Tag Archives: joy

The Lab

Inside the lab, all I can smell is cedar. It’s the first thing I remember about it and I imagine it’ll be the last thing too. The tall legged chair has a low back that digs into my Sacral vertebrae. Paul didn’t have 6’4” Wookies in mind when he designed this place.

Precious little has changed about the lab since I first walked through its doors nine-years ago. The computers have gotten fancier and the tape deck has been replaced by the miracle that is digital recording, but that’s about it. The windows are still stained, the dorsal fin shaped piece of driftwood still sits in the corner, the Auckland Town Hall “Save the Whales” poster is still tacked to wall. It took place at 7pm on June 10th, 1981 if you were wondering. I was -7.5 years old.

No, this place feels the same. The Orcas still call at all hours of the day. Tonight they’re in the strait. Cracroft Point in both ears, Parson Island in my left. A ping in both ears, an echo in the left. A whistle in both, an echo on the left. I close my eyes and I can see them. By their volume and echoes I can place them. Vancouver Island side, probably milling which would explain the random changes in volume. I lean back in the chair, feel it dig into my back, and let the whales take me away.

And as I do, the dull ache returns. Not in my back, but in my chest. The one that’s emerged each time I’ve looked at something fondly the past week. That nasty, horrible reminder, that my time’s almost up. I’ve spent 23 non-consecutive months here. It would be cliche to say it feels like I just got here yesterday. But dang it, it does.

I came for the Orcas. I came to learn everything I could about them at the feet of a master. I came because I thought Paul Spong held the secret to spending your life studying them. Nine years ago I arrived wanting to learn how to be someone else. Now, I’m leaving finally ready to be myself. I am not a scientist. I’m not cut out for research papers or grant proposals or laboratories. I’m not cut out for non-profit fundraising and holding onto my own foundation by the fingernails. I wanted to be. Thought I was supposed to be. But I’m not. I’m no more a scientist than a basketball player.

And that’s ok. Orca Lab told me that lovingly, patiently. Over countless nights in the lab, watching Parson Island fade into darkness. I may stand at the side of great scientists and leaders and advocates, but that is not my voice. My voice, my home, my Hanson Island as it were, is right here. With my fingers tapping against keys, uninhibited by the rigors and (necessary) walls of science. We need both. Science tells us we should care. But it is our emotions that make us do so.

And so saying goodbye to this place will not be as simple as closing the door to the cabin for the last time and missing the southeast storms and snap of cedar in the fire. It’s saying goodbye to the place that gave me purpose. I’m not unique in this regard. I’d wager that everyone that has set foot on this place has a story they can tell about how their life has been altered by Orca Lab, Paul, and Helena. What unspeakable beauty is there in that? That in a world where hatred, arrogance, and selfishness seems to be growing at an exponential rate, there is a place that can teach us how far love and compassion and appreciation can carry us.

“I feel most secure when the woodshed is stocked and there’s a fresh loaf of bread on the shelf.” – Paul Spong.

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Accepting Happiness

Five years ago today we walked through a dew soaked forest. Not much has changed. Everything has changed. This particular forest is in Juneau, Alaska, on a peninsula sandwiched between the ocean and Mendenhall valley. The east wind carries the breath of the glacier. The land thaws and stretches at the close of winter. There’s a cleansing smell to the forest in Spring. New growth blooms, the plants thaw and produce a rich sweet smell. You don’t breath as much as drink. I feel high on the fresh oxygen of the forest.

It was a time of new beginnings in more ways than one.

Brittney and I get off the trail and into cell phone range. She has one thing on her mind. She’s ready to start our family. She pulls out her phone, dials, and asks the question. Yes, we can bring him home.

We drive to the humane society and collect Porter. He growls, he hisses, he cowers in the corner of my beloved Ford Ranger. But he’s ours. We’re taking him home.

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Home is a trailer. A trailer with smoking electrical outlets, tree trunks for a foundation, and an empty propane tank. The bedroom is barely large enough for a mattress. It’s a dump. A wonderful dump that costs $500/month.

I’ve been out of college for a year and am going nowhere. It feels good. Whale watch guide in the summer, Kennel Supervisor at the Gastineau Humane Society in the winter. There I met Porter, introduced him to Brittney, and watched her fall in love with him at first sight.

