Discovering new mountain bike trails, part one: Quadra Island, British Columbia

Sunset, Quadra Island, BC

Rain giving way to the setting sun, Quadra Island.

Cool days, finally some sun after a damp start to the autumn. Looking back it’s been a good summer of exploring in our backyard. Travel abroad is great but there’s a lot to be said for staying local. It’s cheaper for one. Usually there’s less preparation. Hopefully less stress. And in this region there’s some excellent mountain biking nearby – it’s been fun discovering new areas to ride.

We unexpectedly returned to Quadra Island for three days in early July – courtesy of good friends living part-time on the island in a lovely rustic cabin. We explored mountain bike routes so stealth that if we hadn’t our friend as guide we never would have found them. We rode both unsanctioned trails (meaning not necessarily maintained) but also official trails, like the excellent Little Black Dress.

I could count the number of other riders we met on one hand. Quiet woods, gorgeous lakes – my first swim of the year in Morte Lake was sublime.

Morte Lake, Quadra Island

Morte Lake

It was stellar weather, long before any hint of wildfire smoke destined to hit the region later in the summer, although hot enough that we had to rest in the shade of a tree after toiling up a steep rock and root strewn route that levelled out to a quiet, relatively smooth plateau of loamy, compliant trails.

Trails, Quadra Island

Barely there trails winding into the woods

Pretty good sunsets too.

Twilight, Quadra Island

Twilight, Quadra Island

Autumnal cake

Almond and Plum Cake

Almond and Plum Cake

It’s been a busy but good summer. Lots of camping, discovering new mountain bike trails (more on that to come), extra work (pays the bills), a new creative venture (more on that to come too) and entering some writing competitions (so far without success) hasn’t left a lot of time to catch up on blogging. Phew! Time to sit down for some cake and coffee.

Slice of almond and plum cake

Slice of cake

I ever so slightly adjusted this excellent Almond and Plum Cake recipe from a lovely blog (with a cute whimsical name to match), Mrs.Twinkle.

Instead of dairy milk I used almond milk, instead of orange zest I used lemon zest (it’s all I had in the fridge), and instead of regular sugar I used coconut sugar. I did still use icing sugar on the top to decorate. You could probably go full on vegan by replacing the butter and eggs and I bet it would taste fantastic but I haven’t tried that yet, so don’t quote me on it.

And of course I used those gorgeously wine-dark prune plums that have been around lately.

Fall leaves, a chill in the air but still enough daylight and late season sunshine for cycling or hiking. And when the wind and rain blows in, as it inevitably does, then hunkering down to read novels, magazines and blogs follows. With cake. And coffee.

Slice of almond and plum cake

The cake even worked for a birthday; simple but effective (more of an adult cake than a child’s cake admittedly).

Almond/plum cake as a birthday cake

A simple, but stylish birthday cake

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
(To Autumn: John Keats)

Indeed, There Is No Planet B

In support of the upcoming climate strikes, a post from last summer……

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” (The Road, Cormack McCarthy)

Sea to Sky Highway, British Columbia

Sea to Sky Highway, a distant ribbon below the Howe Sound Crest Trail.

I went for a great hike with my sister the other day, a roughly four to five-hour round trip to St.Mark’s Summit along the Howe Sound Crest trail on Cypress mountain outside of Vancouver. I used to hike it fairly frequently but it’s been a few years since I was last up there, mostly Scott and I are on the bikes. Woof, it was hard! It’s a challenging trail and clambering up roots and rocks isn’t quite the same as spinning circles, even on a mountain bike.

I was dismayed though at the utter disregard by some for this stunning spot, I don’t recall garbage being an issue before. Quite a few people seemed to be using the trail as an outdoor stairmaster; they appeared oblivious to the spectacular views surrounding them. Wet wipes, tissue, and bits of packaging were scattered here and there (I admit I was grossed out at the first two items and didn’t feel like picking up other people’s garbage on that day. Shame on me, I should carry a bag or something specifically for collecting trash). Some carried radios and music blared out as they stormed up the trail. It was enough to temporarily sully this glorious area. I was looking forward to a quiet picnic at St.Mark’s Summit, but the incessant sound of a drone buzzing around put paid to that. Once the group using it left, taking their toy with them, a sublime quietness descended and we were able to watch peacefully as a bald eagle rode a thermal, the Sea to Sky highway a distant ribbon below.

