A Hole in the Water — An Excerpt from "Arctic Solitaire"

Paul Souders' small boat plays a big role in his Arctic adventure. Here he explains his love/hate relationship with boats, in spite of his immutable attraction to "C-Sick."
Mountaineers Books Mountaineers Books
September 05, 2018

The following is excerpted from Paul Souders' new book, Arctic Solitaire: A Boat, A Bay, and the Quest for the Perfect Bear. This is from Chapter Five: A Hole in the Water.

On Tuesday, Sep 18, you can hear and see Paul online in his Mountaineers Books Web Series presentation. All who register have a chance to win one of three copies of his book. If you're unable to make it on Sep 18, no need to fret: we'll send you a recording of Paul's talk, and you'll still be eligible to win a copy of the book. Register here: Paul Souders: Arctic Solitaire, or see below for more details.

A HOLE IN THE WATER

This might be a good time to point out that I hate boats. I hate the smell of them. I hate the cloying dampness, the sea-sickening bobbing-cork lurch, and the musty, cramped spaces. Then there’s the unmistakable correlation between time on the high seas and violent psychological disorder. I’m hardly the first to observe that life at sea offers all the benefits of prison time—with arguably worse company and distinctly better odds of drowning.

Yet even as my brain and my accountant shouted, No, no, no, my heart said, Oh hell yeah. It was time for a proper boat. I already had plenty of experience bashing around the waters of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland in small and often leaky Zodiac dinghies. These were not much more than blow-up rafts with an outboard motor bolted on the back. Light enough to carry as airplane luggage, once inflated, they could carry thirty gallons of fuel, weeks’ worth of food, and all the camera gear I was willing to destroy. I covered thousands of miles of remote wilderness coastline in those boats, and felt like I was cheating death at every turn.

Picture the elegant simplicity of paddling a sea kayak across the still waters of some wondrous coastal fjord. Now imagine the exact opposite. Riding in a Zodiac can best be described as neck-snapping, molar-shattering torment. Every ripple, bump, and wave on the water is amplified up the length of your spinal column. There’s no avoiding every drop of rain sent down from heaven nor the torrents of salt spray tossed up by the sea. Then, at the end of a long day’s watery travels, there remained the prospect of locating a suitable campsite, wrestling a soggy tent into submission, rehydrating a bag of freeze-dried cardboard over a hissing camp stove, and settling in for another cozy night’s sleep in the wet dirt, keeping one ear cocked for the sound of approaching bears.

For years, I jealously watched big cabin cruisers motoring up and down Alaska’s Inside Passage as I squelched around the forest. From my dismal perch, I could watch proper yachting couples traveling in leather-upholstered splendor, sipping cocktails and preparing freshly caught salmon in their stainless steel galleys, before they settled down to eat by the warm glow of generator-powered lights. More than once, as I sat shivering in my dinghy, a stranger motored past and asked where my boat was. What could I say but, “You’re looking at it”? If I sniffled and looked suitably pathetic, I could usually wheedle a cup of hot chocolate out of them.

Yet for all the months and miles I’d spent on the water, I didn’t know much about proper boating that I hadn’t picked up from Jacques Cousteau. On Sunday nights at seven thirty. I couldn’t change a spark plug or tie a proper knot or fix a leak, and I was not above navigating with the torn-out pages of a road atlas. Still, I felt smarter than the kayaker I once passed in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords who was using the cartoon map printed on some fish-and-chips joint’s souvenir placemat.

After a decade of Zodiacs, the novelty had worn thin, even as my obsession with the North grew more fevered. I sometimes wonder how life would have turned out if my early reading hadn’t inclined so heavily toward Never Cry Wolf, Arctic Dreams, and their frostbitten literary kin; if I had directed my creative passions more in the direction of swaying palms, warm breezes, and lissome tropical maidens wearing come-hither looks and not much else. If I’d pursued a life less Call of the Wild and more “Margaritaville.” But I was raised Lutheran, and the gray-bearded God of my youth expected us to be brave, work hard, and leave the sun-soaked beaches for more fun-loving folk.

When I found myself with some money to squander, I went out boat shopping. It was more dumb luck than rigorous research that led me to the C-Dory boats. Built just outside Seattle, these rugged fiberglass cabin cruisers were designed for weekend fishing trips around the sheltered waters of Puget Sound. They were small enough—eight-and-a-half feet wide, and twenty-two feet long—to haul on a trailer, but came equipped with a rudimentary bed, table, and kitchen. They reminded me of my old VW camper: simple and functional, but less inclined to leave me stranded with a dropped transmission in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

 I bought the first boat I set eyes on. The owner, Pastor Kirby, had christened her “C-Sick”—that’s Lutheran humor for you. He let me take her out for a white-knuckle test drive on Puget Sound. That I didn’t sink the boat and drown us both I attribute to the power of his silent, fervent prayers. He carefully explained that she was in pristine condition, with low hours and two spotless Honda outboard engines. I half expected the good pastor to tell me he’d only driven her to church on Sundays. I was a fish on the hook; he barely had to reel me in. I paid full asking price, far more than she was worth, but you can’t stop love.

Learn More | September 18

Join us on September 18 from 6-7pm for a free, live web presentation and Q&A session featuring Paul Souders, the author and photographer of Arctic Solitaire. Learn all about Paul's Arctic wanderings aboard C-Sick in search of the perfect polar bear photo. 

Register today, even if you can’t attend on Sept. 18, and we’ll send you a recording of the event. Plus, when you register you’ll automatically be entered to win one of three free copies of  the book!

Register Here to Attend

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The photo at top is by Paul Souders, from his book Arctic Solitaire: A Boat, A Bay, and the Quest for the Perfect Bear.