We carry our handful of possessions into the house. Laptops, cat, mattress, a couple bags of clothes. We eat Subway that night. I prop my laptop on a crate and low and behold, find someone’s unprotected internet connection. I should feel guilty about that. But I’m too excited to put on the Timberwolves game (they were playing the Blazers, they won) and wolf down a foot long Chicken Bacon Ranch.

Porter prowls the house as we eat. He walks into every room, sits, rises, and resumes his prowling. After an hour he walks over to us and looks into Brittney’s face with a mixture of suspicion and hope. They stare at each other and Brittney taps her knee. With a leap he lands on her lap and curls up.

Brittney looks at me with tears of gratitude. My heart swells and I look around this dump of a house perfectly content. It remains one of the most peaceful and happy moments of my life, for the simple reason that such simple things could bring such immense joy.

That moment has shaped me.

Whenever I begin to worry about money, or security, or the future, I think back to that night. And I remember that no amount of cash, no job and no amount of “success” will ever bring that sort of tranquility.

And so I look at the world, and I don’t understand. Every day I’m inundated with angry people. I read articles about people in positions of power with millions of dollars to their name. People that have achieved every possible definition of worldly success. Yet they are not satiated. They don’t seem happy. They appear petty and angry, defensive and apathetic. They display all the characteristics of the middle school bully desperate to cover up their own inefficiencies by belittling those around them.

I see people worth millions of dollars slurping at the glass of capitalism. Sucking up every dollar they can find like the Coke at the bottom of their glass. Will that extra drop unlock the key to happiness?

I see people get up every day and go to work at jobs they hate so they can buy things they don’t need. I see people buy what they call starter homes. When Brittney and I went to pick out her wedding ring the lady behind the counter referred to our choice as, “a nice starter ring.”

I guess that makes me a starter husband.

I look at the world and I don’t understand. I don’t understand how people can kill each other for believing in a God they don’t. I don’t understand how people can be enraged over what bathroom a transexual uses or what gender a person wants to kiss. I don’t understand how people can use their precious few decades living in fear and making the lives of others miserable.

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There are rags to riches stories. At least by American standards they’re rags to riches. Riches of the wallet. Riches of the driveway where a brand new Ford pickup sits. Riches of the living room where a plasma screen TV sits. A Christian nation that has forgotten the story of Solomon. Cram whatever you want into your life, it will never be enough. Perhaps we think it’ll be easier to pursue happiness with a V8 engine.

I don’t understand, I have never understood, I’m done pretending to understand.

Last summer we walked into the Shabin. It’s not all that different from the trailer we walked into on Porter’s first night except the outlets don’t smoke.

We have no tape measure so we measure its square footage by laying head to foot. It’s two and a half David’s long by a Brittney and David wide. It’s not much. But it will keep us warm. It will give us the chance to learn how to build a home of our own. More importantly it will allow us to live as self-sufficiently as possible. Four acres can make a hell of a garden. Starter gardens. There’s something I can get behind.

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We step out of the Shabin and onto the small covered porch. A wind rustles through the Cottonwood Trees and the leaves whisper their affirmation. The nearest highway is 65 miles away, the airport is closed for the night, the only sound is the trees and Thrush. A Great Blue Heron flies over, its prehistoric cry fills the silence.

I feel as if I’ve unlocked some sort of magic. I wonder what creates this feeling in others. Maybe V8 engines and seven figure incomes can elicit such emotion, but I doubt it.

Maybe the key to happiness is not pursuing it but instead accepting it. Accepting that a foot long sub, a free internet connection, a rescue cat, and the love of your life is all you really need.

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A Love Note for the Raincoast

Everyone has a natural habitat. A place that fuses perfectly with their soul, their love, their passions. Some may spend their entire life looking for it, opening and closing doors, rambling from place to place, searching for the location that moves in rhythm to their beating heart. I grew up in Eagle River, Alaska. A town that sits at the mouth of a valley, carved out by glaciers millennia ago. I loved watching the mountains turn the color of flames every fall as the birch trees downed their autumn best. Loved the female moose that would come down from those wise old mountains every spring to give birth in the safety of our neighbors yard. I loved my family, loved my friends, loved my school.

