Gambling On The Edge Of The Abyss
The November storm caught the stout research vessel while still in the Bering Sea and made it pay for the weeks of fair weather it had lucked into. It sent wind driven sheets of icy rain rifling into its every surface and record-breaking waves that slammed into the side and buried the bow each time it plowed into a new one. The crew huddled inside close to the survival gear which would likely do little good. Twice the captain ordered a pair of them to don safety lines and venture out to remove the ice from vital communications and radar equipment. The scientists stayed in their cabins holding on for dear life and, for the most part, throwing up, Dramamine or no Dramamine. All naiveté of the guest photographer from the National Geographic was exposed when he tried to continue photographing the event by hanging out a door. The storm first threw him into a bulkhead, then tried to sweep him overboard and would have succeeded but for the safety line one of the crew had made him attach at the last second. That same crew member saved his ass by pulling him back in even as he sacrificed both cameras around his neck, smashed as he floundered. He was soaked to the gills and shivering under three blankets back in his bunk and trying to hold on as the storm violently rolled bodies in all directions. He leaned over best he could and finally threw up onto the deck himself.
The slackening that began when the vessel rounded Unimak Island and entered the more sheltered Gulf of Alaska came on incrementally. The vessel steered towards its ultimate conclusion in Resurrection Bay as the storm began to rage past. The photographer still held tightly onto the sides of his bunk, head buried in his pillow and eyes squeezed tight. It took time before he realized the waves were no longer trying to swallow them. Even then he continued to lay there until his shivering subsided. He could hear people moving around the corridors by then; one of the crew even knocked on his door to see if he was okay. “Just waiting for my head to stop spinning,” he’d said. The ship’s doctor entered and diagnosed him with a mild concussion from his collision with the bulkhead, made him sit up and ordered him not to fall asleep. Two crewmen cleaned up the mess he’d regurgitated.
Hours, and the storm now clearly moving away as the vessel steamed to the northeast, hugging the coast where the waters were calmer. He retrieved his two smashed cameras – they would never capture another image, but it looked like their memory cards were OK. He had one camera left, albeit his least favorite. He tried to stand up; not bad, not bad. He managed a trip to the head; began to feel steadier. He attached his big telephoto to that last camera and moved slowly towards the deck.
“You dared stare into the abyss,” the captain said to him in something of a parental tone. “And God will not be photographed.” He couldn’t say anything to that. He thought about it now and understood not only how foolish he’d been but how he’d potentially endangered others, all for the pursuit of a photograph. The sea had become amazing calm, so he found a place to sit larboard and watch the Aleutian coast slide past.
The bear was fat from its summer-long salmon feast and prowled the shore for more to consume. It was just weeks now from its hibernation, though the photographer knew grizzlies on the coast might hibernate for as few as just two or three months each winter. He framed it with his telephoto as it watched them, as terrible and magnificent as the storm that had released them hours before. It seemed to pose against the wild landscape. The sun had peaked out as it fell in the westward sky and the snowcapped mountains in the distance shimmered. He captured image after image as the bear moved and the ship shifted position as it progressed northeast. New movement caught his eye, and his telephoto began following bald eagles as they stalked the coast, sometimes gliding just a few feet above the water before their big wings took them higher and they circled back, turning towards the ship, seeming to stare into his lens. As the sun slipped further into the open it bathed the world in a golden glow, a light from heaven itself. He’d clicked off dozens of shots and realized they were the best captures of the entire voyage, and all he’d had to do was sit there with his least capable camera.
The captain emerged from the bridge, examined the crew’s work recombobulating what the storm had wroth. Seemed pleased; also relived, like he had begun taking his first deep breaths in several hours. He moved next to the photographer, looking closely as if to reconfirm that he’d not actually been swept overboard. Remembering their earlier encounter the photographer said to him, “Wanna bet?”
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.