Tag Archives: ocean

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.

24383_376048174851_4648308_n

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.

292906_10151433415214852_720328661_n

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.

10407851_10154760465245858_7181187074053993414_n

With a Single Breath

Several years ago, Brittney and I were walking along a trail in Juneau. Like most of city’s trails, it wasn’t far from the ocean. We worked our way through muskeg, over bogs, and past Devils Club when I heard it. I’d reached a point in my life where breathing whales stopped me in my tracks. Even if I wasn’t sure at first why. I stopped at the top of a hill, the water visible through the trees below.

“Did you hear—?”

A sound like a gunshot rips through the trees.

“Go.” She answers.

We’re gone. Half running half falling down the hillside. I stop on the edge of a bluff, my arms cartwheeling. I turn left and run parallel to the beach, that seductive sound carrying my feet. A small depression levels the drop off the bluff and I leap into nothing, my feet skidding on the soft mulch. I land on the rocks below. I look back up into the trees and my bride to be.

“Turn right at the big Spruce!”

The water is still fifty feet away, a minefield of rock between me in the water. I trip and stumble with every step. But I don’t want to take my eyes off the water. A small thump behind me tells me Brittney’s found the “slide.” She looks up, eyes alight, face mirroring my own.

“Where are they?”

A female Orca breaks the surface, her breath echoing off the rocks, off my soul. I tear down the beach after her. an impossible race I have no chance of winning. But in the company of Orcas, everything seems possible.

***

For the first time this year, it feels like Spring. We sprawl in the sun just behind the lab. Blackney Pass is glass, the water vibrant, the sea lions noisy as ever. Harlequin’s in the cove, eagles in the trees, the cat hunting mice in the Heather bush. Heaven on earth.

And we hear it.

After three years here, we’ve created a silent language of sorts when it comes to Orcas, whether we’re watching them or listening for them. When something whispers through the speaker our first glance is at each other, as if confirming that it wasn’t in our head or the creak of a chair. A silent debate begins, “was that what I think it was?”

We look at each other, a quiet intensity passes between us. Without a word we rise to our feet and walk onto the deck. Spend some time looking for whales and you start to scan the water without thought. There’s a smooth circle of ripples off to my left, just beyond the cliff that marks the far side of the cove. On a day as calm as this nothing can touch the water in secret. Nothing can slip past. It could have been a loud Sea Lion, or a boat or—.

Hello beautiful.

The Orca breaks the surface 150 yards off the shoreline. We turn as one and dive for the lab door. I grab the camera. Brittney taps frantically on the keyboard, willing the computer to life. With the miracle of technology, the whole world is about to know there were Orcas heading for Johnstone Strait. I hit the lab deck again and try to take a deep breath. My body’s shaking with excitement and my first set of pictures come away blurry.

I’ve lost count of the number of Orcas I’ve seen in my life. But they still do this to me. Last summer we found Orcas on a kayaking tour and I left Brittney and the clients in the dust. They give me tunnel vision. They’re my drug. It’s been this way for ten years, I’ve given up expecting it to change. I don’t want it to ever change.

The scientist in me reigns in the euphoric teenager. I begin to count, estimate speed, run my eyes along the trailing edge of the dorsal, looking for nicks and scars in the saddle patch. They’re spread out and moving fast on the flooding tide. When they surface after a dive I turn back and yell at Brittney so she knows where to point the remote camera.

“Hump of Harbledown! First Bay! Mid gap!”

What will I do with all this Blackney Pass geography when we’re gone?

The Orcas swim in twos and fours. A pair of big males bring up the rear and disappear around the southern corner bound for the strait. The camera system is now so intricate that we can almost literally hand the Orcas off from one camera to another as they go down the strait. Brittney’s already found them on the next camera off of Cracroft Point. And they’re beginning to talk.

