My eyes snap open and my legs kick me out of the sleeping bag. I’m instantly awake, sitting straight up, my head grazing the roof of the tent. Next, to me I can see Dad’s outline, sitting up as well. We both sit motionless, suspended in time. Neither of us speak, we know what we’re listening for. Thirty seconds go by before we hear it again. A series of gunshots retort from the strait just yards from us. The sounds echo off the trees, seeming to bounce off the very sides of our canvas tent. The noise fades, and still neither of us speak, not daring to mention what may be in the water next to us. Something very big is swimming by. Finally, I break the silence.
“I think it’s them.” I whisper. Dad doesn’t answer as the gunshots erupt again, this time we’re both counting. “Seven?” I ask.
“That’s what I had,” he answers, “Two really big ones, and four or five smaller ones.” His affirmation is all I need. I unzip the fly and climb out. The air is heavy with moisture, but it’s not the sticky humidity of the equator. This is the raincoast where precipitation falls daily. The very air seems saturated with it, turning the whole landscape green, making everything grow higher, bigger. But tonight it’s a little clearer and a smattering of stars poke around the clouds. But the moon remains under a blanket of thick cumulus as I grope my way cautiously toward the water’s edge. The strait is still and silent, cloaked in the night, revealing nothing.
I slowly put one foot in front of the other, not entirely sure where the rock ends and the ocean begins. There is no gradual increase in depth, step off the edge and into twenty feet of water. As I creep forward I keep my head up, eyes squinting, staring into the inky blackness. My feet reach the edge and test the tolerance of gravity. I lean as far over the side as I dare, trying to position myself as close to the ocean below as possible. Somewhere, probably less than 300 feet from me is a pod of orca whales.
And in this moment I am born. I fall to my knees, the carved rock digging into my legs. But I am in a place beyond a little discomfort in my bones. It took nearly two decades but I’d found my home. The damp chill, the smell of the forest, and the noise of these orcas as they surface infuse my whole body. The moment spins into my very DNA, I am where I belong.
All I have are my ears and I cup and orientate them every which way, not wanting to miss a thing. I want to stay here, frozen in time forever. People could come and go as they wish, seasons could change, as long as I’m permitted to stay. As my life spins and refocuses, part of me slowly dies. The basketball scholarship is suddenly irrelevant. College in general transforming from opportunity and necessity to pointless obstacle. I have everything I’d ever want or need right here. A tent, wilderness, ocean, whales. Rich beyond my wildest dreams.
Silently I beg the whales to come closer, to break the surface within my sight. But a family of orcas has a much higher calling than the desires of a boy leaning over the rocks that they’ve swam past for generations. As the blows grow faint I let the darkness and whales envelope me, change me. I sit on the rocks trying to catch every last sound, holding onto the dream of seeing them long after they’ve passed. Their breathing now barely audible over the lapping waves.
* * *
The water is fifty degrees, 500 feet deep, and rolling beneath me. Yet I feel safe, entombed in fiberglass. The Necky kayak stretches seven feet ahead of me and another seven behind. She is a blinding, pupil wrecking, turquoise color. But after four days on the water I feel confident with a paddle in hand working my way up and down Johnstone Strait, British Columbia.
We’ve barely left the beach when the rain begins anew. For three days the sky has rotated between gray and drab gray. We’re surrounded by water. Salt from below, fresh from above. The rain jacket has become a permanent accessory and those of us in the kayak tour have begun to recognize one another by the color of our rain gear. But I’m dry, or at least would be if I’d wiped out the cockpit of my boat. The puddle of water from last nights rain finds the wool lining of my pants and slowly begins to saturate it, the water greedily sucking at my body heat, leaving my skin cold and blue.
But no matter. It’s my last day in the strait and I intend on drinking as much of it as I can. Our group inches out of the small cove we’ve camped in. The place is nothing more than a tiny pinprick, a comma in the novel that is the shoreline of Cracroft Island. I’m not sure I could find it today if I tried. How is it that I have been here only days and it already feels as if I’ve known this place my whole life? The orcas have been absent since they crept by two nights ago. And now the boat to take us back to the world is on its way. Time is running out.
I glance east down the strait and my heart stops. I blink and it’s vanished. But if it’s already gone, than it must have been… and the fin appears. Tall and proud, like a sword being pulled from it’s sheath it rises. Higher and higher into the air, pulling a smooth jet black body out of the water. The orca’s blowhole snaps open and the exhalation ricochets off the cove, the trees, the mountains, my ears. His two brothers appear behind him, gliding past the kayaks, indifferent to our presence. That’s fine, I’d have all the time in the world for them.
* * *
The light fades and the islands across the channel become silhouettes. Seven years and three miles north of that soggy August day, I’m still here, another summer in Johnstone Strait. I’m not with a kayak group this time but working at a research lab, appropriately christened Orca Lab. A scruffy beard is physically all that’s changed from the wide eyed boy crouched on the rocks. Though, I have a porch to sit on now; no sore knees for me. Basketball is far behind me, college too, as I’d spent years trying to find anything that compared to hovering in the darkness, waiting for them. But it always came back to where it started: Johnstone Strait.
The last vestiges of sun disappear, the water becoming almost invisible. As if they’ve been waiting for darkness, the sound of gunshots reach me for the countless time. The blows come rapidly, too quick and numerous to count. The sounds of the orcas interlace with the array of life in the water before me. In front of the lab, dolphins splash, sea lions roar, humpbacks trumpet, and gulls squawk.
Like the pod that passed as phantoms in the night years ago, they have little time for me. Like this place they are wild and untamed. They have taught me it’s okay to feel the same. That I’d rather be here than have a career. That waking to squirrels dropping pine cones on your tent is much better than a neighbors music. That coffee and oatmeal on intertidal rocks beats an hour long commute. That warm running water, washers, and corner stores are overrated luxuries. That here I can be myself. That this is my home, born and raised.
The pod weaves through the throng of marine life and continues south, heading for the same tiny cove where it all began. I listen to them slowly fade away, leaving me with the sea lions and humpbacks splashing and diving in the night. And still, after years of whales swimming past, in sunshine and in rain, I can’t pull myself away just yet. My sleeping bag is waiting, beckoning just feet away. But I’m not ready to stop listening to the symphony of animals playing in front of me. They pulled me out of my tent seven years ago and they can still do it every time they pass. There’s a magic to hearing them in the dark, bringing me back to the night of my birth. Seven years ago all I wanted was to see them. But now something has changed. Now I’d be content just to listen forever. With all the light stripped away, leaving me in the total darkness. Where all I need are ears.