"The Salish Sea" by Qwalsius-Shaun Peterson
“The Salish Sea” by Qwalsius-Shaun Peterson

I was three years old when I fell into the Englishman River. The gray-green effervescence that belied the pull of the depths—and death—before me rapidly enveloped me. So blurry were the currents that wrapped around me, trying to lull me into eternal sleep, that I could hardly make out the serpentine shape approaching me. It curved in and out of focus, waking me to the danger I was facing. I was drawn to the way it danced in the shadows beside me, all shimmering gold and purple scales, and yet I was tethered to the rest of my life above me. As I started to kick to the surface, a light struck my eyes, and I lost my bearings. I recoiled and reached up again, narrowly avoiding razor-sharp teeth biting at my struggling toes. Strong hands finally met mine, lifting me from my river grave and away from the colossal creature. It was then that I saw its cold eyes staring back at me, the depths of which terrified me. I screamed, and everything went black. I lived, but my consciousness was forever altered.

As children, my sister and I took swimming lessons at Four Poles Beach, where several cold rivers meet the Pacific Ocean near Vancouver Island. Whenever the teacher tried to get me to hold my breath and swim underwater, I panicked. When I was able to submerge my head, I would hear a rush of sound like a car speeding down a freeway. My ears would start to ache, and then there would be silence. It was a lonely feeling, and I feared it like death. I began avoiding submerging my face in any kind of water and when I learned how to swim on my back, I would do it only with my ears raised above the surface.

I was drawn to the water but still avoided it, even when I was older and would join friends at some of the more popular cliffs in the area, like Little Qualicum Falls, Englishman River Falls, or Triple Falls. They would meet there to jump from the highest points, over waterfalls and into the rivers below. I would close my eyes as they dove, their limbs as controlled as a dancer’s, because I didn’t want to see it if they died.

I often joined them near the edge, though well out of danger, and thought,  what if I slipped? It could happen in a millisecond, as it had happened to other kids who had ignored the warning signs to not walk past a certain point on the trails where the rocks were slippery. I would picture myself falling, ungracefully, spinning down into the freezing water, then gasp as if I were breathing it in and drowning all over again.

As I got older, my relationship to water grew even more intense. I began to actually sense it beyond the many rivers, many lakes, and ocean that are part of Vancouver Island. By the scent in the air, I knew precisely when it was going to rain and whether it would fall in a light mist or torrential downpour. Likewise, I could predict if we were going to have a dry summer with perilous forest fires. If I concentrated, I could even influence the patterns of water. I could encourage a slightly overcast sky to deepen with thick clouds and suddenly burst open with rain, or I could adjust the pattern of the rain from delicate to heavy to streaming sideways. As I practiced these powers, I discovered that making a certain hand motion would burn off the marine haze around the sun so its brightness would dominate the sky, even when the forecast predicted otherwise.

On Vancouver Island, Qualicum Beach is the main attraction. It’s one of the best anywhere, and the only place where I feel content. Nothing exciting seems to happen here; the days appear to be set on repeat. But this is an illusion because so much happens under the surface. It certainly feels like a place of magic, where lessons are learned through metaphor.

Ever since I was a little kid in the playground acting out Disney-princess scenes with my friends, I looked for the story in everything. Every culture has the same mythological ideas, and gods and goddesses, only with different names. There isn’t much difference between the Greek god Ares and the Cowichan Khenipsen Stoneheads. The First Nation’s counterpart to Helen of Troy or Aphrodite is always the Chief’s beautiful, graceful daughter, whom men from opposing tribes fight over in an attempt to win her heart.

In the “Odyssey,” Odysseus struggles with storms, comes across incredibly seductive nymphs, and finds himself constantly trapped between impossible choices. The ocean is an elemental opponent as perilous as any other villain. It was certainly mine.

I tried to make sense of why I was different from other kids. I attributed some of my anxieties to worrying about the future. I was a creative individual and could never see becoming a doctor or lawyer.

Most people in town probably thought my life was great on the surface. I lived in a four-bedroom house with a pool in a new subdivision not far from Four Poles Beach. My family had money, so I had some financial stability if I decided to become a writer, which I was leaning toward. I was popular at school and got good grades. But I still felt hollow, like a tree that no one realizes is dead until a windstorm blows it down.

When I talked to my mother about my feelings, she would say that I read too many heavy books and that they made me too analytical. It was probably true. Nothing was ever a simple equation in my head.

In an attempt to figure out what was going on with me, I looked into shamanism and some of the Coast Salish traditions that my grandfather, the only son in a family of daughters, passed down to me. To be initiated into shamanism, a person has to suffer in order to receive the mysterious and powerful gifts that come from the Great Spirit. At the bottom of the abyss, when you’re shivering and vulnerable and facing whatever terrifies you the most, comes a sort of transformation that’s almost like being reborn.

Had something similar happened to me when I had drowned? Had the sea creature that slithered toward me and haunted me all these years been an aspect of the Great Spirit? Had I died and been reborn?

It was when I was ten that I first learned of Uktena. A speaker had visited us at school and was teaching us about First Nations legends. He described Uktena as a water monster, with a body as thick as a tree trunk that was coated with glittering, icy-purple scales. Uktena’s head had huge horns, and an enormous blazing white diamond, called the Ulun’suti, rested atop its crest.

