Monday, 16 July 2012

Eight Weeks, Four Days: The Wide Blue Straights

My desire to become a writer was born back in high school when my favourite English teacher hammered home grammar and told me that I had potential if I could learn to spell. I never did learn to spell and I ended up being a veterinarian, so the writer inside me went to sleep.  Until now.  I wish more than anything that I had taken up writing for the same reasons other empty-nesters start putting pen to paper; middle-aged angst and boredom. Of course, like every other empty-nester, I have an empty bedroom but mine is staying empty forever and theirs will remain empty until the clean laundry runs out.

I have several authors I love, but for different reasons.  I have a lot of Hemingway, but I am not sure if I like his writing. I collect and read Hemingway to try to figure out what made him "the Great Hemingway".  Much of what he wrote I am just confused by, but I do try to emulate him by keeping my sentences shorter than I used to. My father introduced me to Raymond Chandler, master of the drug-store pulp-fiction.  The thing I loved about Chandler was that his scene development was so perfect you could practically smell the mould in the orchid greenhouse as the detective "got the scoop".  James Lee Burke, the best-selling author of the "Dave Robichaux" mysteries, has that same talent: his swamps and bayou scenes are hot and steamy. You feel like you  are in Louisiana smelling the bass fish spawning. Reading these authors I am reminded of my English teacher's description of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": a novel where the central character is the dark African river which winds through the entire story.

Today, as I mowed the lawn in the crisp early morning air, I realised that I have written 34 posts without one reference to where we live, where Calista came to go to school and where Calista died.  I doubt I will do my favourite authors any justice, but it really is unfair to both my readers and this beautiful corner of the world that I have omitted all description of Powell River and Comox.

Calista was born in the deep, cold valleys of the Yukon, but she really grew up a prairie girl in Regina, Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan really is beautiful, but it is a subtle sort of beauty that one has to immerse themselves in to enjoy. To the westerners in BC it is nothing but flat barren farmlands, while a native son sees the rolling ocean of grass, they smell the rich black soil as the wind swirls it off the tilled fields and they love the ever changing sky. Mountain dwellers see the apparently infinite horizon and never seem to look up and see the living sky; the prairie's answer to the mountains of the west.  I am not sure Calista ever looked up because once she saw the mountains of her birth her heart was lost to them; regardless of where her parents ended up, she belonged in the west, on the coast, with the sea wind in her hair and the mountains above.

Once Jack Cowin and Calista had finally determined that my girl's destiny indeed was photography, they started to cast about for schools that were worthwhile. Jack wanted Calista in a focused program where her down-to-earth need for functionality would be served. He just could not see her thriving in a formal university program. Jack contacted several of the more prestigious schools in the American Midwest and they all offered to look at her work just on Jack's recommendation. Roni was terrified that Calista would end up in Chicago, far from us and on the wrong side of the border. I was terrified I would have to decline Jack's generosity simply because my bank account could not afford American tuition. Calista had other ideas in mind: she looked west and found North Island College, a small campus in a coastal town of Vancouver Island.

I had hit a glass ceiling with my career. I was too old to purchase the large clinic I was working for; the bank rightfully assessed that I would never be able to pay off the considerable loan within the remainder of my career.  I was too well paid to ever be employed elsewhere for more money. My back was in a corner and the only hope was to purchase a smaller clinic with a lesser price and hopefully make it profitable enough to fund my retirement and Calista's education.  Since our Calista was heading west, we looked west toward Comox. Comox would fit perfectly; my girl could go to school and I could finish off my career near where I grew up. And I would never have to worry about frostbite or wind-chill factor again.

Comox is a small town about three hours north of Victoria and one hour north of the ferry docks at Nanaimo.  The major industry of Comox is the military base there, but there are so many things going for that area that I suspect that it is the next great discovery of the retiring baby-boomer generation.  The twinned towns of Courtenay and Comox centre around a river estuary (the Comox river). Courtenay lies inland while Comox starts on the coastal side of the river.  Hanging above the towns is the towering mountain chain that cuts down the centre of Vancouver Island. The crown jewel of the Comox valley is the Comox Glacier, visible from every corner of both Comox and Courtenay.  The last time I spent with Calista in Comox, back in February, she laughed as she pulled out of her apartment and commented how she could barely believe it was that view was what she woke up to ever clear morning. It must have been spectacular to see as the first rays of the sun bounced off the massive white expanse of the hanging glacier.

