An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
It was mid-August and we were back in Telegraph Cove. Island Prism had sat quite happily at the dock whilst we bussed to Parksville. Jim's son Peter had married the lovely Keelie and now the whole clan was in convoy to Telegraph Cove for a family adventure by the sea.
Prism was put in service as the family whale watching boat, whilst brother-in-law Tim's powerboat was responsible for hunting and gathering seafood. We went out every day and were rewarded with sights of acrobatic humpback whales. Seals perched on tiny rocks in mermaid poses, trying to keep clear of the frigid water, whilst sea lions cavorted in the waves. We had brief glimpses of small shy harbour porpoises, swimming at the surface with a distinctive tumbling motion. We witnessed Pacific white-sided dolphins skimming over the sea, raising a huge spray. We even saw a few Dall's porpoises, black and blunt-nosed with strange right-angled dorsal fins- a species I'd never seen before.
The orca were playing hard to get. Our first day out was orca-less, and on the second we didn't see any orca from the boat, although the resident pod swam past Telegraph Cove as we barbecued dinner. Then our final day of family explorations rolled round. Entering Blackfish Sound, we saw the pod being trailed by a research boat. They were a long way away, moving farther off at high speed, so we kept our course and went to look for humpbacks.
We were rewarded by a pair of breaching humpbacks, and a spectacular display of tail lobbing and fin slapping, sending huge plumes of water high into the air. Scientists think that this behaviour is used for communication- if so, this humpback looked like he was grumpy about something. We were happy to be at a distance!
We kept our eyes peeled for grizzlies, which sometimes swim out to the Broughton Archipelago, but we were unsuccessful. It wasn't a huge deal- the scenery was lovely, and we did find another humpback who swam parallel to Island Prism for a while. Eventually we turned around, ready to head back to Telegraph Cove. Exiting Blackfish Sound, Peter spotted a breaching orca- and the rest of the tribe were hunting nearby. The water was full of swirling dorsal fins as the orcas engaged in a complicated ballet. When three Pacific white-sided dolphins went steaming into the fray it seemed extremely foolhardy- were they about to end up as part of the buffet, gobbled by killer whales? The water spun and frothed and smaller dorsal fins appeared amongst the big ones. In an incredible example of team work, the dolphins were cooperating with their larger cousins. I was glad I wasn't a fish!
Stuffed after their fishy banquet, the orcas turned towards Telegraph Cove. This gave us lots of viewing opportunities as they surfaced to breathe. Their pace was slow and once or twice we found ourselves overtaking them. We stopped to let them catch up. Island Prism's yellow hull then caught their attention, and one of the orcas peeled away from the group and came speeding towards us. I turned Prism away, very mindful of orca viewing regulations, but the orca changed course as I did. In the end, I put the boat in neutral, and Peter, Keelie and Michelle were rewarded with an incredible view as the orca swam across the bow of the now-motionless boat, then inspected our port side before rejoining the pod. I hope we passed the inspection.
After that, the whales were happier to obey the 400 metre viewing regulations and we returned to Telegraph Cove without incident. Whilst we'd been playing with cetaceans, the Davidson portion of the family had been hunter-gathering themselves- the result of which was enough crab to make a very respectable barbecue. I'd never tried crab before, other than the odd white and pink stuff marketed as 'crab' in sushi (I'm not a fan). At uni, my housemate had been sent a prepared crab, but in my memory the meat was brown and unappealing (twenty years may mean I've got this wrong)!Tim and Robert's Dungeness crabs were a huge eye opener. It turns out that crabs don't have to be boiled alive (I felt much happier knowing that my dinner had been humanely dispatched), and that crab tastes absolutely amazing. It reminded me of very good king prawns or crayfish. I was in seventh heaven.
