A Seaside Adventure
On the first day, I wake from a dream of mermaids pulling me deep into the sea, down, down, until I am floating under a long black rock.
I have to go back up for air, I tell them. The black rock is like a ceiling, it is the sky.
Flash of red and gold scales. Arms wrapping around me, tugging. A pull towards darker waters. Not yet, they say. Come. Come.
My eyes open without a struggle. I am in the top bunk of a bed, heavy blue covers up to my neck. The room is tiny, carpeted, empty except for the bunk bed, one small set of drawers, a rattling space heater, and a wooden table in the corner. The largest thing in the room is the glass window that nearly takes up the whole wall to my right. The sun is coming through; there are no curtains. Through the gaps of few spruces trees, I can see the open sea. The window is so large and the room so tiny that it is almost like I am outside. For a few good seconds, I have no idea where I am.
My mind coughs, it clears. I am in bed. In a room. In a hand-built toolshed. On an unnamed island in the middle of the Southcentral Alaskan seas.
A few hours ago, I had stumbled to the toolshed on a path of broken white shells, carrying my bag. The white shell paths interlaced throughout the island, starting by the shore and led to each of the three cabins and their outhouses, the sauna, and the toolshed. I would learn later that the white shells were primarily practical; they made the paths glow after nightfall, so that any island guests would be able to find their cabins in the dark. But at the moment, delirious with my two days of traveling, the brightness of the white shell paths winding through the thick green of the island, the mossy little hills, the uncurling fiddlehead ferns, the just-blooming blueberry bushes, the arching devil’s club, all under the thick canopy of the spruces, seemed to me only eerily beautiful. Whole white clamshells, violet mussels, twisted periwinkle snails, sun-bleached otter bones, and hand carved birdhouses lined the paths and pushed into the sphagnum moss like little trails of their own.
The toolshed was small, reddish brown, surrounded by trees on a slope leading down to the sea. The door wasn’t locked; it swung upon when I pulled on the black handle. Inside, dust swirled. It was a very full shed—brooms, hammers, fishing gear, wooden oars, stacks of five gallon buckets, a chainsaw, shovels, axes, shelves packed with who-knows-what gadgets—but a walkway squeezed its way to the back left, where a little sink without a faucet was built into a cabinet by another door. A square green carpet was laid out as a welcome mat. I walked to the door, careful not to whack any of the precarious stacks of tools with my bag, and opened it.
The tiny room with the bunk bed lay before me: clean of dust, comfortable, and warm. I took off my boots before I entered. Through the large window, I could see a group of small figures down by the shore, one wearing a wide brimmed sun hat, climbing into kayaks. I watched them paddle out to sea, getting smaller and smaller, and then I climbed up into the top bunk, still in my large wool blue sweatshirt, yoga pants, and thermal socks, and fell instantly, deeply, asleep.
I am on the island to work as an assistant kayak guide for the eco-tour company A Seaside Adventure. The company is rather small, run by only two people: Rick and Dorla Harness, a married couple in their sixties who are both so full of energy that they seem younger than I am at twenty-one.
In the spring of my junior year at college, I applied to their company for the summer on the volunteer website, “World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms,” colloquially known as WWOOF. A global exchange program between organic farmers and volunteers, where the volunteers receive room, board, valuable education and training in the field in which they were working—what was there not to fall in love with? Aside from needing help with guests and kayak gear, Rick and Dorla’s WWOOF profile description read that their main focus was environmental education and preservation; they emphasized “gathering (and educating about) wild edible plants of the forest and sea, and maintaining the surrounding grounds in their natural ocean-side/virgin forest state.” Their site radiated with a purpose intertwined with happiness, an attractive combination. Plus, when I first received a text from Rick and Dorla about setting up a phone interview, they used the little blue whale emoji, so I decided that they definitely couldn’t be serial killers expertly luring unexpected volunteers out to their island that was ten miles south of Homer, Alaska, at the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula, and only accessible by boating across Kachemak Bay.
