A routine night out clam digging nearly turned into a tragedy as Russell Hansen, 34, of Kyuquot, and his friend Byron White found themselves swimming in the frigid waters near Gabriola Island late January. The pair had just finished loading their clams into the boat just after midnight and were heading in for the night when the boat capsized.
Hanson is a full-time student at Vancouver Island University. He is in the second year of the Forest Resources Technology Program. He pays his own tuition and works evenings to support his family. The night the accident happened was delivery night for the clam diggers, and Hanson and his friend had a lot of clams saved up from six nights of digging.
“We loaded the boat. At first I thought we would only load mine, but Byron threw his onboard too,” Hanson recalled. “When we took off, water started coming into the bow so Bryon slowed down, but that made even more water come in. I yelled, ‘turn to shore! Turn to shore!’ But when we turned we flipped and next thing I know we’re swimming. It happened real fast,” said Hanson.
It was about 1 a.m. and there was nobody else around. At near freezing temperatures the men needed to rescue themselves quickly before hypothermia set in.
Hanson estimates they swam about 30 metres before their feet touched bottom. The pair waded to shore then walked to their vehicle. There they found odds and ends of clothes left behind by relatives. After changing into dry clothing they waited until 5 a.m. for the first ferry to Nanaimo and went straight home.
After a night of warmth and rest, Hanson said he was out the very next day to dig clams, but first he and Byron went and got the sacks of clams they lost the night before and salvaged the boat.
Russell’s wife Christine said she was shocked when she first heard what had happened. On most nights she digs clams alongside her husband, but on that night she decided to stay home with their two children, ages 12 and 9.
“I wasn’t there, otherwise I would have freaked out,” she said, adding she never leaves the beach without her husband.
Hanson’s mother Daisy wants people to know that there are many Russ’s out there who are going through hardships to get educated. Post-secondary students are struggling to pay for their education and support their families, she said, adding, people need to know what kind of dedication and commitment it takes to get a higher education.
She said Russell was only trying to survive, trying to feed his family the night the accident happened; and it nearly cost him his life.
“So we, his family, have a greater respect and much more appreciation for what he's doing and the example he is setting to today’s post-ed students and the future post-ed students,” said Daisy. She hopes to get the message across to the family members of students, communities and leaders that they need to support students as much as they can.
Hanson and his friend never did go to the hospital and he downplays the seriousness of what could have happened. But his parents and close family are relieved that he made it home safely to his family and they showed it by throwing a celebration of life party.
More than 200 Hanson relatives and friends showed up at the Cedar Community Hall in Nanaimo Feb. 19 to celebrate Russell having made it through his ordeal. The party also served to acknowledge the fragility of life and to take precautions to protect Russell in the future.
Guests were served dinner before Wesley Edwards of Kuper Island (Penelakut First Nation) welcomed the mostly Nuu-chah-nulth crowd to Coast Salish territory. He knows Russell Hanson personally. He said Russell’s been clam digging with Wesley’s people for a while. He called Russell a good guy, saying he’s the best clammer, usually doubling or tripling what the other guys get.
Turning to Russell he said, “I have so much respect for this guy that I passed up another event with my own people to be here.” He went on to sing a Coast Salish prayer song followed by a victory lahal song.
Russell, flanked by his parents, Peter and Daisy, then presented a woven cedar bark hat to Edwards.
Speaking on behalf of the hosts, Wakeetom (Peter) and Daisy Hanson, Cliff Atleo Sr. thanked Edwards for the welcome and went on to tell him that important things would be done on their land. The cultural business taking place that night would be done under the house named Mustway-K’youk where the Hansons come from.
The Hanson family, along with relatives from Russell’s maternal side of the family from Ahousaht and Hesquiaht, joined together in song and dance. They were followed by dancers from other tribes, including Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Kyuquot.
“I think it’s amazing to see so many people show up,” said Russell. “You don’t feel it every day, that they all care about you,” he added.
Russell was given the name Shii Shookp Shilth, a Kyuquot name coming from his father’s side of the family. “It’s an old name. Nobody knows what the translation is anymore,” he explained.