The woods were silent. The autumn sun rose in a clear sky, its warm light laddering down between yellow maple leaves still thick on the branches. Old Jack plodded along the trail, his breath was thick clouds of steam in each shaft of light slanting onto the ground. I walked ahead and waited for him, looking for things worth a photograph. It’s not a bad arrangement. Once, he used to run ahead and then wait for me. Damn, it is so very hard watching a beloved friend age and knowing that one day too soon he will go on to leave you alone. It is an essay on savouring the moment. It’s all anyone has; not today, certainly not tomorrow, not the next hour. Now, this moment, click, it is all we have.
So, finally my old camper is in Fred shape. I’ve even resealed all the exterior seams along the roof and sides. Oddly after forty years the old butyl sealant was hardening and even mouldy. I’ve replaced it with double layers of new material. Hopefully that will fend off the insidious leaks which come with winter rains. At last Jack and I are off to spend a few nights in it. Last night was the first sleep in our little box and now for the first time I’m sitting at my wobbly one-legged camper table with my laptop. A mug of fresh-perked strong black coffee is at my elbow.
The plan was to seek out a spot on the shores of Nitinaht Lake. The lake drains into the open ocean through a famous narrows and I’d hoped to take the inflatable boat for some exploring and filming. It won’t be happening.
This area is the homeland of the Ditidaht people. They have a community at the head of the lake and have closed the entire area to outsiders, no covid crackers. The bitter impression of what smallpox did to their population is still vivid and rightly so. I drove on by but after miles of rough logging road came upon a sign explaining that even the campground I sought was closed. Bugga! That was what I’d come for. It’s their land, and as a trespasser I cannot raise my voice but it had been a long day, I was tired, it was getting dark. We continued on the road toward the Carmanah Valley and of course couldn’t find a place to pull off for the night. Finally I turned down a side trail which looked like it was used occasionally. If folks go in, they’re able to turn around somewhere and come back out. Right?
When you are tired things can become a little weird. We drove on and on through a gauntlet of ever-thickening lashing alder branches with no place to turn around. Towing the trailer, there was no choice but to continue on into this sucker hole and beat hell out of my rig. Every turn of the wheels took us further in but there was no backing out. Full darkness settled just as we finally found a place to wiggle around to face the way out and park, fog followed soon after and continues to swirl through the tree tops this morning. In the distance we can hear the roar of surf from the open Pacific. Making its way along the coast a freighter blows its sonorous fog horn, out there somewhere, a lonely sound indeed. Overhead, mysterious birds call, Murres I wonder. We retreated into the camper for our first night and finally made some lunch at eight pm. This morning we are parked in an old quarry pointed in the correct direction to leave listening to the sounds from the grey fog, no-one, including us, knows where we are.
Since the last paragraph we’ve been for a short walk and now it’s time for a warm breakfast and more coffee. After tramping for another half kilometre along this trail it is clear we drove as far as we’d dared. Thank goodness I stopped when I did. We saw some beautiful willow grouse and stupendous heaps of bear droppings, or perhaps they’re from a sasquatch. I’m soaked to the knees from all the fog condensed on the growth in the trail. Well-used elk trails cross the trail regularly. I’ve noted the yellow alder stain on the front corners of the camper. “Tough on riggin” is the older logger’s colloquialism that comes to mind. I’ll feel better when we’re back out bumping along the main road. We emerged with minimal collateral damage. Old knowledge was refreshed with only a few minor battle scars to show for my stupidity. With plans dashed, I just want to find a spot to set up camp for a few days. Obviously we are now back from our adventures. Of course on our return leg I saw a few places we could have stopped on the roadside. Hindsight! But as a friend says, “If you ain’t been aground, you ain’t been around!” I learn later that we were only four kilometres from the Carmanah campground where a friend was spending the night.
Later I write from a glorious spot. We are camped on a gravel bar of the Nitinaht River. The rolling water is crystal clear and full of spawning Chinook salmon. Upon arrival Jack flopped down on the river gravel and vigorously scratched his back. It’s a sign of great happiness. Next he trotted down to the river’s edge and had a long drink. We’re staying a while. I’m sitting at my Honda table beneath my white canopy. A cheery fire crackles a few feet away. In the dark salmon splash in the river. Bliss.
Then some yahoos arrive. In the dark as usual. They get stuck in a mud hole, there is much shouting. Tires and people squeal but finally they settle somewhere in the woods nearby. I can hear someone splitting firewood and yes, there it is, the loud pulse of their stereo, as usual. Backwoods serenity! Jack has already retreated into the camper. I’m joining him.
In the morning my friend appeared at my campsite. What a wonderful surprise. Niels is a dear friend of many years and his presence immediately lifted me out of my dark funk. He had tracked me all the way out to the Carmanah and then given up on finding me. He spent a night camping on his own. He was homeward bound when by chance he spotted my little white circus tent beside the river.
We had a great day together watching the salmon, some well over twenty pounds. Sometimes a cutthroat trout hovers near a mating pair of salmon and tries to pirate eggs. It is all fascinating to watch this drama in crystal clear water. A handsome male black bear ambled and snacked along the opposite river bank, the song of the river and the wind kept him from noticing us; or maybe he knew what we taste like and was just not interested. Today we headed back to the east side of the island and soon emerged into brilliant sunlight and clear skies. Now we’re alone again in a campground on the south side of Lake Cowichan. Seeing a friend out in the woods was very uplifting and exactly what I needed. Thanks Niels; for everything.
Next day, in mid-afternoon after a very lazy morning Jack and I continue to take our ease in the sun-dappled shade of a beautiful forest of second-growth fir. We are in a tiny provincial park on the south shore of Lake Cowichan for a couple of nights. Jack wanders off to explore the beach and woods for a half-hour at a time before returning to check on me. Being allowed to do that is his nirvana. Loons, geese and swans held a choir practice of wonderful wild music out on the lake. Then a gorgeous Zenair 701 kit-built floatplane idled along a few feet above the glassy water, stirring up other old passions. Much higher, heavy commercial flights inbound from the open Pacific glide eastward toward Vancouver.
As dusk falls I’ve built a campfire and less than twenty feet away a tree frog begins its song. I’ve never seen one yet. They often makes their calls from nearby but I cannot ever spot one. If you try to sneak up on that big little sound they stop. They are very tiny and wary so for me they remain a happy mystery. It’s been an easy, peaceful day. I try not to feel guilty about doing absolutely nothing. Beyond the west end of the lake a few clouds over on the ocean side catch the last light of the setting sun as I begin splicing together a video about this little trip. Then comes a loon’s solitary serenade from out on the lake, perhaps the most beautiful sound I know. A barred owl begins hooting from a tree nearby. Forest internet. G’night.
Abraham Maslow: “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety.”