Lost or Found?

Photo Credit: All photos by Michelle Yarham

Lost or Found?

🕔Jul 31, 2018

Lost is where we find ourselves. Whether weaving through unfamiliar neighbourhoods in a new city or jumping in the deep end of an adventure, the act of surrendering yourself to the unknown can be terrifying, exhilarating, and revealing. Faced with adversity, we search inwards for the strength to survive and navigate back to familiar territory.

One curious side effect of not knowing where you are is you see things in more detail. Searching for a clue to bring you back from the brink focuses your gaze and brings the background to the fore. Details which would otherwise fade into the surroundings are suddenly clear and noticeable. A blade of grass bent a certain way, a small scuff on a brick wall. The roll of the landscape, the position of the sun in the sky.

For this issue’s feature section, we asked six writers and one photographer to tackle the theme in whatever way they saw fit. What they came up with is a collection of ideas that is quirky, funny, poignant, reflective, and uniquely northern.

Read on, and lose yourself a little—you never know what you might find.

Not Lost

by Dave Quinn

I began to sense something amiss when after an hour we were still walking towards a destination that we should have reached 20 minutes ago. Sure, the Gwaii Hanaas bush was thick. Yes, there were head-high logs to hoist ourselves over. Ok, there were a few knee-deep mud pits to bypass, but really, we should have already been there.

And it was not just any destination. My buddy Bruce Kirkby and I had been invited as journalists to cover the raising of the Gwaii Hanaas Legacy Pole at Windy Bay, the first Haida monumental pole to be raised in the Park Reserve and Cultural Heritage Site in well over a century. Gwaii Edenshaw and his team of carvers had been working on this project for over a year. Guujaw was there. Justin friggin’ Trudeau was there. Everyone who was anyone on the North Coast was there. We were not there.

Bruce and I had paddled to the event around Burnaby Island with a stop at Hot Springs Island and a few other “out-there” destinations and were camped out towards Gogit Point to avoid the masses—more than 400 people were rumoured to be arriving for this historic event. To kill time and scratch the curiosity itch we had hiked across the point to explore some pocket beaches on the other side, then strode with blind confidence and time to spare (or so we thought) through the ancient forest of Windy Bay to the old village site where the pole was to be raised. We should have been there by now. Beginning to suspect an epic in the making, I deliberately stomped several boot prints on the banks of a tiny stream that crossed out path—one of many we had jumped that morning.

There are a few moments in life that stick with you. This is one of mine: 20 minutes later we grovel over yet another massive nurse log and its mohawk of tiny hemlock, push through another salal/huckleberry wall to find another tiny creek, with boot prints in its muddy bank. Going precisely the opposite direction we were travelling.

Now I can get my head around maybe circling around and crossing our path in this verdant maze, but no matter how much I scrunch up my face I cannot for the life of me imagine how the hell we managed to get turned around to travel in the exact opposite direction along the same track. This, despite nearly five decades of combined wilderness experience between the two of us. And I am talking Patagonian, Arctic, Mongolian, Icelandic, and Sahara Desert get-lost-you-die wilderness experience.

Yet we can’t find 400 excited people on a major creek in the only major valley there is in any direction. I mean, as long as they didn’t bumble uphill or crawl into the sea, a toddler should’ve been able to find this pole-raising.

And so we found ourselves half-laughing, that nervous guffaw that means things ain’t quite the way they should be, and struggling desperately to figure out the compass features on our fancy altimeter watches.

To use the feature, you first need to hold down some complex combination of buttons that requires more fingers than either of us owned, and spin slowly in one direction (or was it spin rapidly in the other?) in order to calibrate said compass.

The Raven would have laughed long and deep had he glimpsed two grown men, chimped over their wristwatches, slowly spinning in deep mossy circles, glancing hopefully this way and that, squinting to the tree-tops for just a hint of direction-revealing sun, absorbed in the hopeless dance of the lost.

Never mind the Raven, it makes me laugh long and deeply now. But it sure was not funny at the time.

