Happy summer! For anyone in the Bay Area, I’ll be presenting slides, video, and a short reading from The Sun is a Compass at Book Passage in Corte Madera next Monday, August 12th. I’d love to see you there! If you have friends or family who live in the area and are interested in birds, wildlife, adventure, or Alaska, please share!
Swimming with dolphins, lounging with apes, or otherwise integrating myself into another species’ social folds has never been on my bucket list. I don’t feel the need to be physically close to wildlife to appreciate the amazing facts of their lives. In fact, when I’m watching animals, I’m often wearing my scientist’s cap, attempting to answer particular questions about their behavior while trying to avoid assigning my own human values to what I observe. But several days ago, as Chaika sailed with a pod of orca whales, the nearness of a magic underwater world nearly bowled me over.
When we first spotted black fins silhouetted against the shore of Baranof Island, the whales were distant off our port and I was content simply knowing they were there. But as we traveled north up Chatham Strait, they paralleled us, moving closer and closer. Soon we had fifteen orcas swimming around our boat, their movements purposeful and smooth. This was obviously not a chance encounter, but an inquisitive visit. Two other groups stayed much farther offshore, their blows appearing each time we scanned the water. Among the whales surfacing nearby, cows and their calves drew my attention most as they moved through the water synchronously, typically within a body’s length of each other and sometimes touching. The calves were many times my size, and clearly more powerful, but the way they clung so closely to their mothers’ sides made them appear as small and vulnerable as my own children had been as infants. One large male made a dramatic appearance as he surfaced in slow motion, his shiny black dorsal fin rising grandly like he owned the sea. And, in that moment, he did. Soon after, he spy-hopped—raising his head vertically from the water—and looked right at us. What might he have thought about a boat roughly the same size as himself, with a flapping white sail and several two-legged creatures dangling above his water world? I’ll never know, but I swear I saw curiosity staring back at me.
Our boys—aged 2 and 4—sat on deck in their rain gear and exclaimed, jumping with each noisy blow. “Wooooow!” “Orca whales!” “Are they diving to the very bottom of the ocean?” “There’s a mommy!” “There’s a daddy!” “There’s a baby!” “Where do they sleep without a bed?” Even in the midst of their excitement, they didn’t experience this whale sighting as an event to catalog in their minds as “the time I saw orcas up close,” but instead as a day, like every other, when whales happened to visit us. For this fact, I am grateful. I want my kids to grow up in a world in which the existence of whales and other wild creatures is not rare or imagined—to be read about in a book describing faraway places or distant times—but real, and every bit as necessary as our own lives.
Orcas are incredibly social animals, a fact I knew but didn’t fully appreciate until this encounter. They live in matrilineal family groups that together make up pods, which can consist of 40 animals or more. The whales we watched were piled upon themselves, their bodies often touching, or nearly so, as they rose to the surface. I won’t pretend to know enough about whale behavior to understand why they were in such frequent physical contact—play, feeding strategy, communication, bonding? Or, dare I say it, a cetacean expression of love?
The boys watched the whales for thirty minutes, then went down below to play a game of “surfing,” by jumping from cushion to mat on our tiny galley floor. In brightly-colored swim hats and shorts, their game was both hilarious and adorable. And it kept them occupied long enough for Pat and I to continue watching the whales as they swam nearby, gracing us with their presence for another hour or more. Pat climbed the mast for an elevated vantage and I stood in the bowsprit, as close to an orca as I likely ever will be. Until this encounter, I hadn’t noticed the gradations of color on orcas’ backs and necks—from jet black to ochre to a nearly translucent gray. Each one looked not like a generic whale but an individual with every bit of the distinctiveness of a human form. As they circled around our boat, I was anointed by whale breath.
We spent the last four weeks on Chaika, once again reminding ourselves of the pleasures of boat life—time to observe, the company of wildlife, the intimacy of small spaces. Of course there are also the challenges—managing frustrations when there’s nowhere else to go; soggy, smelly gear that dangles from every available hook; inefficiencies of work in a tiny, chaotic “office.” We traveled through Glacier Bay, meeting with another boat family (Lindsay and Graham on Sika) with their smiley 5-month-old daughter (“baby Mira”) and getting in a few days of boat-based skiing. We felt the fury of the Gulf of Alaska as we ventured outside Yakobi Island. We visited hot springs in one of the most magical places on earth. We saw dozens of humpback whales, hundreds of sea lions, and thousands of migratory birds on their spring migration. We were, once again, so very blessed to share in these experiences of the wilder sort.
