First there was the morning’s agenda. Nick had described it as a ride “up the mountain” offering spectacular views. Spectacular views? All the ones we’d seen so far involved standing at the edge of a cliff. But I was willing to Be Open-Minded, Go See, Find Out What was Involved.
We arrived at the ranch, Beaver Hill, at nine. Two brothers in their early twenties, Dell and Clay, saddled the horses for us and the other city slickers going on the trail.
“What’s the trail like?” I asked the older brother, Clay, who was going to lead the ride.
“We go up the mountain, come back, take about three hours.”
“Is there anything on it that might be dangerous for a nine year old?”
“How wide is the mountain path?”
“What do you mean?”
“Five feet? Ten?”
“What about if the horse slips?”
“Horses don’t slip.” He smiled at the preposterous thought and we mounted the horses.
“Don’t worry,” said the ranchhand who was weather-beaten, smoking and had what doctors call a productive cough. “These horses won’t do nothin’ wrong.” Clay’s horse reared.
“The only problem is that one,” the ranchhand amended, cocking his head towards Clay’s horse, “but Clay’ll take care of him.” Clay’s horse backed towards mine. Then, as though the first move had been in preparation of a sling-shot effect, he shot across the meadow.
“Whoa!” shouted Clay, kicking the horse. The horse ignored him. Clay slapped and yanked the rein. The horse settled down to a trot, muttering. But now my horse darted across the field after Clay’s. I flopped in the saddle like a doll and pulled the reins. The horse tossed his head but returned to the group. I took the incident as an omen and was grateful it had come in time for me to change our plans. I no longer trusted these people. “Ready?” said Clay.
“No, I think the boy and I will take a separate trail,” I said.
This time nobody protested. Alex and I dismounted and watched the caravan sidle off through the trees without us.
After Dell finished breakfast and gave a good-bye kiss to a high school girl I had taken to be his sister, Alex and I followed him to the stable to find suitable horses for our own private tour of the forest. No mountains. The ranchhand gave us each a retired nag and Dell’s horse was without eccentricity.
The forest was dappled with green leaves and patches of light thrown onto white birch trunks. A mother and baby grouse fluttered up, startled at our approach. Alex’s horse had an eating disorder and stopped every few feet to munch. As her head was buried in her fourth bush, Alex whispered, “Look!”
Before us stood a deer, watching us like a curious child unused to strangers. We looked back. Apparently, looking deer in the eye does not carry the same threat as looking bear in the eye. The deer did not come any closer; they never do. I sympathized with the attitude. Having satisfied her curiosity, the deer turned and trotted off into the thicket, her tail up.
“She mooned us,” Alex said, delighted. I was delighted, too, with Alex’ image. Although Dell was in front of me, I found the silence of our ride awkward and tried to engage him in conversation.
“Does your family own this part of the woods?”
“Do you ever get bored being here year round?”
“Nope.” He lived up to the laconic image of cowboys.
“Do you see lots of bear around here?”
“Nope. One came ’round ‘ few weeks ago. Haven’t seen any since then.”
I told him our bear story. He was unimpressed. I remembered the girl he had kissed good-bye and figuring he was still with her in spirit, gave up on conversation. We got back to the ranch at twelve, a little before Nick and his company.
“You would have killed them,” Nick reported in glee as he dismounted and brushed himself off. “The path up the mountain was about three feet wide and it was fifteen hundred feet down.”
His description gave me grim relief: Relief Alex and I hadn’t gone; grimness at the narrowness of our escape. What if my horse had shied as we were half way to the mountain? Would Alex and I have gone on or waited alone in the woods til the others came back?
We had lunch and got back in the car where, as we wound down the mountain, my tension unwound too, allowing me tentative happiness. The thought of returning from the nebulous mountains – the part of the vacation I’d most dreaded – to sea level was reassuring, like disembarking from a plane.
“Lightning doesn’t strike twice,” I thought with that misunderstanding of probability with which the unconscious comforts itself. “We can’t have another close encounter…. can we?” I wanted to hold onto my bear adventure. But each time I tried to reconstruct it I found it had receded further. The image that remained was of a massive black shape in the foliage. As bears go, he couldn’t have been more amiable. But that same friendly curiosity that kept him from attacking when I did everything wrong was what brought him to the camp in the first place.
