The North Country

Last summer, I journeyed North to the traditional Williamson gathering place: the charming municipality of Morris, Minnesota. We had the ever-popular Hagen Family reunion, a beautiful trip to the Boundary Waters, and then it was back to work. This year I have ventured even further north, following the ancient flight of the arctic tern. Yes, despite decades of repression and scores of hours hunting elusive warblers, accipiters, and longspurs, everything in life does revolve around birds. Perhaps my parents had it right all along.

The arctic tern, a legendary migrator, travels around the globe every single year. Summers are spent in the thawed northern hemisphere where the birds breed, lay their eggs, and fatten up for the longest seasonal migration route in the animal kingdom: pole to pole. This year, I have decided to match my skills against the wandering avian and set out on my own migratory route. My nesting pair and I began our travels in the rookery of Wedgeport, Nova Scotia and at our furthest we should touch the southern cone of Patagonia some time around December,just in time for mid-summer. At the moment, our journey has just begun, and we’re trying out our wings.

Here up north in New Scotland, the wonders of British maritime life have enveloped me. Of late, much of my surrounding environment has a nautical tinge. One of the beautiful things about D’s house is its proximity to the Tusket River, a decent sized salt water body that cuts into the western tip of the province just east of Yarmouth, one of the two main ferry ports.

Another delight is the gathered assembly’s proclivity for marine and nautical activities. Quite as soon after I arrived, we went for a turn in the small but sufficiently complex sailboat moored just off shore. I was also initiated in sculling technique through the erg, which lead to an actual open-water session that I did not entirely botch. The boat didn’t get very far nor go very fast, but I didn’t 1. accidentally shove an oar in my ribs or 2. fall out of the small boat, if one can even call it that. The scull more resembles an enlarged and fiberglassed water-skeeter carapace on display in some macro-entemology exhibit than any sort of water vehicle designed for human transport. Fortunately, and unlike myself, the water-skeeter is an animal that has achieved some fundamental adaptations which allow it to survive on top of the water. In fact, it’s had several million years more than humans to figure out what sort of structural elements best keep it afloat. In either case, both forms: the natural and the man-made, continue to shuffle across the alternately solid and permeable surface of the water. Gliding along under my own powers of propulsion was an exhilarating experience out there on the Tusket; the strong afternoon sun seemed swallowed whole by the black glassy river, except when it sparkled off the odd patch off wind-ruffled water. I drew in a deep breath each time I flicked the oars into the still river, pushed off with my feet as the boat accelerated. On the backstroke, I lifted my eyes to the clouds and pine trees whose twins had been destroyed by my skittering white oar. Flick, push, and glide again. “Heave ho!” I say, and can’t wait to get back out on the water.

Then, having finished re-reading everyone’s favorite early twentieth century adventure story about early ninteenth century France (that’s the Scarlet Pimpernel, if anyone couldn’t guess), I stumbled upon my next reading project: The Golden Ocean. Now, I am not an aficionado of Patrick O’Brian books, and I’ll admit it, I scorned the twentysomething long series about Captain Jack Aubrey as literary fluff about the equivalent of romance novels. It was much to my surprise then, when I became wholly absorbed in Peter Polyfax’s 1740 circumnavigation trip aboard the HMS Centurion. The world of the British Royal navy seemed that much closer to me with the Henry’s ballast-rock fireplace blazing beside me, warming my cozy tosies. The chimney isn’t quite pieces of eight from Spanish galleons, but those chunks of Argentina, Britian, Ireland, South Africa and other ports unknown arrived on the shores of Nova Scotia in the hull of a merchant ship where they gave up their place for some sort of more profitable cargo.

Each time I woke up, I had to remind myself that I was in Canada, not Great Britain, and that it really was 2006, and not the ages of yore. I also tried my hardest not to tell the dog to “point up” “pull in the sheets” or do any other sailing task whose function I have yet to fully understand. I was positively giddy that I could both trim the sails and comprehend what I was doing, so whenever Midshipman Polyfax did it, we shared a wink, a nod, and a “hor, hor.”

The climax of this maritime immersion came last weekend, just in time for the end of my 24th year. On Saturday evening, as a preemptive birthday celebration, we had a lobster feast. Out on the Nova Scotia peninsula these crustaceans are endemic; they frolic and forage in the rocky seaweed forests that cling to the shores of the Tusket and the Bay of Fundy which surrounds Yarmouth. These tasty babies were caught legally, not poached out on the back yard as D’s grandfather used to do, and as it seems most of the residents of Wedgeport continue to do. The $80,000 lobster fishing license is quite prohibitive to the casual but law-abiding lobster consumer.

We gathered around the newspaper-clad table as one by one the lobsters went head down into a large enameled pot, the only way to truly cook seafood. Since time immemorial (or at least in the lifespan of our great nation) New Englanders and seafood eaters have put a flame under the same white-speckled ten gallon pot and waited for that indefinable moment when the bottom dwelling sea creatures are steamed to perfection. The unadulterated taste of perfectly steamed clams, crabs, or lobsters is an experience that rivals an expertly prepared dish from a five star restaurant. The less time in between the pot and my plate the better.

The five of us waited, fixated on the gentle clanging of the pot as steam burbled out at regular intervals. In order to distract us from our eager tastebuds, D2 (D’s father) took out a small instrument from a sideboard next to the blazing fire. As an accompaniment to the percolating enamelware came the mournful sound of Scottish sea shanties on a penny whistle. Fog magically rolled into the kitchen, I could hear the creak of the deck and the tightened lines, and a salty smell that had nothing to do with the lobsters wafted into my nose. No longer was I nestled in an armchair with The H.M.S. Surprise in my lap, a golden retriever sitting beneath my languidly crossed ankles; I was sailing somewhere through the seas with a hull full of ship’s biscuits and weevils. My mates were thinking longingly of their next meal, and somewhere in the rigging a sailor was playing a simple elegy on the one instrument that would fit in his sea trunk.

Then the lid came off the pot and the spell was broken. Golden melted butter streamed into dishes, mallets and crackers came around the table, and the now thoroughly dead lobsters sat in a steaming pile in front of us. Gleefully I tackled my crustacean, and with expert tutelage from the Henrys, I scraped it clean of all its rich salty meat.

Because of nights like these it is difficult to describe to someone what “the sea” means. It is people, it is images, it is creatures, it is a feeling and an emotion. It calms, it kils, and it connects the world. The last unconquered wilderness on our planet, the salty oceans make up a part of my swarthy soul; I’ve spent a few years cradled by turquoise waves in South Florida, grown up with the grey-browns and (sometimes) blues of the Chesapeake and Mid-Atlantic, and now I have the cold rocky spray of the North Atlantic.

This past year has not been the most relaxing nor the most personally rewarding of my life. There have been a lot of betrayals, a fair amount of disillusionment, a bit of loneliness, and a few scares. I needed to get that out of my system, purge it with something cleansing. My parents used to say that salt water was good for healing, even though it stung. We’ll see if it continues to work as I follow the Atlantic south.

On the day before I left Nova Scotia on “The Cat,” the high speed catamaran ferry, the warmed up enough for a skinny dip in the Tusket. On a secluded beach miles away from human beings, my fellow migrating tern and I waded into chilly water trying to acclimatize ourselves. There’s really no way to adjust to 50-something degree water, so we counted to three and held our breath as we let go into the cleansing saline river. As I laid my now goosebumped self on a sunny rock, my mind seemed to wake up, I felt as though I had shed more than my clothes when I went into the water. I’m ready for a new phase of my life, and I think the northern waters were the perfect thing to get me cleaned up and ready for it.

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