Wednesday After

13403970_1509050489121031_6107610005133950721_oI caught the most amazing wave today.

My arms and shoulders were still tired from handstand class, but the waves were peeling long. My friend Mike sent me a note that he was going to Higgins Beach, and in the aftermath I decided to join. I entered the water in full neoprene—hood, gloves and booties even—and hopped my way out as far as I could against the surge. At the last break of whitewater I started paddling. A few waves crested over me, crashed and pushed me under, but after a few surf sessions in recent weeks I’ve developed enough fitness that I got out.

But barely. These were big waves, and by the time I pulled beyond them my shoulders were spent, my arms slapping the water. I sat up, let the ocean roll beneath me. I’d done the hard part, made it past the breakers, and now was recovery. I sat for 7 or 8 minutes, bobbing.

Then I started chasing waves. They were big and loose, I kept missing their pull. They came with enough force, but I was far out and they lacked shape. I kept sitting up and looking for something to carry me.

Then it came. I’m not nearly the surfer as I am a climber, but this wave wanted to teach me. I felt it buck underneath me, steep and rowdy. I paddled to match, pulled with everything left in the marrow of my shoulders. And it took me. Suddenly I was sliding down its face. I hopped up, shooting forward in the gathering maelstrom, turned and grabbed the wave’s shoulder, its crest roaring and tumbling white at my back. I felt it catching up, saw churning in my periphery, but I augured deep, carved into her flesh as the wave rolled forward. I was on the brink, just a step ahead of the tumbling, in the pocket, my board carving a dividing line between blue face and crashing white. I’d landed here before, but never on anything nearly so big—it was taller than me, snarling like a wolf at my feet. But my fingers were in its mane, and I held fast.

I don’t know how long it lasted—like those infrequent moments where I hold a handstand it felt like forever, but it was seconds, 20 or 25 maybe, or maybe only 10. I rode the flashing teeth, danced in their spray, felt the board rock and toss, dragged my fingers against the ocean’s lips. She seemed to rise to meet me, to push me with an angry kiss. I shot forward, ahead of the white and onto a less turbulent elbow. I bounced down these final tendrils to the foam of the beach, where I jumped, leaving the beast to the rodeo clowns.

It was incredible, perfect. It still feels like someone else’s memory.

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From the Backseat: Oceans Apart

14188296_1606188992740513_8342364284182226130_oI used to think the North Atlantic was mean. All the stories of shipwrecks and European sailors tossed around in icy waters. Growing up I watched winter waves pommel the shore, saw fog swallow roads, houses and fields, watched hurricane swells grab a 40-foot lobster boat and toss it like a seashell. The sea was raw power, the North Atlantic menacing.

Then last fall I visited the Pacific. I wanted to see the Olympic Mountains, to soak in hot springs, wander rainforests and paddle the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Out West, cities face inward. They sit on water but don’t risk open ocean: San Francisco has the Bay, Seattle the Sound, Portland the Columbia River but north of sunny Southern California few outposts brave the sea. And so the Pacific is forgotten. Those placid and welcoming bays and bodies come to represent western water. The ocean lies eclipsed.

But four hours west of Seattle it sits guarding America’s edge: water dark as arterial blood rolling and falling onto itself like a wounded animal, roiled, frantic, ferocious. Unpredictable. Great trees tumble among a constant roar. Seafoam stretches for miles. Wind dashes the shore with tendrils of saltwater, everything glistening and cold. Drizzle falls from a sky only a shade lighter than the water. More trees sit half-buried in sand, ripped from the shore by past assaults, now imprisoned.

This is no Puget Sound, no tranquil shoreline. Here the full force of 5,000 unbroken miles slams unceasingly without stories or reputation to precede it, just a quiet pounding of the American West. Uprooted trees the size of small buildings swing like toys in a perpetual grey of clouds, drizzle and churning. The Pacific marks an endpoint, and there is no mistaking its edges. America closes and it takes over. No abbreviations.

New England is different. The East Coast is warmer, more gentle, dotted by islands and inlets that break up a full assault. Any water runs only a short distance before intersecting land. Only hurricanes carry the intensity of the everyday Pacific.

But home carries its own mysteries.

I arrived in early evening. The ocean stood calm, a mirror of lobster buoys and boat masts. Fog sat heavy, the coastline waning in either direction, an easy day to get lost. I parked at the boat ramp and pulled a paddleboard from the roof. An oversized surfboard mostly meant for lakes and ponds, on the ocean it feels like a thimble. But there is magic in braving something so vast atop something so small. A seagull screeched from the rocks. Cormorants dotted the nearby mooring balls, their wings outstretched like goblins. Everything stood suffocating white. I buckled my life jacket, slid the board into the water and cast off.

