Tag Archives: Orcas

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

Advertisements

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

My Orca Lab Playlist

Music and Orca Lab don’t often mix. When you’re passively listening around the clock, an earbud can miss that first whispered call. But music ties me tightly to this place because for much of my life I’ve had an iPod in my pocket.

There are songs I hear nine years later that I still place to memories centered around this place. It starts with a track by the band Snow Patrol before I even knew the Lab existed.

My first trip to British Columbia was a kayaking trip when I was 18. Returning to civilization I recharged my iPod, stuck it on shuffle, and this is what came up. For the following winter I returned to this song again and again. It has nothing to do with wilderness or nature (though it does have the word ‘water’ in it) but it pulls me back to those days when my internal compass was spinning out of control and I transformed from basketball player to Edward Abbey apostle.

The next summer I returned to British Columbia. Like many of us I had the privilege of volunteering at the Lab. And, like many of us, I made the trip north from the city of Vancouver via Greyhound bus. Blurry eyed and yawning I slumped against the window and watched the concrete give way to forest. As I hit play on my iPod, this is the first song that came on, and it is forever tied to that smelly bus station and the promise that I was almost there.

A few hours later the bus took the familiar right turn off highway 19 and into Port McNeil. Down the hill, sharp right turn, Malcom Island visible in the distance. The moment needed a song fitting of this momentous moment and fate delivered.

Is there a better song to hear into when you’ve waited all winter and counted down the days until you made it back? The answer is no, no there is not. That piano, awesome. I still get goosebumps as I remember grabbing my duffel bag and looking around as the bus disappeared, wondering where on earth the Port McNeil campground was.

We had macaroni and cheese my first night at the Lab. I’ll never forget it. By the time we’d finished eating it was too dark to pitch our tents so we slept in the guest cabin. As I sit at the table in that very cabin, I can still point to the spot on the floor where I laid out my sleeping bag that night, put in my headphones and fell asleep to more Snow Patrol

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone else, but it’s the little moments that make this place special. I’ve had Orcas buzz past Cracroft Point and been awoken by humpbacks deep in the cove on a midnight high tide. But it’s Helena coming into the lab at 6 in the morning with cinnamon rolls that chokes me up. It’s having the honor of introducing this place to others that are my fondest memories. It’s quiet afternoons with Grandma Cedar and giving fish to Harbor Seals that I’ll miss the most.

Miss. It’s still hard to fathom using that word. But miss it I will, because this is our final winter. Geez that was hard to write. In the end, I’ll have spent almost two years of my life here. It seems like a lot when you add it all together, but believe me when I say it’s gone by in a heartbeat. When memories that are almost ten years old are still so vivid, the time between feels like a blur. But Orca Lab has given me something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.

If you could have told me when I met Paul Spong that he would turn from folk hero to mentor to boss to friend, I would have cried. Paul taught me so much before I even shook his hand. His story is one of resilience, conviction, and truth. It would have been easy for him to keep quiet and stay in his lane. But Paul doesn’t care about staying in his lane. Skana deserved to go home and a cement pool was not what she deserved. So he picketed his employer when they threw him out. He went north and pushed his kayak into the waves of Blackfish Sound because his faith in himself outweighed the doubts of the world.

And look at what’s been built. Look at the lives that he and Helena have touched and impacted. It’s a legacy, there’s no other word for it. Everyone who sets foot in this place is transported. There is a look of childlike innocence, their faith in the greater good is restored, the answers to life’s questions in a slice of Helena’s bread and a cold Kokanee.

In the end I think that’s what I’ll remember most. Paul and Helena’s quiet confidence and faith in themselves. I won’t beat a drum about how people don’t do this sort of thing anymore, they do. We’re going to a place populated by people who believe and act much like the apostles of Orca Lab. In our home in Gustavus, Alaska is a young man that I imagine is a lot like Paul was when he first drove up Vancouver Island.

Zach Brown is a dark haired and quick witted 30-year old with a P.H.D in Oceanography and a deep love of basketball, good beer, and keeping the world green. Like Paul, don’t you dare tell him, “no” or that it cannot be done. The guy celebrated the successful defense of his Doctorate by walking from the Stanford campus to Port Angeles, Washington. There he traded his hikers for a kayak and paddled the inside passage to Gustavus. He is a man of constant motion and ideas. He’s a fighter, he’s idealistic, he wants to change the world. He not only wants Alaska to cleanse itself of fossil fuel consumption, he has plans for how it can be done. Will we see it in our lifetime? The pessimist in me says probably not, but he has the same faith that Paul has. The same faith that continues to believe that after almost forty years, Corky can still come home.

It is impossible to be in the presence of people like this and not be inspired.

