Tag Archives: southeast alaska

Snow

She lay in an old shipping container. The kind found on the back of trucks roaring up and down the concrete riverbeds we call interstates and highways. But this one had been laid to rest here. Tucked away in a corner of a lot in Bartlett Cove. Through the trees I can hear the wind, smell the air breeze, ear cocked for the sound of a humpback. How out of place the egg white box of metal looks here. No flowers or grasses growing around it. Just a strip of gravel turning dusty in the early July heat.

Inside lie her bones.

I feel a thrill of excitement as Chris Gabrielle pulls a key from her pocket and unlocks the deadbolt. Together we lift the big metal latch, its joints creaking and groaning as the big door slides open. I don’t notice the smell at first. But as Chris flicks a light switch and ignites a small bare bulb, it overwhelms me. It is musty, sweet but sickly. Something about it smells alive, even in her death. I walk into the container, breathing shallow, fighting the urge to cover my nose with my shirt.

After almost ten years, she still lives in some way. Organic matter and oils still seeping out of her ribs, humorous, and vertebrae. I can’t help myself. I reach out and touch one of the vertebrae. As big as a tire and bleached white, I run my hands up and down all that remains of Snow. Here along the racks and shelves, were all that was left of her forty-five foot, thirty-five ton body.

The year is 2001. Somewhere in the mouth of Glacier Bay swims Snow. Inside her new life is growing. Is she aware that she’s pregnant? That in half a year there will be a miniature her swimming and breathing? The baby will drink a milk that is 50% fat, the consistency of yogurt. I wonder if she heard the cruise ship. If she had any inkling of its approach. If she could have gotten out of the way. If the ship could have. The nose of a cruise ship is so far from the engines in the stern that they create “sound holes,” right off their bow. There’s a good chance Snow never knew what hit her.

Janet Neilson (then Janet Doherty) found her. Dead whales are rarely found. Usually they disappear. Sink to the bottom and vanish, presumed missing. But it’s as if Snow wanted to be found. Janet discovered her floating off Point Gustavus, not far from where an anonymous cruise ship passenger reported feeling a thump. They towed Snow to the beach, necropsied her body, and discovered a fractured brain case and crushed vertebrae.

Gustavus mourned, the park service gave press releases, security footage was seized, attorneys went to work.

“The crime wasn’t in accidentally striking the whale,” said a park employee, “the crime was in failing to report it.” I’m not sure Snow would agree. Neither do I.

In the middle of the shipping container is an old iron claw bathtub, the porcelain chipped and rusting. But it doesn’t leak, at least not yet. Chris hands me a great bucket of industrial kitchen degreaser and instructs me to fill the tub with the stuff and soak Snow’s bones one at a time. Oil, she explains, is still seeping out of her bones. The goal was to remove the rest of the organic matter from the bones so that they could be preserved for years. An exhibit was being prepared down by the beach. Where in a way, she could live forever.

On sunny days I climb onto the roof of the container, lining her ribs up neatly to bleach in the never ending Alaskan sun. I soak the vertebrae overnight in the degreaser, greeted each morning by the strong smell of leaching oil, a pearly iridescent sheen on the surface of the tub.

Down another road, behind a locked gate is her skull. My stomach twists the first time I see it. I run my hand across the deep fracture in the skull. If a passenger felt the collision, than surely the crew did as well. But who wants the headline: “Cruise Ship Kills Whale in National Park?” Bad for business. But thirty-five ton bodies don’t always disappear. I pressure wash her skull, obliviating the moss attempting to grow on her. When the yard empties I crawl beneath the skill and lay in her mouth, imagining. Rows of baleen, gallons of sea water, tons of wriggling herring.

And I’m indebted to them. The cruise ships I mean. Wouldn’t be here without them. Wouldn’t have had summer work in Juneau when I graduated from college. Would not be sitting at this wooden table in Gustavus watching the storms roll through, the moose calves grow up, and the rain pound on the roof. I owe my beautiful little life, in some way, to an industry that makes me uncomfortable. That kills whales, that leaves a massive carbon footprint. That shows a million people Alaska every year, even if it is a watered down, fast food version. 14,000 people a day in Juneau. But what’s the alternative? I can’t take 14,000 people kayaking in Bartlett Cove. Is seeing this place from ninth story better than not seeing it at all?

Edward Abbey would say no. But I should be confident enough to form my own opinion. But I can’t. Because like this bay, nothing is black and white. A single receding glacier does not signify climate change, just as an advancing one does not disprove it. We must step back, way back. Look at the big picture objectively, rationally. We don’t like the big picture. Step far enough back and we become mitigated, aware of how insignificant we are.

