Tag Archives: kayak

Giving Up Control

Forty feet, forty tons, one ton per foot, half ton of herring per day each carrying as much fat as a Big Mac. For three summers I handed out quantitative factoids like science flavored tic tacs, sometimes three times a day with my brain sliding into auto pilot. I’d try to encompass the life history of a humpback whale before the engines roared above 3,000 RPMs, drowning out my voice.

And yet, there is a detached feeling from the bow of a boat, the railing a secure barrier between man and whale. You see them, hear them, hell, sometimes you can even smell them, the rotten smell of herring or the curiously enjoyable scent of cucumbers after they’ve been scarfing capelin. But you are separated, protected by that steel hull, the constant grumble of the boat engines. Yet the safety comes at the price of intimacy. There are memorable moments of course, the alarming sight of basketball sized bubbles encircling the boat, the high pitched scream of the feeding calls reverberating through my boots.

“John! We’re in the net!”

“Oh my,” the captain answered, sliding the boat smoothly into reverse, clearing the net just as ten mouths break the surface, herring and saltwater running down their throats.

But nothing compares to a humpback at sea level, from the seat of your kayak. With nowhere to run or hide, the whale in complete control of the encounter. The extraordinary recipe of fear, excitement, and pleasure as the tail rises, vanishes, and you realize that its pointed directly at you. Do you go forward? Backward? Turn towards or away? Is the whale going to swim straight or zig zag? Your mind pulls you deeper into the wormhole. Is it feeding? Lunging? Your stomach tightens, what if it lunges, you glance shiftily in the water below your boat, here? In your mind you see the massive maw, rocketing through the column like a rocket. There are no engines, no barriers, you are completely and entirely in their territory. What happens next is up to them.

“It’s not that I think they’d try to hurt me.” I explain, “it’s that they don’t have to try, all they have to do is shrug their shoulders and… you’re airborne.”

So you just bob in the currents, eyes shooting back and forth. You have five to ten long, spell binding, exhilarating minutes, like a drawn out suspense scene in a Hitchcock film, waiting. “You gotta breathe,” you whisper into the silence. No matter where the whale surfaces you just want it to happen, to break the tension.

On calm days you can see the shadow first, than a bulbous bulb of water as the whale rises, the water’s surface tension covering the body like cellophane. Until finally it breaks the surface, spent air shooting into the air like a volcano, the bass of the exhalation resonating in your chest.

And so a stupid grin spreads over your face, soft exclamations escape your lips as you sit under its spell until the back arches towards the sun, the tail hovers parallel to the sea for a brief moment, water dripping from the trailing edge, and finally vanishes, into the world that we cannot follow. For a few moments you bob in the whale’s wake, your heart pounding, fingers tingling, adrenaline coursing. And than you start to wonder… should I go forward? backward? The curtain has fallen, the next show will begin in ten minutes. Try to find something pretty to look at while you wait

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Different View, Same Soundtrack

I wake to the gust of cold wind on my face, the breeze a soothing tonic against my cheeks, encouraging me to dig deeper into my sleeping bag propped on the deck chair of the ferry’s solarium. It’s not even seven but the horizon already glows with rosy morning light, soothing confirmation that we’re still moving north. I poke my head out and look over the rails, my heartbeat slows. Gone are the buildings, the roads, the lights that had bombarded us from the shore as the sun went down with nothing more than the occasional lighthouse to interrupt the parade of rocky beaches and mighty cedars.

I stare out at the blue road ahead, the trees slowly melting by. Less than 24 hours ago we had been sitting in traffic, trapped on the I-5 with nothing but outlet malls and tail lights for company. I could feel my world realigning with the compass pointed resolutely north away from the alien world of cities, suburbs, and concrete. I return to my sleeping bag drinking in the cool spring air, and go right back to sleep.

The mountains feel like old friends, familiar faces as the ferry steams into Juneau. Auke, Thunder, and McGinnis, call out in greeting as we drive down the ramp, bleary eyed but exhilarated to be home. The Mendenhall Glacier still stands guard at the foot of the towers, with Thunder and McGinnis mountains guarding its’ flanks. How good it felt to be back, the comfort, the familiarity, the mountain’s friendly faces, extinguished any longing for Hanson Island. If I couldn’t be there, this was the next best thing.

