Tag Archives: birds

Concerning Snowflakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August Fog

For the first time this summer, there’s a bite to the breeze. When I step out the backdoor. The air tastes like Fall. It brings forth images of Cottonwood Trees changing color. The taste of Pumpkin flavored beer, pumpkin spice lattes, shoot, pumpkin flavored everything. Fall comes early in Alaska. The first week of August reminding us that each season but winter is short, to be savored.

With it comes rain. The rain that justifies our existence as a rainforest. A rain that makes everything green. A chilling nasty rain with curled lips and sharp teeth that bites at the back of your neck and crawls beneath the most impenetrable Gore-Tex.

But on days like today, when it doesn’t rain, oh what a beautiful setting. Bless the rare calm, and foggy mornings of August. Blue sky above, the land ensconced in curtains of fog.

There’s something magical about paddling in the fog. The shutters pulled over our eyes, every other sense becomes sharpened.

You smell your way through fog.

On low tide mornings like this one the odor of anoxic mud crawls into my nose. A rancid guide leading me back to shore when the trees disappear behind the milky white sheen. My ears orientate like a dogs, the cries of a crow lead me across the mouth of a cove. Land nowhere in site, paddle toward the crows.

As always I’m accompanied. Today it is the minimum two people. Mark and Laura. Middle aged, bouncy, and happy. The sort that are easy to talk to because the silences are never awkward. Everything is wonderful in their eyes. The fog, the water, the sea lion that interrupts my bear story. They make my job easy. The sort of people you wish you had every day. We paddle near the shoreline and let the fog wrap around us like a sweater. The smell of the beach and the noise of the crows guiding us.

Boats pass unseen in the fog. The intrusive foghorn of a cruise ship echoes off the mountains and trees every few minutes.

We float in a kelp bed two miles from the dock. Our paddling has been serene and relaxed. I’m in no hurry. If you’re in a hurry, kayaking isn’t for you. Easier to let the world come to you then to try to catch the world.

“Are you worried about the possibility of losing the glaciers because of global warming?”

The question comes from the husband Mark. It does after you talk about the retreat of the glaciers. How, in 1794, Glacier Bay was nothing more than a five mile divot on the north side of Icy Strait. Yes I know, no internal combustion engines spewing carbon into the atmosphere in the 18th century.

There’s something different about the way that Mark phrases the question though that gives me pause. Are you worried about the glaciers?

The glaciers? I mean, I guess so. It’s funny, I live in a land defined by them, created by them. If anyone should worry about the well being of the glaciers I guess it should be me. And I am, now that I think about it. For Glacier Bay with no glaciers is a sorry end indeed. What would we call it? Muir Bay National Park and Preserve?

But when I think about climate change, about the cliff that we’re either a) barreling towards or b) careening over (depends on who you ask), glaciers aren’t the first thing I think about.

“What I think about,” I say, “are murres.”


“Murres, among other things.”

I explain about the blob, which they had never heard of. About thousands of murres washing ashore on the beaches of southeast and south-central Alaska. I describe their delightful noises, the joy of a muttering murres, their exasperated yells. We all seem to have that animal that touches us in a way no one else understands. Brittney loves Black Oyster Catchers. Hank Lentfer loves Sandhill Cranes. And I have Common and Thick Billed Murres.

“For me, Glacier Bay without Murres is no longer Glacier Bay.” I say. “Maybe that’s short sighted of me. But imagine if you stopped paddling, and it was quiet.”

We do just that and are serenaded by a timpani of birds. Marbled Murrelets, Canadian Geese, crow, raven, phalarope, and oyster catcher.

People talk about getting out in nature. “Getting away from it all.” We call it. The peace and quiet of wilderness. But here’s the thing, nature is never quiet. To walk into the woods and hear nothing would be… empty, desolate, unsatisfying. Nature isn’t supposed to be quiet. There should always be a squirrel rattling, a bird calling, a sea lion swimming.

What we’re really talking about, is getting away from ourselves. Away from the world we created. The artificial one sculpted from metal and concrete. The birds and squirrels and sea lions are not noise, they are music to our ears. And a world without them, glaciers or no, is no longer a world.

