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Two Bears for Mark

I’m curled in my sleeping bag, the Alder trees at the back of my tent shelter me from the early morning sun. I’m somewhere in the world between dream and reality. So when I hear the sound of Mark’s boots making their way through the Reed grass, I’m not sure if it’s real or imagined until I hear his voice. His tone is calm and measured, but something in it makes my eyes snap open and heart rate quicken before he finishes his sentence.
“David? I hate to disturb you, but there appears to be two brown bears walking towards us along the beach.”

Hate to disturb me? I glance at my watch: 6:45 in the morning. Not that it matters. I want to be disturbed if there’s pair of brownies on the beach no matter the time of day. I unzip my tent and am greeted by my two hundred roommates. They’re small and elusive, rusty red and jet black. But the high pitched beat of their wings all sound the same in my ears. I’m inundated with the gnats immediately. But I brush them out of the way, pulling my bug net and can of bear spray along with me.

Mark is cool and collected as he points down the beach to the place where he last saw the bears. A lot calmer than I’d expect a guy from New York city to be during his first Brown bear meeting. Actually that’s not fair. It’s not like Mark Adams has never left the concrete behind. He’s hiked the mountains of Peru, gone where no white man has ever been in Madagascar. When you write like he does, people send you everywhere.

Which is why we’re here in the early morning light at the north end of Russell Island in Glacier Bay National Park. Mark’s writing a book about Harriman’s Alaskan expedition in 1899 and John Muir’s travels. When he needed a kayak guide, I was blessed with the opportunity to lead him into the wilderness. To travel as Muir did, one paddle stroke at a time. To explain and describe the land and creatures as they passed. And of course, to bring us back in one piece. The first part had been easy. The bears would make it tricky.

I walk down the rocks, trying to get a better angle of the beach. What a sight I must be. The weathered and experienced Alaskan guide, rubbing sleep from his eyes and pulling up his pajama pants that are a size too big. The pants are absurd. Navy blue with a pattern of wolves howling at the moon. The sort of thing you wear on rainy Saturday mornings while drinking coffee. Not fighting bears.

I step onto the tallest rock I can find and stare into the tall Rye grass at the back of the meadow. My body’s awake but not my eyes. I rub them again, trying to focus and keep my expression calm and collected. This happens all the time of course.

Two little brown ears pop up among the grasses. Little satellite dishes that recede the thin long face of a brown bear. Instinct kicks in. I clap my hands and call out good morning. I don’t shout, I want to save some volume, just in case. The bear looks at me, head tilted sideways, politely curious. As if he’s rising on an elevator another bear appears next to him. They’re skinny and young. Probably just got kicked out by Mom within the last month. Four year olds. Teenagers. Young, dumb, ready to take on the world. I can relate.

They saunter back into the woods as I call. Nonchalant and relaxed. I turn and beam at Mark. We’ve talked a lot about bears the last couple of days. I’m glad we saw one. He’s got his little waterproof notebook out, scribbling notes. A few minutes go by and there’s no sign of the bruins. I put on more respectable pants and pull out the Coleman stove, putting water on for coffee. I’m forgetting something… mugs!

Leaving Mark with the stove and food, I jog back up the beach and to the tent, digging for the thermoses. No sooner do I reach the tents and Mark’s voice floats up the beach.
“David? Your friends are back.” Uh-oh.

I come back down the beach, my pace a little quicker this time. I find a big rock and jump on top of it. I spread my legs and stand tall. Stretching my thin 6’4” frame as far as I can. I shout, I clap, I wave my arms. The bears spare me a half-second look and go crashing back into the Alder. From my vantage point I can see the trees shaking fifty yards back from the beach. They’ve cleared out.
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(The beach the night before the bears. The bears came out of the Alder near the blue/green tent)
I reach Mark and the stove, setting the thermoses down and pouring the boiling water into a Nalgene we’re using as a coffee maker. While the coffee steeps I run back up the beach for socks. The bugs are eating my Chaco attired feet alive. I reach into a dry bag and freeze. Something is snapping twigs in the Alder feet from me. Boots forgotten I step back, clapping and shouting. I’d started at a six, my volume’s at ten now. I reach into my pocket for the bear spray. It’s not there. It’s on the beach with Mark.
As calm as I can I shout down the beach, “Mark, can you bring the bear spray up with you please.”
I feel caught. Food and author on the beach, tents and kayak near the trees. In my head I can hear the voice of the park biologist Tonya Lewis. “Don’t let the bears get your food.” I run back down the beach, clapping and shouting the whole time. A plan forms in my mind. Grab the food cans and stove. Pile it at the waters edge, break down the tents. Get the hell out of here. If they want the beach this bad, it’s all there’s. I meet Mark halfway, his arms laden with bear cans, the stove, and water bladder. I grab a handful of gear, turn, and feel my heart drop. The bears are back. Feet from Mark’s tent. For the first time in my life, there’s a bear between me and my kayak.

I grab the bear spray from Mark and charge up the beach, calling at Mark to follow me. In my panic, a tapestry of expletives flow from my mouth like water down a mountain. “You… bear! Get the… away from my… kayak!”

