I’m so pleased that Tides will receive a 2018 Pacific Northwest Book Award. I’m honored to be among such a wonderful list of writers living on this craggy coast.
When I think of the west I think of the Pacific, that “small gulf” Ferdinand Magellan named long ago for its pacificity. We now know it’s no small gulf, but the largest ocean on the planet. We also know that it’s not pacific.
I grew up waist-deep in this ocean, literally on the beaches of southern California where the continent’s rock and sand slips into the sea. I fashioned sandcastles, fished the intertidal, surfed the green swells that loom from the Bering Sea in winter, and sailed thousands of miles on the coast and offshore.
In my teens I moved to the Northwest, where I now live on a small island near the Canadian border. As a sailor, having made the journey from Seattle to Alaska dozens of times, it’s the narrow tidal channels that resonate most with me. These are the places where tidal currents are pinched into a fury of white water as the tide scrambles to get in and out; places a prudent sailor doesn’t venture except at the right tide. These are also places that focus memory and imagination, where one can see and feel the moon in the water. It was this coast, these waters, that led me to explore tides in some of the world’s most remote corners.
There are hundreds of tidal narrows on our coast, from Deception Pass and Admiralty Inlet in the south, to Sechelt, Seymour, Yaculta, and Nakwakto in British Columbia, to Peril Straits, Sergius Narrows, and Ford’s Terror in Alaska. From early times, sailors have been surprised by the ruthless ferocity of these passages. One of the earliest accounts is from Jean de la Pérouse, who in 1786 sailed his two ships into southeast Alaska’s Lituya Bay. He was warned of the area’s dangers by the local Tlingit people who, like dozens of other Native tribes, were highly skilled navigators. They told Pérouse that large creatures shook the waters at the bay’s mouth. “These Indians seem to have considerable dread of the passage,” wrote Pérouse, “and never ventured to approach it, unless at the slack water of flood or ebb.” Even then, before plunging ahead, a shaman “would stand and raise his hands to the heavens while the paddlers pulled like the devil to get through.”
Despite these warnings, Pérouse dispatched three small boats to “sound the passage…” They got too close to the Bay’s mouth during a strong ebb and were sucked into a “fury of waves.” Twenty-one crewmen perished. Before that day, Pérouse had sailed around the world without losing a single man. As his ship left Lituya Bay, he wrote, “Nothing remained for us but to quit with speed a country that has proved so fatal.”
While writing Tides, I spent hours in the world’s fastest, scariest tidal currents. Most of them were right here on this coast. At Yaculta Rapids, I slammed into four-foot standing waves; at Sergius Narrows, I nearly capsized in a sucking, hissing whirlpool; at Nakwakto I was just plainly spit out.
I waited for slack water, too, and watched a magical stillness settle like a blanket. For just a few minutes the world seemed to stop. It’s like the reward after hours of meditation when the mind finally exhausts itself and goes limp, when there’s just breath. In that silence and exquisite beauty, one could be convinced that everything in the world has paused, ready to begin anew at the next tide.
This is where I live and write. I’ll not be quitting this country anytime soon.
The plaque for the 2018 PNBA Book Award for Tides will be presented to Jonathan White at Darvill’s Bookstore of Eastsound, WA on Orcas Island on Thursday, March 1st at 6:00 pm. nwbooklovers will post original essays from this year’s award winners on Fridays in January and February. You can enjoy essays from past winners of the PNBA Book Award in our archive.