Chapter 3

 

Chapter 3

Going Home

The island that became home to the Innisfree community lies off the British Columbia coast, part of a mountain range created by the convergence of the Pacific and North American plates. As the oceans rose, this range became the Queen Charlotte Islands. At some point in its geologic past, part of the range collapsed, isolating the island from the rest of the archipelago by some sixty miles.

Irving Robertson-Fowles
Building Heaven on Earth: Man’s Quest for Utopia

 

At nine on Thursday morning we arrived at the marina and located the seaplane Cam had chartered, Wings of the Dove. The pilot was a big, burly bear of a man named Chet Ames, with black hair, black beard, and a cap that read, God is My Co-Pilot. The three of us shook hands and introduced ourselves.

“You know where we’re heading?” I asked.

“I know the area,” he said a deep, rolling baritone voice. “I fly hunting and fishing parties up there all the time. But I’ve never been to that island before.” While we were waiting for Rachel to arrive, he showed us our route. Innisfree (not named on any of the maps) was about two thirds of the way between Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes. It would take us a full day, five hours up and five hours back, with stops to refuel at Port Hadley. Ten minutes later the ambulance arrived. Two paramedics transferred Rachel by gurney to the waiting plane. The nurse Det had personally hired, named Shirley, had a gravelly smoker’s voice and carried the oxygen canister alongside them with an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth. They quickly secured Rachel in the back of the plane. Cam sat next to her as the nurse left for a final smoke before our flight. I watched as he stroked her forehead and smiled at her. “You’re going home, Rachel.”

She gave no response. Her heavy-lidded eyes told me that she had been sedated for the trip and the pain. Within another ten minutes, we were ready to depart. I sat in the front with Chet. A crucifix hung on his control panel and a plastic statue of Jesus stood on the dashboard.

“Everybody buckled in?” he called, and we were soon taxiing across the bay and lifting off on a beautiful summer morning with Seattle shining below us. I thought how lovely the city was from this view, far, far away from the gritty streets and discarded needles and empty bottles scattered along First Avenue. We circled once over Elliott Bay and were soon flying up Puget Sound, heading for the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and British Columbia, bearing our fragile passenger home.

Chet was a talker; he had been a charter pilot and guide for more than twenty years and told me of the groups he brought up here. Both Rachel and Shirley were asleep, and Cam came forward, leaning in as we talked. “I fly pretty much year around,” Chet was saying.

“How far north?” asked Cam. I don’t know how he did it, but by some major act of willpower, he had made good on his promise for the past two days and continued to control his language.

“Up to the Yukon and Alaska. Wherever people want to go. I also do search and rescue work as a volunteer, looking for fishermen who stray too far out in the ocean or hunters lost in the back country.”

“Sounds like an interesting life,” I offered.

“It’s a good life—now that I’ve found Jesus.”

“On search and rescue?” joked Cam.

“Could say. I was searching, and He rescued me. Have you been saved?”

“Uh, I think I’ll go check on Rachel.” Cam slunk back to his seat with that awkwardness when one’s joke has fallen flat. From my experience, Born-Again Christians rarely have a sense of humor. They’re invariably serious folks who have been there, done that, and often regretted it. Chet turned to me. “You been saved?”

“Rescue efforts failed, I’m afraid,” I said and turned back to the window, gazing at Whidbey Island as we cruised up Puget Sound.

“Don’t give up on Jesus, and He won’t give up on you. He didn’t give up on me even after everybody else did.” For the next two hours, I received the full, unvarnished account of Chet’s “boozing, whoring and all-around hell-raising.”

“My pa was a Bible-thumping, fire-breathing preacher up outside of Sitka, so we were raised with the fear of God beat into us, but I had to be truly lost before I could be found.”

It was going to be a long flight.

We stopped to re-fuel in Port Hadley for thirty minutes, then as we flew along Vancouver Island’s rugged, ragged coastline, Chet resumed his saga of faith. “I was in and out of prison, and drunk more times than I can remember, but I’ve been clean, sober and saved five years now.” I’ve often wondered: do Born-Again Christians receive a commission? As we headed across open water with great snowy peaks rising up to the east, I pretended to fall asleep, leaning my head against the window, and fell asleep.

 

I woke with a jolt as if rudely shaken and opened my eyes. The plane was bucking from turbulence, although I could see no clouds. “Keep your seatbelts on,” Chet called back to Cam and Shirley. “Barometer’s falling. We must be coming into a low.”

I stretched and checked my watch. I had slept for over an hour. To the west we could see a blue-gray wall moving in from the Pacific. As we bounced along, Chet said, “I don’t like the looks of that.”

“Storm front?”

“Yeah. But it wasn’t expected ‘til tomorrow.”

We continued to bump along for another half hour, when he said, “There’s your island.”

I looked at the landmass in the distance, a small lump on the horizon, and told him that Rachel said her community was on the southeast end. At that moment Cam called from the back. “Hey, I’ve got coverage.” He was holding up his cell phone. “There must be a tower somewhere in the area.” I nodded and heard him leaving a message for his girlfriend. Another twenty minutes, and we began to descend toward the island’s southernmost tip. As we drew closer, I could see no signs of any kind of human habitation. “Where will we land?” I asked.

