Tag Archives: cabin

Midnight Humpbacks

Another year with no trick or treaters on Hanson Island. I shudder to imagine what we’d do if we heard a knock on the door right now. We’d glance terrified at one another, bodies taut, legs weak, hands shaking. What the hell? No one whose ever knocked on the door of a cabin on the rocks at 10:00 at night has ever done so with good intentions. But the night is calm and seems to be low on ghoulish or spiritual skullduggery. After a stormy month, it’s nice to hear the quiet. There’s not even boat traffic. All that comes out of the hydrophones is the occasional gurgle of water and the unexplained static like crackles.

But despite the quiet and despite the darkness, we’re not alone. Outside the door are sea lions and seals and mink and dolphins, and tonight, humpbacks. They never seem to favor the Hanson shore during the day. When they could be photographed and possibly identified. No, they wait until the sun disappears and the clouds devour what little moon there is. But in the pitch black, we can hear them. Their deep booming breaths shake the window as they surface somewhere out beyond the curtain of night.

And time and time again I rise from my seat and step out onto the porch. It’s not like I can’t hear them from inside. But somewhere embedded in my DNA is an instinct as natural as breathing. Go to the whales. I stand on the edge of the porch, my bare feet gripping the slippery wood. Out of habit I count the blows. One… two… three… Three!? When was the last time there was three humpbacks in front of the lab? In between their surfacings is the sound of sea lions. Their exhalations are minuscule next to their cetacean neighbors. They’re like flies. They zip and dive around the humpbacks, why no one really knows. Maybe their picking off stray fish, using the whales for protection from Transients, or maybe it’s a game. Some sort of Sea Lion chicken to see who can get closest to a 15-foot flipper and not get bludgeoned to death.

There’s something about whales at night. I love whales at night. Let’s be honest, I love them at all hours, but something about hearing them but not seeing them hits me hard. Humpback or Orca, hydrophone or above water makes no difference. I love to listen. It goes back to a night more than ten years ago, not far from where I live and write.

Eleven Years Ago:

It’s past midnight. The only dark stretch of this July night. I’m asleep in a two man tent with my Father when my eyes snap open. I sit upright in my sleeping bag, that DNA kicking on for the first time. I know what I heard, the only question is; was it in my dream. I only have to wait a few seconds when I hear it again.

Blows. Lots of them.

I spring out of my sleeping bag—Dad right behind—and step out onto the rocks. Johnstone Strait is ten feet away and five feet down. And somewhere in that eternal blackness, they’re swimming. Orcas. I hear them but can’t see them. It’s infuriating. We’ve traveled hear to see them, not hear them swim tantalizingly by just feet away. From my knees I stretch out into the nothingness above the water, eyes straining, heart praying. But they’re moving on. Going west.

Two days later I got my wish when the A36s, a trio of male Orcas swim past in the morning. From the seat of my kayak I watched Kaikash, Plumper, and Cracroft cruise by. If only I’d known their names that day. I would have paddled out and introduced myself.

Today I don’t mind. Let them approach in the dark and scurry across to the shadow of Harbledown Island in the sun. Even as I write the humpbacks continue to move back and forth in Blackney Pass. Sometimes close, sometimes further away. But in the stillness I can hear them, mixing with the sounds of the hydrophone, the crackling of the fire, and the snoring of the cat.

Home.

Somewhere along the way, this place became home. One of them at least. It can be easy to take some of the miracles of Hanson Island for granted when it’s at your feet 24-hours a day. But not tonight. Not when the humpbacks surface and reawaken the boy inside that fell in love with it all eleven years ago.

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The Shabin

There’s not much left of the road. Just two indention’s overgrown with weeds and grass. Blink and tilt your head and you can almost make out the tire tracks. But alder trees are growing in between the divots and it’s clear that no one has driven a car back here in a long time.

In my hand is a scrap of printer paper, a series of hastily scribbled squares and rectangles drawn on it. One of those rectangles is my future home, maybe. Brittney follows along right behind me. Just ahead is a man I admire and love. A man I want to be like, but with my own flair, my own style. After all, there’s only one Kim Heacox just like there’s one David Cannamore. At the youthful age of 65, Kim’s enthusiasm remains boundless and I find myself wondering what he must have been like when he was 30. I know I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with him.

He leads us through the properties acres, referring to it over and over again as, “our property.”

Our property.

My god. Is it really possible? A small cabin sits near the land’s southern border next to the remnant of the road. The rest is Spruce and Pine forest with a bit of bog, a bit of marsh, and sprinkled with berries. Oh the berries. High bush cranberries, neigoon berries, even some low lying blueberries. I pass an alder no more than knee high. I run my hands through its branches. The leaves are manicured and nibbled. A moose has been here recently. It feels like home.

