Tag Archives: Vancover Island

Patches: Part 1

The rocks were crowded and wet with the waves of the ebbing tide still lapping at their base. It smelled too, with dozens of sea lions jostling and roaring for position, climbing and stomping on each other, all trying to reach the drier and exposed portions above. But it was an uphill battle in more ways than one. It was hard to climb on their flippers, and the sea lions above outweighed the ones below by at least 500 pounds. Obesity can have its’ luxuries.

At the edge of the rock, clinging to the edge inches from the icy waves was a young male sea lion named Patches. He lay curled up in a small nook that kept him from being launched off by his neighbors who seemed determined to uproot the three big bulls five feet above. One made a vain leap for the ledge, only to be met by a deafening roar and six inch teeth. The younger sea lion retreated unceremoniously down the rock, tripped, and fell the last few feet back into the ocean, plunging ten feet before floating for the surface.

Sea lions don’t roll their eyes, but if they did, Patches would have. What was the point? In an hour the tide would shift and begin to flood, and an hour after that they’d all be back in the ocean. It was better to settle for a nook with a little tide pool and a barnacle sticking in your back as long as you got some sleep. Not that Patches ever got much sleep. There was always someone clambering over you, convinced that the next rock over was the one for them. Here you got by on quick cat naps, got back in the water, and fed as much as you could. Gaining weight was the only real way to move permanently up the rock.

Patches rolled over to see his remaining rock mate, still eye balling the ledge above and the three massive bulls occupying it. What luxury! No barnacles scratching you, or boat wakes washing you off, just four hours of glorious sleep. Despite the ferocity of the previous assault, his rock mate seemed dead set on trying to succeed where his partner failed. He moved tactfully and casually, waddling awkwardly toward Patches, as if he had nothing more in mind than a stroll down the angled rock into the water. Carefully he put his flippers on a carved step leading up and slowly pushed himself up until he was eye level with the ledge.

The nearest bull would have none of it, but this time he struck. Patches felt his eyes widen and his body recoil as the teeth struck the young male, causing specks of blood to fall onto the rocks, only to be washed away by the sea. The young sea lion leaped for safety only to land directly on Patches’ wound.

The gash was small but nasty, about six inches in diameter with a single puncture wound in the center along the left side of his back. After days of nursing it and keeping it away from the sharp rocks and the aggressive teeth of his rivals, he felt the wound split again, a shooting pain reverberating along his back. Patches roared and snapped at his rock mate who, despite being larger, had clearly had enough for one day and leapt into the water, his belly flop sending a wave of water over the rock and Patches.

Shaking his coat dry, he tried to go back to sleep, but the attempted thievery from the first two sea lions had made the mature bulls above uneasy, they were unwilling to share their rock with anymore upstart young males. With a bellow and a crash that shook the whole rookery, one of them leaped down beside Patches, charging at the small nook he had folded himself back into. With a yelp of surprise and fear Patches dove for the ocean, feeling the sting of salt water on his cut. Diving deep he paddled hard away from the rock and his aggressor, finally rising to the surface 100-feet away.

He was sick of the whole game. Why they all had to haul out in the same stupid place was ridiculous. Wouldn’t it be better if they just distributed themselves evenly? It’s not like the British Columbia coast line lacked for rocky intertidal zones. And yet here they gathered, piled in massive brown heaps, crushing each other to death while the big ones above roared and slapped the ground with their flippers, letting all who could hear know who was in charge.

Tired and hungry, Patches swam slowly north along the shoreline. Not far from the haul out was a peaceful cove. Many of the sea lions avoided it because of the humans that lived there. But Patches didn’t care. It was obnoxious the way they ran down to the rocks and made weird gargling noises at him, but they were harmless really. And the harbor seals would chase fish into the cove, and there was nothing easier than a fish trapped on a rock face. The thought cheered Patches considerably, and he swam faster, past the last rookery, toward the tiny cove with chum salmon on his mind.

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Hunkering Down

The internet has returned. After scaling trees, swapping transmitters, and bushwhacking a new trail through a jungle that would do the Jurassic period proud, we have returned to the 21st century. It was something simple, it always seems to be with technological nightmares like these. So now we won’t have to trouble with 15 minute boat rides through three foot swells, praying that the weather holds long enough for Brittney to do her homework. After weeks of frustration, cursing, and gnashing of teeth, Paul announced the breakthrough much too casually, opening our door and quietly saying, “we have a connection,” before walking away as quickly as he came. Though now with the internet working I don’t know what we’ll talk about, brainstorming possible solutions has dominated our conversations for the last month. Our wood pile is full, the gas tanks are filled, and the stress of making it to Cracroft Point every day is gone. Perhaps now we can finally start to answer the question we’ve been trying to answer for a year, “what are you going to do all winter.”

The humpbacks continue to commute back and forth in front of the lab, and will for at least a couple more weeks so they’ll continue to keep us busy and entertained. We’ve come to know many of them well in the past two months; Ridge, Guardian, Inunkshunk, Ripple, Conger, and KC. The ocean will seem empty when they’re gone. The rest of the animal kingdom seems mostly unaffected by the oncoming winter months. Massive flocks of gulls continue to dive bomb innocent schools of herring, sometimes in numbers so thick the surface of the ocean becomes a white blur, their squawks and yells drowning out even the sea lions. The sea lions and seals will still trace the shoreline poking into and out of the coves, a constant hunt for the chum salmon that continue to resolutely run through Blackney Pass and into Johnstone Strait.

