Shadows stretch across the bay, the surviving sunlight turning a deep gold against the water and trees on the far side. We sit on an old, rotting 2×4 propped up by rocks, watching the island in the middle of the bay transform into a peninsula as the tide ebbs away. Around us boxes of food stand in pyramids, accentuated by a case of beer and a bag of dog food like a massive sack of flour.
But Walrus is in no hurry to start the haul up the hillside to his cabin shrouded in the woods. So we sit, beers in hand, with nothing more pressing than watching the water slowly drain out of Dong Chong Bay.
A great blue heron materializes out of the woods, it’s prehistoric shrieks echoing off the steep vertical cliffs around us, alighting on the island. A raven swoops passed and alights on the branches of a birch tree above. He speaks softly to the bird in a tongue I don’t recognize. Undoubtedly it’s the native language of the First Nation people that called Yukusam (the native name for Hanson Island meaning “shaped like a halibut hook”) home. The words seem to permeate from the trees and ocean, as alive and authentic as the island itself. If the trees could talk, it would be in this voice. Not the voice of my ancestors who had arrived and hunted, logged, and eternally altered the very land we loved.
The large, rocky plateau we sat on was far too smooth to be the work of the ambitious and almighty glaciers that long ago preceded us. They deposited erratics and islands with the callous randomness of an artist flinging paint at the canvas. This was deliberate, a stronghold for the logging trucks and chainsaws that Walrus had fought and defeated.
Even in this beauty, in the perfect stillness, it seems pertinent to mention it and Walrus nods in affirmation, as if he needs any reminder of what took place here.
“In the U.S we put aside these pieces of land as wilderness that can’t be touched, developed, or mined.”
Walrus lets out his high pitched laugh, “but is anywhere untouched?”
I remembered camping in the Beardslee Islands in Glacier Bay. Alone, surrounded by acre upon acre of wilderness. Only to watch commercial jets rumble over, their contrails leaving white slashes across the blue sky. The cruise ships rumbling by, black exhaust spewing above the mountains, wakes unconcerned with the wilderness boundary. Untouched wilderness indeed.
He wanders over to the case of beer and hands me another, the crack of carbonation drifts across the water. With an indignant call the heron rises from the rocks, wings beating a slow rhythm as it vanishes.
“How can we even classify something as wilderness?” He asks.
“That’s the thing. Are we trying to recreate a land before Europeans? Or native Americans?”
Regardless, the ghosts of North America cannot be revived. The mammoth, the Stellar Sea Cow. We talk about how the great plains were once home to 12-foot bears, lions, and camels. An indescribable amount of biomass and apex predators. Until man arrived and claimed the top of the food web for him alone.
“Extinction started with the arrival of man, not Europeans of course.” He cautions.
“Of course. It’s a European arrogance, that we can put back together the pieces that we’ve ripped apart.” I say. “It’s the best we can do I suppose though.”
“When the Spaniards arrived in central America, they found the Mayans already had chickens.” He looks at me, his long grey beard crinkles into a smile, his eyes dazzle beneath long curling eyebrows, “they just assumed, hey, they’ve got chickens here just like back home!” He pauses and takes a drink, “of course they were Asian chickens,” he finishes laughing, letting the message sink in.
“You don’t read that in your history books. Or Columbus’ Haitian massacres, or the sculptures depicting people of African descent. We weren’t first, but we in some way won. So we get to claim credit, and dust our transgressions under the rug.”
He smiles again and we tilt our beers back, I’m talking conservation and anthropology with one of the founders of Greenpeace.
“That’s one of the difficult things about anthropology and natural history. It’s a lot of extrapolation and assumption, we can’t know much for sure.”
“Which is why we need time travel,” he says.
“I know where I’d go,” and I point out the mouth of the bay, to sparkling waters of Blackfish Sound, “right here.”
I talk about trying to imagine Dong Chong without logging roads, the orca lab site before the lab, my desire to see this place in as natural a setting as possible. “Post ice age of course,” I finish.
He nods, “I bet it’d be something.”
“Salmon so thick you can smell it on the wind,” the very thought gets me excited, “blackfish so thick you can walk across their backs,” I say quoting Billy Proctor, the legendary jack of all trades that had lived in and around the region since the 30s. “In another age of conservation maybe.”
We lapse into silence, drinking in the scenery, the peace and tranquility that cannot be quantified. No bottom line, no profit margin or material good could ever begin to explain what these places mean. Because they live not on paper but inside. The by products of the wind and trees, ocean and waves, saying more without a word than I ever can. Causing a spiritual upheaval I can only begin to explain.
It’s for this reason, that we’re coming back next winter I tell him. Like Paul, he’s spent decades on Yukusam, unable to find anywhere else that compares for the same unwritten reason.
“It’s going to be almost a year since I had a real job. It’s been incredible.”
A knowing smile pushes through the beard, “it’s hard to think about going back to it isn’t it?”
“You have no idea.” I answer, knowing full well he knew exactly what I was talking about.