The Log Book
Tales of an Artist Afloat
The Broughton Archipelago is a very special place. Tucked between the North East tip of Vancouver Island and the Coastal Range of mainland British Columbia, the area is a haven for wildlife from sea otters to orca and humpback whales. Wolves and black bears are abundant, whilst grizzlies maintain strongholds amongst the islands and mainland. It's an artist's paradise, and my watercolours and sketchbook were kept busy when we sailed around the region in the summer.
One of the most famous books about the area is called 'Following the Curve of Time'. Written by M. Wylie Blanchett, it tells of adventurous summers cruising with her five children on their 25' boat, 'Caprice'. Six people on a 25' vessel makes our life on 36' Island Prism seem capacious, especially during the summers when they added the family dog to the mix!
As we cruised during the summer of 2019, Jim and I dipped into Blanchett's book. Her gentle prose is captivating, and we often found ourselves in the same bays. When we called into Monday Harbour, we even followed her anchoring advice, using her description to track down the lovely, sheltered Tuesday Cove. Named by Blanchett, you won't find it marked on any maps, but we spent days snug and safe, visiting the white shell beach, exploring the forest and watching herons and harbour porpoise in the bay.
I began a series of large paintings in the summer, based on the sketches I was making as we cruised. The third in the series was of Tuesday Cove, and I titled it 'Following the Curve of Time' in honour of Blanchett, whose experiences ninety years ago still rang true with us.
Moored back in Victoria Inner Harbour for the winter, I knew I wanted to do something special with my trio of paintings. At 20" x 16", they were too large for the winter shows I was submitting to. Rereading the Curve of Time once again, lines from the book brought images from my sketchbook to mind. Inspiration hit- I wanted to create a series of paintings inspired by our cruising and Blanchett's writing. I felt a connection with the book- at the risk of sounding overly arty, it was as if the author and I were reaching across that curve of time and sharing experiences in the past and present. From experiences with cantankerous marine diesel engines to descriptions of shimmering schools of herring and wheeling flocks of sanderlings- a wading bird still common in the Broughton- our summers of exploration had a lot in common despite the ninety years that separated us.
Returning to my sketchbooks, I played with my paint to settle on a range of colours that could capture the warmth of a summer day or the mystery of rolling banks of fog. Pthalo Blue gave me the bright tones I needed and Indanthrone Blue was perfect for deep waters. Jadeite genuine, a watercolour paint made from the gemstone, created rich greens for trees. When mixed with Amethyst genuine, it made beautiful greys, perfect for mists and clouds. The tiny pieces of Amethyst adds a subtle lustre to some of the paintings, whilst others gain a gentle sparkle from blue-grey Kyanite genuine. Combined with natural siennas and umbers, I loved the idea of using earth and water to create my islands and seas.
After a summer of inspiration gathering and months of painting, I am delighted to launch the Curve of Time collection. The collection is on display as my solo show in the Cedar Hill Arts Centre Cafe Gallery in Victoria, BC, where it will hang until 17th February 2020. I shall be at the centre demonstrating from 9.30 - 3.00 on Wednesday 3rd, Saturday 8th, Wednesday 12th, and Thursday 13th February. I'll also be participating in the Family Day programme on Monday 17th.
The Curve of Time Collection is also available unframed online- please click here to view available paintings from the series.
