The Whaleboat

It's surprising how far a ten-inch craft can carry you

May 1, 1998
Outside Magazine

   Photo: PeterVrabel/Shutterstock

This many pages into the book, I can feel it in the small of my back. A congressional report, 4 pounds, 12 ounces, dead across my thighs as a paving stone. I am reading it closely in an overstuffed chair in the 15-foot-square, second-story room in which I've worked for nearly 30 years. Aside, the bare floor of shiplapped Douglas fir is dappled with moving shadow, sunlight blinking through the limbs of a forest beyond the glass windows. Birdsong passes through the glass — robins, guttural ravens, rasping Steller's jays. Once in a while the staccato cry of a pileated woodpecker, the whistle of an osprey. The Doppler rise and fall of passing cars on the road along the river occasionally distracts me from the description of human tragedy braced on my legs.

The book, a focus of my research for a book, is General Adolphus Greely's Report on the Proceedings of the United States Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land. Published in 1888, this first of the two volumes is 545 pages long. Greely's salient subject here is the disaster that befell him and his party on tiny Pim Island in the Canadian high Arctic in 1883-1884. Of the group of 25 men who overwintered, 16 perished from exposure and starvation. Another man drowned, an 18th was executed. The living stole one another's food and ate the dead. On an overcast August morning in 1987 I visited the ruins of their wretched encampment, a site by a small pond from which they were rescued after the most callous government delays. For several hours that day I perambulated the low stone walls of their roofless hut, picking my way around scraps of abandoned clothing, rusted cans, and wind-thrown squares of boat canvas. I stood on a nearby rise, head bowed like a tardy preacher before a neat row of sagging depressions, the graves of the first to die.

Reading assiduously in this chair every day I'm sometimes distracted by a movement, a sound nearby — the tick of wood grain in the house as it adjusts to warming air, a flash of sunlight outside in the leaf crown of wind-burst alders, the whirr-buzz of a hummingbird hanging briefly at a windowpane. Notes on the desk flutter and skid away in a breeze and I'm drawn, just now, from the brutality of Greely's winter quarters into a more insistent reality, one here in the room, another out past the windows. Two separate realities, inside and out, but they elide subtly. I know this room, well enough to work its layout in the dark, to reach within a book or two of the right title on shelves holding hundreds of books or land a crooked toss in the wastebasket. I could round the drop-leaf table of Honduran mahogany in front of me, upon which is stacked research for the work of which Greely's narrative is a part, step around this furniture here in darkness, and not clip a thigh. Yet each day I spot something in the room too long unremembered or see it as if for the first time, and then, if I'm not careful, whatever it is will pull me off the task at hand — Greely's anxious men, now, struggling to get a whaleboat upturned on the walls of their stone hut to create shelter and make a ridgeline for stretched canvas. My gaze has left the sentence and holds now on the wooden model of a whaleboat across the room, a dry fly landing on a trout pool.

I SAW THE MODEL FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 1988, in a store in Camden, Maine, with a friend, the painter Alan Magee. It was a stunning piece of handwork, but I wanted to think about it for a few weeks. I finally wrote my friend and asked if he could locate the store again, purchase it for me, and have the store send it on along with the name of the model maker. The urge to possess the boat grew out of my desire to scrutinize it. The fashioning of its parts and their assembly showed such exacting attentiveness to detail, the model was didactic. I could sit with it and a work like Willits Ansel's The Whaleboat: A Study of Design, Construction and Use from 1850 to 1970 and, using both, plumb the reality. The gaff rigging of thesails, the placement of the tubs of whale line between the thwarts, the shape of the lion's tongue, the arrangement of the first and second irons in a crotch on the starboard wale — all these things could be clarified for me in three dimensions.

I purchased the model because it was beautiful, vivid, and correct, and because it bore so well an elaborate and arcane history of human encounter with the wild. Like many objects in this room, once fixed upon it gushed.

The boat, ten inches long, its mast rising seven inches above the keel, was built on a scale of one-third inch to one foot by Harry McCreery, Bangor, Maine. Shortly after I purchased the boat I wrote to ask him which woods he'd used in its construction, and whether his model was based on the New Bedford whaleboat of about 1860. It was, he wrote back. And the many hand-carved pieces, he explained, were all of basswood, but he'd stained them differently to mimic the contrasts among the dozen types of wood to be seen in an unpainted, full-scale boat. Whaleboats utilized white oak in the keel, spruce for thwarts, and were floored with pine. The exterior planking was rot-resistant cedar, the oars ash; the loggerhead (around which the whale line was belayed) was made of hickory, the bow chocks of lignum vitae.

