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The Wettest Paddle

My gloved fingers fumble with the catches on the stern hatch. I bury my chin deeper into my rain jacket, a vain attempt to stem the never ending stream of water that’s been barreling down on us for 48-hours. I don’t know where we are, and I’m nowhere near curious enough to dig the map out of its dry bag. But I’ve stared at it enough to know what I’m looking at. Or more accurately, what I should be looking at.

Mount Wright, a 6,000 foot cathedral that guards the east arm of Glacier Bay is just two miles to the south, but it’s taking the day off. As is Adams Inlet, the first of three inlets that alternate on each side of the arm. After years of waiting I was finally seeing the fabled east arm. The inlet known as Muir Inlet, our superhero and the patron saint of glaciers. I had set off with Brittney and three friends, set on finding God in a glacier and Muir in a sun ray. But so far all I’d found was rain. Rain and clouds.

The hatch cover finally comes free and I pull from its depths three identical bear cans. We’re not stopping long. We’d been paddling for just over three hours and watched the wind and rain approach from the West. Naively we tried to outrun it, but you can’t outrun anything in a kayak except your common sense.

Brittney comes over and digs through one of the cans, pulling out tortillas, cheese, and kale. For a moment we stare at the tortillas as a gust of wind buffets us. We’re on a ridiculous little glacial outwash that will soon be obliviated by the rising tide. Eagles and Ravens perch eerily on a cemetery of uprooted stumps and logs. We slice the cheese and tear the kale.

“Now.”

Brittney opens the ziploc bag and I grab a pair of tortillas. As soon as they’re free she slams the seal shut, but too late. The surviving tortillas will be taking rainwater with them. We wrap the cheese and greens inside in record time and sit huddled against the wind, devouring our lunch before it disintegrates in our hands.

Worst rain I’ve ever experienced. I scribbled in my journal later that night. Hands so wrinkled and pruney they resemble elevation contours on the map. 

But we’re counting ourselves lucky. Because the wind is coming from behind, sweeping us up the arm and toward McBride Inlet. In a bay defined by change, McBride is the champion sprinter. A map from 1990 shows no inlet at all, but a glacier that dominates the upper end of the arm. Almost 30-years later she’s described with adjectives like “catastrophic retreat.” She’s left a narrow mouth at the base of the inlet that at low tide you could lob a rock across. On a flood the inlet turns into a vacuum sucking in water, ice bergs, gulls, seals, and wayward kayakers.

Lunch takes less than five minutes. One of the first lessons of Glacier Bay is that the best way to stay warm is to paddle. It may seem counter intuitive—surely huddling under a tarp is warmer—but all gear, no matter how rubberized or seam sealed, will eventually fail in a torrent such as this. Best to keep moving and turn your upper body into its own personal Toyo. So we hop back on the Muir Highway and let the wind whisk us north.

There’s four of us now. That morning Ellie was forced to return early after slicing open her thumb. After getting her on the day boat we’d set out from Sebree Island, knowing it would be our second 20-mile paddle day of the trip. Three of the four are kayak guides: myself, Brittney, and Jessie Markowitz. We’re equally crazy, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that none of us are going to be the one that taps out first. That left Jessie’s boyfriend Jake, an accomplished outdoorsman, skier, and climber in his own right as our voice of reason. And as he was positioned in the front seat of a double, there was precious little rebelling he could do without rudder pedals.

We hop from point to point, Jessie and Jake’s double setting the pace. Every few minutes I glance behind me, praying to see a lift in the weather. The fog and rain has socked in the entire bay. And while we’d never admit it, all of us kind of wished we were the one with the sliced thumb on the warm day boat with all the coffee we could drink.

Around Wachusett Inlet the rubberized raingear begins to fail. I feel the water seep into my mid-layer and with a shudder feel the first needle-like prick of rainwater reach my back. But Wachusett looks beautiful, a thin layer of fog is set afire by the sun, enough to give you hope and we bob in its mouth for a few long moments. The inlet cuts seductively right a mile in, leaving you wanting more. I know better. On the best of days Wachusett blows like the dickens, I don’t want to see the sort of wind that’s around that corner. We keep pushing. Past Kim Heacox’s old stomping grounds in Goose Cove, past Sealers Island and towards Nunatak.

