Digging into Life on My Summer Vocation
(Part 2 of 4)

by FishKitten


Previous article
in this series:
Part 1

In the first installment, the author set off for an island in the Pacific, off the western coast of Vancouver Island, to join an archaeological quest for the first people to arrive in the Americas from Siberia many thousands of years ago. Arriving in the town of Bamfield to meet the other archaeologists, she was first greeted by a native woman called Sky Woman, the traditional guardian of her people’s First Place, who said she had been waiting for her and promised her that the old ones, the ancestors, would “speak” to her.

Once Sky Woman left, I decided to walk back down to the dock and check on my gear. Just as I got there, Al and a man named Denis (pronounced De-nee’) drove up in a van. As I mentioned in Part 1, Al was the head of this archaeology project. Denis was Al’s partner and was sort of co-in-charge. He is a large man, half native and half French, with the oddest hair I’ve ever seen. It is jet black all over except for a snow-white semi-circle that runs right across his front hairline.

I waved them over.

“Hi guys. You’re Al, aren’t you?” I asked even though I knew full well it was Al because I’d seen him around some conferences (and some pubs). After our introductions, Al and Denis had some business to transact before setting off for the island.

“See that boat,” Al said, pointing a few docks down. “The blue and white one … the Nikki.”

“Yeah, I see the Nikki.”

“That is the boat we will be taking to the island. Can you find a way over there?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll find a way.”

“OK, meet us on the Nikki at 7 o’clock. Don’t be late!”

They put my gear into the van. It would be loaded on the boat along with other supplies for the island. So I was free of everything and it was only 3 in the afternoon.

Al yelled out the window as they drove away, “You might want to pick up some beer. Some people have already been out there for two weeks.”

Well, this was all cool. I wandered around and found a place to buy a case of cold beer. I walked back down to the dock and hitched a ride on a passing boat over to the Nikki’s dock. I was kind of tired by that time. I’d been on the road for a while and it felt good to just sit in the sun. I didn’t go directly up to the Nikki. Instead I leaned back against some old fishing nets, tilted my hat over my eyes, and popped one of those cold beers. It was so utterly pleasant just sitting there in the sun, relaxing, knowing I had found the people who would take me out to the dig, knowing my gear was all taken care off … ahhh … so pleasant.

After about an hour I started looking a little more closely at the Nikki. She certainly seemed like a small craft for such a journey, but I figured they must know what they were doing. These men are internationally renowned professionals, after all. But the Nikki … was that dirt all over the front? Someone doesn’t keep things very ship-shape. I got up and walked over to the boat. As I got closer, I noticed that there were tools strewn around the inside of the cabin, and the door was off its hinges. Wait a minute … is that a tree growing in the back? They got me!

The Nikki was just some derelict old boat that had been sitting there, quite obviously, for a number of years. God only knows who owned it or the private dock upon which I had been making myself at home. I started looking around for a lift back to town from the Nikki’s dock because I did NOT want to swim back. The water of the North Pacific is freakin’ cold, even in the summer. I spotted some movement about two docks down. There was someone there. He was kind of far away, but … could it be? Two Eyes!

Cool. Two Eyes was the one person on this dig whom I actually knew, and I knew him quite well. He is in love with a very good friend of mine and is currently trying to find a way to get the lovely Lioness to marry him. They are both archaeologists.

“What are you doing over there?” he yelled.

“I bought the Nikki.” I yelled back. “Can we tow it to the island?”

He threw up his hands and grabbed a skiff to come pick me up. You may notice that I am using his nickname here. That isn’t only because of privacy concerns on the Internet. We really do call him Two Eyes all the time. For some unknown reason, archaeologists all give each other nicknames. It seems to occur naturally when people are on remote excavations together. I guess in a way it is kind of a badge that says you are a digging-type archaeologist, not just an office-type or lab-type archaeologist.

So he collected me, laughed at me uproariously for falling for the Nikki trick, and took me to the REAL dock where a much larger and nicer ship awaited to carry us off to the First Island.

Heading to First Island

First Island peeked over the edge of the sea like a rough-cut emerald waiting barely beyond my grasp. It is a rainforest today. Towering cedars form a rounded living canopy above its rocky shoreline. Back when the old ones first found it, it would have looked much different.

