‘What have I gotten myself into?’
That was the thought process running through my head in the weeks before I left Victoria for OrcaLab. I was brought on to be the cook for the station this summer, a job normally carried out by Helena on top of all her other responsibilities. Food has always been a passion of mine and I was excited to have the opportunity to explore and expand my skills in a professional setting. Apart from hosting the occasional dinner party, I’d never cooked for a large group but I was still fairly confident in my abilities in that regard. More worrisome was the remoteness of the location; cooking for this many people without easy access to a grocery store would require high levels of organization. But even my anxieties about that paled in comparison to the prospect of cooking on the Queen, the station’s wood cook stove.
When I applied for the position I knew I’d be relying on a wood stove. I did my homework and searched the Internet for tips, tricks and recipes. From that I learned my pieces of wood should be small but little else. I asked Helena for advice and was told not to worry, I would be able to figure it out once I got there. I tried to take her advice to heart but I was still nervous. We agreed I would come out a little bit before the rest of the volunteers so I could get some practice with the Queen.
My last week in Victoria was a whirlwind. I debated which cookbooks to bring, how many sweaters to pack and if I really needed to bring my favourite rubber spatula. Finally though, I set off for my summer adventures. The knots that my stomach had been tying all the way up island instantly disappeared the moment I saw the smiling faces of Paul and Helena in Alert Bay. After introductory hugs and a quick trip to the grocery store we set off to Hanson Island.
When I finally met the Queen I knew we’d get along. She was forged in Sackville, New Brunswick, a small town I’d lived in while attending Mt. Allison University. Despite this connection, cooking on a wood stove has a fairly steep learning curve. I adapted quickly enough to cooking for a crowd and I actually enjoyed the organization required for ordering food but I still found the Queen challenging. Before I figured out my wood management, baking times could be triple what the recipe recommended. I relied heavily on cedar (it burned so easily compared to the fir) and I never quite had the firebox full enough for fear of smothering the fire.
Nearly two months later and I can’t even begin to contemplate returning to cooking on an electric range. I love the slow, constant heat of the fire. The moist heat of the oven does wonders for bread. I’ve even come to enjoy the sometimes intense warmth of the kitchen. What I appreciate most of all though, is the engagement required by the wood stove. I’m constantly tending to the fire, adding fir when it’s needed or the occasional piece of cedar. A big milestone for me was when I finally started to use the damper to help manage the heat. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve mastered the Queen I have certainly come along way in the brief time I’ve been here.
I thought it might be fun to include a recipe with this post. After nearly six weeks without a repeat meal it was difficult to pick just what to share. Ultimately I decided to go with this cookie recipe, which was inspired by a jar of jam a previous assistant gave as a gift. They are a simple and forgiving cookie, important factors when using a wood stove.
Walnut Thumbprint Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen
3/4 cup butter, softened
2 tbs maple syrup
1/2 cup sugar (white or coconut)
1 heaping cup walnuts
1tsp baking powder
2 1/4 cups flour
jam of choice
Start by finely chopping the walnuts. Alternatively you could give them a couple of pulses in a food processor if you have the technology, the goal is a coarse meal.
Once you have prepared the walnuts, cream together the butter with the sugar and maple syrup. Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix in the walnut meal, flour and baking powder, stirring until just combined. The mixture will be dry but you should be able to form it into a ball.
Roll about a tablespoon of dough into a ball. Flatten into a disc and press your thumb into the dough to make a little depression. Fill the depression with your jam of choice, just shy of a teaspoon usually. I had a lovely fig, walnut jam (thanks Elizabeth!), which went quite nicely with the cookie base. Raspberry jam also works well or even a chocolate ganache if you’re feeling ambitious.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, keeping the firebox full (about 375F in a regular oven). The cookies should be lightly browned on the bottoms. Cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
By Chris Adams
August 24 2013
Our species is in a large part defined by our amazing capacity for complex language. Some will argue that it is this capacity that sets us apart from other species. Anyone who has spent any time listening to the communicative sounds of orcas knows this to be false; that in orcas we find a species capable of communicating in a language perhaps more complex than our own, a language that we simply cannot understand.
Such an understanding, if even possible, has likely remained outside our grasp because we are in fact impeded by being a different species. We only know our world, and our language is a tool that has developed within our world. Orcas live in a vastly different world, meaning their language has not necessarily developed in the same manner and that we cannot use what we know of our language to judge theirs.
7 years ago I went on a whale watching trip to see the Southern Resident orcas. As excited as I was to be seeing wild orcas, I remember thinking that the multitude of boats constantly surrounding the whales marred what could have been a truly breathtaking scene. My feelings about this scene at the time epitomize the wall we often collide with when trying to understand another species; the boats were a problem to me because I could see them. For orcas, living in an acoustic world, the main problem with all the boats is that they can hear them.
