Tag Archives: trees

Concerning Snowflakes

The snow has been falling all night, silent and unassuming. It kisses its brethren as it completes its free fall. It has no control over where it plummets, it can be a glacier, a snow ball, a soft white ornament upon a tree limb, or it can land and in the unforgiving waters of South Inian Pass, fusing with its liquid cousins.

In the last few years, being described as one of these little miracles has somehow become an insult. How dare someone feel unique? Special? Gifted? Perhaps they’d prefer us to be like raindrops, uniform and generic. Falling with a splatter onto grass or metal roof to be destroyed on impact.

By the time morning comes a foot and a half of miracles has fallen. Most times in southeast Alaska the snowfall is heavy with liquid as the forecast plays hopscotch with the freezing point. But it stayed cold last night and the flakes are as fine as sand and light as feathers. It’s been more than a month since it rained and the accumulation is getting out of hand. We’re running out of places to put it. I grab a shovelful and send it flying into the big drifts we’ve made. Last week wind gusts over fifty barreled into the archipelago like a battering ram. Just to the west we could hear the constant surf and wind like the constant roaring of a beast. Inclement weather is soothing, gives one purpose here. Tie down the boats, batten down the yurt and dock, bring everything that can be moved indoors. The snow is no different. It falls with the peace of doves but bites with consequence.

It’s a rough winter to be a deer, the second such winter in a row. We went up the mountain a few days ago to find the woods and clearings devoid of sign. Every deer on the island, perhaps in southeast is hugging the beach, walking the fine line of the tide that wipes the land clear of snow twice a day. They’re nibbling kelp and seaweed, trying to hang on till spring, whenever that’ll be. Winter has little interest in the calendar.

At the core of every snowflake is something real and organic that the crystals can glob onto. Like everything else, they need something to revolve around, some definition. It means that somehow, in some way, there’s a carbon based something floating with the clouds and moisture, waiting for the dew point to decide its fate. Without this organic compound, this purpose, the snowflake is doomed, it cannot form, cannot accumulate, its tremendous power and potential negated. Unlike their raindrop relatives, they must be defined by something real.

I continue to dig us out, wondering what it is that will define me. There’s a snow blower here. I could fire it up and complete the task in minutes. But it doesn’t seem sporting, doesn’t seem right to introduce the sonic domination of man to the scene. To remove the snow with the carbon dioxide byproducts that are making blizzards like this a shadow of the past. As my father would say, it’s the principle of the thing. Sweat clings to my sweater and drips from my wool hat.

The Hobbit Hole is still. Tiny ripples form in the wake of a merganser, a soft chortle of a raven floats among the trees. The clouds start to lift. I live in a world of soft pastel. White accentuates everything. Above the west end of the Hole looms North Island, frosted, frozen, and imposing in winter’s time machine. Spruce, hemlock, yellow cedar in a state of suspension. For years the yellow cedar of southeast Alaska has been fading. They rely on thick blankets of snow to insulate sensitive root systems. As our winters have turned to more rain than snow, they’ve suffered through every cold snap like tomatoes in an early frost. Even the mightiest are vulnerable at their roots. This is the power of snow, the ability to torment the deer but save the cedar. There is no middle ground.

I shovel over the bridge and down the dock. At some point the weather will warm. Probably sooner rather than later. And as beautiful as it is, it will bring some relief. Our hydro system is struggling to bring in even the bare minimum of electricity. Snow has a finite life. In time it will succumb to the elements and melt, evaporate, and be reincarnated. Maybe we’ll be so lucky. If we’re fortunate, we too will not simply die but be reabsorbed, willing participants in the cycles of the planet.

I scoop a handful of crystals and gaze at them. Snow has the unique ability to be beautiful  both by itself and surrounded by its brothers and sisters. Able to stand out alone and in a crowd. May all of us be so lucky. Alone we are stunning, but it is only when we come together that our presence can be felt. I wish we all had the power to determine where we landed. But a lot of us don’t. A lot are condemned to the waters to melt before they have a chance.

