Tag Archives: British Columbia

With a Single Breath

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

“Did you hear—?”

A sound like a gunshot rips through the trees.

“Go.” She answers.

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

“Turn right at the big Spruce!”

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

“Where are they?”

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

***

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

And we hear it.

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

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

Hello beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yea… I know.”

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

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

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

10463863_10153151080414852_7687963241185135048_n

Advertisements

Tumbleweeds, Home, and Root Vegetables

It hasn’t rained in days. The air has been crisp and cold. The window each day in which the shining sun brings substantial warmth is minimal. It’s fall in southeast Alaska. And when it’s not raining, there’s no more lovely time or place in the world. So this time when we leave, it’s hard. It’s never been hard before. Because for the first time we have a home. A home than can be measured in years instead of months.

And yet…

The island calls. That blissful, green, old growth island with Cedar and deer and mink. Our spot in Gustavus doesn’t have a wood stove. And there’s something about cracking cedar over your knee, the vapor of your breath floating above a knitted hat. Something about coffee on the porch, the ocean ten feet away, the sound of sea lions drifting on a growing wind. The promise of an afternoon gale. Hanson Island, Orca Lab, the promised land. I cannot bear to pull myself away from Gustavus, yet I’m giddy at the thought that I will be snug in that little cabin on the rocks in 72-hours, a fire roaring and the heat spreading to warm every crack and cranny. I wouldn’t be in Gustavus if it wasn’t for the island

For this is a place that changes lives. Starting with Paul Spong way back in 1970 and has continued for more than four decades. Hundreds, shoot, maybe thousands have made the pilgrimage to this place and had their lives rocked and upended. This place changes people the way glaciers change land. And I count myself as lucky to have spent two years of my life on Hanson. I would not be the man I am today without it. And it is that which will make the final goodbye so hard. It has sculpted me into someone that holds the final green and blue vestiges of this earth as valuable as any mineral man has ever valued. It is this lesson why I must someday let go.

Hank Lentfer is me in 20 years. Or maybe I’m Hank Lentfer 20 years ago. I’d like to think so. He’s the man I want to be in a couple decades at least, let’s leave it at that. The guy with the quick wit and busy hands that can build or fix anything. He built his house, starting with a 16×16 frame and turning it into a wooden work of art. In my non Hanson Island life I’d see someone driving a Ferrari or BMW down the street and feel an inkling of jealousy mixed with a desire to have one of my own. In the post Hanson Island life I have the same feeling when I see Hank’s garden and root cellar. Inside the cellar are two garbage cans (they’re clean) stuffed with carrots he grew. Another two garbage cans worth of potatoes are nearby. Mason jars are stacked like Jenga blocks on the shelves holding everything from Coho to cranberries. Call it root vegetable envy.

For years Hank and his wife Anya went without hot running water and still have no indoor plumbing to speak of. There’s an outhouse out back or you’re free to just let’er fly off the porch if you wish. Heat comes from a wood stove, the fridge in the arctic entryway is a new acquisition. All these choices were made not out of financial necessity but by choice. Because contrary to the modern world’s opinion, they aren’t necessities.

There’s something inspiring and beautiful about doing so much with so little. But even more, I think there’s something so beautiful about being so happy with so little. It’s a desire Brittney and I both have, all we have to do is learn how. And who better to teach us then Hank and Anya?

All of that however, means saying goodbye to where it all started. A tree’s roots cannot cover hundreds of miles, not matter how sweet the soil may be.

But not yet.

For tumbleweeds need no roots, they travel with the wind, blown south to that little halibut hook shaped island every fall. Where there’s no root cellar but humpbacks sing in the evening. No glaciers but dew clings to the boughs of Cedar branches like diamonds on a necklace. The very smell of Cedar will forever remind me of Paul, Helena, and the A30s calling in the dead of night. Hanson Island’s fingerprints are all over my heart and soul, and there they’ll stay until my final breath. Whatever my life may bring, whatever words are ever published and bound between two covers will be because of Paul’s smile and Helena’s cinnamon rolls. Every paddle stroke is because the A36s blessed me with a passion that will stand the test of time.

