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The Curve of Time

The Classic Memoir of a Woman and
Her Children Who Explored the Coastal Waters
of the Pacific Northwest


by M. Wylie Blanchet


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Excerpt from “Coastwise”


“Someone at bliss landing, hearing that we were going up Toba Inlet, asked if we would leave a message for two brothers who had a small place on Homfray Channel, which was on our way to Toba. We spent a couple of days in Melanie Cove where old Mike lives, and then set out along the shore of Homfray to try to find the place. The shores were very steep and rocky, and disappeared down into the sea at the same angle one of these no bottom shores. Then in a bit of a bay we saw a small float, tight up against the shore, held off with poles. A fish boat was tied alongside.

We had just tied up when one of the brothers came down to the float. I gave him the message, and as he was very insistent, we followed him up to the hidden cabin.

We were quite unprepared for what we found. I had thought they were probably fishermen, with a small summer shack. But evidently they lived here all the year round and only fished occasionally. The cabin was quite large, and neat. Half a dozen loaves of bread, just out of the oven, were cooling on the table, and jars there were of fresh cherry jam. This brother did all the cooking and kept house. We sat down for tea with him hot bread, honey from their own hives, butter from their goats.

Before we were finished, the other brother came bounding in a regular dynamo of a man. I have never seen so much seething energy in anyone. And full of what his brother called his "schemes."

They showed us all over the place. There were acres of walnut trees, just beginning to bear and now too big to transplant. One of his schemes he had expected to sell the trees and make thousands of dollars out of them. Something had gone wrong too expensive to get them to the right market or something.

Then there was trench after trench of Cascara saplings, now five or six feet high and hopelessly crowded. He had intended to set out a plantation of them, but the price of Cascara bark had dropped so low that it wasn't worth bothering with. If he had set them out, the price later was so high that he would have made his thousands out of them. He seemed to be a man that conceived and rose to tremendous crests, but was not capable of being interested in the troughs that surely followed.

They had a wonderful vegetable garden. Water was piped down from the mountains in three inch pipes, and the growth was prodigious. Then we had to climb up to the spring from which they piped water to the cabin. There was a small pool at the source, perhaps about four feet by four, made by a low dam, And in the small pool lived a fourteen inch trout. It had been put in the pool as a fingerling and had lived there for almost five years.

It rose to the surface as soon as we leant over the pool. The quiet brother took a crust out of his pocket and scattered crumbs on the surface. The trout made great swirls and ate them eagerly. It looked sleek and healthy but must have missed all the best of a fish's life. If it were turned loose now in a stream it would have no instincts of any kind. Any fisherman could catch it in a landing net without bothering with a lure.

We returned to the cabin by another path, under trees laden with cherries. The children were turned loose with a pail to fill with cherries to take back with us, as well as all they could eat.
Weekly the brothers took a load of fruit and vegetables to logging camps ten to twenty five miles away. The quiet brother canned and bottled all they could eat for the winter. The rest they gave away or it was wasted. "There's enough of everything for an army," the quiet brother groaned. But there was always another plan ahead for the dynamic dreamer something that kept him glowing with vigor.

The quiet brother showed me their storehouse double walled, of logs. In the dark cool interior were shelves full of bottled venison and salmon pickled beets and onions bottles of fruit. Lastly, a roothouse all ready for the fall root crop.

All that was the quiet brother's achievement survival in the wilderness with practically no money. I know of two couples who tried this living off the country and what you can produce as an experiment to see if it could be done. One was a writer, and he and his wife and two children tried it for a year. They proved that it could be done, if you had or could make about thirty five dollars a month for clothes, sugar, flour things you couldn't produce. However, they owned their own place and already had a garden. They knew how to fish and hunt and can the surplus. And the beach in front of their place was covered with driftwood. I think they had had the idea of starting a back to the woods campaign for people living in town on relief. Most city dwellers could not have done it at all.

We bought all the vegetables the boat would hold from the brothers, but had to accept the pail of cherries and a loaf of home made bread. And also to give a promise that we would call in again.

At the very last moment, when we were talking on the wharf, they spoiled our trip up Toba. As soon as I mentioned that we were heading up Toba, they were all against it. Did I know that there was no anchorage of any kind, except in Salmon River? And Salmon River at this time of the year was full of cinnamon bears after the salmon. They were light brown in colour, and more like the grizzlies in habits. Also, they were very aggressive, and apt to charge you on sight. We shouldn't be able to get off the boat.

Well, I only half believed it all, but they had fished up there a good many years, and should know. I had also been told by others that the head of the inlet was low and swampy and bad for mosquitoes, and so we gave up the idea.

Instead, we went on up to the Yucultas and tied up at the wharf of people we knew in the big bay half way up Stuart Island. You get quite a swirl and strong current when the rapids are running at their hardest, but it is perfectly safe. There were two little girls there who were being brought up by their grandmother. We used to walk back with them to a lake in the interior of the island to swim. It was a peculiar little lake in the middle of what I think must be muskeg. The muskeg was all right if you kept walking. But if you didn't you began to sink. So we would change into our bathing suits while on the move, hang our clothes on a bush, and ooze into the water, which was warm and very soft. I don't think the lake was very deep, we never investigated closely. We didn't like that bottom it was soft and sinking, and full of unknowns.
I left all the children playing together one evening, and went off with the father and an older boy to watch them fish with lines at the edge of the whirlpools. We used an open gas boat they had, and shot round the S.E. point that swings out to the edge of the rapids. Then they worked out of the current and up the back currents into the little bay just beyond the point. There they had an old scow tied up. It was anchored at one end by a line that went out into the swirls of the current as it swept round the point. The other end was tied to a tree on the shore.

