Monday, November 30, 2009

Sporting With Leviathan IV

[This section of the chapter has only been roughed out. Apologies for its unpolished state; I am deep into a different project.]

Although whales are part of everyday life in Alaska, and while all whale encounters are extraordinary, there was another camping trip, this time to Gambier Bay, that echoed the first one.

Gambier cuts several miles into the eastern flank of southern Admiralty Island National Monument, which, among other glories, has the highest concentration of brown bears on earth. Its many coves provide good anchorage. Pleasure boats drop the hook for a weekend, and commercial boats seek shelter for during storms, and storage for hundreds of tanner crab pots in the off season. Forest Service and private hunting cabins are scattered through the woods, invisible from the water. For all of this activity, Gambier Bay is a wild place, and we were constantly on the alert because of a sow and her cubs.

Our week and a day began on a monochrome morning when everything was different shades of grey—the sky, the air, the sea. Skeletal spruce, soaked and black, loomed over the harbor, dripping with grey moss and mist wraiths. Everything seemed rapt in a sullen inertia, a feeling intensified by the limp atmosphere, by the motionless gulls perched on pilings and lined up along the breakwater wall in an orderly row that stretched half a mile.

We trudged along the dock, the splintered boards weeping with moisture and slick with algae. A motley collection of fishing and pleasure boats were tied up to the slips in dreary, ragged ranks. Some of them looked (and were) derelict. The whole harbor appeared grotty and unkempt. The Hamble it was not. My French friend had wanted the 'real' Alaska experience. Well, this was it.

Eventually we found the boat we were looking for. It, too, was grey, but unlike many of the other boats, immaculate, as was its lanky, reticent skipper in whose face was written a long and difficult history. He was Lynn Schooler, later to write The Blue Bear.

It was a three hour run down to Gambier. The campsite Lynn chose was several miles in. He dropped us off. As soon as we had set up tents, the skies opened. The rain and wind continued the entire week without a break until the day before our pickup. It wasn't the gentle rains of pre-global warming Southeast Alaska; it was monsoon rain with lashings of a winter storm. The water bucketed down. Even with all the extra tarps and a fire I never let go out, we were miserable. There wasn't much we could do except stay in our tents and zone out. I worried about my friend.

Finally, the afternoon before our pickup, the weather broke. We spent the whole day paddling, visiting a sea-lion rookery, exploring nooks and crannies. Finally we came back to our campsite and threw ourselves, exhausted, on the beach.

I was nearly asleep when without any warning—I don't know how to describe this—it seemed as if a giant hand picked me up and plopped me back in my kayak. Unable to speak, unable to comprehend why this was happening, unable to resist the tremendous force that drove me off the beach, breaking every safety rule in the camping safety book, I paddled like a mad woman for the entrance to the bay.

My friend , awakened by the commotion of my hasty departure, pulled on her spray skirt and came after me; she later told me she thought I'd lost my mind. Her kayak was faster, but we were two miles out before she caught up with me.

"What is happening?"

Without breaking rhythm, shocked by my own words, I gasped, 'The whales are coming."

There is no way I could have known this; I began to think I had lost my mind. But the power of speech had left me; I kept paddling.

My friend, aghast, turned back.

As I approached the marker at the entrance to the bay, I saw three whales steaming up Stephens Passage from the south. They made the turn into the bay and came straight for me. There was a mother, an adolescent, and a calf.

Suddenly they surfaced about a hundred yards away and turned between two small islands toward my camp. I followed — carefully! As I rounded the end of the nearest island I grabbed a rock and hung on for dear life; the calf was spy-hopping at the far end, only tens of meters away, as if it were waiting for me to catch up so we could play.

The water here was very deep; these islands were originally carved by glaciers. Now the same subtle sense that had driven me off the beach in the first place was telling me that the other two whales were directly below my boat.

And then they started singing. [*]

O the music! It was unlike normal whale music; it was cetecean Bach. It came up from the water like mist, pulsating the wooden frame of my kayak, sounding my bones from the marrow, perfusing my flesh, pouring tears down my face. There was a pause. A final tonic chord containing all the notes of the universe burst through my body, a Western harmonic chord as if from the biggest pipe organ that ever was.

The mother and adolescent surfaced, swimming towards camp. The calf continued to wait at the end of the island, lifting its head horizontally out of the water to look at me. I followed, careful not to get between it and its mother, but it swam alongside, playing with flippers and flukes all the way to the campsite.

I landed, utterly spent. The whales were about a hundred yards off shore —and they began to breach, leaping clear of the water, over and over, vertically, horizontally, tail-slapping, flipper-splashing, sending great sloshes of water against the rocks.

I don't know how much time passed.

And as quickly as it began it was over.

The whales rolled and waved their flippers at us and swam toward the entrance the bay.

[*] Only male humpbacks are thought to sing; but the calf was too small to be separated from its mother, and the adolescent was too small to breed.


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