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A Whale Hunt: How a Native-American Village Did What No One Thought They Could

Chapter 2: The Car Ride

I remember exactly where I was when I read that the Makah were going whaling, when I felt suddenly compelled to go to my map and point to Cape Flattery, when I felt the place calling me. I was at home in the kitchen and it was one and a half years before the Makah actually threw a harpoon at a whale. I'd just heard on the radio that they wanted to try, and I was amazed, of course, that anybody would want to even attempt to hunt a whale, what with a whale's size and its connotations, and I was amazed that whale hunting was part of the tradition of this place I'd never even heard of before, even if that tradition had died or was disused. But in the beginning, it was the cape itself that most amazed me, just the idea of the place. I'd been living in the great Pacific Northwest for several years, and Cape Flattery was always one of those spots that cried out to me from my atlas as I studied it in the evenings, prowling America's far corner and all its farthest-away places for the nourishment of my about-to-go-to-bed soul: it is a place where the road north and west ends emphatically, a peninsula that reaches out to the sea, to the vast aquamarine-colored area that is -- in the color codes of my map, anyway -- not described, as if infinite and immeasurable. It's where the tip of America meets the North Pacific, where the water seems charged and about-to-be roiled, like the water off the bow of a ship.

My work being what it is, I generally go to places as a reporter, as a filer of facts for hire, so after Cape Flattery called me, I made a few calls myself, and, in time, found a magazine editor who hired me to type up a quick and simple report on the tribe's plans, a few paragraphs that would pay for my way there. I set aside a few days to check things out. Then, just before dawn on a drizzly fall morning, I stuffed the trunk of my car with raincoats and boots, filled a thermos with coffee, grabbed my brand-new copy of Moby-Dick, which I had never read and which seemed like a good book to take along, and I set off to see how the Makah would go about hunting a whale.a If I had known then that as a result of that day's drive I would be compelled to repeat that six- and sometimes seven-hour drive so many times over the course of the next two years that I can now describe every chain-saw sculpture along the road in my sleep; if I had known that I would be living for weeks on the edge of the woods in a cold, damp shack or often in an old tent that was so leaky that I finally had to break down and buy a new one, which was better but still leaked sometimes; if I had known that I would eventually be compelled to temporarily abandon my family and drive for days along the length of the West Coast of North America in hopes of touching a whale in a tropical lagoon in Mexico; if I had known that I would sit in a hot, dark sweat lodge and think about my soul or the soul of anybody else, for that matter; if I had known that I would end up diving nearly naked into the ice-cold winter water around Cape Flattery or end up going out on little boats that were chased by animal rights activists whom I didn't have anything against really -- if I had known any of that before I took off that drizzly fall morning, I might have stayed in bed.

On that autumn morning, shortly after I pulled out of my driveway in Portland, I felt the secret expectancy of the beginning of a long trip, an excited shiver. I got on the interstate and crossed the wide Columbia River, which runs through the Northwest like a spinal cord, and I saw Mount Hood, the glacier-topped volcano that stands up in the Cascade Range, cutting a black silhouette against the red rising-sun sky. I drove past suburban developments and car dealerships, past Mount Saint Helens and the huge drumlins of ash left over from Mount Saint Helens' last explosion, past tree farms and paper mills and aluminum plants and rivers such as the Lewis and the Kalama, the Cowlitz and the Skookumchuck. Sometimes, I passed trucks carrying cut trees and sometimes the same trucks passed me in a plume of forest rain, violent sixty-five-mile-an-hour weather systems. Above me, gray clouds herded over the road faster than I could believe.

For the first couple of hours on my trip, I was headed in the direction of Seattle, which is a sophisticated city, a city with happening restaurants and specialty coffees and whole-grain muffins, a city filled with people who walk around in technologically advanced outdoor fabrics, who work for software companies and Internet sites and live on a series of beautiful lakes and bays -- a place where, in general, you will not see a lot of whale hunting going on, much less hunting of any kind. But halfway to Seattle I turned left, which is to say west, and I worked my way onto the Olympic Peninsula. The Olympic Peninsula is not Seattle; it is Seattle's sometimes-still-wild backyard, the place where residents go to commune with nature or to ponder their place in the universe or to do what most people in Seattle do when they head for the woods, what is a kind of postindustrial ritual: utilize state-of-the-art outdoor gear.

