Serenade for Kelp Horn

We are paddling down an inlet between granite islands covered with dark green conifers. The rain has let up, but the atmosphere is still thick with moisture. The sky is a grey pot lid and wisps of clouds rise like steam from the hills. I am trailing behind the group and I see the bald eagle dive down toward the water and then swoop back up. As it rises, I see the feather fall from it, drifting down dark brown with the white at its base gleaming. It spirals as it falls. “Look!”, I shout, “It dropped a feather!”. Then they all see it, too, and we start forward towards where the feather must have landed, where it must be floating on the same ebb tide that is carrying us forward. I try to make up the distance so that I can be the one to find the feather in the water, so that I can have the feather. But it is Jari in the double kayak, with Bruce, the guide, who finds it. Jari, 11 years old, always underfoot. Jari who has decided that since I am the other unattached male, I must be his playmate. (“Hey Tom, do you want to try to make it all the way out to that little island without getting our feet wet?” “No Jari, these are the only dry shoes I have.” 11 year old boys are not concerned very much about consequences. 40 year olds may be a little to preoccupied with them). Now Jari holds the feather aloft, waving it like a conductor’s baton. It is a bitter moment, because I know that since he picked up the feather, it is his. I paddle up alongside “Can I see it?” “Here,” he says “Take it. You saw it fall, I only saw it in the water. You have the eagle eye.” I take the feather and put its quill under a bungee on the deck of the kayak, greedy and abashed. Later, when we’re back at the lodge, I offer him any of the various treasures I have collected in repayment, but he doesn’t want them. “We come here every year, I can always find another feather” But I know that he has been generous and bestowed me a blessing, even if he is a pain-in-the-ass kid, and I don’t want to be one down in the blessing game, so I search my belongings to find something of mine I think he’ll dig on. I come up with a Wingfest tee-shirt. Fifth anniversary design – the famous Flaming Nancy shirt. He loves it. So now there’s a kid in Calgary with a Wingfest shirt. Perhaps you’ll see him at the Stampede.

I have been kayaking with a group of six campers and two guides around the islands and waterways of Desolation Sound between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. The scenery is nothing short of spectacular – everywhere you look there is postcard beauty. Intricate coast lines of gray granite and distant snowcapped peaks peeping out between rounded green shoulders. Sometimes you can look down a channel and see hills echoing each other and fading into a blue distance. And between them all blue water, clear and cold. It gets so you almost want to see something ugly to rest your eyes.

We had two guides with us. One is named Merlin – he’s the lead guide. Merlin is tall with a hooked nose and a massive jaw and a drooping black moustache. He has the disconcerting habit of looking at you deadpan for about 5 seconds whenever you ask him anything. During those 5 seconds you wonder – Did Merlin hear what you said? Is he ignoring it? Is he confused? Did you piss him off? And then after that delay, he’ll answer your question, always on an even keel, often with a dry sense of humor. Bruce, the second guide is the naturalist. Bruce has a long nose and glasses and he would run through the shallows looking for interesting specimens to show the group. At the campfire, Merlin read “The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew” and Bruce read poetry.

On the first day, we stopped at a rock beach for lunch. I headed off to the crest of the beach to see what I could see, and there on the ground was a beautiful brown and white striped feather. I brought it back to the group. “That’s a barred owl” said Bruce. “Good find”. I took this to be an excellent omen. The beach was littered with dozens of oysters. I opened one and ate it. Later that day, we camped in an abandoned homestead with a field of foxglove. Six foot tall spikes of purple trumpet shaped flowers. The tide was high, so I could not get more oysters. Jari was my tentmate, and we slept side by side outside on an abandoned dock. Jari liked to chat before sleeping. He wanted to know if I had read anything good lately – for instance, had I read the Star Wars books? I had not.

The next day, we paddled toward a place called Surge Narrows. Since all the tide must pass through this choke point, the current gets very intense. The trip was planned so that we would arrive there at the slack – that part of the tide cycle when the tide is turning, and the current pauses before turning the other way. In the morning, our guides made sure that we were making good progress. I got a little concerned because my back was getting a bit sore, and I needed to take breaks to stretch. Is kayaking a good idea for people with lower back problems? Probably not. Merlin told me that at the end of the season, he would usually have a good case of sciatica. But I figured out how to adjust the seat, and how to change postures, so I mostly avoided much back misery.

We arrived at Surge Narrows at just about the right time, but now the wind had picked up. It was approaching gale force, and we could see white caps streaming down the passage. Merlin paddled around the bend where we were resting in our kayaks, sheltered. He came back and said that the wind was too strong, we were going to have to camp and wait for it to die down. We paddled over to a small island with a cove full of bull kelp. Bull kelp is brown with a large bulb at the end and a tube which trails behind it, narrowing down so that it looks like a bullwhip. Perhaps that’s how it got the name bull kelp, although I think that it may be that the kelp looks like that part of the animal which marks it as a bull, in contradistinction to its joyful mate, the cow.

