I had wanted to see a Whale, not be flattened by one. Twenty-five yards off the bow, the humpback surfaced and was making straight for the kayak. "Left rudder!" I yelled.
In the stern my partner, Steve Kelly, blithely paddled on. Oh, he saw the whale, all right. It would have been as hard to miss as an approaching ferry. He just figured with me in the bow as a buffer, it might be an amusing time to play chicken.
I froze, enthralled and terrified by the deep, even breathing of the creature cruising atop an otherwise silent sea. Its blowholes flared as it exhaled. Each breath sounded like a propane blast from a hot-air balloon. Strange-looking lumps, which I mistook for eyes, protruded from the top of the humpback's chocolate-colored head. Its back was mottled with barnacles. An unearthly creature—45 tons and 45 feet long—yet one in scale with its spectacular surroundings. I was the one who was out of scale, a speck on the salt sea, as insignificant to the whale as a piece of driftwood.
I'd been told there was no recorded instance of a humpback's overturning a kayak, but by my reckoning, in the next 10 seconds we stood a good chance of being the first. "Left rudder! I'm not kidding!" I shrieked, my voice rising an octave to the exact pitch of a humpback's song. The monster plowed ahead.
February 22, 1993
"Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!" Ishmael admonished the reader in Moby-Dick. "Do thou, too, remain warm among ice." Good advice, that. We were 300 yards from shore and had been told we could swim no more than 50 feet in Glacier Bay before our muscles would seize up and our brains shut down. As I took a deep breath and braced for the collision, I tried my best to model myself after the leviathan that was now a boat's length away.
Six days earlier the only thing I'd been worried about was rain. Actually that's not true. I had also worried about bears. Days and days of rain, followed by wet bears. A woman on the airplane to Juneau got me started. "Going kayaking in Glacier Bay?" she said, raising her eyebrows. "I hope you get at least one overcast day."
"One sunny day, you mean," I said.
"No chance of sun this time of year," she replied. "I mean one day when it's not raining."
Overcast, to her, was perfectly brilliant weather, the best we could hope for. She told me that it had rained every day but 10 in Glacier Bay last summer, something like 99 inches all year. Some 30 years ago William Egan, who was governor of Alaska at the time, used to declare "sun holidays" when the clouds parted. This summer the ratio of sunny days to rainy ones had been more tolerable, but it was now the last week of August, and the rainy season was at hand. The woman hoped I had rubberized rain gear. Then she sighed as the plane's captain, preparing for landing, announced that it was 56° outside and drizzling.
"I never thought that would sound so good," the woman said. She'd been away three weeks and was homesick for mold and her slicker.
From Juneau I took a short flight to Gustavus (pop. 250), passing the time by reading a pamphlet I'd found in the seat pocket. It had been issued by the National Park Service. If I were attacked by a brown bear, the pamphlet advised, I should climb a tree. If no tree were handy, I should play dead. Under no circumstances should I struggle if a brown bear mauled and began to devour me. The theory, I assume, was that I would taste bad and the bear would leave me unfinished.
Black bears, however, were a different matter. A black bear could stomach anything. If I were attacked by one, I should not climb a tree, because black bears are practically born in trees. I was instructed to fight back vigorously—with fists, sticks, stones, whatever was at hand. But no guns. It is illegal to carry a gun in most parts of the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
So before I disembarked from the airplane, two independent sources had convinced me that for the next six nights and seven days I'd be 1) wet, 2) cold and 3) bear bait. No one even mentioned whales.
The outfit I would be kayaking with was called Alaska Discovery. The orientation meeting that first night provided little relief from my fears. "Everyone have rubber boots?" we were asked by our two guides, David Nitsch and Jonathon Orelove. They would be leading nine of us—five men and four women, ranging in age from late 20's to mid-50's. Some of us had kayaked before; some had not. Some had had a lot of camping experience; some were virtual novices. All appeared reasonably fit, if not budding triathletes.
"Everyone have garbage bags to keep clothes and sleeping bags dry?" the guides continued. Waterproof duffels? Wool? Polypropylene? Rubberized rain gear? No mention of swimsuits or suntan lotion, I noted. The forecast for southeast Alaska, they said, was for three more days of rain and then possible clearing. The usual forecast.
