We are camped in a snug, protected cove, shaped like the elbow-indentation of a painter’s palette. It’s a beautiful camp with ferns, tall grass and red alders growing along the sea edge and behind them the tall Sitkas, which are catching the morning’s soft light like Tuscan steeples.
The view from our beach camp is of another island that’s separated from our island by about three map-minutes of sea lane. The Sitkas on the opposite island, due to the fog that lies between us, appear to have been lightly sketched in with graphite, and the trees on a hilltop behind them are faint as watermarks.
The final remnants of last night’s rain still fall from the branches of the alders and Sitkas, drip-drilling thimble-sized holes into the ground. A soft Sutkrita breeze blows through the trees. The air is chilly and damp, but so fresh and invigorating. Surely the air God breathed into Adam to give him life was British Columbian air.
We have eaten breakfast, taken down our tents and loaded them and our other expedition gear into the hatches of our kayaks, which await us on the gravelly beach. After we’ve loaded the last kayak, we carry it into the water.
One of our guides, Caroline Fisher, tells us our day’s itinerary, and her words are so beautiful that I pull out my notebook and write down her elegant words.
“Exploring isn’t about reaching our destination in the straightest line, or the shortest amount of time. It’s never been about that. It’s about seeing as much as we can along the way. Today will be a day of many detours. Today when we find a spot that piques our curiosity — and we’ll find many such places — we’ll stop and explore them until we’ve satisfied our curiosity. Now, let’s go exploring!”
And with that, she paddles her kayak out into the blue-gray sea and the rest of us fall in behind her and into the watery thoroughfares and byways of the Broughton Archipelago.
Today is the fourth day of our seven-day voyage sea kayaking in British Columbia. Yesterday, we spent the day crossing Johnstone Strait, then Blackfish Sound and made camp on Compton Island.
After a few minutes of paddling larger islands come into view and interspersed among them, dozens of small isles and islets nosing out of the water like Orca calves “spyhopping” beside their mothers.
Caroline avoids the large sea lane ahead and dives into a narrow passageway between two islands, so narrow we have to form into single file to squeeze through it. On the islets, we squeeze through red alders grow all the way down the sea. Some of them lean over the sea lane as if in supplication to the sea, or perhaps they’re just admiring their beautiful reflections in the calm water. Long gray moss hangs off their trunks like horse manes.
Veteran guide that she is, Caroline leads us into a peaceful, secluded pocket of sea inside a circle of islands. The tiny nook into which we’ve entered practically reverberates with reverence. We all feel it. The gentle dips of our paddles turn quiet as an usher’s footsteps.
Caroline turns around and, placing a finger across her lips, signals for us to be quiet — we’re already quiet — then points to a beach ahead of us, where we see a black bear turning over driftwood logs, and picking out grubs on its underside. The bear hasn’t noticed us. Caroline guides our direction a little closer toward the bear and, digging her paddle in deeper, gives a few strong pulls toward it, then stops paddling and lets her kayak drift silently toward it. The rest of us do the same, letting our momentum carries us within 40 feet of the feeding bear, which never looks up. After we’ve passed it, we pantomime “Oh wow!” gestures to each other.
Caroline leads us through a passageway that empties us into a wide channel of sea where we turn left and head west. She continues leading us with her slow, transcendental, observational pace. It’s more like a leisurely, lazy float down a warm, summer river on an inner tube. I’d call it sea kayaker’s second gear. With much coasting. Surely the same pace of Thoreau walking from Concorde to Fitchburg.
l really like a kayak’s second gear. Nothing’s a blur. It’s the perfect pace to notice that the last of the clouds have dispersed and the sky has lightened about six f-stops. And the sea — the sky’s mood ring — has transformed from gloomy gray, to joyous blue. And it’s as smooth as newly zambonied ice.
As we paddle along, we stay together in a group close enough to talk with each other. We ask about, and talk about hobbies, favorite books and movies, and tell anecdotes from our lives. When we strike upon something we have in common – which is often – the conversation spirals out and out from there. I trail my fingers in the water and trace slaloms on its surface.
A continuous line of kelp grows in the water five to eight kayak-lengths from the land. We had been traveling on the outside of the kelp beds, but now Caroline leads us inside the kelp line, between it and the island, explaining, “I think we’ll find some more curious things inside the kelp bed. If we go at a slow, observant pace.”
We spend our morning traveling through secret passageways, in and out of hidden sanctuaries. We see two more black bears turning over logs on the beach, searching for grubs. We pass islands growing with old-growth Sitka spruces tall as the Empire State Building. Salmon jumping. Eagles diving. Jellyfish swimming. Humpback whale flukes diving in the distance.
