West Coast Wander

It’s said that travel will paradoxically leave one speechless and provide one with great stories. We could not agree more, in fact, here’s another travel tale from us.

Once upon a time there was a man named Craig, blessed and cursed with a gypsy soul. Restless for adventure (what else is new?) Craig organizes a trip to Vancouver Island.

Starting with a night in Vancouver getting a Nixon-fix with Brian & Renee, we meet Sharon & Ray at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal early the next morning. Crossing first to Gibson’s Landing and then driving farther up the coast to Sechelt, we land at Nancy’s mid-afternoon. In time for a walk to the beach. I’t a day ripped right out of a travel brochure. Sunny, warm, the ocean placid and blue. Pics don’t really do it justice. It’s the Sunshine Coast as advertised.

Next is a drive up the coast to Powell River for the noon ferry crossing to Comox. Although there are no photos to prove it, we are certain that we see a fluke, far off, just outside the ferry’s frothy wake. It’s reassuring to know those monsters of the deep are still plying these waters and that the warming ocean has not yet cooked all the whales. I feel hypocritical thinking this at the same time as I am enjoying a ride in a carbon-producing boat. Looking for the very whales I want to save all the while spewing carbon into the atmosphere. 

From Comox it’s a race north along the winding island highway. Aiming to make it to Port McNeill in time for yet another ferry, this one to Cormorant Island. We arrive at the terminal with just 10 minutes to spare, enough time to whip into the IGA and stock up on provisions. Not entirely sure what to expect in Alert Bay, the village on the island. Don’t want to risk going hungry. 

Docking at Alert Bay as the sun is setting, we’re treated to the rosy glow that settles over everything at this time of day; the village is bathed in warm light. Colourful houses and gardens along the main street bask in the light of the so-called “golden hour”.

Our small hotel, The Seine Boat Inn, is right on the water, a short walk from the ferry terminal. In fact, everything is a short walk away. The island is a small crescent of land, a mere 4 square kilometres in area, with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. It is the ancestral home of the Namgis first nations people and they make up about half of the population. The island is also home of the world’s tallest totem pole, weather-worn, but still standing. At 173 feet, it features a Sun Man, a whale, an old man, a wolf, the Thunderbird and its cousin, the Kulusł, a two-headed serpent, a bear holding a salmon, and a raven holding copper. No wonder it’s so tall. 

We head to the Orca Inn for dinner, where the dining room is surprisingly busy. Because it is one of only two eateries in town and it’s Friday night we have to wait 45 mins for a table. The menu features mostly seafood and it is delicious. The owner, Micheal Caine’s doppelganger, including the accent, is friendly and talkative. We’ll soon find out that most of the locals are similarly inclined. 

Our second day starts out overcast and, to make matters worse, my camera dies. WTF!? As much as I hate to admit it I am not a happy wanderer without a means of taking photos. The rain holds off until later in the afternoon, and, more importantly, Terry-Lynn, our inn-keeper, offers me her most excellent Panasonic Lumix for the day. I’d off-handedly asked her if there was somewhere in the village I could buy a camera. She gives me a look that says: are you (bleep) joking!? I may as well have asked if there was a Starbucks, which, thankfully, there is not. There is a grocery store, a pharmacy, a second hard store, a post office/police station, several churches, two restaurants and one pub.

Said pub, in the Orca Inn, is low-ceilinged, wood-panelled and could definitely use a refurbish, but the camaraderie inside would be hard to improve upon. Larry, the owner, is a former dentist who now slings beer and plays guitar. Josie, nurse and fiddler extraordinaire, is a virtuoso with her bow. Roger, the bass guitarist, is a boater who found himself in Alert Bay at the start of the pandemic. He’s still here. The harmonica player sits nursing a Lucky beer at a corner table, looking much like a down-on-his-luck fisherman, until the band start playing, and then out comes his mouth organ. He plays like he was born to it. When the band takes a break, he gets up to the mic to recite poetry, long verses he’s written himself. One a very funny ode to Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The other bemoaning the fisherman’s life. 

