A Summer Sampling

The wind roars so hard the windows creak and strain against their frames. Rain pelts the walls so hard it sounds like someone is hurling handfuls of pebbles at them. Every few minutes we can hear a dull thud, first on one side of the cabin, than the other. I’ve never heard anything like it before, and I’m not feeling brave enough to go out and investigate. I’ll chalk it up to an ornery log refusing to settle on the rocks. By the time we crawl beneath the blankets—the cat nestled as he always is on Brittney’s pillow—the storm has reached a crescendo.
Periodically throughout the night we rise and feel our way down the dark stairs to the living room. Penny’s house is nestled in a corner, a blanket thrown over the top to insulate her. We’re not sure how cold is too cold for a rabbit, so we throw wood on the fire periodically throughout the night to keep it comfortable. She barely moves as I poke my fingers through the bars and rub the soft spot between her ears. She opens one eye indignantly, her pupil reflecting the dancing flames behind us.
“Sorry,” I whisper, and creep back up the stairs, under the blankets, and into the warmth.
By the time the first tendrils of dawn are creeping above the mountain’s of Vancouver Island, the storm has exhausted itself. The tree branches tremble in a weary sort of way, the ocean placid and innocent. All it takes is a few hours to go from 45 knots to five, the low pressure system skidding to a halt.
I open the front door. The air feels surprisingly warm on my face. The life of the island looks out cautiously. A cluster of Harlequin ducks emerge around the point, bobbing on the tiny ocean ripples. They’re spunky little things, but where they go when the ocean roars like a lion is beyond me. But every morning, here they are, wholly unimpressed with the storm.
Out of the woods steps a deer. It’s not just any deer. This is Frodo, and he’s the most social of his kind I’ve ever met. Our porch overlooks a little cove, and Frodo has taken to trolling back and forth along it on every low tide. He’s scavenging for kelp fronds, and as he hears the boards creek he looks up. His expression is benign, a piece of kelp hanging ridiculously out the side of his mouth, looking at me. Every other deer I’ve encountered would turn and run at my approach. But Frodo moves casually toward the porch, nose glued to the rocks, sniffing for breakfast.
We have our morning routine down to a science. Feed the pets, brew coffee, drink coffee/ Brew more coffee. But this morning as we pull open the curtains and look over Blackney Pass, something feels different. The sun burns off a thin layer of clouds, and light floods the living room. And for the first time in months, the fingers of sun feel warm. This is not the biting cold of an easterly outflow that clears the skies and buries the mercury. This feels good. And we walk out onto the deck near the lab where the late morning sun heats the porch and turns the cove emerald.
It’s the first sign of Spring, and we stand dumbly for a few moments, soaking up the warmth. Even the building afternoon breeze feels welcoming, and we exercise outside for the first time since last summer. Porter watches with a concerned look on his face. What could possess them to behave in such ridiculous fashion?
We move about in shorts for the afternoon, the sun beating down on the solar panels, the generator quiet for the first time in days. It’s days like this where nothing beats Hanson Island. The cove swollen with Harlequins, deer, and harbor seals. The salt air filled with the arguments of sea lions, the debates of eagles, the giggles of gulls.
But it’s still January, and as the sun disappears in the late afternoon the wind intensifies. The temperature drops, and we cut up another round of cedar, because the temperature in the cabin has dropped several degrees in just an hour. Soon the wind is shaking the windows again, the night air cold and biting. Regularly scheduled programming. We load the wood stove and Brittney gets the tea kettle whistling. Summer may be getting closer, but winter’s not done with us yet.

50 Horsepower of Deceit and Betrayal

The sun crawls above the mountains on Vancouver Island, the rays piercing the flimsy curtains and flooding our bedroom with sunlight. Every day the sun inches a little higher above those mountains, every day it’s a little earlier. I reluctantly stir, not ready to leave the warm embrace of the down comforter. Brittney stretches and swings her feet over the edge. With an effort I open one bleary eye.