Around noon we reach White Cliffs Islet, where we pull our kayaks into a protective lagoon. This is where we’ll stop and have lunch. We remove our lifejackets and sprayskirts and leave them heaped in little piles resembling molted snake skin. I stretch my back and cramped legs. After spending the morning in the kayak, my legs feel as though they’ve been crouched in a sprinter’s starting blocks for an hour.
White Cliffs is a very small island set well away from other islands. On seven of its eight sides we can see other islands in the distance, but west of us we can see only open blue ocean, the horizon line only visible because the sky has a thimbleful more blue added to it. Looking at it certainly gives me the impression that the world is flat. It’s very easy to imagine. In fact it’s hard not to imagine that the horizon line is the edge of a broad waterfall.
Looking at the map, I see that many islands lie in that direction but due to the curvature of the earth they remain hidden on the far side of the horizon. Behind us some taller mountains rise behind the peaks of some of the shorter mountains in the foreground, like a mountain family portrait. The most distant peaks half-hidden behind a gray patina of mist. I feel like I’m standing inside a Japanese watercolor. I half expect to see some Oriental calligraphy written up in a corner of the blue sky.
White Cliff Islet is quite small. If it was a parking lot, about four buses could fit on it. It is little more than a flat, bleached rock with a few scrubby salal bushes and sea grass growing on it. Yellow and gold lichen grow on the bare rock in whorly rings that look like plate-sized fingerprints. Bleached driftwood is scattered across the island.
The clients disperse to explore the island while our guides prepare lunch. I walk the perimeter of the isle wading through shallow tidal pools in a head-down, absorbed examination inspecting barnacles, starfish, and trapped fish. Off the island, between us and the kelp beds I spy some pink, and yellow starfish. In one inlet, I find several dead jellyfish strewn on the rocks — yellow, pink, purple and red — like a whale’s discarded party lenses.
I travel from the island’s six o’clock position to its nine o’clock position in about the same amount of time it would have taken a clock’s minute hand to travel that same distance, until I’ve arced around to the west side of the island, and it is there that I look up to see Isaac staring at the horizon. He nods at me. I nod back. He is looking at the horizon, but like horizon gazers everywhere — a rather dreamy bunch — they’re often seeing something far beyond it. I join Isaac for a few moments of horizon appreciation.
“I live in San Francisco,” Isaac tells me after a few minutes, “and I have some spots there where I like to go to look out at the horizon. But looking at the horizon from the middle of the city is way different than looking at it from the middle of the wilderness.”
“Amen to that,” I say.
We learned during our first night sitting around the campfire, while getting to know each other, that this is Isaac’s third kayaking trip in as many years. Right now he has a look in his eye that I — also a longtime member of the horizon-gazing, dreamy bunch tribe — readily recognize. It’s the look of a man fully immersed on a great journey, yet who also possesses the sad knowledge that it’s passing by far too quickly. Having felt it myself, I can tell you it’s a complicated, multi-layered emotion.
It plays out the same on every wonderful journey, when you feel the deeply satisfying joy of exploring and its accompanying thrill of making new discoveries. And yet, at the very same time, you also feel the blue melancholy which arises from your hard-earned knowledge that this beautiful, amazing journey is passing by too quickly, and the whole thing will be over far too quickly. And this feeling contains yet a third layer which is the sadness of knowing that, as much as you’re seeing and exploring and discovering, you simply can’t see it all, explore it all, discover it all, experience it all.
Such an emotion is complicated enough, but now that I’m over 40 — and somewhere past the mid-point in my life — I feel that same complicated feeling I feel on every long journey but I now feel it on a deeper, existential level, because I now have the ability to look at my life with the same eyes in which I look at a beautiful journey, and I can see how beautiful and amazing it is; and I am absolutely shocked at how quickly it’s passing.
And even though I’m still in the midst of my beautiful life journey — and it has been an amazing journey full of beauty, strange adventures, deep explorations, amazing discoveries, rich in drama, surprises, despair and suffering — I’m also keenly aware of just how quickly it’s passing, and I’m fully aware that someday this beautiful journey will end and there will still be so many amazing places I didn’t explore, so many discoveries left undiscovered, so many books left unread, so many adventures left unventured. Is there a word for that: the remorse one feels for the adventures untaken, the sadness of leaving the unexplored unexplored? I bet the Germans have a word for it.
Our guides call out that lunch is ready. After we eat, we return to our kayaks and Caroline leads us south towards the western tip of Swanson Island. And now I feel yet another dilemma brought on by the feelings earlier aroused in me while staring at the horizon contemplating my life’s journey. Should I paddle faster so I can see more, or should I go slower to greater appreciate what I’m seeing?