Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sunset at the Park

A family of barn swallows has built a nest in the peak of the roof at the front of the rangers' cabin at San Juan County Park. You can hear them chirping away when you sit on the bench there, taking in the view of Smallpox Bay. Every now and then one of the adults swoops out, gracefully, over the bay and back.

It's still early evening and the bay is glassy calm when Fiona and I come down from our campsite to use the phone. We talk to her mom (who is still back at home, getting ready to join us the next day) a little while, and then Fiona spots the baby swallow.

It is huddled on the ground in the space between the soda machine and the rangers' cabin, chirping, answering the calls from above but clearly unable to become airborne and return to its nest. Fiona wants to pick it up and pet it and comfort it, but I explain to her that if we do, it will smell like humans and its mother will reject it and it will die. If we can find a ranger, I tell her, maybe he can find a way to get it back up there without a human scent.

Just then the chief ranger, a kindly, middle-aged man named Joe Luma, comes down from the campsites and Fiona runs up to implore his help with all the urgency a five-year-old can muster. "Joe! Joe! Come quick and see the baby bird! It needs our help!" She leads him around to the soda machine and he bends down to examine it.

"Okay," he reassures her. "I'll get out the ladder and we'll see if we can't return it to its nest." He stands up and smiles, somewhat winsomely, because he has done this before and knows what the eventual outcome will almost certainly be, regardless.

He beckons his longtime assistant, Ron Abbott, and they go about fetching the ladder and a box to put the bird into on its return trip to the nest. Not far away, I see Ron's cat, a friendly black-and-white fellow named Vinny, playing in the rushes near the bay. Cats will be cats, and cats eat birds. But Vinny evidently hasn't clued in to the presence of the fallen swallow.

Fiona is happy now that Joe and Ron have gone to work on her behalf, and we go back to our campsite, where she regales her little troupe of friends with the tale of how we rescued a baby swallow. They are all appropriately impressed.

The next morning Fiona insists we go back to the ranger station to check on the baby swallow. We can hear the family chirping away in its nest, and the nestling is nowhere on the ground, so she is satisfied that it has been saved: "See?" she says. "It's back home in its nest now," pointing up at the chirping nest.

A little while later I see Joe and Ron inside the station and poke my head in. Joe smiles ruefully and checks to make sure Fiona is out of earshot, then tells me: "We put that bird back up in its nest, and it was back down on the ground in twenty minutes. It was still there when I went home." Of course, it was gone in the morning; whether it was Vinny or one of the wild animals that populates the park -- most notably a family of black foxes -- that finished the job, we'll never know.

But of course, we don't tell Fiona or the kids this. The nestling's fate is one of those adult realities: that in nature, beauty is intertwined with death, love with cruelty. Those charming black foxes survive by eating, among other things, fallen nestlings.

Children will learn this in their own good time; death and life and its cruel ways will intrude on their lives eventually, and so we do what we can to shield them from it when they are young and the world is still sweet and beautiful.

Death, however, is not always so kind to those of us doing the shielding.


Joe Luma and Ron Abbott are the kinds of fellows you like to have as park rangers, especially in a place that draws as many children as San Juan County Park. They're older men who like people, and they love the park and having people use it. Especially children, for whom its twelve acres on the western shore of San Juan Island are an open chest of nature's treasures.

I have been camping here every year for the past fifteen, sometimes on multiple visits over a summer, as I will be this year. Many of the rangers the county had hired in previous years had been young men who seemed not very interested in the people using the park, so I had never gotten to know many of them. I've only gotten to know Joe the past couple of years, though he has been here four, but camping here has become remarkably better in his tenure as park manager, and most of the credit belongs to him.

Some of it, though, also belongs to Ron Abbott, who I've gotten to know rather well over the six years he's been a ranger here. I first met him back in the spring of 2000 when I got a wild hair and decided to bike out to the island during one of our periodic "surprise" warm spells in April. The day I rode out was sunny and warm, and I was the only camper there that day. But that evening a wind kicked up across Haro Strait and right through my open campsite, and suddenly the view was too cold to take in. Rather than huddle in my tent, I wandered down to the ranger station to chat with the new ranger.

I don't remember what all we talked about, but I liked Abbott right away. He was in his early fifties, curly red hair and a beard, medium height, with square wire-rim glasses, straightforward countenance, and a ready smile. I never asked too much, but he seemed like someone who had been through his share of rough patches and was out here piecing his life back together. His job doesn't pay especially well, and it's isolated back here. But he always seemed happy.

