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Flashpoint

 Don Tassone
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 Don Tassone
Flashpoint
by Don Tassone  FollowFollow
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Don Tassone's short stories and essays have appeared in a range of literary magazines. His debut short story collection, Get Back, was published...read more in March 2017. His debut novel, Drive, was published in September 2017. He lives in Loveland, Ohio and teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
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Flashpoint
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Pete and I had been kayaking for about an hour in Glacier Bay, Alaska, when we spotted something in the distance.  It looked like a shadow on the water. At first, I thought it was a boat. But then it disappeared – then reappeared. It was probably 200 yards away. Whatever it was, it was big.

“Holy crap!” Pete cried. “I think it’s a whale!”

I felt my chest tighten. I felt dizzy. I had just learned to control my lifelong fear of water, and now it came rushing back. I had an overwhelming urge to get the hell out of this little boat and feel the earth beneath my feet.  

I looked around to find our group. Once again, Pete and I had wandered off. We were 100 yards from the others. And we were all a mile from the small ship that all fourteen of us called home that week.

“Pete, let’s get back with the group,” I said.

“No way,” he said. “We’re staying put. John said if we see a whale, we shouldn’t move.”

“Maybe it’s not a whale.”

“You’re right!” Pete shouted. “It’s not a whale. It’s three whales!”

Sure enough, I now saw three whales in the distance, and they were heading our way.  

Damn! Sometimes I hated it when Pete was right.

A week before, Pete and I had put our laptops away, kissed our families goodbye and set out for Alaska. It was July 2007.

I had known Pete for nearly twenty years. For much of that time, he had been asking me to take this trip with him. Pete had been to Alaska twice. He raved about it. His voice would get high-pitched, like a kid, when he told me about glaciers “calving icebergs,” huge chunks of ice breaking off the end of glaciers and plummeting into the bay.

“They’re as big as a school bus!” he would exclaim, stretching out his arms and thrusting his fingers into the air. “You’re kayaking along and, all of a sudden, crack! The next thing you know, that ice hits the water, and the impact creates a huge wave. If you’re too close, it’ll swamp you and flip your boat. But if you’re just far enough away, you can ride it. What a rush!”

Breathlessly, Pete told me about the time he dove off the side of a boat, without a wetsuit, into the frigid water below.  

“It was a sunny day, but the water was 38 degrees,” he said. “There was ice floating in it. Without a wetsuit, you’ve only got a few minutes to live. After a minute, your arms begin to freeze. So you can’t jump out too far, and you have to swim fast.”

Pete said when he hit the water, it was like being in another world.  

“Everything is deep blue,” he said. “You can’t believe how cold that water is. At first, it stings like hell. Then you can’t feel a thing. And you can’t hear anything, except for the beating of your heart. Boomp, boomp. Boomp boomp. Boomp boomp.” Pete murmured, thumping his chest.

Yet Pete kept diving. He forced himself to go deeper until he could go no farther. When he finally surfaced, he heard the cheers of the other passengers watching from the safety of the deck.  

“I was out farther than I thought,” he said.

When he realized just how far from the boat he was, Pete tried to swim hard. He was a strong swimmer. But now his arms felt like lead, and he struggled to lift them. Tiny icebergs bounced off his 250-pound body. He felt like he was in slow motion. By the time he got close to the boat, he could barely move, and he could no longer feel his arms.  

“But our guide was watching everything,” he said, smiling, “and he pulled me up on deck just in time. It was incredible!”

Of course, none of us believed him. Who would do something so crazy?  

But Pete had proof: a photograph someone on the boat had taken of him in the water. He carried it, folded and tattered, in his wallet.  Sure enough, there was Pete – a walrus of a man, mustache and all, his blanched, bare torso jutting out of the icy water, his right arm extended forward and up, his hand grasping another man’s hand, his lips blue, his thinning hair glazed on his forehead, his eyes half-closed. He was probably seconds from hypothermia. But on his face was a big grin that said: made it – and I can’t wait to tell you about it.

For years, Pete had tried to convince me to go with him to Alaska. I was tempted. It certainly looked stunning in his pictures. But his stories – about glaciers calving, water so cold it could kill you, being chased in his kayak by a sea lion, hikers falling into deep crevasses – also scared the hell out of me.

