Friday, January 6, 2017

Housesitting on Salt Spring Island

For thirty two days in December and January, I lived in a magical place. A place where arbutus and Garry oaks hold a steadfast stance on salty shores. A place where thick mossy rugs are like opium on hilltops, coaxing you to sit down for just a moment -- no, rather lie down for an entire afternoon snooze. A place where cormorants gather by the dozens to roost in treetops, noisily chattering as the sun sets. A place where time is measured only by the ferries that enter and leave the harbours.

An eagle eye's view of the magical place, looking north from Reginald Hill.
The Fulford-Burgoyne Valley, straight ahead, is nestled between
Mt Bruce (2,326 ft / 709 m) and Mt Maxwell (1,946 ft / 593 m).
If I were to turn towards the south, I would see the San Juan Islands.

If I were to turn so that the water was at my back,
I would see this soft, sunny spot,
begging for a picnic or a nose to be buried in a book. 

This magical place is Salt Spring Island. One of the southern Gulf Islands, Salt Spring is located in the Strait of Georgia, snuggled between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. The Gulf Islands are close relatives to Washington state's San Juan Islands. They are separated only by an international border and distinguished by citizens who look the same but end their sentences with "eh." With 10,000 year-round residents, many of them "artist-types," Salt Spring is the most populous of the Gulf Islands. But it certainly doesn't feel that way; nature and solitude are abundant.

What brought me to this magical place was a magical four-legged creature named Eleanor. Eleanor's humans were traveling for a month to the Bahamas and Cuba, and so I looked after Eleanor and her homestead while her humans were away.

Eleanor is an affectionate kitty. Every night when I settled down to sleep, Eleanor would comb my hair with her claw-toothed paw comb. Then she would place her front paws on either side of my neck and lower her body so her head rested atop mine. Her purrs amplified directly into my ear drums. Eventually they faded to deep, rhythmic breaths, like the mellowing waves after a storm.

Eleanor slept on my head...

...and sat on my laptop.

I loved snuggling with Eleanor, as she provided a tremendous amount of timely heat. Just as I had settled into Salt Spring, a mass of cold air had settled into the Pacific Northwest and made itself at home. In December, high temperatures for the Gulf Islands typically reside in the low 40s (°F), and the lows typically average a smidgen below freezing. There was nothing typical about the weather I experienced. There were an unorthodox number of snow-filled days and an even more unorthodox number of days when the temperatures didn't extend beyond the thermometer's freezing mark. There were a number of days, too, when the electricity went out, though I'm told that's not so unorthodox; it happens regularly, usually only for a few hours at a time.

The weather had me passing a good part of most days hunkered in front of a wood-burning stove, which was fine by me -- I loved watching the flames dance and feeling the dry warmth of the fire on my skin. Needless to say, I had a generous opportunity to fine-tune my fire-building skills.

I loved the ambiance of this wood-burning stove.

My celebratory New Year's pizza,
enjoyed in front of a different kind of "fireworks."

I spent many hours reading books in front of the stove. These are the books I read that I highly recommend you read as well:

Incendiary by Chris Cleave (2005): A novel about a woman who writes a letter to Osama bin Laden after an al-Queda bomb attack kills her husband and son.
The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche by Gary Krist (2008): The story of the devastating 1910 avalanche that buried two trains and killed 96 people.
Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle's Topography by David B. Williams (2015): The history of the reengineering of Seattle's topography by nature -- earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions -- and by city folk who wished to have more usable land. 

Though the first two books had been shelved within my Kindle for awhile, patiently awaiting their turn to be consumed, Too High & Too Steep was an unexpected read for me. I'm guilty of judging this book by its cover, a black'n'white photograph of unusually shaped mounds. Though the book's title suggested the read was about Seattle, the mounds looked as though they might be from Utah. Curious, I flipped through the book and read a few passages. The writing style and the mention of familiar places in my home city lured me in. I turned the book to the first page and read it straight through. Never in a million years would I have imagined that a history book about topography would be a page turner for me.

The cover I couldn't resist.
You must read this book to learn more about the "Spite Mounds."

