How Will I Top This Next Year?

Christine Smith's 44th birthday on the David B brings amazing encounters with nature.

Forty-Four Years 1

I woke up 44 years old in Waddington Bay. I stepped into the pilothouse and walked up to the bridge deck to turn off the anchor light and write down my observations: partly cloudy and calm. I quietly kicked off my clogs so that my footsteps didn’t carry throughout the boat as I started the wood-cook stove and prepared breakfast.

Forty-four. Wow! My birthday custom is to spend at least a few minutes thinking over my life. I like to acknowledge the things that I’ve accomplished, set a few goals for the next year and try to figure out why I haven’t accomplished other goals. I figured I had about a half-hour before the first guest would be in the galley, so I hurried to make coffee and have a little time on deck outside to listen to the birds and enjoy the beginning of my 45th year before I got too busy.

Our first stop after we left Waddington Bay was at Village Island to wander around the abandoned native village known as Mamalilaculla. It’s a haunting place where thorny blackberries and roses have grown over ancient and modern structures. We stepped ashore and I began to look for bear scat. I’ve been here several times in the spring and I’ve always found the bear’s “business card,” but the bears have always been away when I’ve walked the overgrown trails. I found my first scat as we emerged from the forested part of the trail. It looked to belong to a black bear who’d been eating grasses or sedges. We moved on to the beach.

The tide was very low and exposed ancient motors, broken porcelain and beach glass among the mud, sand and seaweed. Two ravens kept a careful distance from us while they poked their beaks into rocks and barnacle-encrusted engine blocks. The sun was shining, and I remembered that it was my birthday. What a present, I smiled to myself. We walked along the shore to a lilac bush in full bloom. I took picture after picture while I imagined what it would have been like to have lived here. I wanted to know more about the people who lived here and their history.

We followed a short, steep trail off the beach and up onto the bluff. I found more bear scat as rufus hummingbirds darted in the blossoming blackberries and roses. Their wing beats sounding vaguely like the spaceship car the Jetsons drove in the cartoons from my childhood in the ’70s. We came here to look for the remains of a longhouse among the blackberries and thornless thimbleberries. It was simple -- two large wooden columns that looked to have been carved with an adze supported a huge crosswise timber. The structure had been there a long time. It was now home to a seedling tree and mosses.

We moved on. Past the house and through the bramble, we walked to all that's left of the totem poles of Mamliliculla. The one we found had fallen down long ago and is more a nurse tree now than a totem pole. The human handiwork is obscured by thick moss and ferns that invite you to reach out and touch the softness of nature as she reclaims her territory. I found more bear sign, but no bear. Then we made our way back to our skiff, and out to the David B.

“I’m going to go start the engine,” Jeffrey said once the skiff was back onboard.

“Okay, I’ll go get the windlass ready,” I said, then walked up to the bow.

The bow was facing a small bit of beach with some grass. I’d just looked back at the pilothouse. I could hear Jeffrey barring the engine over. It wouldn’t be too long before the engine would start. I looked back to the beach.

“There! Bear, bear, bear on the beach!” I shouted, and then pointed so that everyone on deck would stop what they were doing and look. It was a mid-sized black bear ambling around in the grass with its nose low. I knew by the way it was moving that it would head back into the forest soon. I hurried back to the pilothouse and shouted to Jeffrey in the engine room through one of the portholes.

“Don’t start up yet, there’s a bear on the beach!”

Sure enough, the bear meandered back into the woods. I kept hoping it would come back. We waited, but eventually we left. I wasn’t too disappointed; it was my birthday and I'd already gotten two good presents -- a walk through an abandoned native village and a sighting of a black bear.

We thought it would be fun for our guests to stop at Alert Bay and visit the U’mist Cultural Center. There they’d be able to appreciate more of what they’d seen on Village Island. We were crossing Blackfish Sound when Jeffrey spotted a large black fin.

“Orcas,” Jeffrey said, and then pointed to the spot in the water where the fin had been. Soon two smaller fins appeared, and then two more, and the larger one as well. We followed them for a while and watched them poke around the rocks in search of food.

I stood on deck taking pictures and just watching. It was amazing to see so many things in just one day -- my 44th birthday. I thought about my life and the decisions I’d made. Here I was on the central coast of British Columbia, with my wonderful husband on a boat that we’d rebuilt together. We’d built our dream into a business. I looked at our guests and saw them photographing, videotaping and simply watching the whales. It was all the proof I needed to let me know that the path I’d chosen with Jeffrey was the right one.

We’d followed the whales long enough, and it was time to continue to Alert Bay. I watched them as they grew distant, and I silently thanked them for such a special gift.