Stellar’s Jay above me, my mind drifting to what I’d been reading before I left the lab. In the last week a tanker ran aground near Bella Bella. The support vehicle sent to assist swamped. The containment booms set out to minimize the impact were as useful as a fishing net. The spill was minimal, as minimal as one can be at least, an insult to the very phrase, “low impact.” A low impact oil spill is like minor surgery. It isn’t minor if you’re the one getting cut open.

I’d followed the stories through a guy named Mark Worthing. A Walrus disciple and friend of Orca Lab who has committed his life  to keeping the final stands of old trees in British Columbia standing. In his free time he fights back against the proposed oil tanker line that would cut through the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the pearls of world. The only region in North America where wolves were not almost exterminated. It’s a place where people find Spirit Bears in the woods and God in a sunset. It’s also a maze of islands, reefs, and rocks that gets hammered by 50 knot winds in the winter. All it takes is one tanker. One mistake. One gashed hull. And it’s gone. Ask Prince William Sound. And so Mark fights, because life would seem pointless if he wasn’t fighting for something much bigger than himself.

And then there’s Zack Brown back in Alaska, founding a research and education institute on the Inian Islands to the west of Gustavus. He hiked and paddled from San Francisco to Gustavus in a tidy three months. He’s a voice for climate activism, a voice for change, and he does so eloquently, something that doesn’t always happen when we speak passionately. I used to idolize athletes, now I idolize activists. If only they made trading cards.

My legs are shaking. I set the backpack down on a rock and plop down in the mud next to it. Sweat runs down my face, steam rises from my back. What am I doing? I gave some money to Bernie Sanders, ride my bike when I can, talk about saving the world. But is that enough? It’s a question every conservationist has asked themselves. We see a world that’s in danger. In danger of being steam rolled over by the great construction firm of progress. Lumber over woods. Oil over spirit bears. And we wonder if what we’re doing is adequate. It’s hard when our efforts aren’t visible. Riding your bike doesn’t correlate to a healthy calf in the southern Resident Orcas. Nor does eating vegetarian ensure a healthy salmon run.

I pull the pack back on and start back up the incline. It’s a question I’m still struggling with as my breathing becomes more and more ragged. I spend my summers representing the natural world from the seat of my kayak, and the winter writing about it. My audience is only a couple hundred people, maybe that’s a start. Maybe the people I show sea lions and humpbacks to in the summer are starting dominoes back home. Maybe they took something back from Glacier Bay besides pictures and cover photos.

I round a final corner and Walrus’ cabin comes into view. His area is ringed with a Salal fence, the flexible trunks of the bush intricately bent and woven together to keep the deer away from the garden. Does it work? It does not. You would think a 90 pound dog would keep them out. But Kessler has been known to watch deer amble by ten feet away with nothing more than a sniff. He jogs up to me as I approach, ears up, tail down. We go through this song and dance every time. He can never remember me. He gives a half bark, turns and runs. From the cabin I hear Walrus call out and I smile. The question still lingers, but for today I have a purpose. I’m bringing the caretaker of Hanson Island lunch. And for now, that’s enough.