Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Beagle has landed... ( 40th anniversary)

The continued secret use of animals for space exploration.   " One small step for....!  I`m not reading this!"

Friday, July 24, 2009

Amazon Adventure # 35. Crossing the Grand Bahama Bank.

A tense time approaching Gun Cay.

Usually we have always made long crossings at night so that we would have the dawn`s light and a full day ahead to deal with a landfall and it`s possible problems. This was especially important in the Bahamas where navigational aids were often either not supplied or broken. For this long passage however, I argued we needed to see the widely spaced markers along the route by daylight and that at the end of the day there would be a major lighthouse visible for many miles right at the place we wanted to anchor. Just sail all day, finding the occasional markers along the way and when it got dark we would simply head for the big flashing light, zip through an easy cut between two islands and anchor in the sheltered lee. We should have known that ‘simply’ was a warning word to think again. That light too was out.

           Passing a marker on the Grand Bahama Bank.

The journal:
Feb 19th.
Woke up in the night with Heather re-lighting the mosquito coil ( no-see-ums). Then later, to someone singing a little crooning song to accompany the sound of bailing. Our Bahamian friends in the lovely old sloop next door. It had been flat calm all night and the met. office predicted NE 15 knots, so off we went at 8am with full sail plus washing and bedding drying. Two other boats, Scamp and Nomad, left at the same time. Wind light, under power as well, headed for the first buoy 14 miles away.

We hoped to make most of the 75 miles before dark and increased speed with a light beam wind and Honda assist. We passed Russell beacon and passed ‘Karma’ ( last seen in Spanish Wells) and chatted on VHF. The breeze picked up as daylight faded. Amazon was now surfing on following seas. Still no land. We could faintly pick out Bimini radio tower off our starboard bow. A beautiful sunset. We expected to begin picking up the 10 second flash of the Gun Cay light but no luck!

We started seeing lights all over the horizon before us. We identified Ocean Cay and Bimini Town lights and could see the loom of Miami`s lights over the horizon. Still no flashing beacon light. Karma called and said we were north of track so we altered course farther south and rapidly found ourselves in rising wind and waves with no idea where we were. A wave broke and splashed me. The wave pattern felt very shallow so we turned and reversed course and motored back into the choppy sea. Heather nursed the throttle as we bucked slowly forward while I steered. We remembered now why we had always tried to arrive in daylight. Things at night were so disorienting with many lights and no sense of distance off.

We saw a masthead light and contacted Karma who flashed his light to confirm it was him and we turned again and followed Karma towards the screen of lights ahead.

We headed for some bright lights ( It turned out the Gun Cay light was lit, sort of, but not flashing, so it blended with other shore lights) intending to follow Karma through the cut but he called to say it was very rough in the pass so we swung around and anchored beside ‘Scamp’ who put on his spreader lights so we could orient ourselves in the darkness. Two anchors out in the strong wind. No shelter or tent tonight so Heather set up the propane stove in the shelter of the galley boxes and made crinkle soup and soda bread. Then it was time to put out the bedding amid boat bounces and the whine of wind in the rigging. I fell asleep watching the stars and woke at 5am. Slept like a log!

We talked to Scamp this morning and he says there is a small craft advisory for crossing the strait to Florida so we agreed it is not crossing weather and moved through the cut to the sheltered side. Everything looks ridiculously easy by daylight.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tillikum: Intimacy at high tide.

‘It is only through learning to love that we find identity....’ ‘Innocent Blood.’ P D James.

The evening sun falls toward the gap between the hills even as the tide rises high up the beaches of the bay. I am rowing Tillikum smoothly along the southern shore, concentrating on my stroke and the V of the canoe`s wake behind me. I am learning the ways of this creature I have built and I have a definite feeling that she too is stretching out and moving more naturally each day we practice together. Sooner than I think possible, we are nearing Isabella Point and I turn to cross the mouth of the bay, glancing over my left shoulder to gauge the progress of the Saltspring ferry approaching in the distance. “Come on Tillikum, we can surely beat the ferry!”

