Tag Archives: choice

A Love Note for the Raincoast

Everyone has a natural habitat. A place that fuses perfectly with their soul, their love, their passions. Some may spend their entire life looking for it, opening and closing doors, rambling from place to place, searching for the location that moves in rhythm to their beating heart. I grew up in Eagle River, Alaska. A town that sits at the mouth of a valley, carved out by glaciers millennia ago. I loved watching the mountains turn the color of flames every fall as the birch trees downed their autumn best. Loved the female moose that would come down from those wise old mountains every spring to give birth in the safety of our neighbors yard. I loved my family, loved my friends, loved my school.

I had to get out.

Everyone needs to get out of their hometown, at least for a little while. If for nothing else than to look at some different mountains or buildings or street signs. I went north. To Fairbanks. 50 below and blowing snow.

“Not even close,” I thought.

I have since found a land where I fit snugly in its hand. In some ways, it’s not that much different from where I grew up. Glacier’s are the architect, but the valleys are filled with water, and rain falls more than snow. For years I hung a map of my natural habitat in my dorm room. Greens and blues dominated the map, towns and settlements little more than punctuation in the epic tale that requires nothing but imagination.
The raincoast, how I love it. From Vancouver Island up her spine of islands and into the shining face of the Alexander Archipelago, through southeast Alaska, following the march of the glaciers. And it is here that I pinball back and forth. From Hanson Island to southeast Alaska. Fjording fjords. Cruising past canals. Passing through passes. I could live a thousand years and never tire of exploring the silent coves and hidden secrets of this land, never camping in the same place twice, no two sunrises the same, each Orca encounter more enthralling and exhilarating than the last.

I love Alaska, I love British Columbia. For how can I refuse the chance to sit inches above the water and stare at the glacier’s that still stand guard at the headwaters of many an Alaskan fjord? And how can I ever turn away from the rich smell of cedar infused forest in the early morning light, the fog burning off of Blackfish Sound? The world becoming whole, feeling both old and new with each passing day.
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Early on in the winter we knew that six more months wouldn’t be enough. The glacier’s of our summer home beckon, our jobs as kayak guides await. But… what can I say? Hanson Island gets into your blood, syncs with your heart and spirit the way few places can. Can you love two places so fiercely you can’t live without either?

Early December, a rare calm day along the B.C coast. Brittney and I sit in the cabin, watching the sun struggle above the mountains of Vancouver Island. Before either of us open our mouths we know what the other will say. That two winters is not enough. That we need another winter with ears cocked to the speakers, waiting for the first whisper of an Orca’s voice. Another winter watching the deer trace the shoreline, sucking up every strand of kelp that washes ashore.
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“We’re so blessed,” Brittney says. “Our biggest problem is we can’t chose between the two places that we love.”

It’s true. For all our talk of buying property, settling down, being “normal,” Hanson Island doesn’t encourage normalcy. How can it? It’s founded on the tenants of faith in yourself, conviction, and passion. Pillars that don’t lead to nine to five jobs and mortgages in the suburbs. Every day I look out the window to where the lab stands on the rocks. I think of the time, the effort, the sacrifice, and risk that Paul, Helena, and countless others poured into this place. Out of a love for whales, for quiet places and open spaces, from a belief that man still can coexist with the world we seem determined to exterminate. To be a small piece in that, what a tremendous honor, to know these people not just as passing acquaintances, but as friends and mentors. It is this above all that pulls me back.

“I came for the place, I stayed for the people,” wrote Kim Heacox in The Only Kayak.

Ironically he was writing about Glacier Bay, the other place that pulls at our heartstrings. A place filled with beautiful people. A community defined by the bay, the Beatles, and bluegrass.
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But we’re not ready to chose, not ready to force it. I want to drag myself out of bed at three in the morning because there’s Transients in Robson Bight. I want the tide and weather to determine when I go grocery shopping. I want to hear Paul’s smiling voice on the other end of the phone. When we walk away, we’ll never live like this again. Never have sea lions as neighbors, or have Harlequins knock on our front door. We are unique, we are blessed, we are insanely lucky.

Every day in the summer we’re asked the same question, “what do you do in the winter?”

And when we answer the follow up question is always the same, “what do you do there?”
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How to explain that it is not what we do but why and for who we do it  that makes it so special. I watch the sun rise, listen to the ocean, talk to the trees, bond with the mink, and glorify the Orca. And above all, give thanks that I can have both places for another year.

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Overcoming Doubt and Listening to Abbey (Not the Road)

It’s hard to imagine having a mid/early/late life crisis here. In a place where on any given morning the ocean turns sapphire, the forest yields every shade of green imaginable, and Orca’s call in the dead of night. But it happens. We’re reminded that our unconventional life is a societal outlier. 27-year old’s are supposed to have reliable mailing addresses. Maybe a mortgage and a baby room. Quaint, bustling, hard working, picturesque. It’s the American dream, the American way. At least it was until it wasn’t.