24 hours later, we were finally done. The Pathfinder sputtered to life one final time, taking us up one final ramp and into the town of Gustavus. Town however, may be to generous. The lone stop sign lies a mile and a half inland from the ferry dock, affectionately known as, “four corners” the only intersection in town. Everywhere you look are mountains, but unlike Juneau, they lie benignly in the distance. The town is midwest prairie flat, a quirky anomaly in a region in which towns are built on, around, and through mountains. In spite of their distance, the mountain’s names come back to me easily like a familiar song that you haven’t heard in years. The mountain ranges of the Fairweather, Beartrack, and Chilkat surround us to the west, north, and east. To the south, across Icy Strait, is Chichagof Island, its own collection of mountains give the impression that we are in a massive bowl surrounded on all sides by distant peaks.

We slow to a stop and consider our options. Two of the four roads lead to the two ways out of town, the ferry behind us, and the airport, the third leads down a dirt road, the left hand turn is the longest, stretching north past unassuming roads dotted with log homes and protected by thick canopies of spruce and hemlock. Seven miles down later it ends in Glacier Bay, the crown jewel of southeast Alaska. It seems fitting, that in a land renown for its’ natural beauty, it’s most marvelous feature would lay, unassuming, next to a tiny hamlet accessible only by air and sea.

Here there would be no tour buses, no fleets of helicopters or airplanes, no navy of whale watching boats. If you wanted to be here, there would be no shortcuts. In the summer months a pair of cruise ships would ply the waters of the bay, rushing up the west arm of the Y shaped bay to sit in front of the Margerie Glacier. But for those that wanted to truly be here. To trace the footsteps of John Muir, Stickeen, and others, there would be no port of call.

It was perfect. Years ago someone asked me to describe what Glacier Bay and Gustavus was like: “like someone dropped a bunch of people here in the 70s, and airlifted in a bunch of Beatles vinyl.” Every passing car waves, every face lit into a smile. Moose poop frames our yard along with a gentle blanket of willow and baby birch trees. The scene is so different from the one we left on Hanson Island, but no less beautiful. No less peaceful, no less… us.

Our first morning brings a striking similarity. As I crack the door to let the cat resume his life of roaming through the forest, a Varied Thrush calls out from a nearby Spruce and is immediately answered by another. One week and a thousand miles later, the same birds continue to serenade us, reminding me, that, no matter which country we’re in. We’re home.

In the Holy of Holies

The boat slides into the rocks and triggers a memory. Not a visual one, or olfactory, but auditory. The sound of pebbles racking against the hull of the boat almost makes me turn around, half expecting to see a dorsal fin gliding across the water behind us. Both boat and orca move the smooth, tiny rocks of this beach sound the same way. But today we were alone, just the two of us cautiously approaching the main rubbing beach of the Northern Resident orcas.

I step to the stern of the boat and look back over the water. It’s weird to see for the first time a place I feel I already know so well. High atop an old weathered tree hangs a white box looking for all the world like a security camera. For a summer that was my keyhole. And I would press my eye against it as close as I could, drinking in the scene. But now, for just an afternoon, I got to stand here and see and smell and feel a piece of orca lore. If the bight is hallowed ground, this is the holy holies.

Twenty minutes east of Robson Bight as the orca swims lays this beach where, for all eternity as far as we know, the orcas have come. This beach, an outlier itself in a land of jagged rocks, steep cliffs, and deep water. The beach is smooth and gradual, the reflection of the trees turning the water turquoise, like some tropical paradise. In the shallows, sometimes with barely enough water to cover them, the whales come and rub vigorously on the smooth, quarter sized pebbles that compose the beach.

I step up and over the top of the boat and onto the bow, the waves rocking the boat gently against the shoreline, emitting the sound of rushing pebbles with every crest. I hop lightly off the bow and feel them crunch and slide under my feet. I step clear of the surf and see my footprints imprinted in the rocks. Damning evidence of my intrusion into this mystical place. I lay on the beach and, like the orcas, begin to squirm and roll back and forth on the pebbles, their sounds filling my ears. If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough to me. Brittney laughs and rolls her eyes as she steps gently from the boat. We talk in hushed voices, as if we’ve just entered a church, and prod slowly up the shore.

We had a reason to be here. The rubbing beaches are strictly closed off to the public, giving the orcas their own private sanctuary much like Robson Bight. But someone had to pull the batteries of the long defunct rubbing beach hydrophone, the victim of a fifty knot storm in October that had torn the cable free. Without this premise we’d go nowhere near this place, even in December, when the orcas hadn’t neared the beach in a month, it felt almost taboo to stand here.