It was a similar story a week or two ago. I plunged into the sea water off Porteau Cove for a swim after a hot and sweaty mountain bike ride in Squamish, and watched as one, then several more orcas passed by in the distance. Astonishing. As I swam back to shore I noticed bits and pieces of garbage that I grabbed: a pen – it’s not bad, we’re using it at home – a half open plastic packet of something chocolatey, and an elastic band (that might have ended up getting tangled around a flipper, a fin or a beak) both of which I threw into the garbage. A girl paddling on her air mattress grabbed a floating beer can. Compared to many areas of the globe, it’s a minor amount of trash, but it’s depressing to see it all the same. We all drop the ball (and accidentally garbage sometimes), but mindlessly tossing trash, leaving wet wipes and tissue after utilizing the outdoors as a dumping ground is incomprehensible behaviour as the world around us burns and pollutants pile up.

For the first time in a very long time I cried the other day. I’d been reading recently about the struggles of the orcas in these waters known as J pod and I felt overwhelmed by the wrecking ball that we as a species seem to personify. When I sent an email to the David Suzuki Foundation to ask what we could do, the reply was direct and specific:

‘Thanks for your note. Reversing the decline of southern resident orcas is indeed complex, but there are straightforward ways that we could regulate a safer environment that would give a better chance for recovery.

Those include reducing the chinook fishery, improving upstream habitat, reducing shipping traffic speeds, creating marine refuges and protected areas, reducing pollution, among others.

As far as something that each and every person can do in their daily lives, reducing our carbon footprint, reducing consumption, etc. will also help to improve the environment in the long-term, and raise awareness. However, these elements will not lift orcas out of their current crisis.

Keeping decision makers focussed on these issues in the short and long-term are the best likely target to enacting remedies for southern resident orcas. So, what each and every person could do is contact their elected officials and fisheries and oceans staff to let them know their deep concern’.

Grieving over the environmental degradation we’re responsible for is one thing, but we have to act too. So pick up your garbage, better still, don’t drop it in the first place. Pick up other people’s garbage when you can. We need to be more aware of our impact. We should do better, we need to do better, we have to do better.

Howe Sound Crest Trail

View of the ‘Lions’, Howe Sound Crest Trail, Cypress Mountain

A Night on Galiano Island

Montague Harbour

Montague Harbour

‘Oi, get out of here!’

The bandit-eyed raccoon glanced at me and scuttled back down from the trunk of the tree where he had been clinging upside down as he pulled in a food bag towards him with one paw and chewed heartily on one nylon corner with sharp yellow teeth. The owner of the bag hadn’t noticed the stealthy raid until I yelled out; taking down the bag she let out an exasperated sigh.

‘He got the chocolate! And it was a new bag!’

We helped her string up the bag between another two trees, further apart this time and out of the raccoon’s cheeky reach.

For the first time we’d brought dried food with us, an experiment in keeping our panniers lighter. Honestly, it didn’t taste great, at all, but serendipitously might have been the best choice. Nothing to tempt the palette of an abundant number of thieves lurking in the undergrowth. Later that night I heard a thump and pitter patter as a furry visitor levered itself up on our tent pad, sniffing around the tent and our panniers that we kept close by under the fly. Another thump as the raccoon dropped off back onto the ground, unimpressed by our dietary choice.

Tent at Montague Harbour

Before the arrival of the heat wave that has enveloped us lately here along the west coast of British Columbia, we packed up the bikes and took off for one night of camping on Galiano, a narrow tree-covered strip of land that makes up one of the Southern Gulf Islands. From the sparsely populated island you might be lucky to spot orcas, seals, otters or sea lions. A major migratory route for birds, the island was bursting with bird life and song, a treat I hadn’t anticipated.

