Tag Archives: forest

Clay and Rain

Rain beats on this cabin like a drum. Even gentle little sprinkles sound like an oncoming tropical storm. And when the October downpour begins we have our own personal Metallica concert complete with a double bass drum.

But this little Shabin heats up quick, even if it loses it just as fast through single pane windows. It’s windows look out on trees, trees, more trees, and occasionally moose. We’ve heard wolves howl, grouse bellow, and magpies chitter. We’ve picked the cranberries and begun to wage war on what will be a never ending drainage problem.

I’m not sure what most people do first when they buy their first home. But somehow I don’t think the first priority is digging up the front yard. Before a cabin, shoot, before running water, we want a garden. It’s not a quaint little hobby here or an excuse to get our hands dirty. In a town where a ripe Avocado recently went for five dollars and 22 cents it’s a necessity to supply as much of your own food as possible.

The problem is, Gustavus isn’t all that conducive to growing food. It supplies food at bountiful quantities with fish, moose, berries, and wild greens. But for those that want to do a little less Paleo and a little more Agro, the trouble lies two centimeters beneath the “topsoil.”

Clay. As thick and gray and heavy as you can imagine. Three feet of it in some places. Some places are drier than others of course and some are blessed with property jutting up against the Salmon or Goode Rivers which provide drainage and swap the clay for a more palatable sand. But we are not so lucky. We’re on the wet side of a wet town in a wet climate in a temperate rainforest. When it pours our front yard becomes a lake and the path to the outhouse a stream. All thanks to the impenetrable clay which could give Patagonia a run for their money in the water resistance category. Rainwater hits the clay, balloons back to the surface, and drains as fast as a grouse crossing the road (which isn’t very fast).

There’s a few options. We can build everything on stilts and resign ourselves to never wearing anything smaller than an Xtratuff, or we can try to drain it, raise it, and work around it.

***

The shovel goes into the ground with a satisfying crunch. One advantage to the clay layer is there’s little in the way of roots. I jump on the shovel and feel it sink all the way down. After carving out a square foot I try to pry it out of the ground. In my mind I can already see the little clearing as a finished project. My neat little ditch running parallel to a garden overflowing with food, the envy of Gustavus. I blink and return to reality.

At some point in the not that distant past someone cleared out this little area, probably to lend a little light to the Shabin that sits on the northwest side. And perhaps of accomplishing what Brittney and I are setting out to do: feed themselves. But if they ever considered draining it they didn’t get very far. A couple truckloads of fill (a fancy word for sand and dirt that you pay for) had been brought in on the premise of raising the ground and creating a drainable surface. Besides bringing in some invasive reed canary grass however, the strategy had failed.

Fall’s not the best time to assess your land quality around here, everything’s soaked through. Step off the concrete and you’re in boot territory regardless. But even a handful of sunny days has failed to drain our future garden site. Each step brings water to the surface. Our water table is literally zero.

I grip the shovel tightly and heave the first square foot of clay free. It’s so heavy and waterlogged that I have to squeeze the shovel and bend at the knees to keep it from slipping out of my hands. I chuck it into the canary grass behind me on the premise of someday cutting it with a more arable soil for the garden. As I become acquainted with ditch digging Brittney brings wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of fill across scrap wood and dumps it on the roadcloth laid out in a rectangle. We figure a 17 x 17 foot garden is ambitious enough to start. Between the ditch and the fill we hope to drag the water down and rise above it, at least at this spot.

***

Since the glacier released it, our 4.2 acres have remained virtually untouched. Outside of the punched in road, the clearing, and the Shabin, not much in the way of “progress” has gone on here. We walk among the pines, watch them give way to hundred year old Spruce, and transition beautifully into an old Willow Sluice where Snipes nest in the Spring and Moose bring their calves. It may be wet and soggy, but they’ve managed just fine.

“We’re not owners, we’re guardians,” Brittney insists.

To her this is not our land simply because a piece of paper says so. Every jay, moose, and coyote is welcome in her domain. She has room for all of them and couldn’t sleep at night knowing she had displaced others for the betterment of herself.

“If you go with a stem wall (a building method where you build your house on a concrete pad),” Kim Heacox says, “they’ll come in and go to your home’s footprint and dig and dig and get all that clay out, and they’ll make it disappear.”

