Tag Archives: boats

The Final Ride

Six days. That’s how much longer we have here. Six more quiet mornings with the sounds of Thrushes and squirrels in the woods. Six more nights of boat noise as tugs and fishing boats crawl up and down Blackfish Sound. I am acutely aware that I’m doing things for the last time. A final round with the chainsaw, a final walk through the woods, a final trip down the strait.

My last boat ride to the lab was yesterday. A moderate westerly beat me up as I went into Alert Bay. So instead of taking my usual trail that weaves through the Pearce and Plumper Islands, I took the more exposed route through Johnstone Strait. The sun shone from a brilliant blue sky, the strait’s southern side turned a deep green as the forests of Vancouver Island reflected across the waves. Looking down the strait there was no sign of human life. No boats, no houses, no cell towers. Just mountains, water, and trees. As it had been for centuries. May it always look the same.

It may seem weird to have a nostalgic stretch of water. But this run from Alert Bay along the strait and to the lab does for me. It’s the route I took the first time I came here. I was packed on the June Cove with four other volunteers and Paul. As the June Cove notoriously does whenever I arrive, it wasn’t working too well. We puttered along the strait at six knots, anything faster and the engine would cut out. I had no idea where we were going or how long it was supposed to take. So I put my trust in the cranky engine and sat atop the the cabin to watch the mountains of Robson Bight slowly grow taller.

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I moved faster yesterday, whipping across the south end of Weyton, dodging driftwood and willing one more dorsal fin to break the water. I came here hoping, maybe even expecting my dedication and effort to be rewarded with magical and unforgettable Orca encounters. After nearly 24 cumulative months here I’m still waiting for my “Free Willy” moment. But now I don’t expect it to happen. And just as important, I don’t need it to. Proximity doesn’t equal intimacy. Three years on a whale watching boat will teach you that.

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During that first boat ride in 2008 I rode through the world oblivious. I had no concept of Climate Change, no understanding that Canada was in the cruel grip of the Harper Administration, a manifestation of the, “if it can’t be grown it must be mined,” ideology. All I knew were Orcas and that captivity was bad. As far as I was concerned, that was the only environmental movement that mattered. Now the uncut portions of Hanson Island feel like a miracle. The thousand year old Cedars a symbol of hope instead of a novelty. I love this place fiercely with some protective parental instinct. It’s hard not to take every threat and oil spill personally.

The boat flashes along the Hanson shore. Somewhere on the beach are First Nations artifacts. According to Walrus, the anthropologist who lives in the woods near us, there is a rock carving of Raven the creator hidden somewhere on the beach. It aligns perfectly with the sunrise on the winter solstice. I’d considered trying to find it. But what is man’s insatiable desire to see and touch everything? To literally leave no stone unturned? I like the idea of just a few people knowing where it is. The knowledge that it exists is enough for me. In an age where we move with such haste to smother the world with concrete and progress, some mystery is a good thing.

At the east end of Hanson is a pair of tiny islands. Coveted by kayakers, the pass between them is plenty deep for a small boat. Protected by both the east and west winds, the channel is the perfect hovel for sea birds. Harlequin’s adore it, as do the Mergansers and Herons. An eagle’s nest adorns a Cedar tree on the northernmost tip and offers a view of Blackfish, Blackney, and Johnstone. This confluence brings life. The mixing and upwelling of currents traps food and brings cold, nutrient rich water to the surface. It draws herring, salmon, eagles, gulls, ravens, crows, humpbacks, salmon, seals, sea lions, Orcas, and Me. It’s a powerful stretch of water with the ability to change lives and send them careening off the tracks into the unknown. It threatens our existence, and makes us question why we’re here and what matters. Anyone who does not feel their heartbeat quicken as a Humpback roars through a bait ball while gulls circle overhead has no spirit.

The boat turns left and for the first and last time, I lay eyes on the lab. Smoke curls out the chimneys and wraps their wispy fingers around the trees like the fingers of a lover. The lab deck hovers over the water on the high tide. Here one can learn to love without intruding. You have to let go, be contented with watching those black fins disappear around the corner, accept that there are more important things than getting as close as possible. The trees mute the sun and the cove shines like a sapphire in the evening light. Harlequin’s scoot across the bow with indignant squeaks. The engine dies and I step onto the beach for the first and last time, eyes wide and mind open.

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Two Bears for Mark

I’m curled in my sleeping bag, the Alder trees at the back of my tent shelter me from the early morning sun. I’m somewhere in the world between dream and reality. So when I hear the sound of Mark’s boots making their way through the Reed grass, I’m not sure if it’s real or imagined until I hear his voice. His tone is calm and measured, but something in it makes my eyes snap open and heart rate quicken before he finishes his sentence.
“David? I hate to disturb you, but there appears to be two brown bears walking towards us along the beach.”

Hate to disturb me? I glance at my watch: 6:45 in the morning. Not that it matters. I want to be disturbed if there’s pair of brownies on the beach no matter the time of day. I unzip my tent and am greeted by my two hundred roommates. They’re small and elusive, rusty red and jet black. But the high pitched beat of their wings all sound the same in my ears. I’m inundated with the gnats immediately. But I brush them out of the way, pulling my bug net and can of bear spray along with me.

Mark is cool and collected as he points down the beach to the place where he last saw the bears. A lot calmer than I’d expect a guy from New York city to be during his first Brown bear meeting. Actually that’s not fair. It’s not like Mark Adams has never left the concrete behind. He’s hiked the mountains of Peru, gone where no white man has ever been in Madagascar. When you write like he does, people send you everywhere.

Which is why we’re here in the early morning light at the north end of Russell Island in Glacier Bay National Park. Mark’s writing a book about Harriman’s Alaskan expedition in 1899 and John Muir’s travels. When he needed a kayak guide, I was blessed with the opportunity to lead him into the wilderness. To travel as Muir did, one paddle stroke at a time. To explain and describe the land and creatures as they passed. And of course, to bring us back in one piece. The first part had been easy. The bears would make it tricky.

I walk down the rocks, trying to get a better angle of the beach. What a sight I must be. The weathered and experienced Alaskan guide, rubbing sleep from his eyes and pulling up his pajama pants that are a size too big. The pants are absurd. Navy blue with a pattern of wolves howling at the moon. The sort of thing you wear on rainy Saturday mornings while drinking coffee. Not fighting bears.

