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Passage to Juneau

I am afraid of the sea. I fear the brushfire crackle of the breaking wave as it topples into foam; the inward suck of the tidal whirlpool; the loom of a big ocean swell, sinister and dark, in windless calm; the rip, the eddy, the race; the sheer abyssal depth of the water, as one floats, like a trustful beetle planting its feet on the surface tension. Rationalism deserts me at sea. I’ve seen the scowl of enmity and contempt on the face of a wave that broke from the pack and swerved to strike at my boat. I have twice promised God that I would never again put out to sea, if only He would, just this once, let me reach harbor. I’m not a natural sailor but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.

Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and my boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.

When I moved from London to Seattle in 1990, the sea was part of the reason. The Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea route, in more ways than one. In continuous use for several thousand years, it is now a buoyed and lighted marine freeway, a thousand miles long, and in places choked with traffic, as fishing boats, tows, barges, yachts, and cruise ships follow its serpentine course between Puget Sound and the Alaskan Panhandle. Parts of it are open ocean, parts no wider than a modest river. Some bits, like the Strait of Georgia, are small, shallow, muddy seas in their own right; others are sunken chasms, 1,200 feet deep. Where the tide is squeezed between rocks and islands, it boils and tumbles through these passes in a firehose stream. Water wasn’t meant to travel at sixteen knots: it turns into a liquid chaos of violent overfalls, breaking white; whirlpool-strings; grotesque mushroom-boils. It seethes and growls. On an island in midstream, you can feel the rock underfoot shuddering, as if at any minute the sea might dislodge it and bowl the island, end over end, down the chute.

Its aboriginal past—still tantalizingly close to hand—puts the Inside Passage on terms of close kinship with the ancient sea of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. A nineteenth-century Kwakiutl or Tsimshian Indian would find it easy to adapt to Homer’s sea, with its reigning winds and creaturely powers. He simply used other names for them. For homicidal tricksters like Zeus and Poseidon he had such counterparts as Raven, Killer Whale, Halibut. He could identify keenly with Ulysses in the Straits of Messina—though he might have found Charybdis a little tame after the canoe-guzzling whirlpools of his home waters.

High mountains and impenetrable forests crowded in on the coastal Indians and kept them within yards of the sea. The water was safer, more easily traveled, more productive, than the surrounding land. The Indians lived in an exclusively maritime culture, centered on the lavishly painted cedar canoe. Babies were rocked in miniature canoe-cradles; the dead were dispatched in canoe-coffins. In their masks, rattles, boxes, woven blankets, and decorated hats, they created a marvelous, stylized, highly articulate maritime art.

My boat, an elderly thirty-five-foot ketch, built in Sweden, was happily supplied with bookshelves. In the six years that I’d owned it, it had turned into a useful floating library. The shelf at the front of the forecabin, where I slept, became the Art section: the driest place to store $75 and $125 books (made browser-proof with prohibitive cellophane wrapping) on the art of the Salish, Kwakiutl, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit Indians. The designs represented creatures of the sea and coast—some familiar, like whales, bears, frogs, halibut, sea lions, cormorants, octopi; some unknown to natural history, fantastic sea-dwelling composites like the Tsimshians’ Nagunakas, who reached up from the bottom of the sea to grab a canoeful of fishermen, then held them prisoner for four years in his octopus’s garden.

The more I looked at these pictures, the more I saw that Northwest Indian art was maritime in much more than its subject matter. Its whole formal conception and composition were rooted in the Indians’ experience of water (a fact that seems to have largely eluded the curators). The rage for symmetry, for images paired with their doubles, was gained, surely, from a daily acquaintance with mirror reflections: the canoe and its inverted twin, on a sheltered inlet in the stillness of dusk and dawn. The typical “ovoid” shape—the basic unit of composition, used by all the tribes along the Inside Passage—was exactly that of the tiny capillary wave raised by a cat’s-paw of wind, as it catches the light and makes a frame for the sun. The most arresting formal feature of coastal Indian art, its habit of dismembering creatures and scattering their parts into different quarters of a large design, perfectly mimicked the way in which a slight ripple will smash a reflection into an abstract of fragmentary images. No maritime art I knew went half as far as this in transforming events in the water itself into constituent elements of design.

