Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

What Would Phil Connor Do?

It is the first day of July, 2020, but like every other day this summer, the date didn’t matter much when I awoke this morning. Honestly, it feels more like the 123rd day of a March that will never end. I would say it feels like the 151st Groundhog Day, but I spent Groundhog Day on safari in India and I would not complain about 151 days of looking for tigers and elephants!

Nevertheless, there is something rather Groundhog Day-esque about my current life, and the lives of many others during this global pandemic, even if my days are not as predictable as Phil Connor’s were in the movie. Thankfully, I did not wake up to the same Sonny and Cher song as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that… I Got You, Babe!

Back in March, having just returned home to Alaska from three amazing weeks in India, I signed contracts to spend nine weeks of my summer at sea as a National Geographic Certified Photo Instructor and Naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions—a dream job I was equally nervous and excited about. Following my expeditions, I was planning trips to Hawaii, then Morocco. Twenty-twenty was going to be a great year.

Needless to say, that is not the way the year is panning out. Instead, I am collecting government checks and hoping for a vaccine that will get me back to work next summer, hoping there will be expeditions, and hoping there will be a place for me on them, and Hawaii and Morocco will have to wait as well.

Like the rest of the world, in Juneau we are coping with masks, social distancing, and the lack of employment I alluded to in the previous paragraph. But we are lucky here to live in a remote world filled with rainforest trails and deep glacial fiords, where, so far, there are very few COVID-19 cases. Personally, I am also lucky to have generous boat-owning friends who give me semi-frequent opportunities to venture into those fiords to see the humpback whales who make this place their summer home.

Whales are a big part of my life in Juneau. In fact, one could argue that humpback whales are the most groundhog day-esque part of my Juneau COVID summer. Had the movie Groundhog Day been set in Juneau, there is no doubt Phil Connor would have become a world-renowned marine biologist and humpback whale expert.

For me, in this time of uncertainty, it is comforting to know I can always count on the whales. I have probably been on the water 250 days in the past two years, and on every one of those days, I have seen at least one humpback whale.

So what do I do on this 123rd day of March? I am heading out for something predictable, something comforting. I am going whale watching.

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We meet at the harbor at 7:00, launch the boat, and ease away from the dock. At the No Wake buoy, the forty horse outboard is put to work, and we make a beeline for the Coghlan Cut, a narrow pass between little Coghlan Island, and a couple of dangerous unnamed rocks to its north.

On the near shore of Coghlan, An adult bald eagle stands on the slowly-shrinking, pebbled beach. His white head, bright yellow eye, and large yellow beak are lit by a narrow band of warm morning sunlight momentarily slipping between the mountains behind us and the dark, heavy ceiling stretching westward in front of us, over the jagged peaks of the Chilkat Peninsula. As our little skiff hums by his island refuge, strong wings lift the bird to a spruce snag on a small, dark gray, rock outcrop at water’s edge. From there he watches us slip through the pass and into the dynamic water of the Inside Passage.

The ephemerally placid water before us informs our decision to head west to Saginaw Channel to look for for whales rather than south for salmon. We will fish a protected cove later, but the expectation of coming rough water dictates whale watching now, before the weather window closes on our tiny craft.

At the tiller, Keith steers his eighteen foot aluminum skiff. On the front bench, Nathan and Grace sit on square float cushions. I sit in the middle, on a swivel seat that I’m sure was very nice twenty years ago. Nathan and I have cameras ready and waiting in dry boxes.

The snow on the Chilkat peaks are lit as dramatically as the eagle was, and I am excited for that same light falling on fluke, spout, and with any luck, the breaching bodies of whales that can grow to nearly three times the length of our boat. So far this summer, three of four outings have resulted in opportunities to photograph breaches, but not with this gorgeous light. Even without breaches, seeing whales up close in a tiny open boat is, well… you can imagine what it is like.

As we cross the open water at the south end of Shelter Island—a narrow, nine mile long island separating Favorite Channel to the east from Saginaw Channel to the west—all eyes are scanning for activity. On clear days, a humpback whale spout can be seen for miles, and when the the water is calm, as is the case this morning, they are especially easy to spot. Of course we will be thrilled with any whale, but right now we are all thinking of one particular humpback who frequently feeds in this area. Known as Sasha, or “AK Whale” for what looks like the abbreviation for the state of Alaska on the left underside of her fluke, this old friend has a calf this year, and the last time we saw them here, the playful youngster treated us to a dramatic aerial show.

Hopes remain high as we round the end of the island and turn north. We have yet to encounter our first whale, but we are entering the sweet spot. Whales can be expected anywhere and anytime from here to the narrow pass at the north end of Shelter. Four days ago we found ourselves surrounded by no less than seven whales in Saginaw Channel, including Sasha and calf, and another familiar whale we call Flame, and her calf. We are certain it is only a matter of time.

As I said before, I have ventured out on these waters countless times over the last couple years, and not once have I gone looking and not seen at least one whale. And considering the activity we have experienced so far this summer, I am certain the whales will show. It is only a matter of time.

