Tag Archives: writing

The Lab

Inside the lab, all I can smell is cedar. It’s the first thing I remember about it and I imagine it’ll be the last thing too. The tall legged chair has a low back that digs into my Sacral vertebrae. Paul didn’t have 6’4” Wookies in mind when he designed this place.

Precious little has changed about the lab since I first walked through its doors nine-years ago. The computers have gotten fancier and the tape deck has been replaced by the miracle that is digital recording, but that’s about it. The windows are still stained, the dorsal fin shaped piece of driftwood still sits in the corner, the Auckland Town Hall “Save the Whales” poster is still tacked to wall. It took place at 7pm on June 10th, 1981 if you were wondering. I was -7.5 years old.

No, this place feels the same. The Orcas still call at all hours of the day. Tonight they’re in the strait. Cracroft Point in both ears, Parson Island in my left. A ping in both ears, an echo in the left. A whistle in both, an echo on the left. I close my eyes and I can see them. By their volume and echoes I can place them. Vancouver Island side, probably milling which would explain the random changes in volume. I lean back in the chair, feel it dig into my back, and let the whales take me away.

And as I do, the dull ache returns. Not in my back, but in my chest. The one that’s emerged each time I’ve looked at something fondly the past week. That nasty, horrible reminder, that my time’s almost up. I’ve spent 23 non-consecutive months here. It would be cliche to say it feels like I just got here yesterday. But dang it, it does.

I came for the Orcas. I came to learn everything I could about them at the feet of a master. I came because I thought Paul Spong held the secret to spending your life studying them. Nine years ago I arrived wanting to learn how to be someone else. Now, I’m leaving finally ready to be myself. I am not a scientist. I’m not cut out for research papers or grant proposals or laboratories. I’m not cut out for non-profit fundraising and holding onto my own foundation by the fingernails. I wanted to be. Thought I was supposed to be. But I’m not. I’m no more a scientist than a basketball player.

And that’s ok. Orca Lab told me that lovingly, patiently. Over countless nights in the lab, watching Parson Island fade into darkness. I may stand at the side of great scientists and leaders and advocates, but that is not my voice. My voice, my home, my Hanson Island as it were, is right here. With my fingers tapping against keys, uninhibited by the rigors and (necessary) walls of science. We need both. Science tells us we should care. But it is our emotions that make us do so.

And so saying goodbye to this place will not be as simple as closing the door to the cabin for the last time and missing the southeast storms and snap of cedar in the fire. It’s saying goodbye to the place that gave me purpose. I’m not unique in this regard. I’d wager that everyone that has set foot on this place has a story they can tell about how their life has been altered by Orca Lab, Paul, and Helena. What unspeakable beauty is there in that? That in a world where hatred, arrogance, and selfishness seems to be growing at an exponential rate, there is a place that can teach us how far love and compassion and appreciation can carry us.

“I feel most secure when the woodshed is stocked and there’s a fresh loaf of bread on the shelf.” – Paul Spong.

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Overcoming Doubt and Listening to Abbey (Not the Road)

It’s hard to imagine having a mid/early/late life crisis here. In a place where on any given morning the ocean turns sapphire, the forest yields every shade of green imaginable, and Orca’s call in the dead of night. But it happens. We’re reminded that our unconventional life is a societal outlier. 27-year old’s are supposed to have reliable mailing addresses. Maybe a mortgage and a baby room. Quaint, bustling, hard working, picturesque. It’s the American dream, the American way. At least it was until it wasn’t.

But this doesn’t stop us from considering that maybe we are doing this all wrong.  Seeds of doubt can germinate and grow quickly if we allow them to. Swimming upstream can be tiring. A writer? Who reads anymore? What makes you think that what flows from your mind and through your fingers will capture a world that would rather scroll Facebook than turn pages? This is all well and good, but shouldn’t you shelve the dream, move on, get a real job.

As an uninspiring “mentor” from my church going high school days told me, “you can’t ride the skateboard forever.” He admonished when I told him what I was doing with my life. “Have you ever seen a 60-year old on a skateboard? You’d think something was wrong with him.” Every now and than his voice gets in my head. My fingers tremble, my words seem trite, uninspiring. I pour another cup of coffee, sit with the Harlequins in the cove, take a deep breath, refocus.

Our fear and self doubt manifests itself in different ways. I bang my head against the writer’s block, Brittney scrolls through house plans. She looks at property, checks the bank account, shakes her head, and refreshes the Real Estate page. We have a target now, a landing strip. Gustavus, Alaska. 400 people, 400 moose, one life changing national park. Now if we could stop flying long enough to land. A body in motion stays in motion, one at rest stays at rest. After five years together, we’re still in motion. New Zealand, Juneau, Gustavus, Seattle, British Columbia. I love it. I’ve pushed past my fear, my self doubt, at least for now. Be a writer or starve to death trying. Brittney says she’s ready for the house. My little tumbleweed wants roots. I can’t blame her. Gustavus fits us as good as we do each other. A warm sweater on a crisp fall day.  I love sweaters, I’m wearing one right now. But at some point in the next hour I’ll want to take it off. I’m not ready to wear it forever.

