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Queen Charlotte Islands BC Canada

I took stock of my position. I was floating up to my neck in water, my kayak at least a hundred yards away from me. As I looked across the expanse of the bay toward sun-lit mountains cloaked in forest and drifts of bright mist, an eagle cruised past. My head lolled forward into the water and for a moment my breath released as bubbles. I wondered where the others were. I knew they were in the vicinity, but they were out of sight. Martin and Sue, and Simon. Ah the joy of hot springs!

We’d flown out from Vancouver to Sandspit in a small plane, spent a night in a motel room while we bought, sorted and packaged our supplies, then made use of the local tour operator, Moresby Explorers, to ferry us south to their floating cabin where the rented kayaks awaited us. There, while the others packed with maniacal determination and haste, I fed the bright aluminum tubes into a kayak skin until my “Khatsalano” finally achieved the desired shape. This was the first time I’d assembled it, although I’d carefully watched a seamlessly efficient demonstration back in Vancouver at the Feathercraft workshop, and still almost remembered how to do it without referring to the instructions.

Martin and Sue and Simon had paddled with me many times before, in places like Wales and the Scottish Islands. Often before they’d watched my finely tuned rapid-loading techniques; skills I honed while paddling the Scottish islands in “midge” weather, when the little biting no-see-ums can drive a man crazy enough to take up Highland dancing even in the morning. Yes, I knew they’d watched me with dismay! On those Scottish excursions we’d agree on a time to be afloat in the morning. Early on I’d hear the sounds of banging pans, stoves flaring, voices cursing the midges. Later it would be the sound of kayaks being carried, tent fabric shaken to rid it of the morning dew. I’d emerge immaculate and relaxed from my tent at the last possible moment, closing my reading book around a page marker and nonchalantly breathing in the fresh morning air. Around me the others would be in a frenzy of frustration verging on panic trying to stuff clothes into dry-bags, collapsing tent poles and feeding bulky sleeping bags into small hatches. All the time they’d be cursing and slapping, prising tiny flies from the tender corners of their eyes and experiencing pain by a thousand tiny cuts.

Within minutes my own tent would be down and stowed, my reading book neatly secured in the day-hatch, and I’d be slipping my kayak quietly from the sand onto the water. I’d be the first afloat, the first to ripple the still water and escape the hoards of hungry midges. I’d relax a few yards from the beach and watch the dancing on shore. If I hadn’t been humming some little tune to myself I’d have probably heard the curses on shore. “Damn Foster’s done it again!” But I was oblivious to their envy. I was simply fast and efficient!

So here I was on the edge of a floating platform in the Queen Charlotte Islands, the air heavy with the crusty smells of the damp forest around us. Loops of bullhead kelp floated on the salt water beside me. I held a length of shining tube in my hand and was wondering whether this might be a spare piece, or whether I’d missed a stage in the assembly. Suddenly I was immersed in shadow. Above me stood a terrible trio, hands on hips. Their faces beamed with some evil expectation. I felt totally vulnerable. For a moment I thought they were going to hoist me shoulder high and fling me far out into the cold water, but no! They were not going to let me get away that lightly! “Having a little trouble there are you Foster?” “Ha! Mind if we watch you? This could be fun! You’ve not even started packing yet? You need to get a move on! We’re all loaded and ready!” “Allow me to suggest a place for that piece!” “You know, your gear won’t all fit in! You’re going to have to unpack it all and start again!” There was a dark chuckle, and then, “You don’t mind if we drink a little coffee while we watch you, do you? I’d offer you some too, but I can see you’re busy! I’ll let you smell it if you like, but I don’t want to distract you.” “You’re not getting flustered are you?” I knew at that moment that my time was up.

Hotsprings Island was our first stopping place. We didn’t plan to stay there overnight but we couldn’t pass the springs without taking the opportunity to soak for a while. There were paths though the forest marked opportunity to soak for a while. There were paths though the forest marked with bright shells, and boardwalks across the marshy areas. Steam rose from the bleached rocks in the vicinity of the springs and there was a smell like hot towels. There was nobody else on the island. This late in the season we could have the place to ourselves to enjoy the rare sunshine from the depths of the rock hollows in hot water. Martin and Sue wandered off along the shoreline rocks in search of a private pool. Simon turned the other way. So I remained in the first pool we’d found. It was the right sort of grounding to experience early in the trip. It was a moment for comfort and meditation when I could take stock of where I was and know that I had arrived. The Queen Charlotte Islands are situated to the west of mainland British Columbia, north from Vancouver Island, south from Alaska. They enjoy a mild humid climate that encourages the growth of the temperate rain forest and the associated ferns and mosses, lichens and liverworts that clad every surface with a dripping coat of green and gray.

