Outside magazine, May 1998
Nations rise and nations fall. They crest like waves and collapse against the shores of time. Or so Chief Seattle said, not far from here, almost 150 years ago. His words were a meditation, an admonishment, and I intended to
think real hard about them if I survived the immediate encounter with a car ferry that was steaming directly at us as my partner and I paddled our kayaks over the calm, gray waters of Puget Sound.
The trip was supposed to be a simple exercise in urban wilderness camping and backyard paddling. I hailed my partner, Joel Rogers, a writer and photographer whose books I blame for much of my original interest in the sport of sea kayaking, which is to say I read him long before I ever met him.
"Joel? Hey, Joel."
"I think we're on a collision course here."
"Collision course?" Joel believes, for some reason, that I don't know a whole hell of a lot about seamanship.
"With that car ferry off to the right."
"Starboard, you mean."
Joel didn't even have to look. "She should pass in front of us," he said. "'Bout half a mile."
For the next few minutes, I listened to the sounds our paddles made as they dipped into the sea. Paddling sometimes feels like a religious chant, a prayer offered to sea. It's tiring and repetitive, so that the mind often turns itself off to the clatter of the merely external. In this trancelike state, it's sometimes possible to feel the soul spiral inward upon itself.
But not when you think a huge car ferry is bearing down on you. I reviewed the one thing I knew about the geometry of collision courses: If, over time, the angle between two boats headed toward each other doesn't change, they will eventually collide. I didn't see our angle changing at all, and I mentioned this to Joel, with some urgency.
His mind, it seemed, was somewhere off in the mists — perhaps his soul was spiraling somewhere — and he didn't want to listen to me whining about the merely mundane.
"Don't worry about it," he said.
Our destination for the day was just ahead. Blake Island, 475 acres of ridged woodland and shoreline, is located pretty much smack in the middle of Puget Sound. A state park, Blake is thought to be the birthplace of Chief Seathl, or Seattle. That would have been sometime around 1790. In 1855, the chief signed the Port Elliot treaty between the U.S. government and the tribes of the Puget Sound area. He is remembered and revered today largely for an elegant and nearly heartbreaking speech he gave on that occasion.
There are several versions of the speech floating about, not all of them entirely authentic. In one rendition, for instance, Chief Seattle says, "I have seen thousands of rotting buffaloes on the prairie left by the white man who shot them from a passing train." But he saw no such thing. The historical record is quite clear: Chief Seattle never traveled west of the Cascades, almost certainly never saw a buffalo, and died before the railroad reached the West Coast. Which doesn't mean that various white men didn't shoot thousands of buffalo from passing trains.
When I glanced up again, the angle between our kayaks and the car ferry didn't seem to be changing in the least. Here was a Native American technology — the kayak — on a collision course with an enormous internal-combustion engine carrying several hundred smaller internal-combustion engines. If the situation hadn't been so intensely personal, I might have been tempted to think of the situation as metaphor in action.
The late afternoon sun had begun to sink into a cloud bank to the west, and the sky looked bruised. The sea, formerly gray, began taking on the colors of the sky above, so that we were dipping our paddles into areas of welts and wounds. As the light began to fail, red-orange water rapidly faded into puddles of black and blue. On the ferry, lights suddenly glittered on the upper decks. Death looked very festive, rushing toward us over a sea of contusions.
We paddled for another ten minutes, and still the angle did not change. Or so it seemed to me. The ferry was a few miles distant, and my mind was stuck on one of those hideous eighth-grade math problems: "A Puget Sound car ferry traveling 21 miles per hour is on a collision course with a pair of 17-foot-long kayaks traveling at 3.4 miles per hour. If the total distance between the kayaks and the ferry is 3.6 miles, how many minutes do the kayakers have to live? Calculate the combined IQ of the dead kayakers. Hint: Numbers over 100 are invalid."
Without doing any of the figures in my head, I looked back up at the ferry. Should we paddle for our lives, cross its bow, and try to beat it to the island?
Joel didn't think so. "Let's stop paddling here," he said. Which, as far as I could see, would leave us bobbing helplessly, dead in the path of the ferry.
"She'll pass about half a mile ahead," Joel said again. I glanced behind us. The distant snowcapped summit of Mount Rainier, which rose nearly three miles above us, was catching the last rays of the setting sun and seemed to glow as if from fires within.
At sea level, however, twilight had already turned to night. Only two miles behind us, the lights of Seattle's waterfront glittered in the cold, clear evening. It was a real pretty place, I thought, to be crushed by a car ferry.
Sometimes when my mind goes spiraling, I have visions. In one, Chief Seattle, a white guy wearing bell-bottoms and Birkenstocks, steps out of his VW van to suggest that "all things are connected."
It is in the ancient time — somewhere around 1976, I'd guess — and Joni Mitchell is singing about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, which in fact is precisely what is happening in my hometown: The forest where I played as a boy has been felled to make way for Waukesha, Wisconsin's first Kmart.
I'm angry about that. I'm angry about a lot of things. There are oil spills and nuclear-plant failures and the world is plunging straight to hell in a basket woven of toxic waste.
"Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth," Chief Seattle says. He's here to provide the big picture, and save the planet. His words are emblazoned on posters and often uttered as a kind of secular prayer to kick off environmental meetings. He is wise; he admonishes; he exhorts; he provides a perspective out of time. His words are both simple and elegant.
They would, I imagine, be even more inspirational if the historical Chief Seattle had ever actually said them. In fact, the wall-poster version of Chief Seattle's speech, complete with slaughtered buffalo, was written in the early 1970s by a screenwriter named Ted Perry for the movie Home, which was produced by the Southern Baptist Convention. Perry was writing a piece of fiction and never intended that his groovy, mystical Chief Seattle be confused with the real one. The writer says he's often asked about the speech and frequently has to remind people that his version is, in fact, fiction.
