If it does not take five burly assistants to help carry your kayak to the water’s edge you are already doing something terribly wrong before your trip even begins. There is no need to travel light when touring in a kayak yet again and again I see people skimping on the small pleasures that make an outdoor experience better. I mean really folks, it’s not like you are carrying it all on your back like say, some sort of backpacker. Small stones, wood, maybe witches and of course as we discovered thanks to Monty Python, ducks float easily. So does as demonstrated by a paddling companion some years ago, a large glass jar of pickles! I have done both backpacking through places like the West Coast Trail and up and down some of the local mountains, and I have also done even more kayaking miles and I can say that my years of kayaking over mountaineering and trekking is largely due to not wanting to wear my household on my back ever again. It still astonishes me how much weight I can load into my kayak’s hatches and various nooks and crannies without it sinking under the burden of my dietary desires. The first few paddle strokes are hard but once the momentum is built up the vessel glides through the water without much effort, unlike the first few foot steps with a heavy pack. That never gets easier and there is no such thing as momentum.
I concede that making your pack as light as possible is necessary when going up and down things or across them for many days and nights. Your menu changes with that necessity from the gourmet to what doesn’t taste great but keeps you fuelled for the next day. It is all about food. It should somehow go beyond just eating for the sake of it or to replenish what you have used up all day in your efforts to get from A to B. On the aforementioned trip on the WCT where the ruggedness is equal only to its beauty my group and I packed our bags as though we were kayaking for a week. To say overkill would be an understatement with each of us possessing our own tents, stoves, pots and of course for the most part non-backpacker foods. We had a ten pound bag of fresh vegetables that became the punishment for any bemoaning of our fates due to weather or terrain the previous day when it was handed to you to carry. On the first night it took all four of us to heave the packs up into the trees. The veggies were eaten on the last night. Should we have planned better, yes! Should we have shared a stove, pots and brought dry noodles and nuts instead of corn on the cob fresh on the cob? Yes! Did we enjoy that darned corn over the campfire on a beach of pebbles that sounded like a rain stick being tipped back and forth when the tide and waves rose and fell over the small rocks, yes! There is a time and a place for such luxuries and that time and place is when kayaking.
Valdes Island lies a few kilometres north for Salt Spring Island. From my home on Salt Spring it was only a couple of hours of steady paddling and navigating away from the opening of Porlier Pass to get to my camping spot. It was the August long weekend and I misjudged how crowded that beach camp may be forgetting of course that it is also a destination for power boaters coming across from Vancouver Island. The only piece of tenting real estate I could find was a patch of sloping crushed shell beach inches above the high tide line demarked by where the seaweed and a partly submerged log. I made do with what I could get and after setting up I set out on the water for a sunset paddle up the shoreline to admire the eroded sand stone cliffs. On my return I saw a woman pushing her tent pegs into the same holes that mine were in. I rushed ashore to confront her but before I reached the shell beach she was calling out an apology and offered to share some of her summer sun warmed beer with me. Who could refuse such an offer?
Her name was Jean and she was in her early sixties. Her solo journey paddling the entire Gulf Island chain from Victoria to Nanaimo where she lived was coming to an end, it was her last night camping. After the previous night marooned on a smaller cliffy island due to a low tide and no way to move her kayak down to the water she was low on supplies with no time to detour to gather more. We sat up that night chatting and watched the fireworks igniting over the distant small town of Ladysmith sipping our beer that I had dunked in the ocean to cool. The next morning I pulled out my bag of goodies to make coffee and breakfast. Jean pulled out a cup from her smaller bag and filled it with instant coffee and a bit of milk that I am certain would be curdling, topped it with cold water, and drank that nasty gritty mixture down like a trooper. She made a gurgling noise. It was hard to bare witness.
“No! I can make you a real coffee if you want. Use my stove! I will do anything not to have to see you drink a second cup of…that!”
Jean refused my offer stoically. Cold soaking her meals each day and enduring the privation of even hot water for a cup of morning coffee without complaint, at least outwardly, but did the simple meal plan add enjoyment to the epic solo journey she was doing? I turned away to light my stove to make a fresh and hot mug of coffee with my miniature espresso maker because I could, and prepared a bagel with salmon capers and cream cheese. The guilt of eating this breakfast feast caused me to sneak away to a hidden location up the shore while dodging the milling throngs. I had planned a two-day outing but had packed enough food for a family of four. I get it; she wanted to travel simply and lightly. Making room for beer is a good excuse I suppose, but to take on such a trip and not enjoy the menu seemed to discount some of the satisfaction of the journey, at least in my eyes. I sent her on her way with a bagel with the works before she left to catch a forgiving tide to go through Dodds Narrows, the last hurdle before she reached home. What floats you ask? Pickles which have been scientifically proven to float, small stones, witches and wood as well, but this paddle foodie would say that you can also float a full satisfied stomach. Cold soaking is for masochists.
