Tag Archives: travel

The Wettest Paddle

My gloved fingers fumble with the catches on the stern hatch. I bury my chin deeper into my rain jacket, a vain attempt to stem the never ending stream of water that’s been barreling down on us for 48-hours. I don’t know where we are, and I’m nowhere near curious enough to dig the map out of its dry bag. But I’ve stared at it enough to know what I’m looking at. Or more accurately, what I should be looking at.

Mount Wright, a 6,000 foot cathedral that guards the east arm of Glacier Bay is just two miles to the south, but it’s taking the day off. As is Adams Inlet, the first of three inlets that alternate on each side of the arm. After years of waiting I was finally seeing the fabled east arm. The inlet known as Muir Inlet, our superhero and the patron saint of glaciers. I had set off with Brittney and three friends, set on finding God in a glacier and Muir in a sun ray. But so far all I’d found was rain. Rain and clouds.

The hatch cover finally comes free and I pull from its depths three identical bear cans. We’re not stopping long. We’d been paddling for just over three hours and watched the wind and rain approach from the West. Naively we tried to outrun it, but you can’t outrun anything in a kayak except your common sense.

Brittney comes over and digs through one of the cans, pulling out tortillas, cheese, and kale. For a moment we stare at the tortillas as a gust of wind buffets us. We’re on a ridiculous little glacial outwash that will soon be obliviated by the rising tide. Eagles and Ravens perch eerily on a cemetery of uprooted stumps and logs. We slice the cheese and tear the kale.

“Now.”

Brittney opens the ziploc bag and I grab a pair of tortillas. As soon as they’re free she slams the seal shut, but too late. The surviving tortillas will be taking rainwater with them. We wrap the cheese and greens inside in record time and sit huddled against the wind, devouring our lunch before it disintegrates in our hands.

Worst rain I’ve ever experienced. I scribbled in my journal later that night. Hands so wrinkled and pruney they resemble elevation contours on the map. 

But we’re counting ourselves lucky. Because the wind is coming from behind, sweeping us up the arm and toward McBride Inlet. In a bay defined by change, McBride is the champion sprinter. A map from 1990 shows no inlet at all, but a glacier that dominates the upper end of the arm. Almost 30-years later she’s described with adjectives like “catastrophic retreat.” She’s left a narrow mouth at the base of the inlet that at low tide you could lob a rock across. On a flood the inlet turns into a vacuum sucking in water, ice bergs, gulls, seals, and wayward kayakers.

Lunch takes less than five minutes. One of the first lessons of Glacier Bay is that the best way to stay warm is to paddle. It may seem counter intuitive—surely huddling under a tarp is warmer—but all gear, no matter how rubberized or seam sealed, will eventually fail in a torrent such as this. Best to keep moving and turn your upper body into its own personal Toyo. So we hop back on the Muir Highway and let the wind whisk us north.

There’s four of us now. That morning Ellie was forced to return early after slicing open her thumb. After getting her on the day boat we’d set out from Sebree Island, knowing it would be our second 20-mile paddle day of the trip. Three of the four are kayak guides: myself, Brittney, and Jessie Markowitz. We’re equally crazy, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that none of us are going to be the one that taps out first. That left Jessie’s boyfriend Jake, an accomplished outdoorsman, skier, and climber in his own right as our voice of reason. And as he was positioned in the front seat of a double, there was precious little rebelling he could do without rudder pedals.

We hop from point to point, Jessie and Jake’s double setting the pace. Every few minutes I glance behind me, praying to see a lift in the weather. The fog and rain has socked in the entire bay. And while we’d never admit it, all of us kind of wished we were the one with the sliced thumb on the warm day boat with all the coffee we could drink.