The three flights and the water taxi that I had to take to get to the island had been long, aching. Red-eyes and layovers. Denver to Seattle. Seattle to Anchorage. Anchorage to the small town of Homer. The Ravn flight to Homer was on a propeller plane so tiny that the airport didn’t bother setting up security screening. I walked right from my bench in the airport lobby to a small side hallway, out a door onto the cold, windy runaway, and up a staircase onto the nine-passenger plane. I thought I must have missed a checkpoint, somehow. Half-drunk with tiredness, I had to fight the guilty urge to ask the red-haired flight attendant if I had gotten on the plane the right way. After we took off, the plane dipping and shuddering. I caught only a glimpse of the long endless rise of white mountains to the north and to the east, the stretch of brown muddy ground with threading tidal rivers below, and the sea glittering in the distance, my eyes half-open and flickering shut, vision like clouds passing over the bright sun. Whales, I thought hopefully and fell asleep, my forehead leaning against the chilled window.
After we landed, I took a taxi down to the Homer spit, a colorful, busy strip of land that jutted out into the bay, and boarded a water-taxi called The Blackfish. A pleasant man and his chocolate lab ran the water-taxi; the dog curled up by my feet while we flew across the waves, past inlets, islands, sunny coves. We headed straight into the mountains. The pleasant man smoked a pipe and talked to me about fishing. He pointed out the three volcanoes, white and enveloped by clouds in the distant west. Mount Redoubt, Iliamna, Augustine.
“You can only see all of them sometimes, when the air is clear,” he said.
After about forty minutes, the water taxi slowed and turned into the cove where the island lay. I saw Rick and Dorla for the first time, both waving furiously down by the water’s edge. They were wearing waterproof pants, tall wading boots, layers of jackets. Rick had on a large brimmed sun hat with a white feather stuck through it. As we neared, he took the hat off, held it to his heart and let a long, clear yodel. I could see their house on the hill above them, the front corner of it just poking out of the trees like a ship’s bow. There was no dock, so the pleasant driver unwound the water-taxi’s silver ramp. I climbed ashore.
Rick and Dorla enveloped me simultaneously in a hug.
“Our other Jackie!” Rick, shouted, peering down at me. He had a large white-grey beard and eyes that crinkled easily into laugh lines. “It’s so good to finally see you in person!”
“Welcome to our island,” Dorla said, beaming. She had iron-grey hair and bangs. She was only a little bit smaller than me and had the slightest hint of a German accent.
The other volunteer—who also happened to be named Jackie—stood behind the two of them, smiling, her hands stuck in the pockets of her water pants. She had already been on the island for two weeks.
“You should get some rest!” Dorla said, picking up one of the straps on my bag. Rick bobbed around her, chattering, asking me questions. I felt instantly welcome, like I had come home. “Let me point you to where you will be staying! You should sleep, adjust to our time. Jackie and Rick are taking guests out kayaking this morning, but I’ll stay behind in case you need anything. Here, right this way, up these stairs—afterwards, we’ll introduce you to the island.”
From there, the days and the times begin to blur together.
There is rhythm on the island. We eat breakfast and drink steaming coffee with Dorla and Rick in their house at seven on kayaking days and at eight on island project days. It is an exquisite spruce wood house, almost a circle, with a ladder leading up to an open loft, the woodstove in the center of the first floor, and the living room, kitchen, pantry, and storage closet all connecting closely in one room. Herb baskets hang from the ceiling. Pots and pans suspend from a twisted white tree limb in the kitchen. A drying rack for wet kayak gear is attached to a wooden pulley and looped to one of the spruce columns. A map of Alaska on the wall. Overflowing bookshelves. Anything Rick and Dorla think interesting or beautiful: a long piece of whale baleen, an osprey skeleton, fragments of radiolarian red chert, glittering chrome.
