Tag Archives: nature

Climb That Mountain

It’s been almost four years since the inception of Raincoastwanderings. I had no delusions of grandeur, of it drawing a large audience or translating into a job at Orion or Outside. It wasn’t going to make me Krakauer or Kerouac. And just as I predicted, it hasn’t. The biggest posts get maybe a couple hundred views, and I assume most of those are from my dear mother loyally visiting on different browsers to inflate the numbers. But that’s ok, for almost four years my mantra has been, “if one person is reading, I’ll keep writing.”

Raincoastwanderings has been a sort of public practice for me. If I knew one person was reading, that was enough for me to sit down and try to construct a narrative that was appealing and entertaining. Flooded with typos early on (and still making frequent appearances), I look back at some of those old posts and grimace. But this blog online journal marks the moment I sat down and vowed that I was going to make a legitimate go at this writing thing. The community that has supported and encouraged me over the years is humbling. So to all of you who have put up with me spamming your Facebook feed and inbox, thank you very much.

With that said, Raincoastwanderings is going on hiatus. Over the past few months it’s been difficult to give the site the attention it needs as I’ve been consumed with editing and submitting my first novel. That process is done for the moment and I’m now in the position of waiting and praying that some editor believes as much as I do in my 80,000 word baby. The good news and bad news is that for the next two months I still don’t foresee having much time for Wanderings.

I’ve been contracted by a travel company to edit and rewrite the Denali section of their upcoming travel book. The chapter is due in late June and it’s the opportunity that I’ve been working towards since I started writing. There is absolutely no way that I would have this chance without this forum and the people that have loyally followed it. So again, thank you for your encouragement, kind words, constructive critiques, and good humor. It has been a blast to keep this going all these years and I fully intend on returning to it once I hit ‘submit’ on the Denali chapter. Until then, I do intend on writing occasionally for the Inian Islands Institute and my work will hopefully be posted in their online journal. If you’re so inclined you can check here for occasional updates on the amazing work they’re doing.

Several Christmases ago, a certain individual (who rest assured is not reading this) climbed atop Mt. Soapbox and let me know that I couldn’t, “ride my skateboard forever.” Five years later I’m getting paid to ride the skateboard I’ve allegedly outgrown. And if the book ever gets published, he’s going to wake up to a box of them on his front porch, sitting on a skateboard.   

In the words of Jack Kerouac, “because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that damn mountain.”

Thank you all. Bless the harbor seals.

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Otters and Men; Lichen and Trees

For the first time in a week, the wind acquiesces. The temperature crawls above freezing, and like bears from their dens, we step out into a world defined by snow drifts and frozen salt spray. A week ago half a foot of snow fell, but in one of nature’s more curious quirks, the forest floor remains mostly barren. The snow has piled in the few open muskegs and clearings. The other alternative was to be blown callously into the intertidal and ocean where a biting 33 degrees still melts snow.

We step off the beach and into the forest. After years in Gustavus, the old growth of the Inians feels like a novelty. And in winter what little undergrowth there is has been extinguished. Skeletal stalks of Devil’s Club stand bunched together. In a few months electric green buds will emerge from the top of these spiny towers. A member of the Ginseng family, the forest will take on the herby odor of the buds that can be collected (very carefully) and cooked. Preferably fried in oil and served with Siracha mayo. Watermelon berries and salmon berries will appear, the blueberries a little bit behind. But for now, the land is comparatively barren. But far from empty.

A squirrel chatters. A chatter that shouldn’t be heard here. It’s a long swim across Inian Pass to here. The squirrels of the archipelago hitched a ride on a boat, either intentionally or by accident. Greg Howe seems to believe that it was by choice. Some homesteader who missed the incessant giggle of the little furry reds.

I can’t condemn though. We’ve brought our own little invasive species. There’s us of course on the three acre homestead, and our two furry companions. I don’t know if all cats will hike if given the opportunity, but Porter and Minerva do. In the woods they’re unlocked. Scaling hills, scrambling up rocks, and clutching to the bark of trees. Eyes wide and paws alight. Confining our cats to the house feels like confining humanity to the cities. Sure, they can survive, but they miss such a critical part of what it means to be human or feline. We’d prefer to not upset the song bird population. And while Porter has never been much of a birder, Minerva, like Walter before her, is tenacious. She sports a bird-b-gone. A fluorescent, multi-colored collar that fans around her neck to alert birds to her presence. She is part court jester and part Dilophosaurus.

The spell of the woods takes hold. The ground is frozen solid, like walking on chunky green asphalt. Rattlesnake plantain, club moss, and sphagnum moss are still a resilient green even after the cold that’s frozen the top of the creeks solid. Brittney carries a woven basket, collecting fallen hemlock boughs and old man’s beard. She advises me to keep an eye out for any of the teal-blue lichen that’s fallen to the floor.

“Why do you only want fallen old man’s beard?”

“Because it takes a long time to form on trees. It’s more sustainable to only harvest that which has fallen.”

