Tag Archives: winter

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 Man; 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 here has been extinguished. Skeletal stalks of Devil’s Club stand bunched together. In a few months time 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 are missing 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 the cat at the Hobbit Hole before her, is tenacious. She sports a bird-b-gone collar. 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, sphagnum moss, are all still a resilient green even after the biting 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 minutes. What on earth compelled that 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’s 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 here 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 valley 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.

So This is the New Year

I still wake up hearing them. I still catch myself stopping on the creaking stair, ears cocked, listening to a speaker that’s hundreds of miles away. You don’t quit Hanson Island, and it doesn’t quit you. How can you?

It’s the only place I’ve ever looked up from a stove to see a dorsal fin emerging from the water. It is the place that breathed life into me. That held me close and let me go. That told me that I could do and be whatever I wanted to be.

Gustavus, Alaska feels tame. The biggest hardship is our cistern froze last week and the liquor store is open just six hours a week. Where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the thrill of grocery shopping knowing that if you forget it today you’ll go without for the next two weeks?I’m not entirely serious. Last week I interviewed for a job and the interviewer asked me what my favorite part of Gustavus was.

“Well having a 5,000 square mile national park right outside my door is pretty neat.”

It’s just… different. Not better, not worse. Hanson Island will always be where I cut my teeth. My introduction to the blue and green world. In that way it’ll always be significant. It still astonishes me that we spent three winters there. Approximately 20 months that feel like little more than a blink. Time close to the earth always seems to go fast. You sleep better, eat better, laugh harder, and scream louder. And the time slides by until you’re looking out the window at the rain, know Paul Spong will be there with the June Cove any minute, and wonder where the time went.

I’ve spent most of this winter reading “how to build a house” books, learning the difference between joists and beams, and why 2x6s make good frames (it’s all about insulation).  I’m editing a novel, preparing to send it off, and praying that someone out there digs it. It’s exciting. It’s just… different. Not better, not worse. The roots are sinking in, and most of the time it feels good. For the first time since leaving Juneau we’re surrounded by the people we love. Dear friends who like us have found sanctuary in the outwash of glaciers. But every now and then I walk the beach and stare south, beyond Icy Strait and Chichagof Island. My eyes see past the Myriads and Baranof, through Ketchikan and Bella Bella to rest on a little cedar cabin on the edge of the tideline.

And I see Harlequins bobbing in four foot chop. I smell the rich wood finish of the lab. I hear the ocean’s voice through the speaker next to my bed. I taste salt. I feel the waves pounding the little boat in Blackney Pass. And for a moment I can’t stand it. I’ve got to move, I’ve got to go back. Past one more bleary eyed Prince Rupert border guard and through the Great Bear Rainforest. Part of me will always be 17, crouched on the rocks of Cracroft Island in the dead of night, listening to the A4s swim west.

***

Kim Heacox is a writer, an activist, and will dance and sing at every available opportunity. He’s also my next door neighbor. And he has plans. Like most of us who give a rip about quiet places and open spaces, 2017 was not a pleasant experience. But that’s not stopping him. He and his wife Melanie have a beautiful house and a fantastic library. All their buildings are connected by boardwalk, the road to their house weaves through the forest to spare the largest trees.

They have no intentions of keeping it for themselves however. At some point it will become the John Muir Wilderness Leadership School, the house (one of the few in Gustavus built to code for this very reason) will become a flashpoint of young writers, activists, and leaders. In my head I imagine the place becoming for someone what Orca Lab was for me. A place to find yourself. A place of epiphanies and euphoria. A place of inspiration. A place where perhaps one day I can play the role of Paul Spong; teaching that if cold science doesn’t work, if you look into the world and see something looking back, the best thing to do is grab a flute and play a song. I’m not a scientist. I learned that long ago. But I could be a teacher.

Gustavus is full of people like Kim. Zach Brown is 31-years old and in three years raised more than a million dollars. Now he has the Inian Island Institute, an old homestead an hour west of Gustavus. The perfect place for young people to lose themselves of find themselves, whichever one they need. Because if more people could find their “Hanson Island” the better off the world could be. Reach’em while they’re young. Before the allure of profit margins and mansions can sink their teeth in.

