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
There was time to get a cappuccino from the Morningside Organic Bakery café and bookstore. Fulford Harbour is funky and the Morningside is the funkiest of the funky. It’s made of driftwood and concrete, it serves handcrafted sandwiches, soups, salads, noodles, superfood, raw food, smoothies, shakes, bread, pastries, cookies, chai, premium coffees and teas. Its homemade bread is wood fired. It buys its produce from local organic farmers. It also does double duty as a bookstore. The walls have shelves displaying books on everything from Buddhism to animal rights.
Manon made me the cappuccino. I bought a package of gluten free cookies to go with it. We chatted. There was no rush. The ferry wasn’t going to sprout wings.
When I came out, the ferry was just docking. I took some photos, settled into my car.
The foot passengers and then the motorcyclists came off. After that, the cars. The gate closed, then opened. We rumbled on. No deckhands waving us close together so they can get as many cars as possible onto the ferry. No tourists climbing up the stairs to sit on the roofs of the side deck cabins so they can sight-see. We’re the locals. We’ve made this trip so often that we sit in our vehicles and read or nap. If it’s cold, we go into the cabins and find a seat. It’s not that cold yet. That will come later in the year when there’s ice on the fresh water ponds and rime on the trees.
It wasn’t so long ago that this was all exotic. Now, it’s all part of a rhythm, like an old song, the weaving drive, the slowing down through Ganges, the speeding up as the houses thin out, the roadside signs for free range eggs, apples, vegetables, flowers, the slipping into place to wait for the signal to board, the rumbling of the motor and the blast of the ferry whistle as we pull away from the dock.
I was on Salt Spring Island the other day planing arbutus. My friend Richard was putting the planks through the planer and I was catching them and holding them even so they wouldn’t snipe.
If you haven’t lived on the West Coast, you probably don’t know what an arbutus is. . It doesn’t shed its leaves seasonally. Instead, it sheds its bark. The old bark is often deep red or purple and comes away in long strips. The new bark is a pale, yellow green, smooth, sensuous.
All around us are majestic firs with salal filling any open spaces. To my right the ground drops away in a tangle of deadfall, sea spray and cedar. Between the trees I can see Galiano Island, then in the far distance, the mountains of North Vancouver. Below us on the sharp falling ridges, the tangle of salal is so thick I can’t push my way through it. Before cutting down a tree, I have to hack an escape path in case the tree twists as it falls. Hacking through the salal isn’t without its risks. The ground is riddled with wasp nests. Twice now I’ve stepped on a nest. The wasps swarm out, yellow and black and angry. In places where trees have been removed, there are tangles of blackberry canes rising up to six feet or more. Large mounds of canes covered in sharp, curved thorns and delicious fruit. For those who haven’t seen them, picture black raspberries, but much larger than most raspberries. In blackberry season, it’s easy to tell who has been picking, because their arms are covered in long scratches and their hands are stained purple.
This is the world of the Icelanders who kept traveling West, from Kinmount, to Toronto, to Winnipeg, to the Pacific Coast. Some Icelanders came first to Winnipeg, then hearing of the West Coast continued on. There were those who chose the Coast as their first destination, however. Some came in the 1880s – enough that Victoria had a vibrant and viable Icelandic community with Sunday musicals and poetry readings. A recession drove many of those people to Point Roberts and to Boundary Bay in the USA.
This was a world as different from Manitoba as Manitoba was from Iceland.
Ben Sivertz was part of this world. Although his name doesn’t sound Icelandic, his father and mother both came from Iceland. After graduating from high school he was a seaman and ship’s officer in the Merchant Marine. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy and ran a school for navigation. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. I wouldn’t have known that he was awarded the Order of the British Empire if I hadn’t asked about a picture on the living room wall.
His obituary said that “he joined the Department of External Affairs in 1946 and moved to the Department of Northern Affairs in 1950. He served as Director of Northern Administration from 1957 until 1963 when he was appointed Commissioner. He was Commissioner of the NWT from 1963 to 1967. He came to the post after a career as a foreign service officer in the Department of External Affairs and Chief of the Arctic division in the Department of Northern Affairs.”
The arena in Hay River is named after Ben.
He was also the only person I’ve known who owned an original Van Gogh.
Ben took Mattie Gislasson and me on a walkabout in Fernwood. He pointed out each house in which Icelanders lived and named the families. He even showed us where there used to be an Icelandic store.
On our tour, I saw Ben’s pride in the Icelandic community, in his Icelandic roots, in the Icelanders who came to the edge of Canada to settle. He was ninety-three when we did that walkabout and when he used to walk two kilometers uphill on a Saturday morning from his retirement home to my place. We’d have a visit then at noon I’d drive him back to his retirement home so we could have lunch together.
True to his roots, before he died, he wrote three books, one about his mother, one about his father, and an autobiography.
Sitting in the truck on the way back to Swartz Bay, listening to the throb of the engine, the dark shapes of the islands slipping by, I thought of how different was the experience of the West Coast Icelanders from those who stayed in Gimli or Winnipeg, how they had adapted to this world of forests and mountains while keeping their identity as strong as did those who had stayed in Nýa Ísland.
(This essay first appeared in Lögberg-Heimskringla)