Tag Archives: outdoors

Rolling the Dice

Every guiding company has them. A page of carefully worded phrases meticulously written out by a lawyer in some office, far removed from the natural world. The infamous risk waiver. A bucket of ice water at the start of the trip. A necessary reminder that the world we are traveling to is unscripted. That it can be harsh, dangerous, and unforgiving. That even the best of us, the most prepared, the most cautious, are not immune.

For those of us that live it every day, we have our own, unwritten risk waiver. Every time we go out our doors and into the woods, up the mountain, or onto the water, we sign it. It’s our unspoken agreement with the world we love. An acceptance that it can betray us at any moment. For if it can happen to Forest Wagner, it can happen to anyone.

Forest lives in the woods. There isn’t a mountain he can’t climb, a fjord he cannot paddle, a situation he can’t handle. Two weeks ago he was attacked by a bear while leading a group of students near Haines in southeast Alaska. He wasn’t been foolish or careless, disrespectful or arrogant. You roll the dice enough with Alaska, and sometimes it comes up snake eyes. What are the odds that there’s a mama bear with spring cubs over that blind ridge? 1 in 100? 1 in 1,000? How many blind ridges do you hike over before the odds catch up?
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Forest’s influence and inspiration stretches across the state, across the globe. He’s taught thousands how to survive in the back country, inspired many to follow their passions as mountaineers, kayakers, river rafters, and skiers. From all accounts, even after he’d been attacked and bitten along his side and leg and fallen off a cliff face, it was he who spoke to the medivac on the cell phone. Calm, clear, and collected, he talked his students through the whole process. His own Wilderness First Responder.

“I can climb down if you need me to.” He told the medivac. As if he’d done nothing more than sprain his ankle on a morning run through the suburbs.

Why him and not me? Two days ago I hiked the mountain ridge behind my parent’s house. Bear and moose sign coated the game trail. Again and again I rounded blind corners. Bear bells jingling and bear spray bumping against my leg offered little comfort. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about Forest around every corner. Wrong place, wrong time. Our unspoken agreement, our signed risk waiver with the natural world.
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I wouldn’t have it any other way. Beneath the sugary, frosted coating that reality TV has given Alaska, nothing has really changed. To truly experience this land, to know it with genuine intimacy means to throw ourselves at its mercy, and accept that we may not receive any. Forest knows this, I know this, Brittney knows this, and so does any other guide or outdoor enthusiast that climbs her mountains and paddles her shores. For if the wilderness was always safe it would not be wilderness. With risk comes appreciation and respect. How charismatic would the bears and wolves be if they were harmless? Would we love them, photograph them, even their tracks worthy of our marvel and imagination? Would glaciers be sublime if they didn’t send blocks of ice as big as buildings into the water to crush and reshape everything in their path?
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So this summer I’ll strap on my boots and push my kayak into the water. I’ll grab my fishing pole and walk the salmon stream, knowing that I share the land with bears, moose, and whales. I’ll grab my dice, take the odds, and see what happens. The alternative is a life that is fraught with other dangers. Forest wouldn’t have it any other way.

He’ll be back, it’ll take more than a bear to pry him away from his natural habitat. I have no doubt he’ll summit Denali again, climb the alpine, and return stronger and more confident than ever. The wilderness needs ambassadors like Forest and the mountains of Alaska just wouldn’t be the same without him.

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Living “Rustically”

Spring on Hanson Island is bittersweet for us. As we celebrate the sun crawling higher and higher above the mountains of Vancouver Island, we trot outside, palms and heads held skyward. We lay out on the south facing deck all afternoon, soaking up the sun and getting the greatest outdoor bathtub in the world up and running. After a long, windy winter that was defined by the height of the waves and the thunder of the wind, these sunlit days are nothing short of Nirvana.

But in the back of our minds, we know the countdown has begun. That these days are fleeting, and the days of cleaning, organizing, and packing are fast approaching. We have less than a week remaining before, like the geese flying above, we flock north.

