Our Year on Protection

Starting anew on a remote island in British Columbia

Illustration by thedafkish

It was October, the school strike that had rocked the province since June was over and Lily was starting her first day of grade one. Our boat had been giving us non-stop problems since we bought it in May, but over the summer we hadn’t needed it every weekday to get Lily to school on Vancouver Island and back home to Protection Island, off the coast from Nanaimo. All summer we’d managed to get to town to buy groceries about once a week, which was all we’d needed. I’d known for months that the pace would change when school started again, but I hadn’t been able to pull my head out of the fog long enough to conceive a plan.

I woke up before anyone else to get ready. I checked the school’s location on Google Maps and more or less figured out a route from the ferry drop-off point to École Pauline Haarer in Nanaimo. It looked like a fifteen-minute walk once we got to the other side. I had a small stack of Lily’s admissions paperwork in my bag, and I’d packed her lunch the night before. I went outside and gathered up the trash bags we stored in a wooden box to take to town that morning as well.

When you make the trek to the other side, there’s always a list to consider: the things you need to take there and the things you need to bring back. I was able to make coffee and get the garbage ready before Nate and Lily woke up, but it always seemed like I was forgetting something important, or that there would be something I didn’t understand and would have to figure out in the moment. Like angling a motorboat between two others along a short dock. Like remembering to carry cash at all times. Or remembering to pick up things like garbage bags, toilet paper and dish soap, items I used to regard as inconsequential extras.

“I have to head over to Danny’s. They’re laying the foundation for the new house and they need me first thing,” Nate said as he came down the stairs. “Are you taking the boat today or the ferry?”

“I don’t know if the boat is going to make it across. If it stalls again, we’re going to be late for school,” I said, feeling some anxiety rise. Everything I was doing, I was doing for the first time in my life. I was like a baby learning to walk and falling to the floor after every step. “It’s only a half-day today. Lily will be out by noon. I should just stay in town and wait for her, right?” I was willing to accept any advice at all, even from Nate, who had the same experience with everything here as I did.

“Yeah, stay. It’s too much to go back and forth all morning. Do you have a pass or any money?” he asked. Without a pass, the ferry costs three dollars for locals one way, which meant taking the ferry to town and back with Lily was going to run me twelve dollars in cash.

“Christ. I forgot to take out money when I was in town last week, and remember I washed my pants a few days ago with the pass in one of the pockets?” The resident passes were a small rectangle of heavy paper about the size of a credit card. If they got wet, they disintegrated. “We’ll have to take the boat.”

“Muuuuum! It’s a school day!” hollered Lily, sliding down the hallway in her pajamas. “Can I bring some toys to school? I want to show my teacher my toys,” she yelled. “I want to show all the kids too. Can I? What did you put in my lunch? I don’t want a sandwich, okay? I don’t like sandwiches anymore.”

“One toy. Go get dressed—we have to leave soon.” I began searching the house for where I left the pants I wore yesterday, where I last put the boat keys, my empty wallet, my cup of coffee.

Lily was first out the door, still pulling her jacket on and forcing her fingers into the gloves she found in the pockets. We waved goodbye to Nate through the window and walked across the front lawn to the road. Our dirt driveway was flooded with rainwater, leaving gaping puddles all over. The trip from our house to Mud Bay was about a ten-minute walk but seemed extra long that day as I reviewed the procedure of troubleshooting the boat over and over in my mind. My frustration with it had frightened Lily in the past and I didn’t want her to develop a fear of riding in boats, so I tried to keep my panic to myself.

A few days earlier the three of us had gone to town to get some milk and when we got back in the boat to go home, it wouldn’t start right away. It took nine tries, some swearing and a lot of shot-in-the-dark attempts at starting the motor before we got it going. By then a small crowd had gathered along the overlook and were watching us intently. Midway between town and Mud Bay, the engine stopped again. I ended up calling over two teenage boys in a boat nearby and got them to tow us in to the dock. I hadn’t tried to start the engine since.

Lily and I walked the dock, steadying our weight on top of the undulating fingers. I pulled back the blue tarp covering our boat and began to fold it up and stuff it into the side of the hull. I noticed shattered glass across the deck and more gathered on the farthest seat.

“Stay there Lily,” I said and jumped into the boat. The glass had come from a smashed window on the water side. There were shards everywhere. I climbed back onto the dock, shook open the tarp and tossed it over the front of the boat to cover the mess.

“We’re going to take the ferry today, okay Lily? I think that would be more fun, wouldn’t it?” I said, already walking away.

“Why? I wanna take the boat!”

I kept walking until Lily gave up the fight and followed. I didn’t want her to see the glass. I didn’t understand what had just happened.

We walked away from Mud Bay toward the pub and the ferry. At “the Circle,” a small parking lot for golf carts, we saw blue herons soar to and from the new nests they’d been building. There were dozens occupying only a few trees. It was early still and they were singing, trying hard to wake up the island. We crossed the Circle and headed down the rock’s edge on the other side. The ferry was waiting, as it always was, for the top of the hour when it heads town-side. I checked my pants’ pockets for change but came up empty.