It sounds great on paper. A house built on sand and concrete. Contrary to the old bible parable, a house built on sand is just fine as it compresses nicely and doesn’t buck during frost heaves. We walk our home site and look behind us at the thick grove of trees that includes a couple of those hundred year old Spruce’s. We’re not sure how a Bobcat and Caterpillar gets through that, but it doesn’t bode well for our roommates. What if we did piers buried past the clay line and built our home on top of that? Working with nature instead of manipulating it.

***

By the end of the day we’ve carved out 170 square feet of garden space. We stand on our little gray island. Mud and water are incredibly still seeping up through the road cloth, but it’s a heck of a lot better. This is the only patch of land we plan on seriously altering. We figure feeding ourselves is a good enough reason.

That night I sit in at the table in our little Shabin. I look out the window and jump. Seven feet tall and chocolate brown, a moose stands feet from the ditch, munching away at the yellowing leaves of a Willow.

“Brittney.”

She creeps over and we peer out the window, speaking in whispers that she can probably hear.

“Welcome sweetheart.”

The moose strips the final branch clean and saunters down the driveway, her big hooves sinking in the gravel. A hundred feet down the trail she stops and resumes her grazing. I want her to stay forever.

The rain begins to fall again, that steady plunking against the metal roof. The ditch fills, the land seeps, the cranberries grow, and I watch from the shelter of our little porch.

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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.

The Question

There’s not much in the way of trails around here. Not that it’s too important on this island. Enough old growth is still around that the undergrowth is open in a lot of places. It’s easy to get lost, easy to get carried away walking through those big old trees. Especially on days like today after a heavy rain last night. The afternoon sun slashes through the trees like a sword through fabric, illuminating the mist rising from the moss choked floor. Water droplets cling to cedar needles like diamonds on a necklace. An iridescent glow in each one holding a little flicker of the sun.

Today I’m poking along a stretch that’s part trail part tree root. I hop a stream threatening to be promoted to class five rapids after the downpour. Soon after the trail becomes more defined. I take a deep breath. It feels so good buried in the woods. In Japan they have what they call forest bathing. In simple terms it is nothing more complicated than being in the presence of trees. The idea is that the air doesn’t just taste better in the woods, it actually is better. Essential oils like phytoncide found in trees actually improve immune system function. The forest isn’t just a tonic for the soul like the apostles Muir and Thoreau wrote about. It’s like taking vitamins.

I’m walking this trail to see someone who knows that better than anyone. I’ve written about Walrus several times before. For those that don’t know who this incredible man is, here’s the cliff notes version. Walrus is a walking talking hybrid of Radagast and Dumbledore. He inhabits what he likes to call, “Canada’s longest active logging road block.” He settled on Hanson Island after years in Greenpeace and helped Hanson Island—Yukusam in the Namgis tongue—gain protection from logging. Today he has a long white beard, eyebrows as long and thick as caterpillars, and a high pitched laugh that is infectious.

In my backpack is ten pounds of dog food for his creme colored bear of a dog named Kessler and fruit, carrots, and granola for his master. I tighten the straps of the pack and dig in my boots on the muddy trail as the incline steepens. Walrus’ road block came to rest about a hundred feet shy of the highest point on the island. Every now and then I hike food up the hill to him. It became dire last week when Walrus walked down the hill to the series of rubber totes he keeps near Dong Chong bay to collect some food he’d left only to find that something had gotten to Kessler’s food. 10 pounds worth. Be it bear or wolves we still don’t know. But neither of us has seen a deer in weeks. And deer don’t disappear because of mischievous black bears. So we’d brought Kessler an emergency bag of dog food last week. And had restocked for him in Alert Bay a couple days ago.

As I climb my mind drifts, thoughts mixing with the ravens and Stellar’s Jay above me, my mind drifting to what I’d been reading before I left the lab. In the last week a tanker ran aground near Bella Bella. The support vehicle sent to assist swamped. The containment booms set out to minimize the impact were as useful as a fishing net. The spill was minimal, as minimal as one can be at least, an insult to the very phrase, “low impact.” A low impact oil spill is like minor surgery. It isn’t minor if you’re the one getting cut open.

I’d followed the stories through a guy named Mark Worthing. A Walrus disciple and friend of Orca Lab who has committed his life  to keeping the final stands of old trees in British Columbia standing. In his free time he fights back against the proposed oil tanker line that would cut through the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the pearls of world. The only region in North America where wolves were not almost exterminated. It’s a place where people find Spirit Bears in the woods and God in a sunset. It’s also a maze of islands, reefs, and rocks that gets hammered by 50 knot winds in the winter. All it takes is one tanker. One mistake. One gashed hull. And it’s gone. Ask Prince William Sound. And so Mark fights, because life would seem pointless if he wasn’t fighting for something much bigger than himself.

