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Feb. 1, 2024


I’m sitting on the deck in the sun at Pender. It’s surprisingly warm, as the wind carries heat up the cliffs below me.  I thought that I was going to cycle the 40 km to the ferry terminal, take the ferry, and then cycle the hilly 10 or 12 km to this cabin. But the marine forecast changed, it wasn’t windy in Victoria, so I had Theresa drop me and my kayak off at Swartz Bay in our Bolt. The drive and the paddle took 4 hours. Cycling and ferry takes 5 hours.  Good choice. It was a beautiful paddle. There was a moderate NW breeze that smoothed out the current, also angling from the NW. I was heading NE, so it slowed me a bit, but I appreciated that flat rippled water. A lot of seabirds were gathered around Portland Island, Scoters, Buffleheads, Harlequins, Oyster catchers. They often seem able to anticipate your passage and steer away. But the big Canada Geese never seem to figure that out. I try to avoid them, but it is odd how they usually make the wrong move and blunder into your path. These geese aren’t native here. The native ones fly south in winter. A biologist told me they were introduced by hunters decades ago. I met him on the water near Trial Island recently while he was dropping his students off at the island with his skiff. They shake the eggs. Trial Island is a nature preserve with several threatened and endangered plants, including Victoria’s owl-clover. I visit it during my regular early morning paddles from my local beach to see the hundreds of seals and sea lions hauled up there.

I put in on the rocks below here and climbed the cliff to the cabin. The breeze that washes up the cliff was so warm I laid down on my sore back in the sun on the wood deck and instantly had a nap. You can do that when you’re a senior. Now my peace has been interrupted. I noticed after turning on the water that the pressure was low but didn’t think much about it. We have a bathtub out back in the forest and as I was running a couple of hoses to it from the cabin, I couldn’t help but see water pouring out of the underside of the house, through waferboards. Streaming fast. Busted pipe somewhere and I’ll have to remove the boards to find it. We had a cold spell a couple of weeks ago, cold enough for me to skate on a local pond. I guess I now have a new project.

I like to take diverse routes on my hike down the cliff each morning, but the terraces and overhangs direct me through certain choke points. Here I see multiple deer prints and, near the water, sweet smelling otter scat. I pass through thickets of invasive Scottish Broom which I have to cut down every year. This morning I also walked by some dormant Manroot vine. It seems to grow almost as fast as bull kelp and smothers with its large leaves the multicolored moss. I like the moss and often pull the Manroot off and push it back into the gulleys from where it sprouts. When it grew over my favorite old oak tree that thrusts horizontally just above tide line, I intervened and pulled it off. Enough! Last summer, though, it was so dry it wasted away on the vine and never grew its large prickly seed pods.

Once I got down to the water I checked on my kayak, nestled in a narrow gulley on a couple of logs. Then I went in the opposite direction, east, back along the cliff, past the place where the seals haul out. I saw just one, sleeping. But as I approached it raised its head, sniffed, and awkwardly waddled around 180 degrees, to face where I had come from. I had been upwind but now I was directly above. They tend to not look up, so I stood quietly and watched it scratch its head with its small flippers. I carried on up and along the cliff, past the pear cactus. Don’t lean in!  A little further east there is a Guillemot rookery. It was still early, and nobody was flying yet. Like the Cormorants on Trial Island, they don’t take off until sunrise. Their numbers hint at the health of the water below them. They spend a lot of time and energy chasing each other. One will closely tail another and then the leader will dive into the ocean, swim underwater a way, pop up, with the other chasing, fly in a circle, dive again and then the cycle starts again.  Are they playing? Establishing dominance and partnership through a pecking order?

Once up the cliff I circled back to my favorite spot, pulled out a small inflatable cushion from my pocket and had a quiet sit. I’ve been doing this for years. Always early morning, always outside amongst trees. My mornings:  either paddling or walking and sitting. When I’ve sat for awhile and my mind has calmed the trees often seem to lose definition, like in an impressionist painting, and I feel my spirit drifting within the forest. This brings a wonderful sense of belonging to this spot on this beautiful blue planet and I always feel incredibly privileged to be here.

How can we deal with our pain as we witness wars and our home planet on fire?  Fossil fuel production reached record levels in 2023 and so did global temperatures, fires, and floods. People still think it is cool to drive around town in bloated pickups and SUVs and fly halfway around the world on a whim while the 80% of the global population that has never flown suffers. The way I see it our path must be to love each other and this gorgeous planet even more. Sounds hokey, I know. There are reasons to be hopeful. Fossils may have peaked, and alternative power is increasing exponentially. Young people, who have been royally screwed by my generation, are demanding better. Perhaps the worst effects of the global heating crisis can be avoided or at least mitigated. We must have hope because action can only be initiated through hope. There is a new book out that I am looking forward to reading: “The Joyful Environmentalist” by Isabel Losada, and recommended by George Monbiot, one of my heroes. Check it out.