Eventually one of us sorted out the watch compass thing, and we diligently followed a bearing to the only creek in the only valley, which led down to the only village site, where the first monumental pole in over a century was being raised by 400 ecstatic souls.

Not one of whom was lost.

The Bet

by Patrick Williston

I was reading The River Why, a story by David James Duncan, and had reached the part where the main character follows a spawning Chinook salmon up a river by moonlight, hiking through the night while tethered to the enormous fish by an impossibly light fishing line.

“I felt overturned and overwhelmed, and walked in a slow hush, awed by all I'd seen and was seeing, yet I sensed that still greater secrets were impending,” wrote Duncan.

What secrets?

I had never hiked at night before.

How was that possible?

I put the book down filled with determination to repair this embarrassing gap in life experience. I would go on a mountain adventure, just like Duncan's character. I would go that very night.

I invited my roommate to come along, relating to him Duncan's narrative that had so moved me. He looked at me as though he had tasted something unpleasant.

“No chance,” he said.

His response was exasperating.

“Well I'm going!” I threatened, angered by the ineffectiveness of my impassioned proposition.  

“Go ahead,” he said. “Fill your boots.”

I suppose that I could have gone alone—that would have been more in keeping with Duncan's story—but I called another friend instead. This other friend, blessed with the requisite quantum of imagination, didn't hesitate.

“Sounds great. I'll pick you up in 15 minutes,” he said.

On my way out the door, I grabbed a fishing rod and announced that I would return with fish the next morning.

“Doubt it,” scoffed my roommate.

“Wanna bet?”

“Sure,” he carelessly replied.

I bet my roommate $8 that I would catch a fish.

My willing companion and I started up the mountain on a steep and poorly marked trail, carefully seeking out a dim passage in the dense conifer forest. As our ability to see diminished, our other senses sharpened. We listened for a way through the woods. When completely flummoxed, we looked up—a sinuous gap in the canopy lit by freckled stars provided a hint of the way.

Gradually gaining elevation, we encountered encrusted snow and the trail became a glowing moonlit path. At two in the morning we finally reached our objective: a small subalpine lake—a perfect disc of silver reflecting light that had travelled from the sun, to the moon, to the lake, and to my friend and me standing quietly on the shore.

I cast my lure onto the ice a few times. It skipped impotent over the ice.

We threw our sleeping bags down on the lake and got a few hours of rest. It was cold. We had brought little for food or warm clothing.

We awoke at 5 am, an hour or so before the first light of day, and hurried down the trail to get to class on time.

At the end of class, I stopped at Safeway on my way home and bought a trout at the deli. It cost $10. It still had the head on it, so it seemed reasonably authentic.

My roommate gave me $8 for catching the fish. I struggled to provide details.

We ate the fish for dinner.

A few years later I told my roommate the truth. He didn't see the humour in it.

I returned him the $16 I owed.

Yes, I lost the bet—not for the first time, nor the last—but in so doing, gained a remarkable moonlit night in the mountains.

Archive of Lost Things

by Melissa Sawatsky

Burnaby, [date unknown]: My first memory, unremembered.

Burnaby, 1985: My Corey Hart Boy in the Box cassette tape, which belted through my Walkman for a year straight.

Burnaby, 1987: A portrait of me at age 10, drawn by a dear family friend.

Burnaby, 1990-1995: Handwritten notes to and from high school friends, folded into intricate origami.

Amsterdam, 1996: My sister’s backpack, travel journal, and undeveloped rolls of film, all stolen from the lobby of a hostel.

Burnaby, 1999: “Sarah and Melissa were here” carved into the closet door in the upstairs bedroom of our childhood home.

Prague, 2000: A sheltered worldview, gladly surrendered.

Vancouver, 2001-2005: Innocence and idealism in the realm of romantic love.

Vancouver, 2008: All that hovered in the air, unspoken, during a cordial encounter with my high school sweetheart.

Vancouver, 2010: Ink bleeding off handwritten pages of poetry and fiction in a flooded basement suite.

Parksville, 2012: Legal autonomy, but also, loneliness.

Vancouver, 2013: My son.

Smithers, 2014: Physiological ignorance of 30 hours of back labour, ending in a C-section.

