Misty Fjords and Whales - An Excerpt from "Paddling North" by Audrey Sutherland
by Audrey Sutherland
Patagonia Books is proud to announce our latest release, Audrey Sutherland’s new book Paddling North, which describes her solo voyages along Alaska’s southeast coast in a nine-foot inflatable kayak. The book includes maps by Compass Projections and illustrations by Yoshiko Yamamoto and recipes by the author. Enjoy an excerpt from Chapter 3, "Misty Fjords and Whales."
“Suddenly there was a big water sound ahead. It was not the sound of a salmon jumping. It was not a seal spotting me and doing an instant up-and-over dive. This was a huge volume of water. Coming toward me were two whales, heading south down the channel. Not the humpbacks that I knew from Hawai‘i, these were pure black, with a high narrow dorsal fin and a 10-foot span between spout and fin. Killer whales! I spun away and paddled fast toward the cliff, but there was no place to get ashore. The critic on my shoulder scolded the yellow-bellied paddler. “You don’t have to carry the yellow color scheme that far.” I turned and stroked parallel to them, but they had already passed.
Disappointed, I turned back to the search for a hot spring. Five miles south of Saks Cove, said the USGS thermal springs book, and 200 feet inland. I came to a cove and landed. The major stream was farther south than the map indicated, but I found a smaller one that seemed possible, of a size that might have bubbled from just one spring. Its water was icy, but it would chill fast on this ground, so I crawled upstream, through the spiny devil’s club, under logs, through the water. Finally I stopped; 300 feet in half an hour. No steaming vapor showed ahead, no sign of the red algae that often grows near hot springs. I had no assurance a hot spring was still bubbling. The Geological Survey report was from a 1917 observation, and the 1980 NOAA report on hot springs of Alaska didn’t mention it. Until further reconnaissance, it will remain a mystery. I paddled on.
[Map: Compass Projections]
Again I heard the big water sound, like the steam jets on a locomotive. Two whales were moving north. More were coming. I stopped paddling, waiting. The critic had shamed the paddler into not fleeing. One whale lifted higher, and I could see the white undermarkings: orca, the killer whale, unmistakably. A single one angled off from the pod toward me, dove, then surfaced 200 feet away. He blew once, a misty cloud, then dove again, leaving ruffles of white water on the surface. He rose again, 100 feet away, still on course toward me, the spray from his blowhole and the dorsal fin both in a line, aimed like an arrow toward my boat. The fin was five feet high, firm and erect. A young male, I thought, a maverick, curious and unpredictable in the way of teenagers everywhere. I measured: “Two hundred, one hundred… hmmm.”
In quick motions, I dipped the paddle once on each side to make sure his sonar knew my precise location, then laid the paddle down and waited, camera to my eye, all heartbeat and adrenalin. A surge; the boat lifted. He surfaced across the bow, five feet in front of the boat, lifted it with his own bow wave, brushed it in his arc, blew air and water. Was there an eye looking at me? I saw him only through the camera lens and pressed the shutter as the huge bulk rose and went down. I was gasping. The droplets on my arms were from his wet breath. Male? Female? I wasn’t certain, though the dorsal fin seemed to be five feet high, so that would be a male. In those days before orca sightings and studies were frequent, I’d seen what an orca naturalist would have given five years of life to see. Dazzled, bewitched, and so lucky to have been there. Orcas are in the dolphin family, and many people find a special communication between man and dolphin. Had he seen the yellow boat from a distance and been curious? I don’t know. Their diet is fish and sea mammals. Am I a sea mammal?
Recently orca specialists have suggested that the returning sonar sound from my inflatable craft would seem to an orca more like the ping of a seal’s body than the sound from a hard-shelled boat. I’m not sure I want that piece of information.
In 2002, Alexandra Morton’s excellent Listening to Whales was published by Ballantine Books. She tells of the fish diet of the resident orcas in the area between northern Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. The orcas of the transient population ate seals and porpoises. What is the preferred food of these orcas of southern Alaska? Are they the same group as in B.C.?
I paddled on, looking for a campsite. With this quiet water I should have crossed the channel, which I’d have to do soon, but I was tired and my right arm was aching. I passed Saks Cove: fifteen miles today. The wind came up, and I stopped at the Geological Survey mark for Joy, as the map called the site. I learned later that I should have gone to Fitzgibbon Cove.”
Audrey Sutherland is the author of Paddling Hawai'i and Paddling My Own Canoe. She was raised in California and has lived in Hawai'i since 1952. She raised her four children as a single mother, supporting her family as a school counselor. In 1962 she decided to tour the coast of Molokai by swimming it – and towing along an inflatable raft with supplies. She has ever since been an inveterate water traveler, during the past several decades in inflatable kayak because it’s transportable, light enough for her to handle comfortably and relatively inexpensive. [Photo: Patagonia ambassador Liz Clark (left) and Audrey Sutherland (right) from Liz's 2009 blog post "Gallivanting the globe sans Swell: 3."]
Paddling North by Audrey Sutherland is available now from Patagonia Books, Powell's and Amazon.