Our fishing boat cuts through the cold, deep waters of the Discovery Passage like a comb parting thick, luxurious hair. Craggy cliffs, dotted with centuries-old pine trees, surround us rising tall from the water and creating a narrow gateway that challenges the cruise ships headed north towards Alaska.
In the distance, white balls appear on the ends of the pine tree limbs, like Christmas ornaments resting precariously close to the edge. Occasionally, there is movement and one of the white balls drops to the swirling water below only to be replaced by another in the tree soon after.
"Look at that!" John, the driver of our boat, says "I've never seen so many bald eagles in one place."
The excitement in his voice catches my attention. John is a native of these parts of British Columbia and has certainly seen his share of bald eagles.
"What are they doing?" I ask, still squinting to see the white-headed birds.
"It looks like there's salmon running up ahead," John explains.
I sensed we were seeing more than just a typical display of Mother Nature at work. And it didn't surprise me at all. Just minutes earlier, my uncle, my mother and I had scattered my grandfather's ashes in the water where his beloved salmon lived as my grandmother looked on from the deck of the house. It was just like Grandpa to put on a show like this.
A few years before I was born, my grandparents bought a house in Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island. Back then, it was very unusual for a mercan, as the natives called Americans, to buy property on the remote island. The ferry to Campbell River docked in front of our house and it was a 15 minute ride to civilization and a grocery store.
My summer vacations were often spent at the house on Quadra, and my fondest memories are of the things my grandparents taught me, showed me, and cooked for me while we were there. These weren't things I experienced growing up in the big city of San Francisco.
The house on Quadra could best be described as quaint. Quaint, that is, in an offbeat sort of way. It was, in fact, a former float house used by loggers in the area many years ago. The foundation of the house, once long pieces of timber, disappeared when it was placed on the property in Quathiaski Cove. It is now delicately perched in the earth on a narrow, wooded lot that descends gracefully from the forest to the water's edge.
Although it had many reincarnations over the years, the house on Quadra still has a grey shingled roof, a wood wraparound deck and 1000 sq. ft of living space on a good day. Modern amenities like a dishwasher or washer and dryer would seem gauche inside this charming yet primitive home. Water, heavy with boron, is plentiful from the well located behind the garage, but its softness from the minerals makes it seem as if you never really get the soap rinsed off during a shower. Each year the step up to the front door gets a little bit higher as the house continues to settle into a comfortable position.
The yard surrounding the tiny house is full of things you can eat raw or use to create scrumptious baked goods. Raspberries as red as the tips of your fingers during a hot bath, and plump like a balloon, hide between the hazardous thorns I often cursed as a child. Crabapples dangle from a measly tree that can barely support the load on its branches. Cherries hang ripe from a hearty tree that clearly needs trimming. Rhubarb grows among the seasonal flowers in an antique bathtub near the garage that my grandmother transformed into a garden of earthly delights. Huckleberries grow wild in the front yard, appearing in red clusters like salmon roe beneath lacy green leaves. Blackberries and loganberries fight it out as their barbed branches emerge from an old tree stump into the summer sun.
Fruits from the yard kept my grandmother busy in the kitchen every day, and the smell of her blackberry cobbler floated all the way down to the end of the cove. Her crust, made from scratch with lots of butter, was filled with succulent berries. Grandma would preheat the oven so the temperature was just right as she placed the finished cobbler on an experienced cookie sheet. The hour I spent carefully fending off spindly thorns to pick the berries was all worth it after that first bite of warm, juicy cobbler. Pies were another of my Grandma's specialties. I could be playing on the beach and a whiff of Grandma's rhubarb pie would stop me in my tracks. How did she make those strange, red celery-looking things into a sweet but tart pie oozing with fragrant juices?
I learned to fish for salmon at an early age and could bait a hook better than most five-year-olds. My grandfather's tackle box was a tangled jumble of fishing line and lures, but Grandma would patiently sort out the mess as we trolled for hours in the boat, waiting for the big one to bite. Fishing was not the ideal activity for an energetic child like me, but something about that air, so clean you could smell it, and the rhythmic movements of the boat in tandem with the waves always calmed the hyperactivity lurking inside me. The only thing that would break my spell was the wake from one of the many cruise ships lumbering by like a big bear on its way to Alaska.
