Tag Archives: animals

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 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.

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.

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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Stop Talking About Polar Bears. Talk About Us.

The blog has been quiet lately. This hasn’t been intentional it’s just, well, I’ve always tried to keep this forum balanced. Too often I feel environmental writing gets dragged down into a “the end is neigh” rhetoric that beats the drum so often that the reader goes tone deaf. There is good out there, it’s just been hard to find. Sure, we can applaud Obama’s protection of the Arctic from drilling, but even that has a dark lining as many pundits have been quick to point out.

We’re so used to fighting a losing battle, that even victories are viewed through our pessimistic lens. I suppose I’ve been guilty of that too. It’s been easier to play fantasy basketball, read books, and watch silly TV shows than sink my teeth into anything. Which is dangerous. Apathy at this moment in history is a death blow and I cannot mobilize others to fight while I sit on my duff and drink my fifth cup of coffee this morning.

So lets talk about something that matters. Or more accurately, talk about not talking about something anymore.

We need to stop talking about Polar Bears.

“What?” I can hear you say. “But the polar ice caps are at a historic low! They’re starving and mating with Grizzly Bears! They’re the flagship species of climate change!”

Let me begin by saying that I agree with you. 100 percent. I have never seen a wild Polar Bear, I hope I have the opportunity someday (not too close if you please). And that’s the problem.

Let me remind you of America’s unfortunate waltz with insanity this year and that a man who prioritizes the Environment as highly as women’s vaginas and Russian hacking will soon be in office. We’ve been here before so I won’t bother with another 500 words on it. But as a refresher, the majority of American’s support three of Trump’s seven horcruxes: environmental policies, national parks, and lowering carbon emissions. These are opinions that span both sides of the aisle, though left leaning to be sure.

But it hasn’t mattered. The Polar Bear has been leading a movement that, well, isn’t moving. It’s not galvanizing public opinion or inspiring people to make drastic changes in their lives. This isn’t their fault of course. But scientists and well meaning people pointing feverishly at graphs of vanishing ice, rising carbon emissions, and photos of emaciated bears isn’t changing the minds of the suburban mid-westerner.

That sucks. It speaks to our self centered “out of sight out of mind” mentality. So we need to bring the flagship home. But I haven’t the faintest idea how to do that. Getting people outside is a common theme. “Coming home” as it were, getting in touch with our ancestral playground. But to the casual eye, the woods feel similar to how they were two decades ago.

I look over Blackney Pass and I don’t see the effects of climate change. My quality of life has not diminished. The grocery store is stocked with food, fresh water is everywhere, the jerry cans are full. The boat engine comes to life on the first pull. If someone who lives with his head to nature’s chest and can hear her heartbeat cannot easily see, how do we expect the suburbanite to recognize it? This is my fear. That each generation will experience these subtle changes, see them as normal, and move on.

There used to be toads on Hanson Island. Just twenty years ago Paul and Helena used to see them all over the place. I had no idea. It was a sobering realization that I could be so naive and immune to what the island should contain. It was much the same shock as when I stumbled across an old clear cut last year with the decapitated stumps of trees twenty feet in diameter. Imagine a century from now, some kid staring up at the skeleton of a blue whale and marveling that the world used to hold animals so grand.

If we’re going to wait until the quality of life is deteriorating in the suburbs of Cleveland, I fear it will be too late. It’s funny how environmentalists are viewed as tree huggers and hippies that would rather save a butterfly than a human life. The greatest twist in the tale of humanity is that we’re not trying to save the whales, we’re trying to save ourselves. I’m not learning about root cellars and gardening because I have a particular interest in being the next Samwise Gamgee, I’m learning because I believe there is the possibility that it will save my life.

It’s a scary and sobering realization. It’s something I wish more people thought about. Of course if more people thought about it we wouldn’t be here. Asking people to change for the Polar Bears or southern Resident Orcas is not enough. New cars, big houses, and the tidal waves of consumerism and manifest destiny drowns out their pleas with a deafening roar. This is the enemy. It’s easy to pin Exxon, Shell, the government, and other faceless entities to the cross. They’re not us. They’re the problem. We’re just along for the ride.

To steal our new commander in chief’s favorite phrase, “wrong.”

They exist because we allow them to exist. Our obsessive, “if you’re not growing you’re failing, American dream, more, more, more” mentality exists because of us. Stop believing you need everything nay, deserve everything, and it will disappear. Rip those shackles off. If these ideologies are defeated, the polar bears, Orcas, and us will be saved by default. Don’t save the Polar Bears, save humanity.

How I’m supposed to convince people of this I have not the faintest idea. So instead let me leave you with this final nugget.

