Archive for March, 2014
I am a meat-eater and an animal lover, which on paper does look rather like a conflict waiting to happen. And there are times when no matter how cute an animal is, or how much we tend to anthropomorphize them, the first thought that comes to mind is, lets eat! I understand the requirements of the native people living off the land, especially those on the coastal region where the ocean provides so much. Kayaking and seal hunting have gone hand in hand for centuries. Kayaks provide speed and stealth, which comes in handy when sneaking up on skittish seals who don’t want to be dinner and clubbing or harpooning them.
I discovered this first hand a few years ago while paddling around my ‘backyard’ waters of Salt Spring Island with a couple of friends. The most common creature you will encounter on any day paddle in the Gulf Islands are the seals. Both the Harbour and Leopard seals inhabit the local waters. At random they will pop up through the surface of the water like submarine periscopes. They turn towards you and stare with those large black eyes, heads slick and shiny and wet, they snort and swim with you, then dive only to reappear usually somewhere behind your kayak. They are curious and always wanting a better look at the strange floaty humans with long flapping flippers. They are happy and well-protected creatures. The seals, not so much the humans and we can only hope that an hour or two of floatation therapy will cure what ails them. The seals have forgotten the evils set upon them by us, clubbing, spearing, harpooning and look at us with side-eyed awe, as we do when we see them basking on rocks in summer, or swimming all around our kayaks. It is the cuteness that will get you every time.
Rounded Chivers Point on Wallace Island for the long return run down the long backside of the island with Galiano Island to our left, the conversation was about the seals and the local wildlife rehabilitation center on Salt Spring. Their guests, among other creatures and birds are usually seals rescued from the area after injury or abandonment due to the death of a parent has left babies helpless and alone. The couple paddling with me were a couple, my buddy and his girlfriend who after listening to my talk got her to thinking that every seal pup we heard that evening was surely alone. And we heard plenty of them as we made our way passed Cabin Bay to a section of small cuts and coves. Her concerns raised the questions of when it is time for human intervention, or when to leave well enough alone. For the most part it is an assumption that a seal pup is orphaned and usually the mother is not far away foraging for dinner.
The sounds the pups make are pitiful and are similar to the cries of a human baby which only adds to the human element to nurture and save the pup from an awful demise. A simple rule of thumb is to ‘report them, and don’t touch them’. The pup is then monitored for several days before anyone moves in. This also causes some stress to the animal adding to the debate because now the truly abandoned seal is fragile from hunger and will require more intensive care. All in all it is a no win situation for the seals when outnumbered by us and powerboat with deadly propellers.
It was mid-summer and evening so we heard many seals giving that eerie cry around us. The water was calm and the last warmth of the sunset was reaching us. Our timing would be perfect for the full moon rise over the southern islands, which would light our way back to the launch site. We had lots of time to dilly dally in the notches and coves, chatting and enjoying the best of paddling conditions. The sky began changing in increments of yellow to red, purple to blue that eventually would merge with the coming darkness of the night sky. To make things even better we had the gentle nudge of current in our favour, all was well.
The silence broken by a sudden and very loud cry from the darkness closer to shore. I looked but couldn’t see the cause but knew it was a pup. At that moment, we all lifted out paddles and drifted in the current. Falling into seal-hunter modes. Then I saw him, a small black head moving out to deeper waters away from the sheltered safety of the rocks where its mother had left it. In a second it was on me. No I mean, ON me! Before I could get my paddle in the water he rammed the side of my kayak. He floated there looking up, shiny-eyed and I couldn’t find a safe place to put the blade to the water without his involvement. I was stuck. He was far enough away after a minute and I started to get away when he hit me a second time, hard. What was this little guy up to? If he thought he could nurse off my fibreglass hull he was out of luck! My friends farther out from shore sat watching not knowing how, or what, if anything they could do to help me out. Now my small black attacker was boarding my kayak attempting I suppose to jump into my lap. The cute fuzzy sympathetic creature was at close look nothing but claws and teeth and screaming, and adorable big black eyes. His teeth clamped hard on the rubber trim but soon he lost his grip and fell back.
There are a few risks in sea kayaking and we pack them away in the back of our minds every time we put on the PFD and grab a paddle. The list of items such as capsizing and not being able to self-rescue or roll, drowning, sinking, squashing by fast-moving power boats or slow-moving freighters. I never would have added killer baby seal attacks to my list of ‘what-ifs’.
