I had wanted to see a Whale, not be flattened by one. Twenty-five yards off the bow, the humpback surfaced and was making straight for the kayak. "Left rudder!" I yelled.
In the stern my partner, Steve Kelly, blithely paddled on. Oh, he saw the whale, all right. It would have been as hard to miss as an approaching ferry. He just figured with me in the bow as a buffer, it might be an amusing time to play chicken.
I froze, enthralled and terrified by the deep, even breathing of the creature cruising atop an otherwise silent sea. Its blowholes flared as it exhaled. Each breath sounded like a propane blast from a hot-air balloon. Strange-looking lumps, which I mistook for eyes, protruded from the top of the humpback's chocolate-colored head. Its back was mottled with barnacles. An unearthly creature—45 tons and 45 feet long—yet one in scale with its spectacular surroundings. I was the one who was out of scale, a speck on the salt sea, as insignificant to the whale as a piece of driftwood.
I'd been told there was no recorded instance of a humpback's overturning a kayak, but by my reckoning, in the next 10 seconds we stood a good chance of being the first. "Left rudder! I'm not kidding!" I shrieked, my voice rising an octave to the exact pitch of a humpback's song. The monster plowed ahead.
"Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!" Ishmael admonished the reader in Moby-Dick. "Do thou, too, remain warm among ice." Good advice, that. We were 300 yards from shore and had been told we could swim no more than 50 feet in Glacier Bay before our muscles would seize up and our brains shut down. As I took a deep breath and braced for the collision, I tried my best to model myself after the leviathan that was now a boat's length away.
Six days earlier the only thing I'd been worried about was rain. Actually that's not true. I had also worried about bears. Days and days of rain, followed by wet bears. A woman on the airplane to Juneau got me started. "Going kayaking in Glacier Bay?" she said, raising her eyebrows. "I hope you get at least one overcast day."
"One sunny day, you mean," I said.
"No chance of sun this time of year," she replied. "I mean one day when it's not raining."
Overcast, to her, was perfectly brilliant weather, the best we could hope for. She told me that it had rained every day but 10 in Glacier Bay last summer, something like 99 inches all year. Some 30 years ago William Egan, who was governor of Alaska at the time, used to declare "sun holidays" when the clouds parted. This summer the ratio of sunny days to rainy ones had been more tolerable, but it was now the last week of August, and the rainy season was at hand. The woman hoped I had rubberized rain gear. Then she sighed as the plane's captain, preparing for landing, announced that it was 56° outside and drizzling.
"I never thought that would sound so good," the woman said. She'd been away three weeks and was homesick for mold and her slicker.