Town day.

At least that was the theory. Johnstone Strait had been pulverized by 40 knots winds for the last week, leaving the shelves of our fridge bare. No more crackers, no more lettuce, no more beer. We’ve got to make it today. The cedar boughs looking in our second story window flutter gently in a light breeze. Today offered a 12-hour window, a respite from the parade of low pressure systems that define the winter climate.

We crawl out of bed, scarf oatmeal, chug coffee, and ready the boat. We cram the tiny space behind our little wooden seats with empty jerry cans and garbage bags filled with laundry and trash (it’s important to remember which is which). The water’s of Blackney aren’t as pristine as we’d like, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The engine comes to life on the first turn and we putter out of the back of the cove. Our departure sends the resident Harlequin Ducks scurrying for cover among the rocks and Brittney bleats out an apology on our behalf as we leave them squabbling in our wake.

But town isn’t the first stop. We turn southeast, angled for Cracroft Point, the shelter, and the solar batteries which are once again drained of power. We skip past the sea lion haulout and round the corner of Hanson Island, the expanse of Blackney Pass opening up before us and dotted with whitecaps. We hit the first bounce as we pass the two islands that sit just off of Hanson Island, affectionately known as Little Hanson.

We’re maybe a hundred yards off of north Little Hanson when the engine revs, sputters, and dies. I swivel around, expecting to see a meddlesome strand of kelp trailing from the propeller, but it looks clean. In just a few seconds, the combination of an ebbing tide and southeast wind has turned us sideways to the waves, the tiny boat rocking violently as it falls into the wave’s trough. I turn the ignition, and the engine roars back to life. But as I slip it into gear it cuts out.

Oh god.

Brittney’s face is the picture of calm, and I try to look equally at ease, “that’s odd,” I quip.

I bring the outboard engine up and lean as far out over the stern as I dare, looking for anything that could be fouling up the propeller. The black blades gleam spotless in the morning sun. Everything looks normal. I take a step back and trip over an empty jerry can, my shifting momentum causing the boat to rock all the more.

It’s not the first time I’ve been on a boat when the engine died. My last summer as a deckhand in Juneau our boat died, only to get picked up by an afternoon storm and deposited on the rocks. The same nervous feeling begins to crawl into my gut and I glance at little Hanson’s shoreline as the waves push us towards it. Better that way than out into Johnstone Strait.

There’s little room to maneuver, but I drop to my knees and pull out the boat’s gas tank from it’s slip beneath the engine as far as I can. Adrenaline courses through my body, an ambitious wave breaks over the stern and I feel the icy chill run down my legs. I give the fuel line a cursory look, everything looks connected. I grab the fuel pump like a dying man grabs his rosary, and give it a series of frantic squeezes. Please please please.

I climb over our mountain of laundry and turn the key. Cough, sputter, die. Shit. This whole time Brittney has sat quietly in her seat, watching.

“Is there anything I can do?” She asks.

“I don’t know if there’s anything either of us can do.”

I reach into my pocket and find the phone. Cell service is always a coin toss out here. But a trio of bars appear like beacons of hope. I dial Paul.

“We’re ok,” I begin with more confidence than I feel, and I lay out the situation. We agree that we should get to shore, try to find a sheltered spot, and he’d call the mechanic, the coast guard, or however else may be able to get us out of this. We’re going to shore no matter what. The ocean’s decided that for us. On the other side of the two little islands is a wind shadow, the water shines turquoise and placid. If we can make it there, it would be infinitely easier to figure out what’s gone wrong.

I grab the paddle, thanking any deity listening that it was onboard, and climb onto the nose of the boat. We inch down the shoreline for the small channel between the islands and a respite. We round the point and my heart drops. Draped across the channel is a massive log. It spans the entire distance between the two islands, just low enough to keep us from passing. We try to turn the boat and paddle out but it’s hopeless. The wind and the waves have complete control, and I brace myself as we collide with the log.

