Tag Archives: travel

Standing Still

The April sunshine should feel good. I should be sprawled in the grass soaking up the rays like a hungry plant that’s been inside too long. But I feel none of it. What a picture I must make, a whiskey bottle hangs loosely in one hand, my gait awkward and uneven on the rocks. A cool ocean breeze floats through the hemlock but inside I’m stifled. I can’t breathe, a weight presses down on my chest that the liquor can’t alleviate. I stumble and collapse against a washed up log, long ago it was left high and dry, left to rot at the whims of the universe. I feel a kindred spirit with the rotting wood and crumbling bark. I savor another sip of the brown stuff, close my eyes, try to breath. How did I get here?

For most of my adult life I have rambled. A modern hobo with a 75 liter pack in place of a branch and tied handkerchief. I reveled in it. Up and down the coast. Again and again. British Columbia, Juneau, Gustavus, the Inian Islands. Surely this was the way to live; free and uninhibited. From one wood cabin to another. Again and again I scoffed at the “every man.” The poor saps in their cubicle jails. Shackles of security holding them down. Worker bees. Drones. The nine-to-fives. A pity.

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

The ramblings of a young man.

A knot from the log presses into my back. It does little to alleviate the fear that clutches at my chest. For the past two months we’ve operated under the illusion that the Hobbit Hole would be our home for the next three years. Full time caretakers at last.

It would come with stinging consequences. Eleven months a year here meant precious little time with our tribe. We dreaded the conversations we’d have to have with our dearest friends. That we felt called to be here, to help the Inian Islands Institute get off the ground. That a growing desire to be educators had taken root. But there’d be no denying that three Gustavus-free years would change the bonds that we had tightly forged. Was it really a sacrifice we wanted to make?

This would be our last hurrah. The job as caretakers promised to pay well. Enough that we could return in three years and get the house built that existed only in SketchUp. We’d at last admitted that building a house on a guide’s wage wasn’t feasible.

But two hours ago Brittney walked down the stairs, terror and pain in every syllable, “we didn’t get it.”

***

Zach Brown and I sit in the garden. An afternoon sun playing over the water. He’s one of my best friends. I thought he’d be my boss for the next three years. But there was someone better. I’d heard the resume of the couple that got the position over us. They were what we had feared. They deserve to be here. The time has come to confront my failure, acknowledge that Zach and his board made the right decision. That Brittney and I never expected preferential treatment. That we still love him, Laura, this place, their vision. That we’re still in. But it’s hard to keep the bitter taste of disappointment out of my voice as we work through it.

Hank Lentfer, student of cranes and supplier of beer appears from the house and hands us each an IPA. It loosens our tongues, we say what needs to be said. It’s time to move on. It’s time to let go. I turn and look at the house, the deep green paint melding into the forest. The open lawn, the shop with the pool table on the second floor. It isn’t mine. It never was.

In the moments after we learned we hadn’t gotten the job I flew into a rage. I pounded the floor, screamed, and terrified the cats. Selfish words poured from my mouth. Phrases like, “we deserved this,” and “it was supposed to be ours” came fast and easy.

I didn’t deserve this. I didn’t earn this. Zach did. By hiking a thousand miles and paddling a thousand more. By fundraising and dreaming and believing. He may not have physically built the structures of the Hobbit Hole, but he has earned every stud, beam, and piling that they’re composed of.

***

Our final week at the Hobbit Hole. I’m back at the fallen log, my brain clearer and the pain a little easier. It still hurts, still in mourning, but I’m confronting the world with clear eyes and sound mind, perhaps for the first time. 

If only more lived like me. Could find the bravery to cast aside their fears and leap into the unknown.

I long for the days in our rusted Pathfinder. Waiting for the next ferry in the parking lot of a Prince Rupert Tim Hortons. The warmth and comfort of knowing that everything I need is in the car with me; Brittney, the cat, the rabbit, a laptop to write on, what more did I need? How liberating, how comforting, how… safe?

