As I travelled north up the narrow coastal channel, the New Age retreats and sumptuous mansions gave way to older farms, most now abandoned. Where the rainforest hadn’t completely reclaimed them, derelict houses were still visible from the water, as were the orchards that made this island a significant apple producer many decades ago.
Moving along at eight knots to the incessant purr of an engine just below my feet, I often passed the time by setting the auto pilot and then watching the shoreline. The rocky outcroppings that grew steeper and steeper took on shapes, and I would imagine a face, a dark cityscape, or almost anything from a fantasy novel lurking in the folds and lines of the granite. Trees, mostly red cedar or spruce, clung to the sides of the rock, roots like so many tentacles reaching not down towards the killing salt water but rather deep into the cracks and fissures where nurturing sweet water was to be found. Occasional open areas allowed soil to accumulate, permitting arbutus trees to thrust their muscular cinnamon limbs to the sky. Not far from this point, arbutus reached the limit of its northern range, leaving behind a solid phalanx of conifers.
The small harbour I sought finally appeared off the starboard bow, so I throttled down the old Isadora and idled in slowly. In an attempt to bestow a semblance of style and grace on my beamy gillnetter, I had renamed her after a most creative and uninhibited dancer. I always said that in my case, the boat was far superior to its skipper; she had demonstrated this quality when throwing off the tight grip of many a severe storm.
I tied up to the outermost finger, added spring lines just in case a fall gale awakened the placid waters of this small harbour, and went off to find the harbour master. I told him I wasn’t sure just how long I’d be tied up. He mumbled, “Might miss the next opening, eh?” I nodded, thinking there weren’t enough salmon running right now to worry about.
I walked slowly up the gangway, scoping out the small landing in front of me, its only road heading south, back to where most of the island’s residents were to be found. I saw a gas station, café, and what appeared to be a rustic, freshly painted church. Nobody was around, but a couple of old pick-ups rested sleepily alongside the gas station. My hand clutched a folded letter with pages of endlessly explicit and hopefully correct directions. Despite years on the water, navigation wasn’t necessarily my strong suit. Rosie wrote the way she spoke, wandering in a quirky way all around a point before getting to it. Here’s an example. “Take a deep breath of the freshest air you’ll find, turn full circle and bask in the beauty of this tiny place until your eyes are eventually, inevitably drawn to a large cedar. If you miss it, you won’t find me.” She could simply have directed me to the biggest tree around, behind which I would find a trail head.
Rosie and I had crossed paths during our university years, and walked together for a short but intense while. We had kept in touch, mostly at Christmas, for the last twenty-plus years. She had written some weeks back asking me to come visit, saying that a certain someone wanted to see me. I will admit to being more than a little excited at the prospect of seeing Rosie again. Recollections of formative times we had shared surfaced like jellyfish to moonlight; those memories rose in an endless phosphorescent stream. But entering this unknown area, this wilderness of body and spirit, also made me think of him. It had been almost three years now, and though the pain still pierced, I had gotten better at diverting my attention to the here and now.
It was early afternoon, and Rosie said it would take an hour and a half to reach her place, though she qualified this by relating her timeline to my current state of “decrepitude.” I didn’t know if this was a word, but her point was taken. She listed a series of landmarks and geophysical features that I needed to locate as blazes marking an often-obscured trail. These included rock outcroppings, fallen trees, small creeks, and assorted relics of our human footprint.
After a short stroll through open woods, I came to a very tiny inlet featuring a deserted cabin that faced the water and offered a stunning view of the Coast Mountains, bare now but soon to be draped in winter’s snow. I went inside, and the interior was perfectly preserved, as if the owner was about to return. There were a few books on a shelf, eating utensils, and a scrapbook full of vintage World War II photographs of a tall, slender, and handsome man taken in uniform at various locations in Southeast Asia. I could only guess at what brought a smiling young soldier to this outpost of solitude so many years ago. As I left, I noticed the remains of a Pelton wheel behind the cabin. Rows of cups that had once channeled the force of a stream into a generator of power were now clogged with dried leaves. This fellow had been a thoughtful and ingenious back-to-the-lander before the phrase became popular and the concept fashionable. I would have enjoyed meeting him.
The sun found me as I continued along a line of split rail cedar fence posts, some of which were still fully upright. The afternoon heat wicked the moisture out of them, so that they appeared to be smoking. It was somewhat unnerving, as if the spirits of the wood had been summoned after all the years to parts unknown.
Rosie must have run out of ink, because her directions suddenly appeared in a different color. I continued on to a much larger bay, crossing old rusting cables that were left behind when the logging here had ended. They were once used to pull logs out of the bush and down to the water where they would be loaded onto barges. The woods were now thick with young alder, birch, and the occasional conifer, but if you looked closely, you could see all the stumps. It was like strolling through a grand cemetery. I crossed several small creeks that flowed into the bay, whose estuary was flat and thickly grassed, and imagined you could watch large, coastal grizzly bears fishing there at sunset, as they had for millennia. The smell of rotting salmon made me glad I hadn’t eaten lunch before beginning this trek.
Climbing up now out of the bay, I noticed specks of color dotting the hillside, and as I got closer recognized a veritable explosion of chanterelle mushrooms. I would pick a bunch on the way back. The small bit of climbing winded me, and I walked slowly along a low ridge, the trail leading me to the head of another small inlet. Before me, a reef was just breaking the surface of the water so that at low tide, access to this body of water would be cut off. Across the way I could see a cabin, smoke billowing from the chimney in that slow, meandering way it rises when the damper is closed. Rosie had described it as “a coastal Taj Mahal,” but it appeared more like a grey, weathered creature at rest, slung very low to the ground. Getting closer, I saw windows, a garden plot, and an outbuilding.
The reality of meeting someone I hadn’t seen for so long and talking about the intervening years while trying to describe the place in which I now found myself was suddenly daunting. I wouldn’t have had the energy a year ago to do this, but that was then.