The last thing Byron Harry imagined having to stickhandle during a COVID-19 community lockdown was a cougar leaping onto his truck.
Harry was pulling a graveyard shift at the Klahoose Nation’s emergency checkpoint, which was set up to contain a cluster of cases that had broken out in the remote community on B.C.’s Cortes Island just days before.
The logistics and operations team leader with the community’s emergency operation centre (EOC) was sitting in his vehicle working under the glow of his laptop at 3 a.m. when he felt the tailgate dip.
“I guess I was just shocked at first to feel the back of the truck move and wondered what it could be,” Harry said.
“Then I could hear something moving around on the roof, but I really didn’t see what it was. But I could hear its nails with every step it took.”
Harry turned on his vehicle and lights, and the animal jumped onto an adjacent gravel slope and disappeared into the forest and the night.
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It turns out wildlife visits to the folks standing sentry on the roadway to the small village in Squirrel Cove would become a fairly regular occurrence.
So would braving long shifts around the clock in the wind, rain, cold and dark to protect their community. A team of people stepped up to staff the checkpoint 24-7 during the health crisis.
The Klahoose First Nation immediately went into strict lockdown Nov. 26 after getting news an elder tested positive for COVID-19. Three more cases were confirmed soon after.
To contain the virus, Chief Kevin Peacey proclaimed a state of local emergency asking the 88 people in the community at the time of the outbreak to stay at home in their household bubbles.
Home checks and contact tracing got underway while food, medical supplies and essential items were brought to the checkpoint for pickup or delivered to homes under strict quarantine.
There was no movement in or out of Klahoose except for members of the emergency operations team, essential workers on COVID-19-related business, emergency responders, or people who had to attend essential medical appointments.
The checkpoint was key in helping check the spread of the virus in the Klahoose community, said Eva Delorme and Jeannie Hanuse.
The two women regularly worked night shifts, 4 p.m to midnight, at the road barrier until the full lockdown lifted Tuesday morning.
Their last shift Monday was typically wet and cold as it rained non-stop all day. However, both women shrugged off the conditions, saying it wasn’t too bad.
“It’s kind of what you make it,” said Delorme, warming her hands on the wood fire set up next to a plastic canopy being hammered by the rain.
“Yeah, we’re fancy camping,” said Hanuse with a laugh.
The two women are cousins, and though conditions weren’t ideal, they enjoyed socializing with one another and getting outside after being cooped up at home during the lockdown.
Though there were a couple of initial incidents with people resisting the restrictions, the majority of the community on and off reserve respected the precautionary measures and traffic-monitoring protocols, they said.
Folks crossing the checkpoint needed authorization to leave or come on the reserve from the EOC team and typically faced questions about their health, where they’ve been or who they’ve seen.
A logbook helped monitor anyone coming or going, said Delorme.
Folks working the checkpoint aren’t trying to police or chastise people, she said, they only want to protect their community.
“We know everyone here. I mean, I grew up with all these people,” Delorme said.
The most excitement at the road barrier came from inquisitive wildlife, which, in addition to the cougar, included a wolf, raccoons and a couple visits from a juvenile bear.
“I was really afraid of the cougar,” said Hanuse, noting they had bear spray and air horns on hand.
“When we hear noises in the brush, we shine flashlights up into the trees.”
Going for a pee in the bush before the porta potty arrived was quite the adventure, Delorme said with a laugh.
Support for the checkpoint workers from the neighbouring community on Cortes Island has been pouring in, Hanuse said.
Firewood, cakes, cookies, special deliveries and pizzas have all been dropped off for folks enduring the elements at the checkpoint.
“It’s a really good feeling to see that friendliness and care,” Hanuse said.
Michelle Robinson and Kathy Francis, both members of the Klahoose EOC team, also appreciated the encouragement from islanders, both on and off the reserve.
The two women have been pulling double duty, helping manage the health crisis in the community but also doing shifts at the checkpoint.
Robinson said she’s proud of everybody who has been working to protect the community, including those who stayed at home and adhered to pandemic protocols.
She credits them all with containing the cluster of COVID-19 in the community so quickly.
“It's been a real community effort. And, you know, everybody was unsure what (was) going on. It was amazing,” Robinson said.
“They've all been so dignified in it, and I'm really proud of them all.”
The Klahoose residents who tested positive for the virus are out of quarantine, and no new cases have emerged. But Island Health will continue to monitor the community until Dec. 27, she said.
And though the strict lockdown is now lifted, the checkpoint will remain in place, she added. It will help prevent outside visitors from entering the community, a measure that mirrors provincial health orders prohibiting social interactions outside household bubbles until Jan. 8.
The checkpoint and visitor restrictions are all about keeping the community, on both sides of the barriers, safe, Robinson said.
“It’s a really key thing to maintain, and it helped stop COVID-19,” she said.
“That’s not to say somebody isn’t going to catch it again. We would hope everybody keeps to their own bubble.”
But should that scenario unfold, the Klahoose community has a system in place to deal with the situation, she added.
“If all of a sudden that happens again, we're gonna have it on lockdown,” Robinson said.
“It protects everybody out there. It's not just us, it protects the island as well.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer