Cedar Creek Sea Stack. Photo by Stephen Grace

Fever at the Ocean’s Edge

After three years of avoiding COVID, it finally caught me. I got a Paxlovid prescription and went backpacking on the Olympic coast to battle the COVID demons at the ocean’s edge. Was it my fevered brain, or was the shoreline at Cedar Creek with its wave-sculpted sea stacks surreal? Did I actually see multiple orca pods hunting on two different days, observed from two different headlands? Gray whales migrating in the hundreds, chugging along like steam engines out in the blue sea? Two bald eagles with their talons locked in a death spiral? A raven vocalizing like a foghorn atop a Sitka spruce? A sea otter curled up on a rock scrubbing its face with seaweed, like a spa treatment?

We needed to find a campsite and pitch our tents before the arrival of a storm blackening the horizon. I worried that my Paxlovid prescription was wearing off and the virus was returning, mounting a new attack on my body and brain.

In the intertidal zone, where land and sea blend and blur, a sonorous soundscape of wind and waves combines with sulfurous smells. Sensuous, tactile sensations, psychedelic colors, and the overlapping drama of beings are myriad and diverse. An experience at the ocean’s edge is one of complete immersion and total engagement. Entering the strange realm of the intertidal zone can be transformative and transporting—and unsettling. Can we trust our brains to perceive the world accurately? What does the intertidal zone show us about not only the natural world, but also our own mind? What can exploring the ocean’s edge while delirious with fever teach us? 

Gazing into a pool between the tides is as close as I’ve come to hallucinating without eating magic mushrooms. The first time I shined an ultraviolet light on sea anemones at night, I was astonished to see green and orange fluorescence, similar to Day-Glo psychedelia from the 1970s. An anemone species in the intertidal zone has the same color scheme as blacklight posters designed to simulate the visual distortions of an acid trip.

Aggregating Anemone. Photo by Stephen Grace


During my fevered coastal trek, while kneeling to gaze into a tidepool, the pink tips of anemone tentacles were so vivid I could taste them like cotton candy eaten long ago, stretchy and warm from a machine that spun the pink candy at a carnival. And the lines that radiated from the center of an anemone sounded like “Kashmir,” a Led Zeppelin song I’d listened to on the tape deck of my first car, a 1979 Monte Carlo. This synesthesia, or mixing of the senses, seemed to last for several seconds as I stared into the pool, though I couldn’t be sure of the duration. Time had become as elastic as an anemone’s tentacles.

Lined Chiton. Photo by Stephen Grace

While my brain wobbled with delirium, I saw a chiton, its shell bordered by a bold pattern of yellow dots; its center emblazoned with wavy slashes of cyan. The creature was grazing a crust of lipstick-pink coralline algae as it crawled past what looked like an emerald flower the size of a salad plate, the animal known as the giant green anemone. As I watched this anemone grab a crab with its sticky tentacles and slowly stuff the creature into its squishy mouth, I realized there was as much to explore in my mind as on a wild shore. The waves of revulsion, fear, and beauty that flooded me when I observed life in the intertidal zone opened windows onto the many worlds existing in the human brain, each as real as the beings we behold at the edge of the sea. Or as unreal.

Neuroscientist Anil Seth insists that we hallucinate our conscious reality. By this, he means that our brains cannot perceive what actually exists in the world outside our heads.

Animals with nervous systems dissimilar to ours experience a different world than we do. Flowers that our brains perceive as identical are easily distinguished by bees that can perceive ultraviolet light. The ultraviolet patterns on the flower petals are real, even though we cannot see them.

Consider chlorophyll. Is chlorophyll green because plants absorb green light to use in photosynthesis? This concept seems right but couldn’t be more wrong. The plant colors we perceive are produced by the light they don’t use. Chlorophyll absorbs the portions of the visible spectrum that plants need to produce their food: red and blue light. Photosynthesis doesn’t require green light. Instead of being captured by chlorophyll, the spectrum’s green portion is reflected. Plants are, in a sense, not green. In the real world outside our brains, plants are red and blue. But we are so distant from reality that we perceive a green mirage.

Giant Green Anemone. Photo by Stephen Grace

Color is not a physical property of things. It exists in the neurological wiring of three pounds of wet matter, the lump of brain meat inside a human skull. Color lives not in anemones in the sea nor leaves of plants on land. It resides in our minds.