Under my feet the mirror shook. Strands of seaweed buoyed by air sacs stretched towards the surface. A loon called inside the mist. The blanket muffled a bell buoy and held shorelines distant. I coursed around a small island at the periphery of the bay, a line of rock mostly buried by the tide. Huddled pines climbed above a highwater mark so low winter storms must sweep the whole of it. But the only moisture touching the pines today was fog.

I paddled to the island’s beach—sand and stone dotted by shells and seaglass—and pulled ashore. White-grey peeled its way across the water, but for a moment the sun broke through. Trees opposite peeked green. From my perch I watched the Atlantic’s shifting mood, an ocean in utter calm.

Our constant neighbor, moody but not malicious. Our porch and guest space for welcoming in the wild. Angry? Mean? Barely. So much more gentle than the Pacific, she allows us to sit on her islands, lets us look into her reflection.

The clouds descended with resurgent fog. I looked back to the mainland’s faint outline, only silhouette now, and walked back to the sea. I slid my board into the mirror, the only ripples ours.


This piece appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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Shattered Glass Beach

Shattered Glass Beach

IMG_8192.JPGThe idea sounded cool when I read about it a month ago: a beach made of sea glass, stones replaced with ground shards of white, green and brown. Rare specks of blue and rose radiating in the sun, waves lapping the shore, giving the glass below the waterline an even more powerful sense of iridescence. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California. I wanted to see it.

I left Oakland on Saturday, the end of a month sleeping in beds (none of them mine and in four different states, but still). I had two weeks to get up the Pacific Coast to Seattle, where I’ll fly south at the end of the month to Belize. The Plan: surf, climb, paint, read, write and flyfish my way through Northern California, Oregon and Washington before my flight. See beautiful things, beautiful places. Maybe fall in love with one of them and decide to live there forever. You know, the usual roadtrip stuff.

I crossed the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, aimed for Point Reyes National Seashore, where two lanes snake across highlands, surrounded by ocean on all sides. It juts into the Pacific, America’s left-coast thumb. Stiff breezes rake over grasslands and grazing cows, an unceasing roar from the north. Sand beaches stretch for miles, some lined by dunes, others by cliffs. Elephant seals bask in the sun. Seabirds glide on endless thermals overhead.

13497627_1521654587860621_4683670894975756410_oI drove to North Beach and watched waves pound the shore. It was a desolate place. I wanted to stay, to take in the starkness. The sun had warmth, but not enough to fight the wind. I pulled on my jacket, wandered down to the lighthouse at the point, then over the peninsula to a protected harbor. All of it wild, lonely and exposed.

I spent the night in a boat launch parking lot. Coyotes yipped in the dark; the wind carried their calls. I read by headlamp until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I went to sleep still wearing my jacket.

The next morning I work up and drove the beach. The wind had died, the ocean was calmer, more orderly, but breaking against the sand. It would not be a surfing day.

Or so I thought. I got back to my car and saw a slip of white under the wiper. “Live Free or Die. 🙂 🙂 :-)” it said. It was a note scrawled in pen on the back of a paper receipt. “I moved here 21 years ago from North Hampton. No more ice cream headache! Come over to Drake’s Estero, wind will be offshore. Enjoy! Tony Szabo”

Surfing beta. The board strapped to the roof had given Tony the message I might need some direction about conditions. He was right. The estuary—I’d seen signs for it.  I climbed back into the Element and headed that way.

I came to Drake’s Beach and watched lazy rolling waves cut towards shore. The swell came north, the wind pushed its way south; a perfect combination. Small, but enough. I grabbed my board and wetsuit and headed for the water.

I’m not much of a surfer, the Pacific is a different animal than the North Atlantic, but it was fun, friendly but cold. After an hour I climbed out shivering, my hands numb. I fumbled my way out of my wetsuit, changed and headed north again.

Dinner, a podcast and a map later I knew I had 100 miles to go Glass Beach. I would be there by the morning.

IMG_8191.JPGThe morning was cloudy when I pulled into Fort Bragg, the ocean calm. I turned left of Highway 1 and parked, following signs to Glass Beach. “Please leave all cultural artifacts,” a note said. I descended cabled stairs to the shore.

And there it was—a beach of mostly seaglass. People were everywhere picking their favorite pieces, dropping them in bags, digging through the glass, mostly white, green and brown, the blues and reds long ago picked out.

This beach is a former dump. Until 1959 residents tossed all manner of trash off the cliff, and over the decades the ocean transformed much of it. Now it’s a park.