The realization slowly sinks in until I must acknowledge it. I’m not the risk taker I pretend to be. What exactly were the chances I was supposed to be taking? For most of my twenties I could have bailed out at any moment. Our careers and choices could zig-zag across the world if we wanted to. There was nothing stopping us. We could change our stars on a whim.

But we fell in love with 4.2 swampy acres of glacial Gustavus outwash and decided we were ready when I knew I wasn’t. Perhaps life’s greatest risks isn’t running but standing still. What if those worker bees were the brave ones? I was always running, moving. Becoming a full time caretaker would have provided the security I had denounced for so long. Now, with a mortgage and uninsulated cabin, I crave it. I’m more scared now than I’ve been in 10 years of rambling. The irony bites hard on the ego gland, devours it whole.

***

Home. Four corners, the Shabin, Excursion Ridge, nightly beers with Patrick Hanson.  The Fairweather mountains still punch holes in the clouds, defiant white peaks blockading a blue sky. When you miss out on what you thought was a dream job—the coronation of your twenties— and still have Gustavus, it’s time to give thanks.

For years I have coasted on what other’s have built and earned. Paul Spong’s Orca Lab, the Hobbit Hole, places I have occupied and never fully deserved. This spring the universe has grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and looked me square in the eye.

“David, it’s time to stop running. It’s time to build something of your own.”

Dear lord does that scare me. I just learned the difference between a stem wall and a slab-on-grade. Now I’m building something? Deep breaths, they come easier than they did a month ago. What do I need to do first? Foundation, get a good foundation. I open the construction book, a notepad on my lap and read about concrete pilings, my pencil scribbling notes with the fervor of a procrastinating grad student.

***

Down one of Gustavus’s many dirt roads is an art gallery. On some weekend evenings it doubles as a music hall. Tonight it triples as a potluck complete with free beer. The place is packed as one musician after another comes to the stage and belts our their best. This town has to have more musicians per capita than anywhere on earth. But as the evening begins to wind down, one man in particular makes his way to the stage.

Justin Smith has collar length hair, a ball cap pulled over his head, skinny torso, and a long gait that helps him cover the aisle in a few strides. A buzz fills the crowd, when his name is announced the place erupts. I’m crammed onto the floor next to Patrick. We’re both clutching a beer. It’s not our first or second, I don’t think it’s our third. We share a wild look.

“Dude, he’s gonna play.”

Open-mic nights go way back in the annals of Gustavus lore. As much a part of our culture as deer hunting on Pleasant Island and picking strawberries. Eight years ago, at my first music night I watched spellbound as Justin and Kim Heacox belted out Cream’s, ‘White Room.’ Kim pounded the piano keys so hard his fingers bled. Justin made his guitar do things I didn’t believe possible.

But as the years have gone by, Justin hasn’t played as much in public. He’s raising a son that is the apple of the Goode River Neighborhood’s eye and just moved into the house he and his wife Jesse built. Another in a long list of role-models and heroes. He speaks quietly into the microphone, his voice soft and understated. Humble eyes and a sheepish smile pan the crowd.

But those that have heard him play know what is coming. Patrick and I bounce on our knees like it’s Christmas Morning. And for the next fifteen minutes he plays. Three instrumentals of his own creation. Listening to Justin play guitar is like reading the climax of a novel. The crowd leans forward, hanging on every note like turning pages. And for the first time, I’m relieved we didn’t get the job. This is home. In the good times and bad, sickness and health. Whether I’m ready or not, this is where we need to be.

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Westeros

The Inians are splayed out like a handful of watermarks. Inians. Such an odd name. Even Zach isn’t sure where it came from. Like someone started to write Indian and lost interest halfway through. But we know where Hobbit Hole comes from. Zach’s mother Carolyn christened it long ago because “The Pothole” was just too secular, and Hobbit Hole is a much better name.

