Tag Archives: island

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.”

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An Expected Visit, An Unexpected Goodbye

Paul announced the news in his usual, casual way, “a few people may be visiting the lab in early March from Greenpeace.” Made sense, we knew Greenpeace was holding a ceremony in nearby Alert Bay, and given Paul’s and Walrus’ ties to the organization, we figured a couple would want to stop in. Truth be told, the thought of playing host and hostess was welcome.

A few days later we received a call from the organizer of the trip. “How many people are coming?” Brittney asked.

“15 to 20.”

Our eyes went big, after months of just the two of us and the occasional passing boat, 20 people felt like a full fledged invasion. We were gonna need to bake more bread.

For the next few days we scrambled, polishing and sweeping out the pine needles and cedar boughs from the corners and wiping away the months of salt spray thrown against the lab windows by 40 knot storms.

As the Naiad breezed around the corner and we picked our way down the rocks, slipping over exposed kelp and seaweed on the falling tide, it felt like summer. As if I was standing on the docks, waiting to pick up my group for a day of whale watching. One by one, a range of generations and ethnicities stepped onto the island, making their way towards the house. I heard Paul’s words escape my mouth, “please be careful, the rocks are incredibly treacherous.”

Walrus stepped off the boat and began to weave a path into the cedar as if he couldn’t stand another moment apart from his precious forest. There was no real plan, and people wondered hither and thither. It soon became clear what the first order of business had to be. Unbeknownst to me, Bob Hunter’s daughter held the last of her father’s cremated remains in her hands, wishing to lay part of him to rest in the quiet cove on the flooding tide.

Brittney and I stood amongst the crowd huddled along the shoreline as the now flooding tide shuffled us slowly back. We listened to the eulogies to the man I had never met, but heard so much about. One of the original founders of Greenpeace, Bob Hunter had led a life that turned my eyes blurry and my cheeks wet with tears. He’d battled the nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska on Greenpeace’s maiden voyage, seal hunters, whalers, published books, and who knows how much more that would lay unwritten and untold.

“It was Paul who convinced him to stick his head in Skana’s (a captive orca at the Vancouver aquarium back in the 1970s) mouth,” remembered one speaker. A small grin spread across my face, as in my mind I could see Paul goading him toward the edge of the tank, a mischievous grin on his face.

As the ashes fell in the gentle breeze onto the waters surface, a First Nations man banged on a traditional drum, the bass echoing across the water and ricocheting off the silent old growth that stood sentinel over the proceedings. Goosebumps erupted across my body to hear the soundtrack of the land revive and return. An eagle soared over and a sea lion poked its head out at the mouth of the cove. As if they too recognized the sound, the song that spilled into Blackfish Sound, resonating in their hearts, a reminder of simpler times.

The songs ended, Bob’s ashes scattered on the turquoise waters, piercing rays of sun cutting through the surface, a gentle breeze rustling the tips of the trees. They couldn’t have picked a better day to say goodbye and we felt incredibly honored to be allowed to bear witness to this intimate and precious moment.

Making Christmas

It is somehow December. My Alaskan sensibilities tell me it’s impossible for it to be the season of; holly, mistle toe, and red clothed, cookie scarfing, overweight home invaders without a thick carpet of snow. I suppose that’s not entirely fair. It did snow one morning and it almost stuck around for the whole day. But for the most part, the weather continues to emulate an Alaskan fall with the temperature playing jump rope with the freezing point and encouraging us to maintain a fire around the clock.

The orcas gifted us an early christmas present the other day when the I15s announced their arrival in Blackfish Sound with their trademark, donkey like, “hee-haw.” After holding down the strait for much of the summer, seeing the family charge through Blackney Pass and into Johnstone Strait made it feel like August all over again. They have sense vanished, we presume they are still to the west of us in the strait. Though we have reached the time of year where the clouds and storms begin to choke the power from the solar panels, causing hydrophones to cycle on and off, especially at night. With the ocean again silent, save for the daily parade of tugs and the occasional Alaska state ferry, we can prepare, as best as we can at least, for Christmas.

Much like our ill fated New Zealand thanksgiving with the intrusive lemurs, we knew this was coming. That we were going to be far from not just our families, but our friends as well for a season that magnifies togetherness more than any other. Thanks to Helena and our parents though, we’re doing our best to bring a little bit of Christmas to the island. We’ve put up our single strand of multi colored christmas lights and a tiny, “father christmas” figurine who for some reason, is outfitted like a biblical Shepard complete with a staff, mercifully the glorious white beard remains in tact. Than there’s my mother, who can only be described as having been born with second and third helpings of, “care bear DNA.” Their christmas gifts, complete with stockings for not just us, but the cat and rabbit too are piled on a shelf in our room (Brittney insists that we need to find a tree). All together, it makes it feel a little more like the holidays on Hanson Island. But it feels weird to not be listening to the traditional Cannamore rotation of Christmas music, I can’t believe I’m admitting that.

