Across the Sea

He was ecstatic. It was some night of significance – the highest tide of the season or a full moon, I don’t remember – and he had completed a paddle across the Behm Canal to mainland Alaska in the light of the infrequent summer moon of the North. He said it was unnerving to hear the sounds of Orcas hunting seals in the darkness, their obsidian hides concealed in black water yet clearly identified by their ghostly chatter (he did not appreciate my terrible whale impersonation though… he said Orcas don’t actually sound like that, and I laughed at his frustration before returning to the story). He said there was nothing as refreshing as the smell of fresh water after half a season of salt. It was pure, and I imagine he believed it had the tendency to wake up sleeping parts of one’s soul. He said all this, and I was sold. I asked him, “Rob, we should go together. Show me the way to Smuggler’s Cove!”

And when the chance was given the moment was taken with the tides’ blessing. We chose the green tandem, fiberglass kayak, grabbed a few snacks and plenty of water, and set off. We were blessed with mostly sun, as was the entire summer: unusually sunny. I always loved the paddle around Betton Island, the cruise side. There was something about the walls, spanning their perpetual, vertical life deep into the Pacific Ocean, and the waves taunted those walls for eons. And yet they frightened me. Although I had a roll strong enough to right a tandem kayak, there was something eery about hundreds of feet of water beneath a tiny glass boat. I think it made me realize I am mortal (but apparently, waterfalls don’t). But the waves never cared to acknowledge my worry. They thrashed on, waging their war on rock and terrestrial existence.

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On the opposite side of Betton, the water was nearly always calm and there were numerous smaller islands that changed in number and size with the tides. This haven in calm waters was known as the Tatoosh Islands, meaning islands of protection (or as Mama Betsey put it, “safety… like a bosom,” so it could be something entirely different, honestly, and Tatoosh almost sounds like tatas, almost). But dare to leave Tattoosh and the currents picked up where they channeled in the Behm Canal. On the far outskirts of Tattoosh there was a patch of rocks – whose names ellude me – and they marked the entry to Behm. Here, the relatively shallow waters of Tattoosh took a sudden, deep plunge to dark depths where whales scoured the steep chasm for wayward fish. And we waiting calmly, for the first paddle stroke to the otherside, roughly seven miles across, to mainland Alaska and Smuggler’s Cove.

We chose the perfect tides. The currents were forgiving, but the journey was monotonous, and all we could do was watch the trees slowly grow larger and details more crisp on the other side. About an hour later, we had completed the roughest leg of the journey. At home, the rocks were glossy, perhaps full of micah, and layered. But on the other side, the rocks were coarse aquamarine, infused with quartz, and showed no fault in their structure aside from the natural fissures that occurred in the white portions. The first step on the mainland was oddly inspirational: a beckon to further adventures, and I chose a rock to remind me always of that calling. It was eery also, to know how infrequent people stepped on this particular shoreline. There were markers for fishermen, but it was an isolated corner of the world, and my mind wandered to the origins of its name and how fitting it would be for pirates and looters to seek refuge in these waters.

Smuggler’s Cover was some distance up the shoreline, and the tide was still promising to be high, allowing us access to the waterfall at the end of the sea. Seals frolicked in the estuary. The depth decreasingly shallowed to expose the thick, hair-like algae on the rocks, and at its birth there were salmon, waiting for the chance to return to their nurseries and graveyards.

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The sudden burst of fresh water hit our noses, its fresh aroma was a blessing. It was a dream enchanting, and Rob didn’t hesitate to strip bare and feel the cleansing water of a wild stream on his skin. He climbed the waterfall and disappeared, while I pondered patient salmon, trapped in a large hole carved by eons of moving water. Although the salmon could not hold my attention for long; there were American Dippers to steal my adoration. These small birds are my idols. Fearless, they swim under rapids and nest near or waterfalls. Their pudgey bodies lack grace in the air but they dance under the water’s surface. And their names, aptly so, were born from their bobbing movements.

A female dipper flitted to a barren log across the seaside portion of the waterfall. She stood patiently and undisturbed, observing her realm, to have another interrupt her course and jump to her side. She was unresponsive, and he bobbed his entire body once or twice to gain her attention. I imagine in dipper tongue he threw a corny pickup line in her direction. Still uninterested, he heightened his efforts to attract her, and swayed up and down as quickly as he could, fanning his wings as he moved towards her, and threw his head upward, beckoning, or maybe even begging. She now noticed him and slowly joined, and soon… so was I. I was smiling ear to ear, sloppily mimicking them, when I looked up to find Rob, at the top of the falls, laughing and mimicking my adoration.

The clouds above us broke and the tides receded to whatever realms they dwell when out of sight and out of mind. The salmon found themselves cornered, though they were early to spawn and showed no weery misdirection or repetitive determination: they had plenty of fight. And, of course, a formerly accessible passage had drained to an impassable level, leaving us to carry the boat and slip on sharp rocks coated in thick, stringy algae. We read the water carefully for any sign or symptom that the level had risen sufficiently as it joined again with the sea once again to allow replacement of the boat in its proper setting, and after some time and struggle, we were paddling instead of cringing; afterall, the boat was fiberglass and delicate, prone to the edges of rocks.

In Ketchikan, a renewel in the clarity of the sky always brought winds. And winds brought current. At the mouth of the sea, we stared across the canal, a second hour’s crossing, and watched the whitecaps dance savagely to a breaking blur. The sight before us meant no rest, for any lack of forward progression would leave us vunerable to the water, and while it was far from the worst I have paddled, I was in no mood to execute a rapid tandem rescue where wayward drifting would quickly skew our course.

We had made a damning error early on. In fact, it was the first decision of the adventure and perhaps the worst, although we did not see its consequence until we departed Smuggler’s Cove. We chose not to bring spray skirts. Our cockpits were open and exposed. Better yet, it was really only my cockpit that suffered, as the waves broke over the bow into my lap; I broke the water for Rob, so he didn’t have to worry nearly as much. About three quarters of the return trip we found the water had filled my cockpit, slowly sinking the entire craft and challenging the paddle. At that point, we learned of our second mistake: we did not bring a bilge pump. How, with nearly two miles left to paddle in the weighed craft, were we to either paddle or empty to belly of the boat? And at that moment, we realized our one blessing: we brought a paper cup to enjoy the wine we brought, the classiest of fine services, and it would now serve as a pathetic, and slow, method to bilge the kayak. I could genuinely feel it float higher as the water slowly vacated the craft, and we were ecstatic to reach the haven of Tatoosh once again.

We found a little world hidden apart from the rest where we were unique to coexist and we relished in the isolation of our kingdom, at least we liked to pretend we were pioneers to the Cove. I felt like Peter Pan, or rather the girl that Peter offered a promise as Rob was the one who traveled there first. Rob carried us home the final stretch of the journey. I had spent the greater portion of my energy staying warm at my own fault, and ached to push the boat any further. God bless the strength of boys trying to impress.

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