“When can we go to the beach? When, Mom?”
We’d just moved to Vancouver Island from our former home in rainy Prince Rupert on the northern coast of British Columbia, Canada. There were no beaches in Prince Rupert, just the docks at Royal Fisheries where my Dad worked. Commercial fishermen berthed and off-loaded their catches at the docks and this was where my friends and I jumped into the frigid fish-gutted water. The temperature was always blue-lip cold.
On a hot day, the kind that rainy Prince Rupert seldom experienced, I nagged Mom to take me to a beach near Comox, our new hometown on Vancouver Island. Sodden Prince Rupert’s climate was made for my mother whose skin blistered and bubbled after a few minutes in the sun. It made her sick too, so she did everything she could to avoid exposure. The beach was not her idea of fun but I didn’t know anybody yet and so I preyed on her guilt for having taken me away from my friends until she relented.
Kye Bay beach was reached by a narrow, winding road that skirted the Canadian Forces airbase. A jet was taking off just as we turned onto Kye Bay Road and it vibrated our kidneys. The engine noise penetrated everything and I smashed my palms against over my ears. Mom hunched forward and pushed hard on the steering wheel under the fearsome boom of the accelerating jet. I prayed we wouldn’t sail off the cliff as we approached the hair pin turn that lead down the hill to the beach.
Elegant pines screened our first view but I could see sand peeking through the branches and I was happy. Then we got out of the car. A low tide smell hit me hard. “It stinks!” My mother’s shoulders slumped – sun exposure and an unhappy child. It would be a long afternoon.
I picked my way over the driftwood while Mom found a patch of shade. Giant logs tumbled like passed out partiers, their tangled limbs bleached by sea salt and sun, formed a barrier between sand and water. Low tide left behind another barrier – stringy, stinky, green kelp that popped like bubble wrap when you stomped on it. Mucky brown tide-pools sucked at my feet as I tried to jump over them to the clean sand ahead. Finally I reached the hard packed wave corrugated sand dotted with sand dollars where I walked forever on sand bars reaching into the Strait of Georgia. I wondered if I could walk all the way back home to Rupert. I missed my best friends Valerie and Alexa. I thought I’d be alone forever.
Soon enough I met the girl next door. Together we found a gang of girlfriends and discovered The Goose Spit, the closest beach to Comox. Every part of the Comox Valley had a beach neighbourhood. If you lived on the forces base you went to the prosaically named Airforce Beach or Kye Bay. Then there was wild Point Holmes. It would take a drivers’ license and a few more years before that beach became accessible to me. Kin Beach was freckled with tiny cottages rented to Americans summering away from the heat of California and for that reason it seemed as exotic as the San Bernardino Valley. The twang of a southern California voice always puts me back on Kin Beach.
The Goose Spit, better known as “The Spit”, had everything going for it. On its tip was HMCS Quadra, a training centre for Royal Canadian Sea Cadets, in those days all boys. They wore crisp white suits and matching shoes, topped off with a natty round hat. They were the best dressed boys I’d ever seen. Even still, everyone called them sea lice. I longed to be infested. Chances were slim that one of the cadets would show up on the beach, but the heart of a teenage girl is an ocean of optimism.
Besides sea cadets, The Spit had sand dunes which looked like Everest when I stood at the bottom, balancing on a piece of wobbling driftwood and planning my ascent. The dunes offered a safe adventure when the excitement of a boy’s gaze was unlikely. Brave clumps of sea grass and rogue spindly trees elbowed out of ledges here and there, grab points to hoist me further up the sandy incline. And once at the top? I never knew. My friends and I gave up about three quarters of the way and then raced to the bottom, tripping and righting and rolling some more until we got to the piled bodies of logs, leaping across them onto the pebbles of the beach. Then we’d do it again.
Getting to The Spit was a walk of three and a half kilometres through Comox and out its back end, and along the way we fed horses, picked blackberries, or kicked skunk cabbage to smithereens. We meandered up a winding hill past the Hawkins farm and fruit trees and more horses – how happy they must have been in the fall, chewing on the feast of apple deadfall. We’d troop single file at the edge of a thin, slope shouldered road that looked like all the boys were knew – shaggy, dusty, careless.
At the top of half disintegrated timber ties that acted as stairs leading down to the beach we ran full tilt, skipping stairs, screaming like seagulls, eager to find the best spot to spread our towels and start doing nothing. The kind of nothing only a beach will let you do – turning hot smooth stones in our hands, digging holes with our toes, resting our chins in the sand then coming up with sand-stubble, looking like a worn out dad on Sunday morning. Staring into the shifting blue horizon line, we watched the tide sneak closer, calculating when we’d have to move our towels, daring the waves to touch our toes, hot sand and hard pebbles pressed into our bellies.
Cut-off jeans and t-shirts were our bathing suits. We tuned a transistor radio to CKLG radio in Vancouver and razzed our American friend when the DJ spun “American Woman”, enjoying her bright red anger which started a chase up the dunes.
Years after we outgrew the sea lice, we went to The Spit with six-packs of beer and clawed our way up the dunes, wedged a ledge in the sand with our jean wrapped bums and commenced to drink six beers between three girls. Lightheaded, looking down on our friends gathered around a fire, we watched the darkening sky dip into the salt-chuck until everything was a uniform black. Across the water a few lights from Union Bay and Royston winked at us like the boys we wanted to kiss, sitting at the bottom of the dunes, smoking pot and swearing, roaring like the cougars that roamed the spiny mountains of our island.
Grad night my mother drove my girlfriends and I to Kye Bay, the beach that started my reluctant, at first, love affair with driftwood, stinky kelp and blue horizons. She drove us past the cops stationed at the top of the hill who stopped dozens and dozens of cars, searching for liquor and drugs. My silver haired mom in her sedate, gold Volkswagon loaded with giddy girls, pulled past the checkpoint and we were on our way to the beach party.
We had stashed our mickey of rye whiskey under a log the day before our graduation dance. Ours was a one-high-school town back then and anyone-who-was-anyone would be at the post-dance beach party. At least, those of us who drank, or did drugs, or wanted to be seen rubbing shoulders and grinding groins with Comox Valley cool, would be at the party.
We found our stash, pulled it out and saw a note: “Think before you drink.”
The whiskey was gone. There went the party. Except of course it didn’t. Beer was shared as we wandered from campfire to campfire, party nomads. All night, we listened to music, sat at the water’s edge crusting our jeans with salty damp sand, talking and watching romances blossom in the heat of the fires and pair off into the dark. Eventually we fell asleep, swaddled in sleeping bags, propped against smooth driftwood pillows, our faces lit by stars. I was unconcerned about the future, feeling sure that Kye Bay would be home forever and my friends would always be with me, like the stars.