Dorset Idyll. A Trip to Thomas Hardy’s Cottage

‘The sky was clear – remarkably clear – and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse’ – Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
A Dorset Idyll. Thomas Hardy's Cottage

Hardy’s Cottage. View from the garden

Tears welled up a little as I leant over the pretty green gate at the side of Thomas Hardy’s cottage. I was actually here, standing where once he must have at some point in his life, looking out from the garden in front of his house to the lane that ran alongside.

Yup, geeking out on Thomas Hardy. If pressed I might also have to admit to Hardy being my favourite author. I may even have reread Under the Greenwood Tree recently and Far From the Madding Crowd for the first time (how did I miss that before?). I’m planning to revisit The Mayor of Casterbridge and at some point tackle his poetry, although I have to admit I’m more of a prose fan than a poetry fan. Don’t judge me.

My emotion leaning over the gate of course may also have had something to do with the fact that it had been a long, hot day – we were still riding in the midst of an unusual heat wave in England – and just standing in the garden of the house where Hardy was born, grew up and wrote some of his most famous work – Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd for instance – felt like a wonderful reward for our efforts.

Sunny day at Thomas Hardy's cottage

Idyllic summer day at Hardy’s cottage

Concerned by the oppressiveness of the heat and the fact everywhere we rode took far longer than we expected, English hills being a wildcard factor an’ all, we had got up early in West Sussex to ride to the train station a couple of hours away; we planned to travel via train to Dorset, so cutting out a big chunk of riding via busy Southampton and Bournemouth, saving our limited time for exploring more of the county Hardy called Wessex in his novels.

We arrived at the small, neat train station of Dorchester and struck out into the city itself; it’s of a manageable size whilst still feeling bustling and vibrant. What I saw of it as we passed through I liked, a lot. As ever it still took a while for us to find and pick up the Sustrans cycling route but we eventually stumbled across it and navigated country lanes to Higher Bockhampton and the cob and thatch cottage.

Roses over front door of Hardy's cottage

Roses over front door

Before we even attempted to explore we recouped with tea, sickly sweet coffee cake and cold cider outside the National Trust reception and tea room (Hardy’s cottage, like many historical sites, is managed by the NT) sheltering from the sun under nearby trees. It was all very English and a bit of a stomach churning mix of food and drink, but when you’ve been sweltering on bikes you’ll vacuum up just about anything.

Once again, as was becoming the norm on this trip, I had to fend off the overtures by  National Trust staff to buy yearly memberships. Their persistence was dogged but a small price to pay for their unfailing courteousness and helpfulness. We wheeled our bikes up the gravelled lane towards the cottage and were allowed to shovel our bikes, panniers and helmets along the side of a small kiosk at the entrance to the gardens where a staffer kindly volunteered to watch over our gear.

Map of Hardy's Wessex

Hardy’s Wessex

A flower-lined path led to the rose festooned front door of the cottage. Inside we bowed under low door frames into sparsely furnished small rooms that still smelt of smoke from many, many years of wood fires. An almost impossibly narrow stairway led up to the bedroom where Hardy wrote. Reproductions of his maps and writing artifacts are carefully placed throughout (the originals are on view in the Dorset Museum in Dorchester). It all effectively conjured up the life of rural simplicity that  Hardy loved and was reflected in his writing, even in his darkest novels.

The bedroom where Thomas Hardy wrote

Thomas Hardy’s bedroom

We emerged to wander the forested grounds, ponds and surrounding heathland, all inspiration for his work. It’s nice to know that from humble beginnings Hardy enjoyed success in his lifetime ultimately moving into the home he designed and had built, Max Gate, just outside of Dorchester.

view into garden from front door of Thomas Hardy's cottage

View from front door of Thomas Hardy’s cottage

We finally tore ourselves away from this idyll, retrieving our bikes and setting out for another hour or so of riding surrounded by sun-drenched countryside. In the evening, as the day cooled, we wandered down to a gate in the garden of the latest B&B and gazed across a heritage orchard as the light dipped. I was in Hardy country, I couldn’t have asked for much more.

Looking across an orchard in Dorset

Gate to orchard, Dorset

‘To dwellers in a wood almost every tree has its voice as well as its feature’ – Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy.

