On the 21st May, 2016, we set out across the most dangerous patch of the Pacific Ocean, in a small Zodiac, to collect Dave from the depths of the West Coast Wilderness. Dave is in his mid-seventies, forty years ago he participated in the construction of the well-trodden West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, and for the past 30 years he has been hiking the remote and rugged West Coast of Haida Gwaii.
I had been told very little about how the day would unfold. Only the day before I had been approached by long-term Sandspit local, Doug, and asked if I was available the very next day to help him pick up an enthusiastic beachcomber from the West Coast. Trips to the west coast are scarce around here, unless you pay large sums of money to stay at a luxury fishing lodge, so I said yes.
We knew the weather forecast wasn’t looking too good, but the weather was only worsening and if we didn’t go on Saturday, we wouldn’t be able to reach Dave until late the next week. It was an early start, 7am, we’d packed tuna sandwiches, raspberry muffins and a dry set of clothes. Doug arrived at our house and I eagerly jumped in the huge truck, which was towing the small Zodiac. We drove to Sandspit ferry terminal, swiftly loaded the ferry to Graham Island and drove north along the shore to Masset.
Once we had arrived at Masset harbour it wasn’t long before I found myself snuggled up in an oversized yellow life suit, a pair of oversized wellies and my faithful woolly hat. Doug told us to sit in the front of the boat to weigh the bow down in the swells. The water didn’t look good, even from the sheltered harbour, the wind was blowing and the small waves already had ominous white tops. But we went ahead, launched the boat and began our journey along the West Coast to retrieve Dave.
Not long into the trip and the swells had worsened, Phil turned to me as he shouted over the wind, “this is bonkers.” Once we’d left the safety of Masset Inlet, we were driving through massive swells and every three waves our small boat would rise and then fall with a giant thud which we we felt all through our spines, stomachs, our necks and our heads.
The journey continued like that for three and a half hours; rising, falling and thudding, rising, falling and thudding. We tried to absorb the shock through our legs, but they were soon exhausted and we gave in to the perpetual crashing of our bodies against the boat. We were offered momentary relief midway through the trip, Phil shouted “blow!” as a solo male Orca Whale cruised past us through the large swells. Doug stopped the engine, to our alarm, and let the boat precariously crash up and down as we watched the whale drift past.
As we finally reached Dave’s beach, we could see a small light blue spec – his shore side tent. Further along the sand we could make out Dave, quietly sitting on some drift wood. Doug was apprehensive about landing on the rocky beach, “we might not be able to land,” he said, as we cautiously drifted closer. With care, precision and some guts, we landed on the beach and Phil and I jumped off into the chilly water. We waded to the beach only to find that Dave had disappeared into the forest. Doug was gesturing at us to hurry up from the Zodiac, so we unzipped his small tent which was piled high with bags, one of which was an old brown leather suitcase from the seventies, and began to carry them back to the shore. The tent was surrounded by a handful of brightly coloured plastic crates, these were filled with miscellaneous items; shells, lightbulbs, driftwood, rope, Japanese hard hats. Rubbish to you and I, but Dave had attached some value to them. The most interesting item; a large whale bone, I picked it up, hauled it over my shoulder and proudly carried it down to the shore. As I did so, Doug called “where’s Dave?!” I sensed the urgency and frustration in his voice and hurried back to the forest in search of the vanishing old man.
We were the first human contact he’d had in thirty days and I figured hurrying him up, or even communicating with him might be difficult. We called his name and coaxed him out of the forest, like coaxing a wild animal from his familiar den. We said hello, he didn’t make eye contact, but was hidden behind his sun-bleached cap, his smeary glasses, his unkempt beard and his grubby skin. We offered to carry some things but he wouldn’t let us. We followed his path back into the forest and realised that the light blue tent on the beach was just a storage facility. Hidden in the forest he had a long-drop with a toilet seat, a large green tent also filled with bags, a wood burning stove, a small wooden cabin with a Japanese sign attached “To the Engine Room,” with wellies, shells, propane canisters and other miscellaneous items scattered around.
He certainly wasn’t ready to leave, he was floating around like a detached day dreamer, with no real sense of urgency or of the extreme conditions we had just travelled through to get to him. Phil stayed with Dave in the forest and helped dismantle his camp and I made my way back to the beach to dismantle his smaller tent on the shore. Doug gestured to me from the Zodiac waiting just off the beach, I walked towards him, “If Dave isn’t ready in five minutes I’m leaving, the tide isn’t going to wait!” I hurried to dismantle the tent, load it on board the Zodiac and then hurried back into the forest to fetch Phil and Dave. Most things had been dismantled, the camp was still a mess, but we didn’t have time to tidy it up. We coaxed a distant and mumbling Dave from his beloved camp out onto the shore where he wandered around, saying farewell to the place.
Dave seemed frail and he moved slowly, I questioned whether we would be able to get him up onto the boat as it bobbed violently in the waves. I jumped inside the boat first, Phil stood below and between us we managed to haul Dave aboard. We sat him down amongst the chaos of bags, shells and the whale bone. He struggled into his yellow life suit, we helped him keep his balance as he took his boots off, placing one foot in and then the other. He removed the bear spray he had kept in his pocket for so long, so that the suit could be pulled up over his waist and over his shoulders. His hands shook as he struggled with the fiddly zip.
Doug was cross that Dave hadn’t been ready when we arrived. “You were an hour early” protested Dave. Doug responded, “this isn’t a scheduled bus service, it isn’t a game, this is the wilderness.”
Dave was fairly quiet for the remainder of the journey home. He sat facing the back of the boat as we drove away, watching his beach disappear into the horizon. I guessed the whole thing was fairly traumatic for him. He didn’t want to be rushed, he hadn’t seen people in some time and we’d crashed into his world, carrying all his things away from their home to then clumsily shove him in our boat, it felt undignified. But as Doug rightly said, we were in the wilderness and neither the wind nor the tides cared for a dignified or sentimental farewell for Dave.
I asked him why he had made the call to be evacuated, he said “I passed a kidney stone two days ago.” I asked what he had done in his former life, he said “I used to work for the government, wear a suit and sit in an office”. Dave wasn’t performing any pioneering research out on the West Coast, he was just an old man beach-combing and this was his anti-social holiday.