The red metal roof of the house is covered in snow, the dark green paint the same color as the water and trees around it. The low clouds and struggling sun hold a power humanity cannot tap into. A self-sustaining resource of the eyes and soul. The scene has the power to refresh and reinvigorate. I breath deep and feel the oxygen of the outer coast spread through my blood cells. What a place to have landed. What a place to reside until I melt.

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Otters and Men; Lichen and Trees

For the first time in a week, the wind acquiesces. The temperature crawls above freezing, and like bears from their dens, we step out into a world defined by snow drifts and frozen salt spray. A week ago half a foot of snow fell, but in one of nature’s more curious quirks, the forest floor remains mostly barren. The snow has piled in the few open muskegs and clearings. The other alternative was to be blown callously into the intertidal and ocean where a biting 33 degrees still melts snow.

We step off the beach and into the forest. After years in Gustavus, the old growth of the Inians feels like a novelty. And in winter what little undergrowth there is has been extinguished. Skeletal stalks of Devil’s Club stand bunched together. In a few months electric green buds will emerge from the top of these spiny towers. A member of the Ginseng family, the forest will take on the herby odor of the buds that can be collected (very carefully) and cooked. Preferably fried in oil and served with Siracha mayo. Watermelon berries and salmon berries will appear, the blueberries a little bit behind. But for now, the land is comparatively barren. But far from empty.

A squirrel chatters. A chatter that shouldn’t be heard here. It’s a long swim across Inian Pass to here. The squirrels of the archipelago hitched a ride on a boat, either intentionally or by accident. Greg Howe seems to believe that it was by choice. Some homesteader who missed the incessant giggle of the little furry reds.

I can’t condemn though. We’ve brought our own little invasive species. There’s us of course on the three acre homestead, and our two furry companions. I don’t know if all cats will hike if given the opportunity, but Porter and Minerva do. In the woods they’re unlocked. Scaling hills, scrambling up rocks, and clutching to the bark of trees. Eyes wide and paws alight. Confining our cats to the house feels like confining humanity to the cities. Sure, they can survive, but they miss such a critical part of what it means to be human or feline. We’d prefer to not upset the song bird population. And while Porter has never been much of a birder, Minerva, like Walter before her, is tenacious. She sports a bird-b-gone. A fluorescent, multi-colored collar that fans around her neck to alert birds to her presence. She is part court jester and part Dilophosaurus.

The spell of the woods takes hold. The ground is frozen solid, like walking on chunky green asphalt. Rattlesnake plantain, club moss, and sphagnum moss are still a resilient green even after the cold that’s frozen the top of the creeks solid. Brittney carries a woven basket, collecting fallen hemlock boughs and old man’s beard. She advises me to keep an eye out for any of the teal-blue lichen that’s fallen to the floor.

“Why do you only want fallen old man’s beard?”

“Because it takes a long time to form on trees. It’s more sustainable to only harvest that which has fallen.”

Fair enough. I had no idea. Lichens are a prime indicator of the overall health of a forest and the cleanliness of the air. Stealing the indicator of a forest’s health feels sacrilegious. Yet I was ready to do so blindly. What else, I wonder have I callously taken which was not appropriate? A great glacial erratic has planted itself firmly on the hillside. The size of a small house, a pair of mountain hemlock have secured themselves to the top. Their roots as large as pythons slither down the rocks, seeking the forest floor below. One root has made a sweeping U-shape a foot above the ground and attached itself to another tree. I stare at the miracle for a long minute. What on earth compelled the tree to do that? Why make that U-turn so close to the ground? Unless… unless it knew the other tree was there and knew it’d be firmer if they were connected. But how did it know it was there?

The secret lives of trees are secret indeed.

