Legends of Myself 75

Posted on May 9, 2013

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75. The Inside Passage, 1960:  Traveling South

That first night was the last night I spent sleeping under the pup tent in the bow of our rowboat.  I admit I wanted to awaken to more mornings like that first morning in Grenville Channel.  But my father’s long day of rowing out of the Boneyard proved enough.  His calculation was correct:  once we entered the Inside Passage, we could catch a tow.  For the rest of our voyage our rowboat was secured and being towed behind, and I spent my time on the decks and in the cabins of fishing boats instead.

My father’s imagination reached higher, saw farther than most others, so that he could stand up in the skiff, crane his neck a little, and see Vancouver shining near the far southern corner of the British Columbia mainland.  Our journey was audacious and absurd enough to become known in Hartley Bay—situated along the Inside Passage—where my brother heard about it from a Hartley Bay fisherman who had helped us along.

Irene CThat fisherman was one of the last on the water who still fished with a 10 Easthope engine, my brother said.  I know that by 1960 my Uncle Gus had already traded in his own put-put for the Iron Sea, a gillnetter with a modern engine.  (The name of Gus’s boat is glued to memory even where I can’t recall more pertinent facts because, I think, I always heard the name as “Irene C.” when Gus referred to it—my auntie, his wife, his initial—until I saw “Iron Sea” written on the bow of his boat, tied to a float down in Rupert.  Oh, well, then….)

Anybody still fishing with an Easthope in 1960 (almost certainly Aboriginal at that date) was hopelessly outpowered by practically anybody else on the fishing grounds.  That was why, according to my brother, that particular fisherman was so tickled to be able to throw a towline to my father’s and mine even humbler operation.

I would have also liked to stay in the rowboat some nights because it wasn’t always comfortable traveling extra-baggage on a fishboat.  Fishboats hardly ever provide for unused space or spare beds.  What beds there are, are taken, even on the larger boats, by fishermen on the off-shift, except not every bed during the day.  I remember I had a bench behind the pilot seat one night, which was too short for me.  I couldn’t sleep bent up, couldn’t find any place on the outside deck which felt either practical or safe, and had to finally complete my rest the next day, on a bunk, the engine roaring a narrow aisle away from my head, after the fishermen got up to work.

Another time, much more comfortably, I think a fisherman left us his boat—tied up at the float—to stay in while he slept elsewhere ashore.  An afternoon when my father was away I decided to surprise him by making supper.  It was some kind of package dinner (lots of that sort of stuff in fishboats) with instructions on the back.  I knew how to fire up the Coleman stove, and supper was ready by the time my father got back.  My face was sour by then too, because I had wanted supper to be better.  I’d put too much salt in the rice and the rest was not very good, either.  But my father would have no sourness.  He was proud of me for making supper, grinned and fussed over me, and ate up all of his share.

While actually in the Inside Passage traveling, I remember fishing from the side of the boat and almost—almost—catching a dogfish.  My father, who was there to see, identified it.  It fell off the hook between the water and the side of the boat.  Although only ephemerally in my control, that was probably the closest I ever came to catching a real fish with a hook and line.  A dogfish, even though it is the smallest of sharks, is much more a real fish than the bony, meatless bullheads, which were the extent of my success when fishing by the railroad tracks in the Boneyard.

Well, gillnets and fishtraps are more to the point anyway, I’ve always thought.

Map of the Rowboat OdysseyThe journey down the Inside Passage brought us through Grenville Channel, which snakes between Pitt Island and the mainland, to the mouth of Douglas Channel.  There, roundabout the village of Hartley Bay, we crossed over a kind of intersection of waters.  Eastward, Squally Channel reaches out to Hecate Strait and the open Pacific.  Westward, Douglas Channel is split by Hawkesbury Island into two channels, and reaches sixty miles inland to bring the salt water to Kitimat and the land of the Haisla.  South, upon encountering Princess Royal Island, Whale Channel reaches again for the sea and Tolmie Channel cuts a path between Princess Royal and the mainland, encountering Sarah then Swindle Island at its far end.

After Grenville, Tolmie Channel was our route.  The entire journey we traveled past hills and mountains clad in cedar, fir and pine, whose sides dipped directly into the green water past margins of granite.  There were little bits of human habitation here and there, sometimes a village, sometimes a couple of houses, with sun-bleached staircases descending down the side of hills to floats, and sometimes a single boat tied up.  How many of these places had names?  As we traveled by I wondered about these dozens of tiny remote settlements, wanted to go ashore and visit them, every single one, to find out what their mystery was.  It seemed somehow unfair that we never did.

And finally we came to our journey’s southernmost reach.  We never did make it to Vancouver on that trip.  Klemtu on Swindle Island was perhaps a quarter of the way.  Ducking out from Tolmie into Finlayson Channel, then skirting into a bay behind Cone Island, Klemtu is the southernmost reach of Tsimshian territory, and in fact is not entirely Tsimshian territory because it touches up against and mingles with the territories and peoples of another cultural group, the Xai’xais.  The Xai’xais speak a language related to the people of west and northern Vancouver Island, to the people of Bella Bella and Kitimat and their environs, and they share Klemtu with the Tsimshian.

I was to pause in that little fishing village for a week or so while my father made further arrangements.

Posted in: autobiography