“So, where do you go from Yukon?” croons legendary Yukon musician Hank Carr. You go to the North Sunshine Coast of course, to Powell River, B.C.
Follow the escapades of Captain Rick and First Mate “Sunny” Dawn as they adapt to life without forty below zero and discover that yes, palm and banana trees can grow in Canada. The crew of the Audrey Eleanor first discovered the shores of the North Sunshine Coast while motoring down from Haines, Alaska, to Vancouver Island aboard their 1948, 54’ wooden yacht, the Audrey Eleanor. They felt like they had come home.
Originally Published on PowTown Post.
This story takes us to the Sunshine Coast via an intervention in life that happened right in the middle of a sunshiny day. We had no thoughts of pending trauma as we sat around the crackling spruce fire that afternoon, our lives would change in hours and nothing will ever be the same again. I bring this story to you because the outcome of this medical investigation affects 100,000 Canadians and a very high ratio of Yukoners.
Sitting around an outdoor fire is a historic part of Yukon social life. We are doing just that, high on the ridge above Wolf Creek Campground, overlooking the Yukon River valley; it is the month of August. Company from Inuvik has shown up, as well as our good friend Siggi Rogge off the 3 Cheers, a 42’ Whitby Ketch sailboat moored in Alert Bay, B.C. (Siggi is currently looking for a crew to travel through Alaska next spring, seriously get ahold of me). Sea yarns fly around the blaze. Good-natured tales grow as high up in the sky as the sparks that snap and pop and threatened to burn yet another hole in my jacket.
Kaitlin, my daughter, and Tyrel, her partner, arrive at the fire. “What’s up sweetie?” I ask. She is her usual quiet self, but I sense a disturbance. “I had to go to the hospital today, I am having trouble seeing out of one eye,” Kait states. “What is the prognosis?” “Basically, call Dr. Gorrell, the optometrist and see him as soon as you can.” “I have lost half of my sight in that eye over night!” she is distressed. Captain Rick looks at her and states, ‘You will go back to the hospital right now and you will not leave until they give you a better answer!’ He loves this girl.
Dr. Guy Gorrell returns to Whitehorse from a long distance relay mountain bike race to check on Kaitlin at the Whitehorse Hospital. He is concerned and Kaitlin is booked for Vancouver and the Ophthalmologist Specialist clinic at VGH the next day.
And so it begins…the date is August 27th, 2011.
I travel with my daughter; we arrive in Vancouver and the run from one specialist to the next begins. Kait is losing all sight in her right eye. No one knows what is causing her to go blind, but signs of the anomaly are worse in her good eye, we all fear she will soon be blind in both eyes. They dilate her pupils so she can’t see with either eye and inject her with a yellow dye to trace and determine where the damage is originating. The dye colours her skin a bright yellow and takes longer and longer to leave her body, people stare.
No one knows what is happening, we are told to stay away from air conditioning. It is a hot summer in Vancouver, eating al fresco is easy; finding a room to sleep at night that does not have air conditioning is a challenge. People are generous; we are given the penthouse at the Best Western on Granville for the same rate as a regular room. It is a busy summer, we have no reservations, we have no idea of how long we will be in Vancouver. In this room we can open the doors and let the summer breezes blow through without worry of contaminants from air conditioners blowing into Kait’s eyes.
Shortly after we fall exhausted into bed, a clamour rises on the deck surrounding the room. A very loud and desperate adolescent seagull is trapped between the rail and the safety rail on the edge of the 14-floor hotel. A flock of concerned relatives have shown up to offer advice and encouragement! There is no way that we will sleep this night!
We tell the very tiny East Indian girl at the front desk of our problems. She looks like Princess Jasmine from Disney’s movie Aladdin. She is so slightly built I believe the weight of her eyelashes will topple her over. But she is a fierce warrior woman! The maintenance man has left; it is up to us to resolve the problem. I get several large towels, Kait is to herd the raucous white brat into a corner; I will throw the towels over its head and then hurl it over the side with a lawn chair! Princess Jasmine from the front desk will protect us all from slashing beaks and barred claws with an umbrella.
The whole damned seagull family has now congregated on the roof deck, muttering and cursing. Deliberating their strategy they watch us with slitted evil eyes as we creep through the doorway. Kait’s new one-sided blindness causes her a loss of depth perception. Believing that we are attacking their kin (which we are sort of), the flock of seagulls attacks us with a vengeance. The sky is filled with screaming birds, showing us bright red gullets and fierce slashing beaks.
Jasmine punts and parries the flock, a tiny dark silhouette prancing along the Vancouver skyline with her umbrella. More gulls flock in from the sea, the night is no deterrent. We need to pop the silly adolescent seagull over the rail (it is only trapped in its mind, a common occurrence in adolescence). Fiercely we rush the bird with the beak, Jasmine thrusts and yells in defiance. We are swinging the towels to no avail, our fearless leader, yells ‘ SCREW THIS, RUN!’ …and we do. It is a sweltering hot airless night, resounding with seagull squawk.
