Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reluctant birding

Published in the July/August 2013 issue of Alaska magazine

It is nearly midnight, and still light. The mountaintops are bathed in alpine glow; the trees below stained gold by the setting sun. On nights like this, no matter how tired I am, it's hard to close the door and go to sleep. Outside, hummingbirds zip back and forth to the sugar-water we hang out for them. A bald eagle waits in a spruce above the lagoon, watching with sharp eyes for the shadow of a fish below. The single, scratchy jazz note of a thrush reverberates from a stand of alders.

I've never been much of a birder. Birds are beautiful and diverse and it's cool that they can fly and all, but birds as symbols of wildness have always seemed to me inferior to bears and moose and other big, sexy mammals. Somehow, the fact that an incredible array of birds manage to adapt and survive in smog-clogged cities and suburban monocultures the world over has never really impressed me. Instead, it made the birds seem somewhat mundane and commonplace. I've always respected the passion and knowledge of avid birders, but I've never longed to join their ranks.

Until now. Beyond my doorstep stretches hundreds of thousands of acres of trees, a vast northern rainforest that hides blue glacier bears and black wolves and their mysterious, shadowy kin. As the cool night descends, I look out across the treetops and imagine the animals below, breathing the damp air, padding over thick moss, their breath caught in clouds. The lodge where I'm spending the summer is a tiny dot in an oversized landscape of fjords and bays, a place where mountain goats clamber over lichen-covered rocks, moose amble through stands of spruce, and the lip of the ocean curls back to reveal a garden of anemones, sea stars and nudibranchs.

But in the midst of this natural extravaganza, I'm surprised to find it's the birds I've come to love most. The other animals appear only in rare, brilliant flashes. You know they are there, but most of the time, they remain unseen. The birds of Kachemak Bay are constantly present, bringing bursts of song and color, ushering in the season; comical or majestic or simply beautiful in their way. Each week, a new bird species appears for me to learn, and the process is exhilarating. Anyone can spot a moose, but learning to identify birds by sight and sound is a more intricate, delicate art. If big mammals are checkers, birding is chess.

Last week I saw my first-ever kinglet, a tiny bird of the north that has developed incredible adaptations to allow them to survive bitterly cold winters without migrating south as most birds their size do. Weighing about the same as a nickel and no bigger than my thumb, kinglets overwinter in boreal forests that drop as low as -40 F by fluffing up their thick feathers, sleeping in tree cavities and shivering themselves warm. Here, they flicker through the forest like glimpses of a dream, conjuring images of conifers blanketed in snow, northern lights dancing overhead.

There are the pine siskins, little brown and white songbirds that chase each other in swoops around the bird feeder, and the chestnut-sided chickadee, another tiny bird that winters in the far north, living on the knife edge of starvation and survival. Each morning, whether it's snowing or raining or the sun is shining, I walk along a boardwalk from my cabin to the kitchen and am greeted by chickadees and pine siskins darting through the branches.

Thus begins my day among the birds. As I sip my first cup of coffee, I stand at the kitchen window and watch Stellar's jays hop comically along the deck railing, quibbling amongst themselves. Their feathers splay out in a geometric blue-black pattern, topped by a finely-serrated mohawk and two electric blue eyebrows. Like many members of the family corvidea, they are full of spunk and smart as a whip, ready to snatch the food right off your plate. And like all flocks of birds, a group of jays has a name: a party of jays. Our party presides over the lodge in small gangs.

A party of jays, and a conspiracy of ravens: another bird in the family corvidae. Ravens are among the smartest of birds, as well as the most widespread and steeped in lore. They figure prominently in native folklore and totemic symbols: raven, the trickster, the shapeshifter, the one who stole fire and created earth from a watery prehistoric world. In the city, working together to tip a trashcan or walking, one foot in front of the other like a hunched Hollywood detective in a black raincoat, the raven seems crafty, mischievous. In deep forests, ravens grow more ominous, their croaked voices echoing through fog, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once, their heavy wingbeat stirring the stillness of moist, mist-shrouded air.

A conspiracy of ravens – and a charm of hummingbirds. We have a charm of rufous hummingbirds that buzz overhead like fighter pilots practicing a fly-over. Like many birds, the female is drab, while the male gleams with a shot of iridescent red on his throat. From sunup at 5 a.m. to sundown at midnight, they zip back and forth from the hummingbird feeders to the tips of alder and spruce branches, driven mad, it seems, by the lingering light.

