Oct/Nov 2006   Travel

Nearing the End of the World

by Lyn Fox

Photo by Jim Gourley

Heaven and hell are best reached by paddle and sail. Thus, I am at sea. Heaven has shifted from afternoon blue to sunset red, from cauliflower cumulus to impressionistic cirrus. Gulls relinquish the faded sky. Diamond-white Venus in elongation burns for rust-ochre Mars in opposition, while a pounding, sloshing oceanic groove underscores the celestial lust. A new-moon sliver rises. Equatorial hunter Orion stalks the polar bear cub as darkness overtakes my longitude then my world.

The netherworld is also here. Around earth's metallic core, molten-rock magma constantly rises in searing-hot globules, thru abundant cracks in the eggshell crust. Seems terra firma is more humpty dumpty. This Pacific Rim is especially just what it's cracked-up to be: a ring of fire hosting two-thirds of the world's volcanoes and most of its earthquakes. I'm on the seaway to hell. Yet, the inferno below fuels a wonder above, the Queen Charlotte Archipelago, to which I'm swooshing on a salty breeze.

My Captain-Cookish voyage has replaced gelatinous pork and scurvy with Dungeness crab and Chablis. Mine is a civilized pilgrimage. Still, I'm wearing boots, I didn't bring a razor, and I'm hoping to feel rugged or dangerous. Men have needs, you know. Like the wind, my citified heart is migrating from a high to a low-pressure zone; like the mainsail, my chest is burgeoning under a vast noctilucent expanse. I breathe in as if I just installed an extra lung.

Sunrise turns a starboard sea into a blinding nova and reveals a portside Orca pod—my morning epiphany. Our narrow-beam, long-hulled craft pushes twelve knots on GPS and coffee while these matriarchal nuns with fins whiz by on sonar and salmon-breath. Herman Melville's Captain Ahab seizes my body, mumbling, "Aye ye damn-ed whales: curs-ed scourge of the deep!" I don't know what came over me—nautical road-rage, perhaps?

Near Port Hardy, we cross an immense darkened patch. Submerged kelp-trees perform synchronic ballet in rubbery amber tights. I stare down dreamily. Such undersea forests rival giant redwoods in height. (However, they suck for camping.) Suddenly, my eyes lock with an old man sporting a slick bald head, flared bulbous nose, and bushy gray mustache: a sea otter. One blink and he's gone.

Sea otters are the dominant predator of the tidal zone. Plus, whacking shellfish with rocks makes them the only nonprimate to use tools. They are voracious. Backstroking the thin line between killer whales and lethal humans, these swimming weasels munch on spiny red urchins and everything else that eats kelp. Their food-chain niche is irreplaceable. Without them, undersea forests are clear-cut and many coastal species cease to spawn. Hunted to virtual extinction, their pelts brought people Northwest. Multiplying in recent years, their recovery may allow us to stay.

Cruising mid British Columbia, one almost experiences a monotony of beauty. Coast, forest, mountains; coast, forest, mountains; headland, fjord; headland, fjord. The dawn bird-chorus repeats, "This is my territory, I'm still here, seeking single drab female to share accommodations." Babes of bird-dom are apparently near deaf. Eagles circle all day with effortless grace, riding ground thermals and negotiating landmarks. Geese pass over all night with migratory precision, aerodynamically configured and astronomically led.

Like the bald raptor, I've always looked more for earthly opportunities than heavenly guides. As Salman Rushdie's sighing Moor said, "We look up and hope the stars look down, we pray there may be stars for us to follow, moving across the heavens and leading us to our destiny, but it's only our vanity. We look at the galaxy and fall in love, but the universe cares less about us than we do about it. Our fates are here on earth. There are no guiding stars." Like Marcel Pagnol's Jean de Florette, "I could blame the heavens…but I'd rather take responsibility for my fate."