I could have it all right now. The house, the mortgage, the lawn in need of trimming. But I wandered off that road a long time ago.

“Petroleum is Alaska’s present and future.” I was reminded throughout high school. The gateway to, if not fame, certainly fortune. On the backs of industrial giants, we will ride Alaska into an age of wealth and opportunity that we can only imagine. We’ll dig the spurs in deep, push her into a gallop. For nothing should stand in the way of growth, monetary opportunity. All this, I was told, could be mine.

“If you want to make money, live a comfortable existence, petroleum engineering is your best choice.” Grab a straw, stick it in the ground, suck that sweet nectar until it’s empty. Life, liberty, oil subsidies, and the pursuit of happiness.

 What if I don’t want a comfortable existence?

No one talked about what those that wanted to sit on the rocks and count Orca’s should do. Or if you loved the philosophy of fitting everything into one rusting Pathfinder that you prayed would start.  If it doesn’t fit? Give it away. You don’t need it. There was one definition of success, and it could be found in your bank statement.

Now? Oil is going for under $2 a gallon. The state is bankrupt, people panicking. The kids that grabbed their straws are realizing the glass is emptying fast. If the money disappears will they still enjoy what they do? I sincerely hope so. Will the industry rebound? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Ask British Petroleum, Shell, or a state senator and they’ll say it has to. Alaska needs it, can’t live without it. The voice of the addict. Without oil, Alaska will be like Maine. A nice place to live but not a great place to make money.

As my friend (and writer) Kim Heacox says, “what’s wrong with that?”

I hold Brittney’s hand, squeeze it softly, pull the computer away from her. I know that look, know that fear, understand that desire to have a place to call home. She wants to build an apothecary, bring natural healing to Gustavus. She wants open mic nights, a vegetable garden, the slow bike race on the fourth of July. But she also wants Hanson Island, the open road, the freedom that we enjoy that we’re debt free. She admits she’s not ready to give that up yet. Maybe in a year or two, or three, or thirty. I want all those things too. But we can’t have both. Maybe if we invest those Permanent Fund checks our bankrupted state keeps giving us we can…

Not everyone is meant to live like this. That’s fine. That’s a relief. There aren’t enough Hanson Islands  or Gustavuses to go around. I ferried and drove to Orca Lab on the miracle of petroleum pulled from the ground and refined in a factory that pushes more carbon into the air than the globe has seen in millennia. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Edward Abbey said the job of the freelance writer was to criticize and inspect the country in which he lived. Consider me his disciple, just trying to do what he expected. Good old Abbey. Doing what he loved until the very end. His buddies snuck him out of his death bed in the hospital he hated more than roads through national parks and let him say goodbye in the desert.

They inscribed on his tombstone: Edward Abbey. No comment. I like that.

Where do I want to say goodbye? Gustavus or Hanson Island? I can’t decide. Mercifully I don’t have to, and God willing, I won’t have to for a long time. We’ll see how far our skateboard carries us.

Making Alaska Safe for Cows

The concrete bends right, but straight ahead lies an unassuming road. Covered in dirt and gravel, trees arch across the entrance, casting deep shadows beneath the tunnel of greenery. No street sign marks the little road as we bypass the hairpin turn and shining sun for the shelter of the trees. Ten minutes later we reach the end of another skinny one lane road masquerading as a driveway, grass stubbornly growing down the middle track. A series of wooden buildings and a small stretch of lawn lay surrounded by the forest, the structures seeming to melt slowly into the woods’ outstretched arms.

The picnic table on the lawn groans under the weight of plates filled with venison, salad, rhubarb cobbler, and brownies. From the nearby trees the squirrels chatter jealously and I look up in down the table. I find myself surrounded by men of words, science, kayaks, and hilarity.

Across the table from me sits Kim Heacox, part John Muir part 13-year old boy though his birth certificate insists that he’s a few decades ahead. He’s the reason I’m here, the reason there’s a blog (I really don’t like the word blog, how about “Thought Journal”), the reason I write. On my left sits Hank Lentfer, responsible for the venison on my plate and several books in our library, followed by Zack Brown who had walked off the Stanford campus, PHD in hand and hiked and paddled until he reached the Gustavus shore. And finally, Peter Forbes, writer, non profit adviser, farmer. Nervously, I glance around the yard, undoubtedly there’s a kid’s table where I should be seated with my knees up to my ears.

Instead I find myself a part of a community that I have done nothing to become a member of. No initiation, no rights of passage, simply because of our deep love for this place, for the woods, for the future of the world. Because no one ends up in Gustavus by accident. You inherit a family you didn’t know you had. I cut my venison and listen as Kim’s boundless energy spirals the conversation from topic to topic.

“The best thing about visiting down south,” he says, “is the chance to watch all of those Alaska shows and see how we’re supposed to be living.” He finishes with such earnest sincerity that everyone looks up as if to confirm his sarcasm.

“I really like the one in Homer.”