Besides snooping into the business of pinnipeds and gulls, I plan on spending a lot of time trying to stay warm by any means necessary. Tea, fire, Bailey’s and coffee, I’m sure we’ll try all of them before the winter is up. Besides that I’ll continue to write, try to read the while Alert Bay library, and follow the various Minnesota sports teams as they all finish in last place, again. It’s surreal to think about the fact that for the first time since I was five, I’m faced with a winter with no real obligations. No school, no job, nothing. There’ll be work around here of course, chopping wood, keeping the electronics going, praying to God the internet doesn’t explode again. But it’s hard to think of these as work when they’re tied to your survival.

Yet this is what we set out to do. To immerse ourselves in the challenge, the joy, and the beauty that surrounds us. Even when the fog clings to the islands until they disappear and the rain falls with no end in sight, this place still glows. It’s hard to imagine living in a city after a couple months here. Perhaps by the time the humpbacks return and the orcas call again I’ll have the novel written I’ve always wanted to complete. Maybe I’ll have mastered a yoga pose besides child’s pose. Perhaps I’ll manage not to drive Brittney completely crazy. Whatever happens, I want to come out changed and I hope it’s for the better.

We’ll Sleep in November

Orcas have no concept of day and night. And as I wrote earlier this summer, sitting up, in the perfect darkness as calls echo through the headphones can be beautiful. Especially if you know in two hours you can crawl into a sleeping bag and sleep, knowing you don’t need to be back at the lab for eight hours. This is the luxury of Orca Lab in August, when there’s eight of you splitting shifts and ensuring nobody gets overworked and run into the ground. For a few days in late August and early September there were two, yes two, volunteers remaining as school drove most of the summer volunteers back to the city. Naturally, the northern residents decide that this would be the perfect time to start calling around the clock. For four days Tomoko and Momoko, both from Japan, were recording constantly, trading off every couple hours to eat, sleep, and than put the headphones back on.

So when myself, Brittney, and a girl named Chelsea arrived relief seemed to be in sight, kind of. As nice as it would be to be able to just sit down, fiddle with the soundboard, and immediately learn exactly how to follow a pod of orcas through a maze of six hydrophones, it’s not quite that easy. There’s a learning curve to understand what you’re hearing, on what hydrophone, and how to minimize that blasted boat noise. All while filling in the log book, and maybe operating a remote camera. And that learning curve gets even steeper at 3am when you’re wiping sleep from your eyes and trying to remember if you heard that last call in your left headphone or right. So for the first few days, nights fell to Tomoko, Momoko, and I. I’d doze from 10-11, get up, and drag myself back to the lab, Brittney tagging along to practice. From 11-2 we’d sit, perched on the high seats in the lab, straining our ears for orca. Nearly every night they’d arrive and the orca filled hours went by quickly. The orca free ones snailed by as you listened to the same tug chug slowly up Johnstone Strait knowing that it would pass from one hydrophone to the next over the next two hours. We’re back up at eight and at the lab as we tried to give Tomoko and Momoko the break they so richly deserved after days of sleep deprivation.

But for the two of us, the lab was just a fraction of our to do list. Since we’re going to be here for the winter, we couldn’t just know how to record and listen to whales. Our quick lesson in Orca Lab 101 was accelerated due to the fact that Paul and Helena left yesterday for two and a half weeks to attend the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting in Europe. Being off the grid we don’t have the luxury of flipping a heater on, turning on the hot water tap, or running to the store for the butter we forgot to grab. If you want to be warm through the night you’d better be able to make a hot (and efficient) fire. Baking a loaf of bread means coaxing a wood stove to life and somehow knowing when it’s 350 degrees. A shower means heating water in the iron bath tub outside for four hours. And if you forgot something at the store, you’ll just have to find a way to live without it because it’s a 90 minute round trip by boat.

And yet, as I found myself handling the chainsaw, learning the safest route to town, and habitually checking the temperature in the house to make sure that it was warm enough for the pets I began to find it incredibly rewarding. Never before had turning the heat on or running to the store for lettuce felt so good. If anything they were burdens, born out of necessity. But all of that changes out here, where you are directly responsible for everything you need. Heat isn’t provided by some mythical source that pipes through those grates in your floor. It comes from the log you cut, split, and stacked, you’re there for every step and it gives you a new found appreciation for something as simple as keeping the house warm.

For many it may seem backwards, after all, we’re in many ways living the way people would have one hundred years ago (with some obvious technological exceptions: chainsaw, wireless internet, refrigerators, four stroke engines). Society has advanced, why would you want to go backwards? Maybe progress is overrated. We’ve lost touch with the origins of what we eat, how we stay warm, and where we came from. And are we really better off now than we were?

It’s obviously not a black and white answer. I’m very happy with the fact that I will never have to worry contracting the black plague or typhoid fever and that even in this remote location I know that the Vikings won yesterday 34-6. I don’t think everyone should drop everything, sell whatever doesn’t fit into a Nissan Pathfinder and head for the woods. I don’t have the world figured out and hope I never do. But there is value in reconnecting with the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter, and playing a part in their acquisition besides running a credit card or turning a dial. There’s a beautiful simplicity in this, even if there is a ton of work that goes into maintaining it. I am supremely confident it is much less stressful than sitting in two hours of rush hour traffic.

After a crazy first four days on the island, following a crazy four days getting to the island, things finally seem to have slowed down. Wood is stockpiled, everyone’s fridge is full, and Brittney and Chelsea are handling the lab side of things splendidly. So last night, after heating salt water in the bath tub on the rocks outside all day, I climbed in, looking out over Blackney Pass as a humpback criss crossed in front of the cove. My adoring wife even brings me a beer (God I love her) and I lean back in the most magnificent hot tub ever conceived by man. In the cities of the world I’m sure there are some very happy, very satisfied people. But I contend, that for those blissful thirty minutes, no one on earth was happier than me.