In the evenings, I walk around a small peninsula of old-growth Sitka spruce. The path is a tunnel through thick sphagnum moss, winding among decaying logs and trees draped with lichen. It's another world in there. Sounds are muffled by the carpet of moss and the ceiling of intertwined branches overhead. My path leads to a bald eagle nest, a balcony of branches set high on a bluff above the ocean. If the paired eagles see me approaching, they swoop angrily from their nest, demanding my retreat. I imagine them sleeping there on cold nights, curled together around their eggs, their hooked talons and beaks buried in each others' feathers. If both eggs hatch, the larger eaglet will kill its sibling while the parents watch nonchalantly, and the eaglet's dead body will be tossed from the nest. Six weeks later, when the surviving eaglet is ready to fly, the irony of the situation is revealed: more than 40 percent of eaglets do not survive their first flight. If one does, the learning curve is steep. It shares its parents' size, but not their agility. While the adult eagles look on, dignified, the mottled eaglet careens through the sky like a teenager learning to drive.

As summer spreads to this northern peninsula, my list of birds increases. I see sandhill cranes passing by on their way north, bodies heavy as they propel themselves further toward the terminus of their migratory route. Warblers flash overhead like a splash of yellow paint on the blue canvas of sky. Sharp- shinned hawks release a battle cry as they swoop to attack prey. And the water birds – puffins perched on rocky islands, flocks of murres like miniature penguins flapping over the water, black cormorants still as a statue. Harlequin ducks, looking ready to attend a ball with their fine black, white and brown suits. Guillemots and kittiwakes bobbing in the swell like toy ducks. Each bird with a personality of its own, a niche carved out in this landscape of sea and forest, a name, a call, a season. Even as other wildlife retreats farther and farther from human development, the birds hang on, large and small, the last vestiges of wildness to remind us of what it is we stand to lose.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Turning 28

Today I turn 28 years old. Not a big milestone, by any means. To reflect on it too deeply seems self-centered, indicative of this social-media-mad, self-promotional time in which we live. But I also think that any birthday is a good time to look inward – and to gaze outward, to consider the rest of the world, the future and the past. When I turn 56, twice the age I am now, will these times seem quaint? Will our politicians still be playing the same meaningless games, while the real issues (overpopulation, species extinction, climate change and an overdependence on finite fossil fuel extraction, as Orion's editors succinctly put it) are largely ignored? What will our media and entertainment be like? In the 28 years I've been alive, we have moved from Atari to iPhones at an astonishing pace, and I wonder: in another 28 years, will new technologies enrich our lives, or will they make us ever more dependent on invisible systems and fragile, distant satellites?

Many of our politicians, economists and innovators promote growth in all its forms. In my lifetime, this attitude has brought us advanced medical care, unprecedented access to information and skyrocketing incomes in the developed world. It has not, however, brought any more happiness to the world. It has worsened living conditions in some developing countries, created pharmacological dependencies and high levels of depression in some wealthy countries, and decimated jungles, boreal forests, oceans, plains and just about every other ecosystem on the planet. To paraphrase Ed Abbey, growth for the sake of growth is simply cancer.

On my 28th birthday, I stay in bed late and sip my coffee and look out the window at the towering snowy mountains of the Kenai peninsula. I hope that the next 28 years will see a slowing in our blind insistence on growth and progress. This year is an election year in the United States, and though I try to scan the New York Times and NPR headlines once in a while, I am blissfully unaware of the political nuances that define the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. I am in a beautiful, wild place, but already, we have the internet at our fingertips here, and if I hike less than a mile away I can stand on a rocky point and get cell phone service too. I fervently hope than in another 28 years there will still be wild places on this earth, places where cell phone service and internet access are still a joke; where you cannot whip out your iPhone to look up the tides or how to start a fire in a cold northern rainforest or which direction is north but rather must know those things, in the core of your being, to survive. While the rest of the world stares glassy-eyed at an endless assembly line of smartphones, I hope that for my lifetime, at least, I will more often feel the sting of campfire smoke in my eyes. I hope that the wild places will remain free of satellite signals and data plans, open only to those who have made the effort to learn their secrets, to those who have paid their dues by crouching in the rain on a wet, rocky beach, trying to ignite the handful of dry tinder found under a downed log while all around the gray sky closes in and the seagulls reel through the fog and the barnacled rocks keep the world at bay.

I think back on previous birthdays. Last year (27) I spent the day working at the newspaper, but the weekend before my birthday, my dearest and oldest friend came up to visit me in Vermont. We sat on the rocks above a swimming hole, walked over covered bridges, ate at an old farmhouse. The year before (26) I stood on the sandy banks of the Stikine River in British Columbia teaching teenagers about river dynamics, then slept in a tent next to another dear friend, listening to the endless whisper of the river sliding past. The year before that (25), I sat in a class with hotshot firefighters in Idaho learning from the United States Forest Service how to use a chainsaw. At night, I painted my face with charcoal and crept through the dark for a game of capture the flag.

