By Woody Moses
Martine was dead serious.
“No romance with clients during a trip. Ever.”
Tall and muscular with wild blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, Martine stood like a general — or a Valkyrie — delivering her orders. One hand held her clipboard, the other pointed a finger at us as we sat on the grass, looking up at her with a mixture of fear and curiosity.
We all nodded.
An experienced kayak guide herself, Martine had been running trips for over a decade in both the San Juan Islands and Baja, Mexico. A strong paddler, admired by peers and clients, she was also a shrewd manager and knew how to run a successful business. Having clear policies and rules with a workforce that followed them was a big part of the company’s success. So when she laid down the law, we understood any such transgression would cost us our jobs.
There were seven of us: Five men and two women, hailing from both coasts and the Midwest, all in our mid-20s. I had only been kayaking once in my life, but with a master’s degree in marine science and a job teaching biology, I was hired for my knowledge of natural history, not my prowess on the water. “We’ll teach you how to kayak,” Martine had told me after offering me the job.
Before I could start guiding, I had to complete this 10-day training course. We’d spent the first few days on the water, learning proper paddling techniques, how to perform rescues and splashing around in the frigid waters of Haro Strait. Today’s training session was all about the logistics of running trips: Planning for weather and currents, packing food and gear, camping and cooking procedures, managing emergencies, and dealing with clients, which is how we got to the part about guide/client romances.
Martine repeated herself in case we somehow missed it the first time.
“No romance with clients during a trip. Ever.”
We all nodded again.
And then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “What happens after a trip … well … you’re on your own time then, and we can’t control that.”
We looked around at each other, but didn’t say anything.
There’s gotta be a story there, I thought to myself.
She changed the subject. “OK, let’s go through the overnight packing lists. Always check the food boxes against the packing list before you leave the base.”
We moved on to more concrete issues like making sure to bring enough tents on an overnight trip and what to do if a client needs to be evacuated from a trip. By lunchtime, I had completely forgot about Martine’s earlier proclamation. My goal that summer was to enjoy the outdoors, learn to kayak and see as much wildlife as I could. Romantic encounters were the furthest thing from my mind.
That was until I started leading trips myself and discovered that a lot of single women were signing up for kayak trips.
Being the only guide with a graduate degree, Martine scheduled me to lead an overnight trip specifically designed to learn about marine mammals. It was intended for hardcore natural history geeks, and I was supposed to science the hell out of it.
The morning of the trip, I arrived at the base around 6:30 a.m. to prepare the gear. I was in the boat barn, picking out paddles and spray skirts when Martine showed up with my client list and release forms.
“You’ve got five clients,” she said, looking at the paperwork on her clipboard.
“Older couple. John and Margaret. Married. Late fifties. He’s a doctor and she’s a lawyer. Or maybe it’s the other way around. They say they’re experienced campers.”
She turned to the next set of forms.
“Then there’s Kari and Laura. Both in their early thirties. Athletic. They’re from Portland.”
She flipped to the last page.
“And finally Paul. Late thirties. He describes himself as ‘active.’ Not much camping experience. He’ll be in a kayak with you.”
Martine removed the paperwork from the clipboard and handed it to me.
“Should be a fun group,” she said, smiling. And then with a knowing look, she added “Do a good job. If they see a lot of wildlife, I’ll bet you get some really nice tips.”
I picked the group up at the ferry terminal in Friday Harbor and drove them and their gear to San Juan County Park where we loaded and launched the kayaks. We paddled north in pursuit of seals, sea lions, harbor porpoises and the most prized marine mammal of all: Orcas. Conditions were ideal — a breeze barely rippled the water, clear blue skies hung overhead and favorable currents swept us northward toward our goal, little Posey Island. We were in three double kayaks — John and Margaret in one, Kari and Laura in another and I paddled with Paul, him up front and me in back steering.
About 30 minutes after launching, we turned westward, out toward the deep, swift waters of Haro Strait, skirting the outside of Henry Island being sure to avoid the massive tide rip off Kellet Bluff. North of the bluff, we stopped for a quick break before continuing around McCracken Point and then eastward to the tiniest of islands — Posey — located just outside Roche Harbor. Being so close to civilization, none of us guides liked staying on Posey, the KOA campgrounds of kayak campsites, but the goal of this trip wasn’t adventure. We were here to see wildlife, and in that, Posey turned out to be ideal.