I lay beside my daughter in the dark. I wonder, if given the choice of losing my sight, or losing my legs what would I chose? I would choose to lose my legs. Kait doesn’t complain, she has her notebook and is constantly jotting down information, she queries the specialists in their own language. She is intent, she is focused, she wants to know what is attacking her body, her eyes. We do not talk about what could happen, we cannot luxuriate in emotion, we cannot cry because that would admit defeat and we are not defeated.
We are so very fortunate that Kaitlin has extra health coverage through her job with the Federal Government. We could not have survived on the $75/day for expenses that Yukon Health care provides for Yukoners should they need treatment outside of the Yukon. Trying to meet last minute appointments requires taking cabs at $25 a trip, not to mention food and accommodation!
Kaitlin is done, she has difficulty maneuvering the traffic and crosswalks, we are almost run over…I pound my fist on the hood of the distracted driver’s car that has screeched to a halt at my feet. The noise of the city is wearing her down. After 7 days of constant examination and no solutions my brave, strong girl is breaking down. It is time to go to the boat, let’s head for the Sunshine Coast and spend the long weekend on the Audrey Eleanor? It is now Labour Day weekend, our next appointment is not until Tuesday.
The Audrey Eleanor has spent the last four years moored in Madeira Park in Pender Harbour; I want to take my baby girl there so she can relax. We arrive to find that the boat needs a good cleaning; this is not the weekend for that. “How about checking out Powell River, Kaitie Leah?” I had fallen in love with Powell River a few years earlier and thought it would be a perfect get away. She agrees and we catch the last ferry at Earl’s Cove.
After a week in the city, a sense of peace and calm blanket us at Earl’s Cove. Small children laugh without worry as their parents exchange gossip in the ferry line up, there is no hurry. We watch as the ferry approaches, music drifts around the parking lot. Loaded with cars, the ship breaks from its berth quietly, we pass between small islets and cruise into a fog cloud, the sun shines as we pass through the mist and glide into Jervis Inlet, I feel like I am entering Avalon. My daughter smiles at me …
To be continued
P.S. Dr. Guy Gorrell is a name well known at the eye specialist clinic at VGH. The specialists there consider him a gifted Optometrist, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have him as our eye Doctor in Whitehorse. Thank you is such a small collection of words for someone who has helped define your life, but thank you Guy.
Part 1: A Sourdough on the Sunshine Coast
“So where do you go after Yukon?” croons Hank Carr. Really, where do you go? To the Sunshine Coast in BC of course! The North Sunshine Coast to be specific. Powell River is a sea–locked city sandwiched between two historic villages, Lund 27K to the north and Saltery Bay, 27K to the south. Lund lays claim to being the official marker, Mile o of the Pacific Coastal Highway 101 that extends south 15,202K and ends at the bottom tip of Chile, SA. The Republic of Saltery Bay is to the south, the Portal to Powell River from the lower mainland. This is where the last of two ferries departing from Horseshoe Bay deposits you on the glorious shores of the North Sunshine Coast.
We first arrive on these shores aboard the infamous Audrey Eleanor in 2007. Looking for moorage for our Grand Lady, we traverse the inside passage seeking still waters, we find safe Harbour in Pender Harbour, the Venice of the North. Both the Captain and myself never considered leaving our long time home in the Yukon.
Our old wooden yacht the Audrey Eleanor is 54’ and was built in 1948. She suffered winter abuse while moored in Haines, Alaska for 3 years. Freezing and thawing of ancient wooden planks was hard on our old girl and harder on her crew. Running to save her from Alaskan winter storms was almost the death of us. There is no suitable moorage for her in the Yukon (fresh water rots wood, salt water preserves wood), what to do?
The Haines Summit is closed more than open for the three winters we tied up The Audrey Eleanor in Haines. We were fortunate to have friends in Haines; Richard Boyce (missing at sea on July 04, 2012) helped keep her afloat. Heavy wet snows threaten to sink the docks even before it sinks the boats. Seawater does freeze; it starts as slush and clumps. Scuppers fill and freeze, water builds up on decks as 2 foot drops of heavy wet snow mound on bridges overnight and thaw underneath.
Haines Harbour Authority purchased a snow blower after one winter found the Harbour Master and the few boat owners present, could not shovel the snow off the docks fast enough. The weight was massive on the broad expanse and as the dock sank it dragged boats down into the cold black seas. Larger vessels managed to stay afloat but smaller ones sank into the liquid ice to join Davey Jones’s flotilla.
Leaving Haines in the summer of 2006 weighed heavy on us. Family and friends had enjoyed being part of the adventures onboard The Audrey Eleanor. Many Yukoners came onboard for a social drink and to admire this floating antique. (She had been moored on display at the docks in Vancouver’s Maritime Museum). A decision had to be made, we warmed up the twin Perkins diesels, did a Starboard turn in the Lynn Canal and headed south.
