...a journey to Gabriola Island, Victoria and finally back to Calgary to say goodbye to this bootiful country.
05.04.2006 15 °C
A short 20 minute ferry ride from Nanaimo and British Columbia's Queen of the Gulf Islands Gabriola Island can be yours to enjoy. Situated in the Sound between Vancouver Island and mainland British Coumbia, the island is a pleasant rural setting of forested parks and serene beaches and coves littered with driftwood.
The island's name is derived from Punta de Gaviota (Cape Seagull), the name given by the Spanish to the southeastern part of the island in 1791. Prior the Spanish 'discovering' the island, Native American peoples lived on the island for an unknown number of years, as testified by the wealth of ancient native stone carvings called petroglyphs. Also referred to by some as Granola Island (as inscribed on the wall of the washroom wall on the BC Ferry), it is now haven for approximately 4,000 residents consisting of workers commuting to Nanaimo, hippies, retirees and draft dodgers, it is truly an island paradise BC style.
My visit confirmed for me British Columbia as a true unspoilt wilderness. I know Alaska claims this title more so for the extreme mountainous terrain and total isolation - Gabriola Island is infinitely more accessible and much easier to explore given the temperate climate, and that you can circumnavigate the entire island on bike in under 4 hours.
My hosts for my stay were my Aunty Joy and Uncle Peter who recently moved to the island after a 27 year stint in the city of Calgary, seeking the dream of the peace and serinity (or is that senility) that island life brings. Like many people on the island, they have embarked on a project to build their own house, starting from picking a plot in the middle of the forest, clearing the trees and scrubland and building the property from the ground up (silly phrase that is, how else would you do it?). By the time I had arrived, development was in full swing with the ground cleared, foundations layed and timberframe and housing in place. Patrick, an eccentric big-bearded French man with a gorgeous wife had been doing an sterling job of leading the project, and a top guy and good friend he became.
Unbeknowst to me and highlighting my lehman knowledge in such matters, tonnes more work has gone into it as this house as many other on the island has no running water and no connected swerage so must be entirely self-sufficient. An incredibly complex septic system which drains into the front lawn, and a rain water capture/filter system to provide clean flowing water all year round is hidden behind the scenes - very impressive! I was to assist with work here utilising what skills I have, namely clearing up the site and building huge mansize fires hot enough to liquify metal - what fun that was.
For the now, they live in a rented property, pretty basic in their eyes but ideal to me after my ex-prison dwellings in Golden. In the garden lies one of Gabriola's secret attractions, a 20 metre plus tree that has somehow grown out of a huge rock, or straddled at some point in it's life, no roots can be seen tunneling through the rock and this is no work of a handy gardener. After much deliberation, I couldn't figure out a plausible explanation. Go figure.
The real draw for me on the island was the sheer abudance of wildlife. Each night, we would head out to enjoy the sunset at one of many spots, the favourite being The Lighthouse which looks out across the Sound to Vancouver Island, focusing on a small rock outcrop with, would you believe it, a lighthouse on top. Scores of elephant & harbour seals and sea lions were setting up shop for their annual mating ritual. Sitting on the shore you could listen to the males barking out their superioty and females cooing with glee at machoistic displays, which echoed across the Sound. Occasionally you would be lucky enough to catch a few seals en route to the island that passed close by the shore. Most passed by unpreturbed but occasionally you would be caught in a face to face encounter with a displeased seal - what they were saying I could not be sure but I think it was roughly along the lines of 'get orf my laaand'.
The bay was arife with crustacean life, and when the tide was out you could brave a treacherous walk to the water's edge along the rock outcrops. Colourful amemonies litter the rock pools, including this rather alien-like Aggregate Anemone (the green markings a result of the algae it feeds upon). My cousin also tells me it's highly enjoyable to poke a stick into their mouth and watch them close, a little cruel perhaps.
Brightly coloured Ochre Star Fish that can span over - 1 foot across are seen all over the island, attaching themselves to marina jettys and basking in rock pools. The beauty of this specimen is somewhat spoilt in this picture, a beauty and the beast compositon I'd guess.
This which brings enmass a proliferal of bird waders. The favourite with their almost luminescent orange bills and gangly legs were the Black Oyster Catchers.
Timing of the visit was impeccable as luck would have it, the Herrings were running en mass in enormous shoals. I'm not sure if this was simply a coincidence that the seals mating season is at the same time or another beautiful medley of nature, certainly they enjoyed the easy pickings. Whilst at The Lighthouse one night you could see a dark shadow of the herrings gathering under the surface of the water, a huge flock of Harlequin Ducks were fishing gathering on the surface in one group and diving simultaneously, remaining under the water for 30 seconds or so then returning to the surface as one, forming a neat line and leading to the next dive spot. I have never seen anything like this and was totally bizarre/awe inspiring.
Probably the best way to see the island is to hire a sea kayak and paddle out to the smaller islands off the coast. Setting off from Silva Bay on the south side of the island, within 20 minutes we were away from the hustle bustle (ha ha). Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife on the shore and the rewards will be yours - a small speck of movement on a beach in a small cove turned out to be two racoons washing their food in the gently lapping waves, a real treat given that they are primarily nocturnal creatures and quite timid, this little fella seemed fascinated with my kayak.
Around the headland, we stumbled across a rocky island that hundreds of harbour seals had set up home upon. The startled seals took to the water and I was surrounded by over 50 seals bobbing in the turbulent water, all staring intently at the strange visitors that disturbed their afternoon rest. Using the currents to repeatedly float past the island backwards (seals find this less threatening), we got closer and closer to the seals as they became accustomed to our presence. Some great shots of one seal who perhaps was just too fat to move.
