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November 03, 2015

Life and Death and the Leviathan II

Image by Jim Munnelly 

There but for the grace of God go any one of us.

Maybe that’s what you thought as well upon hearing the news of the capsized whale watching boat, the Leviathan II, off Tofino, B.C. and the death of six tourists.

I looked up Leviathan. It's a word from the Old Testament meaning sea creature or sea monster.

There were 21 survivors thanks in huge part to those who have called the coast home for centuries, in this case, the Ahousaht, their livelihoods and histories on the ocean intertwined like veins on the backs of their hands, As we now know, two Ahousaht fishermen were first on scene, primed perhaps from a history of trauma and subsequent crisis assimilation; fight or flight, always at the ready.

One of the fishermen, turned, saw a flare, knew right away, and headed towards the Leviathan II. The response similar to the way their brothers (and sisters?) took to the waters of Hartley Bay after the MV Queen of the North accident in 2006. And probably during so many other lesser marine crises that never warrant publicity, lingering only in the minds of the few involved.

Every time you and I have gone on vacation, we have been those individuals. Whether close to home or on a far flung adventure, we trusted that everything wasn’t just going to be okay, it was going to be fantastic. Our expectations were the very best of what we packed.

It was me every time I stepped onto the whale watching zodiac on Salt Spring on more than a few occasions with the former owner, Ian Gidney, at the helm. I totally trusted that we, his passengers, were in good hands. After all, he'd done it for such a long time, handling that zodiac like a jeep on water, even on that day it felt like we were re-enacting  a new version of that movie, Thelma and Louise. 

He just kept going and going, south and farther south still. Like a man with OCD, he was going to find us whales, no matter how long it took. And he did. Freighters passing not too far away in a shipping lane.

Add to that, all those other times in a kayak, even though I've never been properly trained, can't do an Eskimo Roll, and have no real idea how I’d react to being tipped over.

The very first time, a sunset cruise out of Ganges Harbour, circa 1996.  A summer evening, a little cloudy, a little windy, but nothing to get too worked up about, until that is, the grey turned charcoal, the cloud cover bowed like a geisha, the wind pitched like a cyclone, and every stroke became agony.

"Stick together," yelled the guide, the quiver in his voice its own sound wave, trying, unsuccessfully to hide his anxiety, screaming into the wind, his yells translating into a whisper, "Turn around, stick together!" 

Our individual wills focused on the brown spec of a wharf we'd launched from less than an hour before, and when we finally made it back, exhaling our long held breaths, too tired to haul ourselves onto that rough old dock, just relief, that's all.

Or, on another kayak trip. Discovery Islands Group. Last day of the trip. A large wave caught my kayak from behind and carried me, just like that, a long ways away from the group. It looked as if I was intentionally surfing, another guide’s voice yelling my name, thinking I might be going all rogue on him on purpose. As if! 

Or further afield, giving my safety some thought, but not much, hoping for the best, donning invincible tourist mode, and stepping onto a patch-worked riverboat in Cambodia with barely a lawnmower put put motor to steer us down that shallow river from Lampang into the Tonle Sap. Or that beautiful day out of Sihanoukville, heading for Koh Ta Kiev, with stops for snorkeling into the sea blue waters in a place that was all the better because of its foreign-ness, any potential danger someone else's concern. "Don't worry. You worry too much."

And finally, my own experience on a whale watching expedition out of Tofino so long ago. Millions before us over the years with the same excitement at what we all might get to see, surely the same for those six tourists looking forward to a great day and real live Orcas not too far away.

A trip similar to one that thousands upon thousands have also taken out of that picturesque West Coast village. The scramble, pulling, and shimmying into the survival suits before finding a place in a zodiac, hip to hip.  Was it April? Might have been. Easter? Maybe. 

We sat huddled together as the little rubber vessel bucked its way, headstrong, out across that black, frigid ocean. The slab of barnacled backs of the Grays that we'd come to spot, not quite real, but too close and scary to me; living submarines. 

And the cold, mostly the cold, that's what I still recall. Wanting to verbalize what every goose bump on my body was screaming, which was, "I've had enough now. Can we turn around now?"

