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


When I’m walking from Cattle Point to Willows Park in Victoria, I see the Sunday joggers. Pale legs, shorts, T-shirt, their faces pulled tight with pain. I’m encased in GoreTex and a sweater and shirt, wool pants. They slog by, whump, whump, whump, their Nike Air Max running shoes beating against the concrete. No knees in three years if they keep this up, I think. When I folk danced, the instructor wouldn’t let us dance without shock absorbent soles in our shoes, wouldn’t let us dance on concrete, wouldn’t let us stamp. If the runners passing me keep this up they’ll end their days walking like they’ve got legs carved from wood.

These are the weekend warriors. The Tarzans, the Roman centurions, the tribesmen hunting gazelles with nothing but their speed and a spear. Five days a week they sit glued to a chair, staring at a computer or answering a phone, drinking coffee and eating Tim Bits, their flesh loosening itself from their bones, then someone at the computer screen beside them goes toes up and that day they leave work early and buy sweat pants and shirt, shorts, running shoes. A day later they jog past me driven by fear.

I’m strolling along the sidewalk enjoying the view over the rose bushes that have been shaved by years of wind into an angle away from the cliffs. Two joggers stagger by. One of them has eaten 1376 donuts in the past year. That’s the only thing that will explain the loose rolls jiggling under his sweat shirt. His breathing sounds like someone dragging a metal file over granite. Behind them comes Harry. Harry worked down the hall from me. He had a passion for Danish, cream pies, chocolate croissants, butter. He’s twelve years younger than me but recently, his doctor told him that if he didn’t lose weight and get into shape he wasn’t going to be around much longer.

Men used to spend all day cutting down trees, digging holes in the ground, breaking concrete, picking rocks. My great grandfather and great uncles used to walk thirty miles from our home town of Gimli to Selkirk, buy a sack of flour, put it on a trump line or over one shoulder and walk back with it. There was no market for walking machines, no Nordic Track, no health clubs. There was just daily life. My father was amazed when he heard about rowing machines. Spending all that time going nowhere. He used to row his boat out to his nets, lift his nets, then row back to shore. He did it every day, sometimes twice a day, in the morning and evening after he’d spent eight hours cutting hair in his barbershop. He had a stomach of steel and could eat butter on everything including his oatmeal cookies.

On our block there’s a civil servant who power walks. He thrashes his way down the street like he’s a non-swimmer and someone threw him off the dock. He walks on his heels and swings his arms. If I swung my arms like that, I’d be afraid they might fly off. When he drives to the health club, he circles the block three times until he finds a parking spot close by rather than park three blocks away, then runs on a conveyer belt until sweat pours down from his crotch to his ankles.

I hate jogging. There seems to be a taboo against saying that. But it’s true. It has to be the most boring thing anyone can do. I know about endorphins and runner’s high. It isn’t worth it. Instead, I hike Mt. Finlayson. Mt. Finlayson isn’t a big mountain. Old people and kids can hike it but there are places where it’s steep. When I was hiking it once a week, I got so I could reach the top in an hour and come down in half that time.

Hiking uphill is more interesting than jogging. For one thing, you’ve got time to look around. There are banana slugs. Eagles. Hawks. The occasional deer. Waterfalls of ferns. Arbutus whose bark turns from pale green in spring to deep purple in winter. Cedar and broadleaf maples. The maples have licorice fern hanging from the crooks of branches. Old man’s beard and lungwort. I got runner’s high about one third of the way up. I also got my second wind there.

It’s amazing the things we can be vain about. I was quite proud of my hiking. I couldn’t run up Finlayson but I could go at a pretty steady pace. Feelings of superiority snuck in. I sneered quietly at the joggers straining by on the Esplanade. Then one day as I was descending Mt. Finlayson, I met a man coming up. Older than me. He stopped to say hi.

“What’ve you got in your knapsack?” I asked him.

“Magazines.” This was a large knapsack and it obviously was full. “I’m getting in shape for hiking in the Himalayas.”

I even met the occasional jogger on the trail. They’d come chugging by. These were the kind of joggers who run in marathons. Iron-men to be. The kind who’s bodies are encased in bone, not fat. They’d appear behind me, pass by me, and disappear on the trail ahead. Me-nearly-Tarzan kind of people. Maybe even Tarzan’s younger brothers. But they didn’t look like they were having any better a time than the Tim Horten’s men who jog the Esplanade.

Harry saw me and stopped to chat. “It’ll all be worth it,” Harry of the white legs, pot belly and red head-band declared, “when the endorphins flood in.” When he finishes wheezing, he gets me to admire his two hundred and ninety five dollar runners, his Gamin Foreunner 305 wrist watch and his Runlite 4 Hydration Belt. This is the third week he’s been jogging. He likes to be well equipped. He also thinks the equipment will be chick bait. Harry is sixty and given to strange fantasies.

“It seems a tough way to get some babes,” I replied.