The Balm of Wilderness

As the autumn rains began -unseasonably early this year it seemed- my mind wandered back to the wilderness we enjoyed all summer, and I find myself wondering how Travis Thomas is faring, alone on Bartlett Island on the windswept West Coast of Vancouver Island- has he managed to fashion a weather-tight shelter? has he laid in any supplies?  is he even still alive?

It has been well over a year since he was left on the small uninhabited island by the Ahousaht Nation band council. Thomas wasn’t exactly marooned on the island -he was sent there to heal-a chance to reconnect with his culture and his spirit, grieve the passing of his wife, and confront his substance abuse problems. Nor was he abandoned, as family and friends visited from time to time to check on him and deliver supplies- that is, until he abruptly vanished from the island last August.

Those same family and friends are still  searching for him, and his disappearance is a mystery. The island is small, accessible only by boat, and too far from any neighbouring islands to swim. No body has been found, but supplies left for him have been consumed, so he’s still out there- likely no longer on Bartlett, but alive, somewhere.

Thomas is not the first, nor will he be the last, to seek the balm of wilderness for a spirit  in torment. Nor is he the first to disappear, albeit with a strong  underlying suspicion that disappearance didn’t equate with death. Grant Hadwin, the man who felled the famous Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii, was another, disappearing on an epic solo kayak journey back to the islands to face charges. Many locals remain convinced that he’s out there still, living off the land.

Our remote coast harbours dozens, perhaps hundreds of such pilgrims, living off the grid in remote cabins, on floating shanties, or ramshackle liveaboard boats, and as urban life becomes ever more daunting, if not downright dangerous, their numbers are growing. Travelling through their wilderness domain one occasionally comes across them, or evidence they are nearby, and watching.

Refugees from city life, they seek a return to basics, clean, fresh air, the wonder of an  night sky unpolluted by artificial light, and exploding with stars, but most of all they seek silence.

Silence is the true balm of the wilderness. The absence of man-made noise has a remarkable healing power, and it is little wonder that more and more people are venturing into the wild, if not to live, then at least to rest for a time, where the only sounds to intrude are the lapping of the waves, or the rustling of wind in the trees .

A paddling buddy who made the transit from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy this summer described to me how the silence of the remote central coast was palpable, but that the further south they travelled the more the distant hum of humanity began to intrude- faint at first, but growing with each paddle stroke south – engine noise from passing fish boats, jet liners a mile above, float planes, cruise ships, and an occasional chain saw, in what sounded like a cacophony to ears newly tuned to the silence of the wild, by the time Port Hardy hove into sight.

That silence is worth preserving, whether for an Orca, trying to navigate in an ocean made hellishly noisy by man,  a paddler seeking time for quiet reflection, or a soul in torment in need of the healing balm of wilderness. It needs to be on the table, when governments consider permitting roads, logging, pipelines, or tankers.