Tag Archives: friends

So This is the New Year

I still wake up hearing them. I still catch myself stopping on the creaking stair, ears cocked, listening to a speaker that’s hundreds of miles away. You don’t quit Hanson Island, and it doesn’t quit you. How can you?

It’s the only place I’ve ever looked up from a stove to see a dorsal fin emerging from the water. It is the place that breathed life into me. That held me close and let me go. That told me that I could do and be whatever I wanted to be.

Gustavus, Alaska feels tame. The biggest hardship is our cistern froze last week and the liquor store is open just six hours a week. Where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the thrill of grocery shopping knowing that if you forget it today you’ll go without for the next two weeks?I’m not entirely serious. Last week I interviewed for a job and the interviewer asked me what my favorite part of Gustavus was.

“Well having a 5,000 square mile national park right outside my door is pretty neat.”

It’s just… different. Not better, not worse. Hanson Island will always be where I cut my teeth. My introduction to the blue and green world. In that way it’ll always be significant. It still astonishes me that we spent three winters there. Approximately 20 months that feel like little more than a blink. Time close to the earth always seems to go fast. You sleep better, eat better, laugh harder, and scream louder. And the time slides by until you’re looking out the window at the rain, know Paul Spong will be there with the June Cove any minute, and wonder where the time went.

I’ve spent most of this winter reading “how to build a house” books, learning the difference between joists and beams, and why 2x6s make good frames (it’s all about insulation).  I’m editing a novel, preparing to send it off, and praying that someone out there digs it. It’s exciting. It’s just… different. Not better, not worse. The roots are sinking in, and most of the time it feels good. For the first time since leaving Juneau we’re surrounded by the people we love. Dear friends who like us have found sanctuary in the outwash of glaciers. But every now and then I walk the beach and stare south, beyond Icy Strait and Chichagof Island. My eyes see past the Myriads and Baranof, through Ketchikan and Bella Bella to rest on a little cedar cabin on the edge of the tideline.

And I see Harlequins bobbing in four foot chop. I smell the rich wood finish of the lab. I hear the ocean’s voice through the speaker next to my bed. I taste salt. I feel the waves pounding the little boat in Blackney Pass. And for a moment I can’t stand it. I’ve got to move, I’ve got to go back. Past one more bleary eyed Prince Rupert border guard and through the Great Bear Rainforest. Part of me will always be 17, crouched on the rocks of Cracroft Island in the dead of night, listening to the A4s swim west.

***

Kim Heacox is a writer, an activist, and will dance and sing at every available opportunity. He’s also my next door neighbor. And he has plans. Like most of us who give a rip about quiet places and open spaces, 2017 was not a pleasant experience. But that’s not stopping him. He and his wife Melanie have a beautiful house and a fantastic library. All their buildings are connected by boardwalk, the road to their house weaves through the forest to spare the largest trees.

They have no intentions of keeping it for themselves however. At some point it will become the John Muir Wilderness Leadership School, the house (one of the few in Gustavus built to code for this very reason) will become a flashpoint of young writers, activists, and leaders. In my head I imagine the place becoming for someone what Orca Lab was for me. A place to find yourself. A place of epiphanies and euphoria. A place of inspiration. A place where perhaps one day I can play the role of Paul Spong; teaching that if cold science doesn’t work, if you look into the world and see something looking back, the best thing to do is grab a flute and play a song. I’m not a scientist. I learned that long ago. But I could be a teacher.

Gustavus is full of people like Kim. Zach Brown is 31-years old and in three years raised more than a million dollars. Now he has the Inian Island Institute, an old homestead an hour west of Gustavus. The perfect place for young people to lose themselves of find themselves, whichever one they need. Because if more people could find their “Hanson Island” the better off the world could be. Reach’em while they’re young. Before the allure of profit margins and mansions can sink their teeth in.

***

It’s Christmas Eve. Gustavus is wrapped in snow. But over the last few days the temperature has plummeted toward 0°F. Just a little way out of town is the only uphill trail, on the flanks of Excursion Ridge. Patrick Hanson and Jen Gardner pick us up and we kick off our “orphan Christmas.” The sun peaks over the top of the ridge as we climb. The Fairweather Mountains, the tallest coastal range in the world lords over our little hamlet. Glacier Bay is just visible, crawling up to the mountain’s feet.

