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.
Our sail from Ucluelet to Tofino was more of a motor trip. We peered through the thin shroud of fog as Prism rolled over the Pacific swell. Amphitrite Lighthouse was glowing away, a reassuring supplement to the clanking navigation aid and our trusty GPS. As visibility improved, we could see the stretches of golden sand that form a series of surf beaches, separated by rocky headlands. Mist hung about them even as the sky cleared- the spray tossed up by the rolling breakers obscures these beaches slightly no matter how bright the day is.
I was hoping to see a sea otter, but Jim told me this was very unlikely, These shy creatures were slowly building up their population on the west coast, but didn't venture as far south as Tofino. We turned away from the Pacific to begin our approach, past the lovely Chesterman Beach, where houses cling to rocky peninsulas, perfectly placed for storm watching in the winter season. I saw something in the water. A seal? Or a sea lion? It looked pretty big. Jim passed me the binoculars- the long whiskers, golden sideburns and characteristic incredibly cute floating-on-its-back pose were unmistakable. It was a sea otter! It watched us as we motored into the island-filled inlet leading us to the town.
We'd been assured that there would be space on the public dock, but this turned out to be rather optimistic. Once again we needed to raft up to another boat. The visitor's pier, E dock, housed two other sail boats and a flotilla of small craft. Slowly cruising past, we confirmed that there were indeed no spaces, but some of the small boats didn't appear to move much- we could raft up to the cruising yacht at the end of the dock, move a small barge and create enough space for Prism to fit in, out of the currents in the channel. I checked the depth sounder and started to turn. Nothing happened.
Jim told me I was stuck- but the depth sounder showed 2.5 meters of water beneath us. We draw less than two meters so there shouldn't have been a problem- but Jim was right. Whatever the depth sounder was telling me, I wasn't going anywhere.
Jim tied a line from Prism to the dinghy, hoping that we could pull Prism off the sand bank. Rowing gave him a great workout, but Prism couldn't be persuaded to leave her nice comfy sandbank. There was nothing to do but wait a few hours for the tide to finishing ebbing. Slowly and gently, Prism laid down, much to the entertainment of everyone on the dock. Cooking became interesting as we heeled over. The rice worked fine, but as the gradient of the stove grew steeper, I found myself having to hold the frying pan to stop it slipping off- and even then it was impossible to get an even heat. It was not my most successful curry ever, but thankfully it was vegetarian, and eventually I decreed it to be warm enough to eat.
Time passed, the tide changed, and we slowly worked our way back to an upright position until we were finally afloat. I was glad it was dark, though I'm sure my cheeks were glowing as we took Prism in to the dock. The other liveaboard residents were waiting to help us with our lines, and to share stories of their encounters with my little sandy hillock. Thank you Bob, if you read this, for helping my poor bruised ego!
Safely moored on the public wharf, we were able to set about exciting things like taking warm showers (at $1 for 2 minutes, I may have achieved a new personal best for speed showering). The weather was wet, but this isn't unusual on the West Coast, and the town and its surroundings were still beautiful. I was excited to find that Tofino now has an art supply store, and once I'd purchased some much-needed paper I wandered around the downtown galleries to absorb some creative inspiration.
Built out of cedar, the Roy Henry Vickers Gallery is an olfactory experience as well as a visual one. The rich, warm scent of the wood greets you as soon as you open the doors. Inside, benches and sunken seating throughout the long house invite visitors to linger amongst the artwork, and massive wooden carvings enhance the indigenous setting. My favourite paintings are Vicker's sunsets, often complete with his magical 'shadow images'- shimmering designs which appear as the viewer walks past. These shadows often depict native imagery, and add a spiritual side and a sense of history and culture to the wonderful land and seascapes. Just down the street, the Mark Hobson Gallery delights in realism, full of hunting eagles, luminous waves and twisting seaweed. Photographing the work is encouraged, and Mark was there, apron on and paints set up, hobnobbing genially with visitors.
