An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
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.