“I hope Rob is driving the ferry today,” I said to Lily, to myself. Rob was the first ferry skipper we’d met when we got here. Rob had been kind to us, was around the same age as Nate and me, had three young children and seemed like someone who could be our friend. He would also allow me to pay for a ferry trip later if I didn’t have any cash on me.

We walked the length of the docks and climbed aboard. There were two other passengers already settled on the middle seats, which housed the life jackets. Rob walked toward us holding a paper coffee cup in one hand and swinging the boat keys in the other. I knew he would be the skipper that day because he was wearing the beat-up fanny pack the skippers tied around their waists to hold change and the hole punch for passes. Rob jumped into the boat and looked around at us. “That’s it? Four people?” Rob said and looked at Lily. “Okay, three and a half,” he joked and tickled her in the side.

“I’m going to school today! My first day of grade one!” Lily yelled.

“Wow, kiddo! You gonna have fun?” he asked, starting the motor and leaving it to idle.

“I don’t have any cash, Rob. Can I pay you on the way back?”

“You bet,” he said and moved to the other passengers to collect small bills or to hole-punch a pass. I pulled Lily onto the seat beside me and wrapped my arms around her. Within seconds she wriggled free. She pulled her markers and sketchbook from her backpack and resumed work on the small drawings she had put down days ago. I had chosen one of the port-side seats for the ride, near the exit, and was able to see out to the water with an unobstructed view. If it wasn’t too stormy and all the windows were open I could feel the seawater spray up and onto my arms, cold and light. Early in the morning and with only a few passengers on board, the ride was exceptionally peaceful, even through a roaring motor, and halfway through the trip for about two minutes there was a span where it seemed like you were way out to sea, nowhere near land, just sliding along the brim of the planet.

I dropped off Lily at her new school and walked her to the grade one classroom. It was the only public school within walking distance of the PI ferry dock, offered a French immersion program and had a good reputation among the parents I’d spoken to on the island. We had been on a waitlist for the better part of the year to get her enrolled and according to those I knew, we were very lucky to have gotten in so quickly. As we walked down the halls looking for her room number I noticed the children spoke English until they saw a teacher and then immediately switched to French in mid-sentence. All adults spoke to each other and to students in French at all times. “Are you going to be all right, babe? Do you want me to stay for a while?” I asked.

“You can go. I know that girl,” she said, pointing to the corner of the classroom where a few kids had gathered, apparently inspecting art supplies that had been set up at work tables. I recalled seeing the girl with the curly blonde hair around the island.

“Okay. See you at lunchtime. Love you,” I whispered.

“Je t’aime.”

I followed the hall back the way we’d come and visited the office briefly to drop off Lily’s paperwork and talk with the principal. As I left through the front doors and walked across the parking lot I felt the quake of anxiety. I hoped Lily would make out okay in her new class. I hoped she’d find a way to fit in, get along with the others and come back home more or less unscathed.

In town I stopped at the bank and called Nate to tell him about the broken glass in the boat, about how I owed Rob for the ferry ride.

“So you think someone smashed the window on purpose?”

“I can’t know for sure. But even if it was an accident, there’s no note or anything. They just did it and left.”

“I’m going to call Peter. I heard he’s the guy to talk to. The community watch guy or whatever.”

“I’ll take the rest of the glass out of the window on my way home. It’s a real mess right now,” I said.

I didn’t know what Peter might be able to do about our problem, a problem that was more a social problem than a boat problem. I went to a nearby coffee shop to wait for Lily’s half-day to finish. I tried to preoccupy myself with stories in the local newspaper I found in the cafe, but my train of thought kept returning to the broken window. It had been clear to us for a while that we didn’t know the first thing about what owning a boat and keeping it at a public dock really entailed. We’d never done it before and we didn’t know the Dock Code. We’d pissed people off, without a doubt.

In the six months we’d tied up at Mud Bay, one person had already yelled at us for using the wrong area of the wharf, garbage had been thrown into the hull, our boat lock had been cut in half twice for reasons we still didn’t know, and we’d faced several instances of wordless and incomprehensible hostility from others as they passed us. Now there was this broken window. The most frustrating part was less that these things had happened, but that no one wanted to talk about it. No one had explained what the problems were before issuing the punishments, or had offered us any tips for making peace.

After our lock had been cut the second time, Nate wrote a note with our phone number on it and taped it to the windshield of the boat: Please call if this boat is a problem so we can resolve it. But no one did. We’d pulled Rob aside in private and asked if he had heard anything, if there was something we should know, but the only thing he could think of was that we should keep our boat as close to shore as possible if it still wasn’t working well. He also shared a story about how he had faced similar problems when he first moved to PI. Once, he’d come down the ramp to find his boat filled with water and sinking into the mud. He laughed when he said it; he laughed because unlike us, and several years after the fact, he seemed able to see the humour. We were totally in the dark and without a conceivable way to light. We’d traded the rushed and tiresome subway commute in Toronto for what was becoming an equally pain-in-the-ass situation here.