But a park with a past. Dig through the glass for a bit and your hands turn dark, grimy. The ocean did what it could to wash this beach clean, but even a half century of rinsing cannot rub the trash truly clean. Instead of a glow, the beach is a dull hue, still has the feel of a refuse heap. Down at the waterline it’s better, with the ocean actively rinsing, but even there bits of metal and old springs show through. The garbage dump is still home to garbage.

A few miles in either direction are more beaches, endless beaches. They are without glass, but they are also without the grime. The waves lap and coat them with salt, nothing more. These stretch in either direction, south to Mexico, north to Canada, broken by more cliffbands than roads. I went looking for the glass, for the one expired trash dump on 3,000 miles of beautiful coast. Thank goodness I made some stops along the way. I will be making many more.

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400

400

Icy landscape, View Point, Weddell Sea, AntarcticaIt’s happened: Antarctica has hit 400.

If 300 was a movie about the destructive capacity of a small band of humans, 400 is the same thing only on a much larger scale.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week that on May 23 carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole surpassed 400 parts per million (PPM) at the South Pole for the first time in 4 million years, a marker NOAA called “another unfortunate milestone.”

The South Pole has shown the same relentless upward trend in carbon dioxide (CO2) as the rest of world, NOAA said in a statement released on their website, but its remote location meant it was late to register the impacts of fossil fuel consumption, the primary driver of greenhouse gas pollution.

“The far southern hemisphere was the last place on earth where CO2 had not yet reached this mark,” Pieter Tans, NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network lead scientist, said in the statement. “Global CO2 levels will not return to values below 400 PPM in our lifetimes, and almost certainly for much longer.”

400 PPM “should be a psychological tripwire for everyone,” according to NASA Michael Gunson. “Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 PPM and much higher levels. These were the targets for ‘stabilization’ suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down.”

CO2 levels rise during the Northern Hemisphere’s fall and winter and decline during the summer as terrestrial plants consume CO2 during photosynthesis. It’s an AMAZING process, one you can watch on this video from NASA:

 

But plants only a fraction of emissions. For every year since observations began in 1958 there has been more CO2 in the atmosphere than the year before, according to NOAA. Last year’s global CO2 average reached 399 PPM, meaning that the global average in 2016 will almost certainly surpass 400 PPM.

The question NOAA scientists are now asking is whether even the lowest month of 2016 will have CO2 readings over 400 PPM.

Also concerning, the rate of increase appears to be accelerating. The annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii jumped 3.05 ppm during 2015, according to NOAA’s statement, the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years of monitoring. Last year was the fourth consecutive year that CO2 grew more than 2 ppm – which set another record. This year promises to be the fifth.

Part of last year’s jump was attributable to El Nino, the statement said, referring to the cyclical Pacific Ocean warming that produces extreme weather across the globe and causing terrestrial ecosystems to lose stored CO2 through wildfire, drought and heat waves.

“We know from abundant and solid evidence that the CO2 increase is caused entirely by human activities,” Tans said. “Since emissions from fossil fuel burning have been at a record high during the last several years, the rate of CO2 increase has also been at a record high. And we know some of it will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.”

So there’s that…

Gulfside Fire, Light and Life

Gulfside Fire, Light and Life

IMG_8066We pulled in after dark. A burning orange sun had plunged into the Gulf, streaking clouds red and purple and gold, and now the sky was a cool bluish-black. The night was warm and wet as lion’s breath. A stiff wind blew palm fronds skyward. Waves slapped the jetty. Our houseboat, Lil’ Bamboo, sat rocking at the pier.

“It’s perfect!” Sineah said. “I call the hammock.” Bethany laughed. We all went inside.

The ceiling hung low but the cabin was spacious, with three beds, a small kitchen, a bathroom and good air conditioning. One bed sat tucked under the helm. “I feel like Harry Potter,” Bethany said crawling in. Another hung in the back; I took that. Sineah claimed the third, a deep bench couch that served double duty. Our host showed herself out, but not before pointing to the roof deck: “Best sunsets in the Keys,” she said.

The three of us made our way topside without a word. Waves licked the hull 10 feet below, pushed tall by the breeze. We sat quietly, a bamboo awning overhead surrounded by miles of Gulf sky. Sineah was right: it was perfect.

The next morning the stiff wind held. I called a dive company to ask about going to the reef. “Anyone who takes you snorkeling today is just stealing your money,” the man said. “It’s three-to-four foot seas, far too rough for snorkelers. Tomorrow will be better.”