Fair enough. I had no idea. Lichens are a prime indicator of the overall health of a forest and the cleanliness of the air. Stealing the indicator of a forest’s health feels sacrilegious. Yet I was ready to do so blindly. What else, I wonder have I callously taken which was not appropriate? A great glacial erratic has planted itself firmly on the hillside. The size of a small house, a pair of mountain hemlock have secured themselves to the top. Their roots as large as pythons slither down the rocks, seeking the forest floor below. One root has made a sweeping U-shape a foot above the ground and attached itself to another tree. I stare at the miracle for a long minute. What on earth compelled the tree to do that? Why make that U-turn so close to the ground? Unless… unless it knew the other tree was there and knew it’d be firmer if they were connected. But how did it know it was there?

The secret lives of trees are secret indeed.

Brittney finds a skeleton. Another deer, larger than the one we found on Westeros. The skull is half the length of my forearm, the molars the size of thumbnails. Brittney is incapable of passing the shadow of another spirit without paying respect. She kneels and examines the bones, cups the skull gently in her palm. The bones are bleached and white, whenever this deer said goodbye to the physical world was long before our arrival. But for Brittney that doesn’t matter. She keeps me grounded. My U-shaped root holding me fast when I’d rather climb my erratic and head for the sunnier canopy.

Maybe the secret lives of trees isn’t that secret. Maybe, like us, a tree’s life is best when you hold the hand of one you love.

We weave back down the hill, through a stand of alder, and onto the beach. To my surprise, the property is only a few hundred yards away. After an hour among the spruce and hemlock I thought we’d traveled much farther. There’s been a flock of twenty Canadian geese that have made the hole their base of operations for the last two weeks. They bounce from beach to beach, servants of the tidal whims. But it is the resident sea otter that catches my eye. He’s eating. As usual. He doesn’t have a choice.

What the coyote and wolf were to the homesteaders and ranchers of the west, the sea otter is to southeast Alaska. They are a villain, simply for their biology. Because they have no blubber, they must eat constantly to feed their feverish metabolic rate that keeps them warm. Walking the low tide with Zach, he pointed out how much the tidepools had changed over the last ten years. Ever since the otters got a foothold and began to devour the clams, mollusks, sea stars, and most importantly, the crab of the Inian Islands and the panhandle. The diversity of the pools has plummeted. More seaweed, less of everything else.

It’s not their fault. Like us, like every creature on earth, they’re simply trying to live. And unfortunately, tragically, their consumption falls in line with what we want to eat as well. There’s satire, an Onion headline in mankind criticizing the over-consumption of another creature. The otter is not always a pleasant critter. They eat everything that moves, their mating habits are… uncomfortable and inappropriate. Yet they are just critters. Incapable of having the moral and ethical choices that we have. They don’t have that convenience.

I’ve often thought that we love orcas because we see them as ideal reflections of ourselves. They’re born into air-tight family units. They want for nothing. They’re identity is in those they love and live with. Nothing troubles an orca. They are perfectly content, comfortable in their own skin. If orcas are humanity at are best, perhaps otters are us at our worse. Consuming every resource we can get our paws on. Changing every ecosystem we touch, eating ourselves out of house and home.

The otter continues to bob up and down, every few minutes he dives for another snack. I think of the lichen of the forest. Like me he doesn’t know any better. How does he know that his dinner is changing the tidepools at my feet? How was I supposed to know old man’s beard needed so long to grow and flourish? And there I have my difference. If my species was going to continue to sprint past the limitations of evolution, then it was my responsibility to limit myself if nature wasn’t going to do it. It’s a tall order. The hardest word in the English language for man to utter is, “enough.”

Someday, the Hobbit Hole will no longer be able to support the otter. He’ll eat himself out of house and home. And what will happen then? The sea otter population of Glacier Bay has finally crested. About time. There’s more of the furballs in the bay than the entire California coast. Nature has begun to regulate. The familiar peaks and valleys of populations. Lesson one of any Population Biology class, the lynx and the rabbit rising up and down together. I don’t worry about the otters, I don’t worry about the crab. It’ll all even out in the end. I continue to hope, that when it comes to man and nature, the ledger will someday even out too.

Westeros

The Inians are splayed out like a handful of watermarks. Inians. Such an odd name. Even Zach isn’t sure where it came from. Like someone started to write Indian and lost interest halfway through. But we know where Hobbit Hole comes from. Zach’s mother Carolyn christened it long ago because “The Pothole” was just too secular, and Hobbit Hole is a much better name.

The little archipelago is sandwiched between some of the wildest water on earth. To the west is Cross Sound, which should be renamed “Small Craft Advisory Pass.” Even on days where the wind blows from the east ten knots or less, the ocean swell sends six foot waves crashing against the westernmost islands.

Icy Strait lies to the east, an indomitable stretch of wild water in its own right. Bracketing and connecting these two bodies of water are North and South Inian Pass. The nautical map we’re studying holds a warning both exciting and intimidating.

“Tidal currents in north and south Inian Pass can reach 8-10 knots. Mariners should use extreme caution.”

Extreme caution? Who knew there were categories of caution. What exactly would constitute minor or moderate caution? Staying home would be exercising all the caution. But if that was the case, there’d be no reason to be here.

