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Unique newspaper coverage of local, regional and global topics - serious and light-hearted.

Salish Sea Almanac ~ 2006

A collection of episodes about life on an island farm - the first section of Priscilla Ewbank's Saturna Notes column is our longest running feature and a must read for everyone who loves the Gulf Islands.

Two Men Talking and Laughing

January 19
In contrast to Christmas, New Year’s Day is solitary. Taking the time for reflection and evaluation comes easily. I like to go through my house, my possessions, and my desires and see where the energy of a new year and new ways of thinking go together. I like making room for movement and change. Warm, rainy days are great for indoor work, and inspiring because the garden is waking up and growing. Clean windows are a joy, and with all the Christmas decorations away the sprouting green outside moves the focus from cozy inside to thoughts of spring. We have a small bird chorus that starts about 8am when the ‘dawn’ has enough heft to start lighting the day. And the rain! It has rained long enough and hard enough that every house and shed have been thoroughly leak and drainage tested. Everyone has had to get out a range of raingear: for going to town, outside work and for visiting! The chickens have given up staying in the coop to wait it out.

February 9
Tuesday, January 31 was tempest-tossed and wild with wind, rain and lightning for the Gulf Islands. Departing Swartz Bay at 2:55pm for Lyall Harbour, the Mayne Queen plowed and tacked her way through the wide-open piece of water beyond the islets off Swartz Bay and prior to the protection of Portland and Moresby Islands. Passengers conversed and watched the cresting rollers as they foamed and sprayed the cars on the deck below. The slanted afternoon light was gorgeous as it illuminated the frothing sea.

February 23
Hasn’t this clear weather been fabulous? It has kept the night full of light, and the stars and constellations are brilliantly visible in the cloudless sky. The moon was full on February 13. Venus, in the southwest corner of the sky, is shining until the sun overrides its light. Some days before the full moon, I noticed from the Environment Canada weather posting, that the moon set was 7:15am and the sunrise was 7:45am—we hardly had a dark night! Island gardens are flourishing. You can see fat buds everywhere on daffodils, star magnolias, crocus, narcissi, plum boughs, and roses—the sap has risen!

March 9
Where are those hummingbirds? With the days getting noticeably longer, I find I am waiting for the next sign of spring’s return and then the next—kind of like when you know the song that is coming up next on a favourite CD. Actually, the flowering red currant isn’t very far along and I associate it with the return of the hummingbirds because of their colours—scarlet neck-piece on the male rufous hummingbirds and wine-red currant flowers. A pair of red-tailed hawks has moved somewhere close by and been here all winter. One of them dived on our herd of bronze turkeys and all sorts of tweeters that I hadn’t noticed joined the turkeys in diving for cover. All the fleeing and commotion was very humorous from a human perspective!

March 23
You know the weather is squirrelly when you can’t tell if the funny looking, tiny things flying in the sky are early bugs or out-of-season snowflakes! The range of temperatures in the last few weeks has been surprising—but when you go to the early morning 6:20am boat, there is light! This means that Islanders look much better when they are in town; things match and are very clean because they can see what they are putting on before they jump on the boat!

April 6
Daffodils are the essence of spring; the contrast of the yellow, fully flared daffodils, and the brilliant greens of new grass, new alder leaves, engorged moss, rosettes of foxgloves leaves and stinging nettles that makes it spring. Yesterday, Ishbel Elliot and I walked down to Narvaez Bay. We surprised two kingfishers and a pair of mergansers in full breeding colors and plumage. We observed the first banana slug of spring! A gorgeous slug—black polka-dots on a sleek khaki-green body, stretched out, making good time on a dirt road crossing. On the little east-facing peninsula was a lady slipper orchid, just one perfect one. Later, we walked down to where the Georgeson/Bavis house used to be. The plum tree outside the front door was in full bloom; smelling sweet and full of various buzzing pollinators. I was musing about the First Nation shell-middens, which are all over the coves and bays of Saturna and mark their dwelling sites. For the European settlers, plum trees, daffodils, holly, and rhubarb are the indicators of old homesteads.

