June Cameron was a competitive sailor and Paul Holsinger was a skilled mechanic when they set out in 1983 in Holsinger's old 26-foot wooden sloop, Wood Duck, to explore the Queen Charlotte Islands (now known as Haida Gwaii) in British Columbia. During the more than two decades since then, Cameron has had the opportunity to read her "careful diaries" and research the history of the Queen Charlottes by reading many books that she quotes throughout her memoir. In fact, she writes, "I needed that much time to understand the significance of the many relics of First Nations culture we stumbled upon as we meandered up this wild coastline." 26 Feet to the Charlottes is a testament to the richness of a pilgrimage of any sort, when the pilgrim reflects on personal experience and learns more about the land she visited.
The first half is about the couple's earlier travels up the coast of British Columbia. Then, in the summer of 1983, they sailed across the Hecate Strait to Skidegate Narrows, the gap that separates Graham Island from Moresby Island. Cameron was the navigator, relying on charts that didn't include every rock and reef, unlike the satellite navigation and echo sounders available to sailors today. Each day they caught fish for their meal and learned their own method of smoking salmon. Cameron cooked bread in an old pressure cooker. Sometimes there were rare delicacies like abalone, not allowed these days as they have been "overfished."
The two sailors ventured to Anthony Island at the southern end of the archipelago, once home to over 300 people before the scourge of smallpox. The weather-worn totems and burial poles that remained showed carvings of family crests. Lichen and moss-covered posts were the only remnants of earlier buildings, "yet the voices remain in the whispers among the trees," Cameron recalled. I found the words to be poetic as well as poignant, with a sense of what has been lost. Cameron was experiencing her own loss with the advancement of deafness. I wonder if Cameron's reflection and research at home was more possible to her than speaking, and attempting to listen, to people along the way.
I'd love to go to Haida Gwaii but it's unlikely that I would go with another person in the cramped quarters of a small boat, having only the occasional shower! In the end, Cameron and Holsinger appreciated each other's particular skills and their commitment to the journey, as well as "just plain good luck" that guided them through some dangerous situations. Although they didn't see all the old village sites they had hoped to and they didn't stay together as a couple to venture out again, the journey to Haida Gwaii was a highlight of their lives.
June Cameron has sailed the British Columbia since the mid-1970s and was a competitive sailor for more than a decade. Her first two books were Destination Cortez Island and Shelter from the Storm. These days she keeps a speedy little Davidson rowboat that she sails on bright summer days from her home on the shores of Cortes Bay, BC.
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