II wanted to go to Alaska. I’m not sure just why. Partly
it was the guy thing: pushing the envelope. “You walk
tall after you’ve been to Alaska in your own boat,” a
seasoned skipper had told me. Partly it was Huck Finn: I
felt over-civilized. And, although I did not realize it
at the time, it was fundamentally a search to re-connect
with my self. I needed to rediscover the spirit I had
lost when I disconnected from nature. I had sold my soul
to the company store—the academy, books, talk, security,
ego, prestige. I had cultivated my mind through three
graduate degrees, climbed the academic ladder, published
esoteric papers, and achieved a tenured professorship. I
had neglected my spirit and its roots in mountains and
rivers--in earth, water, plants, and animals. I did not
As with many life changes it was due to circumstances more than
intention. I lived where the Inside Passage begins. I had a boat.
All had to do was cut the dock lines and head out to Huck’s
For several years, my wife and I had cruised the San Juan Islands
between Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle and as far north as
Desolation Sound in British Columbia. About 100 miles north of
Vancouver, Desolation Sound offered a grand summer. Cliffs from snow
capped mountains dropped directly into the sea, great salmon
fishing, clams and oysters on every beach, it was a paradise. Water
calm and warm enough for swimming. Beyond Desolation Sound lay terra
incognita and some of the most treacherous water of the Inside
Passage: the Yuculta Rapids. Why go further?
Because, as usual, I wanted to see what was around the next corner.
Our sturdy wooden boat, Raven, had been designed by Ed Monk,
a legendary Northwest marine architect. She was a full displacement
double-ender, intended for cruises in protected waters. But sturdy
though she was, she was marginal for the Inside Passage. Her
equipment was minimal. The compass, depth sounder and radio were
primitive. A few charts were aboard, but not enough, and no radar,
no GPS, no automatic pilot. The adequacy of her skipper and crew
pretty much matched the electronics. And although my wife voiced
sensible reservations, my need to push further prevailed. We double
checked all the systems, loaded on spare parts, tools, clothing,
food, and fishing gear.
We cast off.
Tidal currents are a major problem on the Inside Passage. The
difference between high and low tide ranges between ten and
seventeen feet. This vertical rise and fall creates extreme currents
as vast quantities of water move through narrow passages between
hundreds of islands. Learning to understand these tidal currents is
essential to safe travel. We learned as we went. Maybe not the most
prudent method, but definitely unforgettable.
We plotted our course on paper charts with parallels and dividers.
We checked off each island and navigation aid as we passed. Today,
with GPS and electronic chart plotters, these skills are about as
useful as telling time with a sundial or making fire by rubbing
sticks. But they are still good skills to have. It’s fun, and you
never know when the electronics will fail.
It was worth the effort. Every day north gets better. The thick
green foliage of the Northwest—Doug Fir, Hemlock, Red and Yellow
Cedar—creates a solid wall right to the water line. The lower
branches end in a straight horizontal line defined by high tide.
Mountain peaks remain snow covered year round. Protected anchorages
entice by their solitude, interrupted only by the calls of ravens,
wolves and coyotes, and by the splash of salmon and orca.
We survived the Yuculta Rapids, the Dent Rapids, the Green Rapids,
the Welbore Rapids, and the fearsome chop of Johnston Strait,
arriving finally in God's Pocket, a tiny cove with a small but
secure dock. Tucked into the east side of Hurst Island and just off
Christie Passage, God’s Pocket is aptly named. Secure is all
weather, it has long been a favorite of small commercial fishing
vessels. Because it is unnamed on the charts it is rarely visited by
Few voyaging destinations beckon without ambiguity, and God’s Pocket
is no exception. After Johnston Strait, it offers a chance to rest,
to catch your breath. But only a short breather because ahead lies
Queen Charlotte Strait, the first open water exposed to the swells
of the North Pacific. The evening before we intended the crossing, I
walked to the end of the dock and looked out to the northwest.
Nothing but water. We might just as well be destined for Japan. What
I described to my wife as a bit of uncertainty was actually a
roiling knot of fear. Not only did I not know where, when, or
whether we would reach Calvert Island and Safety Cove (also
deceptively named), I also had no idea how to find Pine Island or
Egg Island, two small dots of dry land marking the crossing.
It’s always a good idea to discuss the next day’s float plan with
the crew, so I advanced tentatively, “Maybe we should just head back
to Desolation Sound. After all, we've already had quite an
adventure." My wife’s response was instantaneous, unambiguous, and
clear: "You've been talking about Alaska until I'm sick of it and
you've dragged me this far. We are NOT turning back now." That
seemed to settle matters, if not my stomach, so with a decision
made, but confidence still hiding, I returned to my walk on the
The patron saint of mariners, whether Santa Maria de Buenos Aires or
Quan Yin, did indeed take pity on us that day for also walking the
dock were two well-seasoned Alaska fishermen. Time has consumed for
me the names but not the images of their boats. I can still picture
them clearly. One was a tough little fiberglass stern picker and the
other an ancient troller with a pilot house somewhat smaller than a
porta potty. And more clearly etched in my memory is the image of
the two fishermen: "Roger-Dodger” McLeod and Floyd
“Hang-him-in-public” Woolsey—as they were known throughout the
Roger Dodger earned his nickname by his inevitable response to radio
communication: “roger-dodger,” rather than the usual simpler
“roger.” He was dark and lanky and a bit taciturn. He ran a dozer at
the Everett land-fill during the off season and hunted elk in the
fall. Floyd Woolsey acquired his “hang-him-in-public” nickname
during his tenure as a sergeant in the Seabees. His invariable
advice for dealing with negative workers: “Just take the son of a
bitch out and hang him in public. Then get on with the work.” Floyd
was definitely the senior partner in this remarkable partnership. He
was, in fact, a warm and gentle person, and proved to be full of
encouragement and advice for me. After some dock talk, during which
I'm sure I revealed my anxiety about the morrow, Roger and Floyd
took us under their wings and offered to let us serve out our
sentence in their company. We would run with them to Ketchikan.
