Many years ago, a friend of mine found himself caught in a storm on BC’s central coast while on a solo kayaking trip in early autumn. The day had been a placid grey until late afternoon, when the weather took a sudden bad turn and my friend realized it was no longer safe to be on the water. Abandoning plans to camp further up the chain of islands, he was only a short paddle out from a small island which had a pebble beach, an ideal spot to pull a kayak out of the water. Once my friend had stowed their small boat on the grassy bank out of reach of the high water mark, he made his way to the closest cabin he could see with a lamp in the window.
When my friend knocked on the door, it was answered by a man who looked to be in his fifties and introduced himself as Ron. He was happy to help out a stranger and welcomed him into the fire lit room, inviting my friend to join him for dinner which was heating on the top of the woodstove. My friend was happy to join the table, and although the food was simple–a tinned soup and soda crackers– it was warm and he was glad to be off the water. As the night wore on, Ron started to tell stories of his own kayaking adventures. He had lived on the coast his whole life, much of it on this small off-grid island.
The wind yowled outside as the storm continued to pick up, and Ron recounted a scene from a predicament he had found himself in as a younger man on his own solo kayaking trip. Like my friend, he had been caught in weather that came up so fast and furious he was in immediate need of shelter. If you have ever boated on the BC coast, you know that although there are many hospitable beaches and coves, there are also long stretches where the mountains rise straight out of the sea. This is the kind of coastline Ron had been paddling along when the storm hit and now he realized his only option was to find some kind of sheltered rock to grab onto in hopes of riding out the worst of the storm.
As the clouds and sea crowded together to form a shroud, Ron pushed against the waves, trying to keep himself upright and from being crushed against the wall of granite the wind was nudging him towards. Up ahead he could see something that looked to be a small reef of land jutting out at right angles from the larger land mass. He made for that in hopes he could get downwind of it, but as he got closer he noticed the reef was actually the wall of a narrow inlet, and as he progressed into it, he could see that the inlet gave way to a small sea cave.
Navigating his boat into the cave he discovered it was large enough for him and his kayak, allowing him to pull his boat in alongside the far wall of the cave. Relieved to be out of the high winds, Ron tethered his paddle, and prepared himself to spend an uncomfortable night sitting upright in his wet clothing. He thought it remarkable that although he had spent much time along this coastline, he had never noticed this cave before. The storm continued unabated, but still the sea inside the cave was relatively calm and Ron felt protected. He opened up the front hatch of his kayak and located the dry bag with his essentials–headlamp, wool sweater, snacks, and water.
Once the headlamp was affixed and turned on, Ron could get a better look at his unexpected quarters. The roof and walls were cragged and shelved, a rockfall fused together in some calamitous geological event an eon before. No water trickled down the walls, and though he could see the remains of a nest, no bird or other critter seemed to be sheltering in the cave with him. As he played the headlamp to his right, sweeping up and down, he spotted what looked to be a square piece of wood wedged into a small crag just above his eye level.
He reached up to grab the corner sticking out towards him and could feel by its smoothness that it was a human made object. Reaching up both hands now, he pulled it down onto the sprayskirt of his kayak, and discovered that he was holding a small bentwood box, square, with a fitted lid on the top. In the light of his head torch, Ron judged this to be a historical piece belonging to one of the First Peoples of BC. Many coastal peoples make bentwood vessels, but the box Ron now held onto was not marked on the outside in any way, so he could not determine what community it may have come from. To his eye, it was from another time, something that could have sat in the sea cave for a hundred years or more.
With the box balanced on the front of his kayak, Ron gently worked off the lid. Years of wet conditions had snugged it onto the box tightly, but with the help of his pocket knife, he was able to prod it off. He wedged the lid into a safe spot in the rock, before turning his head back down to examine the contents. In the glow of his headlamp he discovered a handful of objects inside the bentwood box: two dried oolichan fish, some cedar shavings, what he believed to be a small bow drill, and a desiccated filet of what was once smoked salmon wrapped in a piece of bark. The interior of the box was dry and without bugs or odour, so although the objects were fragile with age, they were intact enough to understand them for what they were.
What Ron held in his lap was a coastal survival kit, left to be found by someone in trouble on this long stretch of unlandable coastline. Dried oolichan could be used as a candle, producing light and a small amount of heat, the bow drill and shavings were a way to get that lit, the smoked fish would stay nourishing for a long time as it sat in the dry cedar box. An anonymous gift from the past to a future traveller in need.
Ron felt strongly the intent of the person who had left the object in the cave, and so as much as he wanted to pack it into his dry bag and bring it back home to show off, he believed that the right thing to do with the box was to return it. It was as sacred an object as he might ever find and so he arranged the contents the way he had found them, fitted the lid back in place, pushing the heel of his hand down on the edges to get it tight again, and then reached back up to place it in the crag it had come from.
The story of the bentwood box in the sea cave is one that has stayed with me since I first heard it, though mystery surrounds it. I cannot remember who the kayaking friend was. Likewise, when the story was told to me, the kayaking friend did not remember what island he found Ron on. And Ron, for his part, never could locate that sea cave again, and had no real idea where he had been when he spotted it. What isn’t a mystery to me is the connection to people and place found in the practice of leaving provisions for fellow travellers in need. I imagine a lone paddler in a small dugout canoe reaching up to place that box, as much a talisman of protection as a practical gesture. Perhaps it was a single act, but it may have been part of a larger tradition on well travelled ocean routes. Whatever the case, at least one of these offerings to safety and comfort lingered around into the late 20th century, and may still remain in that sea cave today.