If it is a kayaking day, we spend the day on the water. Our job as WWOOFers is to take care of anything extra the guests might need. We caboose the group to make sure no guests get left behind. We answer their questions if Rick and Dorla are busy. We gather sea vegetables to put in the soup for lunch. Sometimes, if a guest is uncomfortable kayaking, we kayak with them in a double, steering in the back. Each day is different.
We kayak out of the cove and hug the cluster of Herring Islands. Hanging on the edge of the islands are bright green and red Christmas anemones, snails, peanut worms, crabs, lovely floating nudibranches. If we are lucky, we see sea stars, tucked in crevices or lying quietly on the bottom, only a few feet down in the clear turquoise water. Maroon ochre stars, leather stars. Giant stars, mottled stars. All triumphant, straggling stars that somehow escaped the devastation of the sea star disease that is currently laying waste to the west coast. Each star we see, we cheer for.
For lunch, we stop our kayaks on a rocky island. In a silver soup pot, we boil water with wild rice and silver salmon from our fisherman neighbors. We stir in herbs that we collect that day with the guests—goosetounge, devil’s club buds, fiddlehead ferns, loveage, beach greens, and fireweed. Then we slide in the sea vegetables—sea lettuce, bullwhip kelp, bladderwrack. We ladle the soup into green cups and soak it up with Dorla’s homemade sour dough bread.
“My sourdough starter is from the Alaskan Gold Rush, way back in the 1800s,” she tells us as we eat, sitting on the warm, sun-soaked rocks. “All it needs is salt, water, and flour. Do it right, and the starter never runs out.”
In our kayaks, we see birds: the pigeon guillemot with its red throat and feet, the yellow-billed loon, the pelagic cormorant, the bald eagles, the northern goshawk, the black-legged kittiwake, the common murre. We see two harbor seals that like to follow our kayaks around, whom Rick and Dorla introduce as Uguruk and Flo. They have big, dark eyes, beautiful whiskers, and when they stick their nose out of the water, there is a little huff of air. We occasionally see porpoises, rising out of the water close to our kayaks, their own puff of air so distinct. They glide, up and down, up and down, and we always stop paddling to watch.
We also see multiple groups of sea otters. There is special one who hangs around our cove. Rick and Dorla call him the Old Man. He is long, sleek, dark and has powerful paws; he can wrest apart a clam without using a rock, like the other otters have to do.
“Moony, moony, moony little otter,” Rick says to the Old Man with love. “Oh, where do you go when we don’t see you?”
The best days in the kayaks are the ones where we see whales. Breaching, rising, fluking, spouting. Foaming white water, our kayaks rocking. When a pod is spotted, we stay even closer to the island curves, so that we don’t get caught between them and the sky when they surface for air. Their grey, black tails are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I lose my breath—somehow, it is impossible to realize how big they really are.
We are all small next to the whales.
“To be born is to be wrecked upon an island,” J.M. Barrie wrote. He was referring to loneliness that every human must feel, but here on our island, with hardly any humans around, sitting among the bursts of fireweed and looking up at trees taller than I will ever be, I do not feel alone.
The island is technically an island-peninsula. It has no name other than the one Rick and Dorla have given it: Little Kayak Island. Mostly, they just call it the island. Rick and Dorla tell us that the island lies in protected waters mixed with freshwater streams, tidal ocean waters, and glacial melt water. They explain that the waters around the island are sheltered from wind and storms by the mountain ranges, which helps form a rare intertidal estuary for flora and fauna.
On the island, life revolves around the tides. Nobody asks about the time.
“What tide is it?” Rick shouts down from his loft in the morning, banging around as he finds his clothes. “The kayaks need to be roped soon or they’ll float away!”
Kachemak Bay has semidiurnal tides, meaning that two high tides and two low tides exist within every twenty-four hours. The tides dictate when the island merges into the mainland and again when the island separates, a fragment claiming its own identity.