We take a breather and find Brown Bear tracks as big as my outstretched hand in the sand. After the rain, a bear seems tame. Alaskan visitors have a Goldilock’s complex with bears. They want them not too far, not too close, but just right. Just right usually being within range of a 300mm DSLR.

Keep paddling. The Arctic Turn I’m paddling lives up to its name. No rudder, no skeg, no problem. She turns with a simple bend in the hips, drag free. We pass false point after false point. Each time convinced that this one will be McBride Inlet. Ice bergs float by, encouraging us further. Sirens in the fog, beckoning towards their home. Further, just a little further.

Everything hurts. 

We near yet another point. Jessie and Brittney are convinced that this one is the mouth of McBride. I’m not convinced. You have a lot of time to discuss these things when you’re traveling at 2.5 miles per hour. We round the corner to find more trees. No inlet, no Glacier God, no ghost of Muir dancing in the outwash in a wool trench coat. We pull out the map and Cliff Bars. I check my watch: just over seven hours of paddling. My hands feel fused to the paddle. And yet, and this is the weird thing, it feels so good out here.

What is wrong with me? I’m frozen, cold, most everything from the waist down went numb a long time ago. Whatever isn’t numb is wet. We’re convinced the next point leads to McBride. I suggest a vote. Brittney, Jessie, and I try to say yes first. Jake sighs, shrugs his shoulders, and sticks his paddle in the water. Welcome to the bay.

We hit the next point, turn, and there it is. Bergs swirl in the mouth of McBride. We paddle for shore, and the rainfall intensifies. And I yell at the Bay. At the Bay I love so much. How dare you punish our persistence like this? After everything we just did?

But of course Glacier Bay has little regard for my well being and prune covered hands. This place does not give, it sharpens and refines, just as the glaciers have done to her. Just as they will again if we’ll allow it. Just as they do to us.

We pull the boats above the tide and a miracle happens. The rain relents, the clouds being to lift. White Thunder Ridge emerges on the other side, dramatic slate gray cliffs loom further north. It is a beauty that must be witnessed. A beauty that can only be appreciated after paddling through fog and rain for seven hours. Like a bride on her wedding day the view is worth the wait.

Dry clothes are currency, and we lay out everything we can. We set up tents and pray the rain stays away. A sucker hole appears-a knot sized patch of blue sky—but  it brought friends. We cheer the blue colored beauties and cook pasta. We eat outside the confines of a tarp. And we fall under the spell. I find myself wandering in a daze down the beach. A mystic force pulling me towards the ice like some sort of ancestral magnet. How, I wonder, could people experience this and not be changed? How can someone look into the face of nature and be brought to their knees? I’m convinced that 100 senators in 50 doubles for a couple days would clear up a lot of problems.

But for a few days we’ll be blissfully ignorant of North Korea, Charlottesville, and the rest of the world’s silliness. Just us and McBride glacier’s offspring filtering out the inlet and sweeping south.

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The Park Service is Going Rogue (And Kayak Guides Should Too)

Last summer was the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. In Glacier Bay National Park, they spared no pomp or circumstance. Every poster, every talk, every presentation was prefaced, footnoted, and concluded with a reminder that they had hit the century mark. It got kind of comical after awhile. When someone reminded me that it was the 100th anniversary I feigned surprise:

“Really? They should have told someone about it!”

It was all capped with the opening of a traditional Tlingit Tribal House near park headquarters, complete with carved canoes paddled by the Huna Tlingit across Icy Strait and into Bartlett Cove. The day dawned with fog choking visibility to less than a mile. Flights were canceled. Lisa Murkowski was trapped in Juneau, 65-miles from her photo op. Sweet sweet justice.