“The guys with the cows! And the guns! Gotta move the herd across the flats before the tide comes in.” His voice twists into a passable southern accent, “is that a wolf?” he mimics a gun being fired, “got him!” And there’s humor in the tragedy of his recreation. “Gotta make Alaska safe for the cows!”

“The only problem, is that doesn’t look very good on a license plate. Alaska the Last Frontier sounds a lot better than: Alaska! Slowly Becoming Safe for Cows.” I say and his laughter is infectious.

It’s impossible to sit at the table and not be inspired. Hank and Kim’s books fill thousands of pages, tapestries of words and phrases I can only dream of writing. But here I was, doing my best to turn my mind into a sponge; listening, writing, and most important of all it seemed, laughing.

As the bugs fill the night sky and the sun ducks beneath the trees everyone slips into the house, the guitars come out, Zack pulls out a violin, and Eric Clapton makes the windows shake. I sit at the table, thumbing through an Orion magazine as Hank and Kim belt out Midnight Rider and as I glance out the window at the blue tinged yard in the evening twilight reach a beautiful epiphany.

It was Orca Lab all over again. A beautiful, undeserved gift. Replace the trees with ocean, the music with hydrophones, and it was the same. Emotion wells inside me at the incredible mentors, heroes, and now friends that had entered my life and the inspiration and motivation they’d filled within.

A Worthy Excuse

The sun finally glides below the outstretched tendrils of stand of spruce trees that line the yard, casting our house abruptly into twilight. A twilight that arrives at 8:00. Down the hall the washer growls and snarls as it tosses salt soaked wool and polyester in preparation for tomorrow.
On the edge of the couch I crouch, hunched over a laptop, back bent strangely as the muscles still struggle to loosen after digging into the seat of my kayak. The beer’s helping though as I take a sip, squint through my sun fatigued eyes, and type furiously.
Deadlines are never fun. What I really wanted to do was submit to the waterfall of hot water that Brittney was reveling in at that very moment. But the paper I’d snagged off the freelance website was basically done, good enough in fact.
The laptop snaps closed decisively and Porter raises his head a quarter of an inch, fully attuned to the room’s shifting energy. He shoots an optimistic look towards the sliding door and his playground beyond. A land of voles and dogs on what he hoped were reinforced tethers.
“And coyotes.” I remind him as I slip through the door and slide it shut behind me.     Too apathetic to even shoot me a steely eyed glare with his glacial eyes, he drops his head back to the edge of the couch, tail twitching indignantly.
In Gustavus virtually everything is within two miles and the Pathfinder sits neglected in the dandelion infested gravel driveway. A pair of easter green bikes lay haphazardly placed on the small concrete slab we’ve taken to calling a porch. 
    Brittney’s chain falls off reliably every half mile while the ring that holds my handlebars has been replaced by duct tape, the hand grips pointing down towards the ground, leaving me to grasp the very center of the handles like some lost and befuddled Lance Armstrong. But it moves when you peddle and the grocery store with our version of “lightening fast” internet isn’t far away.
How ironic, that in a few months, we’d be on an island in which we comprise two-thirds of the population and we’d be luxuriating in fiber optic cable internet. Granted, indoor plumbing and hot running water will have gone the way of the amish, but Netflix would be but a click away.
While here, in the crux of civilization, population 360, you had to bike a mile to reach a connection that would load your gmail sometime between now and sunrise.
The gravel road is inundated with dust. Even rain forests can have droughts, we just measure them in days instead of weeks and months while the salmon swim in holding patterns waiting for the rivers to rise and open the doorway home.
I glide through the stopsign at the lone intersection as the clock strikes nine and glance over my shoulder. Saturday night and the only restaurant in town was shutting down, another wild weekend. I look back ahead and hear my breaks squeak. Unbeknownst to me. My twilight cycle is not solitary.
A high patch of grass sits fifty yards ahead on the road’s left bank, a comma between two gravel driveways. Settled in the middle is a Gustavus lawn mower. The moose glances up nonchalantly, its mouth moving in the hypnotizing manner of ungulates, somehow horizontal and vertical simultaneously. At my sudden stop she takes an uncertain step towards me.
If she wants the road it’s all hers and I slide my bike to the left and onto the drive, opening up an avenue up the road or across toward the wooded ditch on the far side. She considers her options for a moment longer, and with an air of completely deserved entitlement begins to saunter across the road for the ditch, her hooves echoing on the concrete.
I watch her slow gait away, wishing she could stay longer instead of conceding to the higher powers of the willow on the far side that demanded her attention. Never breaking stride she vanishes into the wooded ditch, deceptively hidden from view like a magician’s illusion.
Hoping back aboard the bike I peddle past, she’s completely invisible, but this is not a stealthy phantom and her heavy footfalls let loose the crash and crack of brush cracking and bending to her will.
The yard in front of the store is thankfully moose free and I open the laptop to finish the days work, my mind already in a lava hot shower, steam billowing like campfire smoke.
“Here’s the assignment,” I scribble fast, “hope it works for you. Had to wait for a moose to clear the road before I could send it off.”
I smile at the beautiful inconveniences of my eden and hit the send button as the moose crashes through ditch 100 feet away.