A photographic winter medley of cross country skiing at Callaghan Valley just outside of Whistler. A couple of fantastic days of fresh air, piles of snow and exercise to the point of exhaustion. We skied as much as we could, ate a sandwich by a warming fire pit next to a red double-decker bus that will (hopefully) soon become a hip cafe, then skied some more. An apres-ski combo of a hot bath, good food and wine never felt, or tasted, better!
I’ve been awol recently; work, holidays and life in general has got in the way of writing a post or two. And I’ve been waiting to get up into the local mountains to either cross country ski or snowshoe, but it’s been either a blizzard or raining, and on the odd amazing day of fresh powder and blue skies I’ve been at work. Never mind, it’ll come around.
In the meantime I’ve started a ‘back to basics’ art class, just to get the momentum going again. Good to be restricted to graphite pencil and line drawings, I’m so used to coloured pencils and blending endlessly that I’d pretty much forgotten how to wield a good ‘ol regular pencil. For two hours I got lost in drawing, and it felt really good.
From an autumnal drawing of acorns to an overnight ferry ride to see our good friend in Victoria – on the most perfect of days, the light low, sun skipping off the water back up to the sky …..
…to a drawing of rosehips intended for a winter greeting card. It’s been quite a busy couple of months. And all whilst contending with a back that has nerves jumping and skipping (possibly a bulging disc/sciatica issue, probably from pushing too much on the bike) until I can’t sit still anymore and have to go for a walk.
Amidst scaling back temporarily on activity (which has me looking with frustrated yearning at my mountain bike), I managed to fit in a trip to the UK to see my mum with my sister. Work was mad before and after the trip and it was, as always, too short a visit; but lots of walks in Welsh woods and along a sublime coastline with family fed my soul. Sometimes you just have to slow down, a little bit.
The dusk descended quite quickly, it was after all already Labour Day when we booted it out to the Okanagan for two nights camping. As the sun dipped low, the trees became silhouetted on the ridges of the nearby hills. We stood up from our chairs under the expansive walnut tree, where the sun had only a short time before filtered through the canopy of leaves overhead, to watch the darkening sky.
The sound of intermittent honks drifted across to us and we spotted long V formations of Sandhill Cranes emerge from the valley below. The migrating birds rose higher into the sky, headed south for the winter along their usual route over the White Lake area. As we watched, a murmuration of starlings, their chattering almost drowning out the honks and bugles of the cranes, flew as one from the nearby electricity pylons, to the riparian marsh down the hill and up again to a single tree, turning it’s spikey outline into a fluttering mass of wings, like so many waving handkerchiefs.
It’s amazing how much wildlife can thrive when given some space to do so. And how nourishing it is to just sit under a tree and listen and watch events unfold. We had a tent set up in a nearby campground but were visiting our friend who lived on a slight rise overlooking a small valley, and we sipped beer and wine as we caught up on news whilst a slight breeze rustled around us.
Hot during the day (a last blast of summer!) and still warm at night, we drove back after the sun had set to our campground. The chorus of crickets didn’t diminish until the early hours and sometime during the night I heard some howling and yipping – coyotes? – and what I think was probably a screech owl, and the nighthawks calling. It was the clear night I’d been looking for; out of the corner of my eye I saw two meteors and gazed at the hazy light of the Milky Way. Full of stars we finally crawled into the cosiness of our tiny tent, burrowing deep into the sleeping bags.
We woke to the curious ‘Chi-ca-go’ early morning call of the California Quail that bobbed and weaved through the campground, occasionally plumping down for a quick dust bath, and noted some small dusty footprints on the car windshield. Apparently some racoons had been playing around during the night. We sipped coffee and wandered over to the river behind our site and watched the whirl and eddies of water along the riverbank.
It was too hot to ride, so we wandered off on a slow-paced exploration of Mount Kobau, part of the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected area, scoping it out for future mountain bike rides. We startled a large, glossy black bear that disappeared abruptly down a steep treed embankment with barely a rustle of leaves. Later, we swam in Skaha Lake, picking up a few odd pieces of garbage that we deposited in the garbage can, and from the campground in the afternoon watched as ominous clouds gathered over the hills. The promise of a change in the weather was fulfilled that night as great cracks of thunder sounded above us and flashes of lightning pierced the thin fabric of the tent, so bright that it seemed as if a torch was pointed straight at our eyes. Rain pounded down, and still the crickets chirped on.
We emerged from the tent the next morning to a freshly rinsed sky and tangy air, shafts of sunlight playing across the river where clouds of winged insects hovered just above the surface. Sipping on the last of our camp coffee (the best kind of java), we lingered as long as possible before packing up and heading home, stopping briefly by Mahoney Lake to walk in the woods and breathe in the pine-scented air, completing a short but full break from the city; a couple of days where nothing and everything happened.
