We are traveling to Prince Rupert, Canada, to house swap with a family there, and thinking to be as direct as possible, we took a red eye on Air Canada from Maui to Vancouver. I was grateful for two things:
1) I didn’t faint. I’ve had a situation develop in the last few years where my blood pressure drops and something happens and…I pass out. So that was good. And the last time I flew I did pass out, and it was scary and dramatic and ended up at the hospital, so not fainting was a big deal.
2) The flight was smooth.
Otherwise, it was profoundly unpleasant. We’re too old to do well sleeping upright all night in small chairs with seat backs in our knees. Getting off we turned to each other and said, “Never again!” at the same time. That's thirty years of marriage for you!
Vancouver Airport is a giant mouse maze. Glass tunnels floored in gray utilitarian carpet lead through multiple layers of airport, directing zombie-shuffling herds of people down endless hallways toward destinations like Customs, Baggage Claim and Domestic Connecting Flights. With less than two hours sleep, the leaden gloaming of new dawn takes on an existential quality, the individuality we struggle to manifest melted down to the commonest denominators. Passports and tickets are shown no less than six times before the puddle-jumper connecting flight to Prince Rupert, our final destination—and I’m too tired to enjoy the beautiful views of green, snow-robed mountains, rivers, and tiny islands that decorate the British Columbia coast all the way to Alaska—sleep hits me like a brick and I nod off on my aching neck as Mike does contortions at the window, trying to take photos between the wing and propeller blades.
The pilot’s voice wakes me, telling us we are unable to land in Prince Rupert due to fog—and yes indeedy, a pea soup surrounds us, punctuated by towering mountain peaks, some dappled with early snow. We circle until we’re running out of gas, and then have to land on one of the Haida Gwaii islands, Sandspit.
Sandspit Island is low, rimmed in—you guessed it—sand, a blip on the map that looks like the hundreds of other mysterious islands we’ve flown over, dressed in yellowing grasses and trees beginning to change, and it’s blindingly sunny. The tiny airport is hardly manned but the gas truck does come. The crew won’t let us off the plane, though, and temperatures rise without the cooling system, and all around us people are calling on their cell phones and delaying meetings, talking to spouses…but Mike and I cannot get through to Justine at Cassiar Cannery, the lovely old cannery on the Skeena River where we will be staying for two weeks while they stay in our Maui house. Her phone gives a busy signal and the texts don’t go through, and we worry as the pilot tells us that if the fog doesn’t lift, we have to go back to Vancouver.
Both of us notice the aplomb of the Canadians around us. Even the men in business suits, clearly on a schedule, remain unfazed by the uncertainties and inconveniences, polite and resigned as they comment, “what can you do, eh?” Such a nice contrast to the aggressive rudeness of irritated Americans.
We take off again and I immerse in the memoir I’ve saved for this vacation, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. She has a brutal, muscular way with prose, a gritty confidence and depth of emotion as she describes her grief at the loss of her father and in his wake, the strange compulsion she has to train a goshawk, one of the most difficult birds of prey to break to falconry. I’m lost in the story, underlining masterfully crafted sentences and new words I’ve never seen (like “scurfing”) when Mike elbows me. “We’re going in.”
Indeed we were. The plane seemed to dive into the cotton batting of fog, diving diving diving, blind and terrible like the hawk in the story committed to a kill, and suddenly, maybe twenty feet of the ground, there’s visibility and bam! We land.
Prince Rupert Airport is not actually in “Rupert” as the locals call it. No, it’s on tiny Digby Island, covered with trees and not much else, and we collect our luggage and climb onto a big yellow school bus while a transport truck hauls our bags. The bus takes us to a ferry and drives right down onto it.
So much does it resemble a flat metal dock, that the ferry's pulling away from the island when we realize it’s a boat we’ve parked on. The Canadians around us get up for a “bit of a leg stretch” and I feel the exhaustion of the red eye flight drop away as I get off the bus and run to the edge and breathe deep the sharp, cool air and watch the gulls skirl over the densely olive-toned ocean as we head for the mainland and Prince Rupert, white and clean from the distance like a handful of dice held in a green hand.
The bus drives us up into town, three hours late, and when the first major store we pass is SLICKER WAREHOUSE, for All Your Foul Weather Needs! I know I’m really in a foreign country—in Hawaii, rubber slippers and a trash bag are considered perfectly valid raingear.
