A Natural Passage Inside To The Soul
Book Review by Author and historian Murray Morgan who contributes free-lance book reviews to The Seattle Morning News Tribune
The Inside Passage, the waterway between Puget Sound and Alaska that lies between the continental shore and the screening offshore island, has intrigued and endangered boatmen since European explorers reported its existence two centuries ago.
Forced to hold well off the coast because their square-rigged ships were hard to maneuver, the first Spanish and English captains reported the islands as part of the continent. Merchant captains, drawn to the North Pacific by the lure of fashionable furs, discovered that the inlets opened onto an inland sea, a discovery that rekindled, briefly, the hope that there might be a Northwest Passage for ships through the inconvenient bulk of North America.
It soon became clear that the channels leading eastward fell thousands of miles short of the Atlantic. They dead-ended against the coastal mountains. But the sheltered waters behind the protective picket line of islands linger in the imagination as mysterious, dangerous and alluring.
Michael Modzelewski spent a year and a half more or less alone on one of the small islands between the northeast tip of Vancouver Island and the mainland. The title of his book, “Inside Passage,” refers not only to the waterway but to his internal voyage of self-discovery, a journey not unlike those taken by Indian youths whose passage to manhood requires them to go alone into the wilderness, undergoing hardship until they have an experience that establishes their linkage to the universe.
Michael’s rite of passage started as a simple pursuit of a lovely French Canadian architect named Genevieve. He had dropped out of the University of Maryland’s football program, tired of competing with the All-American image of his father, a lineman for the Cleveland Browns. Life as a ski bum and environmental writer at Aspen, Colorado was beginning to pall when he encountered Genevieve at a Design Conference that featured Rudi Gernrich’s Space Age swimsuits. He followed her to Vancouver, B.C.
Genevieve introduced him to Will Malloff, a mystic Slav and chiropractor who, with a wife who later left him, had bought an island three miles long and a mile wide “about two hundred miles north and a hundred years back” from Vancouver.
Malloff invited Michael to visit, then to island-sit while he went Outside to earn money for the annual payments on his realm. (“The more you free yourself from the conventional life,” Modzelewski observes, “the harder you have to work to earn that freedom.”)
Michael’s time on the island was hardly that of a Robinson Crusoe. He took over a well-built house, an established garden, and in time he gained the confidence of Kwakiutl Indians living on nearby islands.
Swanson Island lies on a well-charted yacht route to Alaska. During the summer a motley of international boatmen, as well as occasional kayakers, paused in front of the cabin in Breakfast Bay on Blackfish Sound to test the fishing or spend an evening drinking and yarning. Some were interesting, others infuriating.
Michael found the isolation a blessing when summer was gone. He fell into the rhythms of harvest chores, chopping wood, swinging the scythe, tending to the crab pots – a blessing. Eagles and bears and killer whales were neighbors enough. He gloried in the weightless freedom of wetsuit diving, free at last from the burden of gravity. He felt kinship with the Zen mystics.
On day, he was out in the dory, drift-fishing on a sea of glass, asleep with his eyes open, his mind reflecting the calm. “But then I was startled by a fluttering shadow on the water. I looked up. A large feather was falling out of the sky. My hands cupped together and lifted, imitating the swiveling motion. I rose up on my toes and met it in midair.
“Two fingers grasped the quill, twirling the eagle feather in front of my eyes to affirm its actual existence. I bent my head back and looked up. Empty blue. I wondered how in all the billions of cubic inches of the day, how did I happen to be precisely where and when a feather fell from a flying eagle!”
The feather became his totemic banner, never to be allowed to touch the earth, symbol of his experiences during 18 months on Swanson.
Some days later, Michael visited a small, steep islet, climbed to its highest point, then shinned up a spruce to get an eagle’s view of Blackfish Sound. High above him a real eagle soared in widening gyres:
“Then, with a shake of the wings, tucking and sliding down over the peak of air. Thundering down, then angular wedge plunged past me. He flared his wings; wind whined through the splayed feathers as he shot out across the sea, screaming with power. From a valley in the waves, thermal air thrust the eagle straight up, high up, until he was a mere dot in the blue. The current ebbed. The eagle soared the air, flew under a rock of moon, then out over the curve of sea.
“From the horizon, my spirit returned reluctantly.”
Inside Passages offers many such moments.