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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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Telling Stories

He wore cowboy boots. Amazing how quickly one can come to a whole list of conclusions by a shoe type, an accent. In this case the accent matched the boots. A drawl that can come from only one place. A drawl that says, “I will not be amused when you remind me that Alaska is three times bigger than Texas.”

So I skip it, not that it was ever funny. I worked with this boat captain several years back. Before every trip he would make the guests go around and say where they were from. When someone announced they were from Texas we’d burst out with all the pent up enthusiasm we could muster, “welcome to America my friend!” They either loved it or hated it. I haven’t used that line in forever. I gloss over that one too.

They introduce themselves. Bruce and Gail. Even their names sound like Texas. But they’re friendly, oh so friendly. Bubbly, energetic, polite, talkative. In their mid-60s and on their third trip to Alaska. They love it here. They’ll remind me of that ten more times before the day is done and I’ll appreciate it every time. They’ll marvel at the beauty, coo at sea lions and otters, stare with hungry eyes at a breaching whale a quarter mile away. To hear them talk it may as well have shaken their hand.

Perhaps they sensed it like I did. That when it came to politics, to life, our ethics, we stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. But here is the beauty, the magic, the power of this Bay. It makes all that stuff irrelevant. Here is common ground. The otters are arbitrators. What would it be like if our Senate and House of Representatives met here, inches above the water. Would some of this melt away? Let’s make a Republican paddle with a Democrat and see what happens. Forget crossing the aisle, see if you can cross Bartlett Cove.

For seven hours the talk is easy. The conversations are light. They own a ranch, 2,000 acres of Texas desert beauty. Bruce grass feeds his herd. He brings inner city kids out every year, teaches them to hunt the deer that flood their property. He show them everything from pulling the trigger to cleaning, packing, and preparing. Reminding them  that food does not appear on the Wal-Mart shelves through some sort of Harry Potter spell.

“Get’em away from their phones.” Says Gail. “Too many kids spend their whole lives doing this.” She mimes tapping away on an iPhone, her head bent low, chin to her chest. “They never look up to see the world. They walk right past it.”

They’re involved in wildlife conservation. Fighting to keep the areas near their ranch wild. Teddy Roosevelt Republicans. How amazing, that the father of conservation was conservative, was buddies with John Muir. I mention the parallels and Bruce nods.

“Amazing man. Did you know that while he was president he explored the Amazon? While he was their he got so sick that he told the others in his party to leave him behind. That they couldn’t afford to carry him… the president! Tell me if that’d ever happen now?”

The trip ends. But they’re not sick of me yet and invite me up to the lodge to have a drink. For a moment I hesitate. But I’m intrigued, so intrigued by what is happening here. By the opportunity to have what Melanie Heacox would call, “the interpretive moment.” Sometimes a cold beer in the revelry of a magic day is that moment.

Halfway through the first beer the door cracks.

“Where’s one place that you really want to visit in Alaska?” Gail asks.

“There’s a place,” I begin, “in the northeast corner of the state, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Only politicians use the acronym, slurring it into a gravelly, guttural grown, “Ahhnwarrrr.”

Gail’s face alights. “It looks beautiful.” She says. Like most people, she’s seen the pictures. They’ve been to Denali, the Alaskan Serengeti.

“This is supposed to be like Denali on steroids.” I say.

Bruce leans forward. He’s a talker, not one to sit back and listen. “What’s up there?” He asks.

“Everything and nothing.” The silence hangs for a moment and I step off the ledge. “In the refuge is the 1002 area. That’s where they want—”

“That’s where the oil fields are.” Bruce finishes. I nod but say nothing.

“That’s where it is?” Gail says with a gasp. “That’s where the oil is supposed to be?”

I nod again and watch her face change but don’t say anything, waiting for her to come to her own conclusion. But Bruce continues, “You could put what, five drilling platforms up there? Two acres each. Ten acres total. Take what you needed and… the land land grows back. We see it in Texas all the time. Three years after you leave you can barely tell they were there at all.”

Our talks all day have been civil. And even now there’s no threat in his voice. Nothing that’s inviting confrontation. If only we could always talk like this. Maybe we’d get somewhere.

“If it’s done responsibly—”

“Not always as easy as you’d think.” I say. I could talk about Caribou, I could talk about carbon dioxide in parts per million, sea level rise, or erosion. But something whispers in the back of my head. “Tell stories.”

“Let me tell you about how north slope oil exterminated a pod of Orcas. In Prince William Sound is a unique population of Orca Whales. They’re called the AT1 pod. When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, the AT1’s swam through the slick the next day.”

“Orca’s have no sense of smell,” I explain, “they had no idea what they were passing through… they haven’t reproduced since. There’s only a handful of them left. Three or four I think. Within a few years, they’ll be all gone. For me, I can’t put a price on that.”

