Tag Archives: ocean

When The Storm Breaks

The weather breaks. The sun tears through the cloud curtain. First a lone ray of light strikes Parson Island, than another, and another as like fingers thousands of miles long, they creep across Blackney Pass until they fall on our windows. The aftermath of a 50 knot storm. Porter sticks his whiskered nose out the door. He’s suspicious and disgruntled after being confined to the cabin for two days as rain pelted the windows and the walls rattled.
We step onto a beach littered with logs washed ashore in the night. Fir bark, affectionately known as “fishermen’s coal” punctuates severed trunks of cedar and spruce. We pile the bark greedily in our arms. In a few days they would dry and capable of supercharging the fire at night when temperatures are dropping below freezing.
The bark drying on the sheltered picnic table near the cabin, I grab an ax and send splinters of wood flying. Heating by wood stove offers the luxury of warming you up twice. Once when you cut it, and again when you burn it.
I used to take heat for granted. Why wouldn’t you when for 25-years all you had to do was turn a knob, flip a switch and be rewarded with steamy warm air emitting from the magical grate in the floor? That heat, that energy had to come from somewhere. Coal? Hydropower? A wizard in the wall? I couldn’t tell you. But here I’m intimately connected to where my heat comes from, my electricity. Sunshine means the computers charge, the hydrophones switch on, Netflix is operational.
Too many cloudy days and we pay the price. Hydrophones flicker, cycle, and scream in their static voices until we turn them down. To keep the lights glowing and Orca Live streaming we turn to the massive red monstrosity in the shed. The generator, good old unleaded gasoline and 10W30 motor oil. As the unprecedented climate change intensifies, there’s a sensation of guilt each time I pull the choke, turn the key, and see pale white exhaust shoot into the atmosphere. At least I know where it’s coming from I guess. Thankfully, on sunny days, the generator sits unused, ignored. For what can be more renewable and reliable than those rays of sun beating down from above?
“When we know where our food, our energy comes from,” says Zachary Brown, founder of the Inian Island Institute in Alaska, “we no longer take them for granted. When we have an intimate connection to these commodities, we pay attention.”
Food for us is a different story. Banana’s from Belize, avocado’s from Mexico. At least the Kokanee and apple’s are Canadian. We do what we can. We grow kale, collard greens, and potatoes that are waiting patiently for Thanksgiving. It’s no different in the summer when we live in a town of 400 in southeast Alaska. A town with an award winning recycling program, where people have gardens instead of lawns, and avocado’s cost 5 bucks apiece. Avocados that arrive on the same barges that I shake my fist at in the winter time as the plod past the lab, filling the hydrophones with their roar, the air with their exhaust.
What’s the answer? What’s enough? Are my bananas and avocados ethically harvested? I’m vegetarian but should I be vegan? Maybe I should just eat the salal that grows between the cabin and the ocean.
Brittney used to agonize like this when she was in school. She’d come home from another humanities class: People and Plastics and Animal Rights courses. Nestle stealing groundwater, animals testing on rabbits, a fresh water crisis, orcas in captivity, taps running dry, corn fed factory farms. What to do, how to promote change, progress.
We aren’t superman. We can’t fight all of this. Instead we must select those injustices, those policies and acts that raise the hair on our neck. That quicken our pulse, that pull at our conscience. Whether it’s animal rights, oil pipelines, alternative energy, letting Corky come home, Syrian refugees. We must pick our battles, our medium for fighting them, and go to work.
Deep in the woods of Hanson Island lives a man. An anthropologist, a writer, an activist, a hero. He calls himself Walrus. As the forests of north Vancouver Island were leveled by the chainsaw, he took a stand by sitting down. He seated himself on a logging road that wound into the heart of Hanson Island, of Yukusam, and could not be moved. This was his fight, his passion. He won. He lives in a cabin now at the site of his barricade. “The longest active logging blockade in British Columbia,” he says.
This is the life of the activist. It’s Rachel Carson typing out Silent Spring as cancer ate at her because someone had to write it, Paul Spong camping in front of the Vancouver Aquarium, insisting that Skana go home, Michale Pollen and Food Inc, Marches for Lolita, Will Allen perfecting urban farming. Different people, different passions, huge change. May we someday be counted among them.

