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The Building Tree

The smell of two-stroke fuel fills the air. Hands slick with chain oil, metallic teeth glinting in the sun. Behind me the forest is calm, quiet, unassuming. The trail, marked in pink fluorescent tape, billows slightly in the wind. It’s only twenty yards from where I stand to our house site. A site that we’ve exterminated of stubborn willows and optimistic shrubs. I’d be lying if I said it felt good clipping them.

But it’s child’s play compared to what I’m about to do. I grab the chain saw, set the choke, and give the string a confident pull. I’m out of my league. 12 months ago I couldn’t have told you the difference between a joist and a stud. Now, tucked beneath the pages of The Independent Builder is a stack of graph paper, erase marks and crinkles bleeding into the pages. But somewhere along the way, a structure appeared, represented by lead to be built with wood. It looks so pretty and neat with those perfect squares and right angles. Making it come to life will be another matter.

The saw vibrates in my hands as I walk towards my first obstacle. I take no pleasure in felling these trees. But it’s something I’m familiar with. I know how to notch them, make them fall just so. If our winters in British Columbia and the Inian Islands taught me anything, it was how to make a Stihl roar. The first tree is a pine. It looks withered, old and bent. A few stubborn green needles continue to poke from the limbs. If it isn’t rotting already it will be soon. Whatever life it has left ends now. Because I said so. Because 18 months ago we walked onto this property and decided this was where we would live.

With a guttural growl Stihl comes to life, fine papery shreds of bark and wood fly into the air, the sweet savory smell of the forest. Within seconds it’s over. The pine tips and cracks. I lock the saw and scurry for cover. It falls where it’s supposed to, the concussion quieter than I could have anticipated. In the years to come we’re going to need help. Pouring concrete will be like speaking a foreign language; intimidating and embarrassing. At least our inevitable mistakes with wood can be fixed with a cat’s paw if we catch them fast enough.

But this, the Stihl digs into the next tree and it begins to sway, this I can do on my own. No one needs to coach me anymore. And for the first step, simply clearing a path to the house site, it means a lot. It displays at least a modicum of competence. And for my ego if nothing else, that feels good.

Within an hour the path is clear. The final tree falls atop its comrades, the Stihl is extinguished, the surviving forest quiet. I walk back down the gap I’ve created with the simple grip of a trigger and a bit of fuel. Right in the middle of the trail stands one final Charlie Brown tree. The hemlock is only five feet tall, not even worth the saw. But as I stare at it I can’t shake the sensation that it’s staring back. Our land is wet. Last September when the rain pounded Gustavus our water table was plus 18 inches in some spots. The price one pays for a glacial outwash. A few big spruce have bucked the odds to grow 100 feet high. But this is the only hemlock I’ve found. I would no sooner cut this tree than kick a kitten.

But it can’t stay here. The excavator comes in a matter of days, if I don’t take it now it will be run over by the wheel’s of our personal progress. There’s only one thing to do. It must be relocated. We’ll find a quiet and (relatively) dry spot for our building tree. I’m aware of the irony. Saving this little tree when I just felled ten. A home built with the old growth of Chichagof and Home Shore. In no way does rescuing the hemlock acquit me of my lumber consumption. I’m not sure why it means so much. I walk past the homesite to one of the big spruces. The spruce that we vowed we’d never cut. I run my hands along the bark, “I think you need a friend.” 

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Standing Still

The April sunshine should feel good. I should be sprawled in the grass soaking up the rays like a hungry plant that’s been inside too long. But I feel none of it. What a picture I must make, a whiskey bottle hangs loosely in one hand, my gait awkward and uneven on the rocks. A cool ocean breeze floats through the hemlock but inside I’m stifled. I can’t breathe, a weight presses down on my chest that the liquor can’t alleviate. I stumble and collapse against a washed up log, long ago it was left high and dry, left to rot at the whims of the universe. I feel a kindred spirit with the rotting wood and crumbling bark. I savor another sip of the brown stuff, close my eyes, try to breath. How did I get here?