The Murres, the Blob, and Saving the World

I love Common Murres. Those plucky little diving birds sporting smart black and white tuxedos. The delightful little Alcids that help fill the same ecological niche penguins do in the southern hemisphere. You can have your puffins, the darlings of the Alaskan traveler. I’ll take the understated Murre. When you paddle near them you hear adorable little grunts and growls. A mob of muttering Murres is a delightful conversation to eavesdrop on. Like a group of well dressed attendants at a posh dinner party. Until they scream. An outrageous warbling, an exasperated yell completely out of character with their dignified attire and dialect. Last August hundreds of Murres filled Bartlett Cove. At times it seemed impossible to paddle through without disturbing them. I gave their presence little thought as I paddled past. Enjoying their quiet talks and unexpected yelps.

But this winter was not an easy one for them. As Brittney and I traveled south, a mass of warm water moved north into the Gulf of Alaska. Scientists watched it with skepticism and interest, unsure of what to call it or how to diagnose its presence. “The Blob,” everyone called it until an intrepid blogger coined the term “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR).” While it still didn’t sound scientific, at least the word “blob” wasn’t in there anymore.

The Murres didn’t care what it was called. Murres are divers. Able to swim hundreds of feet below the surface to feed on herring, capelin, and juvenile pollock. The warm waters of the RRR sent their food sources deep beneath the waves, seeking the colder water. But as the fish dove, they left the Murres behind, devoid of their winter food source. Murres spend most of the winter offshore, so when they appeared by the thousands in Icy Strait and Glacier Bay, everyone noticed.

Murres lack storage space. They don’t put on layers of fat to help sustain them for the lean times. They need to eat, and just a few days of fasting can rob them of their strength. Last winter, there was no food to be had. And Murres showed up in the most bizarre places. They were sighted in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from the nearest coast, blown north and inland in their weakened condition. Thousands of them landed on frozen Lake Illiamna in western Alaska.

Throughout southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and the Aleutian chain, dead Murres washed ashore by the thousands. Malnourished and lost, betrayed by a belt of warm water that had no business being there. With thousands of miles of unmonitored coastline, it’s impossible to know how many of these darling birds perished this winter. Estimates are in the hundreds of thousands.

“Are you worried?”

I take my time before answering. Measuring what sort of response I may get. I try really hard not to assume people’s political or environmental views based on where they’re from. I hesitate and admonish myself. Who cares where they’re from? They’re here, in Glacier Bay. They’re kayaking, they clearly care enough to hear what I really think.
The question was not about Murres, but climate change and if I was concerned. But my tuxedo clad friends swim in my mind as I answer.

“Yes,” I respond. And I’m off. Talking about J.B. McKibbon’s sliding scale. How one generation perceives nature as “normal,” slides the scale some, and the next generation perceives this new environment as the new normal. It’s a slippery slope that we’re on.

What if in a hundred years Miami has more canals than Venice and we just consider that normal? What about a world without whales or Murres or wolves or national parks? We scoff but brown bears in California used to be normal. Wolves in Arizona was a given. So many cod off Cape Cod we thought the harvest would never end. This is nothing new. Homo sapiens have been shaping the world around them since forever. Does that justify what we’re doing today?

“It’s not just climate change.” I say, “that gets most of the attention, but it’s so much more. It’s ocean acidity, mercury in the fish. The deck is stacked.”

Hell, we can’t stop killing each other. How can we be expected to care about the rest of the world when we treat our fellow man the way we do? If we’re going to fight, let’s fight for the protection of what the earth still has, not who knows where we go when we die.

The two of them look at me with concern. Nothing like a light conversation about the end of the natural world on a gorgeous day in Glacier Bay. I think about the Murres again. How hard it was to watch, learn, and read about their struggles all winter. How I could have just closed my computer, looked away, pretended like it wasn’t happening. As if that would change anything.

If we can’t talk about it, how will we ever begin to repair the damage?

“I think the natural world will survive,” I continue. “Maybe not the way we see it now, but it’ll recover one way or the other. But that could be hundreds of years from now. It’s not the end of the world, but it could be the end of what makes this a world we love.” I don’t want to live in a world without whales, Murres, wolves, or national parks.

“What do we do?” Their faces are anxious, and I wish I had the magic words. The snappy one liner of the salesmen and TV commercial. The thirty minute sitcom, everything tied together and back to normal before the evening news.

What do I say?

I remember Kim Heacox’s answer to a lady last summer. A mama grizzly, a mighty matriarch, asking what they were supposed to do. Daring him to answer, to tell her she was living wrong.

“Change everything.” He answered simply.
“So do we stop flying? Driving?”

