From the moment I arrived in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, it was clear: this is a place where people are on the ocean; every pickup pulls a boat, lawns are littered with crab traps. But judging from the looks I got as I crossed the road in a swimsuit and goggles, this may not be a place where people swim.
Haida Gwaii is often called the edge of the world. Closer to the Alaska panhandle than Vancouver and separated from the mainland by the wily and temperamental Hecate Straight, this British Columbian archipelago is “out there.” My first trip here five years ago took three ferry rides (22 hours, 7 hours, and 30 minutes respectively) to get to my destination: the tiny town of Sandspit, BC. The latitude means people wear wool in July. The remoteness means the sea is teaming with life unlike anything I’d seen before. At low tide uncountable sea stars clutter the bay, mollusks the size of mens’ dress shoes cling to the underside of shoreline rocks, and it’s not uncommon for a neighbour to drop by with “too much crab” the way August gardeners try to pawn off zucchini. Haida Gwaii, to me, is proof that the ocean is the largest and wildest wilderness on earth. From the moment I arrived, I had to get in the water.
Haida Gwaii, to me, is proof that the ocean is the largest and wildest wilderness on earth. From the moment I arrived, I had to get in the water.
I’ve been coming to Haida Gwaii nearly every year since that first trip. As I wait for my annual trek north, a big part of what I Iong for are my swims in Shingle Bay. The salt water is bracing, but pristine. I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean so clear. My first exhales are rich with bubbles. I blow exaggerated raspberries to combat the shock of cold water on my face, but soon I settle into it. I trace the curving beach in a steady freestyle for about a mile, then raise my head like a seal to take in the distant peaks, crusty with snow shadows, before turning back.
I’ve heard Humpback whale song described as an elongated version of the sounds we know in human music. Each second of what we hear would swell to about seven minutes in whale time. A movement could take a day; a symphony a week or even longer. Swimming in Shingle Bay feels like that to me – swollen time. With my head under the water my perception shifts to the rhythm of my breath, the breadth of the sea, and the unity they become. One second becomes minutes and I feel I could just swim forever. I keep watch for the delicate, stiletto dance of kelp crabs in the rocks below and am on friendly terms with the elegant moon jellies in my peripheral view. As I turn my head to breathe, I catch the screeching dialog of eagles perched on their favourite beach-front cedar.
I’ve heard Humpback whale song described as an elongated version of the sounds we know in human music. Each second of what we hear would swell to about seven minutes in whale time.
Over the course of the summer, I swim my route as often as I can. It takes courage each time I dive in, but every day I swim, my swim makes my day. But, my assumptions from my first visit have been proven wrong. If I pay attention, I now catch a glimpse of a fellow swimmer off the shoreline every so often. And as intrepid as I feel marching into the waves in neoprene, I am no match for the kids of Sandspit. They charge into the water in tropical print swimsuits and pounce on red rock crabs until their thighs are pink with cold. In fact, this is a place where people swim.