Tag Archives: research

The Parson Island Relay

The breath catches in my chest, my legs wobble, and my arms shake. I try to take another step forward and feel the ground slide beneath me. Mud and its ally gravity pull me to the ground. My elbows bounce off the cedar boughs and spruce branches that carpet the hillside, my head bangs against the cardboard box in my arms. I groan and lay motionless for a moment, grateful that no one but the trees and squirrels were present to see my fall. The sound of a humpback surfacing floats through the trees from Blackney Pass 100 feet away. I roll over and look up at the tops of the trees, massaging my chin and wiping sweat from forehead.

For the last twenty minutes I’ve been participating in a maniacal relay. In the six cardboard boxes are batteries. Batteries that are getting heavier every time I pick them up. Between the soothing breaths of the humpback and my more labored ones, I’ve developed a rhythm. Fifty steps. Drop. Return. Grab the next. Fifty steps. Drop. Return.

Paul and I had unloaded the batteries on Parson Island, the island across Blackney Pass from Hanson Island and OrcaLab. Now he’s scurrying back to the lab to grab Brittney to monitor the boat as the tide falls. Free us to  move the tedious batteries up to the Parson Island camera site. As we move the batteries into the woods we’re already panting, sweating, and shedding our wool sweaters. It’s a quarter mile to the camera site, most of it uphill.

“They say,” Paul gasps, “that battery technology has really improved the last few years…” he weighs the battery in his hands, “I don’t feel a difference.”

I have to agree. I could wait for Paul to get back so we can carry the batteries up the hillside together. But I’ve never been patient.

Which is why I’m laying on my back, staring up at the treetops, letting the remnants of last nights rain fall from the needles and onto my face. Despite the burning in my legs and the distance still to go, it’s impossible to not be moved by the sublimity of the scene. An eagle chitters and the humpback explodes to the surface again, its breath sounding like a trumpet, the echoes bouncing off the rock cliffs. I smile and permit my eyes to close for just a moment, feel my spirit sink into the forest floor. I could lay here forever.

“Everyone deserves to see this.”

Which is coincidentally, why I’m here in the first place. The new camera atop the Parson Island cliff demands more power than the eight Kirkland brand car batteries can provide in the winter when the sun disappears for days on end. The batteries in my arms should help the camera stream throughout the winter with minimal help from the balky generator stashed under tarps and rocks.

Fifteen minutes later, the batteries are at the top of the hill. The sound of an engine floats across the water, Paul’s back. We relay the batteries together. Past a thicket of Salal and around Cedar trees. The sunlight moves through the forest, the only marker of time as the afternoon wears on.

“After scurrying over rocks, hauling batteries up hills, and everything else you make me do,” I say, “I’ll never be able to have a real, respectable job… thank you”

He laughs and claps me on the shoulder, “come on boy, no rest for the wicked. And apparently,” he lifts another battery into the rubbermaid tub we’re using as a sling, “we are really wicked people.”

As we work the humpback continues to trace the Parson shore line. It’s surfacings the perfect background music. Soothing and relaxing to counteract our labored breathing as the relay continues. Finally we break through the salal bushes and onto the cliff overlooking Blackney Pass. The water has become a mirror. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so calm, like liquid glass gently vibrating. I can hear the mutterings of murre’s. Random rays of sun stab through the clouds like knives and illuminate the gentle rain that has begun to fall. I’m struck dumb by the beauty. How can this not change people? We unpack the batteries and begin to hook them up. Maybe this camera will.

Thirty minutes later the job is done. With our arms full of soggy and decomposing cardboard we move back down the hill. I know this trail far too well now. Walking it twelve times will do that. We board the boat and disturb that perfect stretch of water. The humpbacks have moved away from Parson Island toward Johnstone Strait. Any day now they’ll swim east down the strait and set course for Hawaii. Leaving us with the sea lions and harbor seals for company.

We leap neatly from the boat and onto the rocks and look out over the water. Brittney gasps. An incredible rainbow has sprung into being. As Paul motors away back toward Alert Bay he slow the boat, his phone extended through the window, photographing the picturesque scene. Even after forty some years it’s still not old to him.

I sit down on the rocks and drink it in. This. This is what makes me happy, fulfilled. Hauling batteries through the woods, humpbacks in my office. Porter gives a soft meow and jogs up beside me, rubbing his face against my arm. My hand goes to my forehead and I feel the dried sweat glued to my skin. Now if only I could find some hot running water around here for a quick shower.