A steep cliff makes up one edge of the beach and stretches out to a point into Johnstone Strait. I boulder up and walk to the edge, the bottom still visible even on this massive 17.1 foot high tide. I find the batteries and the second camera, the one that looks straight down into the water off the cliff face where the orcas would cruise right past just before they reached the pebbles. Like at Robson Bight I see them in my minds eye, cruising peacefully past, bound for their favorite spot in the strait. We get the batteries off the cliff and perch on a massive log washed against the shoreline. We dig out some food and stare out at the water, this unassuming little stretch of earth that means so much. Camera in hand I snap pictures while I eat, hoping to capture as much of it as possible and failing to do justice. It’s tough to think about leaving so soon, and I a great longing fills me to see the whales here, just once while I hide unseen in the bushes. It’s a dream that will have to remain a dream, and I look up at the camera, thankful that it gives me the opportunity to enjoy it from a distance. We climb into the boat and gently push back into the water, gliding across the brilliant blue/green waves, bound for the gray surf of the straight, the southeasterly starting to turn up the current.

Before we go home there’s one more place I want to find, and we shoot across Johnstone Straight, heading for Cracroft Island. As we reach the shore I slow down and and we move slowly west toward Hanson Island. I see the hollow wooden skeletons of a camp. Structures with no roofs or walls, tiny wooden platforms and benches on the rocks. This is it. I stop and look at this unassuming little kayak camp. “This is my birthplace,” I thought.

It was here, seven years ago that I had visited, kayaked, and fallen in love with this place. Straining my eyes for that elusive dorsal fin that has dictated so much of my life. I look behind me and remember the A36s, cruising west past our camp, oblivious to the life they were altering forever with every surface, every breath. A part of me wants to find a place to land, to step ashore here and crouch where I did those nights when the A4s swam by, allowing me to hear but not see. But the wind has other ideas, as does the quickly fading sun of the second shortest day of the year. We pick up speed and continue west, picking our way through the deadheads and kelp, tracing the footprints of the orcas that would be back to chase the salmon. Like they have every summer. For all eternity.

On Hallowed Ground

Traveling south from the lab and through the tiny bottleneck that is Blackney Entrance leads to the wide open expanse of Johnstone Strait. After almost four months and countless trips to Cracroft Point, the image springs to mind instantly. The high peaks of Vancouver Island casting a deep green shadow onto the water, turning it the color of jade as you approach the Vancouver shoreline. The mountain range seems to stretch on forever to the East down the strait, looming over the water with their mighty shadows extinguishing what little winter sun there is. It had been seven years since I had been in the strait past the edge of Cracroft Island. Yet I could still remember the shapes and curves of the shoreline.

Back home I would habitually pull out maps and trace the expanse of the strait, and mouth the names of places I hadn’t seen in years. Boat Bay, the Cliff, Robson Bight, the Rubbing Beaches. The bight and the beaches held a special lure, the forbidden fruit of the strait where no one was allowed save for the whales and the fishing boats. Locations I had listened to through headphones for hours but never saw. The bight is now an ecological reserve, set aside as critical habitat for the northern Residents, the boundaries expanding east to encompass the whales’ rubbing beaches. The maps show the bight as a subtle nick in the Vancouver Island shoreline. It’s as if the strait scooped out a chunk of the island with an ice cream scoop, leaving a crescent shaped divot. In the back of the bight sits the headwaters of the salmon rich Tsitika River.

From Cracroft Point, the lab’s out camp, you can almost make out the bight down the strait, straining your eyes through the glare of the sun, the small bay camouflaged by the steep slopes of the St. John, Tsitika, and Derby mountains, standing like sentinels, the guardians of the bay. It is in this unassuming bit of water, that so much of our understanding and knowledge of orcas has arisen. It is here that they have rested, played, and hunted for untold generations. The place holds an uncontrollable draw, a magnetic attraction pulling me in.

But of course, it is all closed off. Which, is probably for the best. And though the commercial fishing boats are still aloud to clog the bight as the sockeye run every year, it gives the whales at least some semblance of escape and privacy from those of us that perhaps love them too much. But there is no law against hydrophones, and on the east side of the bight hangs a crucial piece of Orca Lab’s research; the Critical Point hydrophone. Anything that makes a sound west of the hydrophone in Johnstone Strait is picked up and transmitted through a thin cord of wire, piping back to the lab the calls of orca, dolphins, and humpbacks as well as the drone of barges, fishing boats, and the abominable log tows.

As the days get shorter and the clouds thicker, the solar panels that power the hydrophones throughout the network begin to sputter. The batteries stationed are asked to supply more of the power each day until finally, they too begin to crack under the increased workload. Critical Point, shrouded in shade most of the time thanks to the mountains, was the first to begin to protest. Clicks and oscillations eventually giving way to hours of pure static, especially at night. The occasionally sunny day would give the batteries a brief reprieve but the only long term solution, was to replace them.