My heart feels light and my soul jitterbugs as the ferry cuts through Lynn Canal bound for Juneau. In 72 hours I’ll hear Paul’s laugh, see Helena’s face, and drag that infernal rabbit cage onto the rocks off the June Cove. Because we couldn’t have a dog like everyone else. Because we couldn’t sit still. Because Hanson Island will forever hold us under its spell.

Unexpected Good News is the Best News

I wanted to write about something happy. Something hopeful and uplifting. But for the last couple months, it’s been hard not to feel cynical. What with all the political news, the hate and xenophobia that has infested and captivated all of us whether we’re for it or against it. Even here, on Hanson Island. I quit social media cold turkey for a few days. Every time I logged on I got mad, frustrated, defeated.

But not today. Not tomorrow, probably not for the rest of the week. I needed good news, needed a victory, something to reinstall my faith in humanity. It was SeaWorld of all places, that delivered it. Yesterday the aquarium giant announced an end to the breeding of captive Orcas and “circus style” performances. The finish line is still in the distant future, but at least it’s now visible.

There is of course, a PR spin on this, pivoting around the tenants of “world class care” and “more natural encounters.” We can peruse and scrutinize this is we want, but it’s been clear since the moment that Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau’s ponytail, that SeaWorld couldn’t continue in its current state. Ever since it’s been a gradual slide. From the proposed ending of the circus shows in San Diego, to the “Blue World” proposal. Yesterday, SeaWorld in a way, admitted defeat. Though they’ll never come out and say it, announcing an end to captive breeding and by association, an end to Orca’s in captivity is admitting what animal activists have been saying for years. There is no ethical or conceivable way to keep a massive and intelligent animal in captivity.

Tilikum’s pending death may have had something to do with the announcement. The loss of one of their few breeding males would make the genetic logistics of their breeding program even more difficult and SeaWorld may have been planning for such an announcement. This is all speculation of course. Maybe they looked at their plummeting stocks, attendance records, and a new generation raised on Free Willy and realized there was no future.

But today, I’m not concerned with why SeaWorld is doing what they’re doing, or what their motives were. Today is one of celebration with potential domino effects sweeping across the globe. The end of breeding includes SeaWorld subsidiary Lolo Parque, home to four other Orcas and puts added pressure on the Miami Seaquarium, a small aquarium that is home to  Lolita, a southern Resident who has been in captivity nearly as long as Corky of the northern Residents. Without big brother to hide behind, the spotlight falls more brightly on Miami to, if nothing else, end their performance shows.

With SeaWorld’s focus on low adrenaline and educational shows, the door remains cracked for Corky to come home. After more than 45-years in captivity the prospect of Corky rejoining the A5s and swimming a hundred miles a day seems daunting. But just west of OrcaLab is a long, deep cove called Dong Chong Bay. It was here that Springer, an orphaned and lost Orca was successfully reintroduced to the wild. It would be both poetic and fitting for Corky to live out her days in the bay, chasing wild fish, hearing and associating with her family under the excellent care and attention that SeaWorld has touted for years.

As we celebrate, it’s important to remember the war is not over. Dolphins, Sea Lions, otters, penguins, and polar bears remain large parts of the SeaWorld empire. And while Orcas have deserved the lion’s share of the activism and spotlight, the time has come to tell them that more can be done. The dolphin trade remains one of the more despicable and darker aspects of human kind, with the dolphins life in captivity no better than the Orcas.

I never thought this day would come. I assumed SeaWorld would go down with the ship, beating the drum of education and quality care until they disappeared from existence. But, out of nowhere, they did the right thing. And for that they need to be applauded, commended, and encouraged to do more.

Born too Late

One of my favorite TV shows is Futurama. It’s a weird,  stupid cartoon in which a slacker named Fry is cryogenically frozen in the year 2000 only to be unfrozen a thousand years later. He awakes to find that one eyed (and curvy)  female aliens and beer drinking robots are part of normal every day life.

