Tag Archives: Johnstone Strait

Crawling the Last Few Miles: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 3

24383_376048174851_4648308_n

The engine sputtered, coughed, and died as the June Cove glided slowly to a stop on the calm water, bobbing in the channel between Alert Bay and Hanson Island. From my seat atop the cabin I spun around and peered down at the stern deck. There was no smoke or flame, nothing that would indicate we would need to start practicing a frantic dog paddle. The door to the helm slid open and Paul opened the engine hood, looking down into a maze of wires and metallic mystery. He pulled his wool hat off, running his hands through his thinning, long dark hair. Years later Paul would describe the Mercury engine as a, “big bloody monstrous thing.”

But right now the monster was pissed, we were almost exactly halfway between the lab and the Alert Bay boat harbor, and the sun was setting. After performing what he hoped would be an accurate amount of mechanical wizardry Paul moved back to the helm and the engine coughed and sprang back to life. The four other volunteers and I smiled as the June Cove slowly picked up speed. Less than a minute later though the engine quit again.

Again Paul marched onto the deck, this time glancing up at me and the kiwi, Shane who was perched on the roof of the cabin with me, “how well can you boys paddle?” he asked, a little laugh in his eye. Shane and I exchanged uneasy grins and I smiled back nervously, imagining how my mother would feel if I was lost at sea my fourth night in Canada.

Three more times the June Cove roared to life and died. A pod of Pacific white sided dolphins had begun following the wounded vessel, giggling no doubt at mans’ vain attempt to conquer this aquatic medium. Finally Paul threw up his hands and told us to get comfortable, the engine would run as long as the RPM’s were kept painfully low, and we slowly puttered to the lab, I swear a kayak passed us along the way.

An hour later we rounded the final point, and there, perched heavenly on the rocks just above the cove was the lab. Tucked back and nearly invisible among the fir and cedar trees was the house. Big bay windows overlooked the cove and Blackney pass, a tiny chimney sat on top, silt gray smoke pouring out, it was the picturesque homesteaders cabin. A board walk ran just above the jagged rocks of the intertidal to the “lab.” Much smaller, the lab had a wraparound porch that overlooked the pass giving a 180 degree view of the water and anything that moved up or down it. On the board walk was Paul’s wife Helena, her slender frame and flyaway white hair visible even from the water, a large husky at her side sent booming bark after bark flying across the cove, a marvelous welcoming committee.

Six years later there is still so much that vividly stands out from that first night. The mac and cheese and garden salad we had for dinner. Watching the sun set through those big beautiful bay windows, and just how easy the conversation was.

There were seven of us around the table that night representing five countries and different walks of life. Shane the New Zealander, slowly traveling around the world. Tomoko and Momoko, two girls from Japan where Paul was revered by many for his anti-whaling stance (and obviously hated by some). And Evan Landy, who, like me, was a biology major with an orca fascination that, like me, boarded on obsession. Helena was, interestingly enough, the only Canadian born citizen among us, who had been a school teacher in Alert Bay before meeting Paul.

I fell asleep that night not in the tent I had lugged all those miles, but on the wraparound porch overlooking the ocean, the occasional waves lapping at the rocks and the soft underwater noises emitting from the speakers connected to the six hydrophones strategically placed around the lab. Passively listening for the orcas to come into range.
I dozed off almost instantly, reveling in the smell of salt on the air, the intimate sounds of the ocean, both above and below, and the magnificent realization that I was finally, actually, here.

Boats, Busses, and Cougars: My First Journey to Hanson Island. Part: 1

In the last nine months I’ve learned how to carry three plates of food at once, how to make a passable latte, and how to describe where the hell Hanson Island is in the amount of time it takes to make change for a tall caramel mocha with whip. But since there are no lines or lunch rush on the internet, I’ll happily go into more detail now about the island, the lab you can find there, and the man that started it all. There aren’t that many ways to reach the island, it’s not like Alaska Airlines and Northwest offer nonstop service or anything. So I’ll share the way 18-year old David got there in the summer of 2008:

A flight from Anchorage to Seattle, a celebratory cinnabon and a thirty minute flight got me to Vancouver with thirty pounds of sugar in my stomach and a maze of public transportation between me and my hostel. Three buses and two trains later, lugging a fifty pound Army duffel bag (I had yet to discover the miracle that is expedition backpacks) and I was in the heart of Vancouver. I couldn’t find that hostel again if I tried. My reward was a room the size of a closet, that had last been cleaned sometime during the Reagan Administration, and a broken air conditioner that seemed to welcome in the late June humidity with open arms; I’d never felt better.

The next morning, I boarded a greyhound bus leaving from the most stereotypical bus station of all time. Complete with filthy bathrooms, empty liquor bottles and an abandoned bag of weed under one trash can. The greyhound took me to the ferry and across the channel to Vancouver Island and another seven hours north to the tiny logging town of Port McNeil. The road along the eastern side of Vancouver Island is punctuated by coastal towns; Parksville, Courtenay, Fanny Bay (giggles), Cumberland, and Campbell River. Right after Campbell River though, highway 19 veers sharply inland through the rigid, majestic mountain range that composes Vancouver Island’s backbone. For two hours there are no towns or ocean views, just a never ending tunnel of trees, with whitecapped mountains peaking through the green framed windows. Port McNeil, is the second to last stop on the line, with only Port Hardy further to the north. It’s also the nearest the bus could get me to Hanson Island. With bus to submarine conversion technology still being decades away.

I planned to spend the night in Port McNeil and it was just another mile walk, dragging my duffel behind me to the campground and the campground host who, upon learning that I planned to sleep in a tent, felt it wise to inform me that there were three black bears…. and a cougar prowling about the campsites on a nightly basis.

Cougar? What the hell is a cougar? Black bears, fine. Alaska was filled with the mischievous spry critters. In the trees, in the undergrowth, occasionally in a garbage can. But cougars were a whole different animal, no pun intended. I was one year into a degree in wildlife biology and I had no clue what to do with a large cat. I could explain how it’s muscles received oxygen and how it’s cells had divided as it grew in it’s mother womb, but nothing that would help me if it came knocking on my tent flap at three in the morning.

But I was eighteen, naïve, and feeling invincible. I threw down my credit card and asked for one cougar free campsite. Walking to my site I passed two teenage girls, excitedly reliving their thrilling encounter last night with….. the cougar. I’m sure they were exaggerating its snarling and charging behavior though. My night was cougar free and I fell asleep with steak, potatoes, and rice in my belly thanks to the sympathetic retired couple across the camp who took pity on me after my bowl of cooking ramen fell into the fire. Putting my tent away the next day I happened to look up and found a black bear looking back as he stood near the dumpster fifty feet away. After all the jungle cat talk though a bear felt almost tame, I shrugged and went back to packing my tent.

All I had to do now was catch a ferry to Alert Bay, the miniscule village on the comma shaped island of Cormorant Island, just a couple miles to the east. But that was as far as B.C’s public transportation would take me. Because my final destination was not a city or a town, there is no dock, road, or parking lot. Just a tiny little unnamed cove with a trio of small buildings constructed in homage to the 1970’s back to the earth design.

This is the place known as Orca Lab. Paul Spong and Helena Symonds home and research station. Strategically placed at the mouth of Johnstone Strait, the lab overlooks Blackfish Sound, the highway in which 200+ orcas swim down every year, chasing salmon. I had arranged to meet Paul at the ferry terminal and sat on my duffel bag bouncing in anticipation watching cars drive onto the ferry bound for Alert Bay and realized that I had one small problem. I had no idea what Paul Spong looked like.