For most of my adult life I have rambled. A modern hobo with a 75 liter pack in place of a branch and tied handkerchief. I reveled in it. Up and down the coast. Again and again. British Columbia, Juneau, Gustavus, the Inian Islands. Surely this was the way to live; free and uninhibited. From one wood cabin to another. Again and again I scoffed at the “every man.” The poor saps in their cubicle jails. Shackles of security holding them down. Worker bees. Drones. The nine-to-fives. A pity.

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

The ramblings of a young man.

A knot from the log presses into my back. It does little to alleviate the fear that clutches at my chest. For the past two months we’ve operated under the illusion that the Hobbit Hole would be our home for the next three years. Full time caretakers at last.

It would come with stinging consequences. Eleven months a year here meant precious little time with our tribe. We dreaded the conversations we’d have to have with our dearest friends. That we felt called to be here, to help the Inian Islands Institute get off the ground. That a growing desire to be educators had taken root. But there’d be no denying that three Gustavus-free years would change the bonds that we had tightly forged. Was it really a sacrifice we wanted to make?

This would be our last hurrah. The job as caretakers promised to pay well. Enough that we could return in three years and get the house built that existed only in SketchUp. We’d at last admitted that building a house on a guide’s wage wasn’t feasible.

But two hours ago Brittney walked down the stairs, terror and pain in every syllable, “we didn’t get it.”

***

Zach Brown and I sit in the garden. An afternoon sun playing over the water. He’s one of my best friends. I thought he’d be my boss for the next three years. But there was someone better. I’d heard the resume of the couple that got the position over us. They were what we had feared. They deserve to be here. The time has come to confront my failure, acknowledge that Zach and his board made the right decision. That Brittney and I never expected preferential treatment. That we still love him, Laura, this place, their vision. That we’re still in. But it’s hard to keep the bitter taste of disappointment out of my voice as we work through it.

Hank Lentfer, student of cranes and supplier of beer appears from the house and hands us each an IPA. It loosens our tongues, we say what needs to be said. It’s time to move on. It’s time to let go. I turn and look at the house, the deep green paint melding into the forest. The open lawn, the shop with the pool table on the second floor. It isn’t mine. It never was.

In the moments after we learned we hadn’t gotten the job I flew into a rage. I pounded the floor, screamed, and terrified the cats. Selfish words poured from my mouth. Phrases like, “we deserved this,” and “it was supposed to be ours” came fast and easy.

I didn’t deserve this. I didn’t earn this. Zach did. By hiking a thousand miles and paddling a thousand more. By fundraising and dreaming and believing. He may not have physically built the structures of the Hobbit Hole, but he has earned every stud, beam, and piling that they’re composed of.

***

Our final week at the Hobbit Hole. I’m back at the fallen log, my brain clearer and the pain a little easier. It still hurts, still in mourning, but I’m confronting the world with clear eyes and sound mind, perhaps for the first time. 

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

I long for the days in our rusted Pathfinder. Waiting for the next ferry in the parking lot of a Prince Rupert Tim Hortons. The warmth and comfort of knowing that everything I need is in the car with me; Brittney, the cat, the rabbit, a laptop to write on, what more did I need? How liberating, how comforting, how… safe?

The realization slowly sinks in until I must acknowledge it. I’m not the risk taker I pretend to be. What exactly were the chances I was supposed to be taking? For most of my twenties I could have bailed out at any moment. Our careers and choices could zig-zag across the world if we wanted to. There was nothing stopping us. We could change our stars on a whim.

But we fell in love with 4.2 swampy acres of glacial Gustavus outwash and decided we were ready when I knew I wasn’t. Perhaps life’s greatest risks isn’t running but standing still. What if those worker bees were the brave ones? I was always running, moving. Becoming a full time caretaker would have provided the security I had denounced for so long. Now, with a mortgage and uninsulated cabin, I crave it. I’m more scared now than I’ve been in 10 years of rambling. The irony bites hard on the ego gland, devours it whole.

***

Home. Four corners, the Shabin, Excursion Ridge, nightly beers with Patrick Hanson.  The Fairweather mountains still punch holes in the clouds, defiant white peaks blockading a blue sky. When you miss out on what you thought was a dream job—the coronation of your twenties— and still have Gustavus, it’s time to give thanks.