Brittney finds a skeleton. Another deer, larger than the one we found on Westeros. The skull is half the length of my forearm, the molars the size of thumbnails. Brittney is incapable of passing the shadow of another spirit without paying respect. She kneels and examines the bones, cups the skull gently in her palm. The bones are bleached and white, whenever this deer said goodbye to the physical world was long before our arrival. But for Brittney that doesn’t matter. She keeps me grounded. My U-shaped root holding me fast when I’d rather climb my erratic and head for the sunnier canopy.

Maybe the secret lives of trees isn’t that secret. Maybe, like us, a tree’s life is best when you hold the hand of one you love.

We weave back down the hill, through a stand of alder, and onto the beach. To my surprise, the property is only a few hundred yards away. After an hour among the spruce and hemlock I thought we’d traveled much farther. There’s been a flock of twenty Canadian geese that have made the hole their base of operations for the last two weeks. They bounce from beach to beach, servants of the tidal whims. But it is the resident sea otter that catches my eye. He’s eating. As usual. He doesn’t have a choice.

What the coyote and wolf were to the homesteaders and ranchers of the west, the sea otter is to southeast Alaska. They are a villain, simply for their biology. Because they have no blubber, they must eat constantly to feed their feverish metabolic rate that keeps them warm. Walking the low tide with Zach, he pointed out how much the tidepools had changed over the last ten years. Ever since the otters got a foothold and began to devour the clams, mollusks, sea stars, and most importantly, the crab of the Inian Islands and the panhandle. The diversity of the pools has plummeted. More seaweed, less of everything else.

It’s not their fault. Like us, like every creature on earth, they’re simply trying to live. And unfortunately, tragically, their consumption falls in line with what we want to eat as well. There’s satire, an Onion headline in mankind criticizing the over-consumption of another creature. The otter is not always a pleasant critter. They eat everything that moves, their mating habits are… uncomfortable and inappropriate. Yet they are just critters. Incapable of having the moral and ethical choices that we have. They don’t have that convenience.

I’ve often thought that we love orcas because we see them as ideal reflections of ourselves. They’re born into air-tight family units. They want for nothing. They’re identity is in those they love and live with. Nothing troubles an orca. They are perfectly content, comfortable in their own skin. If orcas are humanity at are best, perhaps otters are us at our worse. Consuming every resource we can get our paws on. Changing every ecosystem we touch, eating ourselves out of house and home.

The otter continues to bob up and down, every few minutes he dives for another snack. I think of the lichen of the forest. Like me he doesn’t know any better. How does he know that his dinner is changing the tidepools at my feet? How was I supposed to know old man’s beard needed so long to grow and flourish? And there I have my difference. If my species was going to continue to sprint past the limitations of evolution, then it was my responsibility to limit myself if nature wasn’t going to do it. It’s a tall order. The hardest word in the English language for man to utter is, “enough.”

Someday, the Hobbit Hole will no longer be able to support the otter. He’ll eat himself out of house and home. And what will happen then? The sea otter population of Glacier Bay has finally crested. About time. There’s more of the furballs in the bay than the entire California coast. Nature has begun to regulate. The familiar peaks and valleys of populations. Lesson one of any Population Biology class, the lynx and the rabbit rising up and down together. I don’t worry about the otters, I don’t worry about the crab. It’ll all even out in the end. I continue to hope, that when it comes to man and nature, the ledger will someday even out too.

The Hemlock

The cabin shook. We watched the windows rattle and the walls accordion and had flashbacks of Alaska and earthquakes. But as quick as the tremor began, it ended. Throughout the winter we have been serenaded by the occasional blasts from Parson Bay as logging companies rip through the forests with dynamite to create logging roads. It’s a sobering reminder that we still live in the days of clear cuts and manifest destiny. When they blast with dynamite we feel the shock waves rolling across the water. But this one feels much closer, and instead of being directional, it seems to originate from within the house.

