The Solo Travel Adventures series

28 May 2021. Getting an early start, I set off at about 8 am on a ten-minute walk to the bus stop. I am on my way to the small fishing village of Steveston, a journey that will take over an hour by bus, skytrain, and bus again. I am excited, and happy. I am off on another Solo Travel Adventure.

Don and I have long discussed the possibility, more likely probability, that he will die before me. I’m 71 and very healthy and come from generations of women who have lived very long lives. Don, on the other hand, is almost 79 and has a heart condition. Apart from his heart he’s in remarkably good health, but hearts are kinda important. Also it’s pretty well-documented that women tend to live longer than men. Barring some random unexpected illness or freak accident it is most likely that Don will go before me, so we prepare in whatever small ways we can.

The simplest description of our partnership: Don keeps me grounded, I give him wings.

From 2011 to 2017 we were completely homeless and nomadic as we explored the world. I’d travelled solo in my 20’s and 30’s, but that was a long time ago, and I realized that because of all our nomadic years when we were together 24/7, I’d become so dependent on travelling with Don that I’d forgotten how to do it on my own. I’d lost my confidence, hence feeling so off-kilter the whole time I was alone in Japan. In China it was somewhat easier as I was on a tour and with a group of people, but I never really settled. I never really felt safe the way I do when he’s around. I knew I needed to relearn how to do that, how to feel at home in myself without Don there as an anchor. Most likely one day he will have his own wings, and I won’t have him here to help me stay grounded. I need to relearn how to be without him.

These are the rules for my Solo Travel Adventures:
1. NO help from Don with research or planning, or deciding where to go.
2. Have a day out alone (weekly if possible) as if I’m in a foreign country, which means local transport only, and whatever help I can get from the internet and people along the way.
3. Preferably go somewhere I’ve never been before, or not for a very long time.

So here I am on a bus to Steveston for the day, feeling excited and free. I actually have that same feeling I get when I’m exploring in another country. I’m going on an adventure! I can barely remember the last time I was in Steveston, and it feels like a world away. In a way that I don’t normally do because it’s all so familiar, as I look out the bus window I’m paying attention to everything!

Nearly 150 years old, Steveston, a neighbourhood of the city of Richmond, is a fishing village out on the edge of the Vancouver metro area. It sits on the south arm of the Fraser River on the very southwest edge of Lulu Island.

Finding my way is easy. I suppose in part because the whole city is familiar, and with local transport I know what to look for. All the stations and bus stops are clearly marked, all the bus numbers and destinations are there on the sign at the bus stop. I never did discover how to get a bus on my first trip to Kyoto. I couldn’t figure out what actually indicated a bus stop so I was never sure I was waiting in the right place. Then I’d give up and go get a train even if it meant more walking.

I get off the bus. I know where I want to go. The spot prawns are running and I want to get down to the wharf where you can buy them right off the boats; not that I’m planning on buying any. I ask the bus driver which way and he points down a street. The more I walk, the closer I get, the more the smell of the salt sea fills the air. Seagulls ride the air currents above, screeching, looking for a handout. Bald eagles can be seen here wheeling high up, also looking for a handout. The fishing boats rock gently on the calm the water.

I go straight down to the prawn boats, passing, for now, the shops and restaurants stretched out along the weathered boardwalk.

I’ve been here when it’s a busy vibrant crowded place with many boats, people shopping for the freshest fish you can buy, and long line-ups, but mid-morning on a weekday it’s quiet on the wharf. There’s just one boat with fish for sale

and a couple of boats selling spot prawns.

I chat a bit with one of the fishermen, and he shows me what he’s got. Most of his catch would have been sold to the restaurants at daybreak.

So what’s the big deal about the spot prawns? They are local and ethically caught: traps are of a specific size that can only capture big prawns, and they are only caught after spawning to ensure future supplies. In my brief research of spot prawns I learn, among other things, that immigrant men looking for work have been sold as slaves to work in horrific conditions on prawn farms off the coast of Thailand, and that regular supermarket prawns are treated with about a dozen chemicals including MSG to give them a shelf-life of four years! I know for sure I will never buy prawns from Thailand again.

I love the sense of community down here on the fishermen’s wharf, and the way they decorate their boats: an “Old Salt” on the deck,

and a bright fishy mobile.

I wander the docks. Apart from life-sized dummies and colourful mobiles, boats have their own inherently decorative characteristics – their coiled ropes, reels and pulleys, and bewildering unfamiliar inner workings.

The marina is an extensive rabbit warren of grey weathered boardwalks, boats huddled on either side. After the fishing boats come the leisure and pleasure boats; privately owned sailboats and the bigger cruisers for private fishing trips or whale watching.

Beyond the docks I walk past the old salmon cannery (now a museum) and come to a small beach where a couple of hungry starling chicks are demanding food,

and a dad is playing with his kids.

For a while I watch both, the birds and the people being their uninhibited selves, life unfolding.

