Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Building a life #3. Logging.

                                                                                  Run, run, run away.

There is our VW van parked over on a logging road beside a little tent. Beside that, is our collie-cross Saffi and inside the tent are our three children. It is an autumn Sunday, we are high in the lodgepole pine covered hills overlooking our village of Okanagan Falls. I am cutting poles for the log cabin that we will begin to build a year from now. In the few short months since buying our property on Saltspring Island we have made a plan for our move and the first year of our future life. We will build a pump house / workshop and buy a travel trailer to park beside it and live in these through the first winter. We will build a barn for our farm animals with extra loft room to store our furniture, and establish a vegetable garden. We will build a log cabin to live in while we build our main house. We will build our life!

These long thin straight trees I am felling, trimming and cutting into lengths with my brand new Husquevarna 65 chainsaw will give me a head start on the cabin project as I complete my last year of teaching art. Once I have hauled them home in a rented flatbed truck I can skin the bark off and rack them up to dry in the cold dry snowy interior climate so they will be seasoned and ready for building with when they are hauled to the coast. I have books on how to do this but to make sure I am also taking a log building course on Saturdays. I must complete this logging phase before the snow falls and the hills become inaccessible.

I make the first wedge undercut facing into the clearing, check to see that Heather is well clear and begin the back cut that will bring the tree down - I hope! All this is pretty new to me and sometimes trees twist on their stumps and lean against others necessitating more dangerous felling of those that are leaned upon. A professional would shudder at my lack of experience and the risks I am taking. My tall thin pine starts to lean in the right direction. I shout ‘Timber!’ and then see our dog Saffi running toward me straight down the path of the falling tree. I yell some more and she looks up, frantically reverses course and just escapes the top branches as they hit the ground. A yelp indicates that she got touched. She runs back to the tent and dives inside among the playing children. Saffi, we have discovered is not the smartest dog in the world but perhaps she too can learn from practical experience like her owners. If we all survive the learning process.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Building a life #2. Okies. Looking for land.

Threatened with the long arm of the law.

We had been on one of the smaller Gulf Islands for half a day driving around and trying to get a feel for it. Would it suit our family? Supper in the local restaurant was our first heads-up as our hungry family sat and waited forever to be served as the waitress, with her back to us, visited with her friends who were here to celebrate getting their welfare checks. By the time we were finished, the last ferry off the island had left and the one small campground was full. As we drove around looking for a camping spot we focused again on signs that had seemed innocuous in full daylight. ‘No camping.’At a south end beach we found another such sign at road-end beside a grassy field. We knew enough not to camp in the field, but from our canoe camping days among the islands we also knew that below the high tide line was public property. We also knew that the tide would not return up the beach until morning. Out came the inflatable blue igloo tent and sleeping bags. A man arrived at the top of the grassy bank and told us that we needed to READ THE SIGN!

I had been a teacher, upright citizen and authority figure for the past five years but here was an opportunity to hone an alternate set of life skills - those of the Okies and the denizens of Cannery Row in John Steinbeck`s novels. Landless migrants!

“I would not be here if I had an alternate camping place for my family. Just overnight.” I said.

“Nope, Nope, you gotta go!”he said adamantly.

“This is not private land below high tide line. We are not lighting a fire if you are worried about your dry grassy field.”I replied in a decisive tone of voice.

He wandered off. His wife arrived soon after.

“ I am not a softie like my husband. You get out of here or I`ll call the police!”she shouted, waving her arms.

Holding little Gwynnie in my arms, I re-explained our position carefully and finally called her bluff. “Call the police if you must. We are here `til morning.” I know, and she knows but hopes I don`t, that there are no police on the island. It pays to read the background information about a community.

I offered her a way out of the impasse.“ We are looking for land to buy. We plan to move here.”

Her tone altered immediately.“ Oh, you plan to buy?” ( You are really solid citizens like us? Despite the VW van? Maybe I can sell you our place and we can move back to civilization.) “Well, OK. then. Maybe we`ll see you in the morning?”

Not bloody likely! We plan to return to Saltspring the next morning to focus our search on that island. What we have experienced this evening has been an introduction to some of the undercurrents of island living. The non-service in the restaurant has been an introduction to the counter-culture invasion of the islands over the past few years. The rude behavior of the beachfront landowners, a reflection of the struggle of the established community with that invasion. The island residents, old and new were united in one thing -their treatment of visitors. We were people who were not part of the local scene and who could be picked on by one and all - a sort of community building exercise at some stranger`s expense. It was useful to have this introduction, so that later when we settled into Saltspring we would not arrive with starry eyes and expectations of sweetness and light. A spectacular natural setting, but people would be much the same small town folks with their issues as those we were leaving behind in the Okanagan.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Big Wood Chronicles. Building a life.#1. Making changes.

