Gone deep – Little Boat on the Big Blue

The deep blue and bright blue lay before her, stitched together by a grey-green horizon of stone and pine. Far above her head, the wind that knows no land whipped wispy, white waves across the sky. Just below her paddle, milk-white moon jellies danced slowly around the emerald-green sea-grass. A pair of bald eagles swooped and chided somewhere behind her.

She paused to watch the jellyfish and rested her paddle across the cockpit. Stretching stiff fingers, she glanced over her shoulder. The rhythm of her paddle in the swell had captured her thoughts and she had briefly forgotten her pod, paddling too far ahead. Now she waited for them to close the gap. They were a strange group: land-walkers disguised as a colorful pod of marine animals. More brightly dressed perhaps than a sea otter or harbor seal, they were at least as colorful as the orange starfish, magenta anemones, and yellow-green kelp that thrived in these waters. The others glided up next to her and they decided to take a rest break – time for food and fresh water.

A few of the weary paddlers laughed and chatted while others sat quietly watching water, shore, or sky, stroking the water to maintain formation. The chill, northwest wind seemed to be gaining strength, cutting a chop in the waves. Above them a low, undulating cloud stream from over the hills hinted at a possible weather shift. Only another couple miles to the next beach and potential campsite – but how long would those two miles take? At her signal, the group fell back into formation, ready to move on.

They paddled steadily for about forty minutes and rounded the point that marked the next beach. The clouds had continued to drop, and a stiff wind blew steady across their bows. It was time to come off the water – little progress would be made this afternoon. She sent two boats into the beach to scout out a campsite. The others waited just off shore, holding formation and looking for the signal. At the “all clear,” each boat went in one at a time. Land the boat – all shore hands haul in – the paddler finds legs – help the next one.

The girl unloaded the contents of her small boat onto a rocky patch of beach. No use getting it sandy so soon. Each move is deliberate and stiff, as though the water had made her limbs forget their original mode of movement. She touched her toes again to re-straighten her legs and loosen her knees. The tips of her fingers throbbed – the callouses were getting thicker.

The group moves quickly on land and soon a home appears where there was none: water boiling under high-strung cook tarps in one direction, sleeping mats unrolled in low-slung dome tents in the other. Two had already gone looking for fresh water and a few had begun to organize dinner. All had changed into dry clothes in an effort to get warm. They were land-creatures again, if only for a few hours. At dawn, they would wake, put the wet clothes back on, reduce their home to hatch-sized bundles, and return to the ocean.

What is it to live in the seam – the thin piece where land and water overlap – the ever-changing edge between the firm and the fluid, rock and water, sand and spray? What is it like to use only what you need and take only what you can carry?

It is a precarious place, that border land. Safety and success depend on quick perception, sound judgment and tenacious adaptability. The conditions of land and water have direct, tangible effects on the condition of the people traveling between them. Is the weather changing? Will it change the waves? Where is the tide in its cycle? Are there rocks in hidden shallows ahead? Will there be a beach to land on if the waves get steep? Once on that beach, will there be a sheltered place to make camp?

In the front country, we have built many fortresses to shield us from the rhythms and whims of nature so that we may live by our own designs. In the back country however, all human designs are necessarily subject to those rhythms and whims. The unwary adventurer who blazes forth, ignoring the subtle shifts and changes of nature, will be at best lucky, and at worst dead.

But are the principles not the same in the front country? Or have we so padded and cushioned our lives that we have forgotten that all life is precarious? We are easily offended when the weather changes our plans, and shocked when our resources run short. We marvel at change and stagger at decay. In a world where we appear to have so much control, it is easy to forget that we live in a dynamic environment where nothing is in fact guaranteed. Safety and success still depend on quick perception, sound judgment and tenacious adaptability.

Whether in city, woods, or water, we all live in the seam and navigate our way along the edge like a little boat on the big blue.

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