Smithers, 2015: A full night of sleep. A social life. Time or desire to be creative. The illusion my marriage won’t suffer.

Smithers, 2017: Two 17-year-old cats buried beneath a newly planted plum tree.

Burnaby, 2018: My childhood home, renovated unrecognizable.

Smithers, 2018: The sense that time is linear.


by Allison Smith, with Joseph Crawford

“Stick your face in the moss and take a big inhale,” I suggested as I kneeled down and squished my face in the forest floor.

They looked at me like I was a bit crazy for suggesting it, like I was trying to play a joke on them. It wasn’t something they had been asked to do on the streets of Toronto before. But after they reluctantly tried it, they were converted. It wasn’t  long before I would find them with their faces pressed to the ground, sucking in the fresh, cool air from a big patch of soft moss.

“I’m telling you one day this will be a treatment at a spa: moss breathing, a Haida Gwaii moss facial.” They laughed at the thought.

Guiding  tests your patience, your endurance, and your wilderness experience. You’re up before everyone else. Making coffee and oatmeal while the guests get another hour of sleep. And you’re the last to bed. Putting the food in the cache, listening to the radio, and making sure the fire is out. You’re always on. You’re happy, approachable and  full of stories. Always.

I like people. I like meeting people, talking to people, making them laugh when they are on the edge of being uncomfortable. I like learning about their experiences and hearing their stories. As a guide, you never know what personalities will walk through the shop door.


It was an early August morning when Anita and Peter came into the shop looking to join a two day kayak trip. They were friendly, with a free spiritedness about them. As Anita made her way through the paperwork, Peter quickly pulled me aside.

“Just so you know, I have early onset Alzheimer’s and I might forget some things.”

I paused. I wasn’t sure what that would mean and how to navigate it. I reflected back to previous trips I had guided, where I had to juggle various abilities and personalities. It isn’t easy to manage a large group as a solo guide.

So I asked: “Will you forget that you’re kayaking?”

“No,” Peter smiled.

I helped Peter, Anita, and the three other guests pack their bags, making sure they had their appropriate overnight equipment, rain gear, and dry bags. We all loaded into the van and headed to the island’s west coast, kayaks on a trailer behind us.

When we reached the coast, we unloaded and packed the kayaks. I led an obligatory orientation of how to get in and out of a kayak. And, in the unlikely scenario, what to do if a kayak flips. Then we paddled.

From the beginning, I could tell Peter and Anita were in awe. The awe that hits a guest right in the face, giving them a permanent smile. They talked about how they hadn’t imagined it would be this beautiful and how Haida Gwaii had always been on their bucket list. But now that bucket list had a lurking ending. It had become a list of the last opportunities to share memories and experience places together. It changed how they experienced places.

As we paddled, Peter kept pointing to the rugged shore.

“Look at the cedar branches, twisting and rolling like an arch.” We stopped to marvel at the shape a dead cedar tree makes when it is close to water. I hadn’t really noticed it before.

We paddled for a few hours, then began to jig for rockfish from our kayaks. Anita and Peter were both in single kayaks parallel to each other. It was Anita’s first time fishing, and one of her first times kayaking. I could tell she was nervous, and curious to see what would happen. After some patient jigging, Anita had a tug on her rod. I hollered for her to pull back and start reeling it in. She furiously turned the handle on the reel. Peter balanced her boat with his paddle as she pulled the spiny, grey fish onto her sprayskirt. She and Peter celebrated with roars of excitement. Another memory. Later that evening, I gutted the fish and cooked it whole on the fire. They all crept in close, shoulder-to-shoulder, eager to try the white, juicy flakes of meat.

Peter was pleased. He kept raving about the freshness and the taste. Suddenly, his eyebrows furrowed and he looked lost and confused. He swallowed his last piece and asked the group, “Where did we get the fish from?”

I sat there thinking that if I’d forgotten the first time my girlfriend caught her first fish, she would have been a bit miffed. It would have been like forgetting an anniversary or a birthday. By the looks of everyone else around the fire, I could tell they felt the same way. The group looked at Anita with little discretion, waiting for her response.