As I floated in my kayak that day and watched the triumvirate of canoes emerge from the mist and heard the chants and beating of drums, the hair stood up on my neck. It was one of the most impressive and moving moments I’ve ever experienced. A powerful reminder that this place has meant something of incalculable significance to humanity for centuries.

But I also felt a twinge of annoyance that the NPS had chosen to do this on their anniversary. After decades of animosity between the federal government and Huna Tlingit, I felt conflicted on how I felt that it was done on the Park’s day. Perhaps I was picking nits. After all, the NPS had footed the bill for the place. I’m just some punk kayak guide who fancies himself a writer and by extension is a critic of the human condition. I’ve questioned the Park’s intentions before, scoffed at the cruise ship industry running amok in the west arm, and the damn “UnCruises” and their new “high usage” back country areas.

Fast forward a few months.

All of a sudden my critiques feel like the meaningless spats between a married couple. Was I really complaining about the Park Service leaving their metaphorical dirty dishes in the sink? Was I really all worked up because now 50 people were allowed to walk along a trail next to Reid Glacier instead of 12? My life was so simple I had the time to bitch about the Norwegian Pearl interrupting my morning as I looked down Johns Hopkins Inlet.

Now I look at the Park Service the same way Rey looks at Luke Skywalker.

It’s like a mixture of “I Am Spartacus” and “This is Sparta!” Between the Badlands National Park going rogue on Twitter to the new “Alt-National Park Service” movement, I’ve never been prouder to be affiliated with the Park Service. Right now I’m just hoping there’s going to be a “backcountry” in four years and argue about.

Knowing the people I do that work for the NPS, this defiance shouldn’t be a surprise. For many, if not all of them, their work is not just a job. No, people work for the parks because they genuinely care. Trump didn’t expect that. He assumed they were a bunch of good little worker bees that wouldn’t say a word as long as they kept their jobs. Guess what buddy? You just kicked the hive to discover the bees were hornets, and they’ll be damned if you’re going to take America’s honey from them.

But he’s going to try to muzzle them. We’ve seen it already with the EPA and when he forbid the Park Service from tweeting after they posted a photo comparing how small Trump’s hands crowd was at the inauguration.

One of the biggest jobs in Glacier Bay during the summer falls to the Interpretive Rangers. A crew of patient, knowledgable, and energetic folks who step onto each cruise ship that passes the park boundary to tell people what the hell they’re seeing and handle such cracker jack questions as:*

“does the water go all the way around that island?”

“Is that glacier made of salt? Is that why the water’s salty?”

“Are there polar bears on the glacier?”

“Do you believe in climate change?”

(*these are real questions)

Ah, yes, climate change. First, stop asking, “do you believe?” This is not a religion. There is no Church of Global Warming. You can chose to accept the facts or not. They exist whether you “believe” in them or not. It’s science, irrefutable science.

For the past eight years, NPS rangers have been able to calmly and accurately regurgitate the facts of respected scientists from across the globe, explaining the uncontrolled growth of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, the uncontrollable rise in ocean temperatures, and the extreme unlikelihood that human beings are innocent.

But of course the angry Oompa Loompa isn’t going to let people discuss a Chinese conspiracy on his dime. Which isn’t actually anything new. Park rangers were forbidden from discussing the effects of Climate change during Bush’s second term. Maybe, just maybe it had something to do with Dick Cheney’s ties to the oil industry. Just maybe.

So the Park is once again going to be shackled by the irrational opinions of the man in the White House. So while the Park Service may have to have a more muted level of public resistance. Though I would anticipate several “off the record” conversations aboard those cruise ships this summer. But the kayak guides have no such shackles. We can say what we want and do what we want as long as we don’t harass marine mammals and get five star reviews on TripAdvisor.

So the mission statement has changed a lot from: give people a nice lunch, talk about John Muir, and maybe see a Humpback to a full blown: Edward Abbey and the Monkey Wrench Gang recruitment poster.