Five days after 9/11 with that horror fresh in my head I took my place in line for the outhouse. Walbran Creek marks the unofficial middle of the most strenuous hike you will find known as the West Coast Trail, or W.C.T. White sandy beaches, a fresh water flow coming from the deep forest and lots of places to pitch a tent makes this ideal. The Creek is a location where weary travellers tend to rest up after coming north to south via Bamfield, a small coastal town or south to north via Port Renfrew, another tiny blip on the shoreline map. Caked in mud as I and my group of four were we could use the creek to rinse off a few crusty items, make a fire to dry the rest and take a day off from climbing ladders and struggling on quicksand ridden muddy paths. Walbran Creek also offers one other thing, a piece of civilization known as an outhouse. My advice to all is bringing your own toilet paper for a more enjoyable repast inside the squat hut, and because this is a gathering point there will be a small community of tents and people from all over the world to get to know there may be a line. I love talking to strangers but on this unreal week in the wilderness I was by chance in line behind a couple from Germany who I had taken out kayaking about ten days previous. What are the odds? I told them the terrible news from New York and in the days before viable wifi and cell phone reception the trail was a way out of knowing anything about the world beyond the next hurdle on the rugged path ahead. Of course, they were having none of it and did not believe my tale that always sounds like an action movie plot. Planes hitting the World Trade Center and other targets simply sound ridiculous, even two decades later. I imagined that the world was engaging in end of the world shenanigans as we spoke.
It was not just the potential for World War III mysteriously lurking on the horizon and shadowing our journey like a cougar who had possibly stalked us the day before, it was also my good friend’s 27th birthday that night. We were not good backpackers. There were four of us, myself and three women, and before you say a word about what a lucky guy I am, I can tell you that it was not always an every man’s dream. I also learned more details than I needed to know, ever! That said we packed for our week trekking in the woods like we were doing what we were accustomed, kayaking where weight of ger is less on an issue. Each of us brought a stove, pots sets, food for a month and the dreaded vegetable bag containing of all things four corn on the cobs, still on the cob. It was a worthy punishment to be given the bag for the crime of being whiny on the trail the day before. We were all overloaded but lightened the load somewhat with the birthday feast of vegetable sushi rolls. Our friend as it was her birthday took care of us. She brought little gifts for each us and argued to make the sushi. I had a plastic water bottle filled with red wine that may or may not have been improved by days of giggles and drops on the hike. I shared it out and by that time the sushi was served. There were enough ingredients for one long roll and as we were entertaining guests the roll was stretched with each of us having three or four small slices. Our guests were a couple of lads who met on a kayaking tour in Tofino consisting of a kayak guide and his new friend who had been convinced to join on a hike of the WTC. Another German I might add. We lifted our cups of giggled red and toasted the birthday girl and our good fortune to all be out there on the trail. The toast chased by a piece of sushi followed immediately by a group spit take, rice, carrot, cucumber and red wine sprayed into the campfire. She had a tube of wasabi paste and to lighten her own bag had squeezed it in entirety into the one roll trapping the green dynamite inside. With little in the way of a plan B meal at hand we used the wine to slightly deaden the pain of each sushi slice. Nasal coughing, choking, snorting and wheezing laughter got us through that night, and the only outhouse at Walbran Creek collapsed the next morning. No one was hurt, but wasabi may have been involved.
A Day at the Spirit Animal Zoo
The inside of the tent was bright that morning as it is every morning on a summer camping trip to the west coast. The air was yellow and blue reflecting the coloured pattern of the thin layer of nylon that separated me curled up snug in my sleeping bag, and the 250lb black bear seen as a menacing blurred shadow sniffing at my tent. I could not move a single fear locked muscle and the restraining feel of the hooded mummy bag didn’t help the sensation of being trapped against my will. The bear had me dead to rights and could if it pleased used me as a kayak camping enchilada. Thoughts raced across my mind, rational thoughts on how and why a normally timid coastal black bear would venture into my encampment on the shores of a very busy and noisy bay of motor boaters? Hell, I was kept from sleep most of the night by the sounds of a family group up the beach and the drunken warbling of its matriarch as she sung along to old time rock and roll tunes. My Sherona by the Knack had never been covered with such passion, and so many times in a row.