In the years when the construction of this boat was routine work, boatwrights possessed a sophisticated knowledge of the properties of various species of wood, knowledge so rarefied a man could build a boat that exceeded his ability to reason. By combining portability (lightness), strength (resistance to rack and torsion), and propellability in such a canny way, Americanwhaleboat builders brought to perfection a nautical design descendant from European shallops, on the one hand, and Algonquin oceangoing canoes. In the mid-nineteenth century this durable "surf boat" could be found at work in every corner of the world, from the Mozambique Channel to the Beaufort Sea, from the Azores to Tasmania. It was simple to construct (meaning easy to repair), its materials were relatively inexpensive, and even with slight men at the oars it was quick and maneuverable on the water. The joinery and bracing employed in it and the varying degree of flexibility in the woods used in its construction left it rigid but still supple. It successfully resisted the forces that threatened its integrity at the same time that it gave in to them.

I like to glance at the model when I'm working. I don't know a hundredth of what Mr. McCreery knows, or Mr. Ansel, but that day in Camden I saw perfection, and now I have it before me. The boat's a reminder of a kind of intelligence I respect.

Looking up from Greely's tome, I have become aware of a knot in my lower back. I twist sideways and arch my spine to relieve tension. My eyes drift from the boat, positioned in a glass case atop a tall oak filing cabinet, pass over a paulownia wood tansu in which I store manuscripts, traverse a set of birch-veneer shelves full of books and mementos of travel, and exit a set of three double-hung windows framed in unpainted pine in the south wall.

Beyond the windows, past the combination of incandescent lamplight and tree-filtered sunlight in this room, beyond the tidiness of my quarters, stands an unmanaged wood. The dark, tall trunks contrast sharply this morning with sheets of sunlight. Fronds of western red cedar bob and gyrate in a light breeze. Leaves of Indian plum shaped like lanceolate blades and the palmate leaves of maples obscure and flick sunshine. The pigments of green among these trees alone — emerald on to celadon — are difficult to be definitive about. The cedar and yew greens are darker than those of Indian plum, hazelnut, and maple; but where light and shadow intervene, matte and gloss shift the hues' intensity. Too, the delicate structure of a cedar frond holds color less firmly than the broad leaf of a maple.

Beyond the first picket of well-formed trunks by the house a space drops, a deep well of air that opens above a clearing. (I can't see the floor of the clearing from my chair. The house stands above it on an old riverbank that slopes down 20 feet.) Past the clearing, a buffer of the same species of trees fronts a two-lane highway parallel to the south wall of windows. On the other side of the road, about 150 feet away, a last wall of trees rises, the same species again, but here mixed with Oregon ash, black cottonwood, and vine maple.

Outside the last forest plane the McKenzie River flows westward at a brisk four knots, fed by snow and glacier melt, groundwater, and cold artesian springs in the Cascades. The river is about 350 feet wide here and three or four feet deep. Its piebald bottom of cobble rock is visible nearly all the way across. On the far side, a mountain bears up steeply through old-growth forest for about 600 feet. The land there has never been mined, logged, homesteaded, or otherwise disturbed by human enterprise, except for the dozing of a dirt road that parallels the river.

When I stand in front of the windows and look out I recognize these components, but do not see all of them at once. It depends on the light, which is to say on the season, the hour of the day, and conditions in the sky. On a clear winter morning, with deciduous trees shut of their leaves, I see more of the ridgeline above the south bank of the river and more of the river itself. On a day like today, an April morning, the ridgeline is masked by the thickening of the woods that comes with spring. I locate the ridge now by connecting a trend: the lower edge of patches of blue.

Any scrutiny of these woods, of the clearing and the river, made from these windows through curtains of sunshine, moonlight, snowfall, or wind current is rewarded. Species of trees are seen to be differentiated, for example, not just by the relative smoothness of their bark, but by the angle at which limbs leave the trunks, the type of moss that clings to them, the sorts of birds that favor them for nests and roosts, the way their crowns flex differently on the same breeze, the soil they choose, the plants that crowd them. All these variations in cellular structure, in arboreal architecture and the corralling of light make for different sorts of wood for lumber. Harry McCreery would grasp it right away.