April 20
April seems like the shortest month of the year to me, not February. Snowy, blowy February can last for an infinity of time but April races by, full of surprises—just-arrived swallows, more sunlight, and new projects. Already there is lettuce up in the garden, just sprouts but salad leaves soon! April is a noisy month around here with the Pacific tree toads, robins and red-legged frogs; either up with the dawn or just finishing off their night’s performance. It is hard to make a beeline from the house through the garden to the bakery, there are numerous distractions, observations, tweakings, corrections and other imperatives that interfere with reaching the destination and completing the intended purpose of the journey! April is the best time for flower watching—a true spectacle. As you walk along some colour, some pattern or shape will pop into your line of sight—‘What is that!’ Your walk is abruptly stopped and you are riveted. Small-flowered, blue-eyed Mary is blooming in all the lovely sun-filled places. Its colour is a like a beacon—magenta ranging to blue, startling against any background. Miner’s lettuce is at its peak for munching on during walks and for more formal salad additions. In the shaded light of open forest floor appears one of my favorites, trailing yellow violet, just there for the shortest of time then gone. I love the flower names around here, we have everything from the elegant ‘ladies tresses’ orchid to the undesirable ‘naked broomrape,’ a lovely pink flower which is a stonecrop parasite! Learning the native plant names increases a gardener’s vocabulary; what is blooming in your garden is more than likely a genetically souped-up version of what is growing outside of your garden in our relative wild.

May 4
This is pay-off time for all of those December days when the night was 16 cold hours long and the day was 8 cold hours long! Nowadays little heat is needed in the house and lights are optional till 8pm. My kind of living! However, I find it galls me that another creature that loves this weather is the carpenter ant! I find this unsettling as I know they are eating our house and are out looking for further places to establish dining halls. Hmm… We have a lot of eagle activity at our pond this year, making the chicken flock nervous as the eagles wheel and soar above them. And we have a nest. After ‘tuning in’ several times to the video recorder website of the eagle pair nesting on Hornby (see Letters), we located a nest in a big old fir close to our pond. I have heard several other reports of nesting eagles on Saturna. A pair of Canada geese would be delighted to nest at the pond but the eagle traffic keeps discouraging them. The other day, an eagle strafed the pair floating together in the water, what uproar of insulted honking—pretty funny for an observer.

May 18
The grass is growing like crazy now and the sheep are constantly occupied with lying down and chewing their cuds or eating while their legs slowly follow their mouths. There is so much luscious grass that sometimes from their cud-chewing position they continue to graze! At this time of year, when the ‘overwhelm’ button is beginning to glow, I have a strategy to impart order and control in my little home world—mow the grass in front of the house. Presto—one little visual of green serenity moves into my world!

June 1
After weeks of sunny weather, on the Monday of the Queen’s Birthday weekend the Gulf Islands awoke to spring rains steadily watering the lush green grass of pastures, lawns, mountains and forests. The thought that came to my mind was the horror of waking to just such a day on July 1, Saturna Lamb BBQ day. Every 10 years or so—we work hard, get everything set up and in place and July 1 dawns dark with clouds, warmish and very wet. It only seems to last the day—the weather’s glorious for the clean-up work bee, the next day! While the sun is very agreeable and the tents, booths and bunting dry quickly in the July 2 sunshine; the year’s financial outlook for the community is grey! This fear also covers all of those other special days, ‘Please just don’t rain on this one day for the 90th birthday, the wedding, the fall fair, the school last-day camp out, the family reunion!’ How blessed we are when the rainfall occurs at night! The gorgeous blue camas is just finishing flowering and the Garry oaks are all leafed out with bright fresh leaves. At this time of year, the First Nations harvested large, traditionally acknowledged fields of blue camas and cooked the bulbs. I have never eaten a camas bulb—that would be an interesting experience. Evenings and mornings are now long and warm. It seems like the days are longer than 24 hours. Gardens are glorious and beguiling this time of year, something new has burst out every time you turn around. Weeding is mostly a pleasure because you are just removing this or those weeds to get that pink rose bush to show to its best advantage. Then there are the garden smells: scented azaleas, roses, wisteria. Lilacs in the rain smell the very best to me.

