What would you think if I told you that, although Robert Gray sailed across the Columbia River bar in 1792, he wasn’t the first explorer to do so? Or if I mentioned that Juan de Fuca wasn’t the first outsider who traveled on the straits that bear his name? What if you were to find that Bodega y Quadra and Meares, Vancouver and the Hudson Bay Company, all of those intrepid souls, were late to the game? Real late.
Allow me to introduce Hwui Shan. Brother Hwui, if you will. In the year 458, this Chinese monk, accompanied by four other monks, sailed north to Japan. From there, they continued on up the Kamchatka Peninsula, then east to the Aleutian Islands. On down the coast of Alaska, and then south along the Pacific coast, all the way to Baja California.
Brother Hwui gave the name Fu-Sang to the entire region, and he recorded the appearances and customs of the indiginous peoples that he came across as he traveled. These descriptions are richly detailed and appear to be accurate, according to what is now known about the area at the time. The 41-year odyssey is recorded in the court records of the Sung dynasty for the year 499, which is when the small band of rovering monks returned to China. According to one web source, “They apparently reached Fu-Sang at about the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, 476 AD, stayed for a period of years and then returned to China.”
I don’t know if it happened or not, this voyage of Brother Hwui. I don’t know if the Chinese were capable of ocean travel of this sort at such an early date, if they could cross raging seas and explore the wilds of the earth hundreds of years before my ancestors learned to bathe. It’s possible, maybe plausible even, but it’s strange I haven’t heard more about it. No matter. That’s not the point.
I have often thought that there are ghosts among us. Past and future wrapping around what we so innocently call the present. You can see for yourself, if you like. The next time you are out on the Washington coast on a cold morning, where wisps of fog slip in and out of the trees and the dark clouds hang low, think about those who have come before you. As the first drops of rain begin to fall and the wind carves the face of the water, think about the ones who have yet to arrive. If the light is perfect and the fog clears at the right moment, you may just hear the creaking of the rigging, the snap of the sails and the muffled shouts of the crew out past the breakers somewhere, calling in a language you can’t make out, from twelve centuries away.