ACROSS Vancouver harbor the mountains loomed dimly blue in the deepening twilight. High up on the steep, rocky slope was a big brushwood fire, and its warm, red glow was reflected, pastel-like, in the clouds above and the quiet water below. Down on the shore of the inlet a heap of sawmill refuse was burning, and between us and the blaze towered a tall square-rigged ship — a black network of spars and ropes against the glare. Cityward a huge white shape, a little ghostly in the dusk, but graceful even now, told where the Empress of India lay in her berth at the Canadian Pacific wharf. Pushing hard against the swift incoming tide, we swung round the point, threaded the Narrows, and struck out upon the broad, dark, lonely waters of the Gulf of Georgia.
By morning we were in a land of granite and sandstone, where the islands rose steeply out of the sea in lofty hills and mountains, with no level shores, no sandy or pebbly beaches, no green meadows or grassy intervals. The sky was gray and gloomy, and the wind that came down the channels was looking for the marrow of one’s bones — and found it. There were spurts and dashes of rain, and torn shreds of mist went trailing along the hillsides or climbed slowly up the forest-clad slopes to join the heavy clouds that hung low overhead. In the higher ravines the tops of tall trees stood up out of snowdrifts fifty or a hundred feet deep.
A day or two later we sat in a handloggers’ shack on the shore of a small, land-locked bay, where, under the shadow of the hills, our launch lay at anchor. The rain was roaring on the roof, a brook was brawling under the floor, and through the flimsy walls, made only of rough stakes split out of red cedar logs with an axe, the damp, chilly wind blew whithersoever it listed. There was not much use in shutting the door, and most of the time it stood wide open. Looking out, one saw the inlet all black and white under the pelting of the storm, with the forest standing guard around it, dark and gloomy and solemn. The cedars drooped their branches mournfully, as if they had lived under dull gray skies, weighted down with snow and rain, and wrapped in wet, clammy mists, till they had lost all hope of ever being cheerful again.
‘ It is n’t as pretty as the woods back east,’ the Civil Engineer remarked.
He was right, without a doubt. ‘ Pretty ’ is not the word for the splendid robe of trees and undergrowth and mosses that is the glory of British Columbia. For one thing, the rich, live, virile tints of the hardwoods are almost entirely absent, and the coloring is left a little dull and sombre, for nearly every tree is an evergreen, and an evergreen forest is never as green as a deciduous one in summer. There is much dead timber, also, to add its tinge of gray or brown, and the straight, lancelike lines of the bare trunks, shorn of their bark and branches, together with the sharp, steeple-like tops of the living, give the whole landscape a strange ‘up-anddown ’ effect. For this is the western ‘Country of the Pointed Firs.’ The rolling billows of foliage that make up a forest of oak or maple or beech are missing here, and in their place is something that looks like a city of church spires set as close as they can stand. It is as if the hillsides were stratified in thin, strongly-marked layers that stand on edge instead of lying flat one upon another. It is interesting, but it is not always pleasing. And that day, under that leaden sky, with every branch and twig dripping with rain, the world was dreary and woebegone.
But if it was not pretty it was imposing. Beside the giant cedars certainly, and spruces and balsams and hemlocks that stood guard round our little harbor, those of the east would have been but dwarfs and pygmies. Everything was on the scale of Brobdingnag. And it was more than imposing, for there are few scenes anywhere that have more of character and individuality than these woods and hills and mountains. There is something in them of sadness and mournfulness, and yet of strength and dignity — something of the look of one who has lived in the wilderness till solitude has put its ineffaceable mark upon him, and he no longer knows how to mingle with his fellows, yet who has grown strong through loneliness and has learned to lean on himself and be quiet. They are wild and desolate, but they are big and strong and noble, and one night we were shown what British Columbia can do when it really tries to be beautiful — not pretty — beautiful.
