A Primordial Ordeal

I set off alone from Klicktsoatli Harbour near Bella Bella on the Pacific coast on a foggy late-August morning, kayaking southbound for Port Hardy with three cruxes ahead. Myriad pathways of destiny had interwoven and opened to channel me now into this most wondrous whelm of wilderness, -to explore at the speed of the world, the storm-battered archipelagos of Heiltsuk territory, (for which I had permission), and to explore an unknown aspect of my being as well.

Hugging the coast of Denny Island, I set a bearing south as Lama Passage was quickly becoming enveloped in fog. As I paddled abeam of McLoughlin Bay where the BC Ferry lands, the terminal slowly disappeared. The sea was placid and with a deep silence pocked by periodic flops of Coho salmon. The fuzzy deep-green silhouette of still and tangled primeval forest slid by to port and disappeared, followed by the little whirlpools sizzling off my paddletips. The “Klaskish,” my 19 ft kayak with lots of rocker and built in Victoria, bounded gently along, as paddle rhythm settled into breathing, and breathing settled quietly into pulse. Breathing by nose, when all these are in synch, the distance slips by ever so effortlessly. I was entering one of our planet’s final tracts of wilderness.

My traumatic summer included an unexpected month-long sojourn in hospital for a mysterious fever and collapsed lung, during which I endured successively more invasive intubations and chest surgeries until I was finally diagnosed. Cancer was a possibility but my ailment turned out to be pleural tuberculosis which I must have picked up somewhere between Afghanistan and Burma where I have traveled, and which, according to he scarring on my lung, I have been battling for years. Having faced my own mortality, having lost 25 pounds and with a pharmaceutically-enhanced emotional sensitivity, (from TB medication) I needed to reconnect with my place in the world somehow. I, like most of humanity, have lost connection with the pure and living Earth, -our home, -this place where our species has been evolving for 150,000 years until so recently, when we have become almost completely alienated from nature.

I slept on a crushed-shell beach on an unnamed islet, while unsettled weather brooded during the night, foreshadowing my next day’s destination. At dawn I crossed over a tombolo which extended at low tide to a small crag of rock overloaded with teetering vegetation. I climbed barefoot into the spiky krummholz, which had been sheared into buzzcut green dunes by the wind. On top I found a mossy dell beneath several stunted storm-battered Sitka’s which overlooked the sea. On this Pacific coast, the winds are usually weakest in the morning, but now they were gathering, already soughing to a whistle through the boughs above. The vista extended westwards beyond Lillooet Passage and on across Queen’s Sound to the low-lying Goose Islands, which hovered ethereally in a mauve delineation of the horizon in the distance. It was grey and cloudy, blowing SE, about 15 knots, and the islands lay 9 kms offshore. If it blew a gale, I could always fall off and follow the swell north towards shelter alee of Iroquois Island or even the McMullen Group, so I set a course 10 degrees S of the NW point of Goose Island, and headed out into the Sound.

A moderate ocean swell came undulating up from SE, and with incessant seas roving across my course, and I altered my heading slightly S again and set off down the troughs on a long crabwise drift around Goose’s NE Cape. Nearing halfway, the wind ratcheted up and the seas gamboled into whitecaps. In a freshening breeze, equidistant from shelter in any direction, I came across a sea otter, fast asleep on the waves, with all feet and tail in the air. This animal, whose prized glossy pelt contains more hair follicles per square cm. than any other furry creature, was hunted to the verge of extinction within 100 years of the arrival of Vitus Bering in 1728. The annihilation of the sea otter was only the first of succeeding tsunamis of voracious greed which has decimated the balances and bounties of these coastal ecosystems. Since the otterships arrived on their bloodsoaked mission, this coast has been a veritable feeding-frenzy for “resource” exploiters. They’ve skinned all the otters, they’ve flensed all the whales, they’ve gutted all the fish, they’ve axed most of the forest, and now they dream of drilling the seabed for fossil fuel. Canada doesn’t make anything much, -en masse, Canadians have no particular creative skill or ingenuity, -rather, the fat and lazy cities of Vancouver and Victoria have metastasized by the most ruthless, gluttonous frenzy of “resource” extraction ever to have debased the planet. Sea otters are making a comeback, but now they must compete with new human predators for sustenance. I pressed on for the Goose.