I had to get out.

Everyone needs to get out of their hometown, at least for a little while. If for nothing else than to look at some different mountains or buildings or street signs. I went north. To Fairbanks. 50 below and blowing snow.

“Not even close,” I thought.

I have since found a land where I fit snugly in its hand. In some ways, it’s not that much different from where I grew up. Glacier’s are the architect, but the valleys are filled with water, and rain falls more than snow. For years I hung a map of my natural habitat in my dorm room. Greens and blues dominated the map, towns and settlements little more than punctuation in the epic tale that requires nothing but imagination.
The raincoast, how I love it. From Vancouver Island up her spine of islands and into the shining face of the Alexander Archipelago, through southeast Alaska, following the march of the glaciers. And it is here that I pinball back and forth. From Hanson Island to southeast Alaska. Fjording fjords. Cruising past canals. Passing through passes. I could live a thousand years and never tire of exploring the silent coves and hidden secrets of this land, never camping in the same place twice, no two sunrises the same, each Orca encounter more enthralling and exhilarating than the last.

I love Alaska, I love British Columbia. For how can I refuse the chance to sit inches above the water and stare at the glacier’s that still stand guard at the headwaters of many an Alaskan fjord? And how can I ever turn away from the rich smell of cedar infused forest in the early morning light, the fog burning off of Blackfish Sound? The world becoming whole, feeling both old and new with each passing day.
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Early on in the winter we knew that six more months wouldn’t be enough. The glacier’s of our summer home beckon, our jobs as kayak guides await. But… what can I say? Hanson Island gets into your blood, syncs with your heart and spirit the way few places can. Can you love two places so fiercely you can’t live without either?

Early December, a rare calm day along the B.C coast. Brittney and I sit in the cabin, watching the sun struggle above the mountains of Vancouver Island. Before either of us open our mouths we know what the other will say. That two winters is not enough. That we need another winter with ears cocked to the speakers, waiting for the first whisper of an Orca’s voice. Another winter watching the deer trace the shoreline, sucking up every strand of kelp that washes ashore.
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“We’re so blessed,” Brittney says. “Our biggest problem is we can’t chose between the two places that we love.”

It’s true. For all our talk of buying property, settling down, being “normal,” Hanson Island doesn’t encourage normalcy. How can it? It’s founded on the tenants of faith in yourself, conviction, and passion. Pillars that don’t lead to nine to five jobs and mortgages in the suburbs. Every day I look out the window to where the lab stands on the rocks. I think of the time, the effort, the sacrifice, and risk that Paul, Helena, and countless others poured into this place. Out of a love for whales, for quiet places and open spaces, from a belief that man still can coexist with the world we seem determined to exterminate. To be a small piece in that, what a tremendous honor, to know these people not just as passing acquaintances, but as friends and mentors. It is this above all that pulls me back.

“I came for the place, I stayed for the people,” wrote Kim Heacox in The Only Kayak.

Ironically he was writing about Glacier Bay, the other place that pulls at our heartstrings. A place filled with beautiful people. A community defined by the bay, the Beatles, and bluegrass.
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But we’re not ready to chose, not ready to force it. I want to drag myself out of bed at three in the morning because there’s Transients in Robson Bight. I want the tide and weather to determine when I go grocery shopping. I want to hear Paul’s smiling voice on the other end of the phone. When we walk away, we’ll never live like this again. Never have sea lions as neighbors, or have Harlequins knock on our front door. We are unique, we are blessed, we are insanely lucky.

Every day in the summer we’re asked the same question, “what do you do in the winter?”

And when we answer the follow up question is always the same, “what do you do there?”
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How to explain that it is not what we do but why and for who we do it  that makes it so special. I watch the sun rise, listen to the ocean, talk to the trees, bond with the mink, and glorify the Orca. And above all, give thanks that I can have both places for another year.

50 Horsepower of Deceit and Betrayal

The sun crawls above the mountains on Vancouver Island, the rays piercing the flimsy curtains and flooding our bedroom with sunlight. Every day the sun inches a little higher above those mountains, every day it’s a little earlier. I reluctantly stir, not ready to leave the warm embrace of the down comforter. Brittney stretches and swings her feet over the edge. With an effort I open one bleary eye.

