Tag Archives: fear

50 Horsepower of Deceit and Betrayal

The sun crawls above the mountains on Vancouver Island, the rays piercing the flimsy curtains and flooding our bedroom with sunlight. Every day the sun inches a little higher above those mountains, every day it’s a little earlier. I reluctantly stir, not ready to leave the warm embrace of the down comforter. Brittney stretches and swings her feet over the edge. With an effort I open one bleary eye.

Town day.

At least that was the theory. Johnstone Strait had been pulverized by 40 knots winds for the last week, leaving the shelves of our fridge bare. No more crackers, no more lettuce, no more beer. We’ve got to make it today. The cedar boughs looking in our second story window flutter gently in a light breeze. Today offered a 12-hour window, a respite from the parade of low pressure systems that define the winter climate.

We crawl out of bed, scarf oatmeal, chug coffee, and ready the boat. We cram the tiny space behind our little wooden seats with empty jerry cans and garbage bags filled with laundry and trash (it’s important to remember which is which). The water’s of Blackney aren’t as pristine as we’d like, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The engine comes to life on the first turn and we putter out of the back of the cove. Our departure sends the resident Harlequin Ducks scurrying for cover among the rocks and Brittney bleats out an apology on our behalf as we leave them squabbling in our wake.

But town isn’t the first stop. We turn southeast, angled for Cracroft Point, the shelter, and the solar batteries which are once again drained of power. We skip past the sea lion haulout and round the corner of Hanson Island, the expanse of Blackney Pass opening up before us and dotted with whitecaps. We hit the first bounce as we pass the two islands that sit just off of Hanson Island, affectionately known as Little Hanson.

We’re maybe a hundred yards off of north Little Hanson when the engine revs, sputters, and dies. I swivel around, expecting to see a meddlesome strand of kelp trailing from the propeller, but it looks clean. In just a few seconds, the combination of an ebbing tide and southeast wind has turned us sideways to the waves, the tiny boat rocking violently as it falls into the wave’s trough. I turn the ignition, and the engine roars back to life. But as I slip it into gear it cuts out.

Oh god.

Brittney’s face is the picture of calm, and I try to look equally at ease, “that’s odd,” I quip.

I bring the outboard engine up and lean as far out over the stern as I dare, looking for anything that could be fouling up the propeller. The black blades gleam spotless in the morning sun. Everything looks normal. I take a step back and trip over an empty jerry can, my shifting momentum causing the boat to rock all the more.

It’s not the first time I’ve been on a boat when the engine died. My last summer as a deckhand in Juneau our boat died, only to get picked up by an afternoon storm and deposited on the rocks. The same nervous feeling begins to crawl into my gut and I glance at little Hanson’s shoreline as the waves push us towards it. Better that way than out into Johnstone Strait.

There’s little room to maneuver, but I drop to my knees and pull out the boat’s gas tank from it’s slip beneath the engine as far as I can. Adrenaline courses through my body, an ambitious wave breaks over the stern and I feel the icy chill run down my legs. I give the fuel line a cursory look, everything looks connected. I grab the fuel pump like a dying man grabs his rosary, and give it a series of frantic squeezes. Please please please.

I climb over our mountain of laundry and turn the key. Cough, sputter, die. Shit. This whole time Brittney has sat quietly in her seat, watching.

“Is there anything I can do?” She asks.

“I don’t know if there’s anything either of us can do.”

I reach into my pocket and find the phone. Cell service is always a coin toss out here. But a trio of bars appear like beacons of hope. I dial Paul.

“We’re ok,” I begin with more confidence than I feel, and I lay out the situation. We agree that we should get to shore, try to find a sheltered spot, and he’d call the mechanic, the coast guard, or however else may be able to get us out of this. We’re going to shore no matter what. The ocean’s decided that for us. On the other side of the two little islands is a wind shadow, the water shines turquoise and placid. If we can make it there, it would be infinitely easier to figure out what’s gone wrong.

I grab the paddle, thanking any deity listening that it was onboard, and climb onto the nose of the boat. We inch down the shoreline for the small channel between the islands and a respite. We round the point and my heart drops. Draped across the channel is a massive log. It spans the entire distance between the two islands, just low enough to keep us from passing. We try to turn the boat and paddle out but it’s hopeless. The wind and the waves have complete control, and I brace myself as we collide with the log.

I call Brittney onto the bow, expressions of hopelessness spreading across our faces. We can’t stay here. The tide is ebbing and in a few minutes the boat will be left high and dry, trapping us for 12 hours. I do the only thing I can think of. I leap onto the log, bow line in my teeth, and together we slowly pivot the boat around so that the bow is facing the oncoming swells. With Brittney on the bow, I scurry along the rocks, pulling the boat along while she uses the paddle to push us off the emerging rocks. A tiny indention in the rocks offers just enough protection and we hug the windward side of the rock, the boat bouncing off the shore.

The phone rings. Paul again. His theory is that it’s the fuel line or water filter. But it takes both of us just to keep the boat from slamming against the shore. There’s nowhere safer to go. The ocean has us pinned in the tiny channel that will be devoid of ocean within the hour. I toss Brittney the stern line and the paddle and leap back aboard. I throw everything I can onto the seats, trying to give me enough room to operate. For a moment I stare at the engine, 50 horsepower of deceit and betrayal. I pull the gas tank free once more, trying to ignore the rocking of the boat, the grinding of the hull against the rocks.