Around Wachusett Inlet the rubberized raingear begins to fail. I feel the water seep into my mid-layer and with a shudder feel the first needle-like prick of rainwater reach my back. But Wachusett looks beautiful, a thin layer of fog is set afire by the sun, enough to give you hope and we bob in its mouth for a few long moments. The inlet cuts seductively right a mile in, leaving you wanting more. I know better. On the best of days Wachusett blows like the dickens, I don’t want to see the sort of wind that’s around that corner. We keep pushing. Past Kim Heacox’s old stomping grounds in Goose Cove, past Sealers Island and towards Nunatak.

We take a breather and find Brown Bear tracks as big as my outstretched hand in the sand. After the rain, a bear seems tame. Alaskan visitors have a Goldilock’s complex with bears. They want them not too far, not too close, but just right. Just right usually being within range of a 300mm DSLR.

Keep paddling. The Arctic Turn I’m paddling lives up to its name. No rudder, no skeg, no problem. She turns with a simple bend in the hips, drag free. We pass false point after false point. Each time convinced that this one will be McBride Inlet. Ice bergs float by, encouraging us further. Sirens in the fog, beckoning towards their home. Further, just a little further.

Everything hurts. 

We near yet another point. Jessie and Brittney are convinced that this one is the mouth of McBride. I’m not convinced. You have a lot of time to discuss these things when you’re traveling at 2.5 miles per hour. We round the corner to find more trees. No inlet, no Glacier God, no ghost of Muir dancing in the outwash in a wool trench coat. We pull out the map and Cliff Bars. I check my watch: just over seven hours of paddling. My hands feel fused to the paddle. And yet, and this is the weird thing, it feels so good out here.

What is wrong with me? I’m frozen, cold, most everything from the waist down went numb a long time ago. Whatever isn’t numb is wet. We’re convinced the next point leads to McBride. I suggest a vote. Brittney, Jessie, and I try to say yes first. Jake sighs, shrugs his shoulders, and sticks his paddle in the water. Welcome to the bay.

We hit the next point, turn, and there it is. Bergs swirl in the mouth of McBride. We paddle for shore, and the rainfall intensifies. And I yell at the Bay. At the Bay I love so much. How dare you punish our persistence like this? After everything we just did?

But of course Glacier Bay has little regard for my well being and prune covered hands. This place does not give, it sharpens and refines, just as the glaciers have done to her. Just as they will again if we’ll allow it. Just as they do to us.

We pull the boats above the tide and a miracle happens. The rain relents, the clouds being to lift. White Thunder Ridge emerges on the other side, dramatic slate gray cliffs loom further north. It is a beauty that must be witnessed. A beauty that can only be appreciated after paddling through fog and rain for seven hours. Like a bride on her wedding day the view is worth the wait.

Dry clothes are currency, and we lay out everything we can. We set up tents and pray the rain stays away. A sucker hole appears-a knot sized patch of blue sky—but  it brought friends. We cheer the blue colored beauties and cook pasta. We eat outside the confines of a tarp. And we fall under the spell. I find myself wandering in a daze down the beach. A mystic force pulling me towards the ice like some sort of ancestral magnet. How, I wonder, could people experience this and not be changed? How can someone look into the face of nature and be brought to their knees? I’m convinced that 100 senators in 50 doubles for a couple days would clear up a lot of problems.

But for a few days we’ll be blissfully ignorant of North Korea, Charlottesville, and the rest of the world’s silliness. Just us and McBride glacier’s offspring filtering out the inlet and sweeping south.

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The End of the Road

The Pathfinder reeks of burning oil when she runs too long. She’s had it, and I await one of life’s cruel ironies as we wait in line for the ferry. Four years ago I made a deal with whatever deity was on duty, promising many things I’ll never own in exchange for this plucky Nissan getting us to Canada and back. But as she’s always down she comes to life with the screech of belts and uncategorized clatters. There’s still time to back out. Still time to run another direction. A direction that will let us keep running. There’s no shame in it. We’re still in our twenties for crying out loud. No one would think less of us if we disappeared to Central America for a year or vanished to Thailand for a season. But how do you continue to run when you know where home is, when you know where the road ends?