The world outside these windows, in front of which I've written for years at a draftsman's table, passes through a greater range of temperature in any given day than I experience inside, is more affected by wind, is richer in sound and odor. On this side the woods have been domesticated into cabinets and furniture. The air is still, less robust. A spider in its ceiling-corner web scuttles after a moth too large to be subdued entirely by entrapment. A carpenter ant taps its antennae across the floor, a sightless man with a cane. Dust motes do not swirl in the shaft of sunlight that pins the shadow of my desk chair to the floor. I imagine these the quarters of one Ishmael; here, the mind of a person who, looking out upon nature, wishes to understand the inscrutable visage of that force against which Ahab wants to act. In Ishmael, the rumination; in Ahab, the doing.

FROM THE POINTILLISTIC MURMUR OF cedar and Douglas fir limbs bright out the windows, my eye slings back to the basswood model, to its white mainsail and jib, motionless in the windless interior of the glass case. Its harpoons booted motionless in the boat crotch. Its shadow on the white wall so distorted the craft looks lanteen-rigged, a fifteenth-century dhow. In boats like this men chased down and killed the largest creatures human beings have ever confronted. In the modern era, launched from a pelagic vessel manned by men often unknown to one another at the start of a two-year voyage, its employment marked a shift from a community-based to a corporate-based technology designed to exploit nature. Its advent marked the beginning of the late Holocene die-off of nonhuman life. Ishmael, with his modern ironies about the "all-grasping Western world" and man "the money-making animal," worked here, pulling second oar in Starbuck's boat, the most skilled position after Queequeg's, Starbuck's harpooner and boat steerer. In that seat he felt the "white ash breeze" of the recovery stroke as he and his companions strained after the descried whale. From that forward thwart he heard the strike of the harpoon, and from there he spoke to the reader of wrenching death, "the speechlessly quick, chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity."

Once, sitting here at the draftsman's table, it occurred to me that, ablaze like a ribbon of manganese in a late afternoon sun-strike, the river presented an open field, a clearing. There was no reason I could not stroll in it if I dressed warmly and braced myself against its current. I went down from the house in that hour, wearing the wetsuit I use for tropical diving, took for a staff a cottonwood limb peeled of its bark by beaver, and waded out. My movements no longer restricted by brush and tree trunks, I experienced a fresh sensation, like laying down the initial brush stroke on a blank canvas. Since that day I have walked in the river in all seasons except late fall, winter, and early spring, when the water is too high and fast. I've walked up and down in it on moonlit nights, and on nights of the new moon when the only light falling in the woods has come from the bulb left burning above my desk, that and photons from the stars above, the suns Ishmael imagined as islands in a "continentless," continuous sea.

Crabbing upcurrent some evenings, feeling the force of the water on my legs and a night breeze in my face, I often think of myself as passing the house offshore. Up there in that room, as I see it, is the reading and the thinking-through, a theory of rivers, of trees moving, of falling light. Here on the river, as I lurch against a freshening in the current, is the practice of rivers. In navigating by the glow of the Milky Way, the practice of light. In steadying up with a staff, the practice of wood.

To walk the river is to become inculcated in horizontal movement. From the windows of my room I watch the river's breadth undulate and heave past, tens of thousands of shards of light clattering through the trees. Between the window and the river passes the highway, with its horizontal traffic. Some nights I see a vehicle diddering along the dirt road on the south side of the river, its light poke yet another horizontal emphasis. Through breaks in the trees I follow the flat flight of great blue herons over the river, harlequin ducks, common mergansers, and Canada geese. This through-line, square-bounded by window frames, cuts boldly across a vertical strike of tall hemlock, cedar, and fir boles. At noon on a summer day the river vibrates like a simmering ingot beyond a backlit woods; at dusk on a winter afternoon, the paved road by the river is almost as bright, a long deep gloss of rainwater glowing silver in the sharp rays of the setting sun.