We load a pair of double kayaks. Brittney, Zach, Laura, and myself have the hair brained idea of exercising minimal caution and paddling to the westernmost island in the Inians, an unnamed chunk of land stretched vertically as if the very pounding of the oceans storms had flattened it. It’s an island that, as far as we know, hadn’t been walked on by Xtra-Tuffs in a long time.

We name it Westeros, which sounds like a rejected Middle Earth landmark, and set off. From atop the main island yesterday, Zach and I saw an exposed peak on Westeros. A peak that would offer a 360-degree view of open ocean, Chichagof Island, the Inians, and the Fairweather Range/Glacier Bay. We cross the half-mile wide channel between Westeros and the other unnamed island in the Inian cluster. This channel was nicknamed “the laundry” by commercial fisherman because trying to cast nets in the channel on the flood was like being in a washing machine. A rock cliff on the east side is covered in graffiti, the signatures and dates of the boats that had anchored here. A good luck charm they said, at least until a boat sunk the day after scrawling their name on the granite.

We find a beach to land, tie the kayaks to the alder, and disappear into Narnia. There is a sense of wildness here that is not captured many places. A sense, some sort of intimate knowledge that man has not treaded here. And if he did, he did so with a light touch, without staying long enough to leave a mark. We scramble up a hill covered in the loose shale of the island. Atop sits the bones of a fawn. The tiny scapula and ribs bleached, the white stained with the green of the forest that is consuming it. The ribs are the length of my middle finger, delicate and innocent.

Trails criss cross the hills and cliffs. The deer are here. Zach looks slightly disappointed at leaving the rifle behind. After our big Coho day in September, harvesting a deer seems like the next natural step.

We follow the trails whenever we can, trusting they know the easiest way up steep cliffs with loose rocks, rotten tree trunks, and squirrely roots. The vegetation is not what I expected. Banzai shaped mountain hemlock and shore pine dot the island, grasses grow on the south facing slopes, muskeg gives off the impression that we are walking through a frozen Serengeti.

“How many people,” I wonder aloud, “can say they have walked in a place where no one else ever has?” The percentage has to be less than 1%. For the frontier is no more. Google maps has plastered everything, for better or worse. But here one can escape this discouraging fact. Here there is just us, the deer, and a Rock Ptarmigan in winter plumage. White as a ghost it sits beneath a banzai hemlock, it’s head twitching back and forth as we creep past and above it for the summit.

It has been 24-hours since I stood on the peak of Westeros and it is that summit that has made me appreciate John Muir all the more. For Muir wrote beautifully of course, but his amazing ability to capture the natural wonderment of this place and convey it in words is second to none. I am simply not gifted enough to do it justice. But imagine a 360-degree view, each 90 degree turn offering a completely different vista of breath taking beauty. An open ocean view that spans to a horizon that is almost dizzying. Horizontal vertigo, it pulls in and pushes away at the same time, like the swell that pounds at Westeros.

Chichagof. Tall hills covered in snow, unpassable thickets of devils club. Streams thick with salmon eggs. Brown bears slumbering in caves and beneath deadfalls. The Inians and the Hobbit Hole, the last of the homesteads. And the Fairweathers. Oh those big snow coated mountains, shining so unashamedly bright they hurt the eyes. Brady Glacier flows at the feet of La Perouse and Crillion. Peaks that are over 11,000 feet high. All hail the glacier makers. What would the leaders of this world think if, just for an hour, they could sit here and do nothing but slowly spin. Would development, profits, winning, still feel tantamount? What if they ate the most delicious sandwich ever made? Ate the carrots of the victorious and guzzled the tea of salvation.

“I feel like this peak needs a name.”

“Not everything needs to be named.” Brittney says. True.

The wind whips from the east. Clouds form in eastern Icy Strait and begin to come our way. Laura points out a Lenticular cloud forming like a hat atop La Perouse. Zach wanders about and finds his favorite Alder tree. It’s chilly up here, it is January after all. It may snow tomorrow. I hope it does.

With a reluctant final glance at La Perouse and its headgear, we begin to make our way back down toward the kayaks. Past the Ptarmigan and along the trails of the deer. Returning the island to its rightful owners.

“This forest is old,” Zach quips, quoting Legolas’ description of Fangorn.

“How old is it?” I ask.

“Very old.”

May it always be that way. We linger on the bones of the fawn again before we slide down the final hill and return from our commune with the gods of Cross Sound. The reality of sea level. There is a shared sorrow at the passing of the little deer. The unspoken irony that Zach wishes to go hunting tomorrow. That we hope he gets one. The painful reminder that to live is to die. And to die is to feed another. I remember Laura landing her first Coho. The grim look on her face as it lay at our feet. Her hand reaching out for the fillet knife.

“I want to do it.”

Brittney repeating the same action a week later. Patrick running his hand down the lateral line of a Coho. The one Coho I landed, stared into its eyes, and then returned. Because for some reason I couldn’t swing the pliers, couldn’t cut the gills. This is life out here. How life should be. Forgive my arrogance.

