On July 27, 2020, a hot Monday afternoon, a mother and daughter, two summer residents of Bailey Island, Maine, walked out onto their dock and dove in for a swim. At that point, the island juts south and Mackerel Cove’s iconic harbor lies just to the north, with low cliffs defining the shoreline; the sea-floor drops off rapidly. The two women were swimming 10 or so feet apart, 20 yards offshore, when the daughter heard a splash, turned and saw her mother dragged down so only her hand waved above the surface. The daughter swam back into mayhem: her mother floating up, blood swirling. She swam for shore calling for help.
It came quickly from two vacationers who leaped into their rented double kayak and paddled the short distance out to find more blood, the mother floating inert. They tried to help, but one of the them freaked and they paddled back in. The distraught vacationer got out, another person got in and they went back. Working as quickly as they could, the kayakers brought the mother back to shore. More help arrived, bearing equipment and training, but could not bring the mother back.
It was clear that some sort of attack from below had occurred, and later that day, a tooth fragment found in the mother’s wetsuit confirmed suspicion: the attacker had been a great white shark, an apex predator and long-time visitor to Maine waters. But, until that Monday, it had never been known to attack Maine’s people. Great whites spend their lives stalking seals, their preferred food, and Maine’s coast is increasingly seal rich. Speculation about this state-first attack was that the mother’s dark wetsuit made her look like a seal, especially from below, where the bellies of big fellow fish are almost invariably white.
The waters felt changed. Over the ensuing days, more sightings of fins filtered in from Casco Bay’s peninsulas and islands.
Great whites are known as “ambush” hunters, who like to appear, suddenly, from unseen angles. From below, for example. Here, an unescapable image visits the mind: a person, you, skims or splashes along the surface, one part air, one part water. Swimming at depth, a force of nature sees this intermediate being and primary instinct kicks in. The shark aims up, accelerates toward this first-ever hit. The sea, dark, opaque, explodes where you meet.
I spend pleasurable hours in a sea kayak, usually sliding solo over the water, my pace contemplative, my mind settled, or settling, from land-bustle. And, over 20 years of such floating, I’ve grown adept and comfortable enough to cross miles-long stretches of open water to visit far islands or capes, when the weather’s not wilding. So I sometimes find myself at distance from grounded security, afloat on this volatile fluid in which I am neither gilled for breathing nor finned for travel. I am, in short, out there.
Out there, I also slide along another surface, between my observing senses and my story-spinning imagination. As I paddle I am always watching, watching, and listening, and feeling, even sniffing, for the way of the waves, for the wind’s will, for the flash and spill of light and water. I want to be right there, fully present and balanced in this world on water.
I am also aware—who wouldn’t be?—that I am buoyed up by a second reality, which is fantastic, which stretches below, sometimes for hundreds of feet, and about which I know little. My yellow-bladed paddle looks wavy even a foot below the surface; I press the shaft forward and the blade shifts by, vanishes to my right. It lifts, leaves a little whorl of water, stretches out again. I glide ahead; my mind starts down. Into tales remembered, into tales imagined.
Even as a boy, rowing my grandfather’s punt back and forth over my allowed slice of sea in front of his cottage in Friendship, Maine, I knew there was a lot of life beneath me. I fished for pollock and mackerel, saw occasional lobsters backing across the ocean floor, watched kelp and seaweed wave in the currents. When I swam out to the tidal rock 10 yards off shore, I never felt alone. This wasn’t companionship of the sort I knew from my Little League team; it was the presence of “other.” Every slippery touch set off a little recoil.
Part of controlling this anxiety lay in tidal pools. Whenever the tide ran out, I could clamber out onto the seaweed-slippery rocks of Walker Point and find the pools the sea left behind. Inches deep, they were transparent, and, if you watched for a bit, full of life, which ambled along the bottom, or crept out from under tiny ledges, or simply swam back and forth, awaiting the freedom of the next tide. Mystery revealed; the sea was purged of its darkness. Seeing was a way of controlling, of being your own little hovering divinity. Still, that lordly feeling vanished when I ventured out. Out there, I was the little life, creeping out from under some ledge.
One day, I was fishing near the cottage, when, in my peripheral vision I caught commotion, which became a big splash, then a circling outwash of small waves. “Whoa,” I said to myself, “what was that?” Today, I know that it was probably a seal, perhaps a largish fish, chasing something smaller. But then (and even now), it was reminder that I was tiny and slow and just above someone else’s world.
Still my worry-down had competition from the sky. Throughout elementary school and into 7th grade, I got repeated exposure to what my elders deemed a “vital lesson in survival.” This didn’t take place where much such learning did, on the playground. Instead, I was in a learning-approved space, my social studies classroom, for example. One day, early in the 7th grade, as befitted this orderly room, I was seated next to my alphabetical twin, Fred S., in our joined desks.
It was a usual Monday, and Fred 1 and Fred 2 (as we were called) were paying marginal attention to Mr. S., our teacher. I’d just poked Fred with a dull pencil. As he elbowed me, the door swung open to admit the assistant principal, and we heard a loud “Duck.” The room erupted with bodies hurled to the floor; the two new kids sat like periscopes above the roiled sea, looking weirded out.
No flash of light followed, no in-crash of flying glass. I lay there, curled on the wooden floor, waiting for the all clear.
“I think I’ll just leave you there,” we heard, and Mr S. resumed talking about Manifest Destiny.
Just another duck-and-cover drill.
Gradually, we uncurled and slipped back up into our seats. I looked out the window; the sky was its usual opaque self. But I never looked up now without wondering what might be coming down.