Focus. Deep breath. Slow down.

I touch the fuel lines tenderly, gently pulling. And one swivels and pops loose. Hope floods my body. This is it. This has to be it. I reset the O-ring, pull the cap over the tube, and tighten. Brittney’s almost bent double the paddle braced against the boat, battling valiantly. I hesitate. Do I tell her to jump aboard, send us adrift, and pray the engine starts?

“Hold on!” I yell. I throw the gas cans and laundry into a heap, press the trigger, and lower the engine so that it’s just immersed in the water. Knowing the precious propeller is inches from the rocks, that every second brings it closer to the bottom, I pull the choke, say a prayer, and turn the key. The engine comes to life.

“Get on!” I yell. Brittney tosses the paddle aboard and follows after it, pushing the boat off the rocks as we back slowly out of the channel. Blackney Pass has turned into a swirling cauldron while we were adrift and we move slowly out into deeper water, the nose pointed for Cracroft Point. As I reach for the phone the water around us explodes, a flash of black and white. For a wild moment I think of orcas, but they’re too small. The Dall’s porpoise follow us like guardians across the channel, surfacing a foot away.

Did they sense our apprehension? Our fear? Were they celebrating with us? I let out a deep breath and grab the wheel like a lifeline as our little task force battles against the tide and the waves for the Cracroft shore.

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Our Greatest Fears

My first memory is knives. Millions of them, cutting through my body through every angle. My body sinking and air replaced by water before my life jacket pulls me back to the surface. The current carries me and I glance back toward the canoe, a snapshot burned into my memory. The leaves contrasted with the dark gray of the rocks and river, the mountains with their yearly dusting of termination dust. And the canoe, millions of miles away, my mother clutching the side, her eyes wide with a fear I should feel but don’t. All I feel is a numb detachment, as if I’m watching my body get swept down the Eagle River, my spirit already hovering above, ready to depart.

A splash interrupts my serene drift downstream, the sound comes closer and closer intermixed with the rush of the river and the gurgle of my breath as water and air combine in my mouth and lungs. Seconds later Dad has me in a vice like grip, holding me as high above the water as he can calling for mom and the canoe. Unceremoniously I am dumped, shivering and shaking into the boat, Dad gasping for breath and Mom paddling for the shore as hard as she can.

Years later, my first memory is still the closest I’ve been to my last. Perhaps my free fall down the mountain could qualify, though it likely would have resulted in just shattered limbs and intensive physical therapy. Now, decades removed, I still remember the knives, the frigid water immobilizing my arms and legs, and my mothers face, the look of terror and loss as I drifted away, and Dad’s courageous breaststroke, holding me above the water while he sank deeper.

All that has changed is my own fear and terror. The memory forms a pit in my stomach, my legs weak and mouth dry and drowning has become my greatest fear. Because at some point your body gives in, you stop fighting the current, you stop treading water. Your fatigue becomes greater than your desire to live, and you give in to the unrelenting attack of the ocean. Sinking below the surface your lungs begin to burn, millennia of evolution, screaming at you to open your mouth, to inhale, and eventually, you succumb. But there is no salvation, no relief, just gallons of water rushing in, pulling you deeper and deeper into the dark.

And yet I love the water, live on it, and follow at a fanatical level, the animals that have mastered the medium. I am an oxymoron, drawn to what I fear. As if I believe if I spend my life on it, in it, beneath it, that I will somehow master my fear. But perhaps it’s best if I never do, if I, for the rest of my life, had something holding me back just a little bit. That sensation of terror, for fear often fosters with it, a respect for that which also terrifies us. Reminds us to never underestimate it, take it for granted, or abuse it.

And yet I have seen mans fear of the of the world turned, not into respect, but into anger and violence. Fear the bear? Kill it, for you cannot fear what is exterminated. But with no bears a walk in the woods is no different than a walk down the street. Yet another disconnect from a past that we have already forgotten. Do not fear the wild, or what you don’t understand. Instead see it as an opportunity to grow, expand, change. Shooting a bear with a camera is infinitely more rewarding than with a gun. Killing one from 300 yards and putting it on your wall doesn’t make you a man, an Alaskan, or a bad ass. At least, it shouldn’t.

If we have nothing to fear we have nothing to respect, and if we have nothing to respect we have nothing to hold in awe. And if we have nothing to hold in awe, than what the hell are we doing out here anyway? We may as well move to the city, get real jobs, and refer to the local park as the great outdoors. Yet where is the excitement? The adrenaline? Our connection with the world that had been essential to our survival until just a couple brief centuries ago. It has been replaced by the 800 channel television, 3G networks, and quarter pounders with cheese.

Yet what is more dangerous, the brown bear in the forest or the type two diabetes, high blood pressure, and inevitable heart attack that awaits our constantly growing species. No one is picketing or protesting the quarter pounders or corn syrup laden drinks, calling them murders or killing machines. Perhaps we should implement fast food control much the way we have predator control. Helicopters circling over the golden arches, rifles poised, shooting carryout bags out of the hands of customers. Or for those that insist on fair chase methods, we can just run up behind them and grab the bags from their hands, throwing them to the ground.