The Log Book
Tales of an Artist Afloat
Portland Island is one of those inspirational places that just begs to be sketched and painted. It’s small enough to walk around in a few hours, but my watercolours and I would have happily stayed for weeks.
We found a relatively sheltered anchorage, and were soon in the dinghy exploring. Our side of the anchorage featured wonderful little bays, fringed by arbutus trees. Seals and bald eagles loved to come and visit, and we sometimes found huge schools of herring.
It is relatively straightforward to clamber up the rocks and get ashore. There are no deer, sheep or goats on the island, so the forest floor is lush and covered in undergrowth. Towering Douglas firs create cool shade, and the shore is fringed with the twisting red-gold branches of arbutus. Their bark was peeling, revealing green sap-filled wood beneath. I’m trying to decide how to paint that wonderful colouring.
Before I make a new sketchbook for the summer, I decided to finish off an old Fabriano Venezia book which I started back in February. It’s good cartridge paper, but I’m not enjoying it for watercolour any more so I packed some 5 x 7 sheets of Strathmore 500 series. The paper is hot-press, takes a light wash very well and is lovely to draw on. I’m ending up with a series of little plein air paintings; I think they’ll make a lovely mini art collection!
Portland Island is now a provincial park, but used to be home to a thriving First Nations community. For thousands of years, people collected clams and oysters to eat. The shells were discarded in middens on the foreshore. Wave action crushed and shattered the shells, and over the millennia they built up into white shell beaches. Portland Island has a number of shell beaches, and in the sun they felt almost tropical.
I strolled along the beaches, followed twisting forest paths and rambled through patches of dry golden grass. At Arbutus Point, the trees gave way to a rocky reef where a large group of cormorants stood drying their wings after an afternoon of fishing. I’d intended to be back on the boat for lunch, but kept getting distracted by opportunities to stop and sketch!
I just had to hope that Jim didn’t eat ALL the food before I eventually returned! I ended up so engrossed in my wanderings that I missed the path that took me down to our little bay, and walked a few extra headlands before I realized my mistake! A bit of backtracking was needed until I found Jim and the zodiac waiting to row me back to Island Prism.
The summons to Vancouver suddenly put us on a tight deadline. Immigration had given me an interview time for my permanent residency application and missing it would not look good, so we said goodbye to the Broughtons and followed the Johnstone Straight south. One day of very strong winds and big swells had us seeking refuge in Kelsie Bay, but otherwise the wind, tides and back currents worked with us and we reached Vancouver on schedule. My interview was successful, and we had a little time to play, cycling to Stanley Park and enjoying the urban wildlife of the city.
We ended up in Bennett Harbour because of the tide. With current against us and finicky winds, our sail from Vancouver had been slow, and we didn't think we'd make it to our destination of Saturna Island before dark. As we'd come south the temperature had risen, and it was warm enough that we could sit outside in the pleasant, sheltered anchorage and watch the sun set. It wasn't long until we'd sighted an eagle or two, and been visited by a curious seal. Despite the opinion of the local fishermen, I still find seals exciting. We see them most days, basking on rocks or popping up to the surface to breathe, watching us with large black eyes. To fishermen, they're a nuisance, competing with them for fish and sometimes stealing catches off the line (a trick also beloved of sealions).
After a restful night we continued south to Cabbage Island. There are a series of mooring buoys between Cabbage and Tumbo Islands, and we managed to snag a buoy an easy rowing distance from both islands. Cabbage Island was small but very interesting. Each beach was different- gravel, sandstone or white sand. The eroded sandstone formed a number of tide pools and lagoons, home to purple starfish, green anemones and darting little crabs and fish. In the forest grew Garry oak, red cedar and arbutus, a beautiful tree with reddish bark which peels off naturally to reveal fresh honey-gold wood underneath. The twisting limbs form fascinating shapes, and the bright green leaves contrast with red berries in the autumn.
Nearby Tumbo island was even more lovely and full of wildlife, some of which was very wild indeed. It's hard to get ashore near our anchorage, and when we tried to tie up the dinghy we realised that we'd need a much longer stretch of rope to reach any of the trees near the trail. Jim rowed bck to Prism whilst I sat on the sandstone shore and painted one of the reefs revealed at low tide. Then I heard a long growl from the bushes above me. Was it a bear? Wolf? Cougar? Could I use a paintbrush in self defence? I looked up and saw the beast towering over me... It was a racoon. She was standing on her hind legs and growling at me. I stood up too, stretched up on tiptoes and growled back. She backed off a little, but was still very unimpressed. Two little balls of fur dashed past her and up a tree. Mother Racoon was obviously in full defence mode!
When I was confident that she wasn't about to take a flying leap and land on my head, I returned to my painting. She kept watching me for a while and I heard the occassional grumble before Jim returned. We tied up the dinghy and I was pretty sure that she and her little family would be well away by the time we climbed up to the trail. I was wrong. The little ones were still up in their tree. I sketched them both, one watching me unconcerned as the other napped. Then a third head emerged- triplets! We didn't linger too long in case Mum came back, but they were very cute indeed. I don't have internet as I type this, but must remember to look up the correct word for a baby racoon. Cub? Kit? Racoonlet?