With the sounds of generators, dvd players, outside voices echoing in the bowl shaped bay and the Knack on repeat how, I thought would a bear come anywhere near? It must be very hungry! I’m toast, paralysed in a bag. The tent walls rustled and that was the end. I woke from the dream and regained the use of my limbs and in seconds my wits returned under the heavy breathing. But there was still something outside my tent, something brushing against it and then the sound of rain. Wrestling in a subdued near bear encounter panic I escaped my sleeping bag and unzipped the triangular flap to my enchilada cave. My head popped out into the sunlight and silhouetted before it was a man in a bucket hat and shorts holding a coiled up dog leash as his golden retriever pissed all over my tent fly.
“Sorry.” He muttered and called his dog back to the dinghy he used to take the dog for a pee on my tent from his 40ft sailing boat anchored in the nearby still waters of Roscoe Bay.
I sat on the mossy ground, ignoring the picnic table provided and listened to the hiss of my coffee maker doing its duty. It had no idea what I had just gone through, but that was not what it was about. My coffee maker’s hiss was the sound of civilization. A return to the over-populated boater bay I settled for the day before when the hour was getting late and the setting sun had fallen behind Vancouver Island. The gurgle after the hiss meant relief. Nothing bad can happen when you are sipping your first cup of coffee in the morning while camping, it is a rule. I had little concern of a black bear waddling down the path leading directly to my tent spot. I could relax and ponder the horrors of the morning with some self-doubt about my fortitude in nature. I thought I was made of tougher stuff, but my subconscious sent me into a waking sleep paralysis instead of grabbing my flare gun and lighting up that bear’s insides.
Years later on the Yukon River after a twelve hour stint in the kayak seat without rest I arrived at Lower Lebarge checkpoint at the northern end of Lake Lebarge. The sun had only gone down slightly below the tree line and would soon be on the slow rise. It was shortly after midnight when I stumbled rubber legged up the beach covered in round river stones to firmer flat ground. There was a smell of BBQ but I don’t recall there being food served. I had my bag of clothing designated for the chilly overnight paddling hours of the three day long marathon named the Yukon River Quest from Whitehorse to Dawson City the epicentre of the great gold rush era. I nearly toppled over attempting to change my clothing and even found a place that would serve well as a tent spot, if not for the sense of urgency we all felt to get a move on. The next section of the river was a reward for the long mind-fucking shore topography of the lake which is one long shallow bend around one rocky outcropping obstructing the view the next rocky outcropping. It would take many hours of paddling in at times unpredictable waters before the red beacon light signalled the entrance to the river. The reward was faster water, zigging and zagging through cliffy canyon-like terrain that is said to be visually stunning in daylight hours. In the sheer dusk of the hour the headlamp light could make out some features but the rest were lost to my eyes.
It doesn’t take long to read the water and understand where to point your bow to make full use of the flow and give paddling arms a rest. Steering left and right, and then another fast right, go straight and into the next set of mini rapids. By 1am and a snack of gummy bears chased with a five hour power shot drink followed by an ill-advised Red Bull I was drifting a little. Letting the waters take me downhill to the Bering Sea thousands of kilometres away. I scanned the shore looking for anything that would indicate the light was getting brighter. I seemed to remain dusk for a long time. I saw the weak sun peek in amongst the sparseness of the hinterland forest but it was not yet friendly to weary kayakers on a daft mission to beat the clock. What I did see was a deer. I was in luck but there was no one around in canoe or kayak to share my good fortune of witnessing a rare thing indeed. I couldn’t believe I was drifting at the same pace as a white deer tip-toeing and struggling somewhat on the loose sandy incline to the water’s edge. It pranced and jumped as if as startled at seeing me as much ai I seeing it. In an instant it was gone. The deer jumped up the sand bar and while in mid-flight burst into a cloud of sparkles. I assumed it teleported and would reappear sometime, someplace later.
We were lost in the archipelago. Left became right somewhere during the afternoon of leisurely exploring the islands with no names, some only identified with a number, some with nothing at all according to the sea chart sealed in clear plastic on the deck of my kayak. Being lost was what we did best. Myself and three others had paddled many days and many locations together and would inevitably on each occasion get thoroughly lost. With little care in the sheltered safely from the wild open ocean that the islands provided we decided to stop and get clearer bearings. Choosing a muddy beach of one of the nameless islets where the dark wet soil met a small green grassy clearing that must have been at some distant point in the past, a homesteading site. The patch was too flat and too clear to be anything other than that. The beach faced the inland side of the island group and was as calm as a pothole puddle. The west coast makes mud. West coast mud is the type of mud that reminds you why as a kid one of your basic phobias and terror was to inadvertently encounter quick sand. The mud looks almost dry on the surface. Deceptively assuring the traveller that stepping upon it will mean solid ground not the ‘you will only sink faster if you struggle’ sand that will swallow you up whole unless there is a long sturdy vine within reach that you can use to pull yourself out.