At low tide, we have to carry the kayaks down a few extra hundred feet on a winding rocky path to reach the water. We avoid the deep blue mussel bed that glistens violet in the sun and the small tide pools scurrying with hermit crabs, young shrimp, and dashing sculpin. Barnacles and periwinkle snails blanket the large wet stones surrounding the winding path. We descend. Closer to the water line, we have to watch our step; curled up sea anemones lie on top of the dark sand. We see octopus’ dens marked by clever rock piles and empty white clamshells, drenched laminaria, darkening sea lettuce, and layers of bubbly yellow bladderwrack. It is easy to believe that we are already twenty-feet underwater.
At low tide, the lagoon behind the island empties and we can walk in our tall wading boots through soggy ground to visit our neighbors. We can hike around the empty lagoon, empty mussels crunching under our feet, and if we wanted, we could walk deep into the back forest towards Red Mountain and the wilderness of the mainland. But we don’t, because in the back forest there are no paths and devil’s club grows thick on the steep hills. To walk among those trees means to get dangerously lost. Rick makes me promise to never go in the back forest without him. He tells me that about fifteen years ago, when his two sons were young, they had followed one of their friends out past the lagoon and walked only for twenty minutes before they got turned around. The three kids were missing for hours. Rick had to search the forest, firing a gun into the air. They were eventually found, huddling inside a makeshift shelter of branches and leaves, late in the summer night dusk.
At high tide, the water fills up the back lagoon, covers all the marshy paths and our island-peninsula becomes a true small island again. We cannot go far from our house without a boat. The high tide swallows the even smaller islands just out of our cove. Otter Island, where we shovel broken white clamshells into buckets to replenish the shells on the cabin paths, disappears completely underwater. The big rock that we use to navigate around the reef and into our cove vanishes; we always have to be careful not to run into the underwater reef on the skiff.
At first, it is confusing to return to the island after a day of kayaking with the guests, when the rocks and reefs are completely submerged, the landmarks gone, and the water stretches, unrecognizable. The island morphs into something alien. Up to twenty-eight feet of water moves with each tide, alternatively exposing and covering cliff banks, tidal pools, barnacle-crusted rocks, narrow inlets, and tree roots. It takes me a while to commit its patterns to heart.
Dorla gives me a blue tide book to keep in our toolshed room, so that we can always be prepared for the change.
Rick and Dorla are very much in love. They both are previously divorced and met later in their lives, as Rick likes to say, “at a bar.”
“No, but not that type of bar!” he tells the guests, laughing, after he’s given them a minute to envision a low-lit dive brimming with alcohol. “At a sandbar! Dorla and I met while kayaking! True story.”
Rick is a born and bred Alaskan. Dorla was born in Germany and moved here in her early twenties. They are both incredibly knowledgeable, self-sufficient, and kind. During their first marriages, they each built their own house with their own hands; Rick, as a professional carpenter, Dorla, as a person who just wanted to build her own house. Rick built the house on the island from the island’s spruce trees and Dorla built her beautiful home on the mainland right outside of Homer with lumberyard wood.
After they had fallen in love, Rick proposed to Dorla seven different times. She said yes every single time, but he just wanted to hear her say it. She warned him, laughing, that if he asked an eighth time, she would say no. They call each other “bug” because the first night they had spent together on the island, Dorla phoned in sick to her job at the radio station. She told her boss that she had “caught a bug” and couldn’t make it to work.
The water causes a red rash on my hands—a rash that no ocean has given me before. I rub bladderwrack on my hands to help them heal. The red dots fade into small, nearly invisible smooth scars that catch silver light like fish scales.
Jackie and I go kayaking on our own in the evening. The sunset is blue and grey. We see hundreds, thousands of jellyfish, bobbing in the cove like blossoms. We spin our kayaks, trying to stay slow and gentle. Countless moon jellyfish in the clear water. Young lion’s mane jellies, their tentacles small and baby-like.