Nevertheless, tides crashing around me confirm there are irresistible forces of nature—even heavenly ones. If I'm such a cerebral, autonomous being, how come half my opinions change every time I make love? No, I'm part of creation: a creature. All plants photosynthesize ground minerals, sun fire, air carbon, and water hydrogen into carbohydrates. All animals live off these. Jean de Florette inherited ground but perished without water; the Moor had inner fire but collapsed without air. People who revere elemental forces aren't primitives, they're realists. The rest of us suffer delusions of grandeur. Captain Cook forgot this, until trapped between high ground and open water where pacific islanders gave him a basic-elements-refresher-course in air gasping and fire roasting.

We pass alongside Princess Royal Island. This humanly uninhabited, virtually impenetrable Eden holds the last handful of white kermode bears. "Give us mutants!" my camera screams. "Enough pristine wilderness, we demand genetic abnormalities!" I chime in. Like her winged daughters, Mother Nature turns a mighty-attractive-but-deaf ear. I grudgingly submit myself to fate/providence. (Do the powers-that-be be or not be? That is the question!) A once-in-a-lifetime chance fades off into the distance with our shimmering, rippling wake.

Maturity somewhat lacking, I sulk long and hard over Ursus Invisibilus. Nature proffers more botanical perfection for appeasement, but I snub it like a cheap supermarket bouquet. My white-bears-only-need-apply attitude borders on eco-racism. Waaaaah! A ship horn finally ends my broodings as we dock in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

You may well wonder why the archipelago was thus named. The monarchic moniker was to establish British sovereignty. Ironically, Queen Charlotte wasn't British. She was German but married to England's King George III—the one who sent Captain Cook to the ends of the earth. However, George was equally German plus touched in the head and convinced that maidservants shouldn't mind being touched everywhere else. He was imported to avoid a Catholic on the throne. (Surely, the reader can grasp why an insane, lecherous German King of England would be better than a Catholic.)

So, that was Queen Charlotte and these are her remote wilderness islands on the far side of the world, which she never visited. Just as the King George III islands have reverted to their traditional name: Tahiti, the Queen Charlottes are often called by the ancient title: Haida Gwaii, meaning land of the Haida people.

We tie up at a pier worth remembering. The clean, stocky government-maintained structure almost dares nature to erode it faster than the regularly scheduled upkeep. My boots clomp across firm planks and echo on crisp air. The gargantuan L-shaped platform offers a dizzying panorama shared only by chubby birds with proprietary egos. Of course, this is but half the pier. My eyes follow barnacle trails down to the ebony waterline, where unseen eyes doubtless look up in similar bewilderment at an equally unknown dimension. I hobble and wobble ashore.

Thousands of bright silver salmon and I arrive on the same dreary autumn day. We're all pretty thrashed by our journeys. However, I've no spawning to look forward to, so I lay down and die on a guesthouse mattress that only feels like a rocky streambed. (Doubtless, my host could retort that I only smell like a lovely fish.)

Daybreak commences with birds. Not exotic birds, plain brown starlings with tiny white spots that turn into patches when ruffled, just like I could see back home, not soaring across the firmament, digging worms on the guesthouse lawn. Why do I notice them? Because there are more, more in a few meters than I've ever seen in an entire urban park. Sensing my presence at the window, they flee. So numerous, they sound like horses' hooves; so choreographed, they seem to share a brain. Maybe Alfred Hitchcock was on to something.

Today, I meet Neil Carey, the nautical man's nautical man. His house is easy to find but hard to see. The property is piled high with beach combings—glass, plastic, Styrofoam, everything that floats and drifts ashore—all categorized with stenciled signs. (Why have yard sales when you can have a yard museum?)

The eighty-four-year-old stands erect in his cozy den, next to a whale jawbone under a life-ring bearing the name of Captain Ahab's ship, Pequod. We rehearse his Navy career from 1940 to 1965 and from Sailor to Lieutenant Commander. We discuss his stints aboard Norwegian whaling vessels. We relive his homesteading in the remote anchorage of Puffin Cove on the Charlotte's wild west coast from 1967 to 1993. I am in awe.

