The passage through Johnstone Strait

By: Megan McGrath, high school alumna High School Study Abroad, Wildlife Biology

“Come on, Megan, let’s run the trail back.”

“No way!” I replied automatically to Greg, our team leader, who was already jogging off down the path. I ran to catch up to him. There was definitely no way.

The hike up to Eagle Eye, a research station on a cliff overlooking the vast expanse of water that was Johnstone Strait, had been more arduous than I had expected. It was not long—only five kilometers, as opposed to the hike we had taken about a week before that had been 22 kilometers, or 14 miles, and longer than I had ever walked before. However, this hike was over much rougher ground, quick, steep uphills followed by sudden drops, through a dense choke of ancient trees and ferns that were as tall as my shoulders and as wide as I could spread my arms. British Columbia is the land of the enormous. The trees are gnarled with the story of their age, and have an immensity that seemed impossible. Sea stars three feet wide or more crawl in the shallows of Johnstone Strait, and 100 feet offshore the watery abyss plummets 2,000 feet straight down. And then there are the whales, of course. They are the giants of the sea.

Though I insisted to Greg that I couldn’t possibly run the trail back, he pushed me. He ran ahead, and I found myself running with him, weaving through the trunks and jumping down the declines, finding the quick rhythm of the strange combination of jogging and walking that is trail running. Every few minutes Greg would look back and ask if I needed a break, and I would surprise myself by saying, “No, not yet, I can go farther.” I didn’t know how it was possible, but I could. And somewhere down that trail my thinking changed. I stopped humoring Greg and began thinking about just how far I could run before walking again. Come on, just get to the top of this hill, and then I can fly down the other side. We paused to lean against a tree that had been blackened and gutted by lightning. I gulped water, then air. I was still a little out of breath when Greg suggested we go on, but I didn’t say no.

I knew that we were reaching the end of the trail when the light changed. It became yellower and brilliant, the color of open space against the muted, gray-green darkness of the thick forest. Spaces opened above us and in front of us. “Let’s run the rest of the way,” Greg said, and took off, and now I was game for it. As we ran into the light, I remember thinking that it was an impossible thing that after that whole trail I was now running full out, I who had never run in my life. But I was. The trail curved sinuously back and forth, through tall grass now, under an open sky. And then we were there, and I was still running, running all the way up into the shed where my two friends were waiting, and they looked up from their books, startled, as I pranced in through the door and collapsed into a chair. Greg was already there, and we smiled at each other. He had tested me, and I was glad of it now, for I had passed.

“What, you ran all the way back?” asked Rachael incredulously. I laughed through gasps of air.

I am stronger than I knew.

Greg went out to talk to the warden of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, Trish, who had brought my two friends Rachael and Jess back from Eagle Eye in her warden boat. Greg had needed one person to come with him back down the trail, and as I had been sticking with him all day as he went out on the warden boat to look for whales, it seemed logical that I would be the one to come with him once more. Now I lounged in the shed with Rachael and Jess, reading a book and munching on sweet maple sugar cookies, as we waited for Trish to be ready to take us back to Telegraph Cove in her boat. After a time, she came to the shed for us, and she led us down to the boat launch.

Getting into the warden boat involved carefully levering ourselves down a sheer cliff of black rock onto a ledge. My legs, still a little wobbly from the trail, trembled a little down that cliff, but I made it with some help from my friends. Once we all had our feet safely in the boat, Trish began rapid-firing commands at us. We had been given the supreme pleasure of being passengers on many private boats throughout the month, and we paid for our passage the best we could by doing whatever the captain told us to do.

Trish, the warden of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, is a woman with enormous character and an even bigger laugh. She is dark-skinned and tenacious and she is made for water like a duck; she would have made a good pirate. Her job is to keep boats out of the Reserve, which is closed to water traffic. Her passion is observing and protecting the orca whales of British Columbia, the great black-and-white dolphins of the sea. The night before, Greg had told me excitedly, “Wait until you meet the warden, Megan. She’s just like you, only older. Obsessed with the orcas. You’re gonna love her.” He was right. Out on the boat earlier that day, I had gotten to know Trish, who spoke with the Scottish-sounding lilt of her native Nova Scotia and called roiling seas “snotty,” and rainy weather “gross.” I came to realize that though we are similar in our love of the orcas of British Columbia, she is not exactly like me. Rather, she is the kind of person I aspire to be. Confident, energetic, and strong, she has found her path in life, and she was a role model for me during the brief period in which I knew her.

Trish’s boat was a familiar sort to us, a type of inflatable motorboat called a Zodiac. I had ridden in one of these before on the trip, but this one was bigger—perhaps thirteen feet from bow to stern—and it was old. Duct tape and marks of wear patterned its sides as if, in its years of service, it had earned merit badges and ornaments of honor. I positioned myself near the bow, and Trish gunned the boat away from the cliffs. We all whooped as the Zodiac reared up against the churning gray waves, and the five of us—Rachael, Jess, Trish, Greg and I—braced against the wind as we flew over the surface.

The passage was long and very cold. The air over Johnstone Strait is chilly, and moreover it had begun to rain down on us. The cold rain mingled with the cold sea spray, and the two were indistinguishable. I was soon unable to feel my hands hanging on the ropes of the Zodiac, and my face stung deliciously. Jess withdrew further and further into her rain jacket, until we could only see her nose and smiling eyes. Trish stood at the wheel, swaying with the rhythm of the boat and occasionally looking over her shoulder to tease Greg, who had been forced to fold his tall self into the small space behind Trish. Rachael and I sat across from each other at the bow, and we leaned full-faced into the gale, rocking back and forth as the boat skipped across the waves. We sang. I felt enormously alive.

And then, suddenly, there was a whale dead ahead of us, not more than 100 feet away, a massive black fin knifing the surface. The orca blew explosively. Terror and awe mingled in me and burst out of my mouth in a scream as we rocketed toward the orca, and then Trish pulled the key out of the ignition and we were still.

I scrambled to my feet. The massive bull orca sculled at the surface for a moment, turning this way and that, as though he was confused at our boat’s sudden lapse into silence. We watched the whale and he watched us. Then, giving us a wide berth and surfacing frequently—as if, I thought, to tell us where he was so that we didn’t again risk a collision—he swept past our Zodiac with unspeakable majesty and grace, and continued down Johnstone Strait. My spirit caught in my throat.

We continued, but then there were more of them. Trish cut the engine once more. A family of orcas surrounded us. Their breath rushed into the air in white clouds, two, three blows at a time, and then they were away again. Underwater, they called back and forth to each other, always in touch with their family, never alone. Above the water, we five humans in our boat stood, and watched, and said nothing. We had only to look into each other’s eyes to say what we felt. A whale to our starboard side surfaced and crooned a high call into the air, and Trish and I laughed and hugged each other in wonder and joy. As the whales glided past us in their watery realm, we all looked to each other with tears in our eyes. I trembled from the cold, and from my awe at the beautiful world around me, at the huge sky and water of the Strait, at the orcas, the spirits of the wild around me, and at my boundless love for the people with me. As the sky began to clear and pale sunshine broke through the clouds, I closed my eyes and I promised myself that I would not forget this day, and that somehow, I would find my way back to British Columbia.