Friday, September 18, 2020

A Smokin' Good Time at Galiano

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.

Bluffs Park denied its usual generous vistas across Active Pass to Mayne, Pender and Salt Spring islands but permitted close inspection of conglomerate rock, flowers and spiders. At Montague Harbour we introduced ourselves to tiny purple shore crabs and conducted an inventory of all the bivalves and crustaceans we could distinguish in a single square metre of the intertidal zone—oysters, clams, limpets, barnacles et al.

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.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Ah the Joys of a Big Sit

Now that September is upon us, peregrinations are front of mind, the sort that occur annually at this time of year as birds that have raised broods in Canada—from our region of the country all the way to the faraway Arctic—decide it is time to head to wherever it is they like to make their winter home.

Once upon a time—oh, as long as four decades ago—I was a crazed practitioner of the birding Big Day wherein two or three keeners get together to see how many species they are able to find in  a given window of up to 24 hours. Hereabouts early May is a good time for a Big Day; so is early-mid September. The thing about a Big Day is that it is a very intensive, rushed affair not conducive to relaxation, peace, quiet and tranquility. 

Even as a young buck I was aware of an alternative to the Big Day, namely, the Big Sit, an option that involves no running-around at all, but a nice leisurely settling-in at some well-selected site, preferably in comfortable folding chairs, a lovely picnic lunch at hand, chilled beverages waiting in the cooler, all gathered at a site commanding excellent views over an area likely to be traversed by a variety of birds. Despite its manifest attractions I was never much drawn to the Big Sit when I was a young fellow. That has now changed.

Jan and I decided that a Big Sit was just the thing for a blithesome early September morning. We went to Tower Point which commands an expansive view over Juan de Fuca Strait all the way to the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. Jan decided it was a capital idea, one she bought into with extra fervor when I promised to make my world-renowned pesto sandwiches part of the deal.

We arrived at our destination a little past 8, pleased as usual to be greeted by a soundscape dominated by waves lapping at the rocky shoreline, Garry oaks soughing in a gentle breeze, harbour seals contentedly grunting from the islet just off the point. Human-made noise was happily absent. There were birds to see right off the bat—surfbirds and turnstones foraging for breakfast among the offshore rocks. Legions of gulls gathered too: old-reliable glaucous-winged gulls, even bigger numbers of a lovely gull whose numbers peak at this time of year, a species that for some reason always brings Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to my mind—California gulls.

My better half and I were well equipped for observing birds and recording anything special that might fly into our view plane: two binoculars, spotting scope, two cameras. Off to the west we saw a crowd of gulls—two hundred or more—gathered on a sand bar at the entrance to winsome Witty's Lagoon. I turned the spotting scope to the sandbar, soon gathered that the majority of the gulls were Californias, the sort evoking Brian Wilson. 

Then I spotted something else, on the beach beyond the sandbar: naked women. Once upon a time, back when I was as hardcore a Big Day practitioner as ever was, I might easily have been distracted by women naturists assembled on a beach. It is perhaps a sad marker of how much has changed over the years that I was hardly distracted at all. No, there were birds to identify; I was bound and determined to identify them.

Our principal birding targets were phalaropes and jaegers—seagoing birds that provide the best, albeit rare, viewing possibilities at this time of year. Well, to kill the suspense, no, we saw no phalaropes. We saw no jaegers. We saw container ships pass slowly by, too distant to hear the thrum of the ships' engines. In the distance zodiacs packed with whale-watchers also raced past, everyone on board keen for close encounters with orcas, perhaps even a humpback. We saw no whales.

Onshore just behind us, there were landbirds to hear and see: a towhee here, nuthatch there, a warbler or two, a little gang of bushtits, a flicker. In the result we fell short of the hundred-plus count that might have once been assured in a September Big Day. We listed barely a couple dozen species. Feel no pity. The pesto sandwiches, washed down with herbal tea, were every bit as brilliant as promised. On the way back to the car we filled two containers with blackberries. The berries will provide the filling for the pie we'll share tomorrow evening with Jan's Dad. What could be finer? 