                       First exploration of our big woods.

Our Volkswagon van pulls to the side of the highway that climbs out of the Okanagan valley and I stop my pick-up truck behind it. We are only ten minutes into the journey to the coast and already there is a problem. My wife Heather jumps out, looking green in the face, “Bill! The cats are puking and messing in the back! They will have to go in the truck with the goats and chickens”. As I delicately extract the cats in their cardboard box, while breathing through my mouth, I can see that our three young children, strapped in their seats, are close to gagging too. Those blasted feral cats that were pressed on us at the last minute by a fellow art teacher! Soon we are back on the road again, the cat box tucked into a space beside the farm animals and ‘Gus de bus’ scrambles on up the hillside ahead of me, a green fog wafting from all it`s open windows. ‘Upward! Onward!’ seems to have become our family motto in the last months since we decided to move ‘back to the land’ on a Canadian Gulf island.

"No,no!" said Crooky Toe. "Not the CATS!"
The adventure had begun over a year ago when we made the big decision to move back to the coast and begin a new life. Somehow the path forward as a teacher in the big secondary school at Penticton was too obvious and predictable, immersed as I was within an older group of staff members looking towards retirement. I had found myself standing at the classroom window watching the transport trucks wind their way up out of the Okanagan valley and wishing I was driving. I decided to graduate along with my grade 12 art classes and head on out into life alongside them. I had also experienced a close brush with death early one morning while driving into work when an oncoming driver dozed off and strayed into my oncoming lane. Only a galvanic twitch of my steering wheel saved us both from a high speed head-on crash. Enough of a shock to make me ask some searching questions of myself and whether I was doing everything I wanted to do in life.

The answer it turned out was that I had spent years in University using my mind, but knew I had clever hands that yearned to be given a chance to make practical things. Art had been my outlet for designing and creating things up until now, except that teaching left little time for the making - it was more about the delicate art of growing other peoples minds: valuable stuff, but I would grow stale over time if I could not grow myself into my‘little engineer’ self as well.

Heather and I had three little children, a big garden, chickens and goats and a house on a large lot in the village of Okanagan Falls. We were already living a partially self sufficient life. It seemed logical to visualize moving towards a larger and more challenging version back on the coast near our families and the sea. On a summer holiday we took the ferry to Saltspring Island and then on to some of the smaller islands to get a feel for the land. What would it be like to live here? How much isolation was a good idea? How important would a good ferry service, a school system that went all the way to grade 12 and other services like a hospital be? We decided that the largest Gulf Island, Saltspring, held the best combination for our family. Now to find the land!

We found quickly enough that the south end of the island was less developed: we could find a multi-acre piece of land for the same price as a building lot sold for at the north end. We needed lots of room to develop our dreams and by driving up and down the roads looking at for-sale signs we found a forested seven acres complete with a drilled well and access road. We walked through the tall trees and luxuriant undergrowth down a narrow old farm road past rocky moss covered outcrops. We had found our paradise! By buying it at the end of that trip we had made the important commitment to have more than dreams. We had put wheels under them and phased forward to developing the process that would find us a year later leaving our Okanagan world behind as we drove towards the beginning of our future island life.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

" Courage", he said.... A rowing story.

This piece was written as an entry for a CBC radio call for poetry fragments and the story associated with them. It was read last Sunday morning on the program ‘North by North-West’.

The melancholy Lotos Eaters of Tennyson`s poem (and The Odyssey) were a race of people who used drugs to dull the pain of living rather than feel the pain, (and vivid beauty,) of the kind of life that Odysseus exemplified. As in the times of Homer and Tennyson, the problem of facing reality squarely or fuzzing it over with philosophy or life style is still very much with us.


“Courage!” he said, and pointed to the land.

“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon”.

From The Lotos Eaters. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

This bit of poetry has accompanied me since high school . They are the words Tennyson gives to Odysseus when he sights the shores of Africa at dawn after days of drifting across the Mediterranean in a great storm. He calls on his companions to rise up from their despair on the bottom of the galley, take heart and smite the billows once again. It is an extended rowing story.

Less than a month ago this scrap of poetry came to me again as I was rowing my canoe, ‘Tillikum,’ in a circumnavigation of Saltspring Island. I was attempting to cover some eighty kilometers between dawn and dusk, it was now approaching sunset and I still needed three more hours to round the southern shores back to my dawn starting point -Fulford Harbour. As we say in rower`s language, I was plumb tuckered out! I had already gone through my first and second winds and was scraping the barrel for the will to continue.

