Serendipity’s Son-Take One
While not drawn to religion, I feel free to see truths in some of it. I don’t get overly exercised about their being expropriated from other religions or from folklore. I have sought and found, asked and received. I’m unabashedly grateful for it. To whom or what I seem to have no need to ask or sense an answer to.
Take, for instance, the unfolding events that pretty-well severed the umbilical ties of my lady and I to middle-class upbringings and affirmed what we had imagined….. that it was possible to construct a life outside the norms of the day.
The forming of the ‘we’ was itself magical, perhaps mystical. The woman who would catalyze so much that became possible literally walked into my life with a luminosity so striking as to revive will and spirit and sense of possibility lost in the wreckage of an earlier love.
We, Aus and I, had traveled across Canada and back and then set our sights on the town of Sooke, on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We imagined ourselves putting together a vessel of some kind and making our way to somewhere uninhabited on the west coast of the Vancouver Island. We would live off the land.
‘Aus’ is for Australia. It was a name I’d given her, redolent of the pleasure I’d taken in being called ‘Canada’ while working construction in Sydney a few years before I met her. It was, of course, a courting tactic. She liked it (obviously, or neither it nor she would have stuck) and I preferred it, for its earthier associations, to ‘Saint,’ as she’d been dubbed by her school and travel companions, their abbreviation of St. Leger, her family name.
Sooke had a tiny business ‘zone’ at that time. On the verge of it was a small, real-estate office,a little panabode, as I recall, windows almost entirely covered in ads. We were dropped off at our request right in front of it by a motorist who had picked us up hitch-hiking outside Victoria.
We knew our needs were minimal, as were our means. They might be accommodated, the lone realtor suggested, by a small cabin on several acres in woods above the golf course. It was expected to remain tied up for some time in a legal dispute. There was a small trailer there too and all could be ours for twenty-five dollars-month.
We happily handed over that amount. Siamese sisters Mom and Sis clung and mewled atop our backpacks, as we pretty much danced our way out of town along tree-lined, shady Otter Point Road. Opposite a newish rancher, sparsely screened by tall, young fir trees we found the entrance to ‘our’ long driveway. It climbed a hundred yards or so through the trees and opened into a clearing of about two acres.
At its near edge was a relatively new cedar cabin, about 12′ x 16′. It was clean, containing a bed, wood stove, sink, counter……a few shelves. Made to order for us. There was no garden, but plenty of room for one.
The cats seemed to like the place. They quickly took off exploring. We’d no fear that they’d disappear, of their own volition at least. We four had been across the country and back in an entirely cohesive fashion. We were well bonded. They would establish territory for themselves beneath the bunk. Each would give birth to a litter of kittens (what else?) and take turns nursing the lot while the other went hunting.
Soon settled in and tickled with our good fortune we walked down to the road and into ‘town’ for supplies. At the checkout counter of the small supermarket we asked the woman attending if, by chance, she knew of someone with a horse in need of training, that we might offer in trade for the loan of it.
It so happened (I am tempted to say ‘verily’) that there was a family with precisely that need raising sheep on an acreage not far from our cabin. I called them from the pay phone on the wall of the market. Being out of the blue our inquiry met with some reserve, but once I explained what we had in mind we were invited to drop by.
The horse in question had been acquired at auction in Duncan. She was one of a number brought each year to a spring sale from a ranch in Washington State. These horses arrived ‘green broke’, meaning….in their case…….burdened with a saddle over which a large sandbag had been tied then driven into a shallow river to buck themselves out.
This mare was about four years old, coarse and scruffy-looking, as she would remain despite the grooming we at first lavished on her. She had a pale roan coat with big honey-brown patches on it and one wall-eye. Conformation-wise, though, she was pretty-nicely put together,compact, well-muscled, about fourteen hands at the withers. A little nervous….a touch wide-eyed.
The problem was that every time somebody tried to ride her she’d rear up and go right over onto her back: Not something you want your kids dealing with….and it was for them that the horse had been acquired.
