Tag Archives: family

Keep Paddling

The clothes are unfamiliar. Gone is the soothing feeling of my Patagonia base layers and the whisper of Grunden rain pants. Instead I’m in stiff dress pants and a collared shirt. I can’t recall the last time I wore a shirt that buttoned, much less one that had a collar. I’m out of my element. The interior of the country club is beautiful and immaculate. But as I walk to the microphone I wryly think that I would take an erratic covered beach over this anytime. I take a deep breath and remind myself that my belittling thoughts are nothing more than a weak cover for my own insecurities. Besides, this day has nothing to do with me. It’s my brother’s wedding. And I wouldn’t miss it if they held it on the surface of the sun.

It’s impractical to be mad at a bay. But dang it all, I’m sick of the wind. Even more, I’m sick of the National Weather Service promising ten knot winds when twenty knots gusts are pounding the dock. But despite the wind, the waves haven’t begun to build so I send a pair of double kayaks out from the beach and follow in my single. Two children, James and Caroline man the bow, their parents in the stern. They’re hardy and determined. Every year their father John and mother Laurie take them on a tour of the national parks. Last year Yosemite, this year Glacier Bay. The young son James can barely reach the water with his paddle but he pushes forward resolutely, head up, eyes unblinking, not daring to risk missing a thing. After adding an extra layer, his older sister Caroline pushes forward with the same resiliency, their mother relieved to be secured in the boat laughs with an easy grace.

The wedding was an open bar. Generally it’s a luxury I would abuse. But not today. Not with my toast still to come. I sip at an IPA and down water, unsure of when my brief moment on Jonathan’s day will come. The moment comes and I cross the ball room and grab the mic, a glass of water in my hand. I speak to total strangers every day, but this is as nervous as I’ve felt in front of a crowd. I can feel the the trio of notecards in my front pocket. Can practically feel the ink bleeding across the pages. I hope I don’t need them.

“Did my Dad tell you what he does?”

The question is so random and unexpected I stop paddling. Caroline stares across the gap towards my kayak, awaiting my answer. In the stern her mother continues paddling. I can’t tell if she’s listening or simply blotting out our conversation.

“No,” I answer, “but I haven’t asked.”

“He works for the EPA.”

It was a mark of how fast the world had changed. Just eight months ago this information would been little more than a punctuation point on the day. But now… it sends tidal waves of emotion through our conversation and our fleeting interaction. Suddenly the lines are drawn, the horrible reminder that we are at war for clean water, clean air, and a habitable planet. And her Father was one of the persecuted.

I don’t know what to say. I’m just a kayaker. But didn’t I say I was going to war too? Didn’t I say that if the park service was going rogue then I should too? But what am I doing? What have I done to combat the denial and anger and hatred and ambivalence that plagues our world? I feel a seed of guilt grow in my stomach. I look into Caroline’s eyes and wonder what that November night must have been like in their house. How many times they had wondered and feared for their father’s job and their livelihood.

I look ahead where John paddles with his son. James’ paddle barely reaches the water. But he’s still paddling. He’s still going, pushing the ocean behind him, bucking the wind and the current. Those big innocent eyes are opened wide. In the moment he looks fearless.

“How’s everybody doing?” The wedding guest’s indulge me with polite applause, a couple of the groomsmen give me a whoop. I smile and feel the knot loosen. I tell stories. Always tell a story when you can Kim Heacox once told me. I talk about spending time with Jonathan right after he met his bride, Lisa. How it was all he could talk about. How I could see the love in his eyes.

I look across the room to where they sit. Lisa’s hands are wrapped in his and she’s smiling. Lisa’s always smiling. I consider their future. They want kids. Probably sooner rather than later. I think about the world that awaits my nieces and/or nephews and in this moment of celebration, I feel a twinge of anxiety.

“Caroline told me what you do for work.”

I don’t know why I brought it up. But for some reason I needed him to know that I know and that I care. I care not just for his paycheck but for the world his kids will inherit. Would James one day have the honor of placing his young son in the bow of a kayak in Bartlett Cove? I’m sure John thought about it. I want him to know I do too.

John laughs. “It’s funny, I’ve had more people come up to me for the last few months when they found out what I do and assure me that they like me. That they think what I do is important.”

What does he do? He cleans up superfund sites. He was in the Gulf of Mexico for the oil spill, he makes place habitable again. And his department is looking at a forty percent cut. I’m about to ask him if he’s worried but stop. He’s here to escape. He’s here to savor the solitude and revel in the places that are wild and free. The last thing he wants to do is talk shop. But as we discuss superfund sites, Pebble Mine, and the Arctic Refuge he doesn’t sound like a man whose life is a risk. He sounds determined, even hopeful. Like his son he’s moving forward. One paddle stroke at a time, head up, eyes never blinking. Because life is like kayaking. There’s only one thing you can do. Keep paddling.