He came at me one last time and this time almost made it up to the cockpit before slipping back down into the dark waters. “He really wanted a kayak ride!” I laughed, nervously. He clamped on again with his teeth and scrambled with scratching claws leaving some marks in the gel-coat before falling off again. I turned as I paddled fast to get some distance between me and my little angry friend. My buddy’s girlfriend was in tears. This was only her second time kayaking and it was all too much. She is the type that would stop in the road to scoop up a frog and carry it to the curb. She was certain my attacker was an abandoned and very frightened seal pup and we should do something! The only way I could settle her nerves was to agree to attempt to keep tabs on the little one for the next few days. I had no intention of doing that. I knew from experience that the adult was near by.
“Are you sure it really has a mother, Dave?” she sniffed. I nodded but the wailing in the background was not helping my case. In a few more minutes a larger seal surfaced near the pup and the crying turned to low murmuring moans. I saw the baby turning and pointing a small flipper in my directions as if to say,
“Over there! He tried to club me mommy!”
The plan was simple enough, or so we thought. We would rendezvous at the beach house a friend had managed to finagle for one night, free, and then unload the gear, kayaks and all sundry paraphernalia before Mike and I took the vehicles into Tofino where we would secure parking for the duration of the paddle trip. Then we would hire a cab to take us back to the beach in time to pack up our kayaks and hit the Pacific Ocean for a ten-day paddling vacation in Clayoquot Sound. How hard could that be?
In the early twilight of morning I woke in the living room of th beach house. All was quiet except for the rumble of surf rocking the southern end of Chesterman Beach, a noted high quality surfers beach. It was a lovely backyard that we entertained ourselves with on after dinner strolls and smoking out Hobbit pipes on logs while the sun went down. It was a so far so good condition to be in. As the light of day began to highlight the sands others rose and the pre-paddle excitement manifested itself. Time was no going to be our friend as the tide was going out and none of us wanted to play the chase the water game later that morning with fully loaded boats.
We had done some preparations during the party the night before, packing up perishables and enjoying left over beer and wine from the family friends that had rented the house before we arrived. The house itself contributed to the festivities as it was our good luck to have it and not start this trip like so many before it, tired from the long drive only to have to paddle for hours to a suitable camping spot, sometimes racing the dark to do so.
Rolling carefully off the chaise lounge that had been my bed for the night and feeling the effects of dehydration, or was it wine hydration of the previous evening I nursed myself up and caught sight of a wave blowing up explosively on the sand then in a death, rushed up the beach. Out on the beach, early birds were already taking morning walks. Who could get up that early? I young guy with surf board under his arm walked out into the water as thumps came from the bedrooms above me. Though my head was rather foggy and full of flies I still watched the ocean with the fascination of a child. I envisioned our departure through throngs of surfers confused and scattering to make way for four lunatics in sea kayaks attempting to leave the beach like hung over sea turtles.
Our happy tribe has the unfortunate habit of slow starts. This results in us meeting up with troubles, long days, or losing sight of where to camp. And it always opens up the doors and windows that allow Mother Nature, cruel parent that she is to beat the crap out of us. This happens when we are leaving the sometimes uncomfortable camps so you can imagine the underlying reluctance to rush of and away from a luxury waterfront home. Knowing this and how our group dynamic works gave Mike and I plenty of time to relocate the cars and get back again.
Taking coffee orders before we left Mike and I headed into town. Parking in Tofino was easy and we found a lot that where we could abandon our vehicles for days near the RCMP Detachment office. We felt confident about security when we locked up the cars and walked up the road to a well-known local establishment, The Common Loaf. On the way the background of Tofino Harbour could not be ignored. It is a frenetic place even in late September. A mosaic of marine signals, buoys and speeding water taxis and noisy float planes. The boats and planes taking tourists to the Hot Springs a few hours away up the sound so they can dip their toes in the hot sulphuric waters pouring out of the ground. We think of these folk as taking the easy way out. The last time we set foot in the springs we had already paddled for a few days and earned the reward, we were also the only ones to get there by kayak.
The harbour was warming its engines for another busy day as we rounded the corner and up a hill from the Government dock to the cathedral of coffee and sticky buns, The Common Loaf. Our timing was just off, the last drops of the last pot of coffee ended up in the cup of the person ahead of me. No doubt he was killing time before his plane to the springs was set to take off. These people had it way too easy, but we could remain smug knowing that we had the advantage of spending less to see more. That is what always amazed me about these trips. The low-cost other than the ferry, gas, food and well, the kayak, the gear, and the new gear I just had to have for this trip. Once you get beyond the initial investment a trip to the sound was on the cheap so a cup at the Loaf was certainly in the budget while we waited for our ride.