Through the window I watched the clouds move evenly in fixed relation to each other as though on a glass plane. One cloud, meeting a mountain, got stuck and was left behind. In a valley half-way down the mountain Nick spotted a home-made airport. Two-seaters and airplanes that looked as though they’d been made of balsa wood glued together sat in the grass like large hornets. A sign advertised “Soaring.”
Nick got the Vietnam gleam in his eye. I steeled myself for a confrontation. He swung the car onto the driveway, got out and conferred with a man in the hangar who apparently ran the place. Coming back, he leaned in the driver’s window: “They only have one rate – Seventy-five dollars for all three of us.”
“You can go.”
“It’s the same if we all go.”
“Uh – uh.”
“Just me and Alex?”
“Uh – uh.”
“It only takes half an hour.” Time was not the issue. As far as I was concerned, we had all too much time on this vacation. Height was the issue.
“You can go.”
Nick returned to the man and took out his wallet, beckoning to me to get out of the car. ” Be back in half an hour,” he said, going off with the man, talking of his time in Vietnam.
Sitting at a picnic table to wait, Alex and I watched Nick get into the plane which headed for the mountains and disappeared. Alex grabbed my hand; not in fear; it was the linked-finger grasp that signalled he wanted to thumb-wrestle. It was cold. What is it about airports that make them so windy – the wide open space? I mused, as Alex lifted his elbow off the table, thus winning eleven of our first thirteen games. Echoes of bygone flights?
A plane landed and the pilot emerged, passing our table on his way to the office. Nodding towards his plane I asked, “What does this do to your life insurance premiums?”
“Who cares?” he said as he swaggered off.
More thumb-wrestling. The pilot came out of the office, returning to our table. “It’s really very safe,” he confided. “It’s just when you get into winds you can get into trouble.”
“Is this windy?” I asked. It was, to me.
“Not here. But up in the mountains, the winds are three times what they are here. Then it gets like water rushing over rocks. It forms eddies.” Ten minutes later Nick’s plane arrived and Nick got out, feverish with excitement.
“You should have come,” he gushed. “It was beautiful. There’s no engine, it’s completely quiet.”
I’ve heard quiet, I thought.
“You’ve got to live.”
“Yes, that is what I would like to do.”
That night we had dinner in a pizza parlor. The woman taking our order had a wide, tan face and black hair: I thought, “A Native Canadian!” and looked around with new curiosity at the other workers. They seemed Native, too. While we ate, groups of teenagers, families and a man who looked homeless came in: All Native. We were in a Native Canadian neighborhood or town. If countrysides could be described as prosperous, Canada’s would be. The Native Canadians seemed jarringly, incongruously poor. How was that possible in this enlightened country? We had seen no minorities since leaving New York, not among the Canadians nor even among the tourists. Did Canada discourage them? It seemed that the Native Canadians had taken on the role of local minority, as though somebody’s got to do it.
I scanned the notice board: There was the business card of a Dr. Freesailing, Dentist, and a bulletin that read: Nuu Chah Nulth Tribal Council. Ohiaht, Hesquiat, Toquaht. The Miss Nuu-Chah-Nulth Princess Pageant. Look forward to letting Toastmaster build your self-confidence.
Self-defense, elders. May be required: Attend Fall Fair Treaty Negotiations Meetings. First Nation Festival. The notice was signed by April Titian and Kleco-Kleco. The names enchanted me. I imagined the scenes they stood for – the First Nation Festival, with dancing and a peace pipe; the Miss Nuu-Chah-Nulth Princess Pageant (Did they wear bathing suits?)
Completing my temporary happiness, we slept indoors, in beds at the Fairfield Inn. The next morning, we went downstairs for breakfast. The general store/diner where we had checked in the night before and stocked up on oatmeal cookies – a compromise between a healthy snack and something Alex was willing to eat – bristled now with the hiss of salmon cakes and eggs. We ordered pancakes for Nick and Alex and a muffin for me.
“Where ‘ you from?” asked our teenage waiter when he brought the pancakes.
“Really? What part?”
“Is it like the movies?”
What did he mean? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Spike Lee? “What do you mean?”
“You know, like… Well, it’s sort of scummy, isn’t it?” he said with a gush of boldness to overcome his embarrassment. “Wow. I never thought I’d meet anyone from Brooklyn. Did you ever go to Lower Manhattan and see the David Letterman show on the Sony screen?”
