SpruceRoots Magazine - May 2000
I grew up in a suburban part of Alberta. This place, Kumdis Island on Haida Gwaii, and my hometown bear little resemblance...at least on the surface. Throughout my childhood my subconscious would often link together the scraps of surviving scrubby brush, the carefully managed storm sewer system, the isolated swamps, the feral farmlands, and so linked, these spaces restored themselves in my imagination. These broken survivors of urban sprawl; these oasis from asphalt-stripmall-desertification, could, with a child's willing, once again become what Kumdis Island still is today. Wilderness.
But I am not that child. My imagination is damaged and stifled by ego and responsibility. Many refer to this as "reality." Kumdis Island is a place where that child still lives to some degree, or at least this new being I have become can again remember the places once created from isolated pieces, and a longing for a place a meaning.
Like many teenagers there was a passage from a child with a magic free-wheeling imagination to an adult on the well marked avenues of facts, order, goals and disappointments. This period of my life was difficult for all the usual reasons. I can vividly remember the exact moment when I realized what the nuclear arms race really meant - that we humans possessed immense power and we used it to construct fences of mutual annihilation. I stood on a hill behind my school overlooking the nearby oil refineries and chemical plants, as these thoughts over ran me. That day a social studies teacher had explained that our proximity to these industrial complexes assured us of a quick and easy death in the event of a global nuclear war. I could see the pipes and towers and fences lit by the glow of the gas flares, and I could smell hydrogen sulfide and other pollutants, could see the smoggy cloud drifting towards me, illuminated from below by the lights and flames of the industrial park, hanging ominously over the orderly crescents and cul-de-sacs with their perfectly spaced trees and picture windows, like television screens, revealing scenes of domestic peace and comfort. On and on, one after the other, thousands of individuals like me are swallowed up by the hollow, facelessness of a modern town. All were living within the concentric circles of a target, yet willing to stay on and take their chances. I didn't want to guess at how they had arrived at their complacency. No one seemed panicked. There was no undercurrent or expression of the urgency to run away that I was then feeling.
The cloud that rolled over me that day made it very difficult to restore, with my imagination, those seemingly doomed streets back into a wild natural space again. It was a long way from buffalo herds or grizzly bears and was never going back. That is when the need for escape began to fester in me. What humans wished to become ceased to make sense, it had no meaning to me. Nor did church fill any needs or answer any questions, but only convinced me that there was something wrong with me for failing to see the logic inherent in our lifestyle, in our suburban bliss. I bought a bicycle and a bow and began to escape into the surrounding countryside. I also spent much of my time at the library looking at a book about Haida Gwaii. I don't think I ever read the entire book but it was full of pictures which seemed to be taken from my imagination. It was as though a photographer had been inside my head on all those foot-dragging-time-stopping walks home from school, snapping his shutter, as I blotted out the traffic and concrete, and replaced it with forests draped in ferns and moss, and rivers full of fish. The pictures showed a landscape that to me seemed perfect and called me back to that book over and over. It was a source of hope for me that places like that still existed and even then, just barely a teenager, I knew I would live there. Though I didn't yet know the place, I knew my home was there. The place that I had been living to that point was as removed from a sense of home as one can feel, and yet, physically it was all I really knew. Home is something many of us carry within us wherever we are. Haida Gwaii is the physical reflection of that place I have always been, and have always sought, and Kumdis Island is that place I have always carried with me and always will.
A short distance from my house was a four lane freeway. During my childhood, this marked the border of the suburban world across which there were fields, cat-tail marshes, acreages, and small farms. This is where I went, where I escaped, and where I survived. This was where nature still persisted. Still though, the roar of the freeway traffic and the towering sign of Maplewood stripmall, were ever-present. As children we crossed the freeway, always having to run lest we be driven over, standing on the meridian waiting for our opening, crossing the last two lanes, and dropping breathless into the willow choked ditch, feeling a gate open for us from an adult, stifled world, to our own safe, limitless space. For us this place was ours. We had no idea who actually owned the land. In all those years I can't remember ever bumping into an adult there. We occasionally heard rumors of an impending sub-division and argued the pros and cons of a McDonald's being built there, but for the most part, our time was spent catching frogs building tree forts and fast-sinking rafts, spying on a fox den, watching a dead deer decompose, and other mystical pursuits, which we kept as precious, hushed secrets from the realm of adults. In winter we skated on the ponds and tried our hands at tracking hares around the two or three acres of aspen forest. When school was canceled due to excessive cold, we bundled into our warmest clothes and went out and built fires in the woods, listening as the frost split trees in half, our faces red and hot in the birch-fire glow, our backs numb with cold. On crisp autumn nights we would sneak kerosene from my fathers workshop and steal across the freeway to the cat-tail marsh. By soaking the spongy brown heads of the bull rushes and turning them into torches, we explored our secret world at night. We wished to know its every mystery, not so that we could own it, but that it could own us.