 

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The Green Fields of England

Don’t be fooled. You may think of England’s hills as ‘green and pleasant’ – and they are – but they are also incredibly, and often quite suddenly, steep. They seem even steeper when you’re toiling up them on a touring bike loaded down with far-too-heavy panniers.

I’ve found my limit is a 17% incline, the point at which I can’t push the pedal around just one more time. My speed drops to around 4kms and then that’s it, I’m off the bike and walking, slumping over the handlebars in defeat as I toil up the hill. In Dorset even the local cows were wondering what the heck we were doing as we trudged up a road towards them.

Dorset Cows

Curious Cows

We were nearing the end of an roughly eight hour day, blood sugar crashing as we wolfed down Clif shot bloks, water and chocolate digestives. I didn’t think I had much left in me until I looked up and saw two faces peeking above a hedgerow as if to say ‘what you guys doin’? I started laughing instead of crying, which is what I’d wanted to do a minute before.

Small Blue Planet Post Bike Routes

Sustrans route signs

We cycle toured for just over two weeks often using  Sustrans routes from roughly the South Downs to Dartmoor with a couple of hops on the train, bypassing busy cities to save time. I’ll write in more detail about our trip later but for now the photos give an idea of some of the gorgeous countryside we passed through.

Small Blue Planet Post Distant Hills

Distant hills

Small Blue Planet Post Country Lane

Classic English countryside, with a local hiker.

We landed in England at the beginning of an unusual 30c heatwave and spent the next five days negotiating hills and patches of melting, freshly laid tarmac that stuck to our wheels or was thrown into our faces by passing cars.

Small Blue Planet Post Dorset Roads

Dorset roads. Patches of newly laid tarmac were melting

Small Blue Planet Post Pub Sign

Pubs quenched our thirst of course.

In Devon we were met with cooler temperatures…..

Small Blue Planet Post Devon Lanes

Devon lanes

and sustenance in the form of clotted cream teas….

Small Blue Planet Post Cream Teas

Devon cream tea

What more could you ask for?

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Fields of Lavender

‘To make a perfume, take some rose water and wash your hands in it, then take a lavender flower and rub it with your palms, and you will achieve the desired effect.’Leonardo da Vinci

Lavender rows, photo by Scott

…..or if you want to just inhale the gorgeous scent of lavender rub some of the flowers between your palms then inhale through your nose and breathe out of your mouth. That way you’ll not only smell it but taste it. It’s subtle, and delicious.

We’ve visited Sacred Mountain Lavender farm on Salt Spring Island, one of the Gulf Islands in the Georgia Strait, several times over the last couple of years but this is the first time we’ve actually managed to catch the flowers in full bloom. It was a baking hot day; we smelt the lavender before the turnoff for the organic farm after a sweaty bike ride up a steep and curving road.

Lavender Fields

Lavender in full bloom

The fields were fairly buzzing with bees as we wandered around the lower and higher fields, comparing the differing types of lavender.

Norfolk variety

I asked if we could have a look inside the drying room; Sacred Lavender creates its own products, including lavender oils, soaps, teas and ice creams.

Drying lavender

It was an idyllic way to spend an afternoon, wandering amongst flowers, birds and bees, eating lavender chocolate and ice cream bought from the farm store.

photo by Scott

‘The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration’Claude Monet

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Floods and Winds

A duck and her brood. The bucolic scene belies the flooding and windstorms we ran into when we went camping for a couple of days.

Unable to get away for the Victoria Day holiday weekend in BC, we chose to stay in town until the Monday and take off against the returning traffic for a couple of nights (we have weird work schedules) to camp in the Okanagan. The never-ending watery spring weather, more like winter really, had finally broken and as we headed east the temperature rose exponentially until it hit around 30c. We rolled into our favourite campground, mostly emptied out after the departure of the holiday crowd – if you can ever get away on days when everyone else is working it’s worth it. Lambasted by the unexpected heat we arrived to unexpectedly find half of the campsites sodden, several were even underwater.

Underwater campsites

Brackish water puddled at one end of the campground; a couple of ducks floated across the surface. The base of trees were submerged, their roots soaking in groundwater that had inched up over the last couple of weeks as snowmelt from nearby mountains and hills funneled down into Okanagan Lake and flowed down the Okanagan River, raising water levels throughout the valley. We could see and hear the cresting waves of the river as it flowed past the campground with a kind of dulled roar in contrast to the usual gentle gurgling we were attuned to. Stretching our car-cramped legs on a short walk along the riverbank we were surprised to see a duck and her brood brave the flood; the attentive mother had managed to find a quiet eddy for her offspring.

