Tag Archives: Juneau

The Life I Never Wanted

The email was terse, to the point, and completely unhelpful. NOAA, after offering me a job upon my graduation from college in three weeks, was withdrawing their offer, citing a lack of funding. Fear courses through my blood, my knees weak, I reread the email, sure that I’d missed something. I hadn’t. It has to be one of the worst responses ever to the question, “when’s my first day?” I grab the phone and call the ladies office that I was, in theory working for. As the phone rang and rang I mentally calculated the deposit on the apartment I’d just put down and my bank account with a number that Bob Cratchit would be embarrassed by. For the next two days I wrote emails and left messages at the office, trying to get someone, anyone to return one, to explain what had happened, to give me any direction. I’m still waiting.

Things were going so well too, I’d gone to college, met the girl I’d marry, and had the, “get a job” step all figured out. I was going to graduate and work for NOAA, at least to start, make some money and than go to grad school. Well on my way to a nice respectable, safe career. My job, measuring the bioenergetics of herring. I’d even talked myself into being excited about it. Studying whales, well, it’d been a nice dream, but it was time to be realistic I told myself. Time to grow up. There can only be so many Paul Spongs and Alex Mortons in the world.

After three days of blind panic my heart rate slowly returned to normal, I began to think rationally again and deleted all those terrible emails I’d written but thankfully never sent. Life was going to take a detour, just a small one I told myself. I needed work, and I told myself not to be picky, just find something to keep a roof over your head. And in that process I learned an incredibly valuable lesson, no job is beneath you, and just because you’ve never thought about doing it, or don’t think you can, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

I applied everywhere, restaurants, pizza delivery, tourism, I even swallowed what pride I had left and dropped an application off at Fred Meyer, the same place I’d worked after my freshman year of college. I felt like I was being pulled backwards. What happened next you could call God, or the universe, or karma, or just boring old luck. I landed the job I think I always wanted, was meant to have, I just couldn’t admit. I was going to be a whale watch guide.

Looking back it seems so obvious, such a natural route for life to take. But I was pulled into the American obsession of careers and security, my life filling up with, “had tos.” I had to have a year long job, I had to start saving money, I had to buy a house, I had to have a job with health insurance, all these things I had to have. And I’d bought it, swallowed the sales pitch, and had believed it my whole life. And I still did even after landing the job that paid me to watch orcas breach and humpbacks bubblenet. My destiny, I told myself still lay in herring bioenergetics. My clients encouraged such thoughts, a nice young man such as myself needed a real job eventually, needed to make something of himself. This whale watching thing is ok, just for right now.

So two months later, when three positions opened up at NOAA, I shined up my resume, and marched back into that building with the air of a conquering hero, ready to fulfill my destiny. A month later I’d heard nothing and finally picked up the phone, this time, someone returned my call. 18 people had applied for the three positions. Positions that required only an undergraduates degree in marine biology. Ten of the applicants had masters, four more had doctorates. I’d be shocked if my resume got a second look. I hung up the phone and headed for work, there were still whales to watch after all. What, I wondered, did the applicants look like for non entry level jobs? Did I really want to go to school for at least six more years so that I could find out the number of joules in a herring? To that moment I had never considered another possibility, never fathomed being anything besides a, “scientist.”

But by the time I’d pulled into the parking garage and dug out my rain jacket I’d decided; it wasn’t the life I wanted. I could do without the lab coats because I new, deep down, I couldn’t possibly be happy with one on. In five minutes there’d be twenty cruise ship passengers, looking up at me, expecting the answers to all of their Alaska questions, and I couldn’t even answer everyone’s first personal question, what’re going to do with your life?

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Wanderlust Knows No Age

Cindy moves slowly along the rocks, one hand on her cane the other in mine as we move slowly step by step up the tideline. The steps to the guest house are just feet away when we stop for a breather. There is no fear or discomfort on her face, no sound of frustration in her voice. She had come all the way from Houston, Texas, she knew what she was getting herself into. With a determined look, her jaw set, we begin again, down the jagged rock, feet probing for a flat spot laid smooth long ago, past the loose pebbles and with two quick steps, onto the deck. Her face relaxes immediately, a smile spreads across her features. The same look we all must have had when we finally realized we had made it. Her husband Gene follows and together we all climb the stairs into the guest house.