Being an artist feels like a constant learning experience. Every time I chat to another artist, I pick up a tip or idea. Then there are the discoveries I make myself as I play with my materials and become more mindful of why some things work whilst others don’t.⠀
My biggest lessons learned tend to be the mental ones though. Art can require quite a bit of resilience- outer and inner critics can be vocal and sometimes I feel like I’m being a fraud- who gave me permission to be an artist anyway? It feels odd that something I love so much can leave me feeling drained and sad sometimes. The biggest thing I’ve learned to help combat art-induced negativity is to remember why I paint in the first place. To hold on to the moments when I’m in the zone, hypnotized by the way the paint flows across the paper, the gorgeous granulation of jadeite and the magical colours I can mix from phthalo blue and green. I need to remember the feeling of joy as a school of fish emerge from my blues or when I add the shadows that will make a tree pop.⠀
The more process-focused I become, the less it matters if a piece went wrong- it becomes a learning experience to help me with my next painting. If I enjoyed creating a piece of work, it doesn’t matter so much if someone else doesn’t like it- and I can concentrate on the fact that something that brings me joy can make other people happy too. I don’t think I’ve silenced my inner critic forever, but making the most of the process rather than obsessing about the product is helping to take away part of her power and makes it easier to figure out when she’s right- and when she isn’t. ⠀
I’d love to hear what your biggest creative lesson learned is, whether it’s for your head or for your medium!⠀
Mounting a watercolour painting onto wood solves two problems- the high cost of framing and the fact that glass can feel like it gets between the viewer and the image. Wooden cradles are much cheaper than mats and picture frames, and allow the viewer an unrestricted view of the art, without reflections obstructing their enjoyment. An added benefit is the fact that 2" thick cradles can also stand by themselves, making them ideal in small homes where wall space is limited, or in rental properties where hanging art is discouraged. A small cradle stands nicely on a shelf or desk and takes up less space than a frame. This tutorial will show you how to mount a painting onto wood so that the art can stand the test of time.
You might want to practice the process with unpainted paper first (if you miss the step of varnishing it, then you can still paint on the paper after it's mounted and seal it at the end). The process is not reversible, so you can't change your mind after a piece has been mounted!
I first learned about this process from Karen Smith, and thought I'd share my experiences!
You wil need:
watercolour paper/ painting (a little larger than the cradle)
spray varnish (I use Krylon UV archival matte varnish)
gel medium (I use Liquitex Professional Matte Gel)
brayer (a roller- you can also use the back of a tablespoon)
cold wax for extra protection (such as Jacquard Dorlan's cold wax or Gamblin cold wax)
soft cloths for wax application and buffing
To protect the watercolour from light and dust, I seal it with four or five layers of Krylon UV archival matte varnish. The UV element is important as this will stop the painting from fading if exposed to light. Golden also make an excellent archival varnish, but it is more expensive and requires a longer drying time before recoating. A UV archival semi-gloss or gloss varnish is another option. It will intensify the colours of the painting and give a sheen slightly reminiscent of the wet paint.
To stick the watercolour paper onto the cradle, I use an acrylic gel medium such as Liquitex Professional Matte Gel. This acts as a strong adhesive when dry. It's preferable to regular glues as it is acid-free so will not yellow your paper over time. It also acts as a barrier that prevents acids from the wood from discolouring your painting.
I like to coat both the back of my painting and the wooden block with the matte gel. This doubles the protection and ensures there are no air bubbles.
Then place your painting on to the wood. Use a brayer to press it down (the back of a tablespoon works too). Press the paper down evenly and check that the edges and corners are sticking properly.
Turn the painting face down onto a clean surface. Place a few large heavy books on top to press it down (try not to get distracted by reading the books, even if they're by Tommy Kane). Leave overnight to dry.
With a sharp craft knife, trim the painting along the edge of the cradle. I find if I keep the cut parallel to how I'm sitting, I get more control and the paper does not snag. If I try pulling the knife towards me, I'm more likely to end up with snags and wobbles. Cut flush to the wood so you don't end up with paper overlapping.
Sand the cradle and the edges of the paper to give an even finish. A 1500 grit paper or similar smooths everything off beautifully. I have also tried coarser grits to tame unruly edges and remove traces of gel from the cradle, then following up with the extra fine paper to get the smooth finish.
Attach D-rings and picture wire to the back of your cradle if you want to hang the finished piece. For extra protection, you can apply a layer of cold wax, such as Jacquard Dorland's cold wax. Use a soft cloth to put wax onto the painting and spread in circular motions, then buff with a clean cloth to achieve a smooth clear finish. The wax creates a layer which can be removed and replaced by art restorers without damaging the artwork. The varnish becomes a barrier layer, allowing this process to happen. You can also apply wax to the wooden cradle.
