The Whale

EAST Founder Tim StephensonThis week’s blog post comes from our first guest writer and the first EAST Facilitator. Tim Stephenson is the EAST Initiative’s Special Liaison for Program Support, but he forever is in our hearts as the Founder of the EAST Initiative. Tim piloted the first EAST program in Greenbrier, Arkansas in 1995.

I have always been amazed that what seems so obvious to some can be such a mystery to others. A few years ago that concept was brought home to me while working with schools in remote northern British Columbia. I was in charge of rebuilding a failing school system in very remote First Nations village of the Tsimshian people north of Prince Rupert. These people have formed a relatively separate Nation, as independent from Canada as they can possibly be. They wanted to “fix” their school, which had previously been run unsuccessfully by the Provincial Government of Canada.

The Tsimshian have lived in the British Columbia area for 15,000 years and did not take kindly the rule of the Socialist Canadian system. There had been little if any progress in preparing their kids for the 21st century. The collision of cultures was evident in their lives. Achieving some balance between their proud, almost forgotten past and the practical needs of living in the modern world was proving to be difficult. Frustrated, they had asked me to “fix” their school.  I reported directly to the Tsimshian Nation Council and had assigned to me the brother of the Chief Councilor as a kind of guide/keeper.

His name was WU’TA NEAX but for obvious reasons I just called him Victor. Victor was about my age and like many Tsimshian, he had no formal education, basically living off the land and ramen noodles. He had an amazing knowledge of the local environment but was susceptible to the ills of the 21st century “white man’s world,” including MTV and an addiction to “cop” shows. Over time he became my most trusted friend and constant companion. Victor had one of the many grandsons he provided for as a fairly frequent buddy; the three of us hung out together when I was not engaged in the business of rebuilding the school.

Early one morning Victor came over for his usual coffee,  excited to share the news that a dead killer whale had been spotted. It had washed up on a rugged beach on the far side of Dundas Island some 70 miles out across the open ocean but within Tsimshian territory.  The fisherman that had spotted the whale was reluctant to approach it because of the hazardous route to the beach and the strong currents and rough seas for which the area was famous. Victor said that because the whale was held in reverence by the Tsimshian people, the right thing to do would be to go to the whale, bless its noble life and remove its teeth for use in ceremonies held dear by the elders of the nation. The Tsimshian people individually belong to specific clans within the Tsimshian Band. Victor belonged to the Orca Clan, so had a special interest in the whale.

I owned a 50-foot boat specially constructed for the rough conditions of the area and equipped with all the latest and greatest navigation and survival equipment necessary to keep a “white man” alive in this pristine yet dangerous part of the world. Victor had grown up on the now uninhabited island where the whale had come to rest, and he claimed to know a safe way to get there if we could use my boat.

How could I say no, considering the importance of this task? So despite some serious reservations I agreed to the adventure. I fueled and checked the boat while Victor went home to prepare sustenance for the trip: fried bread, blueberry jam and smoked salmon. I was a little surprised to see Austin, his 7-year-old grandson, at his side when he came down to the dock, but also a little relieved, knowing he would never risk the boy’s life with a foolish expedition. So with mixed feelings I welcomed them aboard, stowed the gear and out of the safe harbor we went.

It was a typical Pacific Northwest day: cloudy skies, light rain, a blustery  wind of around 15 knots, with seas in the open water around 15 to 20 feet. The huge rollers were not breaking, so it was a fairly uneventful, albeit slow trip across to Dundas Island.  Victor had spent a long time studying the weather from my porch that morning and was confident it would be a good day to bless the whale.  I had checked the US Coast Guard weather report from Ketchikan, however, and the printouts of the satellite images I had downloaded did not leave me as optimistic as Victor was. Even though I had learned to trust him in my time in British Columbia, still I found myself wondering more than once on the four-hour trip to the island, “What the heck am I doing here?” I finally told myself that Victor’s people had lived here for 15,000 years and surely—surely—they had learned to accurately predict the local weather.

As we came around the far side of the island Victor became totally focused on the rugged, gashed, indistinct rocky line where the ocean met this strip of all but forgotten land. Each violent wave rose up and crashed onto the rocks with every intent of destroying them and anything caught in between. “Right over there, as boy I shot my first wolf. We had to fight them for food. On that rock over there I sat and fished for hours. My Mother would only eat the seaweed from that patch of kelp over there. She said it was sweeter than any other,” Victor reminisced. Then “OK, Tim, run in a little closer right up here; there’s an opening in the rocks. Careful now, time it with the waves; just let her slip right through. It’s plenty deep right now with the tide in, but we’re going to have to hurry to get back out tonight.”  I did my best to thread the needle with the 20,000-lb. boat and twin diesel engines, at the mercy of the churning water and heavy, unpredictable currents. Then with one final acceleration of the engines, we were inside the rocks, missing them all by several feet.

With very nervous white hands, I cut the engines and looked around for the first time. We were in a little cove that was calm, quiet, and safe. WOW! Was I relieved. I expected to see a dead whale, but there was not one to be seen. I looked at Victor and as if he read my mind he said, “OK, let’s put the skiff in and go find the whale.”  WHAT?!?

The skiff he was referring to was nothing more than a lifeboat stored on top of the cabin. It was only 10 feet long and had a 2 horsepower Honda outboard motor for use only in an emergency. It was just a lifeboat for goodness sake!  When he noticed my reluctance, he assured me it would be fine, it was a good boat, just right for what we had to do. I trusted Victor, so we launched the little boat, climbed in and without hesitation Victor took the steering position in the rear. “I better drive; it gets a little tricky where we need to go,” he said. You can imagine the look on my face at this point; but there I was sitting in a 10-foot boat with a 7-year-old boy at my side headed back “outside” into the churning open ocean.