I’ll admit I was nervous. Not just because we were representing Paul and Helena’s life work, though that was reason enough to panic. But because I was still living in the dark and terrible corner of the stereotype. I had met countless couples from Texas, some with huge belt buckles and ten gallon hats as they ambled down the cruise ships gangway. Nearly all were courteous and friendly, that wasn’t my worry. Too many though, wanted to know how much it cost to kill a brown bear. Had I? Why not? Any of these mountains being mined? Tell me about this oil money you guys get every year. I’d find myself morphing into part car salesmen, part street corner evangelist. Trying to explain the non gun toting, non developing appeal of the Alaskan wilderness. That the world would not collapse if the Arctic Refuge remained what it was, a refuge. That shooting bears with a camera was a much more rewarding and intimate experience. And no, I don’t want to discuss any of Alaska’s governors, former or current. The worst was the climate change question. It was phrased the same nearly every time, “do you believe in global warming?” As if it was a religious cult akin to voodoo.

I’d explain that yes, the world is in a natural warming phase but that man kind was helping it along. “It’s like steroids in baseball,” I’d say (it always does come back to baseball). “Barry Bonds didn’t need to take them to hit homers, but it sure helped him.” I’d stare into their faces, as if hoping to see a flashing light bulb appear over their heads. More times than not though, it was a smirk, they’d heard “natural warming phase,” that’s all they needed to hear.

Cindy looks out the window, drinking in Blackney Pass, a humpback surfaces, a sea lion splashes, she looks born again. “I’ve waited 13 years to see this place!”

They had won the two night stay on Hanson Island for their contribution to the June Cove boat fund. And two bad knees and Gene’s replaced hip wasn’t going to stop them. I smile, instantly relaxing, I should have known I suppose. Anyone willing to work this hard to reach this place didn’t deserve to be lumped in with their geographic region. I remember travelling to New Zealand, how I would tell people in the hostels I was American and the reception I received. So I just started saying Alaska, half the people seemed to think that it was part of Canada anyway. I didn’t bother correcting them. Poor Tomoko and Momoko, our fellow volunteers had to have the same nightmare. They were from Japan and any mention of Japan and whales had to instantly lead to an avalanche of embarrassing issues. The Cove, Whale Wars, and the IWC, just to name a few. We were all victims of the stereotypes our homeland depicted. And all guilty of the same assumptions.

We walk into the lab after dinner, the place from which everything they had seen, heard, and read about Hanson Island originated. They move as if they’ve just entered a church, quietly, respectfully. Cindy looks down at the sheet of paper that diagrams the six hydrophones and our location, her fingers tracing the outline of the shore line. I show them where they saw the orcas earlier that day on their way to the lab and all three of us jump as a sea lion throws its whole body out of the kelp just feet from the shore again and again.

Quietly they began to share the stories of their lives. Not about home in Houston, but there travels north. “We just keep winding up going north for some reason.” Cindy says as she admits with a small smile that she picked a programming company not for its competence but because they were based in Vancouver. They were drawn to the same world as us. A world of water too cold to swim in but too beautiful to stay away from. Of islands, strung together like diamonds on a necklace, each hidden cove and bay full of mystery. And of course the whales. They’d seen more of southeast Alaska than I had it turned out and it was my turn to listen greedily of stories from Tenakee and remote lodges on the island of Admiralty.

“We got to Seattle and decided we weren’t ready to go home once,” Cindy recalled, “so I went to the ticket counter and asked for the next flight back to southeast. He wanted to know where I wanted to go, I told him I didn’t care. We’ve been all over, but always independent, we’ve never taken a cruise ship up there,” she proclaims proudly.

“Bless you.” I answer with a smile.