We paddle out from shore and ride the swell like a couple of murrelets. A sea otter with its pup bobs in the chop. And I am grateful, profoundly grateful that my life includes these people, those mountains, this ocean. The opportunity to come home with dirty Carhartts, numb fingers, and red noses. Zach and Laura’s mission is to ensure that more young people can do the same. That this island cluster would change lives. And as we turn the corner and into the wind, I know it already has.

Clay and Rain

Rain beats on this cabin like a drum. Even gentle little sprinkles sound like an oncoming tropical storm. And when the October downpour begins we have our own personal Metallica concert complete with a double bass drum.

But this little Shabin heats up quick, even if it loses it just as fast through single pane windows. It’s windows look out on trees, trees, more trees, and occasionally moose. We’ve heard wolves howl, grouse bellow, and magpies chitter. We’ve picked the cranberries and begun to wage war on what will be a never ending drainage problem.

I’m not sure what most people do first when they buy their first home. But somehow I don’t think the first priority is digging up the front yard. Before a cabin, shoot, before running water, we want a garden. It’s not a quaint little hobby here or an excuse to get our hands dirty. In a town where a ripe Avocado recently went for five dollars and 22 cents it’s a necessity to supply as much of your own food as possible.

The problem is, Gustavus isn’t all that conducive to growing food. It supplies food at bountiful quantities with fish, moose, berries, and wild greens. But for those that want to do a little less Paleo and a little more Agro, the trouble lies two centimeters beneath the “topsoil.”

Clay. As thick and gray and heavy as you can imagine. Three feet of it in some places. Some places are drier than others of course and some are blessed with property jutting up against the Salmon or Goode Rivers which provide drainage and swap the clay for a more palatable sand. But we are not so lucky. We’re on the wet side of a wet town in a wet climate in a temperate rainforest. When it pours our front yard becomes a lake and the path to the outhouse a stream. All thanks to the impenetrable clay which could give Patagonia a run for their money in the water resistance category. Rainwater hits the clay, balloons back to the surface, and drains as fast as a grouse crossing the road (which isn’t very fast).

There’s a few options. We can build everything on stilts and resign ourselves to never wearing anything smaller than an Xtratuff, or we can try to drain it, raise it, and work around it.

***

The shovel goes into the ground with a satisfying crunch. One advantage to the clay layer is there’s little in the way of roots. I jump on the shovel and feel it sink all the way down. After carving out a square foot I try to pry it out of the ground. In my mind I can already see the little clearing as a finished project. My neat little ditch running parallel to a garden overflowing with food, the envy of Gustavus. I blink and return to reality.

At some point in the not that distant past someone cleared out this little area, probably to lend a little light to the Shabin that sits on the northwest side. And perhaps of accomplishing what Brittney and I are setting out to do: feed themselves. But if they ever considered draining it they didn’t get very far. A couple truckloads of fill (a fancy word for sand and dirt that you pay for) had been brought in on the premise of raising the ground and creating a drainable surface. Besides bringing in some invasive reed canary grass however, the strategy had failed.

Fall’s not the best time to assess your land quality around here, everything’s soaked through. Step off the concrete and you’re in boot territory regardless. But even a handful of sunny days has failed to drain our future garden site. Each step brings water to the surface. Our water table is literally zero.

I grip the shovel tightly and heave the first square foot of clay free. It’s so heavy and waterlogged that I have to squeeze the shovel and bend at the knees to keep it from slipping out of my hands. I chuck it into the canary grass behind me on the premise of someday cutting it with a more arable soil for the garden. As I become acquainted with ditch digging Brittney brings wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of fill across scrap wood and dumps it on the roadcloth laid out in a rectangle. We figure a 17 x 17 foot garden is ambitious enough to start. Between the ditch and the fill we hope to drag the water down and rise above it, at least at this spot.

***

Since the glacier released it, our 4.2 acres have remained virtually untouched. Outside of the punched in road, the clearing, and the Shabin, not much in the way of “progress” has gone on here. We walk among the pines, watch them give way to hundred year old Spruce, and transition beautifully into an old Willow Sluice where Snipes nest in the Spring and Moose bring their calves. It may be wet and soggy, but they’ve managed just fine.

“We’re not owners, we’re guardians,” Brittney insists.

To her this is not our land simply because a piece of paper says so. Every jay, moose, and coyote is welcome in her domain. She has room for all of them and couldn’t sleep at night knowing she had displaced others for the betterment of herself.

“If you go with a stem wall (a building method where you build your house on a concrete pad),” Kim Heacox says, “they’ll come in and go to your home’s footprint and dig and dig and get all that clay out, and they’ll make it disappear.”

It sounds great on paper. A house built on sand and concrete. Contrary to the old bible parable, a house built on sand is just fine as it compresses nicely and doesn’t buck during frost heaves. We walk our home site and look behind us at the thick grove of trees that includes a couple of those hundred year old Spruce’s. We’re not sure how a Bobcat and Caterpillar gets through that, but it doesn’t bode well for our roommates. What if we did piers buried past the clay line and built our home on top of that? Working with nature instead of manipulating it.