The forest trail was wide and well-maintained, fringed with towering cedars. It skirted a swampy area in front of an old homestead, where we saw a doe and her fawn wandering through the meadow. They were absolutely unconcerned until the barrel of my brush made a ringing sound in my water pot. The pair picked up the pace and trotted off into the trees, leaving me to finish my sketch before we continued on our way. It seems that a paintbrush can indeed terrorise wildlife! Eventually the trail led to a stoney beach, fringed with piles of driftwood. The headlands were covered in Garry oak and arbutus, and we had a beautiful view of the San Juan Islands, over the US border.
The loop trail took us close to the homestead and back to the dinghy. The racoons had gone and the tide was up. I tried to pull the dinghy to shore so we could get in, but Jim had used a stern anchor and it was stuck fast. There was nothing for it- I was finally going to get that swim. The water was bracing, but wasn't too bad once I was in. I swam out to the dinghy and wrestled with the anchor, pulling the line in different directions and trying to wriggle it free but nothing I could do was persuading it to shift. Jim braved the water to have a go, and was also getting nowhere fast until he hopped into the dinghy and tried rowing at full speed. Changing directions at intervals eventually did the job and, in a fantastic display of upper body strength, he was able to haul the anchor aboard and row us home. We returned in time to watch a company of four otters splashing, fishing and playing. One game seemed to involve jumping up out of the water and grabbing overhanging branches, making them bob and bounce until the otter plopped back down with a splash. Wrestling was another amusing pastime, both on the rocks and in the water.
The following day we popped the engine on the dinghy and motored back to the driftwood-fringed beach. The focus of the day was art; there were so many things to draw that one visit had not been enough! We hopped between sunny spots as I sketched the views. Lunch was spent sat on a huge log, watching ospreys hovering above the bay before plunging down to scoop up fish. On the dinghy ride home we figured out what had been attracting them. A large school of herring swam around the dinghy, their sides flashing silver in the light as they swam in unison. It's always a sight that lifts my heart a bit, for the pretty sparkliness and for the hope that there's still enough of a herring population to help sustain the rest of the marvellous wildlife that depends on them.
Spacious and inspirational, Blunden Harbour was a great anchorage. Most people stay there whilst waiting for a weather window to venture further up the BC coast, but we chose it as a destination in its own right. It was a secure anchorage with plenty of potential for art and exploration, including waterfalls, creeks and the remains of a First Nations village. As usual, my watercolour sketchbook was my companion on our dinghy adventures.
After our week of solitude it was a little strange to have to share our anchorage, but Blunden Harbour was still peaceful, with plenty of room. Even if they were only staying for the night, most people ventured ashore to wander along the midden beach. The village was inhabited until relatively recently, so some wooden house posts still remain. Huge logs protruding over the beach would once have supported a boardwalk, and bits of oxidised metal and colourful shards of glass and pottery are scattered amongst the shells on the beach. Middens are regarded as archaeological sites so digging amongst the shells is forbidden, but I find it fascinating to wander along and see what has risen to the top. I think I've written before about the way the colourful pottery fragments and bits of irridescent glass create a feeling of connection to the past, and Blunden Harbour was no exception.
The fog continued to come and go, not always behaving as forecast. Some days there would be glorious blue skies and sunshine above us, whilst the world outside the harbour remained cloaked in grey. We used the sunnny spells for our dinghy expeditions, venturing as far as we dared into the rapids at the entrance to the lagoon and paddling up river mouths which lead into the forest. Of course, my sketchbook was never far away and we'd often turn off the engine and drift as I drew. By the time I finished painting a sketch we'd inevitably be a fair distance from where I started, but I could still get the colours of the trees and water. Occasionally I used sea water to paint with, adding a little bit of the locale to the art.
Eventually we managed to drag ourselves away with promises of more beautiful anchorages and places to paint. It was a typical bipolar day- clear in the harbour, thick fog outside. I was helming us towards the entrance when Jim commented on an uncharted rock up ahead. I looked- and a plume of steam spouted up from the rock. It wasn't a strange geological phenomenon, but a humpback whale. I slowed down and we watched until she dived, then headed out into the Straights and turned South.
One of the joys of sailing is finding a spot so magical that you just want to stay as long as possible. God's Pocket Marine Park was one of those places. It contained beautiful anchorages, plenty of islets and bays to explore with the dinghy, the perfect place for a beach fire, white shell beaches and a population of wolves, sea lions, eagles, whales and resident sea otters. There was plenty for me to sketch and paint, and we'd still be there now if we hadn't run out of veggies!
Our first anchorage was in front of the Gods Pocket Resort. It was a decent spot in a South Easterly wind, though we knew we'd need to move when the wind swung round to the North West as the entrance would be totally exposed. Sailing up to the resort, we'd seen humpbacks and sea otters, and we shared the anchorage with a heron and a community of very vocal ravens. We sat in the cockpit until the rain began to fall and we retreated inside, leaving the wildlife in peace. However, not all of the wildlife was peaceful. In the night I was awoken by the howling of wolves, a primal sound which made me glad I was safe and secure on the boat.
The following day we ventured ashore. The weather was still drizzly and we were hoping we'd be allowed to pop into the resort restaurant for coffee and a biscuit. Kelly the chef invited us to join them for lunch, with toasted sandwiches and delicious soup- just what the rainy day called for. By the time we'd finished, the rain had slackened off and was good enough for me to try the walk up the hill behind the resort. I hoped that the wolves were napping elsewhere as I scrambled up the trail, rewarded by beautiful views of the clouds swirling over the neighbouring islands. It didn't take too long before the clouds swirled my way, and I descended again, muddy, damp and only munched by mozzies.