***

It’s Christmas Eve. Gustavus is wrapped in snow. But over the last few days the temperature has plummeted toward 0°F. Just a little way out of town is the only uphill trail, on the flanks of Excursion Ridge. Patrick Hanson and Jen Gardner pick us up and we kick off our “orphan Christmas.” The sun peaks over the top of the ridge as we climb. The Fairweather Mountains, the tallest coastal range in the world lords over our little hamlet. Glacier Bay is just visible, crawling up to the mountain’s feet.

The freezing temperatures have coated everything in crystalline hoarfrost. Snow flakes stand out, perfect little gems. Delicate but incredible versatile. Recent research suggests that at the center of each flake is some sort of microorganism, some microbe the frozen liquid could glob onto. At the center of Gustavus is the people. Something that everyone that has arrived here can attach to. It’s not always easy, but if you allow this place to form you… what can you become?

We reach a shelf on the ridge and Patrick, as he always does, has snacks. A sip of coffee, a bite of gingerbread, a shot of whiskey. It is Christmas after all. From here Gustavus doesn’t appear to exist. Nothing but trees, mountains, and that bay. More than 100 years ago, A.L Parker climbed this same ridge, but from the other side. And when he looked down on the Gustavus plain, he knew that he had found his home.

I can understand why. Something in that smooth, flat plain surrounded by mountains screams at our most human instinct. I look out over the strait and south. I X-ray through the archipelago and Queen Charlotte Entrance. I still see that cabin. I always will. I’ll be back. Patrick cracks a beer and hands it to me. It is Christmas after all. And if I have my way, I won’t be coming back alone.

Winter Descriptions and Luxuries Disguised as Necessities

The days feel shorter here than up in Alaska. That shouldn’t seem possible, but the orientation of the lab makes dusk fall quickly. As we approach winter solstice, the sun must clear a pair of hurdles to reach our cabin. First the mountains that overlook Robson Bight and then the collection of Fir and Spruce trees on the southern side of the cove. So even when the sun shines, it only strikes directly for a few hours.

But some sun is better than none, and over the last week we’ve been serenaded by blue sky and sunshine. After the rains of November it’s a welcome change. With the sun comes the northeasterly outflow. A pocket of cold air that has enveloped much of Canada in a classic winter freeze. They are days that lend themselves to wool hats, wool sweaters, and walks through the forest.  The sun reaches down through the boughs like the fingers of Midas, turning all they touch into gold. The humpbacks have vanished. The geese and cranes have flown south, the Varied thrush inland. We are left with the heartiest of the temperate species. The Raven, crow, Harlequin, Scoter, deer, and mink. It’s a vocal and charming collection of neighbors. Some smell, some call with the rising sun, some quietly munch frozen kelp illuminated by the full moon.

Inside the cabin, it’s an hourly effort to keep the temperature comfortable. The weather lends itself to light, dry wood, the moisture of Fall sapped from its wooden tendons to burn hot and fast. But the greatest ally of the wood stove is bark from the Fir tree. It washes up in droves, waiting to be plucked and dried. After a few days out of the water, it super charges the stove and sends heat into even the chilliest corners of the room. Nevertheless, the cat and rabbit curl up at the stove’s base while Brittney and I wrap ourselves in blankets, sweaters, and long johns to take off the chill. We rise every two hours at night to stoke the fire and keep the cabin warm for the rabbit. Each time I rise I turn the tap. The water runs icy cold, but as long as water moves through the line every few hours it won’t freeze.

I love this clear, frozen world. A world that in many ways is not that different from the one inhabited by generations of people before me. The rustic hand loggers and fish packers that used to dot the coastline from Campbell River to Bella Bella. The sourdough and flapjack generation as it were. The Billy Procter all stars. It’s a universe of simplistically over convenience.

Today more people live in cities than ever before. We are urbanized, domesticated, house trained. Homo stationarious. We insist on electric heat, warm water, indoor plumbing, matching granite countertops, and auto start. So many necessities the sourdough people couldn’t have even fathomed fifty years ago. Imagine Billy tortured over the design of his countertops or balking at walking to his car in minus 20 weather. I’m closer to him than the coffee shop in Seattle. Born too late and raised too wild.

Why do we need these things? What are we looking for? A generation of beach combers picking up materialism, taking it home, placing it on the mantle to see how it looks. At what point do we say “enough?”

Don’t eat till you’re full. Eat until you’re no longer hungry.