In the summer of 2009 Roni, Calista and I travelled west to scout out business prospects in southern BC.  Our goal was to find something in close proximity to one of Calista's college prospects, so Comox was on our short list.  Sure enough there was a small animal clinic for sale when we enquired and we arranged a walk through.  If nothing else, a site-seeing trip to Vancouver Island with a ferry ride over the wide, blue Straights of Georgia would be a nice holiday outing for the family.

Arriving in Comox we scouted the area like a troop of army rangers. We reconnoitred the business prospect, the shopping potential, and the real-estate. The overwhelming beauty of the valley and the twinned towns caught us off-guard, but I think the final straw was when we stopped at a beach park along the estuary and were amused to read a sign warning us to leave baby seals on the beach should we find one alone.  Baby seals.  Calista was like a ten year old kid begging for a puppy.  We had not even looked at the college campus and she had found her home.  She was not too concerned if it was "our home", but it was definitely hers.

The clinic was a winner, though it was right at the very edge of our price range. I knew I was going to have to pull every string I knew to swing the financing for the million dollar sale price, but my family was pretty much determined that they had found their home. (Ok; more specifically: Calista was moving to Comox, Roni was following her and I could follow if they let me.).  We checked out the college campus and North Island College really is one of a kind. Nestled in a grove of pine trees, the buildings are all a matching group of cedar shake clad "Craftsman" style structures which, in a mixture of soft pastel browns and reds, blend well with the forest surroundings. The campus is tiny, perhaps less than ten buildings loosely connected by covered walk-ways and paved trails. There was a very nice public recreational centre just at the edge of the campus and well developed residential neibourhoods suggested that finding a new house would be no challenge. If all went well, the Flemings would have a new home town within a few short months.

Things did not go well in the least. Negotiations on the sale were botched from the moment go as the agent for the vendor provided us with hopelessly inaccurate documents, the vendor switched his mind as often as he changed underwear, and the bank seemed to waffle hopelessly on whether they would back me at all.  After approaching several banks we finally found a Comox branch that would back us, but by this time the vendor had decided I was a bad gamble and was no longer bargaining in good faith.  Finally, late one night with tears in her eyes, Roni told me that she was done with this and we should just drop the whole deal and settle back into our lives in Regina. I agreed; the stress was opening cracks in our marriage and without a happy wife, there is no hope for a happy life. I take great satisfaction knowing that the vendor has not sold that clinic at any price to this date.

Roni and I settled back into our routine life, she commuting to a law firm downtown and me returning to my associate job at a nice clinic in South Regina.  My professional situation was far from comfortable; my new, young boss was at a complete loss as to what to do with this ageing, greying associate only slightly younger than her own father. I was an expensive asset, earning just barely enough to justify keeping. The writing was on the wall and Roni and I understood that we were working on borrowed time.  Calista was still headed west regardless. Finally, an old friend, Joe Colontino, called us with a lead on a small clinic in a tiny village near Comox that was selling for a very affordable sum.  Enter Powell River, British Columbia.

Powell River was, in the not too distant past, the home of the largest pulp and paper mill in the world. It has everything that the pulp industry needs: easy ocean access to receive abundant logs to pulp, unlimited fresh water for the mill and to provide hydro-electric power and Vancouver only 80 miles to the south to provide global markets and a ready labour force. The one rub is that Powell River is practically an island; surrounded on three sides by deep ocean passages and walled by the jagged coastal mountain ranges on the fourth.

Anybody looking at the map could be forgiven for thinking that Powell River is "just a hop, skip and jump" from Vancouver. Certainly, the air time of the tiny 18 seat turbo-prop aeroplanes that service our airport is only 20 minutes to Vancouver and on the map Powell River really is "just about there".  The problem is that Powell River really is one of those places that "you just can't get there from here", at least not by road. No matter how you travel, the only practical way to drive to Vancouver from Powell River is to take two ferries and cover miles of winding, narrow highway. Vancouver is decidedly not "just a hop, skip and jump" away. But, once you arrive in Powell River you are truly on a little island of paradise.