One stop away on the ferry from the mainland meant for a refreshingly short commute. There was a particularly relaxed air on the boat; travelling on a Tuesday meant we were keeping company with a small number of hikers, other cyclists and residents who were returning to the island after an extended weekend visit to the mainland.

Rolling hills define the islands, and it was an undulating eight or so kilometer ride to Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park where we set up our tent for the night on one of the plentiful tent pads dotted throughout the park, with idyllic views across the quiet harbour inlet.

Sailboats, Montague Harbour

Sailboats at anchor

A wander along a winding path skirting the campground led us out to Shell Beach, once a midden for Indigenous groups thousands of years ago. A tall ship was at anchor and intriguingly three row boats laden with people were leaving from the side of the ship and making their way to the shore. We watched, almost apprehensively, as the boats slowly drew in. Who could this be? Turned out to be a large, enthusiastic group of children on a trip who would be camping that night on shore.

Tall Ship

Tall Ship off Shell Beach

Shell Beach

Shell Beach, worn shells instead of sand

The night was as peaceful as I could’ve wished, no traffic, super quiet campground. The sound of kids singing around the campfire gradually died down to be replaced by that of Nighthawks. Incredible birds that create a booming sound as they dive whilst they hunt and display for mates. If you’ve never heard them then check out this short video. It’s a pretty impressive sound from a small bird.

It doesn’t take much to make for a perfect mini-break.

Montague Harbour

Peaceful Montague Harbour

I Inadvertently Drew an Invasive Species (and ended up reporting it)

Drawing of orange hawkweed

The invasive orange hawkweed

On a day off this week we tootled up to Squamish with our mountain bikes to ride Farside – a tight series of techy little trails strewn with rocks and roots that bounce you off in all directions if you’re not on your game, and tired, as we were.

It’s a pretty area though, as were the tiny orange and reddish flowers I noticed, scattered amongst the grass at the head of the trails. They caught my drawing eye and I couldn’t resist plucking one stem to take home. (Instant disclaimer here, I know that sounds bad, and it is, but it’s the first time I’ve ever picked what I thought might be a wildflower; they seemed daisyish, i.e common, growing in a semi-rural area behind a housing estate, so I figured they weren’t fully fledged precious wildflowers – however I admit I didn’t know what they were so the excuse is lame).

Once home I propped the stem in a jar of water and had to wait until the next day to draw them – the flowers had endearingly closed their petals for the night.

A couple of hours work the following day and I had my drawing. But I had no clue what the flowers were exactly. An exhaustive search on the internet revealed nothing at first (I was looking for native flowers) until I reframed the question and there it was, orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum): native to parts of Europe but considered highly invasive here in British Columbia. It’s a feisty plant, spreading rapidly, starving out space for native plants, thereby reducing foraging for local wildlife. Dog walkers, hikers, and mountain bikers are encouraged to report any sightings of the plant and its location. Sigh.

I dutifully fired off an email to the local Invasive Species Council, indicating where we saw the flowers and admitting I had a stem of the pests sitting in our apartment. I was surprised how quickly they got back to me, thanking me for letting them know and sternly (my guilty interpretation) directing me to place the flowers in a sealed bag and take them to a transfer station or landfill – most definitely NOT to put them in the compost.

Sometimes things become way more complicated than you expect.

They are pretty flowers though.


Our daily impact on the planet

What can we do to lessen the detrimental impact of our consumer based lives on this small blue planet hurtling through space, our sole source of nourishment and life?