That’s the beauty of the kayak, the hiker, the backcountry camper. You have no choice but to confront your own significance. At how small you are away from the billboards and street lights. It’s uncomfortable. Change always is. Tough to be uncomfortable from the ninth story.

I don’t know what the answer is. Abbey wouldn’t be impressed.

Snow stands whole once again. Without her flesh she looks serpentine. Two tiny bones bent at obtuse angles are suspended by wires two thirds of the way along her vertebrae and a foot below it. They’re all that remains of her legs. In time evolution will remove them from whale’s entirely. Like our appendix they are vestigial, no longer of any use.

Every day a park ranger gathers a crowd in front of Snow to give a presentation. People flock to the talks until the trail is not passable. They are independent travels, for the cruise ships do not dock here. Our kayak sheds are right next to the skeleton and I often squeeze through the raptly listening crowd. Like the cruise ships and wilderness, the talk makes me uncomfortable. I hear the ranger joke about how Snow embarked on, “the longest over land migration a whale has ever done” to be rearranged and put back together by a professional.

The crowd titters and laughs, something about it makes my blood boil. I hear them talk about the collision as a horribly tragedy. But in the same way a loved one developing an illness is tragic. Unavoidable, no way to prevent it. Never have I heard a ranger say that the cruise ship failed to report the collision. That it was not until security footage was seized and viewed did they admit to striking the whale. Perhaps they do and I have simply missed it. I don’t wish to criticize or demean. For the rangers do a job I know I couldn’t. I don’t know why I think people need to know that part of the story, but leaving it out feels like an insult to her memory.

On one of the displays is a grainy picture showing the bow of the ship, a gray pixelated sliver in the water shows Snow, her back arched, attempting to dive. Maybe she did know.

“Snow moments before tragedy,” reads the caption. Meanwhile ten miles away two cruise ships a day enter the park, passing Point Gustavus, bound for the glaciers of the west arm. Do the passengers on board know the story? Do the rangers share that story when they board every morning at the south end of Sitakaday Narrows?

I don’t know what the answer is.

All I know is that it hurts my heart to have Snow here, condemned to life as a silent ambassador. How much more she could be, churning up the waters of Bartlett Cove.

Another sunny July day. Six years since Chris opened that container and introduced us. We walk the familiar trail toward the kayak sheds. Past the old Tlingit canoe, Snow’s display coming into view.

“Have you met Snow?” I ask.

Everyone has the same reaction, a quick intake of breath, mouth open, rooted to the spot. Their first view of Snow is head on, as if she’s diving right toward you, forcing you to confront her here and now. They snap pictures and lean across the ropes, aching to touch her. Invariably the question comes.

“How did she die?”

“A cruise ship hit her.” My guiding style is one of light hearted comments. Jokes and stories over facts and figures. But not here. No over land migration jokes at Snow’s expense. Here just the full truth. “They knew they hit her but didn’t report it.”

I don’t like starting the day with something so sad. But at the same time, what a reminder that we cannot expect to leave the world the way we found it. The warming acidic water of the world should be a good enough reminder. Every kayak on the beach crushes barnacles and mussels. The leave no trace etiquette is an impossible dream. From man to mosquito, no creature was meant to leave an environment as they found it.

We linger a moment longer and turn toward the beach where I hand out life jackets, spray skirts, boots, and paddles. The water is alive with life. Sea otters cracking open shells on their stomachs, sea lions growl in frustration, a timpani of birds. I slip into my kayak and feel the world slide into place. My heart rate slows and my breath becomes steady. I don’t know what the answer is, and in this moment I don’t need one.

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Subject to Change

I’m paddling through a minefield. Not a dangerous one mind you. Not one that threatens me immediate harm. No, this is a magic minefield. A minefield of humpbacks. They’re serenading me, us. Every few seconds we hear another breathe. The water’s north of Young Island in Glacier Bay are full of them. How many? Five? Ten? Twenty? Thousands? It doesn’t matter. They are many. They are here. They are near.  To the left of our kayaks the latest whale breaks the surface. He’s fifty yards away, his nose pointed straight at us. My God. For the millionth time in my life I watch the back arch, the body hesitate, and the tail rise high in the air. As tall and proud as a Spanish clipper. She’s diving straight towards us. My heart pounds, my legs feel weak. I strike the surface with my paddle, my stroke noisy. I want him to know where I am. For there to be no doubt. We point the bows of our kayak towards the nearest point of land half a mile away. There’s nothing to do but paddle, our course subject to change.