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We’ll Sleep in November

Orcas have no concept of day and night. And as I wrote earlier this summer, sitting up, in the perfect darkness as calls echo through the headphones can be beautiful. Especially if you know in two hours you can crawl into a sleeping bag and sleep, knowing you don’t need to be back at the lab for eight hours. This is the luxury of Orca Lab in August, when there’s eight of you splitting shifts and ensuring nobody gets overworked and run into the ground. For a few days in late August and early September there were two, yes two, volunteers remaining as school drove most of the summer volunteers back to the city. Naturally, the northern residents decide that this would be the perfect time to start calling around the clock. For four days Tomoko and Momoko, both from Japan, were recording constantly, trading off every couple hours to eat, sleep, and than put the headphones back on.

So when myself, Brittney, and a girl named Chelsea arrived relief seemed to be in sight, kind of. As nice as it would be to be able to just sit down, fiddle with the soundboard, and immediately learn exactly how to follow a pod of orcas through a maze of six hydrophones, it’s not quite that easy. There’s a learning curve to understand what you’re hearing, on what hydrophone, and how to minimize that blasted boat noise. All while filling in the log book, and maybe operating a remote camera. And that learning curve gets even steeper at 3am when you’re wiping sleep from your eyes and trying to remember if you heard that last call in your left headphone or right. So for the first few days, nights fell to Tomoko, Momoko, and I. I’d doze from 10-11, get up, and drag myself back to the lab, Brittney tagging along to practice. From 11-2 we’d sit, perched on the high seats in the lab, straining our ears for orca. Nearly every night they’d arrive and the orca filled hours went by quickly. The orca free ones snailed by as you listened to the same tug chug slowly up Johnstone Strait knowing that it would pass from one hydrophone to the next over the next two hours. We’re back up at eight and at the lab as we tried to give Tomoko and Momoko the break they so richly deserved after days of sleep deprivation.

But for the two of us, the lab was just a fraction of our to do list. Since we’re going to be here for the winter, we couldn’t just know how to record and listen to whales. Our quick lesson in Orca Lab 101 was accelerated due to the fact that Paul and Helena left yesterday for two and a half weeks to attend the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting in Europe. Being off the grid we don’t have the luxury of flipping a heater on, turning on the hot water tap, or running to the store for the butter we forgot to grab. If you want to be warm through the night you’d better be able to make a hot (and efficient) fire. Baking a loaf of bread means coaxing a wood stove to life and somehow knowing when it’s 350 degrees. A shower means heating water in the iron bath tub outside for four hours. And if you forgot something at the store, you’ll just have to find a way to live without it because it’s a 90 minute round trip by boat.

And yet, as I found myself handling the chainsaw, learning the safest route to town, and habitually checking the temperature in the house to make sure that it was warm enough for the pets I began to find it incredibly rewarding. Never before had turning the heat on or running to the store for lettuce felt so good. If anything they were burdens, born out of necessity. But all of that changes out here, where you are directly responsible for everything you need. Heat isn’t provided by some mythical source that pipes through those grates in your floor. It comes from the log you cut, split, and stacked, you’re there for every step and it gives you a new found appreciation for something as simple as keeping the house warm.

For many it may seem backwards, after all, we’re in many ways living the way people would have one hundred years ago (with some obvious technological exceptions: chainsaw, wireless internet, refrigerators, four stroke engines). Society has advanced, why would you want to go backwards? Maybe progress is overrated. We’ve lost touch with the origins of what we eat, how we stay warm, and where we came from. And are we really better off now than we were?

It’s obviously not a black and white answer. I’m very happy with the fact that I will never have to worry contracting the black plague or typhoid fever and that even in this remote location I know that the Vikings won yesterday 34-6. I don’t think everyone should drop everything, sell whatever doesn’t fit into a Nissan Pathfinder and head for the woods. I don’t have the world figured out and hope I never do. But there is value in reconnecting with the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter, and playing a part in their acquisition besides running a credit card or turning a dial. There’s a beautiful simplicity in this, even if there is a ton of work that goes into maintaining it. I am supremely confident it is much less stressful than sitting in two hours of rush hour traffic.

After a crazy first four days on the island, following a crazy four days getting to the island, things finally seem to have slowed down. Wood is stockpiled, everyone’s fridge is full, and Brittney and Chelsea are handling the lab side of things splendidly. So last night, after heating salt water in the bath tub on the rocks outside all day, I climbed in, looking out over Blackney Pass as a humpback criss crossed in front of the cove. My adoring wife even brings me a beer (God I love her) and I lean back in the most magnificent hot tub ever conceived by man. In the cities of the world I’m sure there are some very happy, very satisfied people. But I contend, that for those blissful thirty minutes, no one on earth was happier than me.

Moonlit Orcas: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 4

ImageThe pub was empty in the early afternoon, a fine misting rain fell outside fogging the windows. It was early August, my first beer in a bar sat in front of me (God bless Canada’s drinking age) and it was quiet save for the low hum of a the muted baseball game, Blue Jays/Mariners in the background. For once in my life I wasn’t watching baseball, I hadn’t checked a Twins score in a week, granted this was partly due to the internet being down at the lab. Paul had dropped me off in Alert Bay an hour ago, leaving me with a handshake and the assurance that I was welcome back any time.

