With All Five Senses

We are visual animals. What we see is what we get. Our sense of smell, taste, hearing, and touch takes a backseat to what hits the retina, is fragmented and sent to our brains. And yet the world is so much more than what we see. Or why would we ever get off the couch, board the plane and travel? We don’t want to just see it for ourselves, on a deeper level we want to taste, hear, touch, and smell. And yet… when we arrive our supporting senses again fall away.

For nearly half a decade I’ve watched the behemoth vessels of Princess, Holland America, Norwegian and (gulp) Disney, trace the inside passage. From ten stories up the panoramic view must be breath taking. Never ending acreages of trees, oceans, whales, birds, and bears drifting below the eyes of those that have never seen the natural world in its element. Before their eyes is what brought them here. Is that enough to make one appreciate the land? To change lives? To understand what all can be lost if we don’t change and change fast?

Do we need more? Trees and mountains may inspire as they roll by. But they are visual descriptions, easy to imagine, see, digest, and forget. From atop the ship or within the walls of the lodge, so much is lost. Layers upon layers of the natural world lay hidden just beneath the surface, invisible.

They require us to step off the gangway, out the door, and into the woods and fjords. When we do we find what was hidden was the smell of the ocean, masked by exhaust. The sound of the gulls covered by engine noise. The bite of glacially fed canals, the taste of salt drifting seductively below. We must leave behind 4G and wi-fi and sit in our ancestral home while we still can

I can’t pretend like I’ve always known this.

For three years I worked as a whale and bear guide in Juneau, side by side with the great white boats. While every day brought transcendent moments of beauty, a part of me felt empty. With the rumble of boat engines we felt compelled to add our own commentary and exclamations to the scene. It’s understandable as excitement bubbles over. But the anthropogenic noises of the boat, our feet, and the babble from other boats added layer upon layer to the acoustic scene until the sound of the whales was nearly extinguished. The click of the camera the running questions, the chirp of the iPhone removed the intimacy.

I didn’t think I could be a kayak guide. Didn’t think I’d be able to handle watching whales vanish over the horizon while I paddle slower than I walk. I went into the summer unsure of how I’d adapt. Many days I came home without seeing a plume of whale exhaust, or the shadow of a bear. But when I did, an extraordinary thing happened.

Without the white noise of man’s busy hands, we fell silent. No horsepower no clicking cameras, no thundering feet on metal, no screams and shouts. We were muted by the silence of the natural world. A world so still that from 50 yards you can hear a bear’s claws on the rocks as it turns over boulders. A moment so powerful you don’t as much hear the whale breath but feel it as it explodes from the deep end of the kelp bed yards from your bow.

Sometimes we’d just bob meditatively on the tide. Glacier Bay holding us in a trance, hearing the voices we needed to hear; Murrelet, sea lion, harbor porpoise. It would be rude to interrupt.

I began to understand.

It’s not the pictures of the whale that I need. It’s the sound of their breath, audible from miles away. The slimy comfort of the kelp fronds wrapped around my kayak. The smell of salmon so strong that it permeates the ocean’s surface as they pulse beneath the surface. It’s blueberries on my tongue, Common Murres in my ears, whale breath in my nose.

It took slowing down, not speeding up. Paddle strokes over four strokes. Smaller boats, smaller town, smaller mindset.

One of the first questions of the day is invariably, “what will we see today?”

“Nature is unscripted,” I explain, “I can only tell you what we may see.”

“But,” I go on, “I promise you’ll feel the tide, hear more than you ever imagined, and won’t get the smell of salt out of your nose for days. Believe me, in the end, that’s what you really want.”

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