The next day I climb the hill behind the lab and into the labyrinth of saintly trees. The earth is saturated from two days of torrential downpour, the forest expelling the water as fast as it can. Every crevice and divot overflows. Water, there’s either too much of it or not enough. Shortages in California, flooding, erosion, and sea level rise on the north slope of Alaska. Every day Florida loses real estate. Florida, the state that literally has the most to lose from climate change voted for the one major political party that denies its existence.

I clamber over fallen trees that are rotting into the ground, their bark soft and squishy. Ahead of me is our water line. It snakes up the hillside to a stream that has turned into a roaring river. The line has been clogged more times than I can count this winter, and the walk up the hill is familiar and welcoming. But this time the solution is not as simple as digging river runoff out of the hose. I climb onto a ledge and stop, the explanation for the earth shattering concussion the day before in front of me. A massive Hemlock has fallen. Its body has cracked into three pieces, tumbling over the ledge to rest like a broken arm at twisted angles. The main piece has fallen at the perfect angle to bury the waterline for twenty feet, fluorescent green hose pokes meekly out at the bottom of the ledge.

With the Hemlock gone, light hits a forest floor that hasn’t seen the sun in decades. The patch of forest feels naked without the Hemlock. I sit down on the trunk and let the silence take me in. I think about the concussion the tree made when it fell, the sound of its death, the violence of it all. It doesn’t seem right, for a species that appears so peaceful and tranquil in life to die with such force. It is not an elegant farewell, but it is a noble one. There’s a lot of carbon in the forest, but it’s bottled up in the trees, squirreled away as bark and inaccessible to the life around it. For all the trees’ biomass, forests are comparatively empty when compared to transition zones like Alder thickets or Tundra. The trees dominate. So when one falls and begins to rot it is a gift. Organic matter slowly returns to the ecosystem after decades, sometimes centuries bottled up in the tree.

It’s a patience we either don’t have time for or can’t afford. This tree will still be rotting into the ground when I’m old, if mankind will allow it. Brittney returns with me the next day and we dig out the water line, repairing the punctures. It feels good to work in the forest. I considered bringing the chainsaw with me to cut the log up to make it easier to move, but the roar of destruction seems inappropriate in this cathedral. So we grunt and strain and finally move the tree to the side to rest and continue its noble work.

At the top of the water line I attach a new filter to keep the runoff out of the line. The water is icy cold and my forearms go numb as I fumble with clumsy fingers to secure the filter. I shiver as the rain begins again and sends icy tendrils down my back. It’s been a cold winter, and the constant freeze ups probably have a lot to do with the continuous clogs in the line. Most of North America seems to have been hit by the chilly outflows. It makes me wonder how the news that 2016 was the warmest on record will be taken. I doubt it will change much, if anything. If sea level rise and earthquakes in Oklahoma don’t raise alarm bells, I doubt more factual science will. Not when we can point out the window to the snow drift at the end of the driveway and boldly claim that there’s no way it can be true.

No patience to listen, no patience to learn. Like these trees we are rooted in place, unable or unwilling to move. But the day is coming, a day when we’ll be ripped free of those roots and sent to earth with a thundering crash. Perhaps then and we will see what we have reaped. What, I wonder, do Climate Change deniers think we have to gain from spouting falsehoods? What monetary kickback are we getting from wanting fewer Carbon emissions, more biodiversity, and a habitable world? How much of Florida has to disappear before they turn on their Conservative overlords? Or—as Kim Heacox theorizes—will we evolve and move forward.

“They’ll take their boats to the football stadium built on the highest ground.” He says only half in jest. “And cheer for their Dolphins, brought to you by Exxon Mobil.”

We walk back down the hill and past the fallen Hemlock. What kind of world will it be when she finally disappears into the forest. Will this still be a forest? God forbid they find a gold deposit in the creek. I wish I better understood mankind’s insatiable desire for growth and profit. It’s not like it’s a new phenomenon, our species has been driven by the thirst for more since time immemorial. But I just don’t get it. It has driven me into the forests and fjords of the world, searching for a place I understand. I suppose I should be grateful that I’ve found not one but two places that stare deep into my soul and hold me tight.

