That morning, I wake up too early. The walls are shaking. It sounds like the rest of the house has melted away, like my room is a ship in a storm. How can the wind be so loud? How can it rush through the room like a sieve? It’s purple-dark and I’m more disoriented than ever. The beige comforter is swallowing me. I rush down the stairs in the chill.
My dad’s in the living room, his weathered face staring out the window at the sea. He chose this house for the view: the ocean and the San Juans, the rocky cliff. For the seclusion, out at the east tip of Saturna Island. For the roof he could cover in solar panels.
Together we watch the waves, so choppy they’re stark white, get tangled on the rocks. Mariners would call this a force 10. It’s Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. The day of the worst windstorm in BC Hydro’s history. The day I realized I could be blown off my feet.
But in that moment, so early in the morning, it feels okay. It’s exhilarating, even, to see the spray hit the windows, watch the wind sweep across the waves. My dad points to my cup on the table, the water inside it rippling. “The house is shaking,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Are you worried?” I ask.
“No,” he replies quickly. “It’s stood through so many storms.”
Here’s what we don’t know: the wind is blowing over 100 kilometres an hour, swirling to hit us from three directions. It won’t stop for eight hours. The Gulf Islands will be the hardest hit. The shifting winds, high speeds, and 400 millimetres of rain that fell in the last few weeks is creating the perfect stew of conditions to uproot even healthy trees. Later, old-timers on the island will tell us they haven’t seen a storm this bad since the '70s.
By the afternoon the power is out. The inverter for my dad’s backup battery isn’t working and we’re not sure why. His solar panels are still hooked up to the grid so they’re no use to us now. We have no Internet, no phone, no cell service. We are as far away from the ferry terminal as possible, as my dad preferred. He has only lived here four years; he’s seen storms before, but they weren’t like this.
It’s okay, we’re supposed to leave the island to go to Vancouver for Christmas today anyway. We have a reservation on the 4:30 ferry. Is it running? We have no idea. But we have nothing better to do than drive over to the terminal with our suitcases, just in case.
While we pack, my dad says, “You know, I really admire how calm you’re being about all this. It’s very grown up.”
“There’s no use panicking,” I say, carefully filling my water bottle only halfway — we’re rationing what remains of the water pressure.
As soon as I get outside I’m shoved off balance, nearly knocked to the ground. The sky is blue, beautiful, but the trees are sideways. I look at my dad but we don’t say anything. As we roll out of the driveway we see Cliffside Road; the pavement is a lawn of evergreen needles. A minefield of branches and downed power lines. The car crunches over them. “Don’t worry,” my dad says hesitantly. “There’s no power.” It’s a calculated risk. I close my eyes, hold my breath before the tires make contact.
This is the only road to the rest of the island, the ferry terminal, civilization. It’s so narrow that what should be one lane is split in two, snaking between a cliff and the ocean. We drive on like this, my dad’s hands at 10 and 2, knuckles white. My eyes on the lines on his forehead, the way he squints in focus, then on the treetops above us that pitch back and forth.
My dad calls this road “The Cathedral” for the way the arbutuses arch over the pavement. Whenever we pass under them I feel transported to a world where life moves slower and there’s nothing more important than the beauty of this island. Where the stress of life in Vancouver is cleansed to nothing. That’s the feeling my dad was chasing when he moved here after he retired from law and teaching. The life he wanted when he put up his solar panels and bought his electric car. That’s the life I want too, a lot of the time.
Now the cathedral is closing in on us. The trees lie in pieces on the road, jutting out like javelins. We dodge them, duck under them.
We’re getting close to the main route that will take us the length of Saturna, East Point Road. The sky is fading to dark and the trees are no longer trees, just black ghosts. I lose something with the light: any hope of getting off the island. How could the ferries be running? How had we ever thought they might be? It was then that we reached the final obstacle: the tree lying definitively across the road, blocking our path. My dad swears. “There’s no way the ferry is running anyway,” I say quietly.
“Well we can’t get to it now.” He turns the car around. I think of the beige comforter and the fire and I like the idea of going home.
On the way back, I notice every toppled tree that wasn’t there before. They’re everywhere. The car had felt safe, but now it’s a slowly moving target. The wind catches up to us and we get blocked again; another tree hovering too low over the pavement. We’re fenced in.
“Now what?” my question hangs limp, quickly blown away.
My dad just sits there, staring at the downed tree like he can lift it back up with the strength of his conviction. He opens the car door, gets out, pulls at the tree branches to try to break them, to create a tiny hole we can slither through, but they barely bend. I watch his body twist with the effort and I think of his back, how he threw it out just a month ago, how sore he’ll be tomorrow.
“Come on,” I call out to him. “We won’t fit anyway. Can we find someone with a chainsaw?”