The little archipelago is sandwiched between some of the wildest water on earth. To the west is Cross Sound, which should be renamed “Small Craft Advisory Pass.” Even on days where the wind blows from the east ten knots or less, the ocean swell sends six foot waves crashing against the westernmost islands.

Icy Strait lies to the east, an indomitable stretch of wild water in its own right. Bracketing and connecting these two bodies of water are North and South Inian Pass. The nautical map we’re studying holds a warning both exciting and intimidating.

“Tidal currents in north and south Inian Pass can reach 8-10 knots. Mariners should use extreme caution.”

Extreme caution? Who knew there were categories of caution. What exactly would constitute minor or moderate caution? Staying home would be exercising all the caution. But if that was the case, there’d be no reason to be here.

We load a pair of double kayaks. Brittney, Zach, Laura, and myself have the hair brained idea of exercising minimal caution and paddling to the westernmost island in the Inians, an unnamed chunk of land stretched vertically as if the very pounding of the oceans storms had flattened it. It’s an island that, as far as we know, hadn’t been walked on by Xtra-Tuffs in a long time.

We name it Westeros, which sounds like a rejected Middle Earth landmark, and set off. From atop the main island yesterday, Zach and I saw an exposed peak on Westeros. A peak that would offer a 360-degree view of open ocean, Chichagof Island, the Inians, and the Fairweather Range/Glacier Bay. We cross the half-mile wide channel between Westeros and the other unnamed island in the Inian cluster. This channel was nicknamed “the laundry” by commercial fisherman because trying to cast nets in the channel on the flood was like being in a washing machine. A rock cliff on the east side is covered in graffiti, the signatures and dates of the boats that had anchored here. A good luck charm they said, at least until a boat sunk the day after scrawling their name on the granite.

We find a beach to land, tie the kayaks to the alder, and disappear into Narnia. There is a sense of wildness here that is not captured many places. A sense, some sort of intimate knowledge that man has not treaded here. And if he did, he did so with a light touch, without staying long enough to leave a mark. We scramble up a hill covered in the loose shale of the island. Atop sits the bones of a fawn. The tiny scapula and ribs bleached, the white stained with the green of the forest that is consuming it. The ribs are the length of my middle finger, delicate and innocent.

Trails criss cross the hills and cliffs. The deer are here. Zach looks slightly disappointed at leaving the rifle behind. After our big Coho day in September, harvesting a deer seems like the next natural step.

We follow the trails whenever we can, trusting they know the easiest way up steep cliffs with loose rocks, rotten tree trunks, and squirrely roots. The vegetation is not what I expected. Banzai shaped mountain hemlock and shore pine dot the island, grasses grow on the south facing slopes, muskeg gives off the impression that we are walking through a frozen Serengeti.

“How many people,” I wonder aloud, “can say they have walked in a place where no one else ever has?” The percentage has to be less than 1%. For the frontier is no more. Google maps has plastered everything, for better or worse. But here one can escape this discouraging fact. Here there is just us, the deer, and a Rock Ptarmigan in winter plumage. White as a ghost it sits beneath a banzai hemlock, it’s head twitching back and forth as we creep past and above it for the summit.

It has been 24-hours since I stood on the peak of Westeros and it is that summit that has made me appreciate John Muir all the more. For Muir wrote beautifully of course, but his amazing ability to capture the natural wonderment of this place and convey it in words is second to none. I am simply not gifted enough to do it justice. But imagine a 360-degree view, each 90 degree turn offering a completely different vista of breath taking beauty. An open ocean view that spans to a horizon that is almost dizzying. Horizontal vertigo, it pulls in and pushes away at the same time, like the swell that pounds at Westeros.