The Goose Islands are remote, -Goose, Gosling, Swan and Duck-, the islands stand alone, far off the BC Central Coast, -too far for the swimming bears and wolves who otherwise think nothing of making the passage across Seaforth, Fitz Hugh, Dean or other large channels which divide the islands.. Deer make the crossing however and flourish there. Without predators, they have eaten away all the thick salal which otherwise so ubiquitously tangles the westcoast woods, leaving a soft mossy veldt instead which carpets the forests. My first crux was to set foot on Goose Island, and quite appropriately the sun poured out from behind the impending weather front as I stepped onto the immaculate white sand beach. In the lee of the wind, I spread out my clothes to dry and spent a solitary, naked day, beachcombing and walking in the forest. Those who have the privilege of immersion into the solitude of nature on a warm and sunny day have this primal compunction to get naked. It is properly exhilarating to denude oneself on a wild expanse of beach.

I was up at dawn again, -and not by an alarmed awakening, I just felt impelled to take advantage of calm weather. Chronological time was not important, even traveling at night in proper conditions was a possibility. After coffee and porridge I packed my kayak and set off into the gloaming, heading down the west coast of the island, passing among the kelp beds, reefs and islets which shelter the lonely stretch of beaches down the coast. A raft of 11 sea otters watched me approach and I could see three pups clinging to their mums. The wind was blowing SE at 10 knots, but with the large ocean swells rebounding off the rocks and then rolling back against more oncoming oscillations, I stood off several kilometres into a more regular sea and continued south as the sun rose over the islands.

The botanical splendors of Heiltsuk territory evolved with a continuous and persistent human stewardship. They were here before the forests even, and generations of ancestors have influenced and shaped its magnificent efflorescence. Some sneer at the notion that indigenous people consciously manipulated the evolution of biodiversity on their landscapes. This derogatory stereotype stigmatizes them as ‘hunter-gatherers,’ ­ and framed by this colonial mindset, they are seen as transient aliens wandering aimlessly against an encroaching wilderness, spontaneously exploiting whatever fruits they found. But as with all advanced civilizations, they were woven into the evolving whelm of life, and such integration left no detrimental ecological impact. They lived as part of what grew in the land and sea and their activities enhanced its bountiful capacity. As I am transient and not rooted anywhere, it’s difficult to conceive the sense of connectedness to place one must feel on the land where ones ancestry stretches back over millennia.. I know my own neighbourhood, but I have no recollection of the landscape which stood their before, where people have lived continuously for more than 10,000 years.This trip has given me a glimpse of scale of the vast ancientness of human presence in this place ­ and that as vast as this time and place may be, I’ve learned just how intimately accessible the Northern Pacific coast is by paddle.

The historic footprint of the Heiltsuk Nation is now only vaguely materially suggested. It has been virtually absorbed into the inexorable forest maw, with occasional, fleeting instances of their enduring tenure. Their ancient paths were advanced consensually over time, passing across the easiest lie of the land, and in many cases, are still maintained by animal traffic since the last human passage, perhaps 100 years ago. Or by the outline of a long-fallen Big House, now structurally suggested by new Sitka spruce trees standing at each corner, with roots suspended horizontally in mid-air where the logs used to be. The water-soaked cross-logs through which the roots once grew became saturated over years, and then rotted away completely, leaving the roots exposed in an empty cylindrical web. Or suggested incrementally with elongated triangles of bark-strip or plank-split wounds on cedar trees, with calluses slowly closing over the catfaces and by the scorch-marks of smoulder-felling of trees. Or in the extensive clam-garden and fish-trap stoneworks which adorn so much shoreline. These are the subtle signs of an enlightened society which left such an enhanced and improving habitat legacy for future generations of all beings. With so much of humanity now alienated completely from the world and absorbed instead into all-consuming barbarism, we yearn to get back into nature. And so too, this magnificent forest also mourns for its lost human element.

Near the southern cape of Gosling Island I found a sheltered bay and had lunch. With a kelp bulb tucked under a deckline anchoring my position, I bobbed there in my boat. This is an awfully exposed place at other times judging by the giant logs smashed back into the krummholz 15 metres above the spring tideline. After lunch I shaped a course towards Spider Island, heading directly across Queens Sound for the sheltered waters of the Breadner Group. As the purple bluffs of the Simonds Group to the north receded, Triquet Island, my destination, began to materialize ahead. Halfway across, the wind dwindled to an itinerant zephyr, while large and slow ocean swells continued to stroll in. Triquet Island lies at the north entrance to the truly grand Hakai Pass, which runs between the Kildidt Sound archipelagos of south Hunter Island and the looming hulk of Calvert Island to south. As I pulled my kayak onto the idyllic little beach at Triquet, I saw fresh Sandhill crane tracks in the sand.