Town day.

At least that was the theory. Johnstone Strait had been pulverized by 40 knots winds for the last week, leaving the shelves of our fridge bare. No more crackers, no more lettuce, no more beer. We’ve got to make it today. The cedar boughs looking in our second story window flutter gently in a light breeze. Today offered a 12-hour window, a respite from the parade of low pressure systems that define the winter climate.

We crawl out of bed, scarf oatmeal, chug coffee, and ready the boat. We cram the tiny space behind our little wooden seats with empty jerry cans and garbage bags filled with laundry and trash (it’s important to remember which is which). The water’s of Blackney aren’t as pristine as we’d like, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The engine comes to life on the first turn and we putter out of the back of the cove. Our departure sends the resident Harlequin Ducks scurrying for cover among the rocks and Brittney bleats out an apology on our behalf as we leave them squabbling in our wake.

But town isn’t the first stop. We turn southeast, angled for Cracroft Point, the shelter, and the solar batteries which are once again drained of power. We skip past the sea lion haulout and round the corner of Hanson Island, the expanse of Blackney Pass opening up before us and dotted with whitecaps. We hit the first bounce as we pass the two islands that sit just off of Hanson Island, affectionately known as Little Hanson.

We’re maybe a hundred yards off of north Little Hanson when the engine revs, sputters, and dies. I swivel around, expecting to see a meddlesome strand of kelp trailing from the propeller, but it looks clean. In just a few seconds, the combination of an ebbing tide and southeast wind has turned us sideways to the waves, the tiny boat rocking violently as it falls into the wave’s trough. I turn the ignition, and the engine roars back to life. But as I slip it into gear it cuts out.

Oh god.

Brittney’s face is the picture of calm, and I try to look equally at ease, “that’s odd,” I quip.

I bring the outboard engine up and lean as far out over the stern as I dare, looking for anything that could be fouling up the propeller. The black blades gleam spotless in the morning sun. Everything looks normal. I take a step back and trip over an empty jerry can, my shifting momentum causing the boat to rock all the more.

It’s not the first time I’ve been on a boat when the engine died. My last summer as a deckhand in Juneau our boat died, only to get picked up by an afternoon storm and deposited on the rocks. The same nervous feeling begins to crawl into my gut and I glance at little Hanson’s shoreline as the waves push us towards it. Better that way than out into Johnstone Strait.

There’s little room to maneuver, but I drop to my knees and pull out the boat’s gas tank from it’s slip beneath the engine as far as I can. Adrenaline courses through my body, an ambitious wave breaks over the stern and I feel the icy chill run down my legs. I give the fuel line a cursory look, everything looks connected. I grab the fuel pump like a dying man grabs his rosary, and give it a series of frantic squeezes. Please please please.

I climb over our mountain of laundry and turn the key. Cough, sputter, die. Shit. This whole time Brittney has sat quietly in her seat, watching.

“Is there anything I can do?” She asks.

“I don’t know if there’s anything either of us can do.”

I reach into my pocket and find the phone. Cell service is always a coin toss out here. But a trio of bars appear like beacons of hope. I dial Paul.

“We’re ok,” I begin with more confidence than I feel, and I lay out the situation. We agree that we should get to shore, try to find a sheltered spot, and he’d call the mechanic, the coast guard, or however else may be able to get us out of this. We’re going to shore no matter what. The ocean’s decided that for us. On the other side of the two little islands is a wind shadow, the water shines turquoise and placid. If we can make it there, it would be infinitely easier to figure out what’s gone wrong.

I grab the paddle, thanking any deity listening that it was onboard, and climb onto the nose of the boat. We inch down the shoreline for the small channel between the islands and a respite. We round the point and my heart drops. Draped across the channel is a massive log. It spans the entire distance between the two islands, just low enough to keep us from passing. We try to turn the boat and paddle out but it’s hopeless. The wind and the waves have complete control, and I brace myself as we collide with the log.