Lest the reader suppose me to have lost all objectivity, I freely admit there are greater seafarers than Neil Carey—for example, his wife. In 1937, Betty paddled a dugout canoe over 1000 miles from Anacortes, Washington up the inside passage to Ketchikan, Alaska. (No, that isn't a misprint.) After this feat, she bore two loving sons, bore with a military husband for sixty-four winters, and before me sits with ninety-one summers of sparkle in her eye. As I photograph her with the famous canoe, she blushes, "This is a little embarrassing, I look so old."

Surgically contorted Desperate Housewives, as eager to be filmed as to bang the plumber, pass before my eyes like red before a bull. "Betty," I blurt out, "You look elderly, but you look radiant and God help the civilization that doesn't want your picture!" Now, I admit: I've lost all objectivity. Beauty can do that to you. I depart with very moist eyes as two ancient mariners hold a steady course to the setting sun and wave from behind a pile of seashells.

Wanting to get out of touch with my sensitive side, I hit the local nightspot for beer and hot wings—food you can grip with your hands, tear with your teeth, and wipe with your sleeve. Chris, the waitress, both staves and stokes my appetite. Olympic-gold hair-ringlets crown her curvaceously muscled body, which is squeezed into white jeans and draped in sleeveless purple satin with lace. She writes gothic horror and is the kind of girl who could make punishment and reward synonymous.

Laughing out loud on my left is redheaded Dawn-Ann. The freckles on her creamy shoulders call out to be included among the known constellations. She's the kind of girl you'd ask out even if you hadn't been drinking, except that her boyfriend mans the coast guard unit controlling all routes off the island. She generously loans me a Jeep Cherokee to drive around during my stay.

Nodding-off to my right is raven-haired Brenna. The dimples on her copper cheeks ensure I'll never look at pit mines the same way again. She invites me to go kayaking and is the kind of girl you'd paddle with even if you had a burning rash below the waterline. We agree on a morning rendezvous.

Across the room, a dartboard league (yes, there is such a thing) warms up for weekly competition. Seniors and loggers form a line—bald spots next to baseball caps, needles raised at targets like junkies driving home hypodermics. Behold the Mount Olympus of pub games. Silly? Yes, but no more so than our geeky writer poising and thrusting his pen with equal fervor.

Stumbling home in darkness along the crescent shoreline, my senses compensate for lost vision. I can't see that it's low tide, but hear that it's distant tide; I can't see roadside houses, but smell cedar wood fires; I can't see the guesthouse driveway but feel the familiar gravel. I know not whether this bawdy night's account be entirely credible, but let the magic of beer, my happy-hoppy muse, spill over onto the reader who canst now view life through the pint-size looking glass and still operate heavy machinery.

Brenna and her companions, Bianca, Civa, and Luc, turn out to be quite the adventurers. The expedition itinerary includes: drive to Moresby Camp; take a zodiac into Gwaii Haanas to Hotspring Island; savor the elemental Jacuzzi of subterranean fire, concaved earth, mineralized water, and chilled air; camp overnight; recover a stash of kayaks, coffee, smoked salmon, and venison; paddle through Juan Perez Sound to Bischoff Island then on to Sac Bay; camp another night; trek up the island's spine to a colossal unnamed lake; cross three ridges, two waterfalls, much unstable moss, and no trails; descend to the Pacific thru gathering darkness, dense shrubbery, slippery roots, flowing mud, and sucking bogs; sleep in Neil Carey's leaky cabin on Puffin Cove; backtrack home.

I wouldn't recommend the experience, unless you like vast horizons strewn with islets, tidal pools strewn with shellfish, deserted beaches strewn with driftwood, and primeval forests strewn with nothing human at all.