It’s a special occasion to see a Grizzly bear, or a wolf or cougar in the wild, but in my precious collection of nature sightings, nothing compares with the excitement of watching a Sandhill crane coming in to land. One hears these elegant birds approaching before they are seen, but their call cannot be transliterated, as is done with owls (“who cooks for you, who cooks for you…”) and other birds. Famous naturalists Aldo Leopold, John Muir and even Henry Thoreau all tried, and failed to describe it. Their calls are a reedy chittering skirl which can be heard re-echoing throughout the islands. The cranes glide in along the treetops on 2 metre wings with their spindly legs pointing straight out behind. But as they approach their landing, they stall out to a virtual stop at about 50 metres in the air and rotate their bodies to splay out their legs below. Then declining their wings into an inverted V with wingtip primary feathers bent back like Bharat Natyam dancers, they parachute precariously down to the beach while raising a great cacophony.

On this warm, pre-dawn morning, I climbed through the Triquet krummholz to watch the sun rise over Hakai Pass. To eastwards, a brilliant yellow streak was brightening under a front of deep purple clouds. A black, silhouetted island floated below and as it dawned, pink streaks fanned out beneath the darkening clouds. There was no wind, but a storm was brewing which threatened to blow 40. Rather than continuing south, I pushed off to explore the strange and haunting Spider Island, knowing that I could retreat to shelter amongst the Breadner Islets. With some trepidation I paddled in thickening fog up a narrow inlet which extends deep into the heart of this lonely, cliff-wracked island. Stationing myself just off the base of the cliffs, the kayak rose and fell by 3 metres from the surge. At the clifftops the Spider forest teeters right to the brink, pushing up right out of the granite. This island seemingly offers few amenities for the comfort of humans.

The next day, I crossed Kildidt Sound and Hakai Pass and was approaching the famous sandy sweep of Wolf Beach on NW Calvert Island when I saw the solitary fin of an Orca whale traveling west, perpendicular to my course, about 2 kms ahead. When one goes out into nature without a gun, chainsaw or pick-up, the sensation of fear is, indeed, an integral facet of the true wilderness experience. It manifests in me as a tightening of the solar plexus and I felt the rush of adrenaline coursing into my veins. I set off on this excursion with all the basic tools by which to minimize my risks, -VHF radio, GPS, compass etc. and I was proceeding with a calculated awareness of the limitations of my seamanship skills. Nevertheless, one anticipates and accepts the possibility of serious injury or death. Trouble comes suddenly out of nowhere, especially during those moments of complacency, or one can watch its inexorable approach. In spite of no record of any harm ever having been done to a human by this species, the sight of a large lone Orca strikes a twinge of fear into ones heart.

The whale surfaced and blew, and as I watched the fin slowly arc back under the water, I knew it had changed course and was now headed for me. Again, this time closer, the fin came up and went down. Then it was 30 metres directly ahead, and I could see the fin wobble along its nearly 2 metre height as it plunged slowly under again. It was clear that I was the object of its interest. I maintained course and speed, and sensed the whale “pinging” me with its sonar. We, so limited by our audio-visual world, cannot comprehend the extra sensual clarity of the sonar submarine landscape as seen by whales. We just don’t understand that language. The whale surfaced 10 metres off and for several moments, we looked eye to eye and then it was gone. And for whatever might have been communicated between us, my fear was gone too. Three minutes later, suddenly, a large fin emerged from the water directly in front of the kayak, and I piled straight into it and felt it rasping along under the hull. I looked down and saw a large grey and white creature the colour of a halibut, and about the size of a Beluga. It must have been a shark, by the rasp of its skin, but having barely recovered from the thrall of the whale encounter, my first thought was that I had collided with the Orca.

After lunch and coffee on Wolf Beach, I set off around the point and headed into my next crux, -down the west coast of Calvert Island. Calvert extends south of the otherwise limited protection offered by Haida Gwaii and takes the full brunt of Pacific storms. Even the stunted krummholz, usually so carefully trimmed by wind blasts into a spiky hedge-like green wave washing into the battered forests along this coast is here blown right off, leaving great expanses of barren rock extending well up Calvert’s mountainside. I stood off about three kms, to avoid the rebounding waves and headed into a freshening SE wind. I hadn’t been able to find a complete chart of Calvert and every stroke south was taking me further from Wolf Beach, which was my only certain escape option, should the weather worsen. Still, the weather appeared stable and I thought I might find a place to camp in the lee of Blackney Island, about 14 kms ahead. But as I continued down the coast, all the beaches I was passing would have required a difficult high surf landing, and a long night of wondering whether I could get off again in the morning. To make matters worse, I hadn’t been able to get a complete chart of the island, and there was a gap, exactly in the area I was hoping to camp. Far ahead, from time to time, I could see the spouts of Humpback whales.

