Thursday 26 September 2013

Island Trek - Part 2

I've just spent the last hour or so going through the many photos I took on my recent trip to Vancouver Island, reliving memories before they fade. I can almost hear the crashing surf, feel the ocean breeze on my face, the sand under my bare feet, and inhale the wonderful smells of the wild west coast.

Crescent moon over Mackenzie Beach.

I visited the Pacific Rim National Park for the first time when I was 16. At the time I was awestruck. It was easily the most beautiful place I'd ever visited despite having grown up in a part of the world where natural beauty abounds. I was hugely impressed by the place itself and also by the wonderful amenities of the park. It was like entering a bubble dedicated to not only preserving a unique and precious ecosystem but also to educating visitors and enhance their appreciation of it.

Some aspects of the park have not changed, namely its timeless beauty, but others, to my sadness, have deteriorated. It's been five years since my last visit, and I was immediately struck by the shabby feel the park now has. Judging by the amount of peeling paint, the signage has not been changed in the 30-odd years since my first visit, and a stop at one of the public washrooms contributes to the overall feeling of neglect. All park users must pay a fee to enjoy the park, whether they're there for an afternoon walk on the beach or a longer stay, and it's well worth it - particularly if those dollars go directly to the park's maintenance budget. However, I'm disturbed by the fact that this wonderful park that draws visitors from all over the globe doesn't appear to be better cared for. I'm certain Federal Government cutbacks to the national park system are the root cause, and I have to question the logic of these cuts when tourism is such an important aspect of our economy. In my mind, tourism is about more than the private businesses it supports - the five-star hotels and eco-tours - it's about showcasing our natural wonders and allowing visitors to experience them in a meaningful, accessible (i.e. inexpensive) way.

I suppose that whether the Pacific Rim Park is well maintained or not, visitors will come, but I personally would like them to leave with a sense of just how much this precious park is valued by our country's citizens and that we demonstrate our pride by properly caring for it. It makes me more than a little ashamed to see it so rough around the edges.

But all that aside, my stay there was everything I had hoped for, even though the shorebirds I had dreamt of seeing were scarce. This little plover was one of the few who put in an appearance.

The bird's typical pose is reminiscent of a silk painting of mine of another plover - a killdeer - that was an award winner a couple of years ago.

No trip to the west coast would be complete without a glimpse of the region's iconic bird, the bald eagle. This one posed majestically on a branch of a weather-beaten snag visible from the Wild Pacific Trail near Ucluelet.

My coloured pencil drawing of a bald eagle.

I was also pleased to catch a glimpse of one of my favourite birds - a species at the opposite end of the avian spectrum from the bald eagle - a tiny Winter Wren (aka Pacific Wren) that scooted out from the underbrush just long enough for me to capture a quick photo.

My coloured pencil drawings of a
trio of Winter Wrens.
Good things must come to an end and all too soon it was time to pack up, leave the cabin and head back to the mainland. Waiting at the Duke Point ferry terminal, I leaned against the railing in the sunshine and gazed across the inlet towards the bluffs of Gabriola Island. Below in the water I spotted the familiar head of a harbour seal. But I could not have dreamt I would witness the following Wild Kingdom drama play out:

A harbour seal - and what's that in its mouth?
It's an OCTOPUS, and a big one at that!

Down the hatch... sort of

Getting there...

Just a couple of inches of tentacle to go.
A seal with a very full belly.

While that particular sequence of photos isn't likely to inspire me to produce any artwork, it was interesting to observe and reminded me that these "cute" seals, with their big, sweet, soulful eyes, are actually fierce predators capable of killing, dismembering and devouring a giant Pacific octopus.

And what better way to end the journey home than with another glimpse of orca whales from the ferry. It was at quite a distance but I was still able to make out the dorsal fin and distinctive markings, and the signature puff of spray from his/her blow-hole.

A fitting conclusion to my Island Trek.