***

By the end of the day we’ve carved out 170 square feet of garden space. We stand on our little gray island. Mud and water are incredibly still seeping up through the road cloth, but it’s a heck of a lot better. This is the only patch of land we plan on seriously altering. We figure feeding ourselves is a good enough reason.

That night I sit in at the table in our little Shabin. I look out the window and jump. Seven feet tall and chocolate brown, a moose stands feet from the ditch, munching away at the yellowing leaves of a Willow.

“Brittney.”

She creeps over and we peer out the window, speaking in whispers that she can probably hear.

“Welcome sweetheart.”

The moose strips the final branch clean and saunters down the driveway, her big hooves sinking in the gravel. A hundred feet down the trail she stops and resumes her grazing. I want her to stay forever.

The rain begins to fall again, that steady plunking against the metal roof. The ditch fills, the land seeps, the cranberries grow, and I watch from the shelter of our little porch.

The Bartlett River Miracle

September. In years past it’s meant digging out the crawlspace, filling the car, and early mornings in ferry terminals. But not this year. Or the year after this one. Or the next one. Now I’m digging out the fishing rod, filling the freezer, and spending mornings on the Bartlett River Trail.

Glacier Bay is a paddler’s park. There’s only a handful of maintained trails. The most popular of which is the Bartlett River Trail in Bartlett Cove. Just a few hundred yards from the lodge, it endures hundreds of footsteps as nervous visitors armed with bear spray make the mile and a half track to the mouth of the river.

But at seven in the morning in mid-September, we have the whole trail to ourselves. The speedometer on Dr. Zachary Brown’s pickup is busted, insisting that we’ve been going 115 m.p.h since he picked up me and Patrick Hanson. But car maintenance is never at the forefront of a Gustavian’s mind. Today we’re after something much more valuable. The three of us and Zach’s partner Laura Marcus park at the trailhead, grab our gear, and push into the woods. Our boots slosh through the mud, the only sound the creaks of backpack straps, the rattle of squirrels, and the quarrels of gulls.

We climb down a low sloping hill, an artifact of a different age, a glacial roadmap. Grand Pacific was here. Sitakaday, the ice bay is no more. But with loss comes life. We’re surrounded by Hemlock, Spruce, Devil’s Club, Blueberry, Hedgehog Mushrooms, dozens of species of moss and lichen. So much life, in large part thanks to the Sockeye, Pink, and Coho that run up the river every year with metronome-like precision. And I’ve come to take some of that life. We all have.

I spend my life in communion with this masterpiece, but as an observer. A silent watchman in the back of the room. But with the fishing pole clutched in the hand, I’m going to supplant myself in the middle of the performance. I’m no longer an audience member, I’m a player, and my role has the potential for catastrophe.

2017, a year that has infused those with a love of quiet places and open spaces with such terror, has a handful of marvelous anomalies. Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska had a banner year in the most abundant Sockeye fishery on earth. And the Coho of southeast are following suit. There are literally too many returning Coho for all of them to spawn. The commercial fisherman, sea lions, seals, bears, and eagles cannot eat them fast enough. Two vestiges of hope in a world where every environmental paper seems to be a harbinger of doom.

I lead our little quartet out onto the river. We’re a bunch of novices. Patrick carries a brand new rod he’s never casted and Laura landed her first Pink on the Salmon River the other day. Despite growing up in Alaska, neither Zach or myself are bursting with angling expertise. In fact I’d spent the better part of the month casting and retrieving with little to show for it. Thankfully Kyle Bishop took pity on me in a way few in the competitive world of fishing would have. He showed me his favorite fishing holes and advised me on everything from his preferred lures to proper vacuum packing techniques. From his generous shared knowledge and my tally of two Coho, I’m somehow the most “experienced.”

The first few times I’d fished the Bartlett I’d succumbed to an all too common mistake. As soon as I hit the river I’d begun to cast with the logic that all the fish must pass this spot. But Kyle had taught me differently. Don’t give in to temptation. Keep hiking, and when you think you’re there, hike a little more. And so we keep going, another forty minutes along the river bank. The trail shows signs of other commuters. River otter, black bear, coyote, and wolf. But the only occupants this morning are dozens if not hundred of Mergansers that lift off from the river as one, white wings shining in the early light.

We hop a tiny stream and past a wide river bed where hundreds of Pink salmon are spawning, carving long divots in the gravel stream to deposit eggs and sperm so there children can one day do the same. There work finished, they have nothing left to give. The flesh flaking from their bones, they succumb to the unrelenting current and drift back down the river until coming to rest on the bank.

At last I stop at the spot Kyle insists has been on fire all year. We begin the repetitive task of casting again and again. The high pitched whirl of line off the swivel, the gentle plop of the lure on the river, the click-clack-click-clack of the reel. For an hour we experience nothing but near misses. I nearly get one to the steep river bank but just as I reach for the salmon, the line snaps, taking the fish, my lure, and gear with it. We spread out up and down the shore, Zach disappears behind a big stand of Spruce. I’m situated between Patrick and Laura who stand about 200 yards away.

