Tag Archives: National Park Service

The Park Service is Going Rogue (And Kayak Guides Should Too)

Last summer was the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. In Glacier Bay National Park, they spared no pomp or circumstance. Every poster, every talk, every presentation was prefaced, footnoted, and concluded with a reminder that they had hit the century mark. It got kind of comical after awhile. When someone reminded me that it was the 100th anniversary I feigned surprise:

“Really? They should have told someone about it!”

It was all capped with the opening of a traditional Tlingit Tribal House near park headquarters, complete with carved canoes paddled by the Huna Tlingit across Icy Strait and into Bartlett Cove. The day dawned with fog choking visibility to less than a mile. Flights were canceled. Lisa Murkowski was trapped in Juneau, 65-miles from her photo op. Sweet sweet justice.

As I floated in my kayak that day and watched the triumvirate of canoes emerge from the mist and heard the chants and beating of drums, the hair stood up on my neck. It was one of the most impressive and moving moments I’ve ever experienced. A powerful reminder that this place has meant something of incalculable significance to humanity for centuries.

But I also felt a twinge of annoyance that the NPS had chosen to do this on their anniversary. After decades of animosity between the federal government and Huna Tlingit, I felt conflicted on how I felt that it was done on the Park’s day. Perhaps I was picking nits. After all, the NPS had footed the bill for the place. I’m just some punk kayak guide who fancies himself a writer and by extension is a critic of the human condition. I’ve questioned the Park’s intentions before, scoffed at the cruise ship industry running amok in the west arm, and the damn “UnCruises” and their new “high usage” back country areas.

Fast forward a few months.

All of a sudden my critiques feel like the meaningless spats between a married couple. Was I really complaining about the Park Service leaving their metaphorical dirty dishes in the sink? Was I really all worked up because now 50 people were allowed to walk along a trail next to Reid Glacier instead of 12? My life was so simple I had the time to bitch about the Norwegian Pearl interrupting my morning as I looked down Johns Hopkins Inlet.

Now I look at the Park Service the same way Rey looks at Luke Skywalker.

It’s like a mixture of “I Am Spartacus” and “This is Sparta!” Between the Badlands National Park going rogue on Twitter to the new “Alt-National Park Service” movement, I’ve never been prouder to be affiliated with the Park Service. Right now I’m just hoping there’s going to be a “backcountry” in four years and argue about.

Knowing the people I do that work for the NPS, this defiance shouldn’t be a surprise. For many, if not all of them, their work is not just a job. No, people work for the parks because they genuinely care. Trump didn’t expect that. He assumed they were a bunch of good little worker bees that wouldn’t say a word as long as they kept their jobs. Guess what buddy? You just kicked the hive to discover the bees were hornets, and they’ll be damned if you’re going to take America’s honey from them.

But he’s going to try to muzzle them. We’ve seen it already with the EPA and when he forbid the Park Service from tweeting after they posted a photo comparing how small Trump’s hands crowd was at the inauguration.

One of the biggest jobs in Glacier Bay during the summer falls to the Interpretive Rangers. A crew of patient, knowledgable, and energetic folks who step onto each cruise ship that passes the park boundary to tell people what the hell they’re seeing and handle such cracker jack questions as:*

“does the water go all the way around that island?”

“Is that glacier made of salt? Is that why the water’s salty?”

“Are there polar bears on the glacier?”

“Do you believe in climate change?”

(*these are real questions)

Ah, yes, climate change. First, stop asking, “do you believe?” This is not a religion. There is no Church of Global Warming. You can chose to accept the facts or not. They exist whether you “believe” in them or not. It’s science, irrefutable science.

For the past eight years, NPS rangers have been able to calmly and accurately regurgitate the facts of respected scientists from across the globe, explaining the uncontrolled growth of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, the uncontrollable rise in ocean temperatures, and the extreme unlikelihood that human beings are innocent.

But of course the angry Oompa Loompa isn’t going to let people discuss a Chinese conspiracy on his dime. Which isn’t actually anything new. Park rangers were forbidden from discussing the effects of Climate change during Bush’s second term. Maybe, just maybe it had something to do with Dick Cheney’s ties to the oil industry. Just maybe.

