The man who talked with whales and beavers
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
He talked with whales, beavers, and other creatures including me.
Many knew Don Cooke of Ghost Lake Village as a Calgary dealer in fine cars Jaguars, MGs and the like. But in 1994 he sold his dealership and took to the waters as "Captain Cooke."
We came to know him during his seafaring days. Mary Anna and I lived across the road from his quaint cabin along the shore of Ghost Lake, west of Cochrane. On those rare occasions when home, he would drop in for a visit at our place, or invite us over to his.
I especially enjoyed the visits at his place. There, sipping and dining at the captain's counter in his small window-embraced kitchen, I could look to the south and west, across Ghost Lake, into the foothills, mountains and sky beyond. And before my very eyes, the scene transformed itself into magical places far and near, as our genial host recounted his dialogue with nature.
There was that time, Don said, when he had a man-to-man conversation with a bull whale.
Don was sailing the Pacific in his 50 foot yacht Cheeha. He was on the Equator among the fabled islands of Polynesia. Unexpectedly, the air grew chilly and Don suspected he was in a cold-water current coming up from Antarctica.
He set course southward to find warmer water. Instead, he soon found himself in hot water.
He spotted them off starboard bow a pod of whales. One of them, a large bull, had separated itself from its harem and was heading straight toward him.
The whale approached the Cheeha and began circling it, eyeing it. One assault by the menacing monster was all it would take to end Don's journey.
Captain Cooke sent his crew below and ordered them to stay silent. Meanwhile, he stayed on deck by the rail. The whale was almost close enough to touch, he told me.
Don and the whale faced each other eye-to-eye. In soft, measured tones, Don began reassuring the whale:
"I'm not here to take your ladies. I'm just passing through."
The whale must have appreciated the respect Don showed, for after ten minutes that seemed to Don like an eternity, it turned slowly and rejoined the pod. And Don sailed on to other adventures.
One of those adventures was much closer to home, and I never tired of him telling me about it.
On quiet summer days, Don loved to step outside his Ghost Lake cabin, walk the few paces to his dock, start up his powerboat, and cruise the three kilometres down the Bow River to its confluence with the Ghost River at the dam. There he would turn north, pass under the bridge at Highway 1A, and go up the Ghost for a ways.
Then he would stop the motor and drift silently with the current. Those of us who have traveled with him on such occasions still have a hard time believing what happened next.
And seemingly out of nowhere, two or three beavers appeared at the water's surface not far away, even though there were no lodges or beaver dams in sight. They swam right up to the boat, and Don chatted with them with far greater comfort than in his South Seas whale encounter.
Don reached into the basket he'd brought with him and pulled out some sandwiches. A picnic? For us? Not at all. For the beavers!
He extended the sandwiches to them; they accepted them and went their way.
Don was very successful at dealing with animals.
Unfortunately, he was less successful at dealing with cancer. After barely a month confronting this terrible adversary, Don died at his lakeside home March 2. He had turned 73 on Valentine's Day.
Just hours before his departure, a few of us gathered by his side to sing a hymn he had requested. Through the window above him we could see Ghost Lake, the foothills, the mountains, and the sky beyond. And we sang of his next journey:
While I draw this fleeting breath,
Bon voyage, my friend. And thanks for the stories.
© 2003 Warren Harbeck