In a few days I am leaving on a two week trip to Vancouver Island, the place where I spent most of my childhood. It has been surprising to me how many of our American friends have no idea where Vancouver Island is...even many of our highly educated friends give me a blank look when I say I'm going to Vancouver Island for vacation, and I get an even blanker look when I ask them if they've noticed on their globe the huge island off the west coast of Canada, just north of Seattle.
I've only been to the island twice in the past decade, and the last time was 6 years ago. Every time I go back these days I am somewhat saddened to see how much it has changed there from the unique way it was when I was growing up. It is becoming much more modern and homogenous with the rest of the world. Especially the north end of the island, where I was raised...when I was in my teens the north end of the island was finally connected to the southern half by a paved road, but previous to that you could only get there via logging road, boat, or sea plane. And the logging roads weren't plowed in the winter, so it was kind of a death wish to travel them when it was snowy. It was also in my early teens that the north end of the island finally got cable TV. Before that you could always get the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) with just an antenna, but for some reason the CBC decided that Vancouver Island classified as "northern Canada", and thus a good chunk of the programming was in Inuit. So you could, in theory, watch television when I was a kid, but what was the point.
So I spent most of my childhood outdoors. We lived in the middle of nowhere, with our property 1/8 of a mile to the north and south of two streams, and a 1/4 mile from a rocky beach on the north-eastern side of the island. Immediately to the west of us (ie; across the road), the forest started and it didn't end until you got to the west coast of the island (a mountain range and 100 miles further on). There was a path by my house that went west a couple of miles to a small logging road. More on that path and road in a minute.
As a kid I used to go down to the beach all the time between April and October. In fourth grade my father bought me snorkeling gear because I had gotten straight A's in school. I became an accomplished skin diver off of the reef just off the beach, and I could effortlessly hold my breath for more than a minute and a half and dive up to 20 feet down. In fact, my body appears to have permanently adapted to this...when a regular person holds their breath, their pulse rate rises, but when I hold my breath my pulse plummets to 40 beats or less per minute. As a kid I was constantly dragging marine flora and fauna back from the beach for identification using books I got out from the library. I remember once bringing back grape sized jellyfish and putting them on a piece of glass in the sun to see what a dried jellyfish would look like (the answer: to the naked eye, nothing...they completely evaporated).
As a young kid I often mucked about in the two streams near our house. I would also go there to pick salmon berries, huckleberries, or salal.
I was left alone a lot as a young kid. I was raised by my father, and I was what is known today as a latch-key-kid (although back in those days we never locked our doors...it was always a stressful event on the occasions we would go someplace for a few weeks and we would tear the house apart trying to find the house keys). Being left alone a lot meant that I had absolute freedom to do whatever I wanted. And my father didn't much care what I did when I was alone...he knew I could swim like a fish so I was allowed to go swimming by myself as much as I wanted from a very young age.
However, I pushed the "go swimming whenever you want" credo to the limit by taking my bike up the path to the logging road on a frequent basis in the summer time, then biking up the logging road to a major river a few miles away. There I would put on my snorkeling mask, and shoot the rapids in the river, holding my body as straight as an arrow. I thought this was the greatest fun, and I used to do it for hours. My father never knew I did that, not because I tried to hide it from him, but because I never thought it important enough to mention. I look back on it now and I think it is no small wonder I didn't kill myself. Excellent swimmer or not, you can't swim if you've been knocked unconcious by a rock, and I used to often finish the sessions in the rapids with some pretty good bruises to show for my fun.
On the logging roads I would frequently run into black bears. I never had any problems with them, but they used to scare the bejeezus out of me and I would quickly turn my bike around and pedal in the opposite direction as fast as I could thinking the bear must be fast on my heels (it never was). There are no grizzlies on the island, and black bears pretty much leave you alone unless provoked, but I didn't know that when I was a kid. I never saw a cougar on my expeditions, but I would regularly come across cougar scat. And, of course, being Vancouver Island in the middle of nowhere, I used to come across lots of deer. I was scared to death at twighlight in the woods of coming across a sasquatch, the boogy-man of my childhood.
Charming stories of growing up in the woods by the ocean aside, there were more unseemly aspects of my childhood. When I was in the second grade my father (an electrician) took a job rebuilding an elementary school in Port Hardy, at the far northern end of the island. The entire school had burned down except for the gym, and so while the rest of the school was rebuilt the classes all met in the gym for several months. I went to the school during that time, and it was very, very crowded and noisy. Not having a cloakroom, all the kids put their jackets in a big pile every morning. As a result, lice were rampant in the school.
There were many native children in the school. My school bus used to go through the reservation to pick up the native kids, and I recall one blustery winter morning looking at an old man sitting in a chair in a shack staring at the wall. The windows on the shack used to be sheets of plastic stapled up, but the plastic had torn, so the wind was blowing freely through the house. I remember thinking, sitting on my warm bus, that someone should put up new plastic windows for that grandpa.
At school my best friend was a native girl named Naomi. She was really nice. Naomi had raspy cough from the first time I met her. After a few months there was a stretch of several weeks where Naomi wasn't at school. Finally the teacher asked one of the other native kids where Naomi was, and the child replied that Naomi had died of "namonia". Later that day I watched as the teacher set us to a reading task, and then went to Naomi's desk and unceremoniously cleared the contents out into the garbage can.
My observations and experiences in Port Hardy left a deep impression on me. As an adult looking back on it, particularly Naomi's death, I can't believe the callous way native indians were treated. If a white kid were to die of pneumonia either back then or today, mourning that child would be a school-wide event. But a native kid dying of pneumonia at the north end of Vancouver Island back in the 1970's didn't even deserve comment. I hope that aspect of life on the island has changed. But, in a two week vacation visit, I will have no way of knowing.
The rest of her classmates may have long forgotten Naomi (I don't know), but I know her mum and dad will always remember her. And I will always remember her. A little epitaph for her is memorialized within me...and now also in this blog, I guess.