My new life here on Denny Island is proving to be more than a bit enigmatic. There are times when, with my twisted humour in full swing, I rename it Fraggle Rock. The big challenge is dealing with all my fellow citizens, and yes, I am well aware that I am now one of the denizens. (how’s that for a clever pun?) The people here can be divided into three groups. There are those who have lived here their entire lives, they may even be second generation locals. The second group is comprised of folks like me, who have come here for something different or because, like me, they don’t quite fit into the sensibilities of urban life. The third group are the indigenous people whose ancestors have lived here for millennia, the Heiltsuk Nation.
Denny Island was once the site of the original native community, Old Bella Bella. In front of that abandoned village lies Bella Bella Island, a sacred burial islet guarded by a fierce totem.
None of us non-natives dare set foot there and rightly so. Across the waters of Lamma Pass sits the present community of Bella Bella and Waglisla. They are complete with public wharf, general store, police station, school and hospital. That’s not much; but it is enough to cover basic needs and proof that the human race can survive very nicely without institutions like Walmart and MacDonalds; believe it or not. There are airfields on both Campbell Island to serve Bella Bella and here on Denny Island. There are also, of course, float planes to charter and BC Ferries provides a very expensive service to Port Hardy. Return airfares to any place out of here exceed fares to Europe. Life here without a boat is, for me, unimaginable.
The Heiltsuk Nation, as described by Wikipedia, is a First Nations Government on the Central Coast of British Columbia. It traditionally occupied about 6000 square miles in this region and evidence shows they have lived here continuously for the past 9,700 years. These are the people who turned Alexander MacKenzie back on his famous trek across Canada. He was able to dip his toe in Pacific waters but was not permitted to travel all the way to the open ocean. Presently they number about 2,200 and 1,400 live in Bella Bella. I have been befriended by some and find most of these good folks dignified and wonderfully gregarious. I can respect their culture and heritage and at the same time feel embraced simply as a fellow human being. I feel none of the racial tension I’ve found in some other first nations communities. I arrived here just as the federal report on Native Residential Schools was released. Coincidentally I just finished reading ‘The Inconvenient Indian’ by Thomas King. I recommend this book as a candid and articulate overview of the injustices our indigenous people have endured and often continue to. The balance achieved between the native community here and the white population, I think, is a good example of successful human interaction.
Denny Island is a great rocky island named in 1866 by the British Captain Pender for a Lieutenant Denny. There’s no information about what he’d done to deserve the honour although the British, like other colonizers, loved naming new places after themselves. The forest that grows here is ragged but thick and ancient. There is not enough soil for a larger forest to take root and the island, because of the hard rock base and the copious rain, is covered by cedar swamps, stunted forest, and small lakes. As the second world war advanced into rampant paranoia of a Japanese invasion on the West Coast, the Canadian military performed a major engineering feat. They carved a seaplane base out of solid granite in very short time. Number 9 Squadron operated here between 1941 and 1944.
That something this large could be conceived, built and abandoned in such a short time is a wonderful example of human genius and industry. It also begs the question about why such endeavour can so seldom be employed for peaceful means. The base was never manned by more than a thousand people but it gave a presence in this wilderness from which our waters could be patrolled and from which attacks from invading vessels could be repelled with force. Originally there were two large hangars which supported a squadron of Stranraer biplane amphibians and then Canso and Catalina flying boats. It is that aviation heritage which, in part, drew me here.
After the war, the base was sold as part of the war assets liquidation program. Andrew Widsten and his wife bought the development and the Shearwater Marine Group was born.
Approximately midway between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert it is a logical stopping point for fuel and servicing. It is located in the middle of some of the world’s best sport salmon fishing and that is certainly no liability. BC Ferries offers an infrequent service here and Shearwater itself provides a barge service to link this base and surrounding small communities to the outside world. Now Craig Widsten maintains the dynasty as a second generation entrepreneur. I can only imagine the challenges and logistics of successful commerce out of the mainstream.
I’m presently enduring a weird sort of flu to which many newcomers apparently succumb for a couple of weeks. I miss my previous endeavours restoring old boats and I can’t say I’m enjoying the tedium of being bent over corroded, greasy motors every day. You can never work fast enough and everyone feels they have a priority emergency. There are characters parachuting into your already-overloaded daily agenda with things they try to demand be attended immediately. There also is an issue of bringing in the correct parts from far-off suppliers in a timely and affordable manner. Coordinating the local air service with the water taxis can be a bit challenging as well. It certainly ain’t dull and I drag myself back to the sanctuary of my boat at the end of each day feeling like a very weary old sod.
I’ve moved ‘Seafire’ from the transient work dock, called the “Hobo” dock to the employee’s moorage which I’ve decided to name Hooterville. Things are a bit rustic but it is sheltered and offside from the din and dust of a very busy shipyard. Wi-Fi and cell service are marginal but there are solutions coming. My first pay cheque has hit the bank and of course it’s a fraction of what I need but life is an adventure and we’ll stay the course. Meanwhile the weather is generally clear and warm with a minimum of biting insects… although the horse flies are very friendly indeed. Today’s blog is again more of a photo essay than any sort of diatribe. I look forward in future blogs to sharing anecdotes about local history, local characters and points of interest, all the while striving to get this old boat to a latitude with indigenous palm trees.
“The cure for anything is saltwater.
Sweat, tears, or the sea.”… Isak Dineson