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Racing through Canada, III

October 8, 2012

Sept 19 – 30

Port McNiell is “tree farming country”, if a sign at the head of the dock can be believed. The sign is small, easy to overlook as the eye scans a town of neat houses, neat yards, and a well laid-out shopping mall around an asphalt parking lot with space enough for the cars of three such communities. In the mall are two groceries, a liquor store, a barber, a realtor, and the public library, whose door announces “Sadly, Miss Silverstone will not be in today.”

To the north along an undeveloped flatness of bay I see hill-sized stacks of logs and hear the whir of heavy equipment, ready proof of the town’s declared occupation. Above these the low mountains of the Vancouver Island coast offer another in their patchwork of greens, smoky blues for the old forest next to the bright Kelly of the new.

It is Sunday afternoon. The marine store at the head of the docks is dark; its winter hours posted in the window do not include Sunday. I pull on the door anyway and it opens. Inside, a gray haired couple look up from the register.

It’s our first winter Sunday,” says the man, “but we’re open for a while yet.”

I am searching for a specific cruising guide, I explain. The one I have has abruptly ended 30 miles north.

“Not much call for that this time of year,” says the woman.

“Can order one though,” says the man.

“Is there a bookstore in town?” I ask.

“No, not for that kind of book.” says the man. “The A Frame is all we have. Not from here, are you?”

Lacking anything more pressing, I hike over to the A Frame bookstore, an annex to one side of the A Frame Baptist Church. As I enter the room smells of potluck casseroles and the close-packed bodies of the parishioners in Sunday attire who fill it. All are standing, the casseroles having been eaten, and the sea of conversation is running high; small children dash around the room crashing into adults like white caps on rocks.

“This is a social for the church treasurer. She retired last week,” says a smiling man who quickly approaches. I am dressed in pants and a t-shirt that are the worse for their continual wear, am heavily bearded and carry a sweat-soiled back pack. That I am the odd man out is suggested by the speed with which I am greeted. “Usually the room is full of books,” says the man, still smiling. “Their sale supports the church.”

I explain my quest. He shakes his head.

“Not from here, are you?”

That evening I discover a pub near the marina. Smooth cement floors, a sleek bar of black stone, flat screen televisions on all walls, one of which is in the second inning of a Giant’s game. Along this coast it is not unusual to find baseball, in season, playing in such establishments, but the broadcast selection is typically limited to the Toronto or Seattle teams with an occasional east coast match-up thrown in to balance the scales. Being able to watch the San Francisco home-team is a privilege vanishingly rare, and I quickly settle-in.

“You from around here?” asks a man to my left. He is middle height, middle age, sports a salt and pepper mustache. He’s a charterman now, he explains, but has done some logging. “They’re nuking this island,” he says. “Won’t be any trees left in a few years. It’s really too bad. Glad I’ve moved to fishing. I live in Campbell River. Just up here for a gig. You a fisherman? Yes, fog is usually bad this time of year. Chuck.” he says though I have not asked. “Chuck Stanley.”

Bars are a ready source of conversation, which is why I seek them out, but tonight I want to watch the game.

“Loser. Loser. Loser!” says the man to my right tapping in turn the lottery tickets he’s lined up next to his beer. Already he’s visited the vending machine several times.

Chuck rolls his eyes and withdraws.

“Willard.” says the bartender, “You don’t have to play Lotto. No one’s forcing you.”

“But I ain’t got no friends,” says Willard. He is thin, his face drawn; his beard and head are gray. He wears tight fitting jeans and a jean jacket but, in the appropriate attire, would look the part of a prospector.

“Sure you do,” says the bartender.

“OK.” he says, “but they’re just the ‘Hello Willard. Nice day, Willard’ type.” Willard feigns a spit that would have landed at my feet. “Not real friends at all.”

The bar tender smiles and moves off. Willard turns to me and continues.

“It’s not like I’m unfriendly, you know. Little kids love me…”

He leans over. I lean away.

“…my cousin’s son used to sit on my lap all evening. He would pet my knee like this…” Willard pets his knee–his fingers are long and pale, “…and give me a peck on the lips…” Willard touches his index finger to his lips and makes a pucker. “…Like this…” he says and kisses his index finger again.

I fix my gaze upon the television.

“Of course, when he turned fourteen I suggested kissing me on the lips was not such a good idea. Might give people the wrong impression. I advised him against it, you see.”

“Another beer?” the bartender asks.

“Not tonight,” I say.


Next morning, fog. A sea plane motors into the fairway and returns, defeated. Out in the offing, the car ferry blasts its horn at regular intervals. Murre and I depart at eleven, tired of waiting, though the fog is just as thick and the tide contrary. Two blips on the radar dead ahead: hard right wheel: a tug and barge fade into focus, pass, fade away. Mid afternoon the sky clears and a small wind comes up out of the northwest. I marvel at seeing Pacific Storm Petrels playing at the water top. By late afternoon wind is brisk. I pull into the single dock at Port Neville and require help landing Murre alongside. The dock is exposed to the wind and the tide is again contrary. I make two passes at the heaving platform before colliding with enough slowness to allow my assistant to grab Murre’s bow line.

That help is there at all is a surprise. In its heyday, Port Neville was never more than a store in a large, two-story log cabin, but the store has long since closed, and the land was, I thought, abandoned.

