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Salish Sea Almanac ~ 2011

A fortnightly excerpt about life on a rural island - Priscilla Ewbank's Saturna Notes column is our longest running feature and a must read for everyone who loves the Canadian Gulf Islands.


Orca whales at East Point

January 13
We have now shifted into the La Niña part of our Pacific cycle. Howver she was being confronted with fridgid arctic outflow air and Saturna had snow throughout December, less at the edges and five inches at the back of Mount Warburton Pike in the center of the Island.

The day it started, Jon and I were on the way to town and had stopped-over at the Pender Island Recycling Center to transport a load of recycling. As Jon and Richard were loading the truck, Kleenex-sized snowflakes started to fall. A bit later waiting for the ferry at at Otter Bay, we could see sunlight towards Salt Spring; towards Victoria was sunny, and clear; the Outer Gulf Islands were enveloped in black cloud.

The storm was so local that only Saturna and San Juan Island got snow to stay. Islanders who went off the Island for a few days had no idea that they would be returning to snow-filled driveways and slippery roads! The last hour of snowfall apparently was almost of crystals. The snow was infinitely gorgeous in its virgin state.

It was so cold and clear with no wind—perfect for walking about with mitts, hats, scarves, warm coats and gumboots! The snow stayed fluffy and crunchy and dazzling, providing brilliant starry night skies. Moonlight—the last quarter—filled the house with reflected light from dark till dawn. Snow is such harassment for us humans working the daily duties—only good for playing and delighting in!


January 27
Last Sunday, a Gulf Island ‘chinook’ must have rolled through. It was 12ºC! At Recycling, people seemed smiley and sort of relaxed—almost languid! The crowd sitting on the sofa and chairs on the porch of the store, watching the world go by, were gay as they chatted and kibitzed with customers coming up the stairs.

That combo of sun, warmth, and softness sent any human with a shred of gardening instinct wandering to check the progress of the snowdrops, and to forage among the daffodil sprouts, removing grass bits so that they come up all alike with no irritating weeds to chide the gardener’s view. The state of the surviving parsley clumps is considered; their tattered parts tidied. Is it too early to throw those sprouting potatoes into the ground?

Oops! The weather changed back to 3ºC! The gardening instinct has evaporated. Now, duty and responsibility replace urge and instinct if any gardening goes forward. That mud is now right cold, the parsley looks as cold as my hands feel, and the spring bulbs, while full of promise, seem to have gone back to slow growth—waiting for next time the air is soft, the mud warmed ever so slightly, and we fair-weather gardeners are wandering our paths, smiling.


February 10
I found a snake skin in the driveway this morning. The dogs are shedding like spring run-off. In the occasional shafts of sunlight, soft clouds of downy underfur and long outer hairs swirl and twirl, momentarily airborne and drift lazily to the floor. This shedding seems to promise spring!

Stinging nettle is almost ready to be picked, violets are perking up even with intervals of freezing weather. Lorraine and Jim Campbell have a huge show of snowdrops both the small variety and the big hybrid ones. For growth and shift of the seasons, south-facing has all the news. South-facing and your bulbs are pushing up, the weeds are coming on strong and some bits of garden dirt are workable. Sunrise? Sunset? Not until March say the Islanders who live on the north slopes facing Vancouver and the Strait of Georgia!

The big rain that came on a Sunday in late January has done damage to some of the Parks Canada trails. Trails make perfect water channels but conversely a drying river-bed isn’t a great hiking trail. Both the waterfall trail and Narvaez Bay have some washouts and trees down. Parks cuts back on maintenance in the dead of winter—this spring they will have a lot to do to repair the trails damaged by the freakish amount of water that rocketed down the slopes from any spring or overflow that ever existed on the Island. The eagles are starting to housekeep down at Winter Cove. There are several active nests by Boat Passage, the stone’s throw channel between Saturna and Samuel Island, where the tides runs like a river into and out of Georgia Strait. The eagles build nests in big Douglas firs: strong enough to hold huge nests, tall enough for keeping an eye on the dinner opportunities around them.


February 24
Stinging nettles, miner’s lettuce and dandelions are coming back into view. Mosses are soaked, and wild with growth. The fields are soggy and squelch when you walk over them. Mud is concocted anywhere you step twice and puddles are regularly rejuvenated.