Little vertical line or movement contradicts the horizontal impression of these two-dimensional scenes. Falling snow and rain, maple seed cases helicoptering toward the ground, the dry descending leaves of autumn. The scene alters suddenly, however, if one throws up a window and leans out.More blue sky is immediately apparent, more forest floor (and so the natural vertical tension these two create). More subtle is the effect of entering the sonic landscape of the woods. The scrape of branches, birdsong and wind shear, the purl and roar of the farther-off river all impart spatial volume to the air. You step into the space you've been looking at.

In winter, I shut two of these three windows, leaving the middle window open an inch or so. I keep a sense of the outer world through that open slit. Closing the window would mean a loss of knowledge, a loss of air, the breathable medium necessary to experience the room.

MY EYES HOLD ON THE BOAT. ITS LINES ARE as pleasing to me as the proportions of a salmon. I like to study paintings or to examine pieces of sculpture where the artist has been so sensitive that the form — line alone — carries much of the content. Mr. McCreery's model is carvel-built, its exterior planks butted squarely against one another instead of overlapped (clinker-built). The smooth lines of his model — a fairly strong sheer, the hard turn of its bilge, the curve of its spoon bow, the short dead-rise — accentuate a feature characteristic of such double-ended boats. Roughly five times as long as they were wide, they were tapered to give them a narrow or "fine" entrance in the water and a long "run" aft. Even an untrained eye recognizes in a good model the meaning in this gathering of lines: smooth, fast, quiet.

Amid wild hawthorn, bearberry, and huckleberry brush on the river's near bank stand two cedar benches. Their flat backs fold down on contoured seats, so the benches' pale, weathered profiles are easily missed in a casual glance from road or river. I walk to the benches nearly every day to sit and watch. The position I take up down there is not unlike the one I hold behind the typewriter. Sitting the bench, I'm ensconced in a riparian zone closed in by trees and tall bushes. I gaze on an expanse of the river's back. Up in my room I sit squarely at a worktable, looking out on a thick and chaotic wood through glass. From those benches I regularly study ospreys hunting, chinook salmon migrating, common nighthawks swooping, caddis flies hatching, and an array of watercraft. On a single summer afternoon as many as a hundred boats may pass — McKenzie River drift boats, kayaks, and rubber rafts. Their human occupants are often drifting in bliss on this relatively calm stretch of water, or casting for cutthroat trout, or paddling on eagerly to a set of riffles just downriver called Cook's Rapids.

Sunlight flexes too rapidly, too complexly, on the river's skin for the eye to spot a recurrent pattern in it, from bench or window, but I believe one is there. It's not anything I feel compelled to find; I don't believe I must know its meaning. I know that the design inherent in such things is orderly according to some logic other than the ones I know. It is akin, I think, to the logic that makes one's life morally consistent despite certain lapses of judgment.

Gazing every day like this upon the "face" of nature, Ishmael sensed confounding lacunae, gaps in the logic of that natural order. He called them "vacancies." Ahab, of course, was irritated by these same uncertainties, places in nature that made "no sense" to him. By dint of will he meant to dominate and subdue them. Again, I think of the boat. The regular stroke of five men at the oars propels it; the mate at the steering oar gives it direction. It is an object full of purpose, a hunter's boat, a killer's platform. Once the iron is struck and the Nantucket sleigh ride begins, neither Ishmael's status as the contemplative outsider looking in nor Ahab's as the man of action counts for anything. Both are at the mercy of the cantle of nature they've struck. Repeatedly surviving this experience, Ishmael feels redeemed, Ahab triumphant. To either, the creature Ishmael describes as "faceless" is dead.

After the strike, the exhaustion of the whale's attempt to flee, and the fatal lancing, the long tow of the buoyant carcass ensues, followed by the rendering of its blubber, oil that will light, Ishmael bitterly observes, the patrician houses of ship owners and their captains. The beauty and perfection of this whaleboat, we maintain, is not compromised by the use to which it may be put. It is merely a tool with which we confront and force the inexplicable in nature.

