Tag Archives: fire

When the Outflow Arrives

Wool socks, down jackets, long underwear. All them and more have been deployed to combat the latest northeasterly outflow that has descended upon Hanson Island; freezing the intertidal pools, our waterline, and our toes. We had the bright idea last night of dragging our mattress downstairs from the loft and putting it at the base of the fireplace stacked with bark and fir, Penny’s house placed snugly in the corner. And while the cold seemed to paralyze us in the early morning light, numbing any motivation to rise from the comforters, the Orca’s seemed impervious to it all.

Shortly after nine we begin to hear the faintest Transient calls in Johnstone Strait, leading us to the lab where the temperature hovered just a couple degrees above freezing. After just half an hour of sporadic calling the sounds vanished as the whales disappeared into acoustic parts of the strait unknown. Silently I gave thanks that all I had to do to catch my breakfast was crack a couple eggs over a skillet. I don’t think I could catch a harbor seal in this weather.

But despite the cold, the view atones for it and than some. The palest of blue skies and the whispiest of clouds frame the mountains on Vancouver Island, their peaks clinging grimly to their traces of snow, illuminated in the weak December light. The solar panels greedily suck in the beams’ power, giving our generator a belated reprieve. Blackney Pass sits immobile, or at least as still as it can as the tides pull the waters north and south cutting trails in the surface like tiny intersecting roads. It’s still odd to have Orca Lab so quiet. Besides the occasional Transient celebrating its catch the speakers tell the story of cycling hydrophones, insistent tugs, and at low tide, the cries of eagles as they soar past.

The beauty and peace is priceless and there is little more soothing or funny than ten Harlequin ducks bobbing into the cove every morning chirping at one another as they cut tiny wakes through the water. They dive one at a time, vanishing in the blink of an eye, their bodies barely visible in the dark green water, wings flapping incessantly. When they come up for air they shoot clear of the water like little rubber duckies bouncing on the surface, tiny bits of food clasped in their beaks.

But the deep waters of Blackney feel empty with no Guardian or KC or any of the other humpbacks that felt like friends in September, leaving us with the thirty odd sea lions down the beach for company. Today they huddle like a single sentient being on their rocks, stinky but warm I’m sure. It leaves us with nothing left to do but read, drink tea, and chop wood at a frantic pace before running back inside to the warmth of the fire that has been dancing for three days straight. The thermal pane windows have been worth every penny, thank you: Paul and Helena.

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When the East Wind Blows

I’m used to the cold, you kind of have to be if you lived in Alaska your whole life. Anything above 80 degrees shuts my body down, but the cold has never bothered me. After enduring two winters in Fairbanks and dragging my partly frozen carcass through 40 below weather to class, I’d never really considered anything else as, “cold.” I figured this winter would be more of the same. Sure, the weather would dip below freezing occasionally, or as the people of Fairbanks know it as; “September,” but between blankets, thick socks, and the fire I figured it wouldn’t be that bad. I even began to tell people back home that I was looking forward to a warm winter for once. Three days ago the wind shifted to the east and the clouds vanished, leaving us with brilliant blue skies, and a 15-knot gust on a direct flight from the frigid B.C. interior. The mercury began to plummet, and we began to shiver.

Forty below isn’t so bad when you have a heated, sixty-five degree classroom or dorm to duck into that can go from frozen to toasty with a simple turn of a dial. If we want to be warm, we were going to have to work for it. Our big downstairs windows don’t discriminate, letting the view and cold air in while sucking out the fire’s precious heat. We we’ve been chopping wood and kindling, hunched over the chopping block until our lower backs go numb, and scour the beach for bark. The bark from the fir tree comes off in slabs, some as small as your hand, some as big as your torso. Nothing burns hotter than a few dry slabs of bark, capable of sending the mercury skyrocketing ten degrees in an hour if you stack the wood just right.