At 0-dark-thirty the next morning we reluctantly cast off the
security of God's Pocket and followed the pale red and green glow of
Floyd's running lights out into the black unknown. Roger-Dodger
brought up the rear.
We crossed the seeming endless Strait without incident and before
noon passed Safety Cove and entered the tangled maze of islands that
define British Columbia’s north coast. It was a long, slow trip.
Roger-Dodger made six knots in a following sea. We held off monotony
with chats on the radio—anything to pass the time. Someone has said
that a long boat trip is great periods of boredom interrupted by
moments of stark terror. We discussed the weather, the water, and
food. Roger-Dodger had provisioned his summer with meat from an elk
he had killed the previous winter. When the seas got a bit choppy he
radioed that he would have to go below and tie his elk burgers to
the stove with bailing wire while they cooked. I had a vision of
him, relinquishing the wheel and no auto pilot, in his miniscule
galley, trying to keep the meat on the stove and the frying pan off
One day blended into the next. Each morning we would get under way
before daylight and anchor after dark. Only Hang-‘em-in-Public and
Roger- Dodger knew where we were, where we were headed, and how we
were going to get there, but with regard to these specifics they
were men of few words.
For me, there was a beauty to this trip that has seldom been
equaled. Each day began with something equivalent to the Fourth
Movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony when, after a long warm-up of
the glow-plugs, the main diesel engine fired off. Raven came
to life. Lights came on, the radio chattered, hot water flowed,
coffee perked, bacon fried, the anchor winched up, anchor light off,
running lights on, and Raven was underway, snuggled in
between Floyd and Roger.
Daylight came, dishes were done, boat chores accomplished. Morning
coffee. The watch changed. On the CB, discussions of weather, water
and elk-burger's frying. Weather reports on the VHF. Lunch. Naps.
Some relaxed time as the watch changed again. Afternoon coffee.
Three small boats slowly making their way north through the Inside
Passage. Evening. Dinner. Dishes. Coffee. Darkness coming on.
Running lights on. Finally to anchor. Running lights off, anchor
light on. A radio discussion of the day and plans for the morning.
Finally the engine is quieted. Silence happens. Exhausted, we crawl
Each day, new territory outside, but inside, a routine settles in.
And beneath the various activities and chores, always the steady,
unwavering throb of the diesel.
Somewhere between the shreds of fog, maybe along about Grenville
Channel, an ontological shift occurred. What had begun as a
background of quiet, interrupted by the noise of the engine,
reversed itself. Now the steady throb of the diesel became the
background, the soundscape, the given, and quiet became an unnatural
and artificial interruption. The diesel was something we no longer
controlled. On our small boat, far from shore and over what might as
well have been twenty thousands fathoms of water, the diesel’s
rhythmic pulse had become the uncaused cause, the creator of our
mystery-enshrouded journey, and we were grateful to have been
Conventional wisdom has it that while diesel engines are practical,
the ultimate aesthetic cruising experience is a boat under sail; no
sound but the wind in the rigging and the lapping of waves against
the hull. To crank up the engine, say the aesthetes, is to destroy
the fantasy, the beauty of full sails in a fair wind.
There is another aesthetic however: the aesthetic of the
diesel--less ethereal perhaps, but somehow equally beautiful. Always
there, always providing creative power--heat, light, movement,
nourishment. Properly maintained, a diesel engine is safe and
reliable. It can be trusted to bring you to port or to anchor again
and again, always safely. “Properly maintained” is the operative
factor. The oil and water are checked every day; the filters, zincs,
belts and gaskets changed every year. The engine hours, water
temperature, oil pressure, exhaust temperature monitored. The basics
of diesel mechanics must be understood. With familiarity and
experience comes confidence and relaxation. Of course there are the
unknowns-- injectors, fuel pumps, connecting rods, cylinder liners,
bearings, seals, cam shafts, valves, valve seats, pistons, rings. We
do not have to understand it all. We only have to realize that if we
care for what we do know, every day it starts and runs, providing
the fundamental energy that makes everything else happen.
Unconsciously, we became exquisitely sensitive to any variation in
the background sound. Harbor-hopping back in the San Juan Islands or
Puget Sound, we could pretty much ignore the diesel. Should
something seem not quite right, we could check things out when we
got to port. But here, far from marinas and mechanics, beyond help,
where port is only the next empty anchorage, we became acutely
sensitive to the health of the diesel. It is all we had.
Hourly, as regularly as the glass was turned in the old days, we
inspected the engine room. As carefully and consistently as the
sailor monitors the shifts in the wind, we monitored shifts in the
background energy. Was that a momentary drop in RPM's? Or was it
just the way I turned my head? Had the oil pressure dropped
abnormally, or was that just the usual result of mid-day warmth? Did
the same thing happen yesterday? Check the log. We listened. Nothing
had changed. All was well. Eventually we learned to relax without
losing our awareness.
The state of relaxed awareness became second nature. The steady
throb of the diesel morphed into a source of confidence and freedom.
Its aesthetics had liberated us from both over-confidence and fear.
We had moved into a new state of awareness: a gift of diesel
aesthetics. We could relax.
Of course there are no absolutes. Hoses burst. Seals fail. Filters
clog. But these are merely the edge of the unknown. They are like
the signature irregularity in the pattern of an oriental rug.
Underneath it all was the steady throb of the diesel, bringing the
boat and its crew to life. We began to walk tall.