I hung up the phone and looked outside. Even here on the Gulfside there were whitecaps, I could imagine what things would look like offshore. But I was here to dive. The whitecaps outside didn’t look imposing, mild chop, so I grabbed my fins and mask. “I’m going in,” I said.

“I’m going with you,” Sineah replied.

Sometimes wildness seems far away. Sometimes it lives at your doorstep.

I waded into the water, fins tucked under my arm. The bottom was sandy, but soon it turned to seagrass filled with upside-down jellyfish. I would need to lift my feet and be swimming before I got to the grass, even in water barely waist-deep. I spit in my mask and rubbed it around the lenses, then pulled the mask over my head and put the snorkel in my mouth. Sinking into the water I pulled the fins on and set out. Sineah followed close behind wearing goggles.

We swam. 40 feet from Lil’ Bamboo was barely eight feet of water. The seagrass swayed everywhere, festered with bottom-dwelling jellies. Parrotfish jetted about. We dove and resurfaced, dove and resurfaced, exploring the world beneath the waves. Anemones hung from pilings and drowned mooring buoys, two-foot barracudas lurked nearby. Even here there was much to see. I held my breath and dove, clearing my ears as I sank, awash and floating in Caribbean warmth.

That’s when it came: dark, the size of a small grizzly floating just beneath the surface—a manatee, mere feet away. His face looked like a bulldog, nose pressed too close to his eyes. He flaunted a disk the size of a large pizza for a tail. It swayed up and down like a tremendous wave propeller. His body, both fat and sleek, glided. I saw him first, but Sineah was right at my side. I let out a shout through the snorkel, a twisted version of “OH MY GOD!” His head hovered a few inches from the surface as he drifted past, an underwater ghost. Nothing so ungainly ever looked so graceful.

I did not follow him. He moved peacefully, and I didn’t want to disturb him. He disappeared into the inky distance. In his wake the water seemed quieter.

“If you want to see wildlife, it is on foot, and quietly, that you must explore a forest. It is the same with the sea. You must stroll at a walking pace, so to speak, to see the wealth and abundance that it holds.”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Sineah and I kept swimming, kept poking around for more, waiting for another encounter with such a majestic sea mammal. But the show was over. We worked our way back to the beach. Climbing out I pulled my fins off.

“What time do you think it is?” I asked, spitting out my snorkel.

“I don’t know,” she said, “maybe 9 a.m.?”

Morning of day one. Welcome to the Keys. ⛵️

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

IMG_7875The ocean hides amazing things.

I grew up on the ocean. As a kid I spent my summers playing among schist outcroppings and granite boulders on the coast of Maine, hopping from rock to rock and splashing in tidepools.

In middle school, however, my relationship with the ocean changed: I got my lobster license, a dingy and a handful of traps. A 10-year-old kid, my working days began early, often before sunrise. I would row around, hand-hauling traps off the stern, collecting lobsters, rebaiting as I went.

It sounds idyllic—summer sunrises over a glass-calm ocean—but to middle-school-me it was not. It was hard work, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember finding out I’d brought in several lobsters that were just under the legal limit; I didn’t understand at 10 that “close” didn’t count in measuring shellfish. No one had gone over it with me step by step. I had a boat. I had traps. But when it came to the details, I was on my own.

Everybody has to muddle their way through youth somewhere. Much of mine was done on a lobster boat. The fish oil would permeate my skin, causing my hands to swell then the skin to die, peeling off in long strips. Back at school each fall I would have to explain why my hands were shedding. I spent off days working sternman (think “lobsterman assistant”) for a friend of my stepfather’s. His name was Earl. He was older, groaned every time he had to sit or stand, but he was kind, loved to tell jokes.

He also loved cheap cigars. And his black lab came fishing every day. I spent 1o hours a day filling baitbags with dead fish, breathing a combination of them, diesel fumes and cigar smoke. It was enough to put me off the ocean.

That was when I was 15. Almost 20 years later, after two decades spent among mountains, the call of waves came back to me. The space I needed from water was over.

Then last week I came across this:

 

I spent my youth at the ocean’s edge, whether that was at the shore or the surface. But of late I’ve been looking below. Or more accurately, within.

Today I fly south to spend more time within: the Florida Keys. I’m headed there for four days on the water, in the water, within the water. My blown eardrum is hopefully healed, and the third named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season is hopefully going to blow out to sea, leaving the water calm enough to enter. We’ll see.

But a dream of mine is a cyclone of another kind: the one of manta rays pictured in Peschak’s talk. That is a rekindling of the oceans draw that might leave me spinning, but this time I wouldn’t object.

Next trip. Or soon at least.