Perhaps I misspoke earlier. I’m not sure trust was what I was feeling. More likely I was just resigned to die at any moment but had come to peace with it. I might as well enjoy the beauty of this God-given place, if that was the plan. I was shocked at what 20-foot rollers looked like from a 10-foot skiff. The little Honda motor strained just to keep from going backwards as we climbed one mountainous wave after another. When I looked around at Victor he assured me that we were making good progress and were almost there. He was still excitedly pointing out things from his childhood that I can’t remember now, but am sure were very interesting.

Sure enough, we came around a huge rock, dodging a bunch of thick kelp, and there it was—a very dead killer whale held firm on the rocky beach where fate and the ocean had placed it just for us. Victor said “Hold on. This might be a little tricky,” as he pointed the skiff between two rocks and we rode a huge wave onto the beach. I could not believe it; one minute we were in the ocean, and the next the skiff was sitting on the sand just ahead of the huge rocks. I will never forget Victor saying “I am glad I remembered how to do that. It’s a little different with a motor and not a paddle.” Good grief! I was overwhelmed.

The smell of the whale was overpowering and I sensed that Victor and Austin needed some alone time with it, so I wandered off down the beach. Before I left, Victor handed me his rifle and said, “Don’t go too far. The wolves have been feeding here.”  He did not have to tell me twice; I stayed within earshot. It seemed like it took only minutes for Victor to remove all but one tooth from the huge whale. He called me over to remove the last one, and with some ceremony thanked me for bringing him to this place. He said I should keep this tooth forever. I will. I am almost sure there is some law against it, but they will just have to put it on the list by my name—because I am keeping it forever.

With that Victor said, “We need to hurry; the tide falls fast out here.” He directed Austin and me back into the skiff, studied the waves a moment and without hesitation shoved us back out into the open ocean. Once outside the rocks I felt somewhat more relaxed than. I was just sitting there enjoying this pristine place, confident that Victor was going to pull this whole adventure off when out of NOWHERE—I mean NOWHERE—a HUGE humpback whale surfaced just an arm’s length away from me. I could not believe it; I went into some kind of Tsimshian trance to cope with the reality of the situation. I could smell the whale’s breath as I stared in wonder directly into an eyeball the size of a basketball. Now, I had seen quite a few whales during my time there—BUT—never had I come this close to one. I don’t think National Geographic has come that close to one. It seemed that we were suspended in time. The whale was just looking at me, seemingly not moving at all.

Then with one gentle swoosh of his tail, the creature pulled ahead and dove down right in front of the skiff, his 20-foot-plus-wide tail disappearing like a huge gray curtain just feet in front of us. I was in shock, trying to put what I had seen into context, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and looked into Victor’s Tsimshian face as he said excitedly, “Hey Tim, did you see the whale?!” Here is where I just lost it. With tears from somewhere running down my face I said “Yes Victor, I saw the whale. What does it want?” With all the calmness and confidence of having lived for 15,000 years in this place with these amazing creatures, he said, “Oh he does not want anything. He is just curious about us. When I was a boy they always liked to hang around here. He won’t hurt us, at least not on purpose.”

The rest of the trip was uneventful. Heck, the rest of my life has been uneventful compared to that. But it has stuck with me that what is so obvious and mundane to some people can be an amazing, life-changing experience for others. I think there is a lesson here for our EAST efforts. Think about it and come up with your own. I have mine, and like the orca tooth, I am keeping it forever. I don’t care if I am breaking a few rules to do it.


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4 Responses to The Whale

  1. Greg Jackson says:


    Just awesome!!! Leaves room to compare the old with the new. Embracing the 21st Century and a 21st Century education doesn’t mean we have to forget the past or even leave every thing from the past behind. It emphasizes to me the need to bring the good/great parts of education that have been developed, while we implement an educational system that avoids Taylorism.

    EAST already exemplifies the model for leaner centered education. The question is how do we sell the idea to the masses and create an educational system that focuses on what kids are 1. interested in 2. good at or 3. even gifted in.

    The model will work, EAST has proven it over and over again. Just keep doing what you’re doing. I am very honored to know someone that shares my passion for EAST and to be able to call you my friend.

    Greg Jackson

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Greg, I really enjoyed writing this story. Matt thinks I should do some more of it. I might once the blood dries in the margins. It was painful to do but I am glad I did it.

  2. Kay Compton says:

    Your story is incredible. I understand the life-changing moments of unexpected discovery. The first time I went to the Gulf Coast (after the age of forty), we were seated in a restaurant overlooking the water. As I gazed at the sun’s effect on the gulf, I watched my first shrimp boat going to sea. I wept, simply because the sight was so beautiful and I had waited for so long to see it. I’m sure the waitress never guessed that something so simple as a fisherman going to work could move someone to tears. I will never forget it.
    One of the joys of being an educator is seeing a student make those unexpected discoveries. I am new to EAST, but I can clearly see the potential of life-changing student discovery built into the program. I am excited to be the one who will be there when it happens!
    Thank you for sharing the story. It is always good to be reminded that what may seem small to us can be powerful to another.

  3. Tim says:

    You guys are so kind. I am sure I should keep my day job however. Glad it connected with you.

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