The rocky point and offshore islets of the northern Indian Reserve point are already close by when the ‘Skeena Queen’ finally crosses our track back in the middle of the bay. I slow down and glide in close to shore. All is painted now in the final golden light of the setting sun. I`ve timed my arrival for this moment when sunset unites with the brimming of the tide. My camera lies ready beside me. As I gently stroke closer still to the cliffs and overhanging trees I must watch out for the rocks below that were so exposed the other day at low tide and are now waving their weedy wrack just below Tillikum`s keel.

The sea laps rhythmically on the rocky shore and the sun too brings warm contrasts of light and shadow, reflecting flickers of wave prisms onto rock faces. Dark recesses, fringed with overhanging branches, echo the splash of the ferry waves that reach into their depths. I feel myself swept along; part of this flood of water and light pressing close to the land.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Tillikum: Intimacy at low tide.

‘A grey mist on the sea`s face and a grey dawn breaking...`Sea Fever’ by John Masefield.

It is an overcast, drizzly summer morning and grey clouds trail ragged fringes along the hillsides that enclose Fulford Harbour. I row ‘Tillikum’, my 16 foot sailing canoe along the northern shore. The tide is far out now, exposing reefs and rocky shores clothed in mussels and bladderwrack seaweed. Secluded shell beaches stretch their white legs way down to the sea and wriggle their toes in the gentle pulse of the waves. Kelp stems, no longer straining upwards to the high tide sea surface, relax as they move their sleek upper bodies in the current. ‘Tillikum’ glides smoothly amongst them.

It was a long process, bringing a throw-away, decrepit, fiberglass canoe into this new incarnation, but now all that work is paying off as it carries me so effortlessly up-close and personal with the intertidal zone. The even grey filtered light and blurred distant islands draw a curtain around us and it seems almost intrusive to pull my camera out of its waterproof case and take photographs. This is a privileged position I`m in, so intimately close to this delicate, exposed world, usually veiled under many feet of salt water.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A deer in the house.

Deer in the house.

The door is open to our little cabin in the big woods and I hear a thump as I approach. We have an intruder! My first thought is that a squatter has moved in while we were away but instead of pausing to consider the dangers of an abrupt confrontation I stride to the door and fling it wide! A young buck is scrambling to it`s feet on the braided rug and I am blocking it`s only exit!

Once long ago when our children were young we came home to find that our entire herd of goats had pushed the door open and were relaxing regally on the furniture. Droppings, spilled flour, the remains of an entire baking of bread and a guilty crowd ready to make a break for it! I realized that I had reached cool and collected middle age as I calmly strode through their midst to the other end of the room before screaming “GET OUT!!!” The herd of flapping ears and swinging udders exited through the open door without further damage as though sucked out by a vacuum.

This time I seem to have reached another plateau, or to have returned at last to an earlier self, because I yell the same words while blocking the doorway. The deer leaps to a window, bounces off, jumps up onto a narrow bookshelf, smashing the Venetian blind and spilling books to the floor. I step forward, yelling “NO! NO ! THIS WAY!” and the buck, sliding and stumbling on the varnished floor, leaps past my legs, plunges through some railings with a crash and is off into the forest. For a while.

If this were an isolated incident it would simply pass off as another story from the Big Woods Chronicles, but I am noticing a pattern. This same deer has been jumping fences into the garden and orchard. The other day I chased him around the fenced-in area three times until he hid in my workshop only to come streaking out again as I came near. Today a doe and two fauns came trotting down the driveway and very reluctantly carried on down the hill as I ran at them madly swinging a revving weedeater. Five minutes later they were back, disappearing behind the studio. It`s not just the deer this year either, two peacocks came running up the driveway this morning headed determinedly for the garden gate. Only a last second jet from the garden hose sent then back to the gates of hell from whence they came! Ducks decided to walk up the hill and give the pond a summer cleaning. I feel besieged. It is as though the word is out that the wild is welcome here and no weak protests on my part will change the flow of history. They know something already through the bush telegraph that I have yet to receive notification of in the mail!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Amazon Adventure #34. Mayday, Mayday!

We are at Nassau for a couple of days while a front goes through ( not a nasty one like last time we were here.). Our next destination is Chubb Cay about 35 miles away and we wait `til we have favourable winds like all really sensible cruising people do and then go for it. That evening we tuck into a little creek beside the radio tower of the Chubb Cay Club marina. A couple of older Bahamian fishermen in a sailing smack who are there before us pull on their mooring lines to let us in. Anne has become our radio person and listens on the VHF in the evening for any boat traffic to keep track of all our new boating friends. Then, clearly but faintly, we hear a mayday call. Some boat far out on the Bahama Bank has been adrift for three days and is asking for help. We listen and take notes.

