PASSAGE TO JUNEAU

A Sea and Its Meanings

By Jonathan Raban

Pantheon. 435 pp. $26.50

In the middle of life's journey, Jonathan Raban came to a dark coast -- a rugged shoreline called the Inside Passage, stretching a thousand miles from Seattle to the Alaska Panhandle. These were the waters that centuries of Salish and Kwakiutl tribes had navigated by canoe, the waters that Capt. George Vancouver and his fractious ship Discovery had first traversed in 1792, scattering English nomenclature across every cove and inlet.

Into that roiling history stepped Raban: transplanted Britisher, travel writer, lover of the sea. His mission was simple, as he describes it in his engrossing new book, Passage to Juneau: "to go to sea in my own boat for the going's sake . . . to join the epic cavalcade of those, present and past, who'd found some kind of meaning in these waters."

There was, to be sure, something slightly sub-epic about his journey. The Inside Passage had become by the early 1990s "a buoyed and lighted marine freeway," clogged by purse seiners, barges, yachts and cruise ships. And Raban himself was a latecomer to the sailing game -- "a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I'm at sea."

He knew enough to expect nautical hazards: rapids, whirlpools, deadhead logs. What he didn't expect was the emotional turbulence that lay just ahead. For even as he retraced the steps of Vancouver and his crew, he found his own life constantly circling back on him: a father dying in England, a young daughter anxiously awaiting his return in Seattle, a wife getting ready to spring some dismaying news. "I meant to go fishing for reflections," he writes, "and come back with a glittering haul. Other people's reflections, as I thought then. I wasn't prepared for the catch I eventually made."

Passage to Juneau is a remarkable book -- and remarkably hard to define. Part travelogue, part history, part memoir, it is a work that, by its very structure, enacts the dialectical motion of a sea voyage. Like Melville, Raban has a bicameral mind -- at once documentary and meditative -- and a lust for whatever topic floats into view: hydrology, Burke's ruling principle of the sublime, the influence of maritime environments on Indian art and myth, the drowning death of Percy Shelley. Indeed, one of the author's charms is the pitched excitement with which he can greet an epiphany like "The most turbulent [water] flow occurs in smooth pipes."

But Raban's inside passage is not purely cerebral; it is intensely, almost uncomfortably, personal. He brings an unstinting attentiveness to his father's death -- an event that so haunts him that he sees the old man's face peering out from Alaskan fishing boats. He broods, too, over the opposing pulls of home life and nomadism. A wanderer by nature, he worships the American ideal of self-reinvention, the need to light out for fresh territory. "Whenever there had been walking-out to do," he recalls, "I was the one who walked."

So when the abandoner is himself abandoned, he becomes, by the end of his journey, a kind of Saul Bellow hero: an intellectual helpless to protect his own heart, reduced to reading Evelyn Waugh for solace and contemplating the Bunyanesque resonance of places like Desolation Sound and Refuge Cove. "Journeys," Raban writes, "hardly ever disclose their true meaning until after -- and sometimes years after -- they are over." But we can be grateful that this author (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Bad Land) was so watchful the first time around. What would be monotonal seascape to less tutored eyes is transformed by Raban's constantly freshening perspective. "Priestly cormorants," a forest "extending its tentacles," a coastal city that "emerged looking pale and bright, as if in convalescence after a high fever": Time and again, we are indelibly rooted in a place, in a discrete, transformed moment.

Raban's language can charge even familiar phenomena with new meaning. If you thought you didn't want to see one more salmon swimming upstream to spawn, read his description of a salmon colony scaling a bare concrete duct: "They thrashed, flopped, squirmed, and slithered on the concrete, catapulting themselves up into the air only to fall back with a smack on the same spot. Blind to everything except the need to multiply their kind, they threw themselves against the duct until they died. Bit by bit, over a period of many minutes, their contortions slowly weakened, until their inert hulks slid back over the algae into the channel. Eager newcomers flung themselves past the dead and dying, some walking on their tails as they gained the fresh water and scented the ancestral hills."

Passage to Juneau is a work of great beauty and inexhaustible fervor. And in its own way it is as cautionary a fable as the Indian myths that Raban celebrates. It's about "the bad things that happen to people who wander away from home."

Louis Bayard is the author of the novel "Fool's Errand."