I feel like I’ve gone to the edge of the world. We are a 9-hour ferry ride from the northern coastal town of Prince Rupert, across the shallow and storm-prone Hecate Strait. When we docked at 7:00 this morning, I was still packing up my bedroll in the passenger lounge where I had slept through the breakfast announcements. I grabbed a coffee and headed down to the car deck. Loading and unloading this vessel can take forever, but I was one of the first cars off.
After a brief sojourn into quiet early-morning Queen Charlotte City (technically a village, with just under 1000 residents), I return to the ferry terminal for a 24-hour detour. I need to take a small ferry for a 25-minute ride to get to Sandspit, where I do my first show. I’ll spend one night there, do a show in the morning, then catch the ferry back here for an afternoon show and for the rest of the week.
In Sandspit (population 200), I check into my B&B, then head across the road to the school, which has seen better and busier days. It now houses 30 students (K-7) along with a pre-school program and the local health centre. Tomorrow morning I’ll do my full show for the rest of the school; today I do a little session with the preschoolers. I tell them short stories and we do a lot of jumping up and down and walking in circles and waving our arms. With little ones, string shapes work best if they are large and clear. A large string triangle is a mountain. Or a sailboat. Or, for the literalists, a triangle.
Afterwards, I leave the school to check out the rest of town. One of the teachers says enthusiastically, “It’s Food Day at the grocery store!” She explains: the truck with groceries arrives from Prince Rupert twice a week. The store will be well stocked.
I don’t buy groceries, though. I decide to eat out. I’ve heard there is a bistro at the airport.
The airport is a large sort of empty room. It could be a movie set for an airport scene, waiting for the actors to show up. There are some people though, about 6 or 7 of them, at the far end in the corner where there is a cluster of little tables. The Bistro, apparently the place in town to hang out. The food has character. I have a good sandwich. At the table next to mine, a couple of guys in hoodies slouch over their fries and coffee. Then they stand up, slip on Transport Canada jackets and suddenly become Airport Officials. They stroll over towards the empty Air Canada counter where a pair of hardy cyclists from Vancouver are dutifully in line with their bikes (the only customers in the building as far as I can tell). These fellows have just spent 10 days cycling around, and are eager to tell me about it. They also tell me about a trail they’ve heard of, on the other side of the bridge.
Later in the afternoon, I find the trail. In the woods everything is so wet it doesn’t matter if it’s raining. (It is.) The hike is beautiful and I am alone on the path that crosses the river, then climbs the other side. Old growth balsam, cedar, spruce; These ancient trees are magnificent: tall, stout, silent. Dusk approaches but I linger in the woods. My sweater is wet from water trickling down the neck of my raincoat and seeping up my sleeves. My boots are mud-drenched, my feet are wet. I am pulling myself uphill through thick salaal when I finally concede that I’ve lost the trail. I cut across the slope, through more salaal and over a log that is taller than I am, and I find the trail. It leads me faithfully over the crest of the hill, then down again to the river and back to the road where raindrops are bouncing high off the pavement.
At the B&B, I turn on the heat in my room and drape wet clothes wherever I can. The host offers kale from the garden. I have a feast, and chat with three young men, tree-planters who are also staying here. They all agree that it’s much better working on a mixed crew of both women and men. “Just guys, it’s too much testosterone,” says the biggest of the three as he stirs an enormous vat of spaghetti which will feed them for one night.
There is a feeble fire in the living room. The firewood got wet. Our kindly, gentle host comes in to tell us there’s a major storm on its way. Rain and high winds. “You probably won’t be able to get back on the ferry tomorrow,” he tells me on his way out. He’s talking about the 25-minute ride back to Graham Island, where my tour continues with a show tomorrow afternoon. I try not to fret about it. On my last trip to Haida Gwaii, when the ferry tragically sank after delivering me and my rental car on the island, I spent the whole time here worrying about how I was going to get off, what I would do with the Prince Rupert rental car in the absence of a ferry, and how I would continue my tour. In the end it all worked out: I flew out on a float plane in a storm, and friendly islanders made sure the rental car made it back to Prince Rupert when a barge was available to carry vehicles – 7 weeks later. I remind myself that things will work out this time, too, storm or no storm. I go to bed.
It is eerily still when I fall asleep. Later I lie in the dark listening to the cacophony of the storm. Winds howl and whistle, unknown objects clack and thump, branches snap. Heavy rain slaps the walls and smacks the windows. Eventually, I sleep some more.
In the morning it is still and the ground is puddle-filled. I put on dry clothes, throw still-damp garments in the car, and go to the school. I do the show in the library. It is cozy and pleasant while outside, it continues to rain and the winds pick up again. The kids have sweet gentle smiles. They love the stories. During the Q&A one older boy asks, “will you tell another story?” It’s not uncommon, but it touches me every time. After the show, I drive to the ferry landing hoping the ferries are sailing. I have to lean my shoulder into the door to push it open against the wind, which is not encouraging. It’s too cold to sit here so I bundle up and go for a walk in intermittent showers and rainbows. On a beach nearby, in the lee of the wind, gulls rise like mist from a sandbar as an eagle and a turkey vulture glide by. Sea lions bob on the water.
Despite the wind, the ferry sails on schedule with a cheerful crew, and I arrive at my afternoon school on time but smelling like a wet sheep. (It will be two more days before my sweater dries.) Happily, I am warm as I perform in a pleasant gym in a beautiful school in Skidegate, one of the two remaining Haida communities on the islands. Sweet kids, responsive and enthusiastic. (Q&A: How old are you? – I am old enough to be your mother’s cousin!)
At the end of the day I am settled in the B&B which will be my home for the next week. It’s in Port Clements, a central location which allows me to get everywhere I need to without long drives. I arrive in the rain, drape damp clothes around my new home, and settle happily into this warm, dry room.