Same Destination, Different Path

The sun breaks through, faces turning upward, mouths open, drinking in the sunshine.  A respite, finally. No better way to leave. We’re on the Alaska Ferry’s equivalent of the milk run. The grand tour of southeast Alaska with little concern for time of day. Juneau at 4 am, Hoonah at 9, Sitka in the evening, in and out of Kake under the cover of night. Weaving through the mouse maze. West, east, and slowly, tantalizingly south.
We’re not alone. High school volleyball and wrestling teams are bedded down in every lounge when we stagger aboard in the early morning twilight. It had been my idea to stay up until our 4 am departure from Juneau, a decision I’ve been regretting since midnight. Through bleary eyes, sleep clinging to our eyelids we maneuver the minefield of snoozing adolescents, looking for any gap on the floor for a pair of sleeping pads.
Mercifully teenagers aren’t early risers, and most of us are still asleep when the purser’s desk begins to scold us over the intercom in a voice reminiscent of Mr. Feeny. “It’s time to turn these lounges back into lounges! Chaperones, get those lounges cleaned up!”
He must get a kick back every time he says lounge. But as I look around the room at the draped arms and legs protruding out of the corners and between seats, I’d say the room is living up to its name the way it is.
By the time we’re squeezing through the minuscule pass between Baranof and Chichagof Islands, the sun is burning through the fog, the day turning from Late October to June in minutes. With the shore just yards away from both sides of the boat we curl up on the solarium and let Alaska dazzle us for the countless time. Ravens chatter in the woods like invisible sentinels. A pair of Kingfisher’s chase each other above the treetops, their punk rock haircuts matching the throaty screeches perfectly. A humpback surfaces. The hemlocks grow tightly together. Every now and than a flash of red among the green, a Cedar. An outlier, we’ll be surrounded by them soon. As if magnetically drawn by the sun’s cameo, the high schoolers filter to the open deck.
Electronics are sparse among them. In the cafeteria playing cards appear, they talk, joke, laugh, are kids. Not drones with their head’s pulled down to an HD screen with the world around them invisible. It makes me smile. No cell service, unplugged from the world but not each other. When phones do appear it’s to take pictures of the scenery, often with them and their friends in the foreground.
Selfies are the new currency of flirting. All a boy must do to receive the attention of his chosen girl pack is leap into the photo, eager to participate in the immortalization of the moment through the magic of sim cards and 10 GB hard drives. Can’t say I’d so anything different if I was them.
The water stays calm as we leave Ketchikan in the evening and push into Canadian waters. Once again, we leave under the cover of night as the ferry pulls into Prince Rupert at 4 in the morning. This means crossing the border and explaining what the hell we’re doing in this country will be done through two sleep deprived and bloodshot eyes. We’re fourth in line getting off the ferry and I scarf down our remaining two apples for breakfast in lieu of turning them over.     We reach the customs lady and I roll down the window. Usually Porter sees any open window as a gateway to his god given freedom. And after two days confined to the car I expected Brittney to have to pin him down to keep him from crawling up the lady’s uniform. But he sits politely on Brittney’s lap, the perfect gentleman, as if understanding the gravity of the situation and our history with cranky and stoic border guards.
But they seem as groggy as us. The only loss is the little pink can of mace Brittney has had on her key chain since she worked mornings at a coffee shop. Bear spray, we’re told, would’ve been permissible, but since her mace was designed to use on humans, we were a threat to the unsuspecting Canadian citizens.
The inhabitants of Prince Rupert spared a terrible mace induced terrorist attack, we drive into the sleeping town. It’s too much to hope that our pet friendly hotel would leave their door unlocked at 5 am. So we grab coffee and hole up in the parking lot, waiting for the sun to rise and the lights to come on.
It feels good to be transient again. With our bags piled up behind Penny’s house in the back of the Pathfinder, the cat on our lap. Home is the four of us together. Two hours later the door unlocks and we record history’s earliest hotel check in, dropping our bags on the floor and collapsing onto the beds. Penny leaps euphorically as she hops into every corner, free of her house for the first time in 48 hours. Everything must be smelled, tasted… and chewed. With a $200 pet deposit we watch her like a hawk.
Brittney retreats to the shower, our hot water days numbered, and I watch Porter try to keep his eyes open as he curls up on the bed. The simplicity of my joy, my contentedness, brings peace. We search for happiness everywhere, sometimes demanding much, sometimes little. Sometimes, it’s as simple as an early check in, a sleeping cat, and the knowledge that no matter where I go with these three, I’m already home.

