Tag Archives: weather

Clay and Rain

Rain beats on this cabin like a drum. Even gentle little sprinkles sound like an oncoming tropical storm. And when the October downpour begins we have our own personal Metallica concert complete with a double bass drum.

But this little Shabin heats up quick, even if it loses it just as fast through single pane windows. It’s windows look out on trees, trees, more trees, and occasionally moose. We’ve heard wolves howl, grouse bellow, and magpies chitter. We’ve picked the cranberries and begun to wage war on what will be a never ending drainage problem.

I’m not sure what most people do first when they buy their first home. But somehow I don’t think the first priority is digging up the front yard. Before a cabin, shoot, before running water, we want a garden. It’s not a quaint little hobby here or an excuse to get our hands dirty. In a town where a ripe Avocado recently went for five dollars and 22 cents it’s a necessity to supply as much of your own food as possible.

The problem is, Gustavus isn’t all that conducive to growing food. It supplies food at bountiful quantities with fish, moose, berries, and wild greens. But for those that want to do a little less Paleo and a little more Agro, the trouble lies two centimeters beneath the “topsoil.”

Clay. As thick and gray and heavy as you can imagine. Three feet of it in some places. Some places are drier than others of course and some are blessed with property jutting up against the Salmon or Goode Rivers which provide drainage and swap the clay for a more palatable sand. But we are not so lucky. We’re on the wet side of a wet town in a wet climate in a temperate rainforest. When it pours our front yard becomes a lake and the path to the outhouse a stream. All thanks to the impenetrable clay which could give Patagonia a run for their money in the water resistance category. Rainwater hits the clay, balloons back to the surface, and drains as fast as a grouse crossing the road (which isn’t very fast).

There’s a few options. We can build everything on stilts and resign ourselves to never wearing anything smaller than an Xtratuff, or we can try to drain it, raise it, and work around it.

***

The shovel goes into the ground with a satisfying crunch. One advantage to the clay layer is there’s little in the way of roots. I jump on the shovel and feel it sink all the way down. After carving out a square foot I try to pry it out of the ground. In my mind I can already see the little clearing as a finished project. My neat little ditch running parallel to a garden overflowing with food, the envy of Gustavus. I blink and return to reality.

At some point in the not that distant past someone cleared out this little area, probably to lend a little light to the Shabin that sits on the northwest side. And perhaps of accomplishing what Brittney and I are setting out to do: feed themselves. But if they ever considered draining it they didn’t get very far. A couple truckloads of fill (a fancy word for sand and dirt that you pay for) had been brought in on the premise of raising the ground and creating a drainable surface. Besides bringing in some invasive reed canary grass however, the strategy had failed.

Fall’s not the best time to assess your land quality around here, everything’s soaked through. Step off the concrete and you’re in boot territory regardless. But even a handful of sunny days has failed to drain our future garden site. Each step brings water to the surface. Our water table is literally zero.

I grip the shovel tightly and heave the first square foot of clay free. It’s so heavy and waterlogged that I have to squeeze the shovel and bend at the knees to keep it from slipping out of my hands. I chuck it into the canary grass behind me on the premise of someday cutting it with a more arable soil for the garden. As I become acquainted with ditch digging Brittney brings wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of fill across scrap wood and dumps it on the roadcloth laid out in a rectangle. We figure a 17 x 17 foot garden is ambitious enough to start. Between the ditch and the fill we hope to drag the water down and rise above it, at least at this spot.

***

Since the glacier released it, our 4.2 acres have remained virtually untouched. Outside of the punched in road, the clearing, and the Shabin, not much in the way of “progress” has gone on here. We walk among the pines, watch them give way to hundred year old Spruce, and transition beautifully into an old Willow Sluice where Snipes nest in the Spring and Moose bring their calves. It may be wet and soggy, but they’ve managed just fine.

“We’re not owners, we’re guardians,” Brittney insists.

To her this is not our land simply because a piece of paper says so. Every jay, moose, and coyote is welcome in her domain. She has room for all of them and couldn’t sleep at night knowing she had displaced others for the betterment of herself.

“If you go with a stem wall (a building method where you build your house on a concrete pad),” Kim Heacox says, “they’ll come in and go to your home’s footprint and dig and dig and get all that clay out, and they’ll make it disappear.”

It sounds great on paper. A house built on sand and concrete. Contrary to the old bible parable, a house built on sand is just fine as it compresses nicely and doesn’t buck during frost heaves. We walk our home site and look behind us at the thick grove of trees that includes a couple of those hundred year old Spruce’s. We’re not sure how a Bobcat and Caterpillar gets through that, but it doesn’t bode well for our roommates. What if we did piers buried past the clay line and built our home on top of that? Working with nature instead of manipulating it.

