Willamette Sleigh Ride

whaling - 3.jpg“’Tis advertised in Boston, New York, and Buffalo,” I sang at the top of my lungs, “five hundred brave Americans, a-whaling for to go…”

My wife glanced up from her book and cocked an eyebrow at this unexpected musical exuberance. Despite my fine rendition of old New Bedford’s best-known sea shanty, she was giving me The Look. The one that says, tone it down dude“I want to go whaling for my half-birthday,” I explained.

She smiled indulgently, an expression that called to mind her reaction when our seven-year-old expressed a desire to ride a rocket to Jupiter or parachute out of an airplane on a jet-ski.

“Honey,” I continued, “we’re not going to kill a whale; besides, there are no freshwater cetaceans in Portland.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “Go on.”

I explained my idea: Get a few guys in small boats together and head someplace with varied features, such as deep water, shoals, submerged logs; perhaps a small island. A rocky spot just north of Willamette Falls immediately came to mind.

“Each guy gets four harpoons,” I explained. “Further, sailors can row or sail. No motors.”

“Of course,” she agreed, unsuccessfully attempting to hide a smirk. “I take it this is some sort of historical reenactment. Will there be costumes?”

Maintaining my dignity, I continued, “As long as everyone is motorless, the whale may actually have a fighting chance.”

“Um, and what exactly is going to serve as the whale?”

I knew I had her now. “Well, of course, a person with flippers.”

I could see her struggling to maintain a neutral expression, but I plunged on. “And the wily whale is pissed off, just like In the Heart of the Sea. So he hides, lurking in the briny deep, until he can seek vengeance by pounding on the bottom of the boats, engendering fear and dismay in the fleet.” (Even I was impressed by this vision of Nature Unleashed.)

“Fear?” my wife asked. “Fear of what?”
“Capsize of course! The whale will do everything in his power to overturn the whalers and haul them down to his watery realm.”

When it came down to it, I didn’t get five hundred brave Americans, like in the song. But I did get two. And that was enough to go whaling on the Willamette.

whaling - 1.jpgOn a gray, overcast day, our motely group assembled in the nearly deserted parking lot of the boat ramp: Kim in a bright red drysuit, Andy, whose ancient wetsuit resembled faded spandex; and me, my stiff wetsuit sporting several mouse-chewed holes. I loaded my guideboat with some flippers, an emergency dry bag, and two strawberry crates full of tennis balls wound in coir twine.

“Just how’s this supposed to work, exactly?” Andy asked as we paddled upriver.

I hoisted a tennis ball. “Well, these here are the harpoons,” I explained. “See how one end of the twine’s attached to the ball? You hold the other end and hurl the ‘harpoon’ at the whale.”

“OK,” Andy said, “ But it’s not going to stick to him.”

Kim paddled up from behind in his kayak. “How about the whale clamps the ball under his arm, if he gets hit,” he suggested. “And then he can take you for a little sleigh ride.”

The anticipatory gleam in his eye told me we had our whale.

whaling - 2.jpg

We maneuvered among boulders, rock ridges, and small islands. Scrubby trees filled the crevices near the waterline where sediment had managed to accumulate; a few logs leaned lazily into the water, as if they might float away at any moment, and then we spotted our whaling ground: an open spot off the main channel with an Olympic- pool-sized section of open water fringed by a ring of rough basalt rock.

Kim donned his hood, squeezed the air out of his drysuit, and put on his flippers, mask and snorkel.

whaling - 5.jpgJust as I stepped into my guideboat, I was startled by a mighty yet mournful dwooooaaark! I turned quickly at the sound, then laughed to see that Kim was getting fully into character, emitting cetacean rumblings through his snorkel.

Andy strapped a strawberry crate full of “harpoons” to his bow and shoved off. It was time to go whaling.

whaling - 4.jpgWe gave the whale a sporting one-minute lead. At first Kim was too visible. I chucked a harpoon at him, easily, but accidentally clocking him in the head (thank goodness for the neoprene hood). He took the ball under his arm, kicked, and snap, the line parted. My fellow whaler Andy held back, perhaps because this was too close to hunting fish in a barrel.

But after a few minutes, like a group of kids inventing a game, we established basic rules that seemed to work. Shorten the lines so the whale has a chance. The whale needs to be more assertive- diving helps. Each hunter should only get three harpoons.

Soon we were chasing the whale with gusto, our adrenaline pumping with each new spray of water from splashing fins or unexpected knock on the hull. Remaining upright while paddling, steering, and following a target proved a surprising test of my abilities, so focused was I on throwing tennis ball harpoons and reeling them in. It wasn’t difficult to gang up on our whale, and in the first true melee of the game, we chucked so many harpoons that Kim got seriously entangled in the lines.

whaling - 6.jpg

Before long, however, our whale grew more confident, and the match began to even. In the open water we easily outpaced him, but in more intimate settings, when Kim attacked by grabbing the bow of my boat, I wondered how long I would manage to stay dry. And the whale proved powerful enough that once harpooned, he could easily drag us through the water on the sleigh ride he’d promised us.

We three grinned like fools, splashing and chasing each in this beautiful backwater. But I was glad nobody was around to see; I didn’t want this to be a performance, just a bunch of guys out for an afternoon of fun. In the end, I leaped out of my boat like a crazed whaler, tackling my prey for the joy of it.

When I got home, it was starting to rain. Winter was closing in, and this was likely one of the last dry days of the season. And while she may have given me a hard time about going “whaling,” my wife was glad to hear that the gang had had such a good time. Besides, it confirmed her long-standing belief that deep down, there’s still a third grade boy inside most grown men. And actually, I won’t argue with that.

{Note: This is an updated and expanded article from the original Who Wants to Go Whaling?“}

 

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