Coyote - 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 13. Coyote

…beasts

Got the buddha-nature

All but

coyote.

—Gary Snyder, “How Rare to Be Born a Human Being!”

IT WAS IN APRIL, just as the search for Hadwin was slowing down, that the buds on Luanne Palmer’s golden spruce scions flushed. And it was in mid-June, when an inch of new growth had been added, that his kayak and camping gear were discovered by Scott Walker on Mary Island. To those on the outside, it might have seemed, then, that the golden spruce’s chances of survival were a lot better than Hadwin’s. But rather than confirming his death and closing the case, the discovery on Mary Island rekindled old suspicions, both in the minds of police and those who knew Hadwin personally. While the debris might have been evidence of a legitimate misadventure at sea, it seemed equally plausible, based on what the investigators now knew about this man, that the wreck had been staged. If one stopped to think about it, there were any number of ways a kayak could have found its way onto the rocks at Edge Point.

According to computer-generated scenarios, Hadwin’s kayak could have drifted into Revillagigedo Channel from almost anywhere in Hecate Strait due to the season’s prevailing winds. This raises a host of possibilities, ranging from Hadwin’s having capsized en route to Masset, to Constable Walkinshaw’s suggestion that he “could have got a pumping” (been shot) out on the water. Given the amount of shipping traffic in that area, he also could have been struck by another vessel—by accident, or intentionally. Whatever happened, it is a near certainty that Hadwin’s kayak remained intact until it hit the beach. With the cockpit full of water, it would have been overloaded, and the combination of logs, boulders, and wave action would have broken it up quickly, releasing its contents, most of which were found nearby. Missing were Hadwin’s paddles and pump and, of course, Hadwin himself. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t wearing his life jacket and probably never had, as it was found on Edge Point in unused condition. Hadwin’s food was nowhere to be found, but animals could have scavenged that within hours.

In the event of a capsize, Hadwin wouldn’t have known how to roll his kayak back upright while staying in the cockpit, a tricky manoeuvre at the best of times, particularly in heavy seas with a loaded eighteen-foot boat. This means, he would have had to make what kayakers call a “wet exit,” after which he would have had to turn the boat over manually and then climb back in. The front and rear hatches were watertight so the boat would have floated, but the cockpit would have been awash. Even if he had managed to pump out the cockpit successfully (a challenging procedure in rough conditions), the hypothermic clock—already ticking—would have been in imminent danger of running out. Body heat is lost twenty-five times more quickly in water than in dry air, and the average water temperature in Hecate Strait, in February, is around four degrees Celsius. Even without factoring in windchill, this would give an average person about half an hour before he became incapacitated, and another hour or two before he lost consciousness altogether. Hadwin, with his high tolerance for cold water, rigorous discipline, and good conditioning, might have lasted far longer, but unless he was very close to shore, this would have only prolonged his suffering. If he did roll, the combination of waves, fog, and/or darkness could have left him completely disoriented, and even if he had land in sight, any combination of contrary winds, waves, or current could have swept him away with ease.

In the event that Hadwin actually made it ashore, he would still need a heat source in order to stave off full-blown hypothermia, and based on his bare-bones inventory (dry matches and coffee) following his Kruzof Island sojourn, this is something he may well have had. Despite his risky behaviour and apparent imperviousness to cold, Hadwin had thirty years of solo wilderness experience under his belt; he would have been keenly aware of the dangers of hypothermia. Had he managed to stabilize his body temperature, he would have been good to go, perhaps indefinitely. His old housemate and colleague Paul Bernier was impressed by more than Hadwin’s stamina in the woods. “I know a lot about him,” he said, “and I know he could survive on just about next to nothing. He knew what kinds of plants were around; he introduced me to different plants that we could eat.”

Cory Delves, one of Hadwin’s former supervisors at Evans Wood Products, agreed. “Basically,” he said, “you’re dealing with a person who, with very few resources, could be dropped anywhere on earth and come up smelling like a rose.”

The North Coast isn’t just a good place to hide dead bodies, as trooper McPherron observed, it can absorb live ones too, and there are more than a few who believe it absorbed Hadwin. This may have been what he ultimately wanted: total immersion in the environment where he felt most at home, and most himself. If so, it aligns him squarely with many of the Haida, who, under different circumstances, might have been his allies and even his protectors. “There’s no planning,” said Guujaw, the current president of the Haida Nation, to another kayaker when they were discussing local logging practices. “One resource after another, they create a licence and wipe it out. It’s not a commodity; there is no commodity. Just leave your kayak, take off your shoes, and go in there.”

And this is exactly what Hadwin might have done. Somewhere past Port Simpson, he may have landed on the wild, empty coast, given his boat a push off the beach, and walked into the forest.

Supporting this theory, in the minds of Sergeant McPherron and his Canadian counterpart, Corporal Gary Stroeder, was the state of the wreckage, which did not seem consistent with the time lag, or the rugged environment in which it was found. This complicates matters considerably, as do two other details: first, that under typical winter drift conditions, Hadwin’s empty kayak should have washed ashore within a matter of days, and, second, that Hadwin charged three hundred dollars’ worth of food on the day of his first departure—an awful lot of provisions for what was supposed to be a five-day journey. But there was something else that Corporal Stroeder found even more troubling: the location of Hadwin’s axe. How, he wondered, did such a heavy object get above the high-tide line?