One of these bears is brave. Too brave for my liking. While one slinks into the woods just out of view, the bolder one moves between the tents. Three more strides and he’s at the kayak. I grab a baseball sized rock and close the distance to forty feet, Mark at my heels. “Look as big as you can.” I tell him.

I shout more words you can’t say in church. I pull the safety off the bear spray. The rock cocked like I’m Nolan Ryan, the bear my Robin Ventura. I’ve never fired bear spray at a bear before. Had proudly told Mark 36 hours ago that bears were misunderstood, shy gentle creatures. Leave it to nature to make me look bad.

I’m ten yards away. First and 10. Russell Island Bears versus Gustavus Kayakers. It’d be a route if it comes to that. I finger the bear spray and shout again, I feel my throat getting raw. At last the bear turns.

I’ve looked into the eyes of many wild animals. Orcas, humpbacks, moose, sea lion, seal, deer. But only a bear’s gaze has the ability to make me feel like I’m two feet tall. Nothing is more untamed, more wild. Daring you, defying you, to tell it otherwise. “This is my house,” they say. “Do you want to see what happens in my house?”

I don’t, and I have a feeling neither does Mark. Although his guide getting ripped limb from limb would make a hell of a chapter. The bear turns and gives a little huff. My knees go weak. The bear spray rising above my hip. Dimly I register that there’s no wind. A clear shot if it comes to it. The bear turns and starts to walk away from the kayak. My heart’s in my throat. Keep walking, keep walking.

He slips into the Alder like a phantom. But for how long? I cover the last few feet to the tent. Mark has stood calmly by the whole time. No panic, no fear. What’s going on inside is a mystery, but he’s a heck of a lot calmer on the outside than I am.

We drag our tents through the meadow and over the rocks, our sleeping bags and clothes still inside. We’ll dismantle them near the water. Right now I want as much room between me and the Alder grove that I can.

Fifteen minutes later we float 100 yards offshore in our double kayak. I glance at my watch and laugh. I’d set a timer for the coffee. It’s been steeping for 52 minutes. I hand Mark a thermos, a Cliff bar, and an apple as he scribbles notes. “Got it get it down while it’s hot.” He says.

The bears are on the beach, right at the water’s edge, digging for tidepool Sculpin and munching on Blue Mussels. They’re a lot cuter with 150-feet of water between us. My heart rate slows. This is all they wanted. Two hungry bears, learning to survive without mom. Trying to find a route to the low tide and the protein. We were just in the way.

I rub the side of the kayak, relieved and relaxed. I didn’t want my career defined by one wrecked kayak. The morning is gorgeous. The water is turquoise, that electric color that only the glaciers can mix. As we float Mark pays me the highest compliment he can. “This may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been… nice choice.” As the bears work their way back into the woods I grin like a hyena and strike my paddle against the smooth surface.

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Somewhere Unoccupied

It’s good to be back. I squirm and fidget in the plastic seat, trying to make my life jacket sit against the combing. Again and again the jacket slides up. I give up, letting the combing press against my lower back. It doesn’t matter. Bartlett Cove is paper flat. Clouds are thrown across a deep blue sky at random. The only sound is my paddle in the water. Glacier Bay. I’d tell you to never change, but change is all you do.

On days like today I stop just beyond the dock. I look out into the mouth of the cove and drink in the lower bay. I stare out into Icy Strait, at the islands of Lemresier and Chichagof. I feel my heart slow down, my chest inflate, my body at peace. It’s a sensation that only a kayak can bring. Maybe it’s the angle, seeing this place from the vantage point of the Murre and Murrelet, otter and sea lion. Perhaps it has something to do with the knowledge that it is up to you and not diesel fuel and outboards to get where you want to go. Or maybe it’s something deeper. Something buried deep within our chromosomes. A treasure within each of us, waiting to be discovered.

Whatever it is, life is different from the seat of a kayak. It magnifies the soul while reminding you how small you are. What a wonderful reminder. There are no advertisements, no one telling you what you deserve or what you need. What you need is all around. Beyond Lester Point the upper portions of Glacier Bay come into view. The east and west arms beckon. A labyrinth of tide rips, adiabatic winds, and endless waves of mosquitoes await.

 Come on in. But leave security and your ego at the door. Leave your boots on. Keep your eyes open. Breath deep. Be free.

Some of the most memorable moments of my life have happened here. Just off the shore of Lester and Young Island. They’ve chiseled me like a piece of wood. Sculpted and refined me. A project never finished. There was the day the sea lion surfaced a foot behind me. That cunning, malevolent look in his eye, teeth curled into a snarl.     He still gives me the shivers. Still makes me tense when a sea lion approaches. Orcas in the middle of the channel. The perfect end to the perfect day. A humpback in the mist, the sound of his breath reaching out through the infinite nothingness. A siren, beckoning me closer. If I dare.

Swim with me. Commune with me. Guess where I’ll be next. Take another shifty look beneath your paddle. Look for my shadow.

The humpbacks. Too many memories and stories to retell them all.

“What’s the closest you’ve ever been?”

