Tag Archives: wilderness

Quiet Places, Open Spaces

Shadows stretch across the bay, the surviving sunlight turning a deep gold against the water and trees on the far side. We sit on an old, rotting 2×4 propped up by rocks, watching the island in the middle of the bay transform into a peninsula as the tide ebbs away. Around us boxes of food stand in pyramids, accentuated by a case of beer and a bag of dog food like a massive sack of flour.

But Walrus is in no hurry to start the haul up the hillside to his cabin shrouded in the woods. So we sit, beers in hand, with nothing more pressing than watching the water slowly drain out of Dong Chong Bay.

A great blue heron materializes out of the woods, it’s prehistoric shrieks echoing off the steep vertical cliffs around us, alighting on the island. A raven swoops passed and alights on the branches of a birch tree above. He speaks softly to the bird in a tongue I don’t recognize. Undoubtedly it’s the native language of the First Nation people that called Yukusam (the native name for Hanson Island meaning “shaped like a halibut hook”) home. The words seem to permeate from the trees and ocean, as alive and authentic as the island itself. If the trees could talk, it would be in this voice. Not the voice of my ancestors who had arrived and hunted, logged, and eternally altered the very land we loved.

The large, rocky plateau we sat on was far too smooth to be the work of the ambitious and almighty glaciers that long ago preceded us. They deposited erratics and islands with the callous randomness of an artist flinging paint at the canvas. This was deliberate, a stronghold for the logging trucks and chainsaws that Walrus had fought and defeated.

Even in this beauty, in the perfect stillness, it seems pertinent to mention it and Walrus nods in affirmation, as if he needs any reminder of what took place here.

“In the U.S we put aside these pieces of land as wilderness that can’t be touched, developed, or mined.”

Walrus lets out his high pitched laugh, “but is anywhere untouched?”

“Exactly.”

I remembered camping in the Beardslee Islands in Glacier Bay. Alone, surrounded by acre upon acre of wilderness. Only to watch commercial jets rumble over, their contrails leaving white slashes across the blue sky. The cruise ships rumbling by, black exhaust spewing above the mountains, wakes unconcerned with the wilderness boundary. Untouched wilderness indeed.

He wanders over to the case of beer and hands me another, the crack of carbonation drifts across the water. With an indignant call the heron rises from the rocks, wings beating a slow rhythm as it vanishes.

“How can we even classify something as wilderness?” He asks.

“That’s the thing. Are we trying to recreate a land before Europeans? Or native Americans?”

Regardless, the ghosts of North America cannot be revived. The mammoth, the Stellar Sea Cow. We talk about how the great plains were once home to 12-foot bears, lions, and camels. An indescribable amount of biomass and apex predators. Until man arrived and claimed the top of the food web for him alone.

“Extinction started with the arrival of man, not Europeans of course.” He cautions.

“Of course. It’s a European arrogance, that we can put back together the pieces that we’ve ripped apart.” I say. “It’s the best we can do I suppose though.”

“When the Spaniards arrived in central America, they found the Mayans already had chickens.” He looks at me, his long grey beard crinkles into a smile, his eyes dazzle beneath long curling eyebrows, “they just assumed, hey, they’ve got chickens here just like back home!” He pauses and takes a drink, “of course they were Asian chickens,” he finishes laughing, letting the message sink in.

“You don’t read that in your history books. Or Columbus’ Haitian massacres, or the sculptures depicting people of African descent. We weren’t first, but we in some way won. So we get to claim credit, and dust our transgressions under the rug.”

He smiles again and we tilt our beers back, I’m talking conservation and anthropology with one of the founders of Greenpeace.

“That’s one of the difficult things about anthropology and natural history. It’s a lot of extrapolation and assumption, we can’t know much for sure.”

“Which is why we need time travel,” he says.

“I know where I’d go,” and I point out the mouth of the bay, to sparkling waters of Blackfish Sound, “right here.”

I talk about trying to imagine Dong Chong without logging roads, the orca lab site before the lab, my desire to see this place in as natural a setting as possible. “Post ice age of course,” I finish.

He nods, “I bet it’d be something.”

