Updated: Apr 15
~ 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 grizzly 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 Europeans while their culture and customs were suppressed by narrow minded methodist missionaries pushing them to assimilate.
I struggled to understand why anyone would stop living in such a beautiful place. It was so lush and green and full of life. There were groves of plum trees loaded with ripe fruit and beautifully carved totems gathering moss like this wolf totem.
Unfortunately, we had to cut our exploration of the village short when we encountered a bear feeding in the plum grove, deciding it deserved its privacy more than we deserved to explore after it started chuffing at us in agitation. When we got back to the boat, we found the tide had started out and we had to hump and heave like crazy to get the heavy boat off of the beach so we could make our escape from the angry bear and get back to camp in time for supper.
Fortunately, we managed to get the boat floating again so we could leave the feeding bear in peace. The main course at supper was fresh salmon caught that morning by the tour company owner and delivered late that afternoon in person. Enjoying a bit of excellent island skunk sitting on the edge of a rocky point above camp the final evening of the outing, plucking out a few tunes on the guitar for Morgan and his fellow guide Gontron as the sun set, we capped off a nice collection of deeply memorable experiences with good conversation, music and a comfortable buzz. Morgan's excellent skills as a guide allowed a close encounter of the Orca kind I will never forget. Gontron mentioned that the owner of the tour company liked to swim naked amongst the Orca.
On the long drive back down island to catch the ferry across the Salish Sea from Victoria to Vancouver, I stopped at an unusual seafood restaurant at Fanny Bay for a leisurely meal of raw oysters and boiled crab. The deck of the old cable layer BRICO was a little tilted, but the view and seafood was excellent. I sat there sliding down oysters by the dozen and watching sea lions loll about in warm sunlight on nearby pier planks. The weather was perfect. A delightful farewell to Canada and all it had shared with me.
On the ferry ride from Victoria, my plan to escape the hard gray edge was firming up in my mind. There were still a lot of unknowns, but the unknowns are what make life interesting. The journey had healed me as well as opened my mind to new possibilities.
Landing in Vancouver, I decided to visit Larrivée Guitars Ltd. out at the edge of the train yards to see if they could custom build a cedar-top, cutaway concert guitar with dolphin inlay in the headstock to commemorate the excellent journey I was just about to wrap up. I wanted something more than memories and mere photos to remind me of the time I experienced floating and swimming waters where Orca lived and feasting on the same wild fish they did.
Jean Larrivée had started building fine acoustic guitars about a decade after I was born and I had been lucky enough to lay hands on one of his early guitars the year I graduated from college, a used 1971 L-19.
Even though I showed up at their shop unannounced, Jean and Wendy both welcomed me inside and took time out of their busy schedules to give me a tour of their shop and talk with me about the guitar's design. They agreed to build the guitar, refusing to take any downpayment for its construction. A few months later, I received a call from a guitar dealer in Dallas saying the guitar had just been delivered, final set up had been applied and it was ready for me to take home to play.
It's a work of art and a pleasure to play, sounding mellow with rich undertones which improve with age. I take it with me everywhere I travel, even down to the Red River bottom where the color of the river's sand compliments its red cedar top.
Wendy's inlay work is superb, better than anything I could have ever imagined she might create. It's the perfect instrument for intimate solo performances in small venues like restaurants, coffee shops and private home parties and was instrumental (pun very much intended) in saving my butt after being laid off from a dot com job I chased out to Colorado Springs just a couple of years after twisting off from the big, bad bank.
Performing original works as a singer/songwriter along the front range and a few places a little deeper into the Rockies like Oney's in Florrisant, the guitar sounded as good on stage as it looked. I managed to survive five months doing the roving performer stuff and selling a few homemade CDs, possibly the finest five months of my unemployed life.
One of my favorite moments after taking the guitar home was handing it to my father so he could play it. He introduced me to the joys of playing guitar when I was seven years old and taught me finger style techniques I still utilize today. That, along with his wise and imaginative guidance along an indescribable chain of life experiences and lessons in everything from hiking and camping to music, engineering, steel structure construction, solar power, mathematics and computer science, he has been a key (pun intended again) root cause of just about every action I have ever taken in my life, including the road trip I had just completed a few months before the photo this painting is based on was taken.
