Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shiriri Saga#4 The Circumnavigators.

"Would you like coffee and croissants for breakfast tomorrow morning?"The laughing voice of the marina manager carried easily over the narrow space of water to our becalmed schooner. We had just pushed off on the beginning of our thirtieth wedding anniversary circumnavigation of Salt Spring Island (our island home). With our adult children on board, we were repeating our honey moon trip that we had made in the 14' scow we proudly called Isolde.

That trip had been a challenge in our tiny boat with its home made sails and chronically unreliable outboard engine and this one in Shiriri also had a decidedly improvised camping quality as well, with its broken down engine, tattered sails, and rough and as yet untouched interior. We still had our dory with its outboard to use as an engine when the wind failed however, and were primed for this modest adventure. We had owned our dreamboat ( and she was still mostly dream) for several months now and had been busy getting the exterior refinished before winter rains forced us below to begin work on remodeling the interior. The breeze filled in at last and we drew away from tomorrow`s proffered breakfast and tacked out of Fulford Harbour.
The promising breeze died by evening, but we were close to our first destination, Russell Island. The crew of Isolde had camped here on the first night of their honeymoon cruise after a day spent mostly drifting north on the tide and so I jumped into the dory to tow the short distance to the anchorage in the lee of the island. No sooner was I at the end of the tow line than I burst out laughing; there astern, was my first sight of Shiriri away from land or the marina berth. She was improbably romantic as though she had just dropped in through a time warp from the previous century.

By mid afternoon the next day Shiriri was sailing fast up Houstoun Passage between Salt Spring and a long low island called Wallace Island. Now a provincial park, it was then a private island with big "No Trespassing" signs that had the crew of Isolde getting a little desperate for a place to camp for the night. We on Shiriri had a tight time of it ourselves off the northern tip of Salt Spring, getting our sails down quickly and the dory alongside before we were blown past the little bay in which we intended to anchor. Just in time the outboard caught and we carefully inched into the bay. That night we told our grown up children of our spooky experience thirty years before, on the island we could see north of our anchorage. We had landed on Jackscrew Island in the evening, desperate by now for a camping spot and had hurried across the island to find a camp site. And then it hit us: an overpowering sadness pervaded the place and set our hair on end.We ran back to our boat, pushed away from the shore, and sailed off as fast as the breeze could carry us. We sailed in the moonlight, messed with the seagull engine to no avail and paddled half the night to finally camp on Tent island. Phew!

Day three found Shiriri sailing south past the village of Vesuvius toward a distant steep- sided narrow pass between our island and Vancouver Island. Naturally the wind headed us when we finally arrived and we tacked back and forth for a while until we reached the entrance to Maple Bay. Our shadowy former selves had tacked back and forth without gaining any distance to windward, had worked on their engine until it started and had turned in here to spend the night in a friends woodshed. The Shiriris, however, checked the tide tables and decided to try to use the last of the ebb tide to pass through Sansum Narrows before nightfall. The dory revved up and Shiriri slid forward in the calm evening light. Those narrows were so beautiful with their spectacular cliffs, but we were kept busy trying to fend the dory off and keep it from being swamped as motor boats coming the other way pounded us with their wash.
Finally, on the slack tide, we reached the southern end of the pass and looked up in a quiet moment of reflection at a roof top poking through the trees on the hillside above us. This was the Island home of Miles and Beryl Smeeton before they returned to their yacht Tzu Hang for more years of adventurous sailing. Their books had been our inspiration for years and passing this spot felt like our own true beginning. Then with our oh so useful dory and it`s engine, we just scraped around the point and cheated the gathering flood tide that was trying to sweep us back into the narrows. We anchored in Genoa Bay for the night.

On the last day of our circumnavigation, we sailed up Satellite Channel along the south side of Salt Spring. Somewhere we crossed paths with the crew of Isolde who had transited Sansum Narrows that day thirty years before. They were headed for their new apartment in Sidney, the beginning of their life together, and a year of teaching and teacher training. They don`t know it yet of course, but a year from now they will have driven across Canada to Nova Scotia and will be just about to leave for teaching jobs in Guyana, South America. Although we don`t know it yet, we will be tested with many difficulties before Shiriri`s bowsprit will meet the Pacific swells as we turn left at Cape Flattery and begin our life on the ocean wave.