We hear a melodic pin and we both give a shout. We know these guys. Or at least recognize them. Pings are a signature of G clan. I11, I15, and the G pods. A few minutes and several excited calls later Helena sends us a message. It’s the I15s. They’re a Johnstone Strait staple in the summer time. But maybe they’re making a February pilgrimage a tradition. They came through almost exactly a year ago.

Whether this is significant to the I15s or not, they sound happy to be here. Their calls echo off the underwater canyons and swirl through our heads. They always sound so happy. For the next hour we watch them push deeper into Johnstone Strait. There’s one final camera we can find them on, the Critical Point or Robson Bight camera. Situated on a cliff at the east edge of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve we find half of the I15s mid channel.

But as I watch the calls intensify, they’re far too loud to be from the cluster I’m watching. I pull the camera back out and am rewarded with three Orcas breaking the surface just off the rocks. My body stiffens and I clumsily pan the camera from left to right, trying not to screw up the shot. Remotely it’s hard to track with them. Gauging distance is tough when you’re not in the flesh. It’s not the first time I’ve promised countless worldly possessions to spend a summer on the cliffs overlooking the Bight. Paul thinks I’m joking when I tell him I’m willing to spend a summer there as a “monitor.”

“That’s what the camera’s for.” He says.

“Yea… I know.”

Born too late. The wild west of Orca research has come and gone. No more hiding in the Salal at the Rubbing Beaches either. Passages of Erich Hoyt’s and Alex Morton’s books still make me green with jealousy.

The three Orcas—two females and a calf—are so loud the calls come through the headphones with static. But I don’t dare turn away for the few seconds it would take to turn it down. I grit my teeth and watch them break the surface again. I pan the camera further but can see nothing now but leaves and branches. End of the line. Two hours after sighting them, they’re out of sight.

The calls fade away as they leave the range of the hydrophone and I’m left with an empty expanse of water and the islands of Harbledown, Swanson, and Parson painted with a golden light that would make Midas envious. Snow still clings to the mountains on Vancouver Island, but with the warmth and the I15s, it feels like summer.

10463863_10153151080414852_7687963241185135048_n

Winter Descriptions and Luxuries Disguised as Necessities

The days feel shorter here than up in Alaska. That shouldn’t seem possible, but the orientation of the lab makes dusk fall quickly. As we approach winter solstice, the sun must clear a pair of hurdles to reach our cabin. First the mountains that overlook Robson Bight and then the collection of Fir and Spruce trees on the southern side of the cove. So even when the sun shines, it only strikes directly for a few hours.

But some sun is better than none, and over the last week we’ve been serenaded by blue sky and sunshine. After the rains of November it’s a welcome change. With the sun comes the northeasterly outflow. A pocket of cold air that has enveloped much of Canada in a classic winter freeze. They are days that lend themselves to wool hats, wool sweaters, and walks through the forest.  The sun reaches down through the boughs like the fingers of Midas, turning all they touch into gold. The humpbacks have vanished. The geese and cranes have flown south, the Varied thrush inland. We are left with the heartiest of the temperate species. The Raven, crow, Harlequin, Scoter, deer, and mink. It’s a vocal and charming collection of neighbors. Some smell, some call with the rising sun, some quietly munch frozen kelp illuminated by the full moon.

Inside the cabin, it’s an hourly effort to keep the temperature comfortable. The weather lends itself to light, dry wood, the moisture of Fall sapped from its wooden tendons to burn hot and fast. But the greatest ally of the wood stove is bark from the Fir tree. It washes up in droves, waiting to be plucked and dried. After a few days out of the water, it super charges the stove and sends heat into even the chilliest corners of the room. Nevertheless, the cat and rabbit curl up at the stove’s base while Brittney and I wrap ourselves in blankets, sweaters, and long johns to take off the chill. We rise every two hours at night to stoke the fire and keep the cabin warm for the rabbit. Each time I rise I turn the tap. The water runs icy cold, but as long as water moves through the line every few hours it won’t freeze.