In one episode Fry, his distant relative, a mad scientist named Professor Farnsworth (just go with it) and the beer drinking, fire belching robot go back in time. Like all TV shows, the plot and setting  completely reset by the end of the half hour run time with the exception that the professor stopped briefly in the year 1939 so that he can assassinate Hitler with a massive ray gun.

Isolated and surrounded by a forest hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, the land here can feel as if it’s been frozen like Fry and we’re able to glance back in time by simply walking through the forest and counting the rings on fallen trees.

But it’s not static. Nothing is. There is no climax community where, if left undisturbed it will stand immaculate forever.

I often find myself obsessed with how the land and wildlife looked thirty years ago, a hundred years ago, a millennium, an epoch ago. So I scour the books and testimonies of those that have come before me. Offhand comments like one by Paul a couple months ago send my imagination into overdrive.

“There used to be a hotel on Parson Island,” he says offhandedly. “This place used to have a much denser population.”

No way. I stare up at the cliffs that form the southern border of Parson Island and try to imagine it dotted with buildings. The absurd image of a 30 story Hilton plays before my mind. Communities in Freshwater Bay, fish buying companies in every cove, hand loggers determinedly probing through the inlets looking for something bigger.

One of these men was Billy Procter. He’s something of a legend. Our Gandolf or Obi-Wan Kenobi if you’d prefer. He grew up in Freshwater Bay, a little indention in Swanson Island a five minute boat ride from where Orca Lab now sits. Of course in the 1920s there was no Orca Lab. No whale watching industry, Orca’s nothing more than competition for fish. For it was fish that pumped the blood of the north island and Billy talks endlessly of massive runs of salmon. So thick on the flooding tide that the air was inundated with their odor.

“The Blackfish used to follow them through Blackfish Sound in numbers so thick you could walk across there backs,” he relayed to Alexandra Morton.

It’s these phrases that make me yearn for a different time. “The good old days” as it were. When a 2 HP engine was nothing short of a miracle, and fishing was as easy as dropping a line in the water and jigging for a few minutes. Before clear cuts and climate change, before fishing stocks plummeted or tugs chugged in an endless relay up and down the strait.

“I was born too late,” I think, setting down Billy and Alex’s book, Heart of the Raincoast.

I want to see that sort of abundance. I want to fish, can, and gather my way to an existence. I want to live in a float house and tow it up and down Knight Inlet.

In the 70’s Erich Hoyt and two other filmmakers sailed up Johnstone Strait and settled in Robson Bight, spending the summer tracing the loving shorelines of Cracroft, Vancouver, and Hanson, following the whales. No rules, no regulations, no cares. I was born too late. They were camping in the bight, documenting the rubbing beaches for the first time. Rubbing shoulders with the parade of scientists who rewrote the book on the “savage killer whale” and helped us see them the way we do.

I want to dive off the rubbing beaches, follow an orca pod in my kayak with no boats blitzing past me at 30 knots. I want to ride the ebb out Blackfish and the flood through Weynton. I want the good old days. I want to steal Futurama’s time machine and sit on the rocks at the feet of an old growth forest that has never been cut. I’ll even agree to take out Hitler on my way.

No I don’t.

Because no one talks about the “bad old days.” No one dwells on the fact that everything that ate fish had a bounty on it sixty years ago. 2 bucks for a seal’s flippers, a dollar for a Raven’s beak or an eagle’s talons. That there’s a reason that the salmon don’t run so thick you can smell them followed by Blackfish that form a bridge across the sound. That the slow curve downward began somewhere.

Or that the 70’s were filled with the live capture trade for Orca’s and the cold blooded murder of several others. That there’s a reason that the beaches and bight are closed, that the minimum distance is 100 meters. That today we live with the decisions made during those days that were neither good nor old.

So I go to ask the one soul on this island that’s lived in it for a millennium. I walk to Grandma Cedar whose cedar boughs have seen it all. Has watched the salmon come and go, the glacier’s charge and retreat, and a lab be built at her feet.

