Larry, the Orcas, and Me

A Memoir

Photo by Tim Cole on Unsplash

1973, Petersburg, Alaska. Larry and I were house-sitting for a family of friends who were traveling to Seattle for a vacation. They had left us with one rule: we had to provide our own food. Other than that, we were free to use anything the house had to offer.

This included their 15-foot fiberglass skiff. The house backed onto the Wrangell Narrows, a stretch of water that ran between Mitkof and Kupreanof islands. As you probably guessed from the name, it ran between Wrangell Island in the South and Petersburg on Mitkof Island in the north — and it could be very narrow and shallow, depending on the tides.

In fact, the Alaska Marine Highway System — which operates the sea-going ferries that ply the waters between Washington and Alaska — has to base its schedules around the tides in order to make sure the boats have enough water under their hulls when they approach the Narrows.

Larry and I both knew this, and we both were competent at handling boats. Larry, as a commercial fisherman, and me, as a seasoned sailor. So we knew enough to inspect the skiff before we took her out. This included making sure we had enough fuel in the tanks to get us out and back.

Since we were only going to motor across to Kupreanof Island — a vast and epic journey of maybe 50 yards — we didn’t expect any trouble. It was slack tide when we left.

Five minutes later, we were tied to a tree on Kupreanof, and spent an hour or so exploring the island. Big surprise! Kupreanof Island only differed from Mitkof Island is size and lack of human habitation: Kupreanof was larger, while Mitkof had the city of Petersburg — if one could call a town with a year-round population of 2500 people a “city.”

We took another hour to eat the lunches we had packed, and drinking a few bottles of Pepsi (if memory serves me right). Then we untied the boat, started the engine, and headed back across the Narrows.

Halfway across, the outboard motor quit. No problem — we had oars, so we were going to row the last 25 yards.

That’s when the problem hit us: the tide had turned, and we couldn’t row! Have you ever tried to row a heavy boat against a 6 knot tidal current? If we didn’t solve the problem — and quickly — we knew we were in deep water (literally!).

That’s when they came. (Cue scary horror movie soundtrack {maybe the theme from Jaws?}.)

Two large Orcas — killer whales — surfaced next to us, one on either side of the boat, and each once longer than the boat itself. I tried — unsuccessfully — not to be afraid; after all, the local Tlingit and Haida Indians indigenous to Southeast Alaska considered the creatures to be special protectors of humans, and that seeing one was considered a good omen. Yes, I knew all this, and yet….

I guess they knew what they were talking about, those wise elders. The Orcas pressed against the sides of the hull, sandwiching us between them. They then gave big sweeps of their tales, propelling us forward with just enough speed to reach the shore before releasing us and heading for deeper water.

Ever since then I’ve considered the Orca to be my spirit animal.

I’m not a big fan of the supernatural, but I do agree that there are more things in heaven and earth, as some Danish guy once said. So I don’t know if was a coincidence or a result of a good omen, but my daughter was born just over a year later in Petersburg.

Anyway, that’s how I became an admirer of Orcas, the so-called “killer whales.”

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