I Couldn’t Live Here

As we pull out of the drive of the bed and breakfast, I crane my neck around to make eye contact briefly with the middle aged couple seated in the middle seats of my “soccer mom” minivan. The first few minutes are usually the generic cordial introductions.
“Where you from?”
“New Jersey.”
“How long have you been here? How long are you staying?”
“Two days, three more nights.”
“Are you liking it so far?”
The wife laughs, “it’s nice… but there’s no way I could ever live here.”
Her brashness stops me. Not that many people don’t allude to their opinion that Alaska is nice to visit before the scary villain of winter returns. I can understand how living in a temperate rainforest could literally and metaphorically dampen people’s mood. It makes me grumble from time to time.
But to so eagerly announce her decision with little prompting makes me dig deeper. I acknowledge the rain, the snow, the sun’s lazy winter transect as it plays leapfrog with the mountain peaks.
“Oh it’s not that,” she insists. “It’s just…” she glances out the window as we move through Gustavus’ lone intersection, “there’s nothing to do here.”
Again, the outdoor fanatics would have to disagree. There were mountains to climb, a certain 65-mile long bay to paddle, fish to catch, deer to hunt. But it wasn’t fair to expect a 45-year old accountant residing in the shadows of concrete and skyscrapers to ooze enthusiasm at the prospect of bushwacking up Excursion Ridge.
“If your not a big outdoors person I can see that,” I allow. “Even though a little more time in the woods would do wonders for us all,” I add quietly.
She gives a little sniff, “yea, I definitely wouldn’t be able to stand being here more than a week or so.”
I take the bait. Keeping my voice pleasant I turn my head again and the van drifts briefly over the center line.
“I understand that,” I say, trying not to sound offended, I couldn’t spend one hour in New Jersey after all.
“But let me ask you something. If you had to spend a winter here, what do you think you’d miss about New Jersey? I’ll even be generous and say that you have a house within cell phone range and internet, I won’t make you drive to the library to check your email.”
The van goes quiet while she thinks, the sound of the wheels on the pavement echoing through vehicle as we near the park. Heading out to do what defines so many people in this town, the reason many live here, the reason many can’t imagine living anywhere else.
After ten seconds of musing she answers, “oh… I don’t know, you know… just like, going to the movie theater and stuff.”
“Entertainment, new movies” I nod, “I can understand that.”
“Yea, but I guess we really don’t go to that many movies.” She glances at her husband, “when was the last time we went and saw a movie?” He answers with a shrug. “Well there’s other stuff,” she continues, “shopping, the mall… though I don’t do a lot of shopping.”
The car goes quiet again as I wait for her to continue.
“I guess just having the option…”
“The option to do things that you never do?” It’s out of my mouth before I can stop it and I bite my lip. This is going to be a long paddle.
“I don’t mean to pry or anything, I’m just curious what people think they’d miss.” Silence answers my feeble attempt to cover my break in character. Perhaps I’d offended the malls and movie theaters that she holds as dear to her as we hold the mountains and waters here.
I’m too protective of this place, too quick to be riled when others don’t see it the way I do. Perhaps far too biased to pass judgement on what the acceptable line of appreciation is. Not everyone has to want to live in a sleepy town of 400, thank God or it wouldn’t be 400 people after all.
What made my 45-year old accountant’s declaration so difficult wasn’t in her opinion (though her lack of tact was matched only by mine), but her inability to defend her position. That we as a society can have so little personal attachment to the region that we live, simply settling there because that’s where our parents did, where a job took us, yet so ingrained that inhabiting something different makes us shudder. It struck me how home can resonate so little with some, how many other people can’t pick one unique thing that they’d miss? Granted, I’m just piling on New Jersey now, but New Yorkers have been doing that for years. She and her husband did come to Gustavus after all, off the beaten path (though she later expressed regret that they didn’t take a cruise).
It’s important to turn this around, to look through my tree shrouded cocoon of southeast Alaska. I can understand the value in visiting places that we have no intention of ever living. Seattle’s nice, for a while, but I know that I could never live there. I love the music scene, Safeco field, the brew pubs… oh the brew pubs. But would lose my mind waiting 20 minutes to get onto the I-5 every morning, I know I couldn’t handle it.
The difference lies in knowing what I’d miss if I did move there. I’d miss my 30 second walk to work, exchanging waves with every car that drove by, intimate open mic nights every other Saturday, the bay, the whales, the bears moving through the backyard… the list could go on.
I’m sure if she thought about it long enough she could find a unique thing or two about home that she’d miss if I exiled her to Gustavus for the winter. Or maybe not. Maybe she’d fall in love with the countless potlucks people throw here, the dreamy silence of the falling snow with little to do but sip coffee and grab whatever artistic medium calls to her like it does for so many here in the winter. She may never want to live here, but I bet if she did, she’d miss the movie theater less than she thinks.

Different View, Same Soundtrack

I wake to the gust of cold wind on my face, the breeze a soothing tonic against my cheeks, encouraging me to dig deeper into my sleeping bag propped on the deck chair of the ferry’s solarium. It’s not even seven but the horizon already glows with rosy morning light, soothing confirmation that we’re still moving north. I poke my head out and look over the rails, my heartbeat slows. Gone are the buildings, the roads, the lights that had bombarded us from the shore as the sun went down with nothing more than the occasional lighthouse to interrupt the parade of rocky beaches and mighty cedars.

I stare out at the blue road ahead, the trees slowly melting by. Less than 24 hours ago we had been sitting in traffic, trapped on the I-5 with nothing but outlet malls and tail lights for company. I could feel my world realigning with the compass pointed resolutely north away from the alien world of cities, suburbs, and concrete. I return to my sleeping bag drinking in the cool spring air, and go right back to sleep.

The mountains feel like old friends, familiar faces as the ferry steams into Juneau. Auke, Thunder, and McGinnis, call out in greeting as we drive down the ramp, bleary eyed but exhilarated to be home. The Mendenhall Glacier still stands guard at the foot of the towers, with Thunder and McGinnis mountains guarding its’ flanks. How good it felt to be back, the comfort, the familiarity, the mountain’s friendly faces, extinguished any longing for Hanson Island. If I couldn’t be there, this was the next best thing.

