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On the Great Bear Sea

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Spring 2016


Here’s the basic idea: You must go out and be in it. Science demands this, and some souls respond. The captain, Eric Keen, always wants to know: What is out there? Why bother? There will always be a dark futility that presses in on the practice. Some feel called to beat it back, to light up a small corner of the unknown.

Here, in these flooded valleys, the tankers are coming. A shortcut from the tar sands in Alberta to markets in Asia. Profit pulls like gravity, puts machines in motion, sets the world to hurry. We now expect to see these singing creatures slung against the bows of tankers bound for China, their backs broken and songs drowned out by the sleepless howl of speeding engines.

“Imagine Yosemite,” Keen says. “Flood it with ocean. Now put an interstate highway through the middle, rafted over with tankers, knowing that inevitably one will break open and spread sludge into every cove.” It happens. The Valdez in Alaska; the Gulf gusher that wrecked Louisiana’s coast. Everybody’s fault, nobody’s fault.

We’re sailing among islands on a trade route. We’re learning what else is at stake. The First Nations people navigated here for centuries, trading berries, furs, and dried fish. The Tsimshian moved long cedar canoes nimbly over hidden rocks, strong currents, heavy winds. It took generations of practice; newcomers often have trouble navigating the fjords today. Things can go bad fast. This place can still break ships.

And soon the pipeline will be built; the machines have spoken. Disaster might just be a matter of time. Keen drinks his coffee; the steam fogs his glasses. What does he want to learn before it all changes again? His feet shift, the boat rolls beneath us. Think of some unmeasured secret ripe for its discoverer, an unknown thing that slows the rushing machine, one that gives your life a hook.



The captain is nervous. Or obsessed. Or nervous because he is obsessed. The storm won’t quit. The wind is merciless. Captain Keen is worried about the anchor: Will it hold? Will the boat smash, his friends on board drown? Will the data he’s been wresting forth—water temperatures, whale sightings, a quantified sea—be wiped out with the meaningless rhythm of tides? Would he, himself, lose his way? Or worse: accomplish something less than excellent, somehow less than doing nothing at all? He surfs through static on the radio, counts the waves. He makes another diligent note, hoping answers will spring to mind while he records their lack. For Keen—young, relentless, a student of science—aiming for distant perfection might itself be a kind of solace. The charts, the to-do lists, the acronyms, the plans to make plans. He is in constant pursuit. Some would see it as frazzled, stormy, hectic, the creeping suspicion that one is never good enough. Such concern inflates itself. His schemes grow in proportion, yet might always be broken. Chaos looms. Many men will fold beneath it. But for Keen, compulsion is a kind of anchor chain. There is the unmeasurable unknown, and the great striving after it. Moored with that burden, there is peace.



The boat lay quiet. Then a sudden blast behind us, a breath impossibly loud. One whale was very close. Mist drifted over the deck, then our feet dipped to port. She surfaced, blowhole whistling, a bugle that echoed across the fjord. One huge fin lifted up and crashed down. Now she was under the boat somewhere, still shouting, doing somersaults. Our senses end at the surface. We had to imagine. To us, she appeared gone. She burst up again, giant. Likely she didn’t intend to spray water onto the captain’s glasses, but how else to explain the way her tail came so close to the deck yet did not touch? How she moved with such restraint, how she held her body just there, enormous and precise. The whale could have crushed us, rammed us, broken this thin, floating shell and tipped our lives into the sea. And yet.

Her waves rocked the mast, the great pleats of her throat rolled over in the sun, near as a friend. No accident. The water bubbled and whitened, the way some people talk louder to foreigners. There was no reply but silent fiberglass, a faceless vessel full of who knows what, all of us looking hollow and blank. We could see her. We could hear her, smell her, feel her moving the ocean. If we could listen, she might have told us of her travels, or explained the art of the Earth’s currents. She may have telegraphed happiness. We couldn’t reply. The whale raised one fin. They have the same bones as in our own hands—proof of kinship. Her bright bubbles said farewell the way one does to a statue. “Good talk,” she might have smirked. We watched, uncomprehending.

These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.


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