Just when I figured I couldn't possibly absorb any more good news, someone brought up the subject of bears. It seems that Alaska had already had two bear-related fatalities earlier in the summer—one person killed by a black bear, one by a brownie. The black bear had climbed onto the roof of a woman's house to catch her. Neither attack had occurred in the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, but that was small comfort. David and Jonathon told us we were almost certain to encounter bears. There had already been several instances of bears wandering into Alaska Discovery campsites that summer, beasts so ravenous that one had bitten a tube of suntan lotion in half. So each night we would be locking up our food and toiletries and storing them far from our tents. We were advised to sing or talk loudly whenever we were in the woods. And the two married couples—fortunately, long married—were discouraged from engaging in conjugal bliss.
Instead of guns, the guides would carry canisters of cayenne pepper as a last line of defense. It wasn't as silly as it sounded. Jonathon had already used his canister once during the summer. He'd been leading a group on a hike when a black bear appeared on the trail. The hikers panicked and ran—a boneheaded play because bears, like dogs, cannot resist a good chase. Jonathon held his ground, and as the black bear charged, he sprayed the pepper in its face. The bear turned and fled, sneezing and rubbing its eyes.
If something like that were to happen to us, the proper course of action, we were told, would be to huddle together, make loud noises and wave our arms, because you cannot outrun a bear. "You don't have to outrun the bear," pointed out photographer Mark Gamba. "You only have to outrun the slowest member of the group." Everyone laughed. Then each of us tried to assess who that member might be.
The next morning I borrowed a waterproof duffel and some garbage bags from Mark, repacked my belongings and prepared for the deluge. A float plane dropped us at the upper end of Glacier Bay and then flew out—or should I say rescued?—the group that had preceded us. It had rained six of the last seven days, three days nonstop. "Well, we survived," was a typical comment. A woman, sixtyish, gave me the most valuable bit of advice she could think of: the best way to relieve oneself in a rainstorm. The technique required a poncho, which was, regrettably, a piece of rain gear I hadn't brought.
But it wasn't raining at the moment, and our spirits were temporarily high. We would be traveling in six two-person kayaks: four fiberglass Easy Riders and two portable nylon-and-aluminum Feather-crafts, engineering marvels that nonetheless had taken us more than an hour to assemble. By then the drizzle had begun, soaking our lunch. "We paid $1,300 for this?" said my paddling partner, Patty Allen, a college lecturer in foreign languages from Ann Arbor, Mich.
Because of our late departure, we paddled only 2½ hours the first day. Mostly David and Jonathon wanted us to get a feel for the kayaks. I'd been in a sea kayak only twice and was surprised by how stable both the Easy Riders and the Feather-crafts felt once you were in them. David told us that only three kayaks had been tipped over on Alaska Discovery trips in the past 20 years. After five minutes I felt at case, as if I'd been kayaking for weeks. The paddling motion was almost instinctive, the upper-body equivalent of pedaling a bike.
Unfortunately the seat of my Feather-craft began to list to starboard. A strap that secured the seat to the kayak's frame had come undone. Being inexperienced in such matters, I didn't stop to fix it. As I paddled on, slowly but surely my spine became realigned. In the bow Patty began to lean like the Tower of Pisa. The craft itself sat cockeyed in the water.
"You guys look like you're sinking," remarked the friendly couple in the kayak beside us. They were from just outside of San Francisco. I shall refer to them as Ted and Amanda, for reasons that will become apparent later. Ted looked like a banker; Amanda looked successful, sophisticated and refined. They were the oldest members of our group but as fit as any of us.
"We're not sinking. We're leaning," I reassured them.
A throbbing haze of pain began to affect my appreciation of the scenery. Not that you could see much. The low-lying clouds rendered the view a bleak canvas of grays—wet granite plunging steeply into a slate sea. We were heading up Muir Inlet, the east branch of Glacier Bay, one of hundreds of waterways that had been carved out of Alaska's Inside Passage by glaciers. In the rising wind we could smell the glaciers, cold and fresh. The smell was unlike any other.