No one replies! Again they make their call! It must be because we are beside the tall radio tower that we can hear them at all! Finally I call the Chubb Cay volunteer coast guard and pass on the message. Things are a little tricky for boats answering distress calls here in the Bahamas because of drug running and piracy. We listen in as an American surveillance plane finally answers them and directs a Coast Guard cutter to tow them to Florida. We have the distinct impression that if we had not come on the air and alerted the local volunteers, the silent listening would have continued and a drug bust made on this broken down cigarette boat on it`s way from Andros Island to Florida.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Burgoyne forest #3 Up into the Garry Oaks.

                                                                                   Burgoyne Bay.

Once again we are climbing the slopes of Mt. Maxwell following a trail that goes we know not where. We hope it`s the one that leads up to the higher rocky slopes and Garry Oak meadows but we have no map. Much more exciting this way! Soon we are scrambling around the base of an enormous rock that in some places would rate as a mountain all by itself. Further up-slope there is another massive tableau with a great arbutus tree pumping itself up to scale amid more shards of mountain cliffs. We edge past and climb up out of the forest and into the dry grasses and Garry oaks that make this such a unique eco-system here on the coast. Our eyes lift from the slippery path and our spirits soar out over a panorama of ocean and mountains. Below us, pinhead sized boats entering Sansum Narrows send complex wave patterns into Burgoyne Bay.

This has not been a difficult or long climb so we can not attribute our sense of ‘Arrival’ to some physical or mental feat. Perhaps it is the setting, perched high on a mountainside with it`s hundred mile view - out of the forest at last -, or that fantastic tree amid the rocks below us that keeps telling us we are in the world of Gods and Heros. For me, it is all of this and also those wave patterns in the bay below that cross and weave more and more complex patterns, reminding us of our own place on this cloud dappled mountainside: our small part in the larger pattern of rocks and trees and soaring eagles.

Burgoyne forest #2.The big rock pile.

A few days later I return with visiting friends to have a closer look at the enormous rocks that are piled higher up the mountain slope. The sour smell of quenched fire is gone at last, but the steep, twisting trail is slippery with brittle arbutus leaves and dry loose soil. We have a sense of rising excitement as we struggle upward. Ahead, half hidden still amid the tree trunks, is a scene from Tolkein`s books: trolls must surely live amid the apartment-house sized sharded boulders that balance precariously above us.

As we wind around the base of the pile we notice that each rock is itself made of many rocks - these were once cemented together under the sea by sand and slowly transported through continental drift and pressed and smeared against the North American plate. A long time after that, during or after glaciation, they broke loose from the cliffs above and settled here. We feel like ants in this place both in size and in the length of time these rocks represent. I also know the stories of how in the past, first nations youth came to this primordial place to experience their vision quests. Even us well fed folk from another culture feel the veils shift and stir as we walk in the shadows.

We follow a vague trail that twists and turns ever upward through the frozen remains of this once mighty crash until we are deep within the rock pile. Caves and crevices create deep shadows and leaves flicker in the sunlight. Finally, on the mossy summit of the tallest rock, we are up in the forest canopy, close neighbours with the tops of tall arbutus, maple and fir. We creep to the sheer edge to peer down-slope toward the sea, while above us the cliffs of Mt Maxwell show more sandstone/conglomerate fractured rock. We hope we are in a snooze break, geologically speaking, in the gravitational attraction between the cliffs and their long desire to unite with the bay below. A turkey buzzard tilts and turns overhead checking us out for luncheon possibilities.
I take many photos, sure this time that the power of this place will make itself visible. We scurry and slide back down the trail to get away from the dread that clings, even on this sunny day, to this place of giants hidden in the forest high on the slopes of the mountain.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

'Glorious 12th.' Aliens report strange new life form.

' Orange men sighted. Greenies predict global swarming.'

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Burgoyne Forest #1. The smell of fire.

Forest walk.

