The Spell of Travel, the Lure of Away
Gwaai Hanaas. Neil Ever Osborne, 'Their Home' (inset), 2015, C-print on archival paper, 16” x 24”. [o]
QUEEN CHARLOTTE CITY, BRITISH COLUMBIA — It's 8:40 am Monday morning and my friend has just left for work in town. I feel like a housewife in Shangri-La. The cabin is quiet for the first time in days. I'm sitting at the kitchen table sipping my third coffee, not looking at the dishes I should start washing but out the window through a break in the trees at the waves of the Pacific rolling in under a salmon-coloured cloud.
Next stop, Japan. One of the surfer dudes from Montreal jogs by on the beach. Shouldn't I get out there myself, go for a long walk and get inspired? No, I should sit down and write this. There's too much damned inspiration already, and delicious as it is, being in the Queen Charlotte Islands is making me extremely nervous, for a few reasons.
It seems stage-managed by a Grand Jokester who takes glee in initiating wandering, world-weary urban sophisticates into an opposing reality.
A week ago, in Vancouver, cold teeming rain poured down for three days straight. Umbrella in hand, I leapt British Columbia-sized street rivers running from shop to shop collecting last-minute items for my trip to the edge of the world. My little sabbatical away for a month or more from beloved yet dispensable Toronto is not funded by frequent flyer points or a neglected savings account, but mortgaged into the future.
As the Vancouver wind cut through me and tried to steal my umbrella, I wondered what I was getting myself into. I was gambling, I knew it, but something told me I had to play. My friend's cabin has an outhouse but no electricity, hot water or telephone. So far it's what the doctor ordered. We're on the northern tip of the Queen Charlottes, on North Beach, a 15-minute drive from the adjoining towns of Masset and Old Masset, the main village of the Haida nation. On a clear day you can see the mountains of the Alaska panhandle. The Queen Charlottes are north of Vancouver Island and 90 kilometres west of Prince Rupert, a seven-hour ferry ride away and the main 'off-island' destination.
At the edge of the world . . . next stop, Japan. [o]
There's a certain level of commitment involved in living on the edge of the world (one of the annual events here is called The Edge Of The World Music Festival), which is maybe why I'm feeling anxious. The beauty and seductive strangeness of this place are causing me to ask a fundamental question.
Before the English landed in the 1700s and remade these islands in name and custody, they were called Haida Gwaii, as they still are by all who live here, and by increasingly more who don't. Haida Gwaii has two main islands, 600 kilometres from one end to the other: mountainous Moresby in the south, and green, fertile Graham in the north. The islands' population is about the same as Napanee, around 5,000.
When I first arrived in Queen Charlotte City, the prettier, more touristy community on the island (think Moose Factory touristy), I was introduced to the obligatory cast of characters who at times seem stage-managed by a Grand Jokester who takes glee in initiating wandering, world-weary urban sophisticates into an opposing reality.
Some of these people are classic, or maybe I should say neo-classic. One jovial, wry fellow in his 60s who worked for a television network in Toronto for 20 years now escorts people to their interment in a 1979 Lincoln Continental hearse . . . because when he came here 'no one else was.' As he waved goodbye, he winked and said, 'I'll be the last person you'll never see.'
In contrast to inland places, the warmth and deep biodiversity of the islands made them a relatively easy place for the Haida to live, with time to create their art. [o]
Driving down a road through a dark, moist, mossy and verdant Northern tropical rain forest (jungle might be a better word), surrounded by ancient cedars and firs, we came to the house of the egg man, also the island's resident Internet expert. (He gave up selling organic chickens because people would only pay $2.) Later at the Hanging by a Fiber Café, a little masterpiece of matriarchal conviviality, food and atmosphere that reveals no lack of refinement. At the hardware store when I was looking for a screw to fix my mandolin, I was asked if I'd like to play at the Empty Stocking Night, a fundraiser a couple of weeks away. I said yes, but coming from my life as a fretful über-planning bandleader, I thought to myself, 'Surely we'll talk before then and discuss logistics.' He handed me a piece of paper with the date on it. 'See you there.' I suggested other ways I could help out at the event. 'I think it'll just all happen.
Two days before I arrived on the islands, my friend hit black ice in a snowstorm on the highway between Masset and Queen Charlotte City. Her little sedan, unsuited to 4x4 topography, spun off the road. Instead of diving down into the rocky crags that border most of the tricky stretch of road, it landed conveniently in a thick bed of bushes. No one was hurt, but the car was totalled. Most of the people she described the accident to, who aren't friends but know of her, had already heard about it. A few of them laughed, 'So now you're initiated.' I'm not accustomed to this light-hearted response to a brush with death, but I'm learning. My friend, a once impatient driver who came here from the city four months ago, takes her time now around the curves.
Haida women bless a new totem pole with eagle down during a raising ceremony. Photo Brodie Guy. [o]
The climate on Haida Gwaii is a study in variations on spring and fall. The weather is wet and windy, sometimes sunny and rarely too cold or too hot. Some days the weather will change every 20 minutes, which can be very amusing; sort of like a child who can't sit still in company. The extremes seem to balance themselves out; for the locals the weather just isn't an issue. Those for whom it is don't stay long — not their brand of wild comfort.
Five miles down the beach from our cabin is Rose Point, a thread of land jutting out into the Pacific at the northeast tip of Graham Island. It's here — according to a Haida creation myth that has many alternate forms — that the character of the Raven cajoled man out of his hiding place in a clam shell. Given the history of colonialism in this place, I was surprised to notice that the Haida seem to have a warm, independent and easy-going way around non-First Nations people. Perhaps on some level they recognize that the powerful appeal of this place is universal, and that the gratitude for its immeasurable beauty and character is shared by others engaged in their own healing process.
Whatever anyone else's experience, this place certainly has me in its grip. Even when I come out of this spell, which should be soon enough, something unfathomable about Haida Gwaii will stay with me. To paraphrase D. H. Lawrence, a good novel is partly unfathomable. For me, so is a place where I'm wanting to put down roots.
WHITNEY SMITH is the Publisher/Editor of The Journal of Wild Culture. This article first appeared in publication in NOW Toronto, January 1, 2004 as 'Island of Discontent'; this version is slightly edited from the original.