Chichagof. Tall hills covered in snow, unpassable thickets of devils club. Streams thick with salmon eggs. Brown bears slumbering in caves and beneath deadfalls. The Inians and the Hobbit Hole, the last of the homesteads. And the Fairweathers. Oh those big snow coated mountains, shining so unashamedly bright they hurt the eyes. Brady Glacier flows at the feet of La Perouse and Crillion. Peaks that are over 11,000 feet high. All hail the glacier makers. What would the leaders of this world think if, just for an hour, they could sit here and do nothing but slowly spin. Would development, profits, winning, still feel tantamount? What if they ate the most delicious sandwich ever made? Ate the carrots of the victorious and guzzled the tea of salvation.

“I feel like this peak needs a name.”

“Not everything needs to be named.” Brittney says. True.

The wind whips from the east. Clouds form in eastern Icy Strait and begin to come our way. Laura points out a Lenticular cloud forming like a hat atop La Perouse. Zach wanders about and finds his favorite Alder tree. It’s chilly up here, it is January after all. It may snow tomorrow. I hope it does.

With a reluctant final glance at La Perouse and its headgear, we begin to make our way back down toward the kayaks. Past the Ptarmigan and along the trails of the deer. Returning the island to its rightful owners.

“This forest is old,” Zach quips, quoting Legolas’ description of Fangorn.

“How old is it?” I ask.

“Very old.”

May it always be that way. We linger on the bones of the fawn again before we slide down the final hill and return from our commune with the gods of Cross Sound. The reality of sea level. There is a shared sorrow at the passing of the little deer. The unspoken irony that Zach wishes to go hunting tomorrow. That we hope he gets one. The painful reminder that to live is to die. And to die is to feed another. I remember Laura landing her first Coho. The grim look on her face as it lay at our feet. Her hand reaching out for the fillet knife.

“I want to do it.”

Brittney repeating the same action a week later. Patrick running his hand down the lateral line of a Coho. The one Coho I landed, stared into its eyes, and then returned. Because for some reason I couldn’t swing the pliers, couldn’t cut the gills. This is life out here. How life should be. Forgive my arrogance.

We paddle out from shore and ride the swell like a couple of murrelets. A sea otter with its pup bobs in the chop. And I am grateful, profoundly grateful that my life includes these people, those mountains, this ocean. The opportunity to come home with dirty Carhartts, numb fingers, and red noses. Zach and Laura’s mission is to ensure that more young people can do the same. That this island cluster would change lives. And as we turn the corner and into the wind, I know it already has.

So This is the New Year

I still wake up hearing them. I still catch myself stopping on the creaking stair, ears cocked, listening to a speaker that’s hundreds of miles away. You don’t quit Hanson Island, and it doesn’t quit you. How can you?

It’s the only place I’ve ever looked up from a stove to see a dorsal fin emerging from the water. It is the place that breathed life into me. That held me close and let me go. That told me that I could do and be whatever I wanted to be.

Gustavus, Alaska feels tame. The biggest hardship is our cistern froze last week and the liquor store is open just six hours a week. Where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the thrill of grocery shopping knowing that if you forget it today you’ll go without for the next two weeks?I’m not entirely serious. Last week I interviewed for a job and the interviewer asked me what my favorite part of Gustavus was.

“Well having a 5,000 square mile national park right outside my door is pretty neat.”

It’s just… different. Not better, not worse. Hanson Island will always be where I cut my teeth. My introduction to the blue and green world. In that way it’ll always be significant. It still astonishes me that we spent three winters there. Approximately 20 months that feel like little more than a blink. Time close to the earth always seems to go fast. You sleep better, eat better, laugh harder, and scream louder. And the time slides by until you’re looking out the window at the rain, know Paul Spong will be there with the June Cove any minute, and wonder where the time went.