I call Brittney onto the bow, expressions of hopelessness spreading across our faces. We can’t stay here. The tide is ebbing and in a few minutes the boat will be left high and dry, trapping us for 12 hours. I do the only thing I can think of. I leap onto the log, bow line in my teeth, and together we slowly pivot the boat around so that the bow is facing the oncoming swells. With Brittney on the bow, I scurry along the rocks, pulling the boat along while she uses the paddle to push us off the emerging rocks. A tiny indention in the rocks offers just enough protection and we hug the windward side of the rock, the boat bouncing off the shore.

The phone rings. Paul again. His theory is that it’s the fuel line or water filter. But it takes both of us just to keep the boat from slamming against the shore. There’s nowhere safer to go. The ocean has us pinned in the tiny channel that will be devoid of ocean within the hour. I toss Brittney the stern line and the paddle and leap back aboard. I throw everything I can onto the seats, trying to give me enough room to operate. For a moment I stare at the engine, 50 horsepower of deceit and betrayal. I pull the gas tank free once more, trying to ignore the rocking of the boat, the grinding of the hull against the rocks.

Focus. Deep breath. Slow down.

I touch the fuel lines tenderly, gently pulling. And one swivels and pops loose. Hope floods my body. This is it. This has to be it. I reset the O-ring, pull the cap over the tube, and tighten. Brittney’s almost bent double the paddle braced against the boat, battling valiantly. I hesitate. Do I tell her to jump aboard, send us adrift, and pray the engine starts?

“Hold on!” I yell. I throw the gas cans and laundry into a heap, press the trigger, and lower the engine so that it’s just immersed in the water. Knowing the precious propeller is inches from the rocks, that every second brings it closer to the bottom, I pull the choke, say a prayer, and turn the key. The engine comes to life.

“Get on!” I yell. Brittney tosses the paddle aboard and follows after it, pushing the boat off the rocks as we back slowly out of the channel. Blackney Pass has turned into a swirling cauldron while we were adrift and we move slowly out into deeper water, the nose pointed for Cracroft Point. As I reach for the phone the water around us explodes, a flash of black and white. For a wild moment I think of orcas, but they’re too small. The Dall’s porpoise follow us like guardians across the channel, surfacing a foot away.

Did they sense our apprehension? Our fear? Were they celebrating with us? I let out a deep breath and grab the wheel like a lifeline as our little task force battles against the tide and the waves for the Cracroft shore.

Here We Go Again

A couple of summer’s ago Brittney was in Seattle when she and a couple of friends stopped in a sushi restaurant for lunch. One of her friend’s asked the waitress before ordering if the salmon roll was made from farmed or wild salmon.

“Oh it’s farmed,” said the waitress without a sliver of embarrassment, “but that’s good because it doesn’t have any of the toxins or parasites of wild fish.”

You can’t make this stuff up. Nobody ordered the salmon.

It’s incredible that in an age where virtually every question can be answered by a piece of metal that fits in our pocket, we remain so uninformed, so ignorant, using the power of wi-fi for cat videos and time lapsed food recipes.

And while I’m sure the server was just trying to say what she thought Brittney and her friends wanted to hear. The farmed fish propaganda was far from true. Quite the opposite actually.

Since their arrival in the water’s off Vancouver Island in the early 80s, the salmon farm industry has been cloaked in a web of controversy, cover ups, and deceit. Fish farmers swore that with their technology, that the farmed Atlantic salmon could not escape.

They did.

When fisherman began to find Atlantic salmon in their nets, the industry promised that they could not procreate in the wild.

They did. The more aggressive Atlantic salmon rooting out their native Pacific brethren from their already threatened streams.

The location of the pens near estuaries has led to a decades long fight to bring attention to sea lice. These sea lice, while relatively benign to fully grown fish, latch on to young, defenseless salmon fry and have threatened the livelihood of several Pink salmon stocks.