It’s hard to tell what sort of impact the story has.

“One drunk boat captain.” Bruce says.

“All it takes is one.” I answer, “Prince William Sound will never be the same.”

I point out over Bartlett Cove, in the distance beyond the forests of Lester Island are the Fairweather Mountains. The view the three of us have been marveling at them all day. “There’s precious few places like this left on the planet. We need them. We can’t exist without them.” They agree, they understand better than most that nature equals life.

“Beneath the Brady Icefield,” I continue, which is just beneath the Fairweather’s, are mineral deposits. Possibly oil. This view we’ve been raving about all day, what if there was an oil well at its feet? What if a mine tailling dam burst? If we drill in the refuge, what’s to stop this place from being next?”

I’m not expecting a deathbed conversion. Not expecting them to change their voter registration to democrat. To start a non profit climate change research association. But I want to be heard. Just like they do. Like we all do.

“We’re coming,” I say, “from completely different ends of the spectrum. That’s ok.”

“We have no love for Trump.” Gail interjects.

“Bless you,” I smile. “But it’s important that we can sit and talk civilly about these things. That we do it respectfully. This is how change happens. This is how we keep amazing places like Glacier Bay, like the refuge whole.”

I doubt I’ll ever see Bruce or Gail again. And at the end of the day, doubt that anything in their minds has changed. Strip all this stuff away and we’d be friends, were friends for an afternoon. They’re sweet people, loving people, giving people. They work hard, play hard, the sort of people that would pick you up and set you back on your feet without a second thought.

But that look in Gail’s eyes when she realized that Ahnwarrr was the refuge. That that was the place under siege. Maybe something stuck there, in the back of her head. And maybe next time it comes up she won’t see oil rigs, drills, or platforms. Maybe she’ll see the Caribou running across the tundra, and a young kayak guide, his eyes full of meaning talking about how badly he wants to run with them.

The Life I Never Wanted

The email was terse, to the point, and completely unhelpful. NOAA, after offering me a job upon my graduation from college in three weeks, was withdrawing their offer, citing a lack of funding. Fear courses through my blood, my knees weak, I reread the email, sure that I’d missed something. I hadn’t. It has to be one of the worst responses ever to the question, “when’s my first day?” I grab the phone and call the ladies office that I was, in theory working for. As the phone rang and rang I mentally calculated the deposit on the apartment I’d just put down and my bank account with a number that Bob Cratchit would be embarrassed by. For the next two days I wrote emails and left messages at the office, trying to get someone, anyone to return one, to explain what had happened, to give me any direction. I’m still waiting.

Things were going so well too, I’d gone to college, met the girl I’d marry, and had the, “get a job” step all figured out. I was going to graduate and work for NOAA, at least to start, make some money and than go to grad school. Well on my way to a nice respectable, safe career. My job, measuring the bioenergetics of herring. I’d even talked myself into being excited about it. Studying whales, well, it’d been a nice dream, but it was time to be realistic I told myself. Time to grow up. There can only be so many Paul Spongs and Alex Mortons in the world.

After three days of blind panic my heart rate slowly returned to normal, I began to think rationally again and deleted all those terrible emails I’d written but thankfully never sent. Life was going to take a detour, just a small one I told myself. I needed work, and I told myself not to be picky, just find something to keep a roof over your head. And in that process I learned an incredibly valuable lesson, no job is beneath you, and just because you’ve never thought about doing it, or don’t think you can, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

I applied everywhere, restaurants, pizza delivery, tourism, I even swallowed what pride I had left and dropped an application off at Fred Meyer, the same place I’d worked after my freshman year of college. I felt like I was being pulled backwards. What happened next you could call God, or the universe, or karma, or just boring old luck. I landed the job I think I always wanted, was meant to have, I just couldn’t admit. I was going to be a whale watch guide.

Looking back it seems so obvious, such a natural route for life to take. But I was pulled into the American obsession of careers and security, my life filling up with, “had tos.” I had to have a year long job, I had to start saving money, I had to buy a house, I had to have a job with health insurance, all these things I had to have. And I’d bought it, swallowed the sales pitch, and had believed it my whole life. And I still did even after landing the job that paid me to watch orcas breach and humpbacks bubblenet. My destiny, I told myself still lay in herring bioenergetics. My clients encouraged such thoughts, a nice young man such as myself needed a real job eventually, needed to make something of himself. This whale watching thing is ok, just for right now.

So two months later, when three positions opened up at NOAA, I shined up my resume, and marched back into that building with the air of a conquering hero, ready to fulfill my destiny. A month later I’d heard nothing and finally picked up the phone, this time, someone returned my call. 18 people had applied for the three positions. Positions that required only an undergraduates degree in marine biology. Ten of the applicants had masters, four more had doctorates. I’d be shocked if my resume got a second look. I hung up the phone and headed for work, there were still whales to watch after all. What, I wondered, did the applicants look like for non entry level jobs? Did I really want to go to school for at least six more years so that I could find out the number of joules in a herring? To that moment I had never considered another possibility, never fathomed being anything besides a, “scientist.”

