As soon as we paddle out from the shelter of Klag Bay, deep in the isolated heart of the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness, I know my Forest Service field partner and I have made a possibly dangerous mistake. Despite the relatively benign weather forecast, suddenly we are fighting a confused sea. Twelve-foot waves, steel gray, are rolling in from the open ocean, unimpeded in their journey from Japan. Towering over our heads, they toss our kayaks like driftwood as we plow forward toward the sanctuary of the Baird Islands, hulking shadows three miles to the south. The steady rain needles its way through my jacket. A soft bed and hot shower, five days away, seem impossibly distant.
Paddling next to me, Natalie vanishes in the wide-bottomed troughs and re-appears high above on the crests of the waves. A pair of sea lions chase after her, fascinated by her yellow boat. We glance over at a possible takeout, a small indentation in Slocum Arm, but going in is impossible: huge rollers pound the cliffs. Turning around, returning to Klag, could flip the boats. I wave my hand toward the Bairds and she nods in agreement, studying her chart. There is no other choice but to continue on.
A fifty-foot yacht steams by on our starboard, pale faces pressed against the foggy windows. Camera flashes illuminate the ship’s cabin. I can’t make out their expressions, but I can imagine what they are thinking. I have seen it before when we have approached out of the mist to make our visitor contacts. Fifty miles from Sitka, we are two women in kayaks. Where did we come from, and where are we going?
I became a kayak ranger at forty. I moved to Alaska on a whim, taking a big cut in pay and responsibility because I thought my life lacked adventure. My desk-bound co-workers shook their heads as I packed up my belongings. "Career suicide," they whispered.Maybe they were right. But the first time I slipped inside a kayak I felt my senses come alive. Here, floating on the ocean's back, I was in charge of my life in a way I had never been. All the things that made me afraid--bears, capsizing, rip tides--also made my skin tingle and my heart beat faster. My hair frizzed and my hands grew calloused. I remembered this feeling from the distant past of my twenties as a wilderness ranger in the Idaho mountains. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then: a marriage, a divorce, seasons come and gone in different towns. Before becoming a kayak ranger, I felt myself becoming old too soon, resigned to a slow slide towards retirement at a computer desk.
The water calms to a ripple inside the protection of the Baird Islands. Despite the rain, we pause for a moment to take in our surroundings. Moon jellies, transparent and ethereal, undulate under our boats. Fat purple sea stars waddle slowly with the tide. We inhale an intoxicating mix of salt water, fish and kelp. Surf worries the other side of the island in a timeless push and pull of water on rock.As night falls, Natalie and I sit under our tarp. Under the big trees it hardly rains. We have two more days out here before our pickup. I wish we could stay out here forever.