Instead of embarking on a drawing that I’m already planning to turn into a greeting card or postcard, I wanted to take some pressure off and just play with colour and shading. It was a good reminder to keep the drawing light-hearted and less stressful. It’s a looser feel, and always easier to draw when relaxed. And it’s so important to keep practicing and learning.
Mid-July rain pattering against the window, I pick up a pencil and apply myself to the latest drawing. Botanical illustration is something I love and pursue in the spare time I can carve out from work. My legs feel restless however and I realize I’m missing the spin and whirr of pedals, the hum and clatter of wheels and the days where we rode for hours, finally stopping for the day and a hearty meal before passing out and getting up to do it all over again. Not having to think much beyond that was a genuine detox from work, screens of various kinds, information overload in general.
We’d promised ourselves a relatively local cycle tour. Door to door, on the bikes with no transportation other than a couple of ferry rides. We chose to ride the Trans Canada Trail on Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Victoria via Lake Cowichan, then back to Vancouver with a side trip to Saltspring Island, roughly 400kms in a little over a week, including several rest/chilling out days.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on a bike. A 75km day on mostly gravel trails is probably equivalent to about 100kms day on tarmac. I developed my first ever saddle sore from hours bouncing around on rough, choppy portions of the trail. Apart from a couple of nights booked in an Airbnb, we camped the rest of the time and in taking all that we deemed necessary – tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, cooking gear, some basic food, copious snacks, clothing for variable weather conditions – we managed to weigh our bikes down an exorbitant amount. In the end we used everything so I felt justified in our choices, if amazed that I could even steer the unwieldy, bucking piece of metal that my bike had become.
We got lost on the first day on a deserted ridgeline outside of Nanaimo. Abysmal signage – an issue confirmed by other tourists and residents – had led us astray. And hours later, near the end of the day, we found ourselves riding the shoulder on the busy, fast, noisy highway. We finally staggered up a brutally steep hill (a theme that was to recur) to our first overnight stop in Ladysmith as the sun began to sink. I wouldn’t choose to ride from Nanaimo again unless the route was improved, but I’d visit Ladysmith again without hesitation; a delightful small town, unspoilt, quiet, stuffed with rose-filled gardens, a pub devotedly English in style and a bakery packed with locals queueing for pastries, birthday cakes and rustic loaves.
We fared better on the Cowichan Valley portion of the trail. It’s (mostly) well signed, and obvious, albeit with long, sometimes confusing connecting stretches on roads. A gravel trail generally follows former rail lines, a new kind of riding for me on a regular touring bike with smooth tires. A gradual upward gradient toward Lake Cowichan and the resistance of gravel meant slower speeds, hunkering down to hours of doggedly turning the legs, the sound of our heavy breathing accompanied by the percussive clink and ping, rattle and clatter of loose stones bouncing off our wheel rims. The scent of fir, spruce and cedar emanated from dense stands of trees that hemmed us in on each side of the trail, breaking rank only occasionally to reveal meadow, freshwater marsh and hillside.
The subtle downhill slope from Lake Cowichan the following day was our reward for the previous days grind up, gravel, rock and stone giving way to smooth earth at times. A spike of adrenaline spurred on our legs when we heard the trail was favoured by the local bear population, and that Lake Cowichan had experienced an increase in human/mountain lion conflicts as logging invaded yet more of their territory. With many kilometres to cover before we reached Goldstream Campground for the night we stopped only to admire the view from the several bridges we crossed –including the spectacular Kinsol Trestle Bridge – spanning deep gorges the oxide green river water flowed through.
The joy of moving from one kilometre to another under our own steam, reeling in forest, valleys and mountainsides, couldn’t even be dented by the heinous gradients we encountered at the Malahat Connector in the Malahat Nation or the Sooke Hills Wilderness trail. But as my front wheel skittered sideways on loose shale yet again whilst I pushed my bike up another 20% hill, I wondered why I was doing this to myself. For hours. And hours. Tired, hot, as I planted one foot in front of the other, the answer wasn’t completely available to me then of course. It’s always only later that I fully appreciate the experience.
In the simplest terms, it’s because I’ve been on an adventure, and my legs are ready for another.
Lately, I’ve been working on a drawing of a hollyhock flower. I loved learning how I could keep the delicacy of the flower petals intact (lots of patient layering of colour), and for the first time used masking fluid to make sure I kept the white areas free of colour as I drew. Messy at first but ultimately it seemed to work. I also learned that hollyhocks not only are good providers of nectar for pollinators, but also offer up a much needed start to the life of the butterfly, providing a home and food to the caterpillars.
And I had to include a very good short film in this very short post.
Slumping over the handlebars, I stopped to regain my breath before I began to ride into Dead End Loop. Tiny white and black butterflies flitted across my vision (cabbage white?) and as my eyes focused on the air before me, I noticed small mists of winged insects drifting around. I took it as a good sign, with the deep concern surrounding declining insect populations (and the efforts made to reverse that trend in surprising areas) it was good to observe such obvious signs of life. Perhaps the recent rains had helped after an overly dry start to the spring.
