COMPANIONS – THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
“Miguel – the Captain’s agreed. We can go ashore. Hurry!”
The first time they had been ashore, the two boys noticed a First Nations youth their own age. His skin was a dark copper hue but his legs and arms were smeared with red ochre. His hair was greased thick with fish oil and clung to his head and face.
Simon had put on his best dirty shirt and tattered overcoat for the ceremonial meeting. He could tell that the Nootka boy was curious about his white complexion and his English clothing. After the official greetings, when the atmosphere changed from formal to friendly, Simon tore away one of his brass buttons, attached it to a thin piece of sail hemp and gave it to the aboriginal boy as a token of friendship. Maquina, Chief of the Nootka was impressed and Captain Vancouver recognized the potential for goodwill by encouraging the friendship.
Now the Captain allowed the boys more freedom and the two companions and the Nootka prince were learning a great deal about each other.
On this day, the boy led Simon and Miguel beyond the estuary of a wide stream into the depths of the West Coast temperate rainforest. For Simon, it was a mysterious environment with a hint of terror. The vegetation was so thick that the sun was often obliterated and hiking was strenuous. It was not at all like the open highlands of England where you could walk for hours amongst the scrub brush. Miguel was not as intimidated. He was used to the thick jungles of the Caribbean but here the tall, swaying palm trees were replaced by mighty stands of gigantic oak and cedar and fir. Deep in the forest, the three boys clasped each other’s hands to form a chain, and even then, they could not reach around the trunk of a huge Western Hemlock. The damp moss of the forest floor was lush and soft and tickled their bare feet. However, the rough reddish-brown bark rubbed against their chests and easily bruised Simon’s white skin.
Tyee led them deeper into the rainforest. The small group plodded along at a steady march. Miguel was once again reminded of his native home, but in the islands of the West Indies the water was warm and inviting.
“My feet are freezing,” he complained to his companions.
They rounded a bend and the scene in front of them shifted Miguel’s attention from his feet.
A huge female grizzly was guarding her two, fat, little cubs. Miguel and Simon stood dead still. Tyee was cautious but confident.
The boys crouched down and eyed the munching bears. The mother tore away at the naked grasses. Her head bobbed from side to side. Every fifteen or twenty seconds her head jolted straight up and she would sniff the air suspiciously. Her silt covered nostrils flared and dilated constantly. Her ears flickered like miniature antennae. Some instinct told her to beware, but the three boys were downwind and she couldn't pick up their scent. The young cubs played on the riverbank, oblivious to any danger.
The tranquil scene shifted ominously. Something imperceptible to Simon and Miguel alerted the mother bear. The giant grizzly rolled onto her massive haunches. Her belly, chest, and head unfurled as the animal stretched her torso to full height. She tipped her head slightly back and jerked her neck to one side. Half eaten grasses and dripping mud rolled off her chin. She sat there cautiously but quietly. Her forearms extended from massive shoulders. Mighty paws the size of a cook’s pan were suspended in the air and hung there like a dog begging for dinner.
Tyee sensed danger and motioned for them all to move away from their hiding place. The little group began to crawl along on their hands and knees. They used the tall grasses as cover and crawled over soft goose feathers and sharp branches. When they were well clear of the danger, Simon rolled onto his back. The meadow was flush with tall flowers. A dragonfly hovered above his head like loose rigging blowing in the wind.
For the next few hours, the threesome traversed the rocky shoreline of the river as they retreated deeper into the heart of the valley. They continued upstream. A few logjams got in their way - but they made good time and maintained a steady pace.
Soon, the trees began to thin. Miguel could see a meadow ahead of them. Simon could see pathways traversing the open field like a mariner’s map of the trade routes. Tyee climbed a mighty Sitka spruce to get a better view. He grinned at Simon and Miguel and motioned for his two companions to join him.
“Amazing,” Simon said quietly.
From their perch they could see the antlers of a moose rising above the high grass. It was a young bull standing at least eight feet tall. His long and lanky legs gave him an awkward, ungainly appearance. His upper lip was solid muscle and his powerful forequarters exposed a mass of muscle similar to a grizzly’s shoulder hump. Simon and Miguel watched as the moose leisurely chewed branches.
Suddenly, the huge animal just disappeared. The seafarers blinked in disbelief. They heard a rustling sound in the foliage. The moose had laid down for a little nap and was now completely out of view in the tall grass.