***

By the end of the day we’ve carved out 170 square feet of garden space. We stand on our little gray island. Mud and water are incredibly still seeping up through the road cloth, but it’s a heck of a lot better. This is the only patch of land we plan on seriously altering. We figure feeding ourselves is a good enough reason.

That night I sit in at the table in our little Shabin. I look out the window and jump. Seven feet tall and chocolate brown, a moose stands feet from the ditch, munching away at the yellowing leaves of a Willow.

“Brittney.”

She creeps over and we peer out the window, speaking in whispers that she can probably hear.

“Welcome sweetheart.”

The moose strips the final branch clean and saunters down the driveway, her big hooves sinking in the gravel. A hundred feet down the trail she stops and resumes her grazing. I want her to stay forever.

The rain begins to fall again, that steady plunking against the metal roof. The ditch fills, the land seeps, the cranberries grow, and I watch from the shelter of our little porch.

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August Fog

For the first time this summer, there’s a bite to the breeze. When I step out the backdoor. The air tastes like Fall. It brings forth images of Cottonwood Trees changing color. The taste of Pumpkin flavored beer, pumpkin spice lattes, shoot, pumpkin flavored everything. Fall comes early in Alaska. The first week of August reminding us that each season but winter is short, to be savored.

With it comes rain. The rain that justifies our existence as a rainforest. A rain that makes everything green. A chilling nasty rain with curled lips and sharp teeth that bites at the back of your neck and crawls beneath the most impenetrable Gore-Tex.

But on days like today, when it doesn’t rain, oh what a beautiful setting. Bless the rare calm, and foggy mornings of August. Blue sky above, the land ensconced in curtains of fog.

There’s something magical about paddling in the fog. The shutters pulled over our eyes, every other sense becomes sharpened.

You smell your way through fog.

On low tide mornings like this one the odor of anoxic mud crawls into my nose. A rancid guide leading me back to shore when the trees disappear behind the milky white sheen. My ears orientate like a dogs, the cries of a crow lead me across the mouth of a cove. Land nowhere in site, paddle toward the crows.

As always I’m accompanied. Today it is the minimum two people. Mark and Laura. Middle aged, bouncy, and happy. The sort that are easy to talk to because the silences are never awkward. Everything is wonderful in their eyes. The fog, the water, the sea lion that interrupts my bear story. They make my job easy. The sort of people you wish you had every day. We paddle near the shoreline and let the fog wrap around us like a sweater. The smell of the beach and the noise of the crows guiding us.

Boats pass unseen in the fog. The intrusive foghorn of a cruise ship echoes off the mountains and trees every few minutes.

We float in a kelp bed two miles from the dock. Our paddling has been serene and relaxed. I’m in no hurry. If you’re in a hurry, kayaking isn’t for you. Easier to let the world come to you then to try to catch the world.

“Are you worried about the possibility of losing the glaciers because of global warming?”

The question comes from the husband Mark. It does after you talk about the retreat of the glaciers. How, in 1794, Glacier Bay was nothing more than a five mile divot on the north side of Icy Strait. Yes I know, no internal combustion engines spewing carbon into the atmosphere in the 18th century.

There’s something different about the way that Mark phrases the question though that gives me pause. Are you worried about the glaciers?

The glaciers? I mean, I guess so. It’s funny, I live in a land defined by them, created by them. If anyone should worry about the well being of the glaciers I guess it should be me. And I am, now that I think about it. For Glacier Bay with no glaciers is a sorry end indeed. What would we call it? Muir Bay National Park and Preserve?

But when I think about climate change, about the cliff that we’re either a) barreling towards or b) careening over (depends on who you ask), glaciers aren’t the first thing I think about.

“What I think about,” I say, “are murres.”

“Murres?”

“Murres, among other things.”

I explain about the blob, which they had never heard of. About thousands of murres washing ashore on the beaches of southeast and south-central Alaska. I describe their delightful noises, the joy of a muttering murres, their exasperated yells. We all seem to have that animal that touches us in a way no one else understands. Brittney loves Black Oyster Catchers. Hank Lentfer loves Sandhill Cranes. And I have Common and Thick Billed Murres.

“For me, Glacier Bay without Murres is no longer Glacier Bay.” I say. “Maybe that’s short sighted of me. But imagine if you stopped paddling, and it was quiet.”

We do just that and are serenaded by a timpani of birds. Marbled Murrelets, Canadian Geese, crow, raven, phalarope, and oyster catcher.

People talk about getting out in nature. “Getting away from it all.” We call it. The peace and quiet of wilderness. But here’s the thing, nature is never quiet. To walk into the woods and hear nothing would be… empty, desolate, unsatisfying. Nature isn’t supposed to be quiet. There should always be a squirrel rattling, a bird calling, a sea lion swimming.

What we’re really talking about, is getting away from ourselves. Away from the world we created. The artificial one sculpted from metal and concrete. The birds and squirrels and sea lions are not noise, they are music to our ears. And a world without them, glaciers or no, is no longer a world.