The first thing we notice as we walk into the woods is the unmistakable odor of quenched campfire carried on the air that filters down the mountainside. Recently this peaceful spot rocked with the sound of water bombers and helicopters fighting a stubborn forest fire on the rocky slopes high above us. Our path, notched into the lower mountain slope, tunnels into the forest. Uphill, hidden far above the trees, are the scorched cliffs of Mt. Maxwell and below us the steep hillside dives into the cool blue waters of Burgoyne Bay: all of this is clothed in a rich growth of fir, arbutus and rampant undergrowth. Now, in early summer, bushes of Ocean Spray blur the air with waving creamy blossoms and foxgloves stand tall amid white daisy clusters scattered along the sunnier edges of the path. We feel its peaceful aura seeping into us even as our jangling nerves ring bells warning that all is not right: that insidious smell still warns of danger.

All this fecundity does not make this an easy place to photograph however. Beauty is stacked three deep and it is difficult to find the bones beneath all this pleasant padding. Through the trees on the up-slope I catch glimpses of enormous boulders that tumbled down from the cliffs above sometime in the past. There I might find the sober side of this place but I will save that for another day. I focus on the elements close by, picking out the particular details - the fallen arbutus leaves still specked with last nights rain drops, the soft green sweep of horsetails under the forest shade, the brilliant reds and greens of Oregon grape and the improbable orange bark of an arbutus. The sun creates an extreme range of shadows and highlights that are difficult to capture without producing black shadows and washed out detail. My own eyes deal so much better with this light but I need to visualize as though I see through the camera`s eye.

Heather walks ahead of me and I focus on her legs and press the shutter as we walk along. I know that the photo will be a blur with the same slow shutter speed and small aperture I am using to produce a deep depth of field in the shady places, and the results will be an experiment. I need to push the limits here if I am to get beyond the conventional portrayal of beauty.

Only after I get home and process these photos will I sort them into a language of images, selecting those that tell the complex story that shimmers here among the extravagant layers of luscious forms and colours. That sour, smoky smell that dominated our walk though, how do I express that?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Amazon Adventure # 33. Wind and rain and sun above.

A page from the journal. Gwyn sketches a rainy day passage.

We voyage north through the rain to Allans Cay, visit with the iguanas and sail back to Nassau. We have long since shed our ‘sailing is best and boo to engines’ weird belief system and now are setting distant goals and motor sailing to maintain speed when the wind drops. As a result we zoom back up the Exumas. On the crossing back to Nassau we manage to keep ahead of a mega-yacht until strong gusts make us reduce sail.

The journal:
Feb. 15th.
We woke up today wet and dripping, at least dad was, as mom had moved into the nav.station/bathroom. Elaine has a consistent drip into her hull and when Anne opened her hatch lid she got wet into me. We had a good breakfast. ( We put the tent up for breakfast.) We cleaned up and headed out into the rain. I steered while dad helped Anne navigate. We had a really good lunch, then we worked on schoolwork until we got seasick.

After a long while we came into Highbourne Cay, and left after 15 minutes for Allans Cay ( another half hour). Got the tent up, went ashore, but didn`t see any iguanas but did see some of their holes. Gwyneth.

                         The Exumas chain of islands and passage to Nassau.
                         Stocking Island, bottom right and Nassau, top left.
Iguana on left.

Feb 16th.
Today we woke up fairly early and went back to see the iguanas. Got a couple of pics and were on our way by 9:30.The day was sunny and hot and we were maintaining five knots plus pretty much the whole way when all of a sudden a massive gust came and we jammed at about 8 to 9 knots. We had to take the jenny down, put up the stays`l and reef the main! We got into Nassau about 3pm. Just as dad started the outboard the starter rope broke so we sailed in instead, got gas and water at the East Bay Marina. Mom and I went ashore and got groceries. Elaine.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Shore lines.

The tide is out now, exposing the rocky, forest-backed shoreline which leans it`s seaweedy elbows into the gently lapping ocean. I had planned to walk north along the trail in Ruckle Park and take photographs as I go but the day has turned overcast and the dramatic colours and shadows I had expected to find are flattened now by the grey filter overhead. I must adjust to this new light and seek an alternate vision. I begin to look more carefully at the rock and driftwood-stacked world beneath my feet.

