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).

Then came the first, lonely, white settlers. Often living many miles from their nearest English-speaking neighbors, they were dependent on the Indians for company and conversation; and keeping a journal, or writing a book, was a means of keeping at bay the psychological perils of the night. I particularly liked James Gilchrist Swan, who, in 1849, left his wife and children in Boston to join the California Gold Rush, then slipped north by ship from San Francisco to make a new life for himself on the Washington coast. Traveling with the Indians in their canoes, he learned their language and picked up much of their maritime lore. Though overfond of giving his native companions jocose titles such as “The Duke of York,” Swan on the whole was a modest, tender-hearted man; a good listener, a bit of a fusspot, a keen amateur ethnologist. He loved to be out on the water. He made sails for the Indians’ canoes and decorated them with designs admired up and down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was also a walking drugstore, and dosed the Indians with pills and patent medicines.

He was forty-two when he published The Northwest Coast: Or, Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory in 1857. Eleven years later, the Smithsonian Institution brought out his The Indians of Cape Flattery. Both books were full of the small voyages he’d made with the Indians, and conveyed—as no anthropologist has done since—the zigzag, stop-go pace of these journeys, the methods of aboriginal seamanship and navigation, the delicate skill of managing a dugout canoe in fast tides and heavy weather.

Combing through Swan’s private diaries in the University of Washington library, in search of more canoe trips, I found myself becoming too intimate a witness to his miserable decline. In Port Townsend, at the top of Puget Sound, Swan became a justice of the peace, a correspondent for the Eastern papers, and a morose whiskey-drunk. By the 1870s, his handwriting would go to pieces on him in the evenings, a jagged line of sepia ink betraying where his hand had skidded out of control on the page. Two shaky words—“Fat Billy,” with every letter laboriously constructed, each looking like the outline of a collapsing shed—would pass for a day’s entry; and some pages were still crinkled with 120-year-old spills of booze.

Yet the Indians with whom he had lived still visited, and took him on excursions in their canoes. Then he’d perk up, and his handwriting would recover. Sitting in the sternsheets or, camped out on Padilla Bay, wolfing down crabs and flounder caught by “Patrick Henry” and “The Duke of York,” Judge Swan would almost succeed in persuading himself that he was back in happier days. Returned—too soon—to his Port Townsend house, he would sit in his usual pew at Sunday church, where mothers of teenage daughters saw him as a dangerous old goat.

Missionaries arrived with the settlers—men like the Dickensianly named Myron Eells, a Congregational minister whose physical deficiencies show up startlingly in his photo-graph. His eyes are magnified by a pair of thick-lensed, too-small, wire-framed glasses; his lips are thin and bloodless-looking; his beard, straining for luxuriance, achieves at best a tangled fluffiness. Eells’s parishioners were the Skokomish Indians on the southern crook of the Hood Canal, a side-channel to Puget Sound. His task was to save them from their savage superstitions, and to police their consumption of alcohol. If his own account is to be believed, he once joined them (reluctantly, for Myron was no sailor) on a long canoe ride to a potlatch at Dungeness, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, because they’d begged him to rescue them from the temptations of the bottle. Yet even as he set about on a root-and-branch destruction of the foundations of Indian culture, he meticulously documented what remained of the Skokomish customs when he arrived on the reservation in 1874. He collected and labeled a vast collection of artifacts, and wrote a thorough, if colorless, monograph entitled The Indians of Puget Sound.

By contrast with James Swan, I found Myron Eells tough going as a traveling companion. A strain of self-preening piety in his writing put my back up, and there was something too obviously anal about his collecting habit. But his book was useful, chiefly for that uncomfortable canoe voyage on which the Indians drew his ire for getting down in the bottom of the boat, muttering un-Christian incantations, whenever they neared a tiderace.

En route through British Columbia, I hoped to supplement Eells by finding a copy of the much jollier-sounding Thomas Crosby’s Up and Down the Northwest Coast by Canoe and Mission Ship. The missionaries, bent on stamping out one set of beliefs in order to impose another, must’ve tangled directly with stubborn fears and ideas of the water; and no one, Indian or white, is more prone to superstition than when at sea. I was also tracking two Catholic missionaries, Father Brabant and Father Blanchet.

It was bad luck for the anthropologists, and their comparatively recent discipline, that the missionaries got to the Inside Passage first. By the time Franz Boas and his colleagues reached the coast, there was no way of telling whether an Indian story about a great flood and the tribe’s rescue from it was generations-old or just a garbled version of Genesis 8, or perhaps a bit of both. Had the Indians always believed in a creator—a sky god, the Great Spirit, the Transformer—or was this a recent idea, picked up at Shaker Sunday School, and merged with older native beliefs and stories? Did the totem pole, the most arresting symbol of Northwest Indian culture, date from time immemorial, or was it a product of fur-trade wealth and fur-trade leisure? In an unchronicled society, without writing, things that happened yesterday bleed into ancient history; and after a hundred years of rubbing up against explorers, traders, missionaries, and colonial administrators, the tribe members had ceased to be reliable authorities on their own traditions.