Sergeant McPherron was puzzled by this, too, and it led him to speculate that Hadwin might have broken up the kayak himself, in order to make it look like an accident. While the large food bill and the relative lack of abrasion on the boat’s hull support this theory, one wonders why Hadwin would have gone to these lengths on an island that was an eight-kilometre swim from any other significant landmass—unless he intended to live there for a while. Mary Island covers twenty square kilometres and has never been logged; food and fresh water are abundant, and no one has ever searched it with an eye toward finding someone who wanted to remain hidden. But if that’s not what happened, then what’s the alternative—that a bear carried the axe up the beach in its jaws? Could the castaway Dennis Harrington/Roe have moved it? Not likely, because he was rescued from the opposite side of the island, and given his footsore condition, he wouldn’t have travelled far. There is little doubt that Scott Walker was the first one to happen upon it, and he found it only by chance; even after he gave the Coast Guard specific directions to the site, they were unable to locate it until he went back and nailed large pieces of the kayak to a tree. Among Hadwin’s effects was a shaving kit that contained a bottle of medication. According to Sergeant McPherron, the label was illegible save for Hadwin’s name, so they threw the bottle away. He didn’t remember if it was empty or full.

CORA GRAY, who has good reason to take stock in dreams, woke up one morning having seen a man in a green raincoat floating face-down somewhere off the coast. But it’s hard to know how literally to take these found images. She may indeed have seen someone, perhaps the same person for whom Hadwin’s dental records were requested, but Hadwin’s raincoat was yellow, and he wasn’t wearing it at the time he parted company with his kayak; we know this because Scott Walker found it on Edge Point along with the rest of his rain gear. Nonetheless, such a fate is a plausible, even likely one under the circumstances, but not according to another clairvoyant who believes she saw Hadwin, too. Hadwin’s wife, Margaret, devout Christian though she is, was moved to consult a psychic on two separate occasions. The seer saw Hadwin alive, in southern British Columbia; he was in poor health, she said, working only for food. Somehow this doesn’t sound like him, even under duress.

Of the various alleged Hadwin sightings made up and down the coast during this period, one in particular excited the authorities on both sides of the border. On August 31, more than two months after his kayak was found, a man matching Hadwin’s description was spotted boarding a ferry in Pelican, Alaska, a tiny fishing community on Chicagof Island, just north of Sitka. Apparently he had been kicked out of town. The call to the Prince Rupert RCMP came following six separate confirmations that this individual matched Hadwin’s missing persons photo, which had been posted in town. The ferry was bound for Juneau, the state capital, and a Sergeant Tyler met the suspect there; when questioned, he claimed he was an archaeologist from Prince Rupert, and was on vacation. Sergeant Tyler was appropriately skeptical and he took prints of both the man’s thumbs, which he faxed down to Prince Rupert. The thumbprints, too, were uncannily similar to Hadwin’s, but in the end it was determined that they belonged to a different man. Since then, neither Hadwin nor anyone resembling him has attracted the attention of the authorities, so rumours have filled the void:

He was killed by Natives.

He’s running a trapline outside Meziadin Junction (a wilderness crossroads east of Hyder).

He was seen on Wrangell Island (between Sitka and Ketchikan).

He’s in jail in the States.

He’s in Siberia.

Hadwin’s younger children—now in their twenties—clung to the hope that their father was alive for years. They are victims of what psychologists call “ambiguous loss” it is devastating to lose a parent under any circumstances, but to not know with any certainty if he is truly gone, or if he might one day come home, is particularly cruel and painful. Margaret, on the other hand, has been trying to have her husband declared dead for some time. Constable Walkinshaw believes that Hadwin could be alive: “The whole cop in me is saying there’s something too neat about this.” Most of the Haida feel the same way, and so do a striking number of people who have known Hadwin personally over the years: “He could be anywhere,” speculated Corey Delves, “from the Fraser Valley to Prudhoe Bay.”

“We all think he’s alive,” said Al Wanderer, “anyone who had anything to do with him. He’s a survivor.”

These aren’t idle claims; one of Hadwin’s previous bosses was reluctant to discuss him, even years after the fact, because he feared that Hadwin—wherever he was—might find out and come after him if he said anything critical. Constable Jeffrey firmly believes Hadwin drowned, but Corporal Stroeder isn’t so sure. “If a coroner asked me to justify that he was dead, I wouldn’t be able to,” he said. “There are too many loose ends.”

One of them stretches all the way to California. Sometime during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2000, someone made a nearly fatal chainsaw cut in Luna, the massive Humboldt County redwood made famous by the environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent two years living in the tree’s branches. As with the golden spruce, the cut did not fell the tree, but left it extremely vulnerable to high winds (it has since been reinforced with heavy steel brackets and is still alive today). The cutter was never caught. However, as similar to Hadwin’s modus operandi as it seems, the attack on Luna was almost certainly the work of a local logger who was enraged, not by the Maxxam Corporation’s liquidation of that piece of forest in order to pay off other debts, but by the interference of environmentalists in what most West Coast loggers feel is a God-given right. “Eight hundred years to grow, and twenty-five minutes to put on the ground,” as one veteran B.C. logger put it. “It’s sad, but it’s a living.”

DURING THE LAST YEAR before his disappearance, Hadwin began referring to himself, on occasion, as Coyote; sometimes he even signed his letters this way. In the end, he may have had more insight into himself than most people gave him credit for. He certainly would have known these creatures well, and he wasn’t the first to see the similarity. Hadwin had that same fast, tireless, unkillable quality that coyotes seem to have. Unlike wolves, coyotes will hover on the outskirts of civilization, darting into inhabited areas as need arises before ghosting away again into the bush. If one had to sum up Hadwin’s life in one sentence, it would look much like that. Hadwin’s case is still considered open by the Alaska state troopers and by the Mounties (such files have a shelf life of twenty years), but no one has bothered to search for him in Siberia. Cora Gray recalled that Hadwin “talked about Russia a lot. He’d say, ‘If I was going to choose a place to stay, it would be in Russia. Don’t be surprised if you hear from me from there.’ So now, when the phone rings late at night, I don’t answer.”