A huge splash comes from the river a dozen yards and front of Laura. I look over to see her reeling furiously, but nothing else comes of it. Assuming she either lost it or it was just one of the many leaping Pinks, I prepare another cast.

“David? Can you come help me?”

I drop my rod and, caution to the wind, grab my fillet knife and begin to run down the river towards her. There is a tension in our voices, a gritty determination with a tablespoon of excitement and, yes, fear. It’s a big fish. A big beautiful fish. And it runs on her, again and again making a break for the far side of the river. It’s undulating body sends up flashes of beautiful silver. But he’s no match for the rod of humanity. And at last he has nothing left to give. I hop down the bank ankle deep in water as she drags her catch over.

“Keep the tension on the line.”

I grab the line just above the Coho’s head and reach into my thigh pocket for my needle nose pliers. They’re small but heavy, and the thin handle gives me confidence I can land the blow that will end the fight once and for all. But before I do, I stare into his eyes.

Fish always look surprised. Those wide, unblinking eyes, mouth slightly open like someone has just jumped at them from a dark corner. I wonder how the hook feels in his mouth. How tired he must be to stop fighting. How I’m about to finish a miraculous story that started four years ago in this very stream. How this fish has been bucking the odds since before it was born when gulls were scooping up the eggs around him. How many nets, mouths, and lures it had dodged until, a dozen miles from home, he bit down on Laura’s. So close. There’s still time.

I swing.

The pliers make a dull hollow sound on his skull like a finished loaf of bread. I swing again. And again, and again. He stops squirming. I slip my fingers into his gills and out his mouth and with a final heave drop him on the river bank at Laura’s feet.

“What a beautiful fish.”

They truly are. Brighter than silver dollars on the sides and bellies, emerald green with black speckles on top. They seem to be fluorescent, the skin changing color as you turn them in the light. I explain how to cut the gills to ensure he bleeds out and doesn’t suffer.

“I want to do it.”

I expect nothing less of her. But before she does, Laura lays her hands on his head, whispers a few words of gratitudes, and with steady hands cuts the gills. I pull her lure out of his mouth and we set him on the grass.

“He may thrash a bit more,” I tell her, “but don’t worry, it’s just his nerves firing. He’s not suffering.”

Down the river the other way, a splash erupts in front of Patrick. Another one. I take off down the trail and the saga plays out again. Fight, let it run until it’s too tired to do anything but float in the current, bring to shore, lift, hit, gills, grass.

Patrick kneels before the fish and runs a hand down the lateral line. He strokes the fish, his head bowed as if in prayer. He cuts the gills, and sets it in the grass. We want every fish to die with dignity and grace, as little pain as possible. Each gift, each miracle treated with the upmost respect. Does it matter how an animal dies? I think so.

The bite is on. Again and again beautiful streaks of silver break the water. This is just the beginning. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions are behind these, some still queuing up in Cross Sound.

“How amazing that in 2017 there can still be this kind of abundance,” Zach marvels. In a few hours we have eighteen Coho on the river. We also have a three mile hike back. We line the fish up and take a picture to remember them buy. But no one wants to pose rod in hand over our kills. No one has designs of turning them into Facebook cover photos. Before we fill our backpacks, we sit down on the bank and eat lunch.

“I feel like we should say grace.” Says Laura. We agree. “Whether it be God, nature, or just plain luck, we thank you for this marvelous gift, that will sustain us through the winter and has brought us closer together as friends.”

The work is just beginning. Over the next two days we’ll dress, clean, fillet, package, smoke, and can every one of them. We’ll use the back bones for soup stock, take the scraps and sculpt them into burgers. But for now we sit and watch the river flow by and watch the Coho continue to swim by, pushing up against the tide so that, four years from now by God, nature, or just plain luck, we can do this again.

The Wettest Paddle

My gloved fingers fumble with the catches on the stern hatch. I bury my chin deeper into my rain jacket, a vain attempt to stem the never ending stream of water that’s been barreling down on us for 48-hours. I don’t know where we are, and I’m nowhere near curious enough to dig the map out of its dry bag. But I’ve stared at it enough to know what I’m looking at. Or more accurately, what I should be looking at.

Mount Wright, a 6,000 foot cathedral that guards the east arm of Glacier Bay is just two miles to the south, but it’s taking the day off. As is Adams Inlet, the first of three inlets that alternate on each side of the arm. After years of waiting I was finally seeing the fabled east arm. The inlet known as Muir Inlet, our superhero and the patron saint of glaciers. I had set off with Brittney and three friends, set on finding God in a glacier and Muir in a sun ray. But so far all I’d found was rain. Rain and clouds.

The hatch cover finally comes free and I pull from its depths three identical bear cans. We’re not stopping long. We’d been paddling for just over three hours and watched the wind and rain approach from the West. Naively we tried to outrun it, but you can’t outrun anything in a kayak except your common sense.

Brittney comes over and digs through one of the cans, pulling out tortillas, cheese, and kale. For a moment we stare at the tortillas as a gust of wind buffets us. We’re on a ridiculous little glacial outwash that will soon be obliviated by the rising tide. Eagles and Ravens perch eerily on a cemetery of uprooted stumps and logs. We slice the cheese and tear the kale.

