Tag Archives: cruise ships

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.

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The Life I Never Wanted

The email was terse, to the point, and completely unhelpful. NOAA, after offering me a job upon my graduation from college in three weeks, was withdrawing their offer, citing a lack of funding. Fear courses through my blood, my knees weak, I reread the email, sure that I’d missed something. I hadn’t. It has to be one of the worst responses ever to the question, “when’s my first day?” I grab the phone and call the ladies office that I was, in theory working for. As the phone rang and rang I mentally calculated the deposit on the apartment I’d just put down and my bank account with a number that Bob Cratchit would be embarrassed by. For the next two days I wrote emails and left messages at the office, trying to get someone, anyone to return one, to explain what had happened, to give me any direction. I’m still waiting.

Things were going so well too, I’d gone to college, met the girl I’d marry, and had the, “get a job” step all figured out. I was going to graduate and work for NOAA, at least to start, make some money and than go to grad school. Well on my way to a nice respectable, safe career. My job, measuring the bioenergetics of herring. I’d even talked myself into being excited about it. Studying whales, well, it’d been a nice dream, but it was time to be realistic I told myself. Time to grow up. There can only be so many Paul Spongs and Alex Mortons in the world.

After three days of blind panic my heart rate slowly returned to normal, I began to think rationally again and deleted all those terrible emails I’d written but thankfully never sent. Life was going to take a detour, just a small one I told myself. I needed work, and I told myself not to be picky, just find something to keep a roof over your head. And in that process I learned an incredibly valuable lesson, no job is beneath you, and just because you’ve never thought about doing it, or don’t think you can, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

I applied everywhere, restaurants, pizza delivery, tourism, I even swallowed what pride I had left and dropped an application off at Fred Meyer, the same place I’d worked after my freshman year of college. I felt like I was being pulled backwards. What happened next you could call God, or the universe, or karma, or just boring old luck. I landed the job I think I always wanted, was meant to have, I just couldn’t admit. I was going to be a whale watch guide.

Looking back it seems so obvious, such a natural route for life to take. But I was pulled into the American obsession of careers and security, my life filling up with, “had tos.” I had to have a year long job, I had to start saving money, I had to buy a house, I had to have a job with health insurance, all these things I had to have. And I’d bought it, swallowed the sales pitch, and had believed it my whole life. And I still did even after landing the job that paid me to watch orcas breach and humpbacks bubblenet. My destiny, I told myself still lay in herring bioenergetics. My clients encouraged such thoughts, a nice young man such as myself needed a real job eventually, needed to make something of himself. This whale watching thing is ok, just for right now.

So two months later, when three positions opened up at NOAA, I shined up my resume, and marched back into that building with the air of a conquering hero, ready to fulfill my destiny. A month later I’d heard nothing and finally picked up the phone, this time, someone returned my call. 18 people had applied for the three positions. Positions that required only an undergraduates degree in marine biology. Ten of the applicants had masters, four more had doctorates. I’d be shocked if my resume got a second look. I hung up the phone and headed for work, there were still whales to watch after all. What, I wondered, did the applicants look like for non entry level jobs? Did I really want to go to school for at least six more years so that I could find out the number of joules in a herring? To that moment I had never considered another possibility, never fathomed being anything besides a, “scientist.”

But by the time I’d pulled into the parking garage and dug out my rain jacket I’d decided; it wasn’t the life I wanted. I could do without the lab coats because I new, deep down, I couldn’t possibly be happy with one on. In five minutes there’d be twenty cruise ship passengers, looking up at me, expecting the answers to all of their Alaska questions, and I couldn’t even answer everyone’s first personal question, what’re going to do with your life?

These Are the Places I Will Always Go

So, why than, did it take me six years to go back? What could possibly have kept me away from orcas by moonlight, leaky kayaks, and nights rocked to sleep by the whisper of an ebbing tide? My problem? I listened. In the months after I returned home I was told by teachers, my peers, adults, and the world in general that, while my journey was a great story and adventure, that was all it could be. I needed a real job, security, a 401K, a mortgage and three mini David’s running around eventually. And for years afterward I bought it, and tried to push myself into that square peg.