The birds are back! The eagle perches in the tree top looking speculatively at our chickens scratching busily in the orchard. Flocks of smaller birds zoom across the sky and fill the forest with chatter. Two mallards leap into the air as I walk beside the stream. The winter silence is broken at last.
This is the last moment that winter jobs can be completed before spring arrives in earnest and calls me to prepare for an active summer. Already the orchard needs pruning and spraying before buds start to break. But wait! Another kind of pruning also calls from the forest: that big balsam fir that is dying down from the top will need to be cut down and turned into next winter`s firewood.

There is an fierce, elemental satisfaction to felling a big tree. After the careful work with chainsaw and wedges, there is a final shriek and almighty crash as it lands in a swirl of broken top and torn branches. Yes! It has landed just where I had planned. Yes!

After the trunk has been sawn into rounds, chopping them into firewood pieces begins with the heavy splitting maul. This is more like work, but here is a different kind of satisfaction: the pleasure of the body as the maul strikes the wood and the big round falls apart: the co-ordination of eye, mind and muscle all focused in one instant at one point. After a winter of mostly indoor work, I feel fully alive again.
This participation in the physical skills that make firewood without the complications of interpersonal relationships is a satisfaction I find in my little piece of forest: no bosses or deadlines controlled by something other than the season of the year. There is in this process a different kind of social contract though; a larger social relationship. This tree I`m working on is almost the same age as me. While I was being born in England during the devastation of W.W.II.,this tree was making a start amongst the broken remains of an old growth forest cut down to supply the wartime demand for raw materials. It was already a tall tree when I arrived thirty years ago and we have matured in each others company. You might say we are in a broader kind of social relationship: one that also includes my cutting it down when it`s dying top makes it a hazzard beside the trail that leads to the bottom field.

I notice that despite this fellow feeling for my age -mate I still feel a fierce pleasure in bringing it down, in cutting off it`s branches and bucking it into rounds for my axe. I am a human being after all and that glint in my eye is part of my heritage from the beginning of time. It`s the same reality for all: for us to live, others must die and I will need firewood for warmth next winter.

It is a little tricky admitting that I take such pleasure in felling trees and swinging an axe with such concentration at bits of wood. It`s not quite "nice" somehow; all that rampant pleasure in being alive and living in such an elemental way. It`s not really "civilized," this being fully human. Yet surely, if we narrow our definition of being human to that of nice thoughts and the intellect, the lusty, creative forces within us are denied legitimate expression and become stunted and undeveloped. Then we are caught off guard when they force their way into our surface lives in truly crude and nasty ways. Better by far to live in peace and companionship with our whole selves.

As I drag branches across the stream to the fire I stumble and knock the boulders that line the bank into the rushing water. As I stoop to rebuild the bank, the water is chilly without my gloves on, but I carefully rebuild the stone interlocking pattern. I have spent half my life in this intimate relationship with the basic elements: earth, air, fire and water. It has formed the way I see the world. I am part of this place: the birds that arrive, sing and raise their families, the rocky slopes covered in ferns and deep green moss, the keen air that is sifting through the forest canopy.
As the crickets soft autumn hum
Is to us
So are we to the trees
As are
To the rocks and the hills.
Gary Snyder.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Wooly Gone.

Today I found our feral sheep, Wooly, lying dead on the forest floor. Not unexpected, she had finally been unable to stay on her feet. Over the past couple of weeks she spent more and more time lying down and became less and less nervous of human contact. Just yesterday I made another attempt to get her on her feet but she was too weak. A bowl of water was the best we could do for her.

This is no tragedy though: she lived an unsheep-like independent life among the woods and fields and finding her stretched out in a sunbeam seemed a remarkably suitable and happy end.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Shiriri Saga#3 First voyage.

