A PLACE TO BELONG
The Shack is gone but the crabs still scurry beneath the rocks at Brunswick Beach.
By Donald Stainsby
July 1980 BC Outdoors
Camp was the place where I scurried about the bouldered beach, heaving aside the largest low-tide rocks that I could budge with my skinny arms, watching with delight and excitement as the crabs skittered to new security. They were micro-sized, those inter tidal crabs. Some scarcely as big a the head of a single nail, the largest perhaps as big around as a quarter. When you picked them up, the little ones tickled your palm, the larger ones sometimes nipped you with their developing pinchers. Though they didn't hurt, it took stern resolution to remain calm, not squealing or dropping them, the multitudinous crabs of Brunswick Beach.
Camp is my claim, I suppose, to belong to be native of this province in the special sense of having a local tradition. In the tapestry of my life, camp is one of the few unbroken threads, weaving its way still through the swirling patterns, its own texture unchanging, yet always it's there. It is a place, most definitely, and true to the B.C. tradition it's an outdoors place, but it's also a mood, part of the way I look at the world and move within it. It's much of my sense of continuity, of family. If I belong anywhere, it's there at camp.
The beginnings of memory are etched for me with scenes of camp: the smooth green swells of the water, un-rippled excpect by the bow-wave of the clinker-built inboard rented from Sewell's in Horseshoe Bay, roaring its smelly way for an hour and a half up Howe Sound, Boyer Island the half-way point. I remember clutching with fervor, my arms just long enough to stretch the width of the boat from one gunwale to another, my heart pounding every time someone shifted and the boat rocked, my eyes measuring the distance those silky green waves rolled silently to the steep, forested shore. I wondered if my uncle could swim it, or our cousin- I knew I could not. How many valiant ways I imagined my death while helping them and others- my parents, I suppose, I don't remember- get safely to shore. There is a bit of memory, too (is it my own or is it the family's?) of a Union Steamship heaving-to off the beach, a rowboat out from shore to land a new arrival- was it my father, come on the "daddy boat" for a weekend break from summer school at UBC? Without doubt it was at camp that I first got a glimpse of the miracle of reproduction, myriad glistening red eggs spilling from the belly of a fresh caught salmon.
Oddly, one of the strongest memories of camp is night: black as blackness cannot be known in the city, unrelieved even in the distance. When we wished to move in the dark, we carried a "bug " - a large jam tin with a wire handle fixed so the can hung horizontally, an X punched with a knife in one side, the four triangles this created folded back to support a thick white candle- a wind-resistant but feeble flame against that solid blind black. There was a bug-lit search for Billy, Grandfather's Persian cat, out for an explore the night of one arrival at camp. We trashed through the eerie bush, the bugs flitting through the tangle like giant fireflies, Grandfather calling in vain ( Billy of course returned, in his unperturbed way, next morning.)And one of my most vivid pictures of Grandfather is one imprinted on my mind that night by the light of a bug, a feeble light yet strong enough to catch the twinkle in his ever teasing eyes. He was a small man, slight and somewhat stooped, his bald head fringed in white, his mouth all but covered by his heavy white moustache. As I recall it, his collar was detached, the studs removed so that his white shirt gaped open at the neck- the height of informality. I'm sure he wore arm-bands to hold his cuffs of the wrists, and almost certainly a vest, for that is where he kept his watch. Solid black round-toed shoes were fresh from the pavements of Dunsmuir Street.
Hardly your standard camping gear. Yet this seemingly urban man who wouldn't - no, couldn't - abide the sight of a playing card, carried within him ( and there are those who say he passed it on to me) a certain restlessness. He journeyed from Ontario's heartland to the still new Vancouver and kept moving within the city, always on its outer edges, homing at last where the streets stopped short at the edge of the Kitsilano forest. So when in the first decade or so of the century, developers drew up a subdivision on Howe Sound, he was a ready investor. It was a fine looking subdivision on paper - named streets and tidy lots. The fact that it could be reached only by sea and that development in the urban sense would not occur for many decades were probably plusses in Grandfather's mind. They certainly were to the family.
A few cottages were built, mostly down by the point and in Alberta Bay. But the only development on Grandfather's part of the beach was the shack. My uncle was chiefly responsible for it -a scanty frame of two - by - fours rose in 1920 to be covered with shakes split from cedar washed up on the beach, its windows simply openings in the walls, one wall, eventually, mostly a round-stone fireplace. "It isn't much," the sign within read, "but its camp to us. Please respect." And for the most part, casual visitors- many of them en route to climb the Lions - did respect it. The shack served the family well, and, though long unused, was torn down at last only within the past few years.
Not that we always slept in the shack. Often as not it was out under the trees, even in the face of imagination's bears, or out on the boat my uncle built and anchored off-shore. But the shack was always there, the rainy day shelter, the dining room, the center, the family haven, the family seat.
Around it was the bush; behind, the mountains; in front, the sea. Around all, a sense of isolation, of no - contact, and growing within me a feeling of proprietorship, of eminent domain. This was the family's land, my place. My first real awareness of that feeling came, when I took some friends to Brunswick Beach for a week. We had good times, they were good people, but they didn't understand - how could they? - that the shack was a shrine and their uncaring presence almost a desecration. I understood, and my holiday was marred by a touch of guilt.