The mountains behind us are still topped with snow.
There are no roads, stores, light posts, or business on the island-peninsula. There is no running water. The way that Rick and Dorla tell it, the island wasn’t even supposed to have electricity, but at the last second, the island was built into the edge of the grid. On the island, the preciousness of resources is never taken for granted. Everything is used minimally and practically. Water, above all, is treated with the utmost respect.
We collect our water from a small glacier melt waterfall that runs into Tutka Bay. We load up the skiff with empty five-gallon buckets, a hose, a long black plastic pipe, and drive over to the waterfall. If the tide is too low, it is impossible to go, because our skiff will ram into the rocks below the fall. We go when the tide is rising or when it is at its peak. Collecting the water is tricky—Rick gets out the skiff and with long black pipe in hand, clambers over the slippery rocks to where he can stick the pipe into the rushing clear water. The hose is attached to the other end of the pipe, which runs into the skiff. As Rick places the pipe in the waterfall, the water streams into the pipe, through the hose, and into whatever bucket I’m pointing the hose at. When the bucket brims, Dorla will throw me another and clamp a lid down on the full one. More often than not, there is a wild moment when the hose is spraying water into the skiff. Jackie will be standing at the bow with a long wooden pole, using it both to keep the skiff from grounding on the rocks and from floating too far away. It is a quick affair, full of shouting, before Rick leaps back into the boat and we push off for the final time, the skiff laden and heavy.
From Rick and Dorla’s kitchen table where we drink coffee in the morning, we look out the window and see whales. Just outside, right in our cove. A dark rise and then a fluke, a tail high in the air before it slides under the water. A few spouts, bursting clear, out by the rocks. Humpbacks. Minkes. Greys.
Jackie and I sauna every seven days, when the salt has crusted into our hair and our skin begins chill. Rick builds up the stove fire in the little wooden sauna. It takes about an hour to get hot enough. Wood panels steaming, the iron pot bubbling over the flat black stones, wet with warm dew from fire. Sweat on my back. I rub down with a green soap bar until I am slick, my skin scrubbed away. Low light, pitches dipped into the clean water bucket, mixing hot and cold soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Pouring water onto Jackie’s head and she onto mine, until we are clean.
Reality—the other world that is not the island—filters in, every now and then, like the bright sun shining jagged through the spruces, catching you unawares, blinding and jarring.
I sometimes forget about my boyfriend. The service is poor; we go days without even texting. He calls me once, his voice full of pain, and I feel guilty. He doesn’t lay any blame on me, but I can tell he’s lonely in his room in California, staring at a white ceiling. I am sitting on a mossy log, baby shield ferns uncurling around my feet, looking down at a blue ocean. The colors of the sunset are just beginning, and his voice is soft over the phone. A part of me wants to hang up so I can be alone with the water.
My mother sends me a text. My grandfather is dying. Lung cancer. I call him from my mossy log. He asks about Alaska.
“It’s wonderful, Papa,” I say. “You would really like it.” I’m not sure if he would. I try to picture him in his stark, fresh business clothes, collecting the beach greens that taste like peas.
Mermaids follow me. On a temporary tattoo that Dorla brings back from her radio station and that I stick to my thigh with a wet cloth. In the sauna where a wooden, hand-carved mermaid laid with pink shells curls on the wall, her hand raised in a wave. On the staggering cliff in the middle of Tutka Bay that Rick named “Mermaid Rock”, the large flat top supposedly the best place to cast white stone spells at midnight.
The island is green, green all over.
In our room, I play the Maggie Rodgers’ song, “Alaska.” After all, I am in Alaska. The notes swell and bop, like droplets. They fill the room like rising water. Oh me oh my, I thought it was a dream.
It would not surprise me if the green of the island came into the room like a wave, swilled through the thin cracks in the windowsill, lapped under the door, and soaked into the plain carpet until the sphagnum moss took root and flowered in clusters like the stars.