Does she miss the good old days? The bad old days?

I stare up at her, my neck craning, trying to make out the branches that originate a hundred feet above me. But she is centered in the here and now. Focused on the simple task of taking the miracle of sunlight and carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen. Perhaps if all she’s thinking about is today I should be too.

Maybe it’s one thing to read and admire history and another to yearn for a world I know virtually nothing about. One thing to devour old black and white photos and dig for artifacts on the shoreline and another to feel as if it will never be that good again. To let go of a history I can’t even begin to understand or control, and look to a future I can. You can keep your time machine Professor.

Cover photo credit: BC Archives. Freshwater Bay C.A 1916.

 

 

 

 

My Life as an Orca DJ

It starts with dolphins. They giggle like jackals, punctuated by the dull thuds of their echolocation. I shut my eyes and let the sounds of dolphins, crashing waves, and 30 knot winds rock me back to sleep. Moments later my eyes open. I sit up, Brittney’s feet swing out of the bed. The dolphins aren’t alone. The hee-haw of a donkey floats through the speaker that sits on the shelf just above our bed. G clan’s back.

1917778_229391884851_28180_n
“My turn,” Brittney mutters like the mother of a new born and staggers down the stairs, out the door, and to the lab. Moments later her voice comes out of the speaker as she begins the recording, mixing with the sounds of swirling water and cackling dolphins.

“This is Brittney, this is Hanson Island 2015, digital recording number…” my head hits the pillow and I drift away.

For the next few hours I fade in and out, coming to just long enough to see Brittney isn’t back and that the whales are still calling. They’re faint, maddeningly faint, but there. Three hours after they first pulled Brittney from the bed I rise. It’s a moonless December night with the clouds building for another low front, 7 am and still pitch black.

Brittney takes little convincing to go back to bed. She’s been at it since four and the whales seem to have barely moved. Their voices still distant in Johnstone Strait, at the limits of the Critical Point hydrophone. What compelled them to sit in one place and talk about it for so long? I wrap my sweater around me and feel the lab vibrate as another gust hits the south facing windows. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and brace myself as another tug rolls into range. The sound grows to a deafening roar, the orca’s voices extinguished. Feeling guilty I pull the headphones off and rub the headache emerging from my temple. If only they had such luxury.

The tug moves on and they’re still there. G clan somebody. I31s perhaps? Even Paul and Helena can’t say for sure. These late nights remind me of summer. When late night recording sessions were the norm rather than the exception. It’s warmer in July though. And the sun’s there to keep you company starting at about four in the morning. I am the night shift orca DJ, playing the hits of the A, G, and R clan on 92.1 the WHALE.

At long last the darkness lightens a shade, the whales almost inaudible, Vancouver Island distinguishable as a darker shade of black against a slowly lightening sky. The sun finds a gap and a splash of color transforms the world from black and grey. It’s all worth it. The water and mountains light up like ta water color and the orca’s go quiet. Maybe they too are watching the sun rise.

The sunrise doesn’t last long, extinguished by another fog bank rolling in. Waves topped with whitecaps intensify, the rain strikes like pebbles. Twenty minutes with no calls, than twenty-five, thirty, are they gone? A couple summers ago the A36s played a horrible trick on me, sitting silent in Robson Bight until I would end the recording before letting out a whispered giggle, letting me know that they were still awake and I should be too.
The I31s don’t have their sense of humor though. I end the recording and walk back to the cabin. The tree tops swirl and the waves thunder into the rocks twenty feet away on the high tide. My job, my office, my life. And to think a few years ago I was ready to work in a lab, studying herring bioenergetics. Let someone else wear the labcoat. I’ll go to the office in slippers and flannel.

Waiting For Corky

“On no they’re not.”
“It’s true,” I answer, “they’re phasing out the circus performance bit. They say they’re going to do a more education and conservation based thing… of course, it’s SeaWorld, so who knows what that means.”