Eventually the railway was blasted through and, soon after, the highway. Now camp was truly accessible. But not just to us few originals. Property changed hands as owners who had hung on through the decades were able at last to realize their capital gains. Cabins and shacks became summer homes, the almost empty beach rang with the summertime cries of children playing. But still the skunks would visit and the squirrels scoot up and down the trees. The cedar waxwings came and the raven blatted their annoyance at the world in general. The Steller's jays swarmed in cheeky blue droves, next door to the shack whose cedar shakes had weathered by now, became subdued and handsomely moss-covered, a piece of the landscape.
Behind the scenes, the road brought a sufficiently of labor. A water system became necessary to serve the numbers who tired of trudging, buckets in hand, to Magnesia Creek. We all pitched in, digging trenches, heaving boulders, discovering unsuspected muscles. How we sweated to bring basic amenities to Brunswick Beach ( migod, was it already 25 years ago?) The day of the bugs was done- electricity came in , and telephones. We knew as we worked that we were altering Brunswick, making it something other then it had been, but something-we hoped- not all bad, even though we had fleshed out much of the turn-of-the-century developer's plans. The time did come, however, when those of us who had labored so hard could relax and enjoy the little luxuries we had created. We could indulge the sense of having earned our ease, of having earned our place.
The first year I wintered at Brunswick, my family was, I think, the only one in residence. There came a dark and howling night- a full Squamish was blowing- when I was relaxing with a certain smugness. This place was mine, I had earned it through sore muscles and sweat and by habitation, too. My children- asleep now in the loft of my mother's cottage- were the fourth generation of our family to play on Brunswick Beach, to turn rocks and squeal delightedly at scurrying crabs. - Four generations- a heady claim in this late-born land. It was mine, the family's, I felt, by right of half a century's living. No one, could deny that claim.
As I mused there came an intrusive sound in the noisy dark. Someone was knocking on the door. Alone, away out there as it still was to me, I was slightly apprehensive as I opened the door. Two men were there, roughly dressed. I was on guard as they explained.
Their car had broken down on the highway. They'd seen our lights. Did we by chance have a telephone? I relaxed and asked them in. In the full light, I saw that they were Indian, an old man and one much younger.
They phoned. A friend would arrive in half an hour or so to help them out. Yes, they'd very much like a cup of coffee. And the old man talked. He was Louis Miranda, (as I later learned, a chief of the Squamish people).He remembered, he said, when he was a boy his people every year journeyed from the Capilano River to the mouth of the Squamish. One of the overnight stops for their flotilla of canoes was this side of the point, in its shelter, right about this spot where we sat drinking coffee. It had always been thus, he said, in the memory of his people.
After they had left in the rain-ridden dark, I sat with my sense of property, of family heritage, utterly shattered. Half a century or so? Four generations? Opposed to the tribal memory of the Squamish people? I was soon able to cope with this dismaying concept - can't we all, most readily, rationalize in our own favor questionable situations that touch close to home? But it has left me far less glib when matters of aboriginal rights arise - another factor. I suppose, of personal experience.
Today, after almost a decade's hiatus, I am back weekending at Brunswick Beach, thinking seriously of making it finally my home. It would be derisory to say it has not changed. The shack after all, is finally gone. The summer homes and cottages have largely vanished, too- the one I' am in among the last and I'm contemplating even its early end. They've been replaced with large new dwellings, often complete with lawns.
Where once we found our way at night by the aid of bugs, we watch the news on cablevision. I certainly can no longer, as my mother did until her death last year, refer to it as camp. Yet it is not, quite, suburbia.
Across the railway tracks, above the highway, the mountains still loom, part of them at least unlogged .The hummingbirds still flit about, the cedar waxwings occasionally drop by, the jays, though fewer in number, still come looking for an easy meal. A magnificent pair of eagles swooped down from Squamish the other day, harassed by a flotilla of angry gulls, and landed briefly in the big Douglas fir out front. A skunk underneath the cottage is as detectable as ever. Before us still stirs the sea, the narrow stretch of it between us and Gambier Island, no copper yet scarring its shore. To the north, Anvil Island sits serene, the often mist-shrouded Bali Hai of my childhood, an Island I've never set foot on (and I think it would be foolish to do so now). The tides still bring us logs for the fireplace floating on sea water that remains as clear as any mountain stream. We are not besieged by summer tourists, for the road from the highway leads only to our homes. My patch of this good earth is littered with trees, and none will go to make way for our new home. It's an exhilarating mixture of wild and tamed, almost a trademark of British Columbia.
As I set this down on a perfect sunlit day in early summer, looking out past the peeling red arbutus tree my mother planted, I feel almost as though I am fulfilling destiny. For I am writing by a window overlooking Brunswick Beach, just as my grandfather, some 45 years ago, told me he dreamed and prayed I one day would.
And down on the beach, my youngest, a sturdy four year old, has discovered ( after the first frustrating visit or two) how to move agilely about, leaping from boulder to log with sure -footed aplomb. And he has learned that barnacles will cut and that little crabs still scurry when the rocks are rolled away. He's started. The shack is gone. It never will be camp for him. But Brunswick Beach will probably do.
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