But this doesn’t stop us from considering that maybe we are doing this all wrong.  Seeds of doubt can germinate and grow quickly if we allow them to. Swimming upstream can be tiring. A writer? Who reads anymore? What makes you think that what flows from your mind and through your fingers will capture a world that would rather scroll Facebook than turn pages? This is all well and good, but shouldn’t you shelve the dream, move on, get a real job.

As an uninspiring “mentor” from my church going high school days told me, “you can’t ride the skateboard forever.” He admonished when I told him what I was doing with my life. “Have you ever seen a 60-year old on a skateboard? You’d think something was wrong with him.” Every now and than his voice gets in my head. My fingers tremble, my words seem trite, uninspiring. I pour another cup of coffee, sit with the Harlequins in the cove, take a deep breath, refocus.

Our fear and self doubt manifests itself in different ways. I bang my head against the writer’s block, Brittney scrolls through house plans. She looks at property, checks the bank account, shakes her head, and refreshes the Real Estate page. We have a target now, a landing strip. Gustavus, Alaska. 400 people, 400 moose, one life changing national park. Now if we could stop flying long enough to land. A body in motion stays in motion, one at rest stays at rest. After five years together, we’re still in motion. New Zealand, Juneau, Gustavus, Seattle, British Columbia. I love it. I’ve pushed past my fear, my self doubt, at least for now. Be a writer or starve to death trying. Brittney says she’s ready for the house. My little tumbleweed wants roots. I can’t blame her. Gustavus fits us as good as we do each other. A warm sweater on a crisp fall day.  I love sweaters, I’m wearing one right now. But at some point in the next hour I’ll want to take it off. I’m not ready to wear it forever.

I could have it all right now. The house, the mortgage, the lawn in need of trimming. But I wandered off that road a long time ago.

“Petroleum is Alaska’s present and future.” I was reminded throughout high school. The gateway to, if not fame, certainly fortune. On the backs of industrial giants, we will ride Alaska into an age of wealth and opportunity that we can only imagine. We’ll dig the spurs in deep, push her into a gallop. For nothing should stand in the way of growth, monetary opportunity. All this, I was told, could be mine.

“If you want to make money, live a comfortable existence, petroleum engineering is your best choice.” Grab a straw, stick it in the ground, suck that sweet nectar until it’s empty. Life, liberty, oil subsidies, and the pursuit of happiness.

 What if I don’t want a comfortable existence?

No one talked about what those that wanted to sit on the rocks and count Orca’s should do. Or if you loved the philosophy of fitting everything into one rusting Pathfinder that you prayed would start.  If it doesn’t fit? Give it away. You don’t need it. There was one definition of success, and it could be found in your bank statement.

Now? Oil is going for under $2 a gallon. The state is bankrupt, people panicking. The kids that grabbed their straws are realizing the glass is emptying fast. If the money disappears will they still enjoy what they do? I sincerely hope so. Will the industry rebound? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Ask British Petroleum, Shell, or a state senator and they’ll say it has to. Alaska needs it, can’t live without it. The voice of the addict. Without oil, Alaska will be like Maine. A nice place to live but not a great place to make money.

As my friend (and writer) Kim Heacox says, “what’s wrong with that?”

I hold Brittney’s hand, squeeze it softly, pull the computer away from her. I know that look, know that fear, understand that desire to have a place to call home. She wants to build an apothecary, bring natural healing to Gustavus. She wants open mic nights, a vegetable garden, the slow bike race on the fourth of July. But she also wants Hanson Island, the open road, the freedom that we enjoy that we’re debt free. She admits she’s not ready to give that up yet. Maybe in a year or two, or three, or thirty. I want all those things too. But we can’t have both. Maybe if we invest those Permanent Fund checks our bankrupted state keeps giving us we can…

Not everyone is meant to live like this. That’s fine. That’s a relief. There aren’t enough Hanson Islands  or Gustavuses to go around. I ferried and drove to Orca Lab on the miracle of petroleum pulled from the ground and refined in a factory that pushes more carbon into the air than the globe has seen in millennia. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Edward Abbey said the job of the freelance writer was to criticize and inspect the country in which he lived. Consider me his disciple, just trying to do what he expected. Good old Abbey. Doing what he loved until the very end. His buddies snuck him out of his death bed in the hospital he hated more than roads through national parks and let him say goodbye in the desert.

They inscribed on his tombstone: Edward Abbey. No comment. I like that.

Where do I want to say goodbye? Gustavus or Hanson Island? I can’t decide. Mercifully I don’t have to, and God willing, I won’t have to for a long time. We’ll see how far our skateboard carries us.