Wilderness guides have the incredible opportunity to impact people from across the globe (as long as they’re not from Middle Eastern countries where Voldemort doesn’t have any business ties). When people come in contact with the physical world and dig their toes in the sand or walk through a forest framed with Devils Club, their hearts and minds open. There is a golden opportunity to get through to people, or at the very least, get them to listen. I’ve convinced “if it can’t be grown it must be mined” Republicans that maybe, just maybe, Common Murres are worth more than coal, at least for an afternoon.

The point is, people listen to the guide. Partly because their lives depend on it, partly because it is insanely obvious that we give a shit about these places. We care so much about something so much bigger than us and it shines through. And if the Park Service really can’t talk publicly about the threats this wanna be emperor is creating for these places, it’s up to us speak even louder, scream it at the top of our lungs to everyone we meet.

People are desperate to act and fight back. Many of them will be rushing to their parks this summer to get a good look at America’s Greatest Idea in case they disappear. They won’t. The Park Service has made that clear. The American people have too. Did you notice how fast that bill to sell off public land disappeared? Being a guide has always been about trying to change people and impact their lives. That’s still the case. But it’s something bigger now. Now I’m arming people to fight back, to take their experiences and wield them as a weapon. And as the Park Service continues to resist, it will be an honor to stand beside them every step of the way.

My Orca Lab Playlist

Music and Orca Lab don’t often mix. When you’re passively listening around the clock, an earbud can miss that first whispered call. But music ties me tightly to this place because for much of my life I’ve had an iPod in my pocket.

There are songs I hear nine years later that I still place to memories centered around this place. It starts with a track by the band Snow Patrol before I even knew the Lab existed.

My first trip to British Columbia was a kayaking trip when I was 18. Returning to civilization I recharged my iPod, stuck it on shuffle, and this is what came up. For the following winter I returned to this song again and again. It has nothing to do with wilderness or nature (though it does have the word ‘water’ in it) but it pulls me back to those days when my internal compass was spinning out of control and I transformed from basketball player to Edward Abbey apostle.

The next summer I returned to British Columbia. Like many of us I had the privilege of volunteering at the Lab. And, like many of us, I made the trip north from the city of Vancouver via Greyhound bus. Blurry eyed and yawning I slumped against the window and watched the concrete give way to forest. As I hit play on my iPod, this is the first song that came on, and it is forever tied to that smelly bus station and the promise that I was almost there.

A few hours later the bus took the familiar right turn off highway 19 and into Port McNeil. Down the hill, sharp right turn, Malcom Island visible in the distance. The moment needed a song fitting of this momentous moment and fate delivered.

Is there a better song to hear into when you’ve waited all winter and counted down the days until you made it back? The answer is no, no there is not. That piano, awesome. I still get goosebumps as I remember grabbing my duffel bag and looking around as the bus disappeared, wondering where on earth the Port McNeil campground was.

We had macaroni and cheese my first night at the Lab. I’ll never forget it. By the time we’d finished eating it was too dark to pitch our tents so we slept in the guest cabin. As I sit at the table in that very cabin, I can still point to the spot on the floor where I laid out my sleeping bag that night, put in my headphones and fell asleep to more Snow Patrol

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone else, but it’s the little moments that make this place special. I’ve had Orcas buzz past Cracroft Point and been awoken by humpbacks deep in the cove on a midnight high tide. But it’s Helena coming into the lab at 6 in the morning with cinnamon rolls that chokes me up. It’s having the honor of introducing this place to others that are my fondest memories. It’s quiet afternoons with Grandma Cedar and giving fish to Harbor Seals that I’ll miss the most.

Miss. It’s still hard to fathom using that word. But miss it I will, because this is our final winter. Geez that was hard to write. In the end, I’ll have spent almost two years of my life here. It seems like a lot when you add it all together, but believe me when I say it’s gone by in a heartbeat. When memories that are almost ten years old are still so vivid, the time between feels like a blur. But Orca Lab has given me something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.