On my last day before leaving Haida Gwaii, I set out to visit some of the many artists who live and draw inspiration here. Must first get to Graham Island. A recorded government phone-message says the Alliford Bay ferry departs for Skidegate at 9:00 a.m. I jump in the Jeep, barrel past photo ops as if they're outhouses, and arrive at 8:58 a.m. No cars, no people, no ferry. The weathered government sign contradictingly insists: "Year-Round Schedule ­ Leave Alliford Bay 9:30 a.m." The tide laps metrically, a raven caws occasionally, 9:30 passes uneventfully.

I now spot a temporary sign: "BC Ferries Appreciates Your Patience As We Provide Alternate Service." Alternate? What does that mean? More? Less? Better? Worse? Gay? Straight? I've no idea. Only one thing is clear: BC Ferries appreciates patience. If I had some spray-paint, the sign might also read: "Lyn appreciates information." At precisely 10 o'clock, a raven flies low overhead with a hwoom-hwoom-hwoom helicopter-like whipping sound and the ferry arrives.

In Queen Charlotte City, I brunch with well-known carver and Haida Nation President Ghindigin Howasti Guujaaw at Queen Bee's Coffee House. We sip mocha amidst Ganesha silks, Buddha masks, Persian rugs, Victorian lamps, cedar boughs, bovine skulls, rainbow geckos, bamboo partitions, leopard-print cushions, jade chess sets, and iridescent flower paintings by local artist Kiki van der Heiden.

This seems an odd way to spend Thanksgiving. Yet, a pilgrim in a new land sharing table with a Native chieftain isn't entirely without precedent. Besides, gourds and field corn are so overrated. Our multicultural feast includes indigenous coffee and cacao plus elegant mass-produced mugs courtesy of paleface Henry Ford and Pequod first mate Starbuck.

Guujaaw seems a most honorable man who dotes tenderly over his sweet daughter Xiila. I'm also supposed to say a wonderful time of mutual exchange and understanding is had by all. However, I'm a nonfiction writer. My heart wants to be pals, but my brain detects our social cogwheels are differently calibrated and grind a little when pressed together.

While planning this trip by phone, I noted Sandspit Caucasians responding to questions about Skidegate events with "You'll have to talk to them about that," and Skidegate Natives answering similar inquiries about Sandspit doings with "You'll have to talk to them about that." Birds of a feather still often flock together. Whether we do this because we're racists or just because shared morays simplify life isn't always clear. Perhaps, in some better world, some newer-than-Columbus's-or-Colin-Farrell's new world, we'll all break bread together. Hopefully, Martin Luther King has already fired-up the barbeque.

Driving thru Skidegate, I pass grand, fierce totem poles and a beachfront Haida-language school. In the hamlet of Tlell, site of the yearly Edge of the World Music Festival, I stop at Dress For Less. This eclectic eatery purveys vintage clothes, lavender massage oils, and marijuana-leaf-covered journals.

Proprietor Leslie serves up food in a Scottish kilt under signage reading: "All unattended children will be given two shots of espresso and a free puppy." She offers me vegan or meat chili and cornbread. I've got no problem with meat but do insist on further identification. This is buffalo and, mmm-mmm, it did not die in vain.

Fellow-diner Dan just finished high school in Golden and is hitchhiking across the province. He elaborates, "Hitchhiking has honed my instincts. It's forced me to follow my hunches, trust in coincidences, and take chances. It's a glorious paradox of rolling the dice and manifesting my destiny." Well said. Everything else he says, over his vegan chili, smacks of B-vitamin deficiency.

Continuing North, I reach the Tlell river, home of Steelhead trout and artist James Houston. His red-roofed, green-doored, fly-rod-adorned cabin perches idyllically over the winding estuary. Here, this three-time-winner of the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award wrote Hideaway: Life on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Here, this master glass designer envisioned his seventy-foot-high central sculpture for the Glenbow-Alberta Art Museum and smaller sculpture for the King of Saudi Arabia. Yet, here, he is not. Jim and his wife Alice winter in New England. Therefore, I keep driving.

