The Passage

By Judith Ellison

It had been a good holiday at my parent's cottage. The weather was perfect, but I could feel that autumn was lurking around the corner, as surely as the leaves of the first-to-drop-their-gear trees whispered the coming of September. The days spent with the kids puttering on the sandstone beach were brisk. And the nights, while we perched, cocooned in our sleeping bags in the little mesh dome tent on the wooden dock overhanging the water, were cooler than July. Still, we snuggled in and listened to the symphony of the ocean lapping and caressing the sandstone beach and the sounds of sea lions frolicking and fornicating in the velvety silent night. But, those roamy nights on the dock must have scrambled my brain a bit, and somehow I hatched a plan to arrange a dive as a surprise birthday gift for my buddy.

We're talking cold water diving here. Pacific Northwest. The Abyss. The Emerald Sea. With me.

I had suffered through my early April cold water initiation to diving almost four years ago, and only through divine intervention - in the form of a promise of a trip to a Club Med in Mexico, which would be our first real trip together A.K. (After Kids) - did I actually complete the four open water dives required for my certification. Since then we have logged over a hundred dives each, but, except for brief incursions back in to the cold water of B.C. to complete our Advanced certification (and this I agreed to in another weak moment last November), all of them have been in the blissful blue embryonic waters of the tropics. A virtual swimming pool, compared to the chowder I had experienced here, where the maximum visibility I had enjoyed had been about three feet. And then there was the cold. Mindnumbing cold. Chilled-to-the-core kind of cold. Cold hands, cold head, cold body, cold feet. The kind of cold where the only warmth to be found is peeing in your wetsuit in the most frigid moments of a dive and by flushing hot water from a thermos down your suit after. Not particularily pretty, but heck, as any diver will tell you, most gratifying.

But I digress. I decided to contact Peter, the local dive guy (and abalone fisherman) on our island, to set up the surprise birthday dives for Dave and me. We had looked him up once or twice, but we had never connected. After many tries I finally got him on the horn. It's a pretty sleepy sort of island. He's the only game in town, and so we were at his whim: "Friday" (Dave's actual birthday)..."no gut for me, ve vill dive Saturday mornink". Oh, okay. He asked where we wanted to dive. I asked him what he thought was the best site. His ponderous rambling reply, offered in basic baltic english, was that "that vould be The Pass...but you gotta do it right, right at slack, or you're gonna be in trouble". I thought about it for about five nanoseconds and then asked if it would be possible to hire a divemaster go down with us on the dive, this cold water diving thing still being pretty new to us and all. He thought that I was nuts, mumbling..."costs sixty dollar jus' to get a guy to come out and do dat". I mean, I may be brave, but I'm not stupid. Except to my kids. And then, only sometimes, I hope.

The weird thing is he never really asked about our level of certification, or type of dives, or number of dives we'd done. I guess divers can just tell that about one another from a conversation.

The Pass is right around the corner from my mom and dad's little cottage. It is a significant narrowing between two large islands, through which a huge volume of Pacific Ocean passes every time the tide changes. From the gnarled sandstone point that leans out over the rushing, swirling, charging waters of The Pass, where I have ventured countless times since the early 1970's when my parents bought their little slice of heaven in the gulf islands of British Columbia, it looks more like turbulent river than ocean. The power of the flow of water can be so strong that I have watched many large sailboats under full throttle do the I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can heave ho against a power greater than theirs. I've watched as one takes the fatal, knockdown punch. How her bow dips left or right. How the boat is pulled broadside on her keel by the onslaught of the tidal ripped and eddied water. How she gets hefted horizontally-masted and bare-bottomed and heeled over by the tide. How all that is left is to beat an embarrassed, hasty, awoosh of a retreat, fueled by the eight knot plus swift-kick-in-the-ass current, into safe harbor to await the next slack. This is where we were going diving.

When I looked it up in a local dive book, it is a site rated as "Advanced", made difficult because of a combination of current and steep wall. But, wherever there is current here in The Emerald Sea, there is life, fed by the nutrient rich waters that flow and nourish with each change in tide. Or so I had heard. And if I was going to have to get wet, I wanted to see it.

