Hecate Strait - The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)

Chapter 10. Hecate Strait

What’s that he said—Ahab beware of Ahab—

there’s something there!

—Herman Melville, MOBY-DICK

AFTER A BRIEF STAY in Hazelton, Hadwin returned to Prince Rupert in order to prepare for his trip to court. While Cora Gray was shocked by what he had done, she remained loyal to him. “He did wrong,” she told a journalist at the time. “He feels bad about what he done. He could only see MacMillan Bloedel. He didn’t see no legend about the Haida when he did that.” Gray went so far as to try to book Hadwin a room for his upcoming stay in Haida Gwaii. According to her, everyone she spoke to there said they had no vacancies, though this is rarely the case, even in high summer. Given that Gray was calling in darkest February, it is more likely that no one wanted Hadwin under his roof. By this time Hadwin’s options were becoming stark and few: he could face the music, or he could run. His situation would be most people’s idea of a nightmare, but for Hadwin it may well have provided a kind of perfect opportunity. For the first time in his life, he had an awful lot of people’s attention and, given his convictions and his previous willingness to go on the record, there is every reason to suppose that he saw the courtroom as an excellent forum in which to air his grievances. He just had to get there in one piece. Hadwin’s solution to this problem, like his solution to MacMillan Bloedel’s timber practices, was filtered through a complex—and to most people baffling—mix of pride, personal integrity, paranoia, and absolute conviction. In this sense, he was not so different from people such as Joan of Arc or Ted Kaczinski; he even had a certain charisma, though like the Unabomber he lacked the ability to persuade and inspire. However, there were two crucial ways in which Hadwin differed from these other committed, radicalized, and egocentric individuals: first, he was neither a killer nor an advocate of killing, and second, he had unassailable credentials in the area of wilderness survival. It was this unwavering self-confidence in the face of the elements that led Hadwin to attempt something no one had before: a mid-winter crossing of Hecate Strait by kayak. There are compelling reasons why this has never been tried, and Pat Campbell, who was working the desk at the Moby Dick Inn, where Hadwin stayed, summed them up pretty well: “The water in Rupert is boiling, rough water,” she explained, “and that’s just by the dock. I’m sure [Hadwin] would have known. He would have seen the weather—what it can do. It’s vicious that water, just vicious.”

A NUMBER OF PLACES lay claim to the title “Graveyard of the Pacific,” and the west coast of Vancouver Island is one of them, but it would be more accurate if its limits were extended to include all of coastal British Columbia. Well over a thousand vessels have gone down here during the past two hundred years, and Hecate Strait is arguably the most dangerous body of water on the coast. The strait is a malevolent weather factory; on a regular basis its unique combination of wind, tide, shoals, and shallows produces a kind of destructive synergy that has few parallels elsewhere in nature. From the northeast come katabatic winds generated by cold air rushing down from the mountains and funnelling, wind-tunnel style, through the region’s many fjords, the largest of these being Portland Inlet, which empties into the strait fifty kilometres north of Prince Rupert. Winter storms, meanwhile, are generally driven by Arctic low pressure systems born over Alaska, and they tend to manifest themselves as southerlies along the coast. It is because of these winds that the weather buoy at the south end of Hecate Strait has registered waves over thirty metres high. One of the things that makes the strait so dangerous is that these two opposing weather systems can occur simultaneously. Thus, when a southwesterly sea storm, blowing at 80 to 160 kilometres an hour collides, head-on, with a northeasterly katabatic wind blowing at similar strength, the result is a kind of atmospheric hammer-and-anvil effect. Veteran North Coast kayakers tell stories of winds like this lifting 180 kilograms of boat and paddler completely out of the water and heaving them through the air.

