Tag Archives: purpose

The Lab

Inside the lab, all I can smell is cedar. It’s the first thing I remember about it and I imagine it’ll be the last thing too. The tall legged chair has a low back that digs into my Sacral vertebrae. Paul didn’t have 6’4” Wookies in mind when he designed this place.

Precious little has changed about the lab since I first walked through its doors nine-years ago. The computers have gotten fancier and the tape deck has been replaced by the miracle that is digital recording, but that’s about it. The windows are still stained, the dorsal fin shaped piece of driftwood still sits in the corner, the Auckland Town Hall “Save the Whales” poster is still tacked to wall. It took place at 7pm on June 10th, 1981 if you were wondering. I was -7.5 years old.

No, this place feels the same. The Orcas still call at all hours of the day. Tonight they’re in the strait. Cracroft Point in both ears, Parson Island in my left. A ping in both ears, an echo in the left. A whistle in both, an echo on the left. I close my eyes and I can see them. By their volume and echoes I can place them. Vancouver Island side, probably milling which would explain the random changes in volume. I lean back in the chair, feel it dig into my back, and let the whales take me away.

And as I do, the dull ache returns. Not in my back, but in my chest. The one that’s emerged each time I’ve looked at something fondly the past week. That nasty, horrible reminder, that my time’s almost up. I’ve spent 23 non-consecutive months here. It would be cliche to say it feels like I just got here yesterday. But dang it, it does.

I came for the Orcas. I came to learn everything I could about them at the feet of a master. I came because I thought Paul Spong held the secret to spending your life studying them. Nine years ago I arrived wanting to learn how to be someone else. Now, I’m leaving finally ready to be myself. I am not a scientist. I’m not cut out for research papers or grant proposals or laboratories. I’m not cut out for non-profit fundraising and holding onto my own foundation by the fingernails. I wanted to be. Thought I was supposed to be. But I’m not. I’m no more a scientist than a basketball player.

And that’s ok. Orca Lab told me that lovingly, patiently. Over countless nights in the lab, watching Parson Island fade into darkness. I may stand at the side of great scientists and leaders and advocates, but that is not my voice. My voice, my home, my Hanson Island as it were, is right here. With my fingers tapping against keys, uninhibited by the rigors and (necessary) walls of science. We need both. Science tells us we should care. But it is our emotions that make us do so.

And so saying goodbye to this place will not be as simple as closing the door to the cabin for the last time and missing the southeast storms and snap of cedar in the fire. It’s saying goodbye to the place that gave me purpose. I’m not unique in this regard. I’d wager that everyone that has set foot on this place has a story they can tell about how their life has been altered by Orca Lab, Paul, and Helena. What unspeakable beauty is there in that? That in a world where hatred, arrogance, and selfishness seems to be growing at an exponential rate, there is a place that can teach us how far love and compassion and appreciation can carry us.

“I feel most secure when the woodshed is stocked and there’s a fresh loaf of bread on the shelf.” – Paul Spong.

The Question

There’s not much in the way of trails around here. Not that it’s too important on this island. Enough old growth is still around that the undergrowth is open in a lot of places. It’s easy to get lost, easy to get carried away walking through those big old trees. Especially on days like today after a heavy rain last night. The afternoon sun slashes through the trees like a sword through fabric, illuminating the mist rising from the moss choked floor. Water droplets cling to cedar needles like diamonds on a necklace. An iridescent glow in each one holding a little flicker of the sun.

Today I’m poking along a stretch that’s part trail part tree root. I hop a stream threatening to be promoted to class five rapids after the downpour. Soon after the trail becomes more defined. I take a deep breath. It feels so good buried in the woods. In Japan they have what they call forest bathing. In simple terms it is nothing more complicated than being in the presence of trees. The idea is that the air doesn’t just taste better in the woods, it actually is better. Essential oils like phytoncide found in trees actually improve immune system function. The forest isn’t just a tonic for the soul like the apostles Muir and Thoreau wrote about. It’s like taking vitamins.