I hadn’t been raised with horses. Books taught me to love them…and I’d found ways to become a passable rider. Good enough, anyway, to have put in a few weeks at a dude ranch in Alberta shaking the winter’s cobwebs out of thirty or so trail horses. I wouldn’t claim to be brilliant at it, but I took a fall well. I’d more recently done a bit of horse training and taught riding at a kids camp in Québec where Aus and I had worked earlier that year.
Reasonably or not, I wasn’t too worried about getting safely out of the way if our prospective mode of transport tried on me what she’d done to others. It was agreed that if we could catch and ride her we were welcome to keep her over the next several months while we prepared to head off into the unknown.
Dusk was well into transforming day to night as we left the house for the adjacent pasture, where the mare grazed. From a small, clapboard barn we obtained halter, saddle, blanket and bridle. An eighty-foot-long coil of half-inch poly rope came to hand, to be fashioned into a lasso that we quickly found we’d need. This little horse was clearly not willingly going to let us near her.
We commenced to walk her down, projecting a steady stream of soothing words over her haunches to laid-back ears from fifty feet astern of her.
In short order she walked herself into a corner of the pasture where, in the grass along one fenceline, happened to be to be a length of heavy, jaggedy logging cable. Not a nice thing to handle. But Aus, game as she would so often prove to be, picked up the end away from the corner where the mare shuffled nervously and, while I shook out a loop, began to drag it sideways, squeezing her into the sharp end of an ever-narrowing ‘V’. When she broke and ran she would have to pass by me close enough to be roped.
That she did…snorting and blowing….clods of dirt flying from her hooves. My loop fell softly over her head and off she cantered. I held to my end of the rope long enough to pull the loop snug around her neck and then let go so as not to get rope-burned. Now we only had to get within fifty feet or so of her and as she picked her way through a grove of alder trees I got hold of the end of the rope and took a wrap around one of them, bringing her to a halt.
She was jumpy of course as I moved hand-over-hand to her head, but took to the bridle, blanket and saddle well enough when Aus brought them over.
We led her back out to the open grass. I stepped into the right stirrup, swung a leg over her back and settled into the saddle. She was tense of course, skin jumping and quivering, veins pumping.
We just stood still for a bit then moved into a walk easily enough and then to a trot. I gave her a little bit of leg. She took about three strides into a canter, skidded her hind end right underneath herself and reared straight up. Right on script.
As our center-of-gravity shifted back past vertical I withdrew my left foot from its stirrup and brought it over her hindquarters, beside my right. As she fell over and on to her back ( if you can picture it) I was gently lowered to the ground, standing in the right stirrup, and able to step away, almost casually, to avoid any flailing of hooves. The saddle gave out a crack as it was landed on (but turned out not to have been broken) and the mare rolled over and scrambled to her feet to stand legs splayed, breathing hard, giving me the fearful eye.
I’d kept hold of the right rein so she couldn’t bolt away. Moving to her head, I ran the back of my hand gently from forelock to nose and said something like, “Not this time, sugar.”
We walked her home that evening in the dark, staked her on a long line in the yard, named her ‘Suspicious,’ as she remained over the time she shared with us. She reared almost to the point of going over a time or two, but never quite did. It seemed to scare her, getting so close. On just one occasion, cantering along Otter Point Road towards town, she did drop her head mid-stride and break into a long series of crow-hops along the tarmac, but not so vigorously that I couldn’t stay in the saddle simply by leaning my shoulders further back than my hips, letting them relax and pump up and down as if they were detached.
Now we had our dwelling, a horse to help us out in various ways, a spot for a garden and a source of manure to feed it. We had our cats and, best of all, were we assigning grades, one other. We got the occasional use of another horse, a tall, leggy, blanket appaloosa, and would ride together and on occasion race neck and neck the length of the dirt runway of Sooke’s airport.