After a long day of paddling, I was able to land in low surf on a beach in the lee of Blackney Isle. The tideline however, indicated that at Spring tides, this beach would be completely submerged and there was no way to squeeze my tent into the salal tangle without hours of work, so I found the highest part of the beach and pitched my tent, hoping that the tide wouldn’t rise so high that night. I crawled into my sleeping bag after eating a few figs and went to sleep. I woke several times and went out to check the tide. It was a calm and clear night with the full infinity of the Milky Way stretching out overhead. During the night, a large wolf silently inspected my camp, leaving his tracks in the sand in a five foot circle around my tent. I was fast asleep and he did not disturb.

I departed at dawn with a slight NW breeze behind me, clear skies and a smooth easy Pacific swell rolling in. I covered the 12 kms to the Sorrow Islands at the southern Cape of Calvert in less than 2 hours and completed my second crux. Given the perfect conditions, I set a course straight for Egg Island, 17 kms away. The leg from here to northern Vancouver Island, passing Rivers Inlet, Smith Sound and rounding Cape Caution is the most notorious and exposed section of the trip, but I felt quite comfortable more than 10 kms offshore. During the three hours it took to reach Egg Island, I was surrounded by a pod of 6 Humpback whales exhaling whole roomfuls of air which lingered for several minutes in 15 metre spouts of vapour. After three or four spouts, their great tails would raise up and then arc slowly under as they dove. They would stay under for up to 10 minutes and then resurface several kms away. The Queen of Chilliwack, -the first boat I had seen in 5 days- which plys the BC Central Coast waters and offers wonderful services to kayaks appeared to alter course to pass nearby, -presumably to see if I was OK. I doubt if they see a lot of people kayaking that far offshore.

Passing Cape Caution, my third crux, was uneventful, and with the gentle wind still pushing me, I passed numerous beautiful beaches where I could have camped, but as I was still enjoying the motion, I pressed on. I finally pulled into Skull Cove on Bramham Island, due north of Port Hardy. Having paddled 62 kms, I set up my tent in the sheltered cove and went straight to sleep without cooking anything. All of my clothes were now soaked, but I had taken care to keep my sleeping bag, a tee shirt and wool long johns, -which I slept in- dry. The weather report was forecasting moderate to strong NW winds in the morning. When I awoke, it was raining and blowing SE. I passed on the coffee, struck camp and set off into a thick fog to cross Queen Charlotte Strait. I picked up my final landmark off the south end of Bramham, and plunged into the mirk. Keeping a south heading would see me to Vancouver Island, but for the next three hours I dead-reckoned by compass without any visual reference. My first sight of land turned out to be Nigei Island, so I headed through Browning Pass and set my final course for Hardy Bay. At the entrance to the harbour, through the fog, I saw a Humpback tail sinking slowly under the waves about 20 metres away. Rounding the point, the blast of noise of progress and development entirely obliterated the cocoon of natural soundscape which had enveloped me during the previous 7 days.. As soon as I reached the government dock, the sun came out, but no nakedness on this beach.

Somewhere out there on this planet, a few human communities are still living properly as fully-functioning participants in the ecological processes. We have a lot more to learn about civilization from them, than they do from us. We have to learn from elders, who may still recall the days when they still lived within the balances of nature. The ecological priority must be to immediately protect all of the world’s remaining wilderness places, and to learn about how people lived properly within them, because people once lived, and in some cases still do, in virtually every patch of primeval wilderness which still remains on this planet. We have to learn how they encourage, enhance and learn to adapt to the ever-changing and advancing biodiversity around them. We must learn to restore the conditions by which the complexity of biodiversity advances, and repair the damage we’ve done. Until humans relearn how to live within the balances of nature, we cannot allow any further “resource” extraction of any kind from these dwindling patches of primeval wildernesses. These places are the irreplaceable benchmarks which demonstrate the evolution of life on Earth at the peak of its perfection. Nevertheless, I believe that modern humans should be allowed to visit these precious places, albeit with great care and with absolutely minimal ecological impact. I think that visiting by kayak seems to be an acceptable way to do this. During my trip, it was clear that many kayakers have been paddling through these waters, and many of them had camped in the same places I did. But I didn’t see so much as a cigarette butt in any of these. I was delighted to see how respectful the kayaking community has been while passing through this magnificent area. Perhaps such love and respect might prove contagious and spread for the benefit and salvation of us all.

INGMAR LEE has travelled around the world nine times, and has met people who are still living properly, as their ancestors have done forever. He can be reached via his website, www.ingmarlee.com