We had to wait while the overworked girl behind the counter finished preparing several special coffee drinks before she could brew a fresh pot of the ordinary stuff. I waited with cups in hand for the miracle of coffee to come and Mike found the payphone to call us a cab. The coffee brewed and in hand Mike and I sat outside at a concrete table sipping and watching the routines of the locals. discerning who was home and who was tourist was not difficult. Tourists spoke with heavy German accents.
The morning sky remained overcast and grey though the forecast had called for full and glorious sunshine that was someplace else. Welcome to the west coast. We were on the outside and outed as tourists even though we spoke accent-free. Was it our manner, was it the way we leaned on the rock wall impatiently now, tired of waiting for the taxi to arrive that gave us away. This is what visitors to my island home on Salt Spring must endure as they sit outside our coffee shops and listen in on conversations that border precariously on the edges of eccentric.
Mike had this experience first hand on an inaugural day as an islander, over-hearing a discussion between a pair of new-age hippies on the subject of a worm. The question at hand was what happened to the worm if someone accidentally chops a poor worm in two? Which half of the worm does the soul belong too? Mike, then a chain-smoking coffee slurping hard ass of a guy from the big city ended up on the island to the events after a bad car accident. A refugee of the high stakes commuter traffic wars, still years away from being a kayaking yoga guy of today, he sat there hearing this with disbelieving ears. Life on the island changes you or you just have to leave. Ironically later on, a ban on Mike’s insistence of yogic chanting while paddling was enforced by the rest of the group.
The cab still had not arrived and we were becoming antsy. However, what had arrived on time were the local coffee gangs who show up limping, groggy, red-eyed and tired in search of a hit. A local youth still working on the results of the previous night’s escapades was clutching a half-finished worse for wear can of Lucky beer. The kid having a bit of the hair of the dog was told by the server and later on by a much larger male staff member to, “Lose the beer, or else!” The lad was fairly and near completely tattooed, straddled his chopper-styled bicycle and rode it back and forth stopping at each pass to chat up his apparently EX-girlfriend sitting with her apparently NEW boyfriend. As small town romances might go these two seemed to have an understanding between them and acted as cautious old friends who let a girl step between them. Although, I doubted for a moment that this bunch spent lots of time worrying about the souls of worms.
Twenty minutes later and a dozen beer guzzling bike passes later the ex-boyfriend was no closer to winning back his sweetheart and we were no closer to sitting in a taxi cab. My coffee gone and the coffees we bought for the others icy cold I went inside to use the phone to contact the cab dispatcher.
“Hi, I am at the Common Loaf and I called about a half hour ago, we are still waiting, what’s up?” I asked, giving the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was stuck in the mud?
“Where are you?” asked the woman at the other end of the line.
“The Common Loaf, you know the coffee place here in town.” I replied, suddenly feeling a blush of stupidity flooding over me. But then again, maybe they didn’t know where it was after all and that is why we were still sitting out in the cold.
“Yes, yes. The driver went there but didn’t see you. He left, he couldn’t find you.” the voice said in an accent mixed from eastern European and liar. I paused. He came, he looked around, and he left. Did he happen to call out “anyone call a cab?”, nope!
“Let me get this straight,” I started and already regretting where this would go.
“Uh huh…”muttered the voice.
“Your driver came to the coffee shop, The Common Loaf, right?”
“Yes, and you were not there.” accused the voice.
“We were there the entire time!” I said, feeling smug. “Did your driver ask anyone here if someone called a cab?”
There was another long uncomfortable pause, long. Wind blew in the distance, leaves rustled and tumbleweeds did that tumbleweed thing, and all to the sounds of eastern European breathing. The thought then occurred to the voice. Maybe they had a very shy cabbie on their hands?
“Um, hello?” I asked.
“Yes…” said the voice.
“We are still here, sitting outside the coffee shop and would still appreciate a ride. Any idea when or if that will happen?
“He has left on another call to the airport right now, twenty minutes.” said the voice in a way that I felt as though suddenly it was I that was inconveniencing them.
“Terrific then. We will meet him outside by the rock wall.”