Everyone with Internet access, a TV, or magazines has some idea what British Columbia looks like: trees, mountains and water. But 12,000 years ago, it was entirely different. An ice sheet more than a mile thick covered all of the interior of British Columbia and most of the coast. Even where the ice withdrew, there were no gigantic cedars, no endless forests. Only ice, ferns, berries, sedges, and some early bushes.

People were in British Columbia long before the trees showed up. The western Red Cedar, for which we are so famous, only arrived some 5,000 years ago in most areas. The old ones were greeted by a low, rocky bush-land whose shores were thick with seals and sea lions. This abundance of sea animals has remained until today. Even after the trees came, when the ancestors had been here longer than the oldest story, the Earth continued to provide like a vast seaside Garden of Eden. All the beaches and waterways were crowded with fish, porpoise, whales, and otters. Edible kelp still reaches up for harvest. The shellfish, crabs, starfish, and other tidal pool life are so abundant, a population of hundreds would not go hungry. No wonder these people had time to create so much outstanding art. There was no need to consider farming. Instead they developed long houses and potlatches and “totem poles” and hundreds of artistic and utilitarian devices.

I felt them on that island … the ones who came before. The hair stood on the back of my neck as we navigated the path through the water that would take us close to the landing spot. There was a narrow opening in the jagged rocks that led to a wide sandy beach. It was a natural landing site in later years for Sky Woman’s people. I could see their sea canoes. But this was a fairly new beach. I could tell by the sharpness of the rocks, and the pulverized sand and rocks beyond, that this beach had been created in the last 1,000 or so years by seismic activity. We were, after all, riding a fault line. I wondered if that had anything to do with why there were areas of refuge from the ice sheets of the ice age along this coastal line. Did the deep faults bring enough deep activities to the surface to fight back an ice sheet? I haven’t had time to investigate this yet. But as I set my foot upon the shore, that vibrational sense of tuning in to the people and place I am seeking, the sensation that I call The Feeling, became intense. I kept my breathing steady.

People were now filling the beach and the boats. There would be 25 of us on the island. About half were archaeologists and the other half were members of Sky Woman’s people. They were there to learn what we were doing and also to reach out to the ancestors of the First Place. Several of them were young men in their teens and early 20s. They were born to be hereditary chiefs. One day they would replace their grandfathers as leaders of their nation. The others were women, ages 25 to about 50. They were the story keepers of their people. With the presence of this group, both the future leaders and the future legends would know of the finding of the First Place.

We arrived on the beach about 8:30 pm. I met everyone briefly, but had to get my camp set up quickly. Dark came at about 10:30 these days and I had a lot to do. Two Eyes volunteered to helped me put up my tent and tarps.

“Where do you want to set up?” he asked, looking around at some little groupings of tents.

“Ummm … not here,” I said. I looked around at the cook tent, the dining area with its tarps and tables, and the small clusters of tents in various woody nooks. “ I need more privacy.”

Usually in British Columbia, you don’t want to camp too far from your fellow archaeologists. Bears and cougars tend to go through your belongings and eat your sleeping bag if you get too far outside the smells-like-people area. But this island was different. No griz, no cats, only birds and the odd sneaky seal. I wanted a spot where I could think.

I was working my way south along the beach with Two Eyes, each of us carrying a Rubbermaid container. Suddenly a young bald eagle soared above our heads and entered a rather loud discourse. His head and tail were just showing their first touches of white, so he was probably less than 2 years old … a teenager eagle … a young chief like those in camp. And like them, he had many opinions and much to say. I remembered that Sky Woman had told me to “look for the young eagle.”

He circled us a couple of times, then retreated to a spot at the top of a massive cedar and began to talk. As we watched, three huge ravens formed a semi-circle in front of him and, after a short confab, began to argue with him vociferously. Were they supposed to represent the ladies of the tribe? The older wiser ones? I looked around and saw an overgrown trail into the forest.

“This is the spot,” I told Two Eyes.


“Here. I want to go into the forest here.”

“Well, OK, but really, don’t you think you’re a little far from everything?”

“I like my privacy,” I said.

I had never been on an excavation with Two Eyes before. As I said earlier, he is in love with a friend of mine. I have worked with her in the field before, but not with him until now. She lived with my family and me for about a year, during the time she met Two Eyes. So Two Eyes knew us all quite well but was still something of a newcomer to our group. By the time this dig ended, we knew each other a lot better.

