A Sacred Cycle A Sacred Cycle

The upper Squamish River, just south of where the Elaho River meets it. Originating at the Pemberton Icefield, this short but large waterway drains 3,328 square kilometres of watershed. Photo: Jordan Manley

By Malcolm Johnson

From molecule to mountain, it’s the everything of our existence. Water. Dive into the liquid of high peaks and the deep sea, following water’s ceaseless journey through one of its favourite playgrounds: the Pacific Northwest.

1. The Glaciers

 

“The big snow peaks pierce the realm of clouds and cranes, rest in the zone of five-colored banners and writhing crackling dragons in veils of ragged mist and frost-crystals, into a pure transparency of blue.” — Gary Snyder, Danger on Peaks

FOUR YEARS AGO, not far from the summit of British Columbia’s tallest mountain, Mount Waddington, a team of climate scientists plunged an electrothermal drill into the ice of the Combatant Col. Withdrawing sections one metre at a time, the team eventually extracted a core of ice and snow 141 metres long.

The results of their work, published in The Journal of Glaciology, noted, “The depth-age scale for the ice core provides sufficient constraint on the vertical strain to allow estimate of the age of the ice at bedrock. Total ice thickness at Combatant Col is around 250 metres; an ice core to bedrock would likely contain ice in excess of 200 years of age.” This seems to bear reflection. Somewhere beneath the col lies water that fell as snow while the white men were first arriving in sailing ships to colonize the coast. When you traverse a significant glacier, whether by ski, splitboard or crampon, you’re skimming atop a sea of water hundreds of years old and hundreds of metres deep.

These waters, like glacial ice cores, are studied because of what they tell us about past climates; they carry the chemical signatures of ancient atmospheres, giving clues to the pace and extent of changes that occurred long ago.

A sea of slow-moving water — but a sea of water nonetheless. A skysea, perhaps. Above and below, we are awash in water, as solid, liquid or vapour. And here in the Northwest, with its mountain backbone draped in ice from Alaska to the Sierras, these shrinking sky-seas are one of the last physical links to a fast-receding past. At 200 years, though, the ice of the Combatant isn’t really that old, at least not on the geologic scale. In temperate climates such as ours, water is cycled through glaciers with relative haste. In Antarctica, a group of Russian researchers drilled into a subglacial lake that had been cut off from the atmosphere for 14 million years; in a northern Ontario mine, another group of scientists discovered water that had been trapped underground for 2.6 billion years.

These waters, like glacial ice cores, are studied because of what they tell us about past climates; they carry the chemical signatures of ancient atmospheres, giving clues to the pace and extent of changes that occurred long ago. And just as we leave parallel ski tracks on an ascent or elegant S-turns on the way back down, the signs of our own time are being recorded in the Northwest glaciers: industrial pollutants, rising carbon, smoke particles from factories in China
and fires in Siberia. 

But though they present themselves to science as reliquaries of the past, much of what draws us to glaciers is the promise of sharpened experience in the present moment: the sight of a few friends as miniature figures in a wide field of white, the weightlessness of a well-worked powder turn, the heart-in-the-throat feeling of crossing a snow bridge over a crevasse. The sky-seas call us into an aged and separate world of larger scales, crackling dragons and starker, simpler views. In their rolls, swells and expanses, our souls have room to expand; we are taken towards infinitudes. Stand somewhere high in the Coast Range, look out to the horizon, and try not to feel some fresh awe rising within you. The water stored in the Northwest’s glaciers will eventually move on, melting off into streams and starting a fast tumble to the sea. And given the current trends, much of that water will be moving on sooner rather than later. Icefields in British Columbia alone are losing over 20 billion cubic metres each year. Their recession is a thing of concern as they are great reservoirs of fresh water, feeding and refilling the rivers and lakes we depend on. But while the waters of the glaciers still hang there in the high ranges, it’s worth thinking about what signs and testaments we’re embedding within them. What records do we want to leave in the white waters that crown our land?

