Sitting on the ferry carrying us across the Salish Sea to Vancouver Island I’m filled with a quiet excitement. I love riding the ferries from Vancouver to the Gulf Islands. It always feels like time out of time, like a long train journey only on water. I sink into a gentle peace as all the “shoulds” fall away. Nothing to be done but enjoy. Sunny days are best, but even on a blue-grey day, the wide sea before us, and the foamy wake behind are enough to encourage a feeling of adventure. There is fun to be had!
For the third time in as many summers we’re off to visit our friend Surati who lives near Duncan. We begin with a hike through Sandy Pool Regional Park down by the Cowichan River. Tall straight moss-covered cedars, leafy maples, and stands of iron bark trees dripping with delicate white oceanspray flowers accompany us along the trail as it menders through the forest. The sun arrives, and at the river Surati and E swim in the cool water while Don and I laze on the beach. Everything, from the forest-covered hills to the cool flowing river, to our lazy sun-warmed bodies, seems infused with contentment.
After a while we head off to visit Surati’s relatives. What starts as a cup of tea in the garden turns quickly into the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party since C just happens to have a collection of fascinators. Seriously. And it just happens to come up in conversation. So random. There had been some event where everyone had to wear a fascinator and C has the entire collection at her place. Well of course we have to wear them – while we eat biscuits and drink tea in the garden.
C and B’s garden is something else.
It is a world of elves, pixies, fairies, and sprites, a world of tiny secretive beings. Hiding under bushes, behind miniature doors in tree trunks, sitting by the fountain on the edge of the small pond, swinging on the back porch, is a whole community of elfish and fairy beings, dozens of them, all hand-made by C. I’m sure they come to life at night. Here is the briefest selection:
Late afternoon we hike the Cowichan Bay Estuary Trail, a 4.2 kilometre (2.5mi) loop. The dyke trail takes you out into the delta of the Cowichan and Koksilah Rivers: blue backwaters, lush green grasses, washed up logs bleached white with time, stands of tall trees, ever encroaching blackberry brambles, and Great Blue herons. A soft breeze carries us along the easy trail all the way out to the bay.
Inevitably, in what has now after three years become a tradition, we end the day having dinner at the Cow Bay Pub. Not surprisingly, on the list of the ten best pubs in the Cowichan Bay area, the Cow Bay Pub comes in at number one. Don and I have never been to any of the other pubs but still say it’s the best! We sit out on the deck overlooking the marina and the setting sun, full of peace and joy and good food.
Another emerging tradition seems to be hiking the 3.5 kilometre (2.1mi) loop trail in Stoney Hill Regional Park. We set off the next morning slowly climbing a winding trail passing through forests of trees draped with moss, huge mossy boulders, a tangle of undergrowth, and almost hidden in decaying logs and leaves a small lizard.
Eventually we reach the top of the ridge where the orange-barked arbutus trees
stand resolute in the face of the winter winds, and look out over Sansum Narrows to nearby Salt Spring Island.
Best fun ever: Entangados
playing in a park in Duncan as part of the 39 Days Of July festival.
Every year for 39 days there are outdoor concerts in downtown Duncan bringing the community together for free live entertainment. How lucky for us that we’re there for Entangados, a band from Argentina that’s been around since 2004. Dressed like clowns, and playing ska, rock, reggae, and salsa their performance is a fiesta of musical happiness, humour, and non-stop energy. They emanate such a contagious joy
that we are all compelled to dance. They’re better than any bliss pill.
We return to Vancouver Island in late October to see the sea lions. Every year in late fall about 300 (yes I do mean 300!) Steller and California Sea Lions gather in Cowichan Bay to gorge themselves on spawning salmon and bask in the sun on the breakwater. They arrive sometime in October and stay ‘til the end of the year and fill the air with their belligerent barking and roaring and disgusting body odour. And of course once I knew about them I had to see them.
We can’t get as close as I would like. That could only be done by boat, which is risky because the water is full of sea lions splashing about and chasing after the fish. But we are still close enough to appreciate their lumbering sea lion antics.
The bigger ones eat about 16 kilos (35 lbs) of fish a day, and the Stellers weigh as much as 1000 kilograms (2,200 lbs). They all loll around on the dock rolling around on top of each other, and just kind of slide off over the edge and into the water when they want to eat. They are so noisy the local hotel offers guests earplugs. Nothing can be done about the smell.
On this trip Surati takes us on a new hike, one we’ve not been on before, and I think it’s one of the best. Mt Tzouhalem, four kilometres from Duncan is threaded with hiking trails. The locals call it Mt Zoo and it’s one of the most popular hiking spots in the area though when we go, when the fall colours are at their best and all is golden, there are very few other hikers. Mainly it’s just us.
The trail runs slowly up along the side of the hill. We crunch our way through the fallen leaves, as the cool fall sunlight, filtered by the trees, lands on bright yellow leaves turning them luminous.
Close to the top we come across two gigantic boulders, no doubt deposited there eons ago when a mammoth creeping glacier carved out the Cowichan Valley.
At this higher elevation where the trees are more exposed to the weather, they are twisted and gnarled, and the thick green-grey lichen seems like a protective covering.
And at the top there is the view towards Salt Spring Island and the Coast Mountains.
Winter is coming. We head back to Vancouver and hunker down. It’s been one of the best summers ever, with this final fall visit to Vancouver Island as a sweet coda. Thanks Surati for always showing us such a good time.
I’m so glad we got to have all these experiences while we still could. This year of course, there was no trip to the island, and only a virtual 39 Days of July, though no doubt the sea lions are still visiting.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.