The darkness that falls at midnight on the Charlotte Islands, off the northern coast of British Columbia, does not feel like North American darkness. The black that envelops the tidal plain just beyond the lights of Kumdis River Lodge late on a summer night is as deep and full and pregnant with danger as that of any African veldt. There are things out there-grumbling, chattering, shuffling about. If this were a cartoon, the night would be filled with floating, glowing eyes. Here there be monsters.I’ve come to these islands to partake of this lingering wildness. I imagine my hear, whale and bald eagle, arm in arm like three fuzzy football mascots: Brian the Bear, Eddie the Bald Eagle, Fudgie the Whale. The salmon I imagine cold-smoked and served with onions and capers. He doesn’t have a name.
I’m a New Yorker: I like my wilderness ala carte. And the menu here is huge. The Charlottes arc an apostrophe-shaped knot of some 150 mist-covered islands two hours north by small plane from Vancouver. They boast an astonishing variety of weather. wildlife and landscape—from towering rain forests to boggy Arctic muskegs to snow-peaked mountains. It’s the kind of place Canadians speak about with a dreamy, longing sigh, as though the islands represent a vision of Canada as it wishes to see itself: wild, primordial, free—one huge SUV commercial, without the exhaust fumes.
The islands have been called the Galapagos of North America because of the endemic species that arrived during the last ice age and were then stranded to wallow in their own gene pool, and a certain Galapagosation has occurred among the roughly 5,500 residents, too. There are loggers and homesteaders, draft dodgers and hippies, hermits and back-to-the-landers. This is not to mention the islands’ original inhabitants, the Haida, who once ruled the coast as far south as the state of Washington.
I’m staying with my guide, Peter, his girlfriend, Kirsten, and their half-wolf, half-malamute, Ceya, at Kumdis River Lodge, on an inlet of Graham Island. Surrounded by thick stands of evergreens, it’s the perfect place to begin checking off my wildlife wish list.
Bald eagles, it seems, will not be a problem; they’re like pigeons here. “You see them around the garbage dumps or wherever there’s roadkill,” Peter says. I feel sure this is some kind of anti-American propaganda until I catch sight of a bald eagle by the side of the road, picking away at a cardboard box. Oh, Eddie, I think sorrowfully.
Bears and whales will be a taller order. They abound, but they don’t necessarily appear on demand. So we resolve to keep watch as we explore: hiking through overgrown forest filled with cedars and spruce as big around as a Fotomat; kayaking down glassy, purple-glowing inlets where ecosystems thrive on the decks of long-abandoned timber barges; wading Out into barren North Beach and, watched by two curious seals, collecting Dungeness crabs and fat, six-inch-long razor clams for dinner. For the first two days, it rains always—a raw mist to which not a single man or beast pays one moment’s attention. The rain has been falling here for 10 million years.
The Charlottes are beautiful when wet but glorious when the sun bursts through. That’s when we head up the inlet toward the open water, through which hundreds of thousands of salmon travel on their annual migration. (On the way, I see another bald eagle—this one in full flight, wings spread and white head thrust forward proudly I feel a swell of national pride and a sudden urge to send priority mail.) As we troll, four lines in the water, I scan the surface for whale spouts. No luck. Suddenly, one of the rods bends in half. Under Peter’s direction, I set the hook and the fish takes off, running with the line for thirty seconds. It feels as if there’s a thrashing, angry horse on the end of the rod. After thirty minutes, I see a silvery shadow near the surface. One large eye peeks out and takes in the boat, and the salmon leaps from the water, hangs shimmering in midair as though auditioning for a modeling gig in Outdoor Life and then spits the hook and is gone. I am empty-handed and exhilarated.
The southern portion of the Charlottes consists of Gwaii Haanas National Park, an uninhabited, deeply wild preserve. In the park lies Hotspring Island, a dot of rock containing natural thermal pools framed by virgin forest and reachable only by half a day’s boat trip or by float plane. We go soaring south across wooded hills and deep blue mountain lakes. Peering out the window, I finally see my bear, lumbering his way across a clearing—going, I suppose, over the mountain. He does not look like he is named Brian. He looks like he could be named Killer, and I am not altogether unhappy to be several thousand feet in the air.
So I wind up with two of four goals fulfilled—which seems fair. In the wilderness, all meals are strictly chef’s choice, and most quests are MacGuffins, anyway: white lies we tell ourselves to justify doing something as patently unsafe as walking out the front door. The monsters are there, in the darkness—and sometimes just knowing it is enough.