The wind was due to change, so we shifted our anchorage around the island. Our new spot, Harlequin Cove, was sheltered between two islands, with plenty of bays and islets to explore. For five nights we had the anchorage all to ourselves, with occassional fishing boats and passing the cruise ships the only sign that there was still a world outside.
Although we found the cove to be perfectly calm and settled, the huge quantities of driftwood tossed up on the beaches gave a hint of the ferocity of winter storms. One evening we took the dinghy onto a pebble beach and built a fire to cook sausages and sweet potatoes. We watched the sun set and kept warm in the glow of the embers as the sky turned peach and dusky violet.
One of the beaches was pure white, formed of bleached shells. This was a midden site, a sign that there was once a thriving First Nations community here. The totems and long houses are long gone, and these days the only permanent resident seems to be a sea otter.
Our sea otter friend was an endless source of fascination. He spent most of his time in the bay, sleeping amongst the fronds of kelp, hunting for clams and shellfish and frolicking around the anchorage to keep warm in the chilly waters. His mealtimes seemed to coincide with ours, and we often ate dinner with the percussion sounds of clams being hammered open in the background. The otter's feeding technique is to dive for molluscs or crustaceans then bring them to the surface. Crabs get wrenched apart, but shellfish present a tougher challenge and need to be smashed open. The otter places a stone on his stomach and strikes the shell until it shatters and he can get into the delicacy inside. I don't know if the otter collects a new stone each time or if he has a firm favourite that he carries around- if so, he seems like an animal in need of pockets.
After dinner was grooming time, followed by sleep, wrapped up in fronds of kelp to anchor and camoflage him. Two other otters often visited the bay during the day, but only one seemed to spend the night.
The many passes and bays invited dinghy adventures. We poked around stony beaches surrounded by cuboid rock formations and fringed with towering cedars, dripping with mosssy fronds. Crows wheeled above us and we often saw eagles, rhinoceros auks with their curious horns and enormous turkey vultures.
After a day in Port McNeill to do laundry and reprovision, we welcomed Jim's brother Bill and his girlfriend Kati onto Island Prism. They brought two extra guests with them- sea kayaks! Island Prism was going to be the mother ship on a week long sailing and paddling adventure.
August is known as the foggy month in these parts but nobody had told the fog, which was quite happy to turn up in July. It greeted us in pea-soupy fashion most mornings, before clearing away to become sunshine or drizzle. The bonus was we didn't have to feel guilty if we had a lie-in, though it did play havok with my habit of getting up early to paint!
It's been a while since I've sea kayaked. Getting into the kayaks from Prism was a bit of a learning curve, but with Kati's guidance I soon got more confident at using the paddle to stabilise the craft as I slid in from the dinghy. An unexpected swim in these parts would be chilly! The kayaks were a wonderful way to explore Village Island and its surrounding islets. The quiet paddles don't disturb wildlife, so we were able to get relatively close to harlequin ducks and wading birds, whilst seals popped up nearby undisturbed by our presence.
From Village Island we cruised to Lagoon Cove. A family friend of Kati's once owned the marina here, so we visited ashore for an afternoon, and ventured through the narrow pass of the Blowhole to see the nearby Minstrel's Cove. The marina here had seen better days and the buildings were quietly collapsing, but Kati made it round to the beautifully-kept houses on the shore and managed to get some stories of days gone by. Moored up in front of us was a fish boat, currently being hired by the government to research populations of marbled murrelets. These unpreposessing little birds are suffering a population decline. They nest in old growth forests and only lay one egg a year. Clear cutting, pollution and fishing net entanglement are taking their toll on numbers, prompting a survey of their current distribution. As fish populations are also facing collapse with many fisheries currently closed, using fish boats for research gives the fishermen an alternative source of employment.
We gave up fishing on Prism about five years ago, when we saw the intensive fishing industry in South East Asia. I rarely eat fish apart from as an occasional treat, and I feel a bit hippocritical when I do tuck in to a bit of halibut or smoked salmon. We made an exception for Kati's prawn trap as we were told that the prawn population in the area was healthy, and as novices we figured we wouldn't have an effect on the general populace. At Lagoon Cove we were given some tips on prawn fishing. We set the trap on a muddy bottom and left it overnight before our curiosity got the better of us. Our first haul gave us five prawns, our second four. By the end of our second day we had a collection of sixteen, who were a delicious appetiser when fried in butter.
Chatham Channel provided us with another wonderful adventure. Little islets scattered along the way harboured the kinds of old growth trees that we thought murrelets might love, and there were plenty of the little birds around. We anchored for lunch and dispatched Jim and Kati on the kayaks, whilst Bill and I birdwatched and made chocolate drop scones for Kati's birthday. When it was time to leave we found that the anchor chain had been attacked by a seaweed monster, so we all worked to dislodge the kelpy flotilla before it could cause more chaos. Kati and Jim then entered the main channel in the kayaks whilst Bill and I followed behind, carried along on the swiftly flowing current. Bill helmed us most of the way home where we cracked open a bottle of birthday prosecco.