I finally left school in grade eleven. I was failing it, it was failing me, it was definitely time to go. It took a long desperate year to break out of that town. A lot of hiding in my parents basement, avoiding their worried looks, and avoiding my soon to be graduating friends. I spent many days alone in the fields and forests across the freeway. There was a hill above a tiny pond overlooking a grain field. I sat there as the sun set behind me and turned the wheat golden, and the sleek stealthy whitetails at the edge of the woods took on a fiery red colour. In the brief brilliance of a sundown I could forget the shambles of my life, and relish in the bigger picture of a cyclic mode of living, rather than the linear path always being thrust at me. In the dusky, fast-fading light I would practice stalking the deer in the open field. Often I would crawl on my belly to within arrow distance of their silhouettes, but it would always end up being too dark for a shot. Their indignant snorts would follow me back through the waist high grain, follow me back across the highway, under the street lights, to echo with my heartbeat in the cool, cement cocoon of my parent's basement. A direction came to me in the form of acceptance on a Canada World Youth exchange to Indonesia. Before the call came to go I had made plans to come to Haida Gwaii with some friends, but that was to wait a year for me. They made the trip without me, and while I was on the other side of the world I received a letter from one of them describing the place, complete with some blurry pictures of black bears and the like.
During this time Haida Gwaii was very much in the news. I was flooded with images of Haida elders being arrested on logging roads, of old growth trees falling, and of crashing surf, which stirred a longing in me akin to homesickness and disturbed me greatly. Was this place going to be beaten down when I saw it, trampled and parceled, or fenced off like everywhere else?
My year away from my hometown was a definitive one. I saw how most people in the world live with far less than we have, and yet seemed as happy or happier than we are. We, with all of the trappings of the western world, all the bells and whistles we keep making and buying to try and fill up a void, as though it were some sort of landfill. Things like family and community, love for our surroundings, respect for our elders, and any ability to relate to our children, has become a part of history. Our culture has left them behind in favor of something we like to call quality of life, whatever that is supposed to mean. I came back to a town for which I knew I could feel nothing. The generic qualities of the place gave me little to discern it from thousands of other North American suburbs. Repetitions on the same theme of the same evenly spaced franchises desperately yearning for any spare change you had. You never considered that a person may own the establishment, you simply gave your money to a symbol, a logo, which through advertising blitzes had programmed you to spend. The hill, where I had once worn a seat into the hardened ground, had been bulldozed and its prairie soil had been used to fill in the little pond it once overlooked. There sat a vinyl sided home with a three door garage, and more like it were sprouting like mushrooms where the grain field had been. A large maple tree, which I had been climbing and sitting in since I was six years old, had been pushed over and cut into rounds. It all gave me a very rootless feeling and made me think more and more about those elderly Haidas blocking that road.
Nobody defended this place that was supposed to be my home, its fate was decided long ago, well before the bulldozers arrived to clear the fields where my street was built. It's fate was decided before the first wagon train of sod busters followed the metis buffalo hunters westward and the clearing of the land began. The battle lines were drawn long ago between nature and whatever is inside us that makes us so unnatural, so insistent on change. Our fate is tied to the form of constant growth. Growth which must never cease, which is measured as healthy only if the rate of growth itself shows constant growth. You see, those franchises need to grow and expand or they will die. The stocks will crash, the windows will be boarded up, children and single moms will lose their minimum wage, dead end jobs, our quality of life will surely suffer. Tumbleweeds will blow down the streets. As quickly as I could I got out of Dodge and headed for Haida Gwaii.
My first experiences on Haida Gwaii were shrouded by my own cultural baggage. I tried to assign a monetary purpose and success to my being here, and so I followed the mushroom trail through the woods. Things were still relatively low key back then. Few of us outsiders were arriving for the seasonal plunder and the camp at Skidegate Lake was non existent. The few times that I got away on my own, I heard this place speak to me. It spoke with a timeless voice in a miniscus arch of silence. A polarization of the still patience of forest and the seething urgency of deep ocean. It also spoke of the sadness inherent in the great stumps rotting around Skidegate and Mosquito lakes, the monotony of the "tree farm." Having no car or boat of my own, the wilderness eluded me, but I could imagine it. I knew it was near at hand, but the weather was changing, the pickers were leaving, and reluctantly, I was one of them. I thought I would soon be back, but it was to be five long years immersed in the bowels of the city, creating myself socially, learning to know my people and to love them, and finally to realize how I was different from them. I simply could not forget that there was still a wilderness somewhere, even though the city held me in a tight and ordered embrace.