“Wherever we can find a settlement along the coast. There’s nothing shown on the map. No towns. No roads.” Chet took the plane down, and we flew low along the eastern coastline, giving us some protection from the incoming front. The water was a blue field with surging whitecaps.

“Looks rough down there,” I said.

“We’ll be okay. I’ve landed in far worse.”

That was encouraging. I looked back. Shirley was fast asleep, her head rocking back and forth, an unlit cigarette in her lips. Cam hovered over Rachel, trying to steady her gurney as the plane pitched and shook.

“How’s she doing?” I called back.

He turned to me and gave a thumbs-up.

“What’s with the girl?” asked Chet.

“We’re taking her home. To die.”

He considered this. “Well, that’s what homes are good for.”

The winds continued buffeting the small plane as we to made our way along the coastline, looking for a town, or even a dock. Chet tried to radio his position and check on the status of the front, but his radio wasn’t working. “That’s strange,” he said. “Like it’s jammed.”

It was beautiful country, the coast rugged, a mountain range rising up to the west, the land rich with primitive forests and grasslands, rivers and streams. I studied the map but Chet was right. There were no indications of settlements. This island was indeed terra incognita. Then he pointed. “There.”

Up ahead we saw a dirt road where the island jutted out into the sound. Following it inland, we soon found cultivated fields, then what appeared to be greenhouses, long, large structures with glass winking in the sunlight at us, and further on still, on the edge of a forest, lay a settlement. It resembled a retreat center: a cluster of wooden buildings, several large lodges built of logs, with a number of cabins, barns, and other outbuildings. We could now see people and animals in the fields, and others tilling gardens. The islanders were gazing up at us. “I think we’ve flown into the Middle Ages,” I said.

Cam was peering out the window. “Or the Shire. Watch for hobbits.”

“It may look like the Middle Ages, but they’re technologically savvy,” said Chet. “Those are solar panels on the greenhouses. And look there…” Several miles further up the coast stood a row of tall wind turbines on a promontory. We could see their sleek, graceful arms twirling rapidly in the wind. “Never seen those this far north.” Before the promontory, there was a small harbor or cove with a dirt road connecting it to the settlement, about two miles inland. I pointed to the cove. “How about there?”

“Looks as good a spot as we’re going to get,” he said, and he brought us lower. The turbulence increased. The blue waters of the strait were frothing with white caps. As we drew closer, we could make out a group of people standing on a dock, with fishing skiffs and canoes tied around it. Chet turned to me. “Looks like we’ve got a welcoming party. Did you let them know we were coming?”

“No. There was no way to contact them. No phones. No radios.”

We continued our descent. It became even more violent as we neared the surface, resembling chopped glass. “It’s going to be a bit rough landing,” Chet shouted to the back. “Make sure everyone’s buckled up.”

Shirley was now awake, bouncing in her seat, seeming unfazed by the turbulence. “Thank God,” she croaked, “I’m dying for a cigarette.”

We came down onto the water and were immediately jolted by the waves, and began riding the swells as Chet headed for the small cove where there was some protection. “I don’t like the looks of this,” he muttered as we rolled along. “We need to drop the girl off and get back in the air as soon as possible.”

As we crossed the cove and neared the dock, we got a better view of the islanders. There were about ten of them, all dressed similarly, in dark brown pants, wearing capes or ponchos that the wind whipped about like flags. The boats and canoes, tied to the pier, bobbed up and down around them. “They look very homespun,” I offered.

Cam was staring out the window. “Weird.”

Chet killed the engines as the seaplane bounced up to the dock where two of the men grabbed and quickly secured it. The wind was howling as I stepped out of the bobbing craft. Cam and Chet were un-strapping Rachel in the back. From the group, a tall, slender woman with red hair came forward. Before I could introduce myself, she said over the wind, “We’ve been expecting you.” She spoke with a slight accent, maybe German or Middle European.

“How did you know we were coming?” I shouted back.

“Rachel let us know. Thank you for bringing her home.”

I wondered at this. When we had asked her about communicating with her people, Rachel had said there was no way to contact them. Cam and Chet emerged from the rocking plane, carrying her on the stretcher. Shirley followed with the oxygen canister. All the islanders’ faces turned expectantly to see their long lost member. I felt I needed to prepare them. “I’m afraid she’s changed since you last saw her. Quite a lot.”

“She’s home,” said the red-haired woman. “That is all that matters.”

In spite of the strangeness of this setting, I felt as if I had seen this woman somewhere before. She was very attractive; statuesque with a noble bearing, more handsome than beautiful, her hair whipping about in the wind, reminding me of Wagner’s fiery Valkyries. But no, if I had seen her before, I definitely would have remembered her.