We met Peter at his little dive shack in The Bay on the day after Dave's birthday where we rented our gear from Peter. It taken us over an hour to weed through the stone age inventory of his diving museum to find some gear that would fit and still worked. We still hadn't committed to buying our own, and had always rented when we travelled. It was sunny, but still early enough in the day that it was cool enough for us to want to pull on the bottom half of our borrowed 8 ml johns. We laid on our bellies like beached seals on the slivery, worn, wooden dock beside his aluminum skiff and soaked up sun while scrutinized the silty, sandy bottom of the briny, Canada Dry bottle green sea of the marina. We tried to figure out how deep the bottom was. Tried to assess the visibility. Tried to get psyched. And we were awaiting the late arrival of Chris, the $60.00 per dive guide, and watching the time to slack slip closer.

When we were all finally aboard, Peter gunned the outboard Merc and we roared out the south arm of The Bay. When we cleared the narrow channel, he pointed his snubby boat southwest, past my parent's cottage, past The Park and towards The Pass. The scenery of this place, even after thirty-odd years of experiencing it, never ceases to wow this city girl. It is sandstone and giant cedars and firs. And huge pendulous arbutus trees that hang their knobby and gnarled, scaly and smooth, tanned appendages over the water at high tide. These beauties soar off the shore, their sculptured branches, crowned with both glossy new green and matted old ochre leaves that fall from the tree on no apparent schedule, mirrored by the glassy waters of a high tide. The gritty grey sandstone beaches, washed and worn by time, divide the land from the sea. They sport beards of short-leaved seaweed, revealed only in the decadence of low tide. There are reefs and little sandstone islets and sea and sun and seals and eagles and deer. It's dog heaven for my big, brawny waterboy. Swimming. Beach walks. Deerchases. It is a retreat. It's a place where a family can be a family for a while, without alot of "conveniences" and "diversions". And it is a haven for a harried housewife.

The boat skidded down into the turbulent waters of The Pass, sometimes shimmying sideways in the eddies and whirlpools created by the bulk of an ocean funneling through the narrow opening. Peter manoevered the boat into a little bay that borders The Pass, close to the sandstone ledge that defines the shore, while Chris, Dave and I geared up. The sound of water rushing past the hull of the little aluminum fishing boat, even in a semi-sheltered bay, which Peter was struggling to hold static against the pull of the current, was disconcerting. And Peter was issuing orders in his heavy german patois, which did nothing to calm my butterflies.

With no warning he moved the boat out into a back eddy at the entrance to the passage, right beside my ledge. I guess he decided time was up. He fought to hold the aluminum boat in place while we lumbered up on to the side of his slippery boat for a two foot high backroll off a skimpy two inch aluminum ledge and into the swirling, dark water. We hadn't been diving since May, and it always takes a couple of minutes to get my head around the impending dive and equipment check. And then, when I get in, I like to linger at the surface, maybe put my mask in the water for a minute or two and get my bearings. But, before I knew it, before I was really ready, I was told by Herr Hitler to hit the water and drop straight to the bottom. No inflating your BC on the surface here. And he had told us to overweight ourselves. If you're underweighted, he said, you will miss the entire dive site just by doing a slow descent, and might be "visked avay". That was all he prepared us for. The briefing was, well, brief.

I did the hyper-descent. I had on 28 or maybe even 30 lbs. I can't remember any more. Thatsalottalead, even when wearing a full body jacket and john. I would normally wear 23 or 24. I thanked the dive gods that I took a Sudafed as I cleared my ears continuously. I sank like a proverbial stone and bottomed out on a rocky ledge at about 60 feet, where I finally got a moment to try to look around through a leaky mask which was filling as fast as I could empty it. Somehow, in the rush, I had mistaken it for mine. It was actually Dave's, the same style as mine, but looser, so I spent the whole dive clearing the friggin' thing, but was too afraid to take it off entirely to fix the problem for fear that the current would grab it and it would be gone.

When I finally got the mask under control, I looked up and around. Wow. Gorgeous. I had landed on a pile of sandstone boulders that cascaded from the surface, littering a steep embankment that tumbled towards an invisible bottom. When I looked up, I could see the surface, rocking and rolling above me. The watery ball of the sun. Little schools of minnows and silvers whisked along by the rushing water. The current was big. I thought maybe too big. We cemented ourselves to the bottom, thanks to the extra weight, and watched as our dive guide demonstrated how to use the rocks as mooring points, to go with the flow, to let the current take you. And then grapple on to the wall that dropped below of us, out of sight, when you want to stop. Even when we were grabbed on, squatting on the rocks like big, black, neoprene crabs, the tug of the current threatened to pull us off and away. But, once I got the buoyancy under control by easing air into my BC with my inflator, which was no mean feat in 70 feet of big current and with alotta lead on, since I needed both hands to get a secure hold on a rock, I started to really see. Viz was surprisingly good, maybe from 30 to 40 feet. And, because there is so much current, and therefore nutrients moving through the site, the life was incredibly abundant. And big.