But this is only one ingredient in Hecate Strait’s chaos formula. Tides are another; in this area they run to seven metres, which means that twice each day vast quantities of water are being pumped in and out of the coast’s maze of inlets, fjords, and channels. The transfer of such volumes in the open ocean is a relatively orderly process, but when it occurs within a confined area like Hecate Strait that is not only narrow but shallow, the effect is of a giant thumb being pressed over the end of an even larger garden hose. The scientific name for this is the Venturi effect, and the result is a dramatic increase in pressure and flow. A third ingredient is a frightening thing called an overfall which occurs when wind and tide are moving rapidly in opposite directions. Overfalls are steep, closely packed, unpredictable waves capable—even at a modest height of four to five metres—of rolling a fishing boat and driving it into the sea bottom. They can show up anywhere, but their effects are intensified by sandbars and shoals like the one that extends for thirty kilometres off the end of Rose Spit between Masset and Prince Rupert. Under certain conditions, overfalls take the form of “blind rollers,” which are large, nearly vertical waves that roll without breaking; not only are these waves virtually silent, but under poor light conditions they are also invisible—until you are inside them. If one then factors in the prevailing deep-sea swell that in winter surges eastward through Dixon Entrance at heights of ten to twenty metres, and the fact that a large enough wave will expose the sea floor of Hecate Strait, the result is one of the most diabolically hostile environments that wind, sea, and land are capable of conjuring up.

Most sailors who survive storms do so because they orient themselves to the prevailing wind and waves, get into the flow, as horrendous as it may be, and ride it out. But on a bad day in Hecate Strait, you can’t get into the flow because there is no flow to be found; a seventy-knot gust or an apartment building’s worth of water can hit you from any direction. There is no rhyme or reason; all around you, the elements are at war with themselves. Because of the manic-depressive weather and the fact that this part of the coast remains as dark and featureless as it was when Pérez came through, mariners must navigate these waters the same way a mouse negotiates a kitchen patrolled by cats: by darting furtively from one hiding place to the next. If the conditions aren’t favourable, you simply sit tight and wait—maybe for a long time. As one local kayaker put it, “The worst thing you can do is be in a hurry to get somewhere.”

Gordon Pincock is an expert kayaker and one of the people who pioneered the sport in Haida Gwaii. Over the course of twenty years he has paddled the length and breadth of the archipelago, including numerous trips along the extremely exposed and isolated west coast. On one occasion, he survived a day in ten-metre storm swells, during which he was nearly killed by a West Coast phenomenon called clapitos. Clapitos occurs when a large wave bounces off a cliff face and collides with the wave behind it, turning the sea into an aqueous trash compactor. It is hell on small craft: a ten-metre wave ricocheting off a wall will head back to sea as a five-metre wave, but when it butts heads with the next ten-metre wave, the two will merge into a thirteen-metre mountain of confused hydropower—over and over again. It is significant, then, that Pincock has never attempted a crossing of Hecate Strait. “Go out there alone?” he said. “In February? No way! I would never risk my life doing that, not even in the summer.”

WITH HIS BELONGINGS LIQUIDATED and his safety in doubt, Hadwin was down to the contents of a single suitcase and a Visa card. Among the last items charged were a sea kayak, emergency flares, two paddles, and a bailing pump—standard equipment for a paddling trip on the Northwest Coast. Hadwin’s stated destination was Masset, and he was leaving in good time to make his court date. He had told people that he was travelling this way because he was afraid he would be attacked by locals if he took the ferry or a plane, and he had legitimate grounds for concern. “People were going to see that he didn’t get on the ferry,” explained Constable John Rosario, who handled the case at the Masset end. “The feeling in Masset was that there was going to be a lynching if he came back.”

But on this matter Hadwin seemed both lucid and resolved. Shortly before he left, he telephoned the Haida leadership and announced his intentions: if they wanted to, he said, they could meet him out on the water where there would be “no uniforms [police] around.” After notifying Cora Gray, his estranged wife, Margaret, and the Daily News, Hadwin launched his kayak on the afternoon of February 11. Both Gray and his wife notified the Mounties, who dispatched an inflatable powerboat and intercepted Hadwin as he was leaving Prince Rupert Harbour. But Constable Bruce Jeffrey, one of the officers on the scene, was unable to dissuade him from going. “He wasn’t irrational,” recalled Jeffrey. “He wasn’t suicidal, but I could tell he was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Unfortunately, you can’t arrest someone for being overconfident or foolish. If he’d said, ‘I’m not going,’ we’d have flown him over, but he was determined to go under his own steam.”