The watercolours shown are from my new Twilight Birds collection and are all mounted on wood. I've chosen sizes from 3" x 4" to 6" x 6", so they're perfect for standing in small spaces or sending as Christmas presents.
Saturna was a wonderfully sleepy, timeless island. It ticks along at its own pace, inhabited by retirees, holiday makers and the odd artist. This made it a wonderful place for cycling, as the roads were all but empty. We saw more deer than cars.
Jim and his mountain bike conquered the big hills without me, but my little fold up bike and I were up for the ride to East Point. Jim described the route as 'flat', which was a bit misleading- 'gently rolling' would be more accurate. I got a bit more exercise than I'd expected, but bike and I made it intact to the little museum looking out over the Juan de Fuca Straight.
There used to be a lighthouse here once, but when it was decommissioned it was decided that the best course of action was to blow it up. The lighthouse and lighthouse keeper's cottage were soon demolished, despite the protests of locals. However, the instructions for explosion did not include a termination sentence for the little building that housed the fog horn. Some forgetful soul had missed it off the hit list, so the demolition crew left it standing. This sole survivor is now a tiny museum, packed full of interesting information about the history and nature of Saturna and the Gulf Islands. I read about the Pig War between the British and the US, sparked off by the shooting of an unruly British hog who had invaded an American's garden. The pig was the only casualty in the war, but the greater debate was who the islands belonged to- should the US or British be ruling on the pig's demise? After a period of military posturing by both sides, an arbitrator was brought in. It was decided that the Juan de Fuca Straight was the deepest of the channels that ran through the islands, and was therefore most navigable and the most suitable boundary. The islands south of the Straight would belong to the US and became the Juan de Fuca Islands, those to the north would be the Canadian Gulf Islands. This border confused my phone, which spent most of our visit determined that we were in the USA.
Looking round the museum was interesting. Looking at the museum was beautiful. Bright white against the golden grass and blue sky, it stood above the swirling waters of the aptly named 'Boiling Reef. To the south were the blues and purples of the Juan de Fucas. To the north we had a beautiful view of Tumbo Island. Beyond it, the Gulf Islands studded the sea off to the horizon.
We had anchored Prism in Winter Harbour. When we arrived it was a busy mooring field but after Labour Day the call of work and school summoned the other boats home. Island Prism sat in the perfect spot to enjoy the wonderful sunrises visible through the harbour entrance, and with the shortening days I was often up early enough to see them. Evenings were spent ashore, enjoying the golden light and catching up with sailing friends.
Inevitably, laundry time was creeping round. We sailed up to Ganges, on Salt Spring Island, and were most surprised to find out that there was not a laundrette on the island. The dry cleaners would wash clothes at the princely sum of $21 a load and one of the marinas had facilities we could use- but we had to take a berth with them, and their moorage rates were budget-blowing. So I had to resort to good old-fashioned hand washing.
Salt Spring is known for its arts community, and there were plenty of galleries for me to explore. Gallery 8 was full of incredible work by masters in their media- Carol Evans' watercolours were particularly mind-blowing. I succumbed to the lure of a teal blue dress from Priestess and Deer and oggled cards at Inspiration. We thoroughly enjoyed the busy town but after a couple of days we were ready to move on from the bustling anchorage and steady stream of float planes.
Russell Island was a gem. It's not big, but it's peaceful and very pretty. The little anchorage would get busy in the late afternoon with boats popping out from Sidney for a beer with a view, but they'd up anchor around seven to get home before dark. The little homestead on the island used to belong to a Hawaiian settler. The apple trees which she and her husband planted were heavy with fruit, and Jim picked a few to enjoy on the porch. The fruit of one tree was rather tart, but they'd go perfectly with the ripening blackberries. If only Island Prism had a decent oven for pie baking!
The trees were filled with birds, filling the air with music. I recognised chestnut-backed chickadees and the squeaky red-breasted nuthatches, but the little plain brown birds that darted between the bushes and hid amongst the leaves defied identification. The sandy beaches invited me to paddle as I searched for signs of the terraces once built here for clams. I couldn't see the submerged rock walls, and our dinghy explorations were equally fruitless, but it was fun to hunt.
