“The Last Layer of the Ocean: Kayaking through Love and Loss on Alaska’s Wild Coast”
By Mary Emerick; Oregon State University Press, 2021; 185 pages; $22.95
From 2002 to 2009 author Mary Emerick worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Sitka as a wilderness ranger, charged with monitoring and managing use on Baranof and Chichagof islands. She initiated a kayak ranger program in which she, with other Forest Service employees or volunteers, traveled the island coastlines by kayak to check on campsites, archaeological sites, trespass cabins, invasive plants, trails and the people who used the public lands for hunting and recreating. In “The Last Layer of the Ocean” she describes that life, when rain was a near-constant companion and storms threatened but also when rare sun-kissed days illuminated hidden bays, sparkling waters, and every shade of green.
Emerick brings to life her wilderness experience and the beauty of the natural world in crisp, lyrical descriptions. After battling huge swells across a passage, “... the bay opened up like a gift, unwrapping itself as we moved deeper inside until we were enclosed inside its heart, a circular expanse of sheer gray cliffs and water the same untroubled color as the sky.” After landing on shore, she and her companion “resembled oversize ballerinas, still wearing our spray skirts as we stood on our sea legs, rubber boots sinking into a soft sand beach.”
There is more to her story than kayaking adventures, though, suggested by the book’s title about layers. There are, Emerick tells us, five layers to the ocean, although most of us never see beyond the top one, known as the sunlight zone. The deeper zones are increasingly dark and mysterious. Emerick examines her life by descending from the surface aspects into greater depths as she grapples with issues of self-worth, restlessness, love and finding home.
We learn that while Emerick did not know how to swim or ride a bike and was terrified of bears, she had shown strength and competence as a wildland firefighter, trailbuilder, search-and-rescuer, and marathon runner. But she had never settled — not with a romantic partner and not in a place or job. “The problem, I knew, was with me. I was missing something that other people seemed to have, some puzzle piece that I could not quite find.”
Hence, Alaska. At the age of 38 Emerick, like so many before her, thought that Alaska might be her answer.
Once in Alaska, she connected with a friend of a friend who had himself only recently moved there, and they soon married. Here, again, the ocean layers come into play. The man, never named, is uncommunicative, neither sharing much of himself nor seeming interested in getting to know Emerick at any depth. Much of the story follows the author’s efforts to make her marriage work. Her days in the field are her happy days, while her days at home are lonely and emotionally cold.
Emerick cleverly organizes her chapters with titles related to kayaking strokes and techniques — Launch, Forward Stroke, Paddler’s Box, Back Paddle, Sweep Stroke, and so on, continuing to Wet Exit, Self-Rescue, T Rescue, and Roll. These provide handy metaphors for the progress of her Alaska life. She becomes more confident, in life as in kayaking, with time, until she’s able to free herself of old fears and her poorly-matched marriage.
While issues of identity, purpose and finding one’s place in the world are common to all of us, Emerick’s deep dives into her own doubts and insecurities may be TMI for some readers. Fortunately, the personal introspection finds a balance with lively scenes and descriptions related to life on and around the islands of her domain. She takes readers not just into the natural beauty and adventure she finds there but into some of the region’s fascinating history.
“The islands were mostly empty now, but years ago hundreds of people had been here, scattered through the bays and inlets we now paddled. This island, Chichagof, Shee Kaax, had seen the eager and the desperate gold miners on a large and small scale, cannery workers, fox farmers who lasted until the fur market went under, and families who came hoping for better lives. Their dwellings stood mute and forgotten. Of the Tlingit, who were there first, there were few signs. The big, wet forest had a way of reclaiming everything.”
Elsewhere, when she participates in a search for a missing plane, she captures the pathos. “I kept expecting to see someone waving us down, or a piece of wreckage, some signpost to show that people could not simply vanish. Below us, though, there was only water and trees, a monotonous backdrop of dark blue and lighter green. Occasionally another plane crossed our path, on the same mission.”
Emerick marveled at those who found their true homes in Alaska. Although she treasured her time in Southeast, she left Alaska after seven years, after apparently learning what she needed to about herself. She now works for the Forest Service in Oregon. She is the author of two earlier books — “The Geography of Water,” a novel set in Southeast Alaska, and “Fire in the Heart: A Memoir of Friendship, Loss, and Wildfire.”