June 15
This is the best time to see and hear migrating birds moving through. You’ll be walking along and hear a lovely new song and wonder, ‘Who is that in the neighbourhood?’ My across-the-street neighbour, Dick Walenta, found on his porch, to his dismay, a Western Tanager that had hit the window. What a tropical beauty—this bird has black wings, orange head, bright yellow everywhere else! They fly up into our ‘northern’ forests to feast on bugs, raise a nest full of young, and then by July head back to Mexico and Central America. Another big-time traveller, hummingbirds, are whirring all about the Islands—males and females, raising young. On our farm, lining the creek, are some alder snags with big, wide, strong white boughs that reach above the rest of the trees. Here for several months already are the turkey vultures. Three turkey vultures were on one snag in direct line with the 9am sun, wings stretched way far in the slanted light, primary feathers fanned out beautifully, secondaries like a wall and their tails a graceful half circle. I can only think they are warming in the early light. Finally, I crossed paths with a full-time resident grouse—it has been so long since I have seen one that I had to look twice. A female was standing in Ellen and Michelle Bourassa’s driveway in Winter Cove. Her unhurried manner and evident curiosity might account for the species demise on the Island. Sharp-tailed snakes seem to be most evident at exactly this time of year according to Christian Engelstoft, a biologist working for Parks Canada. He and members of the Sharp-tailed snake recovery team have had several exciting finds of snake groups on South Pender and Salt Spring. Engelstoft sees no reason why the snakes should not be on Saturna and is determinedly checking their snake stations on parkland. Sharp-tailed snakes are endangered in Canada and red-listed in BC. A very informative identification guide has been published with the support of BC Ministry of the Environment and the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund. This great guide tells you with words and good photos the difference between garter snakes and sharp-tailed snakes and gives a wealth of general information about the two types. Along the same line as finding snakes, Judith Myers, Saturna resident and UBC zoologist and agro-ecologist in her other life, is asking if anybody has seen any tent caterpillars on Saturna Island right now. Judy has been studying our cyclical tent caterpillar population for a number of years and welcomes local input.

July 13
Three weeks of virtually cloudless skies have left Saturna bone dry. Island cars are dust-caked, you can tell who has a dirt driveway from the state of their car’s rear window.

July 27
You know it’s summer when you sit outside in the garden munching breakfast, reaching out here and there to tidy up some charming garden space and become aware that you are already too hot in the clothes you are wearing! This is such a busy time of year for all of the businesses on Saturna; everyone is working to meet the demand for food and lodging and other services that guests and visitors appreciate. This is the time that gives a real financial boost to all of the home-grown businesses so they can run year-round. It is quite a shocking experience for the locals to visit their favourite spots during peak hours and have to wait in line! We have had so much dry hot weather this summer; the soil is deeply dry and the vegetation is already crisp.

August 10
Stand back, everybody! After two months of eerily day-after-day sunny weather you can imagine the zucchini crop that is just about to go into major production. Any favour a gardening friend might be thinking of returning will be repaid in—you guessed it—zucchinis. Be prepared. Nix zucchinis as a payback option up front! Personally, I love zucchinis. They grow with abandon; you can throw them into any old recipe from cake to quiche. They can become Italian anything and they have slightly more calories than water. Zucchinis qualify as the original fast food. Zucchinis, tomatoes, blackberries and wasps are the August celebrities. Oh, those wasps! So far I haven’t been stung. When your fingers are tinged with sweet juice from eating the juiciest blackberries you are a prime contender for a sting. In my mind, I reviewed an essential August strategy: feeling a little tickle on my fingers? Do Not Close Fingers in Reflex and provoke wasp to sting! I find their drone when they get into the house irritating. I forget that the world was not built for my fellow human beings and me, that wasps preceded me and lead very full and eventful lives with and without me! For the last week or so we have seen and heard in the deep dusk two young barred owls who are learning the ropes from their parents. The parents hoot quietly with their normal deep call and glide like soft ghosts around the ‘kids’ who squall and shriek repeatedly while sitting on the power lines over the cemetery. The young, who are plump and dishevelled looking, don’t seem to be pleased at the new regime of ‘find your own mouse’ as opposed to sitting in a cozy nest and having mom and dad deliver your meal into your beak.