I stepped out of my kayak and lost my sandal instantly in the deep quagmire. I looked up while reaching elbow deep to retrieve it and that is when I saw a normal coloured deer dancing in the grass. Hopping back and forth and we all saw it. I had witnesses! This deer was working it, prancing on ballerina hooves. Spinning and jumping about. Was this a greeting, or a warning not to come ashore lest ye be damned, or it could simply be that the deer at the late summer berries and had a buzz on. In a blink it was gone, and so was my other sandal.
I am an extraverted introvert. I know that sounds like a confusing contradiction tied up in a neat little paradoxical duality, so just imagine how I feel living in it every day. When I was a kid I was not a cool kid. I did not run in that crowd. I did not do the cool kid stuff, go to cool kid parties, and there were many reasons for that lack of the cool gene that the obvious cooler kids who are cool possess. I was the outsider from the beginning. I was short and goofy looking. That describes all kids but I think you know what I mean. I am still short and goofy looking so I call that a win in the consistency department! I managed somehow to roll with many groups but never fully integrated myself into any one of them. I was not seen as obviously cool. Some kids just don’t fill that particular cup all the way to the top and I was alright with my state of being. After all, I might not have been recognized by the cooler kids but I was certainly not with those losers over there! In between coolness and burnouts suffering their own kind of loser-dom is where you will find my footprints walking in circles and doing my own thing.
Kitchens do not attract the quiet wallflowers or gentle observers of life. It is a scolding hot dark loud anti-social punk rock environment. There are boiling liquids, knives of varying sharpness, there are flames and bodies jostling in a cramped uncomfortable space resembling a submarine. It is not for the contemplative soul. No time for naval gazers. This might be why, or at least part of the contributing palette of the job that leaves me a zombie wreck by my weekend. It is the act I am playing in the kitchen hours on end that drains me more than the physical act of being on my feet for up to ten hours a day. My introverted self, the one that is here right now typing against the taunting white laptop screen is my usual self. Being creative, thinking at all time about all things, and attempting to convey this with my own voice and in a tone that is accessible is exhausting enough. Now try thinking about things, all things all of the time while the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now is playing all around you, and there are sweaty cooks asking the impossible of you while being jostled in tight uncomfortable quarters. Something dear the core of my being must be hidden in a safe room until my shift is done or it will never recover from the PTSD inflicted upon it.
Covered in bits of food, moisture from the overheard pressure sprayer and knowing that when I do finally go home I will smell badly is the role. It is the casting method of playing that role of the louder, hotter, crankier punk rock extrovert whose banter and comedic rants can at times border on inappropriate. He is the manic polar opposite of the guy writing and listening to old timey blues music while doing so. He, the kitchen monster comes out as the protector and is a released demon to guard against the onslaught of over stimulation that can leave on feeling like a shaken baby in a matter of minutes. To fully take on that role when it is not your natural state of being is tiring. It goes right to the sole and over time you just simply need to take a break from it. I live in hopes of those surprise days off that are usually months apart. In the meantime, I find other escapes to shed the kitchen self and gaze, most times in the blurred reflection of the stainless steel walls of the walk-in cooler. The door propped open with a potato so as not to repeat the unfortunate time I was locked into a walk-in freezer unit because the push button lock release broke and was rescued to emerge moments before freezer burn settled in. The walk-in cooler is the refuge of every kitchen soldier suffering from major to minor battle fatigue. In the comforting hum of the compressor and the stale scent of waxy cardboard boxes we find solace. Time stops however briefly though am fearfully aware that at some point your absence will be noticed. “Where’s Dave?”
“He went to the shed.”
When I worked at a small seaside fish and chips joint the building which seemed by style to at one time be a residence was perched precariously on the side of a cliff. The walk-in was housed in a separate smaller building ‘the shed’ up the hill and as far away from the working kitchen as could be humanly possible. The waddle up there with an empty bus bin to collect items needed in the kitchen was what one young cook named the stress walk. We all take stress walks there during a shift and with more frequency on warmer summer days. A few lovely minutes pretending to gather ingredients while standing in the cold breeze inside the cooler and you walked back down with a little less stress than on the walk there.
In a few hours I will return to the belly of the beast and face off once again with my duelling selves. I have become less and less aware of the internal fight while it is going on only to feel the morning after affects of the existential over drinking later on. The euphoria of getting to the end of another shift, and being one of the cool kids in a working kitchen and hours of nerve-jangling stimulation gives way the following day to a natural downward spiral of the quiet guy processing what just happened.