A mite worried we chatted to the camp host, who agreed it could get worse as the heat added yet more of the incredible snowpack we’ve had this year to the massive volume of water. ‘If you hear a screech horn in the middle of the night, get out!’ were her reassuring words. They’d had to use it late last summer but for different reasons. Smelling smoke one night she’d realized it wasn’t from a campfire and raised the alarm. The side of the mountain behind the campground was ablaze. By the time she’d got everyone out she was driving through flames on the road at the base of the hill. The campground wasn’t touched, nor was the property of friends of ours who live on the other side of the mountain, although they were worriedly watching the wind. For no particular reason that they could fathom the fire spontaneously died. The hillside is lush and green again with little evidence of the conflagration. It’s an extreme but resilient area of the country.

We lounged around for the rest of that day and the next, unable to move much in the heat let alone go for bike rides. Perhaps that’s exactly what we needed, time to slow down, read, drink coffee (which always seems to taste the best when camping). Night reminded us it was still spring as the temperature suddenly dipped, easy to sleep in. The soaking grass surrounding our site was an indicator that there wouldn’t be a campfire ban for a while yet. Our friends dropped by on our first night in the campground and we shared some pasta and wine. P, as we’ll call him, had just got back from some paragliding. We’d spotted the blue and white wing of a paraglider as we drove to our destination and wondered if it was him. ‘That’ll have been B!’ said P. Everyone knows everyone here.

We visited our friends at their home the next evening, retreating inside from the patio as a howling wind suddenly picked up and roiled around the house. P was worried about us: ‘You know there’s a storm coming in, seriously, think about staying with us, there’s going to be strong winds later tonight and there’s big trees in the campground’ (this from a man who once stuck his hand inside a large open wound, sustained on a work site, to staunch the flow of blood and after he was thoroughly stitched up went waterskiing later that same day. He doesn’t get rattled easily is what I’m saying).

I was a bit worried too, we were in a flimsy tent with large trees looming over us, their roots weakened by the water that had been soaking them for days now. The wind had been gusting all day, blowing great clouds of pollen across us; a greenish yellowish dusty film covered the car, tent, camp chairs and cooking gear. Driving back in the pitch dark from the house to the campground the wind died and we thought that just maybe we’d missed the worst of it. The headlights picked out the aftermath of the recent event – branches, twigs, and fir cones lay scattered across the road in patches where powerful gusts had swept through.

Before we retreated into the tent that night we parked the car nearby (I was thinking it might take the brunt of the one tree that we might be in danger from if a northerly picked up again, but I’m not sure it would’ve helped!) and stared up at a perfectly calm, star-filled sky. We finally clambered into our temporary home and like the evening before were lulled to sleep by the sound of cascading water, frogs and the unidentifiable sounds of anonymous night critters.

It was somewhere around midnight or so that we both started awake to an unimaginably loud roar of wind that rolled down the valley and with monstrous force blew through the campground, buffeting the tent full on. I’ve never heard anything like it. Every now and again a momentary ebb in the force of the wind would be followed by a great whoomph. It went on like that for a full two hours or so. Scott and I burrowed down further into our sleeping bags, but for some reason, and very unlike my usual self, I didn’t panic. Perhaps because Scott was alert but calm – if he starts to get stressed I know things are serious. The trees were buffeted relentlessly but I didn’t hear any major creaking, or sudden cracking of tree limbs, the tent fly didn’t take off. I honestly don’t know why not. Whatever the reason, when the wind finally dropped off we fell asleep again pretty quickly to the sound of rain smattering on the tent.

Emerging the next day we found plenty of small twigs and branches that had been ripped from the trees lying around, but no major damage until we drove out on our way home. A single, dried out and not very big tree lay across part of the road. We were lucky, some areas of the valley experienced some real damage. It was all a bit wild and exciting……living in a generally temperate region you can forget all too quickly how forceful nature can be.

We briefly stopped once more to assist a painted turtle valiantly attempting to cross the road, her shell covered in pollen – a gentle reminder of the storm we were all caught out in.