When the opportunity would arise, I would pack my small car and head off to explore the foothills and mountains of southwestern Alberta. I discovered many corners of some wild places, but due to their proximity to the city they were usually well trodden ground. I would find a beautiful stretch of trout stream, and think it was unmarred by people's disrespect, until, around the next bend, a dirt track would butt against the creek, and a flock of weekend warriors would roar through the glacial waters on neon coloured dirt bikes.
When the Old Man River dam proposal was being crammed down our throats many of us knew we had to make some sort of a stand for the land which we had so recently arrived in. The alterations were beginning to grate on us newcomers. We wished to form some sort of a bond with a place. We could only vaguely guess the thoughts and feelings flowing through the meager reserves of the Blood, and the Peigan. A gathering was announced. Ten thousand people from every walk of life and background gathered at the river's exit from the stunning Livingstone Mountains. Blackfoot Chiefs, noted scientists, famous musicians, ranchers, trout fishermen and authors all spoke and sang to the crowd as the sun carved a circle in the clouds and the wind rushed down the craggy scarps before us. I went back home with a feeling of great hope and empowerment, a feeling that there was a surging tide of sanity about to flood over the human world. We couldn't be marginalized or ignored, our voices had joined the roadside elder's song-plea for the beauty and sacredness of the land. The next day the Alberta environment minister sloughed us off as a "bunch of pot smoking hippies", and business went on as usual. Some folks went to jail, most grieved, grew numb and jaded. Another wild river was tamed.
That same summer I packed up my little car and drove south to say good-bye. I took the forest trunk road south between the Rockies and the Livingstone ranges, to where the Old Man River pours out onto the windswept treeless foothills. My eyes followed the view stretching out over the Porcupine Hills to the endless ocean of prairie. The dark mountain wind pushed my thoughts to the First Peoples who came through that pass between sheets of ice as thick as the mountains were tall. The wind thrust to the near future when a large body of water would flood the graves of those people, and the sun bleached bones of the buffalo would be buried beneath the silt. At that moment the wind took the form of a CF-18 fighter jet which shot out of the Livingstone gap only a few hundred feet above me. The pilot had the plane turned on its side in order to negotiate the narrow twisting valley. I had a quick glimpse of the sun reflected off his tinted visor as he disappeared, leaving his sonic boom echoing down over everything below. I drove down to the site of the gathering. There was no evidence of all the people who had come here a few short weeks before, only the flap of the wind in the sagebrush, and the hoarse whistle of ground squirrels. I made my way to the river's side to say good-bye and sat with my back to a wall of sun-warmed sandstone. My eyes picked up the silent, soaring path of a golden eagle. I watched as it made its way up the river on a carpet of thermal lift created by icy water and hot sun. It landed in an old river valley cottonwood which cradled its well concealed nest. A scrap of snow white down stirred up from the nest and I was rewarded with a piece. Feeling renewed, and again hopeful, I returned to the city. I looked at the maps showing the proposed dam reservoir and was somehow mollified to see that it would not flood as far back as the nest. Some part of me was relieved to not have to stand up for this majestic and vulnerable secret I had been trusted with.
I visited the nest twice more, once while the chick was still white and downy, and again around the time it should have been fledging. This last time, when I arrived, I knew something was very wrong. I then noticed the teal green snake of a new pipeline slithering across the hills towards the dam site and crossing the river right over where the nest was. I jumped from the car, leaving it running with my friends wondering what was up. I ran blind, not towards the violated nest tree, but in a different direction which led me to a small hollow, where beneath a sage bush I found the almost fledged chick twisted and dead with starvation. It had been only a few weeks away from being old enough to ride away on the wind with its mother. A victim of growth, development and progress, which can never take the time an eagle needs to grow, or leave room for a wild river to flow. My time in Alberta was over. For the second and last time I looked west and headed out to Haida Gwaii.
