Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Foraging with Nikki

Some people are magic. I think Nikki is one of them.

Early in this trip I read 'Becoming Wild' by Nikki van Schyndel. It is an amazing story about how she fulfilled a lifelong dream of surviving in the wilds of the BC islands in traditional ways for eighteen months, with her friend Micah and her cat Scout. I can't at all do her story justice with all of its trials, tribulations and her deep spiritual connection to the natural world that developed along the way. It's truly an incredible story to have had rambling around in my brain while immersed in these wild, beautiful and unforgiving islands. She survived endless cold and wet, starvation, cougar stalking and in an effort to not waste any food eating mice delivered to her by her faithful cat. In desperate need of protein, she managed to trap two bears and process every last scrap, a painful emotional process for an ex-vegetarian.

Our visit to Village Island, where she spent her first six months, and Booker Lagoon, where she spent her final year, were a bit of a Nikki pilgrimage for us so we could see first hand where she lived. She now lives in a small cabin in Echo Bay near the famous Billy Proctor whom we met last year and which you can read more about here. She now has her own eco-ventures business where she takes people out to see wildlife or gather wild food. Knowing we were planning a stop at Echo Bay I contacted Nikki to set up an excursion to gather wild food with her. I have always wanted to forage for food off of the shores here but I haven't felt comfortable trying to puzzle it out with a book, so who better to teach us what we can and cannot eat than Nikki? I was super excited!

We arrived in Echo Bay with enough time to walk over and show Emma Billy Proctor's Museum. After taking a look around, Billy, Nikki and a gaggle of very clean and well-dressed logger-hipster types came walking down the path. Nikki recognized us, said hello and told us she'd be right back after she took care of the other people she was with. That gave us some time with Billy as he showed us around his museum. We ended up out on the porch talking with Billy when Nikki came back. It was so fun to watch Nikki and Billy banter back and forth. Clearly they have a very special connection. Nikki explained that the extra-clean bunch of people we had seen earlier were photographers and models from some outdoorsy catalog and they were doing a photo shoot. all makes sense now. We talked a little about the next day's excursion and set a time. Nikki then hopped in her boat to go gather kelp, which she had plans to dry in Billy's upstairs room. We said good-bye to Billy and we hiked through the rain back across the island to our boat.

The next morning Nikki showed up at our dock at 11am. We all hopped into her little motor boat and sped away. Immediately upon entering the channel just outside of Echo Bay we saw a humpback spout. Nikki drove in closer for a better look. Over the next ten minutes we watched what looked like a mama and baby humpback cruise back and forth across the channel. It was a magical experience to see humpbacks so close.

Next we were off to the Burdwood Group to look for food. Along the way we stopped at Deep Sea Bluff where she showed us nesting guillemots. I loved that Nikki talked to all of the animals we saw along the way and seemed well acquainted with them all. When we got to Burdwood Group there were people there so Nikki decided to take us Simoom Sound instead. At the entrance to the sound she anchored the boat and we all scrambled off onto a small rocky island where we gathered bladderwrack seaweed. Inside Simoom Sound she showed us a patch of nodding onions and which were the best to harvest. Jason has been wanting to gather shellfish but we always worry about red tide. Nikki told us that limpets are algae feeders so there is no need to worry about red tide with them. The trick to getting a limpet off the rock easily is to very quickly grab it before it has a chance to suction tightly to the rock. It's way harder than it sounds but we managed to gather a few to go along with our bladderwrack and pile of onions. We then ventured over to another island where we gathered all kinds of new edibles I wasn't aware of. We gathered sea plantain, English sea plantain, sea asparagus, sedums, and arrow grass which tastes surprisingly like cilantro. We dug licorice root to suck on while we gathered spinachy-tasting orache. We talked about the medicinal purposes of yarrow and old man's hair. English plantain can be crushed and used to soothe insect bites. Bladderwrack seaweed can be boiled and slathered on your face for a rejuvenating facial mask. So much cool information.

Next we gathered kindling for a fire and then Nikki handed us bits of cedar bark. She showed us how to shred, fluff and turn it into a little nest. While we worked on nests she chopped all of the plants we had gathered. She then took out her bow drill. I have never seen anyone start a fire this way. It was magical to watch her work the drill until a tiny spark of fire came to life. She delicately cradled the glowing ember, gently dropped it into the cedar nests we had created and carefully wrapped it up in the fluff. She then, literally, breathed life into it until the nest smoked and flamed. Pure magic! She placed it on the ground and added the kindling we had gathered until she had a flame big enough to cook over.