We paddled on clear cool water, skirting kelp beds and keeping close to island shores where possible so we had more to watch. Big crusty starfish in jellybean colors clung to the barnacled rocks amid lustrous emerald sea anemones. Bald eagles sat on bare branches and treetops and studded the forest everywhere. They swooped out over the water from the hillsides with squeals that sounded oddly high-pitched to be emitted by such a huge bird. The water remained placid and dark and cool, and the hull of my folding kayak flexed around me in a way that was both strange yet familiar. It took me a little time to realize where the familiarity came from. It was from my very first kayak, a rigid canvas kayak in which I’d explored the waterways of Southern England as a teenager. That had moved and flexed in a similar way, the water pressing the canvas against my legs and the framework moving with the waves. It sounds like an oxymoron; a “rigid canvas kayak”, but in those days there was a distinction between “folding” kayaks and “rigid” kayaks. Canvas doesn’t give an impression of rigidity, but the only kayaks I’ve truly “folded” have been white water kayaks that were supposed to be pretty rigid.

We landed where deer grazed at the waters edge. Slowly they moved closer to the darkness of the forest until all we could see were shadows. “Why don’t you pick your camping spots first?” I offered valiantly. “I’m not in a hurry, and there are plenty of good spaces here. They looked at me with a mixture of disdain and pity. They would open their kayaks up like cupboards to take out their gear. Teasing my bags out from the recesses between the frames of my kayak would take longer. They knew they had the upper hand today and were going to extract the greatest possible enjoyment from it! Martin and Sue chose a mossy glade with a waterfront view. Simon chose the other mossy area close to the beach. We had the whole forest to ourselves so there was no point in camping right beside one another. I inspected the remaining choices. The areas at the edge of the forest were encumbered by logs that had grown into the ground, pinned down by a sheathing of saturated moss. But a little further into the shadow of the forest were flat areas of leaf-mold between huge straight trunks. I picked one of these and set up my tent. It felt as if I was putting a tent up inside a house. The forest surrounded me so completely I felt I almost didn’t need a tent at all. Every sound I made was swallowed by the absorbent surfaces around me and the experience was so eerie that I was glad to join the others in the light on the beach where there was sound!

We cooked near the waters edge as the evening sky reflected pastel pink in the smooth sea. Simon related how he’d been hiking once and they’d hung their food from a cliff because there were no trees. Somehow a bear had accessed the food and left them, several days from the road, with no food. On the trek out they met another group hiking in the opposite direction. They’d explained what had happened. “Bad luck! They said, and they walked off! They didn’t even offer us a Mars bar!” This was my first experience camping in bear country. After we’d cooked at the waters edge, I helped Simon sling a line over a long high branch. We all hauled together to raise and tie the heavy load of food well out of reach of any normal bear. But even so, I was more alert that evening as we sat on logs at the forest edge with a tiny crackling fire, watching the thin grey smoke drift out across the still water. There were a lot of shadows that could be bears if you watched them for long enough. “Not even a Mars bar!” No bear was going to get my food!

That night I lay on the flat ground, the musty smell of rotting leaves and pungent tree resins in my nostrils. I was comfortable. I’d enjoyed my meal, and my coffee, and a wee dram of good single malt Scottish Island whisky, and although one ear was still listening for the footsteps of a bear, I was quickly asleep.

Some people call it a Chinese alarm clock. I don’t know what it has to do with China, but I do know what it has to do with porcelain. I had to pee and I couldn’t put it off any longer. I crawled from my sleeping bag and out from the tent. As I stumbled naked into the darkness, my eyes gradually focussed on nothing. Nothing? That’s right! I couldn’t see anything. It took me a few more paces before I became properly aware that my eyes were open and I still couldn’t see anything. Instinctively I looked up, but if there was a sky above me it was completely black. The forest! The forest canopy was so dense it blocked the night sky! It had been almost dark in there when it was still light on the beach, but now I couldn’t see anything at all. I turned to look for the tent. It wasn’t there. I turned again, slowly this time, looking all around me for a trace of light that might tell me where the beach was. There was nothing. The forest was silent. Not even the crackle of a ripple on the shore sounded in there. I reached out with my arms but couldn’t feel anything, so I peed.

I felt helpless. I didn’t know where my tent was. I could feel around for it, and maybe I’d find it, but I had no way of telling if I was working deeper into the forest or toward the beach. I hoped I wasn’t going to spend the whole night out in the open, stark naked. But I didn’t want to shout to wake up the others to announce, “I’ve lost my tent in the dark! Could you shine a light so I can find my way back please?”  The story of me prowling naked around the forest at night would be all over Toy-Town in many different versions before morning! What a dilemma! I began searching for the tent, taking a couple of steps forward, then casting out sideways in both directions, then stepping forward again. Eventually I stepped on the tent and breathed a silent prayer of gratitude.

