They say first impressions are the most important, at least they tend to stick with you. Our first impressions with nature are no different. The intensity and sheer wonder linger on long after the moment has passed. That is why each month we feature a first impression, that initial moment of realization of the power and magic of a leaf on the ground, a cloud in the sky, or butterfly flapping its wings for the first time.
If you have a first impression you would like to share please send text and any photos you would like included to firstname.lastname@example.org and make sure to write First Impressions in the subject line.
Most of my first experiences with nature probably started in the garden, but that's not the story I am going to tell here. Although I spent many memorable rainy afternoons (I am from the Northwest) in the garden the first time I felt the undeniable awesomeness of nature was nowhere near the dirt. From the time I was 8 or so my summers were spent sailing with my father and brother. We would cruise the San Juan Islands to the north of our home on Bainbridge Island. Our 30 foot sail boat named Amicus (meaning "friend") was a sea worthy vessel with just enough room for my dad, my brother and myself. To an eight year old it felt roomy enough however my father later reviled to us that he didn't even have room enough to stand half way up!
To reach the San Juan Islands takes roughly two days of steady sailing from Bainbridge Island. By the end of the first day we would reach Port Townsend and slip safely into birth for the night at Point Hudson. The next day always required an early morning so my brother and I would clamber into bed as soon as we were finished with dinner and the boat chores. Just before falling asleep Dad would click on the weather channel and pull out the tide chart. The next days travel would begin with the crossing of the Straits of the Juan de Fuca. This was the only potentially challenging section of water on our adventure North and the weather/tide would predict our fate the following day. Rough seas and a flooding tide would mean nausea and and a drawn out crossing, early morning fog and an ebbing tide would mean a quick painless crossing. The weather prediction this particular evening did not sound promising (heavy winds might make for rough seas) but the tides would be in our favor as long as we left port by 6 AM. My brother and I rolled over as Dad clicked off the radio and lights and we tired to fall asleep as quickly as possible so that we could wake up to help my dad before leaving port.
I blame it on being a growing boy, but whatever the reason it seemed no matter how hard my brother and I tried we would never wake up until we were well under way. Around 8AM my brother and I finally woke to the steady pounding of the boats diesel engine. This was good news if we were under power that meant the winds were too light to make decent head way under sail. We sprinted up the ladder to the deck to find Dad at the helm, he informed us that the winds were still meant to pick up, but wouldn't be heavy enough by the time we made it to the islands to make for rough seas. I was a happy camper since my job on the boat was to chart our course and trying to chart a course in rough waters is never fun. At about 10 AM the fog had lifted and revealed a perfect day on the water, the wind speed had increased as predicted so we cut the engine and set about raising the main sail.
It wasn't more than 30 minutes later that I spotted it. The calm seas make it much easier to look for large collections of kelp, drift wood and crab pots (just to name a few objects the helmsman must always be on the lookout for). Given that I was 8, steering the boat seemed like an extremely important task so naturally I had my eyes glued forward constantly searching for anything suspicious. Maybe 500 meters off the port bow I spotted a break in the water, the wind was much too light to be causing white caps, I thought and before I could even finish the sentence in my head I spotted what looked like the telescope of a submarine break the surface of the water and rise skyward before slowly slipping back into the dark waters. "Whales!!!", I screamed. My Dad rushed to the bow squinting his eyes as the sun reflected intensely off the water. "I can't see it" he yelled back, "but point her in the direction and we'll see if we can get closer". I watched the compass by the helm swivel as I adjusted our heading about 20 degrees to the port side. The heading changed forced us to let the sails out a bit, I adjusted quickly my eyes never straying from where I spotted the whale. As we made our way closer I could see more and more unmistakable dorsal fins breaking through the water's surface. My eyes got wider and wider as my brother sprinted to the bow of the boat to get a closer look. I passed off the tiller to my Dad and joined my brother on the bow.
The beauty of having a sail boat is that you can get as close to the whale pod as you want without endangering them. Motorboats have the advantage of being quicker but because of their props they have to keep there distance. As we approached the Orca whales (we were now close enough to identify them) they started to take notice of our red hull. The whales seem to like boats as they changed course slightly to run along side us and across our bow. My eyes must have been as big as saucers, I reached out my little fingers only inches from the 4.5 foot tall dorsal fin of the alpha male of the group. Their giant sleek black bodies were hard to see under the gray water but their white spots radiated brightly allowing us to follow them as they crossed under the hull. I was so taken aback by the magnificence of them I can barely explain the experience even today. They were so enormous but managed to move so gracefully through the freezing water, I felt so connected and close to the giant creatures.
That night huddled around cups of hot chocolate my brother and I kept recounting the events of the day. What luck we had, a giant pod of Orca whales right there in the Straits just for us to see. Needless to say we felt pretty special. To this day the experience is a constant reminder to me that not only are we inside the universe, but the universe is inside us.
Thank you Kiel for sharing such a wonderful adventure with us!
*Last time in Nature: Flight of the Bumblebee