From Saltery Bay in the south to Lund to the north, there is only 50 kilometres of paved highway. Lund is the northern terminus of the famous number 101 that extends all the way to the tip of South America.  Here, near Powell River, the highway threads along the western edge of the Coastal mountains, barely two cars wide and never straight.  To the east of the highway is a vast wilderness made of mile high peaks separated by massive fresh water lakes that wind around the base of the mountains. The lake system is a huge chain forming an arc looping inland from a point near Saltery Bay, through a series of connecting valleys and exiting to the north at the headwaters of Powell River. Powell River itself is the shortest terminal river (as in "exiting into the sea") in Canada, being less than one mile long.  A determined canoeist can cover the entire circuit in under 7 days, though they better be prepared to undertake some pretty demanding portages to complete the circuit.

If that canoeist does complete the circuit, they can be assured of seeing some of the most spectacular, pristine mountain scenery found anywhere in Canada. The Knucklehead Mountains, site of some world-class rock climbing, tower over the canoe route, and the steep, rocky terrain limits road access to the entire area, so the intrepid canoeist might be the only person on the lake route on any given day. This is just a taste of what the area has to offer.

Lund is the last port at the gateway to Desolation Sound, an inland fjord so extensive that Captain George Vancouver thought it might be the entrance to the fabled North West Passage when he first sailed these waters. Desolation Sound has become a destination for boaters globally due to the easy access to idyllic, isolated anchorages in crystal clear water filled with marine sealife.  The world under the sea is another reason to come to this part of the world.

The Powell River area is renowned for its crystal clear waters and it's abundance of both fauna and flora.  Giant Pacific Octopuses, sea anemones,  urchins, crabs, fish of all species and any number of marine mammals crowd our waters. You rarely look out on the harbour without seeing a seal, sea lions are considered a bit of a pest (a 2000 pound highly territorial pest), Pacific White Sided Dolphins are once again abundant, and Orca whale sightings are relatively common.  Unfortunately, the best diving is done in the cold of winter when the waters most clear. The water remains cold year around, but it really is quite unpleasant to dive off that boat when the air temperature hovers just above freezing. You know you are not returning to the surface to warm-up quickly in the summer sun.

The climate here is the one thing that Calista and her mother really took issue with. It's a temperate rain forest.  And it does rain a lot. One heck of a lot. Practically all the time in winter.  The developers of this area must have had some sense of irony when they named this coastal refuge "The Sunshine Coast".  Sure, we are marginally drier than Vancouver, and we get far less snow that Comox, but we still get what can be best described as torrential downpour for the majority of the months between the end of October and the end of June. Heck, even the summer is pretty darn wet here. Of course with all that rain comes both good and bad. The forests here literally define " the deep dark forest" of Brothers Grimm fame; the trees grow quickly and tall, choking off the sun from the floor below and allowing only the native Salal vine and some ferns to survive. When that forest is cleared for housing development what is left behind is a barren soil devoid of all nutrients which barely grows grass much less anything else. Deforestation of the rain forest is a tragedy everywhere, not just in the Brazilian jungles.

My house in Powell River is a new bungalow, sitting separated from my neighbours by empty lots on both sides. My driveway is about the steepest grade allowable and if we do get the odd skiff of snow in the winter, my Mustang basically just becomes an expensive out-of-control sled coming down to the street.  Calista  laughed the first time she saw the house perched up on the hill; she said she had no idea she was coming to live atop Mount Olympus. If I stand in my front windows and look west, craning my neck just a little bit to see around the northern tip of Texada Island, I can see Little River Docks, the Comox ferry terminal. The day Calista died I spent hours sitting at that window, staring across the wide blue straights of Georgia, willing my girl to just come home.  I still look out that window daily, dreaming for a moment that the ferry will bring her home.

This Sunday, rather than just sitting around moping, Roni and I took some excursions to find some of the favourite beaches of Powell River. Getting out of the house seemed like a great idea at the time, but we both quickly became quite morose. We were doing things that we would have preferred to be doing with Calista and each new discovery just marked one more thing that we did not get to do with our girl.

Much of the pain involved in her loss is the slow realisation that things really are not going to get better. This new reality is a permanent situation; it will not pass.  Somehow, I think, all of us survive adversity because we understand that tough times never last but tough people do.  These tough times are guaranteed to end, but only at the end of my life. That might be a very long time.

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