Swamp lanterns in a copse of alders.

Late in winter, the leaden skies, the relentless drizzle and mist and the constantly mud-spattered car wear me down, and my spirit yields to despondency. Then a miracle happens. Here and there in wet ditches and in swampy areas, bright yellow flowers emerge. They sprout from the ground, bringing a welcome dash of colour to the monochrome bleakness. Suddenly my spirits rise and joy fills my heart. Spring is finally coming!

Because we’re emerging from the darknessPink blossoms blanket the Japanese cherry trees. of a long, deadly pandemic, this season holds more hope for the future than ever. There is nothing lovelier than springtime on the islands. As the days get longer, the weather begins to warm up, and colorful flowers start rising from the damp soil, I’m ready to bask in the glory of the season. It’s my favourite time of year.

In addition to the skunk cabbage, more accurately known as a swamp lantern, a multitude of pink cherry blossoms have suddenly emerged, transforming formerly dull brown branches into a crescendo of brilliance. With the sun filtering through the colourful blossoms, highlighted against a cobalt sky, how can you not be optimistic and happy. Great things are coming!

The fresh growth holds a promise of coming warmth, richness and fertility. Even though I’ve have

A tulip ready to blossom.

witnessed a few springtimes before, this one is particularly moving, especially touching. I can’t help but feel that the coming year will be one of the best ever.

The signs of spring are everywhere. We are totally immersed in delicious scents and sights. Magnolias, I believe, have the most attractive blossoms in creation. Each white flower is a sculpture, beautifully curved and delicate in its colour. Elsewhere, bursts of daffodils with their bright yellow flowers shine forth from every garden and yard. The yellow blossoms are so eye-catching after a long winter.

Daffodils explode with white, green and yellow.

All life forms are captivated by springtime, and romance is in the air. Each morning our house reverberates to the loud rat-a-tat-a-tat on our metal roof of a male downy woodpecker trying to catch the attention of a prospective mate. The happy song of robins as they flitter about is another good sign of spring. Large birds circle on a thermal high above, having returned from distant migrations. Recently, I was shocked to hear a wolf howling, then a replying howl from a distance. But wolves don’t occur on the islands. I thought. On closer inspection, the howl was coming from high in a tree … the haunting mating calls of a pair of barred owls.

I find that walks in the forest are now a pleasure for many of the trees sport a new light green tinge of tiny buds, signaling that leaves will soon appear, perhaps to be speeded along by a rainfall and a few days of sunshine.

Fairies live below the daffodils.

 

Ah … springtime! My heart beats faster at the sights around us. Promise of rejuvenation lies in every blossom, flower and living creature. In the spring, life is full of hope.

For those planning a visit to the Southern Gulf Islands, welcome to a world that revolves around the Queen of Cumberland, the Salish Eagle, the Mayne Queen and the rest of the BC Ferries flotilla. Not only are the ferries vital links to the outside world, but travelers spend a goodly fraction of their waking hours with the ferry system.

On Pender, waiting in the Otter Bay ferry line allows ample time for exploring. I often wander up and down the long line of cars and trucks petting some of the many dogs and chatting with their owners, picking blackberries when they’re in season and watching for the flap of feathers. Cormorants commonly sit regally on the terminal pilings like preachers. A pair of noble eagles lives nearby and frequently visit, perhaps seeking leftover food scraps. Smaller birds like nuthatches, juncos and even hummingbirds twitter among the shrubbery and trees. Sea gulls swoop and shriek overhead.

The Stand, a food truck that has been permanently moored at the bottom of the Otter Bay terminal, is the place to stop for food and coffee before riding the ferry. I love to bite into the Brekkie Bun loaded with cheese, ham and a fried egg over easy.

Riding on a ferry is a delight. You’re not clenched to the car’s wheel. Instead, you’ve got time to relax and gaze at some of the world’s most picturesque scenery. The Gulf Islands are soft and gentle with log-lined bays, rocky ridges and attractive forests of towering Douglas firs, rust-coloured arbutuses and, occasionally, Garry oaks. If fortune smiles, you’ll see the fins of killer whales (orcas) elegantly rising and falling through the waves.

If you’re tired from having arisen earlier than usual, you can even snooze. On most morning trips I see the odd passenger emitting quiet snores, with their eyes closed, and sometimes drooling on their neighbour’s shoulder.