Here were people that found joy and beauty in the same way we did. There bodies may no longer allow them to sleep under the stars on the rocks or among the trees, but they weren’t about to let that stop them from exploring. To stop marvelling at the breath of a humpback, the wing span of an eagle, or the simple and perfect beauty of a sunrise over the water. “I wish we would have started doing stuff like this sooner,” she says, “you two keep exploring, do it while you’re young, there’ll be plenty of time to worry about life later.”

After two short nights here they were gone. Leaving the same way they’d come, determinedly and carefully moving down the rocks and onto the boat. Looking back I wish I would have thanked them for the impact they’d made. The barriers they’d torn down, that it was because of people like them that I loved guiding so much and find myself missing it since they’ve left. I want to share peoples discoveries again. To lead them carefully to the salmon stream with a bear poised on the beach. Around Point Retreat where I know orcas are waiting and turn with a big smile and ask, “you heard of Sea World? Do you want to see how it’s supposed to be.”

And than humbly step aside, my work completed. Allowing the animals, the smells, the sounds, the view to do the rest of the talking for me. Speaking more eloquently, beautifully or convincingly than I could ever dream.

But most importantly they left me with this. The next time I’m working a trip and the couple announces they’re from Texas, I won’t fear their questions on oil, brown bears, or the refuge. Instead I’ll think of Cindy, with tears in her eyes as she talks about watching A37 swim past the lab on what may have been his last night on earth. Of Gene’s insistence that, “we’re just going to stay here forever.” And of the two of them, refusing to let age stand in the way of their adventures, making their way up and down those rocks never wavering, knowing exactly where they want to be.

Every Minute From This Minute Now, We Can Do What We Like Anywhere

I do most of my thinking while I’m jogging. And most of that time I’m trying to decide what to write about next (or baseball, I think a lot about baseball). Since the day we started the blog, I’ve been mulling how to write my farewell to Juneau. I could write about my ten favorite memories, or the people that have impacted or changed my life the most, or whales, I almost decided to just default to whales. But how can you capture a place, it’s meaning, and it’s significance by simply rattling off a list of names, locations, and events? For me, that doesn’t do Juneau justice.

 

Driving down Egan towards the bridge I stared south to the mountain range beyond the Taku River, trying to commit the image to memory and not swerve into oncoming traffic at the same time. But no matter how hard I tried to memorize the view, the shape of the peaks, their contrast with the field of greenery on Douglas Island, and the suns’ sparkling diamonds on Gastineau channel, the image fades. We look away and become distracted, the picture blurring and distorting. In a year you could show me a picture of that channel and the mountains beyond and I would probably recognize it. But heaven forbid I try to describe or recreate the picture in my mind.

 

It is, tragically, how our memories are. The harder we try to hold on to pictures and moments, the quicker they seem to slip into some buried folder in the back of our minds. Instead, I will try to remember the way Juneau made me feel. The emotions it dug up, the feelings and passions it drove to the surface, and the influence it will have on me for the rest of my life.

 

I came here because it was still Alaska, it had a university, and it wasn’t Fairbanks. It was my three step selection process and precious little thought went into it. I just knew I had to get out, try something new, and that I couldn’t handle another winter of darkness and 40 below. I arrived brimming with nerves, self doubt, and little confidence. I felt pressure to prove myself in class, find a research job, and be successful. It was turning me into a nervous wreck. I had to have life figured out and understood, and had to have it now.

 

But Juneau started to quell those demons before the ferry even hit the dock. My welcoming committee featured paired breaching humpbacks on a 70 degree day. I began to feel a level of peace and belonging just a few nights later, camping on the beach as the echos of breathing humpbacks ricocheted off the rocks. I began to relax and listen to myself. I accepted David for David. From curly hair to gangly limbs. I became comfortable in my own skin, and stopped asking “what should I be getting out of life,” and instead wondered, “what do I want out of life?”

