Legends of Myself 127

Posted on January 3, 2020


127. Skeena River, 1965. Rowboat Odyssey

We stayed on Smith Island for about a month. We needed to return to the Boneyard in order to get ready for the fishing season, and that was always the plan. The time to go back eventually arrived. So we loaded up the rowboat, launched out of our little harbour, and left the houseboat and Smith Island behind.

Now a rowboat isn’t really meant for travel. It doesn’t sit lightly, and it doesn’t cut through the water like a canoe. Our skiff resembled those that my father fished in with his father when he was young, but those skiffs were towed to the fishing grounds by motorized craft, and often they had sails. Our rivals and neighbours, the people who fished the Boneyard out of Haysport, all had outboards to get to and from the fishing grounds. But to get ourselves and the rowboat from Smith Island to the Boneyard, lacking either a tow or a motor, my father just clicked the oars into the oarlocks and rowed.

From where the houseboat was tied up on Smith Island to the Boneyard was, as I said, something like 12 to 15 miles, but reckoning nautically and including tides and currents, it was further than that. The flow of the Skeena was against us the entire distance. The tides were for or against us depending on their direction. A rising tide favoured us. A falling tide reinforced the Skeena current and worked against us.

Nautical miles are reckoned differently from land miles because identical efforts can have dramatically different outcomes depending on the direction of the current. Five miles an hour against a five mile an hour current leaves you in the same place; five miles an hour following the same direction as a five mile an hour current, brings you ten miles. Much of our trip to the Boneyard was, without manoeuvres to counter it, of the “leaving you in the same place” variety.

We started our journey in the early morning at low tide, at that point between tides where the currents pause. The Skeena current, which was always against us, was weakest at our end of the island, and that was in our favour, so we rode the rising tide past NP, past Sunnyside, past Cassiar.

We began with a certain excitement and enthusiasm, and we made our fastest progress of the day. But after six hours the tide slowed, paused, and then reversed. To prevent actually going backwards, we clung to the mainland shore. Sometimes close to the shore there were back-eddies, and we took advantage of them when available. Often I would get out of the boat and walk along the railroad tracks to lighten the load for my father. Sometimes, when the configuration of the shoreline permitted it, I actually towed the boat while my father used the oars to keep it from scraping on the shore. Somewhere in there, there was actually an instance where my father asked me to take over the rowing, but I simply couldn’t manage it. I wasn’t strong enough. Tired as he was, my father had to take over again.

Sometime in the afternoon, we rounded Clara Point and came in sight of the Boneyard and of the little place at the far end of it where the cabin was. At Clara Point, the Skeena current became stronger, but fortunately and eventually, in the early evening, the falling tide weakened, stopped, reversed, and progress became easier, though never as easy as at the beginning of our trip, even accounting for reduced strength and enthusiasm.

Eventually night fell, and it was only after a few hours of darkness, fifteen or sixteen hours after we began, that we reached the creek that flowed by our cabin. We tied up on shore, both of us weary, my father’s weariness beyond imagining, and in the darkness we climbed the railway embankment to the tracks. There my father paused to light a storm lamp, and that light, when he lit it, seemed suddenly to transform everything I felt about the day until that moment. I almost wanted to laugh. That light signalled the journey done, signalled that we were home at last. It thrilled and warmed me.

And perhaps a third of a century later, my father mentioned that light one time in conversation, how it felt after our long day, how it felt like home to him, too. And I realized only then how close our thoughts were, though we said nothing to each other at the moment it happened.

The Boneyard and all it meant to us, a home as no other home had been a home, was just then, right then at the top of that railway embankment, embodied entirely in the glow of a kerosene storm lantern. It felt like home to us.

It felt like the warmth at the end of all journeys.