At dusk, with his gear stowed in fore and aft compartments and an axe and a spare paddle lashed to his forward deck, Hadwin paddled out of Prince Rupert Harbour and directly into a storm. Weather reports for that night show breaking waves over three metres, winds gusting to more than fifty kilometres an hour, and rain. Keeping one’s bearings along this anonymous coast is difficult even in broad daylight, but it is impossible at night, in those conditions. It would have been so dark that even white-capped waves would have been barely visible. The temperature was just above freezing, but the windchill factor would have driven it down to minus twenty; under these circumstances, an ordinary person would be at risk for frostbite within half an hour. Hadwin was wearing only a slicker and dishwashing gloves; he was not an experienced kayaker, but even if he had been, it was unlikely that he could have survived a night in such weather. And yet, somehow, he did. Sometime around midnight, he found his way back to Prince Rupert.

“He was waiting at the door when we opened,” recalled Marilyn Baldwin, who co-owns SeaSport, where Hadwin had bought his kayak and equipment the previous day. Baldwin remembers Hadwin seeming surprised at how cold he had gotten in the night; he told her that he had paddled for hours in heavy seas and had been unable to make any headway. He could handle the breakers, he said, but he had returned to buy some warmer clothes and (on Constable Jeffrey’s advice) a chart for Hecate Strait. When the topic of the tree came up, “he wanted to argue,” recalled Baldwin. “I think he wanted his day in court. He got very agitated. His muscles were vibrating— like something taut, ready to snap.”

Baldwin wasn’t sure if this was because he was stressed or hypothermic, but as soon as he left, she phoned the police. However, Hadwin was acting within his rights, they said; there was nothing they could do. At dawn on the thirteenth, with five days left to make his court date, Hadwin set off again. This time, he didn’t come back.

CLOTHES NOTWITHSTANDING, Hadwin had equipped himself well for the task at hand; his kayak was a Nimbus “Telkwa,” a high-end model made from laminated strips of Kevlar and fibreglass that is designed to carry heavy loads on long trips in rough conditions. In addition to being considerably longer than a whitewater kayak, a sea kayak such as the Telkwa has a V-bottom which enables it to track across the wind, rather than get blown sideways like a beer can or a raft. It is also equipped with a foot-operated rudder which allows a paddler to devote all his energy to driving the boat forward rather than steering. Hadwin’s kayak was eighteen feet long, and while big, heavy boats like this offer more stability in rough seas, they also present more surface area to crosswinds and waves, which will tend to grab the bow and push the boat off course. Even though a kayak’s low centre of gravity can be a great asset in bad weather, there is no getting around the fact that they are small and fragile craft; a metre-high wave, properly timed and shaped, can flip one with no trouble.

Marilyn Baldwin, like Constable Jeffrey, felt confident that Hadwin didn’t have a death wish. Hadwin had told a journalist that he could do the trip in twenty-four hours, implying a nonstop crossing of Hecate Strait. Baldwin, however, was under the impression that he knew what he was up against in attempting such a trip, and that rather than heading due west and directly into the overfall zone off Rose Spit, he would island-hop, as the Haida once did. Such a route would have taken him in a northwesterly arc up and over to Prince of Wales Island, or perhaps even farther west to Cape Muzon at the south end of Dall Island. From there, he would still have to sprint the last sixty kilometres across Dixon Entrance, but, in taking this longer route, he stood a better chance, both of travelling in a following sea and of avoiding overfalls. Under ideal conditions, this last leg would take close to twenty-four hours on its own, but ideal conditions don’t present themselves in Dixon Entrance in the month of February, especially in total darkness.