We climbed on board, and they slacked off on the shore line and pulled the scow out on the anchored line until they were just on the edge of where the whirlpools formed. They baited the fishing line by cutting a herring in half and running a wire lead through the tail half, and then attaching a hook no weights, no spoons. The current was so strong that it carried the line out and down, and the current kept the herring tail wagging and spinning. The pull was so hard that I was sure I had a ten pounder on from the very start. The scow twisted this way and that way, and when they saw an extra large whirlpool approaching, the men would slack off on the anchor end and rapidly pull us out of reach with the shoreline. You could see right down the whirlpool's throat as it sucked and reached at us. Then off it would twirl, and we would pull ourselves out to the edge again.

There was a man fishing off the tip of the point just beyond us. He was on a high platform that stretched ten feet out over the water. Suddenly, with a great shout, he started pulling in his line. You don't play your fish with this kind of fishing you use a wire lead and a heavy line, and haul. That man fought his line for fifteen minutes before he finally got his fish clear of the water and up onto the narrow platform. Then, before he could gaff it, the hook evidently worked out, for with a yell the man flung himself on the fish, and sat there with it clasped in his arms, laughing and shouting for help. Someone came out to his rescue and they got the big spring salmon to shore.

"At least a sixty pounder," the man with me said.

A minute later he was himself busy trying to land a thirtypounder. The boy shouted, and I grabbed the shore line and helped him pull the scow out of danger. I think the man would have let us sink rather than lose his fish.

Then it was too dark to fish any longer and the water was running too hard and we walked home through the woods.

Johnstone Straits were running white and it wasn't any fun. So we turned off into a narrow harbour to wait it out. We waited for a couple of days, tied up to a long float that keeled over when the wind hit, and was difficult to walk on.

It was three in the morning when something woke me someone calling me.... I hastily opened the canvas curtain and looked out. The girl from the house on the hill was kneeling on the wharf in the grey light her hair blowing out behind her. Her mother, who was rather frail, had been ill all night, with a severe and continuous nose bleed. The Columbia, the Coast Mission boat, with a doctor on board, would be passing early in the morning. If she could be intercepted they could get help. We were the only boat in the harbour; did I think I could get down to Salmon River where they had a radio telephone? We looked at the tide book with the flashlight, and I said we would try it when the tide turned at about four o'clock. Salmon River was some ten miles down the straits, and the water from the river makes a tide rip as it hits the heavy tides of Johnstone Strait it would be easier to get into the basin if I could reach there near slack water.
I woke up the children and we ate our breakfast and then pushed off. The tide had not yet turned, but the wind was behind us and there was not much sea yet. Iran full out, and it took us only about an hour to get there. The entrance is narrow but there is a fair sized basin when you get through. There was an adequate wharf about twenty five feet above my head, sitting on the edge of a mud bank no water. I anchored the boat and took the dinghy. There was a slippery ramp over the mud bank up which I finally slithered.

It was the trading store that had the radio telephone, and the storekeeper lived above the girl had told me. I pounded and shouted for ten minutes before a man's furious face appeared at an upstairs window. He calmed down when I explained the emergency, and said he would contact the Columbia later not much use trying before seven . . . . I pointed out that at seven I might not have been able to get there at all.

The girl wrote later to thank me the Columbia had come in about nine. The doctor had managed to stop the hemorrhage and they had taken her off to the mission hospital.

The fish boats used to do a lot of emergency handling of telegrams and messages. We once had one handed to us by a fisherman at the Yuculta Rapids. The telegram had been telephoned from Victoria to Campbell River up the island. From there it had been telephoned to Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island. Then it was handed over to a fish boat to take up to Bruce's Landing on Stuart Island, and for them please to try to locate me.

At Bruce's Landing they told the fisherman that we had been in two days ago for gas, and that we might still be tied up at Asman's Bay. So, just by chance it reached us.

The telegram read "Motor Launch Caprice, Bruce's Landing, via Squirrel Cove. Doctor M. advises Appendectomy. Wire consent, Love B."

What was I to consent to? Whatever Dr. M. advised sounded more like a prehistoric animal of the pre glacial period than a disease. Everyone looked at the telegram and had a guess. A fisherman said, "I think I know what that is. It's a boy, isn't it'!"

"It's a girl," I said, and I never heard what he suspected.

But I had to get to a telephone even to wire, and the nearest one was back in Squirrel Cove. It took us a full day to get there as the tides at the Yucultas were wrong. I telephoned the doctor, for I simply had to know what awful thing I was consenting to.

The message, relayed by two country telephone operators, had grown in length by gathering strange letters in its course - he merely wanted to take her appendix out. I got a stay of execution by promising to be home in three days.

So, while there were disadvantages to the Coast Emergency Service, how thankful everybody was at times that they could count on it!”



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