Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Whale Watching

It’s not as if I have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, onto the whale-watching boat. But I consider myself a frugal traveler and I would be inclined, on occasion, to forego that annual expedition out to sea in search of our aquatic cousins. Hilary feels otherwise, and she’s invariably right, in so far as no two whale-watching trips are the same and every one we’ve taken has been eminently worthwhile.

"What’s so great about seeing a mess of whales?" you say. Or even a few? Or even the back of a single whale rising ominously above the surface?

For one thing, whales animate the sea. So do other aquatic species, I guess. But when you see a long string of salmon leaping out of the water, their silvery bodies glinting in the setting sun (as we did on the west side of Whidbey Island during our recent trip)  you may find yourself thinking, “I wouldn’t mind catching a few of those for dinner.” 

When you see an orca or a fin whale thirty feet beyond the gunwale of the boat, the impact is entirely different. For one thing, these creatures might well be bigger than the boat. It seems, at times, that they’re looking at you. Sometimes they arrive in pairs or groups, with offspring trailing behind, perhaps. Researchers speculate that they can communicate with one another across hundreds of miles of water. You start wondering where they’ve been recently, and what they might be thinking.

Seeing a whale, in short, evokes an alternative world just below the waves—graceful, harmonious, communitarian, and wise. It’s one we humans admire, and almost feel we can relate to.

Oceanographers paint a more complicated picture of whale-life, of course. One whale-watching skipper was recently overheard to remark: “If one more passenger tells me they want to be reincarnated as a whale, I’m going to puke.” But I’m referring here to an emotional effect that’s very real, albeit all but indescribable. Which may be why we find ourselves heading out to sea, again and again.

Our excursion left the dock at Port Townsend at ten a.m. in medium fog. Eavesdropping earlier at the office across from the dock, I learned that one couple taking the trip was from Austin, another from San Antonio.

The boat might have been forty feet long, most of it taken up by a cabin with an official capacity of seventy-six, though the thirty of us that spread ourselves out in the booths seemed to fill it up rather nicely.  Out on deck, the walkways alongside the cabin were just wide enough for one person to stand upright while another squeezed by. The front deck, though tipped at a sharper angle, had ample room to stand and watch whatever might come leaping up out of the blue.

Our skipper introduced herself as Corey and explained as we left the harbor that our plan would be to head north across the Straights of Juan de Fuca toward San Juan Island, hoping to run across some transient orcas. The resident pods, which tend to make themselves scarce when the transients show up, hadn’t been sighted in weeks.

Hilary and I stood on the starboard rail for quite a while, watching the flotsam and jetsam go by. We also passed an assortment of gulls and black sea birds—pigeon guillemots and common murres. Further out, flocks of small brown-white birds occasionally flashed by that Lily, the mate, told us were red-necked phalaropes.”I just learned that last week,” she said. 

At one point a large ship emerged from the fog a quarter-mile away, heading toward Puget Sound from the open ocean, and I began to wonder if our little boat had radar. Well, of course it did! All the same, I was curious. We were now a long ways from shore.

Fifteen minutes later we hadn’t seen any whales—or much of anything else—though the fog was beginning to lift. Cory stopped the boat, came out on deck, and dropped a hydrophone over the side to see if she could pick up some whales by sound. Nothing doing. Back on the bridge she kept us heading north and a few minutes later someone spotted a knife-like black fin sticking up out of the water off in the distance. Everyone hears the shout of excitement and pours out on deck. The fin vanished, but then another one popped up. Maybe the same one. Then there were definitely two.

As Hilary and I stood our ground on the front rail, whales began to appear on either side of the bow. We’d stumbled onto one of those elusive resident pods. Some were far off. In time, others surfaced twenty feet from the boat, swam under it, and reappeared on the other side. Not more than one or two were visible at any time. Often we’d see the gray behind the fin. Sometimes we’d see large parts of the body. And three or four of the orcas leaped entirely out of the water, exposing their put white undersides.

Other boats began to arrive from all directions. (The skippers radio to one another. Their joint livelihood depends on finding the whales.) Victoria, Friday Harbor, Anacortes—they were all present and accounted for. At one point I heard Corey say excitedly to Lily, “The resident pods have gone missing for three weeks…and for the first time this summer, I’m the one that found them!”

Corey is from Wisconsin. She’s been in Port Townsend for ten years—a relative newcomer. But the resident orcas of the Straights are so well known that Corey recognized one or two of them by the notches on their fins. “That’s L-87,” she’d say. Or, “See that little yellow one? He was born in May; he’s tagging along after his mother.” She finally came to the conclusion that we’d made contact with at least two of the resident pods. Maybe all three. (For a closer look at summer and fall orca sightings in the region, click  HERE.)