The bus dumps us off at a station, and I’m worriedly calling Justine yet again when Mark, her husband, calls “Toby!” and greets us with little Nicholas, a year older but just as much a cherub at three-and-a-half. We all hug in delighted relief. “Darned airport information line never said a thing about your delay but we looked at the fog and figured.”
He escorts us us to his big, mud-spattered F-150, tells us that the reason we couldn’t get through to Justine was the massive mudslide they had four days ago that took out the phone and power lines, and isn’t it great that the backhoes are out and he was finally able to get to Rupert in something other than his boat?
Of all the reasons we thought of that we couldn’t get through the Justine on our phones…this was not one of them. A mudslide? “Well, three actually, but only one wiped out the road,” Mark says, rubbing the back of his head after taking off the billed hat he always wears. He’s tall, friendly, and handsome in a way that’s the opposite of spray tans and gym muscles. He radiates the kind of can-do competency that I’m beginning to think is a part of the typical British Columbia male. “We’d just begun our Ladies’ Retreat and now everyone was trapped without power. So things were a little interesting out at the Cannery, but I fired up the generator and ferried everyone up and down the river on the boat, and they all had a grand time, anyway.”
The backhoe is still at work on the little road that dead-ends at Cassiar Cannery, which was a thriving and busy salmon packing plant until it went out of business and a motorcycle gang moved in and ran a chop shop there until Justine and Mark bought it fifteen years ago. Mark runs a small boat repair yard at one end and Justine manages the series of brightly colored cabins as a vacation rentals that were cannery employee housing back in the day, but there’s “no doot aboot it” (Canadian accent) the place is isolated—just the way we like it.
We wait until the backhoe operator is good and ready to let us go by. The slurry of mud is almost liquid, massive as the side of a barn, and studded with shredded, snapped trees. The operator uses the backhoe with a delicate touch, scooping, patting, shoving…and finally clinks off to the side and waves us by.
“Now I know why you drive a giant four wheel drive like this,” I say, as we grind forward into the muck.
“Oh, and you haven’t seen the winters here,” Mark says, and Nicholas kicks his legs and crows, “We’re going to Hawaii!” (Yes, what a contrast. Maui was so hot the day we left, I didn’t want to wear anything but shorts and a tank top but had to dress for the trip in pants and covered shoes that I’m very grateful for now.)
We are greeted by the spooky howling barks of the beautiful husky-wolves, Betty and Veronica, with the addition of a giant, woolly dog named Kuba. (“Means Bear, in Japanese. She’s a Japanese bear dog,” explains Mark.) And Kuba looks just like a waist-high bear; her face is almost identical with its big fluffy cheeks, soulful intelligent eyes, and long dark pointed nose. She’s so gentle and loving that I wonder if spending time with her will help me get over my bear phobia.
Justine is back from doing laundry in town due to the power outage, and we hug like long-lost sisters, which we look like physically: we’re of a similar height and sturdy build, with red hair, but Justine has eyes like crystal-blue star sapphires and, like Mark, is friendly, fast-moving and capable. She’s a reader, and has motored through all of my books in the year since I was here last, and has them stored in a proud row on her bookshelf (along with dog-eared piles of Lisa Gardner, Greg Iles and James Rollins.) “If you find the time to sign them…” she waves in their general direction with that Canadian understatement, and I say, “of course!”
Mark and Justine fix a massive salmon dinner (“traded a good supply for fixing a man’s boat,” Mark says) dinner for us and the Australian family that are the only other guests at the moment. We get to say a brief goodbye to the Frenches, that lovely couple we met last time from the secret island upriver, who are closing up their place and heading out for the winter. They leave us some of their blood-red, rich, homemade smoked salmon and many hugs are exchanged by all.
After cleanup, Mike and I wander the edge of the Skeena, taking photos of the long, stunning sunset on one end of the river, and the moon rising at the other, a gold doubloon in the purpling dusk framed by jagged pines. The only sounds are fish jumping in the river, the call of unknown birds, and laughter coming from the central dining area as Mark, Justine and the Australian family, headed for the ferry to Alaska tomorrow, raise a glass.
The power comes on at 9 pm for the first time in five days and fills our cabin with illumination. We are able to get texts through to our kids warning them of the uncertainties of fog, and are able to bring our groceries into the fridge from where we’d stowed them outside in the cold night of a British Columbia fall. We both sleep like clubbed seals under the fluffy feather duvets of our chilly room, and wake up to morning fog and a deep, profound quiet, broken only by the occasional bird call, amplified by the vast river, and the hum of a dragonfly.
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