It took me a moment to figure out he probably meant Times Square.
“Do you know who David Letterman is?”
I debated telling him I knew two people who worked on Letterman and decided that although it might make his day, it was cheap.
“Is Canada what you expected? Everyone thinks it’s really cold. It’s not. It’s just that American weather is Fahrenheit and Canadian is Celsius.”
While Alex and I ate, Nick went outside. My antennae shot up: What’s he arranging now?
On the counter stood a rack of leaflets detailing the activities available in the area. Ever on the lookout for danger, my eye stopped at a picture of people in red suits standing like a row of shiny rubber devils on board a small motorboat, their hair blown back. I picked up the leaflet: Whale-watching. Alex and I weren’t going whale-watching in a boat like that. The red rubber suits were probably in case the whale-watcher fell over the low railing into the sea. Or maybe a whale could overturn the boat. We were still a long way from home; still in Nature country whose ways we didn’t understand.
Alex and I thumb-wrestled, sixty-three to four. Nick returned.
“Come on,” he said. “We’re going whale-watching in one of the big boats. It leaves in ten minutes. Get in the car.”
That wasn’t bad. The big boats were stalwart; a whale couldn’t overturn them. The trip was triumphant: The boat got within fifty feet of a family of whales, in violation of Canadian law but thrilling the tourists and gratifying the captain. I crouched on deck, choosing cold over the nausea that ballooned in me when I went inside.
“Where ‘ you from?” said the captain.
“What’s your name?”
My answer was overtaken by a retch.
“So, Brooklyn,” the captain said to me, kindly, when we had docked, “I hope it was worth it.”
“Oh yes,” I answered with the fervor of gratitude to be back on stationary land.
Next on our agenda that Nick had worked out was a fishing expedition. We would find someone with a motor-boat to take us out to catch salmon or whatever the local waters offered.
“Just make sure they have a life-vest that’s Alex’ size,” I said.
While Nick arranged for a boat I went into the fishing shop next door. Time was short so I got to the point. “Have there ever been cases of a whale overturning a boat?”
“No, they’re very gentle,” assured the man behind the counter. “One motorboat even cut a whale but it didn’t come after the boat. Really, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”
I knew whales were gentle, (except transients who eat sea-lions and other mammals and who, presumably, wouldn’t turn up their noses at a human.) But I also knew, from a cocktail party at the Vancouver Aquarium on our previous trip that with the gentlest of intentions, a whale might bounce a human on the ocean floor in play. Still, so far, according to my research, whales didn’t overturn boats.
“Are there sharks?”
The man shrugged.
“Haven’t heard of any.”
This wasn’t reassuring. I stood there like Mike Wallace, waiting for my silence to elicit an admission. A customer with a German accent obliged what seemed to be my urgent need for sharks.
“There are basking sharks,” he offered uncertainly, as though they might not count. The name conjured up sharks that lay around sunbathing instead of hunting. But in my mind, there was already a check next to “sharks.” Alex would not run his hands through our wake. Nick came in, breathless, as he often is on vacations. It’s hard to accomplish everything on his mental list of things to do.
“O.K., it’s all set; we’re going fishing. I got us a fourteen-foot motor boat and it has a small vest for Alex.”
As we boarded the boat, its owner rummaged in the cupboard.
“Everybody’s here,” Nick said to his large behind.
The fisherman emerged, pulling out a battered life vest. His face was grizzled with grey. I noted also, with sagging optimism, that he had the girth of Santa Claus. His stomach swelled above his belt like the sun at about 5 A.M., rising above the horizon.
“Haven’t used this, five, six years,” he said, dusting the vest off off and handing it to Alex. It was indeed Small but for a small adult. I put it on Alex anyway.
“Bill,” said the fisherman, nodding to me.
I introduced myself.
“Sit over there.” He indicated the back of the boat. “Later you can help me drive,” he added to Alex.
“Are you certified in life-saving?” I asked, as casually as possible.
“Are you certified in life-saving?”
He laughed and pulled the cord, revving up the motor.
“I am,” said Nick. I leaned back with a sigh as we vroomed out to sea.
Crystal spray flew up as the boat shattered the water. Alex leaned over the rail, feeling the wind. I held him around the waist.