 

I busted my butt my sophomore year, taking 35 credits and somehow got the highest GPA of my collegiate career. And for the second time in my life, I decided to take a chance, and transferred from 40 below and 18 hours of darkness, to the rain soaked, humpback infested world of Juneau. And while the scenery may have changed, I still felt an obligation to the same life goals, because, well, that’s what you were supposed to do. I got a job in Glacier Bay my first summer in southeast studying humpbacks. It should have been my dream job, a foot in the door to a career with the National Park Service. But, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t relight the fire. My bosses were great, the venue breathtaking, and the work challenging. But I struggled with the scientific and calculated way everything was done. Standing on the boat, bobbing in the chop created by a juvenile humpback breaching again and again. I wanted to cheer, to whoop, the nature worship bubbling just below the surface. But I felt I couldn’t. Maybe it was unfair to compare the whole situation to my brief time at OrcaLab two summers ago, but it just didn’t fit.

 

I remember the first time orcas swam past the lab that summer. Paul, camera in hand leaning so far over the rail of the porch I thought he’d fall into the ocean, hollering at the whales as if it was the first ones he’d ever seen. I wanted that raw emotion, that childlike wonder and joy that bubbled over like a pot on the stove. But I kept searching, opening doors and closing them.

 

I returned to Juneau, met the love of my life, and married her. Two months later we ran off to New Zealand for three months and lived. Spending way to much money, learning how to milk cows, and having the most important conversation of our life. In a town called Rotorua, over strawberry milkshakes, we finally voiced what both of us had been burying, maybe for years. We didn’t want careers, the idea of being tied down to one place to long terrified us, and as far as kids… a cat and a rabbit seemed like plenty right now.

 

For me, the next location was obvious. It had been in the back of my mind for years, waiting for its chance to emerge. We returned to our seasonal jobs in the tourist industry. Brittney a kayak guide, and me a guide on a whale watching boat, our third season in tourism. In July we hiked Mount Roberts, flying past the tram, trying to leave the masses of people as far behind as possible. We reach a small outcropping of rock and get comfortable, our dialog has been brief and abbreviated. After hours in the woods together we know what the other needs. If you passed us on the trail you’d assume we were fighting. We don’t hold hands, there’s never much joking, laughing, or talking, not on our hikes anyway. It was more of a joint meditation, taking solace and peace in knowing the other was healing with every step. I remember going hours on the Abel Tasman trail in New Zealand with us barely saying a word and being so thankful I wasn’t alone.

 

We talked about the cruise ships, sitting below us in Gastineau Channel, and our never ending discussion about how we feel about the industry. Were we exploiting the land we loved or were we ambassadors? Was standing on one of 35 boats, preaching the wonders and magnificence of a humpback worth the bellow of twin 350 engines in the water? Words start tumbling out of my mouth, frustration, confusion, and guilt. The words of a man who can’t do it anymore.

 

Like she always does, Brittney just listened. Letting my words and troubles wash over her as the yoke loosened from my shoulders. She let me go until I was spent, head in my hands, still staring down at the boats. How did they still look so big from up here?

 

“You need a break,” she finally said. “If you don’t know that what you’re doing is right, that it’s not helping, we need to find what is right, what is helping.”

 

I nod, the next question holding hopes, dreams, and fantasy in its answer. “I need to go back.” I say, it’s not a statement, it’s a question. We were a team, bound at the hip, and I could do nothing if she didn’t go with me.

 

“Back to Canada, to Paul’s?”

 

“Next summer, I can’t believe it’s been five years. I never thought I’d be gone so long. I guess I kind of lost my way, but that’s alright,” I turn and smile, “it led me to you. I want to show you this place that means so much to me.”

 

She just smiles, “if that’s where you need to go that’s where we’ll go. I want to see it with you.”

 

Words catch in my throat, the emotions dragging them back to my stomach. Fortunately I didn’t need any as my wife, confidant, and best friend laid her head on my shoulder and wrapped her arms around me. I looked, south down the channel, past the cruise ships and habitation, toward the wild and untamed Taku and Stephens Passage. I could almost hear the orca’s calls, ringing in my ears. I thought of mornings on the observation deck, runs in the woods, Helena’s cinnamon roles, and even the ornery June Cove. It may have taken me five years to figure out, and six to finally put it together, but I was finally going home. And this time, I wouldn’t be coming alone.