What began as coffee between friends ended in a three-month-long adventure in the bush with the people of the St’át’imc (pronounced Stat-lee-um) Nation.
I had bumped into a dear friend and passionate activist, Laura Ashfield, on the streets of Waterloo. As we talked and ate in the pale May sun, Ashfield mentioned a trip planned to BC, through WWOOF Canada.
“You should come,” Ashfield said.
“What in God’s name is WWOOF-ing?” I asked.
WWOOF-ing, she explained, stood for Willing Workers on Organic Farms. In our case, it meant slogging in the soil for room and board in the backwoods of BC.
I was unemployed and lost in myself, so boarding a plane in Toronto and ending up next to the Pacific seemed par for the course. There, I was greeted by the smells of my childhood: cedar, sweet white water, dirt and unsoiled air.
Seton needed a communal garden and we needed a purpose: a life experience and a way to use our bodies and minds to enhance not only ourselves, but also a community.
Heading into the wilds with your whole life strapped onto your back is exciting. We were a band of wild women – it wasn’t uncommon to turn a corner on a dusty logging road and come face-to-face with a pile of sleeping wolf pups, which would stumble awake and tumble around until their mother called from the woods. Teetering into the trees, they’d part ways with us and go on with their lives, and us with ours. Bears would visit the gardens where we worked. Looking up from the tangle of vines, there’d be a mountain of fur and teeth, calmly eating scrub with a doleful expression.
There was a bar up the road – a road where you’d be more likely to meet a cougar than a car. Some spoke the old language, St’át’imcets, including an apple-doll faced elder who asked me to hand-roll her cigarettes in fading English. They fought hard, but they loved hard, and received us with open arms.
“Well ladies, welcome home,” was the first thing anyone ever said to us there, and it was true, it felt like home: sometimes uncomfortable, not permanently pleasurable, but always loving.
One summer night, the chill woke me from an already fretful slumber. The air was still and bitter – too cold for June – and laying in my small pup tent, imaginary horrors of an untamed wilderness swam through my mind. Every twig snap had me on edge; each infrequent gust of wind was undoubtedly the real Sasquatch.
After waking, I stood in the middle of the grassy field looking up at the stars. Night came strangely in British Columbia. Like some secret that the West Coast kept from the rest of the world, the twilight lingered for hours, a flushed-blue haze. The mountains around the Seton-Portage Reserve were visible well after midnight. In the day, their white-capped peaks and the alternating pitch and sun-filled valleys were strung with tendrils of green and black wilderness. In the dark, they were behemoths, outlined against the sky in deep indigo: sentinels, watching. It was unnerving and it was beautiful.
Sometimes, we saw the smoke rising over the mountains like a beacon of war. One fire came close to us, and the acreage of cracked and sooty trees about sixty meters away was proof of the destruction that they were experiencing over the hill.
I thought, “I’m a little scared, lonely…I miss my mom. Why am I not in my own bed?
That was two years ago, but much would happen in the time that followed.
There, in that place and time, I climbed mountains and swam in valleys. I rode cliff top roads in the back of old pickup trucks, and caught, killed, gutted and cooked my own dinner. I hiked and biked, and rode in SkyTrains. I drank a little, ate a lot, walked by moonlight and in the blazing-hot sun, was hungry and thirsty and sleepy. I was burnt and bruised and bitten, bloody and scratched, impaled by sticks and stones and plants and bugs. I saw bears and bats and butterflies and coyotes, and heard cougars cry in the night. Had hummingbirds land on my head and spiders fall in my face.
I was stung and sampled by every insect and arachnid known to BC. I shot shotguns and held rifles and sowed seeds and picked flowers. Climbed trees and tamed dogs and toiled in the hot sun, willing the garden to grow and cursing the weeds. I weeded and seeded, and cried and laughed till my belly hurt. I never wanted to leave, and yet missed my own bed and my mom so much I felt like weeping. I lost weight and gained muscle and friends. I met folks I would never ever forget, and fell in love with a people and a place. I suffered sunstroke in the dirt and had the snow fall down around me, catching flakes on my tongue in July.
I really lived.
I danced and read and itched. I reflected on my life so far, and trusted it in the hands of others. I opened my mind and my heart. I smelled fresh air and cedar and wet dog, tasted bannock ad naturally smoked salmon and wild berries off the bush. I saw two-ton bears chased away by fifteen-pound dogs, heard stories of Sasquatch and lake monsters, landslides and men crushed by boulders, and about grizzly bears beaten off by old women’s hats.
I saw thousand-year-old rocks tumble down to start life, anew, at the bottom of creeks, and placed my footprint over a wild animal’s, in awe of the size. I left my mark on the tops of mountains and peed in the woods and ached and worked hard. I relaxed. I fell down hills and soaked myself, was scraped and chaffed and, I think, mildly envenomed. I shivered through the night in tents, and slept like a baby in the afternoon sun.
I listened to the sounds of nature, and of Joni Mitchell, and the Eagles, and people’s advice. I sang and ran and jumped, befriended trees and dogs and snakes and kids. I saw views most people will only dream of, and that I may never see again.
I learned about a culture and a province, felt alive and alert and whole. I was blessed to be able to do this, and I was thankful for and awed by every day that I was there.