Tag Archives: John Muir

The Luxuries of Wilderness

The boat grazes the rocks and rocks and Brittney steps onto the bow. The gentle landing is short lived as a three foot wave picks us up and throws with a dull thud against the shore. Line in hand Brittney leaps clear of the bucking boat and lands nimbly on the jagged rocks of Cracroft Point. The engine pulled up and the line unsecured, the boat is at the mercy of Johnstone Strait, a strait that seems apathetic towards the BC weather’s promise of a calm afternoon. White caps dot the surface and their thunderous crashes against the point’s steep shore is intimidating. I grab the bag and leap for the shore as another wave lifts the boat and sets it down, landing just clear of the water as the wave swirls around my boots.

Brittney handles the line like a cowboy handling a mustang, goading the boat into a small crevice in the rocks and out of the path of the largest breakers. She’s got this. Without a backwards glance I scurry into the woods, wielding a bottle of oil in one hand and a flathead screw driver in the other. The generator demands an oil change. A few feet inside the treeline the sound of the wind and waves is muffled, as if I’m listening to it with a pillowcase pulled over my head. Trying not to rush, I flip the generator on its side and unscrew the covering.

It’s incredible how much goes into keeping this place running. And even more amazing how inept it can make you feel. Between the electronics, the power sources, and internet connections, not to mention the mechanical nuances of boat repair, tree climbing, diving, and deciphering whatever voodoo it is that allows us to stream the hydrophones 24/7. Paul and Helena are probably the only two people on earth that know how it all works. It’s staggering to imagine anyone else with the combination of skills they’ve acquired in thirty some years. In the last two winters I’ve learned how to set up inverters, decipher internet connections, and giving myself more than a couple of nice shocks as I learned the difference between AC and DC. I’ve nicked the tip of the iceberg.

The oil comes out as black as night and as thick as molasses. Better late than never I suppose. I funnel the remaining oil into an old bottle and refill the generator with clear, syrupy  10W-30. Brittney appears at my side, the boat nestled in its crib.

We glorify wilderness. We consider ourselves disciples from the school of John Muir and Edward Abbey. And yet… look at what goes into surviving out here. Granted, I wouldn’t be crouched over the generator if there wasn’t an internet connection to maintain. But I can’t imagine the time and effort that it would require without 50 horsepower strapped to the boat, or a grocery store 45-minutes away. Even the men that sparked my love of wilderness had some indulgences. Abbey spent a lot of time living in a trailer, a propane stove and cot at his disposal. Heck, even John Muir had a rotating cast of savvy and tree smart Tlingit’s escorting him on his paddle trips through the Alaskan archipelago. Is the glorification of wilderness a luxury? Would Travels in Alaska and Desert Solitaire been written without them?

The oil in the funnel burps and I sit the generator upright, dipping the dipstick into the oil reservoir, the pale gray plastic coming back with a clear, reassuring shine. Would I deify the forest and ocean if my days were dedicated to ensuring my survival? I don’t know. Muir was mortified at the audacity of his Tlingit guides to shoot at deer on the beach as they paddled past. He would rock the boat so that there shot would go wide. A respect and love of nature to be sure. But for his Tlingit guides, it had to be analogous to going to the fridge only to have someone slam it shut. Not everyone has the luxury of hardtack and tea.

I screw the covering back on the generator and pull the start cord. It roars to life on the second try, spitting blue/white exhaust into the air, the southeast breeze sending it into the forest. Is my love of nature threatened by the very things that help me adore it? The avocados from Mexico and bananas from Belize that spare me the cumbersome task of crawling through the woods in search for all that is edible. Would I miss the forest for the trees and the tasty mushrooms that grow on their trunks?

This isn’t meant to belittle Muir or Abbey, two men I admire as both writers and preservationists. But would such men have been the same if they’d stalked across the western frontier a century earlier? Would that convenience have existed if Muir had been born a seal hunter? The glaciers not a monument to be marveled but a threat to his existence? Perhaps it’s as simple as saying that they were the right people, at the right time, writing the words that needed to be written to stave off humanity’s insatiable consumption of the very thing that makes us whole.

I pull the boat out of its protective crevice and the ocean roars up around it. I hold her as steady as I can until Brittney leaps aboard. With a heave I push the boat clear of the rocks and slide across the ocean soaked bow, clamoring over the top and into the relative protection of the cabin. The engine roars to life. A marvel of human engineering and brilliance. But without the miracle of organic compounds slowly compressed over millions of years it would be nothing more than a five hundred pound paperweight.

