Tag Archives: glacier

Above the Flood Plain

There’s only one hill in Gustavus. Like everything else it’s accessed via a dirt road, and only a dirt road. It’s known as The Hydro. Because it’s here, at the headwaters of Excursion Ridge that we get our power. The road leads up the ridge to the hydro damn and offers one of the only bird’s eye views of the surrounding country.

One can continue up over the top of the ridge and look down at the inlet with the same name. Or swing north, through the valley and up the Chilkat Mountains. And if one is especially endowed with testicular fortitude, they can continue north and follow those big beautiful mountains all the way to Haines. Among the young folk fly rumors about the old timers that have done just that. The same people who built there homes before the Hydro was even laid. Measuring and cutting wood by the light of oil lamps or barking generators. A different generation. The Jedi Knights of Gustavus. Tonight we have no desire to walk to Haines, much less view Excursion Inlet. Tonight all Brittney, Jen, Patrick, and I want to do is watch the sun set beyond Icy Strait.

The road is packed hard from several days of freezing. Winter set in with little warning. Summer’s swan song came in the form of the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced this side of the Tropics. Six inches of rain in 24-hours. It flooded the very road that connects the Hydro to town. But it’s been a week of sun. Sun and cold that has kept the heater going and me questioning the viability of storing our dishwater outside where it happily freezes. No matter. Layered in wool and down, we push up the hill, using muscles that aren’t often utilized here.

In a world defined by glaciers, it seems incredible that only Gustavus would give way to a massive flood plain. Elsewhere the glaciers cut into the mountains and leave dramatic hanging glaciers, mountain pools, and rounded summits. Except here. From halfway up the uniqueness of our home stands out. We’re surrounded by mountains. Fairweathers to the west, Beartrack and Excursion to the north and east, Chichagof to the south beyond Icy Strait.

As the glacier pushed down in the late 1600s it stretched across the floodplain Gustavus now occupies, stopping short of Excursion Ridge but reaching Icy Strait at what is now the mouth of Glacier Bay. Gustavus and the Bay is virgin land. The ridge we climb is as old and wizened as the finest old growth in Juneau. In just a few short miles the world has changed from Shore Pine and Alder to Hemlock, Spruce, and even Yellow Cedar. An entirely different world.

We reach the ledge where the trail cuts into the ridge and offers unobstructed views of home. The whole lower Bay, Gustavus, and Icy Strait stretch out like a tablecloth. Here is a perspective kayaking can’t offer. The sun plummets beneath Lemeursier Island, that big old sentinel in the middle of the strait, shielding us from the worst the Pacific Ocean’s winter storms have to offer. In centuries past it was a fort for the Huna Tlingit, giving them a vantage point and an early warning of visitors. Today it’s designated wilderness, combining with Pleasant and the Inian Islands to mark the southern border of an expanse of wild land that stretches all the way into Canada and back into Alaska.

I look at the flood plain that is my home. The home the glaciers made for us and can just as easily take away. Aside from a solitary tendril of smoke rising near the Salmon River, there is no sign of habitation. A community of nearly 500 people hidden in the pines. Placed next to the millions of acres of protected land it seems small and insignificant.

The sun disappears entirely and I wonder, not for the first time, what that glacial architect must have looked like. In 1750 the glacier (later named the Grand Pacific and still visible at the terminus of the West Arm) stretched 65-miles south of its current location and all the way into Icy Strait, stopping just short of “Lem” its fingers stretching out like a man in the dark, groping for the shore. What would have happened had it found a toe hold? Would it have been able to envelop the whole island? Or would the powerful currents of the strait ripped it apart? Having extended too far, she retreated, leaving us with a land rich in high bush cranberries and salmon.

As we watch the final vestiges of light fade away, I give a silent thanks to the glacier for this place. We talk, we laugh, we drink whiskey, we take the inevitable silhouette photos (I am unaware that it’s supposed to be a funny pose and stand stoically for the first one). And we utter the phrase we say almost every day. A phrase that reminds us how stinking lucky we are to have found our way here.

“We get to live here.”