My mid-twenties were good. My late-twenties, which I have now officially entered, are still a mystery. I wonder whether I should start saving for retirement, whether I will ever have a family of my own, whether I am making good career choices. I wonder whether I should stop wondering about such things and focus instead on what the varied thrushes in the alders are telling me this morning or whether the tidal lagoon rising beneath the pilings of my cabin will be high enough to drag a kayak to by the time I finish writing this.

May 27 is nearly halfway through the year, close to the summer solstice. Yet for me, at least, it is the start of a new year. On New Year's Day five months ago, I was too busy trying to grasp a dying relationship that was slipping out of my hands to reflect much on the previous year, or to define my dreams for the upcoming one. Instead, today will be the day in which I welcome in a new year, a new time. Self-centered? Maybe. But too bad. I ended my mid-twenties with a heartbreak more difficult than anything I'd previously endured. A single night of coming home alone to a dark house was more difficult than an entire year in a developing country, or months of camping in the Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter. I discovered a dark part of myself that I hadn't known existed. Today, as summer shoots begin to emerge and trees bud in the north, I find that I, too, have emerged on the other side, not whole, but still intact. My dreams are my own again. As I begin anew, I can see my life stretching out ahead of me like the ocean from the bow of my kayak: rippling, shimmering, full of possibility. 

Birthdays: like jumping into a blue abyss!

Monday, May 21, 2012


April 20, 2012.

“There is a time for departure, even when there's no certain place to go.” – Tennessee Williams

Denver, 4 p.m.

This is how I travel. I am sitting on a bench in downtown Denver surrounded by a mountain of luggage – the old green suitcase that I took to the Marshall Islands years ago; the dirty, fraying backpack I bought for $100 on a streetcorner in Missoula; the giant duffel I carried to Hawaii. My life is in these bags – and yet, it's not. Anyone passing by could easily snatch one, and my life would continue, this great journey that belongs to me and me alone. I do not doubt that there will be someone with whom I will share it for a good long stretch right down the middle, but in the beginning and in the end, it is solely mine. There are stories and moments and memories that reside only in my own body. I try to write some of them down, and many others I share as I travel over this earth, along its highways and through its maze of cities, up canyons and ridges, down rivers and seas. I meet so many people along the way. We pass in and out of each others' lives like planets spinning in orbit, intersecting at precise moments in space. When I travel I call up these old friends, and they pick up me and my luggage and we go places and do things and talk about where we were when we first crossed paths and where it is we hope to go. They shuttle me between each other, these friends of mine who live in the same city and yet do not know each other except through their connection to me. Six degrees of separation. I travel without a schedule, without plans. The roads sweep me up and drop me in places I never expected. I find myself sitting in downtown Denver among tall glass buildings mirroring the sun, scribbling in my notebook and watching the people who walk by, each of us wanting the same things but taking different roads to get there, some of us smiling at each other, some looking straight ahead; some in pairs, others alone, none of us knowing quite where we will be when we wake up tomorrow morning.

In the glass wall of the bus station I see an image of myself, dissected by the square panes of glass: a pile of luggage and a girl sitting next to it with a notebook and pen, a river of cars streaming behind her. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012


The water is colorless. It is neither blue nor gray nor aquamarine, and yet all those colors dance across its surface. It is not color but light, sparkling and alive, tossed up by the wind and lit by the sun playing in the clouds. The bow of my kayak bounces in the waves and the salt water splashes on my face and I dip my paddle into the sea again and lick my lips. They taste like ocean. I strain against the wind and the water, entwined with both. There is nothing but this endless plain of light, no sound but the gulls reeling overhead, and I am so happy to be back on the water.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Homer spit

Homer spit is Homer spit. It's not raw, pristine wilderness, but nor is it the Jersey Shore. It falls somewhere in between. The town of Homer, Alaska lies at the southwestern tip of the Kenai peninsula in the south-central part of the state, where the road ends. The sprawling road system comes to an abrupt halt at this wave-ravaged, wind-driven finger of sand, curling out four miles into the sparkling waters of Kachemak Bay. Out on the spit there are commercial fisherman and redneck kids on four-wheelers, writers and artists and, in the summer, tourists. Thousands of them pour from cruise ships and RVs, all eager for a taste of Alaska. They down a shot at the Salty Dawg Saloon, hook a giant halibut on charter boat and buy a sweatshirt from one of the brightly-colored gift shops perched on barnacled pilings. It's a little bit salty, a lot bit touristy, but nonetheless beautiful. There are sea otters and seals in the harbor, migrating cranes in the mudflats and moose wandering in the alders at the base of the spit. It is, after all, Alaska.