It won’t go Down
It won’t go down! Try as I might I cannot nudge or negotiate the only object, a piece of medium diced tomato down the dishwashing station’s soaker sink drain which is inconveniently located in the back right corner of the square stainless steel cavern. There is an art a kin to the finesse used by a snooker player to judge how much hand pressure to apply to the overhead pressure sprayer nozzle to accomplish certain washing tasks. Over the years, months, and hours standing at the dishpit staring into my own dull reflection in the stainless steel backsplash I have developed a surgeons touch.
Applying full pressure to the handle to push away stubbornly clingy cooked on gravy in a pan to the light as a feather barely conceivable technique to use the same device to removed gravy from a ladle unless you want to throw caution to the wind resulting in a face wash of used gravy and hot water. Have hand towel at the ready at all times! I have become an intermediate league player in the world of dish sink hockey. In those short-lived but enjoyable moments of relative quiet in the lull between waves of orders coming in from front of house when I have caught up with the stacks of pots and pans, dishes and bowls and cutlery, I indulge myself to aleve the boredom which inevitably grows in a work place that is a non-stop cacophony.
A working kitchen is like a foxhole during a fire fight in the Black Forest. Moments of stress and impossible noise and futility broken only by longer moments of anxiously caused by awaiting the next bout and doing what you can to frustrate the anxiety with a game of cards, lighting (carefully so the enemy can’t see) a cigarette during a smoke break, of attempting to push a chunk of medium diced tomato down the drain hole. The sound of the spray hitting the metal like a heavy rain in the middle of the night easing your tensions until you hear your name called with urgency snapping you from your revelry and the guns begin to fire once more.
This evening as I wait for the final rush of the night that clever piece of fruit will not go where directed as though it may have a will of its own.
“For fuck’s sake!”
I go for a full blast to its left flank and nothing happens other than giving it a sudden fixation of the lower corner under my arm and nearly out of sight. It may be hiding, refusing to submit to my designs, and I know in my heart that time is running out. The enemy a.k.a. the loyal customers are reloading as the water flares from the hose. It won’t go down! I resolve to give up. It wins, or so it thinks. I hang the dripping nozzle in its cradle. A habit I rarely do as I want immediate access to the hose and do not have time nor patience to fiddle with that instead leave it swinging or at least shove it on the faucet pipe hoping it won’t swing back and hit my in the face. I hear the printer start that triggering sound as the tickets resume, and I reach down sliding the cube to the drain and push it down with my index finger.
As I paddled the last couple of kilometres where the coffee and cream coloured Yukon River collides with the equally famous Klondike River at Dawson City, I was knackered. Those final hours of the Yukon River Quest in 2016 were by far the most mentally and emotionally taxing paddle strokes I have taken in my kayak. I was all motor function and no one left inside for lone periods. Lucidity failed and then I was broken from my hallucinations by the sound of my own name being called out from somewhere, was it behind me, beside me or in my head. Word had gone out that I was definitely struggling to stay straight in my course. I was zig-zagging about in the wind waves brushing against the current that would eventually take me to where I was going. My support team jumped aboard our friend’s jet boat and had zoomed behind the island I was passing to eventually come up behind my kayak and shouted love and encouragements. When I realized it was real and not yet another fanciful creation of an extremely exhausted drain and flattened mind I perked up. It was what I needed to finish the trek. Last place, but who cares it was my goal and mission to complete every inch, of the river 715 kms from the start line in Whitehorse to the gravel beach finish line at Dawson City.
I followed the line now where the two rivers converge and the Klondike appears to be jet black running beside the silted Yukon. A dividing line is made where the two meet and I followed the subtle curls of silt and bubbles to the place where for the first time in a long time I saw people. Competitors from the race who had arrived as early as the previous day, well-rested and cheering my hard fought attempt to meet them. I saw friends, clapping and shouting. I mustered what I thought was one final surge of energy putting paddle to the water with fierce abandon. The video evidence shows the contrary. Okay, so only one paddle blade was making contact with the flowing river while the other stroke missed completely or barely skimmed the waters surface. I was leaning sharply to the right in my seat and my lower back was raw and sore. I heard the horn sounding the beginning of the finishing line and my friend shouting from the boat to just keep paddling its not over yet. Then I heard the second horn and could limp into shore to the awaiting volunteers and friends. I made it!