I step onto the tallest rock I can find and stare into the tall Rye grass at the back of the meadow. My body’s awake but not my eyes. I rub them again, trying to focus and keep my expression calm and collected. This happens all the time of course.

Two little brown ears pop up among the grasses. Little satellite dishes that recede the thin long face of a brown bear. Instinct kicks in. I clap my hands and call out good morning. I don’t shout, I want to save some volume, just in case. The bear looks at me, head tilted sideways, politely curious. As if he’s rising on an elevator another bear appears next to him. They’re skinny and young. Probably just got kicked out by Mom within the last month. Four year olds. Teenagers. Young, dumb, ready to take on the world. I can relate.

They saunter back into the woods as I call. Nonchalant and relaxed. I turn and beam at Mark. We’ve talked a lot about bears the last couple of days. I’m glad we saw one. He’s got his little waterproof notebook out, scribbling notes. A few minutes go by and there’s no sign of the bruins. I put on more respectable pants and pull out the Coleman stove, putting water on for coffee. I’m forgetting something… mugs!

Leaving Mark with the stove and food, I jog back up the beach and to the tent, digging for the thermoses. No sooner do I reach the tents and Mark’s voice floats up the beach.
“David? Your friends are back.” Uh-oh.

I come back down the beach, my pace a little quicker this time. I find a big rock and jump on top of it. I spread my legs and stand tall. Stretching my thin 6’4” frame as far as I can. I shout, I clap, I wave my arms. The bears spare me a half-second look and go crashing back into the Alder. From my vantage point I can see the trees shaking fifty yards back from the beach. They’ve cleared out.
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(The beach the night before the bears. The bears came out of the Alder near the blue/green tent)
I reach Mark and the stove, setting the thermoses down and pouring the boiling water into a Nalgene we’re using as a coffee maker. While the coffee steeps I run back up the beach for socks. The bugs are eating my Chaco attired feet alive. I reach into a dry bag and freeze. Something is snapping twigs in the Alder feet from me. Boots forgotten I step back, clapping and shouting. I’d started at a six, my volume’s at ten now. I reach into my pocket for the bear spray. It’s not there. It’s on the beach with Mark.
As calm as I can I shout down the beach, “Mark, can you bring the bear spray up with you please.”
I feel caught. Food and author on the beach, tents and kayak near the trees. In my head I can hear the voice of the park biologist Tonya Lewis. “Don’t let the bears get your food.” I run back down the beach, clapping and shouting the whole time. A plan forms in my mind. Grab the food cans and stove. Pile it at the waters edge, break down the tents. Get the hell out of here. If they want the beach this bad, it’s all there’s. I meet Mark halfway, his arms laden with bear cans, the stove, and water bladder. I grab a handful of gear, turn, and feel my heart drop. The bears are back. Feet from Mark’s tent. For the first time in my life, there’s a bear between me and my kayak.

I grab the bear spray from Mark and charge up the beach, calling at Mark to follow me. In my panic, a tapestry of expletives flow from my mouth like water down a mountain. “You… bear! Get the… away from my… kayak!”

One of these bears is brave. Too brave for my liking. While one slinks into the woods just out of view, the bolder one moves between the tents. Three more strides and he’s at the kayak. I grab a baseball sized rock and close the distance to forty feet, Mark at my heels. “Look as big as you can.” I tell him.

I shout more words you can’t say in church. I pull the safety off the bear spray. The rock cocked like I’m Nolan Ryan, the bear my Robin Ventura. I’ve never fired bear spray at a bear before. Had proudly told Mark 36 hours ago that bears were misunderstood, shy gentle creatures. Leave it to nature to make me look bad.

I’m ten yards away. First and 10. Russell Island Bears versus Gustavus Kayakers. It’d be a route if it comes to that. I finger the bear spray and shout again, I feel my throat getting raw. At last the bear turns.

I’ve looked into the eyes of many wild animals. Orcas, humpbacks, moose, sea lion, seal, deer. But only a bear’s gaze has the ability to make me feel like I’m two feet tall. Nothing is more untamed, more wild. Daring you, defying you, to tell it otherwise. “This is my house,” they say. “Do you want to see what happens in my house?”

I don’t, and I have a feeling neither does Mark. Although his guide getting ripped limb from limb would make a hell of a chapter. The bear turns and gives a little huff. My knees go weak. The bear spray rising above my hip. Dimly I register that there’s no wind. A clear shot if it comes to it. The bear turns and starts to walk away from the kayak. My heart’s in my throat. Keep walking, keep walking.

He slips into the Alder like a phantom. But for how long? I cover the last few feet to the tent. Mark has stood calmly by the whole time. No panic, no fear. What’s going on inside is a mystery, but he’s a heck of a lot calmer on the outside than I am.

We drag our tents through the meadow and over the rocks, our sleeping bags and clothes still inside. We’ll dismantle them near the water. Right now I want as much room between me and the Alder grove that I can.

Fifteen minutes later we float 100 yards offshore in our double kayak. I glance at my watch and laugh. I’d set a timer for the coffee. It’s been steeping for 52 minutes. I hand Mark a thermos, a Cliff bar, and an apple as he scribbles notes. “Got it get it down while it’s hot.” He says.

The bears are on the beach, right at the water’s edge, digging for tidepool Sculpin and munching on Blue Mussels. They’re a lot cuter with 150-feet of water between us. My heart rate slows. This is all they wanted. Two hungry bears, learning to survive without mom. Trying to find a route to the low tide and the protein. We were just in the way.

I rub the side of the kayak, relieved and relaxed. I didn’t want my career defined by one wrecked kayak. The morning is gorgeous. The water is turquoise, that electric color that only the glaciers can mix. As we float Mark pays me the highest compliment he can. “This may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been… nice choice.” As the bears work their way back into the woods I grin like a hyena and strike my paddle against the smooth surface.

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50 Horsepower of Deceit and Betrayal

The sun crawls above the mountains on Vancouver Island, the rays piercing the flimsy curtains and flooding our bedroom with sunlight. Every day the sun inches a little higher above those mountains, every day it’s a little earlier. I reluctantly stir, not ready to leave the warm embrace of the down comforter. Brittney stretches and swings her feet over the edge. With an effort I open one bleary eye.