Our dear friends, Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler, made the passage across the Gulf of Alaska to join us for our last days north up Lynn Canal. The boys were thrilled to once again have company besides their parents, particularly since it came with all-you-can-drink lemonade, tales from the sea, a sweet dog, and a collection of treasures that would inspire wonder in a kid of any age. The usually-fierce winds of Lynn Canal eased enough for us to anchor off the beach in front of our cabin, and we stayed here before returning Chaika to Haines. Until our next journey on the water, this will be her home. We will be at the cabin for several weeks, enjoying land-based adventures, catching up on projects, and stretching our sea legs.
Thanks to everyone for following along. I’ve been a bit behind in my posts, but please stay tuned for more photos, notes, and updates about cabin life and book events. I look forward to seeing many of you later this summer.
An article about sailing the Inside Passage with kids came out online this week in the New York Times travel section and is available in print this Sunday, May 19th. I hope you enjoy it!
I’m a bit behind on updates as these have been a busy couple of months—book launch, travel, skiing, and sailing. Thanks to everyone for the amazing support and, most of all, for reading! If you’re interested, you can find links to other recent interviews, podcasts, and book reviews here.
Audubon published an excerpt from The Sun is a Compass! Read about our journey through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge here: Wildlife Biologist Brings us on an Odyssey. Among bird-lovers, there is no greater compliment!
Feeling a bit of spring fever? You’re not alone! Check out a short piece about birds, spring, and migration I published in the LA Times Op-Ed section this morning: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-van-hemert-migration-birds-spring-20190310-htmlstory.html
I have a short piece coming out in the current issue of Sidetracked. For anyone who isn’t familiar with this adventure/travel outlet, it’s a beautifully designed magazine full of photographs and stories sure to inspire wanderlust. You can find more information here: https://sidetracked.bigcartel.com/product/sidetracked-volume-14
A travel van the size of an American suburban. Two boys with joie de vivre that never stops coming, and with it a steady stream of shouting, tears, laughter, and chaos. Four sets of toes touching in the night. A Christmas spent hiking over a remote mountain pass, my two-year on my back, my four-year-old discovering how far his legs can carry him. A front seat office crammed with duffel bags, Legos, water bottles, and the clothes we’d recently shed. Eight hour trail runs that took Pat and me (on alternate days) into the mountains and forests, where we could think, and feel, and sweat in the privacy of our own company. The Bar-tailed Godwits that flew from Alaska in the ultimate test of endurance. The lakes that were impossibly blue, even without rose-tinted sunglasses. The backcountry huts where we hushed our boys to sleep and I bivvied when a mountain run turned epic. The Morepork owl that chased moths in the dim porch light of a neighboring cabin. Days spent mostly outdoors in an island nation with so much to see. This was our New Zealand.
Perhaps I could write a guide on how to travel with children if you care little for personal space, quiet time, or locating a pair of clean socks on any given day. Ironically, I care a lot about all of these things, and yet I’m learning, little by little, to let them go. Our year of travel as a family has been less one of indulgence than restraint. Don’t yell, once again, about the fact that our clean spoons are being used as earth movers. Don’t groan when Huxley says he needs to use the toilet five minutes after we’ve stopped for a bathroom break. Try to ignore the messes and noise while typing a professional email from inside of a cluttered van or a tiny sailboat. In exchange, I’ve been offered the gift of watching my boys create imaginary worlds with sticks and mud. I’ve been humbled when Huxley notices birds before I do, and instructs me on how to avoid a slippery root in the trail. I’ve been privy to Dawson’s running commentary about trees and sheep and the dried figs he loves as he chats happily on my back. These are rare moments, I know. All too often, I’m guilty of forgetting the fact that childhood is short, and our time as parents to young children even shorter. On our multi-day backpacking trips in New Zealand, we met few families but many parents whose children are now grown. In those encounters, nothing and everything was said at once. The eyes of a mother lighting up at the sight of our chubby, towheaded toddler told me that I was fortunate, indeed. The grandpa who smiled at Huxley’s shyness, much like his own son two decades earlier, reminded me of the virtues of patience. The parents who said, again and again, “You will never regret this. Time passes much too quickly.”