A lone casualty of the storm

 

Great Bear Rainforest

I was ecstatic when I received an email in my inbox from Kickstarter with the latest news from the National Observer on their project ‘State of the Animal’. Their plan to head into the Great Bear Rainforest and report in-depth on the impacts of global warming, trophy hunting and fracking on the wildlife that inhabits this stunning coastal wilderness will go ahead as they raised the necessary funds. Yay! Really looking forward to their eventual and detailed articles. Here are the facebook posts in case you missed this fantastic undertaking. And check out their short film (just click on the photo or Kickstarter link), it’s worth it.

 

Once Upon A Time…In New Zealand

Routeburn Track

Routeburn Track

……I spent a month or so packing kiwi fruit and another month hiking a few of New Zealand’s famously fabulous trails. I had been travelling for the majority of the time by myself in Australia but rejoined my then boyfriend briefly in NZ.

It’s over twenty years ago now (which explains the quality of the photos a bit) that I was in this slender country, long before I moved to Canada. Once here in British Columbia I felt that I recognized aspects of New Zealand in the landscape and coastline of my new home – and of my old home. Something of the coastline and mountain ranges were echoed in BC while the rolling green hills and ubiquitous sheep reminded me a little of England.

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I was rubbish (apparently) at picking out the not-quite-good-enough kiwi fruit from the production line as we packed them in boxes. What I lacked in discernment I made up for in enthusiasm and speed. Instead of being fired I was relegated to marking up the boxes for shipment. I didn’t mind, I was working in the same warehouse as my boyfriend, we were able to pay the rent and buy food and when a month or so was up we left to go hiking on the first multi-day trips I’d ever undertaken.

Those strenuous outings stood me in good stead for living in Canada and all the cycling, snowshoeing and hiking I have done and do here – not just in laying the groundwork for a good fitness base, but also for what not to do. Like not having enough food. To reduce the weight of our gear (sometimes we tented it, if there was room we stayed in one of the trail huts with their excellent wood stoves) we took red lentils, dark rye bread and biscuits. We took or filtered water as we went. That was it. We lost a lot of weight, just not in the right way. And I can’t believe now we didn’t have coffee.

Abel Tasman Track

Abel Tasman Track

Or we failed to pay enough attention to the weather. We hiked the Routeburn and Greenstone Tracks so late in the season that we found ourselves wading through rain-swollen streams and rivers as we traversed a valley floor; water cascaded down the mountainsides. Our boots remained sodden for almost the entire time. As we progressed along our route we noticed fewer and fewer hikers until we were completely alone, everyone else had either turned back or finished their hike already. And the night before we set off on what I think was the Anatoki/Waingaro Ciruit I was so cold thanks to an inadequate sleeping mat that I lay awake shivering uncontrollably until we got up the next morning. Hiking tired isn’t great, I stumbled and sprained my ankle on the first day. Soldiering on we made it to a hut set cosily in a meadow between treed hillsides. It was already inhabited by two fathers and their young sons (we weren’t the only late season hikers) and who thankfully had a roaring fire going. When we woke to a blanketing of snow we decided enough was enough and packed up for the return journey. I still remember looking back as we left the clearing and seeing four faces peering out at us through the window.

Occasionally we badly misjudged our distances. To the point that one long, long day – having decided we could fit two stages of hiking in one – we ended up stumbling down a rocky trail, in the dark (I don’t remember even having a head-lamp) led on by lights from a hut and falling, exhausted, through the door.

We were idiots. But it was a fabulous time, our naivety and ignorance aside. New Zealand is one of the best places, I still think, to hike. The routes are well maintained, the huts handily placed along the way in scenic spots – I recall one right next to a roaring river, the swing bridge conveniently located just moments away – the forests, mountains and ocean outstandingly beautiful. The convivial atmosphere on the trails was lovely and we were met with great kindness by New Zealanders who never failed to help out when they could. The island boasts remarkable birdlife, native fish, lizards and frogs but no bears or mountain lions, poisonous reptiles or vicious insects to think about when you hike.

I think it might be time for a return visit.

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Cape Foulwind, west coast South Island

 

Quadra Island

In early September we drove north on Vancouver Island as far as Campbell River and from there it was a ten minute ferry ride across to Quadra, one of the so-called Discovery Islands that resides along the Inside Passage seaway between Vancouver Island and the mainland and which sits at the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest.

