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The Sunday Read: ‘It Was Just a Kayaking Trip. Until It Upended Our Lives.’

The Daily

The New York Times

News, Daily News

4.597.8K Ratings

🗓️ 8 May 2022

⏱️ 61 minutes

🧾️ Download transcript


It was meant to mark the start of their lives out of college, but the adventure quickly turned into a nightmare. Beginning with what seemed to be a lucky whale sighting, three friends set out on a sea-kayaking trip through Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, watching out for bears, and having a good time, when tragedy struck. In recounting the days preceding and following the accident, which seriously injured one of his friends, the Times journalist Jon Mooallem explains how he was forced to reckon with his fears. Detailing the incident’s surprising repercussions, he muses on the importance of overcoming one’s fears, and finding poetry in life’s darkest moments.

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I'm John Moallem. I'm a contributing writer to the New York Times magazine.


This is a story that I wrote for the Voyages issue of the magazine in 2019 about a terrible


accident that happened on a trip I had taken with two friends. It was a real privilege,


almost 20 years later, to report out what happened and find some clarity about something


that felt disorienting and traumatic at the time.


So here's my story. It was just a kayaking trip until it upended our lives.


The whale sighting happened right away, minutes into day one.


John, Dave and I had just been dropped off on a remote Alaskan shoreline, an hour and


a half by boat from the closest speck of a town. John was working as a sea kayak and


guide that summer in Glacier Bay National Park and he'd invited us up for a seven day


excursion during his week off. As the boat that delivered us vanished, the drone of its


engine dampening into a murmur and then finally trailing off, it became unthinkably quiet


on the beach and the largeness and strangeness of our surroundings were suddenly apparent.


It was a familiar phenomenon for John from the start of all his trips, a moment that


people instinctually paused to soak in. To me, it felt like those scenes of astronauts


who having finally rattled free of the Earth's atmosphere slip into the stillness of space.


Except that we weren't in space. We were on Earth. Finally, really on Earth.


We were only starting to move around again, packing our gear into the kayaks when we heard


the first huff of a blowhole, not far offshore.


John was ecstatic. It seemed to him as if the animal were putting on a show, swimming


playfully in the kelp, diving, resurfacing, then plowing its open mouth across the surface


to feed. He took it as a good omen, though I had no idea at the time, he was anxious


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