Tag Archives: Wildlife

Coming Home

For all its ocean facing windows, the lobby of the lodge is always dim. Dark wooden walls cast a permanent shadow that the orange fluorescent lights can’t begin to penetrate. An awning stretches over the long balcony, protecting al fresco diners from the rain, and blotting out whatever rays of sun make it through the gray clouds.
Those with their back to the windows have their faces vanish into dark, inscrutable shadow, features and expressions hidden and mask like. So when I walk into the lodge the pair are not immediately obvious. Their rain gear and boots hidden in the darkness. But their boundless enthusiasm as I approach squelches any doubt that it’s me they’ve been waiting for. As they sit back down and the paperwork appears the shadows hide the signs that should have been obvious. The mother’s shivering hands and arms, the wool hat pulled tightly over her head without a single curl or braid protruding beneath the material.
Her son scribbles names and home addresses well she berates him the way only a mother can. Not spitefully, but in the way that makes him, even at 24 roll his eyes and sarcastically mutter, “mooooom!”
As we rise it takes her a few extra moments to gather herself and lift her thin body off the couch. Only now in the better light does it become obvious and my expression, comprehending for only moments betrays me.
Yes. She’s going through chemotherapy, had been since she was diagnosed with lung cancer just three months ago.
“Never smoked a cigarette in my life,” she says as if I’d have the nerve or insensitivity to ask. “I lived in Juneau for three years back in the early eighties and I wanted my kids to see it before…” she trails off. She doesn’t tell me what stage of treatment she’s in and I don’t ask, I don’t want to know.
Like many, their fear and terror is covered by humor. They laugh long and loud at my every quip and comment, as if Dave Letterman and not Dave Cannamore was their guide.
“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to paddle,” she confesses.
“It makes no difference to me how far we go,” I answer, “I’m just so happy you made it back.” I’d float fifty feet off the dock all night if they want to.
We reach the sheds that house our kayak gear and a gentle mist begins to fall from the clouds that habitually threaten rain. The drops fall in a resigned, uninspired sort of way, the stormy cumulus far from enthused, sending precipitation earthwards as if it didn’t know what else to do that evening but soak  the leaves of the alders.
Her son is easily as tall as me, a cello player in San Francisco who looks like he could play small forward for the Warriors in his spare time. We firmly tell Mom to stay put and lug the double and single kayak down the beach toward the slowly flooding tide and she gently folds herself into the front cockpit. For the first time she doesn’t look tired and worn. Her eyes gleam with the excitement of untold patience after waiting for this exact moment. I push them clear of the rocks and follow, my kayak bobbing in their wake.
“I used to go kayaking all the time when I lived in Juneau,” she says as we move past the dock, aiming for the mouth of Bartlett Cove. “I would take my cat with me.”
I try to imagine Porter perched on the bow of my kayak, clawed paws slipping and sliding on the fiberglass, scratching the gel coat or worse, attacking the human responsible for depositing him in a vessel surrounded by his sworn enemy.
There are people that you want to see it all. Breaching humpbacks, hunting orcas, frolicking sea lions, sneaky seals, flying pterodactyls, and as we paddle I mentally will the inhabitants of Glacier Bay towards us. Calling to them to understand how precious their presence would mean to all of us.
We paddle and the conversation is easy. No factual tic tacs needed to stimulate talk between the two boats. Mother and son bicker good naturedly as he struggles to master the rudder peddles on his maiden voyage. Talk turns to baseball, two die hard Giants fans bemoaning their lack of starting pitching depth.
My stomach turns, replace San Francisco with Minnesota and this was my Mom and I. She in her early 50s, he his mid 20s. I’m about to open my mouth, to reveal the parallel when the whale arrives.
The bait ball had been swirling for fifteen minutes, the gulls’ insinuations and the protests of murrelets had become a white noise. The humpback had given no warning before ripping through the surface, sending white wings scattering as herring gull, kittiwake, and mew rise a few feet higher and out of reach of the ballooning mouth. The impact on us is instantaneous. No one hollers or calls out, it’s more of a silent, “ohhhh” from all three of us that stops our conversation mid sentence. The calm evening water allows the sound of the next breath to echo off the trees on the Lester shore, the water falling from the back and flukes as the whale rises higher momentarily before falling away beneath the waves.
The rain continues to fall at random intervals as we paddle, her stamina exceeding her expectations. As it falls heavier she leans back in her seat, face pointing upward, allowing the cool water to strike her face beads sliding down and into her lap. As we return an hour later, her stroke stronger than ever she looks reborn. I tell her about John Muir, how he slept on the glaciers when he was ill and walked down the next morning feeling like he had a new lease on life.
“Maybe theres more treatment in the wilderness than we know,” I suggest.
She likes the sound of that, “forget the chemo, just bring me a huge iceberg to munch on. Make sure theres some vodka to go with it though.”
She laughs as their boat nears the shore, I hop out and catch their kayak by the nose, raising it up to land softly on the rocks and barnacles. As the moment comes to step clear of the boat she pauses, not to gather her strength, but to savor. She runs her hands lovingly along the combing, her fingers brushing the forest green finish, a loving look in her eyes.
“It feels so good to be back here, you don’t know how much places like this mean to you until you don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to see them.”
She isn’t talking to either of us, but the silence that follows is total. Even the birds have gone silent as if in respect to this fiery and passionate woman.
It’s most telling where we run to when we can make out the expiration date on our lives. We don’t run to the Oracle, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge or any other man made marvels. We come home. To the place that, deep inside, we still acknowledge as sacred, as special, as holy, even if we’ve long forgotten exactly why. It’s why we marvel at glaciers and eyes gleam as we glass the water for that six foot dorsal fin. Because the natural world gives us something that we can never create, can never imitate. And when we know time is up, what better place to spend it, than right at home.