 

And I think those are the emotions I’ll leave Juneau with. I have grown to embrace myself for who I am and where I’m going. I know that I don’t need an office or a career if I don’t want one. That as long as I’m happy with myself and my direction it’ll be alright. So now, five years later, it’s almost unbearable to leave. And when I stop and think that everything I own is going to be crammed into a car in just two short days it makes my head spin and eyes well up. But Juneau made me this way, shaped me to one day leave her. She gave me the bravery and strength to walk away. And for that I’ll be forever grateful

 

So Saturday morning I will stand on the stern deck of the ferry and watch Auke Bay pull out of sight. I’ll follow the road past Eagle Beach, Bird, Gull, and Benjamin Island, and slowly past Berner’s Bay. I’ll soak in as much as I possibly can and one last time, remember exactly how Juneau made me feel.

Our Best Ideas Are Imagained in Bars

I wrote Paul the next day, and after 48 hours of constantly refreshing my email, got the answer I needed, “you and Brittney are more than welcome to come work next summer.” We celebrated the only way Juneau folk no how. We threw on our nicest Xtra-tuffs, and found a bar. It was as if countless doors had just cracked open. We could do that expedition kayaking trip in Canada we’d always talked about, hike the Pacific Crest trail, move to Seattle, get a caretaking position. Caretaking, it always seemed to come back to that. There was such an idle romanticism about it. Imagining a winter in some tiny log cabin. The wind, snow, and waves buffeting and rattling the walls and windows, as we curled around the wood stove, spruce wood crackling heartily. It was an easy subject to get lost in by your third glass of wine and fourth IPA, but somehow, it just kept on returning to the front of our minds. Our best ideas are imagined in bars.

 

Shortly after Paul’s answer, I’d sent word to Evan, the British fellow I’d met at the lab, announcing I’d be making my triumphant return. What happened next can be credited to God, karma, or the universe, but regardless, remains one of the biggest miracles of my life.

 

“They’re looking for someone to watch their place over the winter,” he wrote, “how cool would it be to be there for a year?”

 

I stared at the computer screen. This was a movie, stuff like this doesn’t just happen. Your dream job doesn’t just randomly appear in your dream location, two weeks after you decide you’re going back. Brittney barely got in the door before the question was out of my mouth, and I still may have been hyperventilating to much to get out anything beyond, “Paul’s… lab… caretake…. winter.” But when I finally calmed down enough to speak coherently again, I still couldn’t get the entire question out entirely.

 

“Yes,” she interrupted, “why are we even discussing this? It’s happening.”

 

The one trouble with communicating with Paul and Helena is, even in the year 2013, the internet on Hanson Island has a tendency to self combust on a semi weekly basis. This can lead to unanswered facebook messages, missed skype calls, and at times, weeks between successful contact. This was one of those times as I crafted a carefully worded letter via facebook, hit send, and waited. Days passed. I watched whales, Brittney paddled, and I checked my messages as soon as my butt hit the sofa every night. And it is funny how we get our answer when we least expect it and need it the most.

 

Which is exactly what I needed on a rainy and foggy August day. There was no flying, the whales were far from caffeinated, and I was escorting 14 people that varied from disappointed to fuming that Alaska had the audacity not to reenact a National Geographic episode for them. But what I remember the most was the rain. It was the classic southeast Alaska drizzle, clouds wrapped snugly around the trees, everything you touch drenched. Brush against a devils club leaf and you’d be wringing your pants out the rest of the day. Even after you wiped your hands on a towel, the moisture seemed to cling to your fingers, beading up and evaporating, making your fingers awkward and clumsy. The van’s windows fogged up immediately so when I tried to dramatically point out the first view of the Mendenhall Glacier, all anyone saw was gray. I smiled sheepishly as they walked off into the mist and rain, praying they would find a bear in the salmon stream. As soon as the door closed I slumped onto one of the seats and pulled out my phone.

 

It was just habit now to load facebook and hold my breath, waiting for the little message sign to pop up. I glanced at the screen, double taked, and looked again. And there it was, the message that threw the door wide open, tearing it off its hinges. The pets were welcome and so were we, all winter long if we could handle it.