The experience began with a hat. A friend who would later be on that jet boat egging me on was the one who got me into this mess in the first place. He had competed and finished the Quest several times in the past and bought me a souvenir ball cap with the River Quest logo embroidered on it. When he gave it to me he stopped me from putting it on telling that I could only wear it if I entered the race the next season. I did. It was a nice hat and a shem not to wear it after all. With planning, packing and the long drive north we arrived in Whitehorse some forty hours later a bit stinky and bedraggled but met by our friend Ray and his family who took us in, gave us actual bedrooms instead of the camping in his backyard in which we all assumed would happen. We were well taken care of beginning with a tremendous bbq feast of northern fare.
I began a few days of acclimation to the scenery and the prospects of paddling the epic event. I was not an endurance racer but a recreational paddler. Until I began training for the race I had never intentionally paddled with aggression other than those times I need to dig deep to get out of harms way. I was thriving on the lingering tiredness from the non-stop drive and excitement of the unknowns ahead. Nerves rattled inwardly and I hoped that my crew understood any random outbursts. I set out on a training paddle a couple of days before the start and that was the first time ever that I had kayaked in moving water. It rushes by the shores of Whitehorse and to look at the moving current and swirling water it is demanding. The moment I set out and steered easily into the center of the river heading from Tahini Bridge about an hour paddle upriver I was enjoying it. I had no idea how fun kayaking in current would be. There was little struggle to maintain a course. I was not tossed in whirlpools or dashed against the sandy cliffs north of the city. The water was clear and and intense blue when deeper and at times I could see the rounded stones on the bottom. It was hot, I sipped water and payed close attention to my GPS and my surroundings. Testing my map reading skills and learning how the river wanted me to paddle. I thought to myself, well it the whole thing is like this then I will be fine. It wasn’t. This first section was benign enough but I would have my skills truly tested a few days later when the sleep monsters chased me down 30-Mile canyon and confusion found me in a place of islands and intersections before Carmacks and a 7-hour break from paddling.
There would be times after twenty or more hours without seeing a single person that I would see other things real or imagined. The cliff face had faces in them. There was a long period of time where I was sure that my girlfriend was arguing navigation with me around a set of difficult islands. The burning tree. That one I had witnesses so I am sure it was not a group hallucination. The time right after leaving the checkpoint at the end of Lake LeBarge where I saw the white deer prancing on the rivers edge and then in one leap disappeared into a cloud of sparkles. I am sure it reappeared elsewhere. I ate a few gummy bears and finished my Red Bull and paddled on after that one. There was a plane that was out spotting the racers. I am not too certain there was actually a safety measure that required a low flying plane new Dawson City but nonetheless it made two passes over the river and on the second fly over it banked around a bend with wings flapping like an albatross.
During the trek I felt as though I was travelling in a timeless state. It is wilderness, the real deal wilderness and from the seat of my kayak I gazed as though into a void at times at fiord-like mountains angling sharply to the river below. Wide valleys. Open sections of river which had the opposite shore up to two kilometres away with an obstacle course of log jams and islands making navigation demanding on a tired mind addled with sparkling deer sightings. An amazing landscape that is the most accurate memory of the river I have.
The volunteers make the race what it is. We show up and paddle our hearts out until our hands blister but these people come out each year with an enthusiasm that is contagious. The year I participated there were 2 volunteers for every paddler. From registration, boat measuring and gear check to the hand holding you get from a young guy at 2am in a wilderness camp turned rest stop who understands what you are going through and does a heroes job of feeding you and making certain you can continue on to the last leg of the race. Thanks again Ian, my man!
This year, there is no race. Today would have been the start of the Quest for 2020. Covid-19 and the very real precautions take hold in the Yukon shutting down an annual event that brings a spike to the local economy of both Whitehorse and Dawson City. It is something the Yukoners look forward to each year as much as anyone who has taken part or is planning to compete in the Quest. In the two times I have travel north to the Klondike both for the River Quest. Once as support crew and once as a racer it gets in the blood. The genuine nature of the Yukoners, the landscape, the place and the event. Hopefully in 2021 it will return with racers from all over the world paddling against the clock, their own demons and seeing how the river wants them to paddle.
I stood behind Chaz the latest short-term addition to the kitchen crew with a nearly room temperature coffee in hand. I took an immediately regretted sip from the cup but should not have been surprised by the lack of heat because most of my on shift coffees die slowly and drank cold. I was watching for some time as my young dish pit Jedi apprentice struggled again to get through the morning dish and pot pile. My day always began at noon and by that time the morning baker, and morning breakfast dishes, scrapers, pots, pans, mixing bowls, spoons encrusted with hardening batter, and cast iron skillets had gathered on any flat surface in the prep room slash dish washing area. On some days that mess could be a daunting sight when I first walked in the back door, but I had a tried and true system for breaking it down quickly and returning much needed priority items to the line. I had a system and I say Chaz struggled because no matter how many times I ran him through the simple act of washing a dish in past weeks he inevitably returned to his ridiculous default settings. This was his last day of what was intended to be a two-month work experience training and I looked on as he was gradually filling the second soaker sink with garbage.