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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.

Boats, Busses, and Cougars: My First Journey to Hanson Island. Part: 1

In the last nine months I’ve learned how to carry three plates of food at once, how to make a passable latte, and how to describe where the hell Hanson Island is in the amount of time it takes to make change for a tall caramel mocha with whip. But since there are no lines or lunch rush on the internet, I’ll happily go into more detail now about the island, the lab you can find there, and the man that started it all. There aren’t that many ways to reach the island, it’s not like Alaska Airlines and Northwest offer nonstop service or anything. So I’ll share the way 18-year old David got there in the summer of 2008:

A flight from Anchorage to Seattle, a celebratory cinnabon and a thirty minute flight got me to Vancouver with thirty pounds of sugar in my stomach and a maze of public transportation between me and my hostel. Three buses and two trains later, lugging a fifty pound Army duffel bag (I had yet to discover the miracle that is expedition backpacks) and I was in the heart of Vancouver. I couldn’t find that hostel again if I tried. My reward was a room the size of a closet, that had last been cleaned sometime during the Reagan Administration, and a broken air conditioner that seemed to welcome in the late June humidity with open arms; I’d never felt better.

The next morning, I boarded a greyhound bus leaving from the most stereotypical bus station of all time. Complete with filthy bathrooms, empty liquor bottles and an abandoned bag of weed under one trash can. The greyhound took me to the ferry and across the channel to Vancouver Island and another seven hours north to the tiny logging town of Port McNeil. The road along the eastern side of Vancouver Island is punctuated by coastal towns; Parksville, Courtenay, Fanny Bay (giggles), Cumberland, and Campbell River. Right after Campbell River though, highway 19 veers sharply inland through the rigid, majestic mountain range that composes Vancouver Island’s backbone. For two hours there are no towns or ocean views, just a never ending tunnel of trees, with whitecapped mountains peaking through the green framed windows. Port McNeil, is the second to last stop on the line, with only Port Hardy further to the north. It’s also the nearest the bus could get me to Hanson Island. With bus to submarine conversion technology still being decades away.

I planned to spend the night in Port McNeil and it was just another mile walk, dragging my duffel behind me to the campground and the campground host who, upon learning that I planned to sleep in a tent, felt it wise to inform me that there were three black bears…. and a cougar prowling about the campsites on a nightly basis.

Cougar? What the hell is a cougar? Black bears, fine. Alaska was filled with the mischievous spry critters. In the trees, in the undergrowth, occasionally in a garbage can. But cougars were a whole different animal, no pun intended. I was one year into a degree in wildlife biology and I had no clue what to do with a large cat. I could explain how it’s muscles received oxygen and how it’s cells had divided as it grew in it’s mother womb, but nothing that would help me if it came knocking on my tent flap at three in the morning.

But I was eighteen, naïve, and feeling invincible. I threw down my credit card and asked for one cougar free campsite. Walking to my site I passed two teenage girls, excitedly reliving their thrilling encounter last night with….. the cougar. I’m sure they were exaggerating its snarling and charging behavior though. My night was cougar free and I fell asleep with steak, potatoes, and rice in my belly thanks to the sympathetic retired couple across the camp who took pity on me after my bowl of cooking ramen fell into the fire. Putting my tent away the next day I happened to look up and found a black bear looking back as he stood near the dumpster fifty feet away. After all the jungle cat talk though a bear felt almost tame, I shrugged and went back to packing my tent.

All I had to do now was catch a ferry to Alert Bay, the miniscule village on the comma shaped island of Cormorant Island, just a couple miles to the east. But that was as far as B.C’s public transportation would take me. Because my final destination was not a city or a town, there is no dock, road, or parking lot. Just a tiny little unnamed cove with a trio of small buildings constructed in homage to the 1970’s back to the earth design.

This is the place known as Orca Lab. Paul Spong and Helena Symonds home and research station. Strategically placed at the mouth of Johnstone Strait, the lab overlooks Blackfish Sound, the highway in which 200+ orcas swim down every year, chasing salmon. I had arranged to meet Paul at the ferry terminal and sat on my duffel bag bouncing in anticipation watching cars drive onto the ferry bound for Alert Bay and realized that I had one small problem. I had no idea what Paul Spong looked like.