I want some idealistic and lost boy 60 years from now to find these places and love them the way I do. I want the next generation of Orca Lab to climb over that fallen Hemlock and feel its rot and age beneath their boots as she crumbles. I want them to walk into a clearing filled with saplings reaching for the sky to take the place of their predecessor. Some are born to live in the city. I won’t pretend to understand but I suppose I can respect it. All I want is for them to set aside places for us outliers to run to when we find we don’t belong on concrete.

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.

For His Old Branches II

The rain falls as a fine drizzle, turning the surface of each rock and log smooth and slick. My body feels unbalanced, the chainsaw in one hand, oil and two stroke fuel in the other. Beyond the crunch of my boots against the loose rock the world is silent. Blackney Pass stands calm and tranquil. The vista slows my heart and mind. This view. How easy to glance past it after all these months. The islands and channels are worn into my mind like the creases and callouses on my hands. Swanson, Harbledown, Baronet, Cracroft, Blackfish. What names. They stir the imagination, fall smoothly from lips and tongue like water over stones. For years I stared at maps, brushing my fingers over their namesakes, their crude imitations of green and blue put to paper. Now? I see them every day. May the novelty never fade.

I bend over the chainsaw and pull the cord. Through my ear muffs I can hear and feel the vibrating base of the saw as it comes to life. Oil, fuel, and metal. In my hands, with the simple pull of a trigger, I become master of the woods. Capable of felling trees that have patiently grown for a millennia, evicting squirrel, thrush, and deer as the roar of progress and the thunder of manifest destiny march through the woods. But for this I have no desire. I could no sooner fell a growing Cedar than take a man’s life.

I head down the beach. I’m searching for a sacrifice. For a gift willing to disappear from the physical world through the chimney of our cabin leaving only a small pile of ash as a talisman. The log is weathered and worn, maybe a little water logged. But its location is good, and cutting this one opens up space to negotiate the nicer, friendlier logs behind it. I pull the safety, click the button, and the war cry of humanity echoes off the standing trees. I cut with my head down, the trigger pressed halfway. The sharpened chain cuts clean and smooth. No knots. No warping. What a tree it must have been. Before it was reduced to this. Reduced to laying naked on the rocks, it’s branches stripped, its roots severed. I love reading the stories of the old hand loggers. The one’s that went up Tribune channel just north of here. Each tree was selected with care. It had to be. For each one had to be felled just right and rolled into the ocean. Clearcutting wasn’t just unnatural, it was impossible. Hard work. Anything but glamorous. That I could do. No one hand logs anymore. Carve a road into the hills and forests. Strip the forest. Every. Last. Tree. This log I’m cutting is nothing more than a refugee.

Brittney joins the ritual. She wraps her arms around the rounds as they roll free and patiently walks them up the beach, dropping them with a thud that shakes the forest floor. The rain continues to fall, mixing with the sweat on my brow and back. Cutting wood always makes me perspire. I have no idea why. I’m just standing here after all.

I work with my back to the water, the incline slightly uphill. After a time I stop and rise, stretch my back, and turn. A tug and its massive tow fills the strait. It chugs south with diligence. The rumble of the massive diesel engines echo in my chest. My eyes fall on the tow and a snarl spreads across my face. A log tow. Hundreds, maybe thousands of logs lay piled a hundred feet high. A hundred logs high and a hundred wide. Plucked from the raincoast, heading south to await their fate. As what? I’d be lying if I said I knew. Homes? Mulch? Toilet paper? It makes little difference in the moment as a wave of disgust washes over me.