A Movie Script Ending

An odd curse seems to precede my arrival to Hanson Island. Some dark foul spirit that blazes the trail and harbors ill will to Paul’s boat. In ’08, ’14, and now ’15 the June Cove has been struck with engine trouble just days before the ferry spits me out in Alert Bay. Thanks to this demon, I’ve still never arrived at OrcaLab on the day I intend to. Which is why the four of us  (Brittney, me, Porter, and Penny) found ourselves curled up in Paul and Helena’s Alert Bay home for Halloween watching the curves of Hanson Island fade into the darkness through the bay windows. So tantalizingly close.
It wasn’t all bad. We watched baseball, took one more hot bath, and handed out candy to the handful of trick or treaters that came knocking on the door. Still to be determined was when we’d cover the last few miles. Dave Towers (Yes Jared Towers Dad) was to be our taxi driver. But the southeast gusts for the following morning did no breed optimism. So we settled down for another day in the bay. We slept in. I found the Vikings game on TV. And was just getting comfortable when the phone rings.

“Hey Dave, it’s Dave. How’s the weather looking out your way?”
I walk to the window and stare out at the strait. There’s still whitecaps, the trees in the yard dance. Maybe not as bad as an hour ago? “I think it’s dying down, it’s supposed to be a little better this afternoon.”
“Great! Can you leave in an hour?”
My eggs are just starting to bubble in the frying pan, I’m wearing pajamas, all we have for food is a bag of oranges. “Can you make it two?”
“No problem… oh and it’s an open skiff. Be sure to dress warm.”
David hangs up and I stare at the phone. A rabbit and a cat in an open air skiff? I think back to last fall when we tried to put Porter in Penny’s cage. The mess, the horror, the terror, I’m still getting over it.
90 minutes later our bags are piled in the boat. Penny’s cage is between my legs, a towel draped over the corner that’s facing the bow as a windbreaker. Porter sits on Brittney’s lap, wrapped in a jacket, a look of incredulity on his face. David looks over our little menagerie with a mix of amusement and confusion.
I shrug, “we couldn’t just get a dog like everyone else.”

We cruise out of the harbor and round the corner, heading east into Johnstone Strait. The wind has vanished, the sky is dry, I breath a sigh of relief. Porter buries his face in Brittney’s jacket, but Penny stands on her hind legs, trying to see around the towel. She’d drive the boat if we let her, fearless.
We weave through the islands and passes, their names echoing in my head like old friends. Pearce Passage, Plumper Islands, Blackfish Sound. I can trace the route on the palm of my hand. It’s been a week and a half with three ferries, one border crossing, and too many trips through the backpack digging for clean socks, but as we round the final point and the wooden buildings come into view, every second is worth it. My chest feels light, my fingers tingle. Was it joy? Relief? Excitement? As if every positive emotion is swirling inside simultaneously.
“Dr. Spong,” I’m beaming as we embrace and I look over his shoulder at our cabin. Smoke billows from the chimney, Helena leans nonchalantly against the railing. Brittney and I try not to get too close to her. Not out of animosity, but because of her vicious pet dander allergy that makes my sweater a chemical weapon.
In a matter of minutes our bags our piled in the living room near the wood stove. Every smell, every memory coming back tack sharp. The speaker connected to the hydrophones pumps in the sounds of swirling water and a distant tug. Sonic comfort food. Macaroni and Cheese for the ears. Within the hour we’re splitting wood, scanning for humpbacks, falling back into the beautiful rhythm of the island. I walk past Brittney bent over the chopping block, Porter sprinting up in down the hill, his euphoria matches ours.
“Do you feel like you’re floating three inches above the ground?”
The shadows grow long, the sun dipping behind the island painting the mountains in a soft glow. I step out onto our porch, drinking in the view. A mile down the sea lions roar and bark, the noise rising to a crescendo. With no warning dozens of them launch themselves into the water. I furrow my brow, what on earth is making them all – and I see them.
Dorsal fins. Five of them. Just off the rocks, smooth curved dorsals with knife sharp points. Biggs. Transients. Oh my God. For a heartbeat I’m rooted to the spot, too stunned to move. On our first night? Muscle memory takes over. I skid across the deck, throwing open the door to our cabin and scream, “Biggs at the sea lion haul out!” I’m gone before Brittney can respond, tearing over to Paul and Helena’s, heart pounding, I haven’t seen orcas in months. I repeat the message and head for the observation deck, camera in hand.
The light is so dim every photo is like a blurred and pixelated photo of Sasquatch. There a mile away. It doesn’t matter. As the last of the daylight fades we strain our eyes to follow the group as they go around the corner, leaving the sea lions in a frenzy. The movie script ends, the whales vanish, and we stand in near darkness. No roads, no cars, no stores. Just us, the trees, the ocean, each other. Back where we belong.