We had one terrifying moment, at the road edge approaching Sooke Bridge when the appaloosa, with Aus aboard, reared at the roar of a fully-loaded logging truck approaching hell-bent from the other direction and started to shy off the road-allowance into its path. I sat helpless on the mare while Aus got it all in hand.
She had been so focused on getting the animal under control, she told me afterwards, that the danger barely registered. I, on the other hand, retain to this day an almost photographic memory of it and an etching within my emotional archives quite capable of regenerating the fright of it.
But you set these things aside if you want to live fearlessly, as we did. It wasn’t the only close shave we would have. The choices we were making pretty-well guaranteed that.
So…..we needed a boat and a destination. We would settle in for winter, wait for what we needed to find us or be found, enjoy our circumstances and check out alternatives or complements to what we had in mind.
There was a commune, for instance, starting up a few miles along the road but, as was so often the case with communes, it was poorly conceived, hopelessly under-financed and a hunting ground for power trippers….not unlike a lot of human constructs of one kind or another. We chatted to folks who were forming the ambitious and ultimately successful and much to be congratulated Caravan Circus. It was appealing in the range and color of its vision, but ultimately a little too busy for us.
As I hitchhiked home from Sooke one day an ancient, bright yellow, undercoat-spotted half-ton pickup truck approached, seemed to consider stopping and then…did. I opened the passenger-side door and behind the steering wheel saw a man I just, somehow, immediately knew I was going to like.
Leaning to haggard, in a healthy, vigorous kind of way, probably gets it right. A little bent maybe, but from hard work not defeat and with eyes that spoke of dry humor, self-possession and a life lived on his own terms, near to half a century more on his than on mine. A lot to read in a man at first sight, I know, but….there you go.
I had not thought of him for a long while and found myself tearing up doing so, realizing only as I wrote, just how much I appreciated his friendship.
I got into the truck, settled back into the cracked, worn upholstery and exchanged introductions with Harry Way.
He was driving to his daughter’s place, to get her kitten out of a tree. It was one of those tall, thin firs in front of the rancher across from the entrance to our driveway. I’d been an avid climber of trees from early childhood and, without suggesting that retrieving the kitten might be better done with the advantage of youth, I made the offer and it was accepted.
The kitten, it turns out, wasn’t just ‘up’ the tree, it was sixty feet up. There was another twenty feet available if it chose to go further and the same from the ground to the first branches on a trunk no more than 18” in diameter at the base. From the garage we got a ladder to get me to the lower limbs. From there it was a relatively easy climb.
The tree was remarkably straight, telephone pole material, but up where the kitten was it got awfully slender. When the youngster skittered up another ten feet (which, of course, it did at my approach) I followed it with a definite sense of the unequivocal need to keep my weight absolutely centered over the elongated trunk below me. It seemed more than possible that if I didn’t the kitten and I would get back to the ground in company with the top of the tree, far too quickly for me, certainly, to survive. It was thin enough and high enough that even the kitten didn’t want to climb further.
It was clear to me, as to you if I’ve painted this picture well, that I was going to need both hands to get us back down.
So with the bark pressing my chest through shirt and all, I reached my right hand up and grabbed the frightened little beast by the scruff of the neck. He relaxed, as kittens will when so held, and I lowered him to the front of my face, took the loose skin at the back of his neck in my teeth as its mother might have and, belly snug to the bark all the while, made a careful descent with it, one branch at a time, to the ladder and the ground…….and to a heroes welcome and an invitation for tea and cookies.
Of course we traded stories.
Harry was a highliner, among the top-earning trollermen in the west coast fishing fleet. He was building his third boat, the thirty-four-foot long troller ‘Ermadine’, named for his wife. Its hull was to be of clear yellow cedar that had been curing beside his boat shed for six years. He had lots of strait-grain red-cedar on hand, he said, and it would be no problem for him to rip enough of it into strips from which Aus and I could build a couple of identical canoes that he would draw plans for. We would span them with the length of a single 4′x8′ sheet of mahogany plywood on top of which we would mount a mast to which we could attach a sail. In return I’d give him a hand with the Ermadine when he could use one.