“Now.”

Brittney opens the ziploc bag and I grab a pair of tortillas. As soon as they’re free she slams the seal shut, but too late. The surviving tortillas will be taking rainwater with them. We wrap the cheese and greens inside in record time and sit huddled against the wind, devouring our lunch before it disintegrates in our hands.

Worst rain I’ve ever experienced. I scribbled in my journal later that night. Hands so wrinkled and pruney they resemble elevation contours on the map. 

But we’re counting ourselves lucky. Because the wind is coming from behind, sweeping us up the arm and toward McBride Inlet. In a bay defined by change, McBride is the champion sprinter. A map from 1990 shows no inlet at all, but a glacier that dominates the upper end of the arm. Almost 30-years later she’s described with adjectives like “catastrophic retreat.” She’s left a narrow mouth at the base of the inlet that at low tide you could lob a rock across. On a flood the inlet turns into a vacuum sucking in water, ice bergs, gulls, seals, and wayward kayakers.

Lunch takes less than five minutes. One of the first lessons of Glacier Bay is that the best way to stay warm is to paddle. It may seem counter intuitive—surely huddling under a tarp is warmer—but all gear, no matter how rubberized or seam sealed, will eventually fail in a torrent such as this. Best to keep moving and turn your upper body into its own personal Toyo. So we hop back on the Muir Highway and let the wind whisk us north.

There’s four of us now. That morning Ellie was forced to return early after slicing open her thumb. After getting her on the day boat we’d set out from Sebree Island, knowing it would be our second 20-mile paddle day of the trip. Three of the four are kayak guides: myself, Brittney, and Jessie Markowitz. We’re equally crazy, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that none of us are going to be the one that taps out first. That left Jessie’s boyfriend Jake, an accomplished outdoorsman, skier, and climber in his own right as our voice of reason. And as he was positioned in the front seat of a double, there was precious little rebelling he could do without rudder pedals.

We hop from point to point, Jessie and Jake’s double setting the pace. Every few minutes I glance behind me, praying to see a lift in the weather. The fog and rain has socked in the entire bay. And while we’d never admit it, all of us kind of wished we were the one with the sliced thumb on the warm day boat with all the coffee we could drink.

Around Wachusett Inlet the rubberized raingear begins to fail. I feel the water seep into my mid-layer and with a shudder feel the first needle-like prick of rainwater reach my back. But Wachusett looks beautiful, a thin layer of fog is set afire by the sun, enough to give you hope and we bob in its mouth for a few long moments. The inlet cuts seductively right a mile in, leaving you wanting more. I know better. On the best of days Wachusett blows like the dickens, I don’t want to see the sort of wind that’s around that corner. We keep pushing. Past Kim Heacox’s old stomping grounds in Goose Cove, past Sealers Island and towards Nunatak.

We take a breather and find Brown Bear tracks as big as my outstretched hand in the sand. After the rain, a bear seems tame. Alaskan visitors have a Goldilock’s complex with bears. They want them not too far, not too close, but just right. Just right usually being within range of a 300mm DSLR.

Keep paddling. The Arctic Turn I’m paddling lives up to its name. No rudder, no skeg, no problem. She turns with a simple bend in the hips, drag free. We pass false point after false point. Each time convinced that this one will be McBride Inlet. Ice bergs float by, encouraging us further. Sirens in the fog, beckoning towards their home. Further, just a little further.

Everything hurts. 

We near yet another point. Jessie and Brittney are convinced that this one is the mouth of McBride. I’m not convinced. You have a lot of time to discuss these things when you’re traveling at 2.5 miles per hour. We round the corner to find more trees. No inlet, no Glacier God, no ghost of Muir dancing in the outwash in a wool trench coat. We pull out the map and Cliff Bars. I check my watch: just over seven hours of paddling. My hands feel fused to the paddle. And yet, and this is the weird thing, it feels so good out here.

What is wrong with me? I’m frozen, cold, most everything from the waist down went numb a long time ago. Whatever isn’t numb is wet. We’re convinced the next point leads to McBride. I suggest a vote. Brittney, Jessie, and I try to say yes first. Jake sighs, shrugs his shoulders, and sticks his paddle in the water. Welcome to the bay.

We hit the next point, turn, and there it is. Bergs swirl in the mouth of McBride. We paddle for shore, and the rainfall intensifies. And I yell at the Bay. At the Bay I love so much. How dare you punish our persistence like this? After everything we just did?

But of course Glacier Bay has little regard for my well being and prune covered hands. This place does not give, it sharpens and refines, just as the glaciers have done to her. Just as they will again if we’ll allow it. Just as they do to us.

We pull the boats above the tide and a miracle happens. The rain relents, the clouds being to lift. White Thunder Ridge emerges on the other side, dramatic slate gray cliffs loom further north. It is a beauty that must be witnessed. A beauty that can only be appreciated after paddling through fog and rain for seven hours. Like a bride on her wedding day the view is worth the wait.