It seems like a reasonable question to ask on Earth Day and one I’m almost constantly pondering lately. It’s basically a rabbit hole. The more you look, the deeper you go, the more there is to do, or undo. It’s overwhelming, but it seems pretty clear that we don’t really have a choice. I love to explore new places, but what’s the environmental cost of that indulgence? I appreciate two skiers/filmmakers who attempt to confront the question in this thought-provoking short film:

Another huge issue: plastic. As if large plastics in oceans, rivers and streams choking the wildlife weren’t bad enough (bottles, nets, toys etc) disturbing studies also reveal high levels of plastic microfibers, including in our drinking water. As it turns out my good ol’ fleece jacket  – which keeps me warm on cold nights sitting by a campfire as I listen to the wind in the trees – sheds a significant amount of microfiber each time I wash it. I’ve bought a Guppyfriend bag in an effort to address this problem, use only cold water and less detergent (mitigating the wear on fabric) and wash my synthetics less often – but that’s only a tiny part of the solution. I look for fair-trade, pesticide-free, natural fiber clothing, but apart from a few select suppliers and stores – which are often quite expensive – it isn’t always that easy, for now at any rate. I think I may have to learn to knit.

Back to the bigger plastics, such as packaging. We’ve been sourcing stores and markets where we can refill our containers. This has been somewhat successful as we haven’t bought bags or containers of rice, oats, flour, body lotion and laundry soap for a few weeks now. We’ve bought glass jars for dried food and have been using the original containers for laundry, dish soap and body lotion – at least it delays recycling the containers for longer.

I’m not sure how much good I’m doing, it feels like a drop in the ocean – so to speak – but you have to start somewhere.

Time we planted a tree.

Happy Earth Day.

An Apple a Day

Drawing an apple with coloured pencils

Apple. The kind you can eat.

I knew it would be challenging drawing an apple, reds are tricky. I rejected my first attempt, it looked like a red and green pumpkin. That had stomach ache. Relatively happy however with the choice of coloured pencils on the second try.

I Took a Snowball to the Face Today

Snowy forests, snowshoeing

Snowy delight

It wasn’t a soft, fluffy, floating gently away on a gossamer breeze snowball either – that would have been funny. It was a compact, hard, icy, mean one thrown with force.

It happened last Friday. I was on my way to catch my bus home after work, absorbed in  thought – or oblivious to my surroundings – when I felt something hit the left side of my face. I doubled over in pain, clutching my face with both hands. It’s weird when you have no idea what just happened but your brain is already trying to put the pieces together. Wet, cold, pain. An image of two young guys, twentyish, laughing. One throwing his arm back and forward, another swerving away at the last minute. And then bam!

Once I’d realized what had happened, I turned around and yelled. ‘Are you ****ing kidding me!?’ (not my finest moment). As they gathered more lumps of wet icy snow to throw at each other I yelled again: ‘don’t do it, it really hurt!’. I must admit, I sounded very Bridget Jonesy. In moments of stress my Englishness seeps out a bit more.

‘Sorry, sorry, hahahah!’.

They weren’t malicious guys, just oblivious, everyone loves a snowball fight/game, but still! Infuriatingly I had to put an ice pack on my throbbing face when I got home – by then my lower eyelid had started to swell up. I should’ve just rolled around face down in the snow outside our home.

Random stuff.

I was sick for nearly a month from mid-January into February. A whole month with the flu. This foul bug landed in my throat and sinuses and took up residence. A headache every night for two weeks, fever and chills – I could barely move. I felt decrepit, and weak. Missing playing in the snow, feeling any conditioning I had seeping away. I was a bit tentative on the first day back to any real activity since getting sick– snowshoeing last week on Hollyburn Mountain, a great spot for both cross country skiing and snow shoeing at Cypress Mountain Resort– but it felt good to move. And again yesterday in Cypress Provincial Park, a greyer day but still wonderful to feel myself puffing up a hill, pushing my body to work, breathing in snow scented air. It’s a great area to explore; quiet on the trails, stunning viewpoints with (at the moment) perfect snow conditions.

Hollyburn Mountain, cross country trails

Looking across cross country trails, Hollyburn Mountain

Snowshoeing Cypress Mountain

Happy to be snowshoeing, Cypress Provincial Park

Gray jay

A cheeky gray jay perched on a snowshoe pole

Steller's jay begging for food

Steller’s jay

snowy tree

Frozen needles

snow crystals

Snow crystals

snowy winter snow shoe scene

Fell over in the snow, this time the impact was fun!

Gilbert White, Selborne and a hangover

‘I feel sick’.

