Postcards from Haida Gwaii
“Calm waters today,” says the old woman sitting behind me. I turn around and look into a pair of watery blue eyes. The woman introduces herself as Marge. She’s in her eighties. She and her husband are traveling to the island to spend the holidays with her daughter’s family. Marge has taken the eight-hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert to Skidegate, and back again, more times than she can recall. She’s endured all kinds of weather across this stretch of sea that’s notoriously choppy. It’s never a guarantee the ferry will run. High winds and waves often halt, or delay travel from the mainland to the northern archipelago. “I love it when there’s fifteen-foot waves,” her husband, Al, crows with delight. It’s hard to imagine 86-year old Al tolerating a fifteen-foot wave. Even on these smooth waters, he clings to the seat with a talon grip, his balance wavering unsteadily. His boyish grin is loose, infectious. “I prefer the old ferry,” Marge tells me, referring to the Queen of the North. The Queen struck an island in 2013 – and sank. Two people died. “My friend was on the ferry that evening,” said Marge. “They had to be evacuated onto the lifeboats and rescued. Now she only leaves the island by air.” I feel the ocean swell and roll below.
Al interjects, as if he couldn’t wait to ask the question: “So which are you – Queen Charlotte Islands, or Haida Gwaii?” He’s smiling, but I sense he’s looking for a political debate. In truth, I boarded this same ferry over twenty years ago with the wrong name – Queen Charlotte – on my tongue. An island named after a colonial ship named after a colonial leader’s wife, a woman who would never come ashore the Haida’s indigenous territory. Before European contact, the Haida people knew the islands as “Xaadala Gwayee”, which translated to: “islands at the boundary of the world”. For decades, the Haida people lobbied to rename their island Haida Gwaii, meaning “islands of the people”. In 2010, they succeeded. I looked Al straight in the eye. “Haida Gwaii,” I say. And soon, the islands are born on the distant horizon: blue, and more beautiful than I remembered.
I come to the island hungry for salmon. I anticipate abundance. After all, there are 34 words for salmon in the Haida language. Ts’iing.aa is for ‘white salmon in a stream’. hIGaahlkundal means ‘school of pink salmon moving’. Chaaga refers to a ‘female salmon’. The salmon spawn and run in the plenty on the island. For every season, there’s a different variety of salmon: Coho, Chinook, Sockeye, to name a few. For Haida and non-Haida locals, salmon is a way of life. But on one of my early trips to the grocery store in Masset, I’m dismayed to learn they’re selling frozen salmon that’s been caught, processed, and shipped – all the way from the mainland. I silently fume in the Co-op aisles over the politics of our stupid global food system. “Where can I buy local salmon?” I ask my local friends. “Unfortunately, nowhere,” comes one reply. Other friends tell me I need to know the ‘right people’. In truth, most people catch their own, or buy from their neighbours. We must be the only people on the island without salmon in our freezer. (Wait. We don’t have a freezer. Cooler bag, with a laundry basket on top, with a wet piece of cedar weighing it down. More accurate). Frustrated, I buy the frozen imported fish, and subsequently, overcook the pink, frozen slabs. It tastes of defeat.
Weeks later, my partner puts in two day’s work on a building project with a local carpenter. And, miraculously, he’s paid in sGwaagan – salmon! Three pounds of locally caught Chinook salmon, complete with a ready-made spice rub and step-by-step instructions from the carpenter’s wife. It’s the biggest salmon filet I’ve ever laid eyes on. I watch him butterfly slice the ruby pink flesh into thick steaks. We manage to not mess it up. It’s worth the wait. Every bite melts in my mouth.
I fall asleep listening to the waves crashing and receding. The ocean’s breath becomes a constant. I’ve never lived beside the sea before. I think of Pablo Neruda on the Isla Negra – the Black Island – and finally understand what inspired the longing in his poetry. How can I name what I feel when I go walking down the long stretch of sand and stone and shell? When the faint winter light glimmers off the ribbed seafloor during low tide? When an eagle drops low, suddenly, out of the sky, and I can hear the sound of air rushing through those wide feathers? Or, during high tide, when I spy a shiny black head bobbing at the surface: seals, frolicking in the waves.
What is this feeling? It’s wider than freedom. It’s neither joy, nor sorrow. It’s something of a trance, a spell cast over me like a fisherman’s net. I’m sucked in with the recession of the tide. The wildest parts of me go out to sea, farther than my eye can travel, into the bluest point on the horizon, somewhere between Haida Gwaii and the snow peaked mountains that make up Alaska.
A friend lends me a wet suit (that covers my skin from scalp to toe) and surfboard and I go following her into the ocean, trembling with fear. She shows me how to ride the gentlest waves, laying flat on my belly. “Now!” she calls, and I plop the board down, and feel the tug and spit of the wave. Miraculously, I’m launched forward. The salty foam rushes up beside me. I hear myself laughing, nearly shrieking with the kind of joy that comes from the most innocent parts of our adult selves. What is this feeling?
We arrived on the darkest day of the year. Light couldn’t penetrate the thick, mossy canopy until nearly 10 o’clock in the morning and the sun had already sunk beneath the horizon like a stone by 4 o’clock in the afternoon. There were corners of the cedar cabin that never saw light. The rain came, then the snow, and then the rain again. We woke in the middle of the night, the fire in the stove gone out. The cold dark dampened the air between us. Were we naïve to come here in winter? The dark stoked our depressed parts. I went to see a doctor. “Get a SAD lamp,” she said, trying to be helpful. I didn’t have the heart to say: “I don’t have electricity.” She gave me medication, instead.
