Hiking Salt Spring Island

In three days, I’ve hiked three Salt Spring Island trails.

The first, Assault on Mt. Erskine, is steep, narrow, the rock jutting out in places like steps of stairs. The forest is open with sunlight sifting through the huge firs and some of the largest strawberry trees I have ever seen. Firs grow like weeds here, sprouting everywhere a seed can find the slightest amount of soil. Only the shade cast by older, larger firs keeps the seedlings from consuming all the space.

The strawberry trees, or, if you wish, madrona, or arbutus, are the biggest I’ve ever seen with massive trunks ranging through yellow, pale green, purple, black and red. The trees reach 30 metres tall, their branches twisting and turning, the leaves a dark, glossy green, tough leathery. At this time of year, the bark is peeling away from the trunk, the new pale green bark shiny underneath. Here and there, in the open spaces are Oregon grape and bunches of salal. The climb is so steep that the path is a series of switchbacks.

As we climb through drizzle and fog, we meet a young man coming down with his dog. He’s lean, tall, wearing shorts, looks like he probably ran up. He takes one of the buds out of his ear so he can talk to us. He has about him that easy Salt Spring smile and casualness as he answers our questions about the path ahead.

In places there are massive boulders that, at some time, have come loose from the levels above.

An eagle sits in a tree, hardly more than a few feet above us because the tree grows from a level below. Normally, we have to look up at eagles. Here, we look directly across, see him in profile. In places, the ocean appears through the drifting fog. The rain, broken by the high branches of the firs, sifts down, barely wetting us. At the top, in an open space where, in summer, a picnic will be superb, we are surrounded by ravens. We can’t see them because of the mist that envelops the trees but all around they call to each other, tweeting and croaking and rattling.

The second day we hiked the paths that border Black Duck Creek. On first sight it looks unpromising. Flat pale yellow fields suitable for grazing sheep. But once we take the muddy path down to the creek itself, we enter a rain forest world of overlapping shadows with only occasional shafts of light. The rippling sound of the stream is everywhere. The stream gently curves and loops, is bridged by fallen trees. Broad leafed maple block out the sun. They create a canopy of silence. In fall, after the leaves turn yellow, they float to the ground in long spirals. Now, in February, the ground is matted with them. Many of the living tree trunks are thick with ferns and moss.

Here, everything is green, green piled on green, large ferns springing from the sides of the stream. The hiking is easy, the ground relatively flat. On the way back, we climb up from the creek into a long open meadow where we discover clusters of people and dogs. The dogs are all species, jubilant, free to run, chase each other, chase balls. The open space is filled with sunlight.

Today, we chose a trail with no name, just a wooden post that was marked with a symbol for hikers. Here, we are in forest, once again, but the trees are cedar and because the cedars are large, shading everything, the arbutus that grow below them are small, stunted. The ground is thick with salal that reaches waist high. The trail is soft, its surface dangerous with exposed cedar roots that twist and turn, making endless traps for a carelessly placed foot. There is little sunlight here and as the path descends the ground is taken over by large ferns, great fountains of sword ferns. There are short sudden drops. At some of them crude steps have been built.

The trail is narrow, in places barely wide enough for my feet. We weave in and out among trees and silence. The thick layer of cedar debris mutes all sound. It is so quiet that I can hear my heart beating, my jacket rustling.

Down, down, down, until we come to the lowest point where a small stream trickles across the path, turning it to a muddy quagmire but the low point is short, the water shallow, the mud only a couple of inches up my waterproof boots. Then we start up again, now wire fence and open meadows on our left, old cedar rail fence on our right. The path turns down again and soon we get a glimpse of the ocean. Here, the path falls steeply, the clay slippery, and we use a fixed climbing rope to steady ourselves.

It’s low tide and the beach spreads far out before us. We hike the oyster beds, beds that are thick with oysters, clams and mussels. The landside is made of high cliffs, massive rocks, caves. Ocean side, the water is flat, a grey blue, and just across the straight, Wallace Island.

We hike south to where at the high tide mark, the beach is glistening white with windrows of crushed shell.

We rest here, our backs to the warming sun. Ducks are diving in the shallows.

Today it was dark as I left for the Fulford Harbour and the ferry. In my headlight beams, two rabbits zigzagged frantically before plunging into the roadside scrub. The grass after Ganges was bleached with frost. Fog filled the fields.

There are other trails, other days to come. To be seventy-two years old takes away none of the anticipation of forest and ocean or the rising sun