Two hundred years ago, when the British navigator George Vancouver first sailed up this coast, Glacier Bay was no more than an indentation in the coastline. Today it is 65 miles long and more than 1,000 feet deep in some areas. We paddled past one nondescript point of land that, David told us, was buried under 3,000 feet of ice when the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. That glacier is now 7½ miles away. The Ice Age is very much alive and well in this part of the world. For while the glaciers in Muir Inlet are slowly retreating, the glaciers in Tarr Inlet, the west branch of the bay, are advancing.
Just before the drizzle became a driving rain, we stopped at a place called Riggs Inlet to set up camp. Patty and I had an inch of water in the bottom of our kayak, but the garbage bags had done their job. My sleeping bag and spare clothing were dry. Clearly, though, this experience had the potential to get old fast. There is nothing quite like setting up and taking down tents in the rain. The inside of a tent starts out looking wonderfully cozy, but then you ruin it by hauling all your wet stuff in with you. Nothing dries. Dampness pervades every corner of the tent, every stitch in your waterproof duffel. Smells ripen. After a couple of days you feel as if you're sleeping inside a terrarium.
During dinner, at the height of that evening's storm, the fly to the cook tent collapsed. Some six quarts of rainwater funneled onto my paper plate, further congealing a pile of spaghetti that had been cooked about 20 minutes past al dente. Already cold, I was now also hungry and wet. That night I wrote in my diary, which had been sealed in a waterproof Ziploc bag, only: "This sucks. Back hurts. Rain. Garlic bread brutal. Bed at 10 p.m." Pretty pathetic. But I never claimed to be Meriwether Lewis.
The next morning I wrote: "Muddah, Faddah, kindly disregard this letter." That's the last line of the old Allan Sherman song about a letter sent home from a hellish summer camp. The kid who wrote the letter, needless to say, ended up having a good time.
I had awakened in the middle of a picture postcard. The rain had stopped. The clouds had cleared. The bay, now a mirror, reflected a snowcapped peak that had not been visible the previous evening. Chunks of pale-blue glacial ice floated in the still lake. The water was aquamarine, the color of the Caribbean. It was one of the loveliest settings I'd ever seen.
And, wonder of wonders, the weather held. For two days we kayaked among Muir, Riggs and McBride glaciers, ogling their 200-foot-high faces. In the sunshine those faces were Popsicle blue. The tops of the glaciers, however, looked as filthy as city slush, soiled by pulverized rock that had been gouged off the mountainsides during the glaciers' snail-paced retreat.
Having fixed my kayak seat, I was paddling without pain, in my shirtsleeves. My rain gear was stuffed into the backpack between my legs. My sleeping bag was between my feet. My duffel was behind my back, and the tent was crammed into the stern. Every available inch of storage space was taken.
Once we had clamped down our kayaks' waterproof skirts, sealing off the hatches, we were struck by a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency and belonging. The kayaks seemed as natural to that environment as the ubiquitous seals—sleek, graceful, quiet and quick. No one complained of sore muscles. Paddling a kayak was comfortable, a far more balanced form of exercise than paddling a canoe. Conversation came easily, and the hours passed rapidly. With only a few inches of freeboard, the kayaks gave one the wonderful sensation of traveling not on the water but in it.
We had hoped to camp on the second night near the base of McBride Glacier, the most active glacier in the inlet. That proved to be impossible. The channel was chockablock with chunks of ice that had fallen off McBride in the last two days. Calving, it's called.
Some of the ice chunks were the size of garden sheds. They were drifting into the bay, so we had to pick our way through them, maneuvering each kayak by means of the foot-controlled rudder in the stern. For reasons I could not begin to fathom, some of the ice floes were drifting faster than others. Small ones stacked up behind big ones, sometimes tumbling into one another like giant dice or burbling unexpectedly to the surface.
We listened as we paddled, ready to push off from anything that tipped in our direction. It was as if the icebergs were alive. There would be silence for a minute, followed by a brrrrrff or a gurgling splash, like the sound of a bird flushing or a seal breaking the surface, and then a small iceberg would sit bobbing in the water. I kept thinking something underneath the water was playing with them. David later told us that's exactly what killer whales do. Orcas in search of an easy meal tip over small icebergs, hoping to catch a seal sunning itself.