 

2. The Rivers

Mama, I’m Coming Home: Pink salmon return to their natal home in North Vancouver’s Indian River. While the local sockeye run was awful this past summer, the pink run on BC’s coast was the largest in recent memory, with and estimated 500,000 to one million pinks swimming past Vancouver’s downtown, under the Lions Gate and Ironworkers Memorial Bridges and up Indian Arm to spawn in the Indian River. The Department of Fisheries decided to open the Howe Sound commercial pink fishery for the first time since 1962. Photo: Jordan Manley

Mama, I’m Coming Home: Pink salmon return to their natal home in North Vancouver’s Indian River. While the local sockeye run was awful this past summer, the pink run on BC’s coast was the largest in recent memory, with and estimated 500,000 to one million pinks swimming past Vancouver’s downtown, under the Lions Gate and Ironworkers Memorial Bridges and up Indian Arm to spawn in the Indian River. The Department of Fisheries decided to open the Howe Sound commercial pink fishery for the first time since 1962. Photo: Jordan Manley

“How great the Way, like a flooding river flowingleft and right! Holding nothing back, it gives to all in need and makes no claim upon them.” — From the Tao Te Ching, translated by Douglas Allchin

THEY START SMALL and young, a few drops furrowing through ice and snow. Starting on their long path of least resistance, they join into trickles and streams, winding out of the alpine and into the mountain forests. From there into creeks, tumbling over boulders and cliffs before reaching the big valley bottoms. And then they get their names: the Klamath, the Umpqua, the Columbia, the Skeena. This is how they all begin.

But how can one speak of rivers, what they mean and what they give? As many casters of lines have found, it is usually best not to speak of them but to stand near them, or in them, and listen. The rivers are bearers of miracles, and not many people believe in miracles when they’re spoken of second-hand. You only start to believe when you see a spawning salmon with your own eyes or hear the splashing of its tail with your own ears.

If salmon, as many have said, are the lifeblood of the Northwest, the big rivers are the arteries that carry the blood, that bring the stuff of life to the farthest reaches of the body. And those arteries must be kept clean and clear or the body withers; the heart of the land skips and stutters and, before long, stops.

It’s easy, in our day, to overlook how tied we are to the moving waters that wend and wander through our midst. We’ve bridged them, draped nets across them, dumped mine tailings and logging debris into them, built soaring concrete walls to hold them back. Too many of the pathways that once brought so many millions of returning salmon inland to spawn — and their smolts back to the sea to begin the circle anew — have been blocked. In 1941, Woody Guthrie sang the praises of the Grand Coulee Dam, which bisects the Columbia in central Washington, calling it the greatest wonder of the world and the biggest thing that man had ever done. But writer David James Duncan, writing 60 years later, offered a different perspective: “The Columbia that Industrial Man has given us is dying. The rivers least touched by man thrive. The finned, winged and four-leggeds watch, waiting to join us, or not, in the world we do or do not create.” In other words, it’s best to leave the rivers alone and let them do their thing.

Since the beginning of time, rivers have done their steady and dependable work, sculpting landscapes, carrying sediments and nutrients from land to ocean, giving home and habitat to fish, bird and bear, completing the hydrological cycle by bringing the waters of the sky back to the sea where they began. For the humans who live beside them, they’ve been fountains, food providers, trade routes, connectors of communities, generators of thousands of stories and song lyrics and metaphors.

If salmon, as many have said, are the lifeblood of the Northwest, the big rivers are the arteries that carry the blood, that bring the stuff of life to the farthest reaches of the body.

But the waters these days don’t run as clearly as they used to. The damage the last century has done to those providential rivers — dams, toxins, deforestation of the banks — can seem sad and daunting from the present perspective. It can seem too much. But the rivers will continue, in one form or another, and what’s been done can so be undone. Think of the removal of the Elwha Dam, with chinook salmon swimming into the upper reaches of the Elwha Valley for the first time in 100 years; of groups like the Central Westcoast Forest society, labouring to restore the streams of Clayoquot Sound damaged by timber harvesting; of the small farmers switching to old organic methods so pesticides don’t pour into the creeks and canals; of the indigenous elders passing on their stories so we don’t forget that once, not so long ago, you could walk down to a river in the fall, toss a throw net and feel like Peter of the miracles. “Such a multitude of fish that their nets were breaking,” it says in the Bible’s New Testament (Luke 5:6).