Pete was a risk taker. In the 1980’s, he had founded an advertising agency in Cincinnati, our hometown. Early on, he nearly lost everything. Once he had to mortgage his house to pay his employees. He always put others first. I admired that.

But Pete stuck with it – and it worked. He built his company into Cincinnati’s largest ad agency. It became the place to work, especially if you were young in the business. It wasn’t just successful. It was hip. Employees brainstormed while shooting pool in a conference room, Pete, right along with them. He might have been old enough to be their father. But the other dads didn’t sport a goatee, dress in black, tweet and bring home from Cannes a Gold Lion, one of the advertising industry’s most prestigious awards.

And Pete’s years of hard work paid off. In 2005, he sold his company to the biggest ad agency in the world for a small fortune. Pete’s risk was also his reward.

On the other hand, I was not a risk taker. I worked in public relations for one of the most conservative companies in the world. In 2007, I had been there for twenty-seven years.

And while Pete was diving into ice water and being chased by sea lions, I was busy defending the safety of the latest controversial ingredient in shampoo.

But as different as our lives were, as different as we were, Pete and I became the best of friends. Part of it, I think, is that we balanced each other out.

But there was something more. I think Pete and I also became good friends because we could just be ourselves with each other.

At work, and even at home, we had roles to play, important roles, roles we loved. But the more we got into these roles, the harder it was to get out of them, to find an escape hatch, a way to step out and let down, to talk freely, to share problems without feeling obliged to also propose solutions.

This was the safe haven that Pete and I found, a place where we could be unguarded and unvarnished, a place void of pretense, a place of vulnerability, a place of pure acceptance.

We had met through our wives, who met through our children. But I don’t remember ever meeting Pete. Suddenly, he was just there, and we were hanging out, running together, drinking wine and telling jokes. We went to movies, dinner and baseball and football games together. We played golf, badly, together. We argued a lot, especially over politics and religion. We talked or texted nearly every day. And at some point, without ever saying so, we became best friends.

Pete kept asking me to go to Alaska, and I kept saying no. We would have to go in July, he said, the only time it was warm enough. And every July, I’d have a good excuse.  

But the truth is: I was wary. For starters, I’m a poor swimmer, and I’m uncomfortable in the water. I wasn’t sure I could handle being on a little boat and paddling around in a sea kayak in ice water for a week.

But Pete never gave up. And finally, in 2007, I said yes. Even now, I’m not really sure why I gave in. Maybe Pete just wore me down. Or maybe, after decades of trying to control things, I decided it was time to let go.

Pete was thrilled and went into fast motion. Within 24 hours, he had booked everything – the boat, flights, ground transportation and a place where we’d spend our first night in a tiny town called Gustavus, about forty miles from Juneau, on the Gulf of Alaska.

We met in the Seattle airport on a Saturday afternoon. Pete had flown in from Cincinnati. I had flown in from Myrtle Beach, where I had just spent a week on a family vacation. When I got there, I saw that Pete had sent a text message to tell me he was in the Seattle Tap Room in Concourse B.

Pete was a man of extremes. At times, he could drink a lot and drink fast. All told, we had a brief, seven-beer layover.

From Seattle, we flew to Juneau, another two and half hours north. The airport there is the size of a convenience store. We boarded an eight-passenger Cessna for the twenty minute flight to Gustavus.

We flew low the whole time. Just below, I saw rivers, lakes, lagoons, mountains and glaciers.  

As we were about to land, I could finally see the bay. It was dark blue and narrower than I had expected. I’d seen rivers as wide. But it seemed to extend forever, separating and branching out through the snow-capped mountains, more like a web of rivers than a bay.

But what really grabbed my attention were the glaciers. For some reason, I had always had trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of glaciers. As a city boy, I used to confuse them with icebergs.  

Pete set me straight. He explained that icebergs are chunks of ice that break off from glaciers. Many are big – like the one the Titanic hit. Some are tiny, the size of ice cubes. All glaciers, though, are huge. Some stretch for hundreds of miles. They move slowly through the mountains and valleys, scouring the earth, always advancing and retreating.

