I was thirteen or thereabouts. We were living in one of the two houses belonging to a long-abandoned cannery, on our own island across the channel from Nootka Island. Our only neighbours were the Randalls next door, with their two little boys, and the Augusts in a floathouse moored on the beach; they had three girls. Total population: 14.
The “town” was crammed into a dimple in the coastline: a small flat area between two creeks, the cannery on pilings over the water, the dock enclosing a harbour barely big enough for our pair of boats. A rocky cliff shielded the bay from the north; beyond was a smaller inlet with its own few yards of beach and a mossy bank. We children sometimes scrambled through the bush to picnic there.
To the south there was nothing. Mountainsides plunging into the sea. Douglas fir cut off abruptly at the high-tide line. Spray hissing over black rocks. Perilous waters, impassible forests. No place for humans.
One Saturday afternoon Mom took the canoe out alone and went south. I didn’t see her go, but I remember how I looked up from catching crabs on the beach and saw her coming home. First, the prow of the canoe appearing from beyond the promontory, a green triangle with a tiny bow wave, then Mom kneeling amidships, back straight, paddling fast. When she rounded the end of the wharf and saw me watching, she raised her paddle high in the air. I waved back, and she dipped the paddle again and spun in to her landing. I went back to my rock-turning.
When I went into the house later, Dad was in the kitchen gutting a large salmon, and Mom was leaning over the counter, talking excitedly. This is her tale:
She had gone out for a quiet paddle, heading straight out across the channel, but once she was beyond the shelter of the bay, she saw a pod of seals just off the coast to the south. She turned and went towards them. As she approached, she saw that they were playing; climbing onto the rocks and diving off, leaping and cavorting in the water. They didn’t seem to notice Mom in the canoe.
She drew closer, paddling as quietly as she was able. The seals ignored her. They were throwing something repeatedly into the air; it looked like a kids’ game of catch. Mom held her paddle still, just steering as she drifted closer. Occasionally, she took a small stroke, a slow, gentle push in the right direction.
The game went on. Now Mom could see that the seals were throwing fish, flipping the live salmon out of the water, snatching them before they escaped, tossing them into the air again. Mom eased in closer, almost holding her breath. The seals made way for the canoe until she was right in the centre of the pod. And the game went on.
How long she floated there, she wasn’t sure. The seals barked and splashed, dove under the canoe and came up on the other side, curved and danced around her. Salmon flew.
And then – thud! – a fish landed in the canoe and writhed between the ribs. The seals stopped their play. They looked at Mom; she looked back at them. Nobody moved. After a while, Mom said, “Thank you,” turned and paddled out of the circle. When she glanced back, the water was empty; the seals were gone.
Mom told us – she swore it – that the salmon was a gift. It didn’t land in her canoe by accident, she said; she was convinced that the seals knew what they were doing. It was a good salmon, too; firm, pink meat, shiny scales. And not a tooth mark on it.
Fishermen are notorious for stretching the truth. But Mom was no fisherman; as far as I know, she had never even baited a hook. You may believe her story or not, as you like. I know what I know: I ate my share of the salmon.
Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004