My favourite place on the island was an area on the far southern tip called Drumbeg Provincial Park, a memorable place where I saw my first elephant seal (only 2 metres from the shore), with stunning views across the bay from serene beaches with twisted driftwood littered about. Truly magical. It was here that was probably the best spot to observe Bald Eagles going about their business, hanging around in trees waiting for the opportune moment to go check out the fish menu, or when the thermals were right for a little scout around the bay.
If you waited long enough, the eagle would put on a display for you and swoop and soar with effortless grace, and maybe catch a fish and return to it's perch but to show off it's style and grace in the air.
An another visit to Drumbeg, I met with an ex-Vancouver resident who too found this spot to be his favourite. It was a sunny day and whilst chatting about the island and his experiences, a River Otter climbed from what I found out to be his nesting site and sat on a rock no more than 20 feet from us to sun bathe. We watched the little chap enjoy the sun and it was only as it strutted away to the waters edge did I think to to snap the moment on camera. Sometimes the moment is more important than the picture.
If that's not enough, I decided to explore yet another aspect of the island by venturing into the 2 degree waters and checking out the sub-aquatic world to see if it lives up to it's promise of being 'Rated as one of the "Best" cold water destinations in the world'. Over the past 10 years, the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, along with the Provincial and Federal government's, Dive Shop Owners and many volunteers have joined forces to create arguably one of the best regions in the world for the establishment of artificial reefs through strategically sinking WW2 war ships, fishing vessels or other such craft they can get their hands, probably the most famous of which is the HMCS Saskatchewan.
Through Sundown Divers in Nanaimo, I joined a group of experienced divers visiting for the weekend from Vancouver. Unfortunately weather did not permit a dive to the exposed and current ridden HMCS Saskatchewan so this was off the cards. The first dive of the day was the wall of Snake Island which starts in 20 metres of water and you can descend to over 200 metres.
Wearing a 7mm wetsuit complete with feet, gloves, hood that left no skin exposed, I plunged into the freezing water for my first dive experience after the Red Sea in November 2004. What a shock - not only was it freezing cold causing my chest cavity to shrink to the size of a pea, on looking under the water visibility was down to less than 2 metres - I began to regret my decision and figured that my chips were up. With gentle encouragement I took the plunge and followed the guide line down into the murky waters.
To my suprise, the waters cleared at a depth of meters with greater than 20 metres visibility, and now that I could breath comfortably-ish I began to relax. Descending down the wall I was amazed at the amount of life down here - crustaceans, anemomies and urchins dominated life down here in stark contrast to the countless varities of fish that swarm around coral reefs. Huge white Plumose Anemomies dominated the rocky overhangs, with bright Dahlia Anemomies (pictured) adding splashes of colour.
Not to give the impression that this was a still life, far from it - huge armies of urchins migrating to shallower waters, orange coloured sponges that make great ping-pong balls, and a suprisingly broad variety of fish (though quite alusive) including Lingcod (pictured) and Rockfish.
To complete the dive we surfaced close to the island to watch the Harbour Seals at play, back in the < 1 meter visibility water, none were around until I realised that a layful fella was tugging at my flipper, and another 10 surrounded me in amusement.
The afternoon dive was to the wreck of HMS Prudent which whilst not as spectacular as the first was enjoyable none the less as my first real wreck dive. I tried my hand at underwater filming too and whilst the images were total rubbish, by sheer accident I captured the song of a group of whales that was only spotted on playback at home that night. I hope you can hear it on this video too.
What I intended to be only 3 day stay turned into a week long orgy of wildlife spotting beyond my wildest dreams, some quality time getting to know my Aunt and Uncle and becoming one (again) with another part of the amazing British Columbia. I hope to visit again next year, hmm that list keeps growing.
To close the Gabriola account, I leave you with a stunning sunset view from close to The Lighthouse.
Now on my last legs in the country, I made the journey across to Victoria on Vancouver Island where I'd catch my connecting flight back to Calgary and beyond. Billed as more English than England, Victoria's apparent tea-and-scones-at-eleven-and-three Englishness was lost on me as I didn't seem to get that impression at all, I guess I saw the wrong places. Hooking up with an Aussie dude, we explored the city and it's sights including the BC Parliament as a highlight. The best part of this short visit was meeting the bass player of The 88's who were playing in town that night, unable to help in his quest for some pot we still had a good banter after which we were invited as VIPs to their gig that night. To be honest I'd never heard of them, apparently they were used on The OC tv hell show. The evening began with a night at the town's Irish bar where we celebrated Tartan Day (no idea what that was about but lots of Irish performers, jiggers etc) and met the mayor if Hollyrood, New Foundland who was an idiot and didn't know who Tony Blair was, after discovering he and his friend were RCMP in town for a conference with 400+ other enforcers we scarpered quick sharp and on the the gig. The venue was awesome, small intimare bar with friendly locals, The 88's were awesome and absolutely loved it - cheers dudes!
Quick exit from Victoria the next day, and flew back to Calgary with WestJet (top airline and no lost bags) and just had time for one last night of hedonism before leaving for the USA. Hooked up with Megz (on special visit to the town), cousins and their football team and headed to the quality establishment Ranchmans (as seen in Brokeback Mountain) which is a cowboy styled bar. Made a fool of myself on the mechanical bull, I mockingly stroked it's hide on the warm up run which was all the lesbianator machine operator needed and she whipped it up into breakback mode. Ouch, the bruises have just about faded after 10 days. Anyhow, a good night all in all tho I felt inadequate in two-step dancing skills to the Cowboy who whipped Megz off her feet tho thankfully he was an inbred idiot with the brain capacity of a flea and looks to match (ha ha, how bitter I am ;o)
Just a single day in Rodeo city and time to head off already. Sob sob, I'll miss Canada soo much, I'll be back next year.
Next stop sunny (ha ha) California and the City of San Francisco.