Anita responded with a lovely, matter-of-fact, “Honey, I caught the fish.”

We were humbled.

The next day after breakfast I took the group on a hike on a decommissioned logging road. Anita and Peter told me about their children and the urgency to get to know and spend time with their grandkids. How they wanted to experience the world together. We walked beneath the moss-covered branches that looked like arms reaching for each other. The group started to drift into pairs. Peter and I were near the front, Anita slowly pacing behind us. It was warm, and the sun was nearly overhead as we approached a lake.

Peter reached forward, which I thought was an attempt to brace himself from fatigue or tripping. I fumbled to catch him, but he caught his balance on a cedar tree that reached out over the water. Peter stood there, touching its barkless trunk, marvelling again. This time, I wanted to know what was going through his mind.

“I remember this tree. Were we here yesterday?” he asked.

“No, but we paddled by a similar tree,” I said.

“These cedar arches remind me of a wedding arch or altar, of marriage.”

It was like a transcendent memory, or a feeling of déjà vu. I was surprised he wasn’t anxious or frustrated with himself for not remembering. He never got hung up on his failing memory but embraced new experiences while allowing old ones to filter through.

He had noted this arch again and again on the trip, and each time he marvelled at its shape. I was inspired by the way he was experiencing this place, with memories intertwining the beauty of his past with new experiences. It was almost as if this memory of a wedding arch was seeping through his mind, taking shape and reconfiguring in nature.

Anita joined us. She stood beside Peter and held onto to him, standing by their cedar wedding arch.

On a Peak

by Paul Glover

It is an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way.  

— Rollo May, psychologist

That was the year I was 20. My adventuring pal Rob suggested we canoe the Bowron Lakes. We drove to the put-in, 120 km east of Quesnel, and set out. In late September there were few others out there. We had our pick of campsites and didn’t see other canoes out on the lakes.

We were both tough and lean from a summer of physical work and mountain scrambling. With our excess energy and youthful enthusiasm we were more keen to cover distance than to enjoy the surroundings at a leisurely pace. After three days we had paddled and portaged three-quarters of the 116-km circuit.

We were now in the heart of the Cariboo Mountains; glaciated peaks loomed on either side of the long, narrow lakes. Across from our camp on Lanezi Lake rose Ishpa Mountain, the highest of all the summits bordering our route. Rob declared he would like the next day to rest. “In that case,” I said, “I will climb Ishpa.”

At dawn, Rob delivered me across the lake. “Yell when you get back,” he said. “I’ll watch for you.” There was no discussion of what we’d do if I didn’t return. I plunged into the forest. The ground steepened steadily as I climbed. Thick brush and fallen trees made the going slow and laborious. There was no trail, no write-up in a brochure, no signs to follow. I kept a vigorous pace in spite of the terrain. There was a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of elevation. At over 8,300 ft, Ishpa’s summit towers 5,500 ft above the lake.

Hours later I reached alpine and the view opened around me. Far behind lay the lake. The ridge narrowed to a point and continued into the sky as a winding spine of rock. As I climbed into the heart of the mountain, deep basins yawned on either side.

The good weather we’d had was changing. Cloud had moved in overnight and kept dropping as I climbed. A few flakes of snow swirled past. I put on some extra clothing and carried on.

Looking ahead, I wasn’t particularly concerned to see that the peak was lost in the clouds. I’d climbed mountains in the fog before. As long as the ridge leads to the peak, you can follow it there. Then you turn around and follow it back.

The route steepened yet again as I entered the cloud. In the swirling mists the sense of isolation became acute. I could only see the rock immediately ahead and behind me, and all was silent. The endless ridge led me higher and higher.

Finally the angle eased and I found myself on the peak. No sense in taking a summit photo: I was immersed in a world of grey. I donned my rain gear for warmth and hunkered in the lee of a boulder to eat some food. I felt victorious—I’d made it to the top!—but I also felt relieved. I’d overcome the obstacles and knew I could get back. I would have to move carefully, but it should be straightforward. Picking up my pack, I said farewell to the peak and headed back the way I’d come. I down-climbed through the fog, following the ridge. “Yes, this all looks familiar,” I thought to myself. But then I found myself peering over a sheer cliff that disappeared into the fog below. “That’s not the way I came up!” I scrambled around, left and right, looking for the route. It wasn’t there: this wasn’t it. I was descending the wrong ridge.