“Courage”, he said.... This poetry is an old friend that has pulled me onward in difficult times in the past, both in those of extreme physical stress at sea and other hopeless seeming times of personal exhaustion. This time I did have the choice of not completing what was simply a personal challenge, but I could hear Odyssius` familiar words urging me on to higher effort. I felt the pain of my tired self shift to the background as I picked up the pace, stroking onward through sunset, through the afterglow and into the cool light of a half moon. The lights of the ferries twinkled and danced across the channel at Swartz Bay. The dark shadows of Mt. Tuam`s high forested shore enfolded me. I was so glad that I had not given up when tempted because I had now reached my third wind, a special state of mind more of spirit than body alone. I rounded Isabella Point and rowed onward, splashing phosphorescence from my oars, along the dark shores of Fulford Harbour to home.

I had left home that morning planning to accomplish a physical goal and arrived back again having achieved a spiritual one as well. I would guess that too was what the story of Odysseus was really all about.

Monday, September 14, 2009

TILLIKUM. Watch for me by moonlight #4. The final stretch.

Mount Tuam looms above Tillikum in the afterglow of sunset.

Tillikum angles out from shore to avoid a mess of rocks soon after leaving Musgrave Landing. Yes, the canoe`s shallow draught would probably carry us over the reefs but I am becoming very cautious as the voyage enters it`s final few hours. I know I am tired and liable to make silly mistakes.

Cape Keppel is faint in the distance so I settle down to the agony of the long distance rower; except it isn`t anymore. If I had halted way back in Burgoyne Bay I would have missed this third wind experience, this rising above the body and it`s complaints into a kind of bliss. The miles reel off almost effortlessly and the splendid sunset that bathes the ocean in golden light and dips the mountains in deeper and deeper shades of purple helps to support the mood.

The final stretch. Sansum Narrows to Fulford Harbour.

Cape Keppel just keeps coming and coming with it`s gentle curve. When will I see all the way up Satellite Channel? The sun plunges behind the hills at last and the afterglow begins. The great bulk of Mount Tuam looks down to my little canoe and becomes more solemn, more of a presence as the light fades. The first street lights flash on at Cherry Point behind me and I begin to use then as a back bearing to keep on course. Ahead, the beacon on the islets off Isabella Point begins to flash. I am trying to keep far enough off the shore to limit the chances that I might run aground in the dark while staying close enough that other larger boats will not likely come near.

                                          The southern shore of Fulford Harbour.

To port, a half moon grows brighter by the minute; sometimes veiled in streaks of cloud, sometimes sending a silky silver track over the oil-smooth waves. Black shadows reflect the dark shore close to port. Over on the other side of Satellite Channel big lit-up ferries dance out of Swartz Bay Terminal on their way to Vancouver and little speedboats still zoom along seemingly oblivious to the drift logs I am passing that would be big trouble if they were to meet one of them at high speed. Eventually I pass the beacon, round the point and begin the last hour of my voyage up the long southern shore of Fulford Harbour. The strange ferry shape astern of me evolves into the Skeena Queen making it`s last run home to Saltspring Island. I wait `til it is past and then angle out into the middle of the bay to follow it`s route toward the lit up ferry terminal and my marina close by. Coasting close along the dark shadowed shore, darker for the house lights glaring among the trees that affect my night vision, is no option now as there are many unlit moored boats hiding in wait there for Tillikum to run into.

I line up Tillikum for the last time with the ferry terminal lights ahead and then look behind for another stern bearing. There is a large bright star in just the right place so off we go in the home stretch. Suddenly my guiding star gives off a bright white flare of light, wavers higher in the sky and then disappears. “What the...?” Perhaps a UFO ( unidentified flaring object)? The oar blades and wake burn with a milky phosphorescence as I leave the moonlit water and slid into the shoreline blackness. I make a last swerve to give me a careful look ahead to avoid the last of the anchored yachts at the head of the dark harbour.

The marina lights appear behind the ferry dock and with a groan I shift to kneeling facing forward, row carefully among the dark sleeping hulls and slide into my little slip. Heather is here to meet me. Home at last.

                                        Watch for me by Moonlight.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

TILLIKUM: Watch for me by moonlight. #3. South through Sansum Narrows.

Sailing south from Southey Point.

