The Cortes Portraits: Shantima Braaten
I hear Shantima before I see her. Her jovial laugh floats through the air buoyant and youthful. It’s one of her most recognizable features. That, and her long auburn hair.
“Hot one today,” I say with a smile, “It’s perfect.” The sun is cascading through endless blue sky. Though early June, it feels like the peak of summer.
Shantima is a long-time local of Cortes Island. We first met two years ago in the cool, damp of winter when she knocked on my front door with a batch of freshly baked cookies in hand. The memory stands in stark contrast to today. Today’s intense heat begs for ice-cold water, not warm peanut-butter cookies.
We walk across the soccer field at Cortes Island Elementary/Jr Secondary and slip under the forested canopy of the School-to-Sea trail. It’s a beautiful, sometimes steep hike that winds through dense forest before transforming into the salty shore of Manson’s Lagoon. Here, hidden by old growth, the sunlight dapples our skin.
I ask Shantima how things are with her. It’s been too long since we have crossed paths and had the chance to catch up. You would think that, as neighbours on such a small island, we’d bump into each other more often. But we rarely do. We are both so caught up in our own worlds of work, family, and romance. I try not to interrupt her as the stories tumble out.
As we talk and wander, a shrub of wild huckleberries comes into view. Red globes adorn its limbs like a far-too-early Christmas tree. It’s a bumper crop this season, which means that the island is full of clouds of little red fruit, ripe for picking. Shantima plucks a few. She remarks on their tart flavour and passes a handful to me. They aren’t her favourite wild fruit or mine (really nothing can compare with the blackberries of late summer), but I like the way they make my cheeks pucker. I eat a few as we continue down the path.
The shadows in the forest start to give way to a high-noon sun. One beam in particular catches my eye. It’s a breathtaking contrast; a single illuminated fern frond against a backdrop of cool shade. I direct Shantima into the beam of light. As she moves into it, her gaze drifts upward. I capture the moment.
“Well, we could go home right now” I say, knowing I’ve already snagged an amazing shot. But we don’t go home. We planned to go swimming and haven’t even reached the water yet.
We clamour across a pile of driftwood at the end of the trail. I pull off my shoes and dig my toes into the soft white sand. Across the water, the snowy mountain peaks of Vancouver Island etch the horizon.
I love this view. So does Shantima.
From ages ten to sixteen, every summer, her family left their home and moved into a sailboat. It was tight quarters for her family of six. But docked in this very lagoon, the wide expanse of sea and sky made up for the closeness inside the boat. As she sits on the shore, Shantima strikes me as a modern-day mermaid with her long red locks and memories of living on the water.
“Are you ready?” I ask.
We strip down to our swimsuits and make our way slowly toward the water. At low tide, the coastal shoreline is full of oyster shells and seaweed. When we reach the water, Shantima slips right in. I follow, along with my camera.
“I’m going for it” I say, as I wade deeper and deeper until my elbows skim the glassy surface. I’m determined to capture this moment. The unison of woman and water: wild, beautiful, strong, with so much beneath the surface.
We stay in the ocean until our arms and legs grow cold. Shivering, we crawl out and welcome the heat of the sun. Shantima begins to wring out her hair. I scroll through the images we just shot. I’m thankful that my camera survived the swim.
Shantima leans over my shoulder, “I can’t wait to see them all” she says, then turns to me and asks if I’m hungry. I’m starved.
We take the road back, walking up to the local Co-Op for a bite. After devouring our lunch, we sit for sometime, just enjoying our turmeric lattes and our visit, down to the last sip.