Wednesday, Sept. 25, 1996
Yesterday was bright, sunny and calm. Perfect for a bunch of tyros to launch their kayaks from a pebbly cove auspiciously called Smallpox Bay.
We saw orcas before lunch, in waters a little to the north and west of San Juan Island. It was a little like seeing a presidential candidate: Long before we spotted the orcas, we could see their entourage heading towards us: a half-dozen whale-watching boats, and a droning, circling seaplane. (As far as anyone can tell, the whales don’t much care; they’re preoccupied with salmon and sex and their young.) We waited patiently, our paddles in front of us athwart the kayaks, talking about their habits and speculating about when we might see them. Then we began to notice round white puffs of whale breath between the boats, and the occasional flash of sunlight off the shiny obsidian of a dorsal fin or an arching back. Then we heard the sound of their sudden intake of breath as they broke the surface–a sharp, shouting gasp loud as steel plates clanging at a construction sight. Then we saw them, rolling up out of the water quickly, as if they were the tops of huge wheels churning through the water. Here a female and calf rolling up in sync, there a big male with a 6-foot-high dorsal fin. Our guide told us these were members of Pod L, a society of 50 or so whales that lives full time in the San Juans, along with pods J and K, where they find their mates. We tapped on our boats so their sonar would register us. It only took a couple of minutes before they and their hangers-on had passed us and we had the sea to ourselves again.
Kayaking turns out to be like riding a bicycle with your arms. Your feet are still, wedged in among all your stuff, which fills most of the boat. You paddle in a rolling, relentless, hand-over-hand motion, like climbing a ladder. After half an hour, my arms were as tired as those of the borscht belt comedian who had just flown in from the coast. I didn’t care.
Just before we stopped for lunch on a beach of gray pebbles and huge white driftwood trees, our guide stopped and shushed us and pointed out three rocks at the base of a cliff near the beach. It took me a moment to realize they were harbor seals, reclining like ancient Roman diners, their heads up, looking us over. They were sausage-shaped and white-gray, with alert dog faces. As we bobbed in front of them, a great blue heron flew by about 10 feet in front of us, its long S-neck tucked in for flight. Then came another.
Birds are everywhere. We passed nubbly cliffs of an island used by pelagic cormorants. The rock surface is white with years of guano, and the coppery-black cormorants, perched on ledges drying their outstretched wings, are silhouettes painted on the rock. As we had our lunch on the beach, an auklet in front of us in the water had his–we could see him come up and look around before he’d dive again.
Last night we arrived at a campground at the end of a thin, mile-long bay. Dinner as the moon came up in the center of the bay, between the two shoulders of land. Then a fire, a glowing orange teepee of sticks, where our guide told us about watching ospreys fight bald eagles for fish and about finding baby owls playing in the road. A screech owl called, a hollow, whistling trill. The fire crackled. The moon beamed down between the dark shoulders of the bay. It will be full in a couple of days.