We can’t stay away. We drive the two miles back to the little slice of heaven. We forgot the tape measure, so we measure the cabin’s tiny room the only way we can. I lay down on the wood floor and so does Brittney, her feet brushing my scalp. We can almost lay down all the way. Calling it a studio  would be generous. No running water, no toilet.

I doubt many would understand the appeal of a dry cabin devoid of plumbing. Cabin may not be the best description. It’s part cabin part shack. A shabin as it were. But both of us see it for what it can be. Knock out a wall, raise the roof, put in a loft. Definitely a bathroom. What are we missing? A sink! Should install a sink at some point.

But for the right price… we’ve lived rustically long enough. What’s a few more years?

I think about the homes we walked past in the Seattle suburbs. 700,000 dollar monstrosities on a quarter acre in tidy suburbs. Each home copy and pasted from the last. Each subdivision given some charming name like Shady Acres or Pebbled Brook. I don’t want a 30-year mortgage. I don’t want property tax. I don’t want my neighbor’s music echoing through my walls.

Give me simple. Give me peace. Give me trees and blueberries. In our minds it’s already ours and we haven’t even called the owner yet. The owner we know is looking to sell. You’re crazy if you think I’m telling you where in Gustavus it is.

It’s scary. Sure we’ve talked about buying a house in this city filled with magic for three years. But to be this close, our feet draped over the edge, just one step from going over. Maybe buying a house is like having kids. If you wait until you’re ready you’ll never do it. But I also know that this is what we want. That we’re ready to make this home.

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.

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“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.

Hanson Island Life Lessons

Every week and a half the fridge begins to look bare, the tortillas are gone, the beer and wine but a distant memory. The marine weather report is lit up in crimson, gale warning in Queen Charlotte, storm warning in Johnstone Strait, rain, wind, small craft advisories. On a good day Alert Bay is just thirty minutes by boat away, weaving through the Plumper and Pearce Islands, sending torrents of frothy white water over the deep green waters is nothing short of cathartic. It’s just finding enough of those days that can be the struggle.

And so we look for “windows.” Six hour blocks where the wind dies, the rain lessons, and the boat floats. As the storm inhales for another blow you run for town before the next exhalation. But after eight months of this game, pulling the boat up and down the beach so water lifts it off the rocks at just the right time, it feels commonplace. The fact that we once lived half a block from a Rainbow Foods absolutely absurd. We’ve traded the convenience of stores, bars, and restaurants for the simple tranquility of wilderness.

In a few weeks we’ll be gone, on our way back to civilization. At least our definition of it which entails residing in a town of 350 people. But right now that feels more like a metropolis than hamlet. Certainly there are things we’re looking forward to, I mean, we’ve talked to just a handful of people face to face this year. No longer having to correlate tide height and wind with fresh lettuce will be convenient. And I really do miss Alaskan IPA.

But more than anything, I’ve learned a lot about myself over the winter. I landed my first paid writing gig, wrote thousands of words for a novel that I’ll probably let no one ever see, and am just a season and a half away from watching the show, “Friends” all the way through.

Brittney loves the website, mindbodygreen.com and there are some great articles and information to be found. She hates me for pointing out however that the site is often flooded with “top 10” lists. Top 10 ways: to know your man has a good heart, yoga pants, fat burning foods, etc. Now it’s all she sees… she may never forgive me. But I’m going to conform, and walk through the ten things that I’ve learned this winter on Hanson Island.

1. How ever much time you think you have until the boat is aground, subtract by ten minutes. You’ll save yourself a lot of disappoint, frustration, and expletives.

2. Mice will find a way into your house. Steel wool, blockades, and a cat will only do so much. Accept the inevitable, keep the counters clean, and check under the propane stove frequently.

3. It is perfectly acceptable to wake up in a cold sweat because you just dreamed that you could hear orcas and aren’t recording.

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4. No matter how much you hoot and holler at them, Stellar Sea Lions will not give you the time of day.

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5. Orcas love to call at dinner time, so you stuff your plates into a plastic milk crate box and lug it all over to the lab and have dinner with headphones on.

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6. Bath Days are a gift from God and should be worshipped as such.

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7. Mink will live under the house, they’re cute but smell terrible, your cat will want to make friends, the mink will not acquiesce. 11081015_10155300238395858_6083581184589343527_n

8. Porch baths in December are a necessity. Treat them like a Nascar pit crew changes tires. If you’re not out and back inside in under five minutes you are a) doing it wrong and b) probably borderline hypothermic.