Town day.

At least that was the theory. Johnstone Strait had been pulverized by 40 knots winds for the last week, leaving the shelves of our fridge bare. No more crackers, no more lettuce, no more beer. We’ve got to make it today. The cedar boughs looking in our second story window flutter gently in a light breeze. Today offered a 12-hour window, a respite from the parade of low pressure systems that define the winter climate.

We crawl out of bed, scarf oatmeal, chug coffee, and ready the boat. We cram the tiny space behind our little wooden seats with empty jerry cans and garbage bags filled with laundry and trash (it’s important to remember which is which). The water’s of Blackney aren’t as pristine as we’d like, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The engine comes to life on the first turn and we putter out of the back of the cove. Our departure sends the resident Harlequin Ducks scurrying for cover among the rocks and Brittney bleats out an apology on our behalf as we leave them squabbling in our wake.

But town isn’t the first stop. We turn southeast, angled for Cracroft Point, the shelter, and the solar batteries which are once again drained of power. We skip past the sea lion haulout and round the corner of Hanson Island, the expanse of Blackney Pass opening up before us and dotted with whitecaps. We hit the first bounce as we pass the two islands that sit just off of Hanson Island, affectionately known as Little Hanson.

We’re maybe a hundred yards off of north Little Hanson when the engine revs, sputters, and dies. I swivel around, expecting to see a meddlesome strand of kelp trailing from the propeller, but it looks clean. In just a few seconds, the combination of an ebbing tide and southeast wind has turned us sideways to the waves, the tiny boat rocking violently as it falls into the wave’s trough. I turn the ignition, and the engine roars back to life. But as I slip it into gear it cuts out.

Oh god.

Brittney’s face is the picture of calm, and I try to look equally at ease, “that’s odd,” I quip.

I bring the outboard engine up and lean as far out over the stern as I dare, looking for anything that could be fouling up the propeller. The black blades gleam spotless in the morning sun. Everything looks normal. I take a step back and trip over an empty jerry can, my shifting momentum causing the boat to rock all the more.

It’s not the first time I’ve been on a boat when the engine died. My last summer as a deckhand in Juneau our boat died, only to get picked up by an afternoon storm and deposited on the rocks. The same nervous feeling begins to crawl into my gut and I glance at little Hanson’s shoreline as the waves push us towards it. Better that way than out into Johnstone Strait.

There’s little room to maneuver, but I drop to my knees and pull out the boat’s gas tank from it’s slip beneath the engine as far as I can. Adrenaline courses through my body, an ambitious wave breaks over the stern and I feel the icy chill run down my legs. I give the fuel line a cursory look, everything looks connected. I grab the fuel pump like a dying man grabs his rosary, and give it a series of frantic squeezes. Please please please.

I climb over our mountain of laundry and turn the key. Cough, sputter, die. Shit. This whole time Brittney has sat quietly in her seat, watching.

“Is there anything I can do?” She asks.

“I don’t know if there’s anything either of us can do.”

I reach into my pocket and find the phone. Cell service is always a coin toss out here. But a trio of bars appear like beacons of hope. I dial Paul.

“We’re ok,” I begin with more confidence than I feel, and I lay out the situation. We agree that we should get to shore, try to find a sheltered spot, and he’d call the mechanic, the coast guard, or however else may be able to get us out of this. We’re going to shore no matter what. The ocean’s decided that for us. On the other side of the two little islands is a wind shadow, the water shines turquoise and placid. If we can make it there, it would be infinitely easier to figure out what’s gone wrong.

I grab the paddle, thanking any deity listening that it was onboard, and climb onto the nose of the boat. We inch down the shoreline for the small channel between the islands and a respite. We round the point and my heart drops. Draped across the channel is a massive log. It spans the entire distance between the two islands, just low enough to keep us from passing. We try to turn the boat and paddle out but it’s hopeless. The wind and the waves have complete control, and I brace myself as we collide with the log.

I call Brittney onto the bow, expressions of hopelessness spreading across our faces. We can’t stay here. The tide is ebbing and in a few minutes the boat will be left high and dry, trapping us for 12 hours. I do the only thing I can think of. I leap onto the log, bow line in my teeth, and together we slowly pivot the boat around so that the bow is facing the oncoming swells. With Brittney on the bow, I scurry along the rocks, pulling the boat along while she uses the paddle to push us off the emerging rocks. A tiny indention in the rocks offers just enough protection and we hug the windward side of the rock, the boat bouncing off the shore.

The phone rings. Paul again. His theory is that it’s the fuel line or water filter. But it takes both of us just to keep the boat from slamming against the shore. There’s nowhere safer to go. The ocean has us pinned in the tiny channel that will be devoid of ocean within the hour. I toss Brittney the stern line and the paddle and leap back aboard. I throw everything I can onto the seats, trying to give me enough room to operate. For a moment I stare at the engine, 50 horsepower of deceit and betrayal. I pull the gas tank free once more, trying to ignore the rocking of the boat, the grinding of the hull against the rocks.

Focus. Deep breath. Slow down.

I touch the fuel lines tenderly, gently pulling. And one swivels and pops loose. Hope floods my body. This is it. This has to be it. I reset the O-ring, pull the cap over the tube, and tighten. Brittney’s almost bent double the paddle braced against the boat, battling valiantly. I hesitate. Do I tell her to jump aboard, send us adrift, and pray the engine starts?

“Hold on!” I yell. I throw the gas cans and laundry into a heap, press the trigger, and lower the engine so that it’s just immersed in the water. Knowing the precious propeller is inches from the rocks, that every second brings it closer to the bottom, I pull the choke, say a prayer, and turn the key. The engine comes to life.

“Get on!” I yell. Brittney tosses the paddle aboard and follows after it, pushing the boat off the rocks as we back slowly out of the channel. Blackney Pass has turned into a swirling cauldron while we were adrift and we move slowly out into deeper water, the nose pointed for Cracroft Point. As I reach for the phone the water around us explodes, a flash of black and white. For a wild moment I think of orcas, but they’re too small. The Dall’s porpoise follow us like guardians across the channel, surfacing a foot away.

Did they sense our apprehension? Our fear? Were they celebrating with us? I let out a deep breath and grab the wheel like a lifeline as our little task force battles against the tide and the waves for the Cracroft shore.