Our trip to New Zealand is over, but our year is not. We’ve spent a couple of weeks in the Methow Valley of eastern Washington, staying in a lovely cabin that has allowed us to get our feet on the ground again, play in the snow with friends, and enjoy the fact of not packing up the van each day. Soon, we’ll head back to our cabin in southeast Alaska to see what winter on Lynn Canal might bring. We also have more travel in store this spring, in part due to my forthcoming book.
For anyone who doesn’t know, The Sun is a Compass will be released in late March and I’m looking forward to celebrating, in Anchorage and elsewhere. I have an event at the Anchorage Museum on March 20th: Book launch. I hope you can join me, and, if you’re interested, please consider pre-ordering: The Sun is a Compass. (I apologize for this shameless plug, but pre-ordering really does help authors as the strange algorithms that control the buying and selling of everything these days apparently do much of their work before a book has even been released into the world.) Thanks so much for the support and I look forward to seeing many of you soon!
We’ve taken a break from the northern hemisphere winter and are on the North Island of New Zealand, living in a small camper van, and exploring a wildly different environment. Thanks to whining kids in the backseat, and a deluge outside, we made a recent detour that has so far been the highlight of our trip. Sometimes a 4-year-old knows best (as he regularly reminds us), and this time he was right: a small, family-run dairy farm was the perfect place to wait out the rain.
Without kids, we likely wouldn’t be traveling through New Zealand by van in the first place, and certainly wouldn’t have stopped at a place called The Farm simply for the novelty of it. We wouldn’t have met Mike, the farm’s lively owner, or seen the free-form operation he runs with his wife, children, and whoever else happens to be around on a given day. We’d likely be camped on a glacier in the snow rather than mucking through cow patties and watching pigs squabble over bread crumbs. We’d probably be fitter, and arguably tougher, at least in the physical realm, but no further from our comfort zone, no wiser to the many ways of making a home or building a family. Here, home consists of a sprawling farmhouse, 1,000 acres of marginal grazing land, outbuildings in various states of disrepair, two hundred dairy cows, a few dozen pigs, and a hodgepodge of cats, dogs, chickens, rabbits, and ponies. Family means more than just parents and kids. When I asked Mike how many children he has, he hesitated, and turned toward one of his sons. “What are we up to these days, anyway? We used to say 9, but I guess it’s really 11.” Only 4 are biological; the rest came to them by various means: a family friend’s death of cancer at 50, foster care, the fact that there are few places more welcoming to a traveler stranded on the roadside or a child in need of a home.
The scene is chaotic, but somehow it all works. The pigs get fed, the cows get milked, the floors are clean each morning. And everyone seems happy doing it, largely unbothered by the general state of entropy. All around the compound, there are motorbikes and old sheds and leaking roofs while every variety of animal grazes or rests nearby. Entire buildings look like someone’s junk drawer, housing an eclectic mix of the domestic and the industrial: sailing trophies perched atop a broken washing machine, an antelope head mounted next to an ancient piece of farm machinery, steel drums serving as a clothesline for a pair of jeans drying in the sun. There are tractors missing a track, cars missing a wheel, gates with broken latches, and doors coming off of their hinges. Yesterday morning, while we ate breakfast on the porch, a dozen cows ran frantically through the yard. A fence had been left open, or a latch was broken, or who knows what, but all of the cows had escaped during the night and Sunday morning was spent in pursuit of the wanderers. Most people would be floored, or at least annoyed, but when Mike drove up in a 4-wheeler pulling two trailers held together with wire and duct tape, he grinned hugely and shouted, “Good morning, how you all going today?” He and his sheep dog were covered in mud, sweating and panting respectively, and undeniably giddy. This was apparently the excitement they lived for, even if it meant that the many other tasks on his endless to-do list would have to wait another day. And yet he found time to show our boys how the milking shed worked, to instruct one of his trainees to get milk to feed the calves with us (also slightly askew as the boy’s floundering math skills left him with twice the volume he needed and later wondering why the calves weren’t more hungry), and to show us his giant pet steer, “Frosty” who weighs more than a ton and is as gentle as a house cat. What more could a kid wish for on a weekend? Does hospitality get any better than this? I can see why many people never leave, as it’s both the most welcoming and the most unassuming place I’ve ever visited. And on what other farm does morning milking happen at 10 am?
