Chapter 10. Coast Country

British Columbia is truly unbelievable. As the mass of North America barges imperceptibly westward over the molten core of the earth, great waves of mountains are heaved up along its western rim. Shells long lost under ancient oceans may now be found thousands of feet up in cloud country. Great rivers pour down from the high glaciers, cutting canyons into the mountains, grinding them gradually into bits that come to rest later in the floodplain of an estuary or out on the bed of the sea. These offshore sediments nourish rich populations of flora and fauna, including teeming millions of fish and wildfowl. From all over the world fishermen come to this continental shelf, and feed their peoples from its wealth.

No one can draw from memory an accurate map of B.C.’s highly indented coastline. It thrusts its gnarled, mountainous fists and fingers into the sea in every direction. But the tides always find their way into every secret cove. Twice a day they wash clean the sands at the head of all the inlets.

My family has never become used to this province. Whatever the time of year, when we drive to downtown Vancouver along Spanish Banks beach, or walk along English Bay, we always feel we’re on holidays.

Right from the beginning we were blessed with the friendship of a man who had grown up in the northern logging camps and had traveled up and down the coast in the boats. John Allan is a mountain of a man whom only the Lord could tame—partly. In a world of conformists he must be one of the last surviving “free spirits” of his generation. Before he became a minister he had studied marine biology and served in the navy. John introduced us to British Columbia, its forests, its shores and its waters.

About fifty miles up the coast from Vancouver is a smallish village called Sechelt (pronounced “SEE-shelt”). Beyond it lies the Sechelt Peninsula, which would have been a triangular island along the general southeast-to-northwest line of the coast if a mile-wide neck of sand at Sechelt had ever washed out into the Gulf of Georgia. Back behind the peninsula, Sechelt Inlet runs south from Jervis Inlet. When a high tide rises up there in the north, the seawater pours south over a half mile width of tough rock sill to raise the level of Sechelt Inlet as much as fifteen feet. When ebb tide in Jervis Inlet lowers the outside level, all that water pours north again back over the sill and out of Sechelt Inlet. Indians call this mighty, roaring, reversing rapids the Skookumchuck, which means “strong salt water.”

One sunny day, big John took me out “crabbing” in Porpoise Bay, at the south end of the inlet. The sandy flats there are the home ground of large edible crabs. At low tide they burrow backwards into the sand or retreat into deeper water. At high tide they can be seen scrambling sideways over the bottom, hungry for any flesh they can find. Big John proposed to wade out there into the water and pick up a few crabs for supper.

Being a landlubber fresh from Ontario, a stranger to the sea, I divulged to John that I was more than reluctant to expose my defenseless bare feet to the doubtful mercies of those pincer-wielding prowlers out there. John was inflating a small war-surplus rubber raft by mouth. He paused in his puffing, snorted and laughed at me. He pulled the raft offshore and put a galvanized washtub half-full of seawater in at one end of it. Then he tethered the wobbly craft to his waist by a longish rope and invited me to get in there and come along. I lurched aboard and crouched behind the tub.

Big John strode out into water up to his chest, peering down. He suddenly lunged and disappeared underwater. Shortly he came back up triumphantly, holding a dripping crab by the tail end of its carapace, its long legs waving wildly. John hauled the raft over closer. I could see the crab’s big front claws poised and cocked, and its beady eyes glaring. John plopped it into the tub in front of me.

The captured crab, of course, did its best to climb out. John dived again and caught another. Soon we had five thoroughly irate prisoners in there, threshing around, clambering over each other trying to escape. The rattling and scraping of their armor-clad bodies and claws on the tub was nerve-wracking, to say the least. I didn’t particularly enjoy the prospect of possibly being cornered in that small unsteady space by jailbreaking minimonsters. Nevertheless I courageously stayed with the ship, one eye on the tub and the other on John, until we had eleven furious captives.

Two passengers came ashore from the raft by themselves: one crab who had been particularly agile at climbing over his brothers, and one enormously relieved and equally nimble rookie crabkeeper.

Back at camp, our two families gaped at our catch. Each of the crabs was about seven inches across the back of the shell. The spreading legs added another four or five inches of width to each side. John heated a big pot of sea water over a wood fire and boiled up the crabs three at a time. Their khaki-colored shells quickly turned fiery orange red, except for a fringe of unsavory-looking greenish bristles underneath and along the joints of the legs.

