I swing the car unto Main St, a chorus of honks behind me (never let a Juneau boy drive in the city). Up till now I’ve been disoriented, lost, the carefully worded direction from Brittney my only hope of finding the hostel I stayed in six years ago. In the rearview mirror I see a sign, draped over an overpass, announcing the entrance to Vancouver’s china town, and memories begin flooding back. I look right and there it is. The same green door, the same rusting lead based paint, metal numbers and a handwritten sign announce it as the entrance to the C&N Hostel. I step out of the car and onto the sidewalk, the same one I’d dragged my duffel bag along. Looking down the street is, yep, the sky train. The same one I’d thrown my bag into to keep the doors from closing. And the same bus station (no discarded bag of weed this time though the smell seems to have melted into the walls). With all the memories come the emotions; fear, excitement, anticipation, and a new one: loneliness.
Far to quickly I’m saying goodbye to Brittney, watching that beat up pathfinder we love so much pull away down main street away from me, the passenger seat empty. It feels so wrong and for the first time since I arrived in Juneau, I am totally, completely alone. I fight the urge to chase her down, open the door, and insist that she drive me home. But it’s not an option, these are the choices we made, that we needed to make, and Cannamore’s don’t quit. But they do drink beer.
Kokanee is one of those brews that I should have no business liking, it’s essentially the coors light of Canada (which would make Molson’s Bud Light I guess?). But it’s something of a comfort food for me, reminding me of Paul’s, Alert Bay, and everything I needed reminding of at that moment. I sit quietly in the noisy pub, the echos of pool, laughter, and obscenities ricocheting around me. I grab a paper and try to read it but my eyes fade in and out of focus. I just want to be there. If I can’t be with Brittney than I need to be on that island. The closest thing to therapy that I have.
I leave my tip on the bar and head back to my room, an old battered tv sits on top of the decrepit fridge, by a miracle of God, it turns on. And I begin mindlessly flipping through the seven channels available to me. An image of massive mountains blanketed in green, a woolly layer of fog beneath them makes me stop reflexively. I stare in awe as the narrator announces the location as Robson Bight, Johnstone Strait. I mouth wordlessly as frame after frame of orcas, orcas I recognize, remember, flash on the screen. Surfacing, diving, breaching. I was going back, my pain and sadness lessen somewhat, the dull ache remains, but whether you’d call it God, the universe, or karma, I had my sign. We were doing the right thing.
Just how I left it. The coastal town of Port McNeil hasn’t changed, save for a new gas station, in six years. That ridiculous, “world’s biggest burl” is still there, probably because no one has any idea how to move it. Fishing boats still rise and fall with the tide in the harbor, the ferry to Alert Bay leaves at the same time, I don’t think they ever did mow the baseball field. I was prepared for the opposite. To be ready for things to be different than I remembered them as a naïve starstruck 19-year old. There’s still the same winding road just out of town that leads to the familiar campground. I find a tentsite, nestled snugly under the shadow of a massive cedar tree, and with a great sigh of relief let the backpack fall from my shoulders. After three weeks in suburbia and skyscrapers, my tent is beneath fir, aspen, and spruce. The smell of a forest, centuries old, more rejuvenating and refreshing than the strongest cup of coffee.
I’ve been unable to contact Paul or anyone else at the lab since I left Vancouver and my lack of will power has left surprisingly low on cash. If nothing changes I plan on taking the 8:40 ferry to Alert Bay, at least than I’m a little closer. If I don’t hear from Paul tomorrow…. well, there really isn’t a backup plan, I can’t afford to drop another $15 bucks for camping, I may be sleeping under a bridge. A younger couple next to me continues to giggle, play cards, and be cute, making me miss Brittney all the more. I will punch them in the face if they don’t stop.
My next night is not on Hanson Island. Still bleary eyed, I stagger off the ferry and into Alert Bay, hoping against hope to see Paul’s tiny aluminum boat, affectionately known as, “the car,” moored in the small boat harbor. No such luck. I’d awoken to an email from Paul, telling me to call when I could, and headed out in search of a pay phone. But damn the cellular age, every pay phone in Alert Bay had apparently been deemed a waste of space, and unceremoniously ripped from the ground. With 60 pounds of gear on my back (who knew chic peas could feel so heavy), I stagger to the visitor centre. I knew Paul had a house here, if only someone had the good grace to tell me where it was.
The teenage boy at the centre looks at my blankly when I ask for a payphone. The poor kid, he was here to point people to the totem poles and Namgis first nations long house. Not deal with lost vegabonds with dark circles under their eyes and shaking legs. As he searches for something helpful to say I have expect him to just start regurgitating totem pole facts out of habit. Against the odds I ask if he knows where Paul Spong lived. There are, after all, only 300 people that live here (imagine Gustavus confined to a two mile island). Now he’s really nervous, “I can’t give out personal information,” he stammers.
It makes sense, I suppose, but I can’t be the first goofball looking for, who Alexandra Morton lovingly called, “the chronically tardy New Zealander.” There was no convincing the kid to bend the rules just this once though, and, unsure of where to go, I start walking back towards the terminal. On a whim I walk into the boat harbor office to find a middle aged guy with dark hair and four days worth of stubble on his face. Sensing a kindred spirit I state my case.
“Oh Paul!” He chuckles, and glances out of habit out the window into the harbor. “I see more of you kids trying to get out there than you can imagine.”
Graciously he lets me use the phone, and I call the lab. Contact. Paul has two boats, the miniscule “car” and the much bigger June Cove. Just like the last time I was here, the June Cove is in the shop, leaving them with just the tiny, compact car sized boat to get around. As we talk, an older lady with flyaway white hair, alpaca sweater, and friendly face walks into the office. “I know where Paul lives!” She says after talking with the stubbled harbor master.
Paul tells me to sit tight in Alert Bay, he’ll come for me as soon as he can, and we hang up. The lady introduces herself as Linda, and happily offers to drive me to Paul’s place on the other side of the island. I find the hidden key to the door, and collapse on the couch. I feel exhausted as I glance at my watch: 10:45.
Tuesday morning and the waiting game continues. Paul’s house overlooks the western end of Johnstone strait, I can see Hanson Island in the distance. Cup of coffee in hand I scan the water with the spotting scope, hoping to see the car moving steadily towards me. But something else makes me forget all about it for a moment. The crystal clear water of the strait ripples, a phalanx of black pin pricks emerges and my heart skips. I wasn’t going to have to wait for Hanson Island to see my first orcas, they’d found me. The pod is several miles out and traveling east, away from me. I strain my eyes trying to keep them in focus. I follow them until my eyes start to water and return to my now chilled cup of coffee. I grab Paul’s phone and dial the lab again. On my third attempt I get through, “I’m leaving shortly,” he announces, “I’ll be there around 11.”I set the phone down, my heart racing, throwing backpack, coffee, and oatmeal back into the back pack, every few minutes I rush to the spotting scope like a kid checking to see whether Santa has come yet or not. I’m ready to come home.