Still, I had a hard time envisioning them. But then, from the plane, I saw them. They looked nothing like icebergs. They were a confluence of white, blue and grey. They looked like great tentacles, snaking through the mountain ranges like giant, frozen rivers. Some of them stretched beyond my field of vision, even at 5000 feet.

“There it is!” Pete exclaimed from his seat in front of me, pointing down at the bay.  “Isn’t it incredible?”

Good Lord, it was breathtaking--the most majestic landscape I’d ever seen. But it looked wild and daunting too, and I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

We landed on a runway that seemed far too short, descended the shaky aluminum stairs to the tarmac and grabbed our duffel bags from the belly of the plane. We slung them over our shoulders and lugged them through the tiny airport to the parking lot.  

From there, a van took us to the inn, ten minutes away. As soon as we left, I knew I was in a very special place.

The land was flat and rolled out in grassy prairies in every direction, surrounded by tall, dark evergreens rimmed by low, blue-green, snow-capped mountains in the distance. We passed a dozen houses, a few lodges, a school, a small general store, a library, two restaurants and a gas station with old-time, red pumps. The whole scene reminded me of one of those 1930’s westerns that’s been colorized.

Then suddenly we pulled into the long driveway of an inn.

It was large and white, two-storied, with a reddish-brown roof. I could tell from all the angles and windows that there were many rooms inside. The front lawn was fifty yards wide, and the grass smelled freshly cut. On one side stood a wall of towering, dark green fir trees. On the other, a rolling meadow of tall grasses and wildflowers.  

Just beyond the meadow, extending behind the building, was a sprawling garden, with alternating rows of vegetables and flowers – pansies, fuchsia, petunias, carnations, marigolds, snapdragons, sweet-peas, poppies, lupines and geraniums in waves of red, white, pink, lavender, blue, orange and yellow. I was surprised to see such a vibrant display of flowers in a climate so harsh.

A split-rail fence framed the back and one side of the garden, some of it covered by blackberry, raspberry and red currant bushes. The air smelled earthy and sweet, a blend of rhubarb, flowers and pines. Beyond the garden stood an orchard, whose trees marched single file into the woods at the base of a broad, low mountain, the backdrop to everything. It was a scene that was at once wild and tamed, natural and crafted.

The owners of the inn were gracious hosts. We ate very well that evening. After dinner, we sampled the local craft beers at a small bar next to the kitchen.  

Even though it wasn’t dark yet – in July, the sun doesn’t set in Alaska until about 10:00 – we were exhausted. So we headed to our rooms. I closed the curtains to block the early sunrise, then slipped into bed.

My alarm went off at 7:00, but the hearty scents of bacon, eggs and coffee had already roused me.  

I had slept like a man who the day before had traveled 3000 miles on a beer-of-the-month-club trip. Still, I was tempted to snooze a little longer. But then, someone started banging on my door.

“Time for breakfast!” Pete shouted. I just knew his goofy face was scrunched up against my door.

“Get up, Don! We’ve got to be at the dock in an hour.”

I was just stirring some blueberries into my oatmeal when folks began to get up, go to their rooms and check out. Soon, I was the only one left at the table--which was fine by me, since I was packed and ready to go.

I savored my oatmeal, buttered some toast, sipped my coffee and sat alone, facing two large windows along the back wall of the inn. The glass was thick – to withstand the harsh winters, I guessed. The garden flowers were brilliant in the morning sun, and they swayed in the breeze. And through the glass, awash with light, all the colors of the garden danced and blended together, like a kaleidoscope.

And I remembered it was Sunday. It felt like a Sunday morning in church. I knew it was cool outside. But with the sunlight streaming in, the air in the dining room was warm, and I felt radiant and so grateful for everything, including for Pete, for his persistence, for being there and for the courage to have finally said yes.

We boarded our small ship at a place called Bartlett Cove and set out for six days and six nights on Glacier Bay. There were nine passengers and five crew members. Our boat would cruise the bay by day and anchor in quiet coves at night. Most days, we went sea kayaking. Some days, we went hiking.

Now, on the first day, it was time to kayak. There were six kayaks in all: five two-man kayaks and a single for John, our guide.

“Let’s go together, Don,” Pete said. “You take the front, and I’ll take the back.”