We were back up in Squamish, and after the first foray of the year a couple of weeks previously when the vegetation was shockingly parched and sparse, it was a relief to see the familiar fresh, verdant green appearing; as well as a few salmonberry flowers.
We pushed ourselves; three hours of riding the trails in Squamish that included the notorious Bypass trail – basically a short but mean slog up a hillside that I usually have to stop on at least once. For whatever fortuitous reason – more rest, stronger legs that day – I managed to thread my way up the trail after a fun, fast bounce around the root strewn Dead End Loop. Topping up my iron levels too over the last year or so has helped too, I hadn’t realized I was low despite the tell-tale signs of lightheadedness and sheer tiredness on rides (no matter how much I ate) until on a whim I had it tested. Gotta love those iron supplements!
The temperature was perfect, just warm enough to ride without a jacket; the sun chased by a very few clouds. A lucky day before the rain and cloud moved back in the very next morning.
We doggedly turned the pedals; eyes streaming, glasses fogged up, snotty noses cold and damp. My feet had long since gone numb and I noticed Scott slapping his frozen hands against his legs in a vain attempt to get some feeling back into them.
No, it wasn’t an epic trip along some ice-covered road in a distant Nordic country, just riding back to the ferry after visiting a friend overnight in Victoria on Vancouver Island earlier in March. The weather had changed overnight from cold and sunny, to frigid and sleeting. It felt in equal measures foul and fun (in a masochistic way, natch). We were dressed for the cold but not the wet, a point underlined as we disembarked on the mainland and booted it along the causeway to where we’d stealth-parked the car. Riding in full-on snow at this point as we sloshed through thick pools of water and slush, terrified yelps escaping my frozen lips as yet another truck barrelled past in the unofficial race off the ferry. My eyes were still noticeably swollen at work the next day, the after-effects of the wind and sleet that had somehow worked its way under, over and around my glasses.
Now that it’s finally warming up – cherry blossom bursting impatiently forth, a dusting of green on trees as leaves begin to unfurl – the first foray into mountain biking of the season has meant upending our tiny apartment as we dig out our bikes from a jammed closet. Three grinds up a gravelled road, and three runs down a bermy, easy run and we started to feel our bodies loosen up after far too long a break.
So March has been characterized by sporadic rides, lots of reading (Ashlee Pipers’s Give a Shit: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet has caught my attention for the last little while – plentiful ideas for upcycling, recycling, reusing – and I ploughed through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which frankly drove me a bit nuts with all the ‘thees and ‘thous’. I couldn’t put it down, but I have to admit I much prefer his essays from A Moveable Feast), and fitting in more drawing around work. Lately I’ve been working on some strawberries:
And I learnt a bit more about my backyard in British Columbia in This Mountain Life; both the staggeringly beautiful scenery this area contains, and the unique people who explore it, it’s well worth checking out.
I gave Grue his weekly feed today.
Grue is a bubbling, fruity or acidic or bready smelling (depending on the time of day and mood), occasionally slightly slimy surfaced sourdough starter. I haven’t had the courage yet to turn this brooding, alive, fridge-living monster into bread. I’ve just been feeding the little tyke once a week and sticking him back into cold storage until I a) get a digital scale, essential for accurate measurements of flour, starter etc etc. and b) have figured out how to transform the grommet into something we can eat. There’s a plethora of information on nurturing your starter and how to make bread, I just need to find enough time to study it as it does seem to require in-depth observation and dedication. I’m not adverse to the investment in educational time, quite the opposite, but I want to do justice to Grue and his tenacious will to live by being at least moderately informed when I begin the alchemical and essence-of-life process of baking bread.
In other news I just swallowed an advil with a great gob of red wine, which I’m sure is verboten but it was the liquid I happened to have in my hand as I reached for a painkiller. I was bent over double with a sudden and excruciating stab of sciatic nerve pain so severe that I felt like I might throw up. The advil and a quick hot bath seemed to do the trick. I had gone for a run yesterday and decided that to shake things up a bit I might try sprinting every other block. A few times doing that and I was soaked in sweat and felt great. I was also stiff as a board later and spent the rest of the day sitting on my backside drawing. Cue sciatic purgatory.
The drawing has been coming along though. Sometimes I feel horribly slow but I grab what time I can and am gradually building up a stock of images, some of which I’ve started to make into greeting cards. It’s deeply satisfying and at some point I will start to sell the cards online.
And after a very delayed start, we’re finally seeing a decent dump of snow here on the west coast. Essential for a healthy snow pack during the summer months of course but also great for snow sports. A few days ago I was out cross-country skiing. Just so beautiful and so good to be out in the sparkling, squeaky snow. The (mostly) blue sky was a lovely bonus.
Hope everyone’s week is going well!