9. Bring pets. You’ll need someone to talk to when your wife gets mad at you for ruining her favorite website.

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10. There is nowhere on earth like this place, nothing can replace it or come close. So enjoy every moment you have here regardless of the time of year.

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John Muir, Stickeen, and the Biggest Decision of Our Lives

My favorite John Muir story involves a tiny dog named Stickeen. Fanatically loyal to Muir, Stickeen followed the famous naturalist everywhere, even the glaciers could not separate them. On one trip a storm hit. The light was fading, and they were still far from home. Between them and camp lay a large crevasse in the ice, a narrow bridge across offered the only hope of passage.
Muir scooted across and turned to find Stickeen still on the other side, sprinting back and forth as the wind howled, panicked and too terrified to follow. Muir knelt down and reach out his arms calling to his companion.
“Hush your fears little one, no right way is easy in this rough world, we must risk our lives in order to save them.”
For a moment Stickeen remained perched on the edge of the precipice, and in a flurry sprinted across the bridge, past Muir and began to yip and run in circles in ecstasy.
For years John Muir’s words have resonated inside me, echoing in my head with every major decision I make. I tried to avoid making decisions simply because they were safe or comfortable, probing deep inside for what I really wanted.
With this credo echoing in both our hearts, we walked, hiked, and hitched through New Zealand. Bounced from seasonal job to seasonal job. Crammed everything we owned into the Pathfinder and drove for five exhilarating days to Seattle. And of course, spent the last six months blissfully happy on Hanson Island.
Slowly we’ve watched our time remaining tick away, somehow, we have just two months left, and the thought of leaving already left a lump in our throats.
In our wildest dreams, where money is no object, we knew we’d come back. But even here, the financial demands of life can reach us. Student loans, IRAs, and that house in Gustavus beckon. It became our next goal, to save up and buy that house, if the elephant in the room (winter work in a town of 350) could be addressed.
Than Paul and Helena changed everything, offering to help us return for another winter if we wanted to. Thus began the hardest decision we’ve ever made together. We tried to imagine returning to Alaska, kayak guiding in Glacier Bay and than… what? Making coffee in Juneau I suppose. Which was all well and good, but we both knew that at night, crammed back into our shanty studio apartment, we’d look out the window to find ourselves surrounded by street lights. And our souls would ache for this place. For the sound of the waves on the rocks. The Harlequin ducks bobbing like rubber duckies into the cove every morning, the mischievous mink that taunts the cat from under the house.
We budgeted. We convinced each other that one decision was correct, and than the other. Finally, we would lapse back into fits of indecision. Pulled between starting to put down roots, and fearing that we’d eternally regret not returning to the island. We talked long into the night, unable to decide. Until this morning when Paul asked us if we’d reached a decision. We looked at each other across the table, a pained look on both our faces. We knew saying no meant we may never see this place again. And we knew that we couldn’t live with that.
There will be houses to save for later. Winter work questions to answer, money to make, roots to set down. But in our hearts, the wanderlust called for an encore. To sprint across that ice bridge one more time. To risk our lives. And to save them.

“We’re coming back!” we replied.
And like Stickeen a century ago, jumped and ran around the cabin while the wind and rain pelted the windows.

Making Christmas

It is somehow December. My Alaskan sensibilities tell me it’s impossible for it to be the season of; holly, mistle toe, and red clothed, cookie scarfing, overweight home invaders without a thick carpet of snow. I suppose that’s not entirely fair. It did snow one morning and it almost stuck around for the whole day. But for the most part, the weather continues to emulate an Alaskan fall with the temperature playing jump rope with the freezing point and encouraging us to maintain a fire around the clock.

The orcas gifted us an early christmas present the other day when the I15s announced their arrival in Blackfish Sound with their trademark, donkey like, “hee-haw.” After holding down the strait for much of the summer, seeing the family charge through Blackney Pass and into Johnstone Strait made it feel like August all over again. They have sense vanished, we presume they are still to the west of us in the strait. Though we have reached the time of year where the clouds and storms begin to choke the power from the solar panels, causing hydrophones to cycle on and off, especially at night. With the ocean again silent, save for the daily parade of tugs and the occasional Alaska state ferry, we can prepare, as best as we can at least, for Christmas.