The Luxuries of Wilderness

The boat grazes the rocks and rocks and Brittney steps onto the bow. The gentle landing is short lived as a three foot wave picks us up and throws with a dull thud against the shore. Line in hand Brittney leaps clear of the bucking boat and lands nimbly on the jagged rocks of Cracroft Point. The engine pulled up and the line unsecured, the boat is at the mercy of Johnstone Strait, a strait that seems apathetic towards the BC weather’s promise of a calm afternoon. White caps dot the surface and their thunderous crashes against the point’s steep shore is intimidating. I grab the bag and leap for the shore as another wave lifts the boat and sets it down, landing just clear of the water as the wave swirls around my boots.

Brittney handles the line like a cowboy handling a mustang, goading the boat into a small crevice in the rocks and out of the path of the largest breakers. She’s got this. Without a backwards glance I scurry into the woods, wielding a bottle of oil in one hand and a flathead screw driver in the other. The generator demands an oil change. A few feet inside the treeline the sound of the wind and waves is muffled, as if I’m listening to it with a pillowcase pulled over my head. Trying not to rush, I flip the generator on its side and unscrew the covering.

It’s incredible how much goes into keeping this place running. And even more amazing how inept it can make you feel. Between the electronics, the power sources, and internet connections, not to mention the mechanical nuances of boat repair, tree climbing, diving, and deciphering whatever voodoo it is that allows us to stream the hydrophones 24/7. Paul and Helena are probably the only two people on earth that know how it all works. It’s staggering to imagine anyone else with the combination of skills they’ve acquired in thirty some years. In the last two winters I’ve learned how to set up inverters, decipher internet connections, and giving myself more than a couple of nice shocks as I learned the difference between AC and DC. I’ve nicked the tip of the iceberg.

The oil comes out as black as night and as thick as molasses. Better late than never I suppose. I funnel the remaining oil into an old bottle and refill the generator with clear, syrupy  10W-30. Brittney appears at my side, the boat nestled in its crib.

We glorify wilderness. We consider ourselves disciples from the school of John Muir and Edward Abbey. And yet… look at what goes into surviving out here. Granted, I wouldn’t be crouched over the generator if there wasn’t an internet connection to maintain. But I can’t imagine the time and effort that it would require without 50 horsepower strapped to the boat, or a grocery store 45-minutes away. Even the men that sparked my love of wilderness had some indulgences. Abbey spent a lot of time living in a trailer, a propane stove and cot at his disposal. Heck, even John Muir had a rotating cast of savvy and tree smart Tlingit’s escorting him on his paddle trips through the Alaskan archipelago. Is the glorification of wilderness a luxury? Would Travels in Alaska and Desert Solitaire been written without them?

The oil in the funnel burps and I sit the generator upright, dipping the dipstick into the oil reservoir, the pale gray plastic coming back with a clear, reassuring shine. Would I deify the forest and ocean if my days were dedicated to ensuring my survival? I don’t know. Muir was mortified at the audacity of his Tlingit guides to shoot at deer on the beach as they paddled past. He would rock the boat so that there shot would go wide. A respect and love of nature to be sure. But for his Tlingit guides, it had to be analogous to going to the fridge only to have someone slam it shut. Not everyone has the luxury of hardtack and tea.

I screw the covering back on the generator and pull the start cord. It roars to life on the second try, spitting blue/white exhaust into the air, the southeast breeze sending it into the forest. Is my love of nature threatened by the very things that help me adore it? The avocados from Mexico and bananas from Belize that spare me the cumbersome task of crawling through the woods in search for all that is edible. Would I miss the forest for the trees and the tasty mushrooms that grow on their trunks?

This isn’t meant to belittle Muir or Abbey, two men I admire as both writers and preservationists. But would such men have been the same if they’d stalked across the western frontier a century earlier? Would that convenience have existed if Muir had been born a seal hunter? The glaciers not a monument to be marveled but a threat to his existence? Perhaps it’s as simple as saying that they were the right people, at the right time, writing the words that needed to be written to stave off humanity’s insatiable consumption of the very thing that makes us whole.

I pull the boat out of its protective crevice and the ocean roars up around it. I hold her as steady as I can until Brittney leaps aboard. With a heave I push the boat clear of the rocks and slide across the ocean soaked bow, clamoring over the top and into the relative protection of the cabin. The engine roars to life. A marvel of human engineering and brilliance. But without the miracle of organic compounds slowly compressed over millions of years it would be nothing more than a five hundred pound paperweight.

Maybe the Tlingit and Kwakiutl Indians loved wilderness the same way the European nature writers did, simply in a different way. Perhaps their love had  matured after centuries of marriage to the natural world. Their love expressed in the familiar and comfortable way a couple does after being married for thirty years, while Muir, Abbey, Brittney and I are in the honeymoon stage, breaking free of the society and concrete that compresses our chests and sends us running for the woods.

Water rolls over the top of the boat as the nose dips into the trough of a wave. Blackney Pass is sheet of white caps. I steer for Parson Island, we’ll take the longer, more comfortable way home.

 

 

 

A Movie Script Ending

An odd curse seems to precede my arrival to Hanson Island. Some dark foul spirit that blazes the trail and harbors ill will to Paul’s boat. In ’08, ’14, and now ’15 the June Cove has been struck with engine trouble just days before the ferry spits me out in Alert Bay. Thanks to this demon, I’ve still never arrived at OrcaLab on the day I intend to. Which is why the four of us  (Brittney, me, Porter, and Penny) found ourselves curled up in Paul and Helena’s Alert Bay home for Halloween watching the curves of Hanson Island fade into the darkness through the bay windows. So tantalizingly close.
It wasn’t all bad. We watched baseball, took one more hot bath, and handed out candy to the handful of trick or treaters that came knocking on the door. Still to be determined was when we’d cover the last few miles. Dave Towers (Yes Jared Towers Dad) was to be our taxi driver. But the southeast gusts for the following morning did no breed optimism. So we settled down for another day in the bay. We slept in. I found the Vikings game on TV. And was just getting comfortable when the phone rings.