This is a more subtle landscape when colours grey and shadows fade, - perfect for portraits like the one I just made of the farmer beside his tractor making hay in the farm fields behind me. I begin to see these beach forms as portraits too. Logs stretch their silvered limbs like human figures and I treat them as such, picturing the expressively sprawling torsos and truncated bodies as pausing for a moment in their long life dance towards sliverdom. The beach I have found is on a fault line and hard volcanic rock surges to the surface between the sandstone layers that surround it. Some of that drama lies locked still in the photos I find when my interest focuses down to the detail, to the furrowed rock-faces beneath my feet. Among the bushy tangles of roots and twigs that drape down the bank behind the beach, delicate ocean spray blossoms tremble in the breeze; something here is living and renewing but I wait for a breath to set one trembling so it will blur in the photo, making this passing moment scarce recorded amid the dominant theme.
I creep forward, my eyes to the ground, seeing a universe at my feet: my little monkey life so ephemeral amid this eternity where land meets ocean and the smallest rock will outlive me many times over. This is a cathedral of sorts, which echoes with all that is transient; all that lasts forever.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Water Irises. Expression.

The irises that line the sides and compete with the bullrushes at the shallow end of our big irrigation pond are leaning sideways into the steadily dropping water level. It has been so dry this season that we have drawn down the pond to keep the vegetable garden damp during this fragile stage of the small plants` development. In all their fresh flowering glory, down they lie amidst the reflections of sky and overhanging trees. Sad too, with all the associations there are with feelings of transience.

What is positive though, is that I can make the leap from this piece of nature outside of myself and feel it in my own emotions and thoughts. Connections are important, and those irises have shared their message with me more poignantly than if they had stayed upright and faded in the usual course of time.

It is a little backwards I know, to think this way, because we are taught that such an association of feeling to nature is a transfer of our own human moods to things outside ourselves: - I see the fallen flowers and project my own sad thoughts onto them. This is such an ingrained way of understanding the world that it takes a major shake of the head to imagine the opposite; that the irises and I are sharing a passing mood of nature. We express the whole thing and the whole thing expresses us. The reflections, the water, the fallen flowers and I are twining our lives together.

We ‘walk in beauty’ as the Navajo poem says, but more accurately perhaps we walk inside of beauty: we are all singing the same song and the song is singing us.

‘ The entire earth is the true human body.’ Dogen. - a 13th century Buddhist.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Amazon Adventure # 32. Thunderball Cave.

                                                              "Here fishy, fishy."

On the way south we had seen the rock islet which enclosed Thunderball Cave, the set for a scene from an early 007 James Bond movie ( Goldfinger), and now we were back again with time to use our recently gained skills with our snorkeling gear to dive down through the underwater entrance and up into the hollow interior of the island. Heather picks up the story.

                        Inside the island is Thunderball Cave.

The journal:

It is very still this morning which bodes well for our visit to Thunderball cave since there must be no swell. We must be anchored nearby just before slack tide as that is the only safe time to go in there.

First we waded ashore and did a shop again at Staniel Cay and got some drinking water from an enormous Canadian motor yacht. Then we found a good place to anchor near the cave. Beginning to get cold and overcast, but still calm, thank goodness. Bill and Anne first went into the cold water to check things out. Strange to watch them disappear into the rock! Bill came back for Elaine and then Gwyneth, then me.

I had practiced so long for just this moment! I dove down through the hole and gulped down a great mouthful of water I was so nervous. It was beautiful inside even with no sun. There were not as many fish as I had expected but they were lovely, hanging around like ornaments at first and then flocking up to investigate us when we stayed still. Bill was very cold by now so we headed back to the boat to warm up.

Anne and Elaine started off again with a big cabbage leaf to feed the fish but Elaine saw a big grouper below and came shrieking back and could n`t be persuaded to go back in the water so I went in her place and found Anne absorbed in the cave with great flocks of fish around her as she fed them little chunks of cabbage. ( “Here fishy, fishy, fishy!”coming up her snorkel.) Like being in an aquarium with the fish! When they all clustered close though, they made you want to giggle. Gwyn and I made one more trip and then on to Sampson Cay to buy gas and then to an out of the way ‘creek’ at Compass Cay. After supper we took the tent down in preparation for the big storm. It came, and flooded us on deck totally. I went below around 4am. and organized a place to lie down. Bill did better without me! Heather.