And then there’s Zack Brown back in Alaska, founding a research and education institute on the Inian Islands to the west of Gustavus. He hiked and paddled from San Francisco to Gustavus in a tidy three months. He’s a voice for climate activism, a voice for change, and he does so eloquently, something that doesn’t always happen when we speak passionately. I used to idolize athletes, now I idolize activists. If only they made trading cards.

My legs are shaking. I set the backpack down on a rock and plop down in the mud next to it. Sweat runs down my face, steam rises from my back. What am I doing? I gave some money to Bernie Sanders, ride my bike when I can, talk about saving the world. But is that enough? It’s a question every conservationist has asked themselves. We see a world that’s in danger. In danger of being steam rolled over by the great construction firm of progress. Lumber over woods. Oil over spirit bears. And we wonder if what we’re doing is adequate. It’s hard when our efforts aren’t visible. Riding your bike doesn’t correlate to a healthy calf in the southern Resident Orcas. Nor does eating vegetarian ensure a healthy salmon run.

I pull the pack back on and start back up the incline. It’s a question I’m still struggling with as my breathing becomes more and more ragged. I spend my summers representing the natural world from the seat of my kayak, and the winter writing about it. My audience is only a couple hundred people, maybe that’s a start. Maybe the people I show sea lions and humpbacks to in the summer are starting dominoes back home. Maybe they took something back from Glacier Bay besides pictures and cover photos.

I round a final corner and Walrus’ cabin comes into view. His area is ringed with a Salal fence, the flexible trunks of the bush intricately bent and woven together to keep the deer away from the garden. Does it work? It does not. You would think a 90 pound dog would keep them out. But Kessler has been known to watch deer amble by ten feet away with nothing more than a sniff. He jogs up to me as I approach, ears up, tail down. We go through this song and dance every time. He can never remember me. He gives a half bark, turns and runs. From the cabin I hear Walrus call out and I smile. The question still lingers, but for today I have a purpose. I’m bringing the caretaker of Hanson Island lunch. And for now, that’s enough.

Living “Rustically”

Spring on Hanson Island is bittersweet for us. As we celebrate the sun crawling higher and higher above the mountains of Vancouver Island, we trot outside, palms and heads held skyward. We lay out on the south facing deck all afternoon, soaking up the sun and getting the greatest outdoor bathtub in the world up and running. After a long, windy winter that was defined by the height of the waves and the thunder of the wind, these sunlit days are nothing short of Nirvana.

But in the back of our minds, we know the countdown has begun. That these days are fleeting, and the days of cleaning, organizing, and packing are fast approaching. We have less than a week remaining before, like the geese flying above, we flock north.

Didn’t we just get here? Weren’t we just winging our way south, watching the the islands and inlets crawl by? Winter always seems to slip through our fingers like sand. Blink and its April. This is our life. Every six months we pack everything and shove a resigned kitty and rabbit in the car, our penance for loving two places that are far from easy to reach.

But before we return to a land with bigger glaciers and smaller trees, we reflect on another winter that has taught us much. It’s hard to think of Hanson Island as rustic. Sure, there’s no warm running water or indoor plumbing. But we have a full size fridge, wireless internet, and the ocean at arms reach. In many ways, living in a New York apartment would feel more oppressive, more difficult. The constant artificial lights, the blaring car horns, the masses of humanity. More restraining than the borders of this little island. Where I walk into the forest and hear a Thrush and Woodpecker, or sit on the deck and hear the breath of an Orca a mile away. Things like warm water and flush toilets feel unnecessary. Give me creatures over convenience, stars over street lamps.

Which is all well and good, until the generator won’t turn over on a cloudy morning, the lab batteries failing and the lights flickering. Or the boat engine suddenly refuses to start as the water’s churn in Blackney Pass. Or you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, the window panes rattling the waves pounding, and your fear of the boat getting swept away in full swing. Than an apartment with running water, reliable lights, and a corner store sound pretty good.

So I remind myself of what these inconveniences do. They pull me back to my roots. Remind me that the things we take for granted we shouldn’t. That it’s important to know where our electricity, our fuel, our freshwater come from. And even more, it gives you a personal stake when the only one that can fix it, is you.