“Salmon so thick you can smell it on the wind,” the very thought gets me excited, “blackfish so thick you can walk across their backs,” I say quoting Billy Proctor, the legendary jack of all trades that had lived in and around the region since the 30s. “In another age of conservation maybe.”
We lapse into silence, drinking in the scenery, the peace and tranquility that cannot be quantified. No bottom line, no profit margin or material good could ever begin to explain what these places mean. Because they live not on paper but inside. The by products of the wind and trees, ocean and waves, saying more without a word than I ever can. Causing a spiritual upheaval I can only begin to explain.

It’s for this reason, that we’re coming back next winter I tell him. Like Paul, he’s spent decades on Yukusam, unable to find anywhere else that compares for the same unwritten reason.

“It’s going to be almost a year since I had a real job. It’s been incredible.”

A knowing smile pushes through the beard, “it’s hard to think about going back to it isn’t it?”

“You have no idea.” I answer, knowing full well he knew exactly what I was talking about.

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My Declaration

I sit in paradise. The only sign of human life out the window is the lighthouse on Parson Rock two miles away. The storm rages, the wind blows, shaking the windows. The land is untamed, dangerous, and beautiful. Humpbacks stubbornly push through the waves to breath and feed. The gulls hover as if suspended like marionettes, riding the gusts above a churning ocean. Cougars prowl on Swanson and Cracroft Island, some have never laid eyes on a human being. It is the land that I’ve been drawn to my whole life. The freedom and the salt spray, the forest so full of life you can feel the energy of millions of lives all around you though they’ll never speak a word.

But how long will it stay like this if we elect people who don’t care? At what point does the environment become something that we’ll stand for. As a new wave of climate change deniers take center stage, America continues to fall further and further behind the rest of the world. We have spoken. Money, oil, and development mean more than quiet places and open spaces. A full wallet speaks louder than a full soul. I would say that we’ve lost our way. But it’s hard to find a time where we knew where we were going. It creates quotes such as this from James Inhofe: “The Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

The bible is not a shield Mr. Inhofe. Nor is it justification for development and pipe lines. We are charged as care takers of this world God created. That does not mean that it is our to be pillaged.

What would they think if they just visited some of these places. Not just saw them but experienced them. If they got down on their hands and knees and felt the rocks beneath their palms. Smelled the sea and the forest. Inhaled the oxygen straight from the trees. Took the time to sleep on the ground, watching the stars blossom into view, with no streetlights or car horns to invade the senses. Perhaps sleep with a root buried in the lower back. If they could be paralyzed by the perfect beauty of the sunrise climbing the peaks of the mountains, spilling out over the beach, intertwined with the crashing of the waves. Would they care than? Would they see that material riches are not enough to satisfy the human soul and spirit. That nature and wilderness is not a luxury. That it’s a necessity whether we realize it or not and all that experience it is never the same.

I am not Republican, I am not Democrat. This isn’t about us versus them, at least, it shouldn’t be. We all share this planet, we’re all on the same side whether we realize it or not. I am of the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Creators of National Parks and the Endangered Species Act. The party of John Muir and Rachel Carson, Kim Heacox and Lynn Schooler, writers who dare to speak for a world that cannot speak for itself. Because tragically the mountains cannot stand before congress, nor can the bears and whales. But we can, I will. And as I read the statements of those that now represent these places it has become clear what I will spend my life fighting for.

I could spend my whole life here, sitting suspended above the rocks, watching the sea crash against them. Or sitting in the old growth forest that has been growing and falling for millennia. But how selfish would that be of me. To live and enjoy while its future hangs in the balance. I want this place, these lands to change someones life the way that it has changed mine. I want someone to paddle in Glacier Bay, 100 years from now while humpbacks lunge feed around them and sea lions flash beneath their kayak. I pray to the same God as Mr. Inhofe for that, because in the end, we’re all on the same side.

Nothing Better

Rain streaks the windows, a melodious tap marks the origin of the leak near the fireplace. In the loft it’s cold, the fire’s warming prescence muffled by the stairs and small hallway. Above is the muffled pounding of millions of rain drops, waging an unceasing battle to break through the roof like their brethren traveling down the chimney. With great effort I pull myself out of bed, the chill sapping my body of the heat the blanket provided. But it’s at least five degrees warmer downstairs where the fire still smolders, hot coals glowing behind the window. I throw another log on the fire and check the temperature. 18.3 degrees celsius, not bad for a stormy 2 am. I remind myself that it’s only the beginning, that it’s going to get a lot colder before it gets warmer. Penny’s house is wrapped in Brittney’s 5 degree down sleeping bag, she might be warmer than any of us. Though Porter looks pretty content curled on the couch in front of the fire, nose buried in his fury paws.