I call Brittney onto the bow, expressions of hopelessness spreading across our faces. We can’t stay here. The tide is ebbing and in a few minutes the boat will be left high and dry, trapping us for 12 hours. I do the only thing I can think of. I leap onto the log, bow line in my teeth, and together we slowly pivot the boat around so that the bow is facing the oncoming swells. With Brittney on the bow, I scurry along the rocks, pulling the boat along while she uses the paddle to push us off the emerging rocks. A tiny indention in the rocks offers just enough protection and we hug the windward side of the rock, the boat bouncing off the shore.

The phone rings. Paul again. His theory is that it’s the fuel line or water filter. But it takes both of us just to keep the boat from slamming against the shore. There’s nowhere safer to go. The ocean has us pinned in the tiny channel that will be devoid of ocean within the hour. I toss Brittney the stern line and the paddle and leap back aboard. I throw everything I can onto the seats, trying to give me enough room to operate. For a moment I stare at the engine, 50 horsepower of deceit and betrayal. I pull the gas tank free once more, trying to ignore the rocking of the boat, the grinding of the hull against the rocks.

Focus. Deep breath. Slow down.

I touch the fuel lines tenderly, gently pulling. And one swivels and pops loose. Hope floods my body. This is it. This has to be it. I reset the O-ring, pull the cap over the tube, and tighten. Brittney’s almost bent double the paddle braced against the boat, battling valiantly. I hesitate. Do I tell her to jump aboard, send us adrift, and pray the engine starts?

“Hold on!” I yell. I throw the gas cans and laundry into a heap, press the trigger, and lower the engine so that it’s just immersed in the water. Knowing the precious propeller is inches from the rocks, that every second brings it closer to the bottom, I pull the choke, say a prayer, and turn the key. The engine comes to life.

“Get on!” I yell. Brittney tosses the paddle aboard and follows after it, pushing the boat off the rocks as we back slowly out of the channel. Blackney Pass has turned into a swirling cauldron while we were adrift and we move slowly out into deeper water, the nose pointed for Cracroft Point. As I reach for the phone the water around us explodes, a flash of black and white. For a wild moment I think of orcas, but they’re too small. The Dall’s porpoise follow us like guardians across the channel, surfacing a foot away.

Did they sense our apprehension? Our fear? Were they celebrating with us? I let out a deep breath and grab the wheel like a lifeline as our little task force battles against the tide and the waves for the Cracroft shore.

Why We Have Pets

Anyone who reads raincoastwanderings knows that Porter and Penny, our pet cat and rabbit are prominent characters in our life. No boat is too small, no car ride too long to prevent us from dragging them up and down the Pacific Northwest and to places no sane person would try to bring a rabbit cage. We do this, because to us, they’re as much a part of the family as we are. With all the inconsistencies and upheaval that our wanderlust driven lives create, they have become our anchor, stabilizing. Wherever we are is home. It wouldn’t be the same without them, there personalities, and the mystified looks of border guards and ferry passages exclaiming, “you have a rabbit?”
For me, this philosophy originated in my youth. We didn’t have cats or rabbits. We were dog people. Golden Retriever people to be precise. I learned to stand by pulling myself up on the hair of our dog Niki. She would stand patiently as I pulled out chunks of hair and tried to balance on wobbling legs. When I was about nine we got another retriever. We named him Buddy after Air Bud fame and he became my shadow. Sleeping on my bed, pulling me on my scooter, and catching the pancakes we balanced on his nose.
As sad as it was when Niki finally passed away peacefully in her sleep at 13, Buddy was the first real loss in my life I was old enough to comprehend and feel. Being far away and unable to say goodbye made it even harder. Between my tears, grief, and frustration, the concept of owning pets felt so pointless. I was angry that my dog had been taken after less than ten years. Why pour all this love and emotional attachment into something that you’ll outlive by decades?
Because when the garage door opened when I got home and there was no rusty red blur streaking from under the growing crack, I realized it was no longer a home. It was too empty, too quiet, too easy to walk across the backyard without the fear of tripping on tennis balls. Because Buddy had brought out the best I had. Unconditional love, acceptance, trust, a never-ending cauldron of joy. So with heavy hearts, we got another one. We never stopped missing Buddy, but we couldn’t stand a house without a dog.
We got a puppy. A rescue from a shelter a few miles north. We named him Jake though I can’t recall how we chose his name. I write all this because Jake passed away last night in my mother’s arms after fighting gallantly against Lymphoma for five months.
It’s not fair. It’s cruel. It’s a broken world. Jake was the unofficial third son. My brother and I nicknamed him Buster after the Arrested Development character. And in some ways he was Buster. He was a mama’s boy with two older brothers, and would go into fits of sorrow whenever Mom left the room. But you couldn’t deny his heart, his enthusiasm, and the patience that made him a wonderful service dog at Providence hospital. It was at the hospital that he shined brightest, touching the lives of countless sick and hurting people. He was everything you wanted your dog to be. And after seven years that went far too fast, there’s that painful emptiness in the Cannamore house again.
Why? We know we have to say goodbye before they do. There will be a last time I hold Penny in my arms, a final scratch behind Porter’s ears. There will be pain, there will be tears, there will be a hole in our life. But it’s better to recognize the hole than to walk around for the rest of my life pretending its not there.
The last thing Mom is thinking about today is another dog. It’s time to remember Jake. His bark, his irrational fear of heating grates, and those long gangly limbs that took up Dad’s side of the bed. But when the time comes to make the house a home again, there will be four more furry legs with floppy ears and golden fur. Armed with tennis balls and love. Rest soundly little brother. I’ll miss you.