If you could have told me when I met Paul Spong that he would turn from folk hero to mentor to boss to friend, I would have cried. Paul taught me so much before I even shook his hand. His story is one of resilience, conviction, and truth. It would have been easy for him to keep quiet and stay in his lane. But Paul doesn’t care about staying in his lane. Skana deserved to go home and a cement pool was not what she deserved. So he picketed his employer when they threw him out. He went north and pushed his kayak into the waves of Blackfish Sound because his faith in himself outweighed the doubts of the world.

And look at what’s been built. Look at the lives that he and Helena have touched and impacted. It’s a legacy, there’s no other word for it. Everyone who sets foot in this place is transported. There is a look of childlike innocence, their faith in the greater good is restored, the answers to life’s questions in a slice of Helena’s bread and a cold Kokanee.

In the end I think that’s what I’ll remember most. Paul and Helena’s quiet confidence and faith in themselves. I won’t beat a drum about how people don’t do this sort of thing anymore, they do. We’re going to a place populated by people who believe and act much like the apostles of Orca Lab. In our home in Gustavus, Alaska is a young man that I imagine is a lot like Paul was when he first drove up Vancouver Island.

Zach Brown is a dark haired and quick witted 30-year old with a P.H.D in Oceanography and a deep love of basketball, good beer, and keeping the world green. Like Paul, don’t you dare tell him, “no” or that it cannot be done. The guy celebrated the successful defense of his Doctorate by walking from the Stanford campus to Port Angeles, Washington. There he traded his hikers for a kayak and paddled the inside passage to Gustavus. He is a man of constant motion and ideas. He’s a fighter, he’s idealistic, he wants to change the world. He not only wants Alaska to cleanse itself of fossil fuel consumption, he has plans for how it can be done. Will we see it in our lifetime? The pessimist in me says probably not, but he has the same faith that Paul has. The same faith that continues to believe that after almost forty years, Corky can still come home.

It is impossible to be in the presence of people like this and not be inspired.

To the south of Gustavus is Icy Strait. At the west end of the strait is a cluster of islands called the Inians. I don’t know how they go their name, perhaps some mariner meant to write Indian and forgot the “D.” The archipelago is part of the Tongass National Forest, and thanks to recent legislation, its old growth should be protected for eternity. Except for one piece. On that piece is a homestead, settled into a protected little bay. The people of Gustavus call it the Hobbit Hole. When it went up for sale, Zach Brown got an idea not unlike one Paul had all those years ago.

“Isn’t immersing yourself in the natural world the best way to study the natural world?”

The night after meeting with Zach I rode home on my bike, Grand Funk Railroad in my ears.

And so the Inian Island Institute was born. When the homestead went up for sale Zach went from one corner of the continent to the other to find funders and donors who would believe in him. The Hobbit Hole is his now. Or the Institutes to be more accurate.

It’s a place where students come to learn, get off the concrete, and see the biomes they’ve read about in textbooks. The place is run on hydropower and fed by the garden, deer, salmon, halibut, and shrimp. Brittney and I plan to be heavily involved in Zach’s work. The world needs whistle blowers now more than ever. Patient, convicted, and passionate speakers of truth and fact. And this is a place where we can scream at the top of our lungs and enlist the generation that will either clean up the messes of the past or be buried by them.

I won’t be callous and say it’s the Orca Lab of Alaska, for that is an insult to this place. There is NO place like Orca Lab and there never will be. For that’s the beauty of nature, nothing is identical. There is magic to every bend in the cove and the ring of every tree. I will bawl my eyes out when we pull away for the last time. I will miss this place every day for the rest of my life. I will scroll through photos and feel my heart ache for the sunrise over Vancouver Island, Harlequin’s on the rocks, and Sea Lions yelling in the night.

But the playlist is finished. It’s time. I am gracious for the peace and comfort this place has brought me and humbled to have the chance to leave my small imprint. It has realigned my vision of what I can and want to be. It has given me a direction that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am not David Cannamore, amateur writer, kayak guide, and husband to Brittney without this place. I cannot imagine what I would be without this island, Paul, or Helena. I will never be able to truly express my gratitude to those two magnificent people. So let me end this post with that. Gratitude and thankfulness for a place and people that will never be replaced. Bless this place, the Orcas it watches over, and every 3 am wakeup to record their calls.