Despite the paucity of phalaropes and jaegers it was a Big Sit to remember. I can hardly wait for the next one.



Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Swimsuits Not Required

In 1722 Daniel Dafoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, published A Journal of the Plague Year, one man's account of the Great Plague of London which killed about a hundred thousand Londoners and others in 1665-66. Wikipedia tells us that Dafoe takes pains to achieve verisimilitude in his plague book, describing specific neighborhoods, streets, and even particular houses in which events took place. I admit to having never read Journal of the Plague Year. Perhaps this would be a good year to remedy that defect.

Our own pandemic of 2020 has turned the planet into a strange, unfamiliar world. But for CV-19 I would be in Cape Breton now, enjoying the woods of Boularderie Island, cataloguing the birds and wildflowers, trying in vain to persuade twin cousins Lynn and Louise to go for a skinny dip in my own private, perfect swimming hole.  But no, I am in BC rather than CB, striving to make the best of altered circumstances.

I find that in at least one way I have become a facsimile of my late, lamented mother. When I was young I never quite understood why dear old Mum put such a high premium on peace and quiet. I no longer wonder why. From the sleeping porch at Big Bras d'Or it is commonplace in the dead of night to hear barred owls and coyotes in conversation from somewhere in the upper reaches of Kelly's Mountain, five kilometres away. We get up in the morning to revel in the chorus of warblers singing from the woods just behind the cabin. At 'Bigador' there is plenty of  peace and quiet. Here in our no-longer-little city it often seems to me that there is none at all, so when Mary and Mike proposed that we join them in a longish hike to Sheilds Lake in the Sooke Hills, Jan and I said yes, please and thank you.

Monday was a glorious day for hiking a less-traveled wilderness route: sunny but not too warm, a gentle breeze producing what might be my favourite sound in nature: the soughing of wind in pines. Not spruces, not firs, not hemlocks produce the same sound. Only pines. On the way to Sheilds—no, that is not a misspelling, the lake is Sheilds, not Shields—there was plenty of p & q to value. In mid-August songbirds have mostly done their procreative duty and fallen silent: the woods are no longer alive with their urgent song, but we did hear a vocalizing pygmy owl and counted ourselves lucky.

August is not prime time for wildflowers either but a rattlesnake plantain here, king gentian or rein-orchid there provided sufficient opportunity to pause to take a picture and a legitimate excuse to catch my breath.

Our friends treated us to a 'lifer': a new-to-us, rough, untraveled route across a height of land to our target lake. Sheilds is sufficiently removed from any madding crowd that we had a reasonable prospect of having it to ourselves. And indeed we did. Sheilds was another 'lifer: a lovely good-sized lake festooned here and there with pink water lilies. Apart from a calling raven here, a sapsucker there, we were alone.

I am someone who tends to feel that getting dressed to go for a swim is just about as logical as doing so to take a bath or have a shower. If I have to swim with a cast of strangers, in a bathing suit, I typically conclude it is not worth the trouble. At Sheilds there were no strangers, no need for bathing suits. Like-minded friends are one of life's true treasures: all together we went for a lovely swim in the altogether. It was sublime.

Now I freely admit that deeply into my eighth decade I am no longer anything but an eyesore to anyone who might have been peeking from the woods but if friends are both like-minded and forgiving of deeply wrinkled, saggy skin, an old fellow is doubly blessed.

After relaxing swim and restorative lunch it might have been a downer to tear ourselves away from Sheilds but there was consolation: another lake on the way back, another swim for those needing a second cooldown.

None of us were in any hurry to get the day over with so by the time we'd tramped 14 km, climbed 430 metres or thereabouts, subjected our feet to 31,107 steps, nine hours had somehow slipped past. By then I was ready to call it a day. Wrinkles and sags notwithstanding I'm grateful I can still do such a thing.