To the south of Gustavus is Icy Strait. At the west end of the strait is a cluster of islands called the Inians. I don’t know how they go their name, perhaps some mariner meant to write Indian and forgot the “D.” The archipelago is part of the Tongass National Forest, and thanks to recent legislation, its old growth should be protected for eternity. Except for one piece. On that piece is a homestead, settled into a protected little bay. The people of Gustavus call it the Hobbit Hole. When it went up for sale, Zach Brown got an idea not unlike one Paul had all those years ago.

“Isn’t immersing yourself in the natural world the best way to study the natural world?”

The night after meeting with Zach I rode home on my bike, Grand Funk Railroad in my ears.

And so the Inian Island Institute was born. When the homestead went up for sale Zach went from one corner of the continent to the other to find funders and donors who would believe in him. The Hobbit Hole is his now. Or the Institutes to be more accurate.

It’s a place where students come to learn, get off the concrete, and see the biomes they’ve read about in textbooks. The place is run on hydropower and fed by the garden, deer, salmon, halibut, and shrimp. Brittney and I plan to be heavily involved in Zach’s work. The world needs whistle blowers now more than ever. Patient, convicted, and passionate speakers of truth and fact. And this is a place where we can scream at the top of our lungs and enlist the generation that will either clean up the messes of the past or be buried by them.

I won’t be callous and say it’s the Orca Lab of Alaska, for that is an insult to this place. There is NO place like Orca Lab and there never will be. For that’s the beauty of nature, nothing is identical. There is magic to every bend in the cove and the ring of every tree. I will bawl my eyes out when we pull away for the last time. I will miss this place every day for the rest of my life. I will scroll through photos and feel my heart ache for the sunrise over Vancouver Island, Harlequin’s on the rocks, and Sea Lions yelling in the night.

But the playlist is finished. It’s time. I am gracious for the peace and comfort this place has brought me and humbled to have the chance to leave my small imprint. It has realigned my vision of what I can and want to be. It has given me a direction that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am not David Cannamore, amateur writer, kayak guide, and husband to Brittney without this place. I cannot imagine what I would be without this island, Paul, or Helena. I will never be able to truly express my gratitude to those two magnificent people. So let me end this post with that. Gratitude and thankfulness for a place and people that will never be replaced. Bless this place, the Orcas it watches over, and every 3 am wakeup to record their calls.

“I know there’s, California, Oklahoma,

and all of the places that I ain’t never been to but,

down in the valley with whiskey rivers,

These are the places you will find me hiding.

These are the places I will always go.”

Stop Talking About Polar Bears. Talk About Us.

The blog has been quiet lately. This hasn’t been intentional it’s just, well, I’ve always tried to keep this forum balanced. Too often I feel environmental writing gets dragged down into a “the end is neigh” rhetoric that beats the drum so often that the reader goes tone deaf. There is good out there, it’s just been hard to find. Sure, we can applaud Obama’s protection of the Arctic from drilling, but even that has a dark lining as many pundits have been quick to point out.

We’re so used to fighting a losing battle, that even victories are viewed through our pessimistic lens. I suppose I’ve been guilty of that too. It’s been easier to play fantasy basketball, read books, and watch silly TV shows than sink my teeth into anything. Which is dangerous. Apathy at this moment in history is a death blow and I cannot mobilize others to fight while I sit on my duff and drink my fifth cup of coffee this morning.

So lets talk about something that matters. Or more accurately, talk about not talking about something anymore.

We need to stop talking about Polar Bears.

“What?” I can hear you say. “But the polar ice caps are at a historic low! They’re starving and mating with Grizzly Bears! They’re the flagship species of climate change!”

Let me begin by saying that I agree with you. 100 percent. I have never seen a wild Polar Bear, I hope I have the opportunity someday (not too close if you please). And that’s the problem.

Let me remind you of America’s unfortunate waltz with insanity this year and that a man who prioritizes the Environment as highly as women’s vaginas and Russian hacking will soon be in office. We’ve been here before so I won’t bother with another 500 words on it. But as a refresher, the majority of American’s support three of Trump’s seven horcruxes: environmental policies, national parks, and lowering carbon emissions. These are opinions that span both sides of the aisle, though left leaning to be sure.

But it hasn’t mattered. The Polar Bear has been leading a movement that, well, isn’t moving. It’s not galvanizing public opinion or inspiring people to make drastic changes in their lives. This isn’t their fault of course. But scientists and well meaning people pointing feverishly at graphs of vanishing ice, rising carbon emissions, and photos of emaciated bears isn’t changing the minds of the suburban mid-westerner.

That sucks. It speaks to our self centered “out of sight out of mind” mentality. So we need to bring the flagship home. But I haven’t the faintest idea how to do that. Getting people outside is a common theme. “Coming home” as it were, getting in touch with our ancestral playground. But to the casual eye, the woods feel similar to how they were two decades ago.