Such a simple question in theory. But mere numbers cannot begin to convey what it feels like to watch the water come alive. To watch it quiver as the head and back of a 40 ton creature breaks the surface ten feet away. To describe the simultaneous rush of euphoria and terror. Your gut screaming for you to run and to stand still. How three seconds can last lifetimes. What it’s like to watch a tail as wide as a Cessna break the surface. The sound of rushing and dripping water. And than… gone. Just like that. No trace, no markings save for some rippling water. It defies description. How does something so big just… disappear?

Somehow, through the beauty and grace of the universe, this became my job. To paddle among these animals. To learn the tides and eddies as intimately as a lover. And to pass that love on to others. To pull them gently from their comfort zones and into a world that continues to persevere. And above all, to show them that wilderness is something to worship. To love and cherish. That all we need to do is tap into those ancient desires deep within each of us. It’s not something to be feared, for respect and terror are not exclusive. Follow her rules, read her tides, understand her weather, and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams.

This is home. Perhaps I cannot trace my ancestry back to the fog choked mountains of southeast Alaska. But I’ll love it as if I can.

For His Old Branches II

The rain falls as a fine drizzle, turning the surface of each rock and log smooth and slick. My body feels unbalanced, the chainsaw in one hand, oil and two stroke fuel in the other. Beyond the crunch of my boots against the loose rock the world is silent. Blackney Pass stands calm and tranquil. The vista slows my heart and mind. This view. How easy to glance past it after all these months. The islands and channels are worn into my mind like the creases and callouses on my hands. Swanson, Harbledown, Baronet, Cracroft, Blackfish. What names. They stir the imagination, fall smoothly from lips and tongue like water over stones. For years I stared at maps, brushing my fingers over their namesakes, their crude imitations of green and blue put to paper. Now? I see them every day. May the novelty never fade.

I bend over the chainsaw and pull the cord. Through my ear muffs I can hear and feel the vibrating base of the saw as it comes to life. Oil, fuel, and metal. In my hands, with the simple pull of a trigger, I become master of the woods. Capable of felling trees that have patiently grown for a millennia, evicting squirrel, thrush, and deer as the roar of progress and the thunder of manifest destiny march through the woods. But for this I have no desire. I could no sooner fell a growing Cedar than take a man’s life.

I head down the beach. I’m searching for a sacrifice. For a gift willing to disappear from the physical world through the chimney of our cabin leaving only a small pile of ash as a talisman. The log is weathered and worn, maybe a little water logged. But its location is good, and cutting this one opens up space to negotiate the nicer, friendlier logs behind it. I pull the safety, click the button, and the war cry of humanity echoes off the standing trees. I cut with my head down, the trigger pressed halfway. The sharpened chain cuts clean and smooth. No knots. No warping. What a tree it must have been. Before it was reduced to this. Reduced to laying naked on the rocks, it’s branches stripped, its roots severed. I love reading the stories of the old hand loggers. The one’s that went up Tribune channel just north of here. Each tree was selected with care. It had to be. For each one had to be felled just right and rolled into the ocean. Clearcutting wasn’t just unnatural, it was impossible. Hard work. Anything but glamorous. That I could do. No one hand logs anymore. Carve a road into the hills and forests. Strip the forest. Every. Last. Tree. This log I’m cutting is nothing more than a refugee.

Brittney joins the ritual. She wraps her arms around the rounds as they roll free and patiently walks them up the beach, dropping them with a thud that shakes the forest floor. The rain continues to fall, mixing with the sweat on my brow and back. Cutting wood always makes me perspire. I have no idea why. I’m just standing here after all.

I work with my back to the water, the incline slightly uphill. After a time I stop and rise, stretch my back, and turn. A tug and its massive tow fills the strait. It chugs south with diligence. The rumble of the massive diesel engines echo in my chest. My eyes fall on the tow and a snarl spreads across my face. A log tow. Hundreds, maybe thousands of logs lay piled a hundred feet high. A hundred logs high and a hundred wide. Plucked from the raincoast, heading south to await their fate. As what? I’d be lying if I said I knew. Homes? Mulch? Toilet paper? It makes little difference in the moment as a wave of disgust washes over me.

The chainsaw vibrates and slides over the rocks, bumping against my foot, reminding me of my hypocrisy, that I’m standing in three inches of sawdust. That I live in a wooden cabin. That the kayak my father is lovingly crafting for me is made of it. What if the wood for my kayak was once on a barge like this? What if it had been pulled south, past this lab. So that I could one day paddle the inlets it had once looked over.

What’s enough? What is ethical? What is right? The oil companies had a field day a few years back when Shell’s big oil platform pulled into Seattle. Hundreds of big hearted, environmentally conscious people took to the water in kayaks, many of them plastic. Floating thanks to an industry that allowed them to be there. Does that make them hypocrites? Does it muffle or mute the cause they stand for? Do I have a right to feel angry when a log tow goes by? Is it enough to say that I’m doing what I can and accept that it’s impossible to not impact the environment negatively in some way?

There’s no answer from the ocean. Hard to hear with these ear muffs on and the saw rumbling. Avocados from Mexico, bananas from California. Oil, carbon, trees, methane, melting ice caps, Republicans. Dear God. And I’m worried about a couple of trees?

“Do what you can with what you have.”

Who said that? Roosevelt I think. Teddy or Franklin? I can’t remember.