In these times of increasingly inhospitable weather, I wonder what a modern version of such a gesture would look like. What can I leave for a future person caught in the waves? As the winds rise outside, will I still open my door to the stranger? Ron's hospitality to my friend coming in from the storm, and the cedar survival kit left long ago, remind me that each of us is essential to the survival of others. Whether we experience a dramatic moment of rescue or just offer to go for a walk with a friend who needs to process the world around them, we are frequently offered moments to practice the survival skills that matter: clarity, compassion, and connection. A little bit of forethought in planning for future rainy days never hurts either.
Looking towards Salmon Inlet as storm clouds gather over Sechelt Inlet. I took this photo while on a 5-day canoe trip with a friend in 2005. Writing this month's story reminded me of our last night of the trip which was stormy, though we were safely on shore and had a dry tent to spend the night in.
October Recipe: Venison-stuffed acorn squash
From May until October, I get the majority of my veggies from my neighbours at Watercliff Farm who do a weekly subscription box. Next week is my last box pick-up of the season which makes me sad, but fortunately I have a lot of small squashes to work through before my local produce is exhausted for the year. This recipe makes enough for four portions. For me, one small stuffed squash is enough for two meals, you could easily make this with one large acorn squash, or halve the stuffing ingredients and make one small squash. Though it takes a bit of time to put together, this is one of my favourite seasonal meals.
2 small acorn squash
1/2 pound ground venison (you can use beef or more pork instead)
1/2 pound ground pork
4 sage leaves
1 small yellow onion, diced small
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 small carrots, diced small
1 rib of celery, diced small
1/2 cup red wine
1 bunch of kale, chopped
1 large apple, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup of cooked wild rice (or other grain, like farro)
2 oz aged havarti cheese (or other sharp cheese), shredded
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Halve the squashes lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Rub olive oil into the flesh of the squash and place cut side down in a baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes.
Preheat a small amount of olive oil in a cast iron skillet and start browning the meats with the chopped sage leaves. Once the meats are half-way to browning, add the garlic, onion, carrots and celery. Continue cooking until meat is browned and veggies are cooked.
Pour the wine into the skillet to deglaze, scrape any stuck bits off the bottom of the pan and allow wine to cook down.
Add kale, apple, and wild rice to the skillet and stir everything together, cooking the kale and apple until the kale is bright green. Salt and pepper to taste at this point.
When squashes are cooked, pull them out of the oven, flip over and pack the stuffing tightly into the cavity, mounding on top of the squash using a spoon. Top with 1 oz shredded cheese per half.
Return to oven for another 15 minutes, allowing the cheese to melt and brown on top.
In the studio
This week I'm sewing a muslin for a samue set that I hope to have finished before going on meditation retreat in November. Samue is the traditional work clothing of Japanese Zen monks and is comprised of a pair of loose-fitting pants and a kimono-style wrap jacket. I have some black cotton twill fabric in my stash that I intend to use for the final version, but since I'm unsure about the fit of the jacket I am making a rough version first.
Our November sesshin marks the end of an intensive period of meditation practice in our Zen tradition, a rainy season activity that goes back two thousand years to the time of the Buddha and his followers who retreated to a deer park each year when monsoons made travel difficult. During this time we renew our commitment to practice with clear intention.
‘Hundreds of hectares of moonscape’: B.C. spruce beetle infestation used to accelerate clear cuts. Just as pine beetle was used an excuse, so is spruce beetle being used to justify the acceleration of logging in the interior of BC. This piece takes a look at why this is bad forestry management practice, not only for the trees, but for all the other critters of the forest.
I recently finished reading Robert Macfarlane's book Landmarks, a collection of essays about places, people, and books that touched me right down to my core. Each section includes a lexicon of place, a way to name the wild spaces of landscape with more specificity. Macfarlane's project is to re-wild language so we can discover the world around us again, saying "It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit." If you want a taste of his thinking on this issue, I encourage you to check out his interview in Emergence magazine from the summer.
The Climate Psychology Association launched a new podcast in August called Climate Crisis Conversations which is comprised of frank and smart discussions by and with mental health professionals about facing the emotional impacts of confronting climate change and a changing earth. I've only listened to a couple, but have added this to my list of subscriptions for more in the near future. You may find it comforting, as I do, to hear fears and anxieties about the precarious state of things validated rather than dismissed.
This week I have to send a big shout out to my friend Jill Margo with whom I have monthly creative-mentor conversations. If it wasn't for our discussion on Wednesday there would be no mailing this month (if it wasn't for a conversation we had a year ago, there would be no monthly mailing at all). Also, I find the creative work planner she produces invaluable. She doesn't have them for sale online yet, but if you are in Victoria you can get one from her through Good.
Also thanks to Jenn for the island walking and talking these last couple of weeks. Getting outside really helps reorient the rainy days.
You can read more from me at Red Cedar and though I haven't posted on instagram for awhile I am at Comfort for the Apocalypse. I love to hear from you also so do send me a note if you liked what you read or if you think I'm missing the boat on something. xoxo