The man who greets me is stocky, short, well past retiring age, soft-spoken but garrulous. He is Joe, a custodian from Duncan when he worked but now a volunteer for the local mission that is leasing Port Neville with plans to turn it into a training camp for young proselytizers at some future date. He’s the caretaker, the lone resident on this wind-swept point. Three daughters, one in the Yukon, one in Duncan, and one in northern Maine. Two are married with children. Each year he drives from Maine to the Vancouver Ferry Terminal in two and a half days and without stopping; he uses alfalfa pills sold by Amway to stay awake. He has installed hydrogen injection cells into his truck, which have doubled his gas mileage. “It’s how I can afford the trip,” he says. He’s long since divorced. “I couldn’t please my wife. Being married to a janitor embarrassed her–she would rather have had the Prince of Wales.” And he’s long since caring, “I’ve had a couple of … opportunities … over the years, but hell, I’ve already done that!”

All this I learn while Murre’s engine idles itself cool.

Next morning, fog. Joe is already on the dock measuring the depth of water at low tide with an iron stake tied to a long length of rope. Last evening I had asked how much water would be under me at low tide. He didn’t know. “26 feet,” he says. Murre’s depth sounder shows 20. Again we talk. Or rather Joe talks. I depart early so as to catch a stand tide at Race Passage and am immediately bucking two knots against.

It is here that the navigation of Johnstone Strait becomes interesting, its walls increasing in height, growing shear and constricting as it drops from a course of east to south before pinching into a dog leg called Seymour Narrows–where spring tides can run 16 knots and even the cruise ships wait for slack water–before terminating into the Strait of Georgia. To the north and east of Johnstone is a network of waterways with names befitting a fast-moving river: Whirlpool Point, Surge Narrows, Devil’s Hole, Dent Rapids. The chart warnings are numerous: “Overfalls and eddies in Okisollo Channel upper rapids regions are extremely dangerous.” “Violent eddies and whirlpools exist on the east of Gillard Islands.” The choices for a passage south are numerous, all bad.

We buck a flood through Race Passage as the fog clears and are still bucking it until early afternoon. The sun is now full producing on the water far ahead a mirage that appears to be the silvery wave of an approaching tsunami out of which materializes the occasional tug and barge. The tide begins to ebb and our speed increases. At three Murre is tracking at seven knots over the ground; by four her speed is up to nine. Slowly we are overtaken from behind by a small fishing boat, a gillnetter, and as we approach Brown Bay, it passes. Brown Bay is at the head of Seymour Narrows and is where I intend to wait for the slack water of early morning. But the gillnetter is not waiting, and as our two boats are of similar size, I decide to continue.

Now the gillnetter seems to zoom ahead. And soon Murre is accelerating too, making ten knots in the narrows, then twelve, then fourteen in the gut before Seymour’s dog-leg. In the distance I see the gillnetter lean way over and whip around, and now I am steering heavily through glassy boils and depressions, seeking only to keep Murre to one side or the other of Ripple Rock, a mid-channel protrusion that hung just below the surface until it was purposefully blown up in the 1960s. Now depths over the much-reduced rock are to 65 feet, but the turbulence is considerable.

And suddenly we are through the turn and around Race Point. The sun is just on the horizon. The gillnetter is continuing on, but I pull Murre into a Campbell River marina for the night.


Passing through Seymour Narrows from Johnstone into the Strait of Georgia, one crosses a natural though invisible boundary. For one thing the next morning brought no fog; nor have we seen fog since. For another, grass in the parks of Campbell River is brown this time of year; the red and yellow leaves of trees turn in the wind; the air carries the spicy scent of chaparral. Another still, the shopping complex near the marina sports a Starbucks, our first since Hawaii, where, sitting outside in the sun I speak to a man who says it has not rained all summer.

Murre and I stay two days and another in the next town down, Comox. From here south the coast is a continuous line of generously spaced homes and denser centers, and any sense of wilderness is gone. Even at our next stop, Lasqueti Island, where Murre rests in pint-sized and bouldery Squitty Bay while I get to know new friends Joe and Linda (introduced by Bruce Allen), the wild resident is not bear but feral sheep. The people on Lasqueti are homesteaders, their houses largely built form the coast’s plentiful driftwood or its ample forests of Doug Fir; electricity is solar and this powers the freezers, the lights, and the pump that pulls drinking water from the well. Fresh vegetables are grown or acquired by barter. Entertainment is provided by neighbors rather than television. That first night Linda’s dinner is fresh baked bread and a soup of ingredients that were in the garden hours earlier; the next day I get to help Joe finish siding the new mud room. Life on Lasqueti is quiet, deliciously slow, but from the ridge at night I can see the amber lights of bustling Nanaimo across the channel.

This is where we head next day, and the day after to truly urban Victoria. Here the waterfront architecture suggest the age for which it is named and give to the city the feel of Londonesque sophistication. The near bay is crowded with boats, ferries, float planes, and streets are acrawl with tourists enjoying a late burst of summer. Booths line the promenade selling artwork and jewelry. Jazz bands, men on banjos or xylophones, women in pantomime busk late into the night. All this below the heavy, elaborate exterior of the Empress Hotel and the equally ornate House of Parliament.

Victoria ends our Canadian cruise. By noon on September 30th Murre has crossed the line. The maple leaf is lowered from the starboard spreader and no flag takes its place. At three we enter Friday Harbor and tie alongside the United States customs dock.


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