Didn’t we just get here? Weren’t we just winging our way south, watching the the islands and inlets crawl by? Winter always seems to slip through our fingers like sand. Blink and its April. This is our life. Every six months we pack everything and shove a resigned kitty and rabbit in the car, our penance for loving two places that are far from easy to reach.

But before we return to a land with bigger glaciers and smaller trees, we reflect on another winter that has taught us much. It’s hard to think of Hanson Island as rustic. Sure, there’s no warm running water or indoor plumbing. But we have a full size fridge, wireless internet, and the ocean at arms reach. In many ways, living in a New York apartment would feel more oppressive, more difficult. The constant artificial lights, the blaring car horns, the masses of humanity. More restraining than the borders of this little island. Where I walk into the forest and hear a Thrush and Woodpecker, or sit on the deck and hear the breath of an Orca a mile away. Things like warm water and flush toilets feel unnecessary. Give me creatures over convenience, stars over street lamps.

Which is all well and good, until the generator won’t turn over on a cloudy morning, the lab batteries failing and the lights flickering. Or the boat engine suddenly refuses to start as the water’s churn in Blackney Pass. Or you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, the window panes rattling the waves pounding, and your fear of the boat getting swept away in full swing. Than an apartment with running water, reliable lights, and a corner store sound pretty good.

So I remind myself of what these inconveniences do. They pull me back to my roots. Remind me that the things we take for granted we shouldn’t. That it’s important to know where our electricity, our fuel, our freshwater come from. And even more, it gives you a personal stake when the only one that can fix it, is you.

A month ago, the generator, died. Not an old generator mind you, but a brand new one. My generator knowledge began and ended with: “turn the key, push the choke in, go back inside.” I went inside, found the dusty owners manual, and marched back to the generator shed without the faintest idea of what I was doing. I opened the maintenance door and stared at its innards. I traced the fuel line, opened the spark plug compartment, and shook my head. If I lived in a city, I’d call the power company and wait impatiently for someone to fix the problem. I had no one to complain to, no one to lean on but me.

Thirty minutes later, my fingers coated with fuel, oil, and grime, I slammed the maintenance door shut. With a knot of apprehension, I filled the generator with gas, pulled the choke, and turned the key. Fifteen seconds later, the blasted thing came to life. I walked back to the cabin with a sense of accomplishment. I love having our source of fresh water, our power, our food squarely in my control. As hard as it can be, it gives me an emotional investment in their sources. Inconvenient or not, I’m grateful.

I want that sort of control, that responsibility when I have my own place. I want solar panels, ground water, a garden, and a wood stove. I have Hanson Island to thank for that. For giving me an intimate connection to the services that it’s so easy to take for granted. After 27-years of turning taps and opening the fridge with little knowledge of where their sources originated, I don’t think I can ever live that way again. Maybe I’ll just have to be rustic forever.