24 hours later, we were finally done. The Pathfinder sputtered to life one final time, taking us up one final ramp and into the town of Gustavus. Town however, may be to generous. The lone stop sign lies a mile and a half inland from the ferry dock, affectionately known as, “four corners” the only intersection in town. Everywhere you look are mountains, but unlike Juneau, they lie benignly in the distance. The town is midwest prairie flat, a quirky anomaly in a region in which towns are built on, around, and through mountains. In spite of their distance, the mountain’s names come back to me easily like a familiar song that you haven’t heard in years. The mountain ranges of the Fairweather, Beartrack, and Chilkat surround us to the west, north, and east. To the south, across Icy Strait, is Chichagof Island, its own collection of mountains give the impression that we are in a massive bowl surrounded on all sides by distant peaks.

We slow to a stop and consider our options. Two of the four roads lead to the two ways out of town, the ferry behind us, and the airport, the third leads down a dirt road, the left hand turn is the longest, stretching north past unassuming roads dotted with log homes and protected by thick canopies of spruce and hemlock. Seven miles down later it ends in Glacier Bay, the crown jewel of southeast Alaska. It seems fitting, that in a land renown for its’ natural beauty, it’s most marvelous feature would lay, unassuming, next to a tiny hamlet accessible only by air and sea.

Here there would be no tour buses, no fleets of helicopters or airplanes, no navy of whale watching boats. If you wanted to be here, there would be no shortcuts. In the summer months a pair of cruise ships would ply the waters of the bay, rushing up the west arm of the Y shaped bay to sit in front of the Margerie Glacier. But for those that wanted to truly be here. To trace the footsteps of John Muir, Stickeen, and others, there would be no port of call.

It was perfect. Years ago someone asked me to describe what Glacier Bay and Gustavus was like: “like someone dropped a bunch of people here in the 70s, and airlifted in a bunch of Beatles vinyl.” Every passing car waves, every face lit into a smile. Moose poop frames our yard along with a gentle blanket of willow and baby birch trees. The scene is so different from the one we left on Hanson Island, but no less beautiful. No less peaceful, no less… us.

Our first morning brings a striking similarity. As I crack the door to let the cat resume his life of roaming through the forest, a Varied Thrush calls out from a nearby Spruce and is immediately answered by another. One week and a thousand miles later, the same birds continue to serenade us, reminding me, that, no matter which country we’re in. We’re home.

Escape From Hanson Island

For a week the weather services proclaimed that Wednesday, April 15th would be calm, clear, and peaceful. It would be a fitting and tranquil journey from the lab to Alert Bay, a promising start to what would be a week long expedition that would eventually lead to Gustavus, Alaska. On Tuesday night I checked the weather one final time, more out of sentimentalism than anything else, and saw Johnstone Strait caked in red. “30 knot southeasterly winds,” it boldly proclaimed. I rolled my eyes and glanced out the window, the cedar boughs were fluttering in a benign and apathetic way, I shut the curtains and crawled under the covers.

The next morning we awoke to the windows rattling, though the rain showed merciful restraint. We packed and began to debate tersely the best strategy for placing a bulky rabbit cage, a squirming cat, and countless bags and boxes unto the deck of a pitching boat.

An hour later the June Cove pulled around the corner, bobbing in the churning bathtub that was Blackfish Sound. We threw our belongings unceremoniously aboard with rabbit and cat perched atop the pile, and watched the lab fade from view. In the stress and rush to load the boat before the waves could put it on the rocks, there was little time for nostalgia and farewells. Instead of casting a final look at the lab deck, where I had been bombarded by sun, rain, and a rotating cast of marine life, I diligently jabbed a long two by four into the rocks as the bow of the boat slowly turned toward open water.

The water deepened and waves broke over the bow, foam and white caps littering the ocean. Paul peers through the blurred windshield as we hit the crest of a wave and slide down, the screech of nails emanates from Penny the rabbits cage as she slides back and forth. Completely unperturbed, she continuously tries to stand on her hind legs as the boat rolls, dead set on glancing out the window.

Paul glances over at where I stand, staring out the window into the crashing waves, willing the boat forward. He catches my eye and grins, “the escape from Hanson Island!” he shouts and the tension breaks.

Perhaps it was best like this. No tears, no long, lingering hugs. Leaving Hanson Island is removing a band aid, it’s best to just rip it off. Thirty minutes later we reached the relative peace of the dock, the first of four boat rides behind us. Again there would be no lingering as Paul needed to rush back to the lab before the tide ebbed too far, exposing the June Cove to a night of gale force winds.

And just like that, it was done. We stood where we had eight months ago, with an overstuffed Nissan Pathfinder and a pair of pets staring confusedly out the window while the wind buffeted us.

To our immense relief, our reliable Pathfinder sputtered, coughed, and after several heart stopping seconds, roared to life and we wove along the shoreline to Paul and Helena’s home for the night.

We curled up in the lap of luxury. Hot baths, ice cream, cold beer, electric heat, baseball, it may as well have been the Ritz Carlton hotel for all we cared. But it was hard not glance out the massive windows down Johnstone Strait as the light slowly faded, the outline of Hanson Island still visible and know that it would be months before we were forced to contend with the beautiful inconveniences that only life on an island can bring.

