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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.

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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.

My Orca Lab Playlist

Music and Orca Lab don’t often mix. When you’re passively listening around the clock, an earbud can miss that first whispered call. But music ties me tightly to this place because for much of my life I’ve had an iPod in my pocket.

There are songs I hear nine years later that I still place to memories centered around this place. It starts with a track by the band Snow Patrol before I even knew the Lab existed.

My first trip to British Columbia was a kayaking trip when I was 18. Returning to civilization I recharged my iPod, stuck it on shuffle, and this is what came up. For the following winter I returned to this song again and again. It has nothing to do with wilderness or nature (though it does have the word ‘water’ in it) but it pulls me back to those days when my internal compass was spinning out of control and I transformed from basketball player to Edward Abbey apostle.

The next summer I returned to British Columbia. Like many of us I had the privilege of volunteering at the Lab. And, like many of us, I made the trip north from the city of Vancouver via Greyhound bus. Blurry eyed and yawning I slumped against the window and watched the concrete give way to forest. As I hit play on my iPod, this is the first song that came on, and it is forever tied to that smelly bus station and the promise that I was almost there.

A few hours later the bus took the familiar right turn off highway 19 and into Port McNeil. Down the hill, sharp right turn, Malcom Island visible in the distance. The moment needed a song fitting of this momentous moment and fate delivered.

Is there a better song to hear into when you’ve waited all winter and counted down the days until you made it back? The answer is no, no there is not. That piano, awesome. I still get goosebumps as I remember grabbing my duffel bag and looking around as the bus disappeared, wondering where on earth the Port McNeil campground was.

We had macaroni and cheese my first night at the Lab. I’ll never forget it. By the time we’d finished eating it was too dark to pitch our tents so we slept in the guest cabin. As I sit at the table in that very cabin, I can still point to the spot on the floor where I laid out my sleeping bag that night, put in my headphones and fell asleep to more Snow Patrol

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone else, but it’s the little moments that make this place special. I’ve had Orcas buzz past Cracroft Point and been awoken by humpbacks deep in the cove on a midnight high tide. But it’s Helena coming into the lab at 6 in the morning with cinnamon rolls that chokes me up. It’s having the honor of introducing this place to others that are my fondest memories. It’s quiet afternoons with Grandma Cedar and giving fish to Harbor Seals that I’ll miss the most.

Miss. It’s still hard to fathom using that word. But miss it I will, because this is our final winter. Geez that was hard to write. In the end, I’ll have spent almost two years of my life here. It seems like a lot when you add it all together, but believe me when I say it’s gone by in a heartbeat. When memories that are almost ten years old are still so vivid, the time between feels like a blur. But Orca Lab has given me something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.

If you could have told me when I met Paul Spong that he would turn from folk hero to mentor to boss to friend, I would have cried. Paul taught me so much before I even shook his hand. His story is one of resilience, conviction, and truth. It would have been easy for him to keep quiet and stay in his lane. But Paul doesn’t care about staying in his lane. Skana deserved to go home and a cement pool was not what she deserved. So he picketed his employer when they threw him out. He went north and pushed his kayak into the waves of Blackfish Sound because his faith in himself outweighed the doubts of the world.

And look at what’s been built. Look at the lives that he and Helena have touched and impacted. It’s a legacy, there’s no other word for it. Everyone who sets foot in this place is transported. There is a look of childlike innocence, their faith in the greater good is restored, the answers to life’s questions in a slice of Helena’s bread and a cold Kokanee.

In the end I think that’s what I’ll remember most. Paul and Helena’s quiet confidence and faith in themselves. I won’t beat a drum about how people don’t do this sort of thing anymore, they do. We’re going to a place populated by people who believe and act much like the apostles of Orca Lab. In our home in Gustavus, Alaska is a young man that I imagine is a lot like Paul was when he first drove up Vancouver Island.

Zach Brown is a dark haired and quick witted 30-year old with a P.H.D in Oceanography and a deep love of basketball, good beer, and keeping the world green. Like Paul, don’t you dare tell him, “no” or that it cannot be done. The guy celebrated the successful defense of his Doctorate by walking from the Stanford campus to Port Angeles, Washington. There he traded his hikers for a kayak and paddled the inside passage to Gustavus. He is a man of constant motion and ideas. He’s a fighter, he’s idealistic, he wants to change the world. He not only wants Alaska to cleanse itself of fossil fuel consumption, he has plans for how it can be done. Will we see it in our lifetime? The pessimist in me says probably not, but he has the same faith that Paul has. The same faith that continues to believe that after almost forty years, Corky can still come home.

It is impossible to be in the presence of people like this and not be inspired.

To the south of Gustavus is Icy Strait. At the west end of the strait is a cluster of islands called the Inians. I don’t know how they go their name, perhaps some mariner meant to write Indian and forgot the “D.” The archipelago is part of the Tongass National Forest, and thanks to recent legislation, its old growth should be protected for eternity. Except for one piece. On that piece is a homestead, settled into a protected little bay. The people of Gustavus call it the Hobbit Hole. When it went up for sale, Zach Brown got an idea not unlike one Paul had all those years ago.

“Isn’t immersing yourself in the natural world the best way to study the natural world?”

The night after meeting with Zach I rode home on my bike, Grand Funk Railroad in my ears.

And so the Inian Island Institute was born. When the homestead went up for sale Zach went from one corner of the continent to the other to find funders and donors who would believe in him. The Hobbit Hole is his now. Or the Institutes to be more accurate.