For years I have coasted on what other’s have built and earned. Paul Spong’s Orca Lab, the Hobbit Hole, places I have occupied and never fully deserved. This spring the universe has grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and looked me square in the eye.

“David, it’s time to stop running. It’s time to build something of your own.”

Dear lord does that scare me. I just learned the difference between a stem wall and a slab-on-grade. Now I’m building something? Deep breaths, they come easier than they did a month ago. What do I need to do first? Foundation, get a good foundation. I open the construction book, a notepad on my lap and read about concrete pilings, my pencil scribbling notes with the fervor of a procrastinating grad student.

***

Down one of Gustavus’s many dirt roads is an art gallery. On some weekend evenings it doubles as a music hall. Tonight it triples as a potluck complete with free beer. The place is packed as one musician after another comes to the stage and belts our their best. This town has to have more musicians per capita than anywhere on earth. But as the evening begins to wind down, one man in particular makes his way to the stage.

Justin Smith has collar length hair, a ball cap pulled over his head, skinny torso, and a long gait that helps him cover the aisle in a few strides. A buzz fills the crowd, when his name is announced the place erupts. I’m crammed onto the floor next to Patrick. We’re both clutching a beer. It’s not our first or second, I don’t think it’s our third. We share a wild look.

“Dude, he’s gonna play.”

Open-mic nights go way back in the annals of Gustavus lore. As much a part of our culture as deer hunting on Pleasant Island and picking strawberries. Eight years ago, at my first music night I watched spellbound as Justin and Kim Heacox belted out Cream’s, ‘White Room.’ Kim pounded the piano keys so hard his fingers bled. Justin made his guitar do things I didn’t believe possible.

But as the years have gone by, Justin hasn’t played as much in public. He’s raising a son that is the apple of the Goode River Neighborhood’s eye and just moved into the house he and his wife Jesse built. Another in a long list of role-models and heroes. He speaks quietly into the microphone, his voice soft and understated. Humble eyes and a sheepish smile pan the crowd.

But those that have heard him play know what is coming. Patrick and I bounce on our knees like it’s Christmas Morning. And for the next fifteen minutes he plays. Three instrumentals of his own creation. Listening to Justin play guitar is like reading the climax of a novel. The crowd leans forward, hanging on every note like turning pages. And for the first time, I’m relieved we didn’t get the job. This is home. In the good times and bad, sickness and health. Whether I’m ready or not, this is where we need to be.

Westeros

The Inians are splayed out like a handful of watermarks. Inians. Such an odd name. Even Zach isn’t sure where it came from. Like someone started to write Indian and lost interest halfway through. But we know where Hobbit Hole comes from. Zach’s mother Carolyn christened it long ago because “The Pothole” was just too secular, and Hobbit Hole is a much better name.

The little archipelago is sandwiched between some of the wildest water on earth. To the west is Cross Sound, which should be renamed “Small Craft Advisory Pass.” Even on days where the wind blows from the east ten knots or less, the ocean swell sends six foot waves crashing against the westernmost islands.

Icy Strait lies to the east, an indomitable stretch of wild water in its own right. Bracketing and connecting these two bodies of water are North and South Inian Pass. The nautical map we’re studying holds a warning both exciting and intimidating.

“Tidal currents in north and south Inian Pass can reach 8-10 knots. Mariners should use extreme caution.”

Extreme caution? Who knew there were categories of caution. What exactly would constitute minor or moderate caution? Staying home would be exercising all the caution. But if that was the case, there’d be no reason to be here.

We load a pair of double kayaks. Brittney, Zach, Laura, and myself have the hair brained idea of exercising minimal caution and paddling to the westernmost island in the Inians, an unnamed chunk of land stretched vertically as if the very pounding of the oceans storms had flattened it. It’s an island that, as far as we know, hadn’t been walked on by Xtra-Tuffs in a long time.

