The Last Island: A Naturalist’s Sojourn on Triangle Island
November 4, 2013
Review By Philip Teece
ONE OF THE SALIENT features of British Columbia’s geography is its myriad coastal islands. Among the wildest and most remote of these, the ecological reserve Triangle Island lies in the open Pacific Ocean thirty miles west of Cape Scott at Vancouver Island’s northern tip.
The Last Island is a naturalist’s journal of her personal association with this wild place – an association that has spanned more than twenty years. Biologist Alison Watt spent her first sojourn on the island as a seabird research assistant in 1980, an experience that, while in many ways exceedingly harsh, initiated her subsequent long-term fascination with Triangle Island. She emphasizes the rather grim context of the adventure by recounting something of the island’s history. An early (1909-10) attempt at operating a major human-operated lighthouse on the island was doomed to failure by the severity of conditions. At a later point in the book, Watt tells us how the ruggedness of this environment cost the life of her colleague Anne Vallée.
An even deeper context is provided as Watt examines the archaeological evidence of the Yutinuk, a Kwakiud people who “moved easily among these islands in canoes hewn from the massive cedars of Vancouver Island” (59). By contrast, in our technological age, contact with Triangle Island (chiefly by chartered helicopter) seems to have become a more cumbersome and uncertain process.
The present attraction of the island for Watt and other biologists arises from its very great ecological importance. She describes the precarious situation that she and her colleague discovered among the large puffin colony, whose continued strength – or otherwise – has been the major focus of their research. Other populations at risk there include Steller’s sealions and more than half the entire planet’s population of Cassin’s auklets. In this remote location, unique features of behaviour and evolution have begun to arise: “these islands might have puzzled even Darwin” (92). Watt draws attention to another kind of evolution – in our own behaviour: Triangle Island now shelters a protected rookery of (typically) about 800 sea lions; however, as recently as the 1950s, the federal Department of Fisheries sponsored a machine-gunning “cull” that killed 2,000 of these animals.
In The Last Island, Alison Watt attempts — with very great success – a difficult synthesis: scientific information with personal reminiscence. As a personal journal, the book is eloquent, even poetic. The loneliness of long months spent on this isolated island, the difficulties (and triumphs) of having only one human companion in such a wild place, and the growing attachment to the island’s stormy beauty unfold evocatively on the pages of this daily record. I was fascinated by Watt’s observation regarding the battle to concentrate after months in the wild solitude: “Each day I spent more and more time thinking about less and less” (133).
In subsequent years, the death of her colleague Anne in a cliff-climbing accident has given the island a darker tone for Watt. Perhaps partly in light of that accident (Watt does not explicitly make this connection), British Columbia Parks has established a new policy requiring that parties of researchers on Triangle Island comprise not fewer than three persons.
I’ve composed this review in such a way as to save the best part for last: this book would be worth its price for Alison Watt’s stunning illustrations alone. Forty-seven spontaneous watercolour sketches from her island notebooks show the topography of the island and the flora and bird-life of the place with a degree of feeling that I doubt any photographer could capture.
The Last Island is an important new BC book. Every public and academic library should own it, and readers with a concern for one of British Columbia’s most beautiful and fragile ecological reserves will want it on their private shelves.