I finish my speech and set the mic down on the table. I take a swig of water and wipe the tears from my eyes. My brother’s are wet too and somehow that makes me feel better. I cross the room and wrap him in the biggest hug of his life. Somehow this has become my world. Incalculable highs and unfathomable moments where I fear all is lost. Like the wedding, like that day on the water with John and his family, they’re often within minutes of each other. An otter brings joy, the absence of the whales bring fear. The look on my brother’s face brings tears of gratitude, the thought of what could lay ahead anxiety.

But like John and James, there’s nothing to do but keep paddling. Keep fighting the current, keep bucking the wind. Just don’t let the boat go backwards. Because the day is coming when the tide will turn, the wind will shift, and the paddle will feel light. It may not be in my lifetime, but if it does for James, Caroline, and my unborn nephews and nieces, then it will all be worth it.

A Movie Script Ending

An odd curse seems to precede my arrival to Hanson Island. Some dark foul spirit that blazes the trail and harbors ill will to Paul’s boat. In ’08, ’14, and now ’15 the June Cove has been struck with engine trouble just days before the ferry spits me out in Alert Bay. Thanks to this demon, I’ve still never arrived at OrcaLab on the day I intend to. Which is why the four of us  (Brittney, me, Porter, and Penny) found ourselves curled up in Paul and Helena’s Alert Bay home for Halloween watching the curves of Hanson Island fade into the darkness through the bay windows. So tantalizingly close.
It wasn’t all bad. We watched baseball, took one more hot bath, and handed out candy to the handful of trick or treaters that came knocking on the door. Still to be determined was when we’d cover the last few miles. Dave Towers (Yes Jared Towers Dad) was to be our taxi driver. But the southeast gusts for the following morning did no breed optimism. So we settled down for another day in the bay. We slept in. I found the Vikings game on TV. And was just getting comfortable when the phone rings.

“Hey Dave, it’s Dave. How’s the weather looking out your way?”
I walk to the window and stare out at the strait. There’s still whitecaps, the trees in the yard dance. Maybe not as bad as an hour ago? “I think it’s dying down, it’s supposed to be a little better this afternoon.”
“Great! Can you leave in an hour?”
My eggs are just starting to bubble in the frying pan, I’m wearing pajamas, all we have for food is a bag of oranges. “Can you make it two?”
“No problem… oh and it’s an open skiff. Be sure to dress warm.”
David hangs up and I stare at the phone. A rabbit and a cat in an open air skiff? I think back to last fall when we tried to put Porter in Penny’s cage. The mess, the horror, the terror, I’m still getting over it.
90 minutes later our bags are piled in the boat. Penny’s cage is between my legs, a towel draped over the corner that’s facing the bow as a windbreaker. Porter sits on Brittney’s lap, wrapped in a jacket, a look of incredulity on his face. David looks over our little menagerie with a mix of amusement and confusion.
I shrug, “we couldn’t just get a dog like everyone else.”