Nothing Better

Rain streaks the windows, a melodious tap marks the origin of the leak near the fireplace. In the loft it’s cold, the fire’s warming prescence muffled by the stairs and small hallway. Above is the muffled pounding of millions of rain drops, waging an unceasing battle to break through the roof like their brethren traveling down the chimney. With great effort I pull myself out of bed, the chill sapping my body of the heat the blanket provided. But it’s at least five degrees warmer downstairs where the fire still smolders, hot coals glowing behind the window. I throw another log on the fire and check the temperature. 18.3 degrees celsius, not bad for a stormy 2 am. I remind myself that it’s only the beginning, that it’s going to get a lot colder before it gets warmer. Penny’s house is wrapped in Brittney’s 5 degree down sleeping bag, she might be warmer than any of us. Though Porter looks pretty content curled on the couch in front of the fire, nose buried in his fury paws.

The leak isn’t bad, just a slow but steady drip where the wood finish of the house meets the stone pillar of the chimney. But my common sense isn’t awake even if my body is, and I finally just put every pot from the kitchen at the base of the chimney. Let the drips fall where they may, some of them have to hit stainless steel.

It has become our nightly routine, the alarm going off every two or three hours. Get up, slip downstairs, check the temperature, fuel the fire, go back to bed. We’re long past the days of turning a dial for warmth, fiberglass insulation nonexistent, I prefer it this way. Because come morning there will be no commute, no time clock, no “I have tos.” I climb the stairs, every other step creaking, a stomping like a herd of elephants behind me announces that the cat has decided to move upstairs too. I crawl back under the down comforter, the rain pounds even harder. Porter curls up on Brittney’s pillow, almost smothering her face.

Our east facing windows stream early morning light into our room. A rouge sun beam storms through the thin curtains and crawls up the bed. But if there’s sun the storm may be over. The scattered clouds are ablaze with golds and reds as the sun slowly moves above the mountains on Vancouver Island. A whisper comes from the speaker connected to the hydrophone system next to our bed. Three pods of orcas past through in front of the lab yesterday but didn’t make a sound. They rose in a perfect resting line, a phalanx of fins rising and falling as one. Sixteen orcas in all, and not a boat to be seen anywhere. The boy in me wanted to get closer, to follow them for awhile, but I could find no justification for it. They’ve waited months to have the strait to themselves, let them have it.

The whisper grows, delicate ‘pings,’ begin to echo through the speakers, the trademark call of the G pods. Brittney is up like a shot, without a backward glance she runs for the lab while I’m still looking for socks. What have I done to her? I brew coffee, feed the pets, and listen as the calls come closer and closer, the bright red clouds streaking across the heavens, reflecting into a pink sky above. The water is flat as a pond, it’s going to be a glorious day.