Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chapter 11: The Whale On the Beach and The Troubled Waters....

Have you ever seen a whale ? Humpback or Orca ? If you live on the West Coast you probably have seen them. They take your breath away, they are majestic and magical. I first saw a whale in my late 20's, it was something that I was determined to share with my children one day. When my son was little his first movie was Free Willy. He was three, he fell in love with Willy, we sent money to the foundation to set up freedom for Willy aka Keiko. I was touched watching his little childlike fingers putting the dollars in the envelope, with such fierce devotion and worry.

That summer we had sat in the cool theater and watched Willy on the big screen. In time Willy.... Keiko was brought to Oregon to the Newport Aquarium where he was rehabilitated after living so many years in the Mexico Aquarium. In 1998 after he had been at the Aquarium for about 2 years it was decided that he was rehabbed and plans were announced to move him so that he could be closer to his pod. My son was seven that summer, so we decided that we would drive to Oregon and say goodbye to Willy. It was our first trip to Oregon. I had never been to Oregon, but I thought that this mission would be good for my son. It would be good for him to see where Willy got better before he was going home to his family.

So my son and I loaded into the car and set off to go see Willy down on the Oregon Coast. We found a cozy Bed & Breakfast in Newport and spent days walking on the beach and exploring the town and the aquarium. And thousands piled into the little town at the end of that summer 1998, all coming to say goodbye to Keiko. Our last afternoon there, we somehow ended up alone next to Keiko's tank. My son was tired and leaned against the glass and said " I don't think we will see him, he would rather be in his outdoor pen then in here with all these people staring this week.Maybe he doesn't want to say goodbye,maybe he is worn out from all the goodbyes". My son was leaning against the glass looking down and talking to me, all of the sudden swiftly and quietly and with such grace Keiko appeared and came up behind by son to the glass....and my son walked by the glass and very slowly Keiko glided next to him.

Keiko had a way of gliding and moving slowly , yet swiftly, it was like watching him dance. And he did appear to be smiling. I had never ever seen a whale so close, just inches away on the other side of the thick pane of cool glass. I will never forget watching my son stand with his hand on that glass, touching such a great gentle creature. We stood alone in the dark cool hallway next to the tank and Keiko glided slowly and then he did three huge sweeps by the glass,and then he turned one last time before heading back out to his outer pen.

It was one of those moments that any parent holds dearly, and it was my favorite road trip to Oregon, driving to the Coast with my see this great creature and say Goodbye. My son was deeply moved by meeting this great gentle giant, he worried about him for months after the trip. He said Keiko seemed so happy to be around people, that maybe the scientists were wrong, maybe Keiko thought people were HIS family.It would be a debate that we would have for years,especially after the Gentle Giant of a whale was freed and then died 5 years later....
So in the Spring of 2000 there we were living in Bellingham, and we had just moved into Town, within blocks of the waterfront and Bellingham Bay.The town was full of mysteries and plenty to explore, nooks and crannies, libraries and coffee shops.And we could walk to town and then even walk down to the Beach right on Bellingham Bay. Other days we could drive to Bellingham Bay and visit a small secluded park that was labeled "PaperMakers Park " on the Map. It was at the end of Cornwall Ave.

This small park was sheltered, and easy to miss in a car. One side of the beach there was a road and Railroad Tracks and over to the West one could see the Large Plant with Stacks and creaking machinery and over the water one could piers and large cranes. There was a battered sign that said " Georgia Pacific Chemical Plant". The sign was faded and the paint was peeling. I was puzzled by that sign because the sign implied that the Beach belonged to the plant, yet the Map clearly marked it as *Park*. I was also puzzled because I had been told that GP was a Paper and Pulp Plant , no one said anything about "Chemicals".

That beach really revealed to me how little I knew about the GP Plant within Blocks of my new home. I was unclear how much of the Waterfront did the Plant truly own or occupy. I was even unsure if the entire Waterfront was the actual Plant. The Puget Sound in the Northwest is a beautiful rich ecosystem I was puzzled if there really was a large chemical Plant so close to the waters and fish and birds and such a natural resource. I was also puzzled was GP really built right in the heart of the little town right on the Waterfront. I was also puzzled was it really safe to have a Chemical Plant that close to people and the Waterfront.
The Locals had told me that the "Plant" just processed pulp and wood chips, they also told me that Chlorine had not been produced or made there for 2 years. (That is what they had been told by the Plant and the local Government Leaders). Such Confusion and Ponderings triggered by a Battered Beach sign would lead to more Questions than answers especially that Spring of 2000.