“I know there’s, California, Oklahoma,

and all of the places that I ain’t never been to but,

down in the valley with whiskey rivers,

These are the places you will find me hiding.

These are the places I will always go.”

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.

August Fog

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

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

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

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

You smell your way through fog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Murres?”

“Murres, among other things.”

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

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

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

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

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

Snow

She lay in an old shipping container. The kind found on the back of trucks roaring up and down the concrete riverbeds we call interstates and highways. But this one had been laid to rest here. Tucked away in a corner of a lot in Bartlett Cove. Through the trees I can hear the wind, smell the air breeze, ear cocked for the sound of a humpback. How out of place the egg white box of metal looks here. No flowers or grasses growing around it. Just a strip of gravel turning dusty in the early July heat.

Inside lie her bones.

I feel a thrill of excitement as Chris Gabrielle pulls a key from her pocket and unlocks the deadbolt. Together we lift the big metal latch, its joints creaking and groaning as the big door slides open. I don’t notice the smell at first. But as Chris flicks a light switch and ignites a small bare bulb, it overwhelms me. It is musty, sweet but sickly. Something about it smells alive, even in her death. I walk into the container, breathing shallow, fighting the urge to cover my nose with my shirt.

After almost ten years, she still lives in some way. Organic matter and oils still seeping out of her ribs, humorous, and vertebrae. I can’t help myself. I reach out and touch one of the vertebrae. As big as a tire and bleached white, I run my hands up and down all that remains of Snow. Here along the racks and shelves, were all that was left of her forty-five foot, thirty-five ton body.

The year is 2001. Somewhere in the mouth of Glacier Bay swims Snow. Inside her new life is growing. Is she aware that she’s pregnant? That in half a year there will be a miniature her swimming and breathing? The baby will drink a milk that is 50% fat, the consistency of yogurt. I wonder if she heard the cruise ship. If she had any inkling of its approach. If she could have gotten out of the way. If the ship could have. The nose of a cruise ship is so far from the engines in the stern that they create “sound holes,” right off their bow. There’s a good chance Snow never knew what hit her.

Janet Neilson (then Janet Doherty) found her. Dead whales are rarely found. Usually they disappear. Sink to the bottom and vanish, presumed missing. But it’s as if Snow wanted to be found. Janet discovered her floating off Point Gustavus, not far from where an anonymous cruise ship passenger reported feeling a thump. They towed Snow to the beach, necropsied her body, and discovered a fractured brain case and crushed vertebrae.

Gustavus mourned, the park service gave press releases, security footage was seized, attorneys went to work.

“The crime wasn’t in accidentally striking the whale,” said a park employee, “the crime was in failing to report it.” I’m not sure Snow would agree. Neither do I.

In the middle of the shipping container is an old iron claw bathtub, the porcelain chipped and rusting. But it doesn’t leak, at least not yet. Chris hands me a great bucket of industrial kitchen degreaser and instructs me to fill the tub with the stuff and soak Snow’s bones one at a time. Oil, she explains, is still seeping out of her bones. The goal was to remove the rest of the organic matter from the bones so that they could be preserved for years. An exhibit was being prepared down by the beach. Where in a way, she could live forever.

On sunny days I climb onto the roof of the container, lining her ribs up neatly to bleach in the never ending Alaskan sun. I soak the vertebrae overnight in the degreaser, greeted each morning by the strong smell of leaching oil, a pearly iridescent sheen on the surface of the tub.

Down another road, behind a locked gate is her skull. My stomach twists the first time I see it. I run my hand across the deep fracture in the skull. If a passenger felt the collision, than surely the crew did as well. But who wants the headline: “Cruise Ship Kills Whale in National Park?” Bad for business. But thirty-five ton bodies don’t always disappear. I pressure wash her skull, obliviating the moss attempting to grow on her. When the yard empties I crawl beneath the skill and lay in her mouth, imagining. Rows of baleen, gallons of sea water, tons of wriggling herring.