Meanwhile, the fog had lifted, and we could see the sandy cliffs of San Juan Island, frosted on top with a row of scrawny evergreens, just a few hundred yards off to the north.

Whether the whales moved on or we drifted off, I‘m not sure. There are regulations against pursuing them relentlessly or getting too close, and we were due back in Port Townsend at two.

Most of the passengers went back inside for the hour-long trip back across the straight, but Hilary and I went outside once or twice to stare out across the gray expanses. The sea was pretty calm, though there’s always a lot of movement, what with the tides, the currents, and the wake of ocean-going vessels that may have passed by an hour ago.

The most amazing thing I saw during our return journey was a sea gull sitting on a chunk of cleanly cut log about a foot long. There’s nothing remarkable about that—except that I’d seen the same seagull on the same long hours earlier on the way out! I couldn’t be sure that it was the same gull, but I’m confident it was the same log. I found the coincidence astounding, considering how vast the Straights of Juan de Fuca are. But then Cory mentioned she was following her own sea-trail back to port. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On the Northwest Coast

 The word “awesome” is overused these days, no doubt, but it comes to mind repeatedly when you’re travelling through the Pacific Northwest. The first time Mount Rainier appears through the scarf of clouds that so often surrounds it, to say that it “sure looks big” doesn’t seem to catch the immensity of the thing, the dazzling blue-white surface of the glaciers, or the handsome collar of dark green subalpine fir circling its base. By the same token, when you’re watching a pod of five or ten orcas frolic just beside your boat in the shadow of San Juan Island, referring to them as “frisky” won’t quite do. Then again, as you stroll through the tangle of vegetation in the Hoh Rainforest on the west flank of the Olympic Range, which receives close to a hundred inches of rain every year, to call the scene “verdant” only hints at the impact such an environment makes.

Such experiences fill the eye and heart with expansiveness and perhaps even joy, but they also tend to empty the brain of words. “Wow,” you may say. Or you say nothing.

Hilary and I drove and hiked through such environments for ten days in early September. I had spent a good deal of time prior to the trip burning CDs to listen to in the car, but for the most part they proved to be a distraction. Though the Syrian chemical-warfare crisis was in full swing, I have to admit that the only news reports elemental enough to catch my eye were devoted to the progress of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

It was only by coincidence, but in the course of our travels we stayed in a tree house, a historic national park lodge, a retrofitted ranger cabin on the side of a hill, several campgrounds, a budget chain motel, a mom-and-pop motel, and a rustic, Native-American-operated seaside resort.

We took four ferries and a four-hour whale-watching expedition. We hiked out Dungeness Spit, which was shrouded in fog, but could find no local crabs for sale. We bought and cooked fresh clams, chatted with people who were gathering oysters on the banks of the Hood Canal, and also heard some great Alaskan fishing stories from a Portuguese sailor, now long retired, who was sitting across from us in a tiny restaurant in Hoodsport. When we told him we’d been out to see the whales, he replied, with a laugh followed by a slightly disgusted grin, “I don’t need to see whales. I’ve seen enough whales.”

We hiked out to Gray’s Bay wildlife refuge, one of the premier bird-watching hotspots on the West Coast, but the only birds we saw were flitting through the shrubs amid the blackberries as we made our way out to the mudflats. (I know—it was the wrong time of the year.)

Yet one more extraordinary sight met our eyes one gray morning on the beach. I looked out to sea beyond the rugged island stacks just off-shore and noticed a ragged line of lanky black birds with pale white underwing patches heading north in a steady stream. The wildly flapping birds stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions, and the parade continued without cease throughout the forty-five minutes we stood there admiring the scene, breathing the sea air, and examining stones and broken shells on the beach. I’m sure that several hundred thousand birds flew by during the time we were there.

When I turned in our key at the office later I asked the proprietress if she knew what the birds were.
“We call them “black sea birds,’” she replied.
“Yes, but do you know the name, specifically?”
“That is their name: black sea bird.”
I suppose it might be a translation of a Quileute term, but I wasn’t satisfied. Examining out field guide later, it occurred to me that most of them were sooty shearwaters, which the guide describes as forming “flocks of hundreds of thousands.”