OK, there are some who claim the ferry system is a thief of valuable time. They say it’s inconvenient and one has to structure one’s life around their schedules. Although Victoria and Vancouver are relatively close, it takes a full day to visit them, with much of that time spent parked in a long line-up of cars. You must plan meticulously to ensure getting aboard, arriving at the terminal at least 30 minutes early (during winter’s slow period) to one to three hours (during summer’s peak season, especially on long weekends). No question, travelling by ferry takes a lot of time, but this is a gift to those who need a break from the bustle of life.

Occasionally, ferries run late, thanks to the increased traffic due to the growing popularity of the islands. Often ramps need to be used to handle the overload, a time-consuming operation. This is when I invite you to relax, accept this serendipitous turn of events and say, like true islanders, “Not to worry, we’re on island time.”

One of the biggest pluses of living on an island is catching up on reading. Before coming to live on Pender, my pile of unread brochures, magazines, books and letters rose to Olympian heights. I struggled to make even a small dent in this “reading pile.” Now, thanks to ferry time, that problem has evaporated.

An important benefit of ferry travel is the ample time it allows to chitchat with friends. That’s one good reason why we islanders are so close-knit and supportive of each other. At the same time, we have the opportunity to be philosophical and ponder the meaning of life and the world’s many problems facing. Having the time for this kind introspection combined with numerous close friendships makes for a satisfying island life.

Bull kelp can be eaten.Good looking and young, Chris Hall and Stef Lowey should be chilling with friends and frequenting bars and clubs. Instead, the couple recently completed living for one entire year without purchasing a single morsel of food. Their entire diet — 100% of it — was obtained by growing their garden, raising chickens and other animals, and foraging from the land and sea. They have set a new standard for foraging and culinary self-sufficiency.

Arriving at their ocean-front property in the Magic Lake Estate on Pender Island was like entering a botanical garden. More than 75 varieties of vegetables and fruits filled every nook. Ardent environmentalists, the couple did not cut down any trees but planted gardens everywhere. Re-purposed hoses form a drip irrigation system. Their chickens and turkeys help make rich compost. Every deck and walkway is lined with potted plants.

Neither Stef nor Chris has any farming background, so it was a huge learning curve. They gave away all of their packaged food, spurned alcohol, coffee, tea and soft drinks, and started to cultivate their 0.5-acre, ocean-front property so it was soon more like an overflowing farm. Initially it was constant work as they had to build fences, gardens and bird coops as well as experiment with different crops and meals. Today, they grow beets, bok choy, kale, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, rhubarb, lettuce, beans, potatoes, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries. They pick walnuts and hazelnuts from nearby trees and they grow stevia to dry and grind as a natural sweetener. Salt is obtained from sea water. “We’re experimenting constantly and it seems like every week we find something new to grow and eat,” said Stef. “We’ve recently planted avocado and fig trees.”

I was amazed at, and jealous of, the quality of the meals they concoct. They regularly consume salmon, oysters, prawns and crab caught from the adjacent sea. Chickens, turkeys, ducks and quail provide not only eggs but also protein. They keep four pigs at a nearby farm. A purple hive houses bees, whose pollination has greatly improved their planted crops. “And the honey is a great sweetener,” adds Chris.

Stef and Chris have documented their journey on YouTube — Lovin off the Land — with regular videos of their daily life, including making flour and spreads from nuts and grinding bone meal, growing mushrooms in fallen logs and foraging for bladderwrack and sea asparagus along their shore.

Both were born and raised on the west coast; they met at an island resort, where they formerly worked. Now, they obtain spending money – they don’t need much with their lifestyle – with Stef giving massages and Chris driving a water taxi to nearby Gulf Islands. Their first year ended on August 2, but Chris and Stef plan to continue living off the land, with one small adjustment. In future, they will purchase small quantities of coffee and wheat, two items they cannot grow.

The couple are amazed at how they transformed what had been stressful lifestyles and unhealthy eating into a more satisfying way of life. With broad grins, they say, “We’re way healthier now, and we’re having much more fun.”

People are captivated by the concept of foraging and getting closer to nature, so Stef and Chris plan to expand on their popular You Tube channel by giving talks and writing a book about their experiences, including recipes. Once covid relents, they are keen to travel and see how living off the land is done in other countries and climates.

The couple’s bold move has raised self-sufficiency to a new level, reducing the 100-mile diet to a few tens of metres.

Audrey on the Emergency Road

My introduction to electric bikes was on the Strawberry Tour through the Saanich Peninsula in 2018. After only a few kilometres, I was hooked. It was effortless, the views were great (no windscreen) and we had full access to roads, paths and trails. Best of all, it was free, with no need for a license or gas! It was exhilarating!

Finally, a few months ago I acquired my own e-bike, a black Bravo from VoltBike in Vancouver. E-bikes are perfect, I quickly discovered, for going effortlessly up and down the many once-intimidating hills on Pender and the other southern Gulf Islands.

