You have to hand it to us: Jan and I are masters of good timing. Two or three weeks ago, as one sunny day relentlessly followed another, and lawns grew ever drier and browner, we planned a departure from Vancouver Island for the first time in many months. No, not to Europe or even some distant reach of our home and native land. No, we limited ambition to something in the order of 26 kilometres, the distance between the BC Ferries terminal at Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island and its lesser sibling at Sturdies Bay on Galiano Island.
Galiano is among our favourite of British Columbia's highly attractive southern Gulf Islands, rivaled in our affections only by Saturna and Hornby. We looked forward to vigourous hikes to Bodega Ridge and Mount Galiano, both of them destinations we know well but never weary of. The little trip was meant in part to celebrate Jan's latest birthday which I shall be sufficiently discrete not to name.
Then the fates threw a spanner into our best-laid plan: much of the American west coast, and a little bit of Canada's too, caught fire. In the leadup to our October 14 departure for Galiano, a pall of thick wildfire smoke fell upon our town. In September fine weather normally enables Islanders to see clear across Juan de Fuca Strait, to the Olympic Mountains of Washington state, the highest peaks snow-capped even in late summer. Now, with wildfires raging in California, Oregon and Washington, the sun turned into a dim orange ball, visibility fell to perhaps a quarter mile, and air quality in Vancouver and Victoria reached a nadir: as bad or worse than any city in the world. Health authorities recommended that we all refrain from strenuous activity, perhaps even stay inside after sealing up windows and doors. We went to Galiano anyway.
Though a change in perspective and expectation proved necessary we managed to find plenty to see as long as we remembered to keep the focus close. Near the Sturdies Bay ferry terminal, at Bellhouse Park, remarkable sandstone geology provides plenty to contemplate. A gang of purple sea stars also caught our eye at Bellhouse. The big 'starfish' plays a neat trick: after forcing a clam or mussel to give up a tiny opening, the star is able to displace its stomach inside the bivalve shell and digest the body of its prey at one remove.
With ambitious hikes ruled out, we even managed to score a couple of 'lifers': visits to places we'd never seen before. At Matthews Point we watched the big BC ferries traverse Active Pass —and managed to move fast enough to stay out of harm's way when a ferry's surprisingly big 'wash' rolled into shore. Birds are a reliable attraction as long as visibility is a little better than a hundred feet: a heron fishing from a drifting log, a kingfisher rattling its objections to our intrusion into its neighbourhood.
Morning Beach provided another lifer. There we had more unusual geology to admire, and birds too. As we sat ogling the seals and sea lions lolling on Lion Islets, a pair of red crossbills dropped into the scrubby yew right beside us and allowed me to take a portfolio of pictures. A young crow noisily pestered its mother for yet another feed. A gull turned the tables on a purple star, trying its damndest to ingest one that must have been six inches across.If the land of the living grows a little tedious, there is always the domain of the dead. Not everyone shares my view that there is no such thing as a boring cemetery. Galiano's is especially fascinating. An excellent array of unusual grave decorations rewards the visitor who takes the time and trouble to follow Active Pass Drive as far as one can. The earliest Galiano pioneers—the Georgesons and Bellhouses among them—are gathered here. There are a few conventional-looking grave markers at the Galiano final resting place but the majority are out of the ordinary: a charming sculpture of Uncle Tom Head and his cherished dog, a rusting toy truck marking the grave of an islander who loved to drive his full-sized pickup along Galiano roads, a lovely porcelain rendering of a small child riding an elephant.
Sure, it might have been nice to have the usual sunshine grace our visit to Galiano, but if one takes the time to find the iconic little human riding an elephant, Galiano offers ample reward even when smoky haze reduces visibility to near zero.