Less staggering to contemplate but more fun to see were the sanderlings, small white birds about the size of a cell-phone that race around on the beach on stiff legs in medium-sized flocks, running out when the waves recede and dashing back to higher ground when the surf rolls up again. Their movements are mesmerizing and also cute, and it’s fun to pick out the western sandpipers and semipalmated plovers here and there amid the pack. But when the flock takes flight, moving like a coordinated wave across the beach, turning and diving like a magic carpet made up of dazzling sparkles as they catch the evening sun, the word “awesome” once again creeps into view.

My favorite sighting, however, was of a chestnut-backed chickadee. I didn’t know such a bird existed until I saw one in a tree on the edge of our campsite at a state park on Whidbey Island. It looked just like a thousand other chickadees I’ve seen, but something was different. You guessed it: the back was a rich chestnut color. I’m not saying it was the most stunning bird I’ve ever seen, but it’s always great fun to see an old friend in a dramatically new outfit.

But back to the awesome sights—next to the enormous mass of Mount Rainier, I would set the remarkable expanse of the Olympic Range as it appears from Hurricane Ridge. The morning we were up there the valleys were shrouded in fog and the row of distant peaks, covered in snow and seemingly almost uniform in elevation, looked cold and forbidding. By way of contrast, the clumps of pearly everlasting along the trail looked especially cheerful in the gray morning light, and the black-tailed deer standing out in the meadow looked regal, like an advertisement for an insurance company. During much of our three-mile hike an unseen marmot was making a high-pitched shriek at regular intervals, which I rather enjoyed, though it made me wonder how effective a warning could be when it’s being repeated endlessly.

The fog had lifted by the time we got to the crest of the ridge, and we could easily see Vancouver Island in the distance to the north across the Straights of Juan de Fuca; the spit that forms the harbor of Port Angeles lay nearer at hand just below.

Back in town, we decided to go out on the spit, but the highway heading out that way seemed to run smack-dab into the entry gate of a sprawling paper mill. We turned around and pulled over onto the shoulder, but as we sat by the side of the road pondering our options we noticed that several of the vehicles entering the plant weren’t being driven by mill-worker types. So we turned around again and forged ahead down a narrow road bumpy with railroad tracks and lined on either side with chain-link fence, parking lots, yawning delivery doors, semaphores, tin sheds, orange plastic cones, and men in hard hats wandering around like ants.

Sixty seconds later we emerged on the other side, unharmed, on a long, largely undeveloped split of land. We could see the coast guard station off in the distance, like the bead on a rifle. A good-sized raft of gigantic logs floated in the harbor to our right, contained within an invisible corral. We pulled off the road to watch four or five harbor seals at play, then walked to the other side to look out toward Vancouver Island.
We stopped at another small gravel lot further out along the spit only to be greeted by an amateur rowing club whose members were using it to launch their sleek, narrow vessels.

It was a calm, beautiful, light-filled evening, the kind that makes even the smallest events  interesting, and doing nothing also seems just fine. You say to yourself, “I’m getting to know Port Angeles.” There’s an oil tanker anchored a mile or so down the way—painted an immaculate and heavenly shade of dark blue. And two elderly gentlemen have puttered across the bay in their 40-foot yacht from the recreational marina to get a view of the sunset unobstructed by the wooded mountains that rise up to the south at the edge of town. 

Between the marina and the mill there’s a lumber yard covering many acres. As we drove by it on our way to the spit we could see gargantuan stacks of trees of roughly uniform dimensions, any one of which would have been a prize specimen in Minnesota. But here the piles seemed endless, and Hilary noticed that at various points there were signs, presumably to help the truckers bringing in the logs: Douglas Fir, Western Cedar, Western Hemlock. That struck me a comical for some reason, like a rudimentary taxonomy class on a very grand scale. These were the trees (along with Sitka spruce and red alder) we’d been seeing (and trying to identify)  throughout the trip
I love trees, and I don’t even mind seeing them prostrate on the bed of a fast-moving truck. We met many such trucks west of Port Angeles as we headed out toward Neah Bay and the Makah Reservation at the extreme northwestern tip of the contiguous United States. In fact, one of them went off the road at milepost 42 and backed up traffic for hours. Lucky for us, we’d taken an inland route around Crescent Lake and inadvertently bypassed the delay. We learned about the accident on the travel advisory radio station but had no idea where milepost 42 was, and were informed of its location, and our good fortune, by the woman at a drive-through espresso shack in Clallum Bay.

