|October 31, 2003|
Part of the beauty of sea kayaking is the rare opportunity to experience how simple and rich life can be. Looking forward from the cockpit of the kayak the deck lines run along the gunwales of the boat, sweeping forward until they meet at the point of the bow that rises and falls in the ocean’s swells. For two and a half months, this was the perspective that the team saw the world from, the bows of the boats defining the purpose and the direction we had chosen. Our goal was to attempt a circumnavigation of Iceland. What that required was a discipline and a focus that would keep us on course even as the storms of the south coast held us land bound for days, and the fog of the northeast reduced our world to little more than the sound of swells breaking on rocks or cliffs hidden by the dense gray. Some days were warm and sunny with the sleeping bags and tents packed away dry and ready for the evening camp, wherever that found us. Other days were wet from the moment we arouse at 4:30 am. By the time we turned in at 9pm, the bags, tents, clothing and anything that could possibly absorb water had.
By its nature, expedition sea kayaking is a life of contrasts. On one hand, no two days are alike. Yet on many levels, day one is almost identical to day eighty. And of course that is why we go, to find a place of balance between that which we can control, and that which we know we cannot. The basic and necessary routine of setting up the tents, firing up the stove, and getting some water boiling are the anchors that hold the expedition together and give structure to the paddling days. The winds and the sea direction are the variables that we watch and have no control over as we await the opportunity to continue. The tide rises and falls, covering or exposing the rocks below where the boats lie tilted on their keels, their graceful lines drawing the eye from the scratches and dull finish of gel coat that holds the memories of storms and many landings on sand and small boulder beaches. The only real change in the expedition is the ground you stand, sit, or lie down on as you look out once again upon the seas that allowed a safe passage to each new camp.
The journey, once begun, continues with the same pattern that all life is governed by: the need for food, water, shelter and warmth, all to be found along a coastline that beckons and threatens within the same breath of the sea.
Two months after having completed the expedition, I struggle with the familiar questions of friends, family, and complete strangers who ask, “So how was Iceland?” There is a pause because I don’t know if my memories are something I can trust to mere words. I attempt to describe my feelings of the journey because that is what is most important to me - the feelings. And even as I hear my own words I know they are not enough. Nothing is enough. There is no telling of the story that will come close to the reality of living it day by day - the routine and the unexpected.
The temptation is to quantify the trip - 59 paddling days, 81 days start to finish. Average miles. Longest paddling day in miles. How many? How far? What was the biggest wave? How many times did you roll? What were the currents like? How strong was the wind?
I don’t know.
What don’t you know?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I only know I miss the feel of the paddle across the inside fold of my fingers where my hand seems to want to lightly hold it. I remember how the following sea on the south coast surfed the boat for five days, the swell coming in a little over my left shoulder and occasionally twisting the boat. I remember finishing the left stroke with a slight hesitation and just a little stern rudder to keep the bow running parallel with that great black line of volcanic sand stretching into the distance until it melted into the horizon. The south coast holds my attention and fascination even in memory.
I remember the mass of white glaciers hanging over those black sands, a contrast so startling and beautiful, so definite, so grand. Arms of untold weight and thickness reaching down in white silence but separated from the sea by this desert of black.
I can see the Great Skuas of the south coast - the guardians of this no-man’s-land. Like ravens in bare limbed alpine trees, they sit in solitude on dunes of volcanic sands, watching and waiting for what ever happens across the emptiness of wind driven sands. And when I appear from the direction of the sea, invading their domain, they materialize out of the ink black ground, rising into an overcast sky with outstretched wings and a defiant purpose as they attack in silent eye-contact dives.
The brown dot rapidly grows larger and more intimidating as it draws closer. I think it is just curious and will veer off as soon as it recognizes me as a human - obviously larger and more of a threat to itself than the skua is to me. Seconds tick off and still the Skua closes with direct and unswerving intentions. I angle sharply away from its oncoming attack but to no avail - every course change is instantly matched until there is no escape. There is nothing timid about its approach. And at some point, no reason to believe that anything but a direct hit is what the skua intends. I freeze in fascination and fear and see its wings slightly folded back in a power dive. The closer the skua dives, the more obvious a target I become. I am the tallest thing along this coast for perhaps a hundred miles. I am a foreigner, and a threat to be driven out. The skua knows this and suddenly so do I. My world is reduced to the sound of my heart pounding in my chest and the image that is growing larger with every second and filling my vision. What will it do at the last instant?
I hear a swoosh of wings, feel a buffeting flow of air on my head, and realize at the last instant I broke eye contact and ducked.
Again and again the wide, powerful wings beat into the air, pulling the skua higher; circling and climbing into another turn that will lead into yet another power dive, tearing across the sky with a singular purpose: defeat the intruder with intimidation or contact, which ever one drives the threat away. The brown blur closes again, gaining speed across the emptiness of the sands as it looses elevation and hones in on its target. Wings flare at the last instant, webbed feet drop for greater control or greater visual impact, and again there is the swoosh of air and another near miss; calculated or just a miss? The dives define some unseen territory, and just as quickly cease as soon as I cross an unrecognized line of distinction. Eventually the skua tires or is satisfied that I am no longer a threat. On its final flight of intimidation, it sinks below the immediate horizon of gray sky meeting black beach and vanishes. As quickly as it appeared out of nothingness, the skua is gone- a mystery bird of the south coast. I am left to continue my walk, my back to the sea and my feet sinking softly into the packed sands.