Each and every one of us on every journey we take, hope. Hope that there but for the grace of God comes true for us just one more time, rising inside to save us, because we choose to participate, not just observe, not all the time at least.

True for boat people, and true, shockingly, for those six individuals who lost their lives in such an unlikely way in such a safe (relatively speaking) part of the world on October 25, 2015, in a place of hauntingly wild beauty.

So not fair indeed.

Out of respect for the people who lost their lives, I list their names:

  • Katie Taylor, 29, of Whistler, B.C.
  • Jack Slater, 76, of Toronto.
  • Nigel Francis Hooker, 63, of Southampton, U.K.
  • David Wyndham Thomas, 50, of Swindon, U.K.
  • Stephen David Thomas, 18, also of Swindon, son of David Thomas.
  • and Ravisham Pillay, 27, from Australia (still missing).

August 24, 2015

Stowel Lake

Stowel Lake 

Down a seam in a dusty track
cars lining the road above,
you wade in,
separate the lily pads with
your praying clasp,
emerald ripples  
encase naked white skin 
over there,
thick atop a wooden dock, 
decorated by
dragonflys and voices weaving the

August 16, 2015

Ron Holcroft's Walker's Hook Stage

Ronald S. Holcroft   

November 15, 1916 – August 4, 2015

When I lived on Salt Spring and in the North End after my third move in same number of years to the property of Marjorie Martin, I lived in the sturdy cottage that her father had built with her grandfather more than 50 years earlier.  Most days I’d take a stroll down what I consider to be one of the most beautiful roads on the island: Walker’s Hook Road.
My walk would extend from Hedger Road from where my little cabin was located, down Walker’s Hook to the Fernwood Road CafĂ©.
My jaunt always included a trip down to the end of the Fernwood dock to check for otters, inhale the sea air, see if anyone was crabbing, chat with visitors who I might happen upon (and often did) and look to the south to see if I might spot a ferry crossing in the distance towards Swartz Bay. It often included a meander along the beach to take photos of shells and whatever intrigued me.
It was such a breath of fresh air, literally, given that the road parallels narrow Trincomali Channel that separates Salt Spring from Galiano and named after a great sailing ship, the HCS Trincomali, built, if you can believe it, shortly after the Napoleanic wars, and now a restored ship in Hartlepool England if Wikipedia has it right.
One day as I was walking back, I saw a man coming towards me in the distance, looking as if he’d just stepped off a stage in Stratford, or perhaps to use an even more Canadian example, as if he was one of the characters in Stephen Leacock’s famous town of Mariposa.
He was elderly and he was dapper. He walked slowly but purposefully and his cane tapped the road and steadied him. He had on the kind of ascot cap that my own father used to wear on his daily walks, the kind many males from “the old country” don. He was wearing a tie and jacket. He seemed unusually put together for island life. But what really stood out was his mustache and his eyebrows both adorning his face (and hiding it) by impressive  lengthy wisps of white hair. His blue eyes were watery with age. He was the perfect subject for a watercolour painting. His feet sported black brogues, the kind my own grandfather, who lived to be 99, wore every day of his life.
I said hello, chatted about nothing for a bit, and then before he could get away, so taken by his appearance I was, I asked him if he’d mind if I took his photo. “You have such a great face,” I said. How could he resist?  Our interaction must have been no more than five minutes but he stuck with me as those who seem a bit extraordinary do.
A year later or thereabouts, I moved off Salt Spring. I put his photo in my online portfolio. I didn’t think much of it but I would look at that face from time to time and smile, and remember our short meeting.
A few years ago, his daughter, Anne Weerstra, contacted me for the photo. I forget how she came upon it or why specifically she wanted it. And then on August 4, 2015, I got an e-mail from her again, late that evening.
Hello Gayle,
A while ago I contacted you to ask for a copy of the photo of my father, Ron Holcroft “94 years strong”, and very much appreciated the positive response. I’m sorry to tell you now that my dad died this morning, almost 3 months shy of his 99th birthday. Your photo shows him as so many would remember him. I wondered if you would let us use it in the obituary…
Of course my answer was yes.
I’m looking forward to reading that obituary. I want to know a little more about the long life Ron Holcroft lived