It had been raining all day, as usual, and it was still raining when, after supper, we stepped into the skiff and pulled out to the launch. Through the early evening we sat in the cabin, copying timber-estimates, figuring totals, and laying out the work for the morrow; but about ten o’clock we went out for a drink from the tin gasoline cans that stood on the after deck, and did duty as fresh-water casks. The clouds had blown away, the stars were flashing, the moon rode high, and the inlet was a great, flawless mirror for the mighty woods that stood looking down, silently, tranquilly, on their own images in the bright, still water at their feet. Everything that was ugly, everything that was ragged or unkempt — the gray nakedness of the dead trees, the dull tints of the living, the ragged foliage of the cedars, the slime of the rocks uncovered by the falling tide — all that could possibly offend or fail to please, was hidden, or, rather, was left unrevealed; and all that was lovely and gracious stood forth in the glory of the moon. And it was all so clean — so marvelously pure and stainless and undefiled. No coal-smoke ever came there, save possibly, once in a long while, a stray whiff from the funnel of a passing steamer. The nearest dust was two hundred miles away. For weeks and months the rains had been washing the air of every impurity, and perhaps there was not in all the world, that night, a spot where the stars shone brighter, or where woods and water and sky seemed fresher from the hand of God.
But the next morning the clouds were hard at work again.
They are not like the clouds of other lands. Thunder and lightning are almost unknown to them. The mighty masses of cumulus, the shifting mountain-ranges and the fairy castles and fortresses that come and go in other skies, are far less common here. There are mountains enough without them. The blue-black nimbus is non-existent. The silver lining, if there be any, is usually invisible. Even the glowing colors of morning and evening are generally absent, for the sun rises in obscurity and sets in impenetrable vapors. One might almost say of them that they are not clouds at all, but cloud. They have character, perhaps, but not individuality, for they exist chiefly as a vast gray curtain, stretching from horizon to horizon, blotting out sun, moon, and stars, and making of the blue sky a distant memory. Fragments are constantly torn off by the winds, it is true, and go wandering about like lost souls, between the mountains and up and down the channels, flinging careless draperies over the woods and headlands, and presently passing on and leaving them bare again. But they have no more form or outline or personality than a wisp pulled from a roll of cotton batting, and the moment they touch their parent-cloud they vanish into it as their own raindrops disappear in the salt-chuck.
It is not their business to furnish noise or illumination, or to produce picturesque effects. Their mission in life is to supply rain at very frequent intervals throughout a very large portion of the year; not necessarily heavy or violent rain, but simply rain, just plain rain. And more rain, and more, and more, and more, and still more, and then some. And they are fully prepared to meet every possible demand without any irritating delays. There is no nonsense about them — no hesitation. They get right down to brass tacks and deliver the goods. If you don’t like it you may go where there is n’t any rain at all.
But one thing, at least, may be said for them. When their year’s work is done they abandon the field entirely. There is nothing half-way about them, nothing petty or small. They reign (!) supreme as long as they possibly can, and then, for the time being, their abdication is complete. Perhaps they know that it will be only a little while before they come to their own again.
That radiant vision, when for an hour or two the moon and the stars looked down from a flawless sky, was the beginning of the end. It was May, and within a week there came a day that was different from any that had gone before. The sun shone hour after hour, the inlet lay smooth and shining as glass, the air was soft and balmy as a tropic night, and water and woods and hills and mountains were all alight with the beauty of the Northland in its fairest and loveliest moment — a beauty and a loveliness that the South will never know. There was a real sunset that evening, and the giant trees stood transfigured in the warm, rich light from the glowing west. Only one small cloud broke the clear brightness of the sky, and that one was not like the clouds that had haunted us so long. Those had hung low and heavy, so low that they often rested on the hillsides or even on the chunk itself, and they were wet, draggled, and tearful, and ready to weep at the very slightest provocation. This one floated very high and very far away — a trifle heavier, perhaps, than a wisp of cirrus, but much too light and airy for a raincloud — a harbinger, not of storm, but of fair weather. The rainy season was broken at last, and summer had come to British Columbia.