On these walks away from the crunch of surf running for miles east and west, I see the bones of what the sea has left behind; a porpoise with infinitely fine lines of white teeth so perfectly set in a grim fleshless smile. A few yards away is a single “T” vertebrae- stripped of red muscle, bleached and polished by sun and sand, it looks too perfect and clean to ever have been something living. I slip the link of seal backbone into my coat pocket and carry it for a hundred yards, blindly turning it in my fingers, thinking of life and death and how the sharp ridges and the rounded curves of what is in my hand so perfectly represents both.
Amid the contours of small wavelets in the sand is the skeleton of an arctic tern, wings spread across the ripples as delicately as if riding the winds of the sea. Death in a desert is dry and antiseptic. Fish, seabirds, seals, and the discarded waste of the offshore fishing industry lie scattered in various degrees of dried disintegration - flotsam of the winds and the seas. What storm threw all of this three hundred yards inland from the roll of surf? And what lies buried beneath the fine sands that blow like dry ice over my footprints?
In the distance is a reddish/pink buoy floating on a sea of black. My mind struggles with measuring it- attempting to register it as big and distant, or small and close. My eye and my mind struggle to understand what is out there- how to measure and define something surrounded by emptiness. Between the seconds of vision, and recognition, there is confusion. My brain settles on the decision that the object is a fishing buoy- a quarter of a mile from the sea and surrounded not by ocean swells but by wind waves of sand. The distance is still impossible to judge as I continue towards it-mesmerized by this round splash of brilliant color set on black velvet. Five minutes of walking and the buoy seems to move away at the same pace as my approach. The deep base rumble of the surf is replaced with a soft rush of wind past my ears. There is a feeling of walking into a vacuum. The world of sea motion is replaced with near silence and stillness. I look over my shoulder at the tracks I have left, how they wander point to point along my trail of curiosity. A half hour of ocean desert walking mirrors my 46 years of life- a distant track of discovery and exploring that grows clearer and more defined until I look down at my own feet and realize it is time to take the next step. My mind is playing games with me and I am enjoying the loss of control and the exploring of letting go. I am in the middle of a “crossing”- distant from any shore and exposed to what ever lies between. I look forward once again and suddenly the red/pink buoy is right in front of me- only yards away as if while I looked back, it raced forward to meet me.
The south coast is a land of mystery and vast emptiness- a place of answers buried but also written on its sands.
So, what of this question of, “How was Iceland?”
Memories of sheer cliffs rising twelve hundred feet overhead and teaming with thousands of puffins, murres, razorbills and kittiwakes blur with the mist of my south coast memories. Other memories overlap these in a cascade of images: watching a fulmar resting on the sea a mere ten feet away as torrential rains drill the pond-like sea surface and fill the air with the din of millions of fat rain drops. There are the quiet camps, and the 2am sunsets that spread a soft peach colored warmth where the sea meets the sky. There are the memories of frozen fingers on the paddle shaft, and the blow of a whale surfacing in dense fog a hundred yards astern, and ten miles out on a compass crossing. There are times when the roll of the sea completely blocks out any but the closest of green waves, while at other times the eye registers distant headlands miles across a mirrored plane of sky and sea so smooth, I cannot distinguish one from the other.
Sitting in my cabin and looking out on the mountains that last night received the first real snows of winter, I am thinking of where I was four months ago. I miss the routine and the wonderful simplicity of expedition paddling. I miss the feeling of sitting in a boat that has the weight of tent, stove, fuel, water and food, clothes and journals packed tightly within its hull. Everything has its place and the focus is direct and singular. The demands and stress of modern life are put aside for just a little while and exchanged for the challenges of living close to the weather and to the seas that respond to the tides and winds. I miss the weight of a loaded boat and what, for me, that weight represents- the freedom to move and explore. I miss meeting the people of these journeys and the slow broad perspective that traveling by sea kayak has afforded me. I miss also the extremes of weather and sea conditions when nothing exists outside of a twenty-yard circle around the boat, and each paddle stroke is a measured degree of rotation, plant and pull with the entire body, mind and spirit linked together in simple, absolute purpose. I miss the process of setting up a camp along an unknown coast, and of firing up the stove for dinner. It is the infinite and the finite, the grandness and the tiny things of expeditions that I find myself longing for once I have returned home.
So while I sit in the shadow of one mountain and watch the sun slowly rise, warm, then glisten in brilliance on a snow covered mountain, memories of Iceland, and other expeditions, are not far off. I look out on the sea every day as I drive out of the hills and go to work as a carpenter. And instead of pulling on a drytop and spray deck, I pick up my nail bags with the hammer hanging on one side, and fasten the belt around my waist. For a while this is how I’ll spend my days. It’s another kind of expedition- watching the weather, choosing the right tool for the right job and moving purposefully toward a goal. And in a little while, I’ll put the tools away and pick up the paddle again. I’ll go back to the sea and feel again that which refuses to be defined or confined to any one statement of fact.
The sea is a mystery and a master that tells no one all of its secrets. It is the feeling of a swell lifting the boat on a parallel course of an unknown coast. It is a line of wildness that the Skua sees and defends in the vast emptiness of the drifting sands of the south coast. It is a place to which I will return.