We cruise out of the harbor and round the corner, heading east into Johnstone Strait. The wind has vanished, the sky is dry, I breath a sigh of relief. Porter buries his face in Brittney’s jacket, but Penny stands on her hind legs, trying to see around the towel. She’d drive the boat if we let her, fearless.
We weave through the islands and passes, their names echoing in my head like old friends. Pearce Passage, Plumper Islands, Blackfish Sound. I can trace the route on the palm of my hand. It’s been a week and a half with three ferries, one border crossing, and too many trips through the backpack digging for clean socks, but as we round the final point and the wooden buildings come into view, every second is worth it. My chest feels light, my fingers tingle. Was it joy? Relief? Excitement? As if every positive emotion is swirling inside simultaneously.
“Dr. Spong,” I’m beaming as we embrace and I look over his shoulder at our cabin. Smoke billows from the chimney, Helena leans nonchalantly against the railing. Brittney and I try not to get too close to her. Not out of animosity, but because of her vicious pet dander allergy that makes my sweater a chemical weapon.
In a matter of minutes our bags our piled in the living room near the wood stove. Every smell, every memory coming back tack sharp. The speaker connected to the hydrophones pumps in the sounds of swirling water and a distant tug. Sonic comfort food. Macaroni and Cheese for the ears. Within the hour we’re splitting wood, scanning for humpbacks, falling back into the beautiful rhythm of the island. I walk past Brittney bent over the chopping block, Porter sprinting up in down the hill, his euphoria matches ours.
“Do you feel like you’re floating three inches above the ground?”
The shadows grow long, the sun dipping behind the island painting the mountains in a soft glow. I step out onto our porch, drinking in the view. A mile down the sea lions roar and bark, the noise rising to a crescendo. With no warning dozens of them launch themselves into the water. I furrow my brow, what on earth is making them all – and I see them.
Dorsal fins. Five of them. Just off the rocks, smooth curved dorsals with knife sharp points. Biggs. Transients. Oh my God. For a heartbeat I’m rooted to the spot, too stunned to move. On our first night? Muscle memory takes over. I skid across the deck, throwing open the door to our cabin and scream, “Biggs at the sea lion haul out!” I’m gone before Brittney can respond, tearing over to Paul and Helena’s, heart pounding, I haven’t seen orcas in months. I repeat the message and head for the observation deck, camera in hand.
The light is so dim every photo is like a blurred and pixelated photo of Sasquatch. There a mile away. It doesn’t matter. As the last of the daylight fades we strain our eyes to follow the group as they go around the corner, leaving the sea lions in a frenzy. The movie script ends, the whales vanish, and we stand in near darkness. No roads, no cars, no stores. Just us, the trees, the ocean, each other. Back where we belong.

Porter Supertramp

Porter stares longingly out the sliding door. Like a kid with his face pressed against the glass, watching the rain fall in sheets for the second straight week. Frustrated, he paws at the door until we open it. Outside he stops short of the soaked grass, rain pelting the tin roof, reminding him, all of us, that summer is over. With a dejected look he walks back into the warmth.
It’s been that sort of fall in southeast Alaska. Sometime in August the heavens opened the floodgates and it hasn’t stopped raining since. Puddles litter the dirt roads and driveways like little lakes. Rivers flow between them, connecting them, turning the road into a washboard, car shocks moaning in protest, CDs skipping.
And once again, we’re on the move. Packing this, debating that, Porter and Penny wide eyed with alarm. Moving again? At least this time the posters can stay on the wall, unneeded clothes can hang in the closet. Last summer every box and duffel had to return to the exact same spot in the Pathfinder or it wouldn’t fit. Not this time. We have a whole year of our lives meticulously planned. We know where we’re coming back to. Where our next paycheck is coming from. Sell outs.
But for now it’s time to wander. To cheer silently when the beat up old Pathfinder coughs to life. The cat taking his position in the driver’s lap, Penny poking her nose through the gaps in her house, always looking forward. It’s time for ferries, lunches out of plastic bags, for Prince Rupert to have hotels with lenient pet policies. Most importantly, it’s time for Hanson Island. For quiet coves and sleepy sunrises, Harlequin ducks chittering good morning. For silent walks through the forest, listening to the whispered messages of the cedars. It’s felt like a lifetime since we were there, or maybe just yesterday, it varies.
How much longer do we want to do this? Whenever we talk about what we’re going to do “going forward,” the subject settles on buying property, settling, wrapping ourselves in Gustavus’ warm embrace. Hanson Island stops us cold. Reminding us of town runs, sea lion haul outs, and transients on Critical Point at 3:00 in the morning. And we know we’re stuck. That houses will have to wait. We have the rest of our lives to be domesticated. To fence ourselves in. We’ll be ready someday. Ready to drop our roots among the birch on the glacial outwash near the bay we love so much.
But not yet. We understand that what we have on that little island is a once in a lifetime opportunity. That a chance like this will never come around again. How do you willingly give that up? I don’t think we can. So when people ask if this is our last winter there we smile and shake our heads.
“Probably not.” We answer. “Paul and Helena may have to kick us out.”
When do you know that you’re ready? What if we’re destined to bounce between two places that we love forever, unable to commit? What a beautiful problem to have. Some winter it’ll feel right. We’ll stay put. We’ll go to every Gustavus potluck, every fundraiser, make new friends, discover what we never knew we had. But Hanson Island will forever be a part of us. An essential nutrient in our life. A place we’ll always long for, always love.
Right now I can’t wait to get back. To wrap myself in that island as long as I can, to enjoy it for as long as possible, knowing that our time there has an expiration date. That worrying about it won’t make it any better. Nothing to do but take as deep a breath as I can, savor every sunrise, every 50 knot storm, every night hauling the boat up the beach on the rising tide. Because we’ll never get to live like this again.

Making Christmas

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

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

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

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