I knew what that meant: Pete wanted to be in charge. I knew Pete was an experienced kayaker. He owned a kayak and took it out on a small lake near his house. 

I didn’t have nearly as much experience kayaking. But I had done a lot of canoeing as a kid. And I had done a couple of triathlons with Pete which included canoeing on the Little Miami River. I remembered he insisted on being in the back then too. We flipped our canoe about every mile.

“Are you sure?” I asked Pete.

“You worry too much,” he replied. “Besides, we’re wearing wetsuits.”

Pete could be so confidence-inspiring.

“Hey, guys!” John yelled. “Don’t go very far.”

I’m glad he did because Pete had already started paddling away.

“Pete,” I said. “John said to stay close.”

 “Don’t worry,” he replied. “I’m just getting us into position.”

Pete liked to say that kind of crap, knowing it made absolutely no sense.  I knew him, though.  He just wanted to see how far he could go before John called us back.

“Hey, guys!” John yelled, as if on cue.

Pete stopped paddling. We glided to a stop.

I looked around. What had seemed big from the air, as we flew in yesterday, was now nearly too massive to comprehend.

Our boat had anchored in the middle of a narrow stretch of the bay. In front of me rose a glacier, stormy blue and powder white. It must have been 150 feet tall.

On the other side of the bay, behind us, stood a temperate rain forest. The tall evergreens were covered with mosses and lichens. I could see wildflowers and the trunks of downed trees along the forest floor. Streams flowed like fingers out of the woods, trickling down the rocky shore through brown moss-covered boulders and into the bay.

And surrounding everything were mountains that rose thousands of feet and stretched farther than I could see. The bay itself seemed endless too, like the ocean.

And there we were, Pete and I, in the center of all this, sitting in a sixteen-foot plastic kayak, floating like a leaf on a pond, best friends, saying nothing, directing nothing, wanting nothing, just floating, immersed in a new world, a larger world, for a moment, this moment, together.

All six kayaks were now in the water. John reminded us to stick together. Then he pulled a large, expensive-looking Nikon camera from his kayak. He told us that in addition to being a tour guide, he was a professional photographer. He said he would be taking our pictures all week.

And with that, as a group, we headed toward an enormous glacier. The closer we got, the more ice I saw in the water. At first, it was in the form of tiny icebergs, no bigger than ice cubes.

“Grab one, Don,” Pete said, leaning over and scooping one up in his hand. “Taste it,” he said, popping it in his mouth and chomping on it like candy. “This is the oldest ice cube you’ll ever have.”

I reached out and snagged one. The water was freezing. The ice cube was clear and slick, and I could see small stone particles and air bubbles inside. I licked it and put it in my mouth. But with all that debris inside, I decided against biting it. It tasted clean. I guess I was expecting it to taste like salt – or dirt.  I sucked on it for a minute, numbing my tongue. Then I spit it back into the sea.

We kept paddling toward the glacier. The icebergs were getting larger, some now the size of basketballs, others as big as cars. Some were square, some flat, some domed. Pete maneuvered us through them, the smallest ones bouncing off the sides of our kayak. Then, a few hundred yards from the glacier, John yelled: “Stop everybody!”

We all stopped paddling.

“Quiet,” he said. “Listen. Just listen.”

At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant. Then I heard something popping, crackling, the sound echoing off the glacier.

 “This glacier is melting,” John told us. “Every glacier melts. But now they’re melting faster than ever. That popping is the sound of air bubbles escaping from the ice. The ice is constantly melting, so that popping sound never stops.”

Suddenly, we heard a much louder noise – like a clap of thunder. A huge chunk of ice had broken off the middle of the glacier in front of us. It slid down the face, leaving a cascade of snow and ice in its trail. The ice exploded into the water, creating a broad wave, which rolled toward us, slowly.

I looked around for John. He shouted not to worry, it wasn’t a “big one.” He said to just point our kayaks toward the wave and ride it. Pete re-oriented us, and I had to back paddle hard to give us enough time to square up. The first wave was now just seconds away.

“Hold on, Don,” Pete said. “Here it comes!”