Tyee shimmied down the trunk, and tiptoed into the dense meadow. Soon, he too became invisible in the tall, wetland vegetation.
Simon and Miguel sat patiently on the spruce branch. Suddenly, they heard a loud skirmish erupting in the tree across the meadow. They saw a furry black bear slide down the trunk to explore the area beneath, leaving her two cubs behind.
The noise startled the moose. With one giant bounce, the immense beast stood up and waddled in the direction of the noisy black bear. The moose held its head up high, its pancake-sized nostrils flapping like duck’s wings. Had it smelled the bear, or Tyee, or the boys in the tree, or all of them?
Now the moose was less than twenty feet away from Tyee. Simon and Miguel began to panic. They could see that Tyee was watching the black bear – but didn’t realize that the moose was backing into him from behind.
The situation soon got more absurd. A grizzly bear came bolting out of the forest and headed towards the black bear. The mother black bear scrambled back up her tree like a cabin boy being chased by the bosun. She clawed frantically and hoisted herself up to where her cubs were sitting safely.
Tyee quickly shifted his attention to the grizzly and began to inch his way around the trunk of a giant cedar tree. The moose was still trotting towards Tyee’s unprotected rear. Simon was sure that Tyee and the moose were going to back into each other. The grizzly had given up on the black bears, but was picking up the scent of moose and man.
Simon felt desperate. He turned to Miguel. “We have to do something.”
Simon lifted himself up onto the tree limb like a tightrope walker, his feet on one branch and his arms barely grasping another branch high above his head. He breathed deep and let out a mighty yell.
The scream echoed across the meadow.
Startled, Tyee looked up. The moose turned and galloped towards the river. The grizzly swayed its massive head one way and then the other. It charged out of the meadow as quickly as it had come.
Tyee collapsed at the base of the cedar tree. Simon and Miguel slid down from their perch. They were both so relieved that they began to laugh.
Late in the afternoon, the group headed back to the coast. They stopped to watch two deer at the water's edge. They were standing still and barely visible against a background of tan rocks. An eagle soared high above. Its sharp cry was lost in the sound of the running water. A beaver slapped its tail down hard before somersaulting backwards into a side creek. Its sleek body swam away towards a pile of logs and branches interwoven into a secure beaver lodge.
The small group of companions rounded a bend in the river and came face to face with two large wolves. Their scruffy coats were russet with grey patches. Simon and Miguel were worried. Would the wolves perceive them as friend or foe? The wolves stood and stared for a long time. After several agonizing minutes, the elder wolf ran for cover. The younger one realized that he had been abandoned and quickly disappeared into a patch of devil's club. The young pups howled. The sound of the wolves was accompanied by an equally impressive visual performance. Stretched out across the field in front of them was a display of wild Indian paintbrushes. The plants were in full bloom; bright red petals against a forest green background.
As they neared the coast, exhaustion set in. It had been a physically and emotionally demanding day. The sun was arching low on the horizon as Tyee nudged his two companions and pointed into the forest. Simon and Miguel saw a brilliant flash of white dissolve into the trees. The surprise on their faces was clear. Tyee smiled and whispered, “Kermode.”
Simon understood. The doctor had read about the rare, all-white bear of the British Columbia coast. The First Nations’ people called the Kermode the Spirit Bear.
Tyee smiled and pointed to Miguel. He made a hill-like shape with his hand and rubbed his palm over Miguel’s upper back. He pointed to himself and then dropped to the ground and scrambled around on all fours like the black bear of the meadow. Finally, Tyee took his finger and rubbed it across Simon’s chest and pointed to where the Kermode bear had just been standing.
It was a confusing series of actions and Simon and Miguel looked puzzled. All of sudden, Miguel interpreted the mime of his First Nations’ friend.
“Simon, do you understand?”
Simon shook his head back and forth, still confused by the scene.
“He is comparing us to the bears. My skin is dark like the grizzly, his skin is even darker like the black bear and your skin is white like the Kermode. We are all the same – but different.”
The campfire of the Nootka village and the twinkling lights of the Discovery welcomed the boys back to the coast. They were friends who had shared an incredible adventure amongst wildlife and vegetation of the British Columbia coast – an untouched land Beyond the Map.