I knew on that hike to the shipwreck that you’d fallen out of love with me. The day was gray. The sea angry. The rain whipped our cheeks, pooled and streaked down our Gortex jackets. We watched juvenile eagles, brown and tattered looking, learning how to fish along the Tlell River. The dog bounded ahead, indifferent to the silence between us.
We saw the shipwreck in the distance: a brown pyramid rising up against a canvas of white fog. We trudged through the heavy, wet sand, the rain pelting our eyes. You never said the words: I don’t love you anymore. But a woman feels love the way she feels the weather. The irony of the cold rain wasn’t lost on me. The same weather that caused the shipwreck, nearly 100 years ago.
The Pesuta Shipwreck lay buried in the sand, where the river pours into the sea. We stood in the belly of the ship, seeking shelter from the cruel wind. I wanted you to take my numb fingers in yours, to breathe warmth into my bones. “I was here twenty years ago,” I said, before asking you to take my photograph standing on the wet, slippery wreckage: the same photograph my father took when I was 10-years old. I remember being mesmerized with this far flung world, even so young. “How do people come to live here?” I had wondered as a child. Twenty some years later, I feel the truth, annoying as a pebble in my shoe, as sand eroding the empty shell of my heart. The truth is that I washed ashore. I came because I loved a man. I’m staying because I’ve fallen in love with an island. I want to feel rooted, but I can’t help but feel – for now, anyway – shipwrecked.
Full Moon Fire
I leave the dark cabin, my headlamp (like a newly birthed appendage) casting weak light on the spongy trail that leads to the road. I step out of the forest onto the gravel road. I glance back. I’m startled to see the bone white face of the moon staring down on me. It’s shockingly clear. A glowing ball dangling above the black, ragged silhouette of the forest. I can’t believe the rain has finally ceased, the clouds dissipated, granting us a chance to feel small in the presence of January’s blue blood full moon. A friend picks me up along the road. She hands me a mug of rose tea. “Good for the heart,” she smiles. We drive into Old Masset, a Haida settlement. We park beside the ocean. Bodies huddle around a fire. I’m nervous. I feel like I don’t belong here, though the invitation was open to Haida and non-Haida, alike. We join the women and men standing by the fire, exchange smiles and greetings. A tin of tobacco is passed around the fire. “Take the tobacco,” a Haida elder guides us. “Hold it in your hands. Think of the people you love. Pray. Then give your prayers to the fire.” I take a pinch. I close my eyes. I think of my family. I think of the man I love who doesn’t love me. I think of the new friend who brought me here, who, only a month ago, was unknown to me. I think of the strangers gathered around me. The woman next to me, standing so close, our arms touching.
We listen to the Elder’s prayers. We listen to him beat on a drum and sing. I can’t understand the words, but the pulse of the drumbeat doesn’t need translation.
“There is so much sadness on Haida Gwaii,” says the woman next to me. She speaks slowly. She isn’t afraid of the silence. She prays aloud for her family and friends. She prays for the survivors of the residential school system. Some of the Haida children were torn away from the island, from their culture, and transplanted in schools on the mainland. A severing. Now they live in the aftershock.
The woman asks for the drum, but she can’t remember the song she wants to sing. Another woman googles the lyrics. They sing together, softly, at first, then gaining strength under a full moon. The men listen. The women shift foot to foot, dancing in place. I learn how to say my first Haida word. How’aa.
Magic School Bus
I move away from the dark little cabin beside the sea to a camping trailer beside a river. The owner lives on the other side of a stand of mossy trees, in a school bus he’s gutted and converted into a tiny house. He’s a carpenter, by trade. His garden fence is made of character pieces of driftwood. There’s a shower house with a thatched roof and tear-drop cut cedar shake siding. There’s even a yellow brick road that winds its way through the property. By the riverbank, concealed behind a curtain of moss, there’s an old bathtub dug into the earth, with a small space to light a fire underneath. I am Alice, enchanted in this new, wild, wondrous world.
My neighbour lives in a wooden framed shack sided with thick plastic sheets. He calls it the “mushroom shack”. There’s a woodstove to heat the space. It’s drafty, but full of light. We sit in fold-up camping chairs by the woodstove and drink hot chai spiked with rum from old tin mugs and trade the stories about our lives back and forth. He grew up on the east coast, but he’s spent his life exploring nearly every corner of Canada. He tells me about the time he hitchhiked from Nova Scotia to the Yukon. It took him ten days, and 30 rides. “I could’ve done it in less, but I have this rule that once I’ve learned what I think I need to learn from a person, I get out early.” He wants to write a book about the different characters he’s met while hitchhiking, those fleeting encounters where two strangers cross paths and reveal the deepest truths about themselves, sharing secrets they’ve never shared with anyone, not even their closest friends. Sometimes, I know, it’s easier to be honest with strangers than those you love the most. “That’s a book I would want to read,” I say and it’s true.
“You can tell me anything,” this perfect stranger tells me. And so I do. And we share until the world outside blackens and the milky way spills onto the sky and the stars pulse with light, my sorrow lifts and soars. We laugh because we’re tired of crying rivers for what’s been lost. Our laughter cuts the loneliness that both brought us here.
Our laughter grows wings and rises up into the black, black night, flying towards the Milky Way, landing somewhere amongst the shimmering stars.
What is this feeling? It’s wider than freedom. Wider than happiness, or grief – it’s the present moment, distilled, and it’s far more beautiful than I could have imagined.