Returning to Potts Lagoon, we set the prawn trap before finding a decent spot to anchor. Kati and I decided to explore the inner lagoon by kayak. Timing meant we had to do this at low tide, when the outflowing water from the lagoon flows over a set of boulders to create a small series of rapids. I didn't think it was passable until Kati proved me wrong, so I followed her up. Making the climb involved paddling hard, chosing a route that was relatively straight and not letting rocks or boulders snatch my paddle. Once over the rapids, the going was much easier. The current slackened and we watched kingfishers and numerous small fish, until the water became too shallow and we had to head back. Sliding back down the rapids was a lot of fun, as an incredulous and slightly nervous Jimmie watched us from the bottom.
We attempted a second kayak before we left the anchorage. We were the only craft on the little inlet we chose to explore, and we soaked up the tranquility as we chatted to ravens, watched huge schools of small fish and bright red crabs in the waters beneath us and kept our eyes open for the multitudes of darting kingfishers and occasional seal. We returned to Prism to find we had a visitor. Bill and Jim had met Terry from Australia on his boat Lonely Bird, and he'd stopped over for coffee. Our prawn trap was woefully empty, but he gifted us a bucketful, which became a delicious lunch and dinner!
On our way back to Port McNeill we stopped in the Plumper Group. This gorgeous set of islands are a marine park, and a wonderful place to kayak. The currents gave us a good work out but Kati and I saw plenty of seals, a buck on a small islet, eagles, noisy stellar sea lions, purple starfish and colourful orange anemones and sea cucmbers. We poked around between the islands before finally returning to Prism just before the heavens opened. Kati was a trooper and helmed Prism to Port McNeill, ready for their departure the next day.
Downtown Vancouver is always a fun place to anchor. False Creek lies at the heart of the city, and offers free anchorages alongside the main channel, as well as a number of full service marinas. Our preferred spot is anchored out by Stamps Landing, which is within easy walking distance to Granville Island as well as numerous shops. Downtown is just a bridge, a bike ride or a water taxi away.
We spent a few days getting things done. I had a commission to work on, internet updates to prepare and art supplies to organise before we went sailing for the summer. The Granville Island Market gave me a chance to stock up on ingredients I probably wouldn't see in the north of Vancouver Island. We met up with friends for drinks and dinner and also received some unexpected visitors.
I was down below painting whilst Jim was relaxing on deck, trying to get the get-up-and-go to get something done after lunch. My artistic flow was interrupted when he began to shout excitedly. I put down my brush and rushed up to see what he was fussing about. There they were; four orcas swimming sedately down False Creek, with a police boat keeping its distance behind them and plenty of awed onlookers. Jim thinks the cops were there to make sure the whales didn't start snacking on the local seal population and kick off a mid-afternoon massacre. I think they were probably more interested in the welfare of the whales, but I can be boringly sensible like that.
After visiting Science World at the end of the inlet and finding that the seals had scarpered, the orca returned the way they came. I took pictures as they passed Prism, surfacing in unison, then swam past artsy Granville Island. The little water taxis received a bonus whale watching experience, and I was delighted with the interruption. It took a few hours until Stamps Landing's resident seal felt comfortable popping back, however.
We left Prism at anchor for a few days to go and visit Harrison and Mission. Jimmie is now a grandpa, so we were off to see little Mackenzie and her proud parents Peter and Keelie. Cuddles were had, a barbecue was cooked and we managed to add in time for a soak in the Harrison Hot Springs and a search for sasquatch at the Sasquatch Days Festival. The beach by Harrison Lake was lined with canoes, and we sat on the wall and watched the racing.
Returning to Vancouver, we were ready to raise the anchor, catching a weather window to head north to Parksville. A break from art was necessary as we helped get Jim's Mom's house ready for sale, then we continued up the coast to Quathiaski Cove on Quadra to catch up with Jim's friend Craig and his wife Jenna. The sunsets here were glorious, and as the sun sunk in the sky I sketched and watched otters frolicking on the dock. This was very cute until they started peeing on our mooring lines; it turns out that otters are quite stinky. Apparently they also snuck on board to explore when we went to bed, though thankfully the only calling cards they left were muddy paw prints on the bottom of our upturned dinghy on the foredeck.
As we left Quadra, we saw our first humpback of the season. It was also heading north for a little while, though it vanished when we neared Seymour Narrows. I don't think I'll ever get bored with watching their blows, looking out for their tail as they dive and trying to predict where they will come up next.
Our day had been careful timed to get through the Narrows. They're best passed at slack tide, when the water is benign, though being carried through with the tide can be an exciting adrenaline rush! Getting through against the current is a risky business even with a powerboat, and would be impossible for Prism!
We made our way through without drama or incident, and anchored for the night at Billy Goat Bay. The lush kelp blocked the first entrance, but the second was passable. We found good holding with a decent amount of swinging room, and settled in to watch a pair of bald eagles adding sticks to their nest. We couldn't see any chicks, but construction and maintenance were definitely keeping the duo busy.
Our final leg took us up to Port McNeill. The currents in the Johnstone Straight made this last day a bit of a slog at times, but the moody clouds and ever-changing weather over the mountainsides meant there was always something beautiful to look at. We dropped anchor and had a day to organise last minute provisions before our friends Jacqui and Pete arrived from the UK.
