Tag Archives: Alaska

Our Best Ideas Are Imagained in Bars

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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These Are the Places I Will Always Go

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Back to Canada, to Paul’s?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nissan Tetris: 20 days to go

Everything we own has to fit in a 1996 Pathfinder. This includes, one cat (Porter) who feels it is his god given right to move freely throughout the cabin, fasten seatbelt light be damned. A rabbit (Penny) and her cage (excuse me, Brittney insists we call it a house), and the two of us. Our bed is long gone, we’ve never owned a dresser that wasn’t made of cheap plastic, and our entertainment system has been those two fur balls we’ve shared our lives with the past two years.

So when we moved out of our cozy (a nice word for cramped) studio apartment in January to house sit until moving day, I thought decluttering would be a breeze. The mattress and end table were gone within hours of a craigslist post and seemingly bag after bag of discarded and forgotten memorabilia was dropped unceremoniously into the dumpster. So when the day came to move our few remaining possessions from the Mendenhall Apartments into the house we’d call home for the next few months, we were terrified to discover it still took three loads to remove everything. We were over capacity, by a lot. And Penny’s cage house wasn’t even set up when we moved it.

And so we’ve spent the last few months enjoying the luxuries of modern civilization such as electric heat, big screen TV’s, ESPN, and Fred Meyer while trying to part ways with more of our stuff. And yet there are things that, incredibly are just hard to let go of. A stack of birthday cards that spans a decade, a high school basketball shirt, and a pile of text books that weigh half a ton but I kept swearing I’d go back and read some day. But in the past two weeks we’ve finally said goodbye to all of them and the moment of truth is three weeks away.

The pathfinder, dubbed “Tui” after the sweet singing song bird of New Zealand needs a serious cleaning before we can actually test how much she can carry but I’m now confident it’s all going to fit. If not, we have until June 28th to say goodbye to whatever else needs to go, whether we deem it significant or not. We spent last night pouring over the highway between Skagway and Seattle, piecing together campsites, food options, and trying to realistically estimate how many miles we can cover with a hyperactive cat crawling all over us. If all goes to plan, the Seattle skyline should come into view some time on July 2nd, the first 1,731 miles under our belt.

I’ll be in Seattle for two weeks before setting out for what will, ultimately be the final destination for the four of us come October; Hanson Island, British Columbia. Through this website we hope to maintain a link to the outside world, and give people a glimpse at what we’ll be doing on our own little slice of heaven throughout the coming winter. We feel we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to grow and challenge ourselves in a way that we never have before, and I for one, could not be more excited or nervous.

It’s my hope that, with just under three weeks before we board the ferry and say goodbye to the city and people that we’ve grown to love so much in the past five years, I can give some background on the place we’ll call home, and how we came up with this hair brained scheme in the first place (spoiler alert: alcohol was involved). But for now, the words of John Muir, one of the greatest explorers of our time seem most appropriate, “We must risk our lives in order to save them.”

David Cannamore