Shifting to Fulford Harbour, Jim dropped me off at the ferry to lug three framed paintings to Sidney for jurying for a fine art show. Thankfully Bill and his car came to our aid, and we left them in a hall with a thousand other paintings. Sadly I was unsuccessful and my ego felt a little bruised. Ultimately all I could do was remember that it wasn't personal, there was plenty of competition and as I have no way of knowing why my work didn't get in, there's no point dwelling on it. My best course of action was to pick up the brush and get back to painting. After all, creating is the main thing, practice makes improvements- and there's always next year!
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.
Inspiration flows when life slows down. I feel at my most creative when I have time to sit and watch the world, to paddle along in the dinghy, to poke around tide pools, search amongst the driftwood or hike through a forest. I stop to sketch or pause to take a photo that will refresh my memory later.
As we cruised the Broughton Archipelago, the pace of life was perfect for creating. We had no time deadlines and the highly sporadic internet removed a distraction. Peaceful, secluded anchorages added to this sense of tranquility. Foggy mornings gave me time to paint on Prism each day, and when the fog lifted I'd pack up my art supplies and go exploring with Jimmie.
The fog had almost prevented us visiting Tuesday Cove, between Mars and Tracey Islands. In her book 'The Curve of Time', M. Wylie Blanchett gave a beautiful description of this idyllic little anchorage which she discovered when inclement weather forced her to move from nearby Monday Harbour. Despite the fact it isn't marked on any map, Blanchett describes the cove so well Jim was sure he could find it. But thick shrouds of fog meant we didn't dare enter the labyrinthine channels that would lead us there. Even with GPS, the narrow entrances, shallow patches, fast-flowing currents and numerous kelp beds would be hazardous if we didn't have a decent view. Ah well, the plans of sailors are written on the wind and tide. This wouldn't be the first time we've had to edit or rewrite because of meteorology. We were busy redrafting when the wind finally read our initial memo, sending a stiff breeze which gave us a beautiful downwind sail through Fife Sound as the fog cleared before us. The entrance we wanted was revealed and I helmed us through the narrow pass. Our route was clear, with wonderful views of steep-sided islands and kelp-fringed shallows.
Entering Monday Harbour, we found the little nook between islets which formed Tuesday Cove. The thickly forested shore had a white shell beach, revealed at low tide, and the islets and the narrow drying inlet between Tracey and Mars Islands gave us plenty to explore. There was always something to watch. Hunting harbour porpoises chased their prey into the cove, herons landed in the fir trees (always a slightly ungainly sight) and cantankerous kingfishers defended their favoured twigs with noisy aerobatic antics.
After a few days there it was hard to persuade ourselves to up anchor, but we were glad we did. Our next day of sailing took us through the Burdwood Group. These little islands are currently uninhabited and unnamed. This wasn't always the case; the numerous white shell beaches and village sites indicate that a thriving First Nations community once lived amongst these islands. Perhaps the old names live on, and the map makers just never bothered to ask the right people.
There is a small camp ground in the Burdwood Group, but no secure overnight anchorage for a sailboat. With a little poking around we were able to find a couple of reasonable day anchorages to drop the hook whilst we explored using the dinghy. The island with the campsite was a particular gem. In the sunlight, its long white shell beach looked almost tropical, and as the temperature finally rose above twenty degrees I began to seriously contemplate swimming. Trails through the forest invited exploration. No traces of long houses remained, but cedar trees with patches of stripped bark showed that visitors had brought some of the old traditions back with them. Red cedar is known as 'the tree of life' and its bark has many uses, from weaving baskets and ceremonial clothing to creating fishing line. It also smells wonderful.
I didn't brave a swim as my togs were back on the boat and the afternoon was pushing on. Even on warm days the temperature tends to drop at about 6pm. Being cold and wet as we moved to a more secure anchorage wasn't going to be fun. So I sat on the shell beach, painting the summer blues and hoped that we'd make it back another day. We did return, and the Burdwoods were still beautiful even though it was cold and cloudy. On our second visit we returned to our idyllic white shell beach and also explored some of the surrounding islands. Most of them were pretty impenetrable and we couldn't leave the foreshore, but it was always a pleasure to just enjoy, breathe and be. Sometimes life doesn't need to be complicated!