Neah Bay is a quiet reservation town, as far as I can tell, with a genuine fishing fleet as well as a recreational marina. The hike out to the tip of Cape Flattery is the chief draw for many tourists, and it’s certainly haunting and beautiful out there. But for me the most interesting sight to be seen was a canoe—two canoes, in fact, that are on display in the tribal museum. The larger of the two, which holds eight men, is a replica of one used by the Makah perhaps five hundred years ago to hunt whales. It’s based on a vessel that was buried in a mud-slide and only unearthed in recent times.
The idea of taking an open canoe out onto the ocean seems a bit insane to me; the thought of using it to bring down a whale even more so. But that’s how the Makah used to make their living, and they’ve been whaling again since 1995, when the courts granted them the right to harvest five whales a year for tribal use.

The rest of the museum is hardly less interesting. Most of the artifacts on display were unearthed from the same mudslide that buried the entire village of Ozette back in 1560. All told, more than 55,000 artifacts were excavated during the eleven-year dig that got going in 1970; anthropologists estimate they span a period of roughly 2,000 years of occupation.

By early afternoon we were headed up into the rainforest. Here it’s typically so wet that trees sprout from the branches of other trees, moss clings to everything, and you can see complex ecosystems developing along a few feet of bark on a fallen giant.

Along one of the short trails near the visitor’s center we met up with two middle-aged men just returning from a backpacking trip.

“How long were you out?” I asked.
“Five days.”
“Did you do a loop?”
“We made a base-camp five miles in and did day trips from there.”
“Much rain?”
“Not really. Though I’ve hiked here in December in full rain gear. The forest glistens!”
“How was it out there this time?”
“Absolutely stunning,” was the uninhibited reply.
I asked if I might take a photo.
“Don’t get too close. We’re pretty ripe.”

To me the most interesting thing in the rainforest was the herbarium-like grown that develops on the bark of trees, both upright and fallen, and the maple groves, where the leaves were starting to turn, adding a few golden speckles to the otherwise green and brown ensemble. 

If I had to chose between forest types, I’d pick the slightly drier and more open woods farther inland, on the other side of the mountains. In fact, the most awesome “woods” we visited was the famous Grove of the Patriarchs in the southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park. It’s an easy walk in along the lovely Ohanapecosh River, with the morning sunlight streaking through the shadows of the towering evergreens. You cross a suspension foot bridge to an island where the Douglas firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars, scattered here and there amid less distinguished species, are a thousand years old. A few of them approach fifty feet in girth. Even the bark can be an object of wonder.

The water in the river is a pale, glacial blue. On the way in we spotted two dippers frolicking in a narrow lagoon at the far side of a rocky sandbar. The air was cool and the trees were tall, and the atmosphere was, well, awesome.       

Sunday, September 15, 2013

James Salter’s The Hunters

I have long been a fan of James Salter’s fiction, though I’ve thus far avoided contact with his latest novel, All That Is. Salter is now 88, and this is probably his swan song—you never know?—but after reading a few reviews, I’m worried that I would find it uncomfortably similar to his autobiography, Burning the Days (1997). The right time will come.

Looking for a book to read on the plane recently, I pulled out a reissue of Salter’s first novel, The Hunters (1957), which deals with fighter pilots during the last days of the Korean War. I bought it when the reissue came out in 1997, somewhat rewritten, but never gave it another glance. The pages have long since begun to yellow.

It’s a very good book. It has all the qualities that make Salter’s writing seem “great” to his (belatedly) growing body of fans. The sentences are exquisite. There is poetry in the prose. Adjectives and phrases pile on one another to generate a rhapsodic, lyrical atmosphere of the moment.

But reading the book, I was also struck by a few aspects of Salter’s work that are less often noted. For one thing, he has a bead on the world of male competition, rivalry, envy, and self-esteem, arrogant and otherwise, as do few other writers. Even rarer still, I think, is his dedication to exposing a realm beyond those things, in which a man succeeds in exploiting his potential to its utmost, regardless of the impact it has on the crowds surrounding him who are unlikely to have a clue as to what he’s striving for.

The novel describes a few months in the career of an experienced jet pilot named Cleve, who’s called up during the Korean War to serve under his old flight leader Emil. Emil is a talented commander but also a self-aggrandizing hot-shot, more concerned with how many “kills” he can report to his superiors in Tokyo than with his pilots’ safety or any military objective.  

The central conflict of the tale arises when a new recruit, Pell, arrives in Cleve’s unit. Bursting with charm and swagger, Pell soon gathers two dubious “kills.” (Cleve has none.) A wingman, there is some question whether Pell abandoned his position in pursuit of personal glory. He offers a facile defense of his actions, which both Cleve and Emil accept: Emil, because Pell is getting the “kills,” Cleve, because he doesn’t want to sow the seeds of enmity in his unit—an enmity that would appear to many as sheer envy.

