I’m not happy to learn that our boat has been hanging by a mechanical thread since we left MK Bay, but take some comfort in the fact that we’re about 45 minutes away from the Kitlope Anchorage where, if everything goes according to the plan, the jet boats will arrive and ferry us upriver to camp.
Karen Campbell, Monty, Seamus and their golden lab are splayed out on the cushions below decks. I’m in the cabin with our skipper, RIck. I feel a nudge from Karen who is standing beside and a few steps behind me. I turn to see her looking aft and pointing to Galen, Karen and Monty’s youngest. His waist is on the railing, the rest of his upper body is extending over the water so that he can slap at the wake with his outstretched hand. Before I can say anything, she’s out talking to Galen. When he’s persuaded to return to one of the seats, she returns to the cabin.
How long was he doing that? I ask her.
I’m thankful for her elementary school teacher reflexes, the one that keeps her alert to the whereabouts of all the kids at all times, the one that is particularly acute on a field trip.
If Galen was precariously close to falling overboard, it’s doubtful if his loudest cries for help would have been heard by any of us over the wind and the noise of the engine and the slap of the choppy seas against the prow of the boat. We might have reached our destination before realizing that we were one kid short — a tragic, trip ending, news making event to be sure.
A short later we are at Yamac’isa, one of the Henaksiala village sites. It sparked the memory of the side trip Bruce and I made to the burial site there. Controversy surrounded the place. Cecil Paul, the Haisla and Henaksiala elder who grew up in the place, complained that the crew of Alcan’s crew boat, the Wachwas, were running too fast, and that the wake from the craft was causing so much erosion to the bank that the contents of a number of gravesites had fallen into the sea and been washed away.
Alcan, in a sickening display of corporate sociopathy, initially denied Cecil’s claim. Not having one, corporations can’t have a change of heart, but negative PR is hard on the corporate image and has economic implications. The Wachwas crew was given orders to slow down when approaching the dock at the Kemano River mouth, and I believe they sprung for some armouring of the affected area.
When Bruce and I cruised into the same bay on the afternoon of a long, hot August day, the dispute between Cecil, the Haisla, and Uncle Al, was going on in earnest. Bruce wanted to have a look at the burial site. We were in his jet boat and, therefore able to get right up on the beach without a problem. Bruce threw out the hook. We walked along the bow and leapt onto the beach. It was a short walk to the burial site. We read the markers. Some advertised sole tenancy. Others were communal sites that bore the names of families that had expired in the same year, testimony to the passage of plagues that swept the coast like microbial wildfires.
That the sea was chewing away at the grave site was obvious. It seemed to us highly probable that the erosion had been exacerbated by the wake of the Wachwas. We leaned heavily in the direction of that contention because we knew what a wonderful fellow Cecil was, and, moreover, he had seen the phenomenon first hand.
The place was imbued with melancholy. We didn’t say anything to each other. There was no need. We returned to the jet boat and cruised off. Minutes later a larger boat rounded the point bound for the mouth of the Kemano River.
Is that it?
That’s the Wachwas, Bruce confirmed.
They’re moving. I said.
Moments after I’d made that obvious observation, the boat passed our bow several hundred metres away.
We followed the Wachwas’ trajectory until our attention was diverted by the silver wave left in its wake. It bore down upon us as fast as we bore down upon it.
Shit! yelled Bruce killing the throttle. Sorry, Rob.
I would’ve told my buddy that it wasn’t his fault, but I didn’t have time.
The wave smacked the front of the sled. It pitched upward at an angle approaching ninety degrees. Bruce hung on to the steering wheel. If I’d the time, I ‘d have grabbed the gunwale. I didn’t. I lost my footing on impact and was thrown to the unforgiving aluminum floor, chest first. When I tried to stand, I was smacked down a second time by an offspring of the larger wave. I felt a pain in my rib cage.
The wave passed.
We’d taken on water, but were, miraculously, still afloat. The Wachwas was long gone. If we had swamped and sunk, we would have drowned.
We returned to shore. I wrung out my jeans as Bruce bailed. We were sheepish, but happy to have dodged a killer wave.
…to be continued