One day as we trolled the waters near the lighthouse, the tip of my rod bent down like a crescent moon, and the fishing line let out a high-pitched scream as it spun off the reel – I had hooked a big one. It was a scary proposition for a 10-year-old. Grandpa put the boat in neutral and grabbed my pole from its holder in an attempt to set the hook in the mouth of whatever was on the other end of that line. It was not unusual to hook a dogfish in those waters. Grandpa handed me the rod.
"Come on, you can do it," he said. Grandpa always had confidence in me.
"No, it's too heavy. I can't hold on to it," I said wide-eyed.
It was all I could do to keep that fishing pole from flying out of my hands, while also keeping the line tight enough so I didn't lose the fish. Just when I thought I'd made some progress, the fish would take off running and send the line screaming back into the water. It was a game of cat and mouse that went on for nearly an hour.
The fish dragged our boat many miles north of where we had started, and I could see we were getting close to "Row-and-Be-Damned", the area just outside the cove that becomes a churning whirlpool of angry water when the tide changes. Legend has it that row boats would get caught in the current during a tide change, and the oarsman would be damned as he struggled to maintain control of the boat before it slammed into the rocks. That was all I could picture as we drifted further north at the mercy of the fish on the end of my line. Lucky for us, the tide had already changed for the evening.
My arms were aching and shaking from fighting the fish.
"You're almost there," Grandpa said as he peered into the water, waiting to net the fish.
"I can't do it anymore, I'm tired, my arms hurt!" I cried, but Grandpa would have none of it. Grandma took pity on me and took over the reel for awhile. When she finally got the fish up next to the boat, I was too exhausted to care how big it was.
The 10:00 p.m. twilight sky lit the way as we docked the boat. My 20-pound salmon still had to be carried up to the house from the dock. I was helping Grandpa clean the fish when the bow of a brightly lit cruise ship slowly crept into view in the opening of the cove. We stopped to watch the 4-story steamer sail by.
"They get bigger every year, don't they?" Grandpa commented to no one in particular. He was an explorer who loved to travel and often cast wistful glances at airplanes flying overhead.
Grandpa didn't spend a lot of time in the kitchen, except when there was seafood to cook. It was ironic how he could violently hit salmon with a club to kill them in the boat, and then lovingly clean the fish in preparation for a meal. His favorite way to prepare salmon was to smoke it over alder wood chips gathered from the forest behind the house. Grandpa bought an old refrigerator, cut a hole in the roof, and placed a hot plate in the bottom. Once he had the right combination of fish (salmon or cod), oysters, or clams and the wood chips, a thin cloud of smoke emerged from the refrigerator roof and the smell of its smoky contents drifted down Ferry Road.
Watching the tides is a way of life on Quadra Island. The movement of the earth affects your ability to gather food from the pristine waters. Early on a cool morning, when the tide is really low, we head down to the shores of Rebecca Spit to collect oysters and clams. A fascinating world lives under the water, and it's rare and special to get a glimpse of it. On this morning, the crustaceans are plentiful. I'm wearing my clam digging boots and carrying my red shovel, searching for the largest geoduck clam neck I can find poking out of the sand. I run my fingers through the wet sand and inevitably cut my hand on a barnacle because I don't like to wear gloves.
We return to the house and shuck the oysters for hours. Grandpa had a special knife he used to pry open the shells and we were all sure he was going to lose a finger during the ritual, but he never did. Once Grandpa had slid the living contents out of the oyster shell, it was Grandma's turn to work her magic on them in the kitchen.
Last summer, Grandma made her last trip to the house on Quadra. Old age and failing health won't allow her to travel that far anymore. She spent many hours sitting on the deck, the matriarch of the house in her very special throne. This time I was able to take care of her as she had taken care of me for so many years. Unfortunately, my cobbler doesn't taste quite the same and no one can find Grandpa's smoked salmon recipe. But, the cruise ships still meander by and the bald eagles circle overhead letting me know someone is always watching over the house on Quadra.
Tracey Franks spent nearly 20 years as a stock and options trader at a Wall Street firm. Her work has been published in Phoenix Magazine, and her editorials often appear in the East Valley Tribune. She lives in Arizona with her handsome and intelligent young son and his loyal service dog Bear. In her spare time, Franks raises awareness of fragile x syndrome and autism both locally and nationally.
Copyright 2005, Tracey Franks. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.