I ran across a fun little fact in Too High & Too Steep, tucked away in a caption of the "U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey of Seattle Bay and City" from 1899. The image showed tideflats near the downtown region that had recently been filled with dirt. Heading south from the newly made land was a bike path built atop an old trestle. Yes, folks, a dedicated bike my home city. Seattle, you make me proud.

For a lighter read, I perused the weekly paper, Gulf Islands Driftwood. I particularly enjoyed an article called "2016: A Year in Review," from the December 28th issue. Below are my favorite highlights from the year:

Two iconic Garry oak trees at the head of Burgoyne Bay came down the morning following a stormy evening. The "twin" trees had grown in almost mirror image reflection and the two trunks divided to fall away in opposite directions, as if one entity was split in half.
The Gulf Islands Board of Education voted to ban sandwich board signs from its property on Rainbow Road. Twelve signs were counted there on the day of the May 11 decision. 
First response crews added the drug naloxone to their toolkits in order to save victims of opiate and opioid overdose, with help from the Toward the Heart training program at Lady Minto Hospital. 
Volunteers rushed to the rescue of a community piano tossed into Ganges Creek. The piano was among many instruments installed across the island during the summer as part of the Salt Spring Community Piano Project, an initiate led by Bryan Dubien. The vandal's identity was never determined. 
A new bin installed at the Rainbow Road Recycling Depot in late November gave islanders the unprecedented chance to recycle worn-out clothing and other textiles. Accepted materials include everything that is too stained or worn for thrift stores to use, as well as shoes.

I love small town news; it tickles me pink. I love that downed trees, sandwich boards, toolkit contents, pianos in creeks, and "unprecedented" modifications to a recycling program are newsworthy. It sure beats the monotonous, eye-rolling Trump theme that pungently flavors every news story in the States.

In addition to reading, I spent quite a bit of time writing. Working to get some pieces published, these were time-consuming projects that required an entirely different level of focus than my words-flow-freely-from-my-fingertips blog posts. And I spent a good share of time preparing for my next trip. (More on that coming soon.)

To prevent cabin fever, I punctuated my reading'n'writing'n'planning sessions with explorations of the out-of-doors. As I did not have my bicycle with me, all explorations were on foot. Fortunately, there is a healthy network of trails that run rampant across the island.

When I first arrived on Salt Spring, I had grand intentions of hiking all the suggested trails in the local guidebook. But my intentions changed as I rewalked the same trails within a short distance of the housesit. One day, I walked to Eleanor Point, in honor of the magical Eleanor kitty. Another day, I spent hours exploring Ruckle Provincial Park. The Reginald Hill Trail -- a steep hike whose ascent and descent could be achieved in under forty-five minutes for the doorstep -- was a favorite of mine when I wanted a short, athletic walk. (The views from the top of Reginald Hill are shown in the first images in this post.) And I spent many, many hours on numerous days walking the various trails in and around the Tsawout First Nation Reserve.

Trailheads, such as this, are all over the island.

As I rewalked the trails of the First Nation Reserve, I started to learn every tree and every creek, every root that extended into the path, and every contour of the rocks between my feet. I took pleasure in knowing which fork in the trail to follow based on the shape of the nearby branches. And I took pleasure in recognizing which trees had fallen during the previous day's windstorm. Despite the growing familiarity, I saw new things each time I walked the trails -- things that I had seen before but hadn't noticed. I enjoyed the variety that these familiar places offered so much that I no longer felt the need to venture further.

This tree stump wears a burka.

These twisting branches made me hungry for a salty, hot pretzel.

I came across fun surprises, such as this long-ago abandoned Land Rover.

The abandoned Land Rover.

The windshield displayed a vehicle inspection sticker from the year I was born.

A plaque on the rear of the vehicle.
Fred Deeley no longer exists, but Trev Deeley does --
it's a large motorcycle dealer in Vancouver.
Fred, Trev's grandfather, opened his dealership in 1917.

And I came across other surprises when I wandered off the trail. On one hike, I spotted what appeared to be a flat area high atop a rock. A little while later, curiosity found me standing at the summit of this gigantic rock. I was rewarded with gorgeous peak-a-boo views of snow-covered peaks in the far off distance.

A surprise peek at Mount Baker's peak.

And a surprise peek at the Cascade range.

