An Excerpt from “Wintering Over”

Neil Mathison

At first the old man hadn’t seen the creature so much as signs of its passage: vine maples moving contrary to the wind, a shadow shape-shifting above his cabin, a thing more spectral than material. Later he found scat on the trail leading to the creek hydro generator and, later still, prints in the mud above the beach. He was no outdoorsman—despite his famous self-confidence (his youngest daughter would say infamous) he made no claim to woodcraft expertise—but the extended claws, the proximate toes, the deep print were almost certainly a bear, a grizzly most likely, although it would be later, after Flynn delivered the spotting scope, that he would discover she was a sow with two cubs. By June, after the snow had melted from the higher clear-cuts, when the green-up was reaching full bloom, he would watch her through the scope as she and her cubs fed on the sedges and horsetails and cow parsnips. Once he was fairly certain the bears were feeding on a carcass, although whether it was an elk or a deer or something else he couldn’t tell. Male bears, he’d read, sometimes killed cubs of another male, thus he could expect the sow to be aggressive, even more aggressive than usual—and a grizzly was a notoriously aggressive animal. He would grant her a wide berth. Parenthood, he mused, even for a bear, must be an aggravating undertaking.

He’d come to the island for solitude, and a bear, he thought, was a fitting companion. He’d been a successful, some would say ruthless, venture capitalist, who, at an age when his former rivals were carting around golf courses, had found himself on the brink of despair. So he had come to British Columbia’s Inside Passage to find relief, although he could not explain precisely what he sought or if he’d recognize it when he found it, except that he thought what he was seeking might lie in solitude. He intended to winter over as he put it, to spend a year here, to welcome each of the island’s seasons, to bid each adieu.

The plan had aggravated his eldest, medical-doctor daughter. What about your bad hip? Your high blood pressure? Your arrhythmia? What business does a seventy-nine-year-old have being on an island with no hospital, no roads, no phone, no neighbors? Even his museum-curator son feigned concern. At least arrange to have someone check on you. Eventually the old man had acceded to his son’s request, although he’d done nothing about it until his daughter had contracted Flynn’s Water Taxi Service not only to bring in supplies but to report back on the old man’s well-being. From his youngest, his estranged daughter, he’d heard nothing. To be honest, he knew surprisingly little about his children, of his grandchildren even less. He’d never paid much attention. His eldest daughter wrote faithfully, her letters delivered by Flynn. She recounted the escapades of the old man’s grandchildren, the latest quest of his youngest daughter (now on a pilgrimage in Spain), how the youngest daughter had left her son in her sister’s care, and how the son, a fourteen-year-old, was proving to be a “handful,” how she wished her father would at least employ someone to help out around the cabin. The old man never answered. Hadn’t he told everybody, his eldest daughter especially, his purpose here was solitude?

He’d had one close call. A month after he’d arrived—it was early June—he’d decided to take his skiff for a run. It had been raining more or less nonstop, but on this morning the sun was out, the wind was still, and the warmth seemed to ease the arthritis in his knees. The ramp down to the float had been slick. He took care to brace himself as he descended, but, as he stepped from the ramp and onto the float and from the float onto the skiff, his right knee had locked. His boot landed on the skiff’s gunwale. The gunwale dipped. The skiff skewed away from the dock. Before he realized it, he was in the water. The suddenness of his plunge, the bone-chilling cold, the weight of seawater filling his boots shocked him. He’d had the presence of mind to grab the float, but, after several tries, he realized he hadn’t the strength to pull himself back up. His clothes were growing heavy. How long could he last? An osprey circled overhead. It was in this moment, on seeing the osprey, when he realized the full moment of his solitude. He was alone. There would be no help. Using a life jacket from the swamped skiff, he managed to paddle to the beach, but the beach was steep, the rocks were barnacled and slick, and the tide was rising. He was able to pull and push himself up the rock face, keeping pace with the tide but slicing the skin of his hands and shredding his pant legs. After what must have been an hour or more, he lay gasping and bloody on a rock shelf below his cabin deck. Later, warming himself in front of his woodstove, he realized that, having found the solitude he’d so ardently sought, it demanded one lesson: he would be alone, there would be no help, there would never be help coming.

Later, when Flynn arrived with his biweekly supplies, the old man had made a joke of his close call and had asked the water-taxi skipper for help bailing out the skiff. Flynn had had to remove the outboard—it had been dunked in saltwater—and take it back to Campbell River for repair.

When the old man’s daughter hears the news of her father’s “close call” (Flynn has sent her an e-mail), she tells her nephew it’s a “happy congruence.” There’d been the trouble at the boy’s school and the headmaster and the aunt have determined a hiatus is in the boy’s (and the school’s) best interest “Your grandfather needs somebody to keep an eye on him,” his aunt explains. “And you need to get out of Dodge.”

Will the old man know the boy is coming?

“I’ve sent a letter via Flynn, but I’ve asked Flynn to deliver it late.”

So, after writing her father, but not waiting for his reply, the aunt has delivered the boy to Campbell River, explaining she had to accompany him, this being Canada, he being a minor, and she being, at least temporarily, the boy’s guardian, although the boy suspects his aunt doesn’t fully trust him not to run away. He doesn’t dislike her—she’s far more dependable than the boy’s mother and the boy, in his way, appreciates her.

The water taxi is beat-up, aluminum, perhaps thirty feet long, with two outboard engines. It’s loaded with so much gear the boy can barely make his way to the wheelhouse: propane bottles, cases of beer, crates of fruits and vegetables, coolers filled with frozen meat, cardboard boxes of salmon dodgers, treble hooks, downrigger clips, poly bottles of gasoline, and obscure parts for motors and generators and plumbing and electrical gear that Flynn is delivering to the fishing resorts and logging camps his taxi services.

“If things don’t work out,” his aunt tells him, “in a couple of weeks Flynn will bring you home.” The aunt waves from the dock as the taxi motors out of the marina.

Flynn, a compact, weather-beaten man, proves a loquacious guide, naming the various landmarks and peaks as the taxi speeds by, pointing out bald eagles, good fishing spots, even a pod of whales. “Fine weather today,” Flynn says, as the taxi hurtles up a glass-smooth channel, “but it can blow like stink out here.” Despite Flynn’s assessment of “fine weather,” it seems to the boy that an aura of gloom hangs over everything. Rocky shores. Ragged peaks. Narrow passes. Mist and rain. The mountains too high. The sea too gray. At the fishing camps and logging landings, the men and the women are too large, too loud, and too profane. If the boy feels anxiety, he doesn’t show it. Being handed off is a thread in his life. Inscrutability his shield.

“Next stop your grandfather’s,” Flynn says, as the boat sweeps around a turn in the channel. “That’s his island to port. That’s mainland to starboard. Over there,” he says, waving his arm, “there’s nothing but mountains and glaciers and bears.”

Bears? Despite his ennui, the boy feels his pulse quicken.

. . .

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