It’s 9 pm. The boat spins around its anchor in a cold easterly breeze. We’re listening to the distant calls of orcas on the hydrophone. We followed them – more than thirty whales in four families – for seven hours today. We watched a pair of juveniles killing king salmon, one after another. It made my mouth water. One juvenile spy-hopped in front of the bow with a salmon dangling out of its mouth. Last night, Craig woke again and again to their calls and echolocation clicks blasting through the speaker. Lying in the bunk, I swear I felt the body of a whale circle the boat. I heard it breathe.
Agnes Cove is a magical place, a deep rocky basin from which sheer basalt faces arise. Steep-sided, you can kayak around its edge, touch the rocks along shore, and not see the bottom beneath you. Waterfalls snake down the nearly vertical slopes, carrying snowmelt. The landscape is raw, the forest rooted in thin soil, the rocks blocky and scraped looking, and I’ve only seen one bear scanning the slopes with binoculars. But the sea is a different story. Anchored in Agnes, a humpback, minke, orca, sea otter, river otter, sea lion or harbor seal is bound to appear off the bow. Kayaking, you glide past dozens of pairs of marbled murrelets, their peep contact calls signaling across the water. “I’m here.” “I’m over here.” I hold still, see how close I can drift to a pair, watch them turn nervously, peep more frequently, then duck under water with a flip of their tail feathers, sending up a miniature spray of water and a flash of white murrelet butt.
Right now, a few hundred feet up, the north-facing mountainside is still heavily patched with snow. Last night, seven husky river otters chuffed along the bay’s rim. They galumphed up a sheer rock face into the woods, and we watched them through binoculars rolling on the moss, grooming, then humping up into the forest, following one another single file down another rock face, dropping one by one back into the bay to continue their foray. Unless you’re agile as an otter or mountain goat, hiking around Agnes Bay means halting, awkward climbing, sometimes on all fours, hauling yourself up using tree limbs, trying not to grab Devil’s club. I’m still sporting a Devil’s club tattoo on my right inner wrist, some red patches and a black pinprick, the price for gathering Devil’s club shoots for quiche. I talk to Devil’s club when I’m climbing through a thicket of it. “You don’t have to be so mean,” I say. “I’m being careful.” It’s probably not the right approach. But like an alcoholic, Devil’s club is moody, impossible to predict which words will soothe or incite on any particular day. I step gingerly between its spindly stalks, trying not to touch or snag them in the cloth of my pants, but also out of superstition. Years ago, I told my step-daughter Eve, when she was a little girl, that Devil’s club lashed out when you were mean to it. It was one of those days Craig and I had to cajole her off the boat in the rain and wind for a hike, and a patch of Devil’s club we found ourselves wandering in was her proof of the unfairness of it all. Her face red and tear- and rain-streaked, dwarfed by the hood of her jacket, she kicked at the plant with her rubber boot. I don’t think I convinced her of Devil’s club’s vindictive personality that day, only myself. Maybe it’s more like a shaman than an alcoholic. It is, after all, one of the most potent medicinal plants of Alaska. (And I hope by that I appease the Devil’s club gods for my disparaging remarks). I stare at my wrist. The mark seems to throb.
This evening, two large male sea lions appeared just off the bow. They floated on their sides, just under the surface of jade-green water, turning their heads, giving the boat the once-over. I dangled my legs over the side and they startled, then surfaced off the stern, went right back to lolly-gagging. “Hello,” I said. Each visitation – river otter, marbled murrelet, harlequin duck, harbor seal sea lion, orca – is a held breath, a stopped clock. For me, to be witnessed, to be seen by a wild animal, is to be given confirmation that I’m truly alive. Nothing about me matters but presence. One awareness meets another in a secluded cove. The animal sees me; therefore I am. In that moment, all my ideas of self dissolve. “I am” means only that. I’m “hello.” Like the peeps of marbled murrelets. “I’m here.” I’m eyes looking into eyes. The sea lions chuffed their breaths, turned upside down languorously. I breathed.
Later, in my kayak, I combed the shoreline looking for a snowmelt stream from which I could fill my water bottles. Tank water on a boat tastes like it sounds. So any chance I get, I gather water from a fast-rushing stream or even a trickle whose source is a mountain top, water filtered through moss, muskeg, spruce forest, rock. I compare the taste of different sources, some sweeter, some more acidic. One dry summer out in Prince William Sound, I even drank from muskeg rivulets, and after four months, my teeth were stained tan from tannin, and the dentist had to polish it off. Come to think of it, the same thing happened last summer, from chemo. Like Devil’s club, I consider drinking mountain water good medicine. Unlike Devil’s club, streams don’t leave me with imbedded spines, only aching cold hands, a sensation I love. Like being looked at by a wild animal, my hands or face or body in cold mountain water tells me I’m alive. I’ve taken showers under waterfalls in Prince William Sound, my arms a tight criss-cross over my chest, my head duck, my breath held, released in a yelp or whoop or scream with the first douse, and afterward, skin jangling, as though electrified. In college, I tried various illicit substances. Not one produced a high like a frigid waterfall shower or a plunge in deep green North Pacific Ocean water.
A slight swell made its way into Agnes Cove, creating a surge. The sea rose up and down the steep rock sides of the bay like a lung. Little waterfalls slipped down the rocks, but there was no place safe to get out. Water, water everywhere. My thirst grew. I kayaked into a tiny cove just a little more protected by a rock out in its middle. There, the sea floor shallowed a bit from perpetual rock slides, so I could land. Looking for the best place, I almost drifted right into a harbor seal, a silver-headed, whiskered old man of the sea with eyes black and round as ink droplets, who popped up right off my bow, but didn’t startle. Just stared. Then sank, twisted his pale, speckled body, and drifted beneath the kayak, looking up as he passed. He surfaced on the other side of me, just a few feet away. His eyes looked right into mine. “Hello old man,” I said. He ducked down, twirled around me under the water again. For five minutes, we regarded each other. He danced beneath me. I spun my kayak. “I can’t do that,” I said, “it’s true. I see it. Only you can move like that.” Craig, in his kayak, appeared around the rock, and I signaled for him to stop. The seal swam over to him, repeated his gestures. Then Craig kayaked back to the boat, the seal following, and I clambered up the steep, grassy face to the waterfall. From the matted, tan grass, fiddleheads unfurled by the hundreds. Perhaps the sting of Devil's club is no different than the ache of cold water or the regard of a seal. I knelt down and held my hands under the water until I felt in every cell of my body the force of my life confirmed by the force of the life of the mountain. I dipped a canteen into a pool and drank and drank. I leaned down and washed my face.