I’ve spent most of this winter reading “how to build a house” books, learning the difference between joists and beams, and why 2x6s make good frames (it’s all about insulation).  I’m editing a novel, preparing to send it off, and praying that someone out there digs it. It’s exciting. It’s just… different. Not better, not worse. The roots are sinking in, and most of the time it feels good. For the first time since leaving Juneau we’re surrounded by the people we love. Dear friends who like us have found sanctuary in the outwash of glaciers. But every now and then I walk the beach and stare south, beyond Icy Strait and Chichagof Island. My eyes see past the Myriads and Baranof, through Ketchikan and Bella Bella to rest on a little cedar cabin on the edge of the tideline.

And I see Harlequins bobbing in four foot chop. I smell the rich wood finish of the lab. I hear the ocean’s voice through the speaker next to my bed. I taste salt. I feel the waves pounding the little boat in Blackney Pass. And for a moment I can’t stand it. I’ve got to move, I’ve got to go back. Past one more bleary eyed Prince Rupert border guard and through the Great Bear Rainforest. Part of me will always be 17, crouched on the rocks of Cracroft Island in the dead of night, listening to the A4s swim west.

***

Kim Heacox is a writer, an activist, and will dance and sing at every available opportunity. He’s also my next door neighbor. And he has plans. Like most of us who give a rip about quiet places and open spaces, 2017 was not a pleasant experience. But that’s not stopping him. He and his wife Melanie have a beautiful house and a fantastic library. All their buildings are connected by boardwalk, the road to their house weaves through the forest to spare the largest trees.

They have no intentions of keeping it for themselves however. At some point it will become the John Muir Wilderness Leadership School, the house (one of the few in Gustavus built to code for this very reason) will become a flashpoint of young writers, activists, and leaders. In my head I imagine the place becoming for someone what Orca Lab was for me. A place to find yourself. A place of epiphanies and euphoria. A place of inspiration. A place where perhaps one day I can play the role of Paul Spong; teaching that if cold science doesn’t work, if you look into the world and see something looking back, the best thing to do is grab a flute and play a song. I’m not a scientist. I learned that long ago. But I could be a teacher.

Gustavus is full of people like Kim. Zach Brown is 31-years old and in three years raised more than a million dollars. Now he has the Inian Island Institute, an old homestead an hour west of Gustavus. The perfect place for young people to lose themselves of find themselves, whichever one they need. Because if more people could find their “Hanson Island” the better off the world could be. Reach’em while they’re young. Before the allure of profit margins and mansions can sink their teeth in.

***

It’s Christmas Eve. Gustavus is wrapped in snow. But over the last few days the temperature has plummeted toward 0°F. Just a little way out of town is the only uphill trail, on the flanks of Excursion Ridge. Patrick Hanson and Jen Gardner pick us up and we kick off our “orphan Christmas.” The sun peaks over the top of the ridge as we climb. The Fairweather Mountains, the tallest coastal range in the world lords over our little hamlet. Glacier Bay is just visible, crawling up to the mountain’s feet.

The freezing temperatures have coated everything in crystalline hoarfrost. Snow flakes stand out, perfect little gems. Delicate but incredible versatile. Recent research suggests that at the center of each flake is some sort of microorganism, some microbe the frozen liquid could glob onto. At the center of Gustavus is the people. Something that everyone that has arrived here can attach to. It’s not always easy, but if you allow this place to form you… what can you become?

We reach a shelf on the ridge and Patrick, as he always does, has snacks. A sip of coffee, a bite of gingerbread, a shot of whiskey. It is Christmas after all. From here Gustavus doesn’t appear to exist. Nothing but trees, mountains, and that bay. More than 100 years ago, A.L Parker climbed this same ridge, but from the other side. And when he looked down on the Gustavus plain, he knew that he had found his home.

I can understand why. Something in that smooth, flat plain surrounded by mountains screams at our most human instinct. I look out over the strait and south. I X-ray through the archipelago and Queen Charlotte Entrance. I still see that cabin. I always will. I’ll be back. Patrick cracks a beer and hands it to me. It is Christmas after all. And if I have my way, I won’t be coming back alone.

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.

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.