The Spirit Walker III

In the tent his eyes opened, a slimy sensation filling his mouth. He spat and saw scales and tail burst from his lips and spray the tent. The dead herring fell to the floor, its oily scent filling the room. The image of her remained burned into his retinas, vanishing slowly with every blink, the warmth of her head on his chest still tangible in the cool morning air. He hugged his legs to his chest, desperately trying to hold the sensation that spilled from his memory, the touch of her feathers… hand, against his. The pride in his chest as he handed her the herring, the way she called his name. And for the first time since they’d said goodbye, he didn’t feel alone.
The pain in his chest was worse today, his breathing only possible in brief, sharp gasps. His paddle strokes felt ragged, uneven, and awkward. The viscosity of the water seemed to have increased ten fold while he slept, as if he was paddling through syrup. The tide was flooding however, the bay itself pushing him onward, offering one last prod north, as determined as he was for him to reach the glacier. He passed, “beach where the bear caught the moose calf” and thought of the innumerable prints still sitting in his house snapped in desperation at the fruitless prospect of capturing the intensity and power of the scene.
For the first time, there was no camera strapped to the deck, there was no point in documenting, no future in which to flip through the album, no time to reminisce. From ahead he heard the ice before he saw it, cracking, groaning, and falling, Margerie and Grand Pacific Glacier bustling about their construction site, never satisfied with their work, never content to leave the land stagnant or utter the phrase, “it is finished.” They demanded constant remodeling, to reexamine what had been done and what remained to be altered. He had grown to emulate them, never settling, never stationary. Constant motion, constant change. Even in his retreats he opened new ground, new landscape for his own personal growth.
With a final stroke he rounded the corner where they stood in all their glory. Perched upon their thrones, overlooking the kingdom they had been carving for more than 200 years. He cruised past scores of ice bergs comprised of snow centuries old. Their journey like his was almost over, this stage of it at least. As they were pulled south they would shrink, evaporate and melt, until even the largest and proudest  were liquified and sent into the atmosphere or the ocean currents, pressing onward to their next voyage.
A reckless abandon overtook his spirit, and despite his labored breathing he paddled for the glacier’s face. Each stroke was savored, each twinge in his back exalted, never had the hard plastic seat cutting into his back beneath his life jacket tasted so sweet. His life jacket. With cruel decisiveness he unzipped it and stuffed it between his feet, letting his chest expand as far as it would allow.
His arms trembled as he neared his chosen beach that stood just to the left of the great icy throne. The serac steeples and arete cathedrals towered above him, beckoning him closer. But as he rode his own tiny wake into the shallows he hesitated, the finality of his journey descending upon him. For a final time he disentangled himself from the boat that had been his livelihood and salvation. Companion and confidant.
He pulled the forest green vessel above the rocks, tying the bow line to a boulder, assured that someone would be along for it eventually. The last thing he wanted was to tarnish the place whose unblemished face he’d fallen in love with half a century ago. So long ago by human measurement, and yet… he looked up at the wall of ice comprised of snow that had fallen before the nation had even existed. And even that registered as nothing more than a geologic heartbeat in the creature of deep time.
Arms still shaking with fatigue, he began to climb, his legs steady beneath him as he scrambled up the steep ridge, his fingers clenching tightly to whatever offered purchase, his boots digging into the tiny crevasses carved by the great glacier. Sweat poured in torrents, his chest seared with every breath, but he greedily insisted on inhaling every molecule of the rich, chilled oxygens savoring. Drinking more than breathing.
Reed heaved himself up the ridge’s peak and level with Margerie’s surface. “Margerie,” he thought, “such a domesticated name for something so powerful and wild.”
The bay held glaciers named for men and universities. Men of European fame and institutions. Named for the imprint of man, to prove that they had been here, gifted with the opposable thumbs that had made us judge, jury, and executioner. But not here, this would not be tamed. No matter how many cruise ships, tour boats, and kayaks stood in her shadow, cameras aimed at her massive face, waiting for her to sing. To tell us what we longed to hear even if we weren’t listening. Margerie didn’t do it justice, in his mind he renamed her, “glacier where I say goodbye.”
Reed placed a shaking foot on the ice, the first time he had stepped on any of the glaciers that he had idolized for so long, that had made his home. On his hands and knees he caressed her, his shadow stretching across as the sun peaked through the clouds to say its farewell. His vision swam as his breath caught in his throat, his lungs struggling valiantly against all odds to obey the command to breath. Nature has little interest in theatrics.
Curling into a ball Reed wrapped his arms around his legs, tucking his chin into his chest, the beloved wool hat tight around his head, green rain jacket zipped beneath his chin. His brain called for the oxygen that his lungs could no longer provide, neurons firing as he said goodbye. He had made it, in a small way he had won. A final flash of inspiration crept through his mind, John Muir’s words ringing in his ears as his body relaxed, “what chance did a low grippe microbe have up here?” and a weak smile melted onto his face.
A final tendril of breath escaped his lips, caught the breeze rushing down the glacier and rose into the sky. Higher and higher his final breath climbed, spinning in tight circles around the peaks of the Fairweather Range, catching and percolating with the warm, moisture laden air blown east from the Alaskan Gulf. Caught in the clouds it returned, suspended a thousand feet above the head of the glacier where the temperature plummeted below freezing until the cloud’s bounty was overcome by gravity. Reed’s final breath fell as snow, a single flake that tumbled and twisted in the great gusts of wind nurtured by the ice.
Soundlessly it settled high above the bay, falling among its brothers and sisters, compacting and pressing tightly together, forming ice so dense it reflected blue. And together they surged. Millions, billions, trillions of their brethren fell, piling higher and higher. And the Glacier Where I Say Goodbye charged south. Within twenty years it had swallowed up Tarr Inlet, pushing the Murrlets still bobbing in the deep green coves elsewhere. A century later it had decimated the west arm and pulsed past the middle bay. Unsatisfied the ice continued down, destroying what had been his home, the canvas becoming a pure white, a landscape of endless possibility. With a final thrust, the glaciers reclaimed the last of their bay, a tower of ice two thousand feet high smothering the land. Reed’s snowflake hovering on the pinnacle of an arete, suspended above Icy Strait which once again lived up to its name.
The glacier groaned, cracked, and hollered, the great chunk of ice broke free and fell end over end, leaving a massive crater in the strait that filled with great towers of white water that broke against the ice. Slowly the medial moraine fell away and the glaciers relented and retreated once again. The land reborn, uncovered, untouched, untrammeled. Two hundred years after his arrival, Reed finally floated away. The bay to which he belonged beginning to grow once again.