With Jacqui and Pete cosily installed, we embarked on a week of exploration and whale watching. The resident Northern pod of orca were off elsewhere, but we saw plenty of humpbacks, Pacific white-sided dolphins and harbour porpoises. Many seals lived in the area, lounging on rocks, 'mermaiding' their heads and tails out of the water to avoid the cold rising tide and popping up to investigate the boat. In Farewell Bay, the two residents seemed extremely friendly, even showing up to say good bye when we raised our anchor the following morning.
After another day cruising with whales, we motored round to Village Island. We don't often get to raise the sails during our summer cruising in this area. The air is usually still. When there is wind, it gets funnelled between the islands and due to Murphy's Law it inevitably become a headwind.
Village Island is a beautiful anchorage. On a clear day (which is a bit of a rarity), the mountains of Vancouver Island are visible. We've seen seals, porpoises, otters and weasels swimming in the waters around the island. Low tide attracts herons and wading birds, eagles keep watch from the tops of the trees and ravens flutter about getting up to mischief. Last summer, a bear had made its home behind the remains of the indigenous village of 'Mimkwa̱mlis, and this year we saw deer grazing on nearby islets, presumably accessed at low tide. We piled into the dinghy to putter around the islands, and spent hours sat in the cockpit watching two eagles on their nest. We were also happy to see last year's chick flapping around, still in his brown plumage. Next year his head and tail will turn white as he reaches maturity.
When we finally managed to drag ourselves away from nest watch, we took Island Prism down Beware Passage to reach Potts Lagoon. GPS has made this ominously named passage straightforward to navigate, but it would have been a complicated business back in the days of chart, compass and sextant. Wikipedia suggests that the stretch of water was named after HMS Beware, but I think that the presence of Dead Point, Caution Rock, Beware Rock, Care Rock and Care Island plus numerous unnamed shoals all present a more telling story- you want to be paying attention when you're cruising round here!
We anchored twice in the passage. Our first stop was near Dead Point, at Monk's Wall. There were never any monks here, but a family of white settlers quite literally made it their home, building their house themselves from stones they gathered on the island. We took the dinghy ashore to poke around rock pools filled with clear water, and to hunt for the remains of an old house. Lengths of wall were still standing, including the sides of the main entrance. Previous explorers had discovered pottery, glass, show leather and ironwork, which had all been laid out in an informal outdoor museum. We listened to the ravens and wondered if the creator of the large pile of fresh bear poo was far away. The mosquitoes certainly weren't- they'd claimed this place, thank you very much, and all visitors were welcome to be the buffet. I managed to complete a sketch before escaping to the bug-free rocky shore, where Jim was nibbling on pungent wild leeks. Jacqui and Pete soon joined us to watch the turquoise water, and enjoy not being nibbled themselves.
At the other end of Beware Passage was Kalugwis, the site of another First Nations village. Emily Carr painted here, and old photos show striking totems and imposing long houses. Today, the village site is overgrown. A couple of roofs of more modern buildings can be seen peeking out from the mass of vegetation, but the carvings and long houses are either long gone or absolutely engulfed. We found the remains of part of the board walk on the foreshore, and strolled along the white shell beach. The shells come from the midden, the remains of centuries of seafood dinners. Rusted metal, fragments glass and shards of pottery add splashes of colour- oxidised greens and reds, and the bright patterns of the china chosen by somebody long ago. The pottery is the thing that makes me feel most in touch with the people in these places. Willow pattern, florals, bright geometric- what do the patterns say about the people who lived amongst these islands?
The plan was to anchor at Potts Lagoon for a night. It's a sheltered anchorage with a few float homes around the edge, ranging from joyfully bright to rather dilapidated. A series of islands and inlets mean there's plenty to explore, including the interior of the lagoon itself. At high tide, it's possible to take a dinghy into the shallow lagoon at the back of the inlet. At other times, the water pouring out over boulders creates a set of salt water rapids which would be impossible to navigate in our soft-bottomed inflatable dinghy. We timed the tide carefully when we set out to explore, entering shortly before slack tide. The current was considerable, but there was enough water for us to get through. As we progressed further, we stayed alert for rocks lurking below the surface. The channel made a dog leg into a pool, containing an old wharf, possibly a relic of logging in the past. The shallow water may have provided us with a challenge, but it created the perfect hunting grounds for kingfishers. There were dozens of them, plunging into the water after fish, giving shrill staccato cries as we passed.
The best wildlife viewing turned out to be from the boat. We'd barely seen a bear all week, then found that bears are like buses- you wait for ages then they all come along at once. Jacqui was thrilled to see a cinnamon-coloured bear strolling along the foreshore. It suddenly broke into a run, and dashed off the beach. Then another bear appeared on the beach. It strode purposefully along the foreshore, disappearing into the trees where the first bear had also vanished. Half an hour or so later, there was more bear activity on the shore. Another golden-coloured bear ambled across, this one with the hump and shaggy ruff of a grizzly. It rolled some rocks, searching for crunchy crabs and other critters, before traipsing off into the vegetation.
Pairs of eagles kept watch from the tree tops and a kingfisher claimed the top of a derelict wharf as its lookout of choice, occassionally plunging off to snatch passing fish. Ravens tocked and chattered and the breeze barely rippled the surface of the water.