Certainly, he worked hard. Every time I saw Ron he was cutting brush or fixing a piece of equipment or chopping wood, or just patrolling the grounds and checking to make sure everyone was fine. He saw himself as a real steward of the park, I think, and the park showed it.

Just this spring, Ron and Joe together built an eighty-foot staircase from the upper bench of the park down to its lower second beach, following a plan that Ron had devised. Previously, you had to shimmy down an increasingly slick set of rocks at one end of the beach to reach the pebbly beach, and doing so with children could be risky. Now, you can just walk your kid down a freshly built set of Trex stairs.

This is great news for us, because we brought a whole load of youngsters -- mostly five- and six-year-olds from my daughter's school, along with their parents and siblings -- to the park last week, just in time for one of those marvelous sunny weekends you dream about when you make plans in the spring. We use this second beach a lot, since it is ideal for beaching and storing kayaks, and heading out onto the water quickly, especially if killer whales should appear.

The park's main feature is a massive open grass field that faces out over Haro Strait, and it is visible from most of the campsites in the park. So parents can simply let their children go run and play and still keep an eye on them, though many of us are content to simply sit out on the edge of the field and watch kids play while we watch for whales too. At the open end of the field lays a giant fallen Madrona, trimmed and aging, transformed into a gigantic wooden jungle gym for kids of a broad range of ages.

[Movie trivia note: This park was the site of the exterior shots for the Nicole Kidman/Sandra Bullock popcorn chick flick Practical Magic. The ancient Madrona was still standing in those shots. Proceeds from the shoot paid for the park's brand-new bathroom.]

As far as many of the kids are concerned, though, the chief draw is out there in the water: the whales. The endangered southern resident population of orcas prowls these waters frequently in the summertime, and your chances of seeing them here are better than most places in the United States. Lime Kiln State Park, about a mile and a half south, is actually the best place to see them up-close from land, because they like to come in right next to the rocks there sometimes; when they come by County Park, they usually pass farther out, beyond the rocky little island that serves as a home to peeping oystercatchers about 200 yards offshore.

This all changes, of course, if you have kayaks, which we do, including a couple that are designed to accommodate children. Over the years I've learned how to spot the whales' approach from a ways off (on weekend, the activity of whale-watching boats is a dead giveaway), and so we often set out from the beach in time to watch them. We get close enough for a good look, but we try never to get too close or interfere with them.

On Saturday, they started showing up around noon, and they kept coming by periodically for much of the afternoon. We took most of the kids who wanted to go -- which was all of them -- out to sample the water and for some to see the whales.

At one point, we observed a behavior I'd only heard about previously: logging. A female named Slick -- designated J16 -- was lolling for long stretches at the surface, in some cases three minutes or longer; most of the time, orcas are constantly submerging themselves after they surface. Accompanying her was her fast-growing calf, a seven-year-old named Alki, or J36.

Alki (whose sex is still unknown) was playing with its mother, lolling upside down, its pectoral fins in the air; sometimes as it came up behind her it bumped its nose playfully into her side, at others it swam out ahead by a few feet and spyhopped, checking out its surroundings and spouting mist over the glassy surface of the water.

What they were doing was what we all like to do on hot summer days: lazing. There was a powerful northern current that the rest of the pods were taking, and these two were just enjoying the sun and letting the tide do the work.

Riding with them, we were more or less doing the same thing. The current pulled us steadily north, and the only time we dipped our paddles in the water was to pull back if it looked like we might come too close to our companions. Fiona's friend Felix was seated before me, and his father sat in the front; I had out my hydrophone, and the speaker sat in Felix's lap as we drifted along. The orcas were vocalizing a lot; it wasn't as chorale-like as my last listening, but it was magical nonetheless. The beatific, awestruck look on Felix's face said it all.

At last, after drifting for what seemed like a dream's worth of time, we found ourselves about a quarter-mile south of Smuggler's Cove, so I pulled us out of the current and close to shore. We promptly caught the backcurrent there, and it pulled us back south almost as eagerly as the main-channel current had taken us north. It made for an easy day's paddle, and while we didn't exactly drift back, we scooted back to camp with such ease that it still seemed like a dream as we pulled up to the beach.

Days like that, for me, make life worth living. There is something immensely rewarding about connecting kids with nature, letting them taste and smell and feel the real world, the one that they can never get from a video or computer program. When you do that, you pass on to them values that words cannot communicate. These values were passed on to me the same way, and I believe that some of these children will one day pass them on to theirs. So I am participating in something timeless, and that is inexpressibly satisfying.

