Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sporting With Leviathan

Its flames were barely visible in the incandescent evening light, but the fire had caught, and they darted here and there with increasing strength among the spruce twigs piled at the base of some short pieces of driftwood I'd piled on top of a flat grey boulder. A thread of smoke rose dark against the blazing fireball sinking towards a gold and blue horizon that was almost north. The sun circles around us at midsummer, as if it has lost its direction and no longer knows that it is supposed to rise and set East and West. Light pours down the great glacial-carved fissure that is Lynn Canal, transforming it into a molten flow. On either flank of this liquid light marzipan-iced granite peaks blush with alpenglow. On this night to the southwest a few lingering rain clouds drifted off, rosy and bruised.

The driftwood popped as fiery tongues licked salt. Names flew up with crackling sparks: Raven, Eagle, Whale, Otter, Swimmer, Wolf, Bear. They hovered and encircled, inhered and permeated. It is dangerous to invoke spirits, nor had I ever done so before, not like this, not with this holocaust of imagination. It was an act of desperation. I was drunk on the landscape, the place, the very rocks.

The afternoon had been wet. Mist scarves hugged the shoulders of the mountains, floated motionless above the water. My friends dropped me with my gear and a green and white kayak at the boat ramp, made sure I was safely launched, and drove on. The boat rested motionless in the water as the car vanished from sight. They would hike in and find their own spots to camp. At sunrise we would gather, but until then I was on my own. My right hand held the paddle in a death-grip; the other clung to the rough, weathered boards of the dock while I reconsidered.

Although I had lived in a remote forest cabin in northern California for several years, and although I had learned as much as I could about the special circumstances of camping in Alaska, this was the first time since childhood that I had overnighted in a tent. My friends would be within shouting distance. It was almost impossible to get into trouble. The area where we would set up a half-mile or so from one another was so close to town that it was almost laughable to call what we were doing ‘camping’. Even the solitude was an illusion.

All the same I was nearly fifty. I did not know how I would react to being out there after such a long absence, much less being on my own; it was always possible that I would become disoriented, that my skills and instincts would fail to reawaken. Perhaps it was folly to attempt to learn so much so late. Nonetheless, here I was, poised in a round-bottomed kayak that responded to my lightest breath, on the edge of this beginning, this necessary trial before I could risk other trips I had in mind.

I inhaled slowly; my left hand shoved. The kayak wobbled for a moment as it moved sideways, then, as the paddle entered the water, floated soundlessly forward into a world of grey and silver that within a mile would become open water. The upward-curved prow slipped through the membrane of surface tension, which held and supported it. The only sound was the rhythmic plink of drops falling from paddle blades as they made their low circle, dipping in and out, propelling the boat gently forward. Above my left shoulder, a pair of eagles sat immobile on a spruce branch, their heads brilliant white against the dark green. I could feel the glare of their yellow eyes as their gaze swiveled slowly, following my progress.

Under the satin surface of the water an ebb tide was running. The boat made a sudden, almost imperceptible lurch as it hit the unseen stream, as if the kelpie of the place had seized this bath toy and was propelling it more swiftly towards the mouth of the cove. My stroke hesitated as it lost purchase; my knees braced lightly against gunwales, which amplified the subtle friction of the hull moving through the water and entered my bones. My body sang with its low vibration. I do not know when I laid the paddle across the cockpit in surrender.

Ahead, a languorous mist scarf draped itself on emptiness. The unseen current drew the boat onward into its damp caress. Grey folds of icy nothingness slipped past my face as I floated unseeing, without time or space. Its trailing end glowed rose and gold and deliquesced into droplets. The kayak emerged from the fog into sunlight breaking through the clouds in Palladian splendor, and I wondered at a world beyond dream.

A raven flew by, laughing.


Blogger Bo said...

Beautiful. We seem to have swapped lives there ;)

10:12 am, November 11, 2009  
Anonymous dFish said...

Coincidentally, i was listening to David Arkenstone's Atlantis while reading this. More energized by the combination...

12:38 am, November 13, 2009  

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