The other day I joined Audrey Stibbe to ride along the precipitous emergency road. Audrey is an e-pioneer being one of the first on Pender to acquire an e-bike six years ago. She purchased an Emotion in Victoria and uses it mostly for transport, getting from A to B. “Hills are no problem at all, and parking is so easy,” she says. Today, the popularity of electric bikes is soaring, with an estimated 40 to 80 on Pender Island.

Jerry at Thieves Bay

For Jerry Folk, his Yukon 750 e-bike, purchased from VoltBike in 2019, is mostly for pleasure. “I love my e-bike,” he raves. “I use it for everything, but especially enjoy puttering along the back roads looking at old houses and their gardens. And it’s great to stop and chat with people.” His bike has fat tires because he holidays frequently in Arizona where he rides on the sandy desert. Jerry and I have already promised to take our e-cycles onto the ferry and ride from Swartz Bay into Victoria for lunch, perhaps quaffing an ale to celebrate being such hardy travelers.

Another friend, Rob Fawcett, who cycled around the world in 2005-2006, loves his RadRunner e-bike. A friend built a wooden carrier for the back fender. Carved into the carrier is a disc-golf basket, a symbol of Rob’s other love.

Rob with his RadRunner

Shandor is readily recognizable by his trademark leather aviator’s hat and goggles, and is frequently seen around Pender aboard his fat-tire e-bike. He takes his bike everywhere, for he has no car. A small wagon trails behind whenever he goes shopping.

Like all the others, I love my e-bike. The battery is good for about 80-100 km, which will get you just about anywhere in a day. The separate charger plugs into any electrical plug and takes an hour or two to fully recharge. If you need mechanical adjustments or accessories, try Ken on Saturday mornings at the Recycle Centre. One bit of advice: Buy a good lock. Being relatively costly, e-bikes are a prime target for dastardly bike thieves.

Shandor sporting his aviation hat

I’m already planning daytrips to Mayne, Galiano and Saturna with my trusty e-steed. My favourite part will be the ability to stop — and munch — at any blackberry bush I pass.

A blue heron enjoys the Salish Sea.

In the Gulf Islands, the sea is a big part of our lives, but what lies underneath the waves is largely unknown. While paddling a kayak and logging GPS coordinates along the east coast of Pender Island, I realized citizen scientists are helping shed light on this mystery. I was part of a dozen volunteers measuring the extent of kelp forests. Along with fellow “scientists” on Mayne, Saturna and Galiano Islands, we were helping determine the health of the Salish Sea, a productive ecosystem rich with marine life.

Citizen science — the term was only coined in the mid-1990s — allows scientists to greatly expand their shrinking budgets, and also makes science

Mapping bull kelp off Pender Island

accessible to the public. Ubiquitous cell phones with their wide range of apps can be powerful tools in the hands of ordinary citizens. For example, database apps such as iNaturalist and Zooniverse allow a wide range of observations to be recorded and shared. It’s easy to become a volunteer, and it’s great to feel like a scientist!

The Saturna Island Marine Research & Education Society (SIMRES), led by Martin Wale, uses four hydrophones to monitor whales and link into BC’s coastal network as well as attracting university researchers. Mapping of kelp beds and other projects are also conducted. It’s rewarding to attend SEATALKS (Saturna Environmental Awareness Talks) where experts make first-class presentations about the marine environment.

Andrew Simon points at three-ranked knob moss on Galiano Island.

On Galiano Island, Andrew Simon, an expert on lichens and mosses, is the driving force behind Biodiversity Galiano, which started in 2016 with more than 200 contributors combing the island to list every living species. By 2020, more than 3,500 had been recorded. Andrew pointed to tiny three-ranked knob moss at Bluff Park, the only spot in Canada where this species is found. Galiano also boasts a huge ecopark, the Millard Learning Centre with 188 acres bordering the ocean. The Park, run by the Galiano Conservancy Association has hiking trails, an organic garden, solar panels and more.

Rob Underhill is the lead for citizen science on Mayne Island.

Martin Wale and UBC researcher observe marine life at East Point, Saturna Island.

Sophisticated eel grass studies have been conducted since 2009. Underhill also coordinates the bull kelp mapping around Mayne and neighbouring islands. Both eel grass and bull kelp are major habitats for marine life. The Mayne Island Conservancy conducts bat surveys, habitat restoration and more.