I took a walk that evening up to the mouth of McBride Glacier. Just as it came into view, a huge slab broke free from its face and made a titanic splash. Returning to camp, I found several large pieces of wood on the ground far above the high-tide line. No tree of that size was growing within miles. Had the wood been blown ashore during a heavy storm? I asked Jonathon about it, and he told me those pieces were probably 4,000 years old, the remains of trees that had been felled by the glacier's advance. They were perfectly preserved and still burnable.
All night long McBride Glacier continued to calve. The cracking of the ice as it broke away from the glacier reverberated across the bay, echoing off the cliffs on the opposite shore. It sounded exactly like thunder—beautiful and haunting in the windless, starry night—elemental and violent. I listened for a long time before drifting off to sleep.
We were paddling 10 to 12 miles a day. As a group, thank heaven, we turned out to be terrifically congenial. Everyone paddled at a similar pace. There were no stragglers and no speed demons. We saw almost no signs of other people. A crab trawler passed us one morning. And a lone kayaker. Once a day a cruise vessel laden with tourists chugged by on its way to the Tarr Inlet glaciers. The ships were brief and, to me, inoffensive interludes to the wilderness experience, but David hated them.
The farther south we progressed, the more varied the wildlife became. In addition to seals, we began to see greater numbers of dolphins, bald eagles, kingfishers, oystercatchers and pigeon guillemots. We saw a moose cow and calf and, farther down, a sandhill crane. No-see-ums and blackflies emerged from nowhere at dawn and dusk, begging the question: What do they live on when thin-skinned kayakers aren't around?
The icebergs became fewer and fewer, and the views began to soften. Greens began to replace grays and browns. Barren moraines became hillocks and knolls. The land, regenerated by rainfall, was reclaiming itself. We passed Muir Point, which 100 years ago was under 3,000 feet of ice. Today it is blanketed with spruce and hemlock. Except for the distant St. Elias Mountains, which looked like crumpled tinfoil against the horizon, the bay reminded me of the upper Great Lakes or any of Canada's boundary waters. Rocks the size of goose eggs, endlessly varied in color, lined horseshoe-shaped coves. Spruce trees grew to the water's edge.
The woods were different too—younger, wetter, more mysterious. A hundred years ago this was all barren rock. Now the forest was quiet, cool, damp, rich, its floor carpeted with a thick bed of moss that muffled our steps. Of course, the moss also muffled the steps of any bear that might be lurking about. Delicate ferns brushed against our knees. Hobbits, I imagined, hid in the shadows. So many shades of green. So many smells. Delicious black currants grew along the beach. Here, under the towering Sitka spruces, in an area virtually untouched by the sun, red watermelon berries and exotic mushrooms sprouted underfoot. One mushroom was cherry red; it looked as if it belonged in a cartoon. Devil's club, a terrifying, broad-leafed plant with three-inch spines on its stem, grew in the under-story. A yard high, it had a perfect cone of red berries at its head.
Mark kept asking about whales. Unfortunately, David told him, it was late in the season for whales. The humpbacks that come into the bay every summer to feed on crab larvae and krill had already begun their migration south. "We saw one last trip," David said. "If we do see any, it will probably be when we get to Strawberry Island."
We did have our bear encounter, though it was a bit of an anticlimax. Just before dusk, in a place called Spokane Cove, a big black bear ambled untheatrically along the far side of the stream on which we were camped. It continued strolling up the shore of the cove, ignoring us. No one felt compelled to huddle together and wave his or her arms. No one, I was happy to see, climbed a tree. The bear was poking around the rocks for carrion. It stayed in sight for a few minutes, unperturbed by our presence, and then disappeared into the woods.
That night, as usual, we brushed our teeth, dutifully deposited our toiletries in bearproof canisters, checked out the stars and prepared to say our goodnights. But Jonathon had other ideas. He suggested we play Two Truths and a Lie. It was an interesting game for a group of strangers. The idea was for each person to tell three stories. Two had to be true. One had to be a lie. Everyone then guessed which was which.