Do I really see the anemones I’m looking at? Or do I hallucinate them, as Seth claims? Seth points out that light cannot enter our brain—our brain can only “see” electrochemical signals traveling through its neurological network. Our brain doesn’t passively register sensory inputs; it actively constructs a model of the world. We don’t directly perceive objective reality. Rather, we experience what our brain—made of billions of neurons, each one a tiny biological machine interacting with other neurons in a network—thinks we should perceive based on our brain’s past interpretations of sensory information. Our brain predicts and models the world. This is a kind of “controlled hallucination,” asserts Seth.

Seth’s claim may sound radical, but the “predictive model” that Seth and other neuroscientists promote is, in a sense, nothing new. The philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed in the eighteenth century that our knowledge of the world is not derived solely from the external stimuli that we perceive but also relies on the active role of the mind in organizing and interpreting sensory information. In her classic book of nature writing, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Annie Dillard explains that she senses only a portion of the light coming from the sun; she is blind to the ultraviolet and infrared light that other animals can detect. She writes, “A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts, and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain.”

Purgatory Sea Cave. Photo by Stephen Grace


Single-celled organisms lack the neurological sophistication to perform such editing, notes Dillard. Microbes interact directly with the world without filters and editing. Like enlightened sages of the living world, these simple beings perceive reality more directly than we do with our busy brains. These microbes are too small for us to see and too small themselves to see.

The complexity of our mammalian sensory organs, and our complicated primate brain, which is forever making predictions about what is happening outside our heads to help us survive, separates us from the world as it is, estranging us from reality. And this doesn’t apply only to color. Consider sound. What do you hear when a wave crashes on the shore?

A breaking ocean wave makes air molecules repeatedly bunch up and spread out, sending sound waves outward from the disturbance. Some of these sound waves enter your ear canal and vibrate your eardrum. Bones attached to your eardrum rattle. A sort of plunger links one of the tiny bones to a structure shaped like a snail shell; the shaking bone pumps the plunger up and down, causing the gel inside the snail shell to move. This moving gel stimulates nerves that send signals to your brain. Your brain processes the signals, translating them into sound. What you hear is not the ocean. You hear a bone plunger swishing gel inside a spiral shell. Your brain translates what the incoming sensory information means and creates a controlled hallucination, a simulacrum of the ocean that helps you navigate a crashing wave and survive.

North Coast, Olympic National Park. Photo by Stephen Grace


We don’t need philosophy to tell us we are trapped inside our brains. Physics and physiology tell us this is so. Our consciousness is restricted to hints of what is happening in the reality outside our head. Our mind’s awareness of the outer world is like a prisoner confined to a windowless cell that reads messages slipped beneath a door that never opens. These scribbled messages can sometimes be misread.

The scientific literature on illusions—our misreading of reality—is vast and fun to peruse. Seth demonstrates through mind-bending optical and auditory illusions that our brain assembles a model of reality. Our brain anticipates what it expects to encounter based on past experiences and information it has gathered. These predictions, however, do not always align with the actual world beyond our brain, sometimes leading to perceptual inaccuracies or illusions. Simply put, we don’t always see what we think we see, or hear what we think we hear.

This is not to say that an anemone or a wave isn’t real. If you touch an anemone, its tentacles stick to your finger, which this creature wants to eat. If a wave at the ocean’s edge knocks you off your feet, you could be swept out to sea, ending your life—nothing could be more real. But because our mind is confined in a brain imprisoned in a skull, our awareness cannot stray beyond the bounds of our biology. We cannot know objects in the world as they truly are, as Kant proposed with his philosophy, Dillard illuminated with her prose, and Seth examines with his neuroscience.

Our brain, locked inside a lightless, soundless crypt of bone, guesses what it is experiencing based on incoming streams of data coded by neurochemical signals and by referencing past experiences accumulated throughout our lives. Evolution built the human brain to construct virtual worlds that help us survive in the real world. These virtual worlds assembled by our brain—worlds in which we live every moment of our lives—are hallucinations. When we agree on these hallucinations, we call this consensus reality.