Despite the often unreliable weather reports in this part of the world we’d planned a break for a couple of days, naively trusting the forecast of ‘mostly sun’. Although the latter did pop out now and then from behind banks of clouds as if to say ‘boo!’, surprising us with its warmth and brightness, it was more often a metallic grey sky that accompanied us on our walks during the time we spent away. That grey, and the rain, has its own beauty though.

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The island has a lovely rural feel to it. As we travelled around on the quiet, leaf-strewn roads we spotted small farms, goats and sheep wandering in fields and signs advertising bags of apples. A woman we met walking her dog mentioned she had an overwhelming amount of berries she’d had to freeze following this year’s bumper crop. We also found Quadra unexpectedly mountainous (at least on the north end) with a surprisingly busy forestry industry. A friend told me he remembers being flown in with a group of workers by helicopter to do some tree planting over thirty years ago. For the last twenty years there’s been an inspiring and protracted push to protect the environment and the effort seems to have paid off. The island also has a distinct and prosperous indigenous presence. The We Wai Kai band of the Laichwiltach people (part of the Kwa’ Kwa’ Ka’ Wa’Kw First Nation) largely reside in Cape Mudge, one of three main villages on the island.

We drove through verdant forest thick with trees, moss and ferns, until the road we were on ran out. After parking we walked to the waters edge, chatting with another couple we bumped into who were hoping to spot whales (they never appeared), and gazed across the rain-stippled water at a homestead, it’s back protected by a wall of trees.

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There’s a great hike (one of many on the island) up a lovely area called Chinese Mountains. A few steps off the road into the forest and after that we didn’t meet a soul for the next couple of hours. It was mulchy and damp on the trail, banana slugs strewn around as if they’d been thrown there. We tried to avoid victimizing them with an unthinkable squelching as we picked our way around them, attempting to avoid slipping on a trail that was largely made up of wet, sharp rocks. It was only lunchtime and already the mossy greenness seemed to be getting darker; the rain was moving in but we wanted to get to the top for a view of the Coast Mountains and Vancouver Island.

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Use all four limbs to climb up this part of the trail

Despite the fog and mist obscuring most of the vista the truncated view was worth the effort. We huddled under a tree eating a chocolate bar as the rain started to get heavier. I was antsy and wanted to retreat before it completely poured, I had visions of us barreling down on our backsides in a torrent of water. As it was we had to be careful to pick out the occasionally obscured trail as the misty dampness roiled around us, at one point backing away from a sheer drop we had somehow managed to walk ourselves out to.

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View from the top

Appropriately, now that I think about it, the north end of the island was enveloped in mist, cloud and rain the entire time. It was on the south end that we enjoyed some sun. It made an appearance when we were taking a look at Cape Mudge lighthouse, one of the few accessible by road in Canada. It’s manned too, which is rather cool (although the romantic in me was a bit disappointed to find out the lighthouse keeper – isn’t that a lovely vintage sounding phrase – doesn’t actually live there, but in a building behind the lighthouse). The latter sits on the edge of a sandy beach where we found a comfortable log to lean against and fell asleep for a few minutes in the sudden warmth. Our hopeful whale watching friends had mentioned that they’d heard the whoosh of a blowhole from a whale whilst they had been here. We of course heard seagulls, the plop of waves….. and the distant throb from tugboat engines.

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Cape Mudge lighthouse

Actually it felt as if we were seeing the world in a micro rather than a macro way for our entire stay. On the way back from a lodge after dinner we spotted several deer, of mostly bambi size, and even a tiny frog that leaped heroically away from the glare of the car headlights (we drove very slowly) and at the small but fascinating salmon hatchery we spotted an undulating group of tiny salmon hatchlings sheltering at the shallow end of their nursery pond. Whether it’s small or large wildlife, whether it rains or shines, it really doesn’t matter.

Rebecca Spit

View from Rebecca Spit, east side of Quadra Island

 

Two Cycle Routes in The Okanagan

For four days in June we’d made an escape to one of our favourite campgrounds on the far side of Skaha Lake, across from Penticton in the Okanagan.

sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ  Provincial Park, formerly Okanagan Falls in the town of the same name, is now managed and run by the Osoyoos Indian Band. The name means ‘little falls’, and although the falls themselves for which the park is named no longer exist – in the 1950’s they were blasted to make way for a flood control dam – at night we can hear the rushing water of the Okanagan River by the side of the campground. It’s challenging to describe the allure of this spot, jammed as it is between the river and a road just off the highway. It’s small, it has very limited amenities (certainly no showers), there’s little to no privacy for each site. But its compact size is part of the charm; tucked around the corner of the mountainside as it is, the highway noise is eliminated.  The riparian vegetation encourages birds and bats. As so often happens in campgrounds, despite the open tent sites, there’s an unspoken agreement to  preserve the illusion of privacy. A friendly nod as you walk past sites and then eyes are politely averted.

