Tag Archives: climate

The Hemlock

The cabin shook. We watched the windows rattle and the walls accordion and had flashbacks of Alaska and earthquakes. But as quick as the tremor began, it ended. Throughout the winter we have been serenaded by the occasional blasts from Parson Bay as logging companies rip through the forests with dynamite to create logging roads. It’s a sobering reminder that we still live in the days of clear cuts and manifest destiny. When they blast with dynamite we feel the shock waves rolling across the water. But this one feels much closer, and instead of being directional, it seems to originate from within the house.

The next day I climb the hill behind the lab and into the labyrinth of saintly trees. The earth is saturated from two days of torrential downpour, the forest expelling the water as fast as it can. Every crevice and divot overflows. Water, there’s either too much of it or not enough. Shortages in California, flooding, erosion, and sea level rise on the north slope of Alaska. Every day Florida loses real estate. Florida, the state that literally has the most to lose from climate change voted for the one major political party that denies its existence.

I clamber over fallen trees that are rotting into the ground, their bark soft and squishy. Ahead of me is our water line. It snakes up the hillside to a stream that has turned into a roaring river. The line has been clogged more times than I can count this winter, and the walk up the hill is familiar and welcoming. But this time the solution is not as simple as digging river runoff out of the hose. I climb onto a ledge and stop, the explanation for the earth shattering concussion the day before in front of me. A massive Hemlock has fallen. Its body has cracked into three pieces, tumbling over the ledge to rest like a broken arm at twisted angles. The main piece has fallen at the perfect angle to bury the waterline for twenty feet, fluorescent green hose pokes meekly out at the bottom of the ledge.

With the Hemlock gone, light hits a forest floor that hasn’t seen the sun in decades. The patch of forest feels naked without the Hemlock. I sit down on the trunk and let the silence take me in. I think about the concussion the tree made when it fell, the sound of its death, the violence of it all. It doesn’t seem right, for a species that appears so peaceful and tranquil in life to die with such force. It is not an elegant farewell, but it is a noble one. There’s a lot of carbon in the forest, but it’s bottled up in the trees, squirreled away as bark and inaccessible to the life around it. For all the trees’ biomass, forests are comparatively empty when compared to transition zones like Alder thickets or Tundra. The trees dominate. So when one falls and begins to rot it is a gift. Organic matter slowly returns to the ecosystem after decades, sometimes centuries bottled up in the tree.

It’s a patience we either don’t have time for or can’t afford. This tree will still be rotting into the ground when I’m old, if mankind will allow it. Brittney returns with me the next day and we dig out the water line, repairing the punctures. It feels good to work in the forest. I considered bringing the chainsaw with me to cut the log up to make it easier to move, but the roar of destruction seems inappropriate in this cathedral. So we grunt and strain and finally move the tree to the side to rest and continue its noble work.

At the top of the water line I attach a new filter to keep the runoff out of the line. The water is icy cold and my forearms go numb as I fumble with clumsy fingers to secure the filter. I shiver as the rain begins again and sends icy tendrils down my back. It’s been a cold winter, and the constant freeze ups probably have a lot to do with the continuous clogs in the line. Most of North America seems to have been hit by the chilly outflows. It makes me wonder how the news that 2016 was the warmest on record will be taken. I doubt it will change much, if anything. If sea level rise and earthquakes in Oklahoma don’t raise alarm bells, I doubt more factual science will. Not when we can point out the window to the snow drift at the end of the driveway and boldly claim that there’s no way it can be true.

No patience to listen, no patience to learn. Like these trees we are rooted in place, unable or unwilling to move. But the day is coming, a day when we’ll be ripped free of those roots and sent to earth with a thundering crash. Perhaps then and we will see what we have reaped. What, I wonder, do Climate Change deniers think we have to gain from spouting falsehoods? What monetary kickback are we getting from wanting fewer Carbon emissions, more biodiversity, and a habitable world? How much of Florida has to disappear before they turn on their Conservative overlords? Or—as Kim Heacox theorizes—will we evolve and move forward.

“They’ll take their boats to the football stadium built on the highest ground.” He says only half in jest. “And cheer for their Dolphins, brought to you by Exxon Mobil.”

We walk back down the hill and past the fallen Hemlock. What kind of world will it be when she finally disappears into the forest. Will this still be a forest? God forbid they find a gold deposit in the creek. I wish I better understood mankind’s insatiable desire for growth and profit. It’s not like it’s a new phenomenon, our species has been driven by the thirst for more since time immemorial. But I just don’t get it. It has driven me into the forests and fjords of the world, searching for a place I understand. I suppose I should be grateful that I’ve found not one but two places that stare deep into my soul and hold me tight.

I want some idealistic and lost boy 60 years from now to find these places and love them the way I do. I want the next generation of Orca Lab to climb over that fallen Hemlock and feel its rot and age beneath their boots as she crumbles. I want them to walk into a clearing filled with saplings reaching for the sky to take the place of their predecessor. Some are born to live in the city. I won’t pretend to understand but I suppose I can respect it. All I want is for them to set aside places for us outliers to run to when we find we don’t belong on concrete.