Advertisements

Coming Home

For all its ocean facing windows, the lobby of the lodge is always dim. Dark wooden walls cast a permanent shadow that the orange fluorescent lights can’t begin to penetrate. An awning stretches over the long balcony, protecting al fresco diners from the rain, and blotting out whatever rays of sun make it through the gray clouds.
Those with their back to the windows have their faces vanish into dark, inscrutable shadow, features and expressions hidden and mask like. So when I walk into the lodge the pair are not immediately obvious. Their rain gear and boots hidden in the darkness. But their boundless enthusiasm as I approach squelches any doubt that it’s me they’ve been waiting for. As they sit back down and the paperwork appears the shadows hide the signs that should have been obvious. The mother’s shivering hands and arms, the wool hat pulled tightly over her head without a single curl or braid protruding beneath the material.
Her son scribbles names and home addresses well she berates him the way only a mother can. Not spitefully, but in the way that makes him, even at 24 roll his eyes and sarcastically mutter, “mooooom!”
As we rise it takes her a few extra moments to gather herself and lift her thin body off the couch. Only now in the better light does it become obvious and my expression, comprehending for only moments betrays me.
Yes. She’s going through chemotherapy, had been since she was diagnosed with lung cancer just three months ago.
“Never smoked a cigarette in my life,” she says as if I’d have the nerve or insensitivity to ask. “I lived in Juneau for three years back in the early eighties and I wanted my kids to see it before…” she trails off. She doesn’t tell me what stage of treatment she’s in and I don’t ask, I don’t want to know.
Like many, their fear and terror is covered by humor. They laugh long and loud at my every quip and comment, as if Dave Letterman and not Dave Cannamore was their guide.
“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to paddle,” she confesses.
“It makes no difference to me how far we go,” I answer, “I’m just so happy you made it back.” I’d float fifty feet off the dock all night if they want to.
We reach the sheds that house our kayak gear and a gentle mist begins to fall from the clouds that habitually threaten rain. The drops fall in a resigned, uninspired sort of way, the stormy cumulus far from enthused, sending precipitation earthwards as if it didn’t know what else to do that evening but soak  the leaves of the alders.
Her son is easily as tall as me, a cello player in San Francisco who looks like he could play small forward for the Warriors in his spare time. We firmly tell Mom to stay put and lug the double and single kayak down the beach toward the slowly flooding tide and she gently folds herself into the front cockpit. For the first time she doesn’t look tired and worn. Her eyes gleam with the excitement of untold patience after waiting for this exact moment. I push them clear of the rocks and follow, my kayak bobbing in their wake.
“I used to go kayaking all the time when I lived in Juneau,” she says as we move past the dock, aiming for the mouth of Bartlett Cove. “I would take my cat with me.”
I try to imagine Porter perched on the bow of my kayak, clawed paws slipping and sliding on the fiberglass, scratching the gel coat or worse, attacking the human responsible for depositing him in a vessel surrounded by his sworn enemy.
There are people that you want to see it all. Breaching humpbacks, hunting orcas, frolicking sea lions, sneaky seals, flying pterodactyls, and as we paddle I mentally will the inhabitants of Glacier Bay towards us. Calling to them to understand how precious their presence would mean to all of us.
We paddle and the conversation is easy. No factual tic tacs needed to stimulate talk between the two boats. Mother and son bicker good naturedly as he struggles to master the rudder peddles on his maiden voyage. Talk turns to baseball, two die hard Giants fans bemoaning their lack of starting pitching depth.
My stomach turns, replace San Francisco with Minnesota and this was my Mom and I. She in her early 50s, he his mid 20s. I’m about to open my mouth, to reveal the parallel when the whale arrives.
The bait ball had been swirling for fifteen minutes, the gulls’ insinuations and the protests of murrelets had become a white noise. The humpback had given no warning before ripping through the surface, sending white wings scattering as herring gull, kittiwake, and mew rise a few feet higher and out of reach of the ballooning mouth. The impact on us is instantaneous. No one hollers or calls out, it’s more of a silent, “ohhhh” from all three of us that stops our conversation mid sentence. The calm evening water allows the sound of the next breath to echo off the trees on the Lester shore, the water falling from the back and flukes as the whale rises higher momentarily before falling away beneath the waves.
The rain continues to fall at random intervals as we paddle, her stamina exceeding her expectations. As it falls heavier she leans back in her seat, face pointing upward, allowing the cool water to strike her face beads sliding down and into her lap. As we return an hour later, her stroke stronger than ever she looks reborn. I tell her about John Muir, how he slept on the glaciers when he was ill and walked down the next morning feeling like he had a new lease on life.
“Maybe theres more treatment in the wilderness than we know,” I suggest.
She likes the sound of that, “forget the chemo, just bring me a huge iceberg to munch on. Make sure theres some vodka to go with it though.”
She laughs as their boat nears the shore, I hop out and catch their kayak by the nose, raising it up to land softly on the rocks and barnacles. As the moment comes to step clear of the boat she pauses, not to gather her strength, but to savor. She runs her hands lovingly along the combing, her fingers brushing the forest green finish, a loving look in her eyes.
“It feels so good to be back here, you don’t know how much places like this mean to you until you don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to see them.”
She isn’t talking to either of us, but the silence that follows is total. Even the birds have gone silent as if in respect to this fiery and passionate woman.
It’s most telling where we run to when we can make out the expiration date on our lives. We don’t run to the Oracle, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge or any other man made marvels. We come home. To the place that, deep inside, we still acknowledge as sacred, as special, as holy, even if we’ve long forgotten exactly why. It’s why we marvel at glaciers and eyes gleam as we glass the water for that six foot dorsal fin. Because the natural world gives us something that we can never create, can never imitate. And when we know time is up, what better place to spend it, than right at home.

