A Memoir Brings the Southeast Alaskan Island Wilderness to Life, Tested by a Restless Heart

“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 US Forest Service in Sitka as a ranger, monitoring and managing the use of Baranof and Chichagof Islands. She started a kayak ranger program in which she, along with other Forest Service employees or volunteers, traveled the shores of the island by kayak checking campsites, archaeological sites, trespassing cabins, invasive plants, trails and people who used public lands to hunt and recreate. In “The Last Layer of the Ocean” she describes that life, when rain was an almost constant companion and storms threatened, but also when rare sunny days illuminated hidden bays, sparkling waters and all shades of green.

Emerick brings his experience of the wilderness and the beauty of the natural world to life in crisp, lyrical descriptions. After battling huge waves through a passage, “…the bay opened up like a gift, unwrapping as we sank inside until we were locked inside. inside its heart, a circular expanse of gray cliffs and water the same unruffled color as the sky.” After touching down on shore, she and her companion “looked like oversized ballerinas, still wearing our floaty skirts as we stood on our sea toes, rubber boots sinking into a soft sandy beach.”

There’s more to her story, however, than kayaking adventures, as the title of the diapers book suggests. There are, Emerick tells us, five layers in the ocean, although most of us never see beyond the top layer, known as the solar zone. Deeper areas are increasingly dark and mysterious. Emerick examines her life descending from superficial aspects to greater depths as she grapples with issues of self-esteem, restlessness, love, and finding a home.

We learn that although Emerick could not swim or ride a bike and was terrified of bears, she had shown strength and skill as a forest firefighter, trail builder, searcher and rescuer, and marathon runner. But she had never settled down – not with a romantic partner and not in a place or a job. “The problem, I knew, was with me. I was missing something the others seemed to have, a puzzle piece I couldn’t quite find.

Hence Alaska. At the age of 38, Emerick, like so many before her, thought Alaska might be her answer.

Once in Alaska, she met a friend of a friend who had just moved there, and they soon got married. Again, ocean layers come into play. The man, never named, is uncommunicative, not sharing much about himself or seeming interested in getting to know Emerick inside out. Much of the story follows the author’s efforts to make his marriage work. His days in the field are his happy days, while his days at home are lonely and emotionally cold.

Emerick cleverly organizes his chapters with titles related to strokes and kayaking techniques – Launch, Front Stroke, Paddler’s Box, Back Paddle, Sweep Stroke, and more. These provide convenient metaphors for the progress of his life in Alaska. She gains confidence, in life as in kayaking, over time, until she can free herself from her old fears and her mismatched marriage.

While questions of identity, purpose, and finding one’s place in the world are common to all of us, Emerick’s deep dives into his own doubts and insecurities may be TMI for some readers. Fortunately, the personal introspection finds a balance with vivid scenes and descriptions related to life on and around the islands of his domain. She takes readers not only to the natural beauty and adventure she finds there, but to some of the area’s fascinating history.

“The islands were mostly empty now, but years ago hundreds of people had come here, scattered across the bays and inlets we were now paddling on. This island, Chichagof, Shee Kaax, had seen the searchers of greedy and desperate gold on a large and small scale, the cannery workers, the fox herders who lasted until the fur market crashed and the families who came in the hope of “A better life. Their homes were mute and forgotten. Of the Tlingit, who were there first, there were few signs. The great rainforest had a way to reclaim it all.

Elsewhere, when she participates in the search for a missing plane, she captures the pathos. “I expected to see someone waving us down, or a piece of wreckage, a sign that people couldn’t just disappear. Below us, however, was only water and trees, a monotonous background of dark blue and lighter green. Sometimes another plane crossed our path, on the same mission.

Emerick marveled at those who have found their true home in Alaska. Although she treasured her time in the Southeast, she left Alaska after seven years, having apparently learned what she needed to know about herself. She now works for 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 Wildfire”.

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