The problem with buying a boat on the mainland was that we lived on an island on the other side of the wintery Strait of Georgia and we had to get it home. There was a plus of course: it was a boat after all and could float across, but unfortunately that very low price was reflected in a broken engine and tattered sails. Before launching our new ship we painted her bottom with antifouling and as we did so we looked for the first time at the dinghy lying upside down beneath the hull. It was just a little 14` dory but we realized that here was the solution to our engine problem: with an outboard engine perched on the stern, this little boat could act as a tug to power the big schooner through the calm patches and in and out of harbour. The sails could be supplemented by ones borrowed from our catamaran. We had a plan, all we needed was a calm break between winter gales.

Heather`s brother Colin and I left the harbour one cool grey morning with the dory tied alongside for the long first voyage to the marina near our home. Our boat was large and the dory was weighted with beach rock as ballast but slowly the little ten HP engine brought us up to four knots. After several hours of motoring across the strait, the predicted northerly breeze picked up. We hoisted our assorted sails, and thankfully trailed our dinghy astern. Soon it was surfing behind us and cheerfully bumping into the splendid mahogany transom so we lengthened the tow line to calm it down. The ship felt fully alive for the first time as we lifted on the following waves and surged forward. At East Point we splashed steadily through the chaotic waves of a tide rip. I realized then that I was sailing a much bigger and more powerful boat than I was used to. She just heeled a little as we turned the corner south of Saturna Island, shrugged her shoulders, and kept going; no fuss, no muss. Only the little dory towing astern with a mighty bow wave and very wide eyes told us we were really moving along at a good pace.

The afternoon passed all too quickly as we ghosted slowly along in the lee of the islands that blocked a more direct route home and the winter night began in late afternoon. Soon we were motoring again very slowly against the tide as we groped our way through the dark between reefs and shadowy islands. I was very happy to see the marina lights at the head of our harbour at last. Happy too to have finally felt the steady and reliable personality of the ship that we would need to trust with our lives if we were to follow our dream into the bigger world.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Shift In Conciousness.

Parting at Morning.
Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountains rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.
Robert Browning.

My sketch began as a reflection on this poem by Robert Browning but continued down the page quite out of my control. You know how a DVD can suddenly break your belief in the reality of a movie story by reacting to a little dirt and breaking up into little bits of coded information? That`s what happened here: the image at the top of the page broke up into its shorthand bits: normally disguised by little strokes, the image of familiar reality shows its hidden side.

Some years ago, I had this experience without benefit of DVD. I was paddling down the Red Deer River in Alberta on a two week camping trip. It was Fall, all the birds were migrating south, the nights were crisp and the river was low. It was a lovely, evocative time of year.

Because of the low water level, my brother in law Colin and I were able to camp every night on the sand bars, but those same bars filled the river with shallows as well and our progress was impeded by continually having to get out and walk the canoe along until we came to the hidden deep water channel that meandered back and forth beneath the silty water. What I needed was to know which course the channel would take and there were no visual clues. I was an ocean canoeist and I was out of my depth.

A shift in consciousness was called for, and so, finally, I imagined myself to be the river: At first I said to myself,"If I were the river I would start to swing wide on this corner, then start to swing back and prepare for the next reverse curve," then, once I understood the hidden pattern, I found that if I could stop thinking consciously and just sink into it and react instinctively, our journey went smoothly.

This becoming part of the flow had a most fascinating and unexpected side effect. The whole landscape, not just the river, unfolded to show the deeper pattern hidden beneath the surface reality. The sand hill cranes circling in the thermals, the geese traveling in large noisy flocks, the clouds and the wind: all were wrapped in glory and spoke in solemn ringing tones. One could feel that the hidden codes of existence were, like in some Old Testament text, written by skeins of waterfowl on the screen of the sky.

So what does one do with a transcendental experience like that? Those ringing tones continued to reverberate long after the trip was over but talking about it is never all that satisfactory. " Poor guy. Out too long." You can see the unease in their eyes as they edge away from this most recent manifestation of the Ancient Mariner. Well, Its always worth a try, but I realize that the solution to my need to communicate is most productively laid into my visual communication: not as the surface image usually , but in the compositional underlay and flicker of brush strokes. That way perhaps others will experience for themselves that quality of landscape. See it! Feel it! It is dancing!

The transformation of nature in art is rendering nature phenomenon transparent
to transcendence.

Joseph Campbell.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Shiriri Saga #2. The search for the right boat.