Lessons of the Beardslees

Paddling in a double kayak is about rhythm, matching your stroke to your partners. The rise and fall in perfect synchrony: dip, push, pull, lift, switch. After a while it becomes meditative, the landscape and hours slipping by, the sun slowly pivoting across the blue sky. Feet in front of me Brittney sets a steady pace, the kayak’s bow cutting silently through the Beardslee Islands, briefly disturbing the calm surface of the ocean before the ripples dissipate, covering our tracks.
Eight inches below the water is glass. It’s surface reflecting the islands, the mountains, our very being back at us with the distortion of refraction. Twisting our reality ever so slightly but no less authentic. We cut across the mouth of Secret Bay and jut briefly north along the Young Island Peninsula. Strawberry Island stands at the mouth of the Beardslee Entrance. The gateway to a maze of homogenous islands. The birds eye view of our maps reveal their distinctive points, coves, and bays.
But when you paddle within them, their uniqueness vanishes, replaced by gradual rocky beaches leading up to forests of spruce, hemlock, alder, and cottonwood. Weaving through, it’s easy to imagine getting lost in a land of identical land masses that punctuate the water ways. Easy to get confused in a sea of conformity as you try to match the point on the map with the four similar ones you just paddled past.
But by the time we reach the entrance it all becomes clear. The lower bay leaps out from behind the islands and my eyes follow contours of the land north where the glaciers lay, advancing and retreating, never sleeping. You could spend years studying the geography of the bay and never know all of it. The price you pay for living in a land that is constantly changing. From the other boat Leah points toward a small cove that overlooks the entrance, the sun warming the rocks. I push down with my left foot and the boat concedes to my request, the stern swinging right.
A few hours ago we’d slipped through the cut on an uninspiring 10-foot high tide using the back door to slip into the Beardslee’s. In places the keel of our kayak whispered as it kissed the blue mussels and barnacles barely submerged at the high tide. A few years ago our boat would have safely passed through on a ten foot high, but with the land rising at three quarters of an inch per year, nothing can be taken for granted here. Maps routinely became obsolete within years, riverlets between islands viewed within varying degrees of suspicion, nothing was real until you’d paddled it, seen for yourself how much the bay had truly changed.
Our boat kisses off the rocks on the ebbing tide as we stretch stiff legs and backs like an old man rising from his favorite chair. A curtain of reed grass four feet high stands like a fence at the top of the beach. We stop and scan for a moment to see if our landing has stirred up a pair of black ears attached to a tan muzzle, but all is quiet save for the chorus of the birds, and the steady drone of a boat as it chugs north through Sitakaday Narrows, sharing the sound with the lower bay.
Names rattle off my tongue like long lost friends; Tlingit Point, Drake Island, Geikie Inlet, Marble Mountain. Somewhere above them are the glaciers of the west arm where undoubtedly, a pair of cruise ships throws wakes onto the beaches as they churn through Tarr Inlet.
“All that time on the water,” wrote Kim Heacox, “and never close to it.”
It made me sad to think about. How much of this place can’t be experienced from ten stories above. Isolated, withdrawn, with controlled heating, air conditioning, buffets, casinos and gift shops. But how many really did want to take a big drink of the land? Run their hands over the rocks, feel the laughter of the waves as they played with your boat, hear the Sea Lion roar, the Oystercatcher giggle? Unless things had changed drastically in the past few years, not many.
So we talk about what we can control, the people that do want to take a drink, see their reflection refracted back on the mirror of the ocean. Leah talks about finding common ground, guiding is more listening than speaking some times.
“No one ends up in Gustavus by accident,” I offer. “It’s deliberate.”
Leah nods, “a lot of the time we’re preaching to the choir. The people that want to go paddling care deeply about places like this, enough that they really want experience it. It’s up to us to inspire them to take what they see here and go home and in turn, inspire those that otherwise wouldn’t.”
It’s true, the climate change pharisee, the six figure oil employee isn’t the padding type. If they were they probably wouldn’t be what they are.
From the mouth of the west arm comes a great white monster, a cruise ship materializing, even dozens of miles away it plows south like a great floating skyscraper.
In the fall Leah travels to Canada and leads polar bear viewing trips. It is here, that she must fight to find common ground, to listen instead of speak.
“There are some that want to see the bears, but if they had to chose between their SUVs and oil development or polar bears, they’re taking the car. You have to find something in that moment they they’ll connect with, because for a lot of them, they’re not worried about what will happen to these places in the future.”
I feel cynicism and frustration rise in my chest. 70% of Americans claim to support environmental policies. But we’ve elected a congress that hasn’t passed a conservation policy in years.
Save the world. As long as it’s convenient.
I look back into the Beardslee’s the route we’d taken hidden and concealed by the optical illusions of dozens of points, coves, and forests. Every island looking the same, but in actuality so different.
The cruise ship grows larger, on board are thousands of people that look just like us, perched on the rocks. Perhaps that was the challenge, the goal of the naturalist and conservationist. To stop looking from above at these people where every difference was so obvious. To stop looking at the map of the Beardslee’s as it were, and to actually paddle it. So that we could both see that, we weren’t all that different.
“We have to find common ground,” Leah repeats, “even if it’s just for a moment.”