The dream of the Northwest rivers, or at least my dream of the Northwest rivers, is that a century from now on a clear and sunny morning, a young child will be able to paddle a canoe down any stream from California to Alaska and see the silver backs of returning salmon slipping under the boat. It’s not an impossible dream, and the rivers that for so long have connected glacier to ocean are beginning to connect the people of the Northwest in new and powerful ways. There are the city voters concerned about the environment to the small-town mill workers who cast for sockeye or steelhead, the descendants of colonial authorities to the First Peoples who have always known we need the rivers for our survival.

And not just for our survival, but for our heart and our joy. Go down to some river with a canoe and casting rod, or climb up some mossy creekbed with a camera and rubber boots. Come to a bend where you can’t see another person and stay there for a minute and listen. Watch the water, always there, always moving, always speaking. Let it talk to you about how, in time, all things return. Let it tell you what once was will sometime be again.

3. The Waves

Tofino. Photo: Jeremy Koreski

Tofino. Photo: Jeremy Koreski

“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water . . . now water can flow, or creep, or drip, or crash . . . be water, my friend.” — Bruce Lee as Tsung Li in The Way of the Intercepting Fist

NOT LONG AGO we were surfing a river-mouth break on southern Vancouver Island, a handful of us riding soft right-handers that peaked into A-frames on a finger of fluvial sand before slowly loping in towards the shore. The air was cold and still, a thick layer of low cloud suspended in the estuary, a spiral line of blue smoke ascending from a small fire on the beach. Between sets, I was waiting out back with James Murray, a surf photographer who knows the bends of this coast well. We were mostly quiet but shared some of the small talk typical of a mellow day in the lineup: how the season had been, which swells we’d surfed, how he and his girl were taking their little truck down to Mexico in a few weeks. It had gone flat for five minutes or so when Murray pointed out the swirls of water that were moving around our thickly booted feet: a clear and iridescent green, layers of differently weighted fluid moving and wrapping around each other, as if someone had poured a bucketful of clear oil into the water. It’s something you only see at river-mouth waves, the shimmery look of sweetwater mixing salt not yet entirely blending, as if unwilling to lose its uniqueness in the absorbing ocean.

If the rivers are about connection, the waves are about confrontation. The shoreline is the stadium floor for the never-ending sumo between land and ocean. The swells have travelled for thousands of miles spending their strength on the shore, where they reshape beaches in a day, carve out cliffs, cut away headlands and throw driftwood logs into great tangles of wood at the treeline. The ocean is a force of infinite strength– try getting through the shorepound on a well-overhead day, and you’ll soon find that out. The only way to overcome the water is to listen to the advice of that master of confrontation, Bruce Lee. Be the water. Become the water.

It’s a principle I came to know in a different way, by watching the sour old locals at another river-mouth surf spot, not far from where Murray and I had admired the mixing of the waters. On the bigger days, the incoming sets break far to the outside, with wide sheets of whitewater rushing across the bar. Try to paddle straight out from the point and you’ll be swept far along the shore before you can reach the deeper and more settled waters. Forcing your way through the sets is futile; the only option is to paddle out into the cedar-coloured river and find the paths its waters are taking through the rushing waves. Find a friendly current and let it carry you.

The shoreline is the stadium floor for the never-ending sumo between land and ocean.

Relax when the sets sweep over your body. Be as yielding as water is. Think too much and you’ll tense up and be wrenched backwards. Take your deep breaths, dive under the incoming waves and let the remnants of the river bear you outward. Newer surfers, like we were when we were 18, would blindly charge out into the maelstrom, only to get batted back every time; the older ones, wiser through observation and experience, put themselves in the correct places and let the water do the work.

The act of surfing, like Lee’s fluid Jeet Kune Do philosophy, calls for a kind of mindless reaction. Like a river, you have to find the paths of least resistance. Waves happen too fast for thought, and to ride them well you must be part of what they’re doing. There it is again: be like water. The best surfers are reacting to waves in ways they don’t even know, the body moving and morphing to conform to the swiftly changing shape of crashing water. The ultimate act in surfing, the barrel ride, completes the metaphor: For a moment, the surfer is inside the wave. Is at the heart of the wave. The surfer is absorbed into the ocean.