While I was sitting down on the cliff a mature sea eagle flew overhead carrying an animal in its talons. The wooshing sound of Raven’s wings and loud gawks echoed through the trees. I surprised a couple of Flickers on the way back up and then was greeted by 3 female deer staring down at me. From afar they looked identical but when I got closer I could see very slight differences in the white patches on their necks and ears. I’ve been walking up and down this cliff for 58 years but unlike the ancestors of the Tsawout First Nation, whose original territory this is, I don’t know which plants are edible or make for good medicine at certain times of the year. There haven’t been wolves or cougars here since I first came, so the land has been overgrazed by deer for decades. What was it like before?  I don’t know much.

From my perch on the cliff, I can see the world’s business going by. Ships enter from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Some turn south towards Seattle and some head north towards Vancouver. I can watch these sail up Haro Strait. The majority turn NE around Turn Point to continue north but quite a few head NW along Swanson Channel, directly in front of me. These ships will anchor in amongst the Gulf Islands, from here to Nanaimo, until a berth in Vancouver, across Georgia Strait, is ready for them. Their engines will be idling while they are there, disturbing the quiet and spewing fumes, much to the annoyance of the islanders. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has received approval to create a large new container terminal at Roberts Bank, despite assurances by the existing terminal operator that it can expand to meet anticipated demand, and protests by environmental groups who question the wisdom of creating another artificial island impacting one of the most important bird sanctuaries on the west coast of North America. I wondered what the current wait times for container ships are and where they might be mooring. I assessed data on the ships’ locations through my Marine Traffic app and made a quick count. Of the 26 ships currently anchored amongst the islands, one was general cargo, one was for vehicles, and 24 were bulk carriers. There were no container chips. Across Georgia Strait in Vancouver’s outer harbour (English Bay), there was one vehicle ship, 12 were bulk carriers, and two were container ships. Just an informal count, but it makes you wonder about priorities.

At dusk this evening I was drinking a beer while sitting on the cliff in the cheap 50-year-old down jacket that I bought in Edmonton, Alberta when I lived there for two years. (It’s what a skinny old guy sitting for a long time at 2 deg. C needs to wear). With no distractions it is easy for the mind to wander and dwell on the trouble we are in. But the beauty of the darkening skies, with Venus appearing bold above, lightened my mood. Then I heard the unmistakable woosh of whales and when I looked down the cliff, I could see the fins of three Biggs Orcas close-in, right where the seals haul out. Seal hunters. I waited a long time but never heard or saw them again. The mystery of the seas.

On Monday I’ll be paddling back. I’m more cautious now. Years ago, if I experienced challenging seas, I would often do a few rolls, just to feel relaxed and enervated. Those days are gone. After a disc was removed from my back after a climbing incident, I had many good years of only occasional pain. Now, although the pain is manageable most of the time, it is also chronic. I can’t sit for a long time, including in a kayak. Although I still have good flexibility bending forward, any bend to the side is a no-no. This includes the hip flick motion required for a successful roll. A couple of summers ago I did a few rolls for practice and couldn’t stand up straight for weeks afterwards. The ageing process: members of my family are experiencing increasing blindness, cancer, heart attack, heart palpitations, waiting for a new hip, waiting for a new knee, chronic hives, anxiety issues and a sore toe. I am the only one fully operational. (or so I believe).   

Drying bull kelp on roof in Victoria, B.C. 

I thought I was going to be paddling over to the proposed sea farm site, but having to tear out the subfloor to find the leaks and then deal with them took most of my time. The seaweed/scallop farm progress is very slow. I was lucky that the Southern Gulf Island Community Resource Centre group has embraced my idea. Both the chair of the group and the executive director are extremely competent. Unfortunately, our partners, the Tsawout First Nation, seem to be sparring with the Department of Fisheries over jurisdictional matters. I’ve enjoyed my talks with their fisheries manager, but our little project is being buffeted about. Still, we’ve hired a shellfish expert from Chile who is building on my original proposal and preparing a business plan. Our area has cold water sweeping in from the Pacific, perfect for kelp and scallops. People here used to live off the sea before so much was fished out. This is our chance to get back on the water, grow sustainable food, partner with First Nations, and learn from it all.  Yay.

Once back in Victoria I have a herring meeting and then the next day will be off via bike and ferry to Vancouver for a special dinner in memory of my nephew, who died of an overdose. Although he was troubled by voices and sometimes lived on the street, he found his way in a church group. Almost the way a dog understands its master, he had the acute sensitivity to look beyond people’s barriers to understand their essence and how they were doing. Once a week he helped organize a dinner and he was particularly compassionate with those who were experiencing hard times. He was loved by his community. The dinners had been cancelled during Covid, but the church is resuming them and naming them Bryn’s Neighborhood Table. His story is a reminder that you don’t have to live high on the social ladder or long to make a positive impact.

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