Perhaps the weirdest moment came when we finally crawled into bed. The room was as silent as a tomb and it was completely unsettling. For months we’d been passively listening through the night as the hydrophones reported the sounds of the ocean. The rushing water of a gale, the crackle of a dragging hydrophone, the low pitched growl of a tug, the whistles of dolphins, and the call of an orca that sent you flying from the covers. Now it was all gone, the silence leaving a strange ringing in our ears.

Rubbing Beach Ideologies

The water’s perfect, with the aqua green reflection off Vancouver Island’s mountains that I love. It’s as calm as a puddle, the sun shining high above in a cloudless sky. In the past couple weeks, the sun has finally begun to radiate a warmth that can be felt through your jacket. It’s not the benign passive glow of January but the first hint of summer’s rays, and it feels euphoric. It streams through the back of the boat, warming our backs as we glide down Johnstone Strait towards the mammoth mountains above Robson bight that stand like kings on their thrones. The strait’s empty despite the summery weather and our boat is nothing more than a toy in a massive bathtub.

We angle across the strait, the bow pointed past the bight towards the rubbing beaches. Fuel levels running the cameras needed to be checked, and it behoves one to never pass up the chance to visit the orca’s holy place. But as we pass the mouth of Robson Bight, something makes me slide the boat into neutral. Many somethings are breaking the surface of the water, like ink blots on a clean sheet of paper, disappearing and reemerging. The disturbances are far too small to be the orcas we secretly prayed we’d come across, but it was the next best thing. The pod of dolphins meanders slowly across the strait toward Swaine Point on Cracroft Island and we fall into line on the left hand side of the massive group that easily numbers 100.

Brittney stands on the stern of the boat, one hand gripping the vessel, the other clamped on the camera. In response to a signal we cannot here, the mass of dolphins swerve left, pointing west, pointing towards us. I slide the boat back into neutral and turn the ignition, at the mercy of the currents we turn perpendicular to them and wait. A flash of white catches my eye as like a ghost, the first dolphin glides underneath us, his body turned sideways, an invisible eye staring up at me.

From behind me I hear Brittney gasp in awe as the flood surrounds us. The camera falls limply to her side, how do you even begin to capture this? Some surface calmly, their bodies barely breaking the surface, while others rocket clear of the ocean seeming to hover frozen in time for the briefest moment before slipping smoothly back beneath the waves with barely a splash. Dozens cruise beneath us, the calm seas and clear water of early spring enabling us see dozens of feet below as the torpedoes shoot past. It takes nearly five minutes for all of them to go by, the sounds of their blows and splashes rapidly fading as we bob in their chop still under the spell.

The boy in me tells me to start the engine, race ahead of them, and do it again. But what a insult to the gift we’d been given, it was good, but not enough, we need more. How human, selfish. I push the thought out of my head and we continue the other way, past the bight and minutes later, land with a soft crunch, land at the rubbing beach. With no idea when our next trip here will be, we linger on the beach, feeling the pebbles slide and crunch beneath us, coaxing the few rays of light that penetrate the trees onto our faces. With just a week left before our return to civilization, our imminent return continues to dominant our conversations.

“There’s some things I miss,” I admit, “unlimited bandwidth, Alaskan IPA, hot showers, other people… but I don’t, crave these things. It’s funny how many luxuries we begin to assume are necessities.”

“How many people think they can’t live without texting?” Brittney asks, “or hot running water, or electric heat, or indoor plumbing?”

“It’s a state of mind, it’s all we know, we’ve never lived without so we conclude that they’re essential. It makes sense.”

“But we clearly don’t need them.”

“We were willing to let go.”

“Think some people can’t?”

“I think they can… I just don’t think they want to. It took me awhile,” I say, “I’ve learned to sit quietly here, that my brain doesn’t have to be constantly entertained by outside influences, like mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, or netflix. That sitting on the rocks watching the tide ebb can be enough, it’s almost meditative.”

We sit in silence for a moment, “I still scroll through Facebook mindlessly,” I admit.

She laughs, “I know.”

Across the strait on Cracroft Island the sound of a saw floats across the strait, a sickening crack, and a boom as another tree meets its’ end, the clearcut steadily grows, the gash opening wider, the runoff like blood flowing downhill into the ocean.

We fall back into silence, the sound of machinery dominating our ears, the incessant hum of a tug motoring slowly westward becoming prominent. Suddenly the land feels too crowded, we’re hemmed in by people, a tug and a tree crew is all it takes.

“It’s funny,” I point toward the tug and the clearcut, “this feels full now.”

I pause and look instead down the beach where everything is pure, there are no right angles here, no perfect circles. For a moment I want to run into the woods, into the last unlogged watershed on east Vancouver Island and disappear. To hide out till summer, with nothing more to do than watch the orcas swim by.

For His Old Branches

We push deeper into the middle of the island, weaving our way along the ridge. In an organized line the three of us hike, me in the lead, followed by Brittney, Porter the cat right on her heels. When she disappears over a small hill to look at a patch of moss that shines a fantastic neon green he plops on a fallen Hemlock and softly meows until she reappears. There are no machines, no airplanes, no cars. The only sounds are of the forest’s creation. Squirrels quarrel from their respective trees, all talk and no action. The Varied Thrush in between acts as a mediator, his single melodious note drowned out by their stubborn chatter.