A stronger breeze, so up goes the sail and I recline thankfully in the stern, easing Tillikum in the sudden gusts and willing her onward in the calms. After about twenty minutes the wind dies and it is back to the oars. I do feel refreshed from the break and row on past a little offshore Island and a shoreline of beautifully wave sculpted sandstone and splendid waterfront homes that are always hidden from view when we drive along the road that follows this shore. Over to starboard is the Crofton Pulp mill on Vancouver Island and ahead in the distance I can see the ferry crossing over toward Crofton from the island village of Vesuvius. By the time I slide into the Vesuvius wharf for another quick break the ferry has had time to return and depart again. Here I find a phone to call Heather and leave a message that it is now 3:45pm, I`m running late, and I am headed on toward Burgoyne Bay and Sansum Narrows. I ease my weary bones back into Tillikum, open another package of sandwiches and stroke south toward a watery gap between high rocky hills. As I munch and row I notice the direct relationship between my energy and food. This really is like pouring gas into the tank! The light breeze that follows me is just strong enough to leave me feeling like there is no breeze at all and the heat of the day pounds down. Sweat runs down into my eyes. I seem to have crossed a Rubicon of sorts though, because although the pain in my legs and backside is no less I have now accepted this as normal and can dismiss it. Normal life is rowing Tillikum on and on and on.

The sun is lower now and beginning to paint the high forested eastern shores of the first narrows in a golden surreal light but gives me some much appreciated shadow time. Seals regularly come up for a look, gulls poke along the rocky, seaweedy beaches. The tide is falling but not much from now on. After the steady rise of the morning hours the water will be pretty much at stand until early morning tomorrow. It is this combination of favourable tides and light winds that have brought me out today for this marathon effort for what normally would be a three day journey.

Transiting Sansum Narrows.
Crossing the mouth of Burgoyne Bay, I check my little hand radio to see if there is a friend calling me from the head of the bay. I have named Burgoyne as a possible stopping point if I am too tired or late. No reply. I have already decided to continue anyway and begin the dogleg through cliff-lined Sansum Narrows. There is minimum turbulence from the tidal current in this sometimes wild bit of water and I am soon slipping along the shore toward Musgrave Landing. Over my shoulder I see a little aluminum canoe buzzing towards Tillikum propelled by an outboard motor mounted on the side. A bearded, younger version of myself lifts a hand in greeting.

Here`s the dock, I crawl aboard, lift out the fresh water and the lunch bag and begin to eat my supper. I don`t trust my legs to function just yet and I`m hungry. Later, I manage to work my way with difficulty up the wharf to land and then pace up and down the dock to get my legs fully working again. The sun is now low in the sky, hovering over the mountains of Vancouver Island. For the last leg of my journey I will be travelling through the sunset and on into the gathering night as I follow the southern shoreline. As I gingerly slide back onto the rowing seat I bring out the flashlights, flares and strobe lights, replenish my water bottle and smear more sunblock onto my face. I exchange the chart for the one covering the southern portion of Saltspring and look over the route carefully. Where are the offshore rocks, what beacons will be visible for me to steer by? I am ready for the last big push.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

TILLIKUM: Watch for me by moonlight. #2. Up Trincomali to Southey Point.

Off Walker Hook. Watched by seal. Turning into the powerboat wakes.

I turn Tillikum slightly so I can look up to port at Nose Point where we lived in an underground house for a winter before beginning our Pacific voyage in our gaff rigged wooden schooner Shiriri. I do a double take because the house has been replaced by a standard type of luxury home. I am developing a new rowing technique to allow me to look forward without slowing Tillikum down. I pull hard several times on one oar to swerve so I can take a good hard look at what`s ahead and then take several more strokes on the other to get back on course. The next waypoint is just visible in the distance across the smooth sea - Walker Hook. I am slowing down now to a more economical pace that I can hope to maintain for the rest of the day but of course this is making my time line for the circumnavigation become stretched. My evening arrival back in Fulford Harbour will be well into the night. All I can do now though is keep moving north and dodging the wakes of the steady procession of large motor yachts headed south. I had hoped for a favourable wind and strong current to hurry me north and give me rest from the oars but the Fates smile, beat the drum and swing the lash for this galley slave. It hurts! My legs are stating to cramp up and my bottom is a pain.

The sun is now a definite presence, burning down from above and reflecting off the water. I wish I had been able to find my sunglasses but all I can do now is pull my floppy brimmed hat down low across my eyes. What feels like hours later, Fernwood wharf is close ahead. I come alongside amid a group of dock fishermen who grudgingly make room and crawl onto the float. I rise unsteadily to my feet and stagger up the ramp. My legs have gone on strike and it takes walking while I eat some sandwiches to get the kinks out. I down a bottle of water and refill from the large supply in another container. I am far from halfway yet and already my body is saying STOP!

