I don’t have a photo to post for my blog. Not one that any of you can see at any rate. The picture is forever seen in my mind’s eye and there it sits until the last breath I take. What I would call a Zen Photo. If I am lucky, my faculties will sustain me to that last breath and my encounters with wildlife that were left forever unrecorded by my camera will linger and entertain me as the lights of this life go out. With even more luck, that last breath will be some long time from now and I will have ample opportunities to see amazing things on those days that for one reason or the other, I have been traveling in nature without my camera.
I don’t regret the images not seen on my laptop screen due to the fact, either that the animal was out of range, the lighting was wrong, it caught me by surprise (this happens more often than not) and I didn’t have the speed at hand to get the camera set and ready to capture the encounters. Or simply, as with the past weekend not bringing the darn thing with me at all. This was when the resident pod of orca put on a frolicking show near the entrance of Active Pass on the Georgia Strait side of Galiano Island as I rode the ferry back from Vancouver. They must have know there were tourists on board because the pod pulled out all the typical stops for a whale show that one might see if unfortunate enough to pay big buck to see captive whales doing their best to entertain us in small tanks. The pod came close to the ferry and began leaping high out of the water. Breaching, spy hopping (a vertical rise from the water like a submarine’s periscope) and both tail and flipper slapping and splashing. All this was being done as the sun was low and casting glittering sparkles on the water.
My seat on the ferry was hot, I had picked the wrong side of the boat to sit and in my sudden tired state could not find the will to move to the port side and out of the direct sun. I sat, sweating, reading my book and half-ease dropping on the three young women seated in front of me. I am old enough to know and recognize that these three thought they were cooler and cool, alternative to an extreme and sadly, that look had been done before. Nonetheless, they prattled on, piercings and attitudes glinting in the sunshine as each made passive aggressive commentary in response to what ever one of the others had said. This went on for some time, to the point of becoming annoying. I had found inner strength to move to the other side where I would be free of the uber cool and find some shade.
The announcement came over the loudspeaker that we were in good luck as there was a large pod of orca dead ahead. I gathered my stuff, put away my book and spilled my coffee on my last clean shirt in a hurry to get outside to the deck railing to watch the show. As I got up I heard the lead girl speak. “I have seen whales before, nothing new here.” and so they stayed. Her two companions fixed in their seats under the weight of peer pressure. I shook my head and ran outside to find my joy.
I did, and had I looked back into the glare of the window opposite where the girls sat, I would have seen them all, face down, scrolling through all too important Facebook junk. Whales, shmailes. I buried the sadness I felt for them, those poor too cool for words soulless creatures. I instead stood, bag over my shoulder clutching the un-spilled remainder of my cup of coffee watching in lovely awe the twelve or more young orca at play. I cast an eye to my right and found a woman, maybe somewhat older than I but not by much standing watching, tears running down her cheek. I hesitated to interrupt the rapture but made a small comment about the show at hand. She had never seen anything wild, and so close. I was stifling my own usual emotional response to encounters of the like. I never bore or tire of them. I choke up and smile so hard my face hurts for an hour afterwards at seeing a bear, or wolf or so many whales from the seat of my kayak. I mentioned an encounter I had in Johnstone Strait a few years back. The woman gave some interest but I knew I was intruding and fell silent. Her eyes closed, the sun bathing her face and dried tears. It takes time to fully develop a Zen photo and that was exactly what she was doing.
Kayak camping in the Southern Gulf Islands is plentiful as the entire chain is part of the Marine Trail system. Though, my home island of Salt Spring Island lands in the middle of all of that, it does not offer much in the way of easily accessible locations to spend a night or more while paddling. Ruckle Park at the south end of the island is suggested in many guide books but as a local I would be hard-pressed to attempt a landing at the camp ground. Constant wave action created by passing motorized pleasure craft and the BC Ferry fleet traveling back and forth in the channel and the rocky shoreline all combine to make for a tough launch/landing situation. A small area on the west side of the island near Musgrave Landing is a sweet spot and included now in the trail but easily passed if you are not sure what to look for.