Maybe the Tlingit and Kwakiutl Indians loved wilderness the same way the European nature writers did, simply in a different way. Perhaps their love had  matured after centuries of marriage to the natural world. Their love expressed in the familiar and comfortable way a couple does after being married for thirty years, while Muir, Abbey, Brittney and I are in the honeymoon stage, breaking free of the society and concrete that compresses our chests and sends us running for the woods.

Water rolls over the top of the boat as the nose dips into the trough of a wave. Blackney Pass is sheet of white caps. I steer for Parson Island, we’ll take the longer, more comfortable way home.

 

 

 

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Coming Home

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

Glacier Rocks, Dirty Socks, Paradox, II

There’s an obvious fallacy, a selfish agenda to the prescription that can be found in the woods and secluded beaches. If the America public revolted against our vacation masters and went rogue. It we became independent travelers who once again slept on the ground and found our own way in lieu of setting foot on massive boats. How small 3.3 million acres of wilderness would become. The town of Gustavus swelling like a ballon and bursting as the masses flocked for the kayaks. The roads choked with car rentals, every Denali campground overbooked for years to come. In our lust for solitude, for wilderness, for our very roots, we eliminate any hope of finding it. There simply are not enough places left to support such a revolution.

We are no longer capable of supporting such a demand, hypothetical or not. Parks and wilderness areas are little more than satellites, little havens like Yosemite, Denali, and Yellowstone where wolves still roam and enjoy their birthright. But step outside these sacred borders and watch the canine be transformed. From symbol of wildness to pest, thief, scourge of the rancher and hunter. Fur, teeth, and claws mutating into a species not to be revered, but controlled. Our opposable thumbs giving us sovereign right to rule.

With so little acreage remaining, there is little choice for many but to blitz through with the concrete blurring beneath, the ocean rushing by ninety feet below.

“You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the gosh darn contraption,” wrote Edward Abbey using slightly more colorful language, “and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.”

But in the end, tourism won over the traveler. It’s cheaper, easier, safer. Certainly the first of these doesn’t garner enough attention. Many feel that financially the great white boats are the only way they’ll ever have a chance to see Alaska. Some combination of frugality and an unwillingness to endure the hardships of traveling cheaply and independently. Unwilling to sleep on a paperthin air mattress beneath canvas when a mattress and the rumble of engines beckons. The limitations of oats cooked above the gas stove compared to the all inclusive all you can eat, all you can drink, 24 hour a day buffet. The prepackaged, lowest common denominator overshadowing the simple and sublime.

But what do we come to Alaska for than? For the comforts of civilization? For floating casinos while the mountains cruise by? For bacon and eggs instead of oatmeal and peanut butter? Shouldn’t we be coming here to escape the familiar, the known, the comfortable? We have our whole lives to stay in pampered hotels, eat whatever we want, or play blackjack in Vegas. Hundreds of thousands of people migrate to Alaska every summer, their desire for the wild clearly not satiated. But something stops us short of truly acquainting ourselves at a deep, intimate, and personal level. How safe it is from the observation deck, where we can shelter when the wind gets too cold and there are no bears between us and the bacon. No worries, no cares, no magic. No John Muir epiphanies.

The revolution will never happen, we are tamed, domesticated. Skyscrapers block out the sun, roads smother the forests. We walk on pavement until the grass feels unnatural, the sun foreign and suspicious after years under fluorescence. Reality TV to forget our reality. Too much time looking for 3G, not enough tranquility. Facebook over of travel books.

Of course, we can’t afford to travel like this anymore anyway, so what’s the point of all this? To spend so much time prescribing a cure that people either don’t want or can’t have. I suppose it’s because every time I see a cruise ship pass by the lower bay I’m reminded of how much has changed, how there’s no going back. I feel no resentment towards those onboard, simply traveling the only way they know how.

I know the alternative, the west Arm overrun with fiberglass, a line waiting to pass through the Beardslee Cut on the high tide making my stomach turn all the more. The great contradiction of the wilderness guide. Secretly hoping not too many people listen to what he preaches, knowing his church cannot handle such a congregation.

“If everybody needed what you need, the wilderness would die.” Richard tells Kim Heacox in The Only Kayak.

“They do need it, but nobody’s telling them.”

“You are, with your writing.”

“Nobody reads my writing.”

“Good thing.”

Glacial rocks, dirty socks, the paradox.