I look over Blackney Pass and I don’t see the effects of climate change. My quality of life has not diminished. The grocery store is stocked with food, fresh water is everywhere, the jerry cans are full. The boat engine comes to life on the first pull. If someone who lives with his head to nature’s chest and can hear her heartbeat cannot easily see, how do we expect the suburbanite to recognize it? This is my fear. That each generation will experience these subtle changes, see them as normal, and move on.

There used to be toads on Hanson Island. Just twenty years ago Paul and Helena used to see them all over the place. I had no idea. It was a sobering realization that I could be so naive and immune to what the island should contain. It was much the same shock as when I stumbled across an old clear cut last year with the decapitated stumps of trees twenty feet in diameter. Imagine a century from now, some kid staring up at the skeleton of a blue whale and marveling that the world used to hold animals so grand.

If we’re going to wait until the quality of life is deteriorating in the suburbs of Cleveland, I fear it will be too late. It’s funny how environmentalists are viewed as tree huggers and hippies that would rather save a butterfly than a human life. The greatest twist in the tale of humanity is that we’re not trying to save the whales, we’re trying to save ourselves. I’m not learning about root cellars and gardening because I have a particular interest in being the next Samwise Gamgee, I’m learning because I believe there is the possibility that it will save my life.

It’s a scary and sobering realization. It’s something I wish more people thought about. Of course if more people thought about it we wouldn’t be here. Asking people to change for the Polar Bears or southern Resident Orcas is not enough. New cars, big houses, and the tidal waves of consumerism and manifest destiny drowns out their pleas with a deafening roar. This is the enemy. It’s easy to pin Exxon, Shell, the government, and other faceless entities to the cross. They’re not us. They’re the problem. We’re just along for the ride.

To steal our new commander in chief’s favorite phrase, “wrong.”

They exist because we allow them to exist. Our obsessive, “if you’re not growing you’re failing, American dream, more, more, more” mentality exists because of us. Stop believing you need everything nay, deserve everything, and it will disappear. Rip those shackles off. If these ideologies are defeated, the polar bears, Orcas, and us will be saved by default. Don’t save the Polar Bears, save humanity.

How I’m supposed to convince people of this I have not the faintest idea. So instead let me leave you with this final nugget.

I believe Orcas are smarter than humans. From the moment an Orca is born, it has everything it could ever want: family, food, security, shelter. It’s beautiful. After decades of research and millions of hours studying them, scientists have but a handful of instances in which Orcas were aggressive to each other. What they have, is a society with no in-fighting, violence, poverty, or hunger (except for the plummeting salmon stocks which is not their fault). If I told you that there was a place you could live without those hardships, you’d want to learn all you could about it. Take that into 2017. Hug your loved one, eat good food, watch out for another, settle conflict peacefully.

Be an Orca. Maybe they should be the flagship species.

Cover Photo Credit: Sylvain Cordier/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Midnight Humpbacks

Another year with no trick or treaters on Hanson Island. I shudder to imagine what we’d do if we heard a knock on the door right now. We’d glance terrified at one another, bodies taut, legs weak, hands shaking. What the hell? No one whose ever knocked on the door of a cabin on the rocks at 10:00 at night has ever done so with good intentions. But the night is calm and seems to be low on ghoulish or spiritual skullduggery. After a stormy month, it’s nice to hear the quiet. There’s not even boat traffic. All that comes out of the hydrophones is the occasional gurgle of water and the unexplained static like crackles.

But despite the quiet and despite the darkness, we’re not alone. Outside the door are sea lions and seals and mink and dolphins, and tonight, humpbacks. They never seem to favor the Hanson shore during the day. When they could be photographed and possibly identified. No, they wait until the sun disappears and the clouds devour what little moon there is. But in the pitch black, we can hear them. Their deep booming breaths shake the window as they surface somewhere out beyond the curtain of night.

And time and time again I rise from my seat and step out onto the porch. It’s not like I can’t hear them from inside. But somewhere embedded in my DNA is an instinct as natural as breathing. Go to the whales. I stand on the edge of the porch, my bare feet gripping the slippery wood. Out of habit I count the blows. One… two… three… Three!? When was the last time there was three humpbacks in front of the lab? In between their surfacings is the sound of sea lions. Their exhalations are minuscule next to their cetacean neighbors. They’re like flies. They zip and dive around the humpbacks, why no one really knows. Maybe their picking off stray fish, using the whales for protection from Transients, or maybe it’s a game. Some sort of Sea Lion chicken to see who can get closest to a 15-foot flipper and not get bludgeoned to death.

There’s something about whales at night. I love whales at night. Let’s be honest, I love them at all hours, but something about hearing them but not seeing them hits me hard. Humpback or Orca, hydrophone or above water makes no difference. I love to listen. It goes back to a night more than ten years ago, not far from where I live and write.