A pillar of Christianity is that we are imperfect and that Jesus does not require us to be. We need forgiveness because we’ll keep screwing up. I look down at the log and feel a shiver run down my neck as the sweat and raindrops cool on my shirt. I think about the book I’m writing, that I want to see published. More than one if I can pull the wool over the eyes of an editor. Books that will be published… on paper since stone tablets went out of style years ago.

Just because I’m an imperfect environmentalist doesn’t mean I shouldn’t, or can’t talk about it. For if we wait until we’re not harming it at all, we’ll be delivering the message on horseback in between long treks through the forest, hunting with sharpened sticks and rocks. Next summer I’ll sit in my wooden kayak, and I’ll do so without guilt. From its seat I can be an agent of change. I can touch the lives of thousands of people as I lead them into the wonder of Glacier Bay. Reminding them gently, patiently, that if we lose this we lose ourselves.

I pick up the chainsaw. I’d be lying if I said I felt good about it as the sawdust started to fly again. One by one we carry the rounds up the hill and to the chopping block to where our woodshed (made of wood) stands. Beyond it is the forest. A forest rebounding from logging. At its heart stands Grandma Cedar, the ancient tree that has survived so much, has seen it all. A forest that, if we keep talking about it, will never hear the sound of a chainsaw in its depths again.

Silent Nights in Robson Bight

IMG_5288It starts with the flutter of a Hemlock bough, almost imperceptible. It registers for the briefest moment and falls into some unlabeled file in the back of the mind. It’s subtle, quiet, it’s how every storm begins. Now two hours later the waters of Blackney are streaked with white caps and the young hemlock bends at the waist. Harlequin ducks make a desperate gambit from one cove to the other, riding breakers two to three times bigger than they are. They’re tough little things, impervious to the weather. Whatever is in the next cove over, I hope it’s worth it for them.
After a week and a half of sun, the clouds feel intrusive, cutting into our precious allotment of daylight.

The roar of the ocean feels deafening after a week of calm seas. A week that gave us the chance to return to the orca’s holy land, Robson Bight. On the map, Robson Bight appears as just a little divot in the Vancouver Island shoreline, unassuming and natural. But it’s here, in the back of the bight, where Erich Hoyt camped in the 70s. Fearless and casual, he’d sit in his row boat in the dead of night, floating on the tide, waiting for the orcas to swim by. As we cruise across the mouth of the bight for the site of the hydrophone on the east side, I try to imagine how I’d feel. What would it be like, to float on blackness, thin paneled wood between me, the ocean, and 15 behemoths? After hours with whales, many of them with nothing but fiberglass separating us, I’m not sure I’m ready to surrender my primary sense when we meet.

The site of the hydrophone in Robson Bight is on a steep cliff that drops straight into the ocean. It doesn’t descriminate, picking up the sound of tugs as soon as they clear Weynton Passage some five miles to the west. At Orca Lab we call it the Critical Point hydrophone. After the whales enter through Queen Charlotte Strait, it is on this end of the bight that they choose to either continue east into the strait, or turn back to the west toward the lab and open ocean.

But now, in the quiet stillness, nothing seems critical or pressing. Brittney and I relay the car batteries up the cliffside. Critical Point is the most vital but also the most susceptible hydrophone in the array. It has the widest range, but its solar panels are draped in shadow for most of the winter by the massive mountains at the back of the bight. For five nights we’ve been nudged awake by the unmistakable chirps of a hydrophone about to run out of power. Invariably it’s Critical Point that needs to be extinguished, leaving us sonically blind in most of the strait.

It’s easy enough to swap the batteries and install the new ones, all one needs is a wrench and an understanding that touching positive and negative terminals will lead to the shock of your life and possibly frayed eyebrows. Batteries firmly in place, I call Paul.

“Where are you now?” He asks, you can always hear a smile in his voice.

I grin back and fall into the moss putting my feet up on the rocks, drinking in Robson Bight, the rays of sun cutting through the mountains, anointing them with breathtaking halos.

“Just on the Critical Point cliff, soaking in the sun.” The honor and novelty of being here, of working for the guy that wrote the book on Orca behavior is never lost on me. This is so cool.

An hour later we’re riding the ebbing tide to the west, I’ve memorized the strait like some learn city blocks. There’s the cliff, always dead heads on the ebb coming around the corner. The Sophia’s, reef off the west end. Nice deep water off Cracroft Point.

We round the corner into Blackney Pass, the water churning as it rushes for the open maws of Blackfish Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait. Miniature whirlpools splatter the entrance, a heavy tide rip in the middle. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen Blackney in a state that I’d be willing to kayak. The water never rests.

Gulls, murres, guillemots, and murrelets manipulate Blackney’s upwelling, dive bombing for forage fish pulled to the surface. Off to the right is Barontet Passage, a long slender channel that runs east on the northern end of Cracroft. The resident orcas never go that way, but occasionally the transients – what was that?

Without bothering to slow down I yank the wheel to the right, turning ninety degrees, the bow pointing toward the opening of Baronet. A hundred yards later I slow down. Something caught my eye. Something bigger than a sea lion. I think it was just a humpback, there’s been a couple hanging out between Parson and Cracroft.

There’s a dorsal fin.