We name it Westeros, which sounds like a rejected Middle Earth landmark, and set off. From atop the main island yesterday, Zach and I saw an exposed peak on Westeros. A peak that would offer a 360-degree view of open ocean, Chichagof Island, the Inians, and the Fairweather Range/Glacier Bay. We cross the half-mile wide channel between Westeros and the other unnamed island in the Inian cluster. This channel was nicknamed “the laundry” by commercial fisherman because trying to cast nets in the channel on the flood was like being in a washing machine. A rock cliff on the east side is covered in graffiti, the signatures and dates of the boats that had anchored here. A good luck charm they said, at least until a boat sunk the day after scrawling their name on the granite.

We find a beach to land, tie the kayaks to the alder, and disappear into Narnia. There is a sense of wildness here that is not captured many places. A sense, some sort of intimate knowledge that man has not treaded here. And if he did, he did so with a light touch, without staying long enough to leave a mark. We scramble up a hill covered in the loose shale of the island. Atop sits the bones of a fawn. The tiny scapula and ribs bleached, the white stained with the green of the forest that is consuming it. The ribs are the length of my middle finger, delicate and innocent.

Trails criss cross the hills and cliffs. The deer are here. Zach looks slightly disappointed at leaving the rifle behind. After our big Coho day in September, harvesting a deer seems like the next natural step.

We follow the trails whenever we can, trusting they know the easiest way up steep cliffs with loose rocks, rotten tree trunks, and squirrely roots. The vegetation is not what I expected. Banzai shaped mountain hemlock and shore pine dot the island, grasses grow on the south facing slopes, muskeg gives off the impression that we are walking through a frozen Serengeti.

“How many people,” I wonder aloud, “can say they have walked in a place where no one else ever has?” The percentage has to be less than 1%. For the frontier is no more. Google maps has plastered everything, for better or worse. But here one can escape this discouraging fact. Here there is just us, the deer, and a Rock Ptarmigan in winter plumage. White as a ghost it sits beneath a banzai hemlock, it’s head twitching back and forth as we creep past and above it for the summit.

It has been 24-hours since I stood on the peak of Westeros and it is that summit that has made me appreciate John Muir all the more. For Muir wrote beautifully of course, but his amazing ability to capture the natural wonderment of this place and convey it in words is second to none. I am simply not gifted enough to do it justice. But imagine a 360-degree view, each 90 degree turn offering a completely different vista of breath taking beauty. An open ocean view that spans to a horizon that is almost dizzying. Horizontal vertigo, it pulls in and pushes away at the same time, like the swell that pounds at Westeros.

Chichagof. Tall hills covered in snow, unpassable thickets of devils club. Streams thick with salmon eggs. Brown bears slumbering in caves and beneath deadfalls. The Inians and the Hobbit Hole, the last of the homesteads. And the Fairweathers. Oh those big snow coated mountains, shining so unashamedly bright they hurt the eyes. Brady Glacier flows at the feet of La Perouse and Crillion. Peaks that are over 11,000 feet high. All hail the glacier makers. What would the leaders of this world think if, just for an hour, they could sit here and do nothing but slowly spin. Would development, profits, winning, still feel tantamount? What if they ate the most delicious sandwich ever made? Ate the carrots of the victorious and guzzled the tea of salvation.

“I feel like this peak needs a name.”

“Not everything needs to be named.” Brittney says. True.

The wind whips from the east. Clouds form in eastern Icy Strait and begin to come our way. Laura points out a Lenticular cloud forming like a hat atop La Perouse. Zach wanders about and finds his favorite Alder tree. It’s chilly up here, it is January after all. It may snow tomorrow. I hope it does.

With a reluctant final glance at La Perouse and its headgear, we begin to make our way back down toward the kayaks. Past the Ptarmigan and along the trails of the deer. Returning the island to its rightful owners.

“This forest is old,” Zach quips, quoting Legolas’ description of Fangorn.

“How old is it?” I ask.

“Very old.”

May it always be that way. We linger on the bones of the fawn again before we slide down the final hill and return from our commune with the gods of Cross Sound. The reality of sea level. There is a shared sorrow at the passing of the little deer. The unspoken irony that Zach wishes to go hunting tomorrow. That we hope he gets one. The painful reminder that to live is to die. And to die is to feed another. I remember Laura landing her first Coho. The grim look on her face as it lay at our feet. Her hand reaching out for the fillet knife.

“I want to do it.”