But Cleve is privately disgusted by Pell’s behavior and also his character. His notion of aerial combat is on an entirely different plane.

Early on in the book, Cleve is talking to one of his men who admits that his great ambition is to survive the war and return to his wife and children in the States.

For a naked moment, they looked at each other. It had been a genuine confidence, and Cleve knew then how good his chances really were. Whatever the advantages of ability, there was some­thing even more important. It was motive. He had come to meet his enemy, without reservation. The discomfort was there, even after talking to Desmond, of perhaps encountering one that would prove his equal; it was always a chance, but, even so, he felt encouraged. He had not come merely to survive. He sud­denly felt the uplift of being that much above those who had, who lived on a subordinate plane of endeavor.

The loftiness of Cleve’s quest has touches of arrogance and condescension about it; after all, he doesn’t have a wife and kids to go home to. But it also carries an aesthetic dimension. For him, vanquishing the enemy is not an act of patriotism or violence or aggression or justice being done—it’s an act of nobility and panache. I am better than you, and I’ll show you how. World affairs has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of sky and clouds and landscape and maneuver, like a deadly ballet in which only one dancer remains standing.

The unfortunate thing is, the missions Cleve flies come up very short of MIGs, whereas Pell continues to rack up the kills, eventually becoming an ace.

Cleve arrived in Korea with a vaunted reputation, but as the uneventful missions mount up his reputation erodes and he begins to doubt himself. On leave in Tokyo, he meets and falls in love with a Japanese woman—the daughter of an artist to whom his father has provided him with an introduction. He tries to explain the nature of his quest to her but she doesn’t quite understand, and when she asks him, point blank, “And after the war? What then?” he finds himself at a loss to answer.

The two plan to meet the next day, but Cleve cuts his furlough short when he learns that Pell has scored another kill.

I’m not going to reveal anything more about the plot. And I’m not going to rhapsodize about the quality of the prose. Here’s a passage, chosen at random:

The days became hot buzzing. Long, dusty walks crossed them. Shoes scuffed at the dry earth, and the sun shone down heavy as mist. Voices at night carried far through the swollen air, and the weak glow of electric lights lasted late in the rooms. It was not easy to sleep—not like the winter with its hushed, blanketed hours and the metal of the stove creaking from the heat. The in­sects were bad, and there was only Korean ice.

It’s like Hemingway, but with added sophistication.

I’d only like to say that The Hunters is a good book about men. The literati like it…and all the retired fighter-pilots swear by it, too.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Why We Hate Typos

 Everyone hates typos. We react to them in almost the same way we react to creepy insects. Disgust, revulsion, disbelief.

With respect to typos (though not to insects) there might also be an element of vanity involved. Few of us have actually proofed, much less written, a book, though many of us revere them. When we see a typo, we’re dismayed to consider that the underlings who made the book did not treat it with the respect it deserves. The author drew on a lifetime of gritty personal experience, tedious research, or feverish imagination to produce a work of staggering art or thought, and then the interns and proofers who looked it over failed to notice what anyone (even you or me) would notice: there are two ‘and’s in a row here; there’s an “in” missing there; it says “breath” where it should say “breathe.”  

Once you’ve proofed a book or two, you’ll understand how the experts miss such things, because you’ll find yourself missing them, too. Your wife will be looking over your shoulder and she’ll say, “Shouldn’t that be “fool” rather than “tool”? Egad!

I was recently working on a reprint of a novel by a locally famous author. The job required scanning the pages of the original book, using OCR technology to create a Word file, and then correcting the horrible text the software extracted from the image of the page line by line.

Here’s a sample of the scanned but uncorrected text. I see ten typos. (Let me know if you see more.)

Going through the 300-page Word document I found thousands of things to correct. (I also found eight typos in the original book, which was published by Atheneum.) I thought I’d done a pretty good job…but we decided to hand it off to a talented editor and proofer we know, just to make sure.

She found a few things I’d missed—about five hundred of them. In the course of making her corrections I found only three things she’d missed. We were reaching the point of diminishing returns.

How many more typos are out there? I have no idea. As the saying goes, “We’ll fix them in the next printing.”

All of this costs money, of course. And most books lose money anyway. Maybe someday publishers will start issuing two versions of every book. You can get an inexpensive version for 15.95, or wait for the proofed edition, which will cost you a few dollars more.

But the bigger message here is how much we tend to revere the printed word, thinking of it as not only perfect, but hallowed. A typo is a desecration.  It jolts us out of the magical world of literature and reminds us that we’re just looking at ink on a page. We don't linger there for long before heading back in.