From the overstuffed chair where I hold Greely's report open on my lap, I see the forest stirring in the morning's light. I know if I stand up and scrutinize the scene a strand of memories will unfurl, because the mysterious nature of light suspended beyond the windows will flare — a mystery that Eva Figes grappled with in a novel she wrote in Monet's voice; a mystery that the American painter Jennifer Bartlett pondered every day, day after day, in the same Tuscany garden, and that Goethe wrote anti-Newtonian theory about. I have long been in amazement at the flux and clarity of light, its tint, harmonics, and hue on the Arctic tundra, for example, or in the Namib Desert, places where if the landscape were viewed as a two-dimensional painting one would say that the middle ground falls away, that the eye is left with the near and the far only, the horizon and the immediate surface upon which the feet stand. I recall these things at random — Figes's Light, the sun rising on the village of Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, the sunshine I once saw falling briefly on a Vermeer painting as it was being moved in the Frick Collection in New York. I entreat friends like Alan Magee to speak about light even as we walk the very cobbled Maine beaches he paints, even while we stand stunned by McCreery's boat in a Camden shop.

A string of memories about light as I observe it daily from this room, racing past in the mind's corridors, would bind certain images. In the field below the house, a complicated splay of greens occurs more or less in the same ground plane: Himalaya blackberry, sword fern, wood sorrel, meadow rue, bracken fern, wild pea, tall blue lettuce, huckleberry, false Solomon seal, wild iris, curly dock, wild bleeding heart, sweet cicely. The leaves and fronds of all these plants rotate so slowly through the day, tracking the sun through the forest canopy, the turning does not register as a movement. It registers as a shift in the gamut of green.

Or consider how a rainstorm changes color and contrast in the forest by weighing it down. Water suspended on branches and individual leaves bends trees and plants to point at a sharper angle to the ground. When the water drains or evaporates, limbs rebound and shades of green on the ground become stronger as bare patches of the dark earth are slowly eclipsed. Undrooped, the limbs admit more light, and the somber darkness of the forest floor gives way to deeper color. Cleansed of natural dust, these greens gleam as they have not gleamed in days.

Or consider how the dark grooves and runnels in Douglas fir bark slice vertically through an identical horizontal pattern created by silver light lambent on the river. Or how light surging back and forth on leaves tethered to a limb contrasts with shards and streamers of light that appear to be rafting off downriver. Or how different sections of a windblown forest move in different time, an asynchronous syncopation.

Often I've looked through the trees to the river from this room and, despite reason and familiarity, not known what I was looking at. The angle and intensity of light, in concert with chaotic movements of the air, make another landscape of the same scene, day after day. The glint on a hummingbird's eye at the open window, rain-sheen on a sprig of red cedar, light roiled in the branches of an ash tree, and the "shook foil" of the river carry the eye from the near reach of the fingertips to the far reaches of what is readable. In a split second what is perceived as real snaps. It becomes the illumination of another wood, revealed within the wood previously known.

I could not give up either of these worlds, either the book I am holding or the gleaming forest, though I've told you almost nothing of what Greely has said here on his grim pages, from the sentences of which I've conjured images of a bleak site on Pim Island years ago. Here in the room, I suppose, is to be found the interior world of the book; but it opens upon a world beyond the windows, where no event has been collapsed into syntax, where the vocabulary, it seems, is infinite. The indispensable connection for me lies with the open space that lets the breath of every winter storm, the ripping wind and its pelting rain, enter this room.

And what of the boat, where my glance still hangs? I imagine the six men in it in pursuit of something huge, confounding, haunting. Perhaps a goon like Flask is at the tiller, or a man as good as Starbuck is making the quick decisions. I envision cooperation in the matched stroke of their oars and nobility in this hunter's legacy, even if it represented a financial boon for but a few, as it did; and then with the advent of electricity, a change in women's fashions, the capital shifted elsewhere. The decimation of whale life that commerce initiated, seen through the scaling lens of history, does not destroy the dignity of ordinary men in the fishery, their effort to work, to survive, to provide. It only instructs us in the infernal paradoxes of life.

When I look at Mr. McCreery's boat, when I imagine the oar blades plunged in the green transparency of a storm-raked sea, the boat cranking off a wave crest, six men straining in drenched motley wool and oilskins, their mouths agape, I know that life is wild, dangerous, beautiful.

A glance at the boat, a stretch of my cramped back, a look out the window at the run of the wind in the trees on an April morning, and I return to Greely's narrative.

Barry Lopez is the author of ten books, including the National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams. "The Whaleboat" will be combined with other essays and memoirs in About This Life, a collection to be published next month by Alfred A. Knopf.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!