“Hey Dave, it’s Dave. How’s the weather looking out your way?”
I walk to the window and stare out at the strait. There’s still whitecaps, the trees in the yard dance. Maybe not as bad as an hour ago? “I think it’s dying down, it’s supposed to be a little better this afternoon.”
“Great! Can you leave in an hour?”
My eggs are just starting to bubble in the frying pan, I’m wearing pajamas, all we have for food is a bag of oranges. “Can you make it two?”
“No problem… oh and it’s an open skiff. Be sure to dress warm.”
David hangs up and I stare at the phone. A rabbit and a cat in an open air skiff? I think back to last fall when we tried to put Porter in Penny’s cage. The mess, the horror, the terror, I’m still getting over it.
90 minutes later our bags are piled in the boat. Penny’s cage is between my legs, a towel draped over the corner that’s facing the bow as a windbreaker. Porter sits on Brittney’s lap, wrapped in a jacket, a look of incredulity on his face. David looks over our little menagerie with a mix of amusement and confusion.
I shrug, “we couldn’t just get a dog like everyone else.”

We cruise out of the harbor and round the corner, heading east into Johnstone Strait. The wind has vanished, the sky is dry, I breath a sigh of relief. Porter buries his face in Brittney’s jacket, but Penny stands on her hind legs, trying to see around the towel. She’d drive the boat if we let her, fearless.
We weave through the islands and passes, their names echoing in my head like old friends. Pearce Passage, Plumper Islands, Blackfish Sound. I can trace the route on the palm of my hand. It’s been a week and a half with three ferries, one border crossing, and too many trips through the backpack digging for clean socks, but as we round the final point and the wooden buildings come into view, every second is worth it. My chest feels light, my fingers tingle. Was it joy? Relief? Excitement? As if every positive emotion is swirling inside simultaneously.
“Dr. Spong,” I’m beaming as we embrace and I look over his shoulder at our cabin. Smoke billows from the chimney, Helena leans nonchalantly against the railing. Brittney and I try not to get too close to her. Not out of animosity, but because of her vicious pet dander allergy that makes my sweater a chemical weapon.
In a matter of minutes our bags our piled in the living room near the wood stove. Every smell, every memory coming back tack sharp. The speaker connected to the hydrophones pumps in the sounds of swirling water and a distant tug. Sonic comfort food. Macaroni and Cheese for the ears. Within the hour we’re splitting wood, scanning for humpbacks, falling back into the beautiful rhythm of the island. I walk past Brittney bent over the chopping block, Porter sprinting up in down the hill, his euphoria matches ours.
“Do you feel like you’re floating three inches above the ground?”
The shadows grow long, the sun dipping behind the island painting the mountains in a soft glow. I step out onto our porch, drinking in the view. A mile down the sea lions roar and bark, the noise rising to a crescendo. With no warning dozens of them launch themselves into the water. I furrow my brow, what on earth is making them all – and I see them.
Dorsal fins. Five of them. Just off the rocks, smooth curved dorsals with knife sharp points. Biggs. Transients. Oh my God. For a heartbeat I’m rooted to the spot, too stunned to move. On our first night? Muscle memory takes over. I skid across the deck, throwing open the door to our cabin and scream, “Biggs at the sea lion haul out!” I’m gone before Brittney can respond, tearing over to Paul and Helena’s, heart pounding, I haven’t seen orcas in months. I repeat the message and head for the observation deck, camera in hand.
The light is so dim every photo is like a blurred and pixelated photo of Sasquatch. There a mile away. It doesn’t matter. As the last of the daylight fades we strain our eyes to follow the group as they go around the corner, leaving the sea lions in a frenzy. The movie script ends, the whales vanish, and we stand in near darkness. No roads, no cars, no stores. Just us, the trees, the ocean, each other. Back where we belong.

Porter Supertramp

Porter stares longingly out the sliding door. Like a kid with his face pressed against the glass, watching the rain fall in sheets for the second straight week. Frustrated, he paws at the door until we open it. Outside he stops short of the soaked grass, rain pelting the tin roof, reminding him, all of us, that summer is over. With a dejected look he walks back into the warmth.
It’s been that sort of fall in southeast Alaska. Sometime in August the heavens opened the floodgates and it hasn’t stopped raining since. Puddles litter the dirt roads and driveways like little lakes. Rivers flow between them, connecting them, turning the road into a washboard, car shocks moaning in protest, CDs skipping.
And once again, we’re on the move. Packing this, debating that, Porter and Penny wide eyed with alarm. Moving again? At least this time the posters can stay on the wall, unneeded clothes can hang in the closet. Last summer every box and duffel had to return to the exact same spot in the Pathfinder or it wouldn’t fit. Not this time. We have a whole year of our lives meticulously planned. We know where we’re coming back to. Where our next paycheck is coming from. Sell outs.
But for now it’s time to wander. To cheer silently when the beat up old Pathfinder coughs to life. The cat taking his position in the driver’s lap, Penny poking her nose through the gaps in her house, always looking forward. It’s time for ferries, lunches out of plastic bags, for Prince Rupert to have hotels with lenient pet policies. Most importantly, it’s time for Hanson Island. For quiet coves and sleepy sunrises, Harlequin ducks chittering good morning. For silent walks through the forest, listening to the whispered messages of the cedars. It’s felt like a lifetime since we were there, or maybe just yesterday, it varies.
How much longer do we want to do this? Whenever we talk about what we’re going to do “going forward,” the subject settles on buying property, settling, wrapping ourselves in Gustavus’ warm embrace. Hanson Island stops us cold. Reminding us of town runs, sea lion haul outs, and transients on Critical Point at 3:00 in the morning. And we know we’re stuck. That houses will have to wait. We have the rest of our lives to be domesticated. To fence ourselves in. We’ll be ready someday. Ready to drop our roots among the birch on the glacial outwash near the bay we love so much.
But not yet. We understand that what we have on that little island is a once in a lifetime opportunity. That a chance like this will never come around again. How do you willingly give that up? I don’t think we can. So when people ask if this is our last winter there we smile and shake our heads.
“Probably not.” We answer. “Paul and Helena may have to kick us out.”
When do you know that you’re ready? What if we’re destined to bounce between two places that we love forever, unable to commit? What a beautiful problem to have. Some winter it’ll feel right. We’ll stay put. We’ll go to every Gustavus potluck, every fundraiser, make new friends, discover what we never knew we had. But Hanson Island will forever be a part of us. An essential nutrient in our life. A place we’ll always long for, always love.
Right now I can’t wait to get back. To wrap myself in that island as long as I can, to enjoy it for as long as possible, knowing that our time there has an expiration date. That worrying about it won’t make it any better. Nothing to do but take as deep a breath as I can, savor every sunrise, every 50 knot storm, every night hauling the boat up the beach on the rising tide. Because we’ll never get to live like this again.