So last week, when Brittney and I came to town, we were met on the dock by Paul. Bouncing out of the car with his usually vigor, he excitedly announced that today was as good as any to take the one hour run from Alert Bay to the bight and replace the batteries. My chance to set foot in the hallowed ground had come and we climbed back into the minuscule boat thirty minutes later, prepared to battle an ebbing tide down the strait.

The sun broke through the clouds as we entered the bight, brilliant rays of sunshine stabbing through the gaps, illuminating the dark green of the mountain sides. The water becoming that brilliant jade on one side, sapphire blue on the other. Paul brought the boat to rest near the rocks on the far side and I clambered out, soaking in the beauty and silence. It was easy to see why the orcas loved it here so much. The water was calm and the bight would seem to funnel the fish toward the mouth of the river, giving them ample opportunity to catch dinner. The steep rock face we stood on fell directly into the ocean with no gradient. One step to many and you plunge feet down into the frigid waters of the channel. In my minds eye I saw an orca pass an arms length from the rocks, it’s massive body gyrating majestically feet below the surface as it cruised past, bound for the rubbing beaches.

It was, as I’d been told, “just trees and rocks and water.” But my prior knowledge of what lived here, what had happened here, made magic spring from the trees, rocks, and water. It was here that Erich Hoyt and his team had first dove with the orcas. Where Robin Morton had first filmed them rubbing their bodies on the smooth pebbles of the beaches. In these waters the A36s had swam during those nights when they kept me up in the lab, their calls echoing off these very rocks and into the hydrophone between my feet. And now, even if just for an afternoon devoid of orcas, I got to stand on this hallowed ground, staring up at the massive mountains and experience it all for myself.

One Day in the Bay

As many of you know, today marks the 45th anniversary of Corky’s (A23) capture and subsequent imprisonment. She currently resides in Sea World San Diego, hundreds of miles from her home that centers around Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. Her family was a consistent fixture in the straight this summer, and every sighting of them is a stark reminder that she deserves to be here so much more than I do. Much today has been written and shared about this amazing whale who continues to buck the odds and survive in her tiny bathtub after four and a half decades. Coming less than a week after the death and autopsy of Rhapsody of the southern Residents, one cannot be blamed for feeling discouraged and depressed about the state of these creatures.

There is however, hope and beauty that persists up and down this coast. There are miraculous encounters and moments shared between people and healthy wild whales. On this day, as we remember Corky, and all the others that have been captured, I’d like to share my most memorable whale experience of my life.

Summer 2012:

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve lies just 30 minutes west of Juneau by plane. A magnificent playground for the outdoorsman with untold miles of not just the bay, but mountains, glaciers, and beaches. It is a place to grow and rejuvenate, just like the land that is still rebounding after years of dormancy beneath the oppressive weight of the massive glaciers that carved the bay.

I had a built in excuse to visit as often as I could as my soon to be wife Brittney lived and worked out of the bay in the summer where she worked as a kayak guide. Leaving the more commercial world of cruise ship tourism where I worked on a whale watch boat, I’d hop in a Cessna 206 and enjoy the breathtaking half hour flight over the Chilkat mountains to spend a few days with Brittney and the bay.

For whatever reason, I remember really needing a few days their his time. Perhaps I’d just had a bad run of ornery people on rainy days, or seen 20 boats around four humpbacks one time too many, but I was ready to get out and needed the silence and therapy that the bay could provide. I suppose it’s a sign that you truly do what you love when it’s all you want to do on your day off as well. There was no discussion of what we’d do as long as the weather cooperated, we were going paddling. It combined our two passions; the kayak and whales.

The next day dawned (at 4:30 am) with baby blue skies and a scattering of puffy white cumulus, the water was projected to be still, a rarity that summer that would wind up being one of the wettest on record. Giving the weather no time to change its mind, we leaped into an old rusty van owned by the kayak company, and drove the nine miles into the park to Glacier Bay’s gateway; Bartlett Cove. We grabbed a pair of fiberglass beauties from the companies rack and slipped them into the water. Unlike most sea kayaks decked out in bright and loud colors like aqua, yellow, and red, these boats were a dark forest green and seemed to blend into the landscape of evergreens and contrast beautifully with the deep blue water.

The north end of Bartlett Cove is lined by two islands, Young and Lester, and just beyond is a tiny archipelago known as the Beardslees. The islands were a veritable fantasy land for a kayaker with quiet coves, calm waters, and plenty of wildlife. The only danger was the similarity in the appearance of every island. They all followed the same recipe with rocky beaches, slight elevations, and plenty of trees. I’d traced a large circle around the archipelago two summers ago, but kept my eye on the map strapped to the boat all day.