Hanson Island Life Lessons

Every week and a half the fridge begins to look bare, the tortillas are gone, the beer and wine but a distant memory. The marine weather report is lit up in crimson, gale warning in Queen Charlotte, storm warning in Johnstone Strait, rain, wind, small craft advisories. On a good day Alert Bay is just thirty minutes by boat away, weaving through the Plumper and Pearce Islands, sending torrents of frothy white water over the deep green waters is nothing short of cathartic. It’s just finding enough of those days that can be the struggle.

And so we look for “windows.” Six hour blocks where the wind dies, the rain lessons, and the boat floats. As the storm inhales for another blow you run for town before the next exhalation. But after eight months of this game, pulling the boat up and down the beach so water lifts it off the rocks at just the right time, it feels commonplace. The fact that we once lived half a block from a Rainbow Foods absolutely absurd. We’ve traded the convenience of stores, bars, and restaurants for the simple tranquility of wilderness.

In a few weeks we’ll be gone, on our way back to civilization. At least our definition of it which entails residing in a town of 350 people. But right now that feels more like a metropolis than hamlet. Certainly there are things we’re looking forward to, I mean, we’ve talked to just a handful of people face to face this year. No longer having to correlate tide height and wind with fresh lettuce will be convenient. And I really do miss Alaskan IPA.

But more than anything, I’ve learned a lot about myself over the winter. I landed my first paid writing gig, wrote thousands of words for a novel that I’ll probably let no one ever see, and am just a season and a half away from watching the show, “Friends” all the way through.

Brittney loves the website, mindbodygreen.com and there are some great articles and information to be found. She hates me for pointing out however that the site is often flooded with “top 10” lists. Top 10 ways: to know your man has a good heart, yoga pants, fat burning foods, etc. Now it’s all she sees… she may never forgive me. But I’m going to conform, and walk through the ten things that I’ve learned this winter on Hanson Island.

1. How ever much time you think you have until the boat is aground, subtract by ten minutes. You’ll save yourself a lot of disappoint, frustration, and expletives.

2. Mice will find a way into your house. Steel wool, blockades, and a cat will only do so much. Accept the inevitable, keep the counters clean, and check under the propane stove frequently.

3. It is perfectly acceptable to wake up in a cold sweat because you just dreamed that you could hear orcas and aren’t recording.

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4. No matter how much you hoot and holler at them, Stellar Sea Lions will not give you the time of day.

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5. Orcas love to call at dinner time, so you stuff your plates into a plastic milk crate box and lug it all over to the lab and have dinner with headphones on.

