I have read two books more than once—Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and a double feature of The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London. Both take me to incredible places. Both make me dream. For this, my sixth trip to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago some 30 miles west of British Columbia, I packed the Jack London. It seemed fitting for the long flights across Canada.
What started four years ago as no more than map dots and curiosity has turned into a personal and professional journey. It’s taken me into the woods where black bears roam, inside ceremonial long houses, in front of tour groups, onto sprawling beaches, and into the home of a Haida chief and his family, with whom I’ve shared stories, laughs, and even tears. Because of this journey, with a little luck and lots of help, passengers aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird and Sea Lion can visit these islands. In turn, the people of Haida Gwaii get to meet curious travelers capable of visiting without taking, of transiting without tarnishing their sacred view. Ensuring that it all works to plan keeps me up at night.
But for now it’s time to read. As I do, I am surprised to find passages new to me, images previously unseen, an eloquence that escaped me, the wheeler dog, Dave, and the sadness I feel when he has to be shot. (“Something was wrong inside, but they could locate no broken bones.”) I look out the window, distracting myself from the dogs, from the old fortune seekers.
Below, a blanket of low lying clouds covers the landscape. Broken only by the tallest mountain peaks, they ripple in the distance, range after range, shades of blue growing increasingly lighter. Up here, everything is sun kissed and beautiful. The man in front of me takes pictures out the window. But my thoughts are anchored below, beneath the clouds and to the waters of the Inside Passage, to the two ships currently seeking shelter from 40-knot winds and eight foot seas. They are scheduled to arrive to Haida Gwaii in two days with a few stops in between. They’ve already emailed for advice on alternate plans.
I am there and I am here, all at the same time, reading, watching, wondering.
By the time Buck works his way from stolen pampered dog to sled team member to leader of the pack I am reading faster. My heart picks up pace with the dogs. “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life,” it reads.
…and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back in to the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that is was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultant under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.
Most days I do not feel this stir from my work. I want to feel it. I dream of it. At times I feel the light breeze of it. Most days though I sit at my desk and type away at my computer. Excel sheets fill the screen, meetings overlap, headaches grow like the weeds in my garden. I think about the wild places this work has taken me—Alaska, Central America, Newfoundland—and I am grateful. Still, I torment over details, marketing, sales. I am tethered to my cell phone.
Returning to Haida Gwaii forces me to feel the surge of life, the tidal wave of being. All that we have planned could break loose at any moment. The waves could rise, a passenger could fall ill, a simple yet important email could have gone unnoticed. Or the plan could simply turn out to be a bad one. It terrifies me.
At the same time, there is no better way to be reminded that the work matters. The work is real. The work can change people. I’ll be selfish and say that Haida Gwaii has changed me most of all. The rewards have been greater, more surprising, and longer lasting than any others in my career. I have to return here to feel whole.
And would you look at that? Out the window the clouds are breaking. The tiny islands of Haida Gwaii dot the steely gray waters below. Each holds within them all the wild nature one needs, all the tonic. It’s raining but this is a temperate rain forest. A little rain is OK. The weather should clear enough for safe passage.
I turn back to the book. We’ll be landing shortly.
“He did not know why he did these various things. He was impelled to do them, and did not reason about them at all.”