I love this clear, frozen world. A world that in many ways is not that different from the one inhabited by generations of people before me. The rustic hand loggers and fish packers that used to dot the coastline from Campbell River to Bella Bella. The sourdough and flapjack generation as it were. The Billy Procter all stars. It’s a universe of simplistically over convenience.

Today more people live in cities than ever before. We are urbanized, domesticated, house trained. Homo stationarious. We insist on electric heat, warm water, indoor plumbing, matching granite countertops, and auto start. So many necessities the sourdough people couldn’t have even fathomed fifty years ago. Imagine Billy tortured over the design of his countertops or balking at walking to his car in minus 20 weather. I’m closer to him than the coffee shop in Seattle. Born too late and raised too wild.

Why do we need these things? What are we looking for? A generation of beach combers picking up materialism, taking it home, placing it on the mantle to see how it looks. At what point do we say “enough?”

Don’t eat till you’re full. Eat until you’re no longer hungry.

A bath on Hanson Island, like it was for many years, requires time and effort. It’s an all day affair of collecting wood, feeding the fire, and tapping your foot. But when you sink into that tub with Blackney Pass splayed out in front of you. Oh my goodness. Blissful tub nirvana.

Perhaps that’s it. When the necessities aren’t simple you fall back in love with them. We linger a bit longer over what many would call the mundane, extracting more joy from a trickle of hot water than many will find in a shower with 5,000 PSI. It’s hard to know what warm is until you’ve been cold. Hanson Island has taught me that necessities are not necessities at all but luxuries. They are things that we have simply been told we cannot do without when in actuality we prefer our lives without them. After years of technological “progress” aimed at making our domestication more efficient, the average family still needs just as many hours to clean the house as they did in 1950. It’s a secret Roomba and Hoover don’t want you to know.

Perhaps some will always prefer the high rise apartment, insulated from the faintest breeze and sweetest bird song. But I will take the biting wind as I walk to the outhouse and the therapy of a cup of tea while the cold crawls through the cracks. I’ll take the star scattered night uninhibited by headlights and the songs of Humpbacks in my dreams. May my countertops be wooden, the car cold when it starts, and the days unencumbered by the trappings of modernity.

Blessings of the harbor seals be upon you.

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.

A Love Note for the Raincoast

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

I had to get out.

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

“Not even close,” I thought.

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

I love Alaska, I love British Columbia. For how can I refuse the chance to sit inches above the water and stare at the glacier’s that still stand guard at the headwaters of many an Alaskan fjord? And how can I ever turn away from the rich smell of cedar infused forest in the early morning light, the fog burning off of Blackfish Sound? The world becoming whole, feeling both old and new with each passing day.
8086_10151351163234852_1520975010_n
Early on in the winter we knew that six more months wouldn’t be enough. The glacier’s of our summer home beckon, our jobs as kayak guides await. But… what can I say? Hanson Island gets into your blood, syncs with your heart and spirit the way few places can. Can you love two places so fiercely you can’t live without either?

Early December, a rare calm day along the B.C coast. Brittney and I sit in the cabin, watching the sun struggle above the mountains of Vancouver Island. Before either of us open our mouths we know what the other will say. That two winters is not enough. That we need another winter with ears cocked to the speakers, waiting for the first whisper of an Orca’s voice. Another winter watching the deer trace the shoreline, sucking up every strand of kelp that washes ashore.
11008650_10155365472945858_1720255889708099310_o
“We’re so blessed,” Brittney says. “Our biggest problem is we can’t chose between the two places that we love.”

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

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

Ironically he was writing about Glacier Bay, the other place that pulls at our heartstrings. A place filled with beautiful people. A community defined by the bay, the Beatles, and bluegrass.
37367_467283714851_8103409_n
But we’re not ready to chose, not ready to force it. I want to drag myself out of bed at three in the morning because there’s Transients in Robson Bight. I want the tide and weather to determine when I go grocery shopping. I want to hear Paul’s smiling voice on the other end of the phone. When we walk away, we’ll never live like this again. Never have sea lions as neighbors, or have Harlequins knock on our front door. We are unique, we are blessed, we are insanely lucky.