I stood watching the scrolling digital instructions on the payphone and replaced the receiver. Mike’s reaction was about what I had expected but we had little choice but to sit back and wait. Twenty minutes grew, by no surprise into yet another twenty and another coffee and the coldness of the morning was now eating away at our patience. It was Mike’s turn to call the cab, but as he got up to do so a mini-van rounded the corner, Tofino Taxi at your service! He silently spun the van around once we were inside and silently, so odd to have a mute cabbie. He must have been conserving his voice and he took us back to the beach house in a mere five minutes.
The instant we caught sight of the sand and surf and lovely grey/green ocean that would be our home for the rest of the week our moods returned to the first of the morning. “So, what took so long?”
“Shut up! Here’s your coffees, they are cold, sorry!” I said and looked to the pile of debris that somehow must all be crammed into the confines of my kayak’s hatches.
“Couldn’t get a cab,” said Mike, who now gave his own pile a similar questioning look.
I have told this story many times in the years since and by the response I find that I was not the only person to see the tragic side-effects of driving a cab, that being the sudden loss of voice. Now, I do not want to play the blame game here as it is not my way and I put my intolerance for the cab company as just part of my usual paddle-day jitters and the lingering head aches of my own doing. It really was as much my fault as theirs. You see we who call small town cabs should just relax, lean back and wait our turn and roll with the local customs and eccentricities. We should have made ourselves more visible, stand out, stand on our heads or perhaps just wore signs saying, OVER HERE!
In the end, if blame must be mine and I take full responsibility for thinking that a plan was simple. A plan is never simple, not matter how simple.
You may have noticed a lack of kayak rogue posts of late, but don’t think for a second my paddling friends that I have not been writing, or paddling. I have been doing both although the paddling has been reduced to small windows of usable non-winter in springtime conditions which have been far and few between. Typing at my desk has been warmer, drier and for the most part successful. The projects on the page are not about kayaking, but my kayaking lifestyle would not have happened and we would not be here reading my posts about paddling if not for the decision to move the family from the burbs to a small island back in the mid-1970’s.
For about a year now I have been contemplating a project where I sit down and pull forward memories that are nearly 39-years-old to create a collection of stories and essays about growing up on that island. With time now to actually write, I have begun and it has been a trip so far. A trip down memory lane, to both good and bad of a childhood living in and around nature with oft-times little on the table, but as a kid it was a grand adventure filled with freedom to explore from dawn to after dark. It was a kidhood of fishing on docks with friends, riding bikes in the woods and making mischief on the beach walk home from school each day. It was a kidhood surrounded by rougher characters than you might find on Salt Spring Island these days. Tourism destination was not yet in the local vocabulary and everyone knew what you were doing, even before you did it. Salt Spring Island in the 70’s as to a certain extent remains today is a small town surrounded by water and inhabited by people who could not or would not make it on the outside. It is my home.
That being said and the initial dozen posts posted I invite you all to take a visit to Growing Up SaltSpring on WordPress and take a ride into the past to an island where the diverse gang of hippies, loggers, fisher folk, freedom seekers, pot growers, candle makers, potters, rough types and retirees all rubbed elbows.
It is the middle of March and the fatigue has set in and there are little reserves. The rainy season that begins when the taps open in October and pour steadily until at least April is nearly at a close, but not without a last-minute blast of winter. Weird rain that we never see out here on the wet coast, they called it snow. Is that right, is that the right word? It did that for three days straight and put my little island and the inhabitants thereof into a right tizzy brought about by power outages causing the inability to live normal lives and make coffee. Then, just as it began to melt, it snowed one more time to rub salt in the wound.
Should we complain? Yes, I feel the right to gripe about the weather even though most of this past winter was hardly a burden. Very little rain, the temperatures were mild as could be and only until the last weeks has it been, well, weathery! Ah, yes the fatigue of winter almost completely erased with that first slap in the face of sunshine that packs some warmth with it. I felt that this week so it must be all over. Time to break out the t-shirts and sandals and chill with morning cups on cafe patios while pondering what island to paddle the kayak to that day. Oh, wait the sun has been stopped by a passing cloud. Illusions damaged and time to retire indoors. I saw my shadow, I’m screwed! We are not there yet!