Had we done this the night of our orientation, I probably would have caught the next plane home. The first thing we learned was that David, our guide, had once hitchhiked across the country in a clown suit. Terrific. Lead on, John Wayne Gacy. One of the women in the group, at the age of 12, had consumed an entire bottle of whiskey and become so violent that she was hauled off to jail in handcuffs. Steve, an Englishman, once had bet someone he could climb a church tower at Oxford. He fell 45 feet onto the stone courtyard, broke his shoulder, broke his hip and scrambled his insides so badly that his heart stopped. CPR saved him. Here's the scary part: A couple of years later Steve tried it again. Different church tower, same result, if slightly less horrific. He fell and broke his ankle. To this day his mother believes he broke it skiing.
Then came Amanda. By now I'd learned that her husband was not a banker at all but a college English professor. I'd learned that she was a grandmother. But Amanda remained, in my eyes, sophisticated, elegant, refined. Even when she was wearing her no-see-um-proof bug net, I could picture her shopping at Saks in San Francisco. While the rest of us were by now looking pretty frayed around the edges, Amanda continued to look as if she'd just kayaked in off the pages of an Orvis catalog. A most distinguished lady.
Her first story was about having sung a duct in high school with Joan Baez. Her second was—I don't remember her second, but it was true. Her third was about a black-tie dinner she had thrown years ago, back when she and Ted were living in the commune. (Laughter.) After cocktails Amanda and her cohost—another man, a friend, not Ted—took off their clothes and ordered their 25 guests to do likewise. (More laughter.) The guests followed instructions, and starkers, they all proceeded into the dining room. Amanda served them a spaghetti dinner but without utensils. (Peals of laughter.) Amusing things happened during the meal. (Ted nodded in confirmation.) Spaghetti proved to be a fabulously versatile medium. The culmination of the dinner was ice-cream sundaes served in the hot tub.
Smiles froze on our faces as we riffled through the pages of our memories to determine if Amanda had said or done anything in the previous five days to lend credence to such a tale. I could think of nothing. Not a word. Not a hint. She must have read about it in a novel. As it turned out, Granny Amanda could really spin a yarn. Not a word about the duct with Joan Baez was true.
When the sixth day dawned without rain, Jonathon officially declared it a drought. It was the longest stretch of sunny weather in southeast Alaska since June.
We stopped at a place called York Creek, a horseshoe-shaped cove with an idyllic view of Mount Fairweather, which rises from sea level to 15,300 feet. Some people believe Fairweather is the most beautiful mountain on earth: snow-covered, pleasingly triangular, imposing—everything a mountain should be. I was just settling back for a postlunch nap when a splash near the shore caught my attention. A seal, perhaps? A Dolly Varden? I sat up and looked. I'd brought a fishing rod, a six-piece spinning outfit borrowed from an Alaska Discovery guide back in Gustavus, and while there I'd also purchased half a dozen lures and a license. Kerplunk! Another splash, a heavy one, as if someone had thrown in a bowling ball.
A school of silver salmon—cohos—had entered the bay and in their bizarre, inscrutable manner were leaping three feet out of the water, preparing to make their spawning run up York Creek. Fishermen fly to Alaska from all over the world to catch silvers, and, quite by accident, we'd camped beside one of their spawning rivers. There wasn't another angler within 20 miles. Racing, I set up my rod, attached some sort of spoon to the swivel and cast on top of the next splash. Cohos do not feed before spawning, but they're territorial and will strike a lure out of anger. One did immediately. Sea-strong, it made a couple of powerful runs and jumped twice, but after a 10-minute fight it was 15 feet from shore. We were already discussing the pleasures of a salmon dinner when the fish threw the hook.
Oh, well. That was only the first cast, right? You know how this story goes. For the next six hours the salmon continued their mad belly flopping, beautiful silver sides glinting in the sunlight. I never stopped casting. Two more took the lure in the mouth of the river. One broke off; the other never hooked up. None came home for supper. It was one of the most humbling fishing days I've ever had, but also one of the best. If fishing were easy, where would the fascination be? I even tried trolling from the kayak. Finally, at dusk, the maddening jumping stopped, and I returned to camp, defeated, having lost every lure but one.
The others couldn't believe I'd been fishing all afternoon and hadn't caught anything. To them these were suicidal fish. Most of my new friends had watched for a spell en route to a bath in the refreshingly frigid waters of York Creek. Once in the water, the bathers could have killed a salmon with a rock as the cohos slithered up the rapids, their black backs eellike in the frothy white water. What kind of fisherman was I?