A Deathbed Lesson in Living

For my entire life I’ve been blessed to live in a place that other people visit. Not the Bahamas, or southern California, or Europe; Alaska. The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun and whatever other catchy tagline we’re using these days (Palin’s Pasture?).
For three summers I had a front row seat to those retracing the routes of John Muir, the gold rush and sled dogs. I worked in Alaska’s capital, Juneau as a whale watch guide, deckhand and bear guide (bear viewing that is, not hunting).
I was fresh out of college, and had just had the rug pulled out from underneath me. I had lined up an entry level position with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) only to have the federal budget frozen and my position unceremoniously tossed out four weeks before I was supposed to begin.
I didn’t know the first thing about guiding. But I knew whales, the ocean and my Dad had once been charged by a Grizzly so I felt qualified. Virtually the entire tourism industry in southeast Alaska centers around the cruise ship. The 2,000 passenger floating hotels that market themselves as holding everything you could ever want.     Upwards of 15,000 people can flood Juneau off the boats in the summer; a town with a population of about 33,000.
I fidget on the dock. Bright orange polo tucked into Carharts, black and orange ball cap jammed on top of curling blond hair. I feel like a 6’4” carrot. Slowly couples begin to gather around me; from Germany, Texas, Boston, and Australia. I hand out the weight sheets to ensure the planes are balanced for the flight portion of the tour and try to make conversation. A beer or two would’ve helped.
My last couple staggers slowly down the gangplank towards me. It’s immediately clear that all is not well. The husband’s steps are uneven, his breath ragged, he looks exhausted and beaten. Cancer will do that.
As we board the bus bound for the airport his wife pulls me aside. Yes, her husband was terminally ill, his life expectancy could be measured in months. But if I could, please, try to treat them as normally as possible.
I climb the steps behind her and collapse into my seat mind whirling. I was supposed to be in a lab, or a research boat measuring the bioenergetics of forage fish. Fish that couldn’t tell me their physical condition. That there last wish was to see the glaciers of Alaska.
What the hell had I gotten myself into? What did this man care how big a humpback whale was? How long a brown bear slept or how much fish they could devour in a day?
The trip slides by as the plane sends us over the glaciers and over to an island called Chichagof which has one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Naturally we see none. Nature doesn’t understand the concept of the storybook ending.
In the small native town of Hoonah, a boat collects us and we begin the three hour trip back to Juneau eyes scanning for whales. Slowly I begin to pluck up the courage to talk to him. His name is Dan, he’d lived his whole life in Houston, Texas and had just been diagnosed a couple of weeks ago.
He’d rejected chemotherapy and other treatments, emptied their bank account, and was seeing as many of the places he’d dreamed of experiencing before the sickness shackled him to a bed. Alaska had been his number one pick.
Juneau had been their boats first stop. “No pressure,” I told myself. I apologized that the bears hadn’t shown, that the glaciers had been partially obstructed by clouds.     He shrugs, “it’s just enough to know that I’m here.” he answers.
Twenty minutes later a humpback blasts out of the water like a rocket, sending a crescendo of foam across the surface and we cheer like our team just won the Super Bowl. There’s a spark in Dan’s eyes, a glint of joy and life that I can still see four years later. For a few seconds he looks reborn until another coughing fit sends him back into the boat’s cabin.
An hour later we’re within sight of Auke Bay, Juneau’s largest harbor. From the water, the Mendenhall Glacier looms over the boats bobbing along the dock. Even from two miles away it dominants the skyline like a giant frozen sky scraper. The boat captain screams the boat to a halt and ushers me onto the deck with Dan and his wife.
“Get their picture with the glacier,” he whispers.
They lean against the boat’s railing, the ice framed perfectly above them. I swallow a lump in my throat and blink away tears. For the second time Dan looks half his age as he dots a kiss on his wife’s cheek and wraps an arm around her as I click off a shot. The moment passes, the boat revs, and they slowly move back inside, wrapping their down jackets tightly against the wind.
Minutes later we’re on the bus, headed for the cruise ships 15 minutes away. I search for something comforting or inspiring to say. Some magic words that could somehow make their plight better. Instead I just listen as they talk about their kids, their work, their life. My ears doing more than my tongue ever could.
Feet from the dock Dan looks out the window and sighs, “it’s a magnificent place you have here, David.”
“Thanks, but it’s not mine, it’s all of ours. It grabs hold of something deep inside of us, resonates, makes us whole.”
He nods, “I wish I would have seen it sooner so I could climb the mountains. Maybe go fishing, you hunt?”
I confess that I’ve never killed anything bigger than a salmon.
“Well don’t wait,” he said, “live out your dreams while your young, don’t wait for your come to Jesus moment.” His wife sniffs and he gives her a little squeeze.
The bus stops, I shake Dan’s hand and hug his wife. Slowly they walk away, inching up the gangway, his last words echoing between my ears.
Don’t wait, live now. See what needs to be seen. Breath the air, walk the trails, climb the mountains, swim the rivers. Don’t let life get in the way of living.
Four years later I sit in a cabin perched on the shores of British Columbia, living. NOAA never called back, hallelujah. Maybe I’ll get a real job some day but I doubt it. Not after seeing that look in Dan’s eye as the humpback broke the surface, telling me everything I’d ever need to know.