In the cool of the evening we sat down to eat. Each of us was confronted by a whole armor-plated crab on our plate. Big John began the meal by giving thanks. That was one of the very few times I wasn’t really thankful for the food set before me. John fell to work on his crab, however, and expertly dismembered it. The carapace came off in one piece, revealing big pockets of pure white meat where the legs were attached. My family and I watched unbelieving as John cracked the great claws with his teeth, picked meat out of the leg-shells and smacked his lips at the flavor.

Kay finally got up her courage and began to work on the unprepossessing carcass that filled her plate. She cracked one claw with a gripper wrench. After that first taste, she never turned back. Dee-licious! Eventually we all got to work, using a hammer, pliers, screwdrivers and paring knives—anything that would break the shells and help us get at the flavorsome morsels. Even the children quickly forgot their first-sight squeamishness and feasted like Henry VIII.

Next day John took us out fishing. We went out to the White Islets, a sprinkle of tiny offshore islands in the Gulf of Georgia. They are barren and quite uninhabited, except for several hundred sea gulls. The place is a sea gull rookery, and the rocks are white with their droppings. The “fertilizer” washes off into the water and nourishes seaweed that feeds the little creatures that feed the fish. That’s why the White Islets are a good place for fishing.

We landed and explored for awhile. The mottled young birds were almost invisible, hiding in wide crevices there in the rock. Their hostile parents filled the air with deafening screams, wheeling over our heads and dive-bombing us until we put off in the boats.

John showed us how to fish using a “jigger.” You lower into the water a shiny, curved, minnow-shaped weight armed with hooks and a sprig of red plastic. When the jigger hits bottom, you wind up your line a foot or so. Then you raise your pole as high as possible, lower it quickly, and the jigger zigzags its way down again like a wounded herring. After a few moments you pull it up again, hoping that some dumb fish will mistake it for an easy supper.

Our previous fishing experience consisted of catching small brook trout and perch in Ontario. To us the stout rods with heavy lines that we had bought at John’s insistence seemed as ridiculously oversize as using scoop-shovels to eat soup.

Kay and I were turned loose in a little eight-foot pram. The Carsons’ motorboat with the rest of the party disappeared around the end of the islets. We were on our own and we felt very much alone out there adrift on the sea.

Kay’s jigger had been slipping silently down, down, deeper and deeper, and mine was well on its way down into the depths when Kay shrieked, “I’ve got one!”

She pulled up hard and her heavy rod bent double! I yelled, “Wind it in gradually—just keep your line tight.”

We had only about six inches of freeboard around the gunwales of the tiny boat. We had to be very careful moving about so as not to ship water. Kay would reel the fish up for a while, but it would always head down again. The boat was rocking dangerously in the seesaw battle. What on earth had Kay caught? What in the sea had caught Kay?

She soon groaned, “Oh, my arms are so tired!”

“Hold on,” I said encouragingly. “I’m reeling in as fast as I can.” Just then the reel handle flew out of my fingers and my own line ran singing out through the rod as if I had snagged onto the 5:15 express. Now we had two rods bent double! We couldn’t help each other at all, except by not tipping the boat.

Kay’s fish broke water first. I’ll never forget the sight of that huge, gaping mouth with its three-quarter-inch teeth—a face like a tunnel. We had brought our little Ontario trout-landing net with us, “just in case we caught something.” I reached out with the little net, using my free hand as best as I could. But as soon as I touched the tail of Kay’s whatchamacallit, the great mouth was gone again, z—i—i—i—n—g for the bottom. I finally hauled my fish up to the surface too. It was discouraging when I touched it with the wee net and the same depth dive immediately happened. Clearly a brook trout net wasn’t the proper device for containing a three-foot sea monster!

John had given us a homemade gaff—a stout broomstick with a great unbarbed hook lashed to the end. The next time Kay’s tunnel apparition came into view, I handed her my rod too, hooked the gaff into that gaping mouth and managed to haul in her fish. It thrashed around in the bottom of the boat, soaking us with the water that had somehow sneaked aboard during the struggle. I took my rod back from Kay and eventually landed my own fish.

Now in that little pram there were two of us and two of them. They glared at us, convulsing with rage, showing their teeth and gnashing them ominously. We wondered how to deal with them. We didn’t have a club or a big knife. If I tried to hit them with an oar and missed, I might put a hole in the boat. Fortunately they got themselves so tangled up in fishing line and the boat’s painter that they solved our problem by subduing themselves.

We put a new jigger on Kay’s line and kept on fishing. That evening if we caught anything under two feet in length, we put it back in the water. We caught one more big ling cod and six beautiful red snappers. John and his party did well that evening too. We took home eighty pounds of dressed fish.