The weather was mercurial during the week we stayed. Thunder and lightning the first night accompanied by cool rain. Perhaps we hadn’t brought enough warm gear? Then the sun broke with a vengeance, the temperature shot straight up to 30c and suddenly the swim gear and sun umbrella for scrubby Skaha Beach didn’t seem to be out of the question anymore. It also meant we needed to tactically time a couple of bike rides, we both cycle better in slightly cooler temperatures.

Holidays to me don’t mean getting up at six or seven in the morning, even though I was the one harassing us to get moving this time, so thank goodness for coffee. And food, ahhh food! I do love it so (I have to segue here and mention a great little compendium of recipes created and put together in a book I bought called Bike. Camp. Cook by a couple who have bike toured a huge amount, who clearly appreciate good food and who wanted to eat well and nutritiously on their trips. I originally stumbled across their book on Kickstarter but they now feature it on their website Going Slowly. They recommend a cooking set that we purchased and it has made our lives so much easier. I’ve followed their recipes for french toast, mango/avocado salsa, baked bananas, feta cheese and zucchini fritters, all so good. I photocopied the recipes I wanted to use, a useful way to save weight).

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Mango and avocado salsa, I added tomatoes.

Fortified by caffeine and french toast we struck off for what was actually a short (one hour) ride, but a pretty one. At the far end of Okanagan Falls we turned onto McLean Creek Road, a popular local cycling circuit. It wound up a couple of steep turns then levelled out into a gently winding route past farms and well tended, prosperous looking ranches before dropping down to the east side of Skaha Lake and so back to the campground. As we started out the sun was already burning (hence the arm protectors), the sky a gorgeous blue.

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Early morning light. Photos by Scott

A day later we woke to a hot but overcast day, the sky an oppressive stony grey. Our circuit this time took us in the opposite direction for a two or three hour ride. We tackled two outrageous hair pin turns on Green Lake Road which runs beside the campground, passes a vineyard or two and turns onto White Lake Road, leading to Twin Lakes Road and thence to Highway 3A and back again. There’s a beauty to this sage-filled landscape that can’t be denied. During most of the time riding out and back to the campground we rarely saw a car, sometimes a motorbike and as there were no fondos on at that time (it’s a popular area for group rides), just a few  cyclists. Once we’d reached the highway we spotted a nearby gas station and stopped outside to drink chocolate milk and stretch. As we relaxed in the shade a red-faced dad, mum, teenage son and daughter, all impressively geared up in matching cycling gear, rolled up, ran inside and emerged with the largest ice creams I think I’ve ever seen. We exchanged ‘hellos’ and route suggestions. People are friendly here anyway, it’s part of what brings us back each year, but I’m nearly always struck by the camaraderie of the cycling world, it’s a lovely thing.

If you like cycling there’s so many more routes to ride nearby, this is just a taster of this beautiful and diverse area, and you can always stop off for a glass of wine at one of the many vineyards. We certainly did.

White Lake Road

White Lake Road

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Four Nights, Three Days and Some Cycle Touring

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Fulford Harbour

We were itching to do some cycling touring, to stretch out our legs and be entirely (or mostly, ferries notwithstanding) self-sufficient. To that end we decided to ride back to a favourite southern gulf island in BC, Salt Spring, and combine it with a visit to our friend in Victoria on Vancouver Island. It was wonderful, around 130kms of moderate riding over the course of four days ( a perfect amount in hot weather and for a more relaxed break) incorporating a gorgeous island, some farm stands to munch local fruits and veggies from, scenic roads to ride, fresh water lakes to swim in, some freezing ocean to dip in, and a leafy city to wander around near the end of the trip.

