My dreams spread across the sheet, each fragment captured in its own little box: Moraine Lake; the Saskatchewan River Crossing; The Athabasca Glacier; Sunwapta Falls; Maligne Canyon; Tofino; Clayoquot Sound; Ucluelet; Vancouver. I savoured each name on my tongue – some smooth as New World silk, others rough as the cedar bark cloth woven by the First Nations people.
A hundred years earlier, Charles Melville Hay had dreamed of a single place: Prince Rupert. Our dreams would take us both there – but separated by a century. With the deepest ice-free natural harbour in America, Hay envisioned Prince Rupert linking his continent with Asia by rail and ship on a scale that no one had ever imagined. He travelled to Europe, seeking support for his venture before boarding his ship for home.
His ship was called The Titanic.
Then our own ship sank one dark rain-swept night in March.
The Queen of the North was to have taken us from Prince Rupert along the Inside Passage to Vancouver Island. I gazed at my spread-sheet in dismay, the fabric of my dreams in tatters. Would we have to reroute? Weave new dreams? BC Ferries had one remaining ship. We were placed on a waiting list. At last we were told we could sail – but with 3 days waiting in Prince Rupert.
Summer arrived. We arched the roof of the world in a silver bird. The black and white boxes of scripted dreams took colour and substance. We drove across the Canadian wilderness and along the Skeena River until we were halted by the Pacific Ocean. It felt as if we had reached the end of the earth. Fifty nautical miles to the North lay Alaska. The nearest town, Terrace, was two hours back. Vancouver was two whole days away by boat and road.
On the first day, we explored Prince Rupert: The little quay, the sunken garden, the grid roads, and square shed-like buildings.
On the second day, we visited the laundrette.
On the third day, we had exhausted Prince Rupert and all it had to offer.
At the Tourist Office, I requested a sandy beach, pointing to my children, and the girl obligingly drew us a map.
The map led us to the edge of town, where we found the brave new world of Hay’s dreams – a colossal shipping terminal. Rows of capacious grain silos stood sentry on the shoreline; tower-mounted loading spouts clawed the sea like monstrous robotic arms; mammoth metal sheds scraped the pale northern skies, cold cathedrals to commerce. The place was deserted, yet there were signs of recent activity: mountains of quarried stone; abandoned bulldozers; fresh caterpillar tracks in the soft ground.
At the far end of the terminal, we came to a dirt track. A rusting gate barred our way. A makeshift sign warned, “PRIVATE. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED”. The air hung iron-heavy. Lifeless.
“This is it,” my husband said firmly, tapping his finger on the map. We deliberated. Then uneasily but defiantly, climbed the gate. We trudged the interminable potholed track lined with weedy shrub. A brightly-coloured hummingbird lay dead on the path, contrasting the grey mud-cracked earth. Of the sea there was no sign. Our uneasiness grew.
We almost missed it – the narrow half-rotten plank that bridged a babbling brook running aside us. We pushed through dank undergrowth and tumbled onto the shore.
Nothing had prepared us for the world that revealed itself to us.
In front of us, a sandy spit strewn with Herculean redwood stumps stretched out to a wooded islet. Wandering into the trees, I stumbled on a fishing-net hammock swaying gently in the Pacific breeze. Further in, a swing roughly fashioned from fishing rope and driftwood, creaked to the slow rhythm of the tide. On the shore, a forty foot trunk bridged the maw of a jagged cove.
Where was this? A natural seashore playground? A secret shoreline garden?
I listened to the faint whoop of my children through the whoosh of the surf as they made abstract Hepworth sculptures from giant logs on the beach.
Happiness crept in and curled up beside me.
I lost myself in tidal pools of aqua-marine anemones, sea-green starfish and burnt-sienna crabs. Once I thought I saw a shadow on the shore-line. There, then gone. Bear? Wolf? Human?
Time slipped away: the past, the future and the present too. And the pale sun hung frozen, suspended in the cool Canadian air.
A thousand afternoons in one and time returned. The sun slithered off the sky. Shadows lengthened. Darkness threatened. We had to leave.
Homeward bound, I thought how the sunken ship had forced us to stand still on the journey; led us to an unlikely corner. Then it came to me: the best journeys in life are unplanned and unexpected.
About the Author:
Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad’s Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. She’s still wandering. Helen was runner-up in 2011 British Guild of Travel Writers Competition and was highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing Competition this year.
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