In June 2017, Pender Island was abuzz with a BioBlitz, a one-day nature extravaganza. Scientists, Parks Canada interpreters and the public worked together to spot as many species as possible. People scooped in the lake with nets. Divers roamed underwater bringing back sea stars, sculpins, gunnels and sea cucumbers. People crowded around information stations with displays and microscopes. The night

Young “scientist” and divers at BioBlitz, Pender Island.

expedition showed glorious bioluminescence in the sea. Young people — and even older folk — enjoyed learning about the fascinating complexity of nature.

 

Wet arbutus at Lively Peak.

With cases surging and lockdowns getting ever stricter, everyone is anxious about Covid-19. There is, however, a surprisingly easy way to relax, to soothe the mind and to forget all those cares, while self-isolating and keeping safe at the same time.

Forest bathing, also known as nature therapy or ecotherapy, is the answer. And on the southern Gulf Islands, where we’re surrounded by majestic seascapes and stunning rainforests, it’s easy to do. Pender Island, for example, has more than 90 trails that lead to delightful natural habitats where you can unwind in peace.

Fungus enriches a log

For centuries, we’ve known that being in nature makes us feel good, yet it has become a forgotten practice — immersed in an urban culture, typical North American spend 93% of their time indoors.

To get away, I frequently go for a quiet stroll up to Roe Lake, located in a charming isolated part of Pender Island, where I enjoy the whispering of the wind in the branches, the scent of the trees, the fresh, invigorating air and sunlight dappling through the leaves. It feels like I’ve been transported to a planet of pleasure and contentment.

Sunrise at Port Browning

Last week on a misty day, I hiked the Found Road trail off Clam Bay Road, following a long boardwalk glistening with rain droplets, past ghost-like alders and then to a

Rays of light radiate

large granite boulder partially encased in bright green moss and dark root tentacles. An erratic, the boulder was brought here by glaciers from some faraway place. A wooden staircase led to a beach looking over Plumper Sound where I sat on one of the bleached logs encircling the high tide mark like a necklace. Listening to the gentle back and forth swoosh of waves, my cares and worries disappeared.

Numerous studies have shown that even small amounts of forest bathing, that is, connecting with nature through all five senses, make us feel better and improves our health. I often go to Gowlland Point or hike up to Oaks Bluff or visit Greenburn Lake where I love sitting in solitude, listening to birds singing, the breeze rustling in the trees and try to distinguish the myriad different greens,

Boardwalk along Found Road trail.

Rocky seashore at Beaumont Marine Park

like notes of a symphony, playing through the forest. Placing my hands on the trunk of a tree, I feel far removed from the tensions that are gripping the world. I am experiencing a sixth sense, a peaceful state of mind. I am one with nature.

It was like being transported back to pioneer days. Apples arrived in boxes and containers, some so heavy they could barely be carried. Under a blue sky on October 31, people — all wearing covid masks — took turns manually cranking the press to make apple juice pour out the bottom. Others peeled and cut apples, which were cooked to make sauce and then placed in jars and processed in a pressure cooker. Others used a rotating device to slice apples and then placed the thin, round apple pieces in a dehydrator. This was the inaugural “Let No Apple be Wasted” apple preservation workshop at the Pender Island Community Hall.

The apple bee at Pender Island with press in foreground.

Organized by the Southern Gulf Islands Community Resource Centre and the Gulf Islands Food Coop, the purpose was to teach islanders how to use the press, dehydrator and pressure cooker to transform the bumper crop of apples into sauce, juice and dehydrated apple slices that will be enjoyed over the coming winter. About 500 pounds of apples arrived from trees scattered all over the island.

Peeling/slicing apples for sauce at Pender Island.

Like in olden days, it was a communal effort with everyone pitching in and sharing the juicer, pressure cooker and dehydrator. And it was fun! We worked together, chatted, joked and gossiped. By the end of the sunny afternoon, the apples had transformed into numerous litres of juice, many jars of apple sauce and slices of dehydrated apples, which were distributed to those who brought the apples, shared with other participants and used to help fill the CRC Christmas hamper. Even local sheep and horses were smiling, for they received the remaining apples. Farmers used the apple mash from the juicer for compost.

Making apple sauce at Pender Island.

Similar workshops were successfully held on Mayne Island on October 6, where the products were donated to the food bank, and Saturna Island on September 19, where about a dozen people took part. On all three islands, the Gulf Islands Food Coop purchased the ten-rack dehydrators and pressure cookers with the goal of holding annual apple work bees in the future, and so people could borrow the (communal) equipment at other times.

Hard at work at Mayne Island’s apple bee.

As one participant said, “What an enjoyable day! I’m so glad they’re bringing back heritage activities like this; they really work. And nothing tastes bet  ter than local food.”