We did our special of stealth parking in the quiet back streets of Tswwassen itself and belted up the causeway (about 7kms on a bike route) to the ferry terminal and rolled onto one of the frequent ferries that makes its way across the Georgia Strait to Swartz Bay. I love being the first on and first off the ferry and the fact that you’re saving about $160 when you don’t take a car (insanity! When did it become so expensive to travel by ferry to nearby islands, and on the same note, when did BC Parks get so expensive? Salt Spring is still bearable at $20 a night for a tent site, with no showers, but most now seem to be up to $30 or more, and don’t get me started on the private campgrounds. No wonder more people want to wild camp where they can, it’s something we might have to look into. End of Rant). Once at Swartz, we rolled our bikes over to the connecting ferry for Salt Spring, which deposits you roughly twenty-five minutes later at Fulford Harbour on the island. In the summer you can take a direct ferry to Salt Spring or a meandering one which stops in at Galiano, Mayne and Pender Islands en route and takes about 3 hours. Both latter choices dock at Long Harbour, the main ferry terminal at the other end of the island to Fulford. It takes us about two hours to ride from Long Harbour to reach the campground we stay at on the island. If you want a longer ride it’s a great route.

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local apples

If you ever do this trip I recommend that you immediately head to the Salt Spring Mercantile Store in Fulford village which is about a minutes walk from the harbour entrance (Fulford is tiny) and pick up several of the house-made Giant Cookies. They. Are. Amazing. We bought nine of them over three days. A bit cheekily I asked if the recipe might be available. It’s not, naturally, but they were so reasonably priced I would’ve happily bought dozens more. At the Mercantile, one of those lovely and increasingly rare local grocery stores that stocks a bit of everything, you can buy the basics like milk and bread, coffee and more exotic fare like in-house spanakopitas, gluten-free quiches and, of course, cookies.

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Ruckle Park farm

It’s then about a 9 or 10km ride to Ruckle Provincial Park. It doesn’t sound much, and it isn’t but……there is no straight bit of road. It’s all hills and corners, which is why it’s so special really. The first hill out of Fulford is a bit brutal, there’s no getting around it. We felt every pedal turn as we pushed up the first steep corner out of the village with our panniers laden with tent, sleeping bag, food, tent pads etc. (Why is it that when you pack you need as much for three or four days as you do for ten or fourteen? It’s a mystery I’ve never been able to solve. It’s probably because we take a lot of food.) A car passed me as I toiled up the steep corner and a woman yelled out the car ‘you got it!’. I nearly rode into the ditch in surprise but it made me laugh. After that it’s rolling hill after rolling hill as you pass farms stands, a couple of lakes, pastures and orchards. It’s pretty idyllic, as is Ruckle Park. The park was first homesteaded in 1872 by Irish immigrant Henry Ruckle and his descendants have farmed the property since. The Ruckle family donated their land to BC Parks in 1972 but still operate an ‘active farm’ area of the park. Sheep wander around spacious fields whilst turkeys stalk freely across the road you ride in on.

I love the campground, you’ll have to forgive me for waxing poetic about it once again in this post. Some tent sites are tucked away in the woods, others occupy spots close to the shore, all have plenty of space. It was as peaceful as ever. I caught the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower one evening as several fireballs streaked through the sky, one leaving a distinct vapour trail. Another night two owls flew across the campground, landed in a nearby tree and hooted away for a while before taking off again. I realized it’s been years since I’ve heard owls. Deer, rabbits, raccoons (pack away your food!) and apparently mink (I’ve yet to see one) abound. We read books, wandered around the shoreline and rode back along the road to one of the lakes for a swim in significantly warmer water than the ocean.

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evening in the campground

Considerably lighter after we’d eaten most of our food, we headed back to the ferry for the Victoria leg of the trip. Sixty or so kilometers round trip on the Lochside Trail after a convivial evening in the city spent wandering around tree-lined streets whilst we talked and caught up on life with our friend. Not a bad way to spend three days.

 

Thoughts From a Small Island

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Our trusty steeds and tent

Slowly I came to in the tent, the nagging sense of ‘damn, I need to pee’ nudging me awake. I lay still as my senses attuned to the enveloping silence of the campground, the darkness and the gentle breathing (with the odd snuffling snore) of Scott beside me. After a half-hearted attempt to try to get back to sleep to avoid the hassle of backing out of the tent like an uncoordinated small animal emerging from its den, I found myself shuffling around in the dark on damp grass as I tried to quietly find a spot to make use of without disturbing anyone, overcome by the physical need to respond to the call of nature.