The Magic of the Town Run

The tide is ebbing, and the boat is stuck, like some hauled out metallic sea lion. An expletive escapes my lips and with one final push the boat slides over the rock and floats again. The vertical rock face seems to have just enough of these little ledges, and like some magnetic force, always seems to suck the boat right to them.
With the boat free, the loading begins. Empty gas cans, dead batteries, and garbage bag filled to burst with pungent clothes. Brittney appears, laden with more black hefty bags filled with trash and tied securely. The Hanson Island rule is: bags with garbage are tied, bags with laundry are left untied, an important step. Just ask the volunteer who tied his laundry bag, sentencing it to doom in the landfill.
By the time everything is piled in, there’s precious little room to reach the seats. The boat already makes me feel like Gandalf in a hobbit hole, but filled to the brim makes it feel like crawling through a cole mine. Finally I manage to pretzel my legs behind the wheel and the boat floats free, drifting into the middle of the cove.
The engine roars to life on the first turn and we idle slowly past the kelp bed and into Blackney Pass. Free of kelp and rock, the engine roars to life, struggling to break free of the water and get on step with the heavy load. But the water is a flat calm this morning and we hang a left, bound for Blackfish Sound, Weynton Pass, Pearse Passage, and finally Alert Bay.
It is the most magical of days, the town run. An afternoon of hot baths, Paul’s sandwiches, and people. So many people. Just up the street from the dock is a tiny lot where the beloved pathfinder has sat patiently all winter. Ever week and a half she resignedly comes to life so that we can drive the one mile along the shoreline to Paul and Helena’s house.
I feel like a kid coming home from college. A massive bag of laundry in hand, anticipating food, beer, and canned goods. After months of taps producing nothing but frigid water, feeling hot water spew into the tub makes me flinch. We had eschewed baths in favor of pouring hot water over ourselves a couple times a week on the deck. Scrubbing frantically while we shivered in the wind and the rain. So when it’s my turn, I nearly fall asleep, the hot water lapping at my face.
From the house you can see Johnstone Strait, the Hanson Island shoreline appears merged with the trees of Cracroft and the Plumper Islands. The water stays flat, but the sun is already beginning to set.
Alert Bay is far from bustling, but feels as congested as a city as we squeeze along the narrow road.
“So many people,” Brittney says as we wait for two cars to go by.
The grocery store is nearly sensory overload. For days we’d talked about the things that we’ve been craving but unable to reach. Now we just stare blankly at the shelves, a crumpled list in hand. Overwhelmed we pile heads of lettuce, carrots, potatoes, tortillas, and of course coffee into the quickly growing pile. Tragedy strikes when we reach the popcorn and find the shelves barren.  For a minute we’re too stunned to speak, mouth open in shock and horror. No popcorn? Why did we even come into town? Sadly we head for the checkout our overflowing cart suddenly feeling empty.
Loading the minuscule boat becomes a cramped game of tetris. Anything that can fit into the tiny hold in the bow is shoved unceremoniously in. Filled gas tanks and charged batteries bring the water’s surface a couple inches closer to the window. Bags of food, lettuce leafs poking curiously out the top are stacked as gently as possible on top of the clean laundry.
After some coaxing, the boat obediently gets up on plane and sends us rocketing home on the flooding tide. We reach the lab just as the light begins to fade but the slowly flooding tide has left us well short of the cove. Grabbing as much as we can, we walk and stumble up the rocks, dumping groceries and water jugs on the deck, leaving the batteries and fuel tanks for a higher tide.
Opening the door of our house, a white and brown blur shoots past as the cat sprints for freedom, incensed at his day long imprisonment inside. The rabbit is even more excited and wastes no time inspecting every bag until she finds the apples and attacks with the ferocity of a Great White Shark. By the time the boat is tied and the groceries stored, it’s dark, the fire slowly warming the house once again.
We collapse on the couch, town days always seem to wear us out, probably all the hot water. Now if only we could find a pizza place that delivered.

Springer

The greatest Hanson Island story ends here, but it begins far to the south. Off the dock of a ferry terminal in Puget Sound near Vashon Island. In early January 2002, ferry goers inherited a mascot, a tiny, emaciated, two-year old orca whale. The little whale became an instant celebrity, following the ferry back and forth day after day. Yet the lost whale was in trouble, separated from her family, malnourished, and in dire need of the attention and physical contact she craved.

Biologists up and down the Pacific Northwest coast rushed to Puget Sound in an attempt to discover where the tiny whale belonged. Saddle patch photos and acoustic recordings traced her, not to the nearby southern Resident community, but to the A4 pod from the northern Residents off the northern coast of Vancouver Island, 250 miles from home. She was A73, commonly known as Springer. The previous summer, she had failed to return to Johnstone Strait, as had her mother Sutlej (A45), both were presumed deceased. Springer had returned from the grave, but how she had made it all the way to Washington was a total mystery.

And so the debate began about what to do with this tiny whale that had violated international law by crossing the border. Had she been rejected by her pod? Did she have some communicable disease? Had she already grown too attached to the boats that choked the sound? A wild orca had not been taken into captivity in U.S waters since 1976, but this was different. Without human intervention, Springer seemed doomed. But public opinion made it clear; Springer needed to go home not to a tank.

But no wild orca had successfully been reintroduced to the wild, the closest had been Keiko of Free Willy fame, who had lived a solitary existence in the wild before dying of Pneumonia. The federally funded U.S program NMFS (National Marine and Fisheries Service) balked at the idea, claiming lack of funding and the difficulties that had transpired in Keiko’s rehabilitation.

While the debate raged, Springer received round the clock attention as people tried to keep boats, ferries, and others from interacting with her. It was a hopeless endeavor, as Springer continually rubbed against boats in search of a surrogate for other whales. Whatever was decided, rehabilitation or captivity, Springer could not spend her life off the Vashon Ferry dock. After two months of debate, NMFS accepted a a plan that included seapen rehabilitation, translocation, and finally, a reintroduction into the wild.

In the meantime, Springer needed to get healthy in order to satisfy Canadian officials who feared returning a possibly diseased and contagious whale to its already threatened northern Resident population. Over the next three months Springer became one of the most monitored patients in the world, receiving antibiotics to clear up a skin condition, ketoacidosis, and worms. Slowly, her condition improved. And so a new debate began, where and when to release Springer. The solution was in Orca Lab’s front yard. A fifteen minute walk through the woods behind the lab leads to a small, skinny, and protected bay known as Dongchong Bay. The plan was to place the net pen in the back of the bay, and wait for Springer’s family to swim by.
Moving day came on July 13, 2002 when Springer was lifted by crane from her holding pen in Puget Sound onto a catamaran for her big trip north to Hanson Island and home. The following day, Springer’s pod appeared, swimming south in Blackfish Sound past the mouth of the bay. The moment of truth had arrived, and the net pen was opened. Springer showed no hesitation, pelting straight for her long lost family. But it was not quite the storybook ending everyone had hoped for as Springer and pod eventually departed in opposite directions.