And I’m indebted to them. The cruise ships I mean. Wouldn’t be here without them. Wouldn’t have had summer work in Juneau when I graduated from college. Would not be sitting at this wooden table in Gustavus watching the storms roll through, the moose calves grow up, and the rain pound on the roof. I owe my beautiful little life, in some way, to an industry that makes me uncomfortable. That kills whales, that leaves a massive carbon footprint. That shows a million people Alaska every year, even if it is a watered down, fast food version. 14,000 people a day in Juneau. But what’s the alternative? I can’t take 14,000 people kayaking in Bartlett Cove. Is seeing this place from ninth story better than not seeing it at all?

Edward Abbey would say no. But I should be confident enough to form my own opinion. But I can’t. Because like this bay, nothing is black and white. A single receding glacier does not signify climate change, just as an advancing one does not disprove it. We must step back, way back. Look at the big picture objectively, rationally. We don’t like the big picture. Step far enough back and we become mitigated, aware of how insignificant we are.

That’s the beauty of the kayak, the hiker, the backcountry camper. You have no choice but to confront your own significance. At how small you are away from the billboards and street lights. It’s uncomfortable. Change always is. Tough to be uncomfortable from the ninth story.

I don’t know what the answer is. Abbey wouldn’t be impressed.

Snow stands whole once again. Without her flesh she looks serpentine. Two tiny bones bent at obtuse angles are suspended by wires two thirds of the way along her vertebrae and a foot below it. They’re all that remains of her legs. In time evolution will remove them from whale’s entirely. Like our appendix they are vestigial, no longer of any use.

Every day a park ranger gathers a crowd in front of Snow to give a presentation. People flock to the talks until the trail is not passable. They are independent travels, for the cruise ships do not dock here. Our kayak sheds are right next to the skeleton and I often squeeze through the raptly listening crowd. Like the cruise ships and wilderness, the talk makes me uncomfortable. I hear the ranger joke about how Snow embarked on, “the longest over land migration a whale has ever done” to be rearranged and put back together by a professional.

The crowd titters and laughs, something about it makes my blood boil. I hear them talk about the collision as a horribly tragedy. But in the same way a loved one developing an illness is tragic. Unavoidable, no way to prevent it. Never have I heard a ranger say that the cruise ship failed to report the collision. That it was not until security footage was seized and viewed did they admit to striking the whale. Perhaps they do and I have simply missed it. I don’t wish to criticize or demean. For the rangers do a job I know I couldn’t. I don’t know why I think people need to know that part of the story, but leaving it out feels like an insult to her memory.

On one of the displays is a grainy picture showing the bow of the ship, a gray pixelated sliver in the water shows Snow, her back arched, attempting to dive. Maybe she did know.

“Snow moments before tragedy,” reads the caption. Meanwhile ten miles away two cruise ships a day enter the park, passing Point Gustavus, bound for the glaciers of the west arm. Do the passengers on board know the story? Do the rangers share that story when they board every morning at the south end of Sitakaday Narrows?

I don’t know what the answer is.

All I know is that it hurts my heart to have Snow here, condemned to life as a silent ambassador. How much more she could be, churning up the waters of Bartlett Cove.

Another sunny July day. Six years since Chris opened that container and introduced us. We walk the familiar trail toward the kayak sheds. Past the old Tlingit canoe, Snow’s display coming into view.

“Have you met Snow?” I ask.

Everyone has the same reaction, a quick intake of breath, mouth open, rooted to the spot. Their first view of Snow is head on, as if she’s diving right toward you, forcing you to confront her here and now. They snap pictures and lean across the ropes, aching to touch her. Invariably the question comes.

“How did she die?”

“A cruise ship hit her.” My guiding style is one of light hearted comments. Jokes and stories over facts and figures. But not here. No over land migration jokes at Snow’s expense. Here just the full truth. “They knew they hit her but didn’t report it.”