She warmed her cast iron skillet over the fire and then dropped in our wild harvest, added some cooked rice she had brought along and sprinkled some dried bull kelp over the top for seasoning. She dished us up each a generous portion in giant clam shell with a muscle shell for a spoon. When we went into this I wasn't sure what to expect from the taste of the wild stir-fry. It was absolutely amazing! It tasted so delicious, fresh and healthy. I, literally, feel like I could eat it for every meal and am still craving it. She got rave reviews from everyone around the fire. Next, as she said "sorry little guys" she boiled up the limpets for us to try. The limpets seemed like they would be good in a chowder but not-so-great by themselves. Next on the menu, as a request from Aaron and Jason, was tiny beach crabs. Aaron ran around and gathered a few to fry up. Me, being an ex-vegetarian and Emma, being a current vegetarian, had to walk away from the fire when the cute little guys went into the pan. Turns out that the little guys all fried up crispy are super delicious, like little crab croutons.

With happy bellies we cleaned up the remains of the fire, disposed of them and then hopped back into Nikki's boat to head back to Echo Bay. Back on the dock she met Pika for the first time and it was love at first sight. When I asked her to sign my copy of her book she asked who to address it to. We decided Pika.

It was such an amazingly enriching experience to spend the afternoon foraging for food with Nikki. It was inspiring to meet a person with such an adventurous spirit who dreams big and makes it come true in spite of the incredible difficulty and accompanying misery. I love meeting people who embrace who they are and follow their dreams, big or small. It reconfirmed for me that I am so eternally thankful we pulled the kids out of school nine years ago and set out on our own path outside of what mainstream society expects from us. Thank you Nikki. I'm so excited to put the knowledge you shared with us to good use.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016


One of the highlights we wanted to share with Emma from last year's trip around Vancouver Island was our stop at Mamalillaculla on Village Island, an old First Nations village that was inhabited up until the sixties and then abandoned. I can't really put the feeling of the village into is quiet and heavy. It feels like a place you need to enter with respect and careful tiptoeing is required on this land where so many souls dwelled for many thousands of years. In M. Blanchett's Curve of Time she devotes a chapter to the spirits she encountered during a stay there in the 1920's.

We anchored just out from the old dock and paddled in beneath the eerie skeletal remains of the deteriorating dock. Our kayak scraped onto shore next to a pile of rib bones, setting a somber mood. We walked up the trail to the collapsing old tuberculosis hospital/school, which is always creepy. The next section of trail was even more overgrown than last year and as we pushed our way through the heavy bramble of blackberry bushes the branches grabbed at our rain gear and the sound of buzzing bumblebees filled the air. We made our way past a few overgrown houses in shambles and past a gigantic log arch which may have been the gateway to a long house. After peeking into an old house from its rickety front porch, we made our way down to the beach. Traditionally the beach served as village garbage dump which, given that their garbage was traditionally shells, was not a problem and now, as a result, BC is rich with beautiful white shell beaches. The tradition continued for as long as this village was inhabited so there are many treasures to be found here, beach glass, engine parts, bottles, pottery fragments, shoe soles. It's a treasure hunters paradise.

Our next stop was remote Booker Lagoon. The entrance is super narrow and has to be done at slack tide because current runs through quickly. We anchored in Cullen Harbor just outside of Booker to wait for slack tide. An hour later I drug the anchor up and we made it through the pass into a ginormous lagoon. Unfortunately the lagoon was logged in recent years so we chose the most picturesque of the five fingers of the lagoon where the logging scars were least evident.

The following morning we awoke to the lonely calls of a loon paddling around in the peaceful lagoon. Emma and I did yoga on the foredeck before we headed back out to Cullen Harbor. There we dropped the kayaks and spent the afternoon paddling around and exploring the multiple islets that dot the harbor. In the evening we were treated to a lovely sunset over the islets that separated us from Queen Charlotte Strait.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Broughton Marinas

The jet boat ride through the rapids put the fear of God and the highest respect for Mother Nature in us so the night before we were planning on going through Dent Rapids, there was not much sleep to be had. In order to hit the rapids at slack tide we had to leave the dock at 5:15am. Anxiety made it hard to fall asleep and my nervousness about missing the slack woke me up at 3am so I just laid there and worried as time slowly crawled by. Jason didn't sleep so great either. At 5am we were all up ready to go and after Jason knocked on our dock neighbor's boat to wake them, we threw off the dock lines and moved out.