Lambs are being born right now on Saturna. Sheep lamb at any time of day, or night—in any weather, alone or in bunches—so sleeping can become critical for sheep owners. Last year was splendid weather for lambing, dry and relatively warm. This year it’s wet around the lambing pens but at least it’s warm. Rick Jones is busy with 6 lambs from his flock of 20 ewes. Campbells have 43 lambs so far and about two-thirds of the flock still to lamb. Jacques Campbell has had the assistance of one woofer, one excellent sheep dog, one back-up dog, and various family members to do all the feeding, watering, and watching.

Birth is a dicey time for lambs and ewes. Ravens are skilled at attacking new-born lambs, as are eagles. The ewes are often confused. Some seem to have no instinct or connection to their young at all and wander away, while others do not accept the the second or occasional third lamb. For the farmer, it is better if the ewe does all the mothering—orphan lambs or rejected lambs are lots of work. Fed on cow’s milk, they never thrive as well.


March 10
Spring is coming but oh, it seems slow this year. This winter has been an eye-opener for me in terms of how small a shift in temperature it takes for agricultural possibilities to be delayed. The garden, which is usually feeding us well by this time, is stark. Nothing had hardened off when last November’s blast of cold arrived and the potential winter greens melted in the cold.


March 24 
Yes, we are going to have spring after all and grumpy gardeners are now smiling! The telltale spring opera has arrived—frog choruses at night, bird solos in the morning. Bats are flitting. Daffodils, and crocuses are blooming; before the snowdrops are gone. There is plum blossom everywhere.


April 7 
With the flowering currant blooming, the Garry oak budding, and the full-on daffodils, I feel I can hold my ground amid the swirl and twirl of federal election rhetoric, and turbulent world affairs. There seems no season to earthquakes, tsunamis and revolution.


April 21
Colour, sound, movement—spring is so energizing—the livelier the landscape the more I love it! Spring migrants are zooming into their summer homes. Turkey vultures have joined the eagles and ravens at the Dead Animal Café. Violet-green swallows and rufous hummingbirds have arrived to feast on bugs and spiders and flowering currant bushes. Some of our year-round creatures make themselves apparent in spring when they are attracting mates and raising young. Inconspicuous for the rest of the year, it almost seems as if they have also arrived from somewhere else. This week, a pileated woodpecker has claimed a particularly resonant tree and has been co-opting the airwaves with a staccato drumroll created by banging his beak into the trunk, and by loud territorial calls. The blue grouse, hugely diminished in population, can be found at just a few predictable spots on the Island standing beside the roads looking like bewildered chickens.


May 19
Last week garter snakes were suddenly all over the farm, mostly close to rock walls and outcroppings. I am used to their slim heads and their defense mechanism of a fast slide to somewhere else when our paths cross. Moving some mulching straw in the garden, I was surprised to see a coiled, grey-coloured snake. While I was flipping through my internal rolodex of snakes and snake behavior, this snake puffed up its coils, reared its head up, opened its triangular pink mouth and hissed! My primal self was engaged—informed by a childhood of growing up in rattlesnake country—and I leapt backwards. Curious, with fast­–beating heart, I nabbed the snake for closer, safe scrutiny, popping it into a plastic flower pot.


June 30
Hooray it is officially summer! Yikes, the days are now getting shorter!

I recently returned from two weeks travel to the southern United States and Long Island, New York. My niece and sister have both just weathered two tornados in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga is a stranger to tornados; many of the enormous and magnificent trees that provide protective shade from the sweltering 100ºF summer came down on lawns, cars and houses.

Gardeners are a resilient lot however, and quick to spot silver linings. While the cooling gardens of hostas, ferns and begonias were now wilting in the sun, the garden centers are working full out to provide plants whose tags read ‘plant in full sun’. These are the very plants that Gulf Island gardeners coddle in order to get comparatively meagre crops: tomatoes, peppers, corn and cucumbers, not to mention the sweet potatoes, watermelons, okra and green beans, all of which grow so well down south.

In what, for me, was torrid heat and humidity, these plants grew in three weeks as much as mine at home have done in three months under cover and with all my expertise. Experiencing the conditions that cause these veggies to flourish was very informative for me and, for a softie, hard to endure without hibernating inside between 11am-7pm. I’ve decided to like kale and leeks and lettuce and parsley!

