STORY SO FAR: Having just escaped armed smugglers, Aaron and his fellow kayakers encounter gargantuan waves.

Dad tells tale of ‘root people’

“Brace!” Dad yelled. We dug our paddle blades into the breaking wave and held them flat. We were swamped, but managed to push ourselves upright. Then we paddled like crazy toward Goose Island.

We were south of the beach now. Rock cliffs met the ocean here and that created a new problem: waves were reflected off the cliffs and passed through the ocean waves rolling in, causing “haystacks” to erupt at random. And the closer we got to the cliffs, the more the sea surged outward between the swells.

“Go with the surge!” Roger shouted. “Don’t fight it! The next wave might crash you on the rocks!”

Suddenly a haystack erupted beneath us and tossed us in the air. We smacked down on our side and I thought, This is it! But a low brace pushed us back upright again, and we paddled on.

We slid back out with each surge, until we were in a safer zone of rolling swells – beyond the reflected waves, yet inside the offshore boomers. Lisa flashed a smile and waved her hand from the next crest, and Cassidy raised a horned fist and hollered, “Peace out, dude!”

We rested in the lee of Goose Island. Since the ferry wouldn’t be back to Bella Bella to pick us up for four more days, we needed a plan for avoiding the Sea Wolf. We decided to hide out among the islets and lagoons, then shoot up Hunter Channel to Bella Bella in time to catch the ferry.

“Number one,” Willie said, “is not to let the Sea Wolf find us. That means smokeless fires, hugging the shore as much as possible, and no broad daylight paddles across wide-open passages.”

We’d have to start across Queen’s Sound at dusk. It was a long ocean passage, and we were afraid of getting caught by a tidal rip in the dark.

Roger and Dad – keeping watch for the Sea Wolf – trawled for salmon while the rest of us hunted the tide pools for sea bounty. Willie gathered purple sea urchins, bristling with needles. Lisa and I plucked mussels from the rock walls, and Cassidy, in a wet suit, dived for huge purple hen scallops. On his last dive, he came up dangling a long, ugly salami with warts: a sea cucumber.

“A delicacy, dude,” Cassidy said, licking his lips.

•••

We started across Queen’s Sound as the sun set, our eyes peeled for the Sea Wolf. To cut wind resistance, we feathered our paddles against the wind, spinning the forward blade horizontal, slicing into the wind.

By dark we’d crossed the sound and found a hidden cove on the lee of a tiny island. We pulled our kayaks well out of view among the trees and pitched our tents at the feet of cedars. Then we gathered driftwood, and Willie built a small, almost smokeless fire. The black sky folded its raven wings around us.

Willie cooked yet another seafood feast, which we ate in silence. But the image of Chinese immigrants stowed in the Sea Wolf haunted my mind. “Dad?” I said. “You told me that the migrant workers send most of their money to their families back in Mexico. Is that what the Chinese do?”

Dad rubbed his fuzzy jaw. “All I know is, they’re desperate to flee China, desperate enough to risk their lives.”

I chewed on that for a while. The sea breeze stirred the trees.

Lisa stood up and ambled off alone toward her tent. Cassidy got up and followed her. Jealousy pulled my string again, pulled it tight.

Dad came over and sat beside me, perching his plate on his knee.

“How ya holding up, Aaron?”

I shrugged.

“Food’s good,” he said.

I gave him a sarcastic thumb’s-up.

“Miss Mom?”

I shrugged again.

Ten minutes later, Lisa stumbled back toward the fire and sat down, clutching herself. She looked angry. I knew it, I thought. Cassidy can’t be trusted.

“Where’s Cassidy?” Willie asked.

“Like I care,” she snapped.

The tree branches creaked, and the sea slapped the shore.

“It’s time for a story, folks,” Roger said, trying to sound jolly.

“I know one,” Dad said. In fact, he knew lots of stories. “It’s a Tlingit story. The Tlingit people live just north of here, up on the Alaskan panhandle.”

“Just tell the story, Dad.”

“Well,” he said, laying his plate down. “Long ago, river otters were called Kuschtas, meaning ‘root people,’ because they lived among the roots of trees. The root people could change into humans and back into otters at will. And though not big and ferocious like bears, they were feared even more than bear or wolf.”

He let the silence seep into our bones. The flames flung their dancing shadows against the trees.

“The root people were tricksters,” he continued. “They would approach near-drowning victims in their capsized canoes, in the guise of humans, and lend a helping hand. But then they’d kidnap them and drag them, kicking and screaming, back to their villages, where they, too, turned into root people, lost forever to their families back home.”

“Nice,” said Lisa sarcastically. Then she got back up and went to her tent. Roger flung tea from his mug and followed her. The fire was shutting down, and with it, the night.

I crawled into my sleeping bag, and that night I dreamt about Chinese immigrants huddled in the bowels of a ship with their ankles shackled, like slaves. They moaned in pain. A hatch opened and light poured down on a girl’s face. It was Lisa, her eyes wide with terror.

•••

In the morning Lisa was missing – their kayak gone. My first irrational thought was of the root people. My next thought was of the Sea Wolf – and Lisa, out there alone, at its mercy.

(To be continued.)


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.