It was a paradise but Jacqui and Pete's adventure was drawing to a close. We planned a route back to Alert Bay via Baronet Passage, a long, straight channel. As the tide was low, we kept our eyes open for foraging bears and eventually spotted one on the foreshore. We lost sight of him as he rounded the headland, but we hoped to catch up with him on the other side. Indeed we did- but we hadn't expected him to be in the water! He'd decided that this was the moment to swim between islands, and he obviously hadn't looked both ways before crossing the channel. He seemed a little disgruntled to be sharing the stretch of water with a little yellow sailboat, paddling in front of us doing the bear paddle. We kept our distance as much as the current would allow and made the most of the photo opportunity. Reaching the other side, he clambered out, gave himself a good shake and plodded off- presumably to complain about the terrible traffic these days.
Alert Bay is always fascinating. It's full of colourful houses and carved totems, with old buildings built out over the sea. It's not picture-postcard-perfect as some of the structures are slowly crumbling, but that's one of the things I love about it. Jacqui, Pete and I enjoyed a slow and pleasant morning, exploring the Umista Cultural Centre, grabbing coffee at Culture Shock and meeting Jimmie for lunch. We decided on Canadian cuisine- halibut and poutine (hot chips with cheese curds and gravy), and made the great decision to eat at Passn Thyme. Jacqui and I decided to enjoy a glass of wine with the feast. Part way through the meal, Jim pointed excitedly out the window “Look! Orcas!” We all turned quickly, as did the neighbouring tables. No, there wasn't a lunchtime cetacean cabaret. Jim just wanted to distract me so he could drink a big glug of my wine. His punishment was to helm us back to Port McNeill, where we enjoyed a farewell dinner and said goodbye to Jacqui and Pete after a fantastic week of adventures.
My sketching during the Spring was sporadic, though I painted most days. I let a temperamental scanner and weak WiFi get in the way of sharing what I did do, so here is a round up from my 8" x 10" Stilman and Birn sketchbook.
In retrospect, the size of the sketchbook got in my way. A big book is great in summer, but I do like to fill the page- or double page spread- when sketching, and in the cold this just wasn't fun. Multiple sketches on a page just didn't feel as satisfying, and so my book often languished at home. It took me 5 months to fill the thing, which is a very long time for me. Takeaway- use smaller books for the chillier months!
Because these sketches cover such a long span, I'm not going to do much commentary but will let the pictures tell the story. Here's boat life in Victoria BC, from January to May 2019!
It was wonderful to be back on the water again. Farewell beverages had been supped with cruising friends, Jim's family had joined us for happy hour at the Delta hotel, my exhibition had been packed away and we were ready to cast off the mooring lines.
Our first day of sailing had blue skies and the current was in our favour. Brightly coloured whale watching boats zoomed past us as we left Victoria's inner harbour and made a port turn into the Juan de Fuca Straight. We didn't see any whales, though the watchers remained a featured for most of our journey. The tourist boats are supposed to keep away from the stressed and struggling resident pods, instead concentrating their tours on the plentiful population transient orcas which regularly pass through. Lucky boats have also started seeing humpback whales, returning from their winter holidays to Hawaii. Hopefully they'll be up in the Broughton Archipelago by the time we get there at the end of the month!
Wind and tide carried us past Trial Island at over 8 knots; it felt like Prism was as excited to be sailing as we were. Other sailboats were making the most of the Saturday sunshine as we turned North through the Discovery Islands. As the wind died off, we gave the motor some exercise on the last part of our journey to Tsehum Harbour. We tied to a mooring buoy and settled in to the laid-back ambience. Eagles flew above us, calling in their tittering voices, and seals lounged on the rocks near the boat. We did our best to enjoy the golden evenings out in the cockpit, until the chill of the Canadian evenings drove us inside.
Tsehum Harbour was well-served by buses, so Jim popped back to Victoria to get some last things done whilst I spent a day volunteering at Coast Collective. Then the toilet needed some work, so whilst I got things done on my computer, Jim made the necessary repairs. You can imagine the four letter words he chose to describe the job...
Our journey north then took us to Cowichan Bay. We moored at the Fisherman's Wharf then set off to explore. The little village was easy to fall in love with. It's worth a visit for the bakery alone, which bakes fresh bread and pastries from organic ancient grains, locally grown where possible. Their cinnamon rolls were amazing, and became part of our daily routine along with a cup of the excellent coffee. I sent Jim on a bike ride to give myself some time to investigate the pottery, boutique and perfumery, and drew some of the numerous wharves which stretched out into the bay. At low tide, the head of the bay would fill with dozens of herons, stalking the mud flats and snagging passing fish.
There were plenty of things to sketch, and I was glad I'd made a new sketchbook out of Bee cotton rag paper and some leather I'd picked up at Thrift Craft Victoria. My 'perfect sketchbook' requirements change quite often, and I think I'll always end up back with my travellers' sketchbook and homemade inserts, but after months of wrestling with a too-large Stilman and Birn Beta, I was ready for something new to kick start my summer sketching. My little hand-bound book has 48 pages, each 6” x 4.5”. Right now, these feel like a great size for sketching on the go. The Bee paper is 100% cotton and is a pretty smooth cold press, so my Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen works perfectly. Noodlers Lexington Grey ink dries quickly enough on it that it doesn't transfer between pages (the major down side of some other cotton papers I've tried to use in sketchbooks), and it handles washes beautifully. Some of my granulating mineral colours look a little strange on the smooth surface, so Serpentine and Green Apatite might be taking a holiday from my paint box for a little while in favour of the less romantic but more biddable Sap Green.