August 24
August is the month that everyone’s family comes to visit. Lots of people with grey hair are being followed by short-statured, sticky-handed, ice cream lickers who, upon introduction, gaze up at you and say ‘hello’ with either gusto or shyness. Island business-political meetings and quiet meals with friends almost cease and events and places are mobbed because they provide fun and entertainment, with lots of room for social meltdowns, spilled drinks, and flexible departures and arrivals. This week I met two people who live aboard their boat in the Seattle area and head north every summer until the ‘weather turns’. They love Saturna. Their boat tied up at the government dock, they walk around the Island. The walk to Mount Warburton Pike is a favourite that they look forward to every year—so far East Point has eluded them, it’s ‘too far’. They walk up to eat ice cream at the Saturday market, socialize on recycling days, eat at the various eateries, visit and shop at the bakery and both stores, use the Internet Cafe, and sail away on some day that suits them. Saturna is called t‚ixwelas or ‘facing out’ in the Sencoten language of our Tsawout and Tseycum neighbours. This name alludes to the fact that Saturna’s east-west grassy ridge (of which Mount Warburton Pike is the tallest point) can clearly be seen from Vancouver Island and mainland Canada.

September 7
The swallows have flown off somewhere. The dusk and dawn twilights aren’t filled with nighthawks and their calls anymore. Small brown bats still fly in the open bedroom windows, do a few laps and zoom out. In a few months, we year-rounders—the brown bats and I—will go into hibernation! The bats will miss the insect meals and I will miss the light and warmth! I have lived outside so much this year—like my childhood. I contrast the semi-arid desert of my childhood to the richness of our green landscape and its endless biodiversity. It is very easy to see that plants and animals accompanying my life voyage on this island are not faring well with the dryness. Areas around the farm that I never water and that have always seemed to ‘self water’ are drooping. The green carpet of the spring-fed parts of the Island are easy to see this year; contrasting vividly with the dried golds. The deer are launching commando attacks on the garden and orchard fences and the pileated woodpeckers and red shafted flickers are around every day probing the sugar and ripeness levels of the big King apples.

September 21
Here we are at the end of summer, at the autumnal equinox with its pumpkins, ripe pears and black-eyed susans. Once again equal, in hours of light and dark, to March 21, the vernal equinox with its daffodils, pansies, seed packets and over-wintering kale, parsley and sprouting lettuce stumps. The eagles have disappeared from our neck of the woods; all gone to dine along the Fraser River—salmon is on the menu. The eagles seem to come back to Saturna at the end of the year. Yesterday, Jon and I were splitting and stacking firewood and Jon split some sections of pine that termites were occupying. Within two minutes the forager patrols had arrived—a battalion of wasps and a ground crew of carpenter ants. I have read that termites are full of fat. Big or little, they were being enthusiastically airlifted or dragged off to fill the winter larder of the ants and wasps. They must occupy a place on the animal dietary list like French fries for us! Even though we are still under water restrictions, we must have slowed the draw-down on the reservoir—the days are so much shorter and cooler, the visiting people have gone back their homes, and we have had some rain. The rain was enough to get the banana slugs rolling again and a little carpet of soft green grass in many places. The famous Saturna Island grass-fed lambs were 5 pounds or so under their normal butchering weight this year. The hot temperatures during the long days of July and early August kept the flocks in the cool of the deepest shade under the cedar trees. Sheep have four stomachs and put off lots of heat while they are ruminating and digesting under all of that wool and they will not graze in the sun when it is hot.