Giving Up Control

Forty feet, forty tons, one ton per foot, half ton of herring per day each carrying as much fat as a Big Mac. For three summers I handed out quantitative factoids like science flavored tic tacs, sometimes three times a day with my brain sliding into auto pilot. I’d try to encompass the life history of a humpback whale before the engines roared above 3,000 RPMs, drowning out my voice.

And yet, there is a detached feeling from the bow of a boat, the railing a secure barrier between man and whale. You see them, hear them, hell, sometimes you can even smell them, the rotten smell of herring or the curiously enjoyable scent of cucumbers after they’ve been scarfing capelin. But you are separated, protected by that steel hull, the constant grumble of the boat engines. Yet the safety comes at the price of intimacy. There are memorable moments of course, the alarming sight of basketball sized bubbles encircling the boat, the high pitched scream of the feeding calls reverberating through my boots.

“John! We’re in the net!”

“Oh my,” the captain answered, sliding the boat smoothly into reverse, clearing the net just as ten mouths break the surface, herring and saltwater running down their throats.

But nothing compares to a humpback at sea level, from the seat of your kayak. With nowhere to run or hide, the whale in complete control of the encounter. The extraordinary recipe of fear, excitement, and pleasure as the tail rises, vanishes, and you realize that its pointed directly at you. Do you go forward? Backward? Turn towards or away? Is the whale going to swim straight or zig zag? Your mind pulls you deeper into the wormhole. Is it feeding? Lunging? Your stomach tightens, what if it lunges, you glance shiftily in the water below your boat, here? In your mind you see the massive maw, rocketing through the column like a rocket. There are no engines, no barriers, you are completely and entirely in their territory. What happens next is up to them.

“It’s not that I think they’d try to hurt me.” I explain, “it’s that they don’t have to try, all they have to do is shrug their shoulders and… you’re airborne.”