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

And when we answer the follow up question is always the same, “what do you do there?”
292906_10151433415214852_720328661_n
How to explain that it is not what we do but why and for who we do it  that makes it so special. I watch the sun rise, listen to the ocean, talk to the trees, bond with the mink, and glorify the Orca. And above all, give thanks that I can have both places for another year.

The Wolf

I am not a brave person. At least, I don’t consider myself one. I rarely feel bold, or filled with valor, or the innate desire to take risks, and stick my neck out. I get nervous walking through the woods in the dark, even here, where there’s been exactly one bear sighting in decades. My imagination, which is often my ally betrays me in these moments. I feel the hair rise on my neck, the goosebumps spread across my body, a spasm of fear running down my legs.

I don’t believe in spirits floating among the living. At least, I think I don’t. But the lab is built on the same ground that was once a Namgis summer camp. A small grave was found in the rocks, somewhere near here, the body of a young girl entombed within. That’s what Walrus says. I never asked him where the grave was. I don’t want to know. But it’s much easier to believe in restless spirits, the thrill of the supernatural, the magnification of fear when the dark surrounds you with creaking and swaying trees. Glowing eyes in the dark. Deer, they have to be deer. But what if they aren’t?

The water’s rough. The waves roll up on themselves, ringed with foam and frothy white caps like pearls on a necklace. Rain falls as a fine mist. In our tiny boat, the waves roll by at eye level, the boat pitching over the crest and through the trough of each swell. Up and down the hills, again and again. Why does it seem like we’re always going into the wind? The water is deep, churning, cold, dark. This seems like a lot of work to go through to run a generator. But such is our assignment today. To cross Blackney Pass for Cracroft Island. To add the magic of unleaded gasoline to help us maintain power at the lab.

It’s the same body of water we were crossing when the boat engine died a few weeks ago. And for an hour we were at her mercy. Enough to make you think twice when the land fades away off the starboard side and you begin the mile wide crossing. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind, with the waves growing and the ocean soaking our windshield. No boldness or valor or bravery here. Loyalty and dedication maybe. I’m more Hufflepuff than Gryffindor.

What would it be like if we lost the engine here? If the boat filled with water? If we had to jump clear, life jackets clinging grimly to our necks? To come face to face with our greatest fear? I’ve never had a near death experience. At least not that I remember, and I’d like to think I would. How terrible and thrilling, to come face to face with my own mortality. Would I be cognizant of my final breath? Aware that it was the last one this body would ever draw for me? Would I watch this grim physical home for my soul drift into the depths as I floated above, great wings growing out my shoulders? Or does everything just go blank? A reel of film that’s reached its end, spinning pointlessly on its spools.

But today is not that day. Across Blackney Pass. In the shadow of Cracroft Island, the water is calm, a soothing emerald color. It’s far too rough to land on the rocks by the shelter. So we motor into a quiet cove on the opposite side, out of the wind. Was it really just a year ago that we blazed this trail? Just me, Paul, a couple of hacksaws, and a general idea of what direction to bushwack. By some miracle our zigs and zags led us straight to the CP shelter. We climb onto the bow and tie the boat to a massive log draped across the rocks.

I step into the woods and stop. I’m not alone. Something lays on the ground at my feet. A jigsaw of vertebrae and ribs and fur. It’s been dead awhile, the body barely recognizable. The skull lays just off to the side, neatly picked clean as if it were a name tag, identifying the creature to which it had belonged.

“There’s a carcass in here!” I shout.