We moved through the tiny gap between Lester Island and the mainland at the back of the cove known as “the cut,” timing our departure so that we flowed with the tide and the first half mile of our trip we barely had to paddle at all. We paddled for a couple hours through the islands, weaving through the tiny cuts and inlets, joined occasionally by gulls, murrelets, surf scoters, and the occasional harbor seal, their wide unblinking eyes staring at us with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. Finally we passed a wide channel, the tidal influence spewing out water and the islands on our right vanished, giving way to the wide expanse of Glacier Bay. The bay is shaped like a Y, with the upper arms holding the majority of the glaciers, most of them in retreat. The Beardslee’s and Bartlett Cove sit near the base of the Y, where the bay merges with Icy Strait.

We knew we’d passed Lester Island and the northern end of Young Island sat in front of us, a long point of land extended toward the upper reaches of the bay and we followed just off the rocks toward the point where we could make a U turn and begin to head south toward the mouth of Bartlett Cove and home. Brittney paddled some fifty yards ahead of me as I dawdled, trying to locate a Harbor Porpoise I’d been sure was following me when I noticed that she’d stopped paddling. Right at the point she was bobbing just a few feet from shore, paddle held gently across her lap. Coming up behind her I see why. A massive group of her favorite birds, Black Oystercatchers are congregated on the rocks, their sharp orange bills and matching eyes flashing back and forth against their dark silhouettes. I’d never seen so many in one place and they seemed completely unconcerned with the gawking humans in the water.

We watched them jaunt up and down the rocks, dipping their bills into the water until something larger, much larger, brought us back to reality. The point of land was to high to see over, but it was clear from the sound that something large had surfaced just on the other side. Leaving the oystercatchers we paddled cautiously around the point, taking care to stay on the beach side of the kelp bed that circled the island like an asteroid belt around a planet.

When a humpback surfaces in the calm water you can see the water displacement long before you see the whale, than a shadow, than a bulbous bulb of water, until finally the whale breaks the surface. The massive exhalation less than fifty yards away felt like a bass drum in my chest. The explosiveness of her surfacing made it clear she was feeding and I was thankful for the kelp bed between us. I didn’t want the whale to have to worry about us and her daily allotment of half a ton of herring. As the whale disappeared another explosion echoed off the rocks behind us. You can’t spin around in a kayak, but you can twist your head so fast that you sprain your neck. A second humpback had just materialized behind us, lunge feeding just as close as the first.

There was an exhilaration with a teaspoon of fear at seeing these whales so close and at their level with nothing between us and them but a few inches of fiberglass and some flimsy strands of bull kelp. But we weren’t moving, not for the world, as humpbacks broke the surface like fireworks up and down the shoreline, lunging out of the water, mouths agape, herring running down their throats. After thirty minutes of this incredible display, we finally conceded that we needed to start trying to get home. That meant paddling through the bay littered with whales exploding from the water like land mines. We took the long way, skirting the shoreline.

As we continued down Young Island, it seemed around every corner was another humpback. It was as if they were forming some massive 40 ton relay team to get us back to Bartlett Cove. There had to of been 25 in all, encouraging us to hug the shoreline, Brittney at times having to drag me along for I could have stopped and watched every single one. Finally we neared the mouth of Bartlett Cove, and as exhilarated as we were, the soreness and fatigue of 8 hours of paddling was setting in. We started to fantasize about sweet potato fries and Alaskan Summer beer at the lodge in the cove, and prepared for the last couple miles of hard paddling home.

But something stopped us. The tour boat that left daily from the cove and traveled up the west arm of the bay to the Margerie Glacier, had stopped in the channel when it should have been heading into the cove to meet its deadline. Daring to hope we watched and to my shock and absolute glee, a tall black fin broke the water a half mile from shore punctuated by three smaller fins as the tiny group of Transients headed into the bay. They were probably destined for John Hopkins Inlet where the pupping Harbor Seals were sprawled on the ice bergs.

Tears of gratitude formed in my eyes, it was almost too much. The bay had overwhelmed me. First the weather, than the oystercatchers, the never ending parade of humpbacks, and finally, this grand finale. Brittney and I rafted our boats together, her hand in mine as we floated together watching the orcas move further into the bay, completely unaware of the magnitude and power that their presence had just created in our lives. Finally they began to vanish from sight and we begin to paddle into the cove, our spirits full and our eyes glistening with tears of gratitude. I could paddle for the rest of my life and never see another whale and it would be ok. Because every time I pretzel myself into a kayak, I think of that day, the magic it brought, and what a gift it is to share the world with an animal as spectacular as them.

My Second Birthday

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.