It’s all therapy. The springy moss gives the sensation of walking on clouds, the world a tapestry of browns, golds, reds, and more shades of green than I knew existed. Fir, Hemlock, Spruce, and of course Cedar shield the sun. I stop at one Cedar and see a deep six foot slash that begins near my knees and travels up past my eyes. Long ago, someone cut into her. Not out of spite, anger, or the egotistical need to announce ones presence. But to weave a basket. By strategically stripping the bark in this way, the natives brought not death, but growth, their cuts encouraging the trees to grow at a faster rate. They’re known as culturally modified trees (CMT) and they litter the island. At least the parts that have never been logged, which is sadly less than half.

We stumble onto the scene of such a crime after plunging through a valley and onto the next ridge. Spruce dominant the scene here looking massive and impressive until our eyes fall upon the skeletons. Cedar trees twelve feet in diameter stand decapitated ten feet from the ground. Deep one foot notches denote where the logger stood and cut until the massive tree succumbed to gravity. Like the CMT, it says, “man was here” but with much more finality and violence. The cuts are from generations previously, the sun long ago blocked by the growth around us, the stumps being swallowed back into the earth, crumbling to powder. I look up at the spruce and feel relief and gratitude knowing neither them or the successors to follow will meet the same fate here. It’s progress. Hope. That their deaths were not in vain, that perhaps we’re moving forward.

Back home, I sharpen a chainsaw, fill it with oil and a 50:1 fuel to oil mixture. I can feel the trees watching me and Walrus’ words float into my head.

“When I got here, I could feel the pain this place had experienced. How many chainsaws these trees had heard, and I vowed never to use one on Yukusam.”

It’s a gesture that means sacrifice and plenty of extra work, though many I suppose would call it foolish, irrational, pointless. After all, trees can’t hear. At least, I don’t think they can. But his words, his dedication, his conviction stick in my head as I set the choke and begin to pull the handle, feeling the machine sputter before dying again. A magnificent piece of Fir has washed up along the beach, probably 50 feet long it offers nights of cozy warmth. But nearby, his brethren still stand. Branches coated in needles reach out towards me, their ends curved upwards toward the sun, like a crowd with outstretched arms, their palms skyward in peaceful protest. I sit the saw down and move up the beach a few steps. If they can hear, I want to make sure they hear me.

“This saw is not meant for you,” I whisper, and even in my solitude I glance behind me for human ears. “This tree can no longer grow, photosynthesize, or give life to the forest. If it could I would never touch it, just as I promise to never touch you. Forgive the sounds of the saw, I’ll leave you in peace as quickly as I can.”

I kneel by the saw and crank the handle again, it roars to life and soon, sawdust is flying from the tiny metallic teeth, forming neat golden piles on the beach. I move down the line, making cuts every foot and a half, dodging knots and pausing once to tighten the chain. In half an hour it’s over and true to my word I shut it off as soon as I’m done. Once again the cove and forest is filled with nothing but the sounds of the thrush and the squirrels.

Stepping Back

When I first came to Orca Lab in 2008, I expected some sort of sign. Some sort of intimate and personal encounter with the whales to justify the sacrifices, work, and effort I had gone through to reach this place. Orcas, it turns out, have little interest in storybook endings. They went about their lives as if I were invisible. It was odd, the orcas owed me absolutely nothing, but so convinced was I that some spectacular, “ah-ha” moment would arrive, that to leave without having gotten within 200 yards of a whale was, not a disappointment, but a hit to the ego.

“Don’t you ever get tired of watching whales?”

It was a common enough question working on a whale watching boat, and I suppose it should have been predictable. I mean, the majority of my clientele had work that they actually looked at as, well, work. I just saw it as a free whale watch every day, like someone had offered me season tickets along the third base line for free. How could you get sick of that?

The question would always rise to the surface just as the humpback was slipping below, meaning I had 5-7 minutes to explain why no, I don’t get sick of watching massive aquatic mammals breath. I’m nothing more than a commercial while the show dives 200 feet below us for another mouthful of herring. The guy who banters on stage while the band tunes their instruments.

“They’re like potato chips,” became my generic reply, “you can never say enough.”

But for those that would probe, that actually wanted to know and weren’t just making conversation after realizing that no, your iPhone will not get service out here, I’d go a step further.

“Because you never know what might happen. If someone calls and needs you to take a trip… you take the trip. The last thing you want is to come home to a phone call, and find out you missed the trip of the lifetime.”

But 100 yards stands between the deck and a trip of a lifetime. For the many who have read the stories of Erich Hoyt, Paul Spong, and Alex Morton, it’s a tantalizing distance. We want a moment like Morton had, being led by the A5s through the fog, or Erich Hoyt in his rowboat, bobbing in the bight, surrounded by whales.

But that age of orca research and watching has come to an end. With restrictions and limitations enforced, we’re at the mercy of the whales to swim that football field distance and set the stage for the sort of encounter we crave. Perhaps we love them too much. Our addiction as harmful to them as potato chips are to our arteries. We crave these moments, and stand breathless on the deck of a swaying boat, hoping for a flash of white, a bubbling surface, an eruption of carbon dioxide as the whale breaks the water feet from us.

