Updated: Apr 15, 2019
~ A True Tale About Seeking Orca ~
As the final decade of the 20th Century was coming to a close, I was beginning to get fed up with toxic stench and noise of city life and decided to use all three weeks of vacation time accumulated working for big bad banksters to take a road trip from my drab, gray high-rise apartment in downtown Dallas to Port McNeill at the northeast shore of Vancouver Island, BC on Queen Charolette Strait.
From Port McNeill I planned to venture south to go sea kayaking amongst wild orca hunting for wild salmon in the wild waters of Johnstone Strait. I was feeling wild and wanted to experience wilderness as much as possible. I had just purchased a shiny new 4x4 SUV and was anxious to take it as far outside city limits as I could for a long adventure to parts of the world I had never seen.
So I packed up lots of useful gear and tasty food, 40 gallons of extra water in four ten-gallon jugs, strapped a kayak and a couple of extra gasoline cans to its roof, grabbed a guitar and headed out in high, wild spirits.
First stop was Shiprock, while the SUV was still sparkling clean for our first selfie. Remnants of a volcano which had long ago choked on its own gorge of slowing lava looming in the background seemed like an appropriate symbol reflecting my own choking symptoms from living in cities many more years than I ever intended to.
My bosses at the bank sort of freaked out and were beside themselves when I announced I would be gone for almost a month, but they couldn't deny I had earned the time off. I had been busting my tail working on several key projects for them all year long, all to successful completion–making them look great in the eyes of their supervisors. I assured them I would be back. I just didn't tell them how sick I was of working at the bank or how long I would keep working there after I returned. I had already started sending out feelers for jobs in better places to live and work and had also started learning new technical skills to smooth the path when I did make my move. Additionally, I had just purchased a remote parcel of land in wilderness of northern New Mexico.
So off I went, taking a circuitous route west and north through several wilderness monuments in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Montana along the way. For the first time in my life I had grown my hair out to shoulder length in protest of everything close cropped and corporate. I was feeling devilish, making my first multi-night camp at Devil's Playground in Wyoming to spend a few days and nights there rejoicing in the freedom only a long vacation on open roads across wild back country can bring. No one else was there while I roamed around in solitude exploring the strange rock formations of the area, my private playground.
This turned out to be the case most everywhere I stopped to camp on my way up to Vancouver and on the trip back. Apparently, September is a great time to travel across the American west with diminished chance of encountering people. Weary of crowds, that suited me fine.
When I crossed the Yellowstone River I wanted so much to just park the SUV, carry the kayak across the meadow and set out over that great ribbon of clear, flat water, but a surf kayak wasn't the best vessel for that river, I wasn't adequately geared for camping in grisly bear country and I had to keep moving north. Vancouver Island was still a good way off, up a long winding road and a ferry ride across the Salish Sea. I would just have to return someday in the future to paddle long stretches of the gorgeous Yellowstone to my heart's content.
After touring the park and its geysers, I stayed at the Yellowstone Lodge one night, mostly just to be able to say I had. It was an interesting sight since I was there shortly after the forest fires had swept through large portions of the national park.
In Montana, I spent a few days in Glacier National Park. Upon arrival, I considered riding in one of the roll-top tour coaches along the Going To The Sun Road but ended up just driving it myself after a park ranger told me I was in luck, the road was open along its entire length this year thanks to continuing warm weather conditions.
I'm glad I did decide to drive it myself. I was able to stop and absorb much more of that amazing place moving along at my own sweet pace. The weather was perfect. The views were bright, clear and wide. The air smelled so incredibly good. The silence was intoxicating. I could feel the urge to finally break free and escape the hard gray edge of life in the stinking, noisy, lousy city for good mounting steadily in the back of my mind and slowly swelling deep in my chest someplace close to my heart. I began to imagine living full time on the recently purchased parcel of remote land in New Mexico, sooner than later. It would be several years before that could happen, but I knew it would eventually become a reality. Nothing would stop me now.
Roaming around in Glacier National Park for several days, I slowly began forgetting every care in the world related to life back in Dallas. But on my last day there, I sat for a long time looking out at the mountains thinking about the kind of crap I had to put up with working for one of the largest banks in the USA, recalling how I had very recently been assigned a distasteful task.
The Executive Vice President of our organizational group assigned a worthless employ to my team who spent the majority of her time at the office blabbering on the phone with friends instead of doing her job. I had gained a reputation as someone who knew how to efficiently and effectively organize and manage complex tasks for myself as well as for teams of all sizes. So he plopped her smack dab into my team without warning and left it entirely up to me to get her to actually produce something of value for the multi-billion dollar corporation we all were being paid so well to work for. "Oh boy", I thought, "this is going to be so much fun, and such great use of my talents and skills. Thanks a heap, bossman.".
My approach with her was simple and direct. Assign specific tasks, gain buy-in from her to complete them to my satisfaction and timeline, track her progress closely and call her out on tasks she did not complete on schedule to the high standards I expected them to meet.
Needless to say, her phone time was sharply curtailed and she didn't like that at all. Within a couple of weeks, she resigned to take a job "working" somewhere else. The Executive VP made a big show of coming to my desk, vigorously shaking my hand and thanking me for getting rid of her. Good grief. (Can you hear me groaning now as I type this post into the blog two full decades after this foolishness all took place? Yes, I am actually groaning out loud at the utter stupidity of it all as I punch it into the keyboard!). About a decade later, that bank would join the ranks of many others deemed "too big to fail" by foolish leadership in Washington DC and beg to be rescued at the expense of US tax payers. Groan, groan, groan, groan, groan.