Tofino is relatively bike friendly, and when the sun came out we decided to make use of the multi-purpose path that heads out of town to the Botanical Gardens. Around the cafe are pretty cottage-style flower beds and a community garden, along with a beautiful lily pond. The garden path soon enters woodland, full of native trees and plants. As the forest grows denser, the trail becomes a boardwalk, full of little side paths with views over the Clayoquat Sound. The tide was out, but the sun had transformed the mudflats into an expanse of sparkling silver, with stripes of vibrant green seaweed and blue water. We found a pebbly beach to enjoy the vista whilst hummingbirds and dragonflies buzzed round us. Finally hunger set in, so we returned to the cafe and munched croissants whilst listening to a talented jazz pianist.
Jim's brother Bill drove out to join us on Prism. His car gave us all the chance to explore further, so we made expeditions to Chesterman Beach, Wickanninish, Combers Beach and the suitably named Long Beach. Bill and I walked along the sand whilst Jim rode around on his little fold up bike, which worked really well on the hard sand close to the water. The ocean spray cast its usual magic, reflecting the sunshine and creating a light mist across the golden sand. We strolled the length of the beach and crossed the headland to poke around the bustling tide pools of Combers Beach, which were full of darting scalpins, lumbering crabs and a host of colourful starfish and anemones. We could have stayed there all afternoon, but hunger set in so we drove to Ucluelet for a late lunch.
After five blustery days, the weather calmed. We provisioned up and took Prism out to spend a few days on Flores island. We motored through swirling mists and thick fog, thankful for our GPS which let us know exactly where we were. Strong currents ran through the maze of channels. They played havoc with our speed, accelerating us to six knots before slowing us down to four. It didn't matter- the sun was slowly increasing the visibility and we were too busy watching the jaunty flocks of rhinoceros auks and looking out for sea otters to mind a little bit of a slog.
Five otters later, we turned into the long inlet which cuts into Flores Island. A few small fishing boats whizzed past us and a sea plane buzzed overhead. We passed the little village of Ahausat, with its century-old general store, and poked about the various arms of the inlet until we found a place to anchor. It was a secluded spot- away from any signs of habitation. The ravens greeted us with a chorus of 'ki tok's, and the bald eagles seemed to be giggling about something, as bald eagles often do. Our hopes of seeing bears at low tide were not rewarded, but a seal came to visit and one of the eagles gave us a display of how to fish bird style.
Bill and I tried to follow a walking track through the woods. We were well-armed with bear bells, a bear horn and bear spray (which apparently ISN'T for helping to style their fur). Sounding a bit like Santa's reindeer, we jingled our way along a twisting trail which was a clamber rather than a walk. Over and under fallen trees, through swathes of sticky mud which tried to steal my boots- it felt a bit like we'd fallen into 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'. Eventually we decided we'd had enough of scrabbling through the mossy forest and bushwhacked through to the beach. This was slightly easier going, though the muddy patches shared the kleptomaniac tendencies of their forest cousins and insisted on trying to relieve me of my footwear. We crossed the foreshore and wandered through crab-infested grass to a shallow lagoon where three herons were keeping their eyes open for afternoon tea. We called for our taxi (also known as Jim in the dinghy), and tried to wash off the worst of the mud before we returned to Prism.
The calm waters created a great place to row. Our inflatable dinghy is a little cumbersome as a row boat, but we were still able to poke around in hidden corners and paddle up to the mouth of the tumbling stream which entered the inlet. The clear water gave us a great view of the fishy denizens of the inlet- presumably it helped the eagles too. We all enjoyed the slow pace of life for a few days before returning to busy little Tofino. Once again, the sea otters were out in force. Most of them stayed away from Prism and her rumbling motor, but a few came close. One was busy tucking in to a tasty breakfast of red rock crab, and another was having his morning wash, bobbing along on his back as he scrubbed his whiskery face with webbed paws. A third surfaced a few meters in front of Prism. She was just drifting along in neutral, but the otter quickly turned tail and dove. 14 tons of sail boat was not what the little creature had been expecting.
Our return to Tofino was much less eventful than our first arrival. We tied up to the dock, offloaded crew and took on ice and vegetables. Soon Bill and his little blue electric car were speeding off towards Victoria. Jim, Prism and I were heading that way too- at a more leisurely pace and via the islands of the Broken Group and the inlet of Bamfield.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.