From inside the cafe I recognized Mike, another regular ferry commuter, crossing toward my side of the street. I got up and made my way around the table to get outside and meet him on the sidewalk. Mike was always on the ferry, often early in the mornings to get to work in town, so I had shared the ride with him several times before. He always sat with Lily and listened to her stories and told her jokes. He was slim with grey hair that he kept pulled back from his face and warm, brown eyes. He wore a plain denim shirt, dark blue jeans and a thick canvas jacket. He looked like a rugged outdoorsman, the kind I remember seeing in cigarette advertisements as a child.

“Mike!” I called and waved in his direction. He nodded back and quickened his walking speed until he reached me.

“How are you?” he said, smiling and calm, happy to stop and chat.

“Fine for now,” I said. “I’m just in town waiting to pick up Lily at school and then we’ll head back home. Are you off to work?”

“Another day at the office,” he said and winked genuinely. Every time I spoke to Mike he was easy and gentle. He had a peace about him that I’d never seen before; it was as if no matter what happened, in any moment, he would accept it with little more than a shrug. He exhibited cooperation with the world, with things as they are, that I found mesmerizing and mysterious. It was because of this that I didn’t bring up the plaguing issue of the boat window when asked what was up. I kept the mood airy and fine; in that moment, I even experimented with the notion of letting the whole ordeal go for good.

“Oh, before I forget,” said Mike, “I’ve been saving these for Lily.” He pulled out a rectangular slip of stickers from his jacket pocket and handed them to me. “I found them in an old box I was rifling through the other day. They must’ve been left behind by a child visiting the house. I thought Lily might like them.”

I took the sheet from his hand. It was three rows of glittering forest animals: birds, ponies, chickens and a dancing bear holding a rainbow.

“She’ll love it,” I said and slipped the stickers into my purse, careful not to bend the edges.

“Enjoy the beautiful day,” Mike said as he reached out, grabbed my hand in both of his and made a gesture like bowing. “Gotta get going to work.”

“See you soon, Mike,” I said and watched him walk up the hill and around the corner toward the other side of town.

After school, Lily and I returned to the island, taking the long way home and back through the Mud Bay docks where the boat was exactly where I’d left it that morning. I distracted Lily with the new sheet of stickers and got to work cleaning up the broken glass. I remembered leaving a box of garbage bags in the side somewhere. After a few minutes I located them and began collecting the glass shards and placing them in the bottom of a bag, one by one, as Lily talked to me about the new friends she’d made, where her desk was located and how the playground outside was configured. About halfway through the process, one of the guys Nate had done work for docked about ten feet behind me and climbed out of his boat.

“Looks like you got poked.” John pulled his boat toward him by the spring line and tied it up to the dock. I turned to face him. He was filling his backpack with items he’d carried over from town: dish soap, a tube of toothpaste and a stack of white printer paper.

“I guess so,” I replied.

“You know, I saw some younger people around here last night or so. Goofing around. Coulda been them put a hole in ya,” John said as he walked past us and up the dock toward land.

“Thanks. Could be,” I replied.

He made his way up the ramp without looking back.

I filled one corner of the garbage bag with glass, set it on the dock and threw the tarp back over the front of the boat. You could no longer tell the window had been smashed now that the glass was gone from the pane. From where I stood, it looked the same as it always had, like nothing was any different today than it had been yesterday.

It was barely afternoon and I was already exhausted. My muscles hurt and my limbs were heavy from stress and poor sleep. I was paranoid that every person I passed on the dock knew what had happened to my window but no one was going to talk to me about it. I felt terribly alone and frustrated. The first day of real commuting was behind me and we had managed, but I still didn’t have a real job I could rely on, our money was getting low and I didn’t know what we were actually going to do in any kind of long-term way. The island was as beautiful as the first day I saw it, but what good was that if I couldn’t enjoy it? If I had to inconveniently commute by boat to get to work or school and back? If we had to spend most of our money on transportation? I wondered if it was all worth it, if I would even recognize when the time had come to throw in the towel. I wondered how, with my head down and my will worn to threads, I would notice one way or the other. I lifted the bag of broken glass over my shoulder, picked up Lily’s backpack and started on the walk home. The sun was high above us, in the middle of the sky, and was rushing the sea with light. The water looked like it was glowing from underneath and radiating upward. I could hardly see where I was going.

Excerpted from The Woods: A Year on Protection Island Copyright © 2016 by Amber McMillan. Reprinted by permission of Nightwood Editions.

Amber McMillan
Amber McMillan (amber-mcmillan.com) is the author of The Woods: A Year on Protection Island and We Can't Ever Do This Again.

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