One cannot be in two places though, so I missed some events on Saturna, including the grand opening of the new Saturna Island Emergency Services Buildings on June 18. The new facility, built quickly and efficiently by the community, now houses the Saturna Island Volunteer Fire Department, Saturna Island Rescue, Parks Canada Fire Services and the Southern Gulf Islands Emergency Preparedness Services. Tours were conducted at both sites before the opening ceremonies, at which Fire Protection Society directors and representatives from other Island groups spoke, honouring the completion of the buildings. The final cost of the new buildings was roughly $1.2 million and construction was completed in ten months, an impressive feat on our small Island!


July 14
I am always touched by the goodwill, collaboration, hard work and enjoyment that the Saturna Lamb Barbeque sets in motion, although each year it is tangibly different.

Just as the lambs are born and die, we learn to participate, give our best, then choose to participate less, and die. We have a motto at the Saturna Lamb Barbeque: ‘Yes, you can retire from your post as soon as you have an excellent, trained, approved replacement!’

This Lamb BBQ, in particular, had a host of ‘youngers’ proving their worth and helping to carry the load. As you get older, and past your own feisty youth and middle-age, you look at these community members—some who grew up here, some whose parents have summer cabins, some who just arrived off the Mayne Queen and want to be a part—and you are delighted.


July 28
I have zucchini plants that are starting to mold on the bottom leaves, as they do in the fall. Bless their little hearts; they haven’t even ripened a squash yet!

Haying is a challenge. Get it cut and you have to be sure you have enough to time to get it dried, baled and off the field into barns before the next rain drops fall.

I see lots of gawky, awkward hatchlings learning to be fledglings. With feathers and fluff flying, they are landing on the ground with a thump or being squashed on the road. Birds have much behaviour that is innate but lots has to be learned with scant room for mistakes as they master walking and flying. Besides, where does dinner come from once your parents are no longer dropping it in your gaping maw?

The babies are surprising and charming in their fearlessness of humans. The parents will be going ballistic and the babies will be on your foot or talking to you from a close branch.

The deer are all over the roads and yards, bucks pointing their noses, antlers covered in velvet, fawns dithering about which way to go. It is butterfly time with swallow tails and Lorquin’s admirals flitting, while the bees work the flowers and bushes.


August 11
Summertime brings us friends and family. Sometimes our visitors are experts willing to share their knowledge for our enrichment.

Dr Alexander Pruss, on Saturna visiting his parents, brought a homemade traveling telescope and the passionate knowledge of an ‘amateur astronomer’, as he described himself. A Star Watch was organized at Mount Warburton Pike on a late July Saturday. This occasion offered ‘stars both young and old, a view of the Andromeda galaxy and two more distant ones; bring your binoculars or telescopes.’ Warburton Pike is the highest point in the Outer Gulf Islands and has a huge view to the south.

Warburton Pike is a marvelous place in the day, as ravens, vultures and eagles ride the thermals with nary a wing tilt—riding level with your head. Those thermals and that bird behavior are a function of the light and heat of our daytime star, the Sun. When you look out, Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula are outlines fading into the horizon, the Islands are clothed in evergreens that skirt right down to the rocky shoreline, though some clear-cuts and houses stand out.

Nighttime was just as beautiful. In the interval between sunset at 10pm (gasp!) and moonrise at 11:30pm we took turns looking at far away stars and listening to Dr Pruss’ fascinating comments on what we were seeing and stargazing in general.

With his wonderful telescope we saw gently jiggling images of black and white spots of ‘star nurseries’— stars being born, still held together by gravity, in the Lagoon Nebula. Then in the Hercules Constellation a ball of ‘elderly’ stars orbiting our Milky Way galaxy. Our ‘middle-aged’ star, the Sun, and its solar system is two-thirds of the way out in the Milky Way. Fun to hear, that in describing the cosmos, way out in the unknown as far as can be imagined, astronomers are using familiar words like ‘nursery’, ‘middle-aged’ and ‘elderly’!

We learned that the middle of our eyes has the most intense concentration of focus and is set up for colour vision and that only huge telescopes have the capacity to translate the colour of the stars and nebulas. So we were advised that, to make the most of the black and white images we were seeing through the telescope, we should look sort of sideways using peripheral vision. Our next stop was a tiny blur in the sky which you can easily pick up with binoculars; the Andromeda galaxy is just past two bright stars in the Lyra constellation. All the time we were watching, satellites were moving at great speed passing under the stars.

Dr Pruss had a wonderful night-piercing ‘flashlight’ which he flashed up to outline the constellations. Interestingly, in the Big Dipper the third ‘star’ from the end of the handle is actually two sets of two stars orbiting around each other!

