The Log Book
Tales of an Artist Afloat
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.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.