Tag Archives: freedom

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.

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Every Minute From This Minute Now, We Can Do What We Like Anywhere

I do most of my thinking while I’m jogging. And most of that time I’m trying to decide what to write about next (or baseball, I think a lot about baseball). Since the day we started the blog, I’ve been mulling how to write my farewell to Juneau. I could write about my ten favorite memories, or the people that have impacted or changed my life the most, or whales, I almost decided to just default to whales. But how can you capture a place, it’s meaning, and it’s significance by simply rattling off a list of names, locations, and events? For me, that doesn’t do Juneau justice.

 

Driving down Egan towards the bridge I stared south to the mountain range beyond the Taku River, trying to commit the image to memory and not swerve into oncoming traffic at the same time. But no matter how hard I tried to memorize the view, the shape of the peaks, their contrast with the field of greenery on Douglas Island, and the suns’ sparkling diamonds on Gastineau channel, the image fades. We look away and become distracted, the picture blurring and distorting. In a year you could show me a picture of that channel and the mountains beyond and I would probably recognize it. But heaven forbid I try to describe or recreate the picture in my mind.

 

It is, tragically, how our memories are. The harder we try to hold on to pictures and moments, the quicker they seem to slip into some buried folder in the back of our minds. Instead, I will try to remember the way Juneau made me feel. The emotions it dug up, the feelings and passions it drove to the surface, and the influence it will have on me for the rest of my life.

 

I came here because it was still Alaska, it had a university, and it wasn’t Fairbanks. It was my three step selection process and precious little thought went into it. I just knew I had to get out, try something new, and that I couldn’t handle another winter of darkness and 40 below. I arrived brimming with nerves, self doubt, and little confidence. I felt pressure to prove myself in class, find a research job, and be successful. It was turning me into a nervous wreck. I had to have life figured out and understood, and had to have it now.

 

But Juneau started to quell those demons before the ferry even hit the dock. My welcoming committee featured paired breaching humpbacks on a 70 degree day. I began to feel a level of peace and belonging just a few nights later, camping on the beach as the echos of breathing humpbacks ricocheted off the rocks. I began to relax and listen to myself. I accepted David for David. From curly hair to gangly limbs. I became comfortable in my own skin, and stopped asking “what should I be getting out of life,” and instead wondered, “what do I want out of life?”

 

And I think those are the emotions I’ll leave Juneau with. I have grown to embrace myself for who I am and where I’m going. I know that I don’t need an office or a career if I don’t want one. That as long as I’m happy with myself and my direction it’ll be alright. So now, five years later, it’s almost unbearable to leave. And when I stop and think that everything I own is going to be crammed into a car in just two short days it makes my head spin and eyes well up. But Juneau made me this way, shaped me to one day leave her. She gave me the bravery and strength to walk away. And for that I’ll be forever grateful

 

So Saturday morning I will stand on the stern deck of the ferry and watch Auke Bay pull out of sight. I’ll follow the road past Eagle Beach, Bird, Gull, and Benjamin Island, and slowly past Berner’s Bay. I’ll soak in as much as I possibly can and one last time, remember exactly how Juneau made me feel.