It’s hard to know, beyond the Big and Little Dippers, why constellation names were chosen. Perhaps picking one’s way home in the dark or navigating the oceans made the patterns more meaningful to ancient peoples. What a great night!


August 25
Summer—we finally got it! The blackberries are in marvelous fat abundance. I see loads of kids and adults out with buckets and other berry-picking paraphernalia, ambling down the roads; kids get the low berries, adults get the high ones and both get purple, pricked fingers! I can smell blackberry pie by memory!

The Saturday Market is full of vendors and tourists. And kids! We have kids all over. Our local kids and regular visiting grandchildren are scrambling along the seashore and woods, having fun and learning with Gulf Islands Centre for Ecological Learning (GICEL) staff.

The community is bustling with visitors and it is fun to see and reassuring after such a cold, cool spring when everyone seemed to want to stay home and not visit our lovely B&B’s and other Island amenities.

On Haggis Farm, our Saturna Ecological Education Centre (SEEC) has undergone a massive building program in order to be ready for the September arrival of the highschoolers. These young adults will attend for a semester, living at the site, and attending the Saturna School.


September 8
I want to express my total satisfaction with this August month of endless blue skies, sunshine and sandals! I am loving every minute of brilliant light and star-filled nights. Swimming is occurring at all the beaches! Children and adults are immersing themselves readily and regularly in the Salish Sea. It has been that wonderful a summer that we have bathing suits drying on the line.

All through this month of sunshine we have had friends and family in various combinations. It is divine for everyone to be able use the indoors of our home and extend easily outside for eating, playing and working—any child lounging around too much and getting whiney is tossed out to chase a sheep, play badminton or find bugs and kindling.

This is the first summer, having sold Haggis Farm Bakery, we have been able to go to the beach or on a long walk—whatever the group decides we can be a part of. We have had lots of help from grandchildren doing chores around the house and ‘big’ help from adult children—work and play mix well. Dinners have been for ten, amidst great hilarity and storytelling. The kitchen floor needs washing every day and the dishes are a mountainous stack tackled by many hands! It has been fun!

Now everyone is heading to home or other destinations. What a marvelous month packed with guests and family. By Thursday all will be gone and home life will softly settle in— people, quiet conversations and shared laughter. Dinners will be simple and I will jump back into community affairs.


September 22
With fall now on the calendar, there is the roofing project, the last loads of winter wood, the boat project, the doors that need sanding and refinishing…whoops, that’s me!

The Saturna Market What an old human story markets are—clusters of people gathering to buy and sell and visit. With grandchildren visiting for much of the summer, the Saturna Saturday Market is a ‘must visit’ every Saturday from 11am to 1pm, amid shoppers, recyclers and café customers. Held outside by the parking lot at the General Store in a niftily designed open-air wooden building with fine counters for display, the market runs from July 1 to Labour Day. (Later, our replica Spanish longboat is stored cozily inside for when the snow flies and the rain sweeps down and all the market visitors have gone home, to school, to work and their other lives.)

On Saturna, women mostly, are selling the fruits of their labour. What a surprise it is to see our health nurse selling quaint garden adornments and always-on-the-go Jane Dixon Warren with her wild-tiled elaborate birdhouses!

Marketing allows women a whole different experience for displaying their many talents and passions. Many vendors have several kinds of items for sale and are selling things for friends. Island organizations are beginning to see that while they may not have anything to sell for money, the market is a great way to tell people about fire precautions, those easy-to-read house numbers, or up-coming events. Or, for the nine Saturdays the market runs, you can be a bookseller, baker, storyteller, or musician.

Our market has many kid vendors, as head administrator and cheerleader for the event, Jody Bavis, thinks that this is a wonderful place to have the kids alongside, making, selling and in the thick of the social scene. Alison Gaines loves to bake and is an old pro, a seasoned marketer—her cookies at 50¢ each are a generous, tasty treat. Alison said she used to be a lot more shy, but talking to people about her photocards and baking helped that disappear.

Lemonade is a long time tradition at the Market and Arielle Middleditch is currently the Lemon Aid Maid. Two young kids from California going under the name Fee Fee and Foo Foo sold their handmade earrings and buttons this year and last year their cousin and friends sold silvery driftwood ladders. I interviewed many of the vendors, ‘What do you like about the market? Why do you make the effort?’ Every answer was a variation on the theme of social interaction.

