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

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

 

Four Nights, Three Days and Some Cycle Touring

IMG_0518

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.

IMG_1863

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.

IMG_1866

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.

IMG_1871

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

tentandbikes

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.

hornbybluffs

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.

hornbyocean

 

Not so Sunny Sunshine Coast.

I should have known things weren’t going to go according to plan when I glanced at the weather report the day we set off for the Sunshine Coast (ha!) and Powell River a short hop away from Vancouver. After weeks of sun and warmth, to the point that grass was already turning brown, the line on the weather graph suddenly took an unexpected plunge downward about a day after our departure date. I didn’t really believe it, the weather reports here are notoriously let’s say, incompatible, with what’s actually happening outside the window.

We set off in glorious sun to catch the ferry taking us from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast. As we sailed across calm waters we spotted a couple of Orcas in the distance as they broke the surface of the water. It was thrilling to see them, a hint of the wildness that we live on the edge of here. A scenic drive from Gibsons on a winding road with views of islands dotted along the shoreline brought us to the next ferry at Earls Cove, ultimately depositing us at Saltery Bay with its lovely green campground and one of several thoughtfully placed benches by the water.

IMG_1787

Pretty much after that the rain set in. And we realized we’d forgotten toothpaste. And soap (not such a big deal), and mayo, and Braggs seasoning and the ultimate, Frank’s Red Hot Sauce (a very big deal). In deciding to car camp with the bikes on the back – in the expectation we’d park the car at various points and go off for long day rides – we’d in fact over packed. In went an umbrella for lounging on beaches (for the blinding sun and suffocating heat of course), pillows, tons of food to fuel up after all the riding we’d be doing, far too much clothing, extra pairs of boots in case we wanted to go hiking, the list was endless. By taking stuff we’d never normally think to pack, we completely blanked out on the essentials like toothpaste. Lesson learned. Keep it simple.

We barely used the bikes, except to take advantage of a lull in the weather to cycle to a grocery store halfway to Powell River for toothpaste. After two nights of rain in Saltery we drove damply into Lund, a tiny fishing village basically at the very end of Highway 101 and spent the following couple of nights getting up to drain water from a lake that was forming on the tarp over our tent. There was no point in taking a water taxi to nearby Savary Island or renting a kayak to explore Desolation Sound. All we could do was laugh at our misfortune and ineptitude, enjoy campfires and the odd break in the weather to wander around the village marina.

IMG_0457

DSC_8261

and look over the water at the start of Desolation Sound.

IMG_0461

It was a two week holiday that turned into one as we admitted defeat and headed for home to dry out. But I’d go back in a heartbeat, to listen to the frogs at night, to the quiet, to see the richness of the forest green, the clarity of the water, the eagles circling. Only next time we’ll just take the bikes. And maybe not go in Juneuary.

 

Celebrating Rain

It’s been a fantastic summer here in Vancouver, but with a big price to pay. Drought, wildfires, plant life stressed from the endless sun and heat. None of us have been used to it in this region. It’s made camping easy – no rain gear to worry about – and choosing to jump on the bike very easy, except for when it got too hot. But I’m very, very happy to see the rain; to bundle up in a little extra clothing and to smell the rain dampened air. A quick and easy ride to access from the city is Rice Lake Road up at the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve. On a drizzly Tuesday last week it was almost devoid of human life, a few branches scattered around from the wild windstorm that had swept in over the area during the week-end (the LSCR had dodged most of that bullet). It was a typically cloudy and misty day à la BC.

IMG_0255

Photo by Scott

Nairn Falls Provincial Park is a great campground just off the main road between Whistler and Pemberton. One night was all that was needed. A campfire allowed again after a long ban and a prime view over Green River (we didn’t walk to the Falls, too busy struggling to put up a tarp in the wind. In the end the wind won, the tarp ripped right down the middle. We just put up the tent and hoped it would keep the rain out, which it did). Damp, mulchy foresty goodness. We were sitting having a glass of wine when a chipmunk ran up with a pine cone the same size as him. I guess his view was obscured by the cone and he hadn’t seen us. Skidding to a halt he did a quick duck off to the side and ran behind a tree. We heard mad chattering early the next morning outside the tent so perhaps he was still a bit peeved at us….

IMG_5567

Photo by Scott

IMG_5558

Green River

 

 

Saltspring Island

Sometimes all you need is one night away and you feel refreshed. Even if you’re cycling and it’s hot work. We loaded up the bikes with as little gear as possible (still too much of course), got up at 5am one morning, stealth parked the car in a neighbourhood near to the ferry terminal we were leaving from and rode almost straight onto the 8am ferry at Tsawwassen. It’s a gorgeous ride from there across the Strait of Georgia to the southern gulf islands. Sunny, as it is inevitably at the moment (who’d ever think that would be true of this region?), the ride was as ever beautifully scenic.

IMG_1427

The island of Saltspring was our destination, Fulford Harbour our port of call. From there we rode to Ruckle Park to camp, only 9km or so away but on an intensely hilly and twisty road in what turned out to be 33c heat…

IMG_1441

But there were farm stands on the way to stop at with the excuse of buying fresh ingredients to add to our dinner – a fresh yellow zucchini and purple garlic made welcome appearances in our pasta meal – and we loitered in the shade admiring the flowers for sale.

IMG_1457

There’s plenty of farms, fields and a couple of refreshing lakes popular with the locals along the way. We had to ride back later along the same road to Fulford to buy milk we’d forgotten for essential coffee the next morning (we ended up riding that road four times over the course of 24hrs or so) and took our swimming gear with us so we could break the hot ride with a welcome dip. Locals were arriving in droves to find relief in the water from the sun, some stopping only to strip off every stitch of clothing before plunging through the water lilies gathered at the edge of the lake.

On the island there’s gorgeous trees to notice, Garry Oak (threatened) and Arbutus amongst them; eagles to spot; if you’re lucky Orcas off the shoreline or seals and otters. Somehow a rusting heap of a house or barn seemed add to the ambiance of the surrounding area rather than detract from it.

IMG_1442

Ruckle Park itself is a great camping spot, set right on the water’s edge with plenty of space between tent sites. It’s relaxing and very quiet. We dipped into the freezing ocean to cool off after our ride in and lay on the dark rocks afterwards letting the warmth sink back into our muscles. In the evening the wind picked up and we left a tent flap open to the ocean to let the breeze in. It was the coolest we’d been at night almost all summer.

IMG_1452

Sitting by the logs washed up on the shoreline we napped and attempted to read. Winged insects were gathered by a stream of something shiny. At first we thought it was a spilled sugary drink but it turned out to be a trickle of fresh water. The heat had made them thirsty too.

IMG_1435

Stunned by the sun, but slowly released from the grip of tension and stress by the ebb and flow of the waves plopping back and forth onto the rocks, in only a few hours we felt as if we’d been away for days. Sometimes the best things come in small packages…..