Tag Archives: wolves

The End of the Road

The Pathfinder reeks of burning oil when she runs too long. She’s had it, and I await one of life’s cruel ironies as we wait in line for the ferry. Four years ago I made a deal with whatever deity was on duty, promising many things I’ll never own in exchange for this plucky Nissan getting us to Canada and back. But as she’s always down she comes to life with the screech of belts and uncategorized clatters. There’s still time to back out. Still time to run another direction. A direction that will let us keep running. There’s no shame in it. We’re still in our twenties for crying out loud. No one would think less of us if we disappeared to Central America for a year or vanished to Thailand for a season. But how do you continue to run when you know where home is, when you know where the road ends?

The end of the final road doesn’t look like a road at all. And you’d excuse us for missing it completely. To be fair, cars have rarely been our dominant form of transportation and I’m not at my best behind the wheel. Boats and kayaks have kept our lives afloat. May they continue to do so until someone tells us we’re too old.

But as theatrical as it would be, this journey cannot end at a pier or sandy beach. Instead we take a dirt road overgrown with willow, cat tail, grass, and fern. The ruts are deep and the brush grates against the bumper. At a sharp left the car pivots neatly in the groves as if it’s on the skids of a poorly made Disneyland ride. And then it ends. With no apology or explanation the road simply disappears, giving way to the world that will eventually swallow us all. A world of Pine and Alder, Blueberry and high bush cranberry, marsh and forest. The road, like our rambling, is over. Neither one of us ever had to discuss it. We simply knew that it was time to stop. We didn’t want to do it anymore.

***

The sun is bright and the reflection off Icy Passage makes me squint. My pupils, like my heart, were made to live where the rain is frequent and the sun is scarce. We trace the outline of the shore, the glacial outwash that holds Gustavus behind, the ridges and mountains of Excursion Ridge and the Chilkat Mountains ahead of. Fresh snow sits on the peaks, but down here it feels like Spring. Myself, Brittney, Jen Gardner, and Patrick Hanson gallop like moose calves. We plunge through last years Reed Grass and it gives way with a satisfying crunch. Here the cynicism of the world isn’t just stripped away, it is torn from the soul, replaced by innocence and wonder.

We come out of the Reed Grass and onto the sandy beach. On the low tide the stories of the last six hours are exposed. Tracks trace back and forth, weaving between the sand and tidal mud that squishes with delight beneath our boots. We follow the moose, the deer, the river otter, and the wolf.

The wolf. We stop at the tracks, some as large as my outstretched hand and gaze upon the holy grail of Alaska prints. Patrick’s mind is already in overdrive. It’s always in overdrive. He is more excited over the first Rosy Twisted Stalk than most men are in a year. The prints are catnip to us, and Patrick is already talking about camping just above the tideline in the grass and sitting patiently for a day or two until they come back. I find it hard to imagine him sitting for two minutes. He’s a mover, but he’s staying put in Gustavus. So is Jen thank goodness. They’re staying for the same reason we are. Because they weighed the possessions of the world in one hand and wolf prints in the sand in the other and asked, “why?” Granted, we like microbrews, Disney movies, ice cream, and Parks and Rec. But darn it all if we could live without days like this with mountains above our heads and wolf tracks at our feet.

We reach the mountains where a stream splashes into the grass and a fence of Alder paves the way for Spruce and Hemlock. “True southeast rainforest,” says Patrick, and he dives in. We follow. Our cracking of branches punctuated with tenuous calls of, “hey bear.” We step into the clearing beneath the branches and into Narnia. Devil’s club is just beginning to bud and Fiddlehead Ferns are poking their heads out from their moss blanket. We pick some, leave others, and fantasize about what we can cook. We walk home with maybe a pound of greens, but from the looks on our faces you’d have thought we’d found a thousand dollars.

***

At the end of the road is the Shabin, occupying three hundred feet on 4.19 acres. We prune the willows that are invading the road and stare up at the Cottonwoods that bookend the clearing. And we talk. We talk a lot about what we want to do. And Brittney and I keep coming back to sharing it. What if we could make this the end of the road for someone else too? Brittney, Jen, and I walk through the stand of old Spruce behind the Shabin. It’s the driest spot on the property with a ditch on one side and and a Willow swail on the other. We’re going to have to take some of these big beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to think about it. Can man live without destroying it?