As we made our way through the natural cathedral of trees, the eagle suddenly dropped from the canopy and perched on the top of a great old cedar stump. He gave me a look. I’d like to say it was metaphysical, but I think it was more about the salmon smell that pretty much oozed from my clothing by now, from my practice of following the old ones by eating their traditional diet.

I looked around the darkening forest. They were here! I didn’t just feel it. I could see it. A lot of stuff that looks like rocks and potholes and hills to the untrained eye shows up clearly as tools and graves and villages to the archaeologist. Two Eyes is a sea-mammal guy in the same way that I am a Religion/Metaphysical girl, but any archaeologist could see that there was the south end of a village here, probably about 1,000 years ago. It had slumped almost into oblivion.

That was a good sign. People tend to re-occupy the same sites generation after generation if they are successful cultural or economic areas. The Feeling was strong and I was getting tired. I needed sleep. How long had it been since I had actually slept in private? The dreamtime was calling.

We tossed up my camp in record time, and Two Eyes took off for the communal campfire on the beach that happened every night. I emptied my camping gear from its Rubbermaid container in no time flat and had a sweet set-up. Astrologically, I am Pisces with Leo rising and a Leo Moon. I like a mermaid’s grotto — the royal mermaid’s grotto, in fact — or perhaps the Enchanted Cave of the Wood with golden light spilling out a crevice. At the very least, I am had made myself comfortable both physically and esoterically.

I didn’t go to the fire at the beach that night. I snuggled into my sleeping bag beneath the whispering boughs of the cedars just as dark settled in for good. Our campsite faced the east shore, so no lingering rays of gold strayed over the horizon toward the beach. Not that I could have seen it from my camp anyway. The crashing waves lulled me into a deep, utterly peaceful sleep. The dreams came so soon and so intensely, they must have been crowding their way through my psyche all day. The old ones had a lot to say!

The Old Ones Speak

I heard them first. That happens to me a lot. Hearing before seeing. They were singing and laughing and collecting butter clams on the beach. They were barefoot. I don’t know why I never thought about their footwear before. I guess I always assumed they wore something. It’s never that warm up here, even in summer, and the barnacles on the rocks are sharp as can be. I certainly wear something on my feet.

“Go past it,” a voice said. I don’t know whose voice it was, but she seemed quite familiar.

“What?” I have lots of lucid dreams, but when they are brought on by long-distance travel, removal from everything one knows, severe dietary restriction, and immersion in a specific culture, they tend to be far more vivid. The female voice sounded like an echo in the tunnels of time.

“Don’t dwell on their feet,” she said. “Look to their hearts.”

To me that meant don’t worry about how the old ones got here so much as why they came. What was in their hearts that brought them to this wild place so long ago? These ancient travelers who sailed beyond the known world … why did they wander? And why am I compelled to follow?

Drumming, drumming, through my dream.

“You have taken our ways to become one of us,” she said. “If you are us, then we are you. Do the urges of humans differ so much from the urges of salmon? We go. We know not why, but we go. All have the same urge. Speak to your heart if you would find ours.”

Flipper, the TV dolphin, then appeared in the dream! He was in the lagoon where the skiff landed us earlier, and he tossed a ball on his nose. After a couple of bounces, he passed the ball to me. It turned out to be made of woven cedar bark. It came apart in the middle. Inside was a Faberge egg. Drumbeats started, but muted, like they were coming from a music box. A door opened up in the middle of the egg and a dolphin leapt around a circle of sea like one of those cartoon cuckoo clocks. It was followed closely by an ancient canoe full of hunters, spears poised to find its heart.

A shaman knelt in the back of the canoe, invoking the spirits, urging the men on. An eagle in the air (supported by a little lever from the back of the clock) dropped unexpectedly and snatched the shaman from the canoe. It screamed its piercing call and dropped him onto the back of the dolphin. The two merged and became a mermaid. She bolted to the shore. Once she touched land, her dolphin fins turned to legs. She leapt up and ran into the woods.

Once there, she walked through the door of one of the long houses and lay down beside a fire pit. An old, old woman with the whitest of hair knelt over her.

“It is done,” the old woman said. “The circle with the dolphin woman is complete.”

The eagle looked into the door of the longhouse where the mermaid lay and began to talk that screechy eagle talk I’ve heard so many times.