 

The rain didn’t matter anymore, or the grumpy people, the long diving whales, or the fact that I had just knocked a bottle of water over and into my boot. In my mind we were already Canadians, already taking the June Cove into Alert Bay for supplies, perched on a frosty observation deck watching the sun rise. It didn’t matter that it was more than a year away, we were closer than ever to living out a dream that we had only dared talk about deep into the adult beverage of our choice. But more than anything it was empowering. We didn’t need careers, 9-5’s or a house to do what we loved. Just a little spot on a rock to call are own. To challenge ourselves, and see what we were really capable of.

 

I can’t imagine how those people must have felt, climbing back onto the bus, cold, wet, and frustrated. They must be still trying to figure out, why was their guide was suddenly so damn happy and grinning from ear to ear.

These Are the Places I Will Always Go

So, why than, did it take me six years to go back? What could possibly have kept me away from orcas by moonlight, leaky kayaks, and nights rocked to sleep by the whisper of an ebbing tide? My problem? I listened. In the months after I returned home I was told by teachers, my peers, adults, and the world in general that, while my journey was a great story and adventure, that was all it could be. I needed a real job, security, a 401K, a mortgage and three mini David’s running around eventually. And for years afterward I bought it, and tried to push myself into that square peg.

 

I busted my butt my sophomore year, taking 35 credits and somehow got the highest GPA of my collegiate career. And for the second time in my life, I decided to take a chance, and transferred from 40 below and 18 hours of darkness, to the rain soaked, humpback infested world of Juneau. And while the scenery may have changed, I still felt an obligation to the same life goals, because, well, that’s what you were supposed to do. I got a job in Glacier Bay my first summer in southeast studying humpbacks. It should have been my dream job, a foot in the door to a career with the National Park Service. But, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t relight the fire. My bosses were great, the venue breathtaking, and the work challenging. But I struggled with the scientific and calculated way everything was done. Standing on the boat, bobbing in the chop created by a juvenile humpback breaching again and again. I wanted to cheer, to whoop, the nature worship bubbling just below the surface. But I felt I couldn’t. Maybe it was unfair to compare the whole situation to my brief time at OrcaLab two summers ago, but it just didn’t fit.

 

I remember the first time orcas swam past the lab that summer. Paul, camera in hand leaning so far over the rail of the porch I thought he’d fall into the ocean, hollering at the whales as if it was the first ones he’d ever seen. I wanted that raw emotion, that childlike wonder and joy that bubbled over like a pot on the stove. But I kept searching, opening doors and closing them.

 

I returned to Juneau, met the love of my life, and married her. Two months later we ran off to New Zealand for three months and lived. Spending way to much money, learning how to milk cows, and having the most important conversation of our life. In a town called Rotorua, over strawberry milkshakes, we finally voiced what both of us had been burying, maybe for years. We didn’t want careers, the idea of being tied down to one place to long terrified us, and as far as kids… a cat and a rabbit seemed like plenty right now.

 

For me, the next location was obvious. It had been in the back of my mind for years, waiting for its chance to emerge. We returned to our seasonal jobs in the tourist industry. Brittney a kayak guide, and me a guide on a whale watching boat, our third season in tourism. In July we hiked Mount Roberts, flying past the tram, trying to leave the masses of people as far behind as possible. We reach a small outcropping of rock and get comfortable, our dialog has been brief and abbreviated. After hours in the woods together we know what the other needs. If you passed us on the trail you’d assume we were fighting. We don’t hold hands, there’s never much joking, laughing, or talking, not on our hikes anyway. It was more of a joint meditation, taking solace and peace in knowing the other was healing with every step. I remember going hours on the Abel Tasman trail in New Zealand with us barely saying a word and being so thankful I wasn’t alone.

 

We talked about the cruise ships, sitting below us in Gastineau Channel, and our never ending discussion about how we feel about the industry. Were we exploiting the land we loved or were we ambassadors? Was standing on one of 35 boats, preaching the wonders and magnificence of a humpback worth the bellow of twin 350 engines in the water? Words start tumbling out of my mouth, frustration, confusion, and guilt. The words of a man who can’t do it anymore.

 

Like she always does, Brittney just listened. Letting my words and troubles wash over her as the yoke loosened from my shoulders. She let me go until I was spent, head in my hands, still staring down at the boats. How did they still look so big from up here?