The following morning, February 14, a white kayak identical to Hadwin’s was sighted off Port Simpson, forty kilometres north of Prince Rupert. It was almost certainly him because no one else would have been out paddling in such conditions. The wind was out of the south that day, and gusting into the fifties; the waves rolling in from Dixon Entrance were pushing five metres. This was no kind of weather for kayaking, but Hadwin had the wind at his back and he was making excellent time—the question was, where? To a casual observer—and there were several that morning—Hadwin appeared to be bound for Alaska, but this is also the route a cautious (a relative term here) kayaker might take if he was island-hopping to Masset. Port Simpson marks the southern entrance to Portland Inlet, which traces the U.S. border. However, the forty-kilometre run from there to Cape Fox on the American side is locally notorious: in addition to being a point of collision for katabatic outflows and inbound southerlies, the tides here can reach five knots—riptide speed—which will defeat the efforts of the strongest paddler. Furthermore, when southerly winds like those blowing at Hadwin’s back hit an outgoing tide, the inlet’s mouth is churned into what local boatmen call “river chop”—steep, sloppy waves that are, essentially, aspiring overfalls. Sometimes they seem to defy the laws of physics: imagine breaking waves three metres high but only two metres apart. “We can’t haul in that stuff,” explained a Prince Rupert tugboat captain named Perry Boyle. Boyle’s biggest tugboat has 1,200 horsepower and weighs 100 tons; Hadwin’s kayak, in comparison, might as well have been a Popsicle stick powered by a goldfish. While there are definite advantages to being light and manoeuvrable, even in bad weather, they may well have been outweighed by the continuous exposure to wind and waves that a journey like Hadwin’s would have entailed—no matter where he was going. The moon was at half and waxing, which meant successively larger tides with each passing day, and the high winds and low barometric pressure that accompanied the storm systems now pulsing through the strait would have made the tides even higher than normal. Over the next four days the weather would deteriorate steadily.

HADWIN HAD FORCED his way into the local consciousness barely three weeks earlier and yet he had already acquired a quasi-mythical aura; like Billy the Kid or the Scarlet Pimpernel, he seemed capable of turning up anywhere at any time. Even though there had been no sign of him—at sea, or on land—in four days, many residents of Haida Gwaii fully expected the killer of the golden spruce to appear in the Masset courthouse at nine-thirty in the morning on February 18. No one seemed too concerned about the weather that morning, despite the fact that out in the strait, gale-force winds were driving horizontal rain through a cloud ceiling you could just about reach up and touch with your hand. Once again, the islands were concealed. Had Captains Pérez, Cook, Vancouver, or Dixon been searching for land that morning, they would have sailed right on by. Hadwin may have had trouble finding the islands too, and not simply because of poor visibility; in Dixon Entrance, the seas were mounting to nine metres.

The Masset courthouse is located inland in the centre of New Masset on a side street lined with low shops. Playing fields stretch away to the northeast and beyond them lies a sprawling plywood warren of a building that houses the rec centre. Five kilometres to the northwest, along a narrow beachfront road, lies Old Masset, the Haida reserve. The courthouse itself is a postmodern ziggurat of aluminum and plate glass whose interior is defined by white linoleum and fluorescent lighting. It is one of the Crown’s most remote and modern outposts.

To this day, one is charged not just for violating the criminal code, but for disturbing “THE PEACE OF OUR LADY THE QUEEN HER CROWN AND DIGNITY.” However, standing in front of the Masset courthouse while ravens clack like ratchets as they rifle through the garbage cans and the feeble morning light fights a losing battle with a North Pacific gale, the queen, not to mention the capital, might as well have been a million miles away. Even so, the rule of law appeared to prevail. The anticipated lynch mob was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a line of people in heavy coats and hats were queued up at the courthouse door, backs to the wind. Metal detectors aren’t a regular feature of life in Haida Gwaii, but on this day everyone was getting scanned. Inside, the hallway and waiting room would soon be packed to capacity, with the overflow spilling outside. Meanwhile, in the small courtroom, made smaller still by the dense crowd and damp, close air, the sense of anticipation was palpable. A cross section of the islands was in attendance: chiefs and elders, loggers and fishermen, housewives and shopkeepers sat in stiff rows on wooden benches waiting to lay eyes on the man many felt had attacked each of them personally.

