Totem

Whale

My brain has gone quiet lately. I haven’t written in weeks. Usually, my head is a landscape of questing, goal-setting, gratitude, frustrations, and rushing thoughts. I divide my time between clients, kids, boyfriend, friends, and self. But lately, it’s all been quieter. I’m just living for moments instead of all the rest.

Today, I stood on the top of a boat and watched the circle of life. I saw northern humpback whales spout water out of their blowholes, the water turning into a little geyser stream of vapor due to the speed of the rushing water. Displaying their humps and then their tails, the whales took great gulps of air as they deep-dived beneath the surface, giving off little echoing sounds that stunned the fish around them. As those fish bobbed to the surface, soaring gulls rushed down to grab them. The whales would disappear for five to ten minutes before coming up for another blow, another gulp, another flip of the tail, and down they went again.

The tour guide explained that the sun and glacier water at this time of year enrich the populations of phytoplankton, then plankton in the water, creating breeding grounds for several species of fish. Enormous schools of salmon, trout, and others return to Alaska to feed in the cold waters, leading the whales to return to feed on them. These particular whales spend a lot of their time in Hawaii, to bear their young. The males race, frolic, wrestle, and sing to get the attention of the females, who carry their calves for a year before giving birth to an infant that weighs a ton.

We saw the brown heads of sea lions poking their heads out of the water, fighting for a place on a small buoy in the distance, hoping to get warm. The males in this species can reach a ton, she says. I hear one of them growl. I check my phone and discover a group of sea lions is called a raft, a group of seals is called a harem. Whales are in pods, crows in murders, ravens in unkindnesses, porcupines in prickles, weasels in confusions, swallows in flights, and eagles in convocations. These seemingly random, sometimes bizarrely clever, names for the groupings of animals swim around my mind, fighting for attention, bringing a half smile to my lips.

As she spoke, I could see sloping mountains, the blue edges of Mendenhall Glacier, skimming Surf Scooters and soaring Bald and Golden Eagles and obnoxious Crows and impatient Sea Gulls all watching for the fish. She described how one island, 1600 square miles, had a vast population of bears on it, nearly one per square mile, while the other across the bay had no bears, because the salmon streams were only close to one, thus humans lived on the other. Helicopters and seaplanes soared overhead, and on the distant highway cars buzzed by, while thousands disembarked from their cruise ships to explore the isolated city.

I’ve only been in Juneau a little over a day, and I’m already realizing how this city is always here, going on with these throngs of people and animals. It’s only different now because I’m in it, here to feel the air and hear the sounds. The sun rose at 4 this morning, and it didn’t set until 11 pm the night before, and the lesser amount of light is messing with my head. I feel ethereal, and I think of how impossible it would feel to be here in the winter, when the light lasted mere hours while the darkness stretched on endlessly. Would I only want to sleep too much, as now I wanted to be awake too much?

I pull my scarf from my bag and wrap it around my neck, then wrap my arms around myself. The ocean air blows against me, around me, as the boat lurches up and down on the wake of other boats. “It’s an Alaskan roller coaster!” our guide shouts, and I laugh, wondering again if she is a lesbian. If she is, I’m somehow more fond of her, and I realize that fact is strange. She seems to love her job, and I realize how rare that is.

The boat is called the Awesome Orca, and on the wall is a long row of certifications and safety protocols. One for safety trainings, life jackets, rafts, signal flares, and fire extinguishers, another for the proper protocol in approaching humpack whales in the wild. This is her job, I realize, looking for whales every day. And it is someone else’s job to make sure she does it right. I ask a question, and she says she can recognize some of the whales by the patterns on their tails, and that astounds me almost more than anything else. She has names for them, she says.

We see six separate whale tails in a row, the entire pod presenting for us as they throw themselves down for more food, yet the thought in my head is “Chad, why haven’t you been writing lately?” My brain is tired, I think. I need sleep. I recount recent domestic distresses at home, how my kids were with me for two weeks straight, the crises I’m managing for my clients consistently, and my failure to meet my nutrition goals and how I keep making excuses. I think of the things that bother me, that stay on my mind week after week, and I wonder how to sort them out again. I wonder about writing, and where this is all leading. I wonder about better ways to be successful. I think of the totem poles looming over my bed in the room I’m staying in, and how I could only see the edge of a glacier that extends for hundreds of miles, and how the entire world used to be covered in ice. I think of how Alaska is bigger than California, Texas, and Montana combined, but they make it look so much smaller on the map. I think of how the ocean, despite its vastness, smells like gasoline from all of the boats and flying crafts.

And I think of how I’m standing here, and how no one else is sure I’m here at all.

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