In the drift

May evening in Skidegate Inlet

My father is a geologist—now long retired. As children, with my mother and sisters we sometimes travelled with him on summer-long field expeditions into the wild and black-fly ridden lakes and muskegs of northern Ontario and Quebec. Three kids crammed into a tiny black box of a car, called a Mayflower, with my mother and her large-ish asbestos-coated “dutch oven” packed along for camp stove cooking.

I remember the dutch oven particularly for two reasons. One, was the intense discomfort of being wedged into a tiny back seat with the edges and corners of the foot-and-a-half metal cube bashing into my ribs for 500 miles or more as we motored along as far north as the road would go, with a car-sick sister.

But the other reason I remember the dutch oven is, my mum was pretty handy with the damn thing. Once we had wandered off the end of the road and bumped down some rutted track or other into the bush, my father and the crew set up a fly-camp with axe-cut poles and a lot of canvas. My mother got down to the cooking and the feeding of three small children and the field crew. Maannn! she could crank loaves and loaves of bread, and an endless array of cakes, cookies and pies out of that bulky, clumsy contraption.

And there is no Sunday sermon about the wonders of all the saints in heaven that even come close to the miraculous and transcendent nature of the wild strawberry pies that came bubbling and steaming out of that white-washed lump of a box.

Aside from the plagues of black flies and mosquitoes, that dutch oven and the wood cook stove are among my earliest memories of learning the “wild.” In northern Quebec there were also many lakes, the boreal forest, canoes, paddles and endless hours of just being a kid in sunlight and wind, in thunder and lightning, in all the moods of light and weather. We called the it  picturesquely “The North Woods,” or more colloquially and accurately “The Bush.”

My father’s job was to sample and map rock formations in The Bush. A whole summer of rock collecting! My father was also a prof. So he lectures. As my offspring will confirm, this is a genetic and inherited tendency that we all come equipped with—to spout off profusely with, or even without, any excuse.

So, as kids, while we were paddling around in a red canoe or picking wild strawberries on a grassy hillside, and especially if we were picking wild blueberries on a rocky outcrop (and checking over our shoulders non-stop for bears which we never did see, not even one) my father often spontaneously broke into long discourses about the very rocks and landforms upon which we were standing. My father’s knowledge of Canada’s great pre-Cambrian shield flowed all around us in language that was actually quite melodic. But, being kids, I have to admit that my sisters and I were not the good listeners that we should have been. We practically put our eyes permanently out-of-joint working on the perfection of the pre-teen eye-roll.

And now, alas, I still don’t have much of a grip on the finer points of Canadian geological history. But I did get the drift about the immensity, the great ages of the earth and the mighty grandeur of it all.

And it was in those early years that my path was drawn and set. I can see that now. The long ride home from those summers took me all the way back through Ontario and eventually, right on out as far west as I could go.

So, here I am now, on Haida Gwaii, still off in the wilds of the north country, still deep in the mysteries of wild berry pies … and bedrock.

Wild strawberry in bloom

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By Cynthia Jones Davies, writer researcher who lives on Haida Gwaii.
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