The current was weakening towards slack – the moment between tides when the sea becomes motionless and kelp bulbs expose themselves to the calm pewter surface of Puget Sound. As I contemplated the stillness from the cockpit of my kayak, I re-considered my choice of not notifying anyone of my plan for kayaking in the San Juan Islands this morning. It happened to be Christmas Day, my first since getting divorced, and I just couldn’t muster any Christmas spirit. So why bother anyone with my mopey demeanor, even if my goal was to paddle through the dangerous narrows of Deception Pass?

As an experienced solo kayaker and guide for Sea Quest Kayak Tours based in Friday Harbor, I know that failing to file a float plan with a friend should immediately qualify me for a Darwin Award. Deception Pass has swallowed entire ships full of men! Currents can exceed 8 knots and generate standing waves, rips and whirlpools. The frigid waters and sheer rock walls offer no escape if things go wrong. And kayaking alone amplifies these dangers. So why had I chosen this course today? Was it a bit of the depression that so many people experience around the holidays?

I certainly didn’t feel like having an extreme kayak adventure in the San Juan Islands this day, especially when the reality of my failed marriage weighed so heavily upon me. But I have learned that when my soul is adrift or feeling bruised, the solitude and steady rhythms of sea kayaking serve to sooth and heal. The aggravations within my mind simply needed to surrender to the total mindfulness required for safely navigating Washington’s Deception Pass.

Kayak whale watching from Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

Slipping into the cockpit of a kayak is a signal to my mind to allow all my worries to be left behind in my gentle wake. But today I was having a particularly hard time drowning the thoughts of my recent divorce. I wasn’t sure I had the energy to make the charge through Deception Pass and for a while I just sat with my eyes closed and focused on my breathing. The sensation of floating alone in the Salish Sea began to work on me like a healing balm. The cries of gulls and eagles, the iodine smell of kelp forests, conspired to push away my thoughts and allowed me to observe my emotions without having them control me.

With the water being so calm, I was able to keep my eyes closed without risk of losing my balance in the icy waters. I began to stretch the muscles of my upper body to shake away any vestiges of tension and prepare for some hard paddling. While bending forward with arms outstretched for my kayak’s bow, I felt a sudden and sharp wave strike my kayak that snapped my eyes open. It was at that instant I found myself gazing directly into the gigantic eye of a gray whale! How could something so massive be so stealthy?

San Juan Islands kayak guide Georg SchluenderAs the gray behemoth slowly glided past, our eyes locks and I felt it acknowledge my presence. Eternity passed in those few moments, along with a thousand shades of mottled gray and aquatic blue. To me, it seemed as if the whale’s eye filled with solemn regret for my sadness. Like alchemy, I felt as if my soul was transformed from lead into gold. Then my own eyes began to fill with tears as unexpected laughter sprang from deep within my belly!

The whale’s Christmas gift to me is something that I will forever hold. I came to the San Juan Islands to seek refuge from my own negative thoughts and was provided solace of the mind and freedom of the soul. Although eternal in impact, my connection with this gray whale lasted less than two minutes. It helped to forge the connection we all share with the Universal Truth of Oneness. To this day, whenever I feel lonely and adrift, the memory of this whale’s regard reminds me that I’m never alone.

The end of my story is much more prosaic in comparison. The remainder of the day was marked by many more encounters with beautiful wildlife, although none so dramatic or impactful. But one does bear mentioning, as it serves the perfect counterpoint to my encounter with the benevolent whale. After finishing my kayak trip, I picked up my kayak and began to hike up the trail towards the road. A bald eagle sat upon a branch overhead and as I passed beneath it I heard a splat on my kayak and felt something warmly wet strike my brow. Not all of the gifts of nature as so up-lifting! So I ended my Christmas kayak journey christened by an eagle, blessed by a whale, and feeling content with my place in the universe.

Story contributed by former Sea Quest guide Georg Schluender. Click here to learn more about kayak guide jobs in the San Juan Islands.

Join a Kayak Quest for Whales in the San Juan Islands of Washington