If any person were to capture that diamond, they would have everything they desired—success in hunting, finding love, or rainmaking. The diamond’s greatest gift would be prophecy; the owner would be able to see the future. The East Coast Cherokee warrior Aganunitsi was the only one said to have possessed the jewel. Most drowned trying to win it.

Had the creature I had seen been Uktena? Or was it only a legend? Besides, if the serpent was only supposed to live in rivers, why had I sensed it in the ocean? On rainy days, I even imagined I had caught glimpses of its shadow lurking in shallow pools.

Some people think that Vancouver Island occupies a unique geographic location, where powerful magnetic currents pass underneath and meet, making the land itself an easy access point into the Otherworld. Had Uktena reached me from the Otherworld?

After learning about Uktena, I couldn’t shake the vision I had at the age of three from my thoughts. The water serpent’s face, with those terrible bicuspids, began appearing in my dreams. I would feel its sinuous body wrapping around my neck, trying to strangle me like a necktie. I would wake up, paralyzed with the question, what if it wins one day? Somehow, we were intrinsically connected.

One night, my dream became more vivid than it had ever been, with hyperreal colors and abstract shapes that flashed forth like an animated Picasso painting. I was running in a sparkly tunnel. It felt like a massive head rush, but my body weighed almost nothing. Thunder clattered in the distance, and I knew that something inside me had caused the storm.

Then I heard a seductive voice chanting my name over and over, “Noah, come and find me.” I walked through a fire burning straight through my path and, unscathed, through the smoke. It began to pour. The rain was so heavy that it was falling sideways. My legs were like weights, but they led me to daylight, to the voice. But when I finally reached the voice, I was all alone.

The dream then sped up, and I realized I was standing on a cliff, toes hanging over the edge. The sky got dark again, and it began to pour. I moved forward and plummeted into the water, a menacing laugh echoing shrilly in my ears.

When I woke up, the scent of saltwater was all around me. My room was cold, and I was shivering with fear. I couldn’t fall back to sleep afterward. For the rest of the day, I felt vertigo, like I was falling over and over again.

One day I revealed to my father that I was having bad dreams that were filling me with terror. We talked about what it means to face the demons within. He said it was only through a series of sweats at a sweat lodge that he was able to heal the violent rage he had struggled with for most of his life. He invited me to join him for his next session.

In the midst of my first sweat lodge experience, something dark inside of me was revealed. The shaman conducting the ceremony told me it was like a shadow spirit was attached to me, trying to steal my vibrancy. He took out a rattle and shook it hard, insisting that the sound would make the shadow leave temporarily, whereupon healing magic could be initiated. I had the sense of my soul leaving my physical body, hovering slightly above and bearing witness to what was occurring.

The room started to fill with Natives, young and old. Drumming began. As the pounding grew more rhythmic, the sweat lodge became hotter. I realized my ancestors had come to join the ceremony.

“Noah, you have summoned us,” a great-grandfather said. “You may ask the usual three questions.”

I couldn’t speak, but my thoughts could be heard.

“Why is it that Uktena focuses on me?” I asked. “Why do I even see him?”

“He is mirroring your actions,” my ancestor replied. “If you seek him out, he will seek you out. Break the pattern.”

I wanted to ask how that would be possible, but instead I said, “What am I supposed to do with my life? I need to know my true purpose.”

“That’s more than three questions,” the ancestor murmured. “You are a born storyteller. You need to channel all of your thoughts and feelings into a narrative that you track by writing down. That’s the only way you will regain control and find peace.”

I was also told that I had power over the elements, but that it needed to be harnessed. “Beware of playing games with the weather, or it will play unexpected games with you,” another ancestor cautioned.

Then, they vanished, leaving me to decipher the riddles and visual clues, such as rain, a notebook, and a fountain pen. My soul was suddenly back in my body, and the room was cooling down. The shaman’s ceremonial assistant handed me a glass of ice water, which I drank thirstily.

“How do you feel?” my father asked when I got home.

“Strange,” was all I could say. But in my heart, I knew I’d received a gift to help define my purpose in the physical world.

The night after my sweat, I had another dream. I was driving down the California coast on a quest for a treasure that had been lost at sea. I didn’t know what the treasure was, only that it contained remarkable jewels and was of great spiritual value. There was a young man traveling with me. There was something supernatural about him that suggested he was a conjurer of magic. When I looked into his eyes, they were an otherworldly, silvery-olive green.

We drove along the raw, sun-baked beaches, searching for the treasure. At each new inlet, we’d stop. We’d get out of the car and immerse ourselves in the waves. I was astounded to find that he had the ability to turn into a killer whale at will and swim for hours, transforming back into a human the instant the water became shallow. He was a guardian spirit, sent by the ancestors to assist me on my journey.

There was no sign of Uktena. I had no fear of the water. Around my neck, hanging on a silver chain was a huge glittering diamond, reflecting the sunlight. It was the Ulun’suti. I had conquered my ferocious monster and was the master of both worlds, ocean and land.