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6. Bath Days are a gift from God and should be worshipped as such.

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7. Mink will live under the house, they’re cute but smell terrible, your cat will want to make friends, the mink will not acquiesce. 11081015_10155300238395858_6083581184589343527_n

8. Porch baths in December are a necessity. Treat them like a Nascar pit crew changes tires. If you’re not out and back inside in under five minutes you are a) doing it wrong and b) probably borderline hypothermic.

9. Bring pets. You’ll need someone to talk to when your wife gets mad at you for ruining her favorite website.

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10. There is nowhere on earth like this place, nothing can replace it or come close. So enjoy every moment you have here regardless of the time of year.

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Crawling the Last Few Miles: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 3

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The engine sputtered, coughed, and died as the June Cove glided slowly to a stop on the calm water, bobbing in the channel between Alert Bay and Hanson Island. From my seat atop the cabin I spun around and peered down at the stern deck. There was no smoke or flame, nothing that would indicate we would need to start practicing a frantic dog paddle. The door to the helm slid open and Paul opened the engine hood, looking down into a maze of wires and metallic mystery. He pulled his wool hat off, running his hands through his thinning, long dark hair. Years later Paul would describe the Mercury engine as a, “big bloody monstrous thing.”

But right now the monster was pissed, we were almost exactly halfway between the lab and the Alert Bay boat harbor, and the sun was setting. After performing what he hoped would be an accurate amount of mechanical wizardry Paul moved back to the helm and the engine coughed and sprang back to life. The four other volunteers and I smiled as the June Cove slowly picked up speed. Less than a minute later though the engine quit again.

Again Paul marched onto the deck, this time glancing up at me and the kiwi, Shane who was perched on the roof of the cabin with me, “how well can you boys paddle?” he asked, a little laugh in his eye. Shane and I exchanged uneasy grins and I smiled back nervously, imagining how my mother would feel if I was lost at sea my fourth night in Canada.

Three more times the June Cove roared to life and died. A pod of Pacific white sided dolphins had begun following the wounded vessel, giggling no doubt at mans’ vain attempt to conquer this aquatic medium. Finally Paul threw up his hands and told us to get comfortable, the engine would run as long as the RPM’s were kept painfully low, and we slowly puttered to the lab, I swear a kayak passed us along the way.

An hour later we rounded the final point, and there, perched heavenly on the rocks just above the cove was the lab. Tucked back and nearly invisible among the fir and cedar trees was the house. Big bay windows overlooked the cove and Blackney pass, a tiny chimney sat on top, silt gray smoke pouring out, it was the picturesque homesteaders cabin. A board walk ran just above the jagged rocks of the intertidal to the “lab.” Much smaller, the lab had a wraparound porch that overlooked the pass giving a 180 degree view of the water and anything that moved up or down it. On the board walk was Paul’s wife Helena, her slender frame and flyaway white hair visible even from the water, a large husky at her side sent booming bark after bark flying across the cove, a marvelous welcoming committee.

Six years later there is still so much that vividly stands out from that first night. The mac and cheese and garden salad we had for dinner. Watching the sun set through those big beautiful bay windows, and just how easy the conversation was.

There were seven of us around the table that night representing five countries and different walks of life. Shane the New Zealander, slowly traveling around the world. Tomoko and Momoko, two girls from Japan where Paul was revered by many for his anti-whaling stance (and obviously hated by some). And Evan Landy, who, like me, was a biology major with an orca fascination that, like me, boarded on obsession. Helena was, interestingly enough, the only Canadian born citizen among us, who had been a school teacher in Alert Bay before meeting Paul.

I fell asleep that night not in the tent I had lugged all those miles, but on the wraparound porch overlooking the ocean, the occasional waves lapping at the rocks and the soft underwater noises emitting from the speakers connected to the six hydrophones strategically placed around the lab. Passively listening for the orcas to come into range.
I dozed off almost instantly, reveling in the smell of salt on the air, the intimate sounds of the ocean, both above and below, and the magnificent realization that I was finally, actually, here.