As we pulled out the kayaks, we spotted sea urchin around us, little green ones about the size of tennis ball. “Uni!” I thought, being a sushi fan. I picked up a sea urchin. It waved its spines about, and it had a small beak at the bottom. It was clearly a living creature, much more alive looking than an oyster or a clam, both of which look more like rocks than pets. I gazed down at it. “You’ll have to look deep within yourself” Bruce said ” And decide whether you want to disturb this ecosystem”. I looked at the helpless creature in front of me, and at all its bretheren around me. I decided that there were plenty of them there. “Sorry, my brother” I said, and cut into its surprisingly thin shell – it felt like an eggshell under the knife. Inside, I found the uni – sea urchin roe, and licked it off the knife. It was surprisingly sweet.

Later, Peter, Jari’s father, took me to a part of the island a little further where there was a colony of large purple urchins. They were clinging to the side of a granite wall that sloped down into the rising tide. They were beautiful, raspberry colored blossoms waving in the tide. Peter pried two off the rocks and we carried them back. It was bigger than my hand, and waved it’s spines aimlessly like a baby waving its arms. This one was even more difficult to cut into because it was so beautiful. Again my knife bit through, and now I found big pockets of roe just like in my favorite Japanese restaurants, and it was better and sweeter, only I had a hard time separating all of the urchin’s internal organs from the roe. But I served it out anyway and Merlin had some, and some of the other campers, and I hunkered down scooping out the uni, licking it off the knife as the urchin stained my fingers with its gorgeous purple color. Mary, Jari’s mother looked at me with undisguised disgust, and indeed I felt like an animal hunched over my kill. A predator enjoying its meal of sweet entrails.

Later, walking over the island, I found an eagle feather lying on top of a hill. It had what looked like a small notch cut out of it. I was delighted – clearly my animal totems were pleased. Later that day, I put it inside my dry bag, but in my haste to clean up, I folded the bag with the feather inside it. The spine of the feather was bent and dented in several places. When I realized what I’d done, I was distraught – I was sure I had ruined the medicine of my magic feather. I mentioned this to Bruce “Well,’ he said. “Maybe that’s your medicine – part cut out of it, bent and broken” “But still an eagle feather”, I added.

Finding a camping spot on these islands was a challenge. Since they are composed of granite and very little soil, it was very difficult to find a flat place of any size. Mostly it was a question of deciding which series of planes best corresponded to those presented by your own body. All three nights of the trip I ended up sleeping outside. The second night on that eagle feather island, I lay in a small depression like a shallow grave where the moss grew green and soft. The wind whistled around me that night, but I slept snug in all the layers I had brought with me, my sleeping bag zipped tight all the way around my head. In the morning, I found Bruce nearby. “Look,” he said – the most beautiful bird in British Columbia,” and there in the golden morning light were harlequin ducks swimming in the bull kelp lagoon, now flooded with the tide. The male is a cacophony of color – blue with red sides and a red strip on the head and white spots and streaks scattered about the head and body.

We kayaked for several more days. I was still concerned about the eagle feather that I had cracked. On the last day, hanging in our kayaks in a light rain, waiting for the tide to get to the right point so we could enter another narrows, Merlin showed us how to make a kelp horn. You slice off the end off the bulb, and cut the tube so you have a floppy, conical segment of kelp with about half a bulb at the end – it looks kind of like an english horn. Then you blow into it like a trumpet, or more reasonably, like one of those plastic horns they sell at football games. It makes about the same sound as one of those, too. We entertained ourselves with that for a while, and I strapped one of those to my kayak, because I liked it so much. Then we paddled toward the narrows, and the eagle dove and dropped a feather for us.

After Jari gave me the eagle feather, we stopped at the entrance to the narrows, still waiting for the tides to turn. Two eagles sat on trees in front of us. I was fairly sure that one was the one that had dropped its feather. I decided that I should serenade them in gratitude for the gift. I discovered that you could play the kelp horn like a digeridoo, blowing one note, and singing a series of others. And so I floated in the mist, bobbing in my kayak, the eagle feather safe under its bungee, playing kelp horn digeridoo in thanksgiving to an audience of two eagles. I am certain that they enjoyed the serenade, because they did not fly away.

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About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

One Response to Serenade for Kelp Horn

  1. Pingback: My Opinion of the Pinyon « The Journeys of Thomas Anomalous

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