Of all the tribal groups in North America, the Indians of the Inside Passage had left the richest body of ceremonial and domestic art, and the most voluminous oral literature. Their culture was the most nearly intact because it had been invaded late in the era of New World discovery. Yet even when, say, Franz Boas arrived on the coast in the 1880s, the day-to-day reality of aboriginal life had faded into blurred snapshots and conjecture. Much later, Claude Lévi-Strauss would write of the Inside Passage that it was a “stage…along whose entire stretch the actors of a play for which we do not have a script have left their footprints.”

The fact that the loss was so recent, and the vast quantity of those footprints (visible on every mile of shoreline), made the Northwest coast a magnet for theorists, speculators, freelance intellectuals. On the boat I had the stimulating and disputatious company of Boas, Lévi-Strauss, Edward Sapir, Edmund Leach; also Wayne Suttles, a social anthropologist local to the area, a skeptical empiricist whose essays applied small, bright pins to the gas-filled balloons of received ideas about the Indians and their cosmology.

After the Indians, the explorers, the fur traders, the settlers, the missionaries, and the anthropologists, tourists came to the Inside Passage, and witnessed the sea in their own terms. In 1879, John Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist, explored the northern reaches, and, in his own brand of lyrical, solemn, ringing prose, conquered them for the high-Romantic Sublime. The modern tourist brochure, with its majestic peaks and pristine fjords, harks straight back to Muir:

Sunshine streamed through the luminous fringes of the clouds and fell on the green waters of the fiord, the glittering bergs, the crystal bluffs of the vast glacier, the intensely white, far-spreading fields of ice, and the ineffably chaste and spiritual heights of the Fairweather Range, which were now hidden, now partly revealed, the whole making a picture of icy wildness unspeakably pure and sublime.

This rendering of the land and sea as a transfiguring religious experience did for southeast Alaska what Wordsworth’s poems had done for the English Lakes: it called forth, from the Lower Forty-Eight and beyond, boatloads of would-be worshipers armed with cameras and sketchbooks, eager to take home some epiphanic fragment of the wilderness.

As Wordsworth’s Lake District was populated with figures of antique rustic wisdom—toothless shepherds, leech gatherers, idiot boys—Muir’s Inside Passage was full of noble red men in canoes, invariably described as “venerable,” “serene,” or possessed of “grave dignity.” When these Indians talked, via interpreters, they speechified, in ornate Victorian English, with sonorous periods and overextended similes drawn from the natural world. The John Muir Indian was a lineal descendant of the Fenimore Cooper Indian:

I am an old man, but I am glad to listen to those strange things you tell, and they may well be true, for what is more wonderful than the flight of birds in the air? I remember the first white man I ever saw. Since that long-ago time I have seen many, but never until now have I ever truly known and felt a white man’s heart…. It has always seemed to me while trying to speak to traders and those seeking gold-mines that it was like speaking to a person across a broad stream that was running fast over stones and making so loud a noise that scarce a single word could be heard. But now, for the first time, the Indian and the white man are on the same side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart….

It was John Muir Indians whom Edward S. Curtis, the Seattle-based photographer, pictured in the five volumes he devoted to the Inside Passage in his epic series, The North American Indian. His posed sepia studies, with every trace of the modern artfully banished from the frame, exult in the romance of the primitive. Most of Curtis’s photos were taken between 1900 and 1916; he traveled, by railroad and steamship, through a world dominated by the mission school, the cannery, the timber mill, the Model-T, the phonograph—though you’d never guess that from his pictures, which show the Indians living in a state of primeval dignity and simplicity, their misty landscapes miraculously untouched by the logging crew and their traction engines.

Muir and Curtis between them manufactured the essential images needed by the twentieth-century tourist industry. By the time I arrived in the Northwest, fleets of white cruise ships were on regular patrol up and down the Inside Passage, and the sea had become a medium through which passengers could scan what Muir called “the glorious pages of Nature’s Bible.” As a copywriter for a cruise line put it:

You cruise this enchanted waterway, and each vista surpasses the one before. Your ship threads her sure course past forests, islands and inlets, surrounded by silence. You glimpse a deep fiord penetrating the wilderness. To the east the sun glints on snowcapped peaks. An incredible voyage.

Watch, awestruck, as a pinnacle of ice cracks off the glacial cliff and crashes into the sea…. Harbor seals sun on an iceberg. Mountain goats are spied, high on the cliff. You might see a humpback whale breaching, a school of leaping orcas. Maybe a black bear scavenging along the shore….

To the irritation of all the tugboat captains, gillnetters, and trollers who worked these constricted channels, the nature-loving cruise ships were joined by nature-loving kayaks, motor cruisers, and sailboats like mine—“yachts and crap,” in the gloomily derisive phrase of the captain of a log-tow on which I once spent a slow-moving week.