 

“You need a break,” she finally said. “If you don’t know that what you’re doing is right, that it’s not helping, we need to find what is right, what is helping.”

 

I nod, the next question holding hopes, dreams, and fantasy in its answer. “I need to go back.” I say, it’s not a statement, it’s a question. We were a team, bound at the hip, and I could do nothing if she didn’t go with me.

 

“Back to Canada, to Paul’s?”

 

“Next summer, I can’t believe it’s been five years. I never thought I’d be gone so long. I guess I kind of lost my way, but that’s alright,” I turn and smile, “it led me to you. I want to show you this place that means so much to me.”

 

She just smiles, “if that’s where you need to go that’s where we’ll go. I want to see it with you.”

 

Words catch in my throat, the emotions dragging them back to my stomach. Fortunately I didn’t need any as my wife, confidant, and best friend laid her head on my shoulder and wrapped her arms around me. I looked, south down the channel, past the cruise ships and habitation, toward the wild and untamed Taku and Stephens Passage. I could almost hear the orca’s calls, ringing in my ears. I thought of mornings on the observation deck, runs in the woods, Helena’s cinnamon roles, and even the ornery June Cove. It may have taken me five years to figure out, and six to finally put it together, but I was finally going home. And this time, I wouldn’t be coming alone.

 

Nissan Tetris: 20 days to go

Everything we own has to fit in a 1996 Pathfinder. This includes, one cat (Porter) who feels it is his god given right to move freely throughout the cabin, fasten seatbelt light be damned. A rabbit (Penny) and her cage (excuse me, Brittney insists we call it a house), and the two of us. Our bed is long gone, we’ve never owned a dresser that wasn’t made of cheap plastic, and our entertainment system has been those two fur balls we’ve shared our lives with the past two years.

So when we moved out of our cozy (a nice word for cramped) studio apartment in January to house sit until moving day, I thought decluttering would be a breeze. The mattress and end table were gone within hours of a craigslist post and seemingly bag after bag of discarded and forgotten memorabilia was dropped unceremoniously into the dumpster. So when the day came to move our few remaining possessions from the Mendenhall Apartments into the house we’d call home for the next few months, we were terrified to discover it still took three loads to remove everything. We were over capacity, by a lot. And Penny’s cage house wasn’t even set up when we moved it.

And so we’ve spent the last few months enjoying the luxuries of modern civilization such as electric heat, big screen TV’s, ESPN, and Fred Meyer while trying to part ways with more of our stuff. And yet there are things that, incredibly are just hard to let go of. A stack of birthday cards that spans a decade, a high school basketball shirt, and a pile of text books that weigh half a ton but I kept swearing I’d go back and read some day. But in the past two weeks we’ve finally said goodbye to all of them and the moment of truth is three weeks away.

The pathfinder, dubbed “Tui” after the sweet singing song bird of New Zealand needs a serious cleaning before we can actually test how much she can carry but I’m now confident it’s all going to fit. If not, we have until June 28th to say goodbye to whatever else needs to go, whether we deem it significant or not. We spent last night pouring over the highway between Skagway and Seattle, piecing together campsites, food options, and trying to realistically estimate how many miles we can cover with a hyperactive cat crawling all over us. If all goes to plan, the Seattle skyline should come into view some time on July 2nd, the first 1,731 miles under our belt.

I’ll be in Seattle for two weeks before setting out for what will, ultimately be the final destination for the four of us come October; Hanson Island, British Columbia. Through this website we hope to maintain a link to the outside world, and give people a glimpse at what we’ll be doing on our own little slice of heaven throughout the coming winter. We feel we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to grow and challenge ourselves in a way that we never have before, and I for one, could not be more excited or nervous.

It’s my hope that, with just under three weeks before we board the ferry and say goodbye to the city and people that we’ve grown to love so much in the past five years, I can give some background on the place we’ll call home, and how we came up with this hair brained scheme in the first place (spoiler alert: alcohol was involved). But for now, the words of John Muir, one of the greatest explorers of our time seem most appropriate, “We must risk our lives in order to save them.”

David Cannamore