Queen Charlotte city - it's 8:40 am Monday morning and my friend has just left for work in town. I feel like a housewife in Shangri-La. The cabin is quiet for the first time in days. I'm sitting at the kitchen table sipping my third coffee, not looking at the dishes I should start washing but out the window through a break in the trees at the waves of the Pacific rolling in under a salmon-coloured cloud.
Next stop Japan. One of the surfer dudes from Montreal jogs by on the beach. Shouldn't I get out there myself, go for a long walk and get inspired? No, I should sit down and write this. There's too much damned inspiration already, and delicious as it is, being in the Queen Charlotte Islands is making me extremely nervous, for a few reasons.
A week ago, in Vancouver, cold teeming rain poured down for three days straight. Umbrella in hand, I leapt British Columbia-sized street rivers running from shop to shop collecting last-minute items for my trip to the edge of the world. My little sabbatical away for a month or more from beloved yet dispensable Toronto is not funded by frequent flyer points or a neglected savings account, but mortgaged into the future.
As the Vancouver wind cut through me and tried to steal my umbrella, I wondered what I was getting myself into. I was gambling, I knew it, but something told me I had to play.
My friend's cabin has an outhouse but no electricity, hot water or telephone. So far it's what the doctor ordered. We're on the northern tip of the Queen Charlottes, on North Beach, a 15-minute drive from the adjoining towns of Masset and Old Masset, the main village of the Haida nation.
On a clear day you can see the mountains of the Alaska panhandle. These islands are north of Vancouver Island and 90 kilometres west of Prince Rupert, a seven-hour ferry ride away and the main "off-island' destination.
There's a certain level of commitment involved in living on the edge of the world (one of the annual events here is called The Edge Of The World Music Festival), which is maybe why I'm feeling anxious. The beauty and seductive strangeness of this place are causing me to ask a fundamental question.
Before the English landed in the 1700s and remade these islands in name and custody, they were called Haida Gwaii, as they still are by all who live here. Haida Gwaii has two main islands, 600 kilometres from one end to the other: mountainous Moresby in the south and green, fertile Graham in the north. The islands' population is about the same as Napanee, around 5,000.
When I first arrived in Queen Charlotte City, the prettier, more touristy community on the island (think Moose Factory touristy), I was introduced to the obligatory cast of characters who at times seem stage-managed by the Grand Jokester who takes glee in initiating wandering world-weary urban sophisticates into an opposing reality.
Some of these people are classic, or maybe I should say neo-classic. One jovial, wry fellow in his 60s who worked for CTV in Toronto for 20 years now escorts people to their interment in a 79 Lincoln hearse because when he came here "no one else was." As he waved goodbye to me, he winked and said, "I'll be the last person you'll never see."
Driving down a road through a dark, moist, mossy and verdant jungle forest, surrounded by ancient cedars and firs, we came to the house of the egg man, who is also the island's resident Internet expert. (He gave up selling organic chickens because people would only pay $2.) Later at the Hanging by a Fiber Café, I entered a little masterpiece of matriarchal conviviality, food and atmosphere that reveals no lack of refinement.
At the hardware store when I was looking for a screw to fix my mandolin, I was asked if I'd like to play at the Empty Stocking Night, a fundraiser a couple of weeks away. I said yes, but coming from my life as a fretful über-planning bandleader, I thought to myself, "Surely we'll talk before then and discuss logistics.' He handed me a piece of paper with the date on it. "See you there.' I suggested other ways I could help out at the event. "I think it'll just all happen.'
Two days before I arrived on the islands, my friend hit black ice in a snowstorm on the highway between Masset and Queen Charlotte City. Her little sedan, unsuited to this four-by-four world, spun off the road and landed conveniently in a bed of thick bushes, not the rocky crags that border most of this tricky stretch of road. No one was hurt, but my friend's car was totalled. When she describes the accident to people, most of whom already know about it, a few of them laugh, "So now you're initiated.'
I'm not used to this light-hearted response to someone's brush with death, but I'm learning. My friend, a once impatient driver who came here from the city four months ago, drives carefully now.
The climate on Haida Gwaii is a study in variations on spring and fall. The weather is often wet and windy, sometimes sunny, never too cold or hot. Some days the weather will change every 20 minutes, which can be very amusing, sort of like a child who can't sit still in company. The extremes seem to balance themselves out, and for the locals the weather just isn't an issue. Those for whom it was didn't stay long. It's not their brand of wild comfort.
Five miles down the beach from our cabin is Rose Point, a thread of land jutting out into the Pacific at the northeast tip of Graham Island. It's here, according to a Haida creation myth with many alternate forms, that the character of the Raven cajoled man out of his hiding place in a clam shell. The Haida seem to have a warm, independent and easy-going way around non-First Nations people. Perhaps on some level they recognize that the powerful appeal of this place is universal and the gratitude for its immeasurable beauty and character is shared by others engaged in their own healing process.
Whatever anyone else's experience, this place certainly has me in its grip. Even when I come out of this spell, which should be soon enough, something unfathomable about Haida Gwaii will stay with me. To paraphrase D.H. Lawrence, a good novel is partly unfathomable. For me, so is a place where I'm wanting to put down roots.