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  • Welcome to my website!

    My home is perched on the edge of the largest swath of intact wild lands left on the planet. I could, with enough grit and a big enough back pack, step from my cabin door and ramble and wallow through some 30 million Alaskan acres without encountering so much as a cigarette butt. The beauty outside my cabin window is a jumble of bear paths and glacial valleys, hooting whales and croaking cranes.

    I am currently ear deep in what has to be one of the greatest jobs on the planet: getting paid to listen. Closely. Deeply. For the next two years I'll be working (along with Richard Nelson) to create a library of natural sounds for the National Park Service at Glacier Bay. From the sizzling pop of melting bergs to the twittering peep of baby birds, we'll be listening and recording it all. I'll be posting some of the sounds on this site.

    Please poke around. Listen to the sounds. You can learn about my book, Faith of Cranes, or a little bit more about me and my other written works. You can also check out some fantastic Alaskan images (thanks to my friends Sean Neilson, Kim Heacox, and Bob Christensen)

    Enjoy.

    Thanks for visiting my site! - Hank

    Press the red button below to hear cranes.

Concert of Feathers

I spent the first week of May camped on a river delta along Alaska’s southern coast to take in the spectacle of spring migration.  With each passing hour the mudflats and alder thickets around the tent filled with the fluttering, whistling, passing purr of feathers.  Thousands upon thousands of shorebirds – western sandpipers, dunlin, and dowitchers – probed the mud alongside a mix of widgeon and teal, scaup and mallards.  Snipe winnowed over the sedge flats.  Pipits pipped amongst fresh shoots of grass.  Warblers warbled.  Hummingbirds hummed.  Loons looned.  Falcons and hawks zipped through the feathered masses, eating their fill.

I tried, over coffee one morning, to imagine the combined power of each tiny puff of wind created by each down stroke of every single wing carrying each feathered bundle of life north.  If each tiny puff were gathered into a single roaring gust, how big would it be?  Strong enough to knock over a federal building?  An entire city?

When I found a single primary feather from a mew gull washed in by the tide, I picked it up, closed my eyes, and listened to the frenzy of feathers thrumming all around.  I thought of all those feathers sharing the same basic structure yet making such a glorious diversity of sounds.  Feathers through air.  Such a simple instrument creating such a complex concert.

The attached audio contains a tiny snippet of the ongoing, never-ending concert of feathers.

Enjoy!

10 Sounds That Make You Feel More Alive

10 Sounds That Make You Feel More Alive (This orginally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Orion)

 

 

1. The Floating Trumpet

Imagine Louis Armstrong with lungs the size of a Volkswagen and a trumpet the size of a hollow cedar tree. Now imagine Louis pouring every hour of practice, every smoky-hall performance, every ounce of his huge soul into a single pure note set free over a mirror calm sea. That’s the sound that occasionally lifts from the nose of a humpback whale on a late summer evening. Hear it once and it will long echo against the walls of memory.

 

2. The Wave of Whispers

Barnacles, those crusted critters clustered to intertidal rocks, are, at first listen, not the most vocal of species. But pass the shadow of your body over a low-tide boulder on a still morning and you’ll hear a wave of whispers, all those little lives drawing tight the fortress of their shells to keep the looming monster at bay.

 

3. The Afternoon Snack

Inside the barnacle’s sharp, white walls is the fleshy goo of the critter itself.  You’d have to eat a thousand to make a meal, which is just what bears do, mushing the helpless crustaceans with a paw and then licking the crushed mess from the rock. Barnacles being crunched to death is not, honestly, that compelling a sound, but when it’s happening between the molars of a six-hundred-pound bear and you’re close enough to hear, it becomes a hair-raising, smile-inducing, how-did-I-get-so-lucky-to-be-alive racket.

 

4. The Frozen Burp

Paddle up an inlet filled with glacial ice and listen close as you float by each bobbing berg.  Some (not all) hiss and pop, releasing tiny bubbles of air captured by snowflakes from a storm that swirled before white-wigged men declared this country’s independence. Atmospheric burps from another time bubbling by the bow of your boat.

 

5. The Prehistoric Cackle

Every minute of the last ten million years a sandhill crane, somewhere on the planet, has called out in seamless lineage of cackling, bugling brilliance. Lay your body beneath a sky of circling cranes and ride their voices back through a landscape prowled by short-faced bears and giant sloths. Listen to the glaciers come and go, other species rise and fall. As the cranes slip to specks on the edge of hearing, follow their fading voices to the horizon of dinosaurs.