A bath on Hanson Island, like it was for many years, requires time and effort. It’s an all day affair of collecting wood, feeding the fire, and tapping your foot. But when you sink into that tub with Blackney Pass splayed out in front of you. Oh my goodness. Blissful tub nirvana.

Perhaps that’s it. When the necessities aren’t simple you fall back in love with them. We linger a bit longer over what many would call the mundane, extracting more joy from a trickle of hot water than many will find in a shower with 5,000 PSI. It’s hard to know what warm is until you’ve been cold. Hanson Island has taught me that necessities are not necessities at all but luxuries. They are things that we have simply been told we cannot do without when in actuality we prefer our lives without them. After years of technological “progress” aimed at making our domestication more efficient, the average family still needs just as many hours to clean the house as they did in 1950. It’s a secret Roomba and Hoover don’t want you to know.

Perhaps some will always prefer the high rise apartment, insulated from the faintest breeze and sweetest bird song. But I will take the biting wind as I walk to the outhouse and the therapy of a cup of tea while the cold crawls through the cracks. I’ll take the star scattered night uninhibited by headlights and the songs of Humpbacks in my dreams. May my countertops be wooden, the car cold when it starts, and the days unencumbered by the trappings of modernity.

Blessings of the harbor seals be upon you.

Tumbleweeds, Home, and Root Vegetables

It hasn’t rained in days. The air has been crisp and cold. The window each day in which the shining sun brings substantial warmth is minimal. It’s fall in southeast Alaska. And when it’s not raining, there’s no more lovely time or place in the world. So this time when we leave, it’s hard. It’s never been hard before. Because for the first time we have a home. A home than can be measured in years instead of months.

And yet…

The island calls. That blissful, green, old growth island with Cedar and deer and mink. Our spot in Gustavus doesn’t have a wood stove. And there’s something about cracking cedar over your knee, the vapor of your breath floating above a knitted hat. Something about coffee on the porch, the ocean ten feet away, the sound of sea lions drifting on a growing wind. The promise of an afternoon gale. Hanson Island, Orca Lab, the promised land. I cannot bear to pull myself away from Gustavus, yet I’m giddy at the thought that I will be snug in that little cabin on the rocks in 72-hours, a fire roaring and the heat spreading to warm every crack and cranny. I wouldn’t be in Gustavus if it wasn’t for the island

For this is a place that changes lives. Starting with Paul Spong way back in 1970 and has continued for more than four decades. Hundreds, shoot, maybe thousands have made the pilgrimage to this place and had their lives rocked and upended. This place changes people the way glaciers change land. And I count myself as lucky to have spent two years of my life on Hanson. I would not be the man I am today without it. And it is that which will make the final goodbye so hard. It has sculpted me into someone that holds the final green and blue vestiges of this earth as valuable as any mineral man has ever valued. It is this lesson why I must someday let go.

Hank Lentfer is me in 20 years. Or maybe I’m Hank Lentfer 20 years ago. I’d like to think so. He’s the man I want to be in a couple decades at least, let’s leave it at that. The guy with the quick wit and busy hands that can build or fix anything. He built his house, starting with a 16×16 frame and turning it into a wooden work of art. In my non Hanson Island life I’d see someone driving a Ferrari or BMW down the street and feel an inkling of jealousy mixed with a desire to have one of my own. In the post Hanson Island life I have the same feeling when I see Hank’s garden and root cellar. Inside the cellar are two garbage cans (they’re clean) stuffed with carrots he grew. Another two garbage cans worth of potatoes are nearby. Mason jars are stacked like Jenga blocks on the shelves holding everything from Coho to cranberries. Call it root vegetable envy.

For years Hank and his wife Anya went without hot running water and still have no indoor plumbing to speak of. There’s an outhouse out back or you’re free to just let’er fly off the porch if you wish. Heat comes from a wood stove, the fridge in the arctic entryway is a new acquisition. All these choices were made not out of financial necessity but by choice. Because contrary to the modern world’s opinion, they aren’t necessities.

There’s something inspiring and beautiful about doing so much with so little. But even more, I think there’s something so beautiful about being so happy with so little. It’s a desire Brittney and I both have, all we have to do is learn how. And who better to teach us then Hank and Anya?

All of that however, means saying goodbye to where it all started. A tree’s roots cannot cover hundreds of miles, not matter how sweet the soil may be.