Cam and Chet came up to us and put down the gurney on its wheels. Rachel was now awake and appeared more lucid. The woman smiled at her. “Hello, Rachel,” and the girl smiled through cracked lips. “Welcome home.” She touched Rachel’s brow as Cam had done, and I saw the girl close her eyes and relax into the touch.

We stood there, bracing ourselves against the wind. Shirley was trying to light a cigarette, hunching next to the plane, in a very non-Wagnerian moment. “There are some things you should know about Rachel’s medical condition,” I shouted.

“We know.”

I was doubtful they had the full picture. “I’ve brought her medical file—“

“Thank you. We will look at it,” said the woman, and she extended her hand for it.

“…Okay.” I handed it over to her.

Chet was back in the cabin, trying to radio that we had landed and give our position. I could hear him shouting, “What? You’re breaking up. I said ‘YOU’RE BREAKING UP!’”

“We will take Rachel from here,” said the woman.

Shirley was now standing next to me, taking some drags on her cigarette before the wind put it out. “Do you have medical personnel on the island?” she asked.

The woman smiled at her. “Many.”

I interjected, “We’d like to make sure that Rachel is comfortable—with the oxygen set up and—“

“She will be fine, I assure you. We thank you for your kindness.”

Two young men had come forward and were taking the stretcher. Shirley looked dubious as her cigarette was blown from her lips. “Do you know how to use this oxygen?”

“It won’t be necessary.”

The nurse looked at me. I shared her concern. Wind turbines or not, they appeared a backward lot. Would they even know how to operate the canisters? I really wanted to make sure that Rachel was going to be okay. “May we rest here before taking off?”

“I think it’s best you go now. There is a gale on the way, and it will get much worse than this. It is not safe for you to remain here,” she said over the wind, which was becoming stronger, the gusts threatening to push us off balance.

Chet popped his head out of the cabin. “She’s right. This is developing into a major blow and it’s coming right down on us. There’s no shelter for the plane. We’ve got to get back in the air and hightail it out of here.”

I turned back to the woman. She was still smiling her serene smile, yet I thought I detected the slightest sadness in her eyes. “You had better go now,” she said.

“Can we at least say goodbye to Rachel?” asked Cam, standing behind me.

The two men were already carrying her up the dock.

“I will tell her you said good-bye. Thank you again for returning her to us.”

“We gotta leave!” shouted Chet.

We quickly re-boarded the plane and got into our seats.

“Not exactly welcoming, were they?” called Cam as he was buckling himself in. “Did you get the impression they didn’t want us hanging around?”

I nodded as Chet turned the plane, bouncing over the whitecaps, heading back toward the open water.

“Everybody strapped in?”

Leaving the cove, we were immediately hit broadside by a large wave. The small plane shifted against the assault. The engines roared. Chet was fighting the steering mechanism. “I’ve got to get us turned around and into the swells.” The plane bucked and pitched, and he was finally able to catch a trough. Walls of water towered over us on each side. The windshield wipers were beating in a frenzy. We seemed caught in a deluge, but there was no rain. Like riding a rollercoaster, we came up and then slid down into another, deeper trough.

“Maybe you should turn this over to your co-pilot,” Cam shouted from behind us.

“I already did,” Chet shouted back.

Shirley was sitting in her seat, looking as white as the unlit cigarette in her lips.

We slid down the deep swells, then up, as Chet was gunning the engine, trying to get in rhythm with the waves. “C’mon, baby. C’mon, you can do it.” With some alarm, I noticed that he was perspiring heavily. Sweat ran down his brow, disappearing into the black thickets of his beard. I was hoping for a little more sang-froid from our pilot. I wanted him to laugh it off, saying, Ah, this is nothing. You should have been with us up in Alaska in the middle of a real howler a couple of years back. Now that was something to worry about. But he didn’t. He just continued to sweat and stare grimly ahead. My knuckles were white as I gripped onto the side of the plane. As we came to the crest of another wave, I looked back at the dock. The islanders were standing there watching us trying to get airborne. The swells were deepening rapidly. The engines throbbed, working hard, the propellers beating. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” Chet was murmuring. Other than that, there was an icy silence on board. We slid down another trough, then again were climbing. I glanced back as we reached the top. The men had doffed their ponchos and were now scrambling into the canoes and skiffs, others were already pushing off and paddling toward us in the mounting swells. That didn’t inspire confidence.

On the dock remained the tall woman, watching. She stood there alone, her red hair whipping about, her poncho billowing around her, when suddenly I realized where I had seen her before.

We were descending a trough, water towering over us on all sides. As we began to climb out of it, I heard Chet gun the engines again. The propellers were at maximum rpm. He was going to try and launch off the crest. I braced myself as the engines screamed, our plane rattling. I was holding my breath. As we reached the top of the swell, I felt us become airborne. “Yeah, baby!” Chet cried. “You beauty!” The small plane was lifting up, freeing itself from the waves. “Thank you, Jesus!” he shouted. I let out a big sigh and resumed breathing—just as we were pitched forward into a wall of water. I threw my arm in front of my face and heard the crash.

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