Lessons from a life lived in the wilds

Early years in Echo Bay gave young Billy Proctor a real-world education

Billy Proctor was born in 1934 and has spent his entire life in a remote coastal community called Echo Bay on an island off northern Vancouver Island. While he’s always done the proud work of upcoast men — hand-logging, clam digging, beachcombing and repairing boats — fishing has been his life-long passion. Heart of the Raincoast is the fascinating story of his life and a glimpse at the wealth of knowledge and understanding that can only be gained from living in such close proximity to nature. It offers an engaging insider’s view not only of the salmon, whales, eagles and independent people who populate the wild and lovely coastal rainforest, but also outlines Billy’s attempts to return the Pacific salmon, oolichans and herring populations to the thriving runs that he remembers from his youth.

 

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By all accounts, “wee Billy” was a headstrong boy, determined to do things his own way … As [his mother] Jae didn’t have the resources to maintain both Freshwater Bay and a place in town, Billy was not sent to school. Instead, Jae ordered correspondence schooling. When the material arrived, she sat the boy down and laid the formidable stack of papers before him on the table. One look was enough. Billy bolted for the door and hid in the woods for the rest of the day. The situation was hopeless. Billy refused to do schoolwork. He gleefully recalls: “Mom just packed up the books and returned them by mail.”

Jae, however, found a way to teach the boy to read. She bought him a two-volume dictionary, and Billy learned on his own. Heber Green on the mission boat Columbia helped considerably, by loaning Billy books he knew would prove irresistible. A favourite was Roderick Haig-Brown’s classic, Saltwater Summer, about the adventure of two boys becoming commercial fishermen on the B.C. coast. Anything about fishing caught Billy’s attention.

Like most coastal children, Billy was jigging cod before he could read. By age five, he was selling his catch to the Chinese men at the ABC Cannery in Glendale. Every evening, when the packer came down from the cannery to pick up the salmon from Proctor’s Fish Camp, Billy placed his galvanized tub full of cod aboard as well. The next night, when the boat returned, Billy received his pay and got his tub back. The succulent, fresh, white flesh of cod was welcomed by the cannery workers, who endured miserable living conditions and very poor rations.

When he was ready to catch bigger fish, Billy took two pink salmon out of a fish bin, cut them up and baited several hooks, spaced along a heavy line. He laid the set line out on the bottom of the bay along the dock. “All hell broke loose” when a 70-pound halibut sucked in one of the chunks of bait.

With great difficulty, making sure his legs didn’t get tangled in the line, the young fisherman dragged his catch along the float to the beach. A 70-pound halibut can easily pull a small boy under water, but Billy landed the fish, which was nearly twice his size. Proudly, he sliced the halibut into thick, delicious steaks and sold them for 10 cents apiece; the thrill of success was not lost on him.

Billy would have liked to fish all day, but he had chores to do, so he rigged a rod holder for his bamboo pole. His baited line continued to fish on its own, while Billy sawed firewood or tended the garden. Attached to the tip of the pole was a bell that rang out whenever a fish bit. One evening, the bell erupted into a frenzied rhythm. Billy heard it from inside the house and shot out the door, leaving it to slam unheeded. When he grabbed the homemade pole his heart pounded at the sight of something big and silvery flashing wildly at the end of his line. This was no cod or even a halibut; it was a man’s catch — a salmon.

Landing the 12-pound coho was sheer heaven to Billy, but he couldn’t figure out how he’d hooked it. He knew no salmon would bite a chunk of bait lying on the bottom. Shiny moving lures were needed to catch a coho. For years Billy wondered how he had managed to hook that fish.

Old Ed Hansen off Galley Bay (Vianndot in those days) knew. Ed had caught the fish at the end of the day and carefully kept it alive in a bucket, until he returned to Freshwater Bay for the night. There, as the other fishermen watched, he carefully pulled up Billy’s line, making sure not to jiggle the bell, attached the fish and slipped it back into the water. Then he sat back with his friends and watched the show.

The coho wasn’t the only one to get hooked that evening. Billy was no longer content to fish off the docks now that he’d had a taste of some real action. Despite what his mother had to say on the subject, Billy set out in his rowboat to become a commercial fisherman at seven years of age.

Freshwater Bay lies at the north end of Blackney Pass, a major marine artery connecting Johnstone Strait to Queen Charlotte Strait. Whirlpools, slick upwellings and rough tidelines are formed as the straits flood and ebb against the constricting shorelines of the pass. It is not a calm place to go rowing. Swift currents could easily overpower two small oars and sweep a little boy away.

The first day he headed out, Billy chose a spoon off the rack at his mom’s store and took off. Rowing steadily close to shore, he dragged the lure around on a hand line. The line was tied to a wooden pole sticking straight up with a tiny brass bell on the end. Billy loved that bell; it made his boat seem more like the big trollers with their bells on the ends of the trolling poles. It wasn’t long before a mature spring salmon spied the spoon and struck. Had the boy’s boat been bigger, the line would have snapped because Billy couldn’t row and play the fish at the same time. However, the little rowboat acted as the drag and the salmon was unable to break free. Billy was just barely able to guide his catch to the beach and land it there.

He cleaned it right away and was a little disappointed to find it was a white spring, but it weighed forty-two pounds, a fine fish by any standard. He sold the salmon to his mother [a fishbuyer] and bought more gear with the money.

Being able to row around in his own boat allowed Billy to become acquainted with Joe, the humpback whale that lived around Freshwater Bay. Billy saw Joe almost every day and got to know his habits well. The whale would appear at slack tide to feed on the big schools of herring that swirled in huge, dark clouds in those days. When the whale surfaced through a school of herring, the little fish rained off his head. Occasionally, Joe entered Freshwater Bay and swam beneath the floats or raised his flukes in the kelp, pulling the long fronds into the sun. When the tide started to run hard again, Joe would stay in the back eddy by the kelp and go to sleep. Billy watched him lying there with just his blowhole above water, puffing now and then, his belly full of herring.

As time passed, Billy felt confident enough around Joe to row right up to the 50-foot whale. The little boat didn’t seem to disturb him and leaning over the side, Billy could see Joe’s eye peering back, his long mouth fixed in an apparent smile. Billy let the rowboat drift against the giant resting mammal and laid his small hand on the immense back. The whale never flinched, perceiving no threat from the gentle creature touching him. Joe probably classified Billy and his boat as just another duck.

Excerpted from The Heart of the Raincoast: A Life Story, TouchWood Editions, ©2016 Alexandra Morton and Billy Proctor

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