It was a beautiful glassy morning and we arrived right at slack tide and what had been an angry boiling, swirling whirlpool was now placid and glassy. We anxiously kept glancing behind us, hoping our dock neighbors would make it through in time. At long last we saw them in the distance and let out a sigh. One rapid down, two more to go.

When we arrived at Green Point Rapids they looked calm. We watched another boat go through without problems so we felt comfortable entering this smaller rapid. We made it through with no problems and were all set up to make it through Whirlpool Rapids. Again no problems there. We breathed a sigh of relief and felt happy to be done with rapids for the trip.

Our next hurdle for the day was Johnstone Strait which can be a notorious bully. We figured we would nose out and take a look. It didn't seem too bad, rough but not too rough, so we rolled out the jib and started beating into the wind up the strait. We tacked about six times with the size of the waves steepening to six feet at about a three second intervals all the while dodging bands of huge logs. At this point it had become, to put it civilly and said with an English accent, unacceptable rough (though there were much less polite things running through my brain). We had made the classic mistake of entering the strait with wind against tide which made the waves super steep and stacked super close together so we went to Plan B where we crossed the strait, ducked into a little section of protection and rolled in the jib. We decided if we hugged the shore line maybe it wouldn't be so rough. This worked like a charm. What had felt rough now felt tame compared to the wild butt-kicking we had just experienced. Everyone was now relaxed and joking around. Emma even face-timed her mom as we bashed through the waves and Isaac called Port Harvey marina where it was rumored we could order a pizza in their small cafe to see if they were serving pizza yet. The conversation went like this.

Isaac: Hi! Are you serving pizza for lunch?
Person on the other end of the line: No.
Isaac: How about dinner?
Person on the other end of the line: No. *pause* Our restaurant sank.
Isaac: I'm sorry. That's too bad.
Person on the other end of the line: We can make a pizza for you and deliver it to your boat though.

That's not a conversation you have very often. Their restaurant sank? Crazy.

We eventually made it to Port Harvey where we warmly greeted by the marina's owner who told us the story of how their restaurant, store, showers and washrooms had sunk over the winter. Big bummer, but he was working on rebuilding everything and was excited about installing a real wood-fired pizza oven. He warned us that a black bear had just crossed through his yard and that a grizzly was hanging across the water but he would let us know if he saw the grizzly again. He took down our pizza and cinnamon bun order and then we were off for a hike with bear-bell in hand. After the hike we were told that the grizzly was back so we all took turns watching him through binoculars as he turned over rocks along the shoreline and then disappeared into the woods.

In the early evening, the sweet couple who own the marina came walking down the dock with big smiles and two big pizzas in hand. Talk about a teen cruiser's dream! We all sat down and ate pizza until we were sick.

The following day we were greeted in the morning with warm cinnamon buns, again, delivered to our boat. What a sweet operation! After breakfast we set out for Lagoon Cove Marina, famous for their spot prawn happy hours. We were greeted on the dock by the owner, Jean, who remembered our boat. The previous owner had spent several months in the Broughtons and must have visited Lagoon Cove several times. After another bear-bell hike, we lounged around in Jean's yard playing horse shoes and talking while admiring the beautiful flower gardens and view. She has a pretty sweet spot.

At happy hour time we hoofed it up to the dock with a plate of cheese and crackers anxious to talk with other boaters and, of course, try the famous spot prawns which were delicious. We spent a long time talking with Jean. She told us about growing up in Romania during WWII and moving to the US. She spends her winters in Portland and summers up here but she is now looking to sell the marina because she lost her husband a couple of years ago. She had a blessing fall into her lap this summer though. A young couple, Jan and David, from Vancouver were passing through in April, fell in love with Jean and the marina and haven't left. They have been working there ever since and will stay until she has the place sold.