This is how nature, the stuff of life in its raw form, so often appears to children. Beautiful, dreamlike, the source of so much awe. And for most of the day, I was swept up in it, drifting in it, soaking in it like Slick.

And then the evening came, and with it the other side of nature.


A couple of bicycling campers, who had initially set up their tents in the hiker-biker campsites, decided they didn't like the noise in the adjoining open field that evening and moved their tents and bikes down to a grassy knoll outside of the camping area near one of the overlook benches. Stuff like this rankles old-timers like myself, who know that the park's resources are carefully managed because they are used so much and can be easily run down.

More to the point, I knew that they really rankle Ron Abbott, who was relentless in keeping campers relegated to their designated sites. But he hadn't been around for awhile and I knew he would want to know about this development, so I moseyed down to the ranger station to give him a heads-up.

Ron's living quarters comprised the back half of the ranger station, and the door to them was to the right behind a gate next to the community woodpile. I could see there was a light on inside the home, and I leaned my head over the gate and called out his name.

"Ron?" No answer. I looked to the left of the gate and into the yard and froze.

Ron was lying there on his back. One arm was slightly raised in the air, and one leg was slightly askew. At his feet was a wheel with a crowbar jammed into a half-peeled tire. Vinny the cat sat next to him, his feet together, as if he were guarding him.

I said something -- "Oh shit!" or "Oh God!" or maybe both, I can't remember -- and ran into the yard and knelt next to him. The skin on his arms and legs was a pale gray, his face was purple, and his eyes stared blankly into space. I felt his wrist for a pulse, but there was none. Still, his body seemed warm.

I ran to the phone and dialed 911. After hearing me out, they said EMTs would be arriving shortly. It's about a 15-minute drive from Friday Harbor for even the fastest vehicle, though, and after I hung up I knew I had to do what I could for him.

I quickly checked on him again, tried some chest compressions, but I could see it was useless. I cursed the fact that I had never taken a CPR course, got up and ran out to get help.

I was lucky. I had barely made it across the parking lot before finding someone -- a middle-aged woman coming up to the group camp from the bay below. Her name was Anna Stern, and she was there with a group of 4-H kids. I told her, breathlessly I'm sure, what I had found, and asked if she could help.

"I'm a nurse," she said, and we took off running back to Ron's yard together. Her husband and son, having heard the story, took off to find more help.

Anna and I began working on Ron, repositioning his body, turning him on his side to drain the esophageal fluids, and then on his back so Anna could apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But she couldn't get a seal on his mouth, so I got a quick hands-on lesson in how to do it and began trying to breathe life back into my friend, while Anna went to work giving him chest compressions.

I think I gave him about ten breaths, and each wheezed back out effectlessly. Then two of Anna's friends, both nurses themselves, showed up, and the one who had been a nurse in Vietnam took over. I stood up and backed away, looking helplessly at those blank eyes.

It struck me then, as it often does at funerals, how little the body that is left behind actually looks like the person we knew. Life, the thing that animates us, gives our bodies, our faces, a character that vanishes when it does. I knew that Ron was dead because he was not there anymore; his spark had disappeared as tracelessly as a baby barn swallow.

I realized that my wife would be wondering where I had gotten off to, so I told Anna I'd be back as soon as possible and ran back to my campsite. I called Lisa over to me -- loudly, I'm sorry to say -- and then told her as quietly as I could what had happened, and to keep it quiet. I didn't want a word of it to reach the children.

The other parents heard it all as well, and quietly took over watching Fiona while Lisa and one of the other fathers, Adam Peck, ran back to the ranger station with me.

By the time we got there, the nurses had wrapped Ron in a blanket, and one was telling the EMTs on the radio that this was a coroner's case. The EMTs arrived soon afterward; Lisa went back to put Fiona to bed, and I stayed to write out my statement for the sheriff's deputy.


The EMTs told me later that evening that they figured Ron had been dead about an hour when I found him. This was small consolation, really; and I've since come to ponder how it is that EMTs get by emotionally when they lose someone they've been trying to save. No matter how one rationalizes it, there is still some guilt there, and it will haunt me. For how long, I don't know.

I do know it was a good thing I had gone down and found him. If I hadn't, he'd have laid there overnight, and no amount of guarding from Vinny could have kept all the various wild animals in the park away. As it was, his body was tucked safely away by the sheriff's deputies before nightfall.

They're not sure whether it was a heart attack or an aneurysm that laid him low. It seems likely that whatever it was hit him quickly. My friend Bob Leamer was felled a couple of years ago by an aneurysm that took him like a Mack truck. Sudden deaths like that are terrible because we don't get to say goodbye; but then, lingering deaths in which we can give our farewells are in reality much more likely to be source of enormous suffering. There are certain advantages to going out quickly like that.

