Friday, August 12, 2011

where cormorants glide above glass.

August 10, 2011. I am writing from the nest on another “Glory Day,” surrounded by what is now more than two weeks of stink. Kate is still passed out beside me in her sleeping bag. I am cuddled up to the Toughbook computer in my bag, wearing down the last bars of battery power for some writing. I am essentially sleeping in a laundry pile these days; woolies and polypro line the perimeter of the tent. Socks hang from every corner. Write-In-The-Rain paper struggles to dry out in the mesh wrack we’ve rigged up above us for data preservation. I fear they are starting to mold. I’ve got ziplock bags full of the few items that I keep dry at all costs – batteries, storage cards for my cameras, letters and postcards I am in the midst of writing to friends and family, and a few others I have received and still carry with me to read after a hard day. Rain drops hit the roof top in the usual patter patter ping ping.

Today we will savor sweet Glory Day. For the past two trips now, we have worked harder than one could understand without experiencing. Paul Hennon says I shouldn’t even try to explain. We pushed it even a little further so we get a glory day at the end – one full day to ourselves, free of the demands of finding plots, climbing and crawling, and measuring trees, and free from the chaos of Sitka. Returning to the “real world” is always something to look forward to for showers and food and catching up on life beyond the outer coast. But it’s always accompanied with logistics, lots of running around to fix broken things and restock, unanticipated news from family and friends, and missing things we don’t have out here. Whatever unfolds can be a lot to take in, especially when we just have forty-eight hours to recoup and what we really need to do is simply rest. I’ve come to realize I can never know what to expect when we hit full communication again. So on glory day we revel in the beauty of the outer coast, sleep late, sip coffee while the salmon jump, and nothing really touches this day. The boys are packing up to hike “Block Top” – the mountain we’ve named across Slocum Arm on the Khaz Peninsula. When Kate surfaces from her cocoon, we’ll load up the Whale to paddle to the little islands that scatter the coastline as Slocum Arm fades into the ocean. I want to look for glass balls from the old fishing boats and watch cormorants glide above the glass.

We are thirty-six plots down and only four to go. It seems that anything can happen here, and whenever we get confident, some new challenge suddenly emerges. So I don’t want to jinx us. But I am absolutely blown away with what we have accomplished thus far. And I’d say barring bear attack, broken legs, and impassable weather (sorry mom, these are all slim but notable possibilities), it looks like we are actually going to pull this off.

Everyone told me this summer plan was ambitious. I didn’t quite know what that meant until I was deep in it. There have been waves of doubt and endless moments of discomfort juxtaposed with those filled with growth, accomplishment, and camaraderie. There is one grey morning I remember quite well this trip. It had been raining so hard that everything was starting to fog and malfunction. I was putting foggy GPS units in my pack in the pouring rain at 6am on Day 2 thinking “we still have so far to go, we won’t make it like this.” It was the one morning all summer when I actually voiced any doubt. I generally find anything worth doing in life is accompanied by doubt. Yet voicing it, or focusing too hard on hesitation, tends to cripple what would work out otherwise. If I only acknowledge doubt briefly and put one foot in front of the other, it becomes a mere blip in the past. So I try not to let my mind entertain any of that too long in anything or anyone I pour my heart into. But that morning, I was huddled under the tarp pouring coffee and muttering, “Guys, if it keeps up like this I don’t know. It just may not work.” Everyone was silent. Silent for at least a few minutes. “I mean, it’s only day two. My camera in the drybag is totally fogged.” Odin finally broke the enduring lull, “It’ll shift… We can do this.” That afternoon the sun came out for 3 hours. We scattered electronics on the ground beneath the dead trees to let condensation form and then slowly slip away, like a distant memory of old problems and road blocks.