The leak isn’t bad, just a slow but steady drip where the wood finish of the house meets the stone pillar of the chimney. But my common sense isn’t awake even if my body is, and I finally just put every pot from the kitchen at the base of the chimney. Let the drips fall where they may, some of them have to hit stainless steel.

It has become our nightly routine, the alarm going off every two or three hours. Get up, slip downstairs, check the temperature, fuel the fire, go back to bed. We’re long past the days of turning a dial for warmth, fiberglass insulation nonexistent, I prefer it this way. Because come morning there will be no commute, no time clock, no “I have tos.” I climb the stairs, every other step creaking, a stomping like a herd of elephants behind me announces that the cat has decided to move upstairs too. I crawl back under the down comforter, the rain pounds even harder. Porter curls up on Brittney’s pillow, almost smothering her face.

Our east facing windows stream early morning light into our room. A rouge sun beam storms through the thin curtains and crawls up the bed. But if there’s sun the storm may be over. The scattered clouds are ablaze with golds and reds as the sun slowly moves above the mountains on Vancouver Island. A whisper comes from the speaker connected to the hydrophone system next to our bed. Three pods of orcas past through in front of the lab yesterday but didn’t make a sound. They rose in a perfect resting line, a phalanx of fins rising and falling as one. Sixteen orcas in all, and not a boat to be seen anywhere. The boy in me wanted to get closer, to follow them for awhile, but I could find no justification for it. They’ve waited months to have the strait to themselves, let them have it.

The whisper grows, delicate ‘pings,’ begin to echo through the speakers, the trademark call of the G pods. Brittney is up like a shot, without a backward glance she runs for the lab while I’m still looking for socks. What have I done to her? I brew coffee, feed the pets, and listen as the calls come closer and closer, the bright red clouds streaking across the heavens, reflecting into a pink sky above. The water is flat as a pond, it’s going to be a glorious day.

Our Greatest Fears

My first memory is knives. Millions of them, cutting through my body through every angle. My body sinking and air replaced by water before my life jacket pulls me back to the surface. The current carries me and I glance back toward the canoe, a snapshot burned into my memory. The leaves contrasted with the dark gray of the rocks and river, the mountains with their yearly dusting of termination dust. And the canoe, millions of miles away, my mother clutching the side, her eyes wide with a fear I should feel but don’t. All I feel is a numb detachment, as if I’m watching my body get swept down the Eagle River, my spirit already hovering above, ready to depart.

A splash interrupts my serene drift downstream, the sound comes closer and closer intermixed with the rush of the river and the gurgle of my breath as water and air combine in my mouth and lungs. Seconds later Dad has me in a vice like grip, holding me as high above the water as he can calling for mom and the canoe. Unceremoniously I am dumped, shivering and shaking into the boat, Dad gasping for breath and Mom paddling for the shore as hard as she can.

Years later, my first memory is still the closest I’ve been to my last. Perhaps my free fall down the mountain could qualify, though it likely would have resulted in just shattered limbs and intensive physical therapy. Now, decades removed, I still remember the knives, the frigid water immobilizing my arms and legs, and my mothers face, the look of terror and loss as I drifted away, and Dad’s courageous breaststroke, holding me above the water while he sank deeper.

All that has changed is my own fear and terror. The memory forms a pit in my stomach, my legs weak and mouth dry and drowning has become my greatest fear. Because at some point your body gives in, you stop fighting the current, you stop treading water. Your fatigue becomes greater than your desire to live, and you give in to the unrelenting attack of the ocean. Sinking below the surface your lungs begin to burn, millennia of evolution, screaming at you to open your mouth, to inhale, and eventually, you succumb. But there is no salvation, no relief, just gallons of water rushing in, pulling you deeper and deeper into the dark.

And yet I love the water, live on it, and follow at a fanatical level, the animals that have mastered the medium. I am an oxymoron, drawn to what I fear. As if I believe if I spend my life on it, in it, beneath it, that I will somehow master my fear. But perhaps it’s best if I never do, if I, for the rest of my life, had something holding me back just a little bit. That sensation of terror, for fear often fosters with it, a respect for that which also terrifies us. Reminds us to never underestimate it, take it for granted, or abuse it.

