Day after day through our satellite connection to the internet, we watched in horror as civilization seemed to crumble right before our eyes. However, we were confronting our own challenges and worrying about how the future would unfold for ourselves.
Beyond the eeriness of silent skies and the horrors of the news media, there was a near complete cessation of information from head office. Normally, when spring arrives on Haida Gwaii, plans start to come together for the recommissioning and opening of the lodge, as clients new and returning, are confirming
their reservations. Additionally, the office would normally be abuzz with activity and returning employees, but this year was not the same. Rather, clients were calling to cancel reservations, deposits were being refunded, and employees were being advised that they might not be needed. Not us though. If the lodge were to not open, it was almost a certainty that they would need us to stay. Unless, of course, the company took drastic actions and decided to end their lease on the property and scale back their operations and focus on their flagship lodge on Langara Island. In that case, we would most likely be out of a job.
The Islands; The People
Haida Gwaii is a large archipelago situated about 80 nautical miles from the northern coast of British Columbia and is sparsely populated by mostly the indigenous Haida people. When European explorers first arrived on Haida Gwaii, they introduced diseases such as smallpox, influenza, and measles to which the Haida had no immunity. These diseases spread rapidly among the Haida population and their numbers crashed from around 7,000 to less than 700.
It was no wonder to us that the Haida Council of today would demand that all unnecessary traffic between the archipelago and the mainland stop.
The Wildlife; The Crime
So for us, in our tiny remote world, far from the nearest population center, the first noticeable omissions from the normal springtime routine were that there were no requests for equipment repair lists or required maintenance items, no scheduled spring barges to bring fuel, and no one at all to be coming in.
Another attribute of Haida Gwaii and the reason for the existence of the lodge is the fishing. It is excellent. So when the weather allowed and the stories from the outside world became too overwhelming, we would take our fishing gear and a few beers and go fishing. On one such day in mid-March, our little fishing expedition would be the beginning of a whole new saga.
While we were trolling around some of the small islands just outside the cove, we began to hear gunshots. This was not common during normal times, but to hear gunfire during COVID-19 lockdowns would be extremely strange.
Just to the north of our cove was Port Louis, a much larger protected bay where commercial fishing boats would often seek refuge from stormy weather. After catching our dinner, we decided to take a peek into Port Louis, and without having to enter the bay, we discovered that a fishing vessel was anchored there. We turned and left.
As we made our way around the peninsula that separated our cove from Port Louis, ahead in the waves we saw something floating. I pulled the boat slowly up to it with Wendi on the bow looking to see what it was. What we found was not a surprise, it was a dead sea lion.
This was our fourth year at the lodge and over the years we had on rare occasions heard gunshots in the distance. Coincidentally, over the same period of time, there had been a definite reduction in the sea lion population in what had been a fairly large rookery in Port Louis. Also coincidentally, all over the coast of British Columbia there was controversy surrounding sea lions and seals and their effect on dwindling salmon stocks. Naturally, commercial fishers were advocating a cull and sometimes taking matters into their own hands. We checked the sea lion over and found it had been shot in the face by a large caliber rifle. The rookery is home to both California and Steller sea lions. We were initially unsure which species this was. We tied a dock line to it and began towing it back to the lodge.
Back at home, we tied it to the south side of the helipad and went up to our room in the lodge to do a little research online. Afterwards, we were confident that it was a Steller sea lion.
We were then faced with the question of what to do. Should we report it? Had it been a California sea lion, I don’t think the authorities would have been interested enough to make the flight in to investigate. But being that it was almost certainly a Steller sea lion and thus protected by Canadian law under the Species at Risk Act, we felt we should.
I emailed the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, known as the DFO, the next morning. The wind was light that day so I flew my drone over the hill and took pictures of the fishing vessel. Then I went online to Vesselfinder.com to see if their boat would show up on the automatic identification system. It did and it provided a picture of the vessel as well. I took note of the name of the vessel and the name of its owner and saved the picture. Later that morning, a zodiac came into the cove. We arrived down at the dock just as they were closing in. They came into the dock on the north side but never attempted to tie up.
It was two of the fishermen from the boat in question. They made some small talk and said that they felt they should come over to let us know that if we had heard some gunfire and were concerned, it was just them as they had been hunting for deer. We found that particularly interesting as there were many, many shots fired all that morning. In my experience when deer hunting, you get one or two shots and that’s all. If you miss, they’re gone.
I could only suppose what they were thinking but I was a little miffed that they would think that we were that stupid. We smiled and nodded, thanked them for their courtesy and bid them farewell. All the while, the sea lion was not 50 feet way from them, on the other side of the helipad. They never saw it. They headed back out the way they came as we went back to the lodge.
Minutes later, I sat down in my chair and opened my computer to check my email. I found a reply from the DFO and they were indeed very interested in the case and had many questions. I sent a reply to let them know that we had the specimen, had identified the boat and had captured photos. They arranged a day to come in to investigate.
The Law; The Forensics
On the morning of the following Thursday, I pulled the carcass in towards shore as the high tide began to recede. Soon after I was finished, the DFO officers flew in and landed in the cove. They came fully prepared to perform an on-site autopsy and a lengthy interview.
While the tide receded, leaving the carcass lying on the beach, we sat socially distant at the very large dining room table in the lodge and made our statements, and agreeing to testify in court if necessary. After the interview, one of the officers followed a trail over toward Port Louis and the other two began the autopsy.
They were there for most of that day and while they were on the beach cutting up the carcass, there was a near constant sound of gunfire from the direction of Port Louis. With each shot, the officers would look at each other and shake their heads. Once they had extracted the bullet from the specimen and taken all the pictures that they would need, they thanked us and re-boarded their waiting aircraft. They flew out, taking the head with them but leaving the rest of the carcass on the beach.