Brittney repeating the same action a week later. Patrick running his hand down the lateral line of a Coho. The one Coho I landed, stared into its eyes, and then returned. Because for some reason I couldn’t swing the pliers, couldn’t cut the gills. This is life out here. How life should be. Forgive my arrogance.

We paddle out from shore and ride the swell like a couple of murrelets. A sea otter with its pup bobs in the chop. And I am grateful, profoundly grateful that my life includes these people, those mountains, this ocean. The opportunity to come home with dirty Carhartts, numb fingers, and red noses. Zach and Laura’s mission is to ensure that more young people can do the same. That this island cluster would change lives. And as we turn the corner and into the wind, I know it already has.

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.

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.”

Unnaturally Natural

A fine rain is falling, but its presence brings only smirks. In most places a steady rain would spell the end to any bonfire. But not here. If you’re going to wait for a nice day to play outside you could be waiting a long time. Besides, it’s not every day that Kim Heacox turns 66 and you’re asked to play percussion for a medley of Beatles tunes with the names changed to some variation of “Kim,” “Kimmy,” or “dude.”

After a final rousing chorus of “Hey Dude” we pile our plates with the ridiculous bounty Hank Lentfer and Anya Maier have pulled out of their garden and the woods of Lemesurier Island. Of the six dishes on the table (including deer and two types of potatoes), only the Macaroni and Cheese did not originate within ten miles of the plates. Guilt free food at its finest.

Hank has a fire going and we crowd around, impervious to the precipitation that is still trying to crash the party. Someone has fashioned Kim a crown from construction paper, and after his second beer he begins to issue edicts:

Edict #1: “Pee off your porch at least once a day.”

Edict #9: “Pee off your porch at least twice a day.”

Edict #21: “There shall be an edict #22.”

The most adorable monarchy of all time.

It’s not the first time that I’ve gathered around a fire with these people and marveled at how on earth I became their friends, and now their neighbor. Both the Heacox’s and Lentfer/Maier’s are within a well thrown baseball of our property while wunderkind Zach Brown and his ambitious Inian Island Institute are just down the aquatic street.

As we talk and the beer flows, the cloud adorned ceiling drops lower and lower until the fog is perched on the tops of the Spruce trees like a hat. The guitars come out. As sure as there will be rain, there will be guitars at a Gustavus gathering. Van Morrison, Buddy Tabor, and more Beatles rise up to meet the clouds. In a world that seems to have spun out of control the handful of us around the fire seem temporarily insulated. The fog wraps around us like a blanket, shrouding us from the insanity that has become American politics. Fear melts away, anxiety vanishing with every verse.

In my slightly inebriated state I look around the bonfire, convinced that I have discovered the meaning of life.

As humanity turns to a more urbanized existence, I wonder if we’re robbing ourselves of one of our birthrights. Like processed sugar, man has not subsisted off a diet of high density living for that long. Certainly not long enough to evolve a tolerance for it. It would be nearly impossible to emulate this sort of gathering in Seattle, let alone New York, Boston, or countless other meccas. But after living as either nomads or in small, tightly woven communities for so long, it’s hard to imagine that an essential part of what makes us human is lost when we are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of others. Yes, people have parties in the city all the time. But in the stoic and lifeless walls of a building where eyes drift to iPhones every couple of minutes, does this feed the tribe desire seeded deep within? Almost every person who visits Gustavus falls in love (though most insist they could never live here). And yet few can put their finger on what it is that attracts them. Perhaps the cocktail of tribal bonding and wilderness setting flips the switch within that we have been steadily burying since a certain industrial revolution.

Hank plops down next to me. I’m only partially joking when I say he’s the blueprint for what I want to be when I’m 40. I used to envy people’s cars, now I envy Hank’s garden and root cellar which are an aspiring gardener’s fantasy. His garden is no more than 600 square feet, but from it he, Anya, and their daughter Linnea grow enough potatoes, carrots, and beets to get them through the winter. It’s late June and they’re still chipping away at last year’s potato harvest. Their freezer is stocked with deer from Lemesurier (affectionately referred to as “Lem”) and halibut. I gobble down deer roast and answer questions around my fork.