The real chief gave his speech in the Suquamish dialect, and a translation by a Dr. Henry A. Smith was published in the Seattle Sunday Star on October 29, 1887. In this version, Chief Seattle says, "Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished." He assumed, as many whites and many Indians did in those days, that the tribes of America would vanish by the turn of the century. He said, "But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see."
I don't know about our time of decay, or nations cresting and then collapsing like waves on the sand. I do know this: that white guy Chief Seattle? The one in bell-bottoms who was out to save the world all at once? That was me, crashing up against the shores of time.
"In all the earth," Chief Seattle said, "there is no place dedicated to solitude." Together, Joel Rogers and I have spent some time looking for places on the earth dedicated to solitude. He is known for his photographs of remote wilderness: great expanses of sea and shore populated by whales and seals and salmon. The two of us have paddled off northern Vancouver Island and in the Queen Charlotte Islands, paddled for a week at a time without ever seeing another human being.
These days, about twice a year, Joel and I call each other and plan kayaking trips to the far corners of the earth. And then we call back and complain about money or time or complications in our respective love lives. We don't get out much anymore. The last time we spoke, Joel told me he'd recently completed a 150-mile solo paddle from the southern end of Puget Sound all the way north to the San Juan Islands, near the border with Canada.
This isn't a typical Joel Rogers expedition: Puget Sound is the site of three busy seaports as well as dozens of cities and towns. Where the hell could you camp?
"There's places," he told me.
"Damn near in the city limits."
Joel himself lives in Seattle, on the waterfront, actually, and considers Puget Sound his "home waters." In Watertrail, a new book of photographs and recollections about his trip, Joel says that in 16 years of kayaking, he has "largely ignored" Puget Sound, considering it, I imagine, to be insufficiently remote. The sound, he says, was "a ferry ride to other adventures, a body of water to travel around rather than a destination to be paddled, weathered, understood."
In recent times, Puget Sound has not been a good destination for extended kayaking because appropriate campsites were separated by dozens of miles, and it was impossible to paddle from one to the next in a single day. In 1990, a group of avid kayakers formed the Washington Water Trails Association, an organization committed to providing a marine trail system in the Puget Sound area. In essence, this meant negotiating for campsites with various counties, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Department of Natural Resources. The goal was to provide overnight camps every five to eight miles all the way from Olympia to Canada.
In January 1993, the initial 20 campsites — only human- and wind-powered beachable crafts permitted — were opened, and the Cascadia Marine Trail system was born. When Joel and I spoke in late February, he suggested paddling a part of the Cascadia Water Trail, just off Seattle. Solitude, he'd discovered, was not necessarily located in a province faraway.
The thing of it was, Joel was real busy. He only had a couple of days.
If I could get from my home in Montana to Seattle by tomorrow afternoon, we could be camping on historic Blake Island, in the middle of Puget Sound, that evening. Easy. Puget Sound is practically in my backyard, and the nearest ocean to those of us who live on the northeastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. It's a mere 736 miles due west, along Interstate 90, where daytime speed limits are 60 to 75 or, in my state, simply "reasonable and prudent," which means, oh, 85 or 90. Still, it was February, and there was some snow in the mountain passes. It took 12 hours, and I got to Seattle late, at four that afternoon, parked my truck, and climbed into one of Joel's waiting kayaks.
Which is why we were still paddling at twilight and why there was a car ferry bearing down on us. As it got closer, however, the angle began to change slightly, then slightly more. Suddenly it began to change very rapidly indeed, until the ferry passed, as Joel had said it would, about half a mile in front of us. I listened to the engines thrumming off into the distance until I was able to hear the dip and plash of my own paddle in the sea again. The irony wasn't lost on me: I'd driven 12 hours, burning about $75 worth of gasoline, precisely so I could get away from such annoyances as internal-combustion engines. I resented the ferry about as much as I resented myself, which is to say, regretfully, not very much at all. Mine is an ideology of convenient spirituality.
We paddled along the heavily wooded western edge of Blake Island, moving south toward a wide swath of sand where a Cascadia Water Trail sign marked the campsite. To the east, I could see an enormous full moon rising over Seattle. Blake Island is a popular park, and there are more than 50 campsites, complete with moorings for power craft. The Water Trail camp is set about half a mile away from the other sites, which didn't really matter much because there was no one else staying overnight on the island this February evening. I suppose there was a ranger in residence somewhere, but it was as if we had the island all to ourselves.
I stood for a moment under the full moon and stared at the great city glittering in the distance, only three miles away.
Joel burned us a dinner of bean-and-cheese burritos on his camp stove and then wandered off to shoot some time-lapse photographs of the moon over Seattle. It was going to be a strange picture, I thought, with all the planes zipping over the city from Sea-Tac International Airport. There'd be dozens of radiating streaks in the photo, like rays emanating from a saint's head in a medieval painting. The image suggested a perspective that was not immediately forthcoming.
Somewhere in the city, I could hear the faint dithering dweep and howl of a police siren, and then I saw the car's blue and red lights flashing as it raced along a hillside, just parallel to the waterfront. Someone in trouble or hurt. It felt strange to be camping, cooking on a camp stove, and watching a live version of Cops. I listened hard, but lost the sound of the siren in a rustle of leaves stirred by a soft breeze.
A line from the screenplay version of Chief Seattle's speech came to mind: "There is no quiet place in the white man's cities. No place to listen to the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect wings."
That seemed true enough, and yet here I was, camping damn near within the city limits, in the place where Chief Seattle was probably born, and I could hear owls louder than the distant siren. On this particular evening, at least, it was a place dedicated to solitude.
A small place, a small thing.