Under the masks, these Mayne Islanders are smiling.

Video of Pender Island’s workshop:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0V3bYqgzbx4&feature=youtu.be

Video of Saturna Island’s workshop: https://gulfislandsfoodco-op.org/apple-workshops/

 

Museum East Point SaturnaWhat better place to visit in the middle of a pandemic than Saturna Island? It is like an isle forgotten and with only 370 inhabitants it’s easy to self-isolate. Ferry access is infrequent and many conveniences like banks and Starbucks are completely missing. I explored this island-onto-itself on a sunny summer day on my trusty 49-cc scooter.

I almost missed the “business centre,” barely more than a crossroads with a general store where old-timers sit on the porch, a recycling depot, fire hall, a smattering of residences and a large recreation centre.

Next, East Point drew me. A heritage lighthouse — built in 1889 but now converted to a muse bals eagleum — looked over the quintessential Salish Sea with tidal waters churning over Boiling Reef, attracting endless wildlife from sea lions and seals to humpback and orca whales to a myriad of birds. A bald eagle perched high on the weather station beside the new lighthouse, its head slowly swiveling back and forth, patiently watching. The shoreline is a dreamscape of honeycombs and alien, yet beautiful, shapes for erosion has carved the most unusual rock sculptures.

Saturna has more park land per capita than any other Gulf Island, with almost half the island part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

For such a small island, Saturna hosts surprisingly advanced research. SIMRES, which stands for Saturna Island Marine Research & Education Society, uses a small network of underwater hydrophones to monitor the sounds of passing whales. It also hosts a series of popular sea talks given by experts on marine science and ecology.

Later, my scooter bumped up the steep dirt road to the top of Mount Warburton Pike where I gazed upon a feast of islands dotting the Salish Sea. Although I heard the bleating of the famous feral goats, none appeared. Soon my scooter took me down a steep road to the Feral Goat Winery, which is under new ownership, and Thompson Park with a disc golf course.

I back tracked to Winter Cove a serene spot that every Canada Day hosts one of the most unusual celebrations in the country.  The population of the island more than triples as an enormous flotilla packs into the cove. About 30 lambs are roasted on tall iron crosses like crucifixes set in a circle around a blazing fire. The sight is pagan, but the result is mouth-watering. The event, which features a band, craft fair, dunk tank and contests for children and adults, is a true community effort with virtually every person on the island contributing.

Tired and sun burnt, I bumped onto the ferry, sorry to leave this glorious solitude.

I’m fighting the Covid blues by exploring each of the southern Gulf Islands on a 49-cc scooter. Last week, I puttered around Galiano Island, reveling in empty roads, great ocean vistas, friendly locals and the amazing natural beauty of this long, narrow isle, all under a blue, sunny sky. After gassing up (only $2.75!!!), I bumped over an unpaved road to Bluffs Park, which offers outstanding views over Active Pass and numerous islands gracing the Salish Sea. Andrew Simon, organizer of Biodiversity Galiano, showed me some three-ranked knob moss, whose only Canadian locale is here on this bluff.

Next, I passed the highly regarded Pilgrimme Restaurant (open for takeout and dine-in) and arrived at Montague Harbour, one of the most popular — and prettiest — boating spots in the province. I lazed and caught a few rays while watching sailboats dancing on the waves, kayaks paddling past and a lone SUP silhouetted against distant blue ranges.

Leaving, a gorgeous blue dragonfly, hitched a ride on my arm, and I had a heck of a time snapping a selfie of us at 40 km/hr. On the long ride to the north end, I stopped at the Millard Learning Centre, where the Galiano Conservancy runs numerous teaching programs that demonstrate the vast biodiversity of the island on a stunning site with old growth forest, hiking trails, glorious ocean front and much more.

A few kilometres later, I admired the creative, colourful glass sculptures at Marcia DeVicque Glassworks, one of a multitude of artisan galleries. Pulling into a small cove, I marveled at sandstone rocks eroded into intricate honeycomb sculptures. Most unusually, even a few caves had formed with cool smooth walls.

Arriving at the north end of Galiano, I was told the residents are quite different in character from those at the other end.  Isolation is part of the charm, for although the north has its own community hall and fire department, there are no shops nor a gas station.

On the long putt-putt back to the south end, I stopped at Lovers Leap, where a musician played his guitar while enjoying the hot day, vast blue sky and the high view across to Salt Spring Island.

After a socially-distanced burger and pint at the Hummingbird Pub, I headed for thesandstone, shore, saxophone, relaxation ferry, sad to be leaving this treasure of an island.