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Owed Nothing, Given Less

It still doesn’t quite feel like Spring. At night the wind still blows and swoops beneath the elevated porch to chill the wooden floor. My toes are still perpetually cold, the rain still shivers as it runs down the spine. The ocean feels empty. I find relief in the cold. We inhabit the one thin band of North America that’s colder than average. While the rest of the continent is thrown into climate chaos it feels as if we’ve been set aside. The Raincoast anointed and protected. We shiver and run the woodstove while Gustavus is bombarded by blizzard after blizzard. It feels as it always has. And with it returns my desire to disappear from a world on the edge of chaos.

How many times through the history of man has a generation stood on the precipice and wondered if this is the end? We’ve had the Plague, Nazi’s, ice ages, a Cold war, and Vikings. Human history is littered with beastly actions and selfish desires. Perhaps that is what makes this whole affair so sour. It is but a cruel reminder that we are not improving. I have accepted that mankind will never be satiated. Whatever we can reach we will punch, scratch, and devour until we get it. Whether it’s oil in the Refuge or the last piece of cake at a wedding. Evolution has sculpted us to look out for ourselves first, our family second, and others never. That doesn’t make us different. That makes us animals.

But as our opposable thumbs allowed us to rise above the crushing weight of Darwin’s theory, the fundamentals of human ecology shifted. We no longer had to look out for just ourselves every waking moment. Civilization at its core is designed so that we would no longer have to live such a cut throat existence. We shouldn’t have to be like Brown Bears, who murder the cubs of others so they can mate with the sow and pass on their genes. We could rise as one. Carry each other and embrace our differences. Together we could be stronger, tougher, invincible.

Except that isn’t what happened.

For that DNA is still encrypted within us to get what’s ours, what we deserve, what we’re owed. We’re still trying to eat each other’s young.

“The world owes you nothing,” my Father once told me.

But what world was he speaking of? We talk about it not being a perfect world, a hard world, an ugly world, a difficult world. A world that is unfair and harsh and unforgiving. And when I walk the concrete world I agree. Indeed that world owes me nothing. In fact if I want anything from that world I must pry it from its cold dead hands.

A couple weeks ago my brother was in a car accident. He wasn’t hurt, but his car was totaled. In no way was he at fault for the accident. Yet at the end of the day his insurance company gouged him for $2,000 while he wound up with an older car than he had.

The world owes you nothing.

The world that profits from the misfortunes of others is a broken one. A world where pharmaceuticals and insurers dangle the carrots their patients need to survive over a pit of debt and overage bills. A world rich off the loans of millions of students. Forget owing you nothing. That world doesn’t even offer anything.

But as I sit at this table, in this little wooden house, and watch the tide rise and fall. I see a world that is not harsh or unforgiving. I see a world that is simply the way it is. The ocean is not out to profit from my misfortune. If I make a mistake while I paddle or ride on its surface, it will punish me. And punish me harshly. But not for the benefit of itself. The ocean is not getting rich off my mistakes. It is simply the ocean. The wind is howling, and at any moment a tree could come crashing through the window. It could shatter the glass, pin me to the ground, snap my back in two.

This I can live with. I’ve accepted that at some point this beautiful green and blue world could pull the oxygen from my lungs and extinguish my soul. Better them than the pharmaceuticals or Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

My world owes me nothing, because it’s already given me everything. It’s given me fresh air and clean water. Soil to grow my food and an ocean that brings me salmon. A forest full of lumber to build shelter and a never ending parade of adventure and mystery. The world we left provides more than the world we’ve created. It didn’t have to be that way. We could have done civilization right. But whether you believe we’ve been here 6,000 years or 600,000, whether it began in a garden with a snake or a puddle of primordial ooze, we have failed. And we are paying the ultimate price.

The older I get the more simplistic I wish to become. I dream of gardens, of water tight roofs and insulated walls that keep the heat in. I dream of late nights with my best friends drinking home brewed beer. I dream of big laughs, big dreams, and the irreplaceable joy of looking at life and saying “enough.” I dream of a world where land is not seen in terms of quantitative value but spiritual value. That we would discuss how a place feels instead of what we can squeeze from it. I dream of a people that sees a green and blue world and feels an innate desire to come home.