That said, the islands surrounding Salt Spring are incredibly attractive for paddle camping trips, and I have included a few posts about them in the past. Within an hour in any direction you will find something and somewhere to raise your tent. One such island is situated on the eastern side of Salt Spring, in the middle of Trincomali Channel called Wallace Island. It is a long ridge of rock covered in eagle-nesting trees, seal colonies, mink, otters, and raccoons (which I will talk about later). The island has a colourful past and a book written about Conover Cove, which is a favourite anchorage for boaters, David Conover’s Once Upon an Island highlights that past and a great read!
The island has camping space available on the grass at Conover Cove amongst the old buildings, but the best spots are to the north at Chivers Point and around the shady side of the island at Cabin Bay. I have camped at both locations in the past during multi-day paddles around Salt Spring. Chivers Point has many raised tent pads, an outhouse a short hike up the island-long trail and one of the best scenic places to sip a glass of wine with dinner and admire a sunset. Cabin Bay on the other hand has only two pads close together at last count, making this a good place for a close group to set up camp. An outhouse is a short hike up the hill and though more secluded than Chivers or Conover, Cabin Bay loses the sight faster. No sunset viewing here but a background of the eroded cliffs of Galiano across the remainder of Trincomali Channel and a very accessible landing, and sweet spots to sit with dinner with that glass of wine and maybe a book.
I admit it has been some time since I stopped to get out anywhere on Wallace as I use the island as my weekly evening paddles as the boat ramp at Hudson Point just a kilometer beyond the Fernwood Café is close to home.
However, on a recent evening when I decided a picnic dinner was in order I pulled in at Chivers Point as a half way mark. I was surprised to see a few changes and one in particular was something I joked about on previous camping outings. ‘The racoons are so bad and bold here that they should put up bear caches’. And so they did. A large aluminum box has been installed to protect your food bags from those pesky bandits that have more than once been seen ripping off my cockpit cover searching for any goodies. They are unafraid of us and plentiful on Wallace. The other change was the removal of the old rotting picnic tables, including one that always seemed to be moving around on its own four feet to various locations around the campground.
Wallace is an ideal paddle destination from Salt Spring Island. With so many jumping off points such as Hudson Point, Southey Point (ironically located at the north end of Salt Spring) at the end of Arbutus Rd. As well as potential for longer days by launching from the town of Ganges or Long Harbour. From either Hudson or Southey Points getting to Wallace requires a short crossing of the Trincomali Channel. From Hudson to the island it is about a 15-20 minute paddle, and from Southey Point closer to 45 mins to an hour, island hopping to Jackscrew and then South Secretary Island. A seal colony resides between those two islands so enjoy the playful and curious seals but remember to also give them ample room and respect.
I like kelp. I have fond beachy childhood memories of family trips spent car-camping on the beaches that are now, but not back then in the 70’s a National Park. Running and riding my bike on hard damp sand after the tide receded leaving our beleaguered Volkswagon campervan tired from the struggles of too many mountains on the potholed and washboard textured roads to the Pacific coast was now half sunk in the sand as my dad did not read the tide table correctly. In those days, one could park on the3 beach and camp and oddly enough the very spot we preferred to park is now a paved parking lot.
Herds of beach folk, squatters mainly who inhabited the alder and scrub lined barrier between highway and surf came to attempt the excavation and pushing of the van before the next high tide. Great fun for a 10-year-old getting his first hints of the sea air that would draw me back and back so many more times to paddle these same shores. Making ramps with beach wood to leap my bike over tangled gnarls of these twisted sea weed cords as the crowd gathered and a party began, and warm beers were drunk as now it was a clear job for the only tow truck in town. Some of the bundles of kelp spread out with loose tendrils reaching towards the sea. All manner of debris collected in the tangles as the tide rose and fell, tumbling them like unraveling logs on the sand. Some heavy and immovable stayed on the beach while other smaller rafts were pulled back to the ocean.
For me, these bundles were natures puzzles. To pull a single length successfully from the mesh was nearly impossible. I would then turn to a lone length washed up. The starter of a kelp bundle waiting patiently for others to curl and hug and cuddle with it. These slender kelp tails worked well as bull whips, and I would be found swatting anything that moved. Lines of cans on a log, imaginary enemies and I am sure my baby sister has tales to tell about me chasing her around with the stuff.