Still, it is a tremendous jolt for those left behind. I'm not nearly as affected by it all as Joe Luma, and the rest of the county parks crew, who all knew and loved Ron far better than I. And I was equipped, perhaps, better than others to handle finding him, since I have years of experience covering death in all its grim countenances, including several far more horrible than this. Still, I've never been the first on the scene, and it's never involved a friend.

The children in our group, as far as I know, never caught wind that anything bad happened that weekend. If they had been older, perhaps we might have said something; but five-year-olds have enough on their plate without having to deal with something like death.

So the rest of the weekend went in similar fashion; balmy days, visits from whales, kids playing in the grass and on the beaches. I think everyone knew I was hurting, but burying myself in the innocent world of five-year-olds, in those circumstances, was a good recipe for sanity.

I'm told that Ron's family back East is having the body returned to their care. The American Legion post in Friday Harbor, where Ron liked to hang out, is planning a memorial service, though it hasn't been set yet.

I was down talking with Joe Luma, who was terribly shaken, the day afterward at the ranger station. He talked about how tough it was going to be running the park because he and Ron were almost a symbiotic team -- they fed off each other, and picked up where the other left off. Mostly, he missed his friend.

I suggested he lower the park's American flag to half-mast in honor of his friend. He looked at it and said: "I thought about that. But then I wondered if someone would object because it might not be exactly proper."

"Joe," I said, "there isn't a soul on Earth who would object. And if there were, he wouldn't be worth listening to."

So he did.


One of the peculiar ironies about the evening that Ron Abbott died was that, not only was it at the end of one of the most beautiful days of the year, it was capped by one of the most spectacular sunsets I've seen on the island this summer.

You have to understand: San Juan sunsets are a staple of travel magazines about the place, because they are so brilliant and gaudy. The photo atop this post was taken four years ago, but it is only one of many I have in my collection from this place.

The sunsets across Haro Strait, when the light and cloud conditions are right, are like grand performances from Mother Nature. They often begin with a golden glow spreading across bands of pink and blue, then deepen in intensity as the sun lowers itself on the horizon, creating intense bands of color and light that gradually phase downward into an intense array of beams as the sun drops behind Vancouver Island. A long-lasting glow then caresses the glassy seas for the next hour or so as a kind of denouement, finally subsiding in a soft azure as night descends and the stars come out.

So it was this night, and after sitting for a little while at our campfire, I wandered out to watch the final embers from the sun settle under the bands of clouds. I knew that Ron never lost his appreciation for these displays -- it was much of the reason why he did what he did -- and would have reveled in this one.

I am almost always overcome by a sense of peacefulness here, and that night, listening to the waves and watching the night descend, it washed over me like a soothing balm. There was an edge to it: I knew that even the soothing sea, like all of the natural world, could be as cruel as death when circumstances suited it. Here amid all this beauty there was death too. It was in everything as surely as there was life in it.

Life, and its beauty, are precious to us because they are so fragile and fleeting. We cherish living because we know that it can disappear in the wink of an eye. This is troubling to all of us -- but it strikes paralyzing fear into the heart of a parent. Because, unlike the innocents we protect, we know too well that death can come in a heartbeat, and it can come even for those innocents. Almost as deep is the fear of our own deaths -- not for our own sakes, but for our children's.

One of the mothers in our group is a former extreme climber and adventurist who has climbed spires around the world and participated in multiple high-risk deep-sea dives. But the last time she tried a free dive, she panicked -- because she began thinking about her children and what would become of them if she died. She hasn't gone back and no longer climbs, either.

A couple of months ago, this same mother had held her youngest son in her arms at a city park and breathed life back into him after he had suddenly, and mysteriously, stopped breathing. He runs about with my daughter now at this park and we all bask in the glow of life he exudes. Yes, we know just how fragile life can be. And still sometimes, the baby swallow makes it back to its mother's nest. Sometimes we are lucky, and sometimes we are not.

As the night settled in and the stars dotted the sky, I finally made my way back to our tent and got ready for bed. I went to my daughter's bed, where she lay curled under her Disney Princess sleeping bag, and caressed her face for a little while, feeling the strands of her hair and the smooth skin of her cheeks, the delicacy of her little fingers. Then I climbed into bed with my loving wife, and I held her close as she slept for the next few hours as the scenes from the day -- all of them, good and bad -- played through my head.

Finally, at about 4 in the morning, I dropped off to sleep.

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