I parrot his line, with a small modification. “Change everything you can.” I answer. “Make sacrifices. They should hurt, they should be hard. Or they wouldn’t be sacrifices. Walk to work, eat meat once every other day instead of with every meal. Vote in politicians that put the environment at the top of their to do list.”

70% of Americans say they support more conservation policies. Yet we’ve elected a congress that hasn’t passed such a bill in years. That’s on us. We want to save the world as long as it’s convenient. As long as it comes with a tax break. As long as it doesn’t tread on us.

“Thank you for asking about this.” I tell them. “It’s hard to hear, and difficult to discuss and think about. But it’s the only way that we can change and put the pieces back together.”

A bird comes to the surface. I’d know that silhouette anywhere. Know that dark bill, that white underbelly. I break into a smile. It’s so good to see them. A reminder that many of them made it. They’re not called Common Murres for nothing. There’s boatloads of them. May there always be. In its bill is a little wriggling fish. Probably herring. It’s impossible to tell from here. The Murre gulps it down in two swallows, floats at the surface half a second more, and dives back beneath the waves. Looking for more. Happy hunting little friend.

Cover Photo Credit: wsl.ch


A Summer Sampling

The wind roars so hard the windows creak and strain against their frames. Rain pelts the walls so hard it sounds like someone is hurling handfuls of pebbles at them. Every few minutes we can hear a dull thud, first on one side of the cabin, than the other. I’ve never heard anything like it before, and I’m not feeling brave enough to go out and investigate. I’ll chalk it up to an ornery log refusing to settle on the rocks. By the time we crawl beneath the blankets—the cat nestled as he always is on Brittney’s pillow—the storm has reached a crescendo.
Periodically throughout the night we rise and feel our way down the dark stairs to the living room. Penny’s house is nestled in a corner, a blanket thrown over the top to insulate her. We’re not sure how cold is too cold for a rabbit, so we throw wood on the fire periodically throughout the night to keep it comfortable. She barely moves as I poke my fingers through the bars and rub the soft spot between her ears. She opens one eye indignantly, her pupil reflecting the dancing flames behind us.
“Sorry,” I whisper, and creep back up the stairs, under the blankets, and into the warmth.
By the time the first tendrils of dawn are creeping above the mountain’s of Vancouver Island, the storm has exhausted itself. The tree branches tremble in a weary sort of way, the ocean placid and innocent. All it takes is a few hours to go from 45 knots to five, the low pressure system skidding to a halt.
I open the front door. The air feels surprisingly warm on my face. The life of the island looks out cautiously. A cluster of Harlequin ducks emerge around the point, bobbing on the tiny ocean ripples. They’re spunky little things, but where they go when the ocean roars like a lion is beyond me. But every morning, here they are, wholly unimpressed with the storm.
Out of the woods steps a deer. It’s not just any deer. This is Frodo, and he’s the most social of his kind I’ve ever met. Our porch overlooks a little cove, and Frodo has taken to trolling back and forth along it on every low tide. He’s scavenging for kelp fronds, and as he hears the boards creek he looks up. His expression is benign, a piece of kelp hanging ridiculously out the side of his mouth, looking at me. Every other deer I’ve encountered would turn and run at my approach. But Frodo moves casually toward the porch, nose glued to the rocks, sniffing for breakfast.
We have our morning routine down to a science. Feed the pets, brew coffee, drink coffee/ Brew more coffee. But this morning as we pull open the curtains and look over Blackney Pass, something feels different. The sun burns off a thin layer of clouds, and light floods the living room. And for the first time in months, the fingers of sun feel warm. This is not the biting cold of an easterly outflow that clears the skies and buries the mercury. This feels good. And we walk out onto the deck near the lab where the late morning sun heats the porch and turns the cove emerald.
It’s the first sign of Spring, and we stand dumbly for a few moments, soaking up the warmth. Even the building afternoon breeze feels welcoming, and we exercise outside for the first time since last summer. Porter watches with a concerned look on his face. What could possess them to behave in such ridiculous fashion?
We move about in shorts for the afternoon, the sun beating down on the solar panels, the generator quiet for the first time in days. It’s days like this where nothing beats Hanson Island. The cove swollen with Harlequins, deer, and harbor seals. The salt air filled with the arguments of sea lions, the debates of eagles, the giggles of gulls.
But it’s still January, and as the sun disappears in the late afternoon the wind intensifies. The temperature drops, and we cut up another round of cedar, because the temperature in the cabin has dropped several degrees in just an hour. Soon the wind is shaking the windows again, the night air cold and biting. Regularly scheduled programming. We load the wood stove and Brittney gets the tea kettle whistling. Summer may be getting closer, but winter’s not done with us yet.