 

6 – 9. The Click-Snap-Snuffle-Crunch

In a beachside meadow on a day without a twitch of wind, lay down and wait. In between the rumbling roar of bees, listen for the delicate rustle of dragonflies in flight and the quick click, click as they nip the wings from their afternoon snack of fresh mosquito. Wait for the sun to dry the seed pods of lupine to the snapping point. When they finally twist open, listen for the pellets of seeds rain in all directions. And, if you’re really lucky, just after a raven passes, air rushing through each primary, you might hear the snuffling rustle of a hunting shrew and the triumphant crunch of impossibly tiny teeth tearing into the dull armor of a beetle’s back.

 

 

10. The Belly Jiggler

And the sound we cannot hear enough: two friends at the campfire, eyes and ears filled to bursting with the day’s adventure and when one friend says something with only the tiniest trace of actual humor the other responds with a belly-jiggling chuckle which catches in the first friend’s throat which causes him to snort like a pig and soon both friends are laughing like they haven’t laughed since the third grade, laughing at laughter herself, the mischievous child born from the marriage of all that is gorgeous in the world and how preciously little time we have to soak it all in.

Fall Frenzy

 

Fall’s first frost.  A gusty breeze steering giant clouds in and out of shifting blue holes.  Yellowing cottonwood leaves fluttering like rain.  A vibrant morning that finds critters either scrambling to head south or fettering about getting ready to stay through the winter.

Walking through the crispy forest, I aim my microphone at pair of red squirrels chasing each other on and off and under a cluster of trees, chittering and chattering all the while.  Mid-chase, a flock of sandhill cranes passes over head in a wavering, raucous, fluid skein.

And perched on a high branch between the scurrying squirrels and fleeing cranes is a single raven offering a calm commentary on the neighborhood frenzy.

 

 

 

Whale of a Trumpet

End of the day, low August light.  The sea, satin-smooth.  Deep quiet: no boats, no planes.  Microphones in place.

Enter whales.  Lots of them, a group of ten tight to the mainland shore.  Half a dozen in the middle of the passage.  Twelve more near the island.   High sharp whistles of marbled murrelets filling the quiet between the explosive blows.

Everything aligned, a great recording in the making and then this: one whale in the mid-passage group lets loose a single tone impossibly clear, pure, huge.  It bounces between mainland mountain and island hill again and again, ringing on and on like one of those Tibetan meditation bowls the size of a volcano.   And then another trumpet blast, a note so exquisite it might make Louis Armstrong lay down his trumpet and never play again.  And then another tone, a bit deeper this time, and then, a minute later, another.  Each time the echo.

Our boat and its cargo of friends felt tiny suspended in all that sound.  It was long after the bellowing behemoth and its companions slipped into the next inlet that anyone spoke and then only in whispers, smiles saying all there was to say.

don watsonOctober 6, 2013 - 7:34 pm

What a clarion call!

Cynthia DiColaSeptember 26, 2013 - 2:37 pm

Wonderful!

Waiting for the Feast

At low water, salmon school up at stream mouths, waiting for high tide to make the one-way push into the freshwaters of their birth and death.  They leap, splosh, ripple, and swirl in an undulating curtain of wet motion.

Meanwhile, up in the trees and along the river banks, the hungry talk about the coming feast: the eagles with their yodeling cackle, the ravens with their somersaulting kalumps, crows with their insistent barks, gulls with their sharp clucks, bears with their patient pacing.

Last week, I drifted by just such a stream mouth, headphones clamped tight to my ears, joyously stunned by the chaotic parade of sounds.

Give it a listen.  All the wet sounding stuff is made by the fish, a pulsing swirl of pink, chum, and sockeye salmon.  The big gushing sounds in the distance are tree-sized breaths of humpbacks lumbering just off shore.  The various clammering birds you’ll have to sort through for yourself.

Enjoy (and do yourself a huge favor and beg, steal, or borrow a pair of decent headphones).

 

HankSeptember 8, 2013 - 9:01 am

Kit,

There are a lot of hours that go into getting a few seconds of good sound. But they are all fun hours – worth every minute. Thanks for listening.

Kit DunsmoreSeptember 7, 2013 - 10:55 am

Your recordings are amazing. I’ve done a little natural sound recording myself and know how tough it is. Particularly love the mix of sounds in this one — fish splashing with all those different birds calling. Luscious.