It is late April, and the tourists are still at home, plotting their vacations. Most of the storefronts are boarded up. There are a few signs on the bulletin boards posted by young fisherman from Iowa or Oregon looking for summer work. The winds blow and the air is cold, light dancing from a sun that stays late in the sky, belying the cold, hinting at the season to come. The marsh grasses are brown, stalks whispering dryly in the endless twilight.

Kate and I are driving a red rental car we picked up in Anchorage, four hours north. We drove it first to Seward, on the other side of the Kenai peninsula. There, the mountains are even more dramatic, rising straight up around the town, straight from the deep fjord of Resurrection Bay. We kayaked to a cabin in the spruce woods next to a waterfall. The woods still harbored a wet, dirty snow littered with pine needles and flecks of wood, but the cabin was warm and and we drank wine and played canasta and slept to the sound of rain dripping through the treetops, pinging against the metal roof, the campfire smell of the stove mingling with the wet marine air. 

We were close to Homer, but we couldn't get here from there. We had to drive three hours around the mountains to reach the spit. Now, as we shake out our tent, the light is brilliant, sun and clouds pulled apart and together by the wind, swirling in the sky. We camp on the sand, among twisted trunks of driftwood. Behind us, on the gravel lot, there is an aluminum trailer with 26 mongrel sled dogs chained up and down its sides, occasionally whipping themselves up into a yowl and then settling down again to lie in anticipation for the next distraction. Next to us are three Eskimo men with a boat and a heavy yellow tent they heat with propane. They offer us some of their bratwurst and we get to talking. I ask if they've been fishing. No, says the youngest, hunting. Like most native Alaskans, he speaks slowly, pausing before he answers. A camo jacket hangs off his wiry frame, and long, wavy black hair hangs over the cigarette that dangles from his lips. The two other Eskimos are older, with thick straight hair and heavy black mustaches. They're cousins, from Nome up north, but they now live in Anchorage. Every April, when the water is free of ice but the seals still have their winter blubber, they come here to hunt.

They pull back a blue tarp in their boat and I have to take a step back. Inside, the brightness of the blood is astonishing; it glows, the brightest of reds, drops of rubies splattered on the blue tarp. The two seals wrapped in the tarp are huge – 250 pounds apiece – laid out head to tail, with a neat bullet wound through each head. Their eyes are an icy blue, whiskers caked with blood. I've never seen a seal so close, or so dead. Where a knife has sliced through to bleed them out, their blubber is three inches thick. It will be used to make seal oil, which the men's mothers eat by the spoonful, like peanut butter from a jar. The gray speckled fur will be made into native crafts. Wayne shows me pictures on his iPhone of the masks and boots he makes from seal fur.

We drink wine from tin cups, and the endless twilight spirals on. The sun drops away but the sky does not darken. It is a metallic blue. The moon rises cold and distant. The man with the sled dogs turns out to be from Montana. He's just gotten off the mushing circuit and decided on a whim to drive to Alaska with his 26 dogs, just because. He's stayed two weeks so far, and may stay the whole summer, he says. Anything is possible. He's made friends with two other men who have been camping on the spit, both here alone in this strange season between when the snow melts and the tourists arrive. One is a cocky guy of about 30 who has been commercial fishing since he was 18, working the crab boats in the Bering Sea (he boasts). He broke his foot and is drinking away his workers comp checks, biding his time out on the spit. And there's Mark, who grew up in Hawaii and hasn't seen his daughter in ten years but is glad to be alive and living here in the salty, clean air. “Every day I live in awe,” he says, tilting his face toward the sky, the mountains: “Ahhhh!” He walks with one stiff leg, swinging it out as if it's a pirate's wooden peg. His face is crevassed with wrinkles. He teeth are yellow, his beard white, his eyes the same blue as those of his beautiful husky. Limping around camp to throw wood on the fire, pour wine, break up a dog fight, he bursts into song: Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Bob Marley. We are all living in awe.

None of us, not even the Eskimos, are from here. Each of us came to this stretch of no-man's land for our own reasons, and yet we came for the same reasons. For the way the wind whips the sand, the ocean surf crashes on the beach, the way the stars begin to pierce the slowly darkening sky. For the stark white mountains in the distance and the cold dark depths of the sea and all the dreams and fears and concealed answers locked away in those secret places. For the freedom and the promise and adventure of being at the end of the road, beyond the clogged highways and parking lots and climate-controlled office buildings. There is all of that, and there is loneliness too, a loneliness that everyone, after a few cups of wine, begins to let slip from their tongues. It is the one thing that binds us, out here on the spit, all of us young and old, male and female, all of us from somewhere else, sitting around a driftwood fire, feeling the pull of Alaska and the weight of what we've left behind. 

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