The Spirit Walker I

The water shimmered, reflecting shades of gray and green in the morning light. Fog hugged the peaks of the Beartrack Mountains like a cloak, wrapping their peaks in an ever flowing blanket. A determined ray of sun stabbed through the fog and mist, its finger crawling along the liquid mirror of the ocean, moving up the barnacle covered rocks emerging from the midnight high tide. The ray moved beyond the rye grass, turning their grains gold as they floated past, their early morning dew glowing like flakes of gold. It moved past the strawberries above the tide line and the tattered remains of an unmade bear bed abandoned just hours ago, its mattress of moss still warm. From the flat plane beyond a trio of Spruce trees the light finally rested against pale yellow canvas.
Within the tiny tent came the rustles of early morning life, a cough and a groan emerged as cold, stiff appendages protested the early disturbance. Here it was warm, comfortable. Eventually the growl of a zipper floated across the landscape joining the early morning calls of the ravens, murrelets, and gulls. A head adorned in gray wool appeared, brown and white curls peaking beneath, emerald green eyes squinting even as the few fingers of light retreated back beyond the clouds.
Reed stepped clear of the tent and staggered slowly around the trees, ambling down the beach, his gait slow and uneven as he stumbled over loose rock. One hundred yards down, buried in the rye grass lay a pair of black, cylindrical bear cans. Prying the lid off one of them, Reed settled himself upon a broad flat rock and watched the sun struggle to reappear as water rose to a boil making the oats in the sauce pan quiver and dance.
Stretched before him lay the middle and upper segments of Glacier Bay. From his vantage point on Young Island the land opened out before him like a picture book. The long seductive legs of the Y shaped bay tapered off in the distance leading to the destructive and creating forces of the glaciers. After 50 years there were few estuaries, inlets, and passes that he had not explored, slept in, or felt the stinging ice of a sudden storm seeking out every weakness in his jacket and tent. In his mind he could trace the land like the lines on his weathered and wrinkled hands.
Today marked the beginning of his seventh decade on earth. Nearly every summer had been spent here. Biologist, writer, guide, educator, and student. The more time he spent with the bay the less he seemed to know. She was full of surprises. Storms the most skilled meteorologist would be flummoxed by. Dispatching bears, precipitation and tide rips to do her bidding. She weeded out the unprepared and those too quick to romanticize her beauty and splendor. She stole kayaks off the beach with 19 foot tides, hid armies of Devils Club beyond the tree line, and set loose armadas of mosquitos with every opportunity.
Reed had learned from her, evolving as the bay itself evolved. The ice that was her architect never ceasing to carve, create, and destroy its own work of art, biding its time until it grew tired of the masterpiece and sent glaciers charging south to wipe the canvas clean.
A fine mist began to fall and Reed tilted his head back, letting the minuscule droplets fall on his face, the water dripping from his long grey eyebrows, his bleach white beard absorbing the moisture like a sponge. He managed a deep breath and felt the stabbing pain in his chest again, the knife twisting into his lungs, the throbbing magnifying in intensity as it had been for months.
Thirty minutes later, his tent and gear stored fore and aft, he slid his kayak into the shallows sending out ripples that stretched before him to mark the trail he’d follow. With a grunt he struggled into his fiberglass boat, hearing and feeling his knees crack and pop as he manipulated his long legs, stretching them out before him, toes groping for the rudder pedals. Jamming his paddle into the fine sand he pushed clear of the beach, the keel whispering as it brushed over the rocks on the still falling tide. Working against the ebb he paddled north, into the bay that had dominated his life, it was fitting that it should end here.
The minutes bled into hours, time marked only by the creeping movement of the sun still hidden beyond the clouds. The rain came and went as a fine mist, too impatient or lazy to commit. As the day slowly passed, the years seemed to vanish, the pain in his back melting, the stiffness in his legs forgotten. The melody of his youth escaped his lips, the songs of John, Paul, George, and Ringo floating across the water to fall on the boughs of the spruce and hemlock he paddled past.
For lunch he joined the otters in the kelp bed, wrapping stalks of bull kelp around the hull, anchoring himself in place as he produced bread, peanut butter, and a carefully rationed beer. These aquatic forests reminded him of the Tlingit, the rightful tenants of the bay. It was in these forests that they had gone to seek shelter when the wind blew too hard, blanketing themselves in kelp to nestle within the hulls of their boats patiently waiting for the ocean to relax. Such was their faith in the sea, their breadbasket, livelihood, and highway, that even in her most angry moment they would not abandon her.
Freeing himself from the kelp, Reed paddled on, a laminated map pinned under bungee cords in front of him, spelling out the names long ago given to the land in a fruitless effort to bring human order to a world we cannot even begin to understand. Each one conjured up memories, a comfort food for the brain. Long ago he’d started to rename the points, bays, and coves for what he had experienced and witnessed. Just as the Tlingits had given the bay practical names, so had he. They had christened the bay with descriptions and stories. “Place where the glacier broke through,” and “giant rock beneath the green bluff.” He had followed their example, and as south Marble Island grew larger and larger he entered, “passage where the orca hunted sea lion.”
He continued north, infant waves growing in the mid afternoon that had long ago hidden any evidence of what had taken place on an early Spring day years ago. Reed had been just twenty-six, his first season as a kayak guide when they’d stumbled upon the dramatic production of the food chain. The watery wolf pack had exploded from nowhere; perhaps from the underworld in which they’re latin name was derived, to send torrents of white water high into the sharp blue sky. In the chop and whirlpools they rammed their victim, the sea lions eyes wide with terror as the four of orcas circled, dove, and resumed their attack, the youngest looking on.