The chainsaw vibrates and slides over the rocks, bumping against my foot, reminding me of my hypocrisy, that I’m standing in three inches of sawdust. That I live in a wooden cabin. That the kayak my father is lovingly crafting for me is made of it. What if the wood for my kayak was once on a barge like this? What if it had been pulled south, past this lab. So that I could one day paddle the inlets it had once looked over.

What’s enough? What is ethical? What is right? The oil companies had a field day a few years back when Shell’s big oil platform pulled into Seattle. Hundreds of big hearted, environmentally conscious people took to the water in kayaks, many of them plastic. Floating thanks to an industry that allowed them to be there. Does that make them hypocrites? Does it muffle or mute the cause they stand for? Do I have a right to feel angry when a log tow goes by? Is it enough to say that I’m doing what I can and accept that it’s impossible to not impact the environment negatively in some way?

There’s no answer from the ocean. Hard to hear with these ear muffs on and the saw rumbling. Avocados from Mexico, bananas from California. Oil, carbon, trees, methane, melting ice caps, Republicans. Dear God. And I’m worried about a couple of trees?

“Do what you can with what you have.”

Who said that? Roosevelt I think. Teddy or Franklin? I can’t remember.

A pillar of Christianity is that we are imperfect and that Jesus does not require us to be. We need forgiveness because we’ll keep screwing up. I look down at the log and feel a shiver run down my neck as the sweat and raindrops cool on my shirt. I think about the book I’m writing, that I want to see published. More than one if I can pull the wool over the eyes of an editor. Books that will be published… on paper since stone tablets went out of style years ago.

Just because I’m an imperfect environmentalist doesn’t mean I shouldn’t, or can’t talk about it. For if we wait until we’re not harming it at all, we’ll be delivering the message on horseback in between long treks through the forest, hunting with sharpened sticks and rocks. Next summer I’ll sit in my wooden kayak, and I’ll do so without guilt. From its seat I can be an agent of change. I can touch the lives of thousands of people as I lead them into the wonder of Glacier Bay. Reminding them gently, patiently, that if we lose this we lose ourselves.

I pick up the chainsaw. I’d be lying if I said I felt good about it as the sawdust started to fly again. One by one we carry the rounds up the hill and to the chopping block to where our woodshed (made of wood) stands. Beyond it is the forest. A forest rebounding from logging. At its heart stands Grandma Cedar, the ancient tree that has survived so much, has seen it all. A forest that, if we keep talking about it, will never hear the sound of a chainsaw in its depths again.

A Love Note for the Raincoast

Everyone has a natural habitat. A place that fuses perfectly with their soul, their love, their passions. Some may spend their entire life looking for it, opening and closing doors, rambling from place to place, searching for the location that moves in rhythm to their beating heart. I grew up in Eagle River, Alaska. A town that sits at the mouth of a valley, carved out by glaciers millennia ago. I loved watching the mountains turn the color of flames every fall as the birch trees downed their autumn best. Loved the female moose that would come down from those wise old mountains every spring to give birth in the safety of our neighbors yard. I loved my family, loved my friends, loved my school.

I had to get out.

Everyone needs to get out of their hometown, at least for a little while. If for nothing else than to look at some different mountains or buildings or street signs. I went north. To Fairbanks. 50 below and blowing snow.

“Not even close,” I thought.

I have since found a land where I fit snugly in its hand. In some ways, it’s not that much different from where I grew up. Glacier’s are the architect, but the valleys are filled with water, and rain falls more than snow. For years I hung a map of my natural habitat in my dorm room. Greens and blues dominated the map, towns and settlements little more than punctuation in the epic tale that requires nothing but imagination.
The raincoast, how I love it. From Vancouver Island up her spine of islands and into the shining face of the Alexander Archipelago, through southeast Alaska, following the march of the glaciers. And it is here that I pinball back and forth. From Hanson Island to southeast Alaska. Fjording fjords. Cruising past canals. Passing through passes. I could live a thousand years and never tire of exploring the silent coves and hidden secrets of this land, never camping in the same place twice, no two sunrises the same, each Orca encounter more enthralling and exhilarating than the last.