Subject to change… I’ve heard that before. Or did I read it? I read it. Just this morning, killing time before the trip. Pouring over the nautical charts of Glacier Bay. The maps that make my mind race and imagination cartwheel. All of this magic bay’s coves and inlets. Here a delineation in the shoreline. A potential beach to pull out on. A potential site for a miracle to occur, for a life to change. At the base of a glacier, represented by white are the words: “area subject to change.” Subject to change, I love that. As if NOAA finally threw up their hands and gave up.

“Forget it, we’ll never get this right. Just tell them we don’t know.”

Perhaps the bay is still speaking to us. Out of the mouths of the epochs with the voice of the ice age. Reminding us, prodding us to not get comfortable. We need upheaval, to be subject to change. To not just wait for the significant calving events of life, but to embrace them. We need galloping glaciers but we need retreating ones too. The wisdom and strength to accept them.

Five minutes go by. Still no whale. He could be in front of us, behind us, below us. Every stroke could be bringing us into her path or away from it. In a kayak there’s nothing to do but paddle. With me is a family of four. Mom, Dad, their college aged son and daughter. From the mountains of Utah. But they paddle strong, their hearts are wild, their minds open. Glacier Bay is rocking some minds today. I hope it’s doing the same to them. Somewhere is a forty foot submarine. Carbon based, cloaked in blubber, eating half a ton of food per day. I don’t want to distract her. Attached to her tail is a muscle. The caudal peduncle. Fun to say, but it fails to give credit to what it can do. It’s the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom. To send a humpback rocketing from the water like a rocket it generates the same amount of energy a 747 does taking off. Anything carrying that sort of power needs respect, demands it. Teeth or baleen.

Three miles up the Lamplugh Glacier. The site of a massive rock slide. Last Sunday half a mountain fell onto the glacier. How much? 68 million SUV’s worth. Who knew a sport utility vehicle could be such a great unit of measurement. They’re the passenger of the glacier now. Of the most powerful geologic force nature can muster. You can have your volcanoes, your earthquakes. Give me the glacier. Carving, destroying, creating. In no hurry. For what artist works on any schedule but its own? The news makes me quiver. I take some radical steps, a few creative liberties. What happens when that rock reaches the glacier’s face? It will surely fall to its feet. 68 million SUVs worth. But I know how glacier’s advance. They need a protective layer of rock and dirt at their base. A lateral moraine that insulates from the salt water. If enough snowfall is accumulated above, the glacier can advance, impervious to the melting power of the saltwater. What if the Lamplugh charges… no, gallops, a galloping glacier sounds better. What if it charges across the west arm, obliviating Russell Island and roars south, changing everything about Glacier Bay that we’ve known for 50 years. What if this simple rock slides makes my world, this bay, subject to change?

Still no whale. I glance at my watch. Eight and a half minutes. The unknown more nerve wracking than the knowing. Every few strokes I tap the side of my boat.
“We’re here!” I think.
I hope my taping transmits this message. A rumble, a deep bass. I swivel around. There she is. Close, so close. Fifty yards. Pointed straight at us again. She’s massive. Of course she is. Humpbacks exhibit sexual dimorphism, the females bigger than the males. Guide mode switched on, I almost blurt out the factoid for no good reason.
“Right behind us!” I call. I try to keep my voice calm. But how are you calm with forty tons directed right at you? Ahead of us is the kelp, the closest thing to a sanctuary. This is my world. Wanting, desiring, craving to be close… but not too close. I still want control of the situation, to know that I’m out of the way. She couldn’t care less. We paddle hard, the whale invisible behind us. Forty feet that disappears with nary a ripple. Add it to the list of Glacier Bay miracles.

We reach the kelp’s open arms and I exhale. The family coasts in behind me. Their faces are alive. Exhilaration with a sprinkle of fear. Perfect, just the way it should be. Just the way Glacier Bay, Alaska as a whole expects it. I don’t want to feel safe out here. I don’t want to be in charge. Thank God there are still places where man does not dominate. We paddle on. For that’s all you do in a kayak.

I glance at the daughter. She’s in the back of the double kayak, her father in the front. She’s not that much older than I was on a certain misty and overcast day in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. The day everything changed. When an Orca by the name of Kaikash surfaced off the bow of my kayak and sent the compass of my world spinning out of control. Who knows whose life will change with the flip of a switch, with a single surfacing, a single rock slide, a single galloping glacier. But when it does, who will be brave enough to accept it and embrace it with open arms.

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.