We step out of the Spruce and into the open light of the swail. The morning light glistens off the standing water and we talk about what a great place this would be for a bench. A place to come and watch the Chickadees, Juncos, and Moose ply their trades. What if this is where the four of us spend the rest of our lives? I imagine a bench on the edge of the woods, plopping down with these people, beers in hand, and watching a moose rooting for reeds.

I can see our cabins through the woods behind me. A garden in the clearing. Maybe a smoker and a writer’s studio. Maybe I should get the ruts out of the road and the clearing drained first.

Kim Heacox once asked me why I was ready to drop my roots. There’s no right or wrong answer. Kim galavanted around for years and has seen Antartica, Russia, the Galapagos, and has designs on spending time in Rome. Even now, when his demographic is scheming moves to Florida and weekend golf dates, the travel itch remains unscratched. I don’t feel it the way he does. I don’t feel the need to travel across Russia by train or disappear for months at a time. I want my roots to grow deep here until they’re planted so far down that nothing can move them.

I want to follow those wolf tracks into the mountains and trace every cove of Glacier Bay. I want to watch the Orcas crash through Icy Strait again and again and again. And I’m ready to do it now. I’ve sampled the world and loved it. I’ve had my trail mix stolen by raccoons in New Zealand and been lost in Costa Rica. I’ve been peed on by Howler Monkeys and dealt with more frumpy border guards than I can count. I’ve loved every single moment. I’ve cherished my rambling. But I’m ready to come home. I’m ready reach the end of the rambling road. I’m ready to turn off the ignition and plant 500 carrots.

Which doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier. In all likelihood it’s about to get a lot more difficult. My carpentry experience ends with making leaky garden boxes, and my landscaping knowledge is even more embarrassing. But if I’m going to fail, or at minimum screw up (and I will screw up) I want to do it here. I’d rather fail in Gustavus than succeed in Seattle. Because if I fall here there’ll be a dozen hands to pick me up, put the hammer back in my hand, and tell me to get back at it. Virtually every person in this town has been where we are right now. Each one of them arrived at the place where all the roads end and realized that was right where they needed to be.

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The Wolf

I am not a brave person. At least, I don’t consider myself one. I rarely feel bold, or filled with valor, or the innate desire to take risks, and stick my neck out. I get nervous walking through the woods in the dark, even here, where there’s been exactly one bear sighting in decades. My imagination, which is often my ally betrays me in these moments. I feel the hair rise on my neck, the goosebumps spread across my body, a spasm of fear running down my legs.

I don’t believe in spirits floating among the living. At least, I think I don’t. But the lab is built on the same ground that was once a Namgis summer camp. A small grave was found in the rocks, somewhere near here, the body of a young girl entombed within. That’s what Walrus says. I never asked him where the grave was. I don’t want to know. But it’s much easier to believe in restless spirits, the thrill of the supernatural, the magnification of fear when the dark surrounds you with creaking and swaying trees. Glowing eyes in the dark. Deer, they have to be deer. But what if they aren’t?

The water’s rough. The waves roll up on themselves, ringed with foam and frothy white caps like pearls on a necklace. Rain falls as a fine mist. In our tiny boat, the waves roll by at eye level, the boat pitching over the crest and through the trough of each swell. Up and down the hills, again and again. Why does it seem like we’re always going into the wind? The water is deep, churning, cold, dark. This seems like a lot of work to go through to run a generator. But such is our assignment today. To cross Blackney Pass for Cracroft Island. To add the magic of unleaded gasoline to help us maintain power at the lab.

It’s the same body of water we were crossing when the boat engine died a few weeks ago. And for an hour we were at her mercy. Enough to make you think twice when the land fades away off the starboard side and you begin the mile wide crossing. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind, with the waves growing and the ocean soaking our windshield. No boldness or valor or bravery here. Loyalty and dedication maybe. I’m more Hufflepuff than Gryffindor.

What would it be like if we lost the engine here? If the boat filled with water? If we had to jump clear, life jackets clinging grimly to our necks? To come face to face with our greatest fear? I’ve never had a near death experience. At least not that I remember, and I’d like to think I would. How terrible and thrilling, to come face to face with my own mortality. Would I be cognizant of my final breath? Aware that it was the last one this body would ever draw for me? Would I watch this grim physical home for my soul drift into the depths as I floated above, great wings growing out my shoulders? Or does everything just go blank? A reel of film that’s reached its end, spinning pointlessly on its spools.