The freezing temperatures have coated everything in crystalline hoarfrost. Snow flakes stand out, perfect little gems. Delicate but incredible versatile. Recent research suggests that at the center of each flake is some sort of microorganism, some microbe the frozen liquid could glob onto. At the center of Gustavus is the people. Something that everyone that has arrived here can attach to. It’s not always easy, but if you allow this place to form you… what can you become?

We reach a shelf on the ridge and Patrick, as he always does, has snacks. A sip of coffee, a bite of gingerbread, a shot of whiskey. It is Christmas after all. From here Gustavus doesn’t appear to exist. Nothing but trees, mountains, and that bay. More than 100 years ago, A.L Parker climbed this same ridge, but from the other side. And when he looked down on the Gustavus plain, he knew that he had found his home.

I can understand why. Something in that smooth, flat plain surrounded by mountains screams at our most human instinct. I look out over the strait and south. I X-ray through the archipelago and Queen Charlotte Entrance. I still see that cabin. I always will. I’ll be back. Patrick cracks a beer and hands it to me. It is Christmas after all. And if I have my way, I won’t be coming back alone.

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Making Alaska Safe for Cows

The concrete bends right, but straight ahead lies an unassuming road. Covered in dirt and gravel, trees arch across the entrance, casting deep shadows beneath the tunnel of greenery. No street sign marks the little road as we bypass the hairpin turn and shining sun for the shelter of the trees. Ten minutes later we reach the end of another skinny one lane road masquerading as a driveway, grass stubbornly growing down the middle track. A series of wooden buildings and a small stretch of lawn lay surrounded by the forest, the structures seeming to melt slowly into the woods’ outstretched arms.

The picnic table on the lawn groans under the weight of plates filled with venison, salad, rhubarb cobbler, and brownies. From the nearby trees the squirrels chatter jealously and I look up in down the table. I find myself surrounded by men of words, science, kayaks, and hilarity.

Across the table from me sits Kim Heacox, part John Muir part 13-year old boy though his birth certificate insists that he’s a few decades ahead. He’s the reason I’m here, the reason there’s a blog (I really don’t like the word blog, how about “Thought Journal”), the reason I write. On my left sits Hank Lentfer, responsible for the venison on my plate and several books in our library, followed by Zack Brown who had walked off the Stanford campus, PHD in hand and hiked and paddled until he reached the Gustavus shore. And finally, Peter Forbes, writer, non profit adviser, farmer. Nervously, I glance around the yard, undoubtedly there’s a kid’s table where I should be seated with my knees up to my ears.

Instead I find myself a part of a community that I have done nothing to become a member of. No initiation, no rights of passage, simply because of our deep love for this place, for the woods, for the future of the world. Because no one ends up in Gustavus by accident. You inherit a family you didn’t know you had. I cut my venison and listen as Kim’s boundless energy spirals the conversation from topic to topic.

“The best thing about visiting down south,” he says, “is the chance to watch all of those Alaska shows and see how we’re supposed to be living.” He finishes with such earnest sincerity that everyone looks up as if to confirm his sarcasm.

“I really like the one in Homer.”

“The guys with the cows! And the guns! Gotta move the herd across the flats before the tide comes in.” His voice twists into a passable southern accent, “is that a wolf?” he mimics a gun being fired, “got him!” And there’s humor in the tragedy of his recreation. “Gotta make Alaska safe for the cows!”

“The only problem, is that doesn’t look very good on a license plate. Alaska the Last Frontier sounds a lot better than: Alaska! Slowly Becoming Safe for Cows.” I say and his laughter is infectious.

It’s impossible to sit at the table and not be inspired. Hank and Kim’s books fill thousands of pages, tapestries of words and phrases I can only dream of writing. But here I was, doing my best to turn my mind into a sponge; listening, writing, and most important of all it seemed, laughing.

As the bugs fill the night sky and the sun ducks beneath the trees everyone slips into the house, the guitars come out, Zack pulls out a violin, and Eric Clapton makes the windows shake. I sit at the table, thumbing through an Orion magazine as Hank and Kim belt out Midnight Rider and as I glance out the window at the blue tinged yard in the evening twilight reach a beautiful epiphany.

It was Orca Lab all over again. A beautiful, undeserved gift. Replace the trees with ocean, the music with hydrophones, and it was the same. Emotion wells inside me at the incredible mentors, heroes, and now friends that had entered my life and the inspiration and motivation they’d filled within.