And it does happen. After three years and countless hours on the water, I had a few holy s— moments; I was splashed by an orca, had one circle the boat, it’s oval eye patch staring into my soul, and had 14 humpbacks materialize from nowhere, surrounding us in a bubble net of desperate herring. And all it took was thousands of hours, and the sheer luck to be in the right place at the right time.

Six years later I returned to Hanson Island, reluctant to share some of the most intimate whale experiences with my fellow volunteers. I had been extraordinarily lucky to have a job that allowed me to buy a lottery ticket every day and cash in on the minuscule odds. But that summer, I found a much more rewarding and fulfilling experience. As much as I’d loved my time on the water, a wriggling feeling of guilt had grown as I thought about the deafening noise my coworkers and I made in their home.

The whale watch industry grew and with it, the pressure on the humpbacks and orcas until every daylight hour was spent in the company of at least one, and almost always several boats. I couldn’t measure how much of a disturbance I was causing, but the uneasy feeling in my stomach told me however much it was, my conscience was not ok with it. I began to despise the 700 HP engines on our stern, giving us the authority to decide when the whales could be free of us. Were these experiences worth the boat noise and fuel? The hours hovering above their kitchen table, knowing if it was up to them they’d probably have us disappear?

Instead of intimate face to face encounters, I craved anonymity. I wanted to see, but not touch, observe but not alter, be it from 5 yards or 500 didn’t matter. Perhaps I’m biased. After all, I can still see that orcas tail rising off the stern of the boat, sending water cascading over us. But nothing felt as rewarding or special as a misty, fog drenched morning at Cracroft point.

As the tide ebbed I inched down the rocks, slipping and sliding over the kelp, my camera slung over a shoulder, a lens the size of a baseball bat swaying ominously. Stopping just shy of the water I looked east down the strait, the sun cutting slashes in the clouds ahead of the oncoming rain storm. Right along the Cracroft shoreline I saw them, the A23s and A25s plowing through the strait, pointed directly at me. I raised the camera, Paul’s words ringing in my ears, “get A60s photo.”

The group filed past, exhalations like gunshots ricocheting off the rocks. An image of A60s dorsal flashed in my mind, like the face of someone I hadn’t seen in years, the big notch two thirds of the way up the dorsal made him easy to ID, and as the picture filled my head, his dorsal filled my lens.

I held my breath to steady the camera, and pushed the shutter, immortalizing Fife on a 6 GB chip. He couldn’t have been any closer than 150 yards, a distance many in the whale watch industry would yawn at. But a tear slid down my face as he disappeared. A few years ago I’d have wanted Fife to know I was there, to see some acknowledgement of my love and interest. Now… I wanted anything but that. Just to have a brief window into his world, and know that his calls were blowing out the speakers back at the lab was plenty.

The whales slipped by, milling briefly in the entrance of Blackney before steaming north. As if waiting for them to pass, the rain arrived, drenching me as I stood on the deck, reveling in the knowledge that they had no idea I was there. The group slowly faded from sight, there fins merging with the streaks of rain and background of the islands. But I continued to watch until they vanished from view. After all they’re like potato chips, you can never say “I’m full.”

John Muir, Stickeen, and the Biggest Decision of Our Lives

My favorite John Muir story involves a tiny dog named Stickeen. Fanatically loyal to Muir, Stickeen followed the famous naturalist everywhere, even the glaciers could not separate them. On one trip a storm hit. The light was fading, and they were still far from home. Between them and camp lay a large crevasse in the ice, a narrow bridge across offered the only hope of passage.
Muir scooted across and turned to find Stickeen still on the other side, sprinting back and forth as the wind howled, panicked and too terrified to follow. Muir knelt down and reach out his arms calling to his companion.
“Hush your fears little one, no right way is easy in this rough world, we must risk our lives in order to save them.”
For a moment Stickeen remained perched on the edge of the precipice, and in a flurry sprinted across the bridge, past Muir and began to yip and run in circles in ecstasy.
For years John Muir’s words have resonated inside me, echoing in my head with every major decision I make. I tried to avoid making decisions simply because they were safe or comfortable, probing deep inside for what I really wanted.
With this credo echoing in both our hearts, we walked, hiked, and hitched through New Zealand. Bounced from seasonal job to seasonal job. Crammed everything we owned into the Pathfinder and drove for five exhilarating days to Seattle. And of course, spent the last six months blissfully happy on Hanson Island.
Slowly we’ve watched our time remaining tick away, somehow, we have just two months left, and the thought of leaving already left a lump in our throats.
In our wildest dreams, where money is no object, we knew we’d come back. But even here, the financial demands of life can reach us. Student loans, IRAs, and that house in Gustavus beckon. It became our next goal, to save up and buy that house, if the elephant in the room (winter work in a town of 350) could be addressed.
Than Paul and Helena changed everything, offering to help us return for another winter if we wanted to. Thus began the hardest decision we’ve ever made together. We tried to imagine returning to Alaska, kayak guiding in Glacier Bay and than… what? Making coffee in Juneau I suppose. Which was all well and good, but we both knew that at night, crammed back into our shanty studio apartment, we’d look out the window to find ourselves surrounded by street lights. And our souls would ache for this place. For the sound of the waves on the rocks. The Harlequin ducks bobbing like rubber duckies into the cove every morning, the mischievous mink that taunts the cat from under the house.
We budgeted. We convinced each other that one decision was correct, and than the other. Finally, we would lapse back into fits of indecision. Pulled between starting to put down roots, and fearing that we’d eternally regret not returning to the island. We talked long into the night, unable to decide. Until this morning when Paul asked us if we’d reached a decision. We looked at each other across the table, a pained look on both our faces. We knew saying no meant we may never see this place again. And we knew that we couldn’t live with that.
There will be houses to save for later. Winter work questions to answer, money to make, roots to set down. But in our hearts, the wanderlust called for an encore. To sprint across that ice bridge one more time. To risk our lives. And to save them.