During the cleaning process John opened the stomach of one of the lings. It contained an eleven-inch fish called a Red Irish Lord. Opening its stomach too, John found a smaller fish in it—a sculpin. Inside the sculpin’s stomach there were three tiny shore crabs. John didn’t bother to open the stomachs of the crabs. But we had already seen an impressive demonstration of the way one creature lives off another in the chain of predation. I suppose that while one fish thanks God for its supper, its supper probably denounces God—if it has time—for not giving it the complete protection to which it deems itself entitled.

John also showed us the underworld haunts of the clams. At low tide he turned over rocks to uncover shore crabs, blennies, seaworms and snails. In the seaweed which clings to the rocks there were sea urchins, starfish, chitons, cockles, tubeworms, anemones, jellyfish—so many weird creatures that even science fiction began to seem unimaginative.

Beside all these denizens of the sea, on the land John identified the great trees, the shrubs, the berries, the wildflowers, the fungi, the birds. We had never seen many of these creatures in the East.

Wilderness wanted

Often we seemed to have some of this bounteous part of the world largely to ourselves. Great tracts of B.C. were still open and almost untouched. We were eager to learn more. But if we were to observe unfamiliar things properly out there in the wild, we would need our own base camp out on the edge of civilization. We therefore kept our eyes open to find properties for sale around Sechelt. In a real estate ad Elsie Carson eventually spotted some lots for sale in an isolated development. We decided to go up to the “Sunshine Coast” for a look.

A new road had been pushed in along the top of a high cliff where we could gaze up Sechelt Inlet from the southeast. On that warm day the sky was clear blue. We stood silently before the sheer majesty of the scene that stretched away off to the north. Mountain after mountain came down to the water from west and east the length of the long inlet, until the procession ended in blue haze at some snowcapped peaks. Four miles north of us on the east side of the inlet, from a height of almost four thousand feet Mount Richardson plunged right down to the water. Green, green trees. Cloudless sky and blue water. A tiny fishing boat off there in the distance was trailing two brief streaks of white wake behind it. An eagle soared out there on unmoving wings. Had human eyes ever beheld more magnificent beauty?

The rough road along the cliff descended steeply beyond its south shoulder and wound around down to the water beside Four Mile Point. For centuries huge blocks of rock had occasionally tumbled out of the cliff and rolled into the water. Fortunately the tide was out, so we waded northward along the shore, clambering when necessary over fallen rocks below the cliff.

The cliff itself was a salt-and-pepper kind of granite. But well below the high-tide line the gray-and-white appearance of the rocks was due to a liberal sprinkling of barnacles, each like a small white limestone volcano, among crowds of dark mussels, periwinkles and limpets. Spectacular arbutus trees with their smooth red bark leaned out over the rocks well beyond the towering firs and dogwoods and alders inshore.

Everything was pin-droppy quiet as the four of us slowly picked our way along in the warm, clear water. Ages of waves had carved the stones into hollows, crevices and knobs. Most of them bristled with short, sharp barnacles. But often there was sand between the rocks farthest out. We spared our tender bare feet as much as possible by walking on that sand. The warm damp air itself seemed alive and gently breathing. Only a gull’s cry shattered the stillness.

As we rounded the northeastern shoulder of the cliff, Mount Richardson came into full view. When we appeared, a tall heron in a little bay fishing, took off low across the water, its great wings supporting its long neck out in front and long legs out behind.

While that little bay looked cozy, it was wildly unkempt. As we came inshore, scrambling over a lot of old-timer drifter logs that sprawled on the tumble of rocks, Herb Carson found a shortish chunk of a small tree trunk with four stubby limbs emerging from one side. The end of the chunk crooked a little with two knots and a split end that looked like the open jaws of a dog’s head. He set it up on its legs and commanded, “Speak, Fido! Speak!” From that moment, the place we would be spending so many happy summertime weeks was known as “Fido Bay.”

We soon found the shoreline survey posts for the waterfront lots that were for sale. It was harder though to find the stakes for the back of the lots. They were somewhere up the steep slope. The underbrush up there was too tangled and thick to push through for very far on such a warm day, but we learned something of the lay of the land.

Not far away I found a small stream flowing out of crown land. If we bought the lots nearest to that little creek we’d have a water supply.

We came back out of the woods and down to the shore at a sandy beach. Our hot faces were flecked with spiderwebs and dust, so we washed them in the clear salt water. Tired from tramping up and down, we sat for a while in the shade on a huge, mossy log. The scent of the fir trees and cedars mingled with a sourish smell of hot seaweed from the shore. We loved it.

