We were going to begin our journey to Vancouver from the Boneyard. My father went ahead and prepared things, disappearing for about a day and a half, then came back and got me in Prince Rupert. We rode the train to Haysport, then walked the tracks to a point and a railway cut perhaps a mile closer to the Skeena mouth than our shack—which we passed and left behind along our way.
It was a showery chilly fall day, and already dark before we camped down. My father fixed a fire and supper and we spend overnight in a pup tent beneath the trees, arising the next morning in the early dampness to catch the tides. My father had moved the skiff to our location before we got there. It was going to be our mode of transportation for our journey south. After loading the last of the things aboard and arranging the tent as a sort of canvas cabin in the bow, we put on our lifejackets, my father set the oars in the oarlocks, and we started off across the wide, turbid Skeena and south, or more specifically, towards the Inside Passage.
The Inside Passage runs down the entire British Columbia coast from the Alaska Panhandle to the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Essentially, except for a gap just north of Vancouver Island, most of the British Columbia coast is sheltered by offshore islands, creating a protected marine highway that was navigated by dugout canoes for thousands of years before the first Europeans—the Spanish—happened upon it. George Vancouver surveyed much of this in-shore waterway for the British crown while reconnoitring the coast in search of the Northwest Passage. Fishers, ferries and cruise ships nowadays regularly propeller through its waters.
And in 1960, my father decided it was time to navigate it with a rowboat.
Now I admit that our journey down the coast that year was one of my father’s most extravagant ventures—of those I know about, of course, and of those I participated in—and I would never myself have thought of a rowboat as a vessel to reach Vancouver in, more than 500 miles south. But there is some background to what he did.
During my father’s growing up in Port Essington in the 1930s, they used to tow sailboats to the fishing grounds and leave them there for a few days until the fishing closed, whereat they would tow them back home. Thus to my father, living in a small vessel on the fishing grounds and fishing with gillnet and oar was just a part of childhood. Our summer of fishing with a rowboat in the Boneyard was an adventure in 1960, but it would also have had a flavour of nostalgia for my father which was not part of my own experience.
And my father was athletic, with practical skills, with more than a quarter of a century of experience already on the waters of the north coast, including the handling of very small vessels. Nothing in the journey was likely to daunt him.
And he didn’t actually intend to row the whole way to where we were going, anyways, anymore than they had when towing him to the fishing grounds back in his youth. The Inside Passage was British Columbia’s ancient marine highway. My father’s plan was to row out to it and hitch a ride (or in our case, a tow) much as one did with any highway.
The first part of the plan, though, involved getting out to that highway, and that part had to be done by hand. And arm. And oar. To cross the river two miles wide, to pass its mouth five or six miles distance, to creep along the shore far enough to escape the river’s flow, was, for distance alone, a task enough. And the skiff was equipped for work, not travel, carrying a gillnet with accouterments of lead-line and cork-line, carrying supplies for travel and shelter, carrying himself as well as a small relative.
But crossing the broad Skeena mouth, or any water, it’s not as simple as measuring distance. You have to reckon travel in relation to the stream you pass over. A lake is one thing, where the water is mostly still. An estuary mouth is another with its tides and currents. You can ride with the tides, move with the currents sometimes, but at other times hours of work will hardly hold you stationary against them.
Reckoning our travel relative to the water around us, my father rowed more than ten, perhaps fifteen miles or more that day, and he rowed from our early morning rising until the sky was dark and the shore nothing but shadows. I suppose he rested sometimes in-between, but my dominant image is of him rowing, rowing, and the water all around us, at one point the land at least a mile distant in any direction, and further than a mile in some.
I didn’t set foot on land at all again that day or that night (or for days afterward, that I can recall.) My father anchored us a little offshore in the darkness, and I slept under a hood of canvas near the bow of the skiff. When I woke up the world and water were still.
We were now in Grenville Channel, which under full daylight is green and clear and you can see starfish underneath you on the seabed. But this was early morning and there was a light mist on the water, and the water itself, from my angle still lying in the bow of the skiff, appeared like black glass with broad ripples distorting the reflection of the sky and the islands across the way. The islands were deep green and shadow, evergreens following every contour, beginning at the edge of the shore and rising to the hills behind. Between the evergreens and the water was a white line of granite.
And the islands were floating. Granite. Trees. Hills. Together seemed to have no more weight than foam. Floating on the black glass water and making no more indentation on it than a water spider.
In the quiet of that morning and in that place, where I could hear the rowboat creak as my father rose and moved about, where I could smell the salt of the water mingle with the welcome of bacon as my father fixed breakfast and tea on the Coleman stove, where that dark glass sea rippled around us and featherlight islands floated across the way, with mists and birds and solitude, I discovered my perfect morning. If you asked Teddy (or any of the names he passed by in the years that followed) what was his perfect morning, he would always point to this one.
Early fall, 1960. The mouth of Grenville channel. Kennedy Island perhaps across the way. In me and my father’s eccentric migration down the coast, it transcended all other moments. I never needed any more reason for our journey than that place, that sea, that mist, those spell-woven islands, and that morning’s waking.