Because of the islands’ remoteness, there is no resident judge; instead, a provincial judge is flown in once a month to hear cases. For this reason there were, packed in among the people waiting for Hadwin, other islanders who also had hearings scheduled for that day. Normally these would be discreet, semiprivate affairs, but this morning, those accused of stealing an outboard motor, or driving drunk, found themselves under the scrutiny of nearly a quarter of Masset’s adult population. It was embarrassing and a bit surreal.

Thomas Grant Hadwin was called at nine-thirty, and there was a collective indraft of breath as a hundred eyes swept the room. Since few islanders knew what he looked like, most people weren’t quite sure who they were looking for beyond some unfamiliar movement, the face of a stranger, or some vision of the man they carried in their head. In the end, no new face or energy field presented itself; the room remained the same, so everyone ended up looking at each other while the five syllables of his name simply hung in the air. What had begun as a haiku ended as a koan. Even after it was clear that Hadwin wasn’t in the building, no one left. Everyone waited, wondering where he might be: was he in custody, in hiding, on the run, dead—or just late? Hadwin’s name was called again at ten, and this time someone stood up in the aisle. For a brief moment some in the room thought it might be Hadwin, but it wasn’t; it was a Gitxsan man named James Sterritt who claimed that Hadwin had retained him as his agent. They had agreed to meet on his court date, Sterritt said, but he hadn’t heard from Hadwin in two weeks. When the judge asked him if he had been authorized to act on Hadwin’s behalf, Sterritt allowed that he hadn’t. It was at this moment that Hadwin became a fugitive.


WHEN HADWIN’S ESTRANGED WIFE first heard that Grant had gone missing, she wasn’t all that concerned; he had disappeared before, and apparently he hadn’t always been truthful about where he was going. Armed, now, with another warrant for his arrest, the RCMP were taking more of an interest in this character, particularly when his wife described him as “indestructible.” The test of his well-being, claimed Margaret, who had many reasons to be skeptical, would be whether he called their daughter on her birthday. Hadwin may have been in big trouble, but he was still a father, and in his own unusual way, a loyal one. When March 1 came and went with no phone call, Hadwin’s wife began to fear the worst, and the Canadian Coast Guard began searching in earnest; meanwhile, U.S. authorities had also been put on alert.

For some in the U.S. Coast Guard, there may have been a strange sense of déjà vu because they had searched for Hadwin once before. In the spring of 1993, while on his paranoia-induced sojourn through the north country, he took an open-ended side trip to Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago, which lies about three hundred kilometres north of Haida Gwaii; though tightly packed into the fragmented coastline, it looks like a mirror image of its Canadian counterpart. Hadwin landed in Sitka, the former capital of Russian America. Once a major fur-trading station, it remains one of the most beautifully sited communities on the coast. In addition to being the origin of the Sitka spruce tree’s name, the fort town was the site of the greatest single massacre of the fur trade era. Redoubt St. Michael, as Sitka’s predecessor was known, was built on Tlingit territory, and in 1802 warriors clad in animal-headed helmets and armour attacked the town, killing four hundred inhabitants and enslaving the rest. Only a handful of people escaped. Two years later the Russians retook the site with the help of ship’s cannon. As out of the way as it appears now, the settlement was once known as “the Paris of the Pacific;” for the first half of the nineteenth century, it was the most important port on the West Coast.