The Olympic Peninsula is a Connecticut-sized land of mountains and rivers, of state parks and timber mills, of vistas that sometimes look scenic and sometimes look chewed up, fields left for logged. At the heart of the Olympic Peninsula is Olympic National Park, which was first designated a park by President Theodore Roosevelt, who hoped to preserve the indigenous elk population in the Olympic Mountains and who was an avid elk hunter. Taverns stand in for postmodern restaurants serving French-Thai food on the Olympic Peninsula; llama farms stand in for corporate campuses; people are as likely to hunt and fish as kayak and hike. Once, in a gas station on the peninsula -- in a particularly clean and friendly place across from a yard where acres of trees that had recently been converted to telephone poles were waiting to be strung with wires -- I watched a man drive up with a dead deer in the back of his pickup truck. He was a logger and he'd spotted the deer while he was in the midst of chainsawing a tree; he had grabbed his rifle just in time. At the gas station, he posed for a Polaroid picture of himself and the dead deer that was subsequently posted on the bulletin board across from the men's room: in the photo, blood splashed across the logger's face and his sawdust-covered work shirt and jeans; the deer's eyes were far away.

The Olympic Peninsula is, geologically speaking, like an island that is nearly still out at sea. Fifty-five million years ago, off the coast of what was then becoming the North American continent, the Olympic Peninsula was a collection of sand and sediments. Basalt remains of underwater volcanic eruptions were later thrown in, and over a period of millions of years, all of it was eventually forced up and out of the ocean and smashed into the rest of North America. When these two enormous slabs of rock met, they ground into each other with immeasurable force: according to the Olympic National Park's literature, the earthquakes that resulted were "more violent than any the modern world has seen." The mountains that the Olympic Peninsula ended up with as a result aren't especially tall as far as western mountain ranges go, but they are tall given their proximity to the Pacific. They stand and stare the ocean wind straight in the eye and collect the moisture from the sky like eight-thousand-foot-high rain gauges. And there is a lot of moisture to collect: in the rain forest at the center of the Olympics the yearly rainfall count is between twelve and fourteen feet. Rain is the theme of the Olympic Peninsula.

As it rained and rained and eventually poured on the day I first drove up to Cape Flattery, I imagined that one rainy night the Chehalis River might again cut the peninsula off completely and cast it away. Eventually, I came to Aberdeen, on Grays Harbor, where fog mixed with the steam from the pulp mills, where huge yards were filled with piles of logs the size of discount office-supply stores (piles of logs that are small compared with what they have been traditionally). I passed through Hoquiam, another old logging town; through a logging town called Humptulips, and then through the logged and unlogged woods and over the rivers raging down from the peaks of the Olympics. I passed a clear-cut that had recently been set on fire -- a forest management practice that halfheartedly mimics an actual forest fire burn: a faux inferno. I drove through an alley of huge cedar and Douglas fir trees that darkened the road despite the clearing sky. And then, all of a sudden, the woods opened up like a curtain to feature the Pacific Ocean. From the edge of the Olympics' forest, the Pacific looks so big and vast that it commands you to park at the tree line and walk into the dark gray sand and feel the foamy coldness on your feet and wade in a ways. When I was back on the road, the glacier-covered mountains at the heart of the Olympics peeked over not-so-faraway ridges. Just past the town of Forks, a road sign advertised the ancient land of the Makah at last. It said: MOST N.W. POINT.

The road to Neah Bay is serpentine, a thin twist of wet double-yellow-lined gray. It flirts for twenty miles with the edge of cliffs that seem to stand at the mercy of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and its wide swath of soon- to-be Pacific Ocean. Mapmakers mark it as scenic when it would be better marked IMAX: waterfalls and cliffs and mud slides on the left; white-capped blue water dotted with tall, just-off-the-shore rock formations on the right. I could see Vancouver Island, in Canada, across the vast strait and through the clearing sky. Its mountains were topped with snow and clouds.

And out in the water, I looked for whales -- I looked as long as I dared, that is, until I remembered the road and the hairpin turns and then jerked the steering wheel back toward land. And while I was looking and jerking and swearing and doing my best to stay alive, I got whale on the brain: the idea of one floated in my head like a portent.

The sight of this creature in my mind's eye contributed to the concerns I had vis-à-vis my life on this dizzyingly beautiful cliff-side road, so that by the time I pulled into Neah Bay, and saw the boats tied up peacefully in the marina, and the little houses tucked gently beneath the Olympic Peninsula's most western peaks (the very last hills before the sea), I was hunched over the wheel and exhausted.

A Whale Hunt: How a Native-American Village Did What No One Thought They Could
by by Robert Sullivan

  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0684864347
  • ISBN-13: 9780684864341