A rain forest needs rain to grow and thrive. But it didn’t often seem to rain hard; it simply rained often. Fine rain sprayed like a heavy mist to coat everything it touched in myriad sparkling droplets. When it wasn’t raining, rainbows sprang up across the misty mountains and everything remained damp. After a week of travelling everything felt damp even after we’d hung it out in the sun to dry, and molds began to speckle the surface of my gear. Molds are fungi. We looked for fungi, or at least I did. Every morning I returned with apricot colored chantarelles in my collecting pan. I cooked and ate these alone,  not out of greed, but because the others regarded my finds with more than a little suspicion. I’m sure Martin and Sue, both doctors back in England, were simply biding their time in the expectation that they’d be called upon to rustle up some little professional sympathy at the onset of the symptoms of some untreatable Amanita phallotoxin or other. Part of me wanted to educate these ignorant Brits, but another part of me felt a little smug. Then one day I tempted Simon to taste one, and then the craze spread. Four people searched the forest for the free treats as if on an Easter egg hunt! However finding fungi requires a combination of skills, observation being a key one. You have to observe where they like to grow, and how they appear camouflaged amongst the dead leaves on the ground in different weathers and lights. It’s easy to walk by them and search an area where they’re not. Skill at noticing what’s there is something that grows with time and practice. Of course luck is another key. As I brought back another pan full of gleaming fungi to their eager hands I wondered how soon they’d get their eye in.

We paddled an eastern route in amongst the rainbows and the squalls, stopping to view the remains of Haida homesteads. Sometimes there were elaborately carved totems, sometimes the remains of lodges with massive timbers becoming one with the earth and the living trees. Here it’s impossible to miss the inter-twined nature of life itself. The timbers that fall in the forest become coated in thick moist moss. Seedlings grow from the moss, sending roots through the moss for sometimes many yards to reach where the fallen log touches the ground. Other roots hang down until they contact the earth. The new trees grow around the old remnants, and through them, but the shapes in the bases of the trees tell of the shapes of the timbers around which they grew, even long after those timbers have rotted away. The new trees use the nutrients left by the dead ones. It’s a cycle of constant replenishment, and the Haida totems and lodges are following in the same cycle. Death and decay become or are part of life and replenishment. I’d never before been so aware of that cycle. Trees. It’s the trees that make the place what it is, and it’s the trees that wake you in the night when a portion of a dead lumber thunders to the ground, or the rising tide floats the log-pile from the beach until the logs jostle in the swell with a musical clunking like giant wind-chimes.

I took every opportunity to walk in the forest among the huge trees, but it seemed wherever I went I could find the beautiful mother-of-pearl abalone shells gleaming with deep lustre, and the strange butterfly-shaped bone-like objects that I later learned made up the exoskeleton of chitons. They always appeared to be laid out prominently on some hummock of deep moss, or right beside a tiny path. I wondered how so many could get scattered so far from shore in every direction. It remained a puzzle to me whether birds might carry them until I spotted an otter. Then it all fell into place. The otters were collecting the abalones for food and carrying them ashore to eat.

In view of a weather forecast that signaled an end to our relatively settled time, we decided to paddle in toward sheltered water to the north of Louise Island to an area where the trees had been cut around the time of the Second World War and had become reforested. Somewhere here, so we’d heard, there was a parking lot, of sorts. We intended to find it, so we poked our kayaks up streams and investigated an old graveyard, and a bottle dump. Then we found it; a number of ancient trucks parked between the trees so tightly that we knew the trees hadn’t been there when the trucks were abandoned. Rusty metal and wheels with wooden spokes, leather boots with nailed soles, the remains of a boardwalk. Here and there were huge boilers and Curtains of Spanish moss hung from the trees and the light that penetrated was dim and green.

We surfed a following sea toward our final destination with sea lions powering past us with an ease that put me in my place. Sea lions can be so big that the mere appearance of an open mouth beside my kayak brings shivers down my spine! Somehow I imagined the flexible black hull of my kayak would seem more like a living skin of an animal than a kayak to these sea lions. I felt a little anxious in case one of these exuberant beasts gave the hull a nip!

At Moresby Camp we found the vehicle the tour company had said they’d leave for us. We were at the tail end of the season and the place was empty. We sponged out and racked the rental kayaks with the others. Now we’d left the water I felt the cold and dampness in the air more than before. While the others gazed out across the now gloomy water, I began my extra task of dissembling the Feathercraft, slipping each length of tubing and each nylon frame from within the skin until it lay like a distorted sack on the ground. I was surprised at my own efficiency, but in my moment of pride I thought I heard a muffled chuckle. I looked up to see the others side by side by side watching me. I was glad to get into the vehicle and begin the bumpy ride along the forest roads toward town. It was on this ride that we saw the “token” black bear we’d half hoped we’d see out on the islands but not too closely. It was lumbering between the trees, and I mentally noted my appreciation for Simon’s care in finding good places to string up our food. Coming from Britain where it’s more common to cook in the shelter of the tent entrance and to sleep with the food at hand, none of us found that instinctive.

© Nigel Foster, 2000