We spent some time with Jan and David and they have a great story. Jan is from Vancouver and David is a gold miner from Dawson City, AK and totally looks the part. After meeting a year ago in the Philippines, they bought a boat together and had been living at Bowen Island. They decided to take a two week trip in April and along the way met some other sailors who talked them into going to Haida Gwai. Subsequently, they had windlass troubles and got left behind. One cold, wet day they limped into Lagoon Cove after dark hoping to find a restaurant. No such luck but Jean took them into her house and warmed them up with some homemade chicken soup and they have been there ever since. They are now the talk of the Broughtons and job offers are coming in from all over. Most of the marinas are run by older folks so there is much excitement about a young couple who want to work at a marina. They were super fun to talk to and we got to hear about their experience on Johnstone Strait the same day we were on it. They were in a little prawn boat and Jan told us with a huge smile about how she was airborne more than not as she got thrown around the boat. I was happy to hear that we weren't the only ones that got a butt-kicking that day.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Dent Lodge

From Teakern Arm we headed into the Broughtons. Our first stop along the way was Dent Lodge. This area is home to many narrow winding channels where tons of water is forced to rage through. It is only safe to enter these areas once every six hours when the tide is slack. It's not something you can fudge. You have to go through during a window of slack tide or else the tidal waters will swallow you whole. Lots have tried and not made it.

We were there on a huge, super-moon spring tide, one of the biggest of the year. At Dent Lodge they offer jet boat rides so you can view the rapids and they were promising a spectacular experience with such a high tide. I thought it was going to be a viewing trip where we sat there in a peaceful boat watching the rapids from a respectable distance. It seemed like a good opportunity to see the rapids at full boil so we could develop a healthy respect for them. What I didn't realize is that the driver was going drive us into the heart of the rapids like a crazy person. We all piled into the boat with our life jackets in hand and took our seats. The driver made some jokes about how this was only the second time he's driven the boat as he spun cookies in the bay, a little nauseating but no big deal. He then punched the gas and all of a sudden we were going what felt like light speed, all the while telling us about the scariness of the rapids. He then maneuvered us up onto a standing wave on the edge of the rapids. It was insane and awe-inspiring how much water was moving past us. And super scary. He then told us about the whirlpool that forms in the middle where the water is 400 feet deep and how every person who has been lost there has never been found. Ever. So you have tons of ocean water raging through with the tides and water from cavernous depths churning and boiling into a heinous mess of terrifying scariness. Guess where our next destination was? That's the man-eating whirlpool. He then careened us around the mouth of the swallow-us-whole whirlpool over and over again. I swear to God, I have never been so terrified in my life. To play with the power of those forces felt like sacrilege. It felt like we were just toying with the powers of Mother Nature and it felt so wrong to me. Everyone else had a good time though.

He then showed us two more sets of rapids that didn't look so bad after witnessing the hell mouth. As a consolation prize to those of us who were white and shaking, he showed us a rock full of seals. Two of them were playing footsie with their flippers so it made it all worth it. He then brought us over to where hake fish get churned up from the depths and become eagle food. Being a deep water fish they get stuck up on the surface and are easy to catch. I've never seen so many eagles in one spot before. There were dozens in the trees and there was a constant dive-bombing of eagles everywhere. It was pretty cool. Finally he turned us around and headed back towards the lodge. I am happy to report that we safely made it back to the dock without dying.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Teakern Arm

Our next stop was Teakern Arm where a lovely waterfall tumbles down the rocks into a turquoise green cove. The water is deep here so anchoring can be a bit tricky. We dropped anchor on an upslope and firmly set it by backing the boat in towards the shore. We then tied our stern to the shore so we were pulled tight against our anchor. We bumbled a bit trying to get the stern line set. Our stern line had mysteriously tied itself in knots and the tide was low so it kept getting stuck in oyster beds as we tried to pull the line through the ring in the rocks. While Jason wrestled with the line, I bobbed around in the kayak watching the giant sea cucumbers below. As I paddled back to the boat Jason fed out line. The line snagged over and over again forcing me to paddle in one place like I was on a treadmill. It was really rather comical.

Once we were all set we paddled into shore, excited for a swim in the fresh water lake that feeds the waterfall. A short hike brought us to Cassel Lake where a sloping band of granite met the waters edge beckoning us to wade in, which is a trick, because once you hit the bright green slimy edge you slip straight onto your butt. Luckily there were ropes set up to help you in and out of the water. Several ledges were perfect diving and jumping boards and Aaron, the wild man, immediately hucked himself off one of the ledges letting out a wild lemur scream on the way down. And, thus ensued, much craziness and laughter. Once we had had our fill, we backtracked to the sunny cliff top that overlooks the waterfall and the colorful little cove below to sun ourselves and have a snack.

Once we were totally sun baked and floppy, we paddled the kayaks to the base of the waterfall. I love floating around in a convergence zone like this where fresh and salt waters come together. It's so cool to watch the shimmery layer of fresh water dancing over the top of salt. Back on the boat we enjoyed a lovely foredeck followed by grilled chicken shawarma and plenty of lounging in the hammock.

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