Together, we worked to build the remote studio here where FLUXFAZE Creative Enterprises, LLC resides and has operated since its inception over a decade ago. The place where this blog post was just hammered out today. The place I look forward to experiencing more of this life as it all unfolds, moment by moment, and eventually sharing it on this website.
With only a few days of vacation remaining, I rushed down the west coast on State Route 1 to Campbell, California so I could visit with a college roommate before heading back east toward home.
Carl and Vicky welcomed me into their beautiful home without hesitation on short notice, Carl took me out for a lunch of delicious sushi (I had a little trouble wielding my chopsticks, so embarrassing but we chuckled together over how good guitar player's fingers rarely do work well at other tasks), then we went back to his house where he let me pluck around on his father's vintage Martin guitar for a bit.
As the sun started descending into the west I told them I had to leave soon. They bid me farewell with gifts of fine wine and bread, a bit of really good weed, and fresh oranges and grapefruit picked from the trees in their backyard. The bemusement on Vicky's face in the photo above is born out of wonderment that Carl had actually roomed and associated with such a nutcase in his younger days almost two decades before this little reunion.
When the photo at left came back from the processing lab, I could totally understand why she was so amused. Good grief what a goofball, but I was glad I took the time to make the long drive down the coast to see Carl again and meet Vicky. I haven't been able to do it since then and kind of doubt I ever will. Trips like that cost a lot and I may never make as much as I was back in the days working for the big bad banksters.
Heading east, I drove through vast orchards of almond trees and arrived at Yosemite at dusk, found a nice camping spot and settled down to enjoy the refreshments Vicky and Carl had given to me. It is difficult to recall having such fine fare in any campsite before or since. Sights, sounds and smells of Yosemite made me want to stay a long time but I was rapidly running out of vacation days. I had to leave at dawn, hoping to get to Nevada before nightfall so I could camp near Area 51.
I hoped to see something strange in the sky there.
Skies to the east looked a little low and dark. Looked like I might run into some stormy weather soon.
But the weather held and I was able to enjoy a few hours kayaking between the strange tufa formations rising out of Mono Lake. The seagulls were unperturbed by my presence.
They seemed to be interested in the brine shrimp bloom going on that day, and possibly scuba flies too.
After a few more strokes of the paddle, I loaded up the kayak and headed east into Nevada.
The Warm Springs Bar & Cafe was boarded up. I wasn't sure if I should be disappointed or grateful.
So I headed on down the Extraterrestrial Highway over to the Little A'Le'Inn at Rachel for a cool drink before looking around for a camping spot on BLM land near Area 51...but not too near.
Finding a good spot with no one else in sight and no Area 51 warning signs, I set a fire-free camp. Things were just too dry to risk loosing a spark in a breeze and ending up on TV news for being too stupid to know better.
Settling down to play didgeridoo without risking offending any one but myself and the horny toads, I tried to buzz and blap on the thing well enough to attract attention of alien spacecraft hovering overhead in stealth mode.
I saw nothing and heard nothing unusual at all throughout the night, but the stars and galactic arm were the brightest I had ever seen them in my life.
Back in New Mexico, a quick hike around and through lava tubes near Grants was a nice diversion, but scary too considering the number of tubes which had caved in. I decided one visit inside a tube or two was plenty for me.
One final, brief stop to camp overnight at a favorite spot in Caprock Canyon State Park near Turkey, Texas kept me from freaking out completely at the grim prospect of returning to life in the city.
Arriving back at the hard gray edge I found my only solace in a plan for escape already in action. A head hunter had spotted me and was actively working on a new job lead at no charge to me. Those were the days when corporations still paid employees well and enjoyed poaching good ones from their competitors.
So I returned to my duties at the bank for a few more months, quit that job, moved into a luxury apartment and spent a few months working at the stepping-stone company which was promptly purchased by another big bankster corporation. I was fortunate to be allowed to set up and put to use a brand new Sun Workstation in my work there.
It was a very nice computing platform I enjoyed using it but by midsummer of the new century, less than two years after the long vacation, I was happily packing up all of my stuff to leave Dallas–for better or worse–to chase the great dot com bubble to Colorado, a first step toward the ultimate goal of living full time on the wilderness land in New Mexico.
Nothing about the move went as expected. The dot com company folded less than a year after I went to work there and I was laid off. I wasn't very disappointed, though. Colorado Springs wasn't anything like it used to be. Too big and noisy. Too much traffic and pollution . . . but that's another story altogether.