As soon as the lockdown ended, I started taking short trips along the west coast. At the time, I lived on an island called Protection, and over the Covid years, it lived up to its name. Eventually, the protection began to feel like encasement, so I tried to leave the island. From the shore, I could see the Salish Sea, the greenery of another gulf island, and the coastal range as I was at the wet westernmost edge of the continent. The coast was close, but I was not always successful in crossing the harbor on the small ferry that left every hour. Even though it was an old lifeboat and one of the safest vessels in the port, I struggled with the journey.
I’d been experiencing what I thought of as “surges.” Every few days, I’d sink to the floor and breathe through ascending waves of energy, some so powerful they rippled the muscles in my legs after I lay down. On the ferry, if I felt the beginnings of anxiety, I tapped my thumbnails on the pads of each finger, counted my breaths, and tried to refrain from chastising myself for allowing this to happen.
When I did get off the island, I took buses or sat uneasily in the passenger seat of a car. I considered these early explorations a slow venture out to other parts of the coast. Part of my time on Protection was spent clearing out a parent’s house. While doing so, I found a stack of small craft charts that described the nearby waters. Even though some of the names were no longer current, the 3310 map, sheet 4 of 4, was a favorite because it folded out into a wide rectangular swath, so I could trace a line south along the coastline and examine elevations and moorings and the old names, including Newcastle Island, which was now Saysutshun. Kuper Island was now Penalukut. The names on the map were a mash of colonial influences, British and Spanish, Spanish and British. Mudge Island was named after William Fitzwilliam Mudge, an officer on HMS Plumper who served under the hydrographer of the Royal Navy. (It wasn’t a large island). Valdes for the Spanish explorer Cayetano Valdés y Flores, who traversed the coast in 1791 as a lieutenant, serving under Captain Alessandro Malaspina. Thetis Island was named in 1851 after HMS Thetis, a 36-gun Royal Navy frigate. Galiano took its name from Spanish explorer Dionisio Alcalá Galiano, who explored the area in 1792. And, as always, there were strange pockets. Gossip Island was given its name because the cliffs of Mary Anne Point, Georgina Point, Helen Point, and Edith Point surrounded it. Protection had been Douglas Island. Nowhere on this map was the name of the Snuneymuxw, the first nation on whose land Protection rests. There were, however, brutal rectangles on the map with no wording inside them except: Indian reserve.
Because of my inability to drive or take the ferry, because I had to prioritize and sometimes lay down and breathe and feel, I wrote down the tide times. I looked over the depths in fathoms on the map and occasionally wondered why I felt such washes of anxiety at this stage of life. On the rectangular map, I could easily find the deepest and darkest parts of the coast, where the narrows ran fast over dangerous water. The map was copyrighted Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 1979.
Because package delivery was not easy on the island, I sometimes spent time on the phone describing my street, Cutlass Lookout, and some other roads on the island, including Captain Morgan’s Boulevard, Treasure Trail, and Pirates Lane. The names of this island were mainly taken in an act of ahistorical fantasy initiated by the realtor who first subdivided the place from the novel Treasure Island. We called the beach nearby “Mailbox Beach” because a path led to the mailboxes, but on maps it was known as Ben Gunn Park, the name of a fictional character in a Scottish novel published in 1883. It was strange as a settler to consider why we’d chosen these names and whether perhaps part of my anxiety rose from a land anxious to be renamed.
Walking always helped with the surges, especially walking barefoot to the southern part of the island where the trees thinned in the spots where the coal mine had been operational in the mid-nineteenth century. The rocks on this beach were dark, shards of old shale that resembled coal. It was named Gallows Point, which looked like another reference to one of Long John Silver’s stories in Treasure Island. In this case, the origin was non-fiction: it was the location of the hanging of two Indigenous men found guilty in 1853 of murdering a Hudson’s Bay Company shepherd. Until around 1900, it was known as Execution Point. When I’d walk there, I could watch the slow rotation of the lighthouse and think about the slow way the name was being gently prised from its original description.
I kept walking the island. I had a theory that I could learn more about the physical vocabulary of the coast if I walked barefoot and that grounding myself in a place might help with the surges, so I wouldn’t need to collapse to my knees and lay my hands on the ground as much. I used my finger-tapping technique in the car. I used it when I took the bus an hour south to Victoria to visit my father, and usually had to press my nails deeply into the pads of each finger as the bus moved past the reservation of the Snuneymuxw nation and into the territory of the Quw’utsun Nation peoples, the warm valley of Duncan, over what was called the Malahat, and into Victoria, land of the Songhees, Esquimalt, Tsartlip, Tseycum, Pauquachin, Scia’new, Tsawout and T’Sou-ke Nations. I often went straight to the Royal Jubilee Hospital to see my father’s progress. The pulmonary department was located on the land of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ.
The thing about walking barefoot was that everyone wanted to talk to me about my feet. It became a kind of game. Was I wearing shoes? Was I not wearing shoes? Why was I wearing shoes? Winter began, and the last leaves fell, and the king tides encroached. The sweeping rains came. The fawn lilies and chocolate lilies were nothing but a memory. I could start to feel under my feet one of my favorite sensations. It happened when the winter rains worked over the wet fallen leaves of the maples. No matter how cold it got or how often a fellow islander would look down at my bare feet with alarm or disdain, I could walk in December. Climate storms wracked the rest of North America. Maybe this grounding, the feel of wet red leaf under my foot, had helped with these eruptions of emotion. Maybe it helped with the sadness that came with the hospital trips. I’m not sure, but after months of walking, sitting on the black shale of the beach, feeling some sort of protection and revulsion, I could venture further along the coast. After restrictions were lifted, when I could sit with people again, I started speaking to them about the coastline.