This magnificent land of the salmon, bear and orca whale - this mist-shrouded, rain-sodden topography of British Columbia -- does not reveal herself easily.
Our flight from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska begins in pouring rain. Aside from expediency, the whole point of flying is to see the mountains, the snow fields, the glaciers turning into roaring rivers flowing to the sea.
Today, I see nothing. Yet I know that below me this coastline breaks into fractals of fractals of fractals of islands, channels, inlets, and fjords. From Ketchikan, our goal is to journey south to Prince Rupert, then to poke into such nooks and crannies. Then we'll push past tidal whitewaters and climb past waterfalls. We will be like the salmon coming up rivers from the sea.
Beneath us, the cobalt Coastal Range emerges from a ghostly fog. Up vertiginous slopes, snakes of rising mists reveal and conceal giant trees, the last virgin old growth temperate rainforest on earth. The health of the atmosphere, of the clear-running rivers, and of the ocean depends on the forest. Viable populations of salmon, sea mammals, land mammals, and birds depend on it. We human beings depend on it.
In Ketchikan's airport, our team of five off loads twenty huge duffle and pelican cases of camera equipment, computers, satellite phones, diving gear, audio recording equipment, a complete library, and a little bit of clothing. Our total weight approaches one thousand pounds.
Me, the writer - I carry a pen.
At the dock, Natalie, Toby and I tramp to the boat, Explorer, through water that gushes out of a fishing vessel over our shoes. A bearded man in his early fifties thrusts out an energetic hand toward Toby.
"I'm Richard Friedman, your captain. Come aboard." Richard is easy-going and anxious to share his boat and knowledge with us.
My bedroom, the forward cabin up on deck, is huge and beautiful. Just as I begin to feel guilty, Toby announces, "Oh, great, this is the equipment storage room!" I imagine seventy pound camera cases cascading to the bed where only two hands and feet protrude. Russell and Franklin arrive and we all schlep Pelican cases and duffels down the slick ramp.
Beyond a compact galley is the ladder down to the two lowest level, double bunk rooms -- where my teammates will share a bathroom - and the captain's living quarters. On the bridge, in contrast with the ancient wooden navigational tools and the wheel and brass gauges, a high-tech sea of computer screens glows in vivid colors: charts, depth finder, radar, and a large, digital image of Richard's wife, Nancy.
Explorer's upper deck provides a jungle gym of freshly painted white deck and cabins, railings, outriggers, and crow's nest where our photographers can fulfill their chimpanzee longings for perspective. I admire the dense Iroko wood, hand-pegged deck, and Cami Cash -- first mate, steward, server, ship comedian, and maintainer of paint, oil, screw and glue -- glows with pride.
Our home for two weeks, Explorer is a big-shouldered, hard-working, Norwegian trawler with a hull of oak and a heart of gold.
The next morning, in rain, we pull away from the dock at 6:15. Bob Breckinridge, an imaginative and excellent cook, serves us a large farm breakfast. Soon monster swells are rolling us from the starboard. Russell goes below for a much needed sleep. We landlubbers try not to look pale; Franklin, a former merchant marine, quaffs down a ham and cheese sandwich loaded with mustard. Attempting to lie down in the forward cabin is a big mistake; I, who never gets seasick, suffer.
Chills run up my arms. We are in the presence of a creature who has been here eons before us and whose life is obscured by water. He is of a transient pod, judging by the sharp-angled dorsal, and his solitary travel is highly unusual. Orcas do not leave their mother's pod for life. A solitary orca is far less likely to capture prey.
What does this solo whale portend?
"Listen to the wood. It tells you which way to carve."
Tsimshian artist Henry Kelly is speaking with us in his basement studio, a small, dark, unfinished room. On a five-by-two-foot workbench, Henry holds up the relief wall sculpture that Richard has commissioned.
"Was it hard to work in the killer whale, the bear, and the salmon that I wanted?" asked Richard. "Oh, yes. I re-drew it several times. Here on top I put the killer whale, his dorsal fin sticking way up, just like you see it in the water. His pectoral fin flows into the bear, which is eating the salmon's head like they do."
Henry massages the glowing yellow cedar carving with oil, then continues, "I put this man along the top of the whale where his mouth becomes the blow hole. I put the man in, too, even though you did not ask. You see the man eats salmon, too, just like the whale and the bear. We all depend on the salmon. My people used to eat salmon five times a week. Salmon is life."
We return to our ship and depart for deep wilderness. We have our talisman of the species we seek. I hope that we might have the right hearts for finding them.