Because we’re coming home no matter what. This. This concrete world we’ve created, it’s going to come crashing down. It could be tomorrow, it could be in a century, but it’s going to happen. And we’ll go down with it. With one last weekend of football and a cold Bud Lite. And when the lights go out and the faucets run dry, what will be left? Will the world that owes you nothing be there to pick you up?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m not just trying to save the trees, whales, and bears. I’m trying to save myself. It’s a selfish fight. I’m still in this for myself. I’m not that different. In a few months the sound of a chainsaw will rip through our four acres of paradise. Cottonwood, Spruce, and Hemlock will fall with a crash so that I may build and live where they stood. Man is a destructive species.

I’m building to prove to myself that man can still do it. That self sufficiency is not just the stuff of hippy co-ops and and cheap jokes. But I’m also doing it because I don’t have a choice. I have been weighed and measured by the concrete world and found wanting. So I will build on the world that has accepted me, that will accept any of us. Mother nature is a forgiving caretaker. She makes but one request. Take care of me, respect me, and in turn, you will have all you’ll ever need. Don’t mistake need for want. There is no iPhone tree. When the lights go out and the cell towers fall, I’ll be looking for a carrot and a cistern.

These are the Places You Will Find me Hiding

In a land defined by mountains, Gustavus stands alone. Gustavus, prairie country. Well, as close as you can get to prairie country up here. At the mouth of Glacier Bay is a strip of land. An old glacial outwash that the glaciers of old used as a dumping ground for the remains of the rock they had ground to a pulp. What remains today is a stretch of land so flat the bubble on the level falls dead center. All around is regularly scheduled programming. Chichagof Island and its mountains to the south, the Fairweathers to the west, the Beartracks to the north, and the Chilkat mountains and Excursion ridge to the east. Distant yes, but never out of mind, even when shrouded in the blankets of clouds that dominate the sky.

It’s fitting that Gustavus is southeast Alaska’s little geographic rebel. One of the few towns that don’t have to concern themselves with building into a mountain or around pesky fjords or bays that jut into sharp cut glacial rock. Nothing but sand, trees, and moose to build around. Because like the land, the people of Gustavus are unique. A cast of people that have chosen love, laughter, cold beer, and blue grass over profit, capitalism, manifest destiny, and Justin Bieber.

This is a town where people still wave as they drive by, failure to do so the highest of insults. Where a run to the local store for a bag of oats turns into a 45-minute conversation about everything or nothing. No one brushes past with downcast eyes, avoiding contact. Smiles are plentiful, good vibes abundant, the people seem ageless. Yesterday I learned that a lady I’d took for somewhere between 30 and 35 was celebrating her fiftieth birthday by traveling to Iceland. In a nation obsessed with youth, with looking young, and banishing wrinkles, maybe Gustavus is the fountain of youth. Maybe smiles, a gracious heart, and a quick laugh can do what plastic surgery cannot, and for a much more reasonable price.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the normal American lifestyle. But from my limited exposure in what many would perceive to be a normal existence, the term community has become little more than window dressing. A way to lump together a group of people that happen to live in the same area. This is not Gustavus. Gustavus is a place where community is still community. To enter into this place is to become part of a family 400 strong. Want to spend a winter here? We’ll help you find a place, chop wood, fill the chest freezer with halibut, salmon, deer, and moose.

A couple of years ago a young man moved here. He knew no one. Two weeks after arriving, his house burned to the ground. Within hours, someone had moved a yurt onto his property for shelter. Food was left on the front porch, money and building materials donated.

“I don’t know any of you folks,” read the thank you letter he posted at the store, “but to all of you, thank you. I am truly moved and touched.”

Home. This is home. How can it not? How can we—myself and Brittney—not want to be a part of this? Suburbia? Fine for some I suppose. Who am I to say how others should live? But give me the place where I know everyone by name. Where, should the worst ever happen there will be 400 pair of hands to pick me back up. It’s impossible not to feel happy and blissful here. We’re isolated, but never alone. We are a people of guides, fisherman, businessmen, woodsmen, parkies, lodgies, seasonals, and locals. Democrats, Republicans, Christian, Mormon, Druid, Pagan, Atheist, John Muir apostles. But we are all residents of Gustavus. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Born too Late

One of my favorite TV shows is Futurama. It’s a weird,  stupid cartoon in which a slacker named Fry is cryogenically frozen in the year 2000 only to be unfrozen a thousand years later. He awakes to find that one eyed (and curvy)  female aliens and beer drinking robots are part of normal every day life.

In one episode Fry, his distant relative, a mad scientist named Professor Farnsworth (just go with it) and the beer drinking, fire belching robot go back in time. Like all TV shows, the plot and setting  completely reset by the end of the half hour run time with the exception that the professor stopped briefly in the year 1939 so that he can assassinate Hitler with a massive ray gun.

