Thoreauvian exercise #1- Blaine Harbor

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Saturday – October 12th

Semiahmoo Bay is as solemn as a deliberating judge. Today the surface is flat calm, a horizontal pane of thick weathered glass reflecting the sun’s light but not the radiant heat. What little heat this October day has is absorbed into the surface, into my exposed skin, into the clear water before it descends to green or blue or black. The sun with its fiery breath cannot compete with the depths of the Bay, the salty water retains its chill and remains constant.

As I step from the dock into the boat I know that I have left the earth, the solid, my bedrock behind, in favor of the unknown, the liquid landscape. On land I know who and what I am. My footing sure and stable, my path set with physical markers that show me the way. At sea the paths change with the currents, with the stars and the rotation of that which we call the galaxy. It is impossible not to feel small in a 27 foot sailboat as the familiar becomes a blur on the horizon. But that is why I am here, to blur the horizon and change perspective, to become small. If only for myself and only for a short period of time.

Victoria B.C. native and artist, Emily Carr used to “word” her experiences so that she could better paint them afterward. One October day in 1936, Emily wrote in her diary “There’s words enough, paint and brushes enough and thoughts enough. The whole difficulty seems to be getting the thoughts clear enough, making them stand still long enough to be fitted with words and paint.”
I am taking a different tack, similar to Emily’s course, except in reverse. To compliment my notes and my liquid memory, I plan to take photos, little moments in time memorialized in detail so that I might not miss the message that is written within the scalloped edges of Semiahmoo Bay.

The absence of wind is apparent today, it shows itself or lack thereof in the miniscule ripples and eddies of the current. The tide is harmonic and languid, coming into the bay with lackluster enthusiasm bringing with it three feet of water that will cover the sand bars where the children run and play. Three additional feet of water will encourage the crabs to investigate the dinners left for them in the traps hanging from the White Rock City pier. In concurrence with the Birkenhead drill, the British sea captains code of conduct, only the crab ladies and the crabby youth are given free passage and released back into the sea alive. Given that our craft, the Louanna, is piloted and manned by two women perhaps the sea too will honor that pact, but the sea’s voice is quiet and makes no vows.

Motoring out into the middle of the bay we, Jill and myself, see a ripple on the water to the west indicating wind coming from offshore. We hoist the mainsail and wait for the wind to billow our sails, for the restless water to duck under our bow and push us out to sea. The knot meter barely registers any speed but our cheeks acclimate quickly to the slight pressure of puffs and blows guiding our hands to loosen the lines, trim the main, and let out the jib sheet. A quick scan of the arrow atop the mast head confirms the location of the lazy breeze, starboard coming from the direction of Vancouver Island.

Under sail, the motor stilled and silent, the natural sound of waves, wind and the creatures’ native to the air and water become welcoming and inundate our ears with their cries. Pfftt….pfftt …A soft exhalation of breath announces two porpoises off our port bow. We listen for the sound then scan for their location as the porpoises foreheads, fins and black backs arch through the water parallel to our boat. Entertainment comes in the form of a sound check, a gaggle of geese flyby, a pair of porpoises puff and dive, a hungry heron plunges and splashes after his dinner, and seagulls continue their conversations overhead. We sit and bob as eager spectators enjoying a free show.

Bobbing and swishing like an article of bulky clothing in a washing machine, my imagined superiority over nature is dimmed by my inability to master my own reflexes. Without a fresh breeze and a broad focus on the horizon, my stomach conspires with my inner ear to make my decision to sail today questionable at best and possibly downright stupid. The sensation of queasy, nauseous, and a little icky can lead to mildly then violently seasick in minutes. Going below to the cabin is a sentence far worse than tossing your lunch over the side. Going below deck amplifies and confines the feeling until it manifests like a beast with a single thought; not WILL I become sick? But WHEN will I become sick? WHEN will I become so sick that I lose control? Thankfully today I only got to ponder the first question and never progressed to the next two. Of course we are less than 200 yards from shore on an almost windless day.

Some sailings the three questions are followed by statements like, “No, not now. I can make it.” or by an iron will that desperately clings to an illusion, “It’s only a little further, just ten more minutes and I can get off this blasted rocking tub.” Seasickness manifests like the five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance, although in no particular order.

Since late September Chinook (King) salmon are migrating through the Bay, traveling from the deep ocean to the tributaries and upstream to the shallow gravel beds they call home. These king sized salmon fight raging rapids and vapid anglers for the chance to breed in the very place they themselves were laid as eggs. By observing the fish and fowl in this small bay, one could easily assume that going “home” is not only travel for reproduction or relocation on a grand scale, but a hardwired evolutionary necessity.

On the topic of home, later that night at dinner the conversation turned to someone at the table having recently attended an educational workshop directed by a member of one of the indigenous tribes of Western Canada. The task presented was twofold; a small disk of soft beeswax was handed to the participants to mold and sculpt into a figurine of their choice accompanied by a single word: home. One by one the workshop participants placed their wax blob in the form of a bear, a swan, a human figure or animal onto a circular table and instructed to tell the group where they considered “home” to be. Nearly all of the participants instantly knew where their home was, not only a place that they belonged, but a place that claimed them in some definable way that superseded merely a place to live or work. My sister-in-law, Amy, was perplexed. She felt as though she didn’t have a home, and she didn’t want to lie. Amy is descended from Eastern European Jews, some immigrated before WWI while others fled persecution during and after WWII to America. Her people are disbursed around the globe and 75 years later, in her mind, a vagabond tribe without a homeland, without a place to call home. The women of her family  agreed, they too felt as if they have no home. I sat confused and saddened.

Even geese and salmon have a home to return to. Despite my colorful family history, the Campbell clan have always had a geographical location or place to call home, first in Scotland, then Ireland and England and today all over North America. When asked where my home is, I’d have to ask “Home on which continent, in what country?” or “During what time period?” Even with qualifiers I have a litany of answers to the question “Where is home?” whereas, my wife, her sister and the rest of my in-laws have not a single one.

As the daylight hours shorten, White Rock tourism declines and the Canadian crowds throng to the hockey arena, lively pubs, to the warm dry places they call home. The suns zenith is a short tepid affair, often accompanied by cloudy skies and misty rain that obliterates the majestic snow-capped mountains to the north and east and the distant grey land lumps of the semi tropical San Juan and Gulf Island chains to the south and west. In the distance the Peace Portal monument shines a brilliant white, surrounded by clamoring lines of impatient drivers and their passengers. Cars, trucks and monster SUV’s idly spewing carbon fumes into the atmosphere with impunity and disregard.

My desire to avoid the rush and frenzy of today’s modern life is part of the Bay’s appeal, part of the escape is this idea of boarding a boat and casting off and away. Casting off means letting go of civilization with its noise and hurry, its commercialism and patriotic ethnocentric sentiment along the southern border and its trendy indifference to individualism and environmentalism to the north. Casting off means releasing security and technology and putting ones knowledge to the test to become self-reliant, self-contained.

Adrift the definitive advisory for the weather is overhead in the shape and color of the clouds, the scent of moisture in the air, the shape of the wave’s crests and the sounds whispered on the wind.
I agree with Thoreau; there are many lessons one can learn from nature, specifically the ability to synthesize knowledge learned from a text or teacher, but ultimately one must place their hands on the tiller to make the information real, accessible and pertinent.

More important than the thirst for tangible earthly wisdom are the lessons that each person must teach themselves without intervention or corruption from outside influences. Only in solitude can you ask, “Who am I” or “What do I value” or “what do I think” and get a singular tailor-made response.

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