The end of the final road doesn’t look like a road at all. And you’d excuse us for missing it completely. To be fair, cars have rarely been our dominant form of transportation and I’m not at my best behind the wheel. Boats and kayaks have kept our lives afloat. May they continue to do so until someone tells us we’re too old.

But as theatrical as it would be, this journey cannot end at a pier or sandy beach. Instead we take a dirt road overgrown with willow, cat tail, grass, and fern. The ruts are deep and the brush grates against the bumper. At a sharp left the car pivots neatly in the groves as if it’s on the skids of a poorly made Disneyland ride. And then it ends. With no apology or explanation the road simply disappears, giving way to the world that will eventually swallow us all. A world of Pine and Alder, Blueberry and high bush cranberry, marsh and forest. The road, like our rambling, is over. Neither one of us ever had to discuss it. We simply knew that it was time to stop. We didn’t want to do it anymore.

***

The sun is bright and the reflection off Icy Passage makes me squint. My pupils, like my heart, were made to live where the rain is frequent and the sun is scarce. We trace the outline of the shore, the glacial outwash that holds Gustavus behind, the ridges and mountains of Excursion Ridge and the Chilkat Mountains ahead of. Fresh snow sits on the peaks, but down here it feels like Spring. Myself, Brittney, Jen Gardner, and Patrick Hanson gallop like moose calves. We plunge through last years Reed Grass and it gives way with a satisfying crunch. Here the cynicism of the world isn’t just stripped away, it is torn from the soul, replaced by innocence and wonder.

We come out of the Reed Grass and onto the sandy beach. On the low tide the stories of the last six hours are exposed. Tracks trace back and forth, weaving between the sand and tidal mud that squishes with delight beneath our boots. We follow the moose, the deer, the river otter, and the wolf.

The wolf. We stop at the tracks, some as large as my outstretched hand and gaze upon the holy grail of Alaska prints. Patrick’s mind is already in overdrive. It’s always in overdrive. He is more excited over the first Rosy Twisted Stalk than most men are in a year. The prints are catnip to us, and Patrick is already talking about camping just above the tideline in the grass and sitting patiently for a day or two until they come back. I find it hard to imagine him sitting for two minutes. He’s a mover, but he’s staying put in Gustavus. So is Jen thank goodness. They’re staying for the same reason we are. Because they weighed the possessions of the world in one hand and wolf prints in the sand in the other and asked, “why?” Granted, we like microbrews, Disney movies, ice cream, and Parks and Rec. But darn it all if we could live without days like this with mountains above our heads and wolf tracks at our feet.

We reach the mountains where a stream splashes into the grass and a fence of Alder paves the way for Spruce and Hemlock. “True southeast rainforest,” says Patrick, and he dives in. We follow. Our cracking of branches punctuated with tenuous calls of, “hey bear.” We step into the clearing beneath the branches and into Narnia. Devil’s club is just beginning to bud and Fiddlehead Ferns are poking their heads out from their moss blanket. We pick some, leave others, and fantasize about what we can cook. We walk home with maybe a pound of greens, but from the looks on our faces you’d have thought we’d found a thousand dollars.

***

At the end of the road is the Shabin, occupying three hundred feet on 4.19 acres. We prune the willows that are invading the road and stare up at the Cottonwoods that bookend the clearing. And we talk. We talk a lot about what we want to do. And Brittney and I keep coming back to sharing it. What if we could make this the end of the road for someone else too? Brittney, Jen, and I walk through the stand of old Spruce behind the Shabin. It’s the driest spot on the property with a ditch on one side and and a Willow swail on the other. We’re going to have to take some of these big beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to think about it. Can man live without destroying it?

We step out of the Spruce and into the open light of the swail. The morning light glistens off the standing water and we talk about what a great place this would be for a bench. A place to come and watch the Chickadees, Juncos, and Moose ply their trades. What if this is where the four of us spend the rest of our lives? I imagine a bench on the edge of the woods, plopping down with these people, beers in hand, and watching a moose rooting for reeds.