A month ago, the generator, died. Not an old generator mind you, but a brand new one. My generator knowledge began and ended with: “turn the key, push the choke in, go back inside.” I went inside, found the dusty owners manual, and marched back to the generator shed without the faintest idea of what I was doing. I opened the maintenance door and stared at its innards. I traced the fuel line, opened the spark plug compartment, and shook my head. If I lived in a city, I’d call the power company and wait impatiently for someone to fix the problem. I had no one to complain to, no one to lean on but me.

Thirty minutes later, my fingers coated with fuel, oil, and grime, I slammed the maintenance door shut. With a knot of apprehension, I filled the generator with gas, pulled the choke, and turned the key. Fifteen seconds later, the blasted thing came to life. I walked back to the cabin with a sense of accomplishment. I love having our source of fresh water, our power, our food squarely in my control. As hard as it can be, it gives me an emotional investment in their sources. Inconvenient or not, I’m grateful.

I want that sort of control, that responsibility when I have my own place. I want solar panels, ground water, a garden, and a wood stove. I have Hanson Island to thank for that. For giving me an intimate connection to the services that it’s so easy to take for granted. After 27-years of turning taps and opening the fridge with little knowledge of where their sources originated, I don’t think I can ever live that way again. Maybe I’ll just have to be rustic forever.

For His Old Branches II

The rain falls as a fine drizzle, turning the surface of each rock and log smooth and slick. My body feels unbalanced, the chainsaw in one hand, oil and two stroke fuel in the other. Beyond the crunch of my boots against the loose rock the world is silent. Blackney Pass stands calm and tranquil. The vista slows my heart and mind. This view. How easy to glance past it after all these months. The islands and channels are worn into my mind like the creases and callouses on my hands. Swanson, Harbledown, Baronet, Cracroft, Blackfish. What names. They stir the imagination, fall smoothly from lips and tongue like water over stones. For years I stared at maps, brushing my fingers over their namesakes, their crude imitations of green and blue put to paper. Now? I see them every day. May the novelty never fade.

I bend over the chainsaw and pull the cord. Through my ear muffs I can hear and feel the vibrating base of the saw as it comes to life. Oil, fuel, and metal. In my hands, with the simple pull of a trigger, I become master of the woods. Capable of felling trees that have patiently grown for a millennia, evicting squirrel, thrush, and deer as the roar of progress and the thunder of manifest destiny march through the woods. But for this I have no desire. I could no sooner fell a growing Cedar than take a man’s life.

I head down the beach. I’m searching for a sacrifice. For a gift willing to disappear from the physical world through the chimney of our cabin leaving only a small pile of ash as a talisman. The log is weathered and worn, maybe a little water logged. But its location is good, and cutting this one opens up space to negotiate the nicer, friendlier logs behind it. I pull the safety, click the button, and the war cry of humanity echoes off the standing trees. I cut with my head down, the trigger pressed halfway. The sharpened chain cuts clean and smooth. No knots. No warping. What a tree it must have been. Before it was reduced to this. Reduced to laying naked on the rocks, it’s branches stripped, its roots severed. I love reading the stories of the old hand loggers. The one’s that went up Tribune channel just north of here. Each tree was selected with care. It had to be. For each one had to be felled just right and rolled into the ocean. Clearcutting wasn’t just unnatural, it was impossible. Hard work. Anything but glamorous. That I could do. No one hand logs anymore. Carve a road into the hills and forests. Strip the forest. Every. Last. Tree. This log I’m cutting is nothing more than a refugee.

Brittney joins the ritual. She wraps her arms around the rounds as they roll free and patiently walks them up the beach, dropping them with a thud that shakes the forest floor. The rain continues to fall, mixing with the sweat on my brow and back. Cutting wood always makes me perspire. I have no idea why. I’m just standing here after all.

I work with my back to the water, the incline slightly uphill. After a time I stop and rise, stretch my back, and turn. A tug and its massive tow fills the strait. It chugs south with diligence. The rumble of the massive diesel engines echo in my chest. My eyes fall on the tow and a snarl spreads across my face. A log tow. Hundreds, maybe thousands of logs lay piled a hundred feet high. A hundred logs high and a hundred wide. Plucked from the raincoast, heading south to await their fate. As what? I’d be lying if I said I knew. Homes? Mulch? Toilet paper? It makes little difference in the moment as a wave of disgust washes over me.