It’s a place where students come to learn, get off the concrete, and see the biomes they’ve read about in textbooks. The place is run on hydropower and fed by the garden, deer, salmon, halibut, and shrimp. Brittney and I plan to be heavily involved in Zach’s work. The world needs whistle blowers now more than ever. Patient, convicted, and passionate speakers of truth and fact. And this is a place where we can scream at the top of our lungs and enlist the generation that will either clean up the messes of the past or be buried by them.

I won’t be callous and say it’s the Orca Lab of Alaska, for that is an insult to this place. There is NO place like Orca Lab and there never will be. For that’s the beauty of nature, nothing is identical. There is magic to every bend in the cove and the ring of every tree. I will bawl my eyes out when we pull away for the last time. I will miss this place every day for the rest of my life. I will scroll through photos and feel my heart ache for the sunrise over Vancouver Island, Harlequin’s on the rocks, and Sea Lions yelling in the night.

But the playlist is finished. It’s time. I am gracious for the peace and comfort this place has brought me and humbled to have the chance to leave my small imprint. It has realigned my vision of what I can and want to be. It has given me a direction that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am not David Cannamore, amateur writer, kayak guide, and husband to Brittney without this place. I cannot imagine what I would be without this island, Paul, or Helena. I will never be able to truly express my gratitude to those two magnificent people. So let me end this post with that. Gratitude and thankfulness for a place and people that will never be replaced. Bless this place, the Orcas it watches over, and every 3 am wakeup to record their calls.

“I know there’s, California, Oklahoma,

and all of the places that I ain’t never been to but,

down in the valley with whiskey rivers,

These are the places you will find me hiding.

These are the places I will always go.”

Tumbleweeds, Home, and Root Vegetables

It hasn’t rained in days. The air has been crisp and cold. The window each day in which the shining sun brings substantial warmth is minimal. It’s fall in southeast Alaska. And when it’s not raining, there’s no more lovely time or place in the world. So this time when we leave, it’s hard. It’s never been hard before. Because for the first time we have a home. A home than can be measured in years instead of months.

And yet…

The island calls. That blissful, green, old growth island with Cedar and deer and mink. Our spot in Gustavus doesn’t have a wood stove. And there’s something about cracking cedar over your knee, the vapor of your breath floating above a knitted hat. Something about coffee on the porch, the ocean ten feet away, the sound of sea lions drifting on a growing wind. The promise of an afternoon gale. Hanson Island, Orca Lab, the promised land. I cannot bear to pull myself away from Gustavus, yet I’m giddy at the thought that I will be snug in that little cabin on the rocks in 72-hours, a fire roaring and the heat spreading to warm every crack and cranny. I wouldn’t be in Gustavus if it wasn’t for the island

For this is a place that changes lives. Starting with Paul Spong way back in 1970 and has continued for more than four decades. Hundreds, shoot, maybe thousands have made the pilgrimage to this place and had their lives rocked and upended. This place changes people the way glaciers change land. And I count myself as lucky to have spent two years of my life on Hanson. I would not be the man I am today without it. And it is that which will make the final goodbye so hard. It has sculpted me into someone that holds the final green and blue vestiges of this earth as valuable as any mineral man has ever valued. It is this lesson why I must someday let go.

Hank Lentfer is me in 20 years. Or maybe I’m Hank Lentfer 20 years ago. I’d like to think so. He’s the man I want to be in a couple decades at least, let’s leave it at that. The guy with the quick wit and busy hands that can build or fix anything. He built his house, starting with a 16×16 frame and turning it into a wooden work of art. In my non Hanson Island life I’d see someone driving a Ferrari or BMW down the street and feel an inkling of jealousy mixed with a desire to have one of my own. In the post Hanson Island life I have the same feeling when I see Hank’s garden and root cellar. Inside the cellar are two garbage cans (they’re clean) stuffed with carrots he grew. Another two garbage cans worth of potatoes are nearby. Mason jars are stacked like Jenga blocks on the shelves holding everything from Coho to cranberries. Call it root vegetable envy.

For years Hank and his wife Anya went without hot running water and still have no indoor plumbing to speak of. There’s an outhouse out back or you’re free to just let’er fly off the porch if you wish. Heat comes from a wood stove, the fridge in the arctic entryway is a new acquisition. All these choices were made not out of financial necessity but by choice. Because contrary to the modern world’s opinion, they aren’t necessities.

There’s something inspiring and beautiful about doing so much with so little. But even more, I think there’s something so beautiful about being so happy with so little. It’s a desire Brittney and I both have, all we have to do is learn how. And who better to teach us then Hank and Anya?

All of that however, means saying goodbye to where it all started. A tree’s roots cannot cover hundreds of miles, not matter how sweet the soil may be.

But not yet.

For tumbleweeds need no roots, they travel with the wind, blown south to that little halibut hook shaped island every fall. Where there’s no root cellar but humpbacks sing in the evening. No glaciers but dew clings to the boughs of Cedar branches like diamonds on a necklace. The very smell of Cedar will forever remind me of Paul, Helena, and the A30s calling in the dead of night. Hanson Island’s fingerprints are all over my heart and soul, and there they’ll stay until my final breath. Whatever my life may bring, whatever words are ever published and bound between two covers will be because of Paul’s smile and Helena’s cinnamon rolls. Every paddle stroke is because the A36s blessed me with a passion that will stand the test of time.

My heart feels light and my soul jitterbugs as the ferry cuts through Lynn Canal bound for Juneau. In 72 hours I’ll hear Paul’s laugh, see Helena’s face, and drag that infernal rabbit cage onto the rocks off the June Cove. Because we couldn’t have a dog like everyone else. Because we couldn’t sit still. Because Hanson Island will forever hold us under its spell.