"I guess it must be harder than it looks," said Patty skeptically. I'd been skunked before plenty of times, but never so publicly. And never had I felt reproach quite so keenly as when we sat down to another dinner of freeze-dried glop. If only Amanda had whipped up a pot of spaghetti.
That night as we were brushing our teeth, someone tossed a handful of pebbles into the bay. The water suddenly twinkled with light, as though a hundred tiny fireflies were flashing beneath the surface. Strange stuff. We all tried it. Each time there was the tiniest splash in the bay, the water sparkled for an instant. Phosphorescent plankton was the explanation. Stars in the sky, stars in the water. What an exotic place.
As we were loading the kayaks in the morning—kerplunk!—the salmon run began anew. I'd left my rod assembled, to the bemusement of the others, who had begun to feel pity for me and perhaps a twinge of guilt, like baseball fans who've booed a slumping hitter to excess. I retrieved the rod and, ever hopeful, ran to the edge of the shore. "Show yourself!" I screamed, praying for the angling equivalent of a hanging curveball. I got one.
About 15 feet offshore a second salmon jumped, and I cast to it practically before it had reentered the water. Just like that, it hooked up, and the line was screaming off the spool. The coho ran, it jumped, it thrashed around. The others were terribly encouraging. I think they were afraid I'd do something untoward—burst into tears, for instance—if this one escaped. Fortunately it didn't. It was a male, 12 to 14 pounds. Big enough, in any event, to feed 11. We cleaned it, put it in a Hefty bag and started out for Strawberry Island. It was the start of an extraordinary day.
It was our last full day, we had to remind ourselves, for the time had flown. It hadn't rained since the first day. No one had gotten hurt or ill or become sick of anyone else. We had fresh fish in the hold. The trip had fulfilled everyone's expectations. All that was left was to see a whale.
We reached Strawberry Island around 1 p.m., just as the weather was turning overcast. The rain clouds were definitely Ice left by the tide glistened in the unexpected late-August sunshine, returning. After a quick lunch David offered to lead a hike around the island. The four women accompanied him. The men, meanwhile, put themselves in charge of cooking the salmon. Ted lobbied successfully for a New England-style clambake. The first step was digging a three-foot-deep pit in the stony beach.
"Men always do better when they have a project," said Steve as we clawed at the rocks with our bare hands. It was true: We were happy. It was slow going, but it was satisfying work. When our fingers began to get raw, Mark grabbed a stick. Hey, that worked pretty well. So Steve plucked a metal lid from one of the bearproof food canisters. Wow! A breakthrough—tools. The pit practically dug itself. "I feel like I'm watching the progressional history of man," said Jonathon laconically.
We lined the pit with dark, heat-absorbing rocks. Then we gathered wood and kelp. The idea was to build a large fire on the rocks and, after it had burned down, cover the coals with kelp. Upon that we would lay the salmon, stuffed with onions and peppers, then more kelp and more rocks, and, finally, we would cover the whole thing with garbage bags to lock in the heat. A tarp would have been better, but we didn't have a tarp. We figured that we would light the fire in about an hour.
I set up the fishing rod and took a walk down the beach to a spot where a freshwater stream flowed into the bay. I made a few casts, but there was no sign of salmon or Dolly Varden.
I'd been gone maybe half an hour when I noticed what appeared to be a puff of smoke by the camp. Odd that the others would start the fire so soon. The smoke dissipated and then appeared again in a different place. Huh? Someone was shouting from the shore. I had started to jog when—fwwissshhhh!—I saw two humpbacks rounding the end of the island. They were a stone's throw from our camp. The two puffs of smoke I'd seen had, in fact, been the whales clearing their blowholes, their breath spouting 20 feet in the air.
I was running toward the kayaks at a full sprint. So were Steve, Ted and Mark. One of the whales began veering out to sea. It sounded once; resurfaced far, far away; and then disappeared again beneath the water. That was the last we saw of it. The second whale was swimming parallel to the shore of Strawberry Island. We were determined to keep it in sight as long as we could.