It is, I suppose, all part of the isolation of care taking. And there are certainly days when we need the other to make us smile, laugh, or at the very least, roll our eyes. Yet besides Mom’s christmas cookies and everything else that always made Christmas special, I don’t find myself missing civilization much at all. Groceries being a 30 minute boat ride away doesn’t feel like an inconvenience, nor does getting up every two hours in the middle of the night to stay warm. On the whole, I’ve transitioned into this lifestyle magnitudes easier than I had trying to live in Seattle. When the luxuries of normality are stripped away, we find that we really need precious little to be happy and secure. There’s a roof over our heads, a pot of coffee, and a comfortable fire burning. What more does a human being require. It makes me wonder what it’ll be like when we do leave, and drive back down to the big city before escaping to the comfort and familiarity of Southeast Alaska. Sensory overload, I imagine. Perhaps Brittney should drive.

Why Do They Only Breach Close at Night?

We may have to change the name of the blog. It hasn’t rained since we got here. After driving off the ferry in Nanaimo in a torrential downpour, it has been sun and blue sky ever since. It’s wonderful to sit on the deck in just a t-shirt as mid September approaches, though I’m already bracing myself for the inevitable monsoon  that I’m sure is coming. The raincoast has brainwashed me. Even when the sun shines, I’m sure mama nature is just piling up additional rain to make up for it. See what you’ve done to me Juneau!

There is the small problem as well as the water pressure in the sink has noticeably gotten weaker and weaker in the past few days. All our fresh water is gravity fed from a spring, connected by a never ending tube of garden hoses that wind their way up a hill and through the spruce and cedar trees. There’s just five of us here and any bathing is done via the salt water tub, so fortunately we’re not using much right now. Nevertheless, a nice steady day of rain would help me breathe a little easier.

All has descended into relative quiet though. It has been nearly 24 hours since the orcas called, they’re somewhere to the north, suddenly reclusive and introverted after two weeks of tracing the shorelines of Johnstone and Blackfish. The water feels empty without them. Chelsea and I did seem them yesterday on the way into Alert Bay on the weekly pilgrimage to civilization for food and beer. Relaxed and at peace with the world, the A30s and A42s traced back in forth off the north end of Swanson Island near a place called Bold Head. We couldn’t resist stopping to watch. The contrast was shocking. Counting us three boats floated off the island, watching the two pods. I thought back to what whale watching was like in Juneau when someone saw a six foot dorsal fin. The never ending parade of boats, in a mob like blood thirsty consumers on black Friday. For a moment I felt guilty as I watched A38 rise to the surface off our bow, even from 100 yards he looked massive.  After all, I’d been part of it, had taken every opportunity to see the orcas when I could, because, try as I might, I just couldn’t look away. But here there was no ethical battle being waged inside. We were just one of three instead of thirty. We watched the families rise and fall for a few minutes and continued on our way.

Even the humpbacks have slowed down, after a week that saw double breaches and a even one surfacing in the cove just feet from shore, their prey must have shifted. But last night, as the tide ebbed and Brittney and I sat in the cabin, a sound like thunder roared from the ocean fifty feet away. There was only one thing that could make water sound like that. We stood on the deck as the moon broke the clouds, illuminating a single strip of the black water below, and a shadow, darker even than the ocean rose. The humpback’s blow echoed off the islands and we could just make out the back as it arched and pulled the flukes into the air. A minute passed before as silent as the night itself, there came a great rush, a blow, and the humpback flew out of the water, its silhouette framed by Parson Island across the pass, the frothy white splash illuminated beautifully in the dark leaped twenty feet in the air as gravity pulled the whale back to the surface. Just another small moment of joy in the world of Hanson Island.

There’s little planned between now and the 16th of September when we go from care takers and volunteers, to hosts. Throughout the year, Paul and Helena have been fund raising by offering what they call, “perks.” Donate X dollars, get a CD of orca calls. Donate 5X (see, algebra!) and get a trip to Orca Lab. Cindy and Gene put up 5X, and decided September 16th-18th would be the best time to visit. Paul and Helena politely explained that they’d be out of the country still at the IWC. “That’s ok,” they said.

Well than. Hopefully the whales come back and make an appearance for a few days, because theres only so many times we can show them the cedar trees and rubbing beach videos. Of course, if you’re willing to travel all this way, I’m willing to bet you’re perfectly happy to sit in what will still hopefully be sunny weather and watch the humpbacks, sea lions, and harbour seals cruise slowly back and forth in front of you. The night before they left, Paul  and Helena gave us a list of tasks and chores to keep the lab running in their absence as well as food and dinner ideas for when our guests arrived.

As the sun set and darkness claimed the living room and everyone began to clear the table, I asked the question I’d been meaning to for days. “These people that are coming,” I ask, “where are they from.”

Helena pauses for a moment, “the U.S,” she answers.

Something in her answer makes press further. “What state?”

A wry smile crosses her lips, Paul lets out a little chuckle. “Texas,” she answers.