The latest news from those on the front line is perhaps the most disturbing of all. A virus that decimated the farmed salmon industry in Chile back in 2007 has been found in both farmed and wild salmon along the B.C coast.

The good news is the whistle blower, biologist Alexandra Morton uncovered the virus early. “We never found the whole virus, just pieces of it,” she reported to the CBC. One reason for this though is the closed door policy of the farmed fish industry. A closed door and hush hush policy is never an indicator of respectable or ethical practices. There’s a reason slaughter houses run off anyone with a camera. Morton and her team were able to take samples from “healthy” farmed salmon, usually ones that were already on the market. Potentially sick or diseased salmon that could be in the pens as we speak are hidden from sight.

The fish farm industry’s silence in damning enough evidence and the latest in a line of embarrassing failures in which the Canadian government has looked the other way. No criminal charges were filed against Imperial Metal’s, the company responsible for the burst Mount Polley dam in August of 2014 https://raincoastwanderings.com/2015/03/07/worth-so-much-more/.

In fact, Imperial Metal’s is now refilling the site of the burst dam. That’s what happens when you “donate” $234,000 to B.C Liberals. Remind me of this the next time I complain about America’s corrupt political system.

“What evil, thieving people,” we say. We shake our fist and…. what? We go back to our cat videos, we look out the window and the world looks the same. A storm rages right now in Blackney Pass and shakes the window. If there is a deadly salmon virus rolling along the flooding tide right now, it’s not giving itself away. What will it take for change? Will we wait until it’s too late? Until wild salmon are nothing but a myth? Our grandchildren wondering if they ever really existed?

Let’s not let that happen. Boycott farmed salmon, hell, boycott the stores that sell farmed salmon. Take away the demand, destroy the supply. And speak up. Let Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party know that what is happening in the water’s off B.C is bullshit. That no profit is worth the potential death of an entire ecosystem. Do it now, before you leave your computer, before your busy day continues and it slips from your mind. Let’s stand with Alex Morton and the tireless watch dogs that have been battling this for years. Write to the Liberal Party here: https://www.liberal.ca/contact/

To my American and global readers remember, the ocean is not a closed system. A pandemic doesn’t care about international boundaries, the distance from B.C to the southeast panhandle is not  great. If it breaks out here, there’s no reason that it can’t travel north, south, east, west. We must stop caring about just ourselves and what is happening just in our backyard. The natural resources of this planet belong to all of us. And when one stock is threatened, we are all threatened.

We are a race that has cut ourselves off from the natural world. But we are not above it. We are, in the end, at its mercy. We cannot survive without it.

Photo from: http://alexandramorton.typepad.com/.a/6a0120a56ab882970c01a73d74643c970d-pi6a0120a56ab882970c01a73d74643c970d

Born too Late

One of my favorite TV shows is Futurama. It’s a weird,  stupid cartoon in which a slacker named Fry is cryogenically frozen in the year 2000 only to be unfrozen a thousand years later. He awakes to find that one eyed (and curvy)  female aliens and beer drinking robots are part of normal every day life.

In one episode Fry, his distant relative, a mad scientist named Professor Farnsworth (just go with it) and the beer drinking, fire belching robot go back in time. Like all TV shows, the plot and setting  completely reset by the end of the half hour run time with the exception that the professor stopped briefly in the year 1939 so that he can assassinate Hitler with a massive ray gun.

Isolated and surrounded by a forest hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, the land here can feel as if it’s been frozen like Fry and we’re able to glance back in time by simply walking through the forest and counting the rings on fallen trees.

But it’s not static. Nothing is. There is no climax community where, if left undisturbed it will stand immaculate forever.

I often find myself obsessed with how the land and wildlife looked thirty years ago, a hundred years ago, a millennium, an epoch ago. So I scour the books and testimonies of those that have come before me. Offhand comments like one by Paul a couple months ago send my imagination into overdrive.