“This’ the tough part,” Bill said. “Boats get in accidents here; ‘ lotta rocks.”
“Don’t tell her that,” Nick said with a between-us-guys chuckle.
“Mostly bad days, though, not like today.”
Once we got past this Scylla and Charybdis the shore line disappeared. “This should be all right,” Bill said, stopping the motor. He prepared a line for Alex, teaching him and Nick how to do it themselves. I didn’t pay attention. My eyes stayed fixed on Alex who leaned over the rail to throw the line further. The boat rose slightly.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A whale; swimming under us.”
“A whale?!” Alex cried, thrilled, and bent down over the rail to see it but the whale was gone.
“Mom, there’s a whale under us!”
“Yes, darling, I know.”
“Daddy, a whale swam under us!”
“I know!” Nick returned, delighted as Alex.
“Have you ever heard of a whale overturning a boat?” I asked Bill, casual as ever.
“One time; that’s all. Nine times out of ten, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard about bears, too. Only we saw a bear and he wasn’t afraid of anything. We couldn’t get rid of him.”
“Must ‘ve been a campsite bear. They’re not scared of people ’cause the tourists feed ’em.”
Ah. Why hadn’t anyone mentioned “campsite bears” before?
“I got one!” Alex cried. Bill dropped his line and came over.
“Pull up like I showed you. That’s it! Keep turning… You got it! Wow, nice one. ‘T’s a salmon.” The fish flopped on the floor and flapped around pathetically, staring. Bill hit it on the head with a hammer. He looked like Hemingway gone to blubber. But any fisherman with grey gristle looks like Hemingway to me.
He put the fish on a scale I hadn’t noticed before.
“Six pounds, two ounces.”
“I think I got one,” Nick said.
Another successful day. Nick and Alex caught a salmon each and after I gave Alex my turn with the fishing rod, he caught an eight pound cod.
Back on shore we drove to the beach, found a picnic area and cooked the day’s catch. It remains the only time in Alex’ life that he has voluntarily eaten fish.
Cleaning up the table, I took our garbage to one of the cans at the corner of the picnic area. But it had no opening. Disposal involved reading the instructions on the side of the can. A man came up with the same purpose. “Got to keep the bears out,” he explained as I fumbled with the top.
“I thought the bears were in the mountains,” I said.
“Got ’em here, too. They go in the garbage, knock everything over. Like big rats.”
We had seen a bear and come within a hundred feet of a family of whales. We had been lifted in the water by a whale and for a moment, ridden on its back. Alex had caught two fish and proudly eaten them. Nick started to take it easy. The next day, he decided, we would rent a boat to sightsee around the bay on our own, looking for seals sunning themselves on the rocks, or beaver or eagles. Well, I told myself, at least in the middle of the bay we won’t meet a bear.
All the motor-boats had been taken so we got a rowboat. Beneath the seat lay a life-vest that fit Alex properly, lifting my spirits. Also, staying within the bay, we wouldn’t lose sight of shore which gave me a feeling of control; at least, more control than I’d been used to in the previous week. By comparison with some of our other outings, this one felt civilized.
We rowed around, inspecting the shoreline for wildlife but not seeing any. Even I felt mildly disappointed although in a rowboat I would have worried about meeting a clan of seals. Small whale-watching boats – the kind I’d seen on the cover of the brochure at breakfast the day before – raced past us, their red-suited crews splashed and excited, on their way out to sea.
Giving up on our side of the bay, we rowed across to the other side. When we’d gotten half way there, quiet fell: A passing whale-watching boat stopped, its red-suited passengers watching something here in the bay. They were watching us. Why? I wondered. Our rowboat is primitive but is it that interesting? Then Nick’s head started and his eyes widened as he stared straight ahead. I looked in the same direction. A puff of something like smoke exploded at the water’s surface. We were thirty feet from a whale.
“Let’s go,” I implored.
“They’re very gentle,” said Nick and rowed closer.
This was no time to impart what I’d learned about the gentleness of whales. But the whale felt the same way I did and, apparently realizing his wrong turn, puffed away towards the exit of the bay.
Two days later we flew back to New York. It was an uncompromising July day. The sky was the yellow-grey of wet cement, the traffic, choked, the air, unsatisfactory. But I, who do not pray easily, gave prayers of thanks for our safe arrival home.