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Talking Location With Michelle Paver – the PACIFIC NORTHWEST
1st September 2021
#TalkingLocationWith... Michelle Paver, author of Skin Taker
IN THE WILDS OF THE PACIFIC NORTH-WEST
The giant red sea urchin was the size of a baby’s head, and its rubbery spines delicately probed my cupped hands. Fascinated, I held it for a few seconds, then leant over the side of our dinghy and put it back in the shallows.
That was just one of the wild creatures I encountered on my week-long voyage around the remote islands of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. I was on a month’s research trip for my WOLF BROTHER series, of which SKIN TAKER is the latest. I was keen to take in traditional Native American survival skills and adapt them for my Stone Age hunter-gatherers, Torak and Renn. I wanted vast forests, ice caves and killer whales. Above all, I wanted bears: I had a vague idea they’d be important in SKIN TAKER
I’d booked the Haida Gwaii trip with Bluewater Adventures (via UK travel agents Discover the World) and our ship, the ISLAND ROAMER, was pleasingly small, only eight other passengers. We glided past lonely shores of black sand silvered with driftwood and backed by forests of silent spruce. I spent peaceful hours scanning sea and coast, punctuated by bursts of elation on spotting humpback whales, or the islands’ unique, long-snouted black bears rooting for clams.
We stopped at eerily evocative ruins of abandoned Haida villages, where centuries-old totem poles had been left slowly to rot, as is the Haida way. At low tide I grazed on crunchy sugar kelp. A friendly Haida man dug a clam for me from the sand and cut a thick slice with his knife. I ate it raw; it was tender and sweet. I also sampled dried herring roe on kelp fronds. (Do try some if you get the chance, it’s delicious.)
Every evening we moored in another deserted cove where the forest overhung the water and only the piping of a wren, or an eagle’s shivering cry, broke the stillness of the Midsummer night.
After Haida Gwaii I spent a week pootling around Prince Rupert, a pleasant little fishing town with an excellent museum. A day’s boat trip took me to Khutzymateen, where we drew near a grizzly calmly munching sedge on the shore; a marvellous sight, but I wanted more. For me, research isn’t just about accuracy and getting ideas. It’s vital for making readers feel they’re experiencing the story alongside the characters.
From Prince Rupert to Juneau in Alaska, another quirky little town with two fascinating museums. I took a day hike with a guide and one other punter to the Mendenhall Glacier: we scrambled underneath it into a gigantic blue ice cave. It was like being in another world, and it gave me the climax for SKIN TAKER’S predecessor, VIPER’S DAUGHTER.
After that came a week-long trip through Alaska’s Inside Passage on board Uncruises’ WILDERNESS ADVENTURER. With fifty-odd passengers, it was the perfect size: those of us who wanted to hike went ashore in small groups, and yet the ship was big enough for my early-morning hours alone on the upper deck, watching orcas and sea otters.
Lots of glaciers too, of course. I watched them calving as I bobbed up and down in Zodiac, slitting my eyes against the icy catabatic blast.
I even went snorkelling in a multicoloured world of scarlet sea stars, yellow sea cucumbers and lacy coral. (To my delight, shortly after I’d struggled back into the Zodiac, a humpback whale surfaced a few yards away.)
But I still needed to get closer to bears. Then one day a few of us were on Baranof Island, battling through the mossiest, most tangled forest I’ve ever been in. We were soon soaked and covered in spruce needles (if you try it, make sure ALL your gear is waterproof, including camera and binoculars!) – and suddenly everywhere I looked I saw traces of bear. Big piles of scat (luckily, not too fresh). Claw-marks on trees, with strands of fur snagged in bark. Enormous paw-prints… We followed the trail uphill, calling out to warn the grizzly to stay away, and at the top we found an abandoned den, with two side-chambers for the cubs. As I was scribbling notes, I finally realized what bears would mean in SKIN TAKER.
This is why I love research trips. It’s not just the big set-pieces like ice caves, or the digital detox of days at sea. It’s the unexpected encounters which can spark a whole episode, and make a story come alive.
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