Water is life, and there is no ending to its life lessons. The surf zone, where the sweet returns to the salt, tells us this: any challenge, any confrontation, can be met with fluid grace. Move through it as if you were a thin stream that had begun in the mountains weeks before. Spend some time watching YouTube clips of Peter Devries riding barrels, or better yet, spend some time riding waves yourself. Before long, you’ll get it. The only way through is to flow.

4. The Ocean

Photo: Jeremy Koreski

Photo: Jeremy Koreski

“At moments of wonder it is easy to avoid small thinking, to entertain thoughts that span the universe, that capture both thunder and tinkle, thick and thin, the near and the far.” — Yann Martel, The Life of Pi

IT WAS ALL BLUE and dolphins. A friend had sent it by text, an underwater photo taken far offshore where, for weeks on end, the sun had been warming the waters of the continental shelf. There had been hundreds of them, a superpod of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Lagenorhynchus obliquidens like a flock of singing mammalian birds winging through the water. With no surface in the photo, it made for a trick of the eye; the dolphins could have been suspended in sapphire-blue air, as light as balloons on some Neptuney planet where sentient beings swim through the sky. It looked so perfectly calm and peaceful, and I wished I could step through the screen into that vastness of liquid. When I die, take me to the Dolphin Land, I thought. O Lord let me live there.

From sea to sky, from sky to sea. We all know how it works. We learned it in science class in grade nine. Water evaporates from the ocean, condenses in the sky, falls down onto the Coast Ranges and flows back to the ocean. The original sacred circle. When you’re far away from land, off Haida Gwaii or Tofino or the Olympic Peninsula, that circle is completed in our sight: the shore’s features lie below the horizon and all you see is blue water, a distant line of white-crested mountains and the bright blue sky. The horizon line hardly matters. It all seems the same. A big blue blankness. The two halves of the world are one.
And then look at a map. All that blankness. One image I look at almost every day is a colour-coded marine forecast map on the Environment Canada website. There is the familiar shape of the Island nestled in beside Washington and the mainland, and then there is this vast, featureless area of ocean offshore, far larger than the Island itself, divided by straight lines into arbitrary sections: Bowie - Southern Half, Explorer - Northwestern Half, Explorer- Southeastern Half. What happens out there? What goes on? Does anyone really know?

Water evaporates from the ocean, condenses in the sky, falls down onto the Coast Ranges and flows back to the ocean. The original sacred circle.

The answer: we know a bit. Like the fact that 1,500 kilometres from the coast, the water is over four kilometres deep. Or the fact that the Cobb Seamount, 500 kilometres southwest of Cape Flattery, rises 2,750 vertical metres from the ocean floor, with its summit spire coming within 34 metres of the surface. We know that dolphins and albacores whizz throughout the sunlit blue, that humpbacks and leatherbacks lumber through it, that fleets of jellyfish sail by the wind on their unpredictable migrations. There’s more, but really we don’t know all that much. Our knowledge only skims the surface, and our arbitrary lines don’t mean much of anything in the aquatic wildernesses that lap our land’s edges. Lord Byron once wrote that man’s control stops with the shore. It’s good for us to be reminded that we’re not all-powerful and all-predicting, that beautiful and unknowable things are occurring out in the deep.

The sea gives many things in ample supply, but most of all it still gives us mystery. Surfers, sailors, beach wanderers, whale watchers, paddlers of cedar canoes, passengers on Alaska-bound cruise ships — just as our ancestors did — we all look to the curving horizon and sense our smallness, our not-knowing. The mystery is what sustains us, for without mystery there is no wonder, and without wonder there is no sense of the divine. In the big blue blankness of Dolphin Land, the distinctions and distractions of solid ground are left behind. All we see is water, the stuff of life. All we see is completion. All we see is that thing that keeps us alive.

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Malcolm Johnson is a lifelong surfer and recent convert to river fishing who has spent thousands of hours staring at the water. He thinks dolphins really know how to party.

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