Under the walnut tree

Walnut tree

The walnut tree

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.

Setting sun

Setting sun

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.

Okanagan River

River alongside the campground

Mount Kobau

Mount Kobau, and the remnants of wildfires.

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.

Mahoney Lake

Mahoney Lake Ecological Reserve

The Trans Canada Trail: testing my mettle.

riding across kinsol trestle bridge

Kinsol Trestle Bridge, spanning the Koksilah River

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.

An open valley on the Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail

Open meadows, Trans Canada Trail (Cowichan Valley Trail area)

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.

Ladysmith

Setting sun over Ladysmith high street

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.

freshwater marsh

Freshwater marshes, Cowichan Valley Trail

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.

Cowichan River

Cowichan River

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.

emerging from Malahat Connector

Scott emerges from the Malahat Connector

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.

riding the Cowichan Valley Trail

Author on the Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail network

 

Green idyll

mountain bike trails

Heading into Dead End Loop

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.

skunk cabbage

Good ‘ol skunk cabbage

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.

salmonberry flowers

Salmonberry shrub

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!

Woodland, Canada

Squamish woodland

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.

mountain biking

Scott on the trail

 

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

Tofino, British Columbia

‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin’-William Shakespeare.

Photo album of a two night visit to Tofino, on the West Coast of British Columbia.

This is just a small selection of photos from far too many I took. We just got back from Tofino and I’m already missing the rhythmic sound of ocean waves at night, the cool damp air, the mulchy squish of forest floor underfoot. No traffic (I realized the constant sound of traffic makes me angry). Surfers braving the frigid water. A fireplace to read by as we sprawled out on the sofa in our cosy suite. Spray from blowholes off the shoreline indicating the presence of whales. Wolf and bear territory. Nature.

Kelp on Long Beach, Tofino

Kelp on Long Beach

Sea vegetation, Mackenzie Beach, Tofino

Sea vegetation, Mackenzie Beach

Sea anemone, Mackenzie Beach, Tofino

Sea anemone, Mackenzie Beach

Tree lichen, Tofino

Tree lichen

Driftwood, Chesterman Beach, Tofino

Washed up tree rolling around in the waves at Chesterman Beach

Author at work taking photos

Sneaky shot of me by Scott

photo of photograher poring over camera

And I took a sneaky one of him!

shorebirds on Long Beach

Shorebirds on Long Beach

Seagull flying, Long Beach

Seagull in flight, Long Beach

Beach and sky merge, Long Beach, Tofino

In the other direction beach meets sky, Long Beach

Evening sun at Long Beach, Tofino

Late afternoon at Long Beach

surfers, Long Beach, Tofino

Low-key surfing as the sun sinks, Long Beach

Taking photos of waves at Florencia Beach, Tofino

Taking photos at Florencia Beach. Photo by Scott

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Wild Camping (sort of) in the Nicola Valley

mountain biking near Merritt

Autumnal riding

‘Can you hear the coyotes yipping?’ Scott asked. I turned my head slightly from where it was buried in his warm shoulder, freeing my left ear from the sleeping bag pulled up to nearly the top of my head.

‘Yes, wow, there’s so many’.

Not only were the coyotes out in full force, but an owl kept up a consistent ‘whoo whoo’; good hunting I guess by the light of the three-quarter full moon. Or perhaps the wild creatures were less hesitant to make themselves heard, claiming back more of their territory as the camping season died down with the approach of late autumn. I snuggled deeper into the layers of sleeping bag, old duvet and mounds of clothes we’d thrown on top of ourselves in the freezing night. Dressed in fleece pants, thermal tops and socks we were just about warm enough in our tiny lightweight tent. The moon lighting up the flimsy grey nylon made it seem as if it was permanently twilight.

tent and bikes camping outside Merritt

Our tiny tent, and bikes, with loo roll attached! Biodegradable and burnable!

Earlier, as dusk started to fall, we’d heard what sounded like a curious cross between a grunt and a rasping cough. Spooked, we’d all looked around sharply at where the noise came from, just behind us in a small grove of trees. Images of bears and mountain lions padded through our minds but the odd sound came from high off the ground. Later we heard it from treetops on the opposite side from where we’d camped. Perhaps another owl?

We hadn’t expected it to be so cold, but it was beautiful. Looking out of the tent in the early dawn the creeping light glistened off a hard frost. I was glad of all the warm clothing we’d brought for wild camping in the backcountry, in mid autumn near Lundbom Lake outside of Merritt in the Nicola Valley of British Columbia. In an area significantly higher than sea level, I knew it would be chilly during the night at the very least.

We’d arrived early the morning before, following detailed instructions, and found my sister, brother-in-law and their two dogs warming themselves around a robust fire. Tucked up an innocuous dirt road away from a nearby forestry campground, we revelled in the space and quiet away from others. There was no rush to change into mountain bike gear – part of the reason we were out here was to discover flowy trails in more open country, very different from the coastal riding we’re used to. Eventually though, after chomping through some mammoth sandwiches and donning all the cold weather gear we’d brought with us, we set off on a thoroughly leisurely ride.

open grasslands, near Merritt

Sun peeking out

Gorgeous autumnal colours drenched the landscape – all browns, yellows and fading greens. We rode through soft dirt and stones, loosened by horses hooves throughout the year, the sun chasing the clouds. I could feel my lungs working a little harder, that above sea level thing again, plus we were both getting over a bad cold, but it was worth the raspy breathing and constant nose blowing we had to endure. I’d never been to this area before and I loved it. We rode for three hours, not long really but enough to give us a taste of this open country.

mountain bike trails, Merritt

Interesting mountain bike trail names

Huddled around a huge fire later as dark fell we ate far too much, washing the food down with a good bottle of red (natch) wine and several beers. Even with the moon we could see the Milky Way; we sat craning our necks for ages staring at the night sky, one of my favourite pastimes.

fire at night, camping

Relaxing around the fire

It was only one night away, but enough to fill up with the freshest of air. And good timing too, the evening after we left it started to snow.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save