So the Park is once again going to be shackled by the irrational opinions of the man in the White House. So while the Park Service may have to have a more muted level of public resistance. Though I would anticipate several “off the record” conversations aboard those cruise ships this summer. But the kayak guides have no such shackles. We can say what we want and do what we want as long as we don’t harass marine mammals and get five star reviews on TripAdvisor.

So the mission statement has changed a lot from: give people a nice lunch, talk about John Muir, and maybe see a Humpback to a full blown: Edward Abbey and the Monkey Wrench Gang recruitment poster.

Wilderness guides have the incredible opportunity to impact people from across the globe (as long as they’re not from Middle Eastern countries where Voldemort doesn’t have any business ties). When people come in contact with the physical world and dig their toes in the sand or walk through a forest framed with Devils Club, their hearts and minds open. There is a golden opportunity to get through to people, or at the very least, get them to listen. I’ve convinced “if it can’t be grown it must be mined” Republicans that maybe, just maybe, Common Murres are worth more than coal, at least for an afternoon.

The point is, people listen to the guide. Partly because their lives depend on it, partly because it is insanely obvious that we give a shit about these places. We care so much about something so much bigger than us and it shines through. And if the Park Service really can’t talk publicly about the threats this wanna be emperor is creating for these places, it’s up to us speak even louder, scream it at the top of our lungs to everyone we meet.

People are desperate to act and fight back. Many of them will be rushing to their parks this summer to get a good look at America’s Greatest Idea in case they disappear. They won’t. The Park Service has made that clear. The American people have too. Did you notice how fast that bill to sell off public land disappeared? Being a guide has always been about trying to change people and impact their lives. That’s still the case. But it’s something bigger now. Now I’m arming people to fight back, to take their experiences and wield them as a weapon. And as the Park Service continues to resist, it will be an honor to stand beside them every step of the way.

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Past, Present, & Future

For thirteen of the last fourteen days, I have paddled. No complaining mind you. Every morning, as the alarm beeped at 6:45, I rolled out of bed, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and reminded myself how lucky I am.

I get to kayak today. I’m gonna get paid to kayak.

Something at our genetic and biological level embraces kayaking. Our brains float in just enough liquid to roll with the flow. A roll and flow that kayaking mimics perfectly. Sit down in the seat, push yourself away from shore, and feel your heart slow down, your spirit lift, your mind breath. A soothing tonic. There is no road rage in a kayak. How can there be?

Here, inches above the water, the world makes sense. The tide ebbs and flows. You move with it, against it. Learn to worship the wind one moment and curse it the next. No other medium of travel brings you as close to the natural world. Marvel at the sea lions until you realize, they’re coming at you. Too close, too much. And it’s gone. The moment evaporating like a mist in the sun. Above all, kayaking forces you to be present. To exist in that moment and none other. There is no multi tasking. As the world demands that our hands be doing two things at once, our minds pulled in four directions simultaneously, the kayak demands our full, undivided attention.

But today is a day to see the whole 65 mile bay aboard a vessel that goes faster, much faster. Traveling by boat feels foreign. The shoreline goes by as a blur. From the top of the 60-foot catamaran, a level of intimacy is lost. A humpback blows, but the sound is swallowed by the engines. Kayaking is macro photography. On your hands and knees, the lens inches from the subject. If Edward Abbey had come to Glacier Bay he’d write about motorized vessels the way he wrote about cars in his precious Arches.

“Crawl on your hands and knees, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see something.”
“Paddle 20-miles a day, until your fingers are cracked and swollen. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll see something.”

On the Baranof Wind is a melting pot of humanity. Americans, Canadians, Indians, Chinese. Young and old. Couples and families. Retirees and trampers. “Everyone deserves to see this place,” I think.