The guitar player comes over to our table, ostensibly to ask what brought us to the island, but really to talk about the magic and the spirit of the place. Soon he is giving us travel tips on Haida Gwaii. The conversation turns to first nation’s issues and Roger expresses his disdain for the hollow acknowledgment that in B.C. we are often on unceded territory. Just “give the feckin’ land back” is something we will hear repeatedly as we spend time on said unceded territory. 

When we ask Roger for the name of the harmonica player/poet, he shrugs and says “never met him before tonight”. Craig finds this amusing and amazing. The spontaneity, the assuredness, the goodwill and lack of guile or pretence.

Sea Smoke is the local charter for whale watching and although there are not a lot of us tourists in town there is only one spot left on the boat for Sunday’s excursion. I gladly let Craig take it. It’s not that I’m uninterested in whales, it’s that his enthusiasm trumps my tendency to sea sickness.

Unfortunately the weather turns out to be wet and windy; the tour is cancelled. We are faced with a day with not much to do, a situation I handle much more easily than Craig. A fomo (you know, fear of missing out) traveller, he likes to be active. I am actually glad for a day indoors to read and nap. 

Monday morning we spend a few hours at the U’Mista cultural centre, built to house artifacts returned to the island from Ottawa’s Museum of Man. Besides the artifacts, the centre features photos and testimonials pertaining to St. Micheal’s residential school, which operated from 1929 – 1975. As well, there are exhibits concerning the 1885-1951 potlach prohibition. All of these – the theft of artifacts, the residential school system and the potlatch prohibition – have contributed to the erosion of west coast aboriginal culture. In addition, death from small pox, TB and starvation significantly reduced the population. Many residential school survivors subsequently died from alcohol and drug addiction, suicide and violence. It’s sad. 

We get another dose of the reality of poverty and marginalization from our friend Bianca, a legal-aid lawyer who we visit in Nanaimo, on the way to Victoria, with a stop just north of the city for lunch with Craig’s high school basketball coach and his wife. A lot of visiting. Mostly about war and injustice and climate change and viruses and artificial intelligence. A lot of heavy topics. It seems to be what is on people’s minds.

Victoria cheers us up immensely. Named for the beloved 19th century English Queen, also known as the “Garden City”, is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific northwest. British settlement began in the mid-19th century. Of course, the Coast Salish were here long before the British arrived. Smallpox almost eliminated them. Those who remained were relegated to land across the harbour in present-day Esquimalt. The new Victoria would become very British. To this day, apart from a few totem poles and several galleries selling aboriginal art, there is little evidence of the original inhabitants.

Our Victoria accommodation is a two bedroom, two bathroom, plus den condo right behind the Empress Hotel. Incredibly, it is less expensive than any of the hotels in the downtown area. It’s a perfect location for exploring this gorgeous city. Easy to see why those living here love it, particularly on warm sunny September days when the flowers are still in bloom and the sun glints off the water. Outdoor patios brimming with happy people. It almost feels like a movie set. So perfectly sublime.

“Starry, Starry Night, paint your palette blue and grey”. Don McLean’s song becomes an earworm once we’ve been to the Van Gogh exhibit. I know all the words. Can’t carry a tune though. That doesn’t stop me from serenading Craig over lunch with “I could have told you Vincent, the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you” and other catchy phrases from the song.

Housed in a large warehouse, “Beyond Van Gogh” is an interactive art experience. The exhibit contains no original works by the prolific – in just over a decade he created approximately 2100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life – but tortured artist. It’s all dynamic computer generated images set to classical music. A bit vertigo-inducing. But a brilliant way to showcase the art.