I love Alaska, I love British Columbia. For how can I refuse the chance to sit inches above the water and stare at the glacier’s that still stand guard at the headwaters of many an Alaskan fjord? And how can I ever turn away from the rich smell of cedar infused forest in the early morning light, the fog burning off of Blackfish Sound? The world becoming whole, feeling both old and new with each passing day.
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Early on in the winter we knew that six more months wouldn’t be enough. The glacier’s of our summer home beckon, our jobs as kayak guides await. But… what can I say? Hanson Island gets into your blood, syncs with your heart and spirit the way few places can. Can you love two places so fiercely you can’t live without either?

Early December, a rare calm day along the B.C coast. Brittney and I sit in the cabin, watching the sun struggle above the mountains of Vancouver Island. Before either of us open our mouths we know what the other will say. That two winters is not enough. That we need another winter with ears cocked to the speakers, waiting for the first whisper of an Orca’s voice. Another winter watching the deer trace the shoreline, sucking up every strand of kelp that washes ashore.
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“We’re so blessed,” Brittney says. “Our biggest problem is we can’t chose between the two places that we love.”

It’s true. For all our talk of buying property, settling down, being “normal,” Hanson Island doesn’t encourage normalcy. How can it? It’s founded on the tenants of faith in yourself, conviction, and passion. Pillars that don’t lead to nine to five jobs and mortgages in the suburbs. Every day I look out the window to where the lab stands on the rocks. I think of the time, the effort, the sacrifice, and risk that Paul, Helena, and countless others poured into this place. Out of a love for whales, for quiet places and open spaces, from a belief that man still can coexist with the world we seem determined to exterminate. To be a small piece in that, what a tremendous honor, to know these people not just as passing acquaintances, but as friends and mentors. It is this above all that pulls me back.

“I came for the place, I stayed for the people,” wrote Kim Heacox in The Only Kayak.

Ironically he was writing about Glacier Bay, the other place that pulls at our heartstrings. A place filled with beautiful people. A community defined by the bay, the Beatles, and bluegrass.
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But we’re not ready to chose, not ready to force it. I want to drag myself out of bed at three in the morning because there’s Transients in Robson Bight. I want the tide and weather to determine when I go grocery shopping. I want to hear Paul’s smiling voice on the other end of the phone. When we walk away, we’ll never live like this again. Never have sea lions as neighbors, or have Harlequins knock on our front door. We are unique, we are blessed, we are insanely lucky.

Every day in the summer we’re asked the same question, “what do you do in the winter?”

And when we answer the follow up question is always the same, “what do you do there?”
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How to explain that it is not what we do but why and for who we do it  that makes it so special. I watch the sun rise, listen to the ocean, talk to the trees, bond with the mink, and glorify the Orca. And above all, give thanks that I can have both places for another year.

Born too Late

One of my favorite TV shows is Futurama. It’s a weird,  stupid cartoon in which a slacker named Fry is cryogenically frozen in the year 2000 only to be unfrozen a thousand years later. He awakes to find that one eyed (and curvy)  female aliens and beer drinking robots are part of normal every day life.

In one episode Fry, his distant relative, a mad scientist named Professor Farnsworth (just go with it) and the beer drinking, fire belching robot go back in time. Like all TV shows, the plot and setting  completely reset by the end of the half hour run time with the exception that the professor stopped briefly in the year 1939 so that he can assassinate Hitler with a massive ray gun.

Isolated and surrounded by a forest hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, the land here can feel as if it’s been frozen like Fry and we’re able to glance back in time by simply walking through the forest and counting the rings on fallen trees.

But it’s not static. Nothing is. There is no climax community where, if left undisturbed it will stand immaculate forever.

I often find myself obsessed with how the land and wildlife looked thirty years ago, a hundred years ago, a millennium, an epoch ago. So I scour the books and testimonies of those that have come before me. Offhand comments like one by Paul a couple months ago send my imagination into overdrive.

