It was on the eleventh day of our journey that I found the lagoon. South of Bella Bella, on a rugged coast midway-way between Vancouver and the Alaskan border, and so far off the beaten sea-track that we hadn’t seen a fishing boat or a seaplane in a week. Even the radio stations had faded until only a lone weather beacon remained, compliments of a lighthouse some hundred miles to the north.
There were four of us on the voyage, paddling our kayak convoy south along British Columbia’s storied “Discovery Coast” – Matt, a weathered New Zealander with a physiotherapy practice in Vancouver, his girlfriend, Anne, a lithe musician who had stowed both a flute and a French horn in the belly of their double-kayak, their friend Dave, a gaunt, red-haired giant of indeterminate occupation, and myself, a school-teacher basking in the relief of summer holidays.
The four of us made a motley but workable crew as we map-read, GPS’ed, and bladed our way through narrow inlets and across rough passages, avoiding bears and breaching humpback whales where possible, seeking the rare jewels of fresh-water springs and dry campsites, and generally meandering our way through a serrated world that looked straight from a Tolkien novel. It was all perfect, and perfectly surreal – except for the food.
Travelling by kayak along remote coastlines, you don’t get much in the way of gourmet takeaway. Weeks of canned and freeze-dried rations were enough to dull even the most tolerant palate. There are only so many ways to get creative with pasta, tunafish, baked beans, and powerbars – and we’d run out of ideas. It was at this gustatory nadir of the journey that I found the lagoon which was to provide so much bounty.
That afternoon I had been scouting for a pass between long, narrow islands which – according to the map – would provide the next day’s shortcut to the outer coast beyond. We’d had a hard paddle against the wind all morning and the others had stopped to recharge the fresh-water tanks while I went ahead to plot the next course change. I had just rounded a corner and negotiated some standing waves from a rip-tide when I saw it. Off to starboard, a wide, shallow bay with the kind of turquoise water and white sand you expect to find only on Caribbean travel posters. It was perfect.
I turned and paddled in at once, glad for a break from my mission as I let my boat drift soundlessly over the placid water. The sun came out, breathing a deep copper-green to the bay, and the sands grew almost blinding white, and I was beautifully alone in the world. Or so I thought.
Then I noticed that the pale swimming-pool-sized bottom of the lagoon was full of frisbee-sized shapes. Red rock crabs. They were everywhere, mottling the sand in slow-moving ovals. There must have been hundreds.
Without thinking, I reached down through two feet of water, grabbed one with my neoprene-gloved hand and scooped it up – a huge red-rock crab the size of a dinner plate – a snapping, mature crab, the kind you would pay $20 for if you bought it at Safeway or a Granville island fish stall.
I soon realized that even neoprene gloves wouldn’t save the bones of my fingers from those crushing claws, so I grabbed some socks from behind my seat and neatly wrapped the claws shut. Then I strapped it beneath the bungee cord of my deck and made a U-turn back to the others, all thoughts of my scouting mission abandoned.
“Crab dinner tonight!” was the first thing I shouted as I came into view. “Anyone interested?”
I told them about the lagoon and my plan to return with reinforcements and enough duct tape to capture four more of the beasts. The thrill of a gourmet feast in camp that night was electric.
And so Operation Crab Hunt was born. Dave offered to go with me and, despite the uneasy looks he kept giving those garden-shear sized pincers, volunteered to be the one to duct-tape the claws together while I held the crabs. Anne provided us with a thick burlap bag to hold the spoils.
The Crab Hunt was perhaps the freest, most absurd adventure I’ve ever known. Back at the lagoon we stepped out of our boats to properly face our quarry. Armed with my thick gloves and neoprene boots, I splashed through the shallow lagoon, diving suddenly at a bright red oval, dexterously avoiding the wicked claws and shouting happy curses at their strength and rage: “You bastard! You fucker! This one is the mother of all crabs!” and so forth.
Some escaped our lunges, while others defended themselves ably, but in the end five of the biggest crabs from the lagoon were trussed and strapped to the boats. The burlap bag had somehow gone missing during the fray.
We were just starting to head back to the others – who were by now preparing the campsite and boiling pots of water – when one of the more intrepid captives broke free of its bonds and expertly dropped into the cockpit of Dave’s boat. (For those less familiar with kayaks, the cockpit is the cavity which holds your body inside the boat.) I’ve never seen a human being move so fast as Dave did, scrambling out of the boat in an effort to protect his nether-regions. Fortunately his kayak stayed upright, and we managed to retrieve the errant arthropod before any lasting injury was done.
That night, sitting on a sandy beach and licking the last succulent crab meat from giant claws dipped in melted butter, the air filled with murmurs of deep praise: “Exquisite.”, “Sumptuous”, “A feast of kings”, “the best goddamned crab I’ve ever eaten.”
And it was. It was a meal I’ll never forget, there on a remote beach surrounded by windswept islands and a darkening sea. I’ve never since tasted seafood so pure or a moment so authentic since. As dinners go, it was perhaps the most memorable of my life.