We’ll stay another day or two, then head a bit farther north before turning south again. After a long first week in Auckland, shopping for a camper van and getting sorted with the basic logistics of living in a new place, we’ve found a rhythm in our funny little van. We can all sleep inside, just barely, with the collapsed car seats extending the bed into a modified queen. Head-to-toe, with Pat’s legs serving as referee between the boys (they even manage to fight in their sleep). We’ve mostly been traveling through areas more rural than remote, but have stumbled onto our share of hiking trails and quiet coves. Of course there’s no shortage of new things to discover, especially from a kid’s perspective. We’ve waded thigh-deep in an underground stream, hiked along narrow sea bluffs, and wondered at the odd shape of the moon from the perspective of the southern hemisphere. The trees are exotic and the flowers abundant. Mornings are filled with birdsong that I don’t yet know. Some of the birds have come here for the winter warmth like we have, while others are just beginning their breeding season. I spotted my first Bar-tailed Godwit (an Arctic migrant) several days ago and last night heard the calls of a resident owl with a name that can’t help but make you smile (Morepork). Watching gannets dive is a favorite family pastime, or at least a favorite in my book.
We have our sights on the mountains of the South Island and will likely head there soon, but not until after a few more adventures on the northern coast, hopefully with a stop at the Miranda Shorebird Centre. It’s a sister organization to the Alaska Science Center (where I work), and they collaboratively track the amazing migrations of Bar-tailed Godwits and other shorebirds that transit the globe. For the next six weeks, we have no real itinerary, and only a little work to attend to. Life in a van with a 2- and a 4-year-old won’t suit us forever, but we’ll take it for now. Sending good winter wishes to everyone up north!
Our son, Huxley, was five weeks old when a local pilot landed on the beach in front of our cabin in his Super Cub. We’d last seen him when he delivered a food resupply to us in Glacier Bay the previous spring. At the time, we were on a ski and packraft traverse from Yakutat to Haines, at the peak of our backcountry wanderlust, and seemingly far from being the parents of an infant. A year later, as I walked down the beach to greet the pilot, I wondered what he might say when he saw that we had a baby. He isn’t known for niceties, or small talk even. He’s more apt to curse at you than to ask how you are, though he’s kind behind his often brash manner.
“What’s going on?”
“Not too much, just got out here.”
And then he notices. “What the hell is that? A baby?”
He’s a father himself, though certainly not without his tortured moments of parenthood, about which we’ve heard plenty while in the air with him or prepping gear in his hangar. Waiting for a snide comment, or a “now you’ve done it” look, I brace myself. Instead, I see something soften in his face when he says, “Oh, you’ve got to do it. It’ll make you a better person.”
He’s right. It will make you a better person. It makes me a better person every day, even during those moments of wanting to pull my hair out, or yell, or recruit a babysitter so Pat and I can have a few minutes of quiet. Or those less-proud moments when I do lose my temper and shout because our kids are fighting, for the twelfth time, over who gets to close the door. Because it’s been raining for a week straight. Because two boys in a small cabin are impossible. And yet I can’t imagine it any other way.
On the mornings when current political realities feel suffocating (as they often do lately), I can’t help but smile as footed pajamas come padding down the stairs. It’s a new day, and there’s no denying it when a 2- and a 4-year-old wake up ready for adventure. It’s raining buckets, but they don’t care. There’s the same bad news on the radio, but they’re too busy listening to the patter on the roof and the wind in the trees to notice. Their energy is spent battling over who gets more raisins, figuring out how we will join three toys with a single piece of twine, or pondering why crabs don’t live where the waves crash on the beach. For this, I am both driven mad and infinitely grateful. Their world view dwells entirely in the present. Though Pat and I can’t attest to the same, when we are with them we are forced into living in the now, and nowhere else. It’s a chaotic sort of Zen.