Making our way up Tribune Channel, we passed Lacey Falls which pours down a steep face of patterned granite. Branches and tree trunks in the water indicated that there were logging operations in the area. The logs found favour with seagulls, who jauntily bobbed along on their mobile perches.
We ducked into Watson Cove, which the cruising guide said was surrounded by waterfalls and was the access point to see a thousand year old cedar tree. This sounded wonderful and the cove was lovely but the anchorage was fairly deep, there wasn't much swinging room and little shelter from the forecast wind. The next option, Kwatsi Bay, was also deep but very well protected. We anchored beneath a low hill. The towering mountains to the east of the bay were breathtaking, but the scars on their steep sides spoke of landslides. We felt safer keeping our distance, and dropped the anchor in thirty metres with plenty of swinging room.
I'd embarked on a series of three 16” x 20” watercolours. The first was of Harlequin Cove (which you can read about in a previous blog post), and for the second I'd decided to paint my favourite group in the Burdwoods. A painting of that size takes me a few days including planning and drafting, and I managed to make a good start during the wet and foggy morning. When the weather cleared, a group of Pacific white-sided dolphins entered the cove. They proved to be very distracting as they hunted fish around the anchored boats. The pod would split into groups, with one group driving the fish towards the shore and their waiting friends. In the shallow water the fish were easier to herd and pick off. After the feast, the dolphins stayed in the shallows, swimming slowly as if they were resting and digesting. Then came play time, with spectacular jumps and twists. When the calves tried to join in, the adults would show them how it was done. I'm sure the little one improved as we watched! We hopped in the dinghy and rowed a little closer to see if I could get some better photos. The dolphins decided to make us part of the fun, swimming towards us, diving under the dinghy and surfacing in unison. The acrobatics resumed, including some spectacular synchronised jumps as the dolphins showed off for their uncoordinated audience. We dragged ourselves back to the boat so I could wash my hair in the late afternoon sun. At sunset the dolphins headed off to do dolphin things, returning the following day. I managed to be a little more focussed on my artwork but still took regular dolphin breaks. It would have been rude not to!
We saw our dolphin friends briefly when we moved to Bond Sound. I like to think that they were checking up on us. We anchored just inside the entrance to the Sound, tucked inside where we hoped to be out of the swell. The waves had a habit of curving round to find us and the current sometimes pulled us broadside to the breeze, so it was a rather rolly spot and not one I'd choose in bad weather! Jim wanted to explore the Ahta River, which was reported to be pristine. We waited until just before high tide when we could get the dinghy over the bar at the river mouth, then went on an adventure. At this time of year the river was salmon-free, but in Autumn I can imagine the clear water being full of fish- and the banks being lined with grizzlies. The late afternoon summer sun filtered through the trees and sparkled on the water. Back out in the bay seals swam, waiting for the tide to drop so they could haul out onto the fallen tree trunks.
Our need for supplies and laundry was calling us back to Alert Bay. I could have spent weeks more poking around, but instead we called in at the Burdwood Group one final time before spending a night at Shoal Harbour on Gilford Island. The harbour is well protected and a wonderful place to watch wildlife. A well-fed mother black bear and her two glossy cubs were padding along the foreshore. Mother was turning over rocks with a huge thud, slurping and gobbling up whatever molluscs and crustaceans she uncovered. The little ones carried out their own explorations, played and squabbled. Eating didn't seem to be too high on their agenda. We hopped in the dinghy and watched them until they reached a berry patch. Dessert! Much to the delight of the cubs, there were plenty of fruits and they spent a while munching. After they headed into the bush, we heard a wailing sound from the other side of the bay. Another cub was alone on the beach, crying for his mum. She took some time to find him, but eventually the sobbing stopped and we saw them walking together on the foreshore, much to the consternation of the dog in a nearby float home. All in all, it was a pretty happy ending.
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.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.