All of us wondered what we could do with this place—hardly a level square foot of ground anywhere. It was a rough and overgrown hillside, a jumble of long-fallen logs and moss-draped rocks under tall trees, with access only by water. At least it would give us a base camp for exploring miles and miles of open shoreline, where the untouched wilderness came down to the inlet. It was out on the edge of the man-made world. To develop a convenient living place here would take a lot of ingenuity, hard labor and “making do.” We’d have to undertake the rugged work pioneer settlers have always faced in coming to a new country. The prospect of “slugging it out” that way wasn’t altogether appealing, but the price was right. So there and then the Carsons and Rosses decided to buy lots north of the cliff, facing the sunsets.

The first time we ever camped up there overnight, we set up our main tent on the sandy beach not far to the north of our lots. In the middle of the night I woke up hearing water lapping a few inches away from my head. We green Easterners had forgotten about the tide coming up! Of course! That was how the beach got to be there in the first place! Fortunately the water stopped rising just the other side of the big log behind which we had pitched our tent. It wasn’t one of the highest tides and no wind came up to flood us with waves. Carsons owned an eighteen-foot cabin cruiser, so at night they slept at anchor offshore, floating up and down with the tides. Many times since that first camp we have seen that beach entirely under water!

On that particular expedition we spent most of our time sizing up the possibilities for building a cabin or cabins someday on our lot. Where should we start? What should we do? What could we do? First we had to find out what was really there, so we chopped out the undergrowth of salal, huckleberry bushes and any little cedars that were obviously growing in the wrong places. While the men hacked away, the kids hauled away the brush. Down on the shore, the women tended the fires that were burning the brush. The coals from the fires were great for roasting potatoes and weiners, to say nothing of marshmallows.

Ross family navigation

Carsons had to go back to Vancouver to attend to some necessary duties at the Hall, but we Rosses stayed on for a few more days. After the boat disappeared to the south around Four Mile Point, I suddenly felt very alone—almost trapped and abandoned. How were we going to get all our camping gear and the smaller children back to the car around the foot of that cliff? It was only a little less than impossible to clamber over those rocks, let alone carry out several loads of equipment and two small children. I quietly worried about the situation, but I didn’t want to alarm the others. Then suddenly all those logs lying there on the beach where we had camped spelled R-A-F-T!

When the time for us to leave had drawn nearer, I picked out a few long, straight, sound logs that were lying within a reasonable distance from the water. I cut a green cedar tree for a pry. With a short log for a fulcrum, we pulled down on the pry. All the selected logs eventually came loose from their sandy beds, and we began to move them toward the water. The scattered boulders in our way made the work very difficult. The beach was fairly flat—not much waterward slope. Even when we had rolled a log to the water’s edge, we had to keep rolling it much farther before it would float freely. The beach in that bay is so flat that the water is shallow a long way out. We became so dreadfully tired that we found we couldn’t finish the job we had started.

Robin remarked that the tide was starting to come in. Of course! The tide! I knotted one of our ropes around a short chunk of dry wood. Out in the water I found a large submerged stone and tied the rope down low around it. The rock’s barnacles would hold onto my rope for me. I left the wood chunk out there to float up with the tide and mark the place. After supper the tide had come well up on the beach, and without too much effort we floated our logs. With ropes I bound them all into a boom. Straddling the longest log, I paddled them all out to my float, tied the boom to it, and swam back to shore. That night the sleep that I slept comes only to the just, the successful and the exhausted.

When the tide was down again the next day, our logs were lying nicely in a foot or so of water. I maneuvered them easily into proper positions for making a raft and bound them together under crosspoles. Meanwhile Kay had broken camp and everything was packed up ready to load. We piled it all onto the raft. Kay, Robin and Dawn started picking their way over the rocks toward the car beyond the cliff. With Martin and little Karen safely ensconced on the mound of our possessions at the front end of the raft, I shoved the contraption out into deeper water and poled it along the shore to the foot of the road. Neither Robinson Crusoe nor the Swiss Family Robinson could have been prouder of any of their achievements than we were of the way we had managed to escape from our isolation.

That winter we permanently solved the problem of water transportation by buying a blue green fiberglass cartop boat.

The next summer when we came to Sechelt we rowed over to our lot in our new boat. Immediately we encountered an unexpected problem. There was a light wind and the water was much choppier than we’d ever seen it before. When we tried to land at our lot on Fido Bay, the waves bashed our thin-walled boat alarmingly against the rough, barnacled rocks. We managed to get ashore all right, but we had trouble getting the boat to safety over those dangerous, jagged rocks.

