“The Ocean’s Last Layer: Rowing Through Love and Loss on the Wild Coast of Alaska”
by Mary Emerick; Oregon State University Press, 2021; 185 pages $22.95
From 2002 to 2009, writer Marie Emrick worked for the US Forest Service in Sitka as a wilderness ranger, tasked with monitoring and managing use on the Baranov and Chicagov islands. I started the kayak ranger program where I, with other Forest Service employees or volunteers, traveled the island’s coasts by kayak to check out camp sites, archaeological sites, trespass cabins, invasive plants, trails, and people who used public land for hunting and fishing. re. In The Last Layer of the Ocean, she describes that life, when rain was an almost constant companion and storms threatening, but also when rare, sunny days illuminate hidden bays, sparkling waters, and every shade of green.
Emeric brings to life her wild experience and the beauty of the natural world in vivid lyrical descriptions. After battling the huge waves across a gorge, “…the bay opened as a gift, unwinding itself as we moved deeper inside until we were trapped within its core, a circular stretch of gray cliffs transparent and water the same undisturbed color as the sky.” After landing on the beach, she and her companion “were like oversized ballerinas, still in spray skirts as we stood on our sea-legged, rubber boots plunging into a soft sandy beach.”
There’s more to her story than kayaking adventures, though, as the book’s title about classes suggests. Emrick tells us that there are five layers in the ocean, although most of us never see beyond the top layer, known as the Sunlight Zone. The deeper regions are increasingly dark and mysterious. Emeric examines her life by descending from the surface aspects to greater depths as she grapples with issues of self-esteem, anxiety, love and finding a home.
We learn that while Emrick didn’t know how to swim or ride a bike and was afraid of bears, she showed strength and efficiency as a wilderness firefighter, builder, search-and-rescue, and marathon runner. But she never settled down – not with a romantic partner, nor in a place or job. I knew the problem was with me. I was missing something other people seemed to have, a puzzle piece that I didn’t quite find.”
Hence, Alaska. At age 38, Emrick, like many before her, thought Alaska might be her answer.
Once in Alaska, she called a friend of a friend who had only recently moved there, and they soon married. Here, again, ocean layers play a role. The man, who has never been named, is non-communicative, doesn’t share much of himself and doesn’t seem interested in getting to know Emerick in any depth. Much of the story follows the writer’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 classes with titles related to kayaking strokes and techniques – Launch, Forward Stroke, Paddler’s Box, Back Paddle, Sweep Stroke etc., and continues with Wet Exit, Self-Rescue, T Rescue and Roll. These provide useful metaphors for the progress of her life in Alaska. She becomes more confident, in life as in blasphemy, over time, so that she can free herself from her old fears and bad marriage.
While issues of identity, purpose, and finding one’s place in the world are common to all of us, Emerick’s dive deep into her skepticism and insecurity may be TMI for some readers. Fortunately, personal introspection finds a balance with vivid scenes and descriptions regarding life on and around the islands of her domain. It takes readers not only into the natural beauty and adventure you find there but also into some of the region’s fascinating history.
“Most of the islands were now empty, but years ago there were hundreds of people here, scattered in the bays and bays we now paddle. This island, Chichagov, Chee-Kax, saw the eager and desperate gold miners on a large and small scale, the canners, the fox farmers who persisted Until the collapse of the fur market, and the families who came with the hope of a better life. Their dwellings were silent and forgotten. From the Tlingit, who were there first, there were few signs. The Great Wet Forest had a way of restoring everything.”
Elsewhere, when you’re involved in the search for a missing plane, you pick up on pity. I kept expecting to see someone waving at us, a piece of debris, or some sign to show that people simply couldn’t just disappear. But beneath us, there was only water and trees, and a monotonous background of dark blue and light green. Occasionally another plane crossed our path, on the same mission.”
Emrick marveled at those who found their true home in Alaska. Although she cherished her time in the Southeast, she left Alaska after seven years, apparently having learned what she needed about herself. She now works in the Oregon Forest Service. She is the author of two previous books – “The Geography of Water,” a novel set in Southeast Alaska, and “Fire in the Heart: A Memoir of Friendship, Loss, and a Massive Fire.”