Known as one of the most influential painters in the history of modern art, Van Gogh only became famous after his suicide, aged 37, which followed years of poverty and mental illness. If it is true that there is a very fine line between mental illness and genius, Van Gogh is as good an example of this as any. He famously cut off a portion of his ear, in a rage, following a fight with his friend and fellow artist Gaugin. The Starry Night, one of his most famous works, depicts the view from his room in an insane asylum in France.

Munro’s Books is a literary treasure trove and we spend the better part of an afternoon there.

We drive up the Saanich peninsula to a property recently purchased by a colleague of Craig’s and her husband. Karen & Bill are turning their three acres into a productive permaculture farm. Over dinner at the Surly Mermaid in Sidney we talk “farm porn” (Bill’s words, not mine). Eventually talk turns to the various horsemen of the apocalypse. Climate change. War. Plague. AI. Donald Trump. The futility of trying to rein in any of it. Sigh.

On the bright side, the glorious weather holds. We have lunch on a sunny patio with another former colleague of Craig’s. (Have they all moved to the island?!) Murray is a fellow sojourner who lived for a time in Mexico city. We swap stories of adventure and derring-do in far flung lands and wonder what our advancing age and increasing vulnerability will mean for future excursions. Will there be more speechless moments? More stories? Will our gypsy souls be stilled or allowed to continue wandering?

We connect with our nephew Quintan. Starting at a pub, then a Mexican cafe, and ending at a sweets shop, we eat our way through the evening. Q works in IT doing something that makes little sense to us luddites. And although we understand very little about the particulars we come away from the evening more concerned about techno-creep in our lives. When we, of so little technology, are worried, it’s likely a sign the whole thing has gone too far.

A last day in Victoria has us touring Craigdarroch Castle, the former home of coal magnate Robert Dunsmuir and his wife Joan. The massive stone structure is located amongst other large mansions in the Rockland neighbourhood, a leafy, peaceful enclave just east of downtown. A coal baron, Dunsmuir was already rich when he emigrated to Canada and became richer by hauling coal out of mines on Vancouver Island. The house, completely refurbished, is a museum telling the story of high society life in Victoria a hundred years ago. Talk about income inequality. I find myself wondering if it was greater back then. Or have we made progress?

Craig has been hankering for a curry meal since the trip started so we head to Varsha in Chinatown for lunch. The second oldest Chinatown in North America, after San Fransisco’s, the area is a maze of alleyways and courtyards, Fan Tan Alley being the most picturesque. Gone are the opium and gambling dens, replaced by boutique clothing and jewelry stores, ethnic restaurants and tacky tourist shops.

Rain is coming and the Ucluelet leg of the trip is cancelled (owing to Jeanne coming back from Iceland testing positive for covid) so we decide to head back to the mainland early, tagging a few nights at Nk’mip Spirit Ridge resort onto the itinerary.

On the unceded territory of several first nations, including the Nk’mip, The Spirit Lodge resort is one of many business ventures of the Oosoyoos Indian Band. The resort, especially the architecture, oozes southwestern charm, as befits the geography and vegetation. Antelope bush, wild sage, ponderosa pine, cacti and grasses dot the rocky hillsides. We walk down to Oosoyoos Lake one morning and up the hillside adjacent to the resort in the afternoon.

Unfazed by the “beware of rattlesnakes” signage, we nevertheless stick to the trail. Toward the end of the walk I spy a snake coiled on itself in the grass. We snap some photos but don’t linger. He looks evil. I show the photo to one of the clerks at the cultural centre. Definitely a rattlesnake. Others in the room want to see the photo. A few express dismay. The clerk reassures us that there are a handful of bites in B.C. every year, but since 1900 only 2 people have died as a result.

The next day it is windy and raining outside. A good day to spend indoors at the Solterra spa, for me anyway. Craig walks downtown and back, while I lay on a massage table.

This trip was not to some exotic, distant, remote place. We stayed in our own back yard. And had a perfect get-away. We are already planning our next B.C adventure. Jeanne & Don, sorry we couldn’t connect, but catch you next time!



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