Sunday, July 12, 2015

The King and I

This blog could have been about my nascent love affair with King Salmon.  About how I set out with safety and good sense in mind - "Lex you can go up to your neck, as long as you can cast, because I trust you, Jake, you can go up to your ankles.  Wait, the fish are coming in, dear god are we sure these are salmon, not sharks, they're huge!  Okay, everybody drown, it doesn't matter, just catch a fish!!!"  Or something like that. 
But this post is about something bigger, and something I feel honored to be part of.  It's about who rules us, who truly is king.  And the Chinook is just a courtier amongst royalty.
For the past few days you can feel the tension building.  Actually tension is not the word, but I'm not sure what the right one is, probably something fabulous in a foreign language - but a feeling similar to waiting for a thunderstorm to break or for the snowstorm to hit or even for a spring seed to break the soil.  And it's been building up to the chum salmon run. The biggest and most significant run in the area. I've only been here four weeks and already I feel it; I'm listening to the seasoned staff, to the fishermen, watching the weather and the water, reading about other salmon runs, waiting with butterflies in my stomach.  Trying to work out when they will arrive.  I'm willing them to arrive. I have an irrational fear that this is the year they won't.  And this is something to bear in mind, are we changing things so much that someday there won't be salmon runs?  At all?  Because so many depend on it.
The chum are what bring the bears to the beach.  Already, out of nowhere, there are bears around everyday.  They just know what's about to arrive and how it will prepare them for the winter.  Although I'm used to bears, what I'm used to is seeing them run from me on the trail, or break into my garbage (pepper spray story), but this is different, the bears are just here, existing alongside us as they wait for this fish run to arrive.  They act as if they own the place.  And they too have the feeling and it's awe-inspiring to see them have fisti-cuffs as they start to mark out their space in anticipation for what is about to happen.  It's also an exercise in bravery in when you see a bear walking along the beach, you know you are going to meet it at the road and you take a deep breath and keep on walking - because that's what you have to do, because that is life here.  And you meet, and it's okay.
The eagles feel it too, and I'm sure a multitude of other creatures which aren't so visible, but are part of the giant picture.
And that's the gist of it.  There is a giant picture and we are only one small part. 
The hatchery here is set up to augment the salmon runs so there is fish to fish in the waters around here.  It is a valuable asset to fisheries in Southeast Alaska and I'm proud that we are part of it.  The salmon, if you look at it, provide so much at the end of their life-cycle to helping others carrying on.  It's symbiosis defined, it helps you realize just how everything works to keep things moving here on our little blue planet.  Death sustains life, life gives way to death and then carries on as a result - in my mind it's the beautiful game defined. 
It's so beautiful.
And knowing, that when the hatchery releases the millions of fry out to the ocean, we, the fisheries and the environment are reliant on these salmon going out to sea and making it back to spawn is bigger than there are words for.  How many businesses can you think of that rely on a fish to make it work?  For a fish to make it's way back from the deep ocean, to the stream it was spawned, to give up so much to provide for so many. 
That's royalty.  There's the king.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Alaska or Bust, Literally