I watched as the wave hit us straight on, then felt it go under our boat, rocking us, front to back.  It was like riding a kids’ rollercoaster – except surrounded by about a million gallons of ice water. I pushed my paddle down hard against the top of our kayak to steady myself.

“Holy shit!” Pete shouted. “What a rush!”

“Thank God,” I sighed, relieved we were still upright.

“I can’t believe we saw calving on the first day,” Pete said. “This is going to be a great trip!”

Everyone was hooting and hollering – and Pete and I hadn’t flipped our boat. Maybe he knew what he was doing after all.

After checking out the glacier a bit more, but still at a safe distance, we all turned around and headed for the other shore. It was as lush as the other was frozen. On this side was an old-growth forest of massive hemlock and spruce trees. They stretched up and down the shore line as far as I could see--a rocky, jagged shore line, etched with inlets and coves.

 

For the next hour or so, we would explore several of those coves. Along the way, we began to see an astonishing array of wildlife. We saw sea otters with brown fur, the size of puppies, floating on their backs, looking surprisingly carefree. We saw several bald eagles. Until then, I’d never seen even one. We saw dozens of puffins, which John described perfectly as “flying potatoes.” And near the shore, we looked down into the clear water and saw large red, blue, green, yellow, even purple, starfish.

Pete and I began to drift away from the others, toward the center of the bay. We hadn’t strayed far, but far enough to make me a little uneasy.

“Pete, let’s stay with the group,” I said.

 

“I’m keeping them in sight,” Pete said. “We’re fine. You worry too much.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe I was worrying too much. Pete had been here twice before. He did seem to know what he was doing, and he hadn’t steered me wrong so far. I guess I just needed to learn to relax.

Then suddenly, Pete cried: “Look! I think it’s a sea lion!”

Oh God, I thought. I turned around to see Pete. He was pointing ahead to our left. I pivoted back around and looked out--and saw something big thrashing near the middle of the bay. It was less than 100 feet away.

“Let’s go take a look,” Pete said. I felt our kayak surge forward.

“Come on, Pete,” I said. “Those things are dangerous.”

“It’s not going to bother us,” he replied. “It’s busy. It’s eating lunch.”

As we got closer, I realized it was indeed a sea lion. It was huge – I guessed maybe ten feet long and 1000 pounds. It was dark brown, with black fins, a small head, thick neck, flat nose, long whiskers and bulging black eyes.

I stopped paddling, but Pete didn’t, and so we inched closer to the beast. I could see its mouth now – and its teeth: four long, curved canines in the front with rows of cone-shaped incisors behind. When I saw those teeth, “sea lion” suddenly made sense.

And it was indeed eating lunch. It had caught a king salmon. It probably weighed thirty pounds, but the sea lion tossed it high in the air, like a rag doll, tearing it apart. Blood and pieces of flesh and bone flew everywhere. And with each toss, the sea lion would take another bite of the fish, its head snapping back, like a ravenous dog chomping on a piece of raw meat.

“Pete, stop,” I said in a loud whisper.

Now we were only about twenty feet away – close enough, apparently, even for Pete because he finally stopped paddling. We glided to a stop and just sat there, transfixed as the predator violently, powerfully devoured the last of its prey.

Then the beast looked at us, opened its mouth wide, made a deep, growling, menacing sound and slipped under the surface of the water.

“Hey, guys!” John yelled, breaking our trance. “Get back here!”

I turned around to see him. He and the other kayakers were 100 yards behind us.

Then I caught a glimpse of Pete. He was just sitting there, his paddle resting in front of him, with a big smile on his face. He was quiet. Pete was seldom quiet. I think he was happy. I think he was happy that we had just witnessed something so wild and intense and that we hadn’t kept our distance. I think he was happy that we had seen that glacier calve and ridden the wave. I think he was happy to have steered us through those icebergs. I think he was happy to be back in Alaska and showing me the ropes. And although he never said so, in that moment, I think Pete was very happy to be alive.

And I was happy too. I was happy to be guided for a change, to let go, to give up control. I was happy to leave my familiar world behind and enter this mysterious new one. I was happy to unplug. I was happy that this adventure was just beginning. I was happy at the prospect of not shaving for a week. And, of course, I was happy that I hadn’t just been eaten by a sea lion.