We arrived at Posey in the early afternoon and set up camp. After a lunch and a brief exploration of the island (barely 100 feet across at high tide), we got back in the boats to search for marine mammals. We paddled past McCracken Point and continued on to Battleship Island, parking ourselves in a thick forest of kelp. Grabbing the kelp’s slick, floating bulbs, we pulled the long, leaf-like blades and laid them on the decks of our kayaks, using them as anchors to keep us from floating away in the current.
We sat and chatted for a while, the gentle sway of the water rocking the boats. I pointed out the bryozoans and algae growing on the kelp and was even able to find a kelp crab, holding on with hind legs, angry pinchers flared out in defense. After 15 minutes or so, off to the south, we saw a line of tall, black dorsal fins, strung out 100 yards or so, making their way northward. There must have been 20 or so orcas. Everyone grew excited. I had the other two kayaks come closer to me, making us a smaller target and easier for the orcas to avoid.
The whales swam toward us in smooth, rhythmic waves, their black dorsal fins sliding in and out of the blue water. The sounds of their exhalations, like an air gun, grew louder as they approached. The seas were calm, the sun was high and the faintest of hazes hung over the still water.
Someone — Margaret, maybe — shouted, “What’s that!?” and we all turned to look to the north where she was pointing. To our surprise, we saw another line of dorsal fins making their way toward us, coming from the direction of Stuart Island. This was a larger group: Over 30 whales, and these were far more active than the others. They were riding high out of the water, their backs arching in long, sinuous motions as they dove and then surged up out of the water. As they got closer, the first group became more animated, lobbing tails, and swimming more erratically. We could now hear them talking to each other. In clicks and wheezes and whines, we could feel the excitement in their voices. And then they began breaching. From both sides now, whales began launching themselves out of the water. At first it was the smaller ones — adult females and juveniles — propelling their bodies with those strong flukes and lurching out of the water. But then the adult males — the bulls — began to breach. Enormous hulks of black and white, 30-feet long and 20,000 pounds erupted out of the ocean. Turning in mid-air, their long, thin dorsal fins quivered, and then with a thundering “boom,” they landed on their sides, a wave of whitewater engulfing the hole they made in the ocean.
Now the two groups were completely intermingled. Tail lobbing. Spy hopping. Several orcas swam off on their own, only to return to the group a few minutes later. Some swam so close to each other they must have been touching. Orcas have very sensitive skin and love the feeling of having another lay their body against them. And, of course, there was more breaching. I had never seen so many breaches. One whale kept jumping over and over again, as if overjoyed by the whole experience.
It was a family reunion. Or what the scientists call a “greeting ceremony,” when pods of orcas have been separated for a long time encounter each other again. The ceremony seems to indicate an excitement of being reunited and a promise to hunt collaboratively. The two pods will often stick together for a few days afterward, searching for food, and presumably, enjoying each other’s company. It is also during these times when potential mates have a chance to get to know each other. Resident orcas travel in big families called pods. To avoid inbreeding, they find love with members of the other pods through the ceremony — similar to an old-fashioned barn dance, where several towns will meet for an evening of fun. Some socialize, some catch up on gossip and politics, and some find a partner who doesn’t know about all of the stupid things they’ve done.
After an hour or so, the orcas ventured south, probably following the shifting currents and hunting salmon. We paddled back to Posey, where most of the group crashed in their tents. Hot, sweaty and wanting a bit of a break before I started preparing dinner, I was ready to follow suit, but Paul wanted to explore the tide pools. I spent some time with him checking out the life inside those rocky aquariums.
A California sea cucumber had been trapped in a pool, and Paul was simultaneously fascinated and revolted by its prickly reddish-orange skin. Trying to alleviate his fears, I told him he could touch it. Without hesitation, he reached down into the pool, picked up the poor animal, and flung it into another pool. Its long, flaccid body slapped across the surface of the water while its withered mass quaked and shivered from the impact. I stared at Paul, stunned.
“You’re right,” he said. “It felt kinda smooth and slimy. Not prickly at all.”
Thankfully, Paul’s interest in the intertidal fauna soon faded and he returned to his tent for some reading.
After dinner that evening, we sat on the western edge of the island enjoying the sunset. Kari and Laura had brought a bottle of wine and were sharing it with everyone. Watching as the golden yellow embers danced across the swirling blue waters off McCracken Point, I noticed a big splash. We all got still.
It hit again. “It’s big, whatever it is!” Laura said.
I fixed my binoculars on where the splashes were coming from. For a moment I saw nothing, just more swirling water and the line of kelp waving in the current.
And then a big, whiskered snout with a massive forehead poked its way out of the water. It was chewing on something, probably a salmon, as it surfaced.
“Sea lion,” I said, passing my binoculars around the group. “Stellers, I think. Looks too big to be a California sea lion.”
