Kayaking: Adrift In The Stars

“The clouds thinned and the stars came out, first Venus and then Orion. There had been a light on shore, but now it was gone? The Earth had vanished in darkness. The only proof of the planet was the ghostly froth of the near waves. George’s dragon prow pranced onward into a sea of stars.”From The Starship & the Canoe by Kenneth Brower

There are times when the kayak is a starship — kayaking in the winter, at night and in Alaska. These are the darkest of nights when you are inside the inkbottle — black sky, black water. Brisk nights, when the still air of late fall bites at your eyes, pecks at your exposed cheeks and transforms your breath into cloud-like wisps in the frozen air.

The boat harbor was strangely aglow from the lights of the canneries across the channel as I headed toward the black void beyond the breakwater. There had been a full moon several nights earlier, so I was hoping to get out beyond the near islands to enjoy a moonrise over the Pacific.

Here’s the moon over the rock stacks at Kodiak… a kayak can seem like a starship at night in Alaska.

The breakwater stretched out across the water as a long, dark shadow.

The opening between the two arms was a black hole, depthless — a passage into the darkness. I picked up my pace as I paddled toward it. I want to be surrounded by it.

The black void was neither. There was light embedded in this great darkness. Just past the glow of the dock lights, globs of photoluminescence started to roll out behind my paddle wash. The darkness below me was alive — with light. The sky, no longer veiled by the glow from the shoreline, showed its glimmering face. Blackness didn’t mask it; it revealed the darkness.

Before me stretched the North Pacific. To my left was a fetch of several hundred miles — the entire Gulf of Alaska. There was no moon yet. The sky and the water met somewhere up ahead. There was no horizon, no seam in the darkness. The stars in the heavens reflected upon the mirror-smooth ink of the ocean, each fleck of light above repeated, point for point, below.

I had long since turned all my running lights off. All around me were stars. They shone like diamonds spilled out upon black velvet. The bow of the kayak was a dark wedge cutting through this surreal galaxy. There was no sound — only the vacuum of space.

For several minutes I concentrated on the view before me. No land masses, no horizon, only darkness — living darkness. I was suspended on a plane between a heavenly and oceanic Milky Way. I glided along without sense of time or position. Suddenly there was a cluster of dark masses before me. Out of nowhere, a rocky reef loomed out of the darkness, exposed by the receding tide. The still water reflected the tip of each mound, creating the illusion of round stones, like renegade asteroids in my path. My starship glanced off one of the nearly submerged rocks — and glided silently past, unscathed.

Now the surface was broken by small, dark satellites — the bulbs of bull kelp. The water was shallow, not so black anymore. Scattered along the bottom were minute fragments of shells — white chips tossing back random bits of starlight.

As I began paddling again, streamers of yellow-green light rolled off my bow wake. My paddle blades, like steel striking against flint, generated tumbling sparks of liquid light.

I raked my gloved hand across the surface and scooped up a glowing glob. It drained through my fingers — liquid starlight pouring back into the watery galaxy below me. The photoluminescence glowed a deeper green as I approached an old wooden boat hull. As I sculled the water with my paddle, a glitter of luminescence trailed behind as though I had Tinkerbell’s wand in my hand.

I turned on my headlamp to explore the wreckage. Alongside the overturned, rotted hull of a wooden fishing boat sea anemones threw back the light from my headlamp. The water that had seemed like ink was suddenly clear. The beam of my lamp spotlighted blood sea stars sprawled out along the remains of the ship. The intensity of the light made everything outside its narrow beam vanishes, reducing the visual world to a single spear of light. I turned it back off.

The Milky Way was a broad ribbon of light directly overhead. It cut across the zenith and flowed from horizon to horizon. Jupiter was brighter than the running light on a fishing boat that had just popped out from around Cape Chiniak, 20 miles to the southwest.

No wonder ancient mariners could travel the oceans with ease. The stars above me sparkled with a map of twinkling reference points: Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper, the Pleiades. A faint, arching glow silhouetted an island and grew brighter beyond it. Was it the moonrise, or another fishing boat pulling itself back up over the horizon? There was still no moon, just the sweep of stars, sparkling photo-luminescence and the constellations circling overhead.

I reached the far end of the bay. Another 200 yards and I would paddle back into the lights of the waterfront. I rested the paddle across my cockpit and leaned back to get one last view of the heavens. High above, cutting across the line of the Milky Way, a brilliant, long-tailed meteorite blazed across the sky, a giant celestial exclamation point.

Rounding the northern tip of Near Island brought me back to the main channel. Rocks and branches glowed eerily from the light of security lamps on buildings along cannery row. The stars were veiled once again, the water was now milky and translucent.

Back on shore, I noticed that my surroundings suddenly seemed brighter. Looking up I saw the nearly full moon peaking out over the cloudbank that had been cloaking it on the horizon all evening. The moon glow dimmed the stars; their brilliance — and the darkness — was now in retreat.

A few kayak buddies drove up, eager to paddle in the moon’s glow. “Hey, Tom, you’re going to miss paddling in the moonlight,” one shouted. After spending the night suspended in the boundless space between the stars and their reflections in my moonless world, I smiled; nodded. I would leave them to paddle earth bound on the water’s moonlit surface.

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