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The Death Issue

Beachcombers

I've found everything short of a human body washed up on the beach," said my friend Russ.
December 1, 2002, 12:00am

Photos by Jason Frank Rothenberg.

I’ve found everything short of a human body washed up on the beach,” said my friend Russ. During a couple of winters spent caretaking a fishing lodge on an island off British Columbia’s west coast, he discovered the joys of beachcombing—pulling random cast-off objects out of the ocean. Two of his best hauls: dozens of left-footed Nikes that washed up after a container ship from Japan went down somewhere in the Graveyard of the Pacific, and a first-aid kit from another Japanese freighter that contained 10,000 hits of morphine. (“Enough for us to party for a week,” according to Russ.) His girlfriend, Barb, once rescued an entire case of Pond’s face cream and sent a jar to each of her friends for Christmas. Another islander found a bale of pot (not B.C. bud, sad to report, so she made the inferior Colombian Gold into herb butter). In the local weekly paper, I read about a man who was looking for Japanese glass fishing floats when he instead found a bottle full of heroin; a month later a couple of kids out crabbing found a kilo of coke wrapped in waterproof packaging. These good citizens were not in the news for getting busted—they turned in the drugs to the local police and got their pictures in the paper instead of getting high. My husband Stephen and I used to do a lot of beachcombing together. For a while, to subsidize our writing income, we collected beer bottles and pop cans that washed up on the beach. We saved enough to build a house, using the logs that we towed home from Rose Spit, which we dried out and milled into lumber.

We eventually learned that the ocean giveth, but it also taketh away. Stephen lost his pickup driving home along the beach late one afternoon when he misjudged the tide; a month later his replacement truck got stuck in soft sands. Soon after, the rest of his life got sucked into a whirlpool: He got wired on speedballs and robbed the Royal Bank on Cook St. in Victoria. These days he combs the beaches at William Head Federal Penitentiary, a.k.a. Club Fed, an 80-acre windswept rocky peninsula that juts out from the southern tip of Vancouver Island into the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Among the plastic shopping bags, fishing floats, and empty packages of Hot Blue corn chips, Stephen has found important treasures: a can of Turtle Wax, a baby’s car seat, a package of Midnight Blue condoms, a child’s plastic Batmobile with one wheel and the driver missing, and a broken piece of plywood printed with the words “FORBIDDEN ZONE.” Next to my letters, he says, this is his news from the outside world—his mail, posted anonymously and arriving by accident, connecting him to the lives of strangers on the free-side shores. Beachcombing is a full-time, albeit furtive, occupation for many of the prisoners at William Head. The detritus that washes in fuels the prison economy. There are men who sit hunkered down out of sight of the patrol trucks, scanning the waves for a bobbing whiskey bottle with the dregs left or a Ziploc baggie containing a few buds of pot that are still smokeable. (One stone alcoholic told Stephen about finding a half-full bottle of Bacardi Rum—Black Bat, he called it—and how he downed it on the spot in one gulp. He eventually sobered up and helped found an AA group, which in a fit of unbridled irony they named “The Beachcomber’s AA Group.”)

The dope fiends have to stoop a little lower and look a little harder, combing through bull kelp and raking their fingers through stones to uncover the small plastic syringes that can be sold for twenty dollars or traded for a flap of heroin. One of the luckiest jailed beachcombers found a pink vibrator wedged between two rocks. Once it was rinsed, dried, and had a couple new wires soldered in and batteries installed, it hummed to life as good as the day someone carried it out of the sex shop. This buzzing missile ignited a frenzied bidding war among the prisoners. The finder is rumored to have received twelve bales of tobacco for it, and then to have backtaxed the buyer an extra four bales not to reveal his name to the rest of the population. There are also inmates at William Head who, like Papillon on Devil’s Island, sit and study the tides, not for what they bring in, but for how fast and far they will carry a body out. It is well known how treacherously cold the waters that surround the prison are. An average-size man will last only eight minutes before he freezes to death. Nevertheless, prisoners have greased their bodies from head to toe with lard stolen from the kitchen and then slipped into the inky darkness, never to be heard from again. One year the prisoners staged the play Count Dracula for the guards and their families. After the show the lead actor paddled to freedom in the specially built coffin. Those left behind try to maintain the illusion that the disappeared have been successful in their attempts, but everyone knows in the bottom of his convict heart that for most, if not all, it is a final escape. Last time I saw my friend Russ he had finally, after years of beachcombing, found a body. No, it wasn’t an escapee from William Head. It was a local kid we all knew, but Russ said you wouldn’t have recognized him easily. He had driven off the end of the pier, drunk, on graduation night a month earlier, and the crabs had been dining on his soft tissue as fast as visitors to the island scarf down cocktails at the Singing Surf Hotel. Russ showed me the kid’s waterproof watch, a graduation present. Still ticking. “Never look a gift horse in the mouth,” he said.