We do: John, whose family has lived on the island for so long there’s a road named after them, and Karen, a carpenter and cabinet-maker who installed my dad’s new floors, are out roaming the roads in their trucks. They’re taking the downed trees apart meticulously — mid-storm — and marking them with fluorescent orange tape. Karen lives out our way; she’ll take us back, my dad says. We meet trees along the road, and as my dad and Karen cut through the thick trunks and pull at the pieces, I sit frozen in the passenger seat, feeling trapped by the car, the trees, my inability to control the wind.
When we’re a few houses away from home, Karen peels off down her road and my dad starts talking about how lucky we are. The adrenaline is radiating off him, but all I feel is wary. We’re by our neighbour’s house, close to home but chainsaw-less, when we see the biggest trees of all blocking our way. It’s at this point I realize I’m not special. Not anointed or indestructible, just small.
“We can leave the car here,” my dad says slowly, “grab the suitcases and crawl under the trees. It’s not a long walk.”
God, no. But a pair of headlights appears through the gaps in the tree trunks.
“Let me see who it is.”
When my dad leaves the car I lose it. It starts with hyperventilation, then breathless sobs. The forest is so tall on both sides of me and the roots that I thought were so sturdy now seem so fragile and they could give way, they could give way and a tree could just crush me and all I would see, if I saw anything, would be the trunk racing towards me and then maybe if I was lucky I’d die instantly, but probably not, probably a branch would puncture me and I would bleed out and how would a helicopter even be able to fly in this storm? They’d never get me to the hospital; I’d die a slow death. I’m choking on my sobs and my thoughts by the time my dad comes back to the car.
He’s excited. It’s Jeremiah and his chainsaw. Then he sees my face. “Oh, oh no, sweetie,” He looks down at me. “It’s okay, it’s okay, we’re almost home.” He closes the door to go help, leaving me alone to fill the car with panicked tears.
It feels like seconds and years until Jeremiah finishes hauling away the blockade. I watch him work and I think about how he’s just a year or two older than me, but he’s coming alive while I’m shrinking. As we pass him — he’s going off to find more trees to conquer — my dad rolls down the passenger window to say thank you again, and I hide my tear-streaked face in my jacket sleeve. When we get home, I lie on the couch in my parka, hood up. I can’t say anything as my dad apologizes to me. “It’s okay that you felt scared. It’s completely understandable.”
We got off the island the next day, the 21st. There was a four-sailing wait at Swartz Bay, even with the extra boats. My dad didn’t go back to Saturna until after New Year’s. His power was out for eight days; his leftovers went rancid in the freezer. His phone just came back on in mid-January.
In Vancouver I watched the news roll in: the boats that broke loose in White Rock, crashing through the pier and leaving a man stranded on the other side. The generator for Nanaimo’s water plant failing, putting it out of commission for 12 hours. I thought about all the stories I’ll never hear: each of the 756,000 people who lost power, who had to change their Christmas plans, who had trees puncture their roofs or crush their cars, who realized how little they could control. Did they feel as small as I did in the face of the storm?
Most of them got their power back in the first 24 hours. But there were people in remote areas, like my dad and me, who took days and days to reach. In some places, BC Hydro had to send helicopters out to survey the damage because the roads were impassable.
One thousand nine hundred spans of wire came down in the storm — 500 on Salt Spring alone. Hydro had to deal with 5,800 trouble calls; an average storm sees 300. It was the “storm of the century, one for the history books” — except it won’t be.
I wish I could say the Dec. 20 storm was a freak accident. That I’m not afraid to go out to Saturna again next winter. But the climate is changing, even for those of us who feel untouchable. While storm frequency is hard to project, the number of storms BC Hydro has responded to has tripled in the last five years, and the number of customer outages during major storms has increased from 323,000 customers in 2013 to 1.18 million in 2017.
My dad has a chainsaw now, tucked in the back of his trunk. I get scared when I think of him using it: 70 years old — out in the wind and the sideways rain, hacking away. He is a superhero; of course he would want to be helping his community.
When he bought his house on Saturna, he wanted the remoteness and isolation. Now I think of how untenable his situation could get as the storms get worse and worse, and he gets older. He thinks about this too, but he’s doubled down. He loves this place; it’s home. If he could go back and change his mind, he wouldn’t, he told me. I know my dad; he takes risks for the things he loves. That scares me too.
My dad will be more prepared next time. He’ll have a backup to his backup system, enough food and water to last for weeks, and, of course, the chainsaw. Maybe he’ll work towards going completely off the grid — in case of apocalypse. And I’ll worry every time I call him and get the busy signal of a dead phone.
COVERSING IN THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
Listen below to David Osborne discuss with his daughter why he chose to move to a remote spot on Saturna Island in British Columbia. The conversation, which explores how a parent teaches through example, was recorded by Sofia Osborne three months before the windstorm of December 2018. It originally aired on Terra Informa.
If your browser does not support the audio element, here is a link to the audio.
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