Once upon a time, in a different lifetime, somewhere in the early 1970’s I lived in Kitimat BC for a number of years. It was a strange life there – living in a company town. It was so suburban! … neatly contoured cul-de-sacs, 3-(tiny) bedroom bungalows on concrete pads (circa 1955). And there we were plopped down, deposited, in some of the most magnificent wilderness on earth – right alongside some major industrial enterprises – the Alcan aluminum smelter at the head of the Douglas Channel, and the soon to start-up Eurocan pulp mill.
The population in those days was in a boom phase – some 13,000 people and what passed for the town centre was actually a shopping mall which was generally pretty busy and in competition with the mini-malls of nearby Terrace, BC (a 40 mile drive to the north up the Kitimat River Valley.)
In the first place, for a trans-located Ontario girl, the ocean fjord and soaring mountain landscape was of a scale, a grandeur and a wildness that was truly overwhelming. In the second place, juxtaposed as it was with the ultimate suburban-ness of the Kitimat life-style of the time, I found myself in a long period of serious cognitive dissonance.
Therefore, I remember the moments of illumination most vividly.
I am a descendent of Irish immigrants who left the stony fields of Ireland for the stony fields of rural Ontario sometime in the 1830s and 1840s. My life had mostly to do with small towns, flat hills, small quiet rivers, fields of wheat and corn, a lot of cows, and very mild-mannered woodlands. Watching small “sun” fish glint in the lake water beneath local dock and gathering hickory nuts in the fall was about my speed of wilderness experience.
So, when I eventually did set out on some marine adventures in Douglas Channel I was astounded.
And here is what I saw.
The fjord leading inland from the north Pacific coast to Kitamaat Village is long and narrow, dotted with islands, inlets, and intricate passages all around. The mountains rise straight up from the water, from tide line to snowy peak in one shear breathtaking movement. Waterfalls are everywhere shimmering down the rockfaces. Some are so high and fall so far that they become just a veil of sparkling mist on their way to the sea.
One day in May, while cruising somewhere in the area of Loretta Island, we encountered a school of dolphins coming toward us. The dolphins were travelling so fast they were flying across the surface of the water. They fled past us without a glance, obviously in a hurry to be somewhere else. Which made sense when we rounded the corner and right there in front of us was a pod of orca – moving at a stately pace, their large dorsal fins slicing through the water as they rose to breathe and dove again – following the dolphins.
I remember a place called Bishop Bay where there is a hot springs and a pool nestled up in the trees on the rocky shore. The aquamarine sea there is peaceful, so very clear and bright moving in and out on the tide. It’s the first place where I had seen phosphorescence in the ocean at night as a school of porpoises came into the bay and whispered by. It’s such an eerie sight – that glow in the night – delicate, flickering, and as other-worldly as the northern lights.
Perhaps my most vivid memories are of the Gardiner Canal, which is a very narrow passage on the way to Kemano. The fjord is enclosed by high, shear cliffs rising straight up from the water. And there, we once encountered what I think must have been a fin whale. In the very enclosed and narrow space, in the still green water, there passed the shadowy form of an enormous whale whose back as it rose above the water went on and on and on. The actuality of such a large marine creature, rising out of the depths, and spouting a huge blast of air and mist, and passing so near beside me, in such a small space of sea has defied reality checks in my brain to this day. But could be verified by the small white mountain goats high on the cliffs above peering down on me. Extraordinary!
So I have been thinking upon those experiences for some 35 years. It seems very difficult for a human being to take in sights, or sounds, or even whole experiences that are so profoundly different from what is familiar. Somehow what’s new stands outside the inner self – something apart, a mirage, an anecdote, another item in a catalogue of adventures. Perhaps clothed in anticipation and excitement, but always Other.
Often we say the gift is to make the ordinary into the extraordinary. In this case, it seems perhaps the process goes in reverse. The extraordinary requires a very long passage of time and practice on its way to becoming the ordinary – the grandeur transcends into the plain-ness, the simple – in which the connectedness of everyday life is made.