“I had a boat…a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle. Forget the herring and the salmon: I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul.” –Jonathan Raban, in Passage to Juneau (1999)
The recent “Down and Out” discussion of the Polar Sea has had me thinking more about the sea…and its meanings, which brings to mind Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings. Raban’s book tells the story of the author’s journey in a 35-foot sailboat from Seattle to Juneau via the 1,000-mile Inside Passage. But it also shows how that journey becomes a canvas within which nature, history, literature, person, and place are all at play.
Besides recounting the physical aspects of the passage—its tides and winds, its whirlpools and the telephone booths stationed at its docks along the way—Raban manages to narrate a history of place that is as natural as it is personal. The balance is remarkable—one moment Raban describes what it is like to find the morning sky “paint-white veined with streaky pink, like the inside of a mussel shell,” and in the next moment, he tells us what it’s like to be “an experienced deserter,” a “rat” who leaves behind his family for travel.
Framing the entire narrative is Raban’s retelling of Captain Vancouver’s explorations of the area in the early 1790s, and readers are assured a good summary of “Captain Van’s” Voyage of Discovery by the time Raban reaches his destination. In Passage to Juneau, British Romantic poetry also makes a good showing, as do Indian legends, along with advice from fellow travelers and books like Wrinkles in Practical Navigation (1881).
“To put oneself afloat on a sea-route as old and heavily traveled as the Inside Passage was to join the epic cavalcade of all those, present and past, who’d found some meaning in these waters,” says Raban. After reading his account of the journey, I’m convinced that Raban more than stayed afloat with the “epic cavalcade” and that he, too, found some meaning in those waters—maybe even “a glittering haul.”