“Helluva day!” John exclaimed. “Worth every cent.”
And turning to me, he added, “And you, my friend, have earned yourself a big tip.”
We sat for a while longer, as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon, shedding colors across the land and sea, painting the tops of the Gulf Islands with a rich pallet of reds and ochres. Soon, the stars began to appear in the eastern sky and the air grew cooler. Paul bid us goodnight, and soon John and Margaret followed. The ladies and I sat there talking. They brought out another bottle of wine for a second nightcap.
At some point, Kari turned to Laura and gave a sly smile. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but Laura did. She turned to me, thanked me for a great day of kayaking, said she was off to bed and, as she was leaving, she added, “I’ll hear all about it later, so you better be good.”
It was at this moment that Martine’s words flashed back in my mind: “No romance with clients during a trip. Ever.”
I had no idea how the day had gone from ecstatic orcas to molested sea cucumbers to salmon-eating sea lions to now this … whatever was about to happen.
I turned to look at Kari sitting next to me. She had somehow moved closer. Cautiously, I said, “You know, we have a rule about fraternizing with clients.”
She stared back in my face and without hesitation, replied, “I’m sure you do.” And then she reached out with both hands, her fingers sliding around the back of my neck and, grabbing ahold of my hair, firmly held my head as she pulled me in. I smelled her sunscreen and the fruity scent of her shampoo.
I felt like that sea cucumber, shocked and wiggling, flung from one world into another. But soon that feeling passed. In the distance, the sun continued its journey below the horizon, and the stars multiplied in the sky.
Back at base after the trip, cleaning gear, I was looking forward to a shower. Kari and Laura were catching a ferry that evening and had offered to buy me dinner before they left. Wanting to complete my chores as quickly as possible, I ran around into the boat barn with an armload of spray skirts and into Martine, who was organizing PFDs.
“Slow down, fella,” she said, giving me a stern look, which then softened into a smile.
“I heard you had a great trip.”
“Yeah,” I blushed. I hadn’t said a peep to anyone about Kari, but I still felt guilty as hell. “It was magical.”
“Magical? Wow, we don’t hear that word around here very often.”
My face grew red.
“Those orcas,” I said, trying to deflect. “They really made the whole trip.”
“I heard you saw a greeting ceremony. That’s very special, you know,” she said with a touch of gravity before returning to her task.
I hung up the spray skirts and was about to leave when, over her shoulder, Martine asked, “And how were the tips?”
“Good,” I said, trying to inch my way out the door. “John and Margaret were very generous, and Kari and Laura are buying me dinner before they catch their ferry. That’s why I’m in a hurry.”
“Right,” Martine said, sorting through the PFDs. “Whenever clients see orcas, they are always extra generous.”
I walked up to The Ale House to meet the women. They were sitting on the balcony overlooking the harbor. They each gave me a big hug, thanking me for a wonderful trip. They were from Portland and had decided to take a weekend trip to get out of the city. They hadn’t been that interested in marine mammals, but after seeing the orcas, they said they’d fallen in love with the whales and would certainly be back.
As they were leaving, Kari handed me a slip of paper and said, “In case you’re ever in Portland.” She gave me a peck on the cheek and a little wave goodbye. I waved back, still dumbstruck, but wanting to look confident. I sat back down at the table, slid the paper into my pocket and ordered another beer.
Sipping the cold beverage, I looked out over the marina and the hundreds of boats moored there. The tourists, many of them couples, and some with children, walked up and down Front Street, looking in storefront windows and trying to decide where to eat. The boarding announcement blared over the PA system and folks began walking on the ferry.
They were joined by a handful of cyclists, clad in spandex and their bikes laden with panniers and camping gear. Then the cars began driving on, a long line of them snaking up the hill behind town. One after another, they drove into the big, iron hull of the ship. First it was the big trucks, the ones that had come loaded with groceries or lumber, and were now returning to the mainland to resupply. And then it was the rest of the cars. Mostly tourists returning home after a few days of relaxation or adventure, depending on their flavor.
Car after car piled into that ferry, a small town floating on the water. Amazing how much it could hold. But finally it was full, and without a blast of its horn or any other proclamation, it slowly pulled away from the dock, its big diesel engines thrumming as it turned left around Brown Island and motored its way eastward back to the mainland, and the rest of a life that I would have to return to at some point, but not yet.
Woody is a full-time Biology instructor at Highline College, and a part-time ski instructor at Snoqualmie Pass. When he’s not teaching, he’s probably on the water, the trail or the slopes. Check out his adventures and musings at threegemspnw.com. x