There was no malice in these creatures, Reed thought as he sat paralyzed 200 yards away, no sadistic pleasure in their hunt. This was life. The only way to survive, to continue the game that had been set in motion eons ago when their parents had followed the retreating glaciers. Had watched as they pealed back the curtain to reveal the labyrinth of islands and channels that would be their home for centuries.
The battle raged for an hour but there was no debate over how the drama would unfold. No sudden plot twists, no unexpected hero overcoming the odds. Nature has little interest in theatrics. Minutes later the ocean had covered up the deed, washing away any evidence, and on the sea lion haul out a mile away, life continued, unchanged.
A gust of wind tugged him back to the present, the tide shifting to flood, the breeze bounding north with the current like a sled dog. The pain in his chest intensified, his toes numb from bracing against the boat. Aiming perpendicular to the rising waves Reed paddled gamely for shore, the trees gaining definition and height as he pulled closer.
By the time the keel had kissed the shore the sun had finally broken through the dissipating clouds, turning the ocean from gray to sapphire and punctuated with rising white caps as the wind grew in intensity. Reed hauled his kayak up the beach. His feet slipping over slick seaweed that held to the rocks like glue. With a final heave he laid the kayak to rest beyond the beach grass in the protective shadow of the alders that signified safety from even the most motivated high tide.
His gear stashed and food stowed down the beach, Reed stretched out on the smallest, smoothest rocks he could find, letting the wind dry the sweat from his cheeks and forehead. Removing the wool hat he ran his hands through his thin and wispy hair. The medication would have made the last of it fall out they’d told him. If he was going to go, he was going with every last strand of hair he could hold on to. The rocks felt more comfortable than any mattress, the pounding of the waves more soothing than any fan. He closed his eyes and laid back, and felt himself drift away.
The pain in his lungs was gone. His body smooth, muscular, and powerful. His legs felt fused together as they pumped in unison. In the darkness he could feel the cold, rushing liquid speed past his face. And though he knew the water could be no warmer than 50 degrees he felt no chill, no shiver radiating up his spine. Just out of sight to his left and right swam his family, his identity, his pod. A whispered voice, high pitched and authoritative floated through the currents and Reed angled his rostrum up as he felt a gentle burn building in his lungs. The water lightened, turning from black to deep blue, a rush of air and his nostrils flexed, opening his airway, spent oxygen returning to the atmosphere. With a gasp he sucked in a fresh breath, sinking below the waves, feeling his dorsal fin cutting the surface and tickling his back. His mother dove beneath him. Her call commanded him to follow and he obeyed without question feeling his sister and nephew behind him, somewhere ahead was his brother. From his moment of birth he wanted for nothing, had lusted for nothing, born into a family that would supply him with all he would ever want.
His mother whispered again and the chatter from his nephew died away, the pod went silent. Oxygen from his last breath would have to sustain him as it pounded through massive arteries. He could hear it now in the ocean’s stillness, a splashing straight ahead and above. The sea lion bobbed on the surface, paddling away from the haul out, bound for who knew what. His timing couldn’t have been worse. Reed’s mother was a master, a specialist in his kind, she had a family to sustain, and if the intuition in her womb was true, there would be another to feed in a matter of months. For five minutes they swam on, a single pump of his tail propelling him further than ten strokes would with his paddle. His mother’s flipper brushed against him, his brother’s dorsal fin grazing his stomach, everything he’d ever need was here.
With a single screeching yelp, they shot upward, bubbles rushing past his face, the light returning, a single ping forward bounced back in a heartbeat, it was a sea lion, it was above, it was dinner, it was survival. He hit it dead on, feeling it’s bones crack against his rostrum, felt it fall away as he broke clear of the water, into dazzling light, saw his own human face alight with shock, wonder, and amazement, the snapshot burning into the back of his head as he fell into the waves, heard his nephew’s excited chitters and dove into darkness for his next charge.
Reed’s eyes snapped open, with a great gasp he exhaled as if coming to the surface after a deep dive. For a moment his head jerked back and forth, orientating. The sun was dipping beneath the mountains of the upper bay, turning the sky crimson, the wind had submitted to the atmosphere’s higher calling, the ocean settling as it prepared for a restful night.
Reed stretched out his flippers…. no, his arms and reached up above his head, his fingers brushed against something that was not rock and his hand froze. He could feel something long and wiry, and another object, firm and pointed. He grabbed a handful of the artifacts and brought them to his face, eyes wide in shock. Rolling onto his side he stared at the sea lion whiskers and claws on the rocks next to him.
Reflexively he stared back out at “passage where orca hunted sea lion,” the memories flooding back. He shook his head and felt water drip down his neck. Bringing a hand to his thin hair he found it soaking wet. As he wiped the water from his mouth he let out a scream as his hand pulled back, a deep red red liquid staining his skin. The tide had risen several feet as he’d slept – is that what it was? – and he staggered to the waters edge. Cupping water in his palms he splashed his face watching the water turn red as he feverishly scrubbed his cheeks and beard clean.
Getting to his feet Reed felt his knees shuddering. With as deep a breath as his lungs would allow he tried to steady himself, to dam the tidal waves of adrenaline ripping through his body like the ocean in full flood on a spring tide. Climbing the beach he returned to the pile of claws and whiskers, each arranged in a neat pile between the rocks where he’d laid. For the longest time he stood on the beach until the water lapped at his feet. Finally Reed knelt down, water spilling over the top of his boots and gently plucked a whisker and claw between thumb and forefinger, carrying them above the water’s reach toward his camp, his mind spinning, his head dizzy.

