Ucluelet Retreat Moving Forward
The New Year Snake slid into our home while I was away and a lot of work to be done! The desk is messy once again and so many things to be filed, small projects to be tidied up. Luckily I took a bit of a retreat over the last few days of December in order to restore, replenish and dream. It’s amazing what a few days away can do for a body and spirit. Especially if you’re lucky enough to be beside gorgeous nature.
A great many of us live in cities and our lives are framed by mechanical noises, urban clamour, and an artificially induced tempo. The night is never completely dark. We can feel our neighbours living close beside us, humming, vibrating, like so many ants inside a mound.
How amazing it is to move toward a quieter and darker space. Where the daily pattern of sound is not the swelling rush hour traffic, but the tide.
Our breath changes. The air is sweet and tangy with salt. In the distance the surf booms into a grotto. The shoreline is littered with tomorrow’s story.
How to describe this beautiful monstrous? The shiny cartilaginous curves of the kelp root, smooth, wet, the colour of tea-stained teeth. The tendrils that grip around rocks, the long gleaming strands that undulated under water. How powerful it looks. How alien and remarkable.
We see with our eyes. We feel with our skin. The tiny hairs upon our bodies. Cold air enters the lungs and we warm it with our blood and moisture. The distance dissolves beyond the limits of what can be seen.
At my feet an anemone blooms, its mouth its anus a hole I want to poke with my finger. (Not to worry– I didn’t! Don’t want to molest the anemone minding its own business.)
D and I had learned that there were sea lions in the area. We had opted for a cabin in Ucluelet instead of Tofino, and it was lovely– so quiet, laid-back and gorgeous. I was eager to see the local sea lions so we criss-crossed the town site and looked at every wharf, ducked onto many beaches. Ne’er a sea lion to be seen. One afternoon while we walked through town I swore I heard one barking. I dragged D down to the wharfs again but no– the elusive mammal was not there. On the evening of my birthday we went out for a lovely homey dinner at Matterson House (big portions!). We ate so much we needed to walk off some of what my daughter likes to call a “food baby”…. D suggested we walk toward the quietest wharf we’d seen, tucked away from Boat Basin, just off of Hemlock St. It was so very dark. So very quiet.
“Where is everyone?” I whispered loudly. “Why aren’t they celebrating New Year’s?”
“Shhhhhhhh!” we giggle-shushed our way down the paved road.
The night pressed heavy and dense against the edges of light that curved above the two docks. A large fishing boat moored. When from the darkness,
“Listen! Listen!” my eyes round with hope and wonder.
Great exhalations of mammal breath, we peered out into the darkness, the oily black of the night ocean.
A young bearded fisherman called out from the boat.
“Is there something out there?”
“We can hear breathing! It’s going, ‘Pffffsssssttt!'” I said.
“Oh, the sea lions,” the young fisherman said. His face was flushed. “I was just feeding them fish from the net.”
“Do you have any fish left?” I asked unashamedly.
“It’s her birthday,” D said. “She’s been looking for sea lions all day.”
“I can check to see if there’s anything left.” The fisherman poked around the great net spool and came back with a mangled fish the size of my forearm. He held it by its open mouth. I beamed with delight.
“Can I feed it?” I asked.
“You want to hold the fish?” he asked, mildly surprised.
“Yah!” I said and held out my hand. He handed the fish over to me a little dubiously. I held it from the crook of its mangled jaw. I couldn’t stop grinning.
Then the sea lions roiled in the water.
“Oh my god!” we exclaimed. Not the fisherman.
Eyes gleaming, light edging their wet fur with brief halos. Slick, supple, they twisted and dove in the dark water. The surface grew still.
“Should I toss the fish, or should I dangle it in the water?” I asked.***
“Uhh, I wouldn’t dangle it,” the fisherman said. “They can jump up right onto the wharf.” He receded into the boat.
“Just toss the fish!” D exclaimed. She was standing several meters behind me, and well away from the edge of the wharf. “Just toss it from behind this post!
“I want to dangle it,” I said. (I have no idea what I was thinking…. Clearly, not very much and not very well. I think I wanted a photo. I think I began thinking like my mom, who has been known to feed wild elk mandarin oranges from the car window….)
The sea lions were underwater. I wanted to see them better. But some strand of reason remained and I tossed the mangled fish (rock cod).
A mature sea lion twisted to the surface and opened its maw. Jaws lined with sharp triangular teeth. It clamped down hard on the ragged fish and twisted back down into the cold dark. I peered over the edge of wharf. Hoping to see it twine up again.
A second sea lion burst upward, jaws open, snapping, toward me, looking for its portion, of fish, of stupid Japanese Canadian flesh, whatever it could sink its carnivorous teeth into. The fear so sudden so fast I could only stare, take two steps backward, and somehow manage to stop myself from peeing my pants.
I don’t know what D did or said. If she cried out. If she ran further away. She wise enough to be behind the post…. That was the closest I’ve come to peeing my pants from fear. Those sea lions…. I think there were three of them…. Over five hundred pounds of sleek muscle and sharp teeth. Oh my god. Beautiful and terrifying.
It was a stunning reality check. There are no photos. Just the echo of fear when my heart pounds. I still love sea lions. And I RESPECT THEM!!!
The wonders weren’t just in and of the ocean. The earth teemed with gorgeous life. Shorepine Bog Trail was a wonderland. It was as if the ecosystem had been arranged with giant bonsai, natural bonsai…. It was so magical, maybe prehistoric…. I kept on expecting small dinosaurs to burst out of the branches. The limbs of the small dense trees created weird low canopies, almost tunnels, near to the ground. If you crawled down those twining paths who knows where you’d resurface? There is magic in the dark places. Much power.
2013 brought in with sea lions and teeth, booming surf and froth, expanses of sand and the shriek of bald eagles. A warm cabin in a dark night. 2013 bodes well…. I move forward with gladness in my heart.
***I DO NOT ENDORSE FEEDING WILDLIFE! PLEASE DON’T FEED WILDLIFE! They become habituated to humans and lose their fear of them and then accidents occur often leading to the animals having to be destroyed. (I rationalized that it was okay to feed the sea lions at this point because the fisherman had been doing it already, probably after every catch, and my one fish would not be adding to the problem…. O_0 Ohhhhh, the rationalizations…!)