I’m on my way to Garry Point Park and the Richmond dykes. I haven’t been to the park or the dykes in probably fifteen years. I remember one time Don and I cycled the dykes, and I remember walking to the park from the village when my sister and brother-in-law visited. It was a blistering hot day and the park was a brown wasteland. Today it is green under a blue sky determined to show itself despite the clouds. Today there are people flying huge kites.

Today there are yellow wild flowers framing the view back to the village.

Today there is a whole field of exuberant lupins.

I walk around the perimeter of the park towards the dyke. Looking at the map I see there’s a shortcut to the West Dyke Trail. The shortcut is a narrow path surrounding me with greenery on both sides. As I make my way through I’m suddenly surprised by this:

It feels like a secret, hidden away from spying eyes. What is this concealed backwater, this slough with its moorage for a small collection of boats? I discover later that it is called Scotch Pond although it’s not a pond at all but a backwater protected by islands from the Salish Sea.

And now I’m on the West Dyke Trail. I’d wanted to bring my sister and brother-in-law here all those years ago. I’d remembered it from that time Don and I went cycling, but after walking from Steveston to the brown wasteland of Garry Point Park on that searing hot summer day we were done and turned back before we got to the dyke. Finally I am back here.

Sea Island (Vancouver Airport), the much larger Lulu Island (Richmond), and several smaller islands, sit in the delta of the Fraser River. The dyke system completely surrounds both Sea Island and Lulu Island. Both are below the high water mark of the river, and without it would be flooded with each high tide. The elevated, wide dykes are an extensive flood protection network that operates in conjunction with drainage structures and pump stations.

The day feels like a warm hug. I walk with quiet joy, a canal and houses on my right,

and on my left, beyond the natural area of Sturgeon Banks, beyond the blue waters of the estuary, are views of the North Shore and Coast Mountains.

Sturgeon Banks: long and narrow, it’s12.5 thousand acres and is a significant part of the Pacific Flyway with 1.4 million birds migrating through annually. It also provides excellent habitat for nesting birds.

The trail is quiet with just a few people out walking. There are buttercups, and yarrow, and bright yellow wild irises in amongst the bullrush.

In places driftwood litters the ground.

Tree swallows come and go.

And then, from a distance I see them. I stare and stare. I’m not sure what I’m looking at. I can tell that they are some kind of cattle, but unlike anything I’ve ever come across before. I wonder if they each have a white blanket on. But that can’t be right. I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing. As I get closer and closer I finally realize what they are; the strangest cows I’ve ever seen. Oreo cows! Brown white brown. Who knew such a thing existed?!

I discover they are Belted Galloways, a breed that originated in Scotland, and are chosen for their rich milk and lean meat. They are owned by Harold and Kathy Steves.

In 1877 Manoah and Martha Steves, for whom the village is named, began farming on Lulu Island. Their farm was passed down to their sons Herbert and Joseph who passed the farm to their sons who passed it to Harold and Kathy who are also helped by their sons Jerry and Rob. Five generations of Steves have been farming this corner of Lulu Island. And the fishing village, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area, is named after them.

It’s time to turn around; I feel like I’ve walked for hours. I can’t remember when I last ate and I’m getting hungry. More significantly it’s been a really long time since I had coffee.

I return to the boardwalk.

There are some pretty fancy restaurants on the wharf with patios facing the water. And then there’s Pajo’s, famous as the place to get fish and chips in Steveston.

Pajo’s is actually floating on the water, a bit further along the boardwalk from the fishing boats. I don’t eat there. I so badly need coffee, real coffee, that I walk right by. I get coffee and a sandwich at a cafe on the street. I’m not a foodie, and I don’t eat much anyway. I have instructed myself that I will be more adventurous with food next time I travel! Maybe.

I’m pretty much exhausted. And full. I feel so full. Of everything. It’s been a perfect day and it feels like enough. It’s time to go home. I get the bus back to Richmond and then the train. I know I can get off the train at 49th Avenue and then a bus from there. This is the most direct route home. Instead I’m so weary I just don’t want to move. I decide to sit on the train all the way to Waterfront. I know it’s taking me a long way out of my way, but I can change trains there and head back in the right direction.

It feels good to just sit. Until we’re stopped in a station and suddenly there is a cop at my shoulder saying I have to get off the train with him because I’ve been accused of “waving my sticks around and making racist remarks”. It’s a deeply upsetting ending to an otherwise joyous day. You can read more about it here. At the time masks were mandatory on all public transport in Vancouver and I’d yelled at a guy on the train to put his mask on. It’s something I would never ever do in a foreign country. I broke my own rules. Every time I’m out without Don I learn something new 😜

Steveston Village and the Richmond dykes are among the Vancouver area’s unique and special places. Despite the disturbing end to my day I’m glad I went. Steveston, and all of Lulu Island, is on the unceded land of the Coast Salish peoples.

Next post: a solo travel day to Bowen Island.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.