The next day, most of the family returned to their various corners of British Columbia and Alberta. Peter and Keelie sailed with us to Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island. There is a large First Nations community here, and it is fascinating. Totem poles fill the graveyard, and along the waterfront are shelters topped with beautifully carved emblems- one shelter for each of the main family groups here. One of the locals, Michael, explained that shelters like these would once have been where families would meet and solve disputes and problems. There's a move today to go back to these ways of healing issues within the community, talking them through and fixing what's broken. It seems like a healthy option for the society, at least when it works.
The old net lofts are still in use, despite many holes in the roof. Hopefully the floors are in a more solid state! Other old buildings over the water have been renovated and are now shops or small hotels. Many of the houses on the other side of the road are brightly painted, and some feature beautiful native carvings. Up the hill, in Gator Gardens, skeletons of tall trees drip moss above swamps full of skunk cabbage and black, peaty water. I don't know what ecological change turned this from healthy forest to equally healthy bog, but it wouldn't be out of place on the outskirts of Mordor.
The highlight of Alert Bay is the Umista Cultural Centre. Canada has a dark history of trying to destroy native culture. Children were sent away from their parents to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages. Potlatches (ceremonies and meetings) were banned, and the masks, costumes and other objects associated with these rituals were confiscated. The items were then scattered around the world, dispersed to museums. Umista represents part of the healing process of revitalising the local Kwakiutl society. It houses weaving, bentwood boxes and carvings, biographies of local people and guides to the language. Videos play of cultural ceremonies, songs and dances, and if you arrive at the right time you might be able to see a dance or take part in a workshop. There are even masks and costumes you can try on.
The centre is housed in an enormous long house, surrounded with totems. Once you pass the glass cases, stroke the surprisingly soft bear skin, read the histories and marvel at the vast number of things that can be done with red cedar, you enter a dark room. Hundreds of eyes stare at you, in painted wood, copper, glass and metal. Mouths gape, grin and grimace. This is the home of the potlatch collection, where wandering artefacts have been returned to their people. Each mask or costume was once part of a particular dance, giving its wearer a connection to another world when they danced it- or perhaps bringing the other world here. The syncopated drum rhythms add to the atmosphere, and visitors are welcome to sit at the large slot drum and join in, whilst the eyes gaze on.
A final return to the historic Telegraph Cove was the scene for some apple whisky and a few sore heads. We said goodbye to Keelie and Peter, then returned to Alert Bay. I was allowed to sketch inside the Cultural Centre, and then walked up to the long house on the hill to paint. Kind Tracy brought us dried salmon to chew as I sketched, and the ravens circled and squabbled nearby, picking over the fish carcasses left for them in the car park.
And then the fires started. They were on Vancouver Island, on the West Coast- many miles away. They were no danger to Cormorant Island, its art or inhabitants- but they sent their smoke, so thick that we extended our stay as visibility on the water reduced to a few metres. The sun struggled to penetrate the cloud, appearing a pale, milky white at midday and an angry red in the late afternoon. It seemed incapable of heating the air, and all its efforts tended to focus, like a heat lamp focused on a single spot of my head or shoulder. We wrapped up in jumpers although it was still summer, and passed the time sketching and watching the ravens scavenge fish scraps on the shore.
Eventually, the air cleared enough for us to feel safe leaving. The orcas came by, swimming through waters which sparkled red beneath the baleful sun. We anchored in solitude at Mamelillikulla, just us and the eagles and the ravens. And the bear.
The next day we had company on the island when a cruising yacht from Seattle arrived. One of the yachties enjoyed the view from his paddle board, whilst the other went tramping through the bush. Very sensibly, he had taken anti-bear measures- though we probably should have told him that you're not supposed to sound off your bear horn every two minutes in case there's a bear- you use it to frighten them off when you actually see them. When Jim mentioned that we'd seen the resident black bear on our previous visit, the horn-sounding frequency increased to one-minute intervals. By the time he was back on his boat, I assume the bear was either immune or had swum to another island to get away from the racket.
The weeks were ticking on- it's incredible how quickly a summer can go. We said goodbye to Mamallillikulla and took one last spin through the whirlpools and rips of Blackfish Sound, to let the Johnson Straight sweep us south on the tide.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.