Paul and I stand on the rocks feet above Robson Bight. Two steps and we’d be free falling fifty feet to the bottom. Free whales swim here. They go right past the rocks we stand on, an arms length from shore. Every time I come here I try to will them into the bight. It’s never worked. Orcas are very into themselves.

But now our minds are not on the hydrophone resting in the kelp, or the batteries on the cliff that fuel it. They’re on a whale thousands of miles away that deserves to be here. Paul furrows his brow, there’s skepticism in his expression, doubt after decades of banging against the gates of SeaWorld, asking that Corky be allowed to come home.

“Maybe it’s just a spoof article,” he says. “Where did you read it?”
I confess that I can’t remember the source. But I’m convinced it wasn’t the Onion.
We pick our way down the rocks for the boat and the lab.
Paul lets out a laugh. “Wouldn’t that be something? SeaWorld stops performances, yesterday Obama vetoes the Keystone pipeline. What is happening?”
“Maybe we’ve been transported to a parallel universe.” I offer.
“That’s it. What’s going to happen tomorrow?”
    “Donald Trump is gonna get eaten by wolves.”
“And through a loophole in his will all his money gets donated to conservation.”
“He meant to write all proceeds to the conservative party but misspelled it.”

Deep down, SeaWorld hasn’t changed. Their orcas are still commodities, big swimming black and white dollar signs. SeaWorld isn’t changing. They’re rebranding. And what choice did they have? They’ve lost a third of their visitors. Their value is worth half what is was before Blackfish. The ship is sinking and there aren’t enough lifeboats. But rather than call for help, SeaWorld has decided to bail water until they’re six feet under. This isn’t surprising. It’s still despicable. But it’s encouraging. They’re grasping at straws.

SeaWorld continues to operate under the delusion that they will be relevant and profitable a decade from now. Accepting the Blue World proposal by the California Coastal Commission would have given the San Diego park an expiration date. No new orcas. The beginning of the end.

But SeaWorld has no intention of letting Corky, the captive northern Resident of A5 pod come home. It’s a step closer to retirement for her though as human commanded tricks will not be part of the new Orca show. But Corky doesn’t have time. She’s been in that tank for four decades. Her time, and a chance at a happy ending is running out. These new, low adrenaline performances won’t start until 2017. By the time SeaWorld determines that this new marketing scheme isn’t going to save the company, it may be too late.

But as SeaWorld circles the drain, perhaps they’ll be willing to accept anything that will salvage whatever positive PR reputation they have left. What better way to change hearts and minds than retire a whale?

I don’t know if Corky can survive in the true wild. She’s been swimming tight circles for so long, I don’t think she can physically stand up to the rigors of being a wild whale. But a net pen in her native land? Where she can taste the ocean. Hunt wild fish and hear the sounds of her family. Who wouldn’t get behind that?

“They can do Corky shows live from Dong Chong Bay (the bay just west of Orca Lab on Hanson Island) and broadcast it over the internet.” Paul offers as we pull into the cove next to the lab.
He’s says it like a joke but it’s not. What it would mean for her to come back. After all these years, and have her living next door. A few hours later all is quiet. The water calm, the sun setting. Paul is back in Alert Bay and it’s just me and Brittney.

Suddenly we both sit up, our heads cocked. When you live at OrcaLab you develop this passive listening. You aren’t aware that you’re tuned into the hydrophones but you always are. And when an orca makes a noise, it makes you jump.

And there they are. What are the odds? We tear over to the lab and pull on headphones, our trembling hands adjust the dials on the soundboard. They’re in the Bight, right where Paul and I stood talking about Corky just five hours ago. Now her family, A5 pod is there. Swimming feet off the rocks I’d been standing on.

Goosebumps spread up my arms. They shouldn’t be here in early November. But here the A5s were. Back in the strait on today of all days. Keeping Corky’s bed warm for her. As their calls echo off the underwater cliffs I fight back a lump in my throat, trying not to feel guilty. After all, it’s Corky that should be here, not me.

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.