Over the past several days, our local lighthouse has been reporting gusts of 50 knots, every bucket and barrel is full to overflowing, and our beach froths white with surf. It’s fall in Lynn Canal, which means rain, wind, and big seas. Five years ago, I would have snuggled up by the woodstove, pulled a favorite novel from the bookshelf, and settled in to watch the storm splatter rain against the windowpanes. Today, I am reading children’s books and cleaning playdough from the cracks in the floor. After a summer that never seemed to end, we have no grounds for complaint about the recent stormy weather. But cabin fever takes on certain intensity with two active young boys sharing our space. Sipping coffee and daydreaming on the couch is not in our current life plan. Fortunately, after four months spent largely outside, the boys don’t think much about suiting up in raingear and playing with trucks and sticks in the deluge. Ironically, in a rainstorm, the most popular activity seems to involve buckets of water.
Since Pat put up the electric bear fence, we’ve had only two breaches—a brazen black bear that either didn’t get shocked the first time, or didn’t get the message that nuzzling a charged wire is uncomfortable. On the first occasion, the bear didn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary as it ambled past our porch. The second time, it came barreling through, hightailing out the opposite side, perhaps a sign that something about the fence finally registered as a deterrent. We haven’t seen it since.
We had a glorious September, with more sunshine than I thought possible for a southeast Alaskan fall. Between catching up on work, writing, and cabin projects, we’ve enjoyed lots of mini-adventures at Glacier Point and nearby. As usual, we’ve had more wildlife than human visitors, although a fun week with cousins from Seattle almost bucked that trend. Large rafts of scoters have come and gone, a coyote trotted just a few feet from me, sea lions have toyed with our crab pot, and half a dozen bears have wandered by. We’ve taken trips to the nearby islands to beachcomb, tested our rowboats with all four of us on board, and hiked to the Davidson Glacier.
Beyond the many idyllic cabin scenes, however, is the looming prospect that the University of Alaska will finalize the timber sale they’ve been threatening. So far, they’ve been unwilling to disclose any details, other than the fact that all of their holdings in the area are up for negotiation, including parcels neighboring ours. We’re surrounded by nothing but water and trees for miles, and yet sometimes it feels like the chainsaws and loaders could come at any moment. So far it’s only been a crew of five timber surveyors, snarling at me when I walked over to say hello. We’re trying not to let these facts gnaw at us, and, as with all the rest, kids are a good antidote to worrying too much about what might come.
A fall backpacking trip in the Haines Pass also reminded us that wilderness travel with a toddler and a preschooler is possible, and even fun. Huxley impressed us all by hiking more than 5 miles a day, with glacially-fed creek crossings among his highlights. At that pace, we could actually make it somewhere. Even if the distances aren’t large, and barely a quarter of what Pat and I became accustomed to traveling on our own, several miles off-trail is far enough to find a bit of wildness. In this case, it came in the form of a stunning glacial valley, a black wolf loping across the tundra, and blueberry bushes still thick with berries. After a few days in the mountains, we were inspired to try more of the same. Though it’s literally on the other side of the planet, we’d been toying with the idea of traveling to New Zealand, in large part because of the many easy opportunities for backcountry travel, especially with kids. Finding mileage tickets pushed us over the edge and we are now officially going! We have been reluctant to leave Glacier Point after looking forward to spending much of the year here, but a week of intense rain and wind is helping to convince us that taking a little break won’t be so bad. We have no real itinerary, other than spending most of our time hiking and camping.
So, in a month, as I’m wondering what I’m doing on an extended road trip with a toddler and a preschooler, listening to more depressing political news from home or worrying about logging in my backyard, I will remind myself that I am in training to be a better person. A more compassionate person. A person who can take in all of what the world has to offer, in its ugliest and most beautiful forms, and still ask hopefully, “a few more raisins?”
There are some old souls in this world. Born to do the things that typically come with old age (or at least retirement), an old soul will tinker, sit in a nice chair on the porch, and observe the slant of light on the mountains. Huxley is 4 going on 65. He has all the energy and curiosity of a preschooler, yet tends toward the geriatric in his interests. Left to his own devices, he’ll tie knots, hammer in the workshop, sort his carefully archived treasures, or walk in the woods immediately behind our cabin (with a thoughtfully selected hiking stick, of course). In the name of a good project, he persists with jobs that others might find unpleasant and tiresome. Haul brush the same size as he is. Tie the same knot twenty times before it comes out right. Trip over a trail of endless roots. He’s a boy in heaven at a remote cabin site. The only problems arise when someone interrupts his work to say that it’s time to eat dinner, or go back to the cabin, or put on his pajamas. “But I’m working on a really tricky knot right now.” Fair enough, but even an old soul needs to eat.