The next morning, we all shuffled into the galley for breakfast. John was sitting at the end of the table, drinking coffee and he bid us good morning.

As we munched on bagels, he told us that this morning we would kayak to Margerie Glacier. There, we would paddle to shore near the edge of the glacier and eat lunch. Then we would hike up the side of a mountain which borders the glacier.

Two hours later, we were climbing that mountain. The trail was steep, narrow and very rocky. The brush – tall grasses and bushes – was coarse and thick. The climb was a struggle, and we had to stop several times to rest. But at about 2000 feet, we reached a plateau. There, we all stopped and looked out over the bay.

We could see for miles. In the bright sun, the bay looked like a giant mirror. Everything was reflected in it – mountains, forests, glaciers, even the sky. Everything was revealed in the water.

 

The air was cool, and the wind bore the scent of everything below us: the trees, the rocks, the moss, the salt water, the ice. The fragrance of all these things rose up to meet us on the wind, and I closed my eyes and breathed it in.

And for a moment, I did not feel separate from these things. I felt one with them and everything. And I felt I had known this once, long ago – and that if I could be still and open, as I was at that moment, I could know it again.

       

That night, Pete and I lay awake for a while in our bunks. I told him about my experience on the mountain that day, about my feeling of communion with everything.

I thought he might laugh or start snoring. But he listened and said he had had a similar feeling himself – the last time he was in Alaska.

 “I’ve never put it into words,” he said. “But that’s how I felt. I brought that feeling home with me, and I thought I’d never lose it. But I did. Now, though, I’m feeling it again. You’re right. When you really think about it, it all begins to blend together.”

Pete stopped talking, and I just listened. I thought maybe he had fallen asleep.

“Pete?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For bringing me here, for not giving up on me. For this whole thing.”

“Sure,” he said. “Good night, Don.”

“Good night, Pete.”

The next day, we “shot the arch,” a massive arched iceberg carved by water, wind and time in a cove of the bay. The parabola-shaped opening was probably fifty feet tall but only about twenty feet wide. The water pulsed through it, tons of water, suddenly constrained and channeled, crashing violently against the walls of the arch in ten-foot surges. And when the water hit those walls, it sounded like thunder.

I could hardly imagine going through there in a kayak.  But we all huddled around John in our kayaks near the entrance, and he told us how to do it. The trick, he said, is to stay in the middle, point your kayak toward the other end and just ride it.

“Don’t try to steer or even paddle,” he told us. “Just get out of the way and let it take you. Watch me.”

Then, without hesitating, he showed us how by going first. Once we saw him ride the crest of those waves straight through, and come out alive, our spines stiffened – and everyone began lining up to go next.

Still, I knew this was not like any kayaking I had done in the past. And I now understood why John had made each of us bring a helmet that day. I fastened mine tight.

All week, Pete and I had kayaked together. Today, though, one of the crew members was my partner and another passenger partnered with Pete. On one hand, I was sorry not to be doing this with Pete. But on the other, I got to watch him shoot the arch.

Pete and his new bowman were both big men. But going through the arch, with their helmets on, bobbing wildly, at the mercy of the waves, they looked like a couple of Fisher-Price little people in a toy boat.

Over the roar, I could hear their screams, echoing off the walls, screams of ecstasy, of pure joy, like children opening gifts on Christmas morning. Hearing that was as thrilling to me as my own turn through the arch.

And as I shot through, there was Pete waiting, cheering me on, looking as happy as I had ever seen him.

Friday would be our last day of sea kayaking.

We dropped anchor at a place in the bay called Adolphus Point. John told us it was a popular feeding spot for humpback whales. They spent their summers there, “rebuilding their blubber supply,” he said, after migrating 3000 miles every year from Hawaii, where they mate and have babies.

We had hoped to see one, but at a distance – and from the ship!  And yet here we were, Pete and I, watching breathlessly from our kayak as three humpbacks headed straight toward us.

Side by side, one by one, they dove under the surface of the water, then emerged, like giant pistons. As they did, they blew great puffs of misty spray into the air. Their exhaling made a gushing sound, like steam blasting from a locomotive. Their backs were mottled black. They were now less than 100 yards away.

