The interpreter was waist-deep in a frigid mountain stream, every movement threatening to fill his waders and knock him off his feet.
Stacey was farther down, not really into the hunt this day. She was angry at him.
This stemmed from an event reaching back a few weeks but linking to today, an event he had no control over that coincided with the decision to begin the hunt for the Black Alligator of British Columbia, which was in fact not an alligator but a giant salamander the size of a small alligator. The coincidental event was the release of a movie, the latest in a popular series.
“I want to see it,” she said.
“Um, not really.”
“You’re not a fan?”
“Have you read the books?”
He looked at her.
“Oh God,” she said. “You haven’t even read the books. You’re such a hermit. That’s cute, but dumb.”
He said, “A few years ago someone left a copy of the first one in the nature house. I read it to see what all the fuss was about. I felt no urge to continue.”
“You have no fondness for fiction.”
“I have some fondness.”
“Your book collection is a library of science. There’s no fiction.”
He said, “Sometimes I read fiction. But I’m not interested in wizards and magic.”
“It’s not just about wizards and magic. It’s big themes and strong characters, a great story. Good versus evil. The wizardry provides the setting.”
“Okay,” he said. “When there’s time I‘ll read some more of them. How many are there? Five? Maybe I’ll get hooked.”
“Ha. You have no intention of reading them.”
This was true.
He told her, “I find the real things in the world engaging enough. Things like this, real things.” He was holding his yellow field notebook with the stiff plastic cover. It was the growing record of the search.
“Mythical giant salamanders.”
“Not mythical. We have seen the bone.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “The bone.”
A few hours later she came up with a solution. “Books on tape. We’ll listen in the car.”
“We can just go to the movie,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.”
They didn’t get very deep into the second book during the first stage of the search, for they were travelling only as far as the backwaters and banks of the major rivers—Fraser, Coquitlam and Pitt-- all within a half-hour’s drive in good traffic. It was the mudflats of these rivers, far enough inland that salt water would not reach, that seemed to hold the most promise based on online anecdotes. The beast had been seen early in the twentieth century by loggers along the Pitt and salmon fishers along the Fraser. The interpreter read aloud a quote from a cryptozoology website: “It came at his partner from behind a stump. It snapped onto his ankle hard as a bear-trap. Only a pounding with an axe-head released its grip. It growled like a large dog. The men fled by boat and vowed never to return to that place.”
“Scary,” she said.
“Cool,” he said. “I wish it were more specific about what place.”
But all they found in these waters after five week’s diligent search were beaver burrows, otter dens, and a heronry. These were carefully typed into a GPS device.
It was now mid-summer, an unusually hot July. The water temperature in the rivers was record-high, so hot the summer salmon runs had stalled. The interpreter wondered if the beasts may also have found the large channels unpleasant and had migrated uphill into the mountain streams that were the typical habitat of the Chinese and Japanese giant Andrias and the magnificently-named Hellbender of Appalachia. This question directed the search away from easy water and inland to higher elevations, to the streams that connected to the big rivers. Chilliwack Lake, an hour from Vancouver, cold and clear, mother of the Chilliwack River—its mountainside streams seemed right.
Today Stacey was angry because he leapt from the vehicle before the chapter was over. He obviously hadn’t been listening.
“But we’re losing light," he said.
“It’s summer,” she replied. “How much light do you need?”
He climbed back in and they listened to the end. Stacey stopped the recording.
“It’s a cliff-hanger,” he said. He got out and pulled the Banana Slug from the roof of the truck. He dragged it along the gravelly shore to the water’s edge. He would never treat a real canoe this way, but A, the Banana Slug was not a real canoe, and B, it weighed a ton, and C, it was indestructible. With its black foam sponsons it was virtually unflippable too. You could hold a hoedown in the Banana Slug.
They paddled across Chilliwack Lake to the mouth of a stream on the far side. The interpreter was in the stern, watching her back. He could see in her shoulders she was angry. He often failed in a way he could only see five minutes later.
In another way he was failing by winning. In reaching beneath rocks and overhangs he was uncovering a different but ecologically significant amphibian, confusingly also known as the giant salamander. It was Dicamptodon, an endangered species that as a neotenic adult, that is an adult that retained larval gills and spent its entire life in water, could reach ten or more inches in length. Not giant by most measures, but impressive within a salamandrine context; the vast majority of species were three or four inches long. He found three, four, five. This was zoological bounty. Many herpetologists spent a career looking, never finding one. He leaned down to where the meniscus of the water was crowding the lip of his waders and reached. Even through the icewater numbness of his fingertips he could find and grasp the soft amphibian bodies. Then it struck him. These animals would have been snacks for the true giants. Where Dicamptodon was, the giants were not. These frigid mountain creeks were not the right place. These phantoms were not Hellbenders.
He straightened his back. His neck was sweaty. His lower body was cold, the upper hot. This was hard, fruitless work. Stacey was fifty metres downstream, not trying. She was putting up with a lot. He splashed down to her and took her hand.
“This is wrong,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
They came to where the forest opened and the stream fanned onto the beach. A large black bear was seated in the Banana Slug. It had the interpreter’s sunglasses in its mouth, dangling them by an earpiece.
“What do we do?” Stacey asked.
“We yell and throw rocks”.
“That’s for cougars,” she said.
“It has my Ray-Bans.”
“Go away, bear!” Stacey yelled.
The bear squinted at them, and sniffed.
“That’s a good start, now we throw rocks.”
“What if you hit it?”
“Then we win.”
“Go away, bear!”
He threw a rock. It hit the side of the Banana Slug and made a dent.
“Oops,” he said.
The bear tumbled from the canoe and hurried along the shore and into the forest.
“It has my Ray-Bans.”
They walked to the canoe, holding hands.
“Holy shit,” he said.
“That’s so gross,” said Stacey. She yanked her hand free. “You deal with this. It’s totally non-fiction. That makes it yours.” She retreated to the stream and sat on a log.
“You’re mad at me,” he said. He hung his head. They were having a fight and there was a mountain of bear poop in the unflippable canoe.