But not yet.

For tumbleweeds need no roots, they travel with the wind, blown south to that little halibut hook shaped island every fall. Where there’s no root cellar but humpbacks sing in the evening. No glaciers but dew clings to the boughs of Cedar branches like diamonds on a necklace. The very smell of Cedar will forever remind me of Paul, Helena, and the A30s calling in the dead of night. Hanson Island’s fingerprints are all over my heart and soul, and there they’ll stay until my final breath. Whatever my life may bring, whatever words are ever published and bound between two covers will be because of Paul’s smile and Helena’s cinnamon rolls. Every paddle stroke is because the A36s blessed me with a passion that will stand the test of time.

My heart feels light and my soul jitterbugs as the ferry cuts through Lynn Canal bound for Juneau. In 72 hours I’ll hear Paul’s laugh, see Helena’s face, and drag that infernal rabbit cage onto the rocks off the June Cove. Because we couldn’t have a dog like everyone else. Because we couldn’t sit still. Because Hanson Island will forever hold us under its spell.

A Summer Sampling

The wind roars so hard the windows creak and strain against their frames. Rain pelts the walls so hard it sounds like someone is hurling handfuls of pebbles at them. Every few minutes we can hear a dull thud, first on one side of the cabin, than the other. I’ve never heard anything like it before, and I’m not feeling brave enough to go out and investigate. I’ll chalk it up to an ornery log refusing to settle on the rocks. By the time we crawl beneath the blankets—the cat nestled as he always is on Brittney’s pillow—the storm has reached a crescendo.
Periodically throughout the night we rise and feel our way down the dark stairs to the living room. Penny’s house is nestled in a corner, a blanket thrown over the top to insulate her. We’re not sure how cold is too cold for a rabbit, so we throw wood on the fire periodically throughout the night to keep it comfortable. She barely moves as I poke my fingers through the bars and rub the soft spot between her ears. She opens one eye indignantly, her pupil reflecting the dancing flames behind us.
“Sorry,” I whisper, and creep back up the stairs, under the blankets, and into the warmth.
By the time the first tendrils of dawn are creeping above the mountain’s of Vancouver Island, the storm has exhausted itself. The tree branches tremble in a weary sort of way, the ocean placid and innocent. All it takes is a few hours to go from 45 knots to five, the low pressure system skidding to a halt.
I open the front door. The air feels surprisingly warm on my face. The life of the island looks out cautiously. A cluster of Harlequin ducks emerge around the point, bobbing on the tiny ocean ripples. They’re spunky little things, but where they go when the ocean roars like a lion is beyond me. But every morning, here they are, wholly unimpressed with the storm.
Out of the woods steps a deer. It’s not just any deer. This is Frodo, and he’s the most social of his kind I’ve ever met. Our porch overlooks a little cove, and Frodo has taken to trolling back and forth along it on every low tide. He’s scavenging for kelp fronds, and as he hears the boards creek he looks up. His expression is benign, a piece of kelp hanging ridiculously out the side of his mouth, looking at me. Every other deer I’ve encountered would turn and run at my approach. But Frodo moves casually toward the porch, nose glued to the rocks, sniffing for breakfast.
We have our morning routine down to a science. Feed the pets, brew coffee, drink coffee/ Brew more coffee. But this morning as we pull open the curtains and look over Blackney Pass, something feels different. The sun burns off a thin layer of clouds, and light floods the living room. And for the first time in months, the fingers of sun feel warm. This is not the biting cold of an easterly outflow that clears the skies and buries the mercury. This feels good. And we walk out onto the deck near the lab where the late morning sun heats the porch and turns the cove emerald.
It’s the first sign of Spring, and we stand dumbly for a few moments, soaking up the warmth. Even the building afternoon breeze feels welcoming, and we exercise outside for the first time since last summer. Porter watches with a concerned look on his face. What could possess them to behave in such ridiculous fashion?
We move about in shorts for the afternoon, the sun beating down on the solar panels, the generator quiet for the first time in days. It’s days like this where nothing beats Hanson Island. The cove swollen with Harlequins, deer, and harbor seals. The salt air filled with the arguments of sea lions, the debates of eagles, the giggles of gulls.
But it’s still January, and as the sun disappears in the late afternoon the wind intensifies. The temperature drops, and we cut up another round of cedar, because the temperature in the cabin has dropped several degrees in just an hour. Soon the wind is shaking the windows again, the night air cold and biting. Regularly scheduled programming. We load the wood stove and Brittney gets the tea kettle whistling. Summer may be getting closer, but winter’s not done with us yet.