“Chaz.” I sighed after taking a sip of the gasoline the restaurant called coffee and forcing a gulp down a reluctant palate.
“Chaz buddy.” I said again using the term I would add to anyone who was not my buddy but in actual fact is quite the opposite and arguably irritating to me.
He turns slowly nearly dropping a plate back into the depths of the shallow two-inches of tepid barely sudsy dish water. Default setting number one, was to him to only ever use water if absolutely necessary, soap optional. He looked at me like he could see through me to the back wall shelves where the baking ingredients and canned goods resided. Nothing came out of his mouth. It rarely made much noise if only to piss off some member of the staff with a hurtful comment. This kid was a shit. I have worked with teenagers before and more often than not I am pulled from my cynical preconceptions, surprised to be working beside a capable, likeable young person. Chaz on the other hand, if he were to fall into the deep fryer and never to be seen again, not many around me would shed a tear.
The events of the previous weeks since the day I was introduced to and given the responsibility for young Chaz I had seen that gormless self-pitying look of teenage despair at being asked to do anything at all. But Chaz had managed to weaponize the attitude and expression to attempt to manipulate those around him. He seemed to have trapped my boss into thinking he was just a poor youth from a poor existence needing a leg up. At accepting him from a program and giving him a two-month work experience gig in her kitchen she then patted herself on the back for a job well done and dumped him onto her staff to deal with.
Fine, we had been down this road before and I have seen them come and seen them go. Kitchen life is a hard life. It requires certain skills and not just the ones that might come immediately to mind. Not just multi-tasking and group teamwork skills that are the staple of any restaurant help wanted posting, but the ability to do the job even if your back is in knots, your legs are rubber and your feet feel like they have mutinied hours ago. Not everyone can be asked to do it. Most find it simply overwhelming on the first day and never come back. Some stick it out and slowly come into their own, moving up the chain from dish to prep, to second cook to hardened line kitchen soldier. The top percent being offered the big spots if they are lifers. I have said that I have worked with kids who have impressed me with work ethics of old timers. Being the oldest in the kitchen more often than not I sometimes slip into a fatherly role to them. They trust me with their concerns and real life stuff that they are dealing with outside of the kitchen world. I like them and I think some of them may even have liked me through my constant crankiness that I bring with me some days.
Chaz was not one of them. Yes, he came from the far north and a small isolated place at that. He was Inuit and some like my employer coated him with the artifice of poverty just because of where he came from. It is a simple thing to do if you don’t bring to the table an understanding of the outside world and that not all native peoples are sliding by or near poverty. It is the rest of the working staff under her employ that are struggling to make the rent. This young fellow came from the far north yes, and was of native decent but his family was not impoverished in the slightest. Chaz would brag about losing an expensive set of headphones and instead of working to make the money to replace them, his dad did it for him without blinking. Chaz was a spoiled rich kid who missed the indentation his butt left in the sofa at home where he tuned out playing video games day and night with his mates. Working in a kitchen was a great weighty imposition on poor young Chaz and he could not wait to be rid of us. I believe his strategy was to screw around, and screw up enough that the staff would fuss enough that he would be sent home. We did not give into his campaign but the home stay family that had billeted him were on the fringe of wanting him gone as soon as possible and did get their wish in the end. This was why Chaz was on his last day with us and being sent home three-weeks prematurely. It was no surprise that he could not follow simple house rules.
I looked at him straight in the eye and mentally rewound the tape. I was not happy to have had him deposited on my shores. Myself and the head cook were given charge of Chaz without much prior consultation and it was on us to find things for him to do and learn. At first, we worked out a small list of things we could get him into. Obviously, dish washing would be his key task as a newbie to the kitchen and the traditional place start where any other person would look around during the shift and take in what was going on around them, the routines, the work, and especially the timing. There is a rhythm and flow in a well-oiled kitchen team. The dance of working in a small confined space with heat and food and what comes first, what comes second and what comes third. If everyone is doing their jobs there is no conflict and the dance of each dish going out to the dining area is a flawless ballet. Whether in a Manhattan fine dining restaurant or an off the beaten track diner there are a row of giant dominoes in the kitchen dynamic that can tumble at any moment with the littlest of things being the breeze that tilts the first tile towards disaster, one thing out of place, one item not ready and the chain unravels.