Dawson, on the other hand, is the embodiment of free-wheeling youth. Laugh hard, leap high, poke everything and everyone (including his brother) with sharp objects to see what will happen. Fortunately, Huxley seems to find many of these behaviors, minus the poking, more humorous than we do. Together, they make a good pair. Cabin life would be much more tranquil, but infinitely less exciting, without their company.
Landing at Glacier Point after a summer on the sailboat has definitely felt like a homecoming. It’s been quiet, but not dull. There’s so much to explore and see, even on the micro-scale that seems to be our range these days with the boys. A cozy cabin and endless beach and woods to roam have allowed all of us to stretch our legs and spread out after months of confined quarters. We miss much of the simplicity of Chaika, but being on dry land is also a welcome change. Since we arrived, we’ve been neck-deep in projects, which seem to define our existence out here. A few of the projects, at least for me, are related to writing and work. Most of them, however, attend to the basics of a remote, off-the-grid existence.
Modern homesteading, like sailing, depends on a large number of systems. Water systems. Power systems. Boat systems. And, because I’m trying to work from this remote site, satellite and computer systems. Every one of these is unconventional, finicky, and often assembled in an iterative process of learning from our mistakes. We conceived of many of these a dozen years ago, when we knew much less and had little money to throw at fancy equipment. As a result, most things work, but not without some serious muscle and a few magic spells. We have a mooring anchor with a running line but because of the fact that the mountains act like a wind tunnel here, we frequently have to haul our 18’ skiff onto the beach. Enter the trailer (hauled in pieces on the skiff), the ancient smoke-belching gas-powered winch, and the deadman log buried five feet under the gravel. We collect rainwater from the roof, which fills a 550-gallon tank sitting beneath our kitchen floor. Don’t look inside too closely or you might notice the green slime. We have a bathtub indoors, but it’s currently serving as Dawon’s bed. Instead we shower outside with a tiny on-demand water heater that is among the most modern of our machinery fleet, and the most reliable. Pat and the boys have almost finished setting up a bear fence to help keep our large, furry neighbors out of our compound. We charge our battery bank with solar panels and will add a wind generator this fall. There are a lot of moving pieces in our lives, besides a 2- and 4-year-old
For years, we’ve battled various systems for getting phone or internet connectivity. Most recently, I had resorted to taking the half-mile walk to an old plywood boat that washed up many decades ago near the lagoon north of our cabin. This location, which we’ve dubbed the “phone booth,” offers spotty cell service, although sometimes sending an email can take two hours. We’d tried satellite once before; after following many complicated and confusing instructions from the local installer, we managed to wrestle the dish into place and pick up a signal, but the company folded just a few months later and the large dish we had hauled out there was useless. We’ve also employed various antennas and boosters, all without any success. This time, we needed a better solution because of my work and the fact that we plan to be here for much of the year. Plus, the “phone booth” had obviously experienced a hard winter and was missing its roof when we returned this season. So satellite seemed like a necessary evil again. We were surprised to find that the set-up was much easier than the first time, and we soon had a signal. After finishing, triumphant and now connected to the outside world from the comfort of the cabin, life suddenly seemed a bit tamer. But then Pat took a trip to the outhouse, scared a brown bear out of the woods, and the wild again felt very close to home, satellites orbiting above us or not.
We arrived here later this year than ever before, and many of the birds have already left, the beach strawberries have come and gone, and the first yellow leaves are dropping from the cottonwood trees. Fortunately, we weren’t too late for the fish, and caught a winter’s worth in a single morning. We use a small drift net (similar to commercial gillnetters, but only 1/10th of the size) to haul sockeye salmon from the Chilkat Inlet. After a day of processing, our freezer—powered by the solar panels—is stocked and we are rich in one of the best wild foods out there. Now we can join our old soul on the porch, watching the waves with full and grateful bellies.
Thumbs up for pizza dinner.