Brittney shoves the ferns aside and stops next to me, mouth agape. The smell wrinkles our noses, but neither of us step back. For a long while we simply stare, a silent vigil, disturbers of the animal’s peaceful sleep.

“What is it?” Brittney asks. She’s kneeling near the clump of fur and vertebrae, awestruck. She’s neither squeamish nor disgusted but fascinated. Even in death, her compassion for things furry continues.

I break off a stick and flip the skull over to reveal the jaw. The mandibles and lower jaw bones are gone, but the unmistakable canines of a predator remain. We let out silent gasps.

The wind rattles the tree tops. It’s going to get worse out here before it gets better. I leave Brittney with the departed, and vanish into the woods. The whole way to and from the shelter, I think of nothing but the creature. I’d never seen anything like it, on the day that I’m contemplating my own mortality. It can’t be a coincidence.

I return to find that Brittney hasn’t moved. It was a wolf pup she announces with conviction. I agree. What else has teeth and claws like this? We sit in silence, my mind trying to put the wolf back together.

“How do you think it died?” Brittney asks.

Like the girl’s tomb, I don’t want to know. The ocean is not twenty-feet away. Is it possible that one of my own species is responsible for this? Was this cub the victim of some human’s potshot with a rifle? A vigilante dedicated to predator control? Maybe that’s unfair, but I can’t think of any explanation for how he chose right here to lay down and die. We leave him where he lays, to continue his noble work of returning to the soil, feeding the web of life around him. A sacrifice that won’t go unnoticed.

One more stop. Parson Island. The water has settled a bit while we were in the woods. And the journey across Baronet Passage is a calm one. I disappear into the woods and up the hill, one more generator to go. My mind returns to the wolf cub and I feel pity for the little creature, that his life was taken so early. I pray he died right, with honor, dignity. Perhaps he just didn’t want to be a wolf anymore. Was ready to be something bigger than himself. Isn’t that what I want? What we all want? For what is more fulfilling than giving of ourselves to something bigger. To make the world a better place.

The land where the wolf lays resting was clearcut some thirty years ago. The land stripped. Every. Single. Tree. No more squirrels, no more birds. No wolves. No cougars. No life. No character. But the land is recovering, like it always does. And will flourish with magnificent old Cedar trees again, if we allow it. Maybe all he wanted was to speed up the process. Infuse the earth with his carbon and nitrogen, accelerate the growth of those great trees so that the generations to come can run and hunt and howl beneath their great branches.

I reach the cliff. From here I can see past Cracroft Island and into Johnstone Strait, up into Baronet Passage, out into Blackfish Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait. Pristine silence. Quiet places. Open spaces. The little cove on Cracroft is indistinguishable. The wolf’s resting place invisible, his sacrifice anonymous from here. But I know. Brittney knows. The tree’s know. Sometimes the greatest sacrifice is the one not recognized.

I say a little prayer before I pour gasoline into the generator. Before the war cry of my species infects the land.

“Thank you,” I say, my voice drifting across the water. “For making this world a better place, for reminding me of what is good and pure and wild. For infusing the earth with your spirit. I hope to leave this place better than I found it too.”

I bend over and pull the cord. The generator roars to life. Without a backwards glance I turn and vanish into the woods. The Cedar and Salal covers my tracks. The growl of the generator echoes in my ears.