With marvelous stylistic assurance and control, the Indian artists rendered a world inherently fluid, fragmentary, elusive, and chaotic. Look, it’s a bear; look again, it’s a halibut. This is nature as one meets it in the distorting mirror of the water. Trailing through the museums of Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria, then, later, through the Northwest Indian galleries of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Menil Collection in Houston, I grew habituated to seeing a water-hauntedness in almost every piece. This was an aspect of the art the descriptive literature ignored. Thousands of pages were given over to discussion of its shamanistic symbolism, and, since Bill Holm’s landmark Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (1965), its abstract design. What I saw, touring the museums, was an art in thrall to ripples and reflections.

The Indians spoke most directly through the paintbrush and the chisel. Plenty of examples of their art were collected by the early explorers, between 1778 and 1800, before the artists had had a chance to be influenced by their invaders. But their stories were nearly all transcribed much later, toward the end of the nineteenth century and after, when colonization, Christianity, and tourism—a mighty influence on native art—had so eroded the culture that not much was left except rags and tatters. The transltions of local languages into German and English were crude; the eager-to-please Indian tellers were already familiar with imported Bible stories and European folktales; and when the collectors were faced with strange disjunctions, they provided transitions and linkages that gave these narratives the smooth shape of something by Aesop or the Brothers Grimm.

Even so, such collectors as Aurel Krause, John Swanton, and Franz Boas put together an enormous native literature of the Inside Passage. Their books filled several feet of shelving with stories full of strange transactions between humans and clams, bears, devilfish, and the other creatures with whom the Indians shared the water.

The saloon of my boat was dominated by the memoirs of eighteenth-century white explorers—intruders from the Age of Reason for whom measurement, with their quadrants, chronometers, and magnetic compasses, was a form of taking possession. They squared-up the Inside Passage with a graph-paper grid of longitudes and latitudes derived from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and the Equator. As part of the century’s great communal project of Linnaean taxonomy, they went fossicking for specimens of plants, birds, mammals. They covered their emerging charts of the sea with names: naming places after themselves, their ships, their patrons, their national historic dates and occasions. The animist sea of the Indians was reinvented by the Europeans in the image of their own age. Besides George Vancouver, with his account of his surveying expedition to Alaska of 1791-1795, I had on board Captain Cook, Peter Puget (Vancouver’s lieutenant), Archibald Menzies (Vancouver’s official naturalist), and, from Spain, Alejandro Malaspina and Dionisio Alcalá Galiano, together with the journal of the Spanish expedition artist Tomas de Suria. Each had his own voice and, looking at the same stretch of water, saw it in strikingly different terms from the others. To travel with these men, in their tight knee-boots and frogged waistcoats, was to be in on a continuous, sometimes quarrelsome seminar about the character and significance of the new sea.

By accident, in an unrelated attempt to brighten the saloon, I’d hung prints from the same period as these explorers. A 1792 plate of assorted New World birds, evidently drawn from their pinned-out corpses, went up first, on the forward bulkhead. A cartoon of George III—poor, mad, kindly farmer George—was Velcro-taped aft, alongside the VHF radio. A pair of hummingbirds (1789) perched above the barograph. The prints had come in a job lot and it took me a while to notice how aptly they chimed with the accruing library: by losing the Ameri-can colonies, the King had put a high premium on British acquisition of the as-yet-undiscovered coast of North America; while the bird prints neatly embodied the imperatives—shoot! classify! name! describe!—of eighteenth-century discovery.

When Captain Cook put into Nootka Sound, on the west side of Vancouver Island, the Indians offered him sea otter pelts in exchange for iron tools. In his journal he remarked:

Sea-otters, which live mostly in the water, are found here. The fur of these animals…is certainly softer and finer than that of any others we know of, and therefore the discovery of this part of the continent of North America, where so valuable an article of commerce may be met with, cannot be a matter of indifference.

Cook’s ship, Resolution, had barely left Nootka for the North when the fur traders arrived. These freelance captains were out to make a killing. Buying sea otter skins to sell on the Chinese market, they plagued the coast until the Indians had hunted the animal to extinction. The captains themselves survived, on the charts, as Meares Passage, the Kendrick Islands, Dixon Entrance, Barkley Sound, Gray’s Harbor. Their books were harder to locate than the long reaches of otterless water on which they’d left their names. I was still on the lookout for a copy of John Meares’s Voyages in the Years 1788-1789, from China to the Northwest Coast of America (London, 1790), and George Dixon’s A Voyage Round the World (London, 1789).

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