I loved walking along the shorelines. Though intellectually I understand how tides function, I'm always dumbfounded by the yo-yoing of the water's edge -- slowing ingesting the land and then slowly digesting it hours later. It amazes me how an island of rocks I could walk to hours before can later be entirely submerged.

My favorite find was an arbutus (known as "madrona" in the States), located about 100 feet off the trail. One of my favorite species of trees, there was something about the way the light radiated off this particular arbutus that caught my attention. I picked a path through the brush, and after arriving at the tree, I ran my fingers along the smooth bark. I noticed scratch marks on the trunk. My first thought was "bears." Though bears are known to occasionally swim over from Vancouver Island, they are mostly a rarity on Salt Spring. Then I noticed smudges in the dusty coloring of the tree. Ah, footprints!

I was intrigued by this arbutus, which I noticed off the trail.
Close inspection revealed claw marks on the smooth trunk.

And an even closer inspection revealed footprints.

Though I couldn't recognize the prints, my discovery had me wondering if the island's wildlife was just as ecstatic to come across my footprints -- the mirror-image soleprints of my size nine Asolo hiking boots.

Like other places I've visited in British Columbia (such as The West Coast Trail and Vancouver Island), Salt Spring Island has me wanting more. I love magical places. I love that they take me to my happy place. I will be back for more magical happiness, Salt Spring Island!

Might you be skilled in track identification? If so, I'd love to know which animal left the footprints on the arbutus. Here are more photos of the prints, alongside a measuring tape.

Image #1 

Image #2

Image #3

Image #4


  1. Wow....

    Sarah, I can NOT think of a better way or place to spend the last month. Weather was cold, but you had those crystal clear days that brought out the views. Honestly I gave a long sigh just thinking about it...

    This is another time you have dropped hints about a writing project... I am intrigued!

    I have looked at both the Seattle book and the train more than once, I may have to invest in the topography after I knock down my back log on the kindle.

    Great post as always, and that was one lucky cat to have gotten to meet you.

    1. Thanks for your note, Tony.

      The *only* thing I would have changed about the last month was the weather. I'm starting to become a weather wimp -- the cold and wet is such a turn off!

  2. PS I am NO expert but my guess is bobcat for the prints!

    1. I wish it was a bobcat, but they have only four digits (not five).

  3. I read Too High and Too Steep last year and then gave it to my Dad knowing he'd enjoy it as well. An unexpected page turner for sure. A lot of thing seem to move faste in the current age, but the sorts of projects described in that book sure seem to go faster when environmental impact and liability aren't considerations!

    1. True that! The thought crossed my mind to impose the Bertha project on the city folk of the 1800s. My guess is they would have finished boring the hole by now. :)

  4. Your footprint pics look like raccoon. Always enjoy your blog posts. Salt Spring Island is on our bucket list, though we're not good at hill-climbing on the bike anymore. Lots of fiber artists--weavers and spinners--in the Gulf Islands.

    1. Great to hear from you, Larye!

      Yes, the footprint seems to best match that of a raccoon. I wish it were something a bit more "exotic," but I like raccoons, too. :)

      I would definitely encourage you to visit Salt Spring. The roads aren't terribly bike-friendly, not only due to the hills, but also the lack of shoulders. Perhaps a visit to the island would be best suited for a road trip. :)

  5. Really enjoyed that post Sarah. It was 31 degrees today in central Mexico... so that pic of your feet in front of the log stove seemed very foreign. Although if I was in Ireland right now it would be exactly what I would be doing. Loved your descriptions of not needing to walk very far to find loveliness around your house. And being able to walk the same walk but it never being the same walk.
    So is the Baja Divide your next project?
    I met so many riders doing it while on Baja. Seems very tough and challenging but yet some magic bits too.
    I've been reading pushbikegirl's account. And her photos are gorgeous.
    Happy happy new year. Was so lovely to have met you this year.
    Ciao for now, Michelle

    1. Hello my dear Michelle! 31 degrees -- I'm assuming celsius, or else we've been suffering through the same cold -- sounds wonderful. 😉 Yes, the Baja Divide is my next cycling adventure. Eighteen more days...I can't wait!! I hope you are continuing to have a most marvelous trip. I look forward to our paths crossing again!


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