I believe Orcas are smarter than humans. From the moment an Orca is born, it has everything it could ever want: family, food, security, shelter. It’s beautiful. After decades of research and millions of hours studying them, scientists have but a handful of instances in which Orcas were aggressive to each other. What they have, is a society with no in-fighting, violence, poverty, or hunger (except for the plummeting salmon stocks which is not their fault). If I told you that there was a place you could live without those hardships, you’d want to learn all you could about it. Take that into 2017. Hug your loved one, eat good food, watch out for another, settle conflict peacefully.

Be an Orca. Maybe they should be the flagship species.

Cover Photo Credit: Sylvain Cordier/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Winter Descriptions and Luxuries Disguised as Necessities

The days feel shorter here than up in Alaska. That shouldn’t seem possible, but the orientation of the lab makes dusk fall quickly. As we approach winter solstice, the sun must clear a pair of hurdles to reach our cabin. First the mountains that overlook Robson Bight and then the collection of Fir and Spruce trees on the southern side of the cove. So even when the sun shines, it only strikes directly for a few hours.

But some sun is better than none, and over the last week we’ve been serenaded by blue sky and sunshine. After the rains of November it’s a welcome change. With the sun comes the northeasterly outflow. A pocket of cold air that has enveloped much of Canada in a classic winter freeze. They are days that lend themselves to wool hats, wool sweaters, and walks through the forest.  The sun reaches down through the boughs like the fingers of Midas, turning all they touch into gold. The humpbacks have vanished. The geese and cranes have flown south, the Varied thrush inland. We are left with the heartiest of the temperate species. The Raven, crow, Harlequin, Scoter, deer, and mink. It’s a vocal and charming collection of neighbors. Some smell, some call with the rising sun, some quietly munch frozen kelp illuminated by the full moon.

Inside the cabin, it’s an hourly effort to keep the temperature comfortable. The weather lends itself to light, dry wood, the moisture of Fall sapped from its wooden tendons to burn hot and fast. But the greatest ally of the wood stove is bark from the Fir tree. It washes up in droves, waiting to be plucked and dried. After a few days out of the water, it super charges the stove and sends heat into even the chilliest corners of the room. Nevertheless, the cat and rabbit curl up at the stove’s base while Brittney and I wrap ourselves in blankets, sweaters, and long johns to take off the chill. We rise every two hours at night to stoke the fire and keep the cabin warm for the rabbit. Each time I rise I turn the tap. The water runs icy cold, but as long as water moves through the line every few hours it won’t freeze.

I love this clear, frozen world. A world that in many ways is not that different from the one inhabited by generations of people before me. The rustic hand loggers and fish packers that used to dot the coastline from Campbell River to Bella Bella. The sourdough and flapjack generation as it were. The Billy Procter all stars. It’s a universe of simplistically over convenience.

Today more people live in cities than ever before. We are urbanized, domesticated, house trained. Homo stationarious. We insist on electric heat, warm water, indoor plumbing, matching granite countertops, and auto start. So many necessities the sourdough people couldn’t have even fathomed fifty years ago. Imagine Billy tortured over the design of his countertops or balking at walking to his car in minus 20 weather. I’m closer to him than the coffee shop in Seattle. Born too late and raised too wild.

Why do we need these things? What are we looking for? A generation of beach combers picking up materialism, taking it home, placing it on the mantle to see how it looks. At what point do we say “enough?”

Don’t eat till you’re full. Eat until you’re no longer hungry.

A bath on Hanson Island, like it was for many years, requires time and effort. It’s an all day affair of collecting wood, feeding the fire, and tapping your foot. But when you sink into that tub with Blackney Pass splayed out in front of you. Oh my goodness. Blissful tub nirvana.

Perhaps that’s it. When the necessities aren’t simple you fall back in love with them. We linger a bit longer over what many would call the mundane, extracting more joy from a trickle of hot water than many will find in a shower with 5,000 PSI. It’s hard to know what warm is until you’ve been cold. Hanson Island has taught me that necessities are not necessities at all but luxuries. They are things that we have simply been told we cannot do without when in actuality we prefer our lives without them. After years of technological “progress” aimed at making our domestication more efficient, the average family still needs just as many hours to clean the house as they did in 1950. It’s a secret Roomba and Hoover don’t want you to know.

Perhaps some will always prefer the high rise apartment, insulated from the faintest breeze and sweetest bird song. But I will take the biting wind as I walk to the outhouse and the therapy of a cup of tea while the cold crawls through the cracks. I’ll take the star scattered night uninhibited by headlights and the songs of Humpbacks in my dreams. May my countertops be wooden, the car cold when it starts, and the days unencumbered by the trappings of modernity.

Blessings of the harbor seals be upon you.