“You got the shitter set up yet?” Hank has the gift of brevity in addition to gifting us their old outhouse which has the dimensions and weight of a medieval battering ram.

“Not yet, I still need to get it into the woods somehow. But it’s upright and we got a tarp on it to keep the rain off. I still feel like you christen it for us.”

He laughs and Zack plops down next to us, clinking the Obsidian Stout in his hand against the one in mine.

“We just had the septic in our place go out.” He says, eyes in the fire. “We thought that the pipe was just frozen for the winter but…” he takes a long pull on his beer, “turns out that it’s… seeping into the yard.” He sighs and smiles. Nothing keeps a smile off Zack’s face for long. “It’s incredible. The work and effort that we go through for the luxury of pooping indoors.”

I look over Hank’s shoulder to where Anya sits listening and we share a smile.

“Every time we hang out we talk about where we shit.”

Me and Brittney’s first decision when we bought our land was that we would rock a composting toilet forever, save 15 grand digging a leach field and installing a tank, and score free manure in the process. If it’s good enough for the Lentfer/Maier’s it’s plenty good for us.

Zack’s still mulling the incredulity of it all. There’s a bit of Socratic flair in him, questioning everything. “It’s so unnatural, and then it goes into a tank and gets shipped to where? Seattle?”

Hank nods and Zack shakes his head, “so unnatural,” he repeats.

I look around the fire to where Patrick Hanson is strumming out “Into the Mystic” while Jen Gardner and Linnea sing along, Kim is on edict number 30, a couple of people from out of town stare as if they’ve just landed on the dark side of the moon, and the fog insulates us from it all. Perhaps we seem unnatural to the world. Perhaps our willingness to do our business outside, eat the food we grow, and play hopscotch with the poverty line is crazy. But darn it all if it doesn’t beat two hour commutes and cookie cutter homes on a tenth of an acre. I like being the crazy one, the unnatural one. Because in doing so I think I’ve found that in reality it’s the most natural instinct we have.

The End of the Road

The Pathfinder reeks of burning oil when she runs too long. She’s had it, and I await one of life’s cruel ironies as we wait in line for the ferry. Four years ago I made a deal with whatever deity was on duty, promising many things I’ll never own in exchange for this plucky Nissan getting us to Canada and back. But as she’s always down she comes to life with the screech of belts and uncategorized clatters. There’s still time to back out. Still time to run another direction. A direction that will let us keep running. There’s no shame in it. We’re still in our twenties for crying out loud. No one would think less of us if we disappeared to Central America for a year or vanished to Thailand for a season. But how do you continue to run when you know where home is, when you know where the road ends?

The end of the final road doesn’t look like a road at all. And you’d excuse us for missing it completely. To be fair, cars have rarely been our dominant form of transportation and I’m not at my best behind the wheel. Boats and kayaks have kept our lives afloat. May they continue to do so until someone tells us we’re too old.

But as theatrical as it would be, this journey cannot end at a pier or sandy beach. Instead we take a dirt road overgrown with willow, cat tail, grass, and fern. The ruts are deep and the brush grates against the bumper. At a sharp left the car pivots neatly in the groves as if it’s on the skids of a poorly made Disneyland ride. And then it ends. With no apology or explanation the road simply disappears, giving way to the world that will eventually swallow us all. A world of Pine and Alder, Blueberry and high bush cranberry, marsh and forest. The road, like our rambling, is over. Neither one of us ever had to discuss it. We simply knew that it was time to stop. We didn’t want to do it anymore.

***

The sun is bright and the reflection off Icy Passage makes me squint. My pupils, like my heart, were made to live where the rain is frequent and the sun is scarce. We trace the outline of the shore, the glacial outwash that holds Gustavus behind, the ridges and mountains of Excursion Ridge and the Chilkat Mountains ahead of. Fresh snow sits on the peaks, but down here it feels like Spring. Myself, Brittney, Jen Gardner, and Patrick Hanson gallop like moose calves. We plunge through last years Reed Grass and it gives way with a satisfying crunch. Here the cynicism of the world isn’t just stripped away, it is torn from the soul, replaced by innocence and wonder.