A Summer Sampling

The wind roars so hard the windows creak and strain against their frames. Rain pelts the walls so hard it sounds like someone is hurling handfuls of pebbles at them. Every few minutes we can hear a dull thud, first on one side of the cabin, than the other. I’ve never heard anything like it before, and I’m not feeling brave enough to go out and investigate. I’ll chalk it up to an ornery log refusing to settle on the rocks. By the time we crawl beneath the blankets—the cat nestled as he always is on Brittney’s pillow—the storm has reached a crescendo.
Periodically throughout the night we rise and feel our way down the dark stairs to the living room. Penny’s house is nestled in a corner, a blanket thrown over the top to insulate her. We’re not sure how cold is too cold for a rabbit, so we throw wood on the fire periodically throughout the night to keep it comfortable. She barely moves as I poke my fingers through the bars and rub the soft spot between her ears. She opens one eye indignantly, her pupil reflecting the dancing flames behind us.
“Sorry,” I whisper, and creep back up the stairs, under the blankets, and into the warmth.
By the time the first tendrils of dawn are creeping above the mountain’s of Vancouver Island, the storm has exhausted itself. The tree branches tremble in a weary sort of way, the ocean placid and innocent. All it takes is a few hours to go from 45 knots to five, the low pressure system skidding to a halt.
I open the front door. The air feels surprisingly warm on my face. The life of the island looks out cautiously. A cluster of Harlequin ducks emerge around the point, bobbing on the tiny ocean ripples. They’re spunky little things, but where they go when the ocean roars like a lion is beyond me. But every morning, here they are, wholly unimpressed with the storm.
Out of the woods steps a deer. It’s not just any deer. This is Frodo, and he’s the most social of his kind I’ve ever met. Our porch overlooks a little cove, and Frodo has taken to trolling back and forth along it on every low tide. He’s scavenging for kelp fronds, and as he hears the boards creek he looks up. His expression is benign, a piece of kelp hanging ridiculously out the side of his mouth, looking at me. Every other deer I’ve encountered would turn and run at my approach. But Frodo moves casually toward the porch, nose glued to the rocks, sniffing for breakfast.
We have our morning routine down to a science. Feed the pets, brew coffee, drink coffee/ Brew more coffee. But this morning as we pull open the curtains and look over Blackney Pass, something feels different. The sun burns off a thin layer of clouds, and light floods the living room. And for the first time in months, the fingers of sun feel warm. This is not the biting cold of an easterly outflow that clears the skies and buries the mercury. This feels good. And we walk out onto the deck near the lab where the late morning sun heats the porch and turns the cove emerald.
It’s the first sign of Spring, and we stand dumbly for a few moments, soaking up the warmth. Even the building afternoon breeze feels welcoming, and we exercise outside for the first time since last summer. Porter watches with a concerned look on his face. What could possess them to behave in such ridiculous fashion?
We move about in shorts for the afternoon, the sun beating down on the solar panels, the generator quiet for the first time in days. It’s days like this where nothing beats Hanson Island. The cove swollen with Harlequins, deer, and harbor seals. The salt air filled with the arguments of sea lions, the debates of eagles, the giggles of gulls.
But it’s still January, and as the sun disappears in the late afternoon the wind intensifies. The temperature drops, and we cut up another round of cedar, because the temperature in the cabin has dropped several degrees in just an hour. Soon the wind is shaking the windows again, the night air cold and biting. Regularly scheduled programming. We load the wood stove and Brittney gets the tea kettle whistling. Summer may be getting closer, but winter’s not done with us yet.

50 Horsepower of Deceit and Betrayal

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

Town day.

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

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

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

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

Oh god.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus. Deep breath. Slow down.

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

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

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

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

Finding Light

Brittney has a great capacity for love. This compassion stretches deep through the animal kingdom. Every feather, every ball of fluff. Whether they have no legs, four legs, or eight legs, she cares for them all. A couple years ago she stopped killing spiders (or more accurately having me kill spiders) and insisted that they be relocated outside. Her fear of our wall climbing, web spinning roommates was no justification for murder. She still scrolls through the Juneau Humane Society website, cooing over ever whiskered face while our cat Porter looks at her with a betrayed look on his face.

Factory farming, greyhound racing, the egg industry, and of course, captivity all have room for remorse in her heart. And while many would turn their head, or acknowledge their plight and move on, Brittney doesn’t seem capable of that. She won’t rest until every “fur baby” is safe, happy, healthy.
10329311_10152867795949852_7120445375934915455_n
“Do you think they know that there’s people in the world that care? She asks as she fills out another petition to abolish greyhound racing. That there are people trying to help them?”