We all carried Muir, of course, along with a rack of yachtsmen’s guides—books with a distinctive late-Romantic rhetoric of their own. The guides competed with one another to describe anchorages so remote, so eccentric, their entrances so tide-encumbered and rock-strewn, that anyone brave enough to reach them was guaranteed absolute solitude. They harped, in beguiling technical detail, on close encounters with tide-races and whirlpools. They made much of the few stretches of open ocean—their thirty-foot swells, sud-den gales, treacherous tidal sets, and proven shipwrecking abilities. Dangers and difficulties were talked up as part of the voyage’s allure. The writers referred to their reader as “the mariner,” as in “The mariner will be well-advised to consult Egg Island lighthouse station on VHF Ch. 9….” Their Inside Passage, especially in its outer reaches, was a solitary self-reliant adventure in a watery wilderness still untouched by spoiling human hands.

When the boat was underway, my still-very-incomplete library took on a shuffling, drunken life of its own. The books slammed and swayed on the shelves, bulged against the restraining belts of shock-cord, and sometimes liberated themselves and took flight through the boat like so many heavyweight pigeons. After a rough passage, I’d find Edmund Leach, Evelyn Waugh, George Vancouver, Kwakiutl Art, Anthony Trollope, The 12-Volt Bible, Homer, and Oceanography and Seamanship in an unlikely tangle on the saloon floor, their pages gaping, their jackets half-off; Hannah Arendt in the sink with Myron Eells. I liked these chance couplings and collisions, and hoped that, on the long trip north, the entire library would be shaken, pitched, and rolled into a happy, interdisciplinary ragoût.

To put oneself afloat on a sea route as old and heavily traveled as the Inside Passage was to join the epic cavalcade of those, present and past, who’d found some kind of meaning in these waters. In an average day’s sailing, one might have to alter course to give way to a Holland-America Line cruise ship; a squad of family gillnetters; a research vessel full of scientists doing field work; the garbage scow, piled high with crushed cars, fridges, filing cabinets, on its regular fortnightly run between Juneau and Seattle. I always suffer from mild delusions when I’m alone for long at sea, and it would be no great surprise to find myself hauling the wheel to starboard to get clear of a survey-pinnace, under a yellowed lugsail, from the Vancouver expedition, or, skirting a fog-cliff, a red-and-black-painted Haida canoe, laden with Chilkat blankets, going south to trade.

In their versions of the sea, none of the people aboard these craft would agree on very much. The vacationing realtor from Omaha and Lieutenant Peter Puget could well find more to talk about than the ocean physicist, developing a theoretical model of how heat is exchanged between a breaking wave and the atmosphere, and his contemporary, the captain of the garbage scow. Each ship might as well be sailing a separate ocean. My conceit was that I could listen and talk about the sea to all these people, and somehow mediate between their rival images.

I had a boat, most of a spring and summer, a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle. Forget the herring and the salmon: I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul.

For my trip, I’d bought three ringbound sketchbooks to keep notes in, plus two ruled logs in which to record meteorological and marine details of the voyage. Sitting aboard the boat, at its mooring on the Ship Canal, I wrote “Passage to Juneau 1” on the cover of a Grumbacher sketchbook, and copied onto the first page a passage from the last chapter of The Way of the Masks.

The myths thus put two codes in a relationship of correspondence: incest and the rejection of or dissatisfaction with procreation, kinds of antisocial behavior, have their equivalent in the natural order where extreme modalities of turbulence and immobility can also be observed.

Lévi-Strauss’s French is notoriously difficult to translate, and this particular translation made him sound even more impenetrable and cranky than usual. But the essence of his argument rang clearly through the mechanical translatorese. Writing of the many stories about whirlpools and their way of sucking human beings into the maelstrom, Lévi-Strauss recognized that this kind of turbulence was intimately linked to turmoil in society and the family.

The water on which the Northwest Indians lived their daily lives was full of danger and disorder; seething white through rocky passes, liable to turn steep and violent at the first hint of a contrary wind, plagued with fierce and deceptive currents. The whirlpool—capable of ingesting a whole cedar tree, then spitting it out again like a cherry pit—was the central symbol of the sea at large, and all its terrors.

Upwellings, swirls, overfalls…one moment of inattention would lead to capsize. Living like this provided the Indians with a natural model for social conduct. The tribe was a fragile canoe, and one had to be on perpetual guard against anything that might upset it. Disruptive human behavior, such as sleeping with your sister or killing your brother, was like fooling with a whirlpool; it jeopardized tribal stability. The ship-of-state metaphor applied with peculiar literalness to the culture of the Northwest Indians, for whom the imperiled canoe was both a daily fact and, in their myths and stories, a figurative means of defining their society. The great protective web of customs, rules, and rituals the coastal Indians spun around themselves was a navigational system, designed to keep the canoe of the family and village from drifting over the lip of the maelstrom.

I made some notes along these lines, blew out the oil lamps, locked the boat, and walked up to the house to cook dinner for my wife and daughter.

Copyright å© Jonathan Raban 1999

This Issue

November 18, 1999