Under a light dusting of snow, the trim little 32` steel cutter was for sale at our local wharf. "Perfect"! we thought and arranged for the owner to show it to us. We were launched into the beginning phases of making our dream of an independent sailing life come true and this first prospect was close to home.
While browsing through the boat ads, we had also been researching in sailing magazines and books to prepare for this most important of purchases. We were now ready to start looking in earnest! "Steel is good," we said, "fairly new,..." : we had a list of desirable qualities a yard long. We also expected a lot of boat for a very limited budget. There were to be difficulties ahead. This boat for example, had been built with a larger cockpit than the original design called for. That made it great for coastal summer sailing, but for our specialized oceangoing needs the original design with a smaller cockpit and larger cabin would have been best. The price was a little high.

We kept on looking for two more years: most boats were coastal boats, after all and I suspect that we were so full of book learned prejudices that we passed by some nice yachts that could have been adapted if only we could have seen their possibilities. We were ready to give up when we saw an ad. for a large, recently built, traditional wooden schooner over on the mainland. In desperation we put our specifications list to one side and off we went on the ferry.
The schooner sat on the hard and towered above the other boats. The broker was late, so we walked around her. We craned our necks to take in the long bowsprit, tall pole masts and elegant transom stern. The winter gale flapped the slime green tattered sails and from our vantage point we missed the grimy decks and cockpit partially filled with a hearty brew of seagull spiced stagnant water. People who were not as desperate as us would have run while they had the chance!

We did`nt of course. By the time the broker arrived, we had already convinced ourselves. Compared to all the many boats we had looked at, this really was a proper ship! After conducting our own survey we made a very low offer, waited for several months and she was ours.
Buying a boat is a form of falling in love. No matter what the practicalities are, if the beloved fits the seekers dream image, then all those little nagging worries about character and expensive habits are swept aside as fixable once the marriage is consumated. So it was with the schooner we came to call Shiriri and, contrary to all realistic expectations, we were rewarded in the end, with a brave and beautiful ship who would take good care of us for years to come.

Note: Mount Shiriri was not far from where we taught in the Rupununi district of Guyana. South America. We first saw it while on a camping trip with some local ranchers, Charlie and Edwina Melville, and were impressed to hear that it was a holy mountain. Only the Piaiman ( Shaman) could go to this special mountain to make all well between the Gods and the local Indian people. We were so impressed that we vowed that if we ever had a boat that could carry a name like that, we would name it Shiriri.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A very small yacht.

The battered old fiberglass canoe was labeled "FREE" and put at the curbside. With a few holes punched in it, a coat of dried green slime and with rotting seats and gunwales it was not a promising sight. My son-in-law, Tim, saw its potential though, tossed it on his truck, and gave it to me. He had remembered that I was mulling over a cross Canada canoe trip and so supplied the first essential ingredient: a beginning.

At first I rejected this canoe. That was the easy first step to not start the journey. I saw all it`s limitations quite realistically. I was not a first time boat builder and no romance would ever again sweep me off my feet! Rather than take it to the dump myself (a fairly major job on our Gulf Island) I thought some more and decided to just make the most limited of beginnings ; replace the gunwales, fix the seats and patch the holes. Then, after a coat of paint, we could keep it at a local bay and go for a paddle any time we liked. Recycling, after all, is a good thing!

While repairing the canoe, I was also completing a two year long rebuilding project on a 25' Folk Boat that I had bought in a neglected condition. This summer, a complicated redesigning and lining of the interior had called for endless patience and creative problem solving. The place I do my thinking, the back pages of my sketchbook, were full of scratchy little design drawings. One day though, to my horror, the canoe appeared in the center of a fresh white page: a sketch in the guise of fantasy, it was an answer to all my design needs for an adventure. Already it had a raised sheer line, sail, oars, an elegant figurehead, and a happy voyager. A very small yacht was smiling encouragingly at me and waiting to be launched!

My sketchbook is half full of germinating ideas for projects I have completed over the past five years since we arrived home from our Pacific sailing adventure. I can look back to see the process and always buried in the midst of detailed problem solving drawings is the first inspiration that began the whole thing. These inspirational ones are different from the rest: they are often quite complete and quite romantic. If ever there was an example of my unfettered imagination determinedly communicating with the "little engineer" practical side of myself and insisting on cooperation this has to be it!