In my late teens, I learned how to surf, which led to a summer job on the Jersey shore. From 8 PM until 3 AM, I flipped burgers and plunged fries into aging oil, serving one-week refugees from Passaic and Bayonne and the boardwalk bars. Every other customer at the Daree Delish Charpit’s counter called me Buddy.
Cleanup took until 4 AM, and then Buddy was free. Most mornings, as the inky sky went gray, he retrieved his board and went to the beach to see what might be rolling in. And most mornings—he wasn’t picky—there was something to ride, and sometimes WAVES appeared in CAPS.
On one such morning, Buddy was alone (as was often true), and the waves were amped up to 5 or 6 feet. Which meant that getting outside the break took Buddy a couple of hundred yards offshore. A little bit of “out there.” After a few good rides, he was sitting on his board, scanning the incoming waves, when he happened to glance to his right. There, 10 feet away, was a fin, jutting from the water, black.
Buddy went all deliberate. He lay down on his board, stretched his arms forward and began to paddle, careful not to splash, trying to be smooth, just another 10-footer out for a morning swim. Some yards later a wave caught up with Buddy, and he rode it in lying down until it ran out of itself. Then he splashed out of the water and began to breathe again. Sitting on his board on the sand, Buddy looked back out to sea.
Now, where he’d been, there were two fins. But—and here he got all embarrassed in front of himself—the fins rolled up and down. Yes, they were mother-fins, big ones, but they were attached to dolphins, a friendly fish. Dolphins! he said aloud and went back out.
I am still Buddy, in fractions that vary by the day.
It’s not often that I’ve heard the sea hiss. But here my friend, Geoff, and I are in our kayaks on a wind-torn day on the north side of Ragged Island, some 4 miles offshore. Everywhere around me, more pronounced even than the roar of big waves smashing into rocks, there’s hissing. I keep scanning and can’t find the source, but my ears are locked in on the sound. Is it intensifying, verging on sizzle like a pan of overheating oil? Is it a threat? Are we on the verge of some elemental blowup? That it comes from outside experience dials me into the sound even more.
A couple of hundred miles out to sea, a tropical storm is roiling the Gulf of Maine, and, even as our sky is clear, the storm is the day’s news. Winds gusting to 30 mph streak dense foam across live water. We are jumpy from the aftermath of a 6-foot swell’s meetings with this stony island outpost. All this action drives our way from the south, and here on the north side we’re mostly sheltered from it. But we’ve edged out to the east, only a few yards from the turn that would begin our usual circle of the island. We’re talking (yelling, really) about whether or not to round Ragged.
The big swells roll through the channel just ahead, and suddenly I know what’s hissing! It’s the foam, sometimes a foot thick, as its trillions of little bubbles pop. It is a long sustained sound as one bank of foam shrinks and another, fresh from formation, floats our way. I lift a paddleful of foam to near my ear, and the sound intensifies further. Who would go by choice into such a maelstrom of beaten water and air? Not Buddy.
Geoff, who is more skilled, has a decision to make. The outer side of Ragged is the roughest place around. Tens of miles of open sea stretch south from it, and the mix of rebound, rocks and swirled current creates chaos all along its half-mile coast. When the waves are big, that chaos turns thuggish. Geoff eases closer to say that he’s not going around. “It would give you the dilemma of how long to wait if I didn’t show up on the other side,” he says. Yes, that would be a lonely wait, I think. We back away from the foam and broken water, and tuck in under the north-facing cliff. The wind furls overhead in sheets of mist; the waters seem to rush by.
What’s above and what’s below dwindle. It is, right down to the hissing foam, all about the membranes in this little envelope of air where we live and breathe.
It is July 25 and July 29, 2020, on the Pond Island ledges, halfway between Bailey Island and Ragged Island.
The water ruffles where it shallows up over the ledges, but I’ve hit a rhythm, and, every so often, when I look up, Ragged has shifted closer. Twenty yards ahead I see a fin, then another, rolling my way. A pair of dolphins feeding through the morning. I stop paddling, sit quietly, and they draw right up alongside; I can hear the rasp of the intake through their blowholes. Perhaps I give off a vibration as I lean to look; they dive and are gone. Visited, a little jazzed, I go back to scribing my way out.
A spotter plane, part of a new vigilance in Casco Bay, flies low over Pond Island. As it crosses above the ledges on this morning look-see, the pilot spots an oblong shape in the thin water; he circles back, drops down a bit more. Yes, it’s a shark, by shape and size, a great white, estimated at 14 feet. It too is cruising the morning, on the lookout.
Anxious times carry question. Which hopes for answer. Which offers a kind of order, what Frost called “a momentary stay against confusion” in his signature essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Which for me has always triggered this: what is the figure a question makes?
Here’s my question: Where does worry originate? Do you worry up? Or down? Does each of us live in one of two camps of primal fear: those who worry woe comes from below, and those who worry that it falls like miasma or meteor from above? Do we mumble and whisper our prayers down or up to counter our fears?
I think each of us comes from one camp, and I am decidedly from the tribe that worries below.
Gray colors this unknown. The thought materializes on a cloudy August day while I am sitting on a favorite boulder looking out to sea from Simpson’s Point. The sky is a stratus lid, and Casco Bay’s water, swelling to high tide, reflects that flat gray. Or is it the other way around? The two surfaces seem the mirrored limits of a world squeezed in between them: our world, shot with fir-green islands and breathable air that hovers just above the gray water and beneath the gray sky. Perhaps, I think, even in this placid moment, end times aim up or plummet our way.
Still, I carry my boat to the tideline. I go out into this thin interim. I scan for what’s rising, trace the cloud-shadows running before me, and, even as I do, awash with uncertainty, I am afloat in wonder.