Part of the park was old dryrotted logs laying scattered on white sand and then further down there was piles and piles of glass, that looked like Sea Glass. I was puzzled by that glass. I collect sea glass and make art projects out of it, I had never seen such glass in such quantities. Some of the glass had old labels on the bottom of bottles and some of it was not soda, some were chemical names and abbreviations. For a time I wondered if the "Chemical Plant " had disposed of their bottles there. But in the meantime I kept collecting the glass making projects out of it. My son would have theater classes 2 days a week and during those classes I would walk down 4 blocks to the beach and collect the glass. Other days I drove ,but I was magnetically drawn to that Beach.

The water was murky , a color I did not recognize grayish green, with a yellowish tinge and at dusk or in the eve it had a glow to it. Then as the water would lap the beach the dirty white sand would have reddish stains left in it's wake. A red goo that was slimy in spots and sticky in others. In the curved area at the top of the park there was a pipe that stuck out, and when the tide would go up and down the pipe sometimes was exposed and hidden at others. The pipe also leaked goo at times.

Depending on the tides there was all kinds of debris that would appear on the beach, it would often include rubber shoes and gloves and boots. But there was no wildlife in the tidal pools and very little vegetation or even sea weed. It differed from the other beaches that I had visited up and down the Oregon and Washington Coast. It also was not like any of the Beaches I had seen on the East Coast from Maine to Florida. And yes, I confess the Beach haunted me...It had a hold on me. I only took my son there a few times...but I sadly went too often. I was looking for answers when I really did not even know the Questions...

That first Spring that we lived "In Town" we would go by the water quite a bit and I got to show my son Both Orcas and grey whales....We had never gotten to see whales close to where we lived, so it was a wonderful experience. There was one particular spot up the hill from the Cornwall beach that we could watch all the goings on down at the beach, and piers and docks. It was the perfect spot to watch the Whales as they came thru the Bay. At first I as under the impression that the Whales must come there all the time, but then I quickly learned that they didn't come there as a pattern, they actually never came to that Bay. There was a family of three that came that my son and I went and watched up on the Slope for two days in a row....For us watching a "Family" of three was special. But on the third day, we noticed that one was missing, and that the other two seemed anxious and searching....We went home and pondered the Missing Whale....

So the next day while my son was at Shakespearean Youth Theater I went down to the Beach to collect glass, I parked my car and as I walked to the Beach I could see that there was a small crowd standing at the Beach. Native American Men, "Lummi's " all different ages were standing talking, they looked solemn. There faces were grim. As I got closer to the Beach I saw past them what was causing the concern. There on the Beach was a Whale, a beautiful whale very dead. I walked over and touched it...I apologized to it and I could feel myself starting to cry. I didn't know what had happened to it, but Something had happened to it. It was very large, the largest dead animal I had ever seen up close.

One of the Indians approached. We stood silent for awhile just staring at the Whale. Finally the Indian spoke " You are the Glass Lady ? " I nodded quietly touched that I had been given a names and not known it. " What do you think killed the Whale ? " I stared at him and I could see that he too might have been crying.His eyes were watery and serious. He had to be about the same age as me, yet his eyes looked so much older. I looked at him closely. I was immediately struck that he had said it had been "Killed", he did not think it had just "died". I looked at him , clearly he wanted answers as much as I did. " I am just a nurse, I don't know forensics, but It's sad. He doesn't look old or in bad health...What Happened, do you think ?" He shrugged still staring at the Whale.

Another Older Indian came over, he was clearly the most respected Elder, We all stood staring quietly. I felt like a privileged Observer. They talked quietly. "Has Security come yet ? " "Not yet, but they will be here soon ? " "We should plan a time to come back , plan a ceremony" "Tomorrow at 5PM " I listened, and I knew that they were very aware I was listening. The Older One turned to me, "Will you be back tomorrow ? " I nodded. I then realized I should thank them, I was not sure , but I thought I should. " Thank you " I called. The younger one turned back to me and nodded. And before he walked too far away I asked his name, "Oh , just call me The Carver....And you ? " " Oh, I am Allie. " "Hmm, we will just call you Glass Lady"....

( Inside I chuckled...that they could see me as a "Lady" was humorous...almost silly...there I stood a mom in faded overalls....and a long disorderly braid...and scuffed steal toed work boots on a dirty beach....These Indians puzzled me, worried me...I had been seeing them around town...but this was the first actual Conversation. And somehow they appreciated me glass obsession, or understood it. We both knew it was not real Sea Glass...that remained the unspoken secret. It was why I kept coming the Glass Beach.)