I can see our cabins through the woods behind me. A garden in the clearing. Maybe a smoker and a writer’s studio. Maybe I should get the ruts out of the road and the clearing drained first.

Kim Heacox once asked me why I was ready to drop my roots. There’s no right or wrong answer. Kim galavanted around for years and has seen Antartica, Russia, the Galapagos, and has designs on spending time in Rome. Even now, when his demographic is scheming moves to Florida and weekend golf dates, the travel itch remains unscratched. I don’t feel it the way he does. I don’t feel the need to travel across Russia by train or disappear for months at a time. I want my roots to grow deep here until they’re planted so far down that nothing can move them.

I want to follow those wolf tracks into the mountains and trace every cove of Glacier Bay. I want to watch the Orcas crash through Icy Strait again and again and again. And I’m ready to do it now. I’ve sampled the world and loved it. I’ve had my trail mix stolen by raccoons in New Zealand and been lost in Costa Rica. I’ve been peed on by Howler Monkeys and dealt with more frumpy border guards than I can count. I’ve loved every single moment. I’ve cherished my rambling. But I’m ready to come home. I’m ready reach the end of the rambling road. I’m ready to turn off the ignition and plant 500 carrots.

Which doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier. In all likelihood it’s about to get a lot more difficult. My carpentry experience ends with making leaky garden boxes, and my landscaping knowledge is even more embarrassing. But if I’m going to fail, or at minimum screw up (and I will screw up) I want to do it here. I’d rather fail in Gustavus than succeed in Seattle. Because if I fall here there’ll be a dozen hands to pick me up, put the hammer back in my hand, and tell me to get back at it. Virtually every person in this town has been where we are right now. Each one of them arrived at the place where all the roads end and realized that was right where they needed to be.

The Final Ride

Six days. That’s how much longer we have here. Six more quiet mornings with the sounds of Thrushes and squirrels in the woods. Six more nights of boat noise as tugs and fishing boats crawl up and down Blackfish Sound. I am acutely aware that I’m doing things for the last time. A final round with the chainsaw, a final walk through the woods, a final trip down the strait.

My last boat ride to the lab was yesterday. A moderate westerly beat me up as I went into Alert Bay. So instead of taking my usual trail that weaves through the Pearce and Plumper Islands, I took the more exposed route through Johnstone Strait. The sun shone from a brilliant blue sky, the strait’s southern side turned a deep green as the forests of Vancouver Island reflected across the waves. Looking down the strait there was no sign of human life. No boats, no houses, no cell towers. Just mountains, water, and trees. As it had been for centuries. May it always look the same.

It may seem weird to have a nostalgic stretch of water. But this run from Alert Bay along the strait and to the lab does for me. It’s the route I took the first time I came here. I was packed on the June Cove with four other volunteers and Paul. As the June Cove notoriously does whenever I arrive, it wasn’t working too well. We puttered along the strait at six knots, anything faster and the engine would cut out. I had no idea where we were going or how long it was supposed to take. So I put my trust in the cranky engine and sat atop the the cabin to watch the mountains of Robson Bight slowly grow taller.

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I moved faster yesterday, whipping across the south end of Weyton, dodging driftwood and willing one more dorsal fin to break the water. I came here hoping, maybe even expecting my dedication and effort to be rewarded with magical and unforgettable Orca encounters. After nearly 24 cumulative months here I’m still waiting for my “Free Willy” moment. But now I don’t expect it to happen. And just as important, I don’t need it to. Proximity doesn’t equal intimacy. Three years on a whale watching boat will teach you that.

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During that first boat ride in 2008 I rode through the world oblivious. I had no concept of Climate Change, no understanding that Canada was in the cruel grip of the Harper Administration, a manifestation of the, “if it can’t be grown it must be mined,” ideology. All I knew were Orcas and that captivity was bad. As far as I was concerned, that was the only environmental movement that mattered. Now the uncut portions of Hanson Island feel like a miracle. The thousand year old Cedars a symbol of hope instead of a novelty. I love this place fiercely with some protective parental instinct. It’s hard not to take every threat and oil spill personally.