But today is not that day. Across Blackney Pass. In the shadow of Cracroft Island, the water is calm, a soothing emerald color. It’s far too rough to land on the rocks by the shelter. So we motor into a quiet cove on the opposite side, out of the wind. Was it really just a year ago that we blazed this trail? Just me, Paul, a couple of hacksaws, and a general idea of what direction to bushwack. By some miracle our zigs and zags led us straight to the CP shelter. We climb onto the bow and tie the boat to a massive log draped across the rocks.

I step into the woods and stop. I’m not alone. Something lays on the ground at my feet. A jigsaw of vertebrae and ribs and fur. It’s been dead awhile, the body barely recognizable. The skull lays just off to the side, neatly picked clean as if it were a name tag, identifying the creature to which it had belonged.

“There’s a carcass in here!” I shout.

Brittney shoves the ferns aside and stops next to me, mouth agape. The smell wrinkles our noses, but neither of us step back. For a long while we simply stare, a silent vigil, disturbers of the animal’s peaceful sleep.

“What is it?” Brittney asks. She’s kneeling near the clump of fur and vertebrae, awestruck. She’s neither squeamish nor disgusted but fascinated. Even in death, her compassion for things furry continues.

I break off a stick and flip the skull over to reveal the jaw. The mandibles and lower jaw bones are gone, but the unmistakable canines of a predator remain. We let out silent gasps.

The wind rattles the tree tops. It’s going to get worse out here before it gets better. I leave Brittney with the departed, and vanish into the woods. The whole way to and from the shelter, I think of nothing but the creature. I’d never seen anything like it, on the day that I’m contemplating my own mortality. It can’t be a coincidence.

I return to find that Brittney hasn’t moved. It was a wolf pup she announces with conviction. I agree. What else has teeth and claws like this? We sit in silence, my mind trying to put the wolf back together.

“How do you think it died?” Brittney asks.

Like the girl’s tomb, I don’t want to know. The ocean is not twenty-feet away. Is it possible that one of my own species is responsible for this? Was this cub the victim of some human’s potshot with a rifle? A vigilante dedicated to predator control? Maybe that’s unfair, but I can’t think of any explanation for how he chose right here to lay down and die. We leave him where he lays, to continue his noble work of returning to the soil, feeding the web of life around him. A sacrifice that won’t go unnoticed.

One more stop. Parson Island. The water has settled a bit while we were in the woods. And the journey across Baronet Passage is a calm one. I disappear into the woods and up the hill, one more generator to go. My mind returns to the wolf cub and I feel pity for the little creature, that his life was taken so early. I pray he died right, with honor, dignity. Perhaps he just didn’t want to be a wolf anymore. Was ready to be something bigger than himself. Isn’t that what I want? What we all want? For what is more fulfilling than giving of ourselves to something bigger. To make the world a better place.

The land where the wolf lays resting was clearcut some thirty years ago. The land stripped. Every. Single. Tree. No more squirrels, no more birds. No wolves. No cougars. No life. No character. But the land is recovering, like it always does. And will flourish with magnificent old Cedar trees again, if we allow it. Maybe all he wanted was to speed up the process. Infuse the earth with his carbon and nitrogen, accelerate the growth of those great trees so that the generations to come can run and hunt and howl beneath their great branches.

I reach the cliff. From here I can see past Cracroft Island and into Johnstone Strait, up into Baronet Passage, out into Blackfish Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait. Pristine silence. Quiet places. Open spaces. The little cove on Cracroft is indistinguishable. The wolf’s resting place invisible, his sacrifice anonymous from here. But I know. Brittney knows. The tree’s know. Sometimes the greatest sacrifice is the one not recognized.

I say a little prayer before I pour gasoline into the generator. Before the war cry of my species infects the land.

“Thank you,” I say, my voice drifting across the water. “For making this world a better place, for reminding me of what is good and pure and wild. For infusing the earth with your spirit. I hope to leave this place better than I found it too.”

I bend over and pull the cord. The generator roars to life. Without a backwards glance I turn and vanish into the woods. The Cedar and Salal covers my tracks. The growl of the generator echoes in my ears.