Kayaking in Heaven

Kayaking in the Gulf Islands archipelago with the wind and tide at your back is like being in heaven. I love to view the gentle Salish Sea from wave level, feel the warm sun on my back and savour the silent solitude. It’s a spiritual experience.

I often paddle from Pender to Saturna Island with one stroke rhythmically, almost hypnotically, following another as my kayak slowly crosses Plumper Sound. Occasionally a snort sounds and a smooth seal’s head pops out of the water, a curious companion monitoring my progress. At Taylor Point I beach the kayak and explore the ruins of the old Taylor home and the remains of the quarry that supplied stone for many buildings in Victoria a century ago.

Because the Java Islets, on the southeast side of Saturna, are uninhabited and part of the Gulf Islands National Park they are like a wildlife refuge. Drifting silently with the current I see dozens of seals watching me with sad liquid eyes, cormorants stretching their black wings like preachers blessing their flock and great blue herons with their beaks poised to spear a fish.

At Portland, a trail leads around the island, passing coves lined with bleached driftwood logs and meadows dotted with purple wildflowers. An old apple orchard is a reminder that Portland was settled in the 1880s by Kanaka (Hawaiian) immigrants. Best is a dazzling white beach formed by broken clam shells, the remains of millennia of habitation by Coast Salish First Nations.

Once a year I paddle to Rum Island, aka Isle de Lis, and camp overnight. There’s an edgy feeling for I’m like Crusoe, alone, an entire island to myself. At dusk, fading light shimmers on the water as seals frolic in the darkening bay. A little later, a million stars twinkle in the sky.

When paddling, I know the ocean below the kayak teems with life, yet it remains bafflingly invisible. And the currents are ever-changing for the islands and tides interact in complex ways. Sometimes the water is dead still. Other times the current is fast with little whirlpools dotting the water. And sometimes on calm water, a train of seven or eight huge waves will suddenly roll past.

There are so many delicious kayak destinations including Mayne Island and the Japanese Garden; Salt Spring Island and Ruckle Provincial Park; and Prevost Island with its long, narrow inlets like mini-fiords.

Paddling on the Salish Sea brings peace to the soul.

Eagles on the Islands

One day in April, I peered from a cliff down into an eagle’s nest balanced near the top of a Douglas fir tree. A bald eagle mother with a two-metre wing span and lethal talons and beak was ever so gently placing food into the tiny beak of her three-day-old chick. A touching scene.

We’re fortunate, for eagles are an iconic sight in the Gulf Islands. Their nests are near the tops of tall Douglas fir trees and usually within 100 metres of the sea. Over four months I watched as the eagle mom incubated two eggs and then lovingly nurtured the single chick (the other egg never hatched).

For four years I studied this eagle pair and bonded with them. I learned that eagles mate in February and usually lay two eggs around the end of March. The female incubates the eggs for about 35 days, with occasional help from the male. Once hatched, eaglets are fed by both parents; at six to seven weeks they start feeding themselves.

By the end of June chicks are as large as their parents but still have not left the nest. They are dark brown in colour, and do not develop the

distinctive white head and tail feathers until they reach adulthood at about four to six years.

Finally, in early July, eaglets are ready to fledge although it takes some coaxing by the parents to get them to take that first flight.  Surprisingly, they are bigger than the parents because the initial, temporary feathers are larger to help them fly.

In September, most eagles leave their territories to catch salmon and socialize in spawning areas, returning later in the fall. Then the young eagles find their own territories and start the life cycle once more.

 

Happy Trails on the Gulf Islands

I lace up my hiking boots, but where to go? Should I ramble in the still, sombre forest surrounded by moss, ferns and giant trees? Or should I walk along rocky beaches communing with sea stars and barnacle encrusted rocks? Or should I climb to a viewpoint and gaze upon a panorama of islands sprinkled on the waters as though by the hand of God? I decide to set out on a quest and seek out the very best hiking trail in this gaggle of islands.

On my island of Pender, walking trails are abundant and I know them well. My favourite is George Hill where I’m soon labouring uphill, through moist forest and then a meadow and onto the summit. I sit next to a spindly Garry oak, watching ferries and the distant snow-capped mountains on the mainland. Ah, wonderful.

At Galiano Island, the choices are many, but the Bodega Ridge trail draws me. I stroll along humming and happy passing ramrod-straight Douglas firs, which are like battalions of tall, slim soldiers standing at attention. But interspersed here and there in their ranks, mockingly, are gangling arbutus trees, chaotic like hippies. What a blessing to be alone, immersed in nature.

My quest continues. Disembarking from the ferry at Mayne Island, I check the trail map and head for the Halliday Ridge hike in Mount Parke Regional Park. The deep forest and views from the top are wonderful, but best is hearing a loud rat-atat-atat and then seeing a pileated woodpecker, its red head a blur as it attacks an old log, sending wood chips flying.

Saturna Island is next, and soon I am at the top of Mount Warburton Pike. Gazing at the isle-dotted Salish Sea, I can’t argue with those who judge the Pike the finest lookout in the Gulf Islands. I meander south-east along the Brown Ridge trail wrapped in sunshine and peaceful solitude. The walk is special for the trail was made not by humans but, most unusually, by resident feral goats, whom I can see grazing here and there farther down the hillside.

Another ferry carries me to Salt Spring Island where I seek out the Chris Hatfield trail in the northern edge of Ruckle Park. I sit beside a pond, where reflections of towering trees and a split-rail fence glisten in the water. I continue deeper into the lush rain forest, passing trees whose branches are festooned with beards of bright green moss. Under a tree are a shovel, several buckets and a sign inviting hikers to dig up gravel, fix part of the trail farther along and return the empty pail on return. What a clever idea! At Yeo Point I sat with my back against a sun-warmed boulder gazing at passing boats and ferries. Following a creek upstream, the gurgling of water grows louder until I see rapids swirling and tumbling down moss encrusted rocks, surrounded by ferns and tall trees.

I return home having hiked many great trails. But I think I’ll have to do it all over again, for I can’t decide which one is best.