The boat flashes along the Hanson shore. Somewhere on the beach are First Nations artifacts. According to Walrus, the anthropologist who lives in the woods near us, there is a rock carving of Raven the creator hidden somewhere on the beach. It aligns perfectly with the sunrise on the winter solstice. I’d considered trying to find it. But what is man’s insatiable desire to see and touch everything? To literally leave no stone unturned? I like the idea of just a few people knowing where it is. The knowledge that it exists is enough for me. In an age where we move with such haste to smother the world with concrete and progress, some mystery is a good thing.

At the east end of Hanson is a pair of tiny islands. Coveted by kayakers, the pass between them is plenty deep for a small boat. Protected by both the east and west winds, the channel is the perfect hovel for sea birds. Harlequin’s adore it, as do the Mergansers and Herons. An eagle’s nest adorns a Cedar tree on the northernmost tip and offers a view of Blackfish, Blackney, and Johnstone. This confluence brings life. The mixing and upwelling of currents traps food and brings cold, nutrient rich water to the surface. It draws herring, salmon, eagles, gulls, ravens, crows, humpbacks, salmon, seals, sea lions, Orcas, and Me. It’s a powerful stretch of water with the ability to change lives and send them careening off the tracks into the unknown. It threatens our existence, and makes us question why we’re here and what matters. Anyone who does not feel their heartbeat quicken as a Humpback roars through a bait ball while gulls circle overhead has no spirit.

The boat turns left and for the first and last time, I lay eyes on the lab. Smoke curls out the chimneys and wraps their wispy fingers around the trees like the fingers of a lover. The lab deck hovers over the water on the high tide. Here one can learn to love without intruding. You have to let go, be contented with watching those black fins disappear around the corner, accept that there are more important things than getting as close as possible. The trees mute the sun and the cove shines like a sapphire in the evening light. Harlequin’s scoot across the bow with indignant squeaks. The engine dies and I step onto the beach for the first and last time, eyes wide and mind open.

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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 Park Service is Going Rogue (And Kayak Guides Should Too)

Last summer was the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. In Glacier Bay National Park, they spared no pomp or circumstance. Every poster, every talk, every presentation was prefaced, footnoted, and concluded with a reminder that they had hit the century mark. It got kind of comical after awhile. When someone reminded me that it was the 100th anniversary I feigned surprise:

“Really? They should have told someone about it!”

It was all capped with the opening of a traditional Tlingit Tribal House near park headquarters, complete with carved canoes paddled by the Huna Tlingit across Icy Strait and into Bartlett Cove. The day dawned with fog choking visibility to less than a mile. Flights were canceled. Lisa Murkowski was trapped in Juneau, 65-miles from her photo op. Sweet sweet justice.

As I floated in my kayak that day and watched the triumvirate of canoes emerge from the mist and heard the chants and beating of drums, the hair stood up on my neck. It was one of the most impressive and moving moments I’ve ever experienced. A powerful reminder that this place has meant something of incalculable significance to humanity for centuries.

But I also felt a twinge of annoyance that the NPS had chosen to do this on their anniversary. After decades of animosity between the federal government and Huna Tlingit, I felt conflicted on how I felt that it was done on the Park’s day. Perhaps I was picking nits. After all, the NPS had footed the bill for the place. I’m just some punk kayak guide who fancies himself a writer and by extension is a critic of the human condition. I’ve questioned the Park’s intentions before, scoffed at the cruise ship industry running amok in the west arm, and the damn “UnCruises” and their new “high usage” back country areas.

Fast forward a few months.