And now, after all the build up, all the preparation and all the work to get there, my time on Hanson Island was done. Five weeks that felt like a blur and still do. I really should have kept a journal. But two moments still stand out, burned into my memory. Most notably and embarrassingly was the first time I was dispatched to collect firewood:

A good bit of our time was spent collecting wood. Salvaging it, chopping it, and stacking it. Cedar was the prized cut. Burning hot, it was reserved for the wood stove, the catalyst in Helena’s phenomenal bread. Logging had been one of the biggest economic powers for decades and drifting trees came up and down the channel with the tide, like pleasure cruisers out for the day. They were terrifying to maneuver a boat around. As the logs floated they absorbed more and more water, causing them to slowly sink below the surface until they sat almost completely submerged, out of sight but not out of reach of a boat’s unsuspecting propellers. Should one of these logs happen to drift close to the lab though, someone had to be dispatched to retrieve it. It wasn’t just about getting enough wood for the day, or the week, but for the winter when you could go through a whole tree in a day trying to keep the biting winter wind out of the house.

The second evening on the island, one of these drifting logs floated down Blackney Pass on the ebbing tide sitting high in the water, still reasonably dry. Anxious to prove that I wasn’t just a brilliant research assistant but one of those rugged Alaskans everyone had heard so much about I leaped into a kayak and paddled out toward my quarry.

It had a deceptively larger diameter than I had anticipated though with the bottom of the log a good foot below the surface. Holding the coil of rope in my hands I very carefully leaned over to loop the rope around it and nearly fell straight into the water, soaking my entire left side. Here I was, in the fading light, in a leaky kayak with no life jacket, completely ill prepared for the task at hand. Slowly working my way down the log I reached the nub of a branch that had been sawed off. A good half foot remained though and I tied the rope around it. I’m not sure what knot I was tying but all my loops and knots and bows were sure to stay. Very slowly I paddled back toward the lab, It was amazing how far the current had taken me from the cove in just a few minutes.

Adrenaline now beginning to kick in I tried to paddle back upstream, my paddle on the right side interrupted by the log on every stroke. For a moment panic surged through my body and I imagined the log and I floating helplessly into the wide expanses of Johnstone Strait. Keeping the paddle on my left side though I paddled as hard as I could like it was a canoe. The kayak bumped into the log on every stroke, keeping me straight but slowing my progress. After about five minutes I was back at the mouth of the cove when an explosion from behind almost sent me back into the drink. I tried to turn around to see what on earth was behind me but the kayak rocked yet again and I gripped the log for dear life, my knees knocking together. What on earth was I doing out here? Was this my life now? Risking life and limb for some firewood? The humpback, that’s all it could have been behind me, never surfaced again and I very shakily paddled the rest of the way into the shadows. Only to stand up and fall into the water, my head banging on a barnacle encrusted rock. In the adrenaline I hadn’t realized my feet had fallen asleep. I dragged the log above the tide line, giving it a swift kick I regretted immediately. From the windows I could see Paul and Evan doing their best not to laugh when I looked their way. Welcome to the island rookie.

More beautiful and romantic were when the orcas came into range at night. Paul’s hyrdophones heard every noise in the ocean for miles around and didn’t discriminate. Boats, dolphins, tugs, waves crashing into the shore, and of course the orcas. Any time they made a peep it was up to someone to go to the lab, hit record, slap on the headphones, and listen. I learned to love the sleepless nights, watching the moon slowly move across the sky, reflecting off Blackfish sound as the early morning summer light slowly reappeared. Stay up long enough and just maybe Helena would surprise you with cinnamon rolls, steam still streaming out of them, icing oozing over the sides.

Those nights by yourself gave you plenty of time to think. I was due to return to Fairbanks in the fall, a place that could not be more different from the water drenched rain coast of British Columbia. I loved the climate, how the forest turned green with just a few hours of rain, every square inch filled with life, the greenery stretching all the way to the ocean before finally conceding to the power of salt water and tides. I needed to come back, not necessarily to this place, but to this climate. It was in the lab one night that Juneau first crept into my conscious. I had taken a chance, running off to a place I’d never seen, to live with people I didn’t know, and encounter things I hadn’t prepared for. Like rampaging humpbacks, invisible cougars, and those goofy boat engines and I was anxious to do it again.

One of my final night shifts saw the orcas take an unexpected turn into Blackney Pass and continue north into Blackfish sound, moving right past the lab. Helena and I were both up, and we put the headphones down for a moment and stepped onto the porch. The ocean was flat calm, there were no boats or waves, no light save for the half moon above us. From miles away we could hear them in the perfect silence. Their blows gliding across the ocean, echoing off the rocks.