To pull up the boat comfortably at our lot we needed a ramp. I cut down two tall, straight, seven-inch hemlock trees which fell neatly parallel to each other out across the rocks and down to the water. We trimmed off the branches and tops. They made a great fire. In Sechelt I bought some cheap short two-by-fours. When these had been nailed onto the hemlock stringers—we had our boat ramp.

The kids could now get out across the rocks to the water without skinning their knees and ankles. Unfortunately at high tide the far end of the boat ramp lay under water. Gradually it accumulated a growth of slippery green algae. Instead of skinned legs the children then began to develop bruised seats. But the algae-covered ramp was great for sliding the boat effortlessly into the water, even if the rest of us sometimes slid in too.

Beginning to build

Between our lot and Carsons’ a conspicuous low shoulder of rock juts out as a little point on the shore. On our side of this outcropping we levered big chunks of rock into appropriate places and laid logs between them, bridging the gaps underneath. When boards had been nailed across these parallel logs, we had a tent floor well above ordinary high tides.

At first during the nights it was a bit disconcerting to hear the water gurgling among the rocks right underneath us. If any of us ever had to get up in the night and leave the tent, we had to be mighty careful. Watch out for that first step—it’s a lulu!

Our next major move was to put up a crude shelter on the highest rocks between the tent platform and the boat ramp. We needed a kitchen area and a place to eat. We wedged posts down between the rocks and filled in the space between them with smaller stones and shore gravel. That gave us our first flat area for a kitchen-dining room floor. Sheets of plywood set up at the southwest corner broke the wind. Poles overhead draped with plastic sheets gave us a transparent roof in case it should rain. We now had a place to live while we proceeded to do what had to be done to make more permanent arrangements.

What we had already accomplished was supremely satisfying. With a few simple tools and materials we had done what pioneer people have always had to do. We had constructed a living space in a world that generally requires many alterations if it is to accommodate human beings.

Animals and birds are clad in fur or feathers. They are equipped with teeth, beaks and claws, and with these alone they manage quite well. At birth we humans, however, are naked, toothless and toolless. Even as adults, if we are to survive anywhere other than in a warm, well-stocked garden, we must acquire clothing, shelter, a fire and some tools. Our technical devices identify us as humans and keep us and the race alive. Unless humanoid skeletons or skulls which paleontologists uncover have nearby what can be identified as tools, the remains are not likely to be accepted as human.

In the history of technology, it was a long journey from the first stone tools used for pounding, cutting and scraping to the iron-headed ax. From my grandfather’s iron ax to our gasoline lantern and plastic roof sheets required another lengthy excursion through chemistry. If we had wanted to put a house on our lot with minimal delay, we could have brought in a bulldozer, rock-drilling equipment and dynamite to blast a building site out of the hillside. After laying concrete foundations, a prefabricated house could have been quickly set up and we’d soon be lying back in deck chairs, lazily sunning ourselves and sipping cool drinks. But that policy would have cost money that we didn’t have.

Besides, I really enjoyed the hard manual exertion of moving heavy rocks and logs. It was a welcome change from desk work and talking with people. Heavy work would keep me in good physical condition. I really needed some down-to-earth labor to keep me from getting lightheaded on high-flying academic intellectual planes.

We began to envision our Sechelt place as a health restorer, a kind of lifesaver. We resolved to work steadily through the years towards a permanent dwelling, trying to do the work ourselves, with hand tools and bull labor. It would be the “arm-strong method” all the way.

This decision meant that while other people would be enjoying their snug cabins, we Rosses would be living outdoors. Kay said she was always happiest down by the water. We would sleep in unheated tents and our muscles would ache from the heavy work. During the winter, however, we wouldn’t have to worry much about break-ins and vandalism. There wouldn’t be much at our place to break into or steal. In the summers, we’d take time for boating and swimming while others were painting buildings and cleaning windows.

If this plan sounds a little like the life-style of the grasshopper who played around all summer and didn’t prepare for the winter, I must admit that there is a certain resemblance. With the onset of unexpected inflation, it turned out that we’d have done much better financially if we had borrowed money and built a cabin as soon as we could. But this “grasshopper,” though doomed to be a bit disappointed, really did work very hard. While he didn’t put up an insulated house for wintertime living, he was certainly one of the healthiest and happiest grasshoppers for miles around. He and his family will live for the rest of their lives in a palace of golden memories that stands there at Sechelt, quite invisible to those who roar past in big powerboats.