The guests come and go. Families, singles, couples, groups who have just gotten to know each other while traveling through Alaska.
A tall pale guest with glasses who smiles gently and loves birds. Binoculars swing around his neck. He comes with his mother. They stay in one of the guest cabins for a few days. He watches the eagles for hours.
Three women, who are best friends, on a reunion trip. They invite us over to their cabin for wine and cheese after kayaking. They laugh constantly, speak of the Egyptian pyramids, and feed me grapes.
A family of seven, five of them little children. The mother comes in my kayak and I steer, navigate where she wants to go. She is awed by the trees that lean over cliffs, roots in the air.
They all say to me: you are so lucky to work here. You are so lucky.
I say, I am, I am.
Amongst all the life growing on the island, there is death.
The varied thrush that flew right into the Dorla and Rick’s window on my first day, going so fast that it died on impact.
“No!” Dorla cries. “Not again.” She picks up the bird in one sad swoop, cradling it in both her palms, and places it on clear spot on their front porch. Later that night, a falcon with speckled white feathers blazes down and snatches the dead thrush off the porch, flying away without a pause, cradling its prize in its talons like Dorla had done with her hands.
Perhaps the whole island is a dream, a place in-between.
Rick tells us stories. Multiple avalanches, skiers buried. His friends dying in plane crashes, the neighbor who drowned right next to his boat, the young couple from Homer who got caught in a ferocious storm while out kayaking—the girl died of hypothermia, the boy managed to survive by pulling himself up a steep cliff. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that leaked 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, killing innumerable salmon, sea otters, seabirds, whales, harbor seals, and bald eagles. Rick tells us he sat that day in front of the television, tears streaming down his face.
I run early every morning before we meet for breakfast. It is difficult to get out of the warm bed.
On my runs, I carry a “bear” bag, a normal large black trash bag that will—hopefully—scare away any bears with its noise and size.
“Hey bear!” I shout at the green trees. “Hey bear!” I clap my hands together while I run and swish the bag in the air. Rick and Dorla say to be as loud as possible. At first, it is difficult to shout into the early morning mists, making thrushes and ravens fly. I don’t use my iPod like I typically do when I work out; I keep my senses alert. The bears come down from the mountains in the morning to feed on the young, soft grasses while the tide is low.
The island isn’t big. I run in small loops on the trails and if the ground is dry enough, down the path in the back lagoon. I run in constant circles. Spiraling.
While I am on the island, a sixteen-year-old boy is killed by a black bear during a cross-country race a few mountain slopes away. The bear attacked him while he was running on the trail. He had time to send a text to a family member, who was waiting at the bottom of the mountain; i am being chased by a bear. Afterwards, whenever I run, I look constantly over my shoulder, convinced that a shadow is stalking me through the ferns. I cannot get the boy’s face out of my mind.
But perhaps the island is not the dream. Perhaps the reality that I had known back home, in the daily grind of school, driving on concrete roads, buying potato chips, worrying about how to make money, and roaming the edge of a laughing, oblivious crowds, trying to figure out the best way to shove my way in, was the dream.
J.M Barrie wrote of Neverland: “We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.”
Isn’t it strange, isn’t it odd, how the present suddenly becomes the past, and all of time gets rolled into a ball? Isn’t it peculiar how there will come a moment where you will have to remember? What was it really like to see a whale? To feel the whale slip down underneath you into darkness, bubbles streaming, down, down? The thought: you are sharing water with a whale.
What was that really like?
I think of rich this life is, how many atoms and molecules are intertwined, how consciousness vibrates in the green moss and the unfolding wide devil’s club. I think of what it is like to see the golden sky over the sea from a window.
Everything on the island is merged together. I lose track of time. It is light, always, always.
Jackie Kenny recently graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in English and Creative Writing. She is currently traveling around the US and volunteering at organic farms to learn more about the practical applications of sustainable agriculture.