Best of all…..Aus and I got two fine friends in Harry and Erma, along with jars of salmon and fruit, and regular evening games of Hearts. Harry was a competitive soul and, for my part, I confess to, on one occasion, sorely testing his generosity of spirit with a victory dance around the table, having fashioned a dramatic come-from-behind victory.
Harry had become a man by means of a sort seemingly unavailable to my generation. He’d come west from Newfoundland, where he’d served in the Canadian Navy and been a competitive boxer. He’d worked on rum-runners bringing in illicit booze from the U.S. to Canada through Juan de Fuca Strait. He battled emphysema, most likely from inhaling sawdust while building his boats and he hobbled a little due to a steel pin in a leg run over when a logging truck he was working beneath came off the jack and rolled over it. Now he fished the open waters off the west coast of Vancouver Island, favoring the Big Bank, and built his own boats, medicating just enough to take the edge off the pain in one part of his body or another.
Harry eventually asked me to work as his deck hand in the upcoming season. It was a compliment for sure and I knew it. I appreciated it. My life would have unfolded differently had I accepted. But if there were two people likely to get really pissed off with one another with neither backing off it was Harry and me. And anyway, Aus and I had some living off the land to do.
Building those two canoes was a test for me, simple as it might seem now, looking back through the prism of a lifetime of accumulated skills. Me being edgy and frustrated by my limitations was hard on Aus but she bore it with the kindness that characterized so much of her life and her treatment of me and the daughters who eventually joined us.
I had no experience working with wood beyond building a couple of corrals out of poles. Using a hand plane to get long, narrow strips of cedar to lay snugly edge-to-edge atop one another and form smooth, curved hulls was not something I had a flair for. They would be skinned over with fibreglass, and thus watertight, but still, I wanted them to have more integrity than I managed to give them.
The deck was a straightforward sheet of plywood with 1”x4” strips, on edge, glued beneath it to conform to the inside of the gunnels of the two canoes over which it would lay crosswise, giving us a beam of 8′. We would hold it in place with removeable through-bolts. The mast was something like 12′ high with a mainsail of canvas. No jib. As any real sailor will know, this was not to be a performance craft. At 3/4” thick and with a couple of coats of ‘glass’ on them, those hulls weren’t light by any means. But that, as it turned out, would prove fortunate.
Our little sail left us badly underpowered and, with no jib-sail, all but impossible to make headway with into the wind. We would however, ‘though with considerable difficulty, do with it what we hoped to. And stripped of deck and mast our two canoes would prove admirably suited, due to their weight, to the waters they would ply. Where that was to be would become apparent as spring drifted in over the land.
There are days when any place we have come to love can seem as we might imagine Eden to have been. On just such a day Aus and I were hitch-hiking into Victoria along Sooke Rd. when a long, heavy, somewhat old, dusty and dun-colored Pontiac sedan pulled over. The driver was, tall, medium built, battling a bit of a belly and in his forties. His companion was a first nations woman of roughly the same age, with the stocky frame of many of the people of west coast heritage.
Vi and Roger Clark would be instrumental in us finding what we sought. In fact I don’t think we actually got to Victoria that day. As we sat in the back Vi told us she was from the village of Ahousat, on Flores Island, where she and Roger lived for part of each year.
Was it bold of us to anticipate, at that very point, what was about to unfold? Would it have been ungrateful for us not to have done so given the experiences I have written of here? Surely, if we shared a glance and a sense of fate in the air as we said we were interested in that neck of the woods ourselves, it was understandable.
It seemed that there was an unoccupied cabin at the head of Herbert Inlet, ingress to which lies opposite Ahousat. Roger suggested a detour to their house for lunch and a look at a marine chart. We could talk a little more about that spot and how we might sustain ourselves there.