We said nothing, words would have ruined it as we listened to them come closer and closer, Helena taps my arm, and in the moonlight I could see her pointing to a spot on the water, right where the moonlight was widest. A shadow moved across the beam of light, than another, and than three more as the pod all surfaced, their silhouettes illuminated for the briefest moment. And than the phantoms were gone, slipping back into the inky ocean. There’s the rustle of water as the waves close over the whales’ backs, and all is silent again. As if they were never there. I turn to Helena, a pair of tears running down my cheeks, my heart in my throat. I wanted to thank her and Paul for opening up their home, for letting me taste this life, for letting me be a part of something so much bigger than me but all I could do was smile.

I rub the fog off the inside of the window and make out the outline of the ferry pulling into the Alert Bay dock, the first step on my way back to the real world. I set the empty beer mug on the table, grabbed my duffel back, crusted with mud and dirt now, and trudge into the rain. On the ferry I snap a picture of the Alert Bay sign through rain streaked windows, and feel the boat slowly, painfully pull away. I slip on my headphones and settle back for the 45-minute ride, silently vowing to myself that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be here.

Orcas’ Love the Beatles Too: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 2

Car after car drove slowly by, rolling to a stop at the ticket window, the line slowly growing until at least ten cars were waiting to catch the evening ferry from Port McNeil to Alert Bay. I was consciously aware that any car could have Paul Spong behind the wheel, and my lack of preparation was embarrassing. Briefly I considered just walking up to the counter and asking if they knew the good doctor. But some piece of pride, the same piece that insisted on camping on the ground with hungry cougars prowling about kept my butt firmly on my bag.

I stared into each car, in what I’m sure was a very creepy manner, trying to make out a silhouette, as if he’d be holding a sign to the window announcing: “Dr. Paul Spong! Orca Guy! All lost kids from Alaska please follow me!” I gave up trying to see inside the cars and instead started to wonder, “what sort of car would Paul Spong drive?”

Born in New Zealand, he’d earned a P.H.D in the neurological field at UCLA, and moved to Canada in the 70’s to take a position at the University of British Columbia. Part of the contract involved doing work with Skana, one of the first orcas to be successfully captured and was being kept at the Vancouver Aquarium. Paul devised a simple experiment intended to measure the visual acuity of the giant mammal. But his life changed forever when, after thousands of trials, Skana began to give the wrong answers. Not randomly, but one hundred percent incorrect.

For the first time, Paul found himself the subject or the experiment and he was enthralled. His workload piling up at the lab, he couldn’t pull himself away from the whale. He quickly learned that auditory stimulation was a much greater reward for Skana than food. What came in the following months was a melody of tunes as Paul played everything from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Bach. Skana loved them all. Paul was forced to accept that Skana was much more intelligent than any other terrestrial mammal he’d come in contact with. She was almost certainly, going crazy in her little pool, her calls reverberating and echoing off the concrete walls, with just a few humans for company. Capable of speeds up to 30 knots, Skana was resigned to swimming in slow circles day after day. It was apparent to Paul what needed to be done: Skana needed to go home.

But when he did present his findings, a storm of controversy followed at the aquarium. They didn’t want Skana to be a sentient intelligent being. They wanted the equivalent of an aquatic dog that would do tricks and keep people coming through the turnstiles. Paul was quickly becoming public enemy number one and was finally given an ultimatum: “you can check into a psychiatric ward willingly or not.”Undaunted by his controversial findings (orcas were at the time considered little more than mindless killing machines), Paul walked out the door. Within months, he found what he was looking for. Wild and free orcas to follow and study, in their natural habitat.

Now, 30 years later, he was driving onto the Port McNeil ferry for what to be the thousandth time while I was desperately trying to decipher, what kind of car a pioneer in the world of orca research would drive. Finally an old slightly rusted Subaru looking car pulled onto the pier, every seat save the drivers’ was stuffed with boxes so high, I couldn’t see inside at all. There was something about it though, the character, the age, or just the fact that I couldn’t imagine Paul driving a huge lifted pickup with a bunch of logs in the back that convinced me.

The car stopped thirty feet in front of me. I walked over just as Paul got out to hand his ticket to the teller, “You’re Paul Spong aren’t you?” I asked. He turned and looked up at me.

“He’s shorter than I thought.” Was the first thought that crossed my mind.

“I’m sorry, do I know you,” he asked. For the briefest moment my stomach fell. There’d been a miscommunication, I wasn’t supposed to come, I had the wrong guy, I’d braved Cinnabon, the bus station, and cougars for nothing. But a look of recognition crossed his face, “Oh that’s right, you’re David, yes?” I smiled, and felt the jittery weak kneed feeling you get when you shake the hand of your hero.

“Yea Paul, I’m David, it’s great to meet you. I can’t believe I’m here.”