The trail winds through new and second growth foliage, their branches stretching like eerie arms onto the skinny trail, refusing to be thwarted by mans’ fruitless trials to contain them. Rocks thrust out of the mud, their surfaces slick with moisture. The continual December rainfall creates a steady trickle downhill, creating mud poles that go halfway up our boots. The forest is quiet besides the steady drip of rain bouncing from one leaf to another as they plummet to the trail and moss. We push further and further into the middle of Hanson Island, a weak winter sun battling the clouds.
After fifteen minutes of steady uphill hiking we round a bend and are met with a fence composed of a brilliant maze of branches. A gate sits partway open and we slide through and step onto the well trodden ground of what the weather beaten sign nailed to a tree announces is the earth embassy, a small crown of willow branches hanging above it. A few small buildings and a woodshed dot the clearing as we approach slowly. It’s a peculiar thing, to march into someone elses isolation. With no way to warn them that you’re coming. After months of solitude, the echo of our feet pounding up the trail had to sound like thunder.
Passing the door to the first building we hear a call from inside, a growl, a bark, and the door creaks open, giving way to a massive mountain of orange and white fur. The fur ball is recognizable as Kessler, the Hanson Island dog that had been exiled from Alert Bay, and now lived with the man we’d come to see. A man known to me only as Walrus.
We step out of the rain and around Kessler and into a library. Books cover a massive shelf in the entrance and litter the walls, meticulously categorized by subject. Conservation, religion, and history with subcategories such as: Greenpeace, Animism, and Mayan culture. There’s just enough room for a desk nestled right next to the door where Walrus sits, a journal out. He’s everything an old man living in the woods should look like. A massive grey beard coats his face. Even his eyebrows are preternaturally long, sticking almost straight out as long as my pinkie before finally succumbing to gravity and curling at the tips.
A sweet, musty, woody, smell permeates the tiny shelter and stepping behind the massive bookcase reveals an open space with a wood stove and table covered in fruit, crackers, and a bottle of rum. While I’m sure somewhere out there lives a reclusive old hermit who cringes at the very thought of social interaction, Walrus is not that man. His life in the forest seemed to give him remarkable preservation, and despite having reached an age where many would be comfortably retired, he’s bouncy and quick witted with an easy laugh that seems to go on forever. He is a marvelous cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and any assortment of bearded, woodsmen, Tolkien characters.
His house was a jigsaw puzzle of scrap wood that he had scrounged from the surrounding woods. Small and efficient it was easy to keep warm when the temperature dropped below freezing. The site had been picked for him he explained, when he’d pitched his tent directly on the path we had just walked up. Decades ago it had been a logging trail and Walrus had stood resolute, refusing to allow them to have the island.
Wielding an education in anthropology Walrus had scuttled over every nook and cranny of Hanson Island, learning the island’s history and secrets, searching for a way to save it. Culturally modified cedar trees (CMTs) cover the island, evidence of the first nations presence here long ago. They would cut long horizontal strips of bark from the tree, using the wood to form baskets and string. Their cutting encouraged the trees to grow even faster, creating a resource that renewed faster with use, a concept unheard of in our modern day “advanced” world.
Citing the CMTs for their cultural and historical significance, Walrus helped save the island from the carpet bombing that had befallen the nearby islands of Swanson and Cracroft. His camp quickly became something of a heritage site in addition to his year round home starting in the early 90s. A place where he welcomed grade school kids in the summer to learn about the history of the forest, and showed them around a massive garden where he grew everything from kale, to potatoes (if he can keep the jays out), to garlic. Garlic, he said, he’d give away as gifts. What a stocking stuffer.
There seemed to be little that he hadn’t done on the conservation battlefield. He’d fought wolf hunters in northern Canada, been a cook aboard the early Greenpeace boats that put themselves between whalers and their cetacean targets, and become something of a legend. His quiet manner and humbleness hid all of this though as he enthusiastically showed off his garden, Kessler constantly bumping against our shins waiting for his ears to be scratched.
We walked back down the trail toward Orca Lab a couple hours later, inspired and motivated. Someday I hoped that I could look back on the decades of my life and see the world a better place from my actions. I imagined the feeling of gratitude and joy Walrus had to feel when he woke up and looked about his forest home. Hearing the birds call, the deer trampling through the undergrowth, the leaves whispering in the wind, and knowing that it still stands because he had. His feet planted firmly on the trail, loggers and equipment barreling up the hill, unaware of the man they were about to face.