“There used to be a hotel on Parson Island,” he says offhandedly. “This place used to have a much denser population.”

No way. I stare up at the cliffs that form the southern border of Parson Island and try to imagine it dotted with buildings. The absurd image of a 30 story Hilton plays before my mind. Communities in Freshwater Bay, fish buying companies in every cove, hand loggers determinedly probing through the inlets looking for something bigger.

One of these men was Billy Procter. He’s something of a legend. Our Gandolf or Obi-Wan Kenobi if you’d prefer. He grew up in Freshwater Bay, a little indention in Swanson Island a five minute boat ride from where Orca Lab now sits. Of course in the 1920s there was no Orca Lab. No whale watching industry, Orca’s nothing more than competition for fish. For it was fish that pumped the blood of the north island and Billy talks endlessly of massive runs of salmon. So thick on the flooding tide that the air was inundated with their odor.

“The Blackfish used to follow them through Blackfish Sound in numbers so thick you could walk across there backs,” he relayed to Alexandra Morton.

It’s these phrases that make me yearn for a different time. “The good old days” as it were. When a 2 HP engine was nothing short of a miracle, and fishing was as easy as dropping a line in the water and jigging for a few minutes. Before clear cuts and climate change, before fishing stocks plummeted or tugs chugged in an endless relay up and down the strait.

“I was born too late,” I think, setting down Billy and Alex’s book, Heart of the Raincoast.

I want to see that sort of abundance. I want to fish, can, and gather my way to an existence. I want to live in a float house and tow it up and down Knight Inlet.

In the 70’s Erich Hoyt and two other filmmakers sailed up Johnstone Strait and settled in Robson Bight, spending the summer tracing the loving shorelines of Cracroft, Vancouver, and Hanson, following the whales. No rules, no regulations, no cares. I was born too late. They were camping in the bight, documenting the rubbing beaches for the first time. Rubbing shoulders with the parade of scientists who rewrote the book on the “savage killer whale” and helped us see them the way we do.

I want to dive off the rubbing beaches, follow an orca pod in my kayak with no boats blitzing past me at 30 knots. I want to ride the ebb out Blackfish and the flood through Weynton. I want the good old days. I want to steal Futurama’s time machine and sit on the rocks at the feet of an old growth forest that has never been cut. I’ll even agree to take out Hitler on my way.

No I don’t.

Because no one talks about the “bad old days.” No one dwells on the fact that everything that ate fish had a bounty on it sixty years ago. 2 bucks for a seal’s flippers, a dollar for a Raven’s beak or an eagle’s talons. That there’s a reason that the salmon don’t run so thick you can smell them followed by Blackfish that form a bridge across the sound. That the slow curve downward began somewhere.

Or that the 70’s were filled with the live capture trade for Orca’s and the cold blooded murder of several others. That there’s a reason that the beaches and bight are closed, that the minimum distance is 100 meters. That today we live with the decisions made during those days that were neither good nor old.

So I go to ask the one soul on this island that’s lived in it for a millennium. I walk to Grandma Cedar whose cedar boughs have seen it all. Has watched the salmon come and go, the glacier’s charge and retreat, and a lab be built at her feet.

Does she miss the good old days? The bad old days?

I stare up at her, my neck craning, trying to make out the branches that originate a hundred feet above me. But she is centered in the here and now. Focused on the simple task of taking the miracle of sunlight and carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen. Perhaps if all she’s thinking about is today I should be too.

Maybe it’s one thing to read and admire history and another to yearn for a world I know virtually nothing about. One thing to devour old black and white photos and dig for artifacts on the shoreline and another to feel as if it will never be that good again. To let go of a history I can’t even begin to understand or control, and look to a future I can. You can keep your time machine Professor.

Cover photo credit: BC Archives. Freshwater Bay C.A 1916.