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Beckoning at Departure Bay

He sat on the edge of the stone walkway, with his oat milk latte in hand, staring off into the distance as he had for years. While the drink order had changed form, somehow, against the backdrop of time of day, rain, snow or wind, what Departure Bay offered to the casual viewer never did. Nor had its meaning for him. 

Noting the nip of midwinter, he enjoyed the warmth the decidedly complicated drink provided, feeling silly for his self-conscious insecurity when ordering the drink out loud. This was Vancouver Island, he thought. It’s practically a rite of passage.

A rite of passage. That phrase always brought him back to his university days studying anthropology. Whether the topic had been tribes in Africa, practice ritualized scarring at manhood to the more modern forms of drivers license acquisition, the phrase had never left his head. Nor had the memory of first studying the topic here in Nanaimo. Departure Bay, in fact, had figured quite prominently in the archaeology of the region. 

He looked across the horseshoe shaped beach in front of him. Sand, rock, tumbles of seaweed and craggy driftwood stretched from end to end, seeming to be the only connection between the ferry terminal to the Northern extreme and the marine research station to the south. What a incongruity, he realized. The boom of the massive ferry’s engine carrying commuters and travelers to and from the island only serve to increase noise pollution for the biodiversity of the Salish Sea. Yet, if you were going to study its effects, you couldn’t be better situated…

He mulled this Gordian Knot of a conundrum over in his head as time fell away. He returned the days spent in Archaeology 213, trying to imagine how Departure Bay had looked, felt, smelled and sounded in the days it was referred to as Stlilnup, a winter village for the Coast Salish who had called the region home for time immemorial. Nanaimo had received its name from an interpretation of Snuneymuxw, a language family consisting of Northern Straits, Clallam, Nooksack, Squamish and Hul’q’umin’um’. Did he know this off the top of his head? He did not. He deferred to museum showcases and the odd book leafed through on a day spent mindlessly shopping to inform him more fully. But he always saw this land as having power, meaning and importance far beyond what a coffee shop and playground could instill.

His Mittyesque fantasies of experiencing this world had always made him stop and appreciate any day that saw him come back to this beach. And he had. Many a time. 

The ferry terminal at Departure Bay had been his first point of entry to Vancouver Island all those years ago. It had served him as the first leg of many international trips, weekend trips and lazy Sunday strolls. It had been the source of inspiration for a love of the ocean, a passion for coastal sea life and impetus for exploring the local gulf islands, themselves home to shell middens, refuse pits and, more recently, limestone quarries who’s products had served the legislature buildings of san Francisco, Victoria, Nanaimo and, in 1872, the sea floor along with the wreck of the Zephyr. 

These were his thoughts. They were and are the thoughts of many others who come to this particular bay.

But it was something more that always struck him when he would visit. 

That depth of field. When the conditions were right, the low-lying snow-white clouds would hug the mountains of the north shore across the Salish sea. The bright blue sky would grow dim as evening neared on a summers afternoon. The water would be calm and the vistas soaring. He would think of the world. The world would beckon him.

From here he had left for Australia. For Vietnam. For Belgium. For the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans. All from this bay. The bay had been the ships whistle, signaling the beginning of a voyage across the sea as it had when the winter ended and the salmon ran so many years previously for so many more. 

He knew he was only one of many, many people who had seen the world from these shores. For many, the world had been these shores. What a place to call home. The means of conveyance, extent of wander and intent had all changed, but somehow he felt, or more realistically hoped, that the same feelings would have been shared by them too. 

Blinking, he realized he had been sitting for longer than intend. Coming to his feet, he noticed the young families playing near the water. Two young toddlers waddled around in their gum boots and dinosaur hats looking hesitantly back to their mothers and they inched towards the water. He smiled as he knew this adorable site wasn’t an new occurrence on the shores of Stlilnup.

Submitted by: Ben McTaggart

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