The chainsaw vibrates and slides over the rocks, bumping against my foot, reminding me of my hypocrisy, that I’m standing in three inches of sawdust. That I live in a wooden cabin. That the kayak my father is lovingly crafting for me is made of it. What if the wood for my kayak was once on a barge like this? What if it had been pulled south, past this lab. So that I could one day paddle the inlets it had once looked over.

What’s enough? What is ethical? What is right? The oil companies had a field day a few years back when Shell’s big oil platform pulled into Seattle. Hundreds of big hearted, environmentally conscious people took to the water in kayaks, many of them plastic. Floating thanks to an industry that allowed them to be there. Does that make them hypocrites? Does it muffle or mute the cause they stand for? Do I have a right to feel angry when a log tow goes by? Is it enough to say that I’m doing what I can and accept that it’s impossible to not impact the environment negatively in some way?

There’s no answer from the ocean. Hard to hear with these ear muffs on and the saw rumbling. Avocados from Mexico, bananas from California. Oil, carbon, trees, methane, melting ice caps, Republicans. Dear God. And I’m worried about a couple of trees?

“Do what you can with what you have.”

Who said that? Roosevelt I think. Teddy or Franklin? I can’t remember.

A pillar of Christianity is that we are imperfect and that Jesus does not require us to be. We need forgiveness because we’ll keep screwing up. I look down at the log and feel a shiver run down my neck as the sweat and raindrops cool on my shirt. I think about the book I’m writing, that I want to see published. More than one if I can pull the wool over the eyes of an editor. Books that will be published… on paper since stone tablets went out of style years ago.

Just because I’m an imperfect environmentalist doesn’t mean I shouldn’t, or can’t talk about it. For if we wait until we’re not harming it at all, we’ll be delivering the message on horseback in between long treks through the forest, hunting with sharpened sticks and rocks. Next summer I’ll sit in my wooden kayak, and I’ll do so without guilt. From its seat I can be an agent of change. I can touch the lives of thousands of people as I lead them into the wonder of Glacier Bay. Reminding them gently, patiently, that if we lose this we lose ourselves.

I pick up the chainsaw. I’d be lying if I said I felt good about it as the sawdust started to fly again. One by one we carry the rounds up the hill and to the chopping block to where our woodshed (made of wood) stands. Beyond it is the forest. A forest rebounding from logging. At its heart stands Grandma Cedar, the ancient tree that has survived so much, has seen it all. A forest that, if we keep talking about it, will never hear the sound of a chainsaw in its depths again.

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.

The Wolf

I am not a brave person. At least, I don’t consider myself one. I rarely feel bold, or filled with valor, or the innate desire to take risks, and stick my neck out. I get nervous walking through the woods in the dark, even here, where there’s been exactly one bear sighting in decades. My imagination, which is often my ally betrays me in these moments. I feel the hair rise on my neck, the goosebumps spread across my body, a spasm of fear running down my legs.

I don’t believe in spirits floating among the living. At least, I think I don’t. But the lab is built on the same ground that was once a Namgis summer camp. A small grave was found in the rocks, somewhere near here, the body of a young girl entombed within. That’s what Walrus says. I never asked him where the grave was. I don’t want to know. But it’s much easier to believe in restless spirits, the thrill of the supernatural, the magnification of fear when the dark surrounds you with creaking and swaying trees. Glowing eyes in the dark. Deer, they have to be deer. But what if they aren’t?

The water’s rough. The waves roll up on themselves, ringed with foam and frothy white caps like pearls on a necklace. Rain falls as a fine mist. In our tiny boat, the waves roll by at eye level, the boat pitching over the crest and through the trough of each swell. Up and down the hills, again and again. Why does it seem like we’re always going into the wind? The water is deep, churning, cold, dark. This seems like a lot of work to go through to run a generator. But such is our assignment today. To cross Blackney Pass for Cracroft Island. To add the magic of unleaded gasoline to help us maintain power at the lab.

It’s the same body of water we were crossing when the boat engine died a few weeks ago. And for an hour we were at her mercy. Enough to make you think twice when the land fades away off the starboard side and you begin the mile wide crossing. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind, with the waves growing and the ocean soaking our windshield. No boldness or valor or bravery here. Loyalty and dedication maybe. I’m more Hufflepuff than Gryffindor.