Cedar Creek. Photo by Stephen Grace


What did I really experience during my fever-fueled trek at the ocean’s edge? Fortunately, I had a friend with me, so we could compare notes on our perceptions and come up with a consensus. Aron Rosenthal, whom I’ve been adventuring with in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest for two decades, had recovered from a case of COVID a few weeks prior to our backpacking trip. His brain, as far we knew, was free of fever and back to baseline.

My COVID-addled brain seemed to tweak my perceptions, causing sounds and colors to intensify and send my thoughts straying beyond their normal bounds, but Aron and I agreed that the shoreline around Cedar Creek is one of the most glorious places on planet Earth. We concurred that a sound that baffled us, a bird vocalization coming from the tops of a Sitka spruce, was a clever corvid, a raven who had learned to imitate the foghorn further south at La Push. And we agreed that we had sat atop a headland between Cedar Creek and Kayostia Beach for hours on end, watching pods of orcas moving among sea lions, which we saw hauled out on sea stacks and islands, resting above the orca-hunted waves.

“This is once in a lifetime,” I told Aron. “Never again will we be able to see from shore orcas stalking prey on the outer coast.” The next morning, after we broke camp and started hiking south, we climbed a headland, and again, from shore, we watched orcas hunting sea mammals. “Okay, twice in a lifetime,” I said as we focused our binoculars on the massive dorsal fin of a bull orca moving among gray whales.   

We agreed that we had seen many dozens, if not hundreds, of gray whales spouting and fluking as they traveled north. The cloudless weather was perfect for viewing life in the ocean far from shore. And we were in the right place at the right time of year to witness the migration of gray whales from their birthing lagoons in Mexico to their feeding grounds in Alaskan waters. 

It was also the right season for bald eagles to lock talons in the sky, either two males fighting for territory, or a male and female testing their bond by grabbing each other midair and tumbling earthward, only to part at the last possible instant to avoid gravity slamming them into the shore.

Kayostia Beach. Photo by Stephen Grace


The sea otter at the spa was the strangest scene we came across. Had my COVID-fevered brain conjured this image? If I had been alone, I might have dismissed a sighting of a sea otter out of the ocean as mistaken. Rarely do these sea mammals leave the water, I mentioned to Aron as we stopped to rest and hydrate after rounding the headland south of Chilean Memorial. Sea otters aren’t like river otters, land mammals who eat, breed, and den on land, even though they move comfortably through the water. Sea otters eat while floating on their backs, give birth in the ocean, and seldom venture beyond the waves. But Aron insisted that he was looking at a sea otter.

He was right. When I peered through binoculars, there it was: a sea otter hauled out on a rock, using its paws to rub kelp on its whiskered face. Sea otters have little body fat compared to other sea mammals, but their thick fur, the plushest coat of any animal, gives them a plump appearance. After a few minutes atop the rock, the otter dropped back into the water and spun in place like a rotisserie chicken, winding seaweed around its body as it turned. Maybe this otter was injured and trying to soothe its damaged flesh with seaweed? Or perhaps it was just having fun, enjoying the delicious tactile sensation of seaweed slathering its skin as it spun?

While I stared through binoculars, mesmerized by the sea otter’s antics, the animal climbed out of the ocean and lay on a rock in the sun. This behavior did not match my mental model of what a sea otter should be doing, but my brain adjusted to the new information. The otter tucked its head next to its body and curled up like a napping dog.

Seth’s neuroscience research has led him to conclude that consciousness is not a uniquely human phenomenon because the conscious reality we experience is grounded in biological mechanisms that we share with other beings, from octopuses to sea otters. I realized that the sea otter on the rock was having an experience of its body warming in the sun. Human consciousness is one of many possible ways to experience the world. Every animal contains an inner universe.

Resisting the urge to follow the otter’s lead and snooze in the sun, I forced myself to stand and continue marching. Reality called. We needed to make use of the low water to get around a series of obstacles before the tide turned. And we needed to find a campsite and pitch our tents before the arrival of a  storm blackening the horizon. I worried that my Paxlovid prescription was wearing off and the virus was returning, mounting a new attack on my body and brain.

