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A Northwest Passage
E.M. Swift
February 22, 1993
A group of kayakers discovered that the Ice Age is alive and well on Glacier Bay
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February 22, 1993

A Northwest Passage

A group of kayakers discovered that the Ice Age is alive and well on Glacier Bay

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"Men always do better when they have a project," said Steve as we clawed at the rocks with our bare hands. It was true: We were happy. It was slow going, but it was satisfying work. When our fingers began to get raw, Mark grabbed a stick. Hey, that worked pretty well. So Steve plucked a metal lid from one of the bearproof food canisters. Wow! A breakthrough—tools. The pit practically dug itself. "I feel like I'm watching the progressional history of man," said Jonathon laconically.

We lined the pit with dark, heat-absorbing rocks. Then we gathered wood and kelp. The idea was to build a large fire on the rocks and, after it had burned down, cover the coals with kelp. Upon that we would lay the salmon, stuffed with onions and peppers, then more kelp and more rocks, and, finally, we would cover the whole thing with garbage bags to lock in the heat. A tarp would have been better, but we didn't have a tarp. We figured that we would light the fire in about an hour.

I set up the fishing rod and took a walk down the beach to a spot where a freshwater stream flowed into the bay. I made a few casts, but there was no sign of salmon or Dolly Varden.

I'd been gone maybe half an hour when I noticed what appeared to be a puff of smoke by the camp. Odd that the others would start the fire so soon. The smoke dissipated and then appeared again in a different place. Huh? Someone was shouting from the shore. I had started to jog when—fwwissshhhh!—I saw two humpbacks rounding the end of the island. They were a stone's throw from our camp. The two puffs of smoke I'd seen had, in fact, been the whales clearing their blowholes, their breath spouting 20 feet in the air.

I was running toward the kayaks at a full sprint. So were Steve, Ted and Mark. One of the whales began veering out to sea. It sounded once; resurfaced far, far away; and then disappeared again beneath the water. That was the last we saw of it. The second whale was swimming parallel to the shore of Strawberry Island. We were determined to keep it in sight as long as we could.

Steve got into his kayak, I clambered into the bow, and off we raced with Ted and Mark, our otherwise empty kayaks seeming to skim above the water. Still, the whale was pulling farther and farther away.

After a half mile or so we stopped and waited. The whale had sounded somewhere nearby. The bay was almost perfectly calm, only the gentlest of swells rippling the surface. I strained my eyes so that I might see the humpback one last time.

Fwwissshhhh! The noise, terrifyingly close, took my breath away. The whale had surfaced behind us. My heart, bun-gee-jumping against my larynx, strangled my first utterance: "Awaawaaggghh!"

"Say what, mate?" said Steve, working the rudder. He spun the kayak around in time to see the humpback sound again, its magnificent broad flukes waving at us before it disappeared beneath the surface 75 yards away.

It was graceful, yes. But mostly I was thinking, It is huge. Being in a kayak only exaggerated the difference in our sizes. I was torn: fascinated to be so near this awesome creature, terrified to be so helplessly out of my clement, at its mercy. What if our presence enraged it? What if it felt territorial? What if it surfaced beneath us, mouth agape while gorging on krill?

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