And it it would come about that, a mere couple of months later, we would be driven to Tofino in that big old sedan by Roger and Vi, their children Junior and Riva sharing the back seat with us and the cats, our new deck and mast spanning the roof racks, the canoes atop them upside down, strapped and cinched down tight. Soon thereafter, though neither uneventfully nor easily, we would pull our crude catamaran up on the rocky beach at the head of Herbert Arm, at the mouth of Cotter Creek, across from the Moyeha River delta.
God, we’re odd, we humans. Embarrassment held up my writing about getting to the head of Herbert Arm from Tofino. Preparations I’d been primarily responsible for were to prove markedly inadequate. To take on even a few miles of the waters of the west coast of Vancouver Island in a vessel so small, burdened and inadequately powered, not to mention jibless, seems now, after having spent many years working on the water, to have been profoundly naive. But I got down to the writing after remembering that people like Harry and Erma and Roger and Vi showed no reluctance to encourage and help us……folks with years of experience in those environs. They cared for us and in not a single word gave us to believe we would not succeed.
Rightly or wrongly, I’d decided against adding the jib sail so as to avoid being blown over should we run into strong winds. Our was a small vessel, but we would be close to shore and we drew mere inches of water with dagger-boards raised. The marine charts which constituted our only documentation showed many coves and beaches along our planned course. There our hulls could be slid up onto sand and we could escape the waves. It would have been useful to have the knowledge of the dynamic realities of tides beyond their effect on the shoreline. They greatly effect the direction and force of surface currents and the steepness of waves. But the cellular-level connection to all that would come years later in company with a great deal of day-to-day experience of it.
Between our own research and the input from our four friends and anyone else who might offer it, we were appropriately provisioned and had the tools we needed to live as we hoped to. Risk had been assumed from the get go. The opportunity to be tested we anticipated with relish, not fear.
So….away we went. Not far at first, merely a quarter-mile to Stubbs island where we pulled our little catamaran up onto the beach and slept on the sand above the high-tide mark. We shared some glorious intimacy as the sun rose along with the first smoke from the chimneys of Opitsat across the harbor. A fine start to what looked to be an accommodating day.
A light breeze lilted across the rippled surface and we slowly lost sight of the town and the village…of all sign of habitation. We slid around the western lobe of Meares Island (yet to attain iconic status in the annals of the environmental movement), past Kakawis and quickly into a stiff Norwester kicking up whitecaps in Maurus Channel. Back and forth we tacked, progressing painfully slowly, until we were able to get between Morphee and Dunlap Islands and to the beach below Kraan head at the southeast base of Catface Mountain. There were what seemed to be a few semi-permanent dwellings up in the tree-line and a few counter-culture folks moving about, but they made no overtures and we needed none. What we needed was sleep.
The next morning, with a breeze to play with, we rounded the southern point below Catfish, crossed Coombs Bank, slipped through the rocks of Chetarpe into Millar Channel, passed Marktosis (Ahousat) and by evening had pulled into a small cove just upshore from the entrance to Matilda Inlet.
We pulled our catamaran high onto a grassy sward, strung a rope between two alder trees, hung a tarp over it and staked it out to form a lean-to. We laid out a ground sheet, joined our sleeping bags and, feeling pretty good about having made this much progress, fell into the sleep of the righteous.
The cove was fed by a pretty stream that burbled over rocks down a middling incline to provide us with sparkling water to compliment a breakfast made over an open fire. As the atmosphere sufficiently warmed we stripped the clothing off our beautiful young bodies and made our way up stream, over rocks and around boulders, for the sheer delight of doing so, every pore tingling in the ozone.
Returning, we dressed, unbolted one of the canoes from the deck, slid it into the water and paddled east down the narrow inlet. We passed below the Ahousat general store high on the south bank swung to port down the dog-leg to the government dock at Marktosis.