A walk on just about any beach will result in a kelp find. I have photographed the best of these messy tangles and am enthralled by them. On the water, these great rafts can be a tremendous obstacle. I have paddled, poked and prodded my kayak through large rafts of kelp. Oft times my kayak resting up on them as I struggled to pike pole my way across and seeking out any gaps big enough to get at least one good swish with the blade.
Coastal kelp is far larger than the puny gardens or lone stragglers bobbing about in my home waters of the Gulf Islands. Out there on the wild coast it thrives, and as much as it can be problematic for kayak navigation, this is a good thing. Kelp gardens breed life. There is a fine balance between us and nature and occasional tipping of the scales by interfering with the natural balance such as the decimation of the sea otter population on the coast of Vancouver Island driving them close to extinction. This caused the environment to drastically change. Without the sea otter diving to the sea bottom and snatching up tasty urchins, the urchins took over, as did namy other species of shellfish. The shellfish over population aided to the removal of the kelp. They destroyed it and in doing so removed the homes of many other species. The scales so tipped so far that a new industry formed all along the coast and into Washington State. Shellfish became the latest harvest replacing the otters and claimed itself a tradition.
In 1969, a mere 89 otters were relocated from waters in Alaska to Kyoquot and the Bunsby Islands just south of the Brooks Peninsula on Vancouver Island. They have been moving southwards and colonizing. I had the lovely opportunity to glide my kayak quietly into one such colony near Nootka Island. Since 1969, that small group has grown to over 3,000 individuals. Astonishingly good results. However this has caused a problem. Sea otters eat shellfish. Good for the health of the kelp forests and all that live in them, as well as good for the otter as in his absence the growth of urchins has made a smorgesbord for them. The problem has come from some grumbing from the shellfish industry people who claim the reintroduction of the urchin-eaters is causing a downfall in their catch. The cute little otters are going to destroy them! I seriously doubt this. For some years this industry has grown only due to the fact it had no competition for the resource. But I hardly think 3,000 otters could result in the ending of an industry.
As an ending note, I at the tender age of 48 picked up a long healthy length of kelp on McKenzie Beach near Tofino last year and in an attempt to use it as a whip, I most efficiently swatted myself in the face with its tip. Thanks sea otters!
A friend today reminded me that change, or the prospect of change either on our life course, or more internally can be scary. This fear of changing ourselves through a chosen experience is one we all face on some level. Her imminent departure on a trek so many before her have done and word that it had changed them drove that fear home. She claimed that she was comfortable in who she is, and not wanting anything to alter that state of mind and being. Understandable to any of us who have faced the prospect of a life-changing experience. In this case, a pre-planned version of those unlike the ones thrust upon us as the sudden death of a loved one, or the loss of a job you have held for years. New paths are what we live for, and to grow is our truest greatest inner need. Change is not always easy, or good, or even bad. It just is. It is easy to look at what we fear the most in the eye, that being the unknown or the unseen future and flinch for a moment of extreme hesitation. But to not go forward, to not put boot to trail head or paddle to water, to avoid life for fear an event may change who we are is to stagnate and do our soul the unfortunate disservice of experiential neglect.
To that, I put some thought to all of the above and looking back upon my own experiences, relationships and journeys and realized that they all came with that hesitation. Where any of them life-changing? Path altering perhaps, and one or two might have left a mark and lessons to be examined. Did any of them change who I am as a person? Maybe, but only in the subtlest of manner. We are who we are, and I look at them carefully and try to cherry pick the positives and seeing clearly that at no time has stepping outside of myself ever really been a negative.
That needing to turn back, to avoid, to not go, to find numerous excuses why I should stay dwelling in my fortress of comforts have all slapped me in the face at one time or another. To stay means only after the event had come and gone without me in it that I would have learned nothing from staying comfortably me. I let those life experiences, adventures in the outdoors being the pinnacle of those unknown fearful mornings at the beginnings of a treks, trips or paddles pass under my feet. They happened and the courage I needed to face the unknowns I found flowing freely within my spirit, but only in the time after the experience had passed. Then, and only then did they form from the future of wondering and anxiety to the recent past and become fond memory.