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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.

Subject to Change

I’m paddling through a minefield. Not a dangerous one mind you. Not one that threatens me immediate harm. No, this is a magic minefield. A minefield of humpbacks. They’re serenading me, us. Every few seconds we hear another breathe. The water’s north of Young Island in Glacier Bay are full of them. How many? Five? Ten? Twenty? Thousands? It doesn’t matter. They are many. They are here. They are near.  To the left of our kayaks the latest whale breaks the surface. He’s fifty yards away, his nose pointed straight at us. My God. For the millionth time in my life I watch the back arch, the body hesitate, and the tail rise high in the air. As tall and proud as a Spanish clipper. She’s diving straight towards us. My heart pounds, my legs feel weak. I strike the surface with my paddle, my stroke noisy. I want him to know where I am. For there to be no doubt. We point the bows of our kayak towards the nearest point of land half a mile away. There’s nothing to do but paddle, our course subject to change.

Subject to change… I’ve heard that before. Or did I read it? I read it. Just this morning, killing time before the trip. Pouring over the nautical charts of Glacier Bay. The maps that make my mind race and imagination cartwheel. All of this magic bay’s coves and inlets. Here a delineation in the shoreline. A potential beach to pull out on. A potential site for a miracle to occur, for a life to change. At the base of a glacier, represented by white are the words: “area subject to change.” Subject to change, I love that. As if NOAA finally threw up their hands and gave up.

“Forget it, we’ll never get this right. Just tell them we don’t know.”

Perhaps the bay is still speaking to us. Out of the mouths of the epochs with the voice of the ice age. Reminding us, prodding us to not get comfortable. We need upheaval, to be subject to change. To not just wait for the significant calving events of life, but to embrace them. We need galloping glaciers but we need retreating ones too. The wisdom and strength to accept them.

Five minutes go by. Still no whale. He could be in front of us, behind us, below us. Every stroke could be bringing us into her path or away from it. In a kayak there’s nothing to do but paddle. With me is a family of four. Mom, Dad, their college aged son and daughter. From the mountains of Utah. But they paddle strong, their hearts are wild, their minds open. Glacier Bay is rocking some minds today. I hope it’s doing the same to them. Somewhere is a forty foot submarine. Carbon based, cloaked in blubber, eating half a ton of food per day. I don’t want to distract her. Attached to her tail is a muscle. The caudal peduncle. Fun to say, but it fails to give credit to what it can do. It’s the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom. To send a humpback rocketing from the water like a rocket it generates the same amount of energy a 747 does taking off. Anything carrying that sort of power needs respect, demands it. Teeth or baleen.

Three miles up the Lamplugh Glacier. The site of a massive rock slide. Last Sunday half a mountain fell onto the glacier. How much? 68 million SUV’s worth. Who knew a sport utility vehicle could be such a great unit of measurement. They’re the passenger of the glacier now. Of the most powerful geologic force nature can muster. You can have your volcanoes, your earthquakes. Give me the glacier. Carving, destroying, creating. In no hurry. For what artist works on any schedule but its own? The news makes me quiver. I take some radical steps, a few creative liberties. What happens when that rock reaches the glacier’s face? It will surely fall to its feet. 68 million SUVs worth. But I know how glacier’s advance. They need a protective layer of rock and dirt at their base. A lateral moraine that insulates from the salt water. If enough snowfall is accumulated above, the glacier can advance, impervious to the melting power of the saltwater. What if the Lamplugh charges… no, gallops, a galloping glacier sounds better. What if it charges across the west arm, obliviating Russell Island and roars south, changing everything about Glacier Bay that we’ve known for 50 years. What if this simple rock slides makes my world, this bay, subject to change?

Still no whale. I glance at my watch. Eight and a half minutes. The unknown more nerve wracking than the knowing. Every few strokes I tap the side of my boat.
“We’re here!” I think.
I hope my taping transmits this message. A rumble, a deep bass. I swivel around. There she is. Close, so close. Fifty yards. Pointed straight at us again. She’s massive. Of course she is. Humpbacks exhibit sexual dimorphism, the females bigger than the males. Guide mode switched on, I almost blurt out the factoid for no good reason.
“Right behind us!” I call. I try to keep my voice calm. But how are you calm with forty tons directed right at you? Ahead of us is the kelp, the closest thing to a sanctuary. This is my world. Wanting, desiring, craving to be close… but not too close. I still want control of the situation, to know that I’m out of the way. She couldn’t care less. We paddle hard, the whale invisible behind us. Forty feet that disappears with nary a ripple. Add it to the list of Glacier Bay miracles.