I had a year without kayaking and am feeling the loss from not spending time in my boat. Work and an injury caused the need to hang up the paddle for a season. Needless to say, I am itching to get on the water with my lack of strength and a newly restored and varnished kayak. Any window will do and the other morning, early with only a half cup of coffee fueling me I paddled a short 8K against a minor current on calm waters. Above me and around me I could see why we are not exactly there yet. To the north, where a small but chilly breeze was building was blue skies with snow-capped mountains on Vancouver Island looking mighty inviting as scenery goes. To the south as shown in the photo above, the signs of a new rainy day coming my way. Back to the northerly view, a stream of dark grey clouds blowing at a fast pace like a curtain at the end of a line, pulled over the blue. The fight inside me for the need for springtime was being played out in the skies above. Who will win, Blue or Grey? Only time will tell, and the forecast calls for wind and rain all weekend long so I better enjoy it while it lasts.
In a month, all this whingeing will be but a memory, as will the shock caused by freak snow storms and chilly temperatures, and heavy rains. The sun again hit my face today giving me hope that it will soon be over. The fatigue of winter is still clinging to my fringes, and I am the bear stretching and cranky after a winter cooped up in the cave where I will hibernate for the weekend and wait for the sun predicted to come back early next week. Are we there yet?
The conversation went as follows, “If it is raining tomorrow, we go home. Agreed?”
It was only partly agreed upon to break camp the following morning if the weather that had dogged us with rain for nearly the entirety of our two-week paddling trip to Nookta and Nuchatlitz did not relent. Our foursome had been quarreling about intent and agenda and itinerary for much of the journey but now it was taking hold of our collective spirits. Was it time to call it a day?
Paddling on the west coast of Vancouver Island is a game of weather fronts and dealing with the forecasts of clear skies and sunshine that never come to pass. It is more a mental game than a physical one as on the stormy days one will, if one is smart stay put in came and make the best of things. The coldest winter paddle I did was in the summer on the coast and drowning was less likely in the kayak than it was in camp. It is called the ‘wet coast’ for good reason. If you plan a trip, plan to bring rain gear.
Around the campfire after an adventurous exploring of the cracks, crevasses and what presumed to be called caves on Catala Island we discussed our options. That evening it was warm, dry and pleasant. It had been lovely all that day after the monsoon that had occurred the previous three days finally moved on to drench someone else, someplace else. Our group had regrouped after a brief trial separation to accommodate two differing agendas and when reunited enjoyed a perfect afternoon crossing from the Nuchatlitz group of islands to Catala on emerald-green seas and rolling deep but manageable swells. The skies had cleared as had the mood within our group dynamic. The marine forecast given by Environment Canada was dire. Arguably it was not nasty at all where we were but that was not to last. It was decided that we would break up once more into two groups if the weather deteriorated in the overnight hours. There was talk of hunting for fresh drinking water at a falls nearby as our supplies, rainfall or not it was running low. Two of us would head for home saying it was a good trip, but not worth spending another day in the rain foraging for drinking water off tarps, while the others remained to take their chances for another day or so.
We retired slowly to our tents and knowing that I might be off early got a head start at packing my gear so all that would be left me was my tent and sleeping bag, and of course the stove would have to cool before being packed. I was not going anywhere without at least a cup or two of coffee in the rain if need be. I was ready and good thing too as around 6 am I peaked my head out of the tent to wet my face in a light shower. My friend who would was the impetus for leaving that day was already in his rain gear and shuffling about his tent pulling pegs. We were going! Within an hour we were sliding out kayaks down the shingle beach of pebbles to the water pecked by small ringlets caused by small rain drops. Hardly the downpour of days before, but enough. We waved good byes and set out.
Did we wimp out at the end of a good trip, regardless of crummy weather? Perhaps, but then again we did not endure the storm that would come the day after that hounded our companions all the way up the inlet with hard sideways falling rain, winds and seas to match. Hindsight being what it is, I say that we made a good call to bail early. Perhaps we had run our limit on endurance when it came to being wet hours and hours on end. Still, as my friend slept through the rain storms earlier in the trip and I sat tending a smoky campfire all the while attempting to dry wet driftwood I can’t say it was all that bad. Certainly the warm drizzle that met me in my t-shirt and shorts while enjoying a beer at the back of Rosa Island was not unwelcome. It was a calm day four days before we would leave Catala for good. It was misty in the distance and the barking of sea lions somewhere out there kept me company. The rain on my shoulders and watering down my brew did not change that fact that I was out there in the first place. Rain or shine I was doing something that not many people get to feel and experience. A rainy day spent on the back of some small island that no one knows about. Listening to sea lions and the gurgle of swells rushing up a cleft in the rocks below my pare feet. That my friends is camping on the wet coast at its absolute finest.