Southey Point at top left. Ganges harbour and Nose Point at lower right.

Back in the saddle, backing away from the dock and then onward around a series of little points toward Southey Point. Off to starboard is Wallace Island where we spent many stormy nights sheltering in Shiriri. Ahead is Jackscrew Island where Heather and I in ‘Isolde’ had a hair raising encounter with ghostly presence on our honeymoon. There is a little east breeze developing that could be a sailing possibility but I decide that I need to keep up my speed even though the rest from rowing would be more than welcome. At last I slip between the beacon off Southey Point and the long sandstone shelf that reaches out from the shore and turn into the little bay behind it. I have planned an hours rest here to meet some friends but I`m late and there is no one to meet me. I turn around and head back out heading south along Saltspring`s western shore. South at last!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

TILLIKUM: Watch for me by moonlight. A circumnavigation of Saltspring Island. #1. Dawn Departure.

Out past the familiar. Leaving Fulford Harbour.

In the black of early morning it is hard to roll out of bed and begin the day`s activity - rowing around our island shores - but soon Heather is helping me carry my gear down the wharf in the semi dark. Sails, oars, water, sandwiches, two-way radio, flashlight, flares, charts.... a considerable list for a one day adventure. I push off into first light.

Fulford Harbour is my familiar rowing and sailing area but this is my first dawn here in Tillikum. I watch the rapid lightening of the sky and the first rays of sunlight touching the hilltops. There is a light breeze helping to hurry me out of the bay but not enough to encourage me to stop and raise sail: I have a long way to go, some fifty miles, and must maintain maximum speed. The tide is low this morning but already beginning to rise. The tidal current will be flooding north for the next six hours and I plan to catch a ride on it`s back as I head for Southey Point, the northernmost point of Saltspring Island.

Russell Island. Dawn.

It`s chilly this morning and I`m rowing with my jacket on beneath the life jacket. I savour this moment because the forecast is for 25 C. for later today. Over beside Russell Island the anchored yachts are picked out in first light against the still shadowed shores, and the drift logs and rock tops of the Indian Reserve point are rimmed in gold. I am still rowing at a rapid pace as I turn the point and aim for the headland where Ruckle Park is situated. An hour into my journey I check my hands and find the beginnings of a blister. I reach for the leather gloves I grabbed as I went out of the house this morning. It feels awkward rowing with work gloves on but the alternative of badly blistered hands does not appeal. The morning`s preparations are already fading back into the past as I become part of the voyage. Seals pop up in the wake to have a look and I call out “Good morning Bobby!” to those that just bob up for a quick look, and have alternate names for those that swim behind or disappear with a splash.

The campers are a lazy lot I decide as Tillikum sweeps past the rows of tents in the park. “Here I`ve been up for hours and those lazy bones are still fast asleep.”, I think virtuously, already forgetting my recent wish to cancel the whole operation rather than rise in the dark. A lone watcher sits on the final point as I turn the corner and begin the long crossing of Ganges Harbour. Nose Point seems a long way off from my vantage point and the wind is blowing out of this long bay and slowing me down. As I approach the Channel Islands I remember the thermos of coffee under the seat and decide that my headache is due to morning deprivation. Tillikum slows down as I carefully thread my way among the rocks and past a flock of shore birds to a small shell beach. Today is our wedding anniversary and forty three years ago Heather and I stopped here for lunch while circumnavigating Saltspring in a homemade sailing skiff on our honeymoon. Ah. but that coffee tastes GOOD!

A coffee break at the Channel Islands.

As I head back out, a big yellow rescue helicopter thunders overhead and heads up harbour. Soon it is back with a coast guard cutter and they begin a recovery practice. Presumably someone has been dropped from the cutter and is now being ‘rescued’ by the helicopter. This is so fascinating that it is difficult to keep an eye out for the line of motor yachts that are beginning to exit the harbour. I do watch out for a collision course, but mostly I keep watch for the sharp ridges of their wakes so that I can turn, slow down and ride them in safety. Near the northern shore I decide to take a short cut between two islands; I turn Tillikum slightly so I can glance ahead over my shoulder, and carry on. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of a reef. Full astern with the oars and I stop just short of the rocks. A full speed crash would not only poke a hole in Tillikum`s bows but would have catapulted me backwards against the mainmast and centerboard. At the very least, that would have hurt!


I glance from side to side. Did anyone see me do this silly thing? More carefully now I head out into Captains passage and round Nose Point. The long straight shore of Saltspring stretches into the distance up Trincomali Channel. I am already running late.