We come out of the Reed Grass and onto the sandy beach. On the low tide the stories of the last six hours are exposed. Tracks trace back and forth, weaving between the sand and tidal mud that squishes with delight beneath our boots. We follow the moose, the deer, the river otter, and the wolf.

The wolf. We stop at the tracks, some as large as my outstretched hand and gaze upon the holy grail of Alaska prints. Patrick’s mind is already in overdrive. It’s always in overdrive. He is more excited over the first Rosy Twisted Stalk than most men are in a year. The prints are catnip to us, and Patrick is already talking about camping just above the tideline in the grass and sitting patiently for a day or two until they come back. I find it hard to imagine him sitting for two minutes. He’s a mover, but he’s staying put in Gustavus. So is Jen thank goodness. They’re staying for the same reason we are. Because they weighed the possessions of the world in one hand and wolf prints in the sand in the other and asked, “why?” Granted, we like microbrews, Disney movies, ice cream, and Parks and Rec. But darn it all if we could live without days like this with mountains above our heads and wolf tracks at our feet.

We reach the mountains where a stream splashes into the grass and a fence of Alder paves the way for Spruce and Hemlock. “True southeast rainforest,” says Patrick, and he dives in. We follow. Our cracking of branches punctuated with tenuous calls of, “hey bear.” We step into the clearing beneath the branches and into Narnia. Devil’s club is just beginning to bud and Fiddlehead Ferns are poking their heads out from their moss blanket. We pick some, leave others, and fantasize about what we can cook. We walk home with maybe a pound of greens, but from the looks on our faces you’d have thought we’d found a thousand dollars.

***

At the end of the road is the Shabin, occupying three hundred feet on 4.19 acres. We prune the willows that are invading the road and stare up at the Cottonwoods that bookend the clearing. And we talk. We talk a lot about what we want to do. And Brittney and I keep coming back to sharing it. What if we could make this the end of the road for someone else too? Brittney, Jen, and I walk through the stand of old Spruce behind the Shabin. It’s the driest spot on the property with a ditch on one side and and a Willow swail on the other. We’re going to have to take some of these big beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to think about it. Can man live without destroying it?

We step out of the Spruce and into the open light of the swail. The morning light glistens off the standing water and we talk about what a great place this would be for a bench. A place to come and watch the Chickadees, Juncos, and Moose ply their trades. What if this is where the four of us spend the rest of our lives? I imagine a bench on the edge of the woods, plopping down with these people, beers in hand, and watching a moose rooting for reeds.

I can see our cabins through the woods behind me. A garden in the clearing. Maybe a smoker and a writer’s studio. Maybe I should get the ruts out of the road and the clearing drained first.

Kim Heacox once asked me why I was ready to drop my roots. There’s no right or wrong answer. Kim galavanted around for years and has seen Antartica, Russia, the Galapagos, and has designs on spending time in Rome. Even now, when his demographic is scheming moves to Florida and weekend golf dates, the travel itch remains unscratched. I don’t feel it the way he does. I don’t feel the need to travel across Russia by train or disappear for months at a time. I want my roots to grow deep here until they’re planted so far down that nothing can move them.

I want to follow those wolf tracks into the mountains and trace every cove of Glacier Bay. I want to watch the Orcas crash through Icy Strait again and again and again. And I’m ready to do it now. I’ve sampled the world and loved it. I’ve had my trail mix stolen by raccoons in New Zealand and been lost in Costa Rica. I’ve been peed on by Howler Monkeys and dealt with more frumpy border guards than I can count. I’ve loved every single moment. I’ve cherished my rambling. But I’m ready to come home. I’m ready reach the end of the rambling road. I’m ready to turn off the ignition and plant 500 carrots.

Which doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier. In all likelihood it’s about to get a lot more difficult. My carpentry experience ends with making leaky garden boxes, and my landscaping knowledge is even more embarrassing. But if I’m going to fail, or at minimum screw up (and I will screw up) I want to do it here. I’d rather fail in Gustavus than succeed in Seattle. Because if I fall here there’ll be a dozen hands to pick me up, put the hammer back in my hand, and tell me to get back at it. Virtually every person in this town has been where we are right now. Each one of them arrived at the place where all the roads end and realized that was right where they needed to be.