I don’t like starting the day with something so sad. But at the same time, what a reminder that we cannot expect to leave the world the way we found it. The warming acidic water of the world should be a good enough reminder. Every kayak on the beach crushes barnacles and mussels. The leave no trace etiquette is an impossible dream. From man to mosquito, no creature was meant to leave an environment as they found it.

We linger a moment longer and turn toward the beach where I hand out life jackets, spray skirts, boots, and paddles. The water is alive with life. Sea otters cracking open shells on their stomachs, sea lions growl in frustration, a timpani of birds. I slip into my kayak and feel the world slide into place. My heart rate slows and my breath becomes steady. I don’t know what the answer is, and in this moment I don’t need one.

Living “Rustically”

Spring on Hanson Island is bittersweet for us. As we celebrate the sun crawling higher and higher above the mountains of Vancouver Island, we trot outside, palms and heads held skyward. We lay out on the south facing deck all afternoon, soaking up the sun and getting the greatest outdoor bathtub in the world up and running. After a long, windy winter that was defined by the height of the waves and the thunder of the wind, these sunlit days are nothing short of Nirvana.

But in the back of our minds, we know the countdown has begun. That these days are fleeting, and the days of cleaning, organizing, and packing are fast approaching. We have less than a week remaining before, like the geese flying above, we flock north.

Didn’t we just get here? Weren’t we just winging our way south, watching the the islands and inlets crawl by? Winter always seems to slip through our fingers like sand. Blink and its April. This is our life. Every six months we pack everything and shove a resigned kitty and rabbit in the car, our penance for loving two places that are far from easy to reach.

But before we return to a land with bigger glaciers and smaller trees, we reflect on another winter that has taught us much. It’s hard to think of Hanson Island as rustic. Sure, there’s no warm running water or indoor plumbing. But we have a full size fridge, wireless internet, and the ocean at arms reach. In many ways, living in a New York apartment would feel more oppressive, more difficult. The constant artificial lights, the blaring car horns, the masses of humanity. More restraining than the borders of this little island. Where I walk into the forest and hear a Thrush and Woodpecker, or sit on the deck and hear the breath of an Orca a mile away. Things like warm water and flush toilets feel unnecessary. Give me creatures over convenience, stars over street lamps.

Which is all well and good, until the generator won’t turn over on a cloudy morning, the lab batteries failing and the lights flickering. Or the boat engine suddenly refuses to start as the water’s churn in Blackney Pass. Or you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, the window panes rattling the waves pounding, and your fear of the boat getting swept away in full swing. Than an apartment with running water, reliable lights, and a corner store sound pretty good.

So I remind myself of what these inconveniences do. They pull me back to my roots. Remind me that the things we take for granted we shouldn’t. That it’s important to know where our electricity, our fuel, our freshwater come from. And even more, it gives you a personal stake when the only one that can fix it, is you.

A month ago, the generator, died. Not an old generator mind you, but a brand new one. My generator knowledge began and ended with: “turn the key, push the choke in, go back inside.” I went inside, found the dusty owners manual, and marched back to the generator shed without the faintest idea of what I was doing. I opened the maintenance door and stared at its innards. I traced the fuel line, opened the spark plug compartment, and shook my head. If I lived in a city, I’d call the power company and wait impatiently for someone to fix the problem. I had no one to complain to, no one to lean on but me.

Thirty minutes later, my fingers coated with fuel, oil, and grime, I slammed the maintenance door shut. With a knot of apprehension, I filled the generator with gas, pulled the choke, and turned the key. Fifteen seconds later, the blasted thing came to life. I walked back to the cabin with a sense of accomplishment. I love having our source of fresh water, our power, our food squarely in my control. As hard as it can be, it gives me an emotional investment in their sources. Inconvenient or not, I’m grateful.

I want that sort of control, that responsibility when I have my own place. I want solar panels, ground water, a garden, and a wood stove. I have Hanson Island to thank for that. For giving me an intimate connection to the services that it’s so easy to take for granted. After 27-years of turning taps and opening the fridge with little knowledge of where their sources originated, I don’t think I can ever live that way again. Maybe I’ll just have to be rustic forever.