Different View, Same Soundtrack

I wake to the gust of cold wind on my face, the breeze a soothing tonic against my cheeks, encouraging me to dig deeper into my sleeping bag propped on the deck chair of the ferry’s solarium. It’s not even seven but the horizon already glows with rosy morning light, soothing confirmation that we’re still moving north. I poke my head out and look over the rails, my heartbeat slows. Gone are the buildings, the roads, the lights that had bombarded us from the shore as the sun went down with nothing more than the occasional lighthouse to interrupt the parade of rocky beaches and mighty cedars.

I stare out at the blue road ahead, the trees slowly melting by. Less than 24 hours ago we had been sitting in traffic, trapped on the I-5 with nothing but outlet malls and tail lights for company. I could feel my world realigning with the compass pointed resolutely north away from the alien world of cities, suburbs, and concrete. I return to my sleeping bag drinking in the cool spring air, and go right back to sleep.

The mountains feel like old friends, familiar faces as the ferry steams into Juneau. Auke, Thunder, and McGinnis, call out in greeting as we drive down the ramp, bleary eyed but exhilarated to be home. The Mendenhall Glacier still stands guard at the foot of the towers, with Thunder and McGinnis mountains guarding its’ flanks. How good it felt to be back, the comfort, the familiarity, the mountain’s friendly faces, extinguished any longing for Hanson Island. If I couldn’t be there, this was the next best thing.

