Micah Ess, Homer, Cordova, and Western Prince William Sound, Alaska, Born 1980

Our houseboat was kind of buttoned up for the season, and we had a few weeks to go before they opened up the season for herring pounding. And then we got the news that the oil spill had happened, I think we got the news a little bit late, because word didn’t travel quite as fast back then, and it might have been a day or two afterwards. We didn’t really know what to expect.

It was a chaotic period, because we felt so far away, and everybody in the family had a different take on it. Mine was definitely like, “Let’s do something. Let’s help. I want to scrub the beaches.” I grew up with not a lot of friends out there, but a lot of animal friends, a lot of birds, a lot of sea otters that I had names for, a lot of whales that I knew, resident pods of both porpoises and orca whales that we knew, we knew their personalities, we’d feed them herring when they came up to the boat. I was really worried about all those animals.

We found our houseboat had been used by the oil cleanup contracting company, VECO. They had thrown soiled booms and garbage bags of contaminated oil-absorbent material all over the boat and it had just been trashed. We sold it for a song to some guy who just took it and leveled it and turned it into a platform for something else. It was a little bit heartbreaking, because that was kind of like, “Well, that’s done.”

That was a tough thing. “OK, this is done.” It was this chapter in my life. I started to look at my life in chapters, as a philosophical tool since then, because it’s helped me to go, “OK, nothing lasts forever.” It was a good learning experience, a sobering one.

Accidents come and go, and now that I’m older, I’ve seen disasters hit the world in different areas and different magnitudes, and you go, “Wow, this could be big. We might never recover from this.” You hear all these words from different people saying the same thing. And what’s amazed me is that environments and people do recover, more than I gave them credit for, more than I thought that they would. I thought the Sound would be permanently and visually scarred for the rest of my life. That was kind of—nobody really knew what was going to happen up here, and nobody was willing to say one way or another. So my imagination was one of oil dripping from trees and birds with twisted beaks like you see around McDonald’s dumpsters, all kinds of funky stuff. And it’s definitely there. It’s all over underneath the gravel, it’s there. But I am just blown away by the ecosystem’s ability to manage those kinds of disasters.

Micah's Full Interview