All of a sudden my critiques feel like the meaningless spats between a married couple. Was I really complaining about the Park Service leaving their metaphorical dirty dishes in the sink? Was I really all worked up because now 50 people were allowed to walk along a trail next to Reid Glacier instead of 12? My life was so simple I had the time to bitch about the Norwegian Pearl interrupting my morning as I looked down Johns Hopkins Inlet.

Now I look at the Park Service the same way Rey looks at Luke Skywalker.

It’s like a mixture of “I Am Spartacus” and “This is Sparta!” Between the Badlands National Park going rogue on Twitter to the new “Alt-National Park Service” movement, I’ve never been prouder to be affiliated with the Park Service. Right now I’m just hoping there’s going to be a “backcountry” in four years and argue about.

Knowing the people I do that work for the NPS, this defiance shouldn’t be a surprise. For many, if not all of them, their work is not just a job. No, people work for the parks because they genuinely care. Trump didn’t expect that. He assumed they were a bunch of good little worker bees that wouldn’t say a word as long as they kept their jobs. Guess what buddy? You just kicked the hive to discover the bees were hornets, and they’ll be damned if you’re going to take America’s honey from them.

But he’s going to try to muzzle them. We’ve seen it already with the EPA and when he forbid the Park Service from tweeting after they posted a photo comparing how small Trump’s hands crowd was at the inauguration.

One of the biggest jobs in Glacier Bay during the summer falls to the Interpretive Rangers. A crew of patient, knowledgable, and energetic folks who step onto each cruise ship that passes the park boundary to tell people what the hell they’re seeing and handle such cracker jack questions as:*

“does the water go all the way around that island?”

“Is that glacier made of salt? Is that why the water’s salty?”

“Are there polar bears on the glacier?”

“Do you believe in climate change?”

(*these are real questions)

Ah, yes, climate change. First, stop asking, “do you believe?” This is not a religion. There is no Church of Global Warming. You can chose to accept the facts or not. They exist whether you “believe” in them or not. It’s science, irrefutable science.

For the past eight years, NPS rangers have been able to calmly and accurately regurgitate the facts of respected scientists from across the globe, explaining the uncontrolled growth of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, the uncontrollable rise in ocean temperatures, and the extreme unlikelihood that human beings are innocent.

But of course the angry Oompa Loompa isn’t going to let people discuss a Chinese conspiracy on his dime. Which isn’t actually anything new. Park rangers were forbidden from discussing the effects of Climate change during Bush’s second term. Maybe, just maybe it had something to do with Dick Cheney’s ties to the oil industry. Just maybe.

So the Park is once again going to be shackled by the irrational opinions of the man in the White House. So while the Park Service may have to have a more muted level of public resistance. Though I would anticipate several “off the record” conversations aboard those cruise ships this summer. But the kayak guides have no such shackles. We can say what we want and do what we want as long as we don’t harass marine mammals and get five star reviews on TripAdvisor.

So the mission statement has changed a lot from: give people a nice lunch, talk about John Muir, and maybe see a Humpback to a full blown: Edward Abbey and the Monkey Wrench Gang recruitment poster.

Wilderness guides have the incredible opportunity to impact people from across the globe (as long as they’re not from Middle Eastern countries where Voldemort doesn’t have any business ties). When people come in contact with the physical world and dig their toes in the sand or walk through a forest framed with Devils Club, their hearts and minds open. There is a golden opportunity to get through to people, or at the very least, get them to listen. I’ve convinced “if it can’t be grown it must be mined” Republicans that maybe, just maybe, Common Murres are worth more than coal, at least for an afternoon.

The point is, people listen to the guide. Partly because their lives depend on it, partly because it is insanely obvious that we give a shit about these places. We care so much about something so much bigger than us and it shines through. And if the Park Service really can’t talk publicly about the threats this wanna be emperor is creating for these places, it’s up to us speak even louder, scream it at the top of our lungs to everyone we meet.