Chaz could care less and only wanted out. His daily deliberate excuses and lack of retention caused the domino tile wobbling. He took more breaks than a chain smoker but din not smoke. I would look around from the prep table to see the dishes piling up and Chaz out sitting in one of the booth tables with a pile of fries in front of him and headphones on. The boss took it easy on him because, and I quote, “He isn’t used to working.” What, really, fuck me!
I was the target of most of his garbage. Each day he would grab a soup pot from the end of the dish line and walk slowly, as slowly as humanly possible to then ask me where the pot goes. For weeks at a time the answer was the same. It wasn’t as though each day we decided to redecorate and move the entire kitchen sideways just to make it hard on him. He knew damn well where stuff went after the first few days, he was just looking for trouble and one day he pushed my buttons all at once. I was putting away a large food order and having to navigate my way from the back room through the line with boxes of canned goods, sauces and the like. When I was on the last can of cranberry sauce, the same type we have at home for Thanksgiving dinner. The type that makes that lovely nostalgic squelchy sound when it slides out of the can with the lines of remembrance of what the inside of the can looks like imprinted on the jiggling contents. Chaz holding a pot limply from his left hand asked me one too many times,
“Dave, where do I put this?”
The answer was swift and at the end of the rifle I was holding a can of cranberry sauce target locked directed at his forehead. I did not pull the trigger though everyone in the firing line backed up and pulled the shutters in case a duel ensued. I knew I could take him out before he could loft the heavy pot in the air. Yes, I would shoot first like Han Solo. And yes, live with it nerds, he did shoot first!
“The same fucking place you put the fucking pot yesterday, fuck!” and I sulked back into my darkness of the canned good shelf seething.
Chaz used up all of our Band-Aid supply as well. None of us could figure out why he went through so many during the day. Perhaps when he put them on wet fingers and did the dishes without gloves they just refused to stay on. All we could assume was that his tender fingertips were not accustomed to touching work related tools and the metal dish scrubber was irritating them.
Having him take on other simple food prep items that dishwashers are often saddled with was pointless. I showed him how to hold and use a knife only to watch his valiant attempts at removing his own digits. Other items such as tartar sauce which is only a blend of mayonnaise and green relish and if you want to go fancy one can toss in some white onion and lemon juice. Ours was the simpler two-ingredient style. It was beyond him or so he would like us to think. Every task shown was met with a practiced incompetence meant to have us give up entirely so he could slack off.
Chaz was the poster kid for the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. I gave it my all in the beginning. I was kind, patient and I understood the hardships of being made to go to some strange place with strangers telling him what to do and worst of all expecting him to work the whole day. Drip by drip he wore me down to the point of wanting to do him in with an assault of machine gunned canned goods, and I will implicate my coworkers in this as none of them saw anything, and it would stand up in court!
I am at times, when I think back on him slightly ashamed that I let him work my nerves and eventually lose my cool. I don’t do that on the job. I am the old guy remember, the one that might grump during a shift but never lose it entirely on anyone, no matter how unruly.
There was on moment of redemption for young Chaz, although I cannot be sure he was being sincere or just playing the part when he changed course one day and asked about cooking. I love to cook. Chopping vegetables relaxes me. The process and love put into a dish made with confidence is an art and I am a willing student. So I encouraged his interests and I offered to give him, not lend him a book that I had when I was in college. It was a book of simple recipes for the single guy and got me on my way in my home kitchen. I told him of the importance of the book and the family hand me down it was from mother to son. The next week he continued to ask me about the book and finally I brought it to work for him. He was excited to see the book and for once I was happy to see him slacking off by flipping through the book rather than leaning up against the chest freezer flipping through his phone. His reaction being more humbled that I would have expected and I believe the fact that it was a sort of family heirloom carried some weight with him. I returned to prepping dinner potatoes I wondering if this simple act would shift the little creep into becoming a real person. I thought while laying halved potatoes onto a sheet pan lined with melted butter and herbs that perhaps one of the pages would be the spark of inspiration and gratitude for a gift of a mentor. I was Chaz’s Obi Wan! Are there too many Star Wars references in this essay? I gave him the book under orders that he attempt to make each recipe when he got home. Did he? Will I be the guy that one day walks into a restaurant and sends compliments to the chef, chef Chaz la asshole who showed me up in the end?
“What do you think you are doing with a sink filled with garbage?” I asked truly wondering what his endgame concerning the garbage would be, and he shrugged.
“There isn’t a garbage can.” He said.
“I can see that, did you go look for one?”
At that question there was a pause, and it was excruciatingly too long for what was to be Chef Chaz’s eventual answer.
“I don’t know.” He said to me.