And yet I have seen mans fear of the of the world turned, not into respect, but into anger and violence. Fear the bear? Kill it, for you cannot fear what is exterminated. But with no bears a walk in the woods is no different than a walk down the street. Yet another disconnect from a past that we have already forgotten. Do not fear the wild, or what you don’t understand. Instead see it as an opportunity to grow, expand, change. Shooting a bear with a camera is infinitely more rewarding than with a gun. Killing one from 300 yards and putting it on your wall doesn’t make you a man, an Alaskan, or a bad ass. At least, it shouldn’t.

If we have nothing to fear we have nothing to respect, and if we have nothing to respect we have nothing to hold in awe. And if we have nothing to hold in awe, than what the hell are we doing out here anyway? We may as well move to the city, get real jobs, and refer to the local park as the great outdoors. Yet where is the excitement? The adrenaline? Our connection with the world that had been essential to our survival until just a couple brief centuries ago. It has been replaced by the 800 channel television, 3G networks, and quarter pounders with cheese.

Yet what is more dangerous, the brown bear in the forest or the type two diabetes, high blood pressure, and inevitable heart attack that awaits our constantly growing species. No one is picketing or protesting the quarter pounders or corn syrup laden drinks, calling them murders or killing machines. Perhaps we should implement fast food control much the way we have predator control. Helicopters circling over the golden arches, rifles poised, shooting carryout bags out of the hands of customers. Or for those that insist on fair chase methods, we can just run up behind them and grab the bags from their hands, throwing them to the ground.

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.

Thanks Alaska

I sat in more traffic in one afternoon than I had in the last five years. I watched a homeless guy grab a stack of free newspapers, turn to me, and ask if I’d like to buy one for a dollar. I’ve gotten lost, paid 22 dollars for parking and 9.50 for a Sierra Nevada. I don’t know what I expected.

After all, we did just move to a city that has four times as many people as the entire state we just left. I guess they all have to live somewhere. But the magnitude of change is staggering and I don’t know if I could ever get used to it. What’s more though, I don’t think I’d ever want to either. Every square inch, from Bellingham to Seattle has mans’ fingerprints. Shopping malls, on ramps, and suburbs sprinkled liberally up and down each side of the I-5. Somehow I imagined Washington feeling more… earthy, natural. And perhaps compared to L.A, New York, or Houston it is. There are parks of course, with beautiful running trails hugging the shorelines of the lakes, huge oak, fir, and cedar trees creating a beautiful canopy, scattering the light on the trail ahead. But it’s hard to be enamored when bike, jogger, and dog walker stream steadily past, and traffic from the nearby interstate thunders by. It is nature, but like everything else, mans imprint is noticeably present.

This is not meant to be 500 words slandering Seattle. I’ve met some fantastic individuals, the city is clean, the people environmentally conscious, and orca paintings are splattered over countless buildings. Alaska has simply spoiled me with natural wonder and peace. A quiet secluded cove, an imposing glacier, and a curious bear never that far from hand. Perhaps I didn’t realize how bad I needed that until I left. I miss how easily accessible it all was. That 15 minutes could get me to a picturesque stream, fly rod in hand, coho salmon bubbling below the surface. Here it takes two hours, the river damned two miles further upstream. I understand the amazed looks of people on my tour when I explain Egan is our highway. That getting stopped at a light was a traffic jam. That a glacier in your back yard is a huge deal. I understand why people come to Alaska in the first place now. Seeking something that’s still natural and wild. And, sadly, why they expect to be able to find it within two hours of leaving their cruise ship.

We’re not going back to Alaska though, at least not in the immediate future. But we do have the next best thing waiting for us, on that little island, nestled in the middle of what could easily pass as Southeast Alaska, just with bigger trees. If I want solitude, starting July 21st I’ll have it. Free of freeways, traffic jams, and warm running water. Maybe I’ll be craving some taste of civilization come next April. Will desire the luxury of heating the house by just turning a dial. But right now I kind of doubt it. Some people would call it “roughing it.” Or maybe just, “a great life experience while you’re young.” But now I think it’s the only place I truly belong and I blame Alaska for making me this way, and I’m eternally grateful for that.