So you just bob in the currents, eyes shooting back and forth. You have five to ten long, spell binding, exhilarating minutes, like a drawn out suspense scene in a Hitchcock film, waiting. “You gotta breathe,” you whisper into the silence. No matter where the whale surfaces you just want it to happen, to break the tension.

On calm days you can see the shadow first, than a bulbous bulb of water as the whale rises, the water’s surface tension covering the body like cellophane. Until finally it breaks the surface, spent air shooting into the air like a volcano, the bass of the exhalation resonating in your chest.

And so a stupid grin spreads over your face, soft exclamations escape your lips as you sit under its spell until the back arches towards the sun, the tail hovers parallel to the sea for a brief moment, water dripping from the trailing edge, and finally vanishes, into the world that we cannot follow. For a few moments you bob in the whale’s wake, your heart pounding, fingers tingling, adrenaline coursing. And than you start to wonder… should I go forward? backward? The curtain has fallen, the next show will begin in ten minutes. Try to find something pretty to look at while you wait

One Day in the Bay

As many of you know, today marks the 45th anniversary of Corky’s (A23) capture and subsequent imprisonment. She currently resides in Sea World San Diego, hundreds of miles from her home that centers around Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. Her family was a consistent fixture in the straight this summer, and every sighting of them is a stark reminder that she deserves to be here so much more than I do. Much today has been written and shared about this amazing whale who continues to buck the odds and survive in her tiny bathtub after four and a half decades. Coming less than a week after the death and autopsy of Rhapsody of the southern Residents, one cannot be blamed for feeling discouraged and depressed about the state of these creatures.

There is however, hope and beauty that persists up and down this coast. There are miraculous encounters and moments shared between people and healthy wild whales. On this day, as we remember Corky, and all the others that have been captured, I’d like to share my most memorable whale experience of my life.

Summer 2012:

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve lies just 30 minutes west of Juneau by plane. A magnificent playground for the outdoorsman with untold miles of not just the bay, but mountains, glaciers, and beaches. It is a place to grow and rejuvenate, just like the land that is still rebounding after years of dormancy beneath the oppressive weight of the massive glaciers that carved the bay.

I had a built in excuse to visit as often as I could as my soon to be wife Brittney lived and worked out of the bay in the summer where she worked as a kayak guide. Leaving the more commercial world of cruise ship tourism where I worked on a whale watch boat, I’d hop in a Cessna 206 and enjoy the breathtaking half hour flight over the Chilkat mountains to spend a few days with Brittney and the bay.

For whatever reason, I remember really needing a few days their his time. Perhaps I’d just had a bad run of ornery people on rainy days, or seen 20 boats around four humpbacks one time too many, but I was ready to get out and needed the silence and therapy that the bay could provide. I suppose it’s a sign that you truly do what you love when it’s all you want to do on your day off as well. There was no discussion of what we’d do as long as the weather cooperated, we were going paddling. It combined our two passions; the kayak and whales.

The next day dawned (at 4:30 am) with baby blue skies and a scattering of puffy white cumulus, the water was projected to be still, a rarity that summer that would wind up being one of the wettest on record. Giving the weather no time to change its mind, we leaped into an old rusty van owned by the kayak company, and drove the nine miles into the park to Glacier Bay’s gateway; Bartlett Cove. We grabbed a pair of fiberglass beauties from the companies rack and slipped them into the water. Unlike most sea kayaks decked out in bright and loud colors like aqua, yellow, and red, these boats were a dark forest green and seemed to blend into the landscape of evergreens and contrast beautifully with the deep blue water.

The north end of Bartlett Cove is lined by two islands, Young and Lester, and just beyond is a tiny archipelago known as the Beardslees. The islands were a veritable fantasy land for a kayaker with quiet coves, calm waters, and plenty of wildlife. The only danger was the similarity in the appearance of every island. They all followed the same recipe with rocky beaches, slight elevations, and plenty of trees. I’d traced a large circle around the archipelago two summers ago, but kept my eye on the map strapped to the boat all day.

