UVic Torch -- Spring 2003
Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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Photography by Rob Kruyt Sea Change

Lessons learned where land and water meet.

LET ME CONFESS RIGHT UP FRONT: I chose UVic beacuase of a picture of the sea. I can still remember the admissions brochure, which featured the saturated blue of Haro Strait just a short jaunt from the student residences. Of the three universities I was considering for a bachelor’s degree, only one was on an island and, for me, this gave UVic an unfair advantage. I visited the other two campuses to make a sober and informed decision, but after I’d walked down to the beach at Cadboro Bay, I knew where I’d be spending the next four years.

I can pinpoint the event that would forever change my relationship with the sea. It happened when I walked into the musty confines of UVic’s recreation equipment room 17 years ago. I was halfway through my Creative Writing program when I discovered the battered surfboard hidden behind the hockey nets, tents, and canoes. This was the mid-1980s, long before Vancouver Island’s surf secret had gone mainstream. When I asked the attendant, he explained that there was good surfing up the west coast of the island—at Sombrio Beach, Jordan River, and Pacific Rim National Park. I laughed out loud. I’d already tested the local waters and knew that hypothermia would set in long before a wave could be caught. This was Canada, after all. He shrugged, pulled out a faded two-piece dive suit and said, “Give it a try.”

A quick drive up to Long Beach confirmed the incredible rumour. Before the sun set on that first day of my virgin surf safari, I was hooked. I would never look at the Pacific the same way again.

Surfing has much to teach about power, respect, patience, and timing. All good lessons for life and love. The sensation of paddling out through the kelp, choosing the perfect wave and then dropping down its face are for me a dance, a collaboration, a partnership with the sea. It’s also something I too rarely achieve. I have to admit, after all these years I’m still very much a novice.

Still, I have floated in the wake of a breaching gray whale and I’ve shared waves with curious sea lions and seals. I’ve been tossed so hard in the wash that, in complete disorientation, I swam straight for the sandy bottom. I’ve spent many, many of my best days surfing on Canada’s Pacific shore.

Then five years after graduation, I took a sailing course—a “crash” course, as it turned out. Cruising along at six knots, my keel “touched bottom” on a submerged reef and I quickly learned a whole new way of relating to the sea. For the first time, I looked beyond the waves and found more than just a blank space separating chunks of land. My worldview expanded—I became focused on the water in between.

Eventually, I moved to Denman Island and discovered that I still have a lot to learn from the sea. On colossal Vancouver Island, it is easy to forget that one is separated from the mainland, but on Denman and BC’s other Gulf Islands, the sea presses in close on all sides. Here, the grand illusion of endless resources cannot be maintained; the limits are inescapably clear. Once all the trees are chopped down, once all the waterfront is developed, it’s too late. Because there are no more forests just over the horizon, no more unspoiled beaches just around the bend. On these islands, it is impossible to ignore the consequences of our actions. For the most part, islanders govern themselves accordingly.

Last spring, research for my second novel took me to the Aleutian Islands. I was saddened to learn just how quickly the human and animal populations of this remote archipelago were irreparably changed when “discovered” by Europeans. The Russian adventurers who arrived in 1741 had little concept of, or regard for, the possible limits of what they encountered. They enslaved the native Aleut people, systematically hunted the sea otter to the verge of extinction and, within the space of a single generation, slaughtered the world’s last Steller’s sea cow (a large northern manatee). The inhabitants of these islands had become perfectly adapted to surviving on the edge—that line of demarcation between land and sea. They had struck a balance. Unfortunately, even their extreme remoteness could not save them from recklessness and greed.

Islands have lessons to teach us continentals. These fragments of paradise allow us to clearly see our destructive potential and what we are in danger of losing. Framed by the sea, they show us our world in miniature—a finite, fragile beauty.

Vancouver-based writer Brian Payton's first novel, Hail Mary Corner, is set on Vancouver Island. He can be reached at: www.brianpayton.com

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