“It’s an orca.” My heart stops, resets, and accelerates. Brittney’s already digging for the 400mm lens. I don’t mean to say it with such intensity, but I can’t help it. Eight years later, orcas still do this to me. May they always.

I turn the boat so they’re on our port side. The boat we’re in is only about ten feet long and when you sit, you’re barely four feet above the surface. You may as well be in Erich Hoyt’s row boat. And on the rambunctious currents of Blackney, you couldn’t ask for a worse platform to photograph.

“Can’t you keep it level?” Brittney asks as the orcas-four in all-break the surface.

The group heads the same direction we’ve just come from. I know we’re a land based research facility, but screw it. When is this going to happen again? We follow respectfully, years on the whale watch boats paying off, the camera whirs to life with every surfacing. I dig in my pocket, and one hand on the wheel, both eyes looking out the window, call Paul again.

“Hey Paul, guess what we found.”

I hear the smile in his voice as we round Cracroft Point and once again, travel east into the strait.

With All Five Senses

We are visual animals. What we see is what we get. Our sense of smell, taste, hearing, and touch takes a backseat to what hits the retina, is fragmented and sent to our brains. And yet the world is so much more than what we see. Or why would we ever get off the couch, board the plane and travel? We don’t want to just see it for ourselves, on a deeper level we want to taste, hear, touch, and smell. And yet… when we arrive our supporting senses again fall away.

For nearly half a decade I’ve watched the behemoth vessels of Princess, Holland America, Norwegian and (gulp) Disney, trace the inside passage. From ten stories up the panoramic view must be breath taking. Never ending acreages of trees, oceans, whales, birds, and bears drifting below the eyes of those that have never seen the natural world in its element. Before their eyes is what brought them here. Is that enough to make one appreciate the land? To change lives? To understand what all can be lost if we don’t change and change fast?

Do we need more? Trees and mountains may inspire as they roll by. But they are visual descriptions, easy to imagine, see, digest, and forget. From atop the ship or within the walls of the lodge, so much is lost. Layers upon layers of the natural world lay hidden just beneath the surface, invisible.

They require us to step off the gangway, out the door, and into the woods and fjords. When we do we find what was hidden was the smell of the ocean, masked by exhaust. The sound of the gulls covered by engine noise. The bite of glacially fed canals, the taste of salt drifting seductively below. We must leave behind 4G and wi-fi and sit in our ancestral home while we still can

I can’t pretend like I’ve always known this.

For three years I worked as a whale and bear guide in Juneau, side by side with the great white boats. While every day brought transcendent moments of beauty, a part of me felt empty. With the rumble of boat engines we felt compelled to add our own commentary and exclamations to the scene. It’s understandable as excitement bubbles over. But the anthropogenic noises of the boat, our feet, and the babble from other boats added layer upon layer to the acoustic scene until the sound of the whales was nearly extinguished. The click of the camera the running questions, the chirp of the iPhone removed the intimacy.

I didn’t think I could be a kayak guide. Didn’t think I’d be able to handle watching whales vanish over the horizon while I paddle slower than I walk. I went into the summer unsure of how I’d adapt. Many days I came home without seeing a plume of whale exhaust, or the shadow of a bear. But when I did, an extraordinary thing happened.

Without the white noise of man’s busy hands, we fell silent. No horsepower no clicking cameras, no thundering feet on metal, no screams and shouts. We were muted by the silence of the natural world. A world so still that from 50 yards you can hear a bear’s claws on the rocks as it turns over boulders. A moment so powerful you don’t as much hear the whale breath but feel it as it explodes from the deep end of the kelp bed yards from your bow.

Sometimes we’d just bob meditatively on the tide. Glacier Bay holding us in a trance, hearing the voices we needed to hear; Murrelet, sea lion, harbor porpoise. It would be rude to interrupt.

I began to understand.

It’s not the pictures of the whale that I need. It’s the sound of their breath, audible from miles away. The slimy comfort of the kelp fronds wrapped around my kayak. The smell of salmon so strong that it permeates the ocean’s surface as they pulse beneath the surface. It’s blueberries on my tongue, Common Murres in my ears, whale breath in my nose.

It took slowing down, not speeding up. Paddle strokes over four strokes. Smaller boats, smaller town, smaller mindset.

One of the first questions of the day is invariably, “what will we see today?”

“Nature is unscripted,” I explain, “I can only tell you what we may see.”

“But,” I go on, “I promise you’ll feel the tide, hear more than you ever imagined, and won’t get the smell of salt out of your nose for days. Believe me, in the end, that’s what you really want.”