As a kayaker, I have faced many scary moments. I seem to add continually to my list of knees-shaking against the inside of my kayak experiences. Each one finding me without compromise, and forcing me to ask if the fond memory will be worth it. To that nameless fear, and to that hesitation at something possibly changing me forever I hope the answer will always be a soundly loud, yes.
I had not realized to what extent that sound meant to me, what depth and part of my being it reflected, and how familiar the sensation even after a long absence from floating in my kayak. That first full paddle stroke to the chilly March waters. That splosh, and that spatter of sea water droplets falling from the blade’s edge as the opposite blade bathes as well for the first time in over six months.
Life and other things managed to divide me from the seat of my kayak for months now but that thread is broken, and the return to my prior self is in progress. I had big plans for this coming year. I was going to challenge myself, my body, my mind and my imagination in such ways by attempting things in my kayak that are far bigger than myself. Scary, but wonderful things such as entering the Yukon River Quest. Maybe next year…yes!
With such distances to travel to get ready for that race of over 700 kilometers from Whitehorse to the gold mining town of old, Dawson City attempting this feat this year would be foolish. I am turning 50, a flabby mess with a head full of flooble from a rather stressful year before. Time to get fit, time to remember who I am, and get my head back into the game of paddling.
Sitting in my kayak waiting for some friends to catch up on this lovely late winter, or early spring day, feeling her drift with the sun warming my left cheek and springtime brought to the island by a small almost warm breeze at my back I felt it all coming back to me. Out of the long sleep, and awakened to the idea of doing something new. One paddle stroke at a time…
It is the 15th of January, 2015 and sitting at my laptop in my cabin on Salt Spring Island listening to a light rain tapping on my roof. I look at my blog dashboard and see that the last post was back in September of last year. Nearly five months and not one single word typed on the blank screen. What could have happened in those long months of the fall. A time when kayaking in the Gulf Islands where I make my home is so lovely, and plentiful once the motor boat traffic of the summer tourist season abates and the local camping spots empty out. My backyard paradise once again becomes a tranquil home to this humble paddler. But, this past fall found me in a different mindset away from my beloved kayak, and a new Greenland paddle I was beginning to make friends with.
Much has changed since the 15th of January 2014 and the biggest of those events was suddenly finding myself paddling solo once more. The turmoil of all of that and the ongoing aftermath of picking up the pieces and restarting took me away from my love of writing, and paddling and most everything else. A complete shut down seemed to occur and maybe that was what was needed to find new energy and a fresh perspective, lessons learned and heart slowly mending (with the help of a new and wonderful soul injecting some love back into my life). I begin this year with that old cliché adage, “a new year and a new me!” Never! No silly New Years Resolutions for this paddlingboy. What you see is what you get, kids. Perhaps somewhat rattled, shaken but not stirred, albeit disappointed in many ways, and dented, but virtually the same guy as this time last year.
A fresh start. Yes, that is the ticket but first keeping my head down through the fragile winter months until the first warm rays of Springtime reach my face out on the water. I turn 50 this year. A fact that with all else that has landed on me lately had been pushed to the back of the bus but now it walking forward clasping the top of each seat carefully awaiting that sudden jerk when the bus stops at that milestone. A fact that is reminding me that I begin a fresh start at a time of my life when, yikes I am turning 50. I had better get going on this new project.
Plans for big paddles shelved for the time being. Other things, many other things must happen first. But they will happen in their time. Yukon River Quests under the midnight sun for my 50th, the original plan for 2015, now seem to be a good idea for my 51st year. Just let me get this first year under my belt and then it will be all downhill smooth sailing.
So to all of you reading this first tender offering of a fresh new, and rather wet coasty evening at the start of 2015, good luck out there. Keep your special people close. Offer kindness to those who stepped over the line with you in the past. Put your paddle to the water, or whatever metaphor to a tranquil meditative way of being you choose. Go forth and be you, as you are.