Two Infidels; More Antics
Maybe it was the images from the outside world, of all that turmoil caused by the pandemic that made whatever we were doing seem more normal. Or maybe we were starting to experience our own mental issues due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and or our long periods of isolation over the past few years. I’m not really sure, but in retrospect, what happened next seems a little crazy.
In the mornings, we would sit in our big, well-padded, wooden patio chairs that we had brought inside and set up in front of the glass sliding doors at the foot of our bed and have coffee and breakfast. We would usually spend our entire mornings there reading the news, interacting on social media, and trading stocks as the stock market recovered from its massive crash.
Our second floor room provided us with a view looking out over the cove, beyond the islets and out to the open Pacific Ocean. It was a spectacular view regardless of the weather.
In the weeks, months and years leading up to this time, we had been diligently working at restoring our sailboat, (Cosmic Debris). Being at the lodge, uninterrupted, for three quarters or better of every year since 2016, had given us ample opportunity to work toward that goal, as long as we came prepared with materials and supplies.
This year, we were planning to replace our old diesel-fired cabin heater with a small wood-burning stove. The benefit of a wood stove is, of course, free fuel. One limitation though is that they only burn for a few hours and then the fire dies out.
I was trying to find a solution to that problem. One idea was to use compressed fire logs that would burn longer, but the downside to that is that it limits one’s ability to live off grid. Then the sea lion carcass fell into our lap. What if we take the blubber and render it down, mix it with shavings and compress our own logs? While we’re at it, why not take the hide too? I could use the hide for a new skin for my djembe drum.
Springtime was very special to us at the lodge. The lodge sits right at the base of a very steep 300-metre high hill. It and the lodge are both north-facing, so we would be without sunshine from early November until early February. When it did start to peak above the hilltop, it would only shine through a couple of windows on the backside of the building and not for long, and that was only on cloudless days. We were, at the time, experiencing the warmest and sunniest weather of 2020 to date. On top of that, it was Friday, which meant a trip to the beer store was in the cards.
Of course, as I said before, there were no roads there and it took a full day by boat or an expensive float plane ride to get to town. Handily, we had our own beer store in the basement and prices were much better too. Free. I headed for the basement to hit the booze room while Wendi sharpened a knife for me. With beer chilling in the walk-in cooler and a sharp knife in hand, I headed down to the rocky beach to begin the arduous task of skinning a week-old, 2,000-pound sea lion.
I was surprised at two things. One, how thin and still pliable the skin was, and two, how much blubber this guy had on him. I was not really surprised at how bad it smelled, although I’m sure it would have been much worse if he hadn’t chilled in the ocean for nearly a week before I brought him ashore.
The officers had done a fair bit of hacking on his carcass, searching for fragments of bullets, but there were still some large sections of hide that would suit my purpose just fine. The difficulty was moving this guy around. It was a good thing that the beach had just enough slope to it that I could roll him around when needed. After a few hours of work, I had several five-gallon buckets of blubber, more than enough hide, and one big stinky problem. What to do about this carcass? We didn’t want a repeat of the bear incident that we had back in 2017, but that’s another story for another time.
After delivering my treasures to Wendi, I found a nice long rope and went back down to prepare the carcass for disposal. I tied one end of the line to the carcass and the other end to the dock. There was nothing more to do there until the tide was in sufficiently so I could tow it out to the middle of the cove and let it sink. I returned to the lodge to find Wendi with an ice-cold beer for me. She was busy salting the hide and had put lids on all the buckets of blubber. After sitting down for a beer or two, I spent the rest of the afternoon looking for materials and then making racks for stretching the pieces of hide over. We strung them up using tuna line from the tackle room.
It looked like the weather was going to hold up nicely for us for several days, so the next day we reloaded the walk-in cooler with more beer and then got back to work. The hides were stretched and salted, but still needed to be scraped clean. After watching a couple of YouTube videos, I found a used circular saw blade in the tool shed and took a grinder to it, making an Ooloo knife. We, and by we I mean mostly Wendi, got the hides scraped, cleaned, and packed into the freezer.
Meanwhile, I made a fire beneath a steel tripod so we could hang our blubber pot and drink some beer. Wendi fetched a cooler full of beer, a big cooler, they have really big coolers there, and we sat in the sunshine until the sun and all the beer were all gone and the blubber was all rendered. We were both amazed at how clean it rendered down. It was clear and odourless. Until the last pot of course, I guess we’d had too many beers and didn’t watch that last pot close enough. When overcooked, it reeks. After all was scraped and rendered, there was only one thing left to do, make a press to make logs.
I would also need shavings and sawdust. It was springtime and we had plenty of woodwork to do inside Cosmic Debris which would provide a lot of shavings and sawdust. So beyond that, all I really needed were the parts to make the press. Over the years we had found the lodge’s trash pile to be a gold mine of usable materials for Cosmic Debris. That day I found a length of two-inch steel pipe, a couple of caps to fit on each end, and then borrowed a piece of ready rod and a couple of nuts from the shop. I perforated the pipe and put a cap with a hole to accommodate the ready rod on one end and a large washer that fit inside the other end, with a nut. The moment had finally arrived. Could I make my own fire logs? Would they burn too quickly? Was this all just a waste of time?
Join in next time for the continuing saga to find out what happens and what other shenanigans we get up to.
If like the story but would prefer to listen, links to all the episodes of this series are available on the Podcasts page.
SAILING INFIDEL: Def. An unbeliever, heathen, pagan, heretic, agnostic, atheist, non-theist, freethinker, libertine, dissenter, or nonconformist of the sailing variety