At this point, several months later, the "little canoe that would" is well on its way to completion and is indeed the first essential step toward actualizing a long and complex canoe journey. I still think that working on that canoe project was not necessarily the best choice, but it was a choice and things will now flow onward from there. Without the canoe arriving at my front door, I could have lost my flow in the midst of possibilities and been halted at the very start of the journey.

I`m lucky to be familiar with my working style whether it is in building projects like this one or the process of creating a carving or painting. I know that it is a cooperation between all facets of myself: the dreaming self, the practical self, and most importantly, what I think of as my handy self. When I can`t imagine or problem solve my way through a stage, I let my mind go slack and just set my hands to work with the materials at hand. I think of it as giving my dreaming self a pair of hands. I have confidence in the process, so things work out. It is not a smooth road however, and not a mind set that is applicable in every situation: if I apply this creative mode to shared decision making with my wife, for example, it can drive her crazy because there is no logical step by step way of moving ahead. We can agree on a point, and then I will see more possibilities. Endless possibilities! As an intuitive thinker, I have had to learn to make the necessary transition to the next decision and to move forward. Thanks to learning that necessary step the canoe trip is free to move closer to reality.

The most difficult thing is still to make a beginning; to cast off from shore. Everything flows forward from there.

[An extended canoe expedition] " involves a starting rather than a parting.
Although it assumes the breaking of ties, its purpose is not to destroy the
past, but to lay a foundation for the future. From now on, every living act will
be built on this step, which will serve as a base long after the return of the
expedition... and until the next one."
Pierre Trudeau.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Shiriri Saga #1 A new direction.

Heather and I were nearing the end of a hostelling / backpacking holiday in Britain. We stood on a high Devonshire ridge overlooking the ocean. As we watched the sun set over the Irish Sea we were feeling a little sad, a little desperate, as our month long adventure wound down to its last few days. That brave decision that had lead to my leaving my teaching career years before and to our independent life on our Gulf Island was, in my fiftieth year, showing a few cracks. Since my Park Ranger job had disappeared with privatization, I was now working on contract as a youth and family Counselor. It was important work that I did well and which gave me a lot of insight, but it was intermittent, with poor pay and only occasional job satisfaction. At my age, in the limited job market on our little island, future prospects for an exciting life were dim and getting dimmer.

Below us was a harbour filled with fishing boats and small yachts. Like us, they were high and dry at low tide, but as we looked up and down the coast we could see interesting river mouths and other historied towns we would have loved to have had the time and money to explore. Even hostelling was too expensive for us in the long term and constant train and bus travel was well beyond our means. I think it occurred to us both at the same time, " If we had a boat we could live on board, we could travel as we please, row our dinghy up those rivers, resupply in those little towns, hike the hills and when winter comes we could move south, maybe by canal to the Mediterranean or sail to the Canary Islands."We skipped back to our separate hostel beds with our hearts uplifted and our minds abuzz with new possibilities.

What made this more than a mere pipe dream were the resources of our past experience. When still in our thirties, we had left teaching to pursue a dream of self sufficiency. We now had the experience and the skills to live inexpensively, to make what we needed, be it a boat or a house and, with our youthful volunteer teaching experience in South America behind us, to confidently begin a venture into new lands and peoples. Most importantly perhaps, we had hand-built our house and log cabin without a mortgage. Now, by renting out our property, we could have an income without being tied to a job. We had already done something similar once before when one winter we had a catamaran built for us and rented out our house. We then trailered our boat and family to Florida, sailed across to the Bahamas and spent several months camping on board and cruising among the islands with our children. We then towed our boat "Amazon" to the west coast of Mexico for a brief adventure in the Sea of Cortez and then back home to spring and my seasonal Ranger job.

Our children were now grown and independent, we were already amateur sailors, and big plans interested us and gave vitality to our lives. The problem of not having a well paying job was now, from a new perspective, our passport to freedom. We arrived home bursting to get started.

"When the way comes to an end, then change, - having changed, you will pass through."
I Ching.