The Spirit Walker III

In the tent his eyes opened, a slimy sensation filling his mouth. He spat and saw scales and tail burst from his lips and spray the tent. The dead herring fell to the floor, its oily scent filling the room. The image of her remained burned into his retinas, vanishing slowly with every blink, the warmth of her head on his chest still tangible in the cool morning air. He hugged his legs to his chest, desperately trying to hold the sensation that spilled from his memory, the touch of her feathers… hand, against his. The pride in his chest as he handed her the herring, the way she called his name. And for the first time since they’d said goodbye, he didn’t feel alone.
The pain in his chest was worse today, his breathing only possible in brief, sharp gasps. His paddle strokes felt ragged, uneven, and awkward. The viscosity of the water seemed to have increased ten fold while he slept, as if he was paddling through syrup. The tide was flooding however, the bay itself pushing him onward, offering one last prod north, as determined as he was for him to reach the glacier. He passed, “beach where the bear caught the moose calf” and thought of the innumerable prints still sitting in his house snapped in desperation at the fruitless prospect of capturing the intensity and power of the scene.
For the first time, there was no camera strapped to the deck, there was no point in documenting, no future in which to flip through the album, no time to reminisce. From ahead he heard the ice before he saw it, cracking, groaning, and falling, Margerie and Grand Pacific Glacier bustling about their construction site, never satisfied with their work, never content to leave the land stagnant or utter the phrase, “it is finished.” They demanded constant remodeling, to reexamine what had been done and what remained to be altered. He had grown to emulate them, never settling, never stationary. Constant motion, constant change. Even in his retreats he opened new ground, new landscape for his own personal growth.
With a final stroke he rounded the corner where they stood in all their glory. Perched upon their thrones, overlooking the kingdom they had been carving for more than 200 years. He cruised past scores of ice bergs comprised of snow centuries old. Their journey like his was almost over, this stage of it at least. As they were pulled south they would shrink, evaporate and melt, until even the largest and proudest  were liquified and sent into the atmosphere or the ocean currents, pressing onward to their next voyage.
A reckless abandon overtook his spirit, and despite his labored breathing he paddled for the glacier’s face. Each stroke was savored, each twinge in his back exalted, never had the hard plastic seat cutting into his back beneath his life jacket tasted so sweet. His life jacket. With cruel decisiveness he unzipped it and stuffed it between his feet, letting his chest expand as far as it would allow.
His arms trembled as he neared his chosen beach that stood just to the left of the great icy throne. The serac steeples and arete cathedrals towered above him, beckoning him closer. But as he rode his own tiny wake into the shallows he hesitated, the finality of his journey descending upon him. For a final time he disentangled himself from the boat that had been his livelihood and salvation. Companion and confidant.
He pulled the forest green vessel above the rocks, tying the bow line to a boulder, assured that someone would be along for it eventually. The last thing he wanted was to tarnish the place whose unblemished face he’d fallen in love with half a century ago. So long ago by human measurement, and yet… he looked up at the wall of ice comprised of snow that had fallen before the nation had even existed. And even that registered as nothing more than a geologic heartbeat in the creature of deep time.
Arms still shaking with fatigue, he began to climb, his legs steady beneath him as he scrambled up the steep ridge, his fingers clenching tightly to whatever offered purchase, his boots digging into the tiny crevasses carved by the great glacier. Sweat poured in torrents, his chest seared with every breath, but he greedily insisted on inhaling every molecule of the rich, chilled oxygens savoring. Drinking more than breathing.
Reed heaved himself up the ridge’s peak and level with Margerie’s surface. “Margerie,” he thought, “such a domesticated name for something so powerful and wild.”
The bay held glaciers named for men and universities. Men of European fame and institutions. Named for the imprint of man, to prove that they had been here, gifted with the opposable thumbs that had made us judge, jury, and executioner. But not here, this would not be tamed. No matter how many cruise ships, tour boats, and kayaks stood in her shadow, cameras aimed at her massive face, waiting for her to sing. To tell us what we longed to hear even if we weren’t listening. Margerie didn’t do it justice, in his mind he renamed her, “glacier where I say goodbye.”
Reed placed a shaking foot on the ice, the first time he had stepped on any of the glaciers that he had idolized for so long, that had made his home. On his hands and knees he caressed her, his shadow stretching across as the sun peaked through the clouds to say its farewell. His vision swam as his breath caught in his throat, his lungs struggling valiantly against all odds to obey the command to breath. Nature has little interest in theatrics.
Curling into a ball Reed wrapped his arms around his legs, tucking his chin into his chest, the beloved wool hat tight around his head, green rain jacket zipped beneath his chin. His brain called for the oxygen that his lungs could no longer provide, neurons firing as he said goodbye. He had made it, in a small way he had won. A final flash of inspiration crept through his mind, John Muir’s words ringing in his ears as his body relaxed, “what chance did a low grippe microbe have up here?” and a weak smile melted onto his face.
A final tendril of breath escaped his lips, caught the breeze rushing down the glacier and rose into the sky. Higher and higher his final breath climbed, spinning in tight circles around the peaks of the Fairweather Range, catching and percolating with the warm, moisture laden air blown east from the Alaskan Gulf. Caught in the clouds it returned, suspended a thousand feet above the head of the glacier where the temperature plummeted below freezing until the cloud’s bounty was overcome by gravity. Reed’s final breath fell as snow, a single flake that tumbled and twisted in the great gusts of wind nurtured by the ice.
Soundlessly it settled high above the bay, falling among its brothers and sisters, compacting and pressing tightly together, forming ice so dense it reflected blue. And together they surged. Millions, billions, trillions of their brethren fell, piling higher and higher. And the Glacier Where I Say Goodbye charged south. Within twenty years it had swallowed up Tarr Inlet, pushing the Murrlets still bobbing in the deep green coves elsewhere. A century later it had decimated the west arm and pulsed past the middle bay. Unsatisfied the ice continued down, destroying what had been his home, the canvas becoming a pure white, a landscape of endless possibility. With a final thrust, the glaciers reclaimed the last of their bay, a tower of ice two thousand feet high smothering the land. Reed’s snowflake hovering on the pinnacle of an arete, suspended above Icy Strait which once again lived up to its name.
The glacier groaned, cracked, and hollered, the great chunk of ice broke free and fell end over end, leaving a massive crater in the strait that filled with great towers of white water that broke against the ice. Slowly the medial moraine fell away and the glaciers relented and retreated once again. The land reborn, uncovered, untouched, untrammeled. Two hundred years after his arrival, Reed finally floated away. The bay to which he belonged beginning to grow once again.