Shortly after he had arrived there, Hadwin rented a kayak from the chairman of Greenpeace’s Alaska chapter; he planned to go paddling for a week but ended up being away for more than two. When he failed to return on the date indicated in his float plan, an extensive search was launched involving Coast Guard vessels and aircraft, local police and state troopers, and a volunteer search-and-rescue team. The first thing they found was Hadwin’s abandoned campsite at the foot of an enormous snow-capped volcano on the south coast of Kruzof Island, which lies west of Sitka, on the outer edge of the archipelago. The camp looked as if Hadwin had simply walked away, leaving behind his tent, cooking gear, kayak paddle, spray skirt, and numerous other items. Bears were plentiful in the area so searchers immediately wondered if he had been attacked, but rescue dogs found no sign of him. Meanwhile, an aerial search discovered Hadwin’s kayak floating upside down near St. Lazaria Island, a small bird sanctuary off the south end of Kruzof. Hadwin’s backpack was strapped to the aft deck and inside it they found what they believed was a suicide note. However, on closer inspection it turned out to be something far more unusual.

Ordinarily Coast Guard search-and-rescue reports are rigidly formulaic—dense with the highly technical shorthand of aviators, mariners, and meteorologists. At the end of these forms is a place for “Remarks,” and it was here that the officer charged with writing up the Hadwin report broke out of role for a moment and scrawled, “THIS WAS A DOOZIE.” When you turn the page, you see what he means; this is where Hadwin takes over. The appended document is entitled “THE JUDGMENT” it is fifteen pages long and impeccably typed. Considering it was written by a high school dropout who had felt compelled to leave first his country and finally his campsite because he believed he was under surveillance by the CIA, the contents are surprisingly cogent and considered. But what is more remarkable is that, unlike the writers of most manifestos, rants, screeds, and religious harangues, Hadwin begins, not by telling the reader what to think, but by asking him a series of questions, in effect, employing the Socratic method to put the reader in the Creator’s shoes.

“I ASK YOU,” begins the introduction,

If you had the power, to create all matter, including life, and you could synchronize, those creations, perfectly, what would you do, if one life form, was apparently abusing, all other life, including themselves?

If the original “INTENT,” of your creation, had apparently been twisted, from “RESPECT,” to hatred, from compassion, to oppression, from generosity, to greed, and from dignity, to defilement, what would you do?

How would you convince, people, that material temptations, social status, and education institutions, are used, to preserve and perpetuate, the status quo, with very little real, consideration, for the future, of life, on earth?

…How would you, as “THE CREATOR OF LIFE,” show your contempt and revulsion, for the institutions, and the individuals, who are supposed to protect life, but are apparently, doing something quite different, instead?

Hadwin then goes on to give a brief history of the world, focusing on the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled agrarian, and from there to our current dependence on global commerce. He stops along the way to offer a thoughtful analysis of how relations between the “female nurturer” and the “male hunter, killer, gatherer and provider” conspire to encourage degradation of the environment. And he takes great pains to outline our progressive disconnection from nature and its negative effects, both on human beings and on the planet. Not only is this development contrary to the Creator’s will, writes Hadwin, it is undemocratic:

A democratic society is morally responsible, for the actions of its institutions and elected or appointed representatives, at home or away. It is the responsibility of all individuals, in democratic societies, to resist any crimes against life or suspected crimes against life. Ignorance, abuse or lack of physical presence, at the scene of the crime, are not necessarily valid excuses, unless there are severe, mitigating circumstances….

Finally, Hadwin outlines a radical solution to what he sees as a world gone horribly wrong: dismantle society as we know it, abolish all currency and religion, and remove all men from power. Replace the status quo with small, agrarian villages run by women and restricted to pre-industrial technology. The sole purpose of these matriarchal communities would be to repair the damage wrought by the past two thousand years of male-dominated civilization. It should be noted that Hadwin’s was a hyper-masculine world in which women played very traditional, housebound roles; his wife was a quiet, dedicated homemaker who cooked from scratch and kept close watch over the children. His mother, too, was proud of her support position (even when addressing children, she would introduce Tom Hadwin as “my husband the engineer”). That Hadwin would wish to fire his own gender from all positions of authority is unusual, and his decision to forgo apocalyptic vengeance—a staple of most cosmic housecleaning scenarios—is equally radical.

