Saturday, September 16, 2006

Orca skyward

Date: September 14
Mileage: 32.3
September mileage: 140.3

Today Geoff and I rented an 18-foot skiff with an outboard engine and eight hours of cloudless daylight to motor aimlessly around in. We had this crazy idea that with no experience, no depth finder, no anchor and one halibut pole, we were somehow going to come home with dinner. We headed out to Shelter Island just as the last of the morning frost melted away in a blaze of sun. We pulled in to a place called "Halibut Cove" (which means there's got to be halibut there, right?) and began fumbling around with a bag of still-frozen-solid herring and tangled hooks when Geoff let out a loud gasp. I whirled around just as a massive whale erupted from the surface no more than 200 yards in front of our tiny boat. With a thunderous roar it twisted its sparkling black torso, flashing a white underside and falling headlong back into the water, tail sinking beneath a geyser of white spray. Geoff and I just sat there, still balancing dead herring and hooks in our hands and giving each other a "did that just happen?" kind of confused stare.

The camera came out after that, as did many dozens more orca and humpback whales. The rest of the day's theatrics were decidedly less dramatic - but, I gotta say, there's nothing like a good opening to really carry a performance. We watched a pod of five synchronized-swimming humpbacks breach and pull their tails back in the water in perfect unison. Three playful seals came up right next to the boat and splashed around for several minutes as they swam away. Every once in a while, a chorus of whale songs echoed across the channel. Eagles coasted overhead as we skimmed the smooth water and distant icefields - almost never visible from shore - sparkled in the sun. Oh ... and we didn't catch a single halibut.

Despite our failure to bring home fresh fish, this turned out to be an exceptionally good weekend, and I have the sunburn to show for it. Yesterday we did a "bike tour" of Juneau. We rode out to the valley, crossing the path of a marauding black bear before connecting with the Spalding Trail. We hiked up (well, more like stair-stepped up) a plank-lined drainage to a high meadow, where we could soak in the clear air and work on our much-neglected sunburns. We ate lunch at this locally lauded Thai place that actually was pretty good (which, for this city's restaurant reputation, is pretty much shocking). Then, with stomachs full of basil tofu and vegetables, we rode the 15 miles home in a casual - almost effortless - hour. There should be more weekends like yesterday and today ... but right now, lingering in the last breaths of summer, I'll gladly take just this one.