The Spirit Walker II

That night he lay in his tent, flat on his back, watching the flimsy ceiling growing darker and darker as the sun vanished for its brief summer intermission. For the first time in decades he was scared to close his eyes. It was not fear of bears or the mystical kustaka that held his eyelids open but his own mind, a terror at what would happen to be transported again. The minutes moved leisurely by, apathetic to the knot of tension in his stomach and the anxiety in his head. As the first tendrils of morning light began to materialize Reed could fight it no longer, his eyes shut, blackness enveloped him, and his spirit left.
It was loud here. The foul smell of rotten fished filled his nostrils, his body crushed by the squirming masses on either side. The roars and barks of his neighbors seemed to travel from his ear flaps down his spine, the sound waves of the deepest calls rumbling in his chest. But he could breathe easy here. And when he opened his mouth he felt a deep bellow radiate from his chest, rushing up his wind pipe, past his massive canines and into the throng of brown fur surrounding him.
There was no peace here and he hated it. Couldn’t understand how those around him could sleep in the noise and smells that seemed to be their own living organisms. He looked across the passage to the distant beaches and rocks. It looked peaceful and quiet, perhaps there was even salmon. That was how haul outs started wasn’t it? One brave pathfinder seeking something bigger, better, more. He was that pathfinder, that rebel.
With a gigantic heave he leaped clear of the rocks, the sound of his peers echoing in his ears before being muted by the concussion of his splash. He let his body sink beneath the waves, worshipping the silence and peace. Finally he flapped his long flippers and felt his body glide forward. The water flowed smoothly past his long whiskers as he rose back to the medium of breath and life, thrusting his nose above the surface and exhaling.
The passage was not wide, surely it would take less than an hour to swim, and he lolled near the surface, rolling onto his back, letting the sun warm his outstretched flippers before turning back on his belly to swim a few feet more. Everything was quiet and still. A voice drifted across the water as he rose above the waves, orientating. There was his face, a hand outstretched pointing toward him, mouth open in exclamation. For a wild moment he considered swimming over in greeting, than the water exploded.
He felt his stomach burst, his spine snap, his body helicopter, his human face cartwheeling before his eyes. With a feeble splash he hit the water, saw the muscled black and white mass of supremacy dive into the ocean beside him. Desperately he swam for the shore, his breath coming in gasps, electric shooting pain radiating down both flippers. He had to make it. Had to reach the rocks, start the new rookery, prove it could be done. Behind him he could hear them breath, saw a flash of white slide beneath him, saw the fin cut the water beside him. And in the kayak he sat there. Helpless, unrecognizing, accepting that to live meant to die. That he was a living sacrifice so that his predator could live to swim another day. He closed his eyes, paddled furiously, and braced for the next strike from below.
The searing pain in his gut brought him back to consciousness. His chest heaving, his arms held out above him. still paddling furiously. But the pain was in his stomach, not his lungs. Where the orca had hit him? Where he had hit himself? Where he had watched the orca hit the sea lion? Were all three of them true? Were any of them? Light filled the tent as he unzipped the sleeping bag, pulling his wool shirt up to his neck to stare at his undulating belly. A great bruise covered his lower abdomen, shades of purple, blue, and yellow sprawled across his skin. With a shaking hand he brushed the wound and pulled his hand back as if seared. It was tender, as if he’d been head butted by a massive animal.
Reed brought both hands up to his eyes, rubbing them as if to clear his mind, to exorcise whatever sorcery had inhabited his body. He was alive, he was Reed Brown, 70 years old, male, and human. Not sea lion, not orca, human. As his life faded, the bay seemed set on absorbing what was left of it into its very being. Somehow the thought settled him, calmed him. He saw himself not as a visitor, or passerby, but a living and vibrant family member of the land he cherished. He took another steadying breath; feeling the ache flow from his lungs to his stomach, and unzipped the tent, on tenderhooks for whatever else the vision may have left for him.
But the stretch of bay was innocent and unassuming, and Reed swallowed his breakfast of oats and raisins without tasting a bite. As he paddled away from shore he glanced into the water, shining emerald today in the partly cloudy skies and let his mind drift, imagining the black and white thunderbolt rocketing toward daylight, the exhilaration of the hunt, the terror of the collision, the necessity of it all.
Reed looked ahead toward Tlingit Point where it stood at the base of the two arms and paddled on, pushing the fantasy and nightmare of swirling, unseen creatures from his mind.
He made good progress as he paddled resolutely onward, stubbornly insisting on paddling the full 65 miles from Bartlett Cove to Margerie Glacier at the northern tip of the West Arm. The paddling did what the medication had never been able to do and he once again began to feel invincible, half a century younger, pushing the ocean behind him with every stroke. The sun moved across the sky, dipping for an innumerable time beneath the Fairweather mountain range. Still he paddled on, savoring every stroke, ever riverlet of water that fell from his paddle’s blade, marveling at the perfect vortexes that materialized behind him as his paddle churned the surface. At long last fatigue reemerged from the muscles in his back and shoulders and he succumbed to the limitations of his body, bringing the kayak to rest near Tidal Inlet. The clouds had fallen away, leaving the sky the palest of blues in the late evening light. Eschewing the tent Reed curled up beneath the limbs of the alder and faded into sleep.