John yelled to us to tap our paddles on our kayak. Of course! During our orientation the first day, he had told us to do this if we ever saw a whale, no matter how far away, so it would know where we were and not accidentally upend us.

I felt so small and vulnerable. My heart raced. I had no options. All I could do was wait, tap my paddle and hope the whales would hear us.

Then, suddenly, they were gone. Fifty feet away, the whales disappeared.

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“Oh, shit!” Pete said. “I think they’re under the boat!”

 “Keep tapping!” John shouted. Pete and I tapped our paddles furiously.

Then suddenly, a whale burst through the surface of the water ten feet in front of me. Boom! It must have been fifty feet long. I could have reached out and touched it with my paddle. Its skin was bumpy, like a cucumber. It had a small fin on its back. Barnacles encrusted the underside of its mouth. Its eye was the size of a baseball. It looked like a gigantic human eye – and it was staring right at me. 

Whoosh, the whale blew its spray hard and high into the air. The sound was so deep I could feel the vibration. Spray rained down on us. It tasted salty and fishy, like sardines.

Then a second whale burst through the surface, just to our left. Boom! Then a third just to our right. Boom! They formed a crescent around us. And they were all blowing their spray into the air. We were soaked with it.

By now, it was clear the whales knew where we were, so Pete and I stopped tapping and just sat there and stared at them as they stared at us. They seemed content just to watch us and didn’t come any closer. They hovered gracefully. I started breathing again. 

And so there we were, the five of us, together, in a big ring in the sea. The whales began moaning, groaning, almost singing. It occurred to me that maybe they were communicating with each other. Or maybe with us.

A few moments ago, these enormous creatures had terrified me. But then, maybe out of desperation, I let go. And now, as I looked into their eyes, I was no longer afraid.

As Pete and I sat there, we did not speak. We had entered a wordless place, a place of stillness, a sacred place.

 

At some point, we realized that our friends were cheering. They had seen it all. And what Pete and I didn’t know is that John had been taking pictures of us the whole time.

The next morning, after a late breakfast, our boat cruised into Bartlett Cove, where most of us had met just six days earlier. We were certainly not strangers now, though, and we didn’t want to say goodbye.

A van was waiting at the dock to take us to the airport.  But for a few minutes, we all lingered, hugging each other.

We promised to stay in touch. We said we’d see each other again. But we knew that wouldn’t happen.

And it never did. Five years later, suddenly and unexpectedly, Pete died of a massive heart attack.

I’ve given up trying to make sense of Pete’s death. But the more that time passes, and the more my specific memories of him fade and blur, the clearer I am on how our friendship changed me, how it opened and expanded me.

For me, our Alaska trip was the flashpoint.

There, I learned to let go, to let someone else steer. There, I remembered we are all connected and that I am not really separate from anything, not even the whales. There, I came to understand that that which had once seemed so foreign and even frightening to me had now become a part of me, just as it always had been.

I discovered these things in 2007 in Alaska with my friend Pete. He had waited for me a long time. He is waiting for me still.

But separation, I now know, is an illusion.

And so I close my eyes and see Pete, smiling in our kayak, chomping on a tiny iceberg, shooting the arch. I see him sitting in front of me on the plane, pointing down at Glacier Bay and saying: “Isn’t it incredible?”

 

all photographs by John Schnell

Also by Don Tassone

8 comments

Discussion

  3 months ago
Thank you, Jillian.
  3 months ago
What a grand story. And excellent descriptions of the places in Alaska.
  9 months ago · in response to Lorna Rose

    Thank you, Lorna. Yes, these are life-changing experiences, aren't they?
  9 months ago
Great story! To see those whales up close must have been thrilling. I did trail work in Alaska in 2005, and it forever changed me. It is indeed a special place. Thank you for sharing.
  29 months ago
What a beautiful story. Thank you!
  2 years ago
What a write! I have never wanted to go to Alaska before, but ...
  2 years ago
This was great! Thanks for sharing your tale. Whenever people tak about wanting to travel to Alaska I always dismiss it. Why would I go some place even colder than where I live?? But you've made me seriously reconsider that perspective.
  2 years ago
“Taste it,” he said, popping it in his mouth and chomping on it like candy. “This is the oldest ice cube you’ll ever have.” - Ha ha!
 

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