Much like our ill fated New Zealand thanksgiving with the intrusive lemurs, we knew this was coming. That we were going to be far from not just our families, but our friends as well for a season that magnifies togetherness more than any other. Thanks to Helena and our parents though, we’re doing our best to bring a little bit of Christmas to the island. We’ve put up our single strand of multi colored christmas lights and a tiny, “father christmas” figurine who for some reason, is outfitted like a biblical Shepard complete with a staff, mercifully the glorious white beard remains in tact. Than there’s my mother, who can only be described as having been born with second and third helpings of, “care bear DNA.” Their christmas gifts, complete with stockings for not just us, but the cat and rabbit too are piled on a shelf in our room (Brittney insists that we need to find a tree). All together, it makes it feel a little more like the holidays on Hanson Island. But it feels weird to not be listening to the traditional Cannamore rotation of Christmas music, I can’t believe I’m admitting that.

It is, I suppose, all part of the isolation of care taking. And there are certainly days when we need the other to make us smile, laugh, or at the very least, roll our eyes. Yet besides Mom’s christmas cookies and everything else that always made Christmas special, I don’t find myself missing civilization much at all. Groceries being a 30 minute boat ride away doesn’t feel like an inconvenience, nor does getting up every two hours in the middle of the night to stay warm. On the whole, I’ve transitioned into this lifestyle magnitudes easier than I had trying to live in Seattle. When the luxuries of normality are stripped away, we find that we really need precious little to be happy and secure. There’s a roof over our heads, a pot of coffee, and a comfortable fire burning. What more does a human being require. It makes me wonder what it’ll be like when we do leave, and drive back down to the big city before escaping to the comfort and familiarity of Southeast Alaska. Sensory overload, I imagine. Perhaps Brittney should drive.

When the East Wind Blows

I’m used to the cold, you kind of have to be if you lived in Alaska your whole life. Anything above 80 degrees shuts my body down, but the cold has never bothered me. After enduring two winters in Fairbanks and dragging my partly frozen carcass through 40 below weather to class, I’d never really considered anything else as, “cold.” I figured this winter would be more of the same. Sure, the weather would dip below freezing occasionally, or as the people of Fairbanks know it as; “September,” but between blankets, thick socks, and the fire I figured it wouldn’t be that bad. I even began to tell people back home that I was looking forward to a warm winter for once. Three days ago the wind shifted to the east and the clouds vanished, leaving us with brilliant blue skies, and a 15-knot gust on a direct flight from the frigid B.C. interior. The mercury began to plummet, and we began to shiver.

Forty below isn’t so bad when you have a heated, sixty-five degree classroom or dorm to duck into that can go from frozen to toasty with a simple turn of a dial. If we want to be warm, we were going to have to work for it. Our big downstairs windows don’t discriminate, letting the view and cold air in while sucking out the fire’s precious heat. We we’ve been chopping wood and kindling, hunched over the chopping block until our lower backs go numb, and scour the beach for bark. The bark from the fir tree comes off in slabs, some as small as your hand, some as big as your torso. Nothing burns hotter than a few dry slabs of bark, capable of sending the mercury skyrocketing ten degrees in an hour if you stack the wood just right.

And through it all, the world outside looks beautiful and cloudless. Just like a glorious sunny day in August, the sapphire and baby blues of the ocean and sky contrasting with the rich greens of the islands. Except of course stepping onto the deck now takes your breath away for a whole different reason. Perhaps the animals feel the change too. The humpbacks have suddenly started to filter out, leaving us with just a couple of sightings a day as opposed to dozens just a week ago. Even the sea lions don’t seem impervious as there’s been far fewer of them huddled on the rocks, though it’s hard to imagine that the water could be much warmer.

At night Brittney, the cat, and myself have huddled beneath a pair of comforters, keeping the draft away and the heat in. None of us are quite ready though, to share our bed with a rabbit that seems to use the bathroom once every thirty minutes. It is the frustrating thing about ensuring your pets comfort, you can never be sure if they’re too hot or too cold. Our solution to keeping the rabbit thawed has been tedious; involving climbing out of bed every hour and half to stoke the fire and add more wood to keep the temperature at a humane level. It’s not a bad routine, if I could just convince my groggy head to turn off the alarm and get up instead of just completing step one.

A reprieve lays insight, with clouds and rain returning in just a couple of days and with them, slightly warmer temperatures. I never thought I’d be happy to see the clouds and rain again, especially after our soggy October. I’ll miss the view with the spotted white capped mountains perched on the mainland to the east a fantastic sight, especially in the evening as the sun sets. But I’ll be relieved to no longer stress about potential frozen water lines, hypothermic bunnies, and habitually numb toes. From now on, Alaska will never feel quite as cold, as long as I have a house with whistling heater vents to come home to.