He awoke early, feeling surprised at his dreamless sleep. With the practiced movements of countless mornings he devoured breakfast and continued his vigil up the bay’s timeline of his life. He slipped past the “the bay the moose swam across,” the “mountain where the wolves howled,” and finally past, “the beach where she said yes.” Here he stopped in mid afternoon sun, walking the beach toward the massive glacial erratic. When he had asked it had stood at the top of the tideline. Fifty years later the rising land had pulled it into the meadow, the bay, like life, never stops changing.
But it would take more than her isostatic rebound to hide the memories Reed held here. He found the small groove in the rock where he had kneeled, holding out the small gold ring to her, could still see her face glowing even as the rain fell in torrents, their rain jackets like their lips pressed tightly together. Here he uttered his first words since setting out.
“I’ll see you soon, beautiful,” he whispered, a withering hand running down the rock, squeezing a hand he couldn’t see or feel.
Unable to stand in this place a moment longer he turned and sprinted for the kayak and pushed clear of the beach, apathetic to the crunch of fiberglass on the sharpened rocks as he paddled hard for Russell Island, Tarr Inlet, and Margerie.
He paddled in silence the rest of the day, watching the brush shrink away to bare rock that stood creased and scratched by the receding ice, leaving its own graffiti on the land’s geologic story. The east side of Russell Island was alive with life. Dozens of Marbled Murrelets bobbed in the sheltered water of the island, their peeps filling the landscape with the flawless communication of the mated pairs. With practiced grace they dove together only to be separated below by the allure of herring. Breaking the surface they would call to one another until their voices brought them back together. Not until they were side by side would they dive again, filling their bellies until they could barely fly, skipping over the water like flat stones, struggling to gain the lift that would take them to their homes in the old growth forest.
A small sandy spit crawled into view, an inviting bed of moss and shrubs just beyond the tide line. For the countless time Reed brought his kayak onto the beach where so much had happened. It was the beach with too many names to number. But this time there was no ambling bears, no screeching heron, no comfort in his empty tent. He sat up into the early morning hours, listening to the murrelet’s call, watching the lovers come together, suspended on the ocean’s surface tension for a second that lasted eternity, and than dive together once more.
The clouds crawled back over the mountains, the respite was over, and rain began to fall again, rainwater collecting in pools along the creases in his jacket. Finally he submitted to the call of the thermarest, and crawled into the shelter of the tent. Exhausted his eyelids fell like stones through the ocean and he felt his weightless body float through the soft tap of raindrops on the roof, tasting the sweet liquid on his tongue.
He bobbed gently on the water’s surface. The smallest ripple buffeting his body like four foot seas. But he glided with practiced grace over each crest, watching the horizon and mountains disappear from sight in the trough before coming into sight as the ocean held him above. She was near, and his head darted in precise and practiced movements back and forth, even in a crowd of their kin she was unmistakable with her lone patch of bright white feathers along her back.
Reed called out her name, his voice a singular note that peeped through the crowd of feathers, wings, and beaks, seeking out the only one who would know it was him. She answered instantly, the sound serenading his spirit and he paddled vigorously towards her, calling out her name again and again.
“Reed!” Came the reply, “Reed!”
And he saw her. Bright black eyes dilated with excitement as if they’d been apart for months in lieu of minutes. A tiny wave sent him barreling into her, their tiny torsos bumping together as he let out a final call of greeting. For a minute they sat still, staring into one anothers eyes, letting the higher powers of tide and current take them where they wished. Below their friends dived in the wake of herring that fled beneath the surface. He gazed into her face, his 8 ounce body feeling even lighter in her presence. With another call they dove, wings outstretched, brushing gently against each other they plunged into the frigid medium, lightening flashes of herring zipping past their vision. He dove away from her, turning hard to the right, following the fish down, weaving through schools of surging salmon, their eyes wide in surprise, constantly awaiting the next threat, the next predator.
A minute later, a single herring clenched tightly in his beak, he allowed buoyancy to pull him back to light. Even with his mouth full he called, the sound muffled by the dangling fish, saltwater dripping from its tail back to the ocean, the tiny ripples spreading out into the crowded cove. In a sudden rush she broke the surface next to him, her beak empty and he hurriedly forced the fish into her mouth, imploring her to eat, to nourish the egg steadily growing inside her. She let out a tiny bleat of thanks and nestled against his feathers, the current and tides resuming their control over their lives.