I took us to be objects of curiosity, not unreasonably so. Someone pointed out the house of the village chief and after confirming there that we were welcome ashore, we made our first contact with some of the folks Vi and Roger had referred us to. It was probably Cosmos Frank’s house that we first stopped at. Cosmos’ father David was a much-respected elder and a canoe maker of renown, at least one of his creations featured in the Victoria Museum.
It was fine. Folks weren’t effusive, but why would they be? They were friendly enough, curious, maybe a bit bemused by us, our means of travel, our stated intention to take up residence at the head of Herbert Arm.
Feeling adequately introduced, we paddled back to our camp, reconstituted our catamaran, and bedded down, determined to be on our way across Millar Channel, around the south end of Mckay Island and, on a broad reach, into Herbert Inlet.
We awoke to an ugly day, under a louring sky, the kind we would come over the years to associate with winds from the southeast, dark water, whitecaps and the threat of bigger seas to come. This was to be our introduction to it.
There was nothing welcoming about it. As with our first day out of Tofino, we were faced with headwinds. And once again, without a jib, tack as we might, we were unable to make meaningful headway into it. We could see Ahousat off to the starboard through the rain but thought it unlikely that our low, small vessel would be seen in return.
It was a stiff wind. In retrospect I would say steady at eighteen to twenty knots. The seas were unpleasant but I’m guessing the tide and wind were holding hands that morning or they would have been more so.
As it was, they were all we could handle. More, as it would turn out. But first I had to do my insist-despite-all-odds thing which peaked with my attaching a long line to the base of the mast and, laying the other end over my shoulder, jumping on to the steep shore of McKay Island and attempted to drag the catamaran, with Aus keeping it off the rocks, along its west side. I’d slip and slide, occassionally up to my neck, actually having to swim scramble back onto the near-to-sheer shore on a couple of occasions. I imagine I was pretty much stripped off. Hard to think I could have stayed up with boots and rain-gear full of water.
It was a very long shot and it wasn’t going to pay off. Gain a few yards we might, but lose them we surely did. We needed to go less than a quarter mile, and probably gained no-more than a hundred metres.
The sea were getting higher. Perhaps the tide had turned into it. Our vessel seemed loggier too and as we drifted just of McKay in the channel a quick check showed four-to-six inches of water in the bottom of the hulls and some of our gear getting waterlogged.
Around that time this weird, muted, portentious, basso ‘you are going to die’ mantra started going through my head. I thought it self-dramatizing nonsense, but did take it to suggest that we were definitely not getting into the inlet that day.
Fortunately, the slight headway we had made allowed us to cross easily back to Flores Island and our campsite of the previous two nights. Bedraggled we might have been but we were by no means broken. We set up our lean-to, unloaded the canoes, set up a clothesline, and over the next few days got ourselves back into shape to take another shot at the crossing.
-We also took another look at the chart and decided to get into the inlet by going around the more circuitous northwest end of McKay. It of course occurred to us that we might have chosen to do that in situ on the day of our failed attempt. On the other hand, with that wind, we might have just been blown on past our turning point, to who knows where. -
Other than having to provide a good deal more manual assistance to the sail than we’d have preferred, we took all of a day to circle our way around McKay, work up its northeast shore, reach across the entrance to Herbert Arm and pull in to White Pine Cove, slide the catamaran on to the broad beach, secure it by the bow to some drift logs, set up our lean-to and savor yet another small victory, rain pattering on the canvas, campfire at our feet.
After all of that, on a windless morn, we managed the few remaining miles to Moyeha Bay at the head of the inlet with considerable equanimity. As we rounded the last point we came into sight of the sheer cliffs overlooming it on the northeast , a thin waterfall cascading down them. In the northwest corner spread the delta of the Moyeha River. To the east of the cliffs was a boulder beach, a small sand-flat over which Cotter Creek flowed into the salt water and, just above the highest markings of the tide, the cabin that was to be headquarters for eighteen months or so of exploration and new experience.