Every possible surface was covered with some form of sea life... amenomes, urchins, gigantic barnacles, sea plants, kelp, snails, you name it. The barnacles were so big that their shells were the size of my fist, and when I stopped long enough to watch them feed, I saw the long, sinuous tendrils that emerged from their half-opened hatches sweep the water for flying-by-snacks. The spiny urchins were huge, and when I shone my light on them, I saw caribbean colours. Purple and pink and magenta. Colours, colours, and still unbelievably, more colours. The enormous multi-legged sea stars were a flourescent orange. And everything dun-coloured in the cloudy winter's day light of sixty feet of plankton-rich water came to life with the ray of a torch. I played a guessing game, and tried to imagine what colour this little fish or that little crab might be, and then shine my light to see how wrong I was, how they were even more incredible that I could have imagined.

There were big honkin' fish, too: ling cods, the largest of which would feed a small village, and rock fish and sculpins and many other varieties that I can't identify yet, that hid in the little ledges and crevices and gullies between the big boulders, out of the current. Funny looking guys, with big bulbous eyes and spiky spines and aztec markings, some with, big, rubbery, pouty lips.

And then it was like someone hit a switch, and the water stopped moving. Slack tide. It was an invitation to let go of the adrenaline of the dive and start getting into it. I did. And so did the fish. They emerged from their safe havens and scooted and darted and frantically fed while the going was good. Spending less time managing the current and leaky mask gave me more time for oggling the scenery. I felt comfortable wandering 12 or 15 feet from Dave or the dive guide, and just being me on my own for a bit. It was an out-of-time interlude in the rich, green, smoky waters lit by a distant summer sun that made me realize how much I had been missing in my debut cold water dives.

Chris ended my reverie as he touched my arm and signalled that it was time to go back. It was pretty peaceful for the first few minutes of our reciprocal heading as we continued poking and penetrating the crevices between the big, life-encrusted boulders. But then, almost imperceptibly at first, we could feel it starting up again. Fronds of sea weed and other underwater telltales changed their direction with the aboutface of the current. As the ocean's engine cranked itself up to running at full, we picked our way along the wall, leap-frogging from boulder to boulder as the tidal tailwind propelled us back up to the entrance of The Pass. By the time we were making our ascent ten minutes later, we were hanging onto the small, compact kelp bulbs that were anchored gingerly to the stone and that somehow survive being yanked by the tide four times a day, and the beefy barnacles on the boulders. We were being dragged horizontally by the cranked-up current, the big awoosh only a precarious handhold of kelp away. And I was literally having to hold my mask onto my face to stop it from being blown off.

When we broke the surface, Chris signalled for the boat. Peter brought it close to us, turning it broadside, downstream in The Pass. We pumped up our BC's a bit and then, one by one, we let go of the life line of the kelp bulbs that was anchoring us to the shore and we were carried by the swift current away from the safety of the rocks, only to be smacked into the side of his skiff, where there was a meager little rope slung along the side to grasp. Once all three of us had made it to the boat, Peter killed the engine and we river rafted in silence down The Pass, as each of us in turn climbed the little aluminum ladder and into the safety of the boat, while the others hung on for the ride and waited their turn. Little was said as we soaked up the sun and the scenery of the ride home and savoured the sensations still echoing in our bodies.

It was months later when I really realized how altering this experience had been. I am no longer afraid of cold water diving. The confidence gained from not only surviving, but actually enjoying a dive as exhilarating as this will be a stepping stone to future adventures, warm or cold, above or below.

We bought the dry suits and the computers and the BCs and the regs. Because I am going back to The Pass as soon as I can. I want to inhale the life there. I like the big awoosh.

And at the end of my day, I would like my ashes to be scattered into those rushing waters from the place where I have clambered and dreamed since I was a child, never suspecting that the poetry of the world underneath the surface could match the beauty of the world above it.

Judith Ellison

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