Steve got into his kayak, I clambered into the bow, and off we raced with Ted and Mark, our otherwise empty kayaks seeming to skim above the water. Still, the whale was pulling farther and farther away.
After a half mile or so we stopped and waited. The whale had sounded somewhere nearby. The bay was almost perfectly calm, only the gentlest of swells rippling the surface. I strained my eyes so that I might see the humpback one last time.
Fwwissshhhh! The noise, terrifyingly close, took my breath away. The whale had surfaced behind us. My heart, bun-gee-jumping against my larynx, strangled my first utterance: "Awaawaaggghh!"
"Say what, mate?" said Steve, working the rudder. He spun the kayak around in time to see the humpback sound again, its magnificent broad flukes waving at us before it disappeared beneath the surface 75 yards away.
It was graceful, yes. But mostly I was thinking, It is huge. Being in a kayak only exaggerated the difference in our sizes. I was torn: fascinated to be so near this awesome creature, terrified to be so helplessly out of my clement, at its mercy. What if our presence enraged it? What if it felt territorial? What if it surfaced beneath us, mouth agape while gorging on krill?
Steve started working the kayak over to the spot where the whale had last sounded. After it had been underwater a couple of minutes, my pulse slackened, and I began to relax. "Think it's gone?" I asked hopefully.
"They stay under as long as six minutes when they're feeding," Steve said. "I'm timing it."
I suddenly remembered whom I had in the stern. The mad church-tower climber. The fearless falling foreigner. The man who'd lived to tell about the time his heart had stopped. "How long's it been?" I asked.
"Coming on six minutes," he said.
The sea was eerily still. I wondered, How deep is it here? Six hundred feet? Seven hundred? I saw bubbles dead ahead. Bubbles in the middle of the bay? "Hey, look there."
The whale. In my face. Breaking through the surface like a bear crashing through the undergrowth. "Left rudder! I'm not kidding!" I yelled.
The whale was 20 feet away when Steve finally began to turn the kayak. It would have been too late, but that gentle giant swerved to avoid us. Then, when it was right beside us, two lengths of the paddle away, the humpback sounded once more, its massive flukes towering above us like falling trees. I could count the barnacles on its tail. The whale slid into the deep without a ripple, and for a full minute after it had disappeared, a patch of calm remained where it had gone under. Ibis is known as the whale's footprint.
For an hour and 45 minutes we stayed out there, watching while the whale fed. Usually it stayed down the full six minutes. The burbling we saw on the surface was the work of the whale, a bubble curtain that it blew around the krill to concentrate them into a small area as it gorged. Once, the krill must have schooled near the surface, for the humpback started to thrash on top of the water, swinging its head left and right, mouth opened wide.
We later found out that small boats are not permitted within a quarter mile of humpbacks, for fear that the whales, which are endangered, will be harassed out of the bay. However, this humpback clearly didn't mind our presence. It seemed curious. It once circled to the shore side of our two kayaks and surfaced 20 feet behind Mark.
Fwwwiiiisssssshhhhh! Peekaboo. Mark started rocking back and forth, hacking his lungs out. I thought he was having a heart attack. As it turned out, he'd been startled by the sound of the whale breaching so nearby and had inhaled half a dozen no-see-ums as he was taking a deep breath.
As abruptly as it had appeared, the whale decided the show was over. Swimming on the surface, it took off across the bay, bellowing as it went. Other than breathing, this was the first noise it had made. Bellowing—loud, plaintive, angry, who could tell? We followed the whale for a few minutes, but it swam so much faster than we could paddle that pursuing it was absurd. Finally, we coasted.
We were about to head back to camp and our salmon dinner when the whale, in one final transcendent display, threw itself out of the water as if it could fly. It crashed back into the sea, white water exploding three stories high above it. Twice more the whale breached its dark body barely visible through the cascading water. Silence for a moment. Suddenly its giant flukes appeared, perhaps 20 or 30 feet above the surface. Bizarrely high. It was as if the whale were doing a headstand. The flukes seemed to hang there, the humpback upside down, teetering in a madcap display. Then that giant tail crashed onto the surface of the bay, the resulting concussion like that of an exploding stick of dynamite.
Silence. Let it rain, I was thinking. Let it pour. This is some uncommon place God and the glaciers have wrought.