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.
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