Monday 16 September 2013

Island Trek - Part 1

For a few days this month I let myself out of the studio for some much needed R&R. It's been a busy year, one way and another, and despite my diligence the list of projects and tasks to be completed doesn't seem to get any shorter. However, sometimes it's necessary to turn off the lights, shut the studio door and walk away.

Artistic inspiration is not something I normally have much trouble finding, but there are certain paces in the world where it is generously abundant. Vancouver Island is one of them and given it's easily accessible from my own part of the world, it's a place I naturally turn to when I need a break. Even the ferry ride from mainland to island can offer excitement, as it did when a pod of orca whales were spotted just half an hour from our destination.

Busy feeding on salmon, the orcas put on an impressive show, even if it was at a bit of a distance from my vantage point on the ferry. As I was clicking away, I had my camera pointed at the right place at the right time: the exact moment when one of the orcas leapt from the water in a behaviour known as breaching:

In a lifetime of making the crossing between the mainland and Vancouver Island, I have seen orcas only twice before so this was a special way to start a vacation and I took it as a good omen of things to come.

The next day I visited Strathcona Park and undertook one of my favourite hikes. It traverses Paradise Meadows on a lovely 8km route circular that passes through the beautiful alpine meadows and offers stunning views of Lake Helen Mackenzie and Battleship Lake.

One of the cheeky Grey Jays who mooched nuts from me.
They took turns landing on my hand.

A gorgeous view of Battleship Lake.

A silk painting of Lake Helen Mackenzie based on a previous visit.

But one of my absolute favourite parts of Vancouver Island was still a few hours away. A half-day's journey across the island brought me to Pacific Rim National Park located on a peninsula on Canada's extreme western shore and flanked by the sea-faring towns of Ucluelet and Tofino. An ocean-front cabin on Mackenzie Beach, located part-way between Pacific Rim Park and Tofino, was the place I called home for several blissful days.

The weather was, for the most part, spectacular: clear and warm and very unusual for this coastal rainforest region where fog, mist and rain form the normal weather pattern. There have been some gorgeous moments. This was the view from my cabin:

I also observed this golden sunset:
And on nearby Wikaninnish Beach, glorious crashing waves glistened in the sunshine:

Shorebirds were scarcer than I expected, apart from plenty of gulls, both juveniles and adults. 

Happily on one early morning trek around Mackenzie Beach I saw my favourites: a family of Pacific Oystercatchers who posed on some rocks.

Oystercatchers are fascinating to me, with their bright red beaks and eyes, and the weird whistling call they make to one another. They often find their way into my art and given this experience I'm certain they will again soon!

An oystercatcher in coloured pencil.
A silk painting of a pair oystercatchers.

There were other beach-goers that I believe had something to do with the lack of shorebirds: the region appears to have gone to the dogs!

Dogs were absolutely everywhere on Mackenzie Beach where several campgrounds, cabins and hotels accommodate canine companions. Since my last visit, it has basically turned what was a quiet stretch of sand into a beach-front dog park. I also observed many dogs in other beach areas inside Pacific Rim Park, very few of them on leashes despite signs warning about the sensitivity of the shorebird population and the fact that dogs have more than once been attacked by the bears, cougars and wolves who populate the region.

Everyone knows I love dogs, but I was disappointed to see such large numbers of them running freely in this pristine place. As is often the case, not all owners were diligent about picking up after their dogs, nor were they sensitive to the fact that other human beach users may not care for dogs, and most were completely oblivious to the fact that what looks to them like harmless fun when their dog chases shorebirds might mean life or death to birds exhausted from long migratory flights or to young birds still gaining strength, not to mention the disturbance dogs cause to ground-nesters like plovers and oystercatchers. I hope that some energy can be put into educating the dog owners and to restricting off leash activities to specific areas. Everyone should be able to enjoy this wonderful place while respecting other users and the region's wild creatures.

I have more photos and thoughts to share from this Island trek, so stay tuned for Island Trek - Part 2 in the days to come.