Anyhow, after that bit of deep reflection, I departed Glacier National Park with the spark of a great idea forming in my head. It was just a spark but it was a warm, glowing hope for achieving future happiness.
As long as three weeks of vacation seems in terms of city and corporate time, the clock was ticking too fast in terms of road trip time and I had to get my butt moving on north to arrive at Port McNeill on schedule. The Canadian border was just a few miles away so I crossed near Waterton Lakes with a short-term goal of camping deep in Alberta's Kananaskis country a couple of days and nights. But crossing into Canada was no easy feat. When I arrived at the border gates, the guard took one look at my long, wavy head of hippie hair, beard and mustache and immediately ordered me to pull over into a small parking area to one side of the main guard building. "Why?" I asked. They didn't say, just pointing and waving at me to comply with their order. I could hear George Carlin doing his late 1960s You Got A Beard? You're Weird! bit in the back of my mind. Sheesh! It was almost the end of the 20th century by then.
After being detained and throughly searched by a shrewish Canadian border guard for more than three hours, I was finally allowed into the vast north country. I guess they thought I was a drug smuggler or something. The lady guard at the border who energetically searched every nook and cranny of my vehicle and every bag, pocket and container of my camping and kayaking gear seemed disappointed when she found nothing incriminating to nab me for. I feared she might order me to strip down for a cavity search. Too bad, but her fervor delayed my travels and I was only able to stay one night in the Kananaskis, doing some aimless hiking that afternoon and a bit of therapeutic river stone stacking in the evening.
Leaving at sunrise the next morning, I arrived at the hotel in Port McNeill just after dark two days later, too late to catch a meal and too weary to care. The hotel was also the town liquor store but I had no desire to drink anything alcoholic, so I just went to bed after watching a little bit of some Canadian comedy TV show going on about the new speeding cameras popping up along the highways on the island. I fell asleep to images of a comedian taking a photo of himself holding up his automatically photographed speeding violation notice at the camera and flipping the bird. I had seen several of those speeding photo machines along the way driving up island from Victoria and wondered if I might receive a speeding notice of my very own in the mail when I got back home to Dallas.
Looking across the harbor the next morning, the sky was a little overcast but the day soon turned sunny and warm. I had been lucky during the road trip across the American west and up the long stretch of Canadian island to Port McNeill to have had excellent weather the entire length of the journey. No rain at all. Hoping my luck would hold, I hurried down to the harbor and rented a wetsuit and snorkeling gear before I had to make the trip out into the strait, having just enough time left to grab some breakfast at a port-side donut shop.
My kayaking guide, Morgan, met me at the hotel parking lot, helped me transfer my gear to his truck–insisting I bring my guitar along–to take down to the harbor where we loaded it all onto his motorboat at the docks and set out right away south into Johnstone Strait to the island we would be camping on. It was a small island with a beautiful cove occupied by an octopus which would occasionally come up onto the beach to observe us. I snorkeled out into the depths of the cove a couple of times to try to catch a glimpse of it underwater but never did see it.
I was amazed by the vibrant colors of creatures living in the cove. I guess I expected everything in the chilly waters of the northwest coast to be all gray and drab.
At night, bioluminescent plankton made the water glitter and shimmer when wading along the edge of the beach.
Looking out across the cove from camp, we watched Orca swimming past each day in the channel between our island and a smaller island a short distance away. A bald eagle was living on the little island and would occasionally swoop down and snatch fish from the channel. Other small cetaceans and seals swam by and close in around the rocky shores of our island too. Currents in the channel were strong and dangerous. Morgan advised me not to swim too close to the outer edge of the cove or I could be swept away.
First sunset on the island was nicely tinted, promising good weather would persist the next day. Red sky at night, sailors delight.
On the first day kayaking out in Johnstone Strait, Morgan and I paddled in a tandem kayak south to a spot where he dropped a hydrophone into the water and listened for a while before informing me we were in good position to view a pod heading directly toward us. We waited, and he listened. Momentarily he pulled the hydrophone out of the water and told me he thought the pod was going to swim very close, to keep my paddle out of the water and get my camera ready to shoot photos. It's illegal to pursue, approach or harass Orca in any way, but perfectly okay to let them swim close if they are inclined to do so of their own accord. We were lucky that morning. The pod came so close, a huge bull swam directly beneath our kayak. I stared down at it through the clear water as it rolled on its left side to have a look up at us with its big right eye, then surfaced just a few meters away and exhaled explosively–the spray of its fishy breath showering over us. I was ecstatic at our luck of having such a close encounter with them. Photos I snapped of the bull swimming beneath us did not come out (too much reflection on the water's surface) but I did manage to catch this one of it very close as it surfaced. I took photos as quickly as I could, repeatedly muttering the word "perfect" under my breath the entire time. The most perfect thing I had ever seen in the world.
Jake and assistant guide Gontron watching the orca swim by. The tour group in the distance could only watch from afar, prohibited from paddling any closer toward the passing pod.
The next day, the weather wasn't good for kayaking so we went out in Morgan's offshore hardtop aluminum fishing boat and explored some of the other islands in the strait. One had an abandoned fishing village on it.
We went ashore and explored the village of Mamalilaculla where the Kwakwaka'wakw once lived and defined wealth not by the amount of possessions amassed, but by the amount of possessions given to others. What a concept. Artists were considered leaders producing elaborate works for use in potlach ceremonies. My favorites are their transformation masks. They did not mar their fine creations with their signatures.
Fortunately, I didn't lose my camera in the water like I did on my first journey to the northwest territories and came back with plenty of photos.
The Kwakwaka'wakw population was decimated by deadly diseases carried ashore by Europea