Worth So Much More

More than a century ago, steamers laden with starry eyed prospectors plied the inside passage in a desperate race to reach Skagway, Dyea, and the promise of massive gold deposits in the Yukon. Of the 40,000 to stampede across the permafrost, ten percent found gold, one percent struck it rich. The rush ended with hardly a whimper in just three years.

But thhe gold rush is not over. One hundred and fifteen years later, the human race continues to be seduced by the presence of minerals hidden in rock, with the promise of wealth and money. All in the name of happiness, security, prosperity. Once again, the sites lie within the Canadian boundary and once again the road runs through Alaskan waters. Instead of steamers and ferries crossing the border, it is salmon.

The Unuk, the Taku, and the Stikine represent three massive, salmon rearing, transboundary rivers that cross the border of Northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska. They represent one of the last few places on earth where the delicate balance between ocean and land remain in perfect symmetry with salmon serving as their powerful arbitrator. They draw life from the forest and in turn, rejuvenate the rivers, oceans, animals, and humans they touch. Directly and indirectly, they fuel a 2 billion dollar per year industry that radiates throughout the panhandle via tourism and fishing. And we are spitting in their face. Threatening to destroy a miraculous and beautiful gift that has been our heartbeat since the last glacier receded.

As Canada continues its rapid deregulation of environmental protections, tar sand developments, and other atrocities against the natural world, the policies begin to directly threaten us on the other side. Currently, no fewer than nine mines are either being proposed, developed, or are under review in northwest British Columbia. All of which are connected or adjacent to these  massive, life giving rivers. Mankind has gold in their hearts, and we cannot stand the thought of it laying uselessly in the earth. Not when there is profit to be made.

Many have pointed to the relevant and convincing argument that Alaskans stand to inherit none of the profit, and all of the risk of these mining projects. The money flows into Canada while acid mine drainage flows into the inlets and bays. Holding pits and dams would be responsible for holding millions of gallons of these toxic pollutants indefinitely. Indefinitely, is a hell of a long time.

And yet we hear assurances from involved mining companies such as NovaGold, Chieftan, and the now infamous Imperial Metals about their environmentally safe practices, technologically sound designs, and pride in their development and design. At least, that’s what Imperial Metals had to say about their Mount Polley mine.

On August 4th, 2014, around 1 am the Mount Polley dam in the Cariboo region of B.C burst. Four days later, the four kilometer sized tailings pond had sent its’ 10 billion liters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of metals-laden fine sand into Polley Lake. Like a nightmarish game of dominoes, its impact was felt hundreds of kilometers away along the Fraser River, home to one of the largest Chinook runs on the west coast.

It’s been called the biggest environmental disaster in British Columbia’s history, and it could be decades before the full effects are felt and realized as the metals embed themselves in the environment and climb the stairs of the food chain, magnifying their impact with every step. This is the inheritance of the Cariboo region descendants. The guiltless victims of the four horsemen we worship; progress, profit, power, and greed. Like Prince William Sound, the region will never be the same again, the casualties of practices deemed safe and environmentally friendly.

“I apologize for what happened,” Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch said following the breach. “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.”

How hollow and pointless. Yet in not so many words he admits what we already knew, that open pit mines on this scale are incapable of ensuring the protection of the natural world around them. Since 2012, Imperial Metal had received five citations of violation, the engineering company that designed the pond warned them that the pond was operating beyond capacity and pulled out of the mine operation 3 years before the catastrophe with no explanation.

Mr. Kynoch, you knew this could happen, but it’s tough to hear with gold in your ears and copper in your eyes. All this done in a place with an exponentially larger population density than their recently open mine in Red Chris along a tributary of the Stikine River. Yes, no criminal charges, no moratorium on development, Imperial Metal was allowed to plow forward and put the well being of the salmon and the Alaskans that thrive on them in their greedy hands.

When it comes to environmental issues, Alaskans are often divided. The refuge, offshore oil, and other controversies have split us into the unyielding camps of Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, progressive and tree hugger. But when it comes to salmon, we have been united. We have pushed and will continue to fight the threat of the Pebble Mine development in Bristol Bay, saying no to short term financial gains in favor of the most productive and healthy Sockeye Salmon fishery in the world.

It is vital that we fight again, that these salmon streams, our home, our way of life remains as unspoiled and protected as possible. The alternative is unthinkable. A CEO two decades from now, standing at a podium, offering empty words of regret as mine tailings and acid drainages rush down the Taku to meet the Sockeye. For Imperial Metals they will simply state their sorrow, pack up, and head for the next deposit, leaving us and our descendants to pick up the shattered pieces of existence.

For Americans and Canadians alike who wish to get involved, visit.

http://www.salmonbeyondborders.org/what-you-can-do.html