Dry clothes are currency, and we lay out everything we can. We set up tents and pray the rain stays away. A sucker hole appears-a knot sized patch of blue sky—but  it brought friends. We cheer the blue colored beauties and cook pasta. We eat outside the confines of a tarp. And we fall under the spell. I find myself wandering in a daze down the beach. A mystic force pulling me towards the ice like some sort of ancestral magnet. How, I wonder, could people experience this and not be changed? How can someone look into the face of nature and be brought to their knees? I’m convinced that 100 senators in 50 doubles for a couple days would clear up a lot of problems.

But for a few days we’ll be blissfully ignorant of North Korea, Charlottesville, and the rest of the world’s silliness. Just us and McBride glacier’s offspring filtering out the inlet and sweeping south.

The Final Ride

Six days. That’s how much longer we have here. Six more quiet mornings with the sounds of Thrushes and squirrels in the woods. Six more nights of boat noise as tugs and fishing boats crawl up and down Blackfish Sound. I am acutely aware that I’m doing things for the last time. A final round with the chainsaw, a final walk through the woods, a final trip down the strait.

My last boat ride to the lab was yesterday. A moderate westerly beat me up as I went into Alert Bay. So instead of taking my usual trail that weaves through the Pearce and Plumper Islands, I took the more exposed route through Johnstone Strait. The sun shone from a brilliant blue sky, the strait’s southern side turned a deep green as the forests of Vancouver Island reflected across the waves. Looking down the strait there was no sign of human life. No boats, no houses, no cell towers. Just mountains, water, and trees. As it had been for centuries. May it always look the same.

It may seem weird to have a nostalgic stretch of water. But this run from Alert Bay along the strait and to the lab does for me. It’s the route I took the first time I came here. I was packed on the June Cove with four other volunteers and Paul. As the June Cove notoriously does whenever I arrive, it wasn’t working too well. We puttered along the strait at six knots, anything faster and the engine would cut out. I had no idea where we were going or how long it was supposed to take. So I put my trust in the cranky engine and sat atop the the cabin to watch the mountains of Robson Bight slowly grow taller.

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I moved faster yesterday, whipping across the south end of Weyton, dodging driftwood and willing one more dorsal fin to break the water. I came here hoping, maybe even expecting my dedication and effort to be rewarded with magical and unforgettable Orca encounters. After nearly 24 cumulative months here I’m still waiting for my “Free Willy” moment. But now I don’t expect it to happen. And just as important, I don’t need it to. Proximity doesn’t equal intimacy. Three years on a whale watching boat will teach you that.

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During that first boat ride in 2008 I rode through the world oblivious. I had no concept of Climate Change, no understanding that Canada was in the cruel grip of the Harper Administration, a manifestation of the, “if it can’t be grown it must be mined,” ideology. All I knew were Orcas and that captivity was bad. As far as I was concerned, that was the only environmental movement that mattered. Now the uncut portions of Hanson Island feel like a miracle. The thousand year old Cedars a symbol of hope instead of a novelty. I love this place fiercely with some protective parental instinct. It’s hard not to take every threat and oil spill personally.

The boat flashes along the Hanson shore. Somewhere on the beach are First Nations artifacts. According to Walrus, the anthropologist who lives in the woods near us, there is a rock carving of Raven the creator hidden somewhere on the beach. It aligns perfectly with the sunrise on the winter solstice. I’d considered trying to find it. But what is man’s insatiable desire to see and touch everything? To literally leave no stone unturned? I like the idea of just a few people knowing where it is. The knowledge that it exists is enough for me. In an age where we move with such haste to smother the world with concrete and progress, some mystery is a good thing.

At the east end of Hanson is a pair of tiny islands. Coveted by kayakers, the pass between them is plenty deep for a small boat. Protected by both the east and west winds, the channel is the perfect hovel for sea birds. Harlequin’s adore it, as do the Mergansers and Herons. An eagle’s nest adorns a Cedar tree on the northernmost tip and offers a view of Blackfish, Blackney, and Johnstone. This confluence brings life. The mixing and upwelling of currents traps food and brings cold, nutrient rich water to the surface. It draws herring, salmon, eagles, gulls, ravens, crows, humpbacks, salmon, seals, sea lions, Orcas, and Me. It’s a powerful stretch of water with the ability to change lives and send them careening off the tracks into the unknown. It threatens our existence, and makes us question why we’re here and what matters. Anyone who does not feel their heartbeat quicken as a Humpback roars through a bait ball while gulls circle overhead has no spirit.

The boat turns left and for the first and last time, I lay eyes on the lab. Smoke curls out the chimneys and wraps their wispy fingers around the trees like the fingers of a lover. The lab deck hovers over the water on the high tide. Here one can learn to love without intruding. You have to let go, be contented with watching those black fins disappear around the corner, accept that there are more important things than getting as close as possible. The trees mute the sun and the cove shines like a sapphire in the evening light. Harlequin’s scoot across the bow with indignant squeaks. The engine dies and I step onto the beach for the first and last time, eyes wide and mind open.

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