We stepped onto the station platform at Liss with our bikes, the sky a non-committal slosh of grey, damp air pungent with the possibility of some real rain. Ten minutes on the train had cut out an hour on busy main roads but I wondered if I might have felt better cycling, even with exhaust fumes blasting into my face. Probably not.

The combination of Chinese takeout the night before – I suspect msg – and mixing red and white wine had created the perfect storm of shattering headache and churning stomach that made levering myself out of bed unthinkable. But we were due to head back to Canada in two days and this was the last chance to head to Selborne, a pretty village (is there any other kind in the South Downs?) and lifelong home of the Reverend Gilbert White (1720-1793), considered England’s first ecologist and revered ‘founding father’ of modern scientific recording – Darwin claimed he ‘stood on the shoulders’ of White. He’s probably best known for the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, a publication that has never been out of print. That’s quite something.

‘I think I have to sit down’. Steps away from the station, we spotted a wooden bench set on a tiny triangle of grass. A scattering of trees swayed in the gentle breeze, a small stream flowed by under a bridge. Soothed, my stomach slowly settled down. Gingerly I remounted my bike and we headed out of town, looking for our turn-off to the village. We overshot it, but not by much, and once we’d doubled back found ourselves once again on narrow, quiet lanes.

English country lanes

Quiet lanes

Thankfully it was one of the easiest days of riding we’d had in over two weeks of cycle touring in England last June. The hills were gentle, the route easy to find, the temperature neither too warm nor too cold despite the low clouds. It was all very bucolic. We inhaled the scent of wild garlic growing in clumps by the road and occasionally stopped to look at the view across fields and woods. We barely saw any cars. A cyclist waved as he rode past in the opposite direction. Reassured by the relative solitude of our ride I climbed over a five-barred gate for a quick nature break in a field behind a sheltering hedgerow.

It was just as peaceful when we arrived in Selborne and stashed our bikes outside The Wakes,  once the home of White, now a museum dedicated not only to the pioneering naturalist and ornithologist, but also somewhat oddly to Frank Oates, a Victorian explorer, and his nephew Captain Lawrence Oates, a member of the catastrophic Antarctica expedition led by Captain Robert Scott. When a public appeal failed to raise enough money to secure the house as a museum commemorating White, Robert Washington Oates, cousin of Captain Oates, offered to buy the house on condition that there should also be an Oates Museum within the building. Somehow the juxtaposition of the two elements didn’t feel as jarring as it had seemed at first.

Museum of Gilbert White

Gilbert White's house and gardens

‘The Wakes’, Gilbert White’s home.

In a very English manner we refuelled with quiche, sandwiches and a pot of tea in the genteel Tea Parlour before wandering around the house and gardens. The sense that this was a home that had been much loved, unpretentious, lived in and peaceful permeated throughout. Sweeping lawns flowed down to grassy fields, themselves backed by ‘hangers’, ancient wooded hillsides. Vegetable patches, flower beds and an orchard made up the rest of grounds – with design curiosities tucked away here and there, like the ‘statue’ of Hercules, actually a picture painted on board.

cardboard cutouts for statues, Gilbert White

Ingenious ‘statue’ of Hercules

Gilbert White gardens

A very English garden

We spent a peaceable time ambling around the grounds, quietly exploring in a way that I silently speculated to myself White would have approved of. Inside the house we read about his life, peeked into his sparse bedroom and at the original manuscript of a Natural History of Selborne on display. We paid a visit to the local church just across the road from his home where White is buried. A simple grave in a simple churchyard overlooking the countryside White loved so much.

Gilbert White's bedroom

Bedroom of Gilbert White. The embroidered bedspread and bed hangings were stitched by his aunts.

It was an unhurried visit to the home of someone who lived their life with great sensitivity and a keen observation of their surroundings. By the time we left for the ride back I felt restored. A day spent riding country lanes and wandering around a garden will do that.

A statue in the gardens of Gilbert White

‘Hercules’ backed by a hanger

It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined ~ Gilbert White