Along for the ride is a guy named Lucas, working in Gustavus for the summer by way of New York and Portland. A wooden pendent hangs by a piece of rope around his neck. His long hair pulled back, a pencil shoved in the knot to keep it under control. In his eyes I see young love. The spell that Alaska has cast on thousands of young men and women throughout the years. That glint, the Chris McCandless gleam. The spark the wants to climb every mountain, fjord every river, climb every tree, love every moment of the marvelous gift called life. In his hands are a video camera and boom mic. He’s here not just to document the bay, but the people onboard. It’s not lost on him that there’s no small irony to be found under Glacier Bay’s erratics. Those of European descent jostling and clamoring for a view of the Huna Tlingit homeland. The homeland that was set aside without their consent. The homeland that had survived four glaciations, their breadbasket set aside for the wonderment of the conquistadors.

Lucas’ idea makes me squirm. Maybe that’s the point. As we move up into the bay I remind myself that, as much as I consider this my home, it was never mine. I’m the visitor. The wanderer, the tramp, the (gasp!) immigrant. Love it as if it is yours. Treasure it.  After years of animosity and distrust, the Park Service and the Huna Tlingit seem to have reached an understanding. Gull eggs are once again being harvested, a traditional long house now stands in Bartlett Cove, to be opened on August 25th, the 100th birthday of the Park Service.

“How interesting,” Brittney says as we talk on the back deck, “that the day the Huna Tlingit’s come home is on the park service’s birthday.”

I’d never thought about that. Was that respectful? Appropriate? Does it paint the park service as the heroes, a “look how far we’ve come!” sort of thing? Am I thinking about this too hard? How easy it is to look up from the seat of your kayak and criticize those above. After all, with no park I’m not here. It’s easy to throw stones until you realize that you’re taking the rocks out from under your own feet. 1500 people are going to be at the unveiling on August 25th. I’ll probably grab a kayak, bob in the middle of the cove to watch the proceedings. Seems an appropriate place.

Three young boys come onto the deck led by Mom. They’re between 5 and 9 years old, dressed in matching royal blue rain jackets. One has a pair of binoculars and scans the shoreline near Tlingit Point. The water is glass, the mountains visible. The bay feels alive, drinking sunbeams. Perhaps it matters less where we’ve been and more where we’re going. Too much has happened in the last two hundred years. Too many mistakes. Assimilation, sea otter hunts, greenhouse gases. Trying to rebuild it seems too much, an impossible task. Like trying to recreate the bay before the Grand Pacific came charging down and sent the Huna across Icy Strait. Maybe that’s the lesson this ever changing land is teaching. That change is inevitable and it’s what we do with those irreversible changes that matters. Let’s celebrate the partnership of the park service and Huna Tlingit. Together maybe this place can change lives for the next 100 years. Thousands of impressionable brothers in matching rain jackets being molded by the glacier the way the mountains and inlets are.

I lay on the top deck of the boat. The sun is beating down on me, there’s just enough of a windbreak to block the worst of the headwind. Even with my eyes close I know right where we are. Just north of Geikie Inlet which John Muir named for a scientist buddy. I love how well I’ve gotten to know this bay. An old friend with more mysteries and stories than I’ll ever discover. It can all disappear at the whim of the glaciers. I like that.

The boat turns sharply. I prop myself up on my elbows and look toward the shoreline. Hanging in the air is the vapor of a blow. I get up and lean against the railing, for there is no such thing as too many whales. Seems odd that we’re turning to watch a humpback. We’ve passed two dozen today and time is running short.

Two more blows in rapid succession. Even from a distance I know they’re not humpbacks. I can’t say how. But after ten years of chasing them, of scanning every bay, inlet, cove, and fjord for them, I can feel it more than see it. A scimitar shaped dorsal breaks the water, than another, and another. My heart rate quickens, my vision narrowing. Are they always going to do this to me? I know any minute now the captain will make the announcement. That the holy grail of marine life is two hundred yards ahead. Justifiably there will be a stampede as everyone strains for a glimpse of the Orcas. Everyone deserves to see this place and the lords of the ocean in their true and wild home. But for a moment I savor it, for a moment it’s just me and them. Made possible by this boat, by this place. May it always change but always stay the same.