" Don't stay too long. There are cameras, and by tomorrow there will be "Security" maybe even Police here. A man named Jenson, if he comes, do not stay here, Understand ? " The Older One looked Worried and The Carver nodded.

"Whose Security ? "

" GP...The Plant...The Chemical Company..." He gestured, pointing to the battered wooden sign over by the beach entrance. ( It did say all that on the sign, but the map called it "Papermakers Park", so I was confused.)

"Do does GP own the Beach ? Where is the Plant ? "

They all laughed, but softly, and kindly, they clearly were amused not trying to mock me.
"You new in Town eh ?"

I nodded , still filled with a dreading curiosity about this Chemical Plant Issue.

Finally one of them pointed all around the beach and over to the docks, waving his whole arm. "They own ALL of this and have since we were small ". I stood stunned breathing in what he said Silently shocked, stunned.

I nodded back and as I stood staring I was lost in thought, they left quietly. When I turned back around they were gone. And there on the biggest Log there three piles of carefully piled Sea Glass and I knew that it had been left for me... I stood alone staring at the Whale...It was still a beautiful slate color in the late afternoon sun. There was no smell of rotting carcass and no bugs and that puzzled me. And out further in the Bay close to a dock I could see the Other Two Whales still restless and agitated and clearly in Search Mode. It tugged at my heart. I quietly said GoodNight to the Whale and scooped up my glass piles and drove and picked up my son from class and drove home.

The next few days I did return to the Beach, with my son and alone. There were ceremonies for the Whale, my son held one himself. ( All parents know that Pet Funerals do indeed lead to children finding ways to grieve. ) And there were Indian Ceremonies. And yes, there was a security guard by the whale the rest of the week. It was unclear why he was there and who hired him. The Indians puzzled me, they only talked to me when no one was around, otherwise they remained silent and distant. I somehow understood and appreciated their ways.

Three nights later, I stood alone down at the Beach again looking at the Dead Whale. It was my Birthday and I was again gathering glass. Again the Carver appeared, he nodded, I nodded back. I also took photos of the whale, and the beach. I in some ways was trying to document a Crime Scene, but I didn't know it at the time.

"Why do you keep coming ? " He asked quietly.

"It bothers me we don't know why this whale died, he's too young. "

" It will bother you for a long time. Who knows ? Might be the Diffuser"

"The What ?

"The Diffuser, the Big Pipe Out Past the Docks. Look"

I looked where he was pointing and saw it, it was huge. I stood transfixed.
"Yeah, it's kind of shocking isn't it ?"

I nodded.

I stood looking at the Pipe, just visible and fluids gushing out. It was barely noticeable unless you were looking for it.

"Its more visible when tide is low."

On one of the Last Days that the Whale was there, before it was removed, It was decided to cut up the whale and have ceremonies for it on Lummi Island. There were Canadian Marine Groups that came and collected samples and specimens, again in the presence of the armed guard. And one final night after the Guard was gone, I again would be on the Beach with the Indians and there was a worried silence.....As I turned to leave one of the older Indians handed me a thick wedge of flesh on a piece of newspaper.

"You need answers too, Something Killed him." He said. " Don't Bring your son Here anymore, he 's a fine boy". I nodded.

I stood looking at it, wordless, sorrow filled. Nodding my silent Thank You.
It is years later, I still am haunted by those meetings on the Beach, The beautiful Dead Whale and the piles of Sea Glass. That Beach would again and again draw attention and scrutiny as I poured over documents late at night. When there was an Earthquake in February of 2001, and when we met with the EPA. In some ways it became my compass, it kept me focused and centered. It would lead to many Late Night Quiet Discussions of Mercury . It would lead to The Red Trucks. It would lead to Secret Photos and filming Dumping and Fish Kills. It would lead to driving many miles for documents on that Beach, and many hours reading microfilm at the library. It would lead to many many late nights pouring over books and documents and chemistry books. It would lead to a purchase of a Geiger Counter months later. It would lead to asking questions about How and Why the GP Safety Engineer died at that very beach by the Railroad Tracks. And it would lead to finding bones and ashes with the Sea Glass. It would lead to studying Indian Infant Mortality Statistics and Incineration Reports....and It would lead to brokenhearted sleepless I would stand staring at the Frozen Hunk of Whale Flesh in my Freezer......

I am not sure which motivated me more The Dead Whale or watching my son cry for the Dead Whale.