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Monday, September 1, 2008

Visiting the Oracle @ San Juan Island

The wind
Ripping the white caps off skyward reaching waves - hurling them across my bow –slapping the side of my face
“Hold on Fred!” I screamed, but the contrary wind outshouted me.
“It’s cold.” He mumbled, almost lackadaisically.
“Hold on Fred!” I screamed again. “Don’t give up!”
“It’s cold.” He pouted. “I’m tired.” His pale clenched knuckles relaxed a bit. No color returned to the skin.
“Don’t you let go!” I shouted.
But he let go. My kayak, un-burdened, leaped away.
Waves jumped in-between us.
“It’s O.K.” he said, “I’m tired.”
He disappeared behind a swell, popped up once or twice like a shooting gallery duck, then feebly waved goodbye.
“We’ve got to get Fred!” I screamed for Troy, but turned in time to see a flash of red beneath the emerald surface, his Pungo turned submarine, and Troy invisible. Suddenly a sucker punch from a hydraulic fist, I go down easy into the quiet cold water and gasp for breath where there is no air.

An angel, frightening in aspect, led me to an alien shore.

On that dreary coast, I waited for 100 years (or so it seemed), wandering the banks, and waiting for passage to some other realm (the psychopomps kept asking me if I had an obolus. “Look,” I said, “If you’re such great guides, why didn’t you tell me I needed an obolus before I got here?) I was sad for myself that Fred and Troy were not there to keep me company, but I had an intuition that they must be in a better place (Well, at least Fred).

When the ferryman finally showed up, I was pissed. “Look, if I’m dead,” I queried, “why do I need a boat - or the illusion of a corporeal body for that matter?”
“It’s just a useful metaphor,” the ferryman said evenly, my projected anger flowing around and away from him like water off a duck. “You can get on now – or not – it’s up to you.” he added.

The ferry was ancient, but undeniably powerful. Its great mass shuddered as it pulled away from the dock.

The throbbing of the diesel-electric engines soon became an almost subliminal vibration as the ferry quickly attained cruising speed. It was a very detailed metaphor.

I didn’t have a map and I wasn’t sure how long the journey would last. Considering the circumstances, I would have thought the ferry would be much more crowded. I paced the length of the cabin, looking for a familiar face, but didn’t find any. “Has anybody seen Imaginary Jesus by any chance?” I asked a small cluster of shades. They just looked at me with thinly disguised humor. It was the wrong metaphor I guessed. I thought hard. “O.K., has anyone seen Persephone? At that name, all the shades quickly turned away pretending they hadn’t heard. Even I could tell I’d committed some serious faux pas. “Well have a nice day.” I offered as dark gloomy fog swirled outside the windows.

Finally we arrived at the other shore. “Is this heaven?” I asked.

“No.” said a baby seal floating in formaldehyde.

“Welcome to Friday Harbor.” said a friendly whale skeleton, offering me its flipper.

I was a little disorientated. Transported to the western margin of the earth, encircled by the Ocean’s streams, I didn’t expect to walk the Elysian Fields.

“…Where soothing breezes off the Ocean
Breathe over the Isle of the Blessed:
All around flowers are blazing with a
Dazzling light…”

Pindar (Ancient Greek Poet)

But not all the omens were good. Shades of would-be heroes set sail from DEADMAN Bay in titanic tandem kayaks – kayaks thought to be unsinkable.

I came to rest at San Juan County Park.

I launched my kayak from SMALLPOX Bay. The story goes that Indians, suffering the terrible (likely fatal) fever of smallpox would seek respite in the icy water of the bay, and eventually die from pneumonia instead. It wasn’t a very auspicious tale with which to begin an odyssey.

Did I mention icy water?

Smallpox Bay empties out into Haro Strait, a great six mile wide channel that approaches 1,356 feet in depth. Deep running currents of Arctic water collide with the cliffs of the San Juan archipelago causing an upwelling that brings an abundance of nutrients towards the surface. It is part of a vast circulatory system that fuels the food chain from krill to killer whales.