The area around Cowhichan Bay cried out to be explored, so we pedalled out to Maple Grove. I was surprised to learn that the eponymous trees are tapped for their sap, which is then boiled down to create syrup. I'd always assumed that sugar maples were confined to the east coast of North America but I'm sure the sugary stuff of the west is just as good.
The trail took us through the grove of mature maples, festooned with trailing mosses, and along a river to a lookout with wonderful views of the bay. I soon wished I'd taken my bird book to identify the various species of swallows, blackbirds and colourful small darty things that we came across. Back on Prism, I looked up iridescent tree swallows, American blackbirds with their gaudy red flashes and little tufted titmice, whose blue-grey, buff and russet colour scheme feels very on-trend. The vegetation took me back to England, with briar roses, blackberry bushes and ox eye daisies (or their Canadian cousins) growing amongst tall grasses and thimbleberries.
The village made a great base whilst I worked on a commission for a local couple. I'd been asked to paint their house, which is up on a hillside and commands stunning views over the bay and surrounding mountains. They wanted something big, so I splashed out on a full sheet of 600 gsm watercolour paper. Sometimes it surprises me how much of a difference paper can make. I love my usual 300 gsm Fabriano Artistico, but doubling the weight of the paper makes a world of difference. It can handle heavy washes without a ripple, giving even more control over how the paper behaves, and was stiff enough that I could still rotate it when painting. This was handy because the sheet was the same size as Prism's table! If I couldn't turn the sheet to reach different areas, I would need to paint standing up, which would get pretty uncomfortable as the table is quite low.
With the art finished to everyone's satisfaction, we had time to grab one last loaf of bread before turning towards Vancouver. The sun decided to shine upon us, though the north wind brought chilly air and the faint scent of narwhal. We'd timed the tides right through Samsun Straight and were swept through Portlier Pass. We pitied the other poor sailboat going nowhere fast as it tried to fight against the current. Whirl pools, tide rips, currents and upwellings kept me busy on the helm until I pleaded beautiful scenery and put Jim on the wheel so I could sketch. Afternoon light gave a golden glow to the rocks and illuminated the greens and reddish bark on the arbutus trees, whilst the mainland and the Olympic peninsula were shifting shades of snow-capped blue. My hand-sized sketchbook let me get multiple sketches finished throughout the afternoon, exploring the colours and how to capture the swirling currents and billowing clouds.
It was midnight by the time we picked our way amongst the anchored freighters of Englishman Bay and found a spot to drop the anchor in False Creek. Being early in the season, finding an anchorage was straightforward. We set the hook, turned on the anchor light and put the engine to sleep. It didn't take long for us to follow it, and I fell asleep dreaming of how to mix mountain blues.
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.
Victoria is often described as being the most English of all Canada's cities. It definitely retains a strong British colonial feel, evident in the architecture of buildings like the Empress Hotel. There is a wealth of things to sketch, but my time in Victoria was busy and my sketchbook mainly stayed in my bag. Instead I painted my way through a pair of exciting commissions, and filled in a pile of much less exciting paperwork.
I managed a couple of quick drawings of the little water taxis which ply the harbour and the stag which reclined on the front lawn. One day we cycled into the city, past lovely beaches and views across the Juan de Fuca Straight to the USA and snow-capped Mount Baker. Once upon a time Mount Rainier was visible too, but is now unsketchable- Bill said that these days it's always obscured by Seattle smog. In the heart of Victoria I made the most of a five minute break to sketch the state legislature, and grabbed time for a few quick drawings of the totems by the museum downtown. A young heron in the park modelled for me beautifully, though the older birds in the nest above made me nervous- the white state of the pavement suggested that I shouldn't linger too long.
I managed to snag a few hours to visit the annual Moss Street Paint Out. The entire length of this street is closed to traffic for the day, as cars are replaced by hundreds of artists, many of whom were painting in situ. Maybe one day I can join them!
I knew I hadn't given the city justice, but I'm sure we'll be back and perhaps then I can explore more thoroughly. After dinner with Peter, Jen, Bob and Leslie- four cruisers who we first met up in Tofino- we hauled the anchor and sailed overnight to reach Steveston, just south of Vancouver. The grand plan was to be there for breakfast with Harold and Dan, two of Jim's favourite partners in crime.
Currents provide the greatest challenge to cruising between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Vast quantities of water enter the straits between the two land masses- and then gush out again when the tide changes. It's a bit like the passes of Polynesia's atolls- if there's too much water going the wrong way, you're going nowhere fast, as demonstrated by our experience the week before near Race Rocks. Jim had checked the currents and tides before we planned our departure. But the best laid plans can go awry- we thought we'd get a nice push as we sailed out of Victoria, but the current was no help and we pottered along at our usual 5.5 knots. Shortly after entering Active Pass the current was against us, and we had to hug the shore and use back eddies to make progress. Our chances of making breakfast became increasingly slim.
Things didn't get any better as we made our way to the Fraser River. Herons, eagles and seals provided a much needed mental boost as we struggled along, rearranging social engagements and wishing we'd had more sleep. Finally we chugged into Steveston's marina, tied up and went to find Dan, Diane, Harold, Jenny and some much-needed caffeine.
