Haida frog mask

Frog mask by Ben Davidson (18” x 10” x 13”). In Haida tradition, Frog lives in two worlds — water and land. Frog thus has the power to traverse worlds. Frogs are the primary spirit helper of Haida shamans.

”The best side of the ship is the outside…”

—Huna Tlingit elder

Even now, standing on firm ground after two weeks on the Linblad National Geographic Seabird, when I close my eyes my body still swings and sways. My inner ear and proprioception system have been re-tuned to traveling by sea.

I miss the sounds of water lapping against the bow, the wind sweeping down our starboard deck, and the low hum of the engine; though I can’t say that I’ve become an easy-going voyager. When the rocking and rolling picked up, I’d pop a meclizine and have a friend pop into the wheel house and ask, “How long will this rough water last?” Inevitably the answer would be, “What rough water?”

The trip was so very worth the time I spent flexing my abs in the head. My body accommodated as best it could, and now it’s making a slow shift back to land-mammal mode. But before I totally lose my sea legs, let me tell you a few stories.

The whale road

In the Old English of Beowulf, the sea is referred to as the “hranrad” — the whale road — and now I know in the most definitive and exquisite way why this is so. The sea is whale terrain, and we saw a good number of them: Dall’s porpoises, fin whales, humpbacks, and orcas. With the call — “whale on the bow” — everyone stopped whatever they were doing, even in the middle of a meal, to run above deck and watch the glorious and elegant cetacean visitations.

Here’s how it unfolds. First, in the middle of the sea there is a sudden spot with a different perturbation. Then in the middle of that spot an exhalation appears as the whale forces old air high out of its blowhole and takes in new oxygen. (Whales replace nearly 90 percent of the air in their lungs with each breath; we humans only 10 to 15 percent.)

Different types of whales have differing spouts depending on their size and the structure of their blowholes. A humpback’s spout is about as wide as it is high and can be nine feet or more. Fin whales have a columnar spout which can be as high as 13 to 20 feet high (https://tinyurl.com/yxt9a54g). After the spout, the dorsal fin emerges, also an identifying feature. Orca males have the largest dorsal fins of all — some six feet in height. (More whale ID here: https://tinyurl.com/y2kdavvu.)

After maybe two or three spectacular blows, the slick glistening back glides close to or breaks the surface, and, when the whale is about to dive, the long slope of its back humps up above the water and the fluke emerges for one last dramatic show. Individual whales can be identified by the unique markings and coloration on their flukes. (Humpies have their own website where fluke shots can be sent in by “citizen scientists” for identification: https://happywhale.com/home.) We also saw marine mammals in the piniped family — sea lions and seals.

Midway through last week, we witnessed the most remarkable performance of a humpback whale any of us are likely to see. He/she (?) surprised us by a show of bubble feeding: the whale made a circular net of bubbles underwater, then surfaced in the middle with mouth open to scoop up whatever was trapped there. Then she teased us by swimming around a little island between our boat and the shore; but, just on the other side, she emerged and stood on her head, thumping her tail against the surface of the sea — one person counted 49 times in succession. Was Humpy hungry, angry, or just showing off? No one seemed to know for sure but all agreed it was an extraordinary one-person show.

Haida Country

Whales temporarily behind us, we continued voyaging north through the coastal waters of British Columbia, crossing the Hecate Strait and making our way to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve — one of the only areas in the world protected from sea floor to mountain top — on the island of Haida Gwaii (hide-a-gwhy).

We had the honor of visiting the once-thriving village of SGang Gwaay Llanagaay (skong-gwhy) guided by Haida elder Elsie Gale. There is no road access, no stores, and no cell phone coverage. We made a “wet landing” — meaning life jackets, boots, and rain pants — and, once disembarked from our inflatable zodiacs, tread on sacred ground, quietly gazing up at the remnants of mortuary totem poles where the bones of prominent elders would have been placed in cedar bentwood boxes. Then we padded along on a thick cedar-planked walkway above the forest floor.

The Haida have inhabited these islands for 12,000 years and likely longer, but the sea has risen in these passing millennia to cover any older archeological evidence. The Haida developed a rich culture of dance, song, and art—as did all Pacific Coastal tribal peoples. My story last week about the Kwakwaka’wak children being ripped away from their homes was true for the Haida as well. The children who survived are now elders in their clans and are revitalizing the treasured art, culture and skills of their people in a brilliant example of resilience.

Totem poles are art of the most sophisticated and beautifully crafted kind, and they are also a communication device. A house pole tells the story of the family group residing there: its ancestors, its clan crest, and associations. A totem pole can also commemorate the naming of a chief or a death of a prominent elder. Along with the poles, carved cedar masks, and enormous cedar canoes are still being crafted.

Because of the long-established relationship between Lindblad and key people in this area, we had the opportunity to visit two master carvers: Jim Hart and Christian White. Both visits, both carvers, and the quality of their work defy any capacity adjectives might have to convey the experience.

Last thoughts

With its icy blue glaciers and steep glacier-cut fiords; grizzlies and humpbacks, sea otters, orcas, eagles, and puffins; right down to the most delicate pink fairy slipper orchids (Calypso bulbosa) on the floor of the Great Bear Rain Forest (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Bear_Rainforest, at no time did any of this voyage fit in the frame of a camera; nor can it be captured here with these feeble words.

My trip produced a transformation I hope I can hang on to. Three insights. First, there are still wild places on our planet where ecosystems thrive and creatures live relatively rich, natural lives (though even here, the effects of humans are apparent — read: plastics, global warming, creeping habitat decimation). Second, being out of cell phone, Internet, and, therefore, news range was an indescribable blessing. Third, our little neck of the woods, though not nearly the pristine coasts of British Columbia or Southwest Alaska, are still stunningly full of splendor and wildlife.

So, just try it. Put down your cell phone and shut your computer for a week. (OK then, a day?)

Get out in the woods.

Look around, closely.

Breathe!

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