There is no plan, except we want moorage in Canada. It is a summer of Home Land Security scouring the seas for terrorists; we are worn thin by propaganda. We continue south to Ketchikan where the Captain is caught in a work net cast by cell phone service, we stopped to resupply at Fred Meyer’s, the cell phone rings.
It is a call for a diver to fly up to Tuktoyuktuk. Two tugboats and a massive camp are being barged through the Bering Straight into the Chukchi Sea, destination ‘Tuk’ NWT. Rick, a commercial diver, is to sink the barge, the tugs and camp will float off and the barges re-submerged. This job will last two weeks. It is the third week of August, if the job expands into three weeks, we will still continue south. We don’t want to drop down past Cape Caution and into Queen Charlotte Straight any later than mid September.
Most boats insured in the US are required to be south of Cape Caution by September 01, otherwise their insurance is void. Read my book, The Adventures of the Audrey Eleanor, this is true, you do not want to do silly things like navigating Milbanke Sound during the months of storms, October and November. The thought of crossing Queen Charlotte Straight after the 1st of September makes me sick to my stomach.
I know better, we all know better! What job in the high Arctic is ever done on time? The barge became stuck in the sea ice by Big Diomede Island, Alaska. We arrive back in Ketchikan, Alaska on a Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, too late to motor south! But no, not this crew. We drink too many beers, flip a coin, cast away the lines of sanity and engines vibrate us south towards Canada at daybreak.
The rest as they say is history, and can be read about in The Adventures of the Audrey Eleanor, my book. We found our winter resting place in Deep Bay on Vancouver Island. In the recesses of my mind I was hoping to end up in Comox, I have spent time there in the past; my son Bob was born in St. Joseph’s by the Sea, in Comox. Poor guy, he has salt water running though his veins and he lives in Whitehorse. Bob runs away to his sailboat in Alaska lots.
Winter in Deep Bay was interesting. ‘Skunk’ overrode the brine of the sea as Parfum de jour with Whiskey fronts blowing in through the night stirring up boats and encouraging want to be pirates to evolve from grimy holds with blazing red eyes and foul breathe, one reason liveaboards are not welcome. Day trips took us as far south as Victoria and as far north as Campbell River searching for a new home. Moorage rates are out of this world and ‘Liveaboard’ is a dirty word. We had not considered this at all. Everything is more expensive in the North is it not? Not moorage, enjoy it while you can, your turn will come.
I had never considered the ‘other’ side of chuck, the Sunshine Coast as a possible solution to our moorage problem. A brand new dock had been constructed below the Grass Hopper Pub in Pender Harbour. A reluctant owner agrees to temporary moorage with possibility of a longer term should our 30 ton Lady, the Audrey Eleanor not sweep away the fingers of the dock that lay in the roaring rapids of Gunboat Passage during the change at high tide. A deal is struck; we head back to Deep Bay to arrange passage across Georgia Straight.
The hook is set; we spend the next five years commuting between Whitehorse and Pender Harbour/Madeira Park. Rules tighten the regulatory noose around the necks of liveaboards. We realize that to continue our lives as Gypsy Sea personnel we will be relegated into the rainy lands of the north coast (few choose to live aboard in the land of the rain-people, so fewer rules) or we will go up onto the ‘hard’, and become weekend boaters. I am enthralled with fruit growing on trees, surely this is magic. I think we should try this growing fruit concept. We look for a home on land.
Winters in Whitehorse become longer as I grow older. The steely cold teeth of old man winter bite into my bones, aches and pains increase as the temperature drops. I don’t want to ‘have’ to escape to Mexico or Australia to make it through the winter anymore. I want to have a summer so hot that I look forward to the mists of winter, without any snow… and I want to do this in Canada, my home, my country. My children are in Whitehorse, my father still walks the trails behind Crestview, to move is a very hard decision.
I sit in our beautiful log home above the Alaska Highway pounding out words for my books and contemplating life. By mid winter I can barely walk, old skidoo injuries haunt me, MRI images of Dawson Fingers taunt me. The dark is dropping down hard on my head as I walk out into the shining path of a full moon and flashing northern lights. I see lights from my daughter’s house across the way, how can I go? Movement is excruciating, how can I stay?
By spring I no longer have a choice. I do not want to grow old and fat and be crippled. I can no longer move when the cold creeps in (no, long underwear does not help), our house goes on the market. So where do you go after Yukon? To be continued…
P.S. I look into the southern starlit skies and see my friend Jim’s smiling face. He hums a song and shuffles down a hallway of light. Jim Zheng, my good friend, my excellent doctor, I miss you, until we meet again. Jim Zheng Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine left us far too soon on August 19th 2015.