“I hope they do,” I say. Though I don’t know how they can.
I look at the picture on the screen, a greyhound with dark empty eyes alone in a crate, it’s head resting on a beam. It looks defeated. I feel sadness when I see this, but anger is my primary emotion. Anger and disgust. At the greed of man. Our selfishness. At the lengths we will go for profit. Our obsession and worship for the man made ideal, money. Somehow it’s become the measuring stick for our species. We’ll obliterate whatever is in our way to obtain it. Greyhounds, orcas, the very world we live in. How is it that we’ve forgotten that we cannot live without the natural world we insist on pillaging? Infinite growth in a finite world. Not the American dream, but the global fantasy.

I look back down at the picture, my mind returning to the present. The knot in my chest tightens, my heart rate increases. How could man look at this and not be enraged? Yet here is the proof that ambivalence lives.

It’s another storm ridden night at the lab. Similar Paul points out, to the night Corky was captured. It was a wave capped, howling winter gale when her family innocently swam into Pender Harbour and had their life change forever. In the name of corporate gain and human entertainment. How can we look at ourselves in the mirror?

Do you think they know that there’s people in the world that care?

Corky seems to. Why else would she withstand this torture, humiliation, and pain for so long? Does she believe there are others beside the ignorant masses that stand on the other side of the glass and snap photos with their camera phones?

“Corky’s plight makes me sad,” says Brittney, “but I feel more impassioned by factory farming, by animal testing. There’s millions of animals that die inhumanely, that live terrible lives. It’s 2015, but we’re more barbaric than ever.”

“Look what we do to our own species.” I answer, “we can’t stop murdering each other and we’re asking that same species to have compassion for other animals?”

Yet this is where we are. I pour whiskey over ice and settle on the couch. Here I am, in the middle of the natural world, and I can’t escape. ISIS, immigration, Donald Trump, SeaWorld, climate change. Running to the woods won’t make them go away.

“It’s important,” I remind Brittney, “not to get bogged down in the negative.” I’m reminding her as much as myself. “Our media, our world feeds off of negativity. It gets clicks, draws traffic in a way that heart warming, positive stories don’t. Seek these out, hang on to them. Celebrate the victories, the joy, the beauty. Because it is there. Even in darkness there is always some light.”
537318_10152372664114852_545974904_n
The chainsaw roars. I follow the ebbing tide down the beach, accepting the sacrifice of a massive Fir tree. It’s a beautiful piece of wood, undoubtedly an escapee from a passing barge. It didn’t deserve to be cut, but at least its death won’t be in vain. The sharpened teeth on the saw litters the rocks with wood shavings as I cut into the sweet smelling wood.

At the end of the log I stand and stretch the ache in my back, looking over Blackney Pass, over paradise. I drop the chainsaw and feel my heart lift. Blackney teems with life. Hundreds of gulls swarm a fifty yard patch of ocean in numbers so thick they look like a great feathered cloud. The bait ball has not gone unnoticed. An armada of eagles roar in from the trees, great black wings punctuating the ball of white. I count at least thirty eagles, shuttling back and forth between the trees near the cabin and the ocean. Again and again they swarm overhead, the silvery flashes of sand lance clasped tightly in their talons. Life, sustenance.
10540_10152009960619852_192033272_n
Brittney and I fall under their trance, the log lays forgotten at my feet. A lump rises in my throat. Why does this feeding frenzy have tears coming to my eyes? Because after everything the land has endured. Clear cutting, fish farms, live captures, predator control. They’re still here. The orca’s are still here. Is the world perfect? No. But here is a victory, here is joy. Here is a chance to celebrate.

“Do you know what I see?” I ask pointing out at the surging biomass before us.

Brittney looks at me, her eyes softened, the light glowing in her pupils.

“Hope.”

 

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.