We reach the kelp’s open arms and I exhale. The family coasts in behind me. Their faces are alive. Exhilaration with a sprinkle of fear. Perfect, just the way it should be. Just the way Glacier Bay, Alaska as a whole expects it. I don’t want to feel safe out here. I don’t want to be in charge. Thank God there are still places where man does not dominate. We paddle on. For that’s all you do in a kayak.

I glance at the daughter. She’s in the back of the double kayak, her father in the front. She’s not that much older than I was on a certain misty and overcast day in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. The day everything changed. When an Orca by the name of Kaikash surfaced off the bow of my kayak and sent the compass of my world spinning out of control. Who knows whose life will change with the flip of a switch, with a single surfacing, a single rock slide, a single galloping glacier. But when it does, who will be brave enough to accept it and embrace it with open arms.

When The Storm Breaks

The weather breaks. The sun tears through the cloud curtain. First a lone ray of light strikes Parson Island, than another, and another as like fingers thousands of miles long, they creep across Blackney Pass until they fall on our windows. The aftermath of a 50 knot storm. Porter sticks his whiskered nose out the door. He’s suspicious and disgruntled after being confined to the cabin for two days as rain pelted the windows and the walls rattled.
We step onto a beach littered with logs washed ashore in the night. Fir bark, affectionately known as “fishermen’s coal” punctuates severed trunks of cedar and spruce. We pile the bark greedily in our arms. In a few days they would dry and capable of supercharging the fire at night when temperatures are dropping below freezing.
The bark drying on the sheltered picnic table near the cabin, I grab an ax and send splinters of wood flying. Heating by wood stove offers the luxury of warming you up twice. Once when you cut it, and again when you burn it.
I used to take heat for granted. Why wouldn’t you when for 25-years all you had to do was turn a knob, flip a switch and be rewarded with steamy warm air emitting from the magical grate in the floor? That heat, that energy had to come from somewhere. Coal? Hydropower? A wizard in the wall? I couldn’t tell you. But here I’m intimately connected to where my heat comes from, my electricity. Sunshine means the computers charge, the hydrophones switch on, Netflix is operational.
Too many cloudy days and we pay the price. Hydrophones flicker, cycle, and scream in their static voices until we turn them down. To keep the lights glowing and Orca Live streaming we turn to the massive red monstrosity in the shed. The generator, good old unleaded gasoline and 10W30 motor oil. As the unprecedented climate change intensifies, there’s a sensation of guilt each time I pull the choke, turn the key, and see pale white exhaust shoot into the atmosphere. At least I know where it’s coming from I guess. Thankfully, on sunny days, the generator sits unused, ignored. For what can be more renewable and reliable than those rays of sun beating down from above?
“When we know where our food, our energy comes from,” says Zachary Brown, founder of the Inian Island Institute in Alaska, “we no longer take them for granted. When we have an intimate connection to these commodities, we pay attention.”
Food for us is a different story. Banana’s from Belize, avocado’s from Mexico. At least the Kokanee and apple’s are Canadian. We do what we can. We grow kale, collard greens, and potatoes that are waiting patiently for Thanksgiving. It’s no different in the summer when we live in a town of 400 in southeast Alaska. A town with an award winning recycling program, where people have gardens instead of lawns, and avocado’s cost 5 bucks apiece. Avocados that arrive on the same barges that I shake my fist at in the winter time as the plod past the lab, filling the hydrophones with their roar, the air with their exhaust.
What’s the answer? What’s enough? Are my bananas and avocados ethically harvested? I’m vegetarian but should I be vegan? Maybe I should just eat the salal that grows between the cabin and the ocean.
Brittney used to agonize like this when she was in school. She’d come home from another humanities class: People and Plastics and Animal Rights courses. Nestle stealing groundwater, animals testing on rabbits, a fresh water crisis, orcas in captivity, taps running dry, corn fed factory farms. What to do, how to promote change, progress.
We aren’t superman. We can’t fight all of this. Instead we must select those injustices, those policies and acts that raise the hair on our neck. That quicken our pulse, that pull at our conscience. Whether it’s animal rights, oil pipelines, alternative energy, letting Corky come home, Syrian refugees. We must pick our battles, our medium for fighting them, and go to work.
Deep in the woods of Hanson Island lives a man. An anthropologist, a writer, an activist, a hero. He calls himself Walrus. As the forests of north Vancouver Island were leveled by the chainsaw, he took a stand by sitting down. He seated himself on a logging road that wound into the heart of Hanson Island, of Yukusam, and could not be moved. This was his fight, his passion. He won. He lives in a cabin now at the site of his barricade. “The longest active logging blockade in British Columbia,” he says.
This is the life of the activist. It’s Rachel Carson typing out Silent Spring as cancer ate at her because someone had to write it, Paul Spong camping in front of the Vancouver Aquarium, insisting that Skana go home, Michale Pollen and Food Inc, Marches for Lolita, Will Allen perfecting urban farming. Different people, different passions, huge change. May we someday be counted among them.