On the horizon, I could barely see the Garden of Hesperides or maybe it was Vancouver B.C. (It’s one or the other.) It finally started to occur to me that I was paddling on the ocean. I thought back to Miller Island and the half mile of Columbia River channel that proved to be something of a challenge under brisk winds. I remembered how Fred was in the water for close to an hour.

While the Haro Strait isn’t a river, the gardens of kelp between me and the shore gave testimony (as sure as a weather vane’s) that virtual rivers were flowing beneath the surface – rivers that were somewhat capricious regarding which direction they intended to go. My imagination began to work and I wondered how long it would take me to get back into my kayak if I tipped over. Failing to get into the kayak, how long would it take to swim it to shore? What if the tide became a factor? Faced with these questions and a gently rising breeze, I subtly began angling closer to shore. Long trailing leaves from floating kelp bulbs entangled my paddle and broke my rhythm. How hard would it be to swim through this crap?

I patrolled the water between Lime Kiln Point and San Juan County Park, but didn’t cross paths with any whales.

I made it back to Smallpox Bay before sunset.

(I noted that other kayakers were equipped with drysuits.)

I sought wisdom. Athena’s owl sent me to seek answers from the oracle at a kayak shop in Friday Harbor.

I asked the oracle, “Suppose someone falls out of their kayak without a dry-suit,” I paused, “How long before such a hypothetical person would be impaired?”

The oracle said, “About ten minutes -” he said it quickly like he didn’t have to think about it, but then he eyed the protective blubbery coat around my midsection and added, “- you, maybe fifteen to twenty minutes.”

Those oracles don’t miss much.

“Ten minutes!” I was horrified. But the oracle didn’t change his story. “So, with your guided kayak tours, do you put everybody in a dry-suit?”

“No,” he answered, “but the guides wear them and they are very experienced. If someone tips over, we get them back in the kayak very quickly.”

Suddenly I realized that while I’d become quite an old hand at tipping over in my canoe, I’d never actually tipped over in my kayak – that is, I hadn’t the vaguest notion of how long it would take me to get back in it – hell, I had no practical basis for determining how long it would take me to get out. The blood drained from my face. I said, “I don’t think I have the experience to be out in the ocean by myself.”

And the oracle didn’t disagree.

I guess I am a big fat chicken because I scaled back my ambitious island hopping plans and spent some time familiarizing myself with San Juan Island and its history.

American Camp Parade Ground

I learned that an American farmer killed a British Pig for eating the American potatoes he planted on land which the British figured didn't belong to him which almost became an excuse for a war to decide who would get to keep San Juan Island.

I learned a soldier named Robert supervised the construction of fortifications at this strategic point (vulnerable to British warships from two sides).

They named this rock for him. Not satisfied with this apparent accomplishment, Robert went on to write Robert’s Rules of Order.

Also, someone figured out how to take advantage of exceptionally pure limestone deposits on the island. They built giant three story kilns and fired them up to temperatures well over a thousand degrees. Then they quarried limestone and broke it into eight inch chunks (approximately) and dumped the small stones into the tops of the kilns, and waited…

…for pure lime to come out here.

Over a hundred years later, the old quarry sites are still unstable.

Slowly, nature works to heal the scars.

Discarded lime still stains portions of the coast.

It was while I was surveying the nature and extent of the lime scars, that I heard an explosive noise like a tire popping…

…which alerted me to the whale parade.

It turns out that the folks in the San Juan Islands are very protective of their whales. If you see them (the whales), you’re supposed to stay at least 100 yards away. You also can’t follow them and you better not be in front of them either. If you look at them you have to apologize and then sign documents promising not to tell anyone you saw anything.

The oracle told me of some areas that were relatively safe from tidal currents and which, because of the prevailing direction of the wind, would likely allow me to be blown back to shore (rather than out to sea) if the weather started acting up.

Mostly, tooling around in protected bays was much like taking a real estate tour…

…except for when Cerberus, the three headed seal, briefly contemplated tipping me over.

When rainclouds settled in, I took it as an omen that it was time to bargain with the ferryman and see if I could talk him into returning me to the world I had briefly left behind.

The Narrative Image NAVIGATION AID

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