I also gave up counting on planes this go around. The waffling weather poses too much of challenge to the mission, and I have had to learn quickly to be flexible and make decisions minute to minute. I am eternally grateful for Charlie the champ. He rallied from the docks in Sitka on moment’s notice, making the long run through the narrows, out to the coast, and around the Khaz peninsula to get us back on track. We’d been stuck eating omelets and waiting for planes for too long. “Tell me what you need, and I’ll getter done.” He told me on the phone. “I just need to get back to those trees, Charlie.” He asked for five minutes to check is gas levels. And ten minutes later we were pulling six hundred pounds of gear from the float plane and shoving it all in his rusted old truck. He threw me the keys to another car nearby to pick up Paul, and less than half an hour we were gone from stuck to Slocum.

For the past two weeks we have been camped on this little island that strattles the space between the calm, protected waters of the Arm here and the wide open coast. Bears can swim, but I chose this spot to give us a bit of a breather from the last one where grizzlies wandered down from forests to fish the creeks near camp. There is little here to entice a bear our way. We haven’t seen any in camp this trip. Instead we are surrounded by birdsong, where still live cedar forest meet ocean coast. And every night, I am awakened every few hours by the sounds of sea lions surfacing – the “pffoof” gasping they make as their heads bob up for air. Humpbacks seeking protection from the open waters have journeyed past a few times, and I caught the glimpse of one orca fin, a little teaser for the pod that must have accompanied below. There is a rocky pier we use for radio check-ins, sat phone calls, and rock fish jigging. Fresh fish in pasta has been latest treat after “family fish night.” The skies let up, pink sunset shifted in, and we passed our one rod around to reel in some protein. Kate and Paul brought home the bacon.

My birthday was filled with simple pleasures. We slept until 7:30. Instead of waking up and sliding into wet rubber and wool within minutes, I lay in the nest for half an hour with the ipod, ignoring my battery rations for the trip. In fact, it was a rationless day for all. Paul said, “Everybody wins on birthday day!” Extra cheese slices and chocolate. I had planned for us to explore a live forest that day. I wanted to spend my 30th under a full canopy, amidst the quiet open of a forest still thriving with cedar. In the live forests I find I am more present, and I tend to ponder the future – what will happen next. We measure the stress of the wise old cedars, and I wonder how long they’ll hold onto their green. I am no bird biologist, but I see a clear pattern of marbled murrelets that scatter the waters around us when we go to measure live stands. They skip and dive across the water like stones. We seldom see them near the dead forests. In the dead I tend to feel some loss – what once was there, what might have been, which species won out and which did not, what we miss no longer there now. That’s no good line of reflecting on life lessons for anyone to start year 30. So we hugged live cedars, walked amidst oak ferns, climbed the roots of giant spruce trees and basked in what we now consider the leisure of measuring just one plot in a day. To top it off – Paul Hennon and two new friends dropped in to help out for a few days. Our pilot buddy in Juneau surprised us with a 24 pack of beer. We ate pasta with fresh veggies and watched embers smolder on the rocky beach over Raniers. Over the days that followed, we doubled our work power in the good company of friends.

The team agrees -- we are lean mean measuring machines now, well in the groove. Standing in Plot 40 is going to be a flood of emotions for us all. We are quite a family now, and I feel fortunate to say I somehow managed to end up with the dream team of a field crew. There’s a lot I am going to miss about our time together. Charlie returns for us tomorrow, picking us up in the same spot where he left us seventeen days ago (and for me a year younger). We’ll transport our kayaks north to the last spot, where we will measure just four or five plots in live forests after a couple days rest in Sitka. We will be spoiled by the comforts of a cabin there, built long ago by the grandfather of a dear friend of mine in Juneau. We’re calling it “vacation week” – swapping bear boxes for better food and looking forward to coming home to a cabin with a wood stove. I can’t quite believe there are no more dead forests for us to survey this summer.

Every now and then I have visions of coffee shops and warm sunny days entering data between surf sessions and bike rides back in California. I can’t imagine that reality, but it will come. And I’ll be there savoring sunshine, missing the fog here and the way the thick white clouds settle into the hemlocks, spruce, and cedars in the Chichagof Wilderness. It’s kind of crazy how life works that way. - lauren

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