24 hours later, we were finally done. The Pathfinder sputtered to life one final time, taking us up one final ramp and into the town of Gustavus. Town however, may be to generous. The lone stop sign lies a mile and a half inland from the ferry dock, affectionately known as, “four corners” the only intersection in town. Everywhere you look are mountains, but unlike Juneau, they lie benignly in the distance. The town is midwest prairie flat, a quirky anomaly in a region in which towns are built on, around, and through mountains. In spite of their distance, the mountain’s names come back to me easily like a familiar song that you haven’t heard in years. The mountain ranges of the Fairweather, Beartrack, and Chilkat surround us to the west, north, and east. To the south, across Icy Strait, is Chichagof Island, its own collection of mountains give the impression that we are in a massive bowl surrounded on all sides by distant peaks.

We slow to a stop and consider our options. Two of the four roads lead to the two ways out of town, the ferry behind us, and the airport, the third leads down a dirt road, the left hand turn is the longest, stretching north past unassuming roads dotted with log homes and protected by thick canopies of spruce and hemlock. Seven miles down later it ends in Glacier Bay, the crown jewel of southeast Alaska. It seems fitting, that in a land renown for its’ natural beauty, it’s most marvelous feature would lay, unassuming, next to a tiny hamlet accessible only by air and sea.

Here there would be no tour buses, no fleets of helicopters or airplanes, no navy of whale watching boats. If you wanted to be here, there would be no shortcuts. In the summer months a pair of cruise ships would ply the waters of the bay, rushing up the west arm of the Y shaped bay to sit in front of the Margerie Glacier. But for those that wanted to truly be here. To trace the footsteps of John Muir, Stickeen, and others, there would be no port of call.

It was perfect. Years ago someone asked me to describe what Glacier Bay and Gustavus was like: “like someone dropped a bunch of people here in the 70s, and airlifted in a bunch of Beatles vinyl.” Every passing car waves, every face lit into a smile. Moose poop frames our yard along with a gentle blanket of willow and baby birch trees. The scene is so different from the one we left on Hanson Island, but no less beautiful. No less peaceful, no less… us.

Our first morning brings a striking similarity. As I crack the door to let the cat resume his life of roaming through the forest, a Varied Thrush calls out from a nearby Spruce and is immediately answered by another. One week and a thousand miles later, the same birds continue to serenade us, reminding me, that, no matter which country we’re in. We’re home.

When the Outflow Arrives

Wool socks, down jackets, long underwear. All them and more have been deployed to combat the latest northeasterly outflow that has descended upon Hanson Island; freezing the intertidal pools, our waterline, and our toes. We had the bright idea last night of dragging our mattress downstairs from the loft and putting it at the base of the fireplace stacked with bark and fir, Penny’s house placed snugly in the corner. And while the cold seemed to paralyze us in the early morning light, numbing any motivation to rise from the comforters, the Orca’s seemed impervious to it all.

Shortly after nine we begin to hear the faintest Transient calls in Johnstone Strait, leading us to the lab where the temperature hovered just a couple degrees above freezing. After just half an hour of sporadic calling the sounds vanished as the whales disappeared into acoustic parts of the strait unknown. Silently I gave thanks that all I had to do to catch my breakfast was crack a couple eggs over a skillet. I don’t think I could catch a harbor seal in this weather.

But despite the cold, the view atones for it and than some. The palest of blue skies and the whispiest of clouds frame the mountains on Vancouver Island, their peaks clinging grimly to their traces of snow, illuminated in the weak December light. The solar panels greedily suck in the beams’ power, giving our generator a belated reprieve. Blackney Pass sits immobile, or at least as still as it can as the tides pull the waters north and south cutting trails in the surface like tiny intersecting roads. It’s still odd to have Orca Lab so quiet. Besides the occasional Transient celebrating its catch the speakers tell the story of cycling hydrophones, insistent tugs, and at low tide, the cries of eagles as they soar past.

The beauty and peace is priceless and there is little more soothing or funny than ten Harlequin ducks bobbing into the cove every morning chirping at one another as they cut tiny wakes through the water. They dive one at a time, vanishing in the blink of an eye, their bodies barely visible in the dark green water, wings flapping incessantly. When they come up for air they shoot clear of the water like little rubber duckies bouncing on the surface, tiny bits of food clasped in their beaks.

But the deep waters of Blackney feel empty with no Guardian or KC or any of the other humpbacks that felt like friends in September, leaving us with the thirty odd sea lions down the beach for company. Today they huddle like a single sentient being on their rocks, stinky but warm I’m sure. It leaves us with nothing left to do but read, drink tea, and chop wood at a frantic pace before running back inside to the warmth of the fire that has been dancing for three days straight. The thermal pane windows have been worth every penny, thank you: Paul and Helena.