It has been eight years since I surrendered to this place, my home. I have been blessed with many precious hours spent in the backcountry kayaking and hiking. I have also been lucky enough to be able to work in the backcountry looking for birds on the endangered species list. This opportunity has given me a vivid understanding of how quickly we are losing the wilderness on Haida Gwaii. This spring I am watching the once wild area known as Drill finally succumb to cutting and fragmentation and the last piece of connecting old-growth between the Tlell and Yakoun watersheds is being lost. I hear the road crew's blasts, the chainsaw's whine, and the crack the brief pause and earth trembling crash, as another thousand year old tree finally is forced to succumb. The once pure flowing Drill Creek now rages silty brown down in to the spawning beds of the Yakoun River. I know that many of the men cutting down this forest have lived here their whole lives and at least think of this place with the same sense of home that I feel. They too must have an impression of how little time is left for these last places. Will they stay on when the big trees are gone? Do they know how rare these places are in the world? Where will they go to? As I stand on the top of a new clear cut on the north side of the Drill ridge, I have a now clear view of all that is left, and it is very little. The Tlell Watershed sits awaiting its fate and although it is a vast piece of wilderness, very little of its young forest compares to the areas like Drill. I can follow the monotonous rows of second growth trees along the wide Yakoun River basin and only imagine the splendour it once was. For thirty kilometeres my eyes seek the dark green colour of rich old growth wilderness and there across the waters of Masset Inlet, Kumdis Island still stands, a green anomally in the face of progress.
After cabin sitting for four years on Kumdis Island, I found my roots had sunk deep here. I purchased property on which I had already spent countless days. I have hiked back deep into the heart of its wilderness and felt the humbling power of the old growth that is there. It is not a manicured, open friendly place, at least not for people. If one is willing to listen, Kumdis speaks with the wisdom of thousand year old cedars, and with the frail song of a fairy slippers' brief flowering. It is haunted by the leggy, spring dance of the Sandhill cranes, the steady simple one-note call of a saw-whet owl in the dripping forest night. It wakes you before dawn with the seeking cry of murrelets, carrying their salty, dripping song from the ocean to the heights of the tallest stands of forest. There is the promise of understanding and balance in the still healthy cedar with its missing bark strip, evidence that people can live in a place without razing it to the ground.
With a sense of foreboding, I steel myself for the devastation that has always been a theme with the places I have cherished. There is still so much for me to discover and understand in this place. Just up the slough, as the Evan's Farm collapses back into nature, the wheels of industry prepare to reclaim the hard won ground and then some. I have been lucky to have discovered this small corner of the natural world for even such a brief time. It has led me back to the mind's eye of a suburban child's vision of a perfect world. My son Eli was born here. Kumdis Island and the communities of these Islands are his home. He has discovered life in reverse of my own experience. He has grown with the fall routine of black bears in the crabapples, goshawks and peregrines chasing the many ducks, the tug of a trout on his line, the echoing leap of a salmon, the seasonal fledging of the eagle's nest across the slough. Much more really than my poorly fed suburban imagination could ever have hoped for. He appreciates these things. They are part of him Will there still be places like Kumdis Island when he is my age? Will he feel the sadness I feel about never having seen areas as rich as the intact Yakoun and the lakes of Moresby. Will his imagination serve him right? One day he will realize how rare these things are. One day, he stopped on our trail in the middle of a laugh at some shared joke we were enjoying and looked up at me with his wise eyes bright, "we'll always be at Kumdis. Right?"
Soon there may be many roads on Kumdis Island. Soon, the tall spruce and gnarly cedars could be laid out, trucked off and barged away. The streams might carry the silty soil of this place in torrents out to the inlet and slough, suffocating this Islands salmon and trout. How am I so sure? I have seen the plans, I have worked in the ever-shrinking old growth, I have seen the trucks and the barges, the facts and figures, the silty streams, the divide and conquer routine used against Island communities. This is a common story I have been telling. It is the tale of a culture, which by its very nature, seeks to uproot itself We all know a version of this story and we all have it in us to say, "Enough, this is my home, it is the way it should be, it nurtures me and I must protect it or else deny my identity and my future." Kumdis Island is my home. Its fate is my fate. It has always been that way on some level. I have nowhere else to go, running is not an option. I will stay and answer to my son, and I will try and answer to this place. I am well aware of the grinding degradation involved in trying to stand up against the forces of our sad economy. I hope to still be a whole person afterwards. If anyone should wish to help and stand with me I would be very thankful.
Next time you drive through Port Clements, look to the north, and you will be rewarded with a beautiful view of Kumdis its secrets, its message awaits.
If you are interested in participating in an exploration to Kumdis lake with interpretive guides, (possibly overnight) please call me at 557-2475. I am willing to arrange some such trips this summer to share some of the secrets this place has to offer.
SpruceRoots Magazine - May 2000