“There used to be a hotel on Parson Island,” he says offhandedly. “This place used to have a much denser population.”

No way. I stare up at the cliffs that form the southern border of Parson Island and try to imagine it dotted with buildings. The absurd image of a 30 story Hilton plays before my mind. Communities in Freshwater Bay, fish buying companies in every cove, hand loggers determinedly probing through the inlets looking for something bigger.

One of these men was Billy Procter. He’s something of a legend. Our Gandolf or Obi-Wan Kenobi if you’d prefer. He grew up in Freshwater Bay, a little indention in Swanson Island a five minute boat ride from where Orca Lab now sits. Of course in the 1920s there was no Orca Lab. No whale watching industry, Orca’s nothing more than competition for fish. For it was fish that pumped the blood of the north island and Billy talks endlessly of massive runs of salmon. So thick on the flooding tide that the air was inundated with their odor.

“The Blackfish used to follow them through Blackfish Sound in numbers so thick you could walk across there backs,” he relayed to Alexandra Morton.

It’s these phrases that make me yearn for a different time. “The good old days” as it were. When a 2 HP engine was nothing short of a miracle, and fishing was as easy as dropping a line in the water and jigging for a few minutes. Before clear cuts and climate change, before fishing stocks plummeted or tugs chugged in an endless relay up and down the strait.

“I was born too late,” I think, setting down Billy and Alex’s book, Heart of the Raincoast.

I want to see that sort of abundance. I want to fish, can, and gather my way to an existence. I want to live in a float house and tow it up and down Knight Inlet.

In the 70’s Erich Hoyt and two other filmmakers sailed up Johnstone Strait and settled in Robson Bight, spending the summer tracing the loving shorelines of Cracroft, Vancouver, and Hanson, following the whales. No rules, no regulations, no cares. I was born too late. They were camping in the bight, documenting the rubbing beaches for the first time. Rubbing shoulders with the parade of scientists who rewrote the book on the “savage killer whale” and helped us see them the way we do.

I want to dive off the rubbing beaches, follow an orca pod in my kayak with no boats blitzing past me at 30 knots. I want to ride the ebb out Blackfish and the flood through Weynton. I want the good old days. I want to steal Futurama’s time machine and sit on the rocks at the feet of an old growth forest that has never been cut. I’ll even agree to take out Hitler on my way.

No I don’t.

Because no one talks about the “bad old days.” No one dwells on the fact that everything that ate fish had a bounty on it sixty years ago. 2 bucks for a seal’s flippers, a dollar for a Raven’s beak or an eagle’s talons. That there’s a reason that the salmon don’t run so thick you can smell them followed by Blackfish that form a bridge across the sound. That the slow curve downward began somewhere.

Or that the 70’s were filled with the live capture trade for Orca’s and the cold blooded murder of several others. That there’s a reason that the beaches and bight are closed, that the minimum distance is 100 meters. That today we live with the decisions made during those days that were neither good nor old.

So I go to ask the one soul on this island that’s lived in it for a millennium. I walk to Grandma Cedar whose cedar boughs have seen it all. Has watched the salmon come and go, the glacier’s charge and retreat, and a lab be built at her feet.

Does she miss the good old days? The bad old days?

I stare up at her, my neck craning, trying to make out the branches that originate a hundred feet above me. But she is centered in the here and now. Focused on the simple task of taking the miracle of sunlight and carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen. Perhaps if all she’s thinking about is today I should be too.

Maybe it’s one thing to read and admire history and another to yearn for a world I know virtually nothing about. One thing to devour old black and white photos and dig for artifacts on the shoreline and another to feel as if it will never be that good again. To let go of a history I can’t even begin to understand or control, and look to a future I can. You can keep your time machine Professor.

Cover photo credit: BC Archives. Freshwater Bay C.A 1916.