But by the time I’d pulled into the parking garage and dug out my rain jacket I’d decided; it wasn’t the life I wanted. I could do without the lab coats because I new, deep down, I couldn’t possibly be happy with one on. In five minutes there’d be twenty cruise ship passengers, looking up at me, expecting the answers to all of their Alaska questions, and I couldn’t even answer everyone’s first personal question, what’re going to do with your life?

Why Do They Only Breach Close at Night?

We may have to change the name of the blog. It hasn’t rained since we got here. After driving off the ferry in Nanaimo in a torrential downpour, it has been sun and blue sky ever since. It’s wonderful to sit on the deck in just a t-shirt as mid September approaches, though I’m already bracing myself for the inevitable monsoon  that I’m sure is coming. The raincoast has brainwashed me. Even when the sun shines, I’m sure mama nature is just piling up additional rain to make up for it. See what you’ve done to me Juneau!

There is the small problem as well as the water pressure in the sink has noticeably gotten weaker and weaker in the past few days. All our fresh water is gravity fed from a spring, connected by a never ending tube of garden hoses that wind their way up a hill and through the spruce and cedar trees. There’s just five of us here and any bathing is done via the salt water tub, so fortunately we’re not using much right now. Nevertheless, a nice steady day of rain would help me breathe a little easier.

All has descended into relative quiet though. It has been nearly 24 hours since the orcas called, they’re somewhere to the north, suddenly reclusive and introverted after two weeks of tracing the shorelines of Johnstone and Blackfish. The water feels empty without them. Chelsea and I did seem them yesterday on the way into Alert Bay on the weekly pilgrimage to civilization for food and beer. Relaxed and at peace with the world, the A30s and A42s traced back in forth off the north end of Swanson Island near a place called Bold Head. We couldn’t resist stopping to watch. The contrast was shocking. Counting us three boats floated off the island, watching the two pods. I thought back to what whale watching was like in Juneau when someone saw a six foot dorsal fin. The never ending parade of boats, in a mob like blood thirsty consumers on black Friday. For a moment I felt guilty as I watched A38 rise to the surface off our bow, even from 100 yards he looked massive.  After all, I’d been part of it, had taken every opportunity to see the orcas when I could, because, try as I might, I just couldn’t look away. But here there was no ethical battle being waged inside. We were just one of three instead of thirty. We watched the families rise and fall for a few minutes and continued on our way.

Even the humpbacks have slowed down, after a week that saw double breaches and a even one surfacing in the cove just feet from shore, their prey must have shifted. But last night, as the tide ebbed and Brittney and I sat in the cabin, a sound like thunder roared from the ocean fifty feet away. There was only one thing that could make water sound like that. We stood on the deck as the moon broke the clouds, illuminating a single strip of the black water below, and a shadow, darker even than the ocean rose. The humpback’s blow echoed off the islands and we could just make out the back as it arched and pulled the flukes into the air. A minute passed before as silent as the night itself, there came a great rush, a blow, and the humpback flew out of the water, its silhouette framed by Parson Island across the pass, the frothy white splash illuminated beautifully in the dark leaped twenty feet in the air as gravity pulled the whale back to the surface. Just another small moment of joy in the world of Hanson Island.

There’s little planned between now and the 16th of September when we go from care takers and volunteers, to hosts. Throughout the year, Paul and Helena have been fund raising by offering what they call, “perks.” Donate X dollars, get a CD of orca calls. Donate 5X (see, algebra!) and get a trip to Orca Lab. Cindy and Gene put up 5X, and decided September 16th-18th would be the best time to visit. Paul and Helena politely explained that they’d be out of the country still at the IWC. “That’s ok,” they said.

Well than. Hopefully the whales come back and make an appearance for a few days, because theres only so many times we can show them the cedar trees and rubbing beach videos. Of course, if you’re willing to travel all this way, I’m willing to bet you’re perfectly happy to sit in what will still hopefully be sunny weather and watch the humpbacks, sea lions, and harbour seals cruise slowly back and forth in front of you. The night before they left, Paul  and Helena gave us a list of tasks and chores to keep the lab running in their absence as well as food and dinner ideas for when our guests arrived.

As the sun set and darkness claimed the living room and everyone began to clear the table, I asked the question I’d been meaning to for days. “These people that are coming,” I ask, “where are they from.”

Helena pauses for a moment, “the U.S,” she answers.

Something in her answer makes press further. “What state?”

A wry smile crosses her lips, Paul lets out a little chuckle. “Texas,” she answers.