On our left, as we travel up the channel, we pass the Barlow Islands and the entrance to Barlow Cove, then Point Retreat Light House at the northern tip of Admiralty Island. In front of us are Lincoln Island, to its right North Pass, and beyond the pass the hulking mass of Lion’s Head Mountain, half obscured by the high clouds. Eight eyes scan in all directions, and in all directions there is nothing to be seen—no whales, no boats… only the most beautiful landscape one can imagine.

We turn left, around Point Retreat, into Lynn Canal. At over 2000 feet deep, Lynn is the deepest inland fiord in North America. We shut off the engine, and drift on the tide over unthinkable depths, alongside sawtoothed, snow-dressed peaks. From two miles away, the bellow of a Steller’s Sea Lion takes nearly nine-and-a-half seconds to reach our ears from the buoy where the muscular marine mammal rests. That is almost the same amount of time it took you to read the previous sentence.

The tide is strong; we cannot drift here for long. Keith starts the outboard, and we motor back into the channel, and south along the shore of Admiralty Island. The rocky beaches are lush with tall grasses, and we move slowly, scanning for one of the estimated 1600 brown bears that inhabit the island known as The Fortress of the Bears. A Sitka deer and her spotted fawn disappear from their browse, back into the forest. A seal splashes playfully twenty feet from shore.

Seeing no bears, we cross the channel to the cove at False Outer Point where Keith and Grace both have crab pots. The clouds have broken and the sun calls for one less layer. I am shedding a jacket as Nathan pulls the first pot. In all, five Dungeness crabs go into the cooler from four pots.

We have traveled a total of thirty-five miles by the time we reach Fritz Cove where silty meltwater from Mendenhall Glacier turns the ocean brackish, and hatchery-raised king salmon search in vain for a place to spawn. Here, with the glacier for a brilliant backdrop, we join a dozen other boats trolling in circles for the largest of the five Alaska salmon.

After an hour, Nathan’s rod twitches. He lands a nine inch jack king—a king salmon that reached sexual maturity early, and returned to spawn with others who spent several years at sea. These others have grown to the giant size that earns them the monicker “king.” This fish, however, is less than a year old, and not much of a meal, but there is no point in returning it to the ocean. These hatchery kings have no viable river in which to spawn. They are here solely for us to catch them. Released, this little jack would soon die without fertilizing eggs, thought its sacks are full of milt. A half hour later, Grace catches a twelve inch sculpin which we return to the depths.

With a schedule to keep, we turn back towards the harbor around 2:30, scanning for whales the whole way. By the time we reach the dock, we have been on the water seven hours, and still not seen a single whale. My camera never came out of its box. This 123rd day of March turned out to be less Groundhog Day-esque than expected.

 *          *          *

Ground Hog Day.

That Harold Ramis’ film is a work of genius, and that BIll Murray’s work in it is equally brilliant, is clearly evidenced by how Ground Hog Day has found such universally understood meaning in our culture. Everybody knows what is meant when you say something is “like Groundhog Day,” and nearly thirty years after its release, the film continues to be studied and used allegorically by philosophers, film lovers, and religious seekers.

But no matter how great the movie is, no matter how many lessons we derive from it , or analogies we draw to it, it is fiction. Our current situation is no more like Groundhog Day the movie, than a groundhog seeing is shadow is able to predict the weather.

If I learned anything from this 123rd day of March, it is that we are not living in Ground Hog Day, and that even what seem like the most predictable of things—like humpback whales in Saginaw Channel—throw us curve balls.

Life is, quite simply, not predictable—not now, and not ever. And even if the daily events surrounding us were predictably repetitious, that would not dictate our lives.

After a rocky start, Phil Connor spent his countless winter days that turned into, by one accounting, eight years, eight months, and 16 days, learning a new language, saving the life of a boy who was falling from a tree, learning to play the piano, becoming an ice sculptor, and eventually figuring out what mattered most to him. His days were not the same, because he chose to make each one better than the one before it. Every day he walked into his piano teacher’s house and sat down on the bench, he was a little better than the day before.

And my day today was what it was because of the decisions I made.

If Keith, Nathan, Grace, and I had decided to fish first, or to explore Favorite Channel instead of Saginaw, our day would have been very different. I don’t know if we would have seen whales or not, but I know I would be writing a very different story.

We are in the midst of a time that is very difficult for a lot of people—myself included—and comparing this time to a beloved work of fiction can do wonders to help us deal with the struggles at hand, but we mustn’t let that comparison keep us from making or own decisions about how our days will unfold. It would be a sad irony if we let comparisons with Groundhog Day keep us from growing, learning, and finding the new and different in each of our COVID days, when Phil Connor, himself, used his time to learn life’s most valuable lessons.

I will not be mastering the piano this summer, or becoming an ice sculptor, but I also will not be bound by metaphor to let these days slip into the dustbin of a summer that wasn’t.

Hundred fifty first Groundhog Day? March 123rd? Nah… It’s the first day of July. And maybe this first day of the month didn’t give me any whales, or any great experiences to write about, and maybe I am not having the summer I was looking forward to, but tomorrow will be another July day, and soon it will be August, then September. I don’t know when things might get back to “normal,” or even what “normal” even means, but until things do become a little more predictable, I’m gonna try my best to make at least a few of these days in between worth knowing what day it is by waking up and asking myself one small question: “What would Phil Connor do today?”

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