Steak pie and coffee at the Buck'n'Ear soon perked me up, and Diane managed to sweet talk the waitress into bringing me a pre-birthday slice of sticky toffee pudding. The British pub grub left me feeling appropriately ship-shape and Bristol fashion, and we had a great catch up, reminiscing about the various ways Jim, Harold and Dan got in trouble back in the day (thankfully they have Diane, Jenny and I to help them behave themselves now).
Steveston was a great town, with charming buildings and lovely walking along the dyke trails. We ended up extending our stay another night so that Jim could go and get into more trouble with the boys and I could stop and sketch. The buildings were tempting but the dykes really caught my imagination, with beautiful wildlife, intensely-coloured plant life and wide blue skies. Mountains fringed the flat landscape and I was spoiled for choice of what to draw!
Casting off the mooring lines, we headed north to Vancouver. This time the tides were on our side and Prism reached 9 knots as she smoked along the Fraser River. From there we puttered through English Bay to False Creek where we would be anchored for the next few days.
Vancouver is a vibrant city. Like any place with a large population, there are places you don't want to venture on a dark night (or even a moderately gloomy day), and the signs of homelessness and drug use were heartbreaking. But Vancouver has a lot of good points. Like Auckland and Sydney, you're never far from the water and there are lots of charming, arty neighbourhoods. And art stores. Yes, I was happy. We moored Prism at Granville Island for three free hours, had lunch and found the art store.
All too soon, it was time for Jim to drag me out of Opus (an art store big enough to get lost in). We motored a little further and dropped the anchor just a short dinghy ride from the city. Perhaps not the quietest of anchorages, but the traffic noise was tolerable and we enjoyed watching the daily parades of water taxis, dragon boats, kayaks, seals and floating barbecues. It was easy to get ashore and the city has a great bus network, so our first expedition was to the Museum of Anthropology at the university. We spent hours in the Great Room alone, surrounded by incredible First Nations carvings and learning about the history of the west coast. It was a sketching paradise!
Jim's niece Katherine and two of her friends joined us for the Symphony of Fire. This is an annual competition where three countries explode things to music over three nights. We motored out to English Bay. There were hundreds of yachts already at anchor, and a number of people who thought they owned the entire bay (“You can't anchor there! Your mast will get in my photos even though I'm a huge launch and tower above your deck!”). Eventually we dropped the hook and fell back to a spot where we were not annoying the overprivileged too much. The fireworks were spectacular, ranging from exuberant to beautifully subdued depending on the music. My favourites looked almost like leaping fish, with pretty showers of glitter a close second. I've come a long way since I was a small child who used to cry at the noise!
I was also lucky enough to meet Bob Altwein. He's a local urban sketcher who had offered to show us a bit of the city- he's also a very kind and knowledgeable man, and fascinating to talk to. He introduced us to Jesse, who is 24, not at all Millenial and sailing his 19' sailboat round the West Coast. We enjoyed dim sum, then a leisurely drive around the neighbourhoods of Chinatown and Strathcona. Cantonese-style buildings made Chinatown feel like I was back in Hong Kong, and Strathcona had a great feeling of community. The residents have worked hard to regenerate this area, which is green and full of neatly painted heritage buildings. We had coffee and delicious bakery treats at the Union Market- and were amazed to find that this charming little cafe and grocery was also very reasonably priced. No wonder it was busy! Jim and Jesse talked about sailing whilst I drew the cafe and Bob drew me. We were having so much fun that we invited Bob and Jesse to help us move Island Prism over to the Vancouver Rowing Club, where we were going to enjoy two nights of hot showers and Stanley Park.
After mooring and a hasty change of attire, we met Diane for a pre-birthday dinner at Prospect Point. It was a lovely evening, the mussels were amazing and suddenly we were the last diners in the restaurant.
The next day was my birthday- the dawn of a new decade (I think I'm still in denial). We celebrated with an adventure to Whistler. The drive along the Sea to Sky Highway flew by with an endless procession of gorgeous views. In Whistler, we bought lunch from the grocery store to eat on the mountain. $58 let us explore the lofty heights by gondola and chair lift. The views from the top were stunning on such a clear day, and the suspension bridge at the peak emphasised quite how high up we were. The Peak to Peak gondola took us to Blackcomb, with a great vista of the lakes and little town nestled far below us. It's almost tempting to come back in winter- so long as I don't have to ski. Jim also wants me to tell you all about the white wine cocktail he bought me. Bright pink and in a glass as big as my head- I was merrily 'trundled' (to quote my hubbie) as we got the bus back to Vancouver.
Stanley Park was our only real disappointment. On our previous visit I'd loved the totems and we'd spent a great day exploring. It seems like summer at 10 am is not the time to go- the tourist hordes had descended with selfie sticks in hand and all atmosphere had vanished. We cycled away from the crowds, but you're not allowed to pull over on the cycle path and take photos, even if no other bikes are coming (really- I got yelled at by a custodian when I tried). We didn't want to cycle the whole of the park but the entire cycle system is one way. Eventually we braved the custodian's wrath and peddled the wrong way to the Aquarium and its beautiful Bill Reid Killer Whale, before making our escape back to Prism and returning to the relative calm of anchoring at French Creek. At least the only people yelling at us there were the geese. A visit to the art gallery to spend a few hours gazing at Emily Carr's beautiful paintings was a good antidote to park insanity, and soon it was time to begin our journey north, up to Telegraph Cove.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.