What would it be like if we lost the engine here? If the boat filled with water? If we had to jump clear, life jackets clinging grimly to our necks? To come face to face with our greatest fear? I’ve never had a near death experience. At least not that I remember, and I’d like to think I would. How terrible and thrilling, to come face to face with my own mortality. Would I be cognizant of my final breath? Aware that it was the last one this body would ever draw for me? Would I watch this grim physical home for my soul drift into the depths as I floated above, great wings growing out my shoulders? Or does everything just go blank? A reel of film that’s reached its end, spinning pointlessly on its spools.

But today is not that day. Across Blackney Pass. In the shadow of Cracroft Island, the water is calm, a soothing emerald color. It’s far too rough to land on the rocks by the shelter. So we motor into a quiet cove on the opposite side, out of the wind. Was it really just a year ago that we blazed this trail? Just me, Paul, a couple of hacksaws, and a general idea of what direction to bushwack. By some miracle our zigs and zags led us straight to the CP shelter. We climb onto the bow and tie the boat to a massive log draped across the rocks.

I step into the woods and stop. I’m not alone. Something lays on the ground at my feet. A jigsaw of vertebrae and ribs and fur. It’s been dead awhile, the body barely recognizable. The skull lays just off to the side, neatly picked clean as if it were a name tag, identifying the creature to which it had belonged.

“There’s a carcass in here!” I shout.

Brittney shoves the ferns aside and stops next to me, mouth agape. The smell wrinkles our noses, but neither of us step back. For a long while we simply stare, a silent vigil, disturbers of the animal’s peaceful sleep.

“What is it?” Brittney asks. She’s kneeling near the clump of fur and vertebrae, awestruck. She’s neither squeamish nor disgusted but fascinated. Even in death, her compassion for things furry continues.

I break off a stick and flip the skull over to reveal the jaw. The mandibles and lower jaw bones are gone, but the unmistakable canines of a predator remain. We let out silent gasps.

The wind rattles the tree tops. It’s going to get worse out here before it gets better. I leave Brittney with the departed, and vanish into the woods. The whole way to and from the shelter, I think of nothing but the creature. I’d never seen anything like it, on the day that I’m contemplating my own mortality. It can’t be a coincidence.

I return to find that Brittney hasn’t moved. It was a wolf pup she announces with conviction. I agree. What else has teeth and claws like this? We sit in silence, my mind trying to put the wolf back together.

“How do you think it died?” Brittney asks.

Like the girl’s tomb, I don’t want to know. The ocean is not twenty-feet away. Is it possible that one of my own species is responsible for this? Was this cub the victim of some human’s potshot with a rifle? A vigilante dedicated to predator control? Maybe that’s unfair, but I can’t think of any explanation for how he chose right here to lay down and die. We leave him where he lays, to continue his noble work of returning to the soil, feeding the web of life around him. A sacrifice that won’t go unnoticed.

One more stop. Parson Island. The water has settled a bit while we were in the woods. And the journey across Baronet Passage is a calm one. I disappear into the woods and up the hill, one more generator to go. My mind returns to the wolf cub and I feel pity for the little creature, that his life was taken so early. I pray he died right, with honor, dignity. Perhaps he just didn’t want to be a wolf anymore. Was ready to be something bigger than himself. Isn’t that what I want? What we all want? For what is more fulfilling than giving of ourselves to something bigger. To make the world a better place.

The land where the wolf lays resting was clearcut some thirty years ago. The land stripped. Every. Single. Tree. No more squirrels, no more birds. No wolves. No cougars. No life. No character. But the land is recovering, like it always does. And will flourish with magnificent old Cedar trees again, if we allow it. Maybe all he wanted was to speed up the process. Infuse the earth with his carbon and nitrogen, accelerate the growth of those great trees so that the generations to come can run and hunt and howl beneath their great branches.

I reach the cliff. From here I can see past Cracroft Island and into Johnstone Strait, up into Baronet Passage, out into Blackfish Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait. Pristine silence. Quiet places. Open spaces. The little cove on Cracroft is indistinguishable. The wolf’s resting place invisible, his sacrifice anonymous from here. But I know. Brittney knows. The tree’s know. Sometimes the greatest sacrifice is the one not recognized.

I say a little prayer before I pour gasoline into the generator. Before the war cry of my species infects the land.

“Thank you,” I say, my voice drifting across the water. “For making this world a better place, for reminding me of what is good and pure and wild. For infusing the earth with your spirit. I hope to leave this place better than I found it too.”

I bend over and pull the cord. The generator roars to life. Without a backwards glance I turn and vanish into the woods. The Cedar and Salal covers my tracks. The growl of the generator echoes in my ears.