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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat


Dancing with Seals

By Tamia Nelson

December 24, 2002

Look, stranger, at this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.

    W.H. Auden, Look, Stranger!

I'd seen the Atlantic before, but always from a settled shore or crowded public beach. This was a different ocean. Conifer-crowned islands. Rocky inlets. Sparkling bays that were transformed into pungent mud-flats at low water, their rich, rank expanse dissected by the shifting channels of freshwater streams. And no sign of human presence except for an occasional lonely cottage or distant fishing boat, its passage signaled more by sound than sight.

It was early October on the south coast of New Brunswick. Green water, flecked with curds of foam, slopped against the cobbles at my feet. A barely-perceptible breeze dimpled the surface of the swell. The sky rose in a gray-blue wash above the black rock walls of the narrow cove.

I looked out beyond the mouth of the cove, toward the Bay of Fundy. Then the scene changed. Far away to the south, right at the limit of my vision, a tiny conical form rose from the water, a dark silhouette against the lighter surface of the sea. And then another. And another. Soon the sea was dotted with small dark forms, bobbing up and down in the easy swell. Now and then one would disappear as quickly as it had come into view.

Was I seeing things? I blinked repeatedly in an attempt to clear my clouded, road-weary vision. But when I opened my eyes, the shifting constellation of bobbing forms was still there. I reached for my binoculars, not remembering that they were packed away until my hands closed on air. I didn't bother walking over to the truck to get them. The short autumn day was coming to a close. Even as I watched, the small dark forms faded from view, leaving me wondering what I'd seen.

Then something popped up only fifty feet from where I stood, ending the mystery. There was no mistaking the puppy-like head of a seal. We inspected each other warily in the failing light. I'd seen seals before, but only in an aquarium tank in a so-called "fun park." Fun for some, perhaps. But not, I think, for the seals. They patrolled the boundaries of their sterile, circumscribed world in endless, weary circles, their progress marked by the click of camera shutters. Whenever one of them happened to look my way, I saw no hint of interest or acknowledgement in its eyes, only the stupefied gaze of resignation, madness, or despair.

The animal now before me was very different. Its eyes were alive with an intelligent curiosity. Automatically, I inclined my head in greeting, but the seal didn't return my nod. Instead, it pivoted slowly from side to side, its face mirroring bemused wonderment at the awkward, land-bound creature it saw before it. Then it, too, slipped back down into the water. I waited a few minutes to see if it would pop up again. When it didn't, I turned away from the sea and trudged over to the truck.

The following morning saw Farwell and me launching our boats in another sheltered cove. It was just past high water. Our kayaks were stretched slalom boats, ill-suited to challenging strong tidal currents. That didn't matter, though. Tomorrow we hoped to make a trip out to a small island just visible to the south. But today we had no plans beyond exploring the margins of "our" cove. At most, we thought we might paddle a short distance up a nearby creek and then float down with the ebb of the tide.

And that's more or less what we did. When we got back, after navigating carefully around sandbars and driftwood strainers, the sea had abandoned our cove. We dragged our boats over the wrack-strewn cobbles, then sat down on the trunk of an uprooted cedar to take in the scenery.

Time and tide wait for no one. I'd heard that old saw before, of course, but only now was I beginning to understand it. As a geologist, I'd thought I had a pretty good handle on time. And so I did—in one sense at least. I could certainly speak glibly about changes occurring over millions of years. I'd also acquired a rudimentary understanding of the earth's long history. I had only to look at the cliffs around us to know I was seeing a vagrant scion of European stock, marooned on the North American continent when the Atlantic Ocean divided Europe from America, more than 300 million years ago.

The tides were something else, though. I was at home among clashing continents. I could chart the ebb and flow of land masses with an easy familiarity. But the great slosh of the Atlantic that filled and emptied this cove twice each day was altogether alien. I knew the record of the rocks, to be sure, but I didn't know anything at all about the living sea. I knew something about the earth's skeleton, but I'd yet to learn its heart.

All this came to me much later, however. At the time, my attention was given over to simpler things. We ate our lunch, napped, and waited for the sea to return to our cove. (WE wait for the tide, I thought, and this commonplace realization took on the semblance of profundity.) The weak afternoon sun warmed the salt mud and seaweed, releasing an intoxicating stink that was equal parts new life and decay. A cow moose came to the edge of the creek we'd explored earlier, paused to study us, and then trotted across. She negotiated the steep banks with great care and delicacy, vanishing into a tangle of hemlocks. It was like a visitation from some great prehistoric beast.

Hour by hour, throughout the afternoon, the Atlantic crept closer. At suppertime, we launched our boats again, paddling over the now-hidden mud-flats and cobbles. We were the only paddlers in the cove, but I soon realized we weren't alone. One after another, the faces of seals appeared above the surface of the sea. As we continued our brief circumnavigation, their heads swiveled to follow our progress. They watched us in silence, disappearing and reappearing, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away. The only sounds were the murmur of the low surf and the splash of our paddles.

A little later, as we hauled our boats out of the water in the deepening twilight and a thick sea fog rolled in from the south, the seals came close inshore. Once again, their eyes met mine. For a few minutes we looked at each other across the unbridgeable gulf between our two worlds. Then we went our separate ways. Farwell and I climbed up to our rented cabin, to the evening news and a late supper. The seals, still silent, followed the now-ebbing tide back out to the open sea. There was no question which of us was more at home.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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