I knew the ridge I wanted ran east-west, so my compass could set me straight. But with a sinking feeling I realized I had not brought it.

A sense of panic engulfed me. Suddenly I lost all sense of direction. I had felt so sure of the way a few minutes ago, and now that was completely erased. In my fear I raced back to the summit, no longer moving carefully along the wet rock. I stood there, trying to recognize something that would give me a clue, but with my sense of direction obliterated everything looked different. I couldn’t even find the rock I’d rested beside.

I tried to calm myself, but I was distraught. The afternoon was ticking by. It was late September and the days were getting short—and cool. Here on the peak it would be downright cold. A few snowflakes materialized to illustrate the point. I was already wearing all the clothes I’d brought. If only I could see the lake, far below, the way would be clear. But I could only see the rocks at my feet, and grey.

Still panicked, I made a few more half-hearted forays. But what if I headed down the wrong ridge—how far would it be until I realized my mistake and had to climb back to the top, only to try again? Eventually I just gave up. Back at the peak, I gazed into the fog and disconsolately contemplated my options.

Suddenly a small opening in the clouds blew across my view. Far below was the lake—a most beautiful sight! Then it was gone again. But now I had my bearings and knew which way to go. I crept carefully down the steep rock, through the swirling mist. This felt right, but still I doubted… Then a bootprint in a patch of old snow gave me final confirmation.

It was mostly dark when I arrived back at the lake. Rob was unfazed when he picked me up. “I knew you’d make it back,” he said.

As for me, I never go anywhere anymore without a compass.


by Jo Boxwell

In the bleak early morning light, wisps of snow scattered across the empty highway ahead of us. We had been on the road for a while, wearied by the indistinguishable white fields rolling past us, broken here and there by old properties and skeletal trees.

Two objects emerged in the distance, oddly shaped and out of place. Large, with what appeared to be pointed ears, sitting perfectly still. Surely not house cats, with no homes in sight.

As we approached, two lynx came into view, sitting on the side of the highway. We slowed down just beyond them, hoping we wouldn’t disturb them too much. By the time I had reached into the back of the vehicle and retrieved my camera, the pair had slinked across the snow and disappeared behind a ridge. I regretted not being prepared. I regretted missing an incredible photo opportunity. Then I realized I had spent most of the experience thinking about my camera, and not the two beautiful animals that strode across the field behind us.

Northern summers are filled with opportunities to spot wildlife. The wolf was standing on the ties of a disused railway track beyond a rusted-out truck. Mosquitos whizzed through the rich green trees. It was a postcard shot of nature reclaiming our discarded spaces.

The wolf crossed the old road a few feet in front of us, turned and looked straight at us through the windshield. I had a sense that he was capturing us as we sat there motionless, as we wondered what he might be thinking and what he might do next.

I had mixed feelings as the wolf moved on. Grateful for the experience, but it took me a while to get over the sense of loss at not having my camera beside me, zoom lens prepped and ready to preserve that moment.

My son was born in the springtime. We have almost no photographic evidence of that first month besides a few blurry mobile phone photos at the hospital, and a couple more announcing his arrival at our home. We were too exhausted, and too busy experiencing the world for the first time with him.

At two years old, he saw his first wild predator. We had driven along a dirt road to explore a waterfall, and as we bumped in and out of the potholes, we spotted a very large black bear in a clearing, chewing the dandelions beside a dead pine. The bear was very close to the road. We pointed at it through the glass, but our son remained uncharacteristically quiet as he looked out from his cushioned car seat.

When we talked to him about it afterwards, he remarked that the bear was, “Scary.” Watching his expressions, witnessing his interpretation of our proximity to that powerful animal, it never even occurred to me to reach for my camera. I’m glad I didn’t.