And through it all, the world outside looks beautiful and cloudless. Just like a glorious sunny day in August, the sapphire and baby blues of the ocean and sky contrasting with the rich greens of the islands. Except of course stepping onto the deck now takes your breath away for a whole different reason. Perhaps the animals feel the change too. The humpbacks have suddenly started to filter out, leaving us with just a couple of sightings a day as opposed to dozens just a week ago. Even the sea lions don’t seem impervious as there’s been far fewer of them huddled on the rocks, though it’s hard to imagine that the water could be much warmer.

At night Brittney, the cat, and myself have huddled beneath a pair of comforters, keeping the draft away and the heat in. None of us are quite ready though, to share our bed with a rabbit that seems to use the bathroom once every thirty minutes. It is the frustrating thing about ensuring your pets comfort, you can never be sure if they’re too hot or too cold. Our solution to keeping the rabbit thawed has been tedious; involving climbing out of bed every hour and half to stoke the fire and add more wood to keep the temperature at a humane level. It’s not a bad routine, if I could just convince my groggy head to turn off the alarm and get up instead of just completing step one.

A reprieve lays insight, with clouds and rain returning in just a couple of days and with them, slightly warmer temperatures. I never thought I’d be happy to see the clouds and rain again, especially after our soggy October. I’ll miss the view with the spotted white capped mountains perched on the mainland to the east a fantastic sight, especially in the evening as the sun sets. But I’ll be relieved to no longer stress about potential frozen water lines, hypothermic bunnies, and habitually numb toes. From now on, Alaska will never feel quite as cold, as long as I have a house with whistling heater vents to come home to.

Hunkering Down

The internet has returned. After scaling trees, swapping transmitters, and bushwhacking a new trail through a jungle that would do the Jurassic period proud, we have returned to the 21st century. It was something simple, it always seems to be with technological nightmares like these. So now we won’t have to trouble with 15 minute boat rides through three foot swells, praying that the weather holds long enough for Brittney to do her homework. After weeks of frustration, cursing, and gnashing of teeth, Paul announced the breakthrough much too casually, opening our door and quietly saying, “we have a connection,” before walking away as quickly as he came. Though now with the internet working I don’t know what we’ll talk about, brainstorming possible solutions has dominated our conversations for the last month. Our wood pile is full, the gas tanks are filled, and the stress of making it to Cracroft Point every day is gone. Perhaps now we can finally start to answer the question we’ve been trying to answer for a year, “what are you going to do all winter.”

The humpbacks continue to commute back and forth in front of the lab, and will for at least a couple more weeks so they’ll continue to keep us busy and entertained. We’ve come to know many of them well in the past two months; Ridge, Guardian, Inunkshunk, Ripple, Conger, and KC. The ocean will seem empty when they’re gone. The rest of the animal kingdom seems mostly unaffected by the oncoming winter months. Massive flocks of gulls continue to dive bomb innocent schools of herring, sometimes in numbers so thick the surface of the ocean becomes a white blur, their squawks and yells drowning out even the sea lions. The sea lions and seals will still trace the shoreline poking into and out of the coves, a constant hunt for the chum salmon that continue to resolutely run through Blackney Pass and into Johnstone Strait.

Besides snooping into the business of pinnipeds and gulls, I plan on spending a lot of time trying to stay warm by any means necessary. Tea, fire, Bailey’s and coffee, I’m sure we’ll try all of them before the winter is up. Besides that I’ll continue to write, try to read the while Alert Bay library, and follow the various Minnesota sports teams as they all finish in last place, again. It’s surreal to think about the fact that for the first time since I was five, I’m faced with a winter with no real obligations. No school, no job, nothing. There’ll be work around here of course, chopping wood, keeping the electronics going, praying to God the internet doesn’t explode again. But it’s hard to think of these as work when they’re tied to your survival.

Yet this is what we set out to do. To immerse ourselves in the challenge, the joy, and the beauty that surrounds us. Even when the fog clings to the islands until they disappear and the rain falls with no end in sight, this place still glows. It’s hard to imagine living in a city after a couple months here. Perhaps by the time the humpbacks return and the orcas call again I’ll have the novel written I’ve always wanted to complete. Maybe I’ll have mastered a yoga pose besides child’s pose. Perhaps I’ll manage not to drive Brittney completely crazy. Whatever happens, I want to come out changed and I hope it’s for the better.