We moved through the tiny gap between Lester Island and the mainland at the back of the cove known as “the cut,” timing our departure so that we flowed with the tide and the first half mile of our trip we barely had to paddle at all. We paddled for a couple hours through the islands, weaving through the tiny cuts and inlets, joined occasionally by gulls, murrelets, surf scoters, and the occasional harbor seal, their wide unblinking eyes staring at us with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. Finally we passed a wide channel, the tidal influence spewing out water and the islands on our right vanished, giving way to the wide expanse of Glacier Bay. The bay is shaped like a Y, with the upper arms holding the majority of the glaciers, most of them in retreat. The Beardslee’s and Bartlett Cove sit near the base of the Y, where the bay merges with Icy Strait.

We knew we’d passed Lester Island and the northern end of Young Island sat in front of us, a long point of land extended toward the upper reaches of the bay and we followed just off the rocks toward the point where we could make a U turn and begin to head south toward the mouth of Bartlett Cove and home. Brittney paddled some fifty yards ahead of me as I dawdled, trying to locate a Harbor Porpoise I’d been sure was following me when I noticed that she’d stopped paddling. Right at the point she was bobbing just a few feet from shore, paddle held gently across her lap. Coming up behind her I see why. A massive group of her favorite birds, Black Oystercatchers are congregated on the rocks, their sharp orange bills and matching eyes flashing back and forth against their dark silhouettes. I’d never seen so many in one place and they seemed completely unconcerned with the gawking humans in the water.

We watched them jaunt up and down the rocks, dipping their bills into the water until something larger, much larger, brought us back to reality. The point of land was to high to see over, but it was clear from the sound that something large had surfaced just on the other side. Leaving the oystercatchers we paddled cautiously around the point, taking care to stay on the beach side of the kelp bed that circled the island like an asteroid belt around a planet.

When a humpback surfaces in the calm water you can see the water displacement long before you see the whale, than a shadow, than a bulbous bulb of water, until finally the whale breaks the surface. The massive exhalation less than fifty yards away felt like a bass drum in my chest. The explosiveness of her surfacing made it clear she was feeding and I was thankful for the kelp bed between us. I didn’t want the whale to have to worry about us and her daily allotment of half a ton of herring. As the whale disappeared another explosion echoed off the rocks behind us. You can’t spin around in a kayak, but you can twist your head so fast that you sprain your neck. A second humpback had just materialized behind us, lunge feeding just as close as the first.

There was an exhilaration with a teaspoon of fear at seeing these whales so close and at their level with nothing between us and them but a few inches of fiberglass and some flimsy strands of bull kelp. But we weren’t moving, not for the world, as humpbacks broke the surface like fireworks up and down the shoreline, lunging out of the water, mouths agape, herring running down their throats. After thirty minutes of this incredible display, we finally conceded that we needed to start trying to get home. That meant paddling through the bay littered with whales exploding from the water like land mines. We took the long way, skirting the shoreline.

As we continued down Young Island, it seemed around every corner was another humpback. It was as if they were forming some massive 40 ton relay team to get us back to Bartlett Cove. There had to of been 25 in all, encouraging us to hug the shoreline, Brittney at times having to drag me along for I could have stopped and watched every single one. Finally we neared the mouth of Bartlett Cove, and as exhilarated as we were, the soreness and fatigue of 8 hours of paddling was setting in. We started to fantasize about sweet potato fries and Alaskan Summer beer at the lodge in the cove, and prepared for the last couple miles of hard paddling home.

But something stopped us. The tour boat that left daily from the cove and traveled up the west arm of the bay to the Margerie Glacier, had stopped in the channel when it should have been heading into the cove to meet its deadline. Daring to hope we watched and to my shock and absolute glee, a tall black fin broke the water a half mile from shore punctuated by three smaller fins as the tiny group of Transients headed into the bay. They were probably destined for John Hopkins Inlet where the pupping Harbor Seals were sprawled on the ice bergs.

Tears of gratitude formed in my eyes, it was almost too much. The bay had overwhelmed me. First the weather, than the oystercatchers, the never ending parade of humpbacks, and finally, this grand finale. Brittney and I rafted our boats together, her hand in mine as we floated together watching the orcas move further into the bay, completely unaware of the magnitude and power that their presence had just created in our lives. Finally they began to vanish from sight and we begin to paddle into the cove, our spirits full and our eyes glistening with tears of gratitude. I could paddle for the rest of my life and never see another whale and it would be ok. Because every time I pretzel myself into a kayak, I think of that day, the magic it brought, and what a gift it is to share the world with an animal as spectacular as them.