“What … what … what do you want? Eagles are lovely creatures, but my tent is the most comfortable place ever known to mankind. My sleeping bag is heaven. What now, ravens, too? OK I’m up.”

Into the Day

Awakening was like dragging myself out of a place so soothing it made a womb look stressful. What to wear? Well, I’m living on a beach, so beachwear, of course. Beachwear in the North Pacific consists of something all Canadians reading this will recognise: Stansfields. These consist of a long-sleeved heavy grey wool sweater and ankle-length matching wool leggings. Actually, I’d been wearing the beachwear since I ditched the bus several lifetimes ago, so the pretence of making a fashion choice was really just an exercise in connecting with home.

I slipped out into the early dawn. Early dawn in this part of Canada in July is about 4 a.m. I wandered along the trail toward the beach, through the quiet majesty of the rain forest. At the beach I found the young eagle waiting very impatiently. I stood near a tidal pool where a little lifecycle evolved.

With the sea pounding against the guardian rocks and life growing joyously from every nook and cranny, the shore bloomed before me as the first pink and golden rays of Sun touched the sky. I’m a Yoga person, so I stretched upward on one foot into the Tree Stance. I felt the earth slip slightly under my feet. OOOhhh … A little earthquake. We heard about it later on a Coast-Guard-type channel.

I walked around the beach in the sunrise for a while. Breakfast was at 7 a.m., so I eventually went back to my camp and got my dig kit together. I walked through the deep woods toward the cook shack with a smile on my face and a song on my lips. I just love archaeology. The eagle and the ravens shot above my head and landed in a tall tree about 50 yards into the forest. I followed.

Once in the tree, they began to pick insignificant bits off the surrounding foliage and drop it to the ground. I smiled.

“Ok, I get it,” I laughed up to them. “Right here.”

I went to the cook shack for breakfast. I had eaten the last of my salmon and blueberries the night before. We had French toast and fresh fruit. There was actual milk. Coffee … there was coffee. Yum. Although there was no electricity on the island, we did have a gas-powered generator, which we ran for two hours per day. That cooled two insulated freezers, which kept our fresh food not quite cold enough. During those two hours was when we could plug in the Coast Guard radio. We also had a propane-fired stove and a huge charcoal barbecue.

I’m probably the healthiest person in the world, with the possible exception of my son. I may get injured, but I don’t really get sick, so island food and untreated creek water was good enough for me. Most people did drink imported water, but I’m used to creek water, so what the heck.

After breakfast, we went to the first site. There was a large area, which as I said before, would look pretty natural to the untrained eye. Al and Denis showed me around. We walked the length and breadth of an old village, probably a site that ranged from 500 to 1,000 years old. It could have been much older at the base. Old tales tell of the First Place and describe it. No recent tales have come forward of this place. That is actually encouraging. If a place had been inhabited such a short time ago that people remember where it was, it probably wouldn’t be the oldest of places.

The only hint about the history of this island comes from a famous coastal historic village. The people there were the ones who, more than 100 years ago, said that they no longer lived on this island because it was the world of the old ones. It was the First Island. And that was all. No further tales, only a respect and avoidance.

I walked to the spot that the eagle and ravens had indicated earlier, dropping the little bits of foliage. It felt like a strong magnet and I was a pile of iron shavings.

“I want to dig here,” I said.

“What???” Two Eyes was right beside me, standing in what archaeologists call an excavation unit.

Normally, when deciding where to dig in a newly discovered area, archaeologists use one of several different methods to plot a graph of test pits and/or excavation units. The difference is that a test pit is about a shovel blade width in circumference and a couple of shovel lengths deep. An excavation unit is typically two meters square and an interminable depth (until sterile layers are reached).

The spot that called me was directly adjacent to the unit where Two Eyes was digging.

“I missed the high status area by one square?” Two Eyes looked at me incredulously. “Instead of digging at the next indicated test pit, you want to dig right next to my unit because you think there will be something radically different there?”

Two Eyes was a trifle tense because he was one of the in-charge people on this dig. But still, I had to dig where I had to dig.

“Yep,” I said. “I want to dig right here.”

Most of the time people would tell you to buzz off and think you were a complete prima donna if you pulled that kind of trip on a dig, but I have a history with this kind of thing. In Part 3, I’ll tell you how I got my reputation as kind of a dowsing rod for the ancients.

The adventure continues in the November issue of metamorphosis.