The Hanson Island Equivalent of the Milk Run

Johnstone strait is empty. A gentle northwest wind ripples down the passage, pushing my tiny boat east. Have I ever seen the strait completely devoid of human existence? I can’t remember, I certainly haven’t in summer. There were nights when the the fishing fleet anchored against the Vancouver shoreline drowned out the stars with their anchor lights. I’d lay on the deck at the Cracroft Point outcamp looking across the strait, the lights bobbing like little lanterns from Robson Bight to Telegraph Cove.

But today it’s just me, in my glorified bathtub of a boat. The wind and damp air makes me shiver beneath my sweater. The strait feels odd in winter, devoid of boats, kayaks, and Orcas. I glance hopefully at the green carpeted shoreline of Vancouver Island, looking for the rhythmic rise and fall of a scimitar shaped fin.

The mountains free fall thousands of feet straight into the ocean. Their peaks smothering the sun as we pivot around the winter solstice. But their shadows turn the strait emerald green. It was this color that I remembered more than anything during my six year hiatus from this place. The trees bearded in lichen, their shadows falling into the water. They silhouette the black and white backs of the whales when they’re here. Complimenting each other perfectly, like the entwined fingers of two lovers.

The boat plows through a rain cloud and drops pepper the windshield. I’m on my way from Alert Bay to the lab, with a couple of pit stops along the way.

“On your way home, could you run the generators at CP and Parson Island?” Paul asks as if he’s asking me to pick up a gallon of milk at the store.

Our power issue has become something of a saga. With all of technologies marvels, line of sight is still tantamount to keeping our daisy chained internet connection established. The signal runs from Alert Bay and on a line above me and the boat to CP, its white lighthouse and the lab’s green shack materializing out of the fog. The signal is bounced from CP across the water a mile to Parson Island. This allows the connection to round the eastern corner of Hanson Island. From Parson it’s a straight shot to the lab. But if we lose power at either CP or Parson, the system crumbles like Jenga. And with the solar panels choked for sunlight, a spotty inverter at CP, and a cranky generator on Parson, keeping the HD cameras up and streaming has become a daily battle. The rain abates as the boat brushes up against the rocks at CP. The tide is low and I crawl on hands and knees up the rocks and into the woods where the generator lives, connected by extension cords to the insatiable solar batteries.

It’s only three in the afternoon but the sun long ago vanished behind Vancouver Island’s mountains. The rain cloud I’d passed is barreling for me. With little ceremony I pull the cord on the generator, set the choke, and climb back into the boat. The 50 hp Yamaha engine roars to life and I pull away from the rocks, leaving nothing but waves lapping against the shore.

The journey up Parson Island to the batteries takes you up a cliff face and through a rich display of Cedar, Spruce, and Hemlock, adorned in lichens that stick to your hat and drip water down your back. The fog settles in  as I step out onto the cliff face where the camera, radio, and batteries are stored. Hanson Island just a quarter mile away vanishes behind the veil. With much protesting the generator powers up. Its voice like that of a smoker, coughing, hacking, and wheezing as it dispels precious power to the battery bank.

The rain has caught up. I wrap my arms around my knees and pull my hat tight over my ears, waiting to see if the generator will run reliably. The calm water swirls with countless eddies and currents, bustling this way and that, their origin and destination no one’s business but their own. Atop them sit murres and murrelets, gulls and auklets. The land is silent save for the gull’s squawks and the exasperated yells of the murres. The weather threatens snow. It feels cold enough. In the distance I can make out the tendrils of smoke from our cabin through the fog. But as tired and cold as I am, I’m not ready to go home just yet. The sun slides clear of the mountain peaks for a moment and turns the fog gold, the rain drops glow like diamonds.

From my vantage point I can see out into Johnstone Strait, the stretch of water that has changed and defined my life, has changed so many lives. But not in winter. In winter the land and ocean seems to hibernate. Queuing up for another summer that will bring the boats, the kayaks, the people, and the animals that pull them like great magnets. But for now, it’s great to watch it sleep.