It is in this unique and strangely appealing document that Hadwin the forest-loving woodsman and Hadwin the conscientiously objecting visionary merge and integrate. Paul Harris-Jones, the timber cruiser turned forest rescuer, and Professor Simard, the forest tech turned researcher and educator, had similar awakenings, as have countless others. But the big difference between most of them and Hadwin is one of intensity and context. Hadwin wrote that he had a spiritual experience on a mountain near McBride, British Columbia, during which he was not only forgiven for his prior sins but chosen to represent the Creator of all Life and carry a message to the rest of humanity. An event such as this goes by different names depending on when and where it occurs. One or two thousand years ago it would have been called a vision or a revelation, and the person who claimed it might be ignored like a fool, revered like a god, or killed like a heretic—sometimes all of the above. In more recent times, many of those who have entered religious orders were not hired or head-hunted, but called—as by a voice, hence the term “avocation.” Nowadays someone who gets blindsided by such a sudden and mind-altering experience might call it an epiphany, an awakening, or a religious experience while a professional might call it a delusion, a hallucination, or a psychotic episode. The truth is often somewhere in the elusive middle, and yet billions of people continue to be guided in their lives by just such liminal figures, most of whom—like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and Brigham Young—are long and safely dead. Were they alive today, they might be languishing in a heavily medicated limbo, or, if they were lucky, they might be sent to Dr. Lukoff.

Dr. David Lukoff is a psychologist who has taught at Harvard and UCLA and who is now at the Saybrook Institute in San Francisco; he has made a specialty of treating people with stories like Hadwin’s. In so doing, Dr. Lukoff has also coined what may prove to be a more useful term for these cataclysmic personal events: he calls them “spiritual emergencies.” During a spiritual emergency, one is often granted access to what Michael Harner, a well-known anthropologist and expert on shamanism, calls “non-ordinary reality.” While most of us find the idea of such experiences alarming, shamans actively seek them out. Wade Davis, the noted ethnobotanist, once commented to a journalist that “I never met a shaman who isn’t somewhat psychotic—that’s his job.” Like Harner and Davis, Lukoff is intimately acquainted with this neighbouring universe because he has spent time there himself; in fact, Lukoff had an experience that bore striking similarities to Hadwin’s—right down to the benign, planet-repairing utopia he envisioned and the compulsion to write down his vision and disseminate it to the world (Hadwin’s “Judgement” has been distributed on at least three continents). It took Lukoff, then in his twenties, months to regain his equilibrium and realize that his was not a central place in the universe but rather one among many. However, it was this experience, and its painful fallout, that allowed him to hear his avocation, which was to help the latter-day Ezekiels, St. Anthonys, and Hildegard von Bingens who are swept, unprepared, into states of searing, otherworldly awareness.

In 1985 Lukoff proposed adding a new category to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM); he wanted to call it “Mystical Experience with Psychotic Features.” One reason Lukoff and his colleagues were pushing for this addition was because recent surveys were revealing some surprising data about psychiatric patients and the people who treat them. Despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of patients surveyed indicated that they had at some time addressed religious or spiritual issues in treatment, and that two-thirds of them used religious language when discussing their experiences, fully 100 percent of surveyed clinicians indicated they had received no education or training in religious or spiritual issues during their formal internship. When Hadwin was interviewed at the forensic hospital in Kamloops, these findings were borne out; while one doctor noted that Hadwin saw himself as having a “special role” in the world, another simply determined that he had “very overvalued ideas about the environment and fighting the establishment.” This is a decidedly sinister assessment: how, one might well ask, is it possible to “overvalue” air and water? Perhaps a truer indication of mental illness (or, at least, psychospiritual disconnection) can be found in the far more common tendency to passively accept the abuse of the very systems that keep us alive. In any case, this experience might explain some of Hadwin’s hostility toward “university trained professionals.” As Lukoff wrote, “Ignorance, countertransference, and lack of skill can impede the untrained psychologist’s ethical provision of therapeutic services to clients who present with spiritual problems.”