En route to Port Clements, the view is tree-farm replants and black-tail deer. Just past a logging-machinery museum, I ask directions at the Yakoun River Pub—empty except for three women with about six teeth and nine shots of whisky. Frighteningly friendly overtures hasten me along to Massett.

Evelyn van der Hoop warmly welcomes me into her kitchen that overlooks shining Massett Inlet. She's an accomplished Haida weaver. After completing her degree in art and psychology, she worked in Martha's Vineyard, where Jackie Onassis once hung one of her creations at home. In May 2000, she was Artist in Residence at the Smithsonian. This year, her work appears in the Vancouver Art Gallery's exhibition, "Raven Traveling: Two Centuries of Haida Art." Now, she fetches from the bedroom a newly finished wool-and-cedar-bark ceremonial costume. The blue and yellow palette is rich and vibrant. I'm thrilled to snap the first-ever photo of this masterpiece.

Though the garment respectfully honors traditional protocol, something has changed. As culture secularizes, so do objects. Her craft has evolved from a thing of mystic power to one of largely artistic potency. (They say art galleries are churches for humanists.) Still, the dichotomy may be exaggerated. Haida Gwaii is a place where the natural and supernatural easily blur, where accepting the normal often means embracing the magical, where ecology and theology mostly overlap.

I take a detour to gaze down North Beach toward Rose Spit. In Haida mythology, this peninsula is where prankster/creator Raven coaxed male humans out of the razor clamshell (a mollusk with phallic-looking muscle) and mated them with red chitons (a mollusk with vagina-looking underside) to birth humanity in "the calm following the storm." Beyond Rose Spit lies Hecate Straight, named for Greek mythology's goddess guarding the isles at the western end of the world. This is the northern end of my world, the farthest I've been.

Heading back, I burn rubber. How shall I say this delicately? Though the bison no longer thunder across the high plain, at least one is stampeding thru the lower intestine. Stop at my quaint guesthouse home to let the buffalo roam and pick up luggage. Drop off the Jeep and start walking for the airport.

Little do I know I'm about to meet one more artist. Wood, canvas, glass, and wool, are now joined by earth-mixed-with-water-baked-in-fire-and-cooled-by-air. As rain begins pouring, a luxury SUV gives me a ride. The driver is renowned tile crafter Sid Dickens. This Emily Carr College of Art and Design alumnus is a collector of dramatic historical relics and the developer of world-famous "Memory Blocks." We chat briefly, bypass his sprawling candlelit manse flanked by gardens and ponies, then part ways at the terminal.

Neil and Betty Carey show up to get me all weepy before I have to look calm and composed for the strip-search/X-ray guy. (Forget racial profiling; keep those sweet little grandparents out of high security areas!) My Air Canada Bombardier Dash 8 is soon rising high above the islands.

To Haida, this is the place of origin. To me, it's the end of the world. Our world officially lost its geographical and psychological edges after Columbus. For well-rounded global-community-lovers, that was a good thing, but for us romantic loners, not so much.

We modern explorers often discover that the known world really is a bit flat. Like Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast or Bruce Chatwin in Patagonia, we need the end of the earth to be a place not just a frame of mind. Along with Herman Melville's Ishmael, we're "tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote." This obsession is elusive as any whale, despite we throngs of travel writers occupying the lofty mastheads of literary vessels and shouting, "Thar she blows!"

Today's spacecraft are named after Captain Cook's ships because paddle and sail no longer transport "farther than any man has gone before." Yet, they can still take anyone farther than he or she has gone before and maybe that's enough.

As I levitate thru cloudbank wrapping the islands like a warm Haida blanket, my heart remains far below breaking with the endless opalescent tides. Poor Queen Charlotte, she doesn't know what she missed.


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