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The Winds of Vancouver

A nomadic report from the North Pacific edge
Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies.
University of Aberdeen, 2013.

Editor's presentation

Kenneth White's writings are explorations across a vast range of intellectual teritories, and also, in what he calls his "waybooks", chart his actual travels across varied geographic territories. The Winds of Vancouver records a journey from Briotish Columbia to Alaska, retracing the itineraries of explorers, naturalists and environmentalists, many of them, such as John Muir, nomadic Scots like White himself. The narrative records a series of encounters, both historical and contemporary, between the modern and the prilmordial, as White goes in search of what is beyond the limits of the known world.
Three days after my meeting with Baird, we were moving out, making for the Lions Gate Bridge at the exit of Burrard Inlet, along the log-strewn shore. Stanley Park and its totems there to port, West Vancouver to starboard, and a cone of sulphur piled up on a wharf gleaming bright-yellow in the morning sun :
« It gets transported by rail from Alberta, and it’s shipped from Vancouver all round the Pacific Rim », said Cap’n Jim.
We passed by a big red-hulled cargo of the Hyundai Line, registered in Monrovia, a Seaspan pilot boat, a black barge with two cranes being pulled by a blunt-nosed tug, and a flotilla of six fishing boats :
« They come in all kinds – gill netters, purse seiners, trollers, long-liners. »
Moving out.
The skyline of Vancouver slowly receding.
Then up through the Narrows, under the bridge, and out into the Gulf of Georgia.
To port now, the Vancouver Island Heights that rise up from Nootka Sound. To starboard, the great gleaming peaks of the Pacific range looking over Jervis Inlet, Knight Inlet, Seymour Inlet.
A tug towing a great barge piled with sand.
Smoke rising from a pulp mill at Campbell River.
Islands of floating logs.
A great rumour of waters and a wind rising.
The Three Sisters lighthouse on Texada.
Seymour Narrows.
« The Indians called it Yaculta. Name of a wicked spirit. Because of a whirlpool of waters around Ripple Rock. Got in the way of traffic. Used to cause a lot a wrecks. Was blasted by dynamite in 1958. »
Alert Bay.
« That’s a Kwakiutl Indian base. They’d come down to work in the canneries. But they still kept to their old ways, with totems, potlaches and all. »
West-nor-west up the Gulf of Georgia, with the idea of calling in at Bella Coola, where we’d spend the night. Jim the captain had some business there.
So we moved up the narrow sea-arm to Bella Coola, past bold greyblack ice-scarred granite bluffs, and clumps of hemlock, sitka spruce, red cedar. Here and there, the great sprawling nests of white-headed eagles, the birds either hunched, or spreading their seven-feet wingspan. Seals, harbor seals, swimming with their smooth heads just breaking the surface of the water. Sea otters nestled in clumps of seaweed, basking, the image of absolute innocence.
Once we were tied up at the wharf, I went for a walk into town, where I saluted the ghost of Mackenzie on Mackenzie Street.

Extrait du chapitre « The Opening Space »

It was at a trading post, that Muir met Le Claire, an old French-Canadian coureur de bois who at that time had a gold mine at the head of Defot Creek and who had come down to buy flour and bacon. Le Claire invited Muir to his cabin, and Muir went. He admired several things in Le Claire : his generosity, his capacity to carry a heavy load and still tread lightly over rough trails (the Defot Creek was about 40 miles long), and the fact that, despite the rigours of a hard wilderness life, he had maintained undimmed a real love of nature. Once at the cabin, Le Claire introduced Muir to his favourite flower, the forget-me-not (his wife and children lived away down in Victoria) and to one of his close friends, a brown-speckled marmot, already concerned, « every hair and nerve a weather instrument », about gathering in winter supplies. They talked there in the « wild garden » about the « plant people » (bluebell, blue geranium, larkspur, linnaea borealis…) and the « mountain people » (caribou, ptarmigan) before climbing up to the ridge behind the cabin to gaze out over the vast expanse of that great mountain region until sundown. Thereafter it was supper, then blankets laid out on the floor, and Le Claire telling stories of his life with Indians, bears, wolves, snow and hunger.

Extrait du chapitre « Salutations to the Ice-Chief

Next morning, Mike still glad to be able to rest up, I took the skiff on my own and went to explore the bay a bit further.
It was a morning of sunny mist. Glassy blue water. The beautiful colour and patterns of a harlequin duck (blue, black, white, ruddy red). Yellow anemones on a rock. Jewel lichen. A sunflower starfish. A salmon stream serpenting and rippling down through the sedge, mud and gravel. A band of arctic terns. The high chirp of the Savannah Sparrow. A short-eared owl sitting on the branch of a cottonwood with one eye closed. Then, on top of a little promontory, a bear, golden-coloured, eating wild celery, the very picture of peace and contentment, looking down on me with a benign expression.
As I was passing a clump of alders, I heard a rustle that held my attention, just a little rustle, nothing like the movement of a bear, stood still, looking into the bush. Nothing appeared. Then, as I turned round back to the path, there it was, only a few feet from me, a wolverine, gulo borealis, long dense glossy brown fur with yellow stripes along the flanks.
The most elusive of all the animals. A solitary creature most of the year, only to be come across in the wildest areas. Fierce physical endurance. Will travel up to forty miles a day in search of food, and often go without. At home in a range of up to two hundred square miles. And in a trap will rather chew a leg and crawl away to die rather than be caught…
The wolverine looked at me, straight, fierce, silent, then bounded off.
When I spoke of this encounter on board that evening, « I can’t believe it », said Mike. « The only thing that can top that is seeing Bigfoot. »
I preferred by far the living wolverine to any legendary Bigfoot, that goes without saying.
We stayed another day there in Kukak, just to make sure the blow was over, then went back to Hallo, to do some more quiet moving around in that precarious little paradise.
It was on the beach at Hallo, alongside a clamming bear, that I wrote on the glacial clay, in my best longhand, just before the tide came in, as a kind of epitaph, these lines :

The road I took
the sea somewhere
a bank of sand.

Fin du livre