So here I was, back in a campground again. A couple of days earlier I’d been burrowing into our messy cupboard digging out shorts, t-shirts, fleece leggings, waterproofs – who knew what the weather would be like with our luck lately – and I’d wondered why we were headed out for another camping trip, the third in the space of five weeks of four or five days each. Our first four days had been characterized by torrential rain and a deepening lake forming each night on top of our tarp, and the second by thunder and lightning crashing overhead the first night as I’d wrangled vegetables into a frying pan over our camp stove.

Now, a couple of hours drive and three ferry rides later accompanied by sporadic rain, we were on Hornby Island, a Northern Gulf Island sitting in the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Hornby, famous for several soft sand beaches that slope gently and shallowly enough that the sun (if it’s around) makes the water the warmest in the area, enjoys the moniker of ‘Little Hawaii’. The ocean in its salty freshness was some of the clearest I’d seen in this region although I’m not sure the tropical waters of Hawaii are the most apt comparison considering the invigorating temperature of the sea here, but then I haven’t been to Hawaii yet so, hey, it might be so. Driving to the end, literally, of the one main road on the island we’d pitched tent in a peaceful campground, characterized by family groups and one shower shared amongst twenty or so sites. Any food scraps we had we were asked to throw to the resident chickens who scratched around in a coop and came running up to the fence when someone walked by, excited at the prospect of some leftovers.

For the next four days we pursued the sun as it made its sporadic appearances. The shadows from Douglas Fir with their chunkily scabrous bark, Western Red Cedar and the orange-red coastal Arbutus trees crisscrossed the not-so-gentle ups and downs of rough pavement as we explored this tiny but varied (and hilly) island on our bikes, often passing deer unconcernedly chewing roadside grass. We ditched the bikes and walked through a forested park on paths packed with fir and pine needles, suddenly opening out to high undercut bluffs made golden by grasses, a fitful and contrary wind blowing hither and thither, showering us with rain one moment and pushing clouds aside another to bake us in sudden heat. Scattered amongst the grasses and Arbutus were Garry oak trees, so gnarled and fantastical you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d spotted an elf peeking out from behind the branches.

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Golden grasses

Alternating with sandy beaches we found pancaked layers of rock where we sat patiently by intertidal pools. These oceans in miniature came alive with tiny crabs pushing aside shells and seaweed, scuttling around each other in a complex dance of deferment and domination. Parts of the seashore offered rock eroded by sea and weather, looking as smooth as cream until we brushed our hands against the stone and felt the roughness chafe our skin.

Bald eagles soared on thermals over the island, their wickedly curved beaks turned to the left then right as they scoured the area for prey. Sea lions popped their heads out of the water, checking out their surroundings, and us, from their watery home, whiskered noses lifted to the air.

We nodded at two cycle tourists we’d noticed on the ferry who arrived late the first evening at the campground and who escaped the drizzling rain to crash out in their tent. Over shared coffee the next morning we chatted with them for a couple of relaxed hours, swapping cycling stories, even revealing personal struggles and adversities that had been overcome, the state of the world and how travelling opened (hopefully) our eyes and our minds. All so nourishing, and yet, and yet…..

It was as I was inching my way back to the tent that night that I heard it, the voice in my head that said ‘look up’, a reminder from other trips where my first reaction as night set in was to crane my neck and peer at the stars. I’d omitted to check out the night sky on this particular excursion. I looked up, and it was spectacular. Pinpoints of light filled the sky and my eyes swept back and forth, to and fro, taking in the tiny fraction of the cosmos that I could see. For a while I stood outside just looking, enjoying the solitude of the moment, this experience of the night. Finally, as I chilled down, I crept into our tiny tent and still I couldn’t stop looking. I kept the fly open for a while longer, wrapping my sleeping bag around me and gazing at the sky. It was a complete moment. I’d remembered why we make this effort to get away. To experience the deep silence and darkness of the night far from city traffic and light pollution, to be lucky enough to spot wildlife in a relatively unspoiled corner of nature. To smell salty ocean air, fragrant earth and to sit on a rock or bench sipping coffee under the benign shade of a tree, looking out to sea with barely a thought in our heads.

This is why when we get home, we’ll unpack the camping gear, wash our clothes and get ready for the next trip.

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