Isolated and surrounded by a forest hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, the land here can feel as if it’s been frozen like Fry and we’re able to glance back in time by simply walking through the forest and counting the rings on fallen trees.

But it’s not static. Nothing is. There is no climax community where, if left undisturbed it will stand immaculate forever.

I often find myself obsessed with how the land and wildlife looked thirty years ago, a hundred years ago, a millennium, an epoch ago. So I scour the books and testimonies of those that have come before me. Offhand comments like one by Paul a couple months ago send my imagination into overdrive.

“There used to be a hotel on Parson Island,” he says offhandedly. “This place used to have a much denser population.”

No way. I stare up at the cliffs that form the southern border of Parson Island and try to imagine it dotted with buildings. The absurd image of a 30 story Hilton plays before my mind. Communities in Freshwater Bay, fish buying companies in every cove, hand loggers determinedly probing through the inlets looking for something bigger.

One of these men was Billy Procter. He’s something of a legend. Our Gandolf or Obi-Wan Kenobi if you’d prefer. He grew up in Freshwater Bay, a little indention in Swanson Island a five minute boat ride from where Orca Lab now sits. Of course in the 1920s there was no Orca Lab. No whale watching industry, Orca’s nothing more than competition for fish. For it was fish that pumped the blood of the north island and Billy talks endlessly of massive runs of salmon. So thick on the flooding tide that the air was inundated with their odor.

“The Blackfish used to follow them through Blackfish Sound in numbers so thick you could walk across there backs,” he relayed to Alexandra Morton.

It’s these phrases that make me yearn for a different time. “The good old days” as it were. When a 2 HP engine was nothing short of a miracle, and fishing was as easy as dropping a line in the water and jigging for a few minutes. Before clear cuts and climate change, before fishing stocks plummeted or tugs chugged in an endless relay up and down the strait.

“I was born too late,” I think, setting down Billy and Alex’s book, Heart of the Raincoast.

I want to see that sort of abundance. I want to fish, can, and gather my way to an existence. I want to live in a float house and tow it up and down Knight Inlet.

In the 70’s Erich Hoyt and two other filmmakers sailed up Johnstone Strait and settled in Robson Bight, spending the summer tracing the loving shorelines of Cracroft, Vancouver, and Hanson, following the whales. No rules, no regulations, no cares. I was born too late. They were camping in the bight, documenting the rubbing beaches for the first time. Rubbing shoulders with the parade of scientists who rewrote the book on the “savage killer whale” and helped us see them the way we do.

I want to dive off the rubbing beaches, follow an orca pod in my kayak with no boats blitzing past me at 30 knots. I want to ride the ebb out Blackfish and the flood through Weynton. I want the good old days. I want to steal Futurama’s time machine and sit on the rocks at the feet of an old growth forest that has never been cut. I’ll even agree to take out Hitler on my way.

No I don’t.

Because no one talks about the “bad old days.” No one dwells on the fact that everything that ate fish had a bounty on it sixty years ago. 2 bucks for a seal’s flippers, a dollar for a Raven’s beak or an eagle’s talons. That there’s a reason that the salmon don’t run so thick you can smell them followed by Blackfish that form a bridge across the sound. That the slow curve downward began somewhere.

Or that the 70’s were filled with the live capture trade for Orca’s and the cold blooded murder of several others. That there’s a reason that the beaches and bight are closed, that the minimum distance is 100 meters. That today we live with the decisions made during those days that were neither good nor old.

So I go to ask the one soul on this island that’s lived in it for a millennium. I walk to Grandma Cedar whose cedar boughs have seen it all. Has watched the salmon come and go, the glacier’s charge and retreat, and a lab be built at her feet.

Does she miss the good old days? The bad old days?

I stare up at her, my neck craning, trying to make out the branches that originate a hundred feet above me. But she is centered in the here and now. Focused on the simple task of taking the miracle of sunlight and carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen. Perhaps if all she’s thinking about is today I should be too.

Maybe it’s one thing to read and admire history and another to yearn for a world I know virtually nothing about. One thing to devour old black and white photos and dig for artifacts on the shoreline and another to feel as if it will never be that good again. To let go of a history I can’t even begin to understand or control, and look to a future I can. You can keep your time machine Professor.

Cover photo credit: BC Archives. Freshwater Bay C.A 1916.

 

 

 

 

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.