Hole in the Wall. Photo by Stephen Grace


Hiking a challenging coastal route riddled with seaweed-slick rocks and steep headlands while sick with COVID was not an adventure I would have chosen. But Aron and I had been planning this trip for a few months, and he couldn’t get any other time away from work. While sprawled on my couch a couple of days before our scheduled start, moaning about my aching body and fatigue that I couldn’t shake, I started writing an email to Aron explaining that I would need to cancel. Before hitting “send,” I checked the weather forecast. A window of clear skies was predicted to open in the following days: sunlight and warmth. Favorable tides. No crowds in March. I recalled the wild beauty of the Olympic coast on past treks. After swallowing the Paxlovid pills, I revised my email. We were going as scheduled.

I would have preferred to finish the hike without COVID stealing my strength, but the perceptual effects of a feverish brain heightened the intensity of an experience that, regardless of my health and brain state, would have been a mind-bending journey.    

To be clear, I am not recommending that you, dear reader, lick subway handrails to catch a virus and then go backpacking on a wild coast. But a confluence of coincidences, including a COVID fever, calm winds, clear skies, and the peak of the gray whale migration, led to one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.

After returning from my fevered trek at the ocean’s edge, I emailed some musings and photos to my friend Annie Proulx, who declared it the best COVID experience she had heard about. It takes a lot to impress Annie, who, along with having a brain overflowing with encyclopedic knowledge and wide-ranging experiences from her fascinating life, is one of the most celebrated writers working in the English language. I’m no Dillard or Proulx, but the notes and photos I sent to friends led to this story. Thank you, COVID, for giving me a fever that fueled my creativity.     

After our backpacking trip, Aron mentioned that Neil Young had composed some of his classic songs like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down by the River” while running a high fever. Young credits the delirium with opening his creativity. The state of mind he describes—the loss of his sense of self as currents of creative flow swept him away—is reminiscent of a psychedelic experience.

Can COVID open the “doors of perception,” as Aldous Huxley explored in his book by that name, an account of his state of mind under the influence of mescaline? Had my fever played a role similar to mescaline, hallucinogenic mushrooms, or LSD? Had delirium induced by the COVID virus helped me better perceive the reality of the Olympic coast—a reality that exists in the world outside my brain? Or maybe my fever allowed me to glimpse the reality that my own mind mediates my experience of the world?

Perhaps COVID perturbed my brain’s “default mode network” (DMN), as Michael Pollan explores in his book “How to Change Your Mind,” published in 2018. Psychedelics diminish activity in this brain network crucial to our sense of self. Neuroscientists suspect that the DMN is the source of the internal dialogue that tells us who we are at any given moment and helps us maintain a consistent sense of identity. When the DMN is diminished through psychedelics, meditation—or perhaps fever—our sense of self seems to disappear. New connections are made in the brain, allowing new insights, perspectives, and creative output.

I have seen many anemones while leading intertidal tours and exploring the ocean’s edge over the years. But before my fevered trek, I had never heard one play Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” nor had I hallucinated the flavor of carnival cotton candy while imagining the sticky taste of anemone tentacles on my tongue.

Pink Coralline Algae and Giant Green Anemone. Photo by Stephen Grace

Huxley had neither COVID nor the Olympic coast in mind when he wrote “The Doors of Perception,” and the DMN had yet to be discovered when his book was published in 1954. The title was inspired by artist and poet William Blake, who wrote in his 1790 book “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”; “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” A fever had, if not cleansed these doors for me, at least removed some smudges, giving me a glimpse beyond their confines. Or maybe COVID had loosened the hinges on the doors? Metaphors mix freely in a fevered brain.

My delirium disturbed the usual patterns of my thinking, allowing me to play with ideas and images in new ways. A sea otter giving itself a spa treatment by rubbing kelp on its face was a vision that bubbled up from the boiling vat of a brain heated by fever. But this image blended perfectly with what appeared to be happening at the ocean’s edge. While watching the sea otter defy my preconceptions, I had a sense that the many worlds within the human mind, and the real world outside our mind, are stranger than we could ever imagine, no matter how strong a dose of psychedelics we take, no matter how high a fever we run.  

Stephen Grace has authored many books, including Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future and Grow: Stories from the Urban Food Movement,”winner of the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. He explores the Northwest’s natural history by snorkeling, paddleboarding, skiing, trail running, and backpacking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.