Free but still orphaned, Springer returned to her old pod mate; boats. Two days after her release, Springer positioned herself squarely under a boat, making it impossible to maneuver without hitting her. She would have to learn to live with wild orcas again, and just as importantly, they had to learn to live with her. Her first few interactions appear to have gone poorly as she was seen with teeth marks raking her body as pods seemed reluctant to add another hungry and growing whale to their ranks.

By August however, Springer seemed to have found a degree of acceptance. A young female orca (Nodales, A51) from the closely related A5 pod began to serve as a surrogate mother, guiding Springer away from nearby boats. While eventually Springer reunited with her closer relatives in A4 pod, Nodales probably saved her life in those first few turbulent weeks back home. As summer came to a close, and the orcas began to disperse for the winter, everyone held their collective breath, knowing that the winter months would be Springer’s biggest test yet. The following summer she returned with her natal pod, fat and healthy. At the lab she received a heroes welcome. The massive wooden sign still hangs above the observation deck, adorned with a spyhopping orca, hearts, and the message, “Welcome Home Springer.

Every few days I run through the forest to Dongchong Bay. The forest is spongy and bouncy, it feels less like running and more like bouncing on a trampoline. Arriving at the bay always gives me pause, a small rocky trail runs along the left hand side of the tiny bay, breaking free of the trees and giving a full view of the bay and Blackfish Sound beyond. In my mind I can see the net pen, the notoriously energetic orca springing clear of the water in breach after breach. Her loud squeals and calls echoing off the watery canyons of her home. She’s a mother now, no longer just a nice story but an integral and contributing member of orca society.

I wonder if she remembers this place, this bay and the multitudes of people that healed her, fed her salmon, and most importantly, were able to let go and let her go home when the time was right. I wonder if she ever pauses at the mouth of Dongchong as she goes by. If she can still hear her voice ricocheting and bouncing off the rocks, hear the crack of her splashes as she returns to the water. If she has any idea what a miracle her life is.

Boats, Busses, and Cougars: My First Journey to Hanson Island. Part: 1

In the last nine months I’ve learned how to carry three plates of food at once, how to make a passable latte, and how to describe where the hell Hanson Island is in the amount of time it takes to make change for a tall caramel mocha with whip. But since there are no lines or lunch rush on the internet, I’ll happily go into more detail now about the island, the lab you can find there, and the man that started it all. There aren’t that many ways to reach the island, it’s not like Alaska Airlines and Northwest offer nonstop service or anything. So I’ll share the way 18-year old David got there in the summer of 2008:

A flight from Anchorage to Seattle, a celebratory cinnabon and a thirty minute flight got me to Vancouver with thirty pounds of sugar in my stomach and a maze of public transportation between me and my hostel. Three buses and two trains later, lugging a fifty pound Army duffel bag (I had yet to discover the miracle that is expedition backpacks) and I was in the heart of Vancouver. I couldn’t find that hostel again if I tried. My reward was a room the size of a closet, that had last been cleaned sometime during the Reagan Administration, and a broken air conditioner that seemed to welcome in the late June humidity with open arms; I’d never felt better.

The next morning, I boarded a greyhound bus leaving from the most stereotypical bus station of all time. Complete with filthy bathrooms, empty liquor bottles and an abandoned bag of weed under one trash can. The greyhound took me to the ferry and across the channel to Vancouver Island and another seven hours north to the tiny logging town of Port McNeil. The road along the eastern side of Vancouver Island is punctuated by coastal towns; Parksville, Courtenay, Fanny Bay (giggles), Cumberland, and Campbell River. Right after Campbell River though, highway 19 veers sharply inland through the rigid, majestic mountain range that composes Vancouver Island’s backbone. For two hours there are no towns or ocean views, just a never ending tunnel of trees, with whitecapped mountains peaking through the green framed windows. Port McNeil, is the second to last stop on the line, with only Port Hardy further to the north. It’s also the nearest the bus could get me to Hanson Island. With bus to submarine conversion technology still being decades away.

I planned to spend the night in Port McNeil and it was just another mile walk, dragging my duffel behind me to the campground and the campground host who, upon learning that I planned to sleep in a tent, felt it wise to inform me that there were three black bears…. and a cougar prowling about the campsites on a nightly basis.

Cougar? What the hell is a cougar? Black bears, fine. Alaska was filled with the mischievous spry critters. In the trees, in the undergrowth, occasionally in a garbage can. But cougars were a whole different animal, no pun intended. I was one year into a degree in wildlife biology and I had no clue what to do with a large cat. I could explain how it’s muscles received oxygen and how it’s cells had divided as it grew in it’s mother womb, but nothing that would help me if it came knocking on my tent flap at three in the morning.

But I was eighteen, naïve, and feeling invincible. I threw down my credit card and asked for one cougar free campsite. Walking to my site I passed two teenage girls, excitedly reliving their thrilling encounter last night with….. the cougar. I’m sure they were exaggerating its snarling and charging behavior though. My night was cougar free and I fell asleep with steak, potatoes, and rice in my belly thanks to the sympathetic retired couple across the camp who took pity on me after my bowl of cooking ramen fell into the fire. Putting my tent away the next day I happened to look up and found a black bear looking back as he stood near the dumpster fifty feet away. After all the jungle cat talk though a bear felt almost tame, I shrugged and went back to packing my tent.

All I had to do now was catch a ferry to Alert Bay, the miniscule village on the comma shaped island of Cormorant Island, just a couple miles to the east. But that was as far as B.C’s public transportation would take me. Because my final destination was not a city or a town, there is no dock, road, or parking lot. Just a tiny little unnamed cove with a trio of small buildings constructed in homage to the 1970’s back to the earth design.

This is the place known as Orca Lab. Paul Spong and Helena Symonds home and research station. Strategically placed at the mouth of Johnstone Strait, the lab overlooks Blackfish Sound, the highway in which 200+ orcas swim down every year, chasing salmon. I had arranged to meet Paul at the ferry terminal and sat on my duffel bag bouncing in anticipation watching cars drive onto the ferry bound for Alert Bay and realized that I had one small problem. I had no idea what Paul Spong looked like.