At OrcaLab the hydrophones are playing 24/7. We listen to them when we’re on our shift in the Lab but we can also hear them when we’re doing chores and taking breaks. There are speakers spread throughout the camp such that you’re constantly hearing what the whales are hearing. This is a real wake-up call. Though I’m not sure those of us at OrcaLab need any sort of wake-up call, as we’re all aware of the problem presented by constant boat noise, it is quite an experience to get a glimpse of what the whales suffer through on a daily basis. Realizing this is when you can really appreciate OrcaLab for what it is; a platform from which studying orcas can be done passively. For the most part we can know where the whales are day and night and we can identify individuals as they pass by the lab or the outcamp on Cracroft Island, without interfering with the orcas in any way. To be able to see whales but know I’m not having a negative impact on them is a great feeling.
When the A30s first came through Blackney Pass everyone was ecstatic; this was why we were here at OrcaLab, this was what we’d been waiting for. As we watched the family make their way towards Johnstone Strait, we began to hear their calls coming from the speakers out on the lab deck. When the first call came through everyone froze for a moment, and then smiled. For me, this was when it all really hit me (and when the tears came); I was here, listening to orcas as they swam past OrcaLab. Getting to see orcas will always be an amazing experience but listening to them has come to be what I love most, which is why acoustics is the area of research I am becoming involved with.
One of the tasks the assistants have been working on this summer is annotations. This is when we look at a spectrogram of previously recorded calls and label each call type that we see. Doing this will allow for more efficient future analysis of the recordings made at OrcaLab but it also allows us a chance to try and learn the different call types associated with each matriline. Though daunting at times due to the sheer number of orcas, call types, and variations of these call types, I find this task extremely enjoyable because after becoming familiar with the calls during annotations it is possible to then know which calls you are hearing when we’re recording the orcas live.
Even though it’s possible to identify matrilines purely based on calls, we’ve still really only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding these whales and their communication. The orcas that we are studying at OrcaLab this summer are some, if not the most studied cetaceans in the world and yet we still have no understanding of what their calls mean. Though any sort of understanding may remain outside our grasp, our increasing ability to study cetaceans using passive acoustic monitoring enables us to attempt to gain a deeper understanding of another species, without interfering with the lives of these whales that we all love so much.
Tet and A30s photo by Ally Rice
August 6 2013
I still remember January 23, 2013 clearly; I was spending the night with my best friend celebrating her birthday when I got the email that changed my life forever. I was accepted to come to Orcalab; a lifelong dream came true! The next month I was asked to come as early as I possibly could so I changed my plane ticket without a moment’s hesitation and left soon after my last exam. Saying I was ecstatic was an understatement!
I arrived at Orcalab on April 26, after a few minor luggage setbacks which worked themselves out thankfully! (It’s always a scary time when your ENTIRE luggage including tents clothes sleeping bag etc. disappears from the taxi for about 30 minutes!) I was then finally on my way to Alert Bay. I had always had this vision of what Orcalab would look like, but boy when I arrived was I ever blown away! It truly exceeded all my expectations, but for the first time ever I felt like I was at home and belonged somewhere. The first couple of days were busy and there was so much to learn and monitor but I couldn’t have been happier.
Settling into Hanson Island wasn’t hard and I got to experience the company of two of the warmest and most kind hearted people I have ever met; Paul and Helena. I spent a wonderful couple of days with them and then my next adventure began: being alone on Hanson Island and making sure Orcalab was running smoothly! I had been alone before but being completely isolated on an island and having to check energy consumption was completely new to me; so the first few days consisted of me constantly running back to the main house, only to find out I hadn’t used any energy since I had last checked it 5 minutes ago. I also got very good at making fires to keep warm and chopping wood. There are a lot of chores to do to keep a place like this going, but I really enjoyed learning all these new skills, as well as meeting all the random visitors who come to the island as well as our numerous guests and new assistants.
I have had a passion for orcas, and Orcalab since a very young age. It has been a lifelong dream to spend time here and it’s been such an honor to spend these past couple of months here learning and sharing these experiences with Paul and Helena. They have been so patient and kind and I have loved every second spent here. Finally being able to surround myself by such passionate and knowledgeable people is truly inspiring. It’s hard to describe how happy I am being able to hear and see orcas on an almost daily basis now as well as seeing humpbacks, porpoises, dolphins, seals, sea lions, bald eagles and so much more nestled amongst these stunning mountain ranges.
Everyone kept asking me; aren’t you afraid to be alone?! My answer was always no. It’s hard to fear such an amazing place/experience. It was something I needed, to be alone, and I found peace, tranquility and myself. I know leaving here and going back to reality will be extremely tough but I know I am coming out a stronger more independent person, mentally and physically, so thank you Orcalab!
Story and photos by Kate Christie
July 27 2013