It was enormous.  A monstrosity.  All the other tents spoke casually of leaving no trace on the Pacific Crest Trail, or allowing their owners a decent night's sleep while clipped in to a rock face.  Our tent screamed WE CAR CAMP WITH TWO KIDS AND FOUR DOGS!!!.  It outsized all the other tents so much we renamed it "Denali".  It blotted out the view, it blotted out the sun.
I was mortified, embarrassed that we didn't have a Big Agnes tent you had to collapse yourself like a folding knife to get into.  Oh the shame.
And this is how our ferry trip to Alaska began.  It went downhill somewhat from there before swinging back up, like an upside down bell curve.
We had left Tonasket the moment the school year finished.  It was important to me that the boys didn't have to wait around another day in an empty house.  All our furniture, along with Steve, were already at Neets Bay, and we had been camping in the house for three weeks.  Our hearts had already headed north, it was time to go.  So we said our goodbyes to Ursa's grave first thing in the morning, I picked them up after classes ended and we were gone.  Our goodbyes to friends already spoken over the past few weeks.
The trip over the North Cascades was beautiful and uneventful - until we started heading down the pass.  First the ABS light came on, worrying Jake with it's binging.  And shortly after a grinding noise began in one of the wheels.  Assuming it was the wheel bearing but unable to do anything about it I just gritted my teeth, said everything was fine (which is was, at least the brakes still worked....) and kept on driving.
The noise got worse and worse and by the time we pulled in to my dear friend Jenny's house I was feeling a tad frazzled.  All the frantic moving, packing and cleaning and now a breaking down truck that had to make the ferry to Ketchikan - my brain was full.
We limped to the airport to get Steve,  the screeching of the wheel dampening our joy at seeing him only a little.  "What have you done to the truck?"  was pretty much the first thing he said to me, and I don't blame him.  It sounded like we had strapped squirrels to the wheels and they were screaming every time we ran over them.
My only goal at this point was to get onto the ferry not matter what.  Utter focus.  We had one more restful night at my friend's and then it was only twenty miles to the dock at Fairhaven.  Some goodbyes with dear friends and we made it.  The sound of the dying squirrel wheel amplifying as we drove inside the belly of the ship.
Valium.  This was my trick for keeping Vlad the Vizsla calm on the journey.  It worked like a treat over the mountain pass.  Instead of his usual "I may be sick" heavy breathing he was in a place of utter peace and calm, possibly for the first time in his hyperactive life.  At this point, stressed by the truck, overwhelmed with the leaving of the Okanogan Highlands and the impending arrival in Alaska and horrified by the way our tent stood out like a lone massive mountain amid foothills, I was wondering if I could join him in his happy place.  But my better person won out and I put on my brave face.  At least temporarily.
Ever since I was a little girl I have wanted to live in Alaska and here I was, on my birthday, as a grown mother-of-two, finally making this dream a reality.  We had a lovely meal in the dining room and settled down in Denali for our first night on board.
It had been my idea to tent it on the deck rather than get a cabin.  When Steve was booking the ferry, which travels up the inside passage from Bellingham to Ketchikan and beyond, I said something along the lines of: "We don't need a cabin, we are Alaska tough, we can sleep on the deck."
Something should have clicked when our little gang of nearby tenters included an Australian girl, a young guy from Colorado heading up to Juneau to become a pilot and a bloke from the Midlands in England.  Clearly the real Alaskans had more sense than to sleep in a thin piece of fabric duct taped to the deck of an large boat.
I woke up thinking I was Dorothy in her house in Kansas about to be blown into Oz.  That night the wind, to quote Robert Burn's Tam O'Shanter, 'blew as 'twad blawn its last'.  Blasts buffeted Denali smashing its sides into my head and body as the boys slept fitfully between us.  I honestly had to remind myself that our combined weight was probably that of a small horse and no way would the tent be lifted up like a balloon and dumped into the sea.  Later, when I had recovered my sense of humour, Steve declared it was windier on his side, he was wrong, let me tell you.  I was the one who sheltered the entire family from the gales.  I saved us all, I'm sure of it.  But I'd had enough.  "I don't care how you do it, but I want a cabin.  Now."  Poor Steve, he even went down to ask if there were cabins left (no, there were not), and sensibly didn't bring up that tenting on the deck had been my idea all along.  He's a clever man.
At about 5:02am I finally got back to sleep.  And at approximately 5:03am the captain came over the tannoy:  "Sorry about the early morning wake up call, but there are some killer whales to the starboard side of the ship."
My immediate thoughts were: "I hate killers whales, I hate ferries and I particularly hate the captain's calm soothing voice."  My second thoughts were: "Suck it up buttercup, there's orcas out there, get your ass outside."  My third thoughts were:  "Which side is @%$#ing starboard?".
I searched for my glasses, which I didn't have.  In my disorganized full-brain boarding condition I had brought nothing sensible up from the car deck.  I then searched for my contacts.  And by the time I could see further than my hand the whales were gone, but all was okay, I woke up to this:

My black mood lifted like an early morning fog dissipating into the sunshine.
I was further heartened to see that we were one of the few who had made it through the night on deck.  Most of the other tenters had given up during the gales and moved inside. We followed their lead, packed up and agreed to sleep on the floor in one of the viewing galleries.  Best decision ever as the following night we all slept like the dead, even though I drifted off with a creepy man standing at the end of my air matress (no, not Steve).
The rest of the trip was, pardon the pun, smooth sailing.  The Alaska Marine Highway is there to provide a service to the communities which are dotted along the coast, but it's also stunningly beautiful and the wildlife came in out in force to greet us.  Along with the orcas, there were pods of dolphins, seals of course and whales, humpback whales, the captain had to swerve once to avoid hitting one which breached and dove right in front of the ferry.   We must have seen three, I had no idea there were still that many whales in the ocean.
We arrived in Ketchikan early on the Sunday morning, our ferry dwarfed by the cruise ships already in dock.  A few hours in town and then onto the float plane.  The man at the office said he'd asked the pilot to take us the scenic route, but the turbulence was too great.  It was apparent shortly after take-off that we were indeed going the scenic route as we rollercoastered up and down over the most stunning scenery imaginable.  The good thing about small planes is you can see the pilot not panicking.  And if he wasn't panicking then technically I didn't have to either so I just nonchalantly maintained a death grip on my seat and shut my eyes like that was how I always travelled in planes (which it is, fear-free flying is not my specialty).

Who was panicking was Vlad the Viszla, and Mei the Mutt and Jack the Jack Russell were also a little stressed about the flight.  Bug the Border Terrier is too old and senile to care about bobbing around 1000s of feet up in the air.  It added to my tension, especially since I could see Steve holding Vlad down - I had visions of him freaking out (no, again, not Steve) in the plane and killing us all.
By the time we arrived, safely and professionally despite my terror, at the hatchery I was done.  Thankfully the awesome crew here at Neets welcomed us warmly, which added to all the good parts of the journey and helped me put aside the more difficult ones. 
We had arrived.