People are desperate to act and fight back. Many of them will be rushing to their parks this summer to get a good look at America’s Greatest Idea in case they disappear. They won’t. The Park Service has made that clear. The American people have too. Did you notice how fast that bill to sell off public land disappeared? Being a guide has always been about trying to change people and impact their lives. That’s still the case. But it’s something bigger now. Now I’m arming people to fight back, to take their experiences and wield them as a weapon. And as the Park Service continues to resist, it will be an honor to stand beside them every step of the way.

Midnight Humpbacks

Another year with no trick or treaters on Hanson Island. I shudder to imagine what we’d do if we heard a knock on the door right now. We’d glance terrified at one another, bodies taut, legs weak, hands shaking. What the hell? No one whose ever knocked on the door of a cabin on the rocks at 10:00 at night has ever done so with good intentions. But the night is calm and seems to be low on ghoulish or spiritual skullduggery. After a stormy month, it’s nice to hear the quiet. There’s not even boat traffic. All that comes out of the hydrophones is the occasional gurgle of water and the unexplained static like crackles.

But despite the quiet and despite the darkness, we’re not alone. Outside the door are sea lions and seals and mink and dolphins, and tonight, humpbacks. They never seem to favor the Hanson shore during the day. When they could be photographed and possibly identified. No, they wait until the sun disappears and the clouds devour what little moon there is. But in the pitch black, we can hear them. Their deep booming breaths shake the window as they surface somewhere out beyond the curtain of night.

And time and time again I rise from my seat and step out onto the porch. It’s not like I can’t hear them from inside. But somewhere embedded in my DNA is an instinct as natural as breathing. Go to the whales. I stand on the edge of the porch, my bare feet gripping the slippery wood. Out of habit I count the blows. One… two… three… Three!? When was the last time there was three humpbacks in front of the lab? In between their surfacings is the sound of sea lions. Their exhalations are minuscule next to their cetacean neighbors. They’re like flies. They zip and dive around the humpbacks, why no one really knows. Maybe their picking off stray fish, using the whales for protection from Transients, or maybe it’s a game. Some sort of Sea Lion chicken to see who can get closest to a 15-foot flipper and not get bludgeoned to death.

There’s something about whales at night. I love whales at night. Let’s be honest, I love them at all hours, but something about hearing them but not seeing them hits me hard. Humpback or Orca, hydrophone or above water makes no difference. I love to listen. It goes back to a night more than ten years ago, not far from where I live and write.

Eleven Years Ago:

It’s past midnight. The only dark stretch of this July night. I’m asleep in a two man tent with my Father when my eyes snap open. I sit upright in my sleeping bag, that DNA kicking on for the first time. I know what I heard, the only question is; was it in my dream. I only have to wait a few seconds when I hear it again.

Blows. Lots of them.

I spring out of my sleeping bag—Dad right behind—and step out onto the rocks. Johnstone Strait is ten feet away and five feet down. And somewhere in that eternal blackness, they’re swimming. Orcas. I hear them but can’t see them. It’s infuriating. We’ve traveled hear to see them, not hear them swim tantalizingly by just feet away. From my knees I stretch out into the nothingness above the water, eyes straining, heart praying. But they’re moving on. Going west.

Two days later I got my wish when the A36s, a trio of male Orcas swim past in the morning. From the seat of my kayak I watched Kaikash, Plumper, and Cracroft cruise by. If only I’d known their names that day. I would have paddled out and introduced myself.

Today I don’t mind. Let them approach in the dark and scurry across to the shadow of Harbledown Island in the sun. Even as I write the humpbacks continue to move back and forth in Blackney Pass. Sometimes close, sometimes further away. But in the stillness I can hear them, mixing with the sounds of the hydrophone, the crackling of the fire, and the snoring of the cat.

Home.

Somewhere along the way, this place became home. One of them at least. It can be easy to take some of the miracles of Hanson Island for granted when it’s at your feet 24-hours a day. But not tonight. Not when the humpbacks surface and reawaken the boy inside that fell in love with it all eleven years ago.

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.