October 5
A great mix of fall migrating birds, winter settlers and year- round residents is noticeable on Saturna. Juncos, robins, and varied thrushes are commonly seen. Nuthatches, pileated woodpeckers, red shafted flickers, and fox sparrows seem more evident because they are noisy birds—lots of low flying in and out of bushes, calling, and drumming on trees. All of this bird action is very entertaining! Scott Lambert and Mei Man Lee had a hummingbird go whizzing by them at their place in Winter Cove—she must be confused by climate change! This is such a bonus year for Gulf Islands’ gardens and orchard fruit. If you had water to irrigate, all of that sun has brought the biggest and best tomatoes ever grown and the fruit in the orchards is magnificent. The lower, slanting sunlight at this time of the year highlights colors and spaces differently. It also highlights forgotten parts of the house magnifying cobwebs, spider refuse piles, dust bunnies, and places that really do need a repair or touch-up. No wonder fall and spring cleaning is traditional.

October 19
Mushroom Time As the sun wanes in intensity and duration, more places stay in dew-drenched shadow all day, and rains sog the soil, the last big seasonal blossoming occurs—mushrooms! Suddenly a walk requires a basket and a little knife—it becomes a hunt with a culinary purpose! Kids (non-teenagers) are great for this kind of ‘shopping’— they range in widening circles at high speed. Dinner requires consultation with two books, a mushroom field guide and a cookbook.

November 2
While slicing bread in the bakery, I am looking out the window at a junco, it has that cold, puffy-feathered look, and I feel a bit of that now that our temperatures have dipped to 8ºC. After the last big rainstorm, the wet, windy roads are full of fir and cedar needles. The warm-brown leaflets and needles line the road verges and are wonderfully soft to walk on. Big splashes of bright yellow and brown big-leaf maples mark the roads wherever the trees grow. Because we don’t have much traffic on Narvaez Bay Road the leaves stay for a long time, until soggy and rotted or blown to the verges. Rain has brought lots of bright green growth. I’m surprised how many plants in the garden prefer the cool-wet to the sunny-dry and are now burgeoning with life. Basil belongs to this category but one night reached some critical temperature, turned black and shed its entire savory leaf supply.

November 16
This last two weeks, I’ve had to scuttle from one winter clothing ensemble to another. A drop of 10ºC a couple of Sundays ago led to a week featuring turtlenecks, sweaters and a coat for the cold, clear weather, and then a leap of 15ºC and it was into full-on west coast raingear for the torrential rain. In one day, our good-sized pond under the weeping willow filled up; the creek started to flow with vigour; and the waterfall began to shoot over the rock brim, crashing down among the ferns. Not quite like turning on a tap, but darned close! We had leaks and pools in places I had never imagined would fill and flow over and several gutters were overwhelmed. At ‘downtown’ Saturna, I saw lots of gumboots, not just the fashionable low rubber shoes but gum boots up to your calves and rain slickers—fashion took a backseat during these freaky fronts. Saturna is gorgeous with vivid greens of all hues, all kinds of moss flourishing, and the ferns plumped up with water. Big crumply, bright yellow maple leaves are lying all over the place—a great contrast to black rain-slicked roads.

November 30
BC Hydro has been making many trips over to Saturna Island lately. Seeing the Hydro truck brings a sigh of relief, ‘Hydro’s on the Island!’ We have had two power outages of some duration. East Point gets hit with the full force of south-east gales and its residents are sometimes in the cold and dark while the rest of us are just fine. Has it been raining! John Wiznuk says that the water reservoir has come up about a meter in the last two weeks, which is welcome news.

December 14
What a powerful experience the snowy weather created this last week! Abrupt removal of many modern conveniences —and for long enough—jumped my brain into different thoughts and experiences. The inland landscape was completely changed with up to 18 inches of snow covering every living and inanimate thing. The shorelines had much less snow and some were pounded by a strong northeast wind. The snow adhered as I have never seen before. A page-wire fence encloses our orchard and all of the fence wires carried two or three inches of gravity-defying snow.


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