Eleven Years Ago:

It’s past midnight. The only dark stretch of this July night. I’m asleep in a two man tent with my Father when my eyes snap open. I sit upright in my sleeping bag, that DNA kicking on for the first time. I know what I heard, the only question is; was it in my dream. I only have to wait a few seconds when I hear it again.

Blows. Lots of them.

I spring out of my sleeping bag—Dad right behind—and step out onto the rocks. Johnstone Strait is ten feet away and five feet down. And somewhere in that eternal blackness, they’re swimming. Orcas. I hear them but can’t see them. It’s infuriating. We’ve traveled hear to see them, not hear them swim tantalizingly by just feet away. From my knees I stretch out into the nothingness above the water, eyes straining, heart praying. But they’re moving on. Going west.

Two days later I got my wish when the A36s, a trio of male Orcas swim past in the morning. From the seat of my kayak I watched Kaikash, Plumper, and Cracroft cruise by. If only I’d known their names that day. I would have paddled out and introduced myself.

Today I don’t mind. Let them approach in the dark and scurry across to the shadow of Harbledown Island in the sun. Even as I write the humpbacks continue to move back and forth in Blackney Pass. Sometimes close, sometimes further away. But in the stillness I can hear them, mixing with the sounds of the hydrophone, the crackling of the fire, and the snoring of the cat.

Home.

Somewhere along the way, this place became home. One of them at least. It can be easy to take some of the miracles of Hanson Island for granted when it’s at your feet 24-hours a day. But not tonight. Not when the humpbacks surface and reawaken the boy inside that fell in love with it all eleven years ago.

Past, Present, & Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected Good News is the Best News

I wanted to write about something happy. Something hopeful and uplifting. But for the last couple months, it’s been hard not to feel cynical. What with all the political news, the hate and xenophobia that has infested and captivated all of us whether we’re for it or against it. Even here, on Hanson Island. I quit social media cold turkey for a few days. Every time I logged on I got mad, frustrated, defeated.

But not today. Not tomorrow, probably not for the rest of the week. I needed good news, needed a victory, something to reinstall my faith in humanity. It was SeaWorld of all places, that delivered it. Yesterday the aquarium giant announced an end to the breeding of captive Orcas and “circus style” performances. The finish line is still in the distant future, but at least it’s now visible.

There is of course, a PR spin on this, pivoting around the tenants of “world class care” and “more natural encounters.” We can peruse and scrutinize this is we want, but it’s been clear since the moment that Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau’s ponytail, that SeaWorld couldn’t continue in its current state. Ever since it’s been a gradual slide. From the proposed ending of the circus shows in San Diego, to the “Blue World” proposal. Yesterday, SeaWorld in a way, admitted defeat. Though they’ll never come out and say it, announcing an end to captive breeding and by association, an end to Orca’s in captivity is admitting what animal activists have been saying for years. There is no ethical or conceivable way to keep a massive and intelligent animal in captivity.

Tilikum’s pending death may have had something to do with the announcement. The loss of one of their few breeding males would make the genetic logistics of their breeding program even more difficult and SeaWorld may have been planning for such an announcement. This is all speculation of course. Maybe they looked at their plummeting stocks, attendance records, and a new generation raised on Free Willy and realized there was no future.

But today, I’m not concerned with why SeaWorld is doing what they’re doing, or what their motives were. Today is one of celebration with potential domino effects sweeping across the globe. The end of breeding includes SeaWorld subsidiary Lolo Parque, home to four other Orcas and puts added pressure on the Miami Seaquarium, a small aquarium that is home to  Lolita, a southern Resident who has been in captivity nearly as long as Corky of the northern Residents. Without big brother to hide behind, the spotlight falls more brightly on Miami to, if nothing else, end their performance shows.

With SeaWorld’s focus on low adrenaline and educational shows, the door remains cracked for Corky to come home. After more than 45-years in captivity the prospect of Corky rejoining the A5s and swimming a hundred miles a day seems daunting. But just west of OrcaLab is a long, deep cove called Dong Chong Bay. It was here that Springer, an orphaned and lost Orca was successfully reintroduced to the wild. It would be both poetic and fitting for Corky to live out her days in the bay, chasing wild fish, hearing and associating with her family under the excellent care and attention that SeaWorld has touted for years.

As we celebrate, it’s important to remember the war is not over. Dolphins, Sea Lions, otters, penguins, and polar bears remain large parts of the SeaWorld empire. And while Orcas have deserved the lion’s share of the activism and spotlight, the time has come to tell them that more can be done. The dolphin trade remains one of the more despicable and darker aspects of human kind, with the dolphins life in captivity no better than the Orcas.

I never thought this day would come. I assumed SeaWorld would go down with the ship, beating the drum of education and quality care until they disappeared from existence. But, out of nowhere, they did the right thing. And for that they need to be applauded, commended, and encouraged to do more.