Gene Runtz, the man who hired Hadwin to do road layout up in McBride in 1987, was probably the first person to encounter Hadwin after what was likely his first “spiritual emergency.” It was Runtz who compared his star contractor’s frightening transformation to that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To those who knew him during this period, Hadwin’s blistering conviction sometimes came across as messianic—which, undoubtedly it was—but as disturbing (or laughable) as such pretensions might seem, they are par for the course. Roberto Assagiolo, a pioneering Italian psychologist who specialized in the relationship between psychology and spirituality, was well acquainted with the delusions of grandeur that often accompany spiritual emergencies. “Instances of such confusion,” he wrote in a landmark paper entitled “Self-Realization and Psychological Disturbances,” “are not uncommon among people who become dazzled by contact with truths too great or energies too powerful for their mental capacities to grasp and their personality to assimilate.” Had Joan of Arc or Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism) been sent to see Drs. Assagiolo or Lukoff, the history of Europe and the Middle East might have unfolded in very different ways. Or perhaps not; the catch with this type of individual is that when he is still reeling from his encounter with the powers beyond, he is almost impossible to reason with. This may explain why so many people thus afflicted end up living in caves, on mountaintops, or on remote islands in small, sympathetic communities.

In 1994, a year after Hadwin’s round-the-world trip and his subsequent psychiatric evaluation, the APA published the latest edition of its manual (DSM-IV) in which it included Lukoff’s proposed category, though under the more generic heading of “Religious or Spiritual Problem.” Four years later Lukoff founded the Spiritual Emergency Resource Center, a clearinghouse for information about the phenomenology and treatment of such emergencies, including case histories of people who have successfully integrated these experiences.


THE AMERICANS’ SEARCH for Hadwin in 1993 at the south end of Kruzof Island continued for three more days, but finding no sign of him, the Coast Guard called it off and contacted his next of kin. However, after learning from his wife that Hadwin was a skilled outdoorsman who could “survive on nuts and berries for six weeks at a time,” they suspected he might still be alive, and three days later they resumed searching. Four days after that, a fishing boat reported smoke from the northwest coast of Kruzof, more than thirty kilometres from Hadwin’s original campsite. A Coast Guard vessel was dispatched only to be met with a lukewarm reception by the man they had been trying to find for more than a week. According to the Coast Guard report, “This person’s attitude left us with the impression that he really didn’t care to be found.”

If Hadwin’s intention was to get away from it all, retiring to a windswept clifftop overlooking the North Pacific with a sleeping volcano at his back was a pretty good way to do it. The desert fathers would have approved, even if Search and Rescue didn’t. Why Hadwin chose such an exposed location is a mystery; it might have been the place he felt the most direct connection to the Creator, or it may have been a way of testing himself. Perhaps the roar of the wind and surf drowned out the racket in his head, just as earplugs would silence the rest of the world before he cut down the golden spruce. Then again, it may have been the only place outside of a tent where he wouldn’t get eaten alive by mosquitoes. June is a bad month for bugs in Alaska; generally it takes a good five or ten knots of breeze to keep them at bay, but even then they will tend to hover in your lee, waiting for the wind to die. Mosquitoes swarm so thickly up there that they can, like clouds, briefly assume recognizable shapes. This is probably the only circumstance in nature where it is possible to look downwind and see a shadow of oneself infused with one’s own blood.

According to the Coast Guard report, Hadwin had been living on mussels and clams for “many days” his unwelcome rescuers noted that the bushes behind his campsite were littered with shells. He claimed he had beached his kayak above the high-tide line at the south end of the island and then decided to “do a walkabout.” Shortly afterward a major storm blew through and it was this, apparently, that set his kayak adrift. Guessing his boat would be long gone after such a blow, he hadn’t bothered going back for it. Hadwin had no sleeping bag and so had been living in the open ever since abandoning his campsite ten days earlier. Despite the storm and nighttime temperatures that dipped to zero, he was warm, dry, and in fine health. All he had besides the clothes on his back was a plastic bag of matches and some coffee.