“We’re coming back!” we replied.
And like Stickeen a century ago, jumped and ran around the cabin while the wind and rain pelted the windows.

The Magic of the Town Run

The tide is ebbing, and the boat is stuck, like some hauled out metallic sea lion. An expletive escapes my lips and with one final push the boat slides over the rock and floats again. The vertical rock face seems to have just enough of these little ledges, and like some magnetic force, always seems to suck the boat right to them.
With the boat free, the loading begins. Empty gas cans, dead batteries, and garbage bag filled to burst with pungent clothes. Brittney appears, laden with more black hefty bags filled with trash and tied securely. The Hanson Island rule is: bags with garbage are tied, bags with laundry are left untied, an important step. Just ask the volunteer who tied his laundry bag, sentencing it to doom in the landfill.
By the time everything is piled in, there’s precious little room to reach the seats. The boat already makes me feel like Gandalf in a hobbit hole, but filled to the brim makes it feel like crawling through a cole mine. Finally I manage to pretzel my legs behind the wheel and the boat floats free, drifting into the middle of the cove.
The engine roars to life on the first turn and we idle slowly past the kelp bed and into Blackney Pass. Free of kelp and rock, the engine roars to life, struggling to break free of the water and get on step with the heavy load. But the water is a flat calm this morning and we hang a left, bound for Blackfish Sound, Weynton Pass, Pearse Passage, and finally Alert Bay.
It is the most magical of days, the town run. An afternoon of hot baths, Paul’s sandwiches, and people. So many people. Just up the street from the dock is a tiny lot where the beloved pathfinder has sat patiently all winter. Ever week and a half she resignedly comes to life so that we can drive the one mile along the shoreline to Paul and Helena’s house.
I feel like a kid coming home from college. A massive bag of laundry in hand, anticipating food, beer, and canned goods. After months of taps producing nothing but frigid water, feeling hot water spew into the tub makes me flinch. We had eschewed baths in favor of pouring hot water over ourselves a couple times a week on the deck. Scrubbing frantically while we shivered in the wind and the rain. So when it’s my turn, I nearly fall asleep, the hot water lapping at my face.
From the house you can see Johnstone Strait, the Hanson Island shoreline appears merged with the trees of Cracroft and the Plumper Islands. The water stays flat, but the sun is already beginning to set.
Alert Bay is far from bustling, but feels as congested as a city as we squeeze along the narrow road.
“So many people,” Brittney says as we wait for two cars to go by.
The grocery store is nearly sensory overload. For days we’d talked about the things that we’ve been craving but unable to reach. Now we just stare blankly at the shelves, a crumpled list in hand. Overwhelmed we pile heads of lettuce, carrots, potatoes, tortillas, and of course coffee into the quickly growing pile. Tragedy strikes when we reach the popcorn and find the shelves barren.  For a minute we’re too stunned to speak, mouth open in shock and horror. No popcorn? Why did we even come into town? Sadly we head for the checkout our overflowing cart suddenly feeling empty.
Loading the minuscule boat becomes a cramped game of tetris. Anything that can fit into the tiny hold in the bow is shoved unceremoniously in. Filled gas tanks and charged batteries bring the water’s surface a couple inches closer to the window. Bags of food, lettuce leafs poking curiously out the top are stacked as gently as possible on top of the clean laundry.
After some coaxing, the boat obediently gets up on plane and sends us rocketing home on the flooding tide. We reach the lab just as the light begins to fade but the slowly flooding tide has left us well short of the cove. Grabbing as much as we can, we walk and stumble up the rocks, dumping groceries and water jugs on the deck, leaving the batteries and fuel tanks for a higher tide.
Opening the door of our house, a white and brown blur shoots past as the cat sprints for freedom, incensed at his day long imprisonment inside. The rabbit is even more excited and wastes no time inspecting every bag until she finds the apples and attacks with the ferocity of a Great White Shark. By the time the boat is tied and the groceries stored, it’s dark, the fire slowly warming the house once again.
We collapse on the couch, town days always seem to wear us out, probably all the hot water. Now if only we could find a pizza place that delivered.