I’m walking this trail to see someone who knows that better than anyone. I’ve written about Walrus several times before. For those that don’t know who this incredible man is, here’s the cliff notes version. Walrus is a walking talking hybrid of Radagast and Dumbledore. He inhabits what he likes to call, “Canada’s longest active logging road block.” He settled on Hanson Island after years in Greenpeace and helped Hanson Island—Yukusam in the Namgis tongue—gain protection from logging. Today he has a long white beard, eyebrows as long and thick as caterpillars, and a high pitched laugh that is infectious.

In my backpack is ten pounds of dog food for his creme colored bear of a dog named Kessler and fruit, carrots, and granola for his master. I tighten the straps of the pack and dig in my boots on the muddy trail as the incline steepens. Walrus’ road block came to rest about a hundred feet shy of the highest point on the island. Every now and then I hike food up the hill to him. It became dire last week when Walrus walked down the hill to the series of rubber totes he keeps near Dong Chong bay to collect some food he’d left only to find that something had gotten to Kessler’s food. 10 pounds worth. Be it bear or wolves we still don’t know. But neither of us has seen a deer in weeks. And deer don’t disappear because of mischievous black bears. So we’d brought Kessler an emergency bag of dog food last week. And had restocked for him in Alert Bay a couple days ago.

As I climb my mind drifts, thoughts mixing with the ravens and Stellar’s Jay above me, my mind drifting to what I’d been reading before I left the lab. In the last week a tanker ran aground near Bella Bella. The support vehicle sent to assist swamped. The containment booms set out to minimize the impact were as useful as a fishing net. The spill was minimal, as minimal as one can be at least, an insult to the very phrase, “low impact.” A low impact oil spill is like minor surgery. It isn’t minor if you’re the one getting cut open.

I’d followed the stories through a guy named Mark Worthing. A Walrus disciple and friend of Orca Lab who has committed his life  to keeping the final stands of old trees in British Columbia standing. In his free time he fights back against the proposed oil tanker line that would cut through the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the pearls of world. The only region in North America where wolves were not almost exterminated. It’s a place where people find Spirit Bears in the woods and God in a sunset. It’s also a maze of islands, reefs, and rocks that gets hammered by 50 knot winds in the winter. All it takes is one tanker. One mistake. One gashed hull. And it’s gone. Ask Prince William Sound. And so Mark fights, because life would seem pointless if he wasn’t fighting for something much bigger than himself.

And then there’s Zack Brown back in Alaska, founding a research and education institute on the Inian Islands to the west of Gustavus. He hiked and paddled from San Francisco to Gustavus in a tidy three months. He’s a voice for climate activism, a voice for change, and he does so eloquently, something that doesn’t always happen when we speak passionately. I used to idolize athletes, now I idolize activists. If only they made trading cards.

My legs are shaking. I set the backpack down on a rock and plop down in the mud next to it. Sweat runs down my face, steam rises from my back. What am I doing? I gave some money to Bernie Sanders, ride my bike when I can, talk about saving the world. But is that enough? It’s a question every conservationist has asked themselves. We see a world that’s in danger. In danger of being steam rolled over by the great construction firm of progress. Lumber over woods. Oil over spirit bears. And we wonder if what we’re doing is adequate. It’s hard when our efforts aren’t visible. Riding your bike doesn’t correlate to a healthy calf in the southern Resident Orcas. Nor does eating vegetarian ensure a healthy salmon run.

I pull the pack back on and start back up the incline. It’s a question I’m still struggling with as my breathing becomes more and more ragged. I spend my summers representing the natural world from the seat of my kayak, and the winter writing about it. My audience is only a couple hundred people, maybe that’s a start. Maybe the people I show sea lions and humpbacks to in the summer are starting dominoes back home. Maybe they took something back from Glacier Bay besides pictures and cover photos.

I round a final corner and Walrus’ cabin comes into view. His area is ringed with a Salal fence, the flexible trunks of the bush intricately bent and woven together to keep the deer away from the garden. Does it work? It does not. You would think a 90 pound dog would keep them out. But Kessler has been known to watch deer amble by ten feet away with nothing more than a sniff. He jogs up to me as I approach, ears up, tail down. We go through this song and dance every time. He can never remember me. He gives a half bark, turns and runs. From the cabin I hear Walrus call out and I smile. The question still lingers, but for today I have a purpose. I’m bringing the caretaker of Hanson Island lunch. And for now, that’s enough.