‘I love the camaraderie, getting to know new people, we are our own best customers.’ ‘Beautiful things and good food.’ From the bookseller: ‘Talking and even watching book lovers. People ask me if I sort the books I sell—no! I want you to look through every single book!’ ‘Very easy going, great fun atmosphere.’ ‘We vendors get lots of time to talk with each other—it’s a world!’ ‘You see everybody, this place is a Mecca for information—you get lots of other business done!’ ‘I love being outside and being the first person visitors see and get a chance to talk to.’ ‘I appreciate hearing what people think of what I have created as they browse and talk to one another.’ ‘I‘m next to Athena (Gulf Islands National Park Reserve Interpreter) and I get to hear all the natural history spiels.’

Athena George says that, because her display is formally set up and she asks people questions, they ask her every kind of question imaginable. She loves the kids who cluster around her displays and get drawn into the games and quizzes.

‘Do you make money?’ I asked many of the vendors. ‘Mostly ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’ but always I have fun and that is why I come!’


October 6
That was one heck of a rainstorm! Sometimes the arrival time of a weather system shifts on Environment Canada’s seven-day forecast, but for this storm it stayed steady.

Warburton Pike, the highest peak in the Outer Gulf Islands was an experience: howling wind, thrashing trees, sideways rain and clouded in. Zero visibility. I was thinking, ‘Whoa, ten more months of this? Yikes!’

Watering the garden is no longer an issue and everyone has experienced the definitive roof leakage test. Raincoats and gumboots suddenly seem like just the item to have.

The wind bounced any ripe apples and pears into the grass and they are now boxed and in the cooler with ‘Eat First’ scrawled on the box. The sky is now so blue, dust is washed off the remaining blackberries, damped down on dirt roads, and rinsed off back windshields of Island cars.

And what about all that night time—there you are reflected in the windows during dinner, stark dark by 8pm and flashlights when you go out to dinner or to lock in the chickens! I forget about night during our long summer days with the lingering twilights and slow, soft dawns. Suddenly, we are at the equinox losing three minutes of daylight every day out of our 7am to about 7pm allotment—summer has such great virtues!


October 20
Thanks to long sunny days, the garden is brilliant with pink, yellow and gold—Japanese maples, dahlias, nasturtiums and much more.

When you get this weather, the Thanksgiving holiday is blue skies and badminton tournaments instead of being confined in the house thinking up entertainments for cranky, unexercised kids while wet dogs crowd at the door amidst gumboots, soaked runners and dripping raincoats.

We had a crowd over with babies and youngsters and ate breakfast with the kitchen door open to the garden. We went on long walks up along Brown Ridge, and had badminton tournaments to determine who were the dishwashers.

Two traditional Thanksgiving tasks are harvesting and setting the garden up for winter. The little kids helped pick up and box the Gravenstein and King apples and the Comice pears, while the more spry were up the ladders and climbing the trees.

The dogs joyously patrolled the banana boxes to fend off the kamikaze raids mounted by the sheep who had faint hopes of jamming their heads into a box of just-picked apples! A couple of bright red King apples were left at the top of the two King trees for the pileated woodpeckers who swoop up to them and peck big holes. The woodpeckers eat the apple meat—and the wasps that are attracted to the apple juice and flesh.

Later we spread bright-yellow, sweet-smelling straw all over the freshly weeded bare places in the garden anticipating suppressing the spring riot of weeds that leap to life. Oh, let Spring come quick!


December 1
On my first day home from my trip through the States, I went on a long walk on IR#7 which belongs to Tsawout and Tseycum First Nations. (They have always been generous in allowing people to walk—with respect—on their land.) On my walk, I hadn’t given any thought that this is fall, the deer are fat and this is the traditional time for hunting. I should know better.

So, here is a timely reminder to pass along to us that share parkland and First Nation Reserves on the Gulf Islands. Hunting on private lands is an agreement between the owner and the hunter. Hunting is prohibited in national parks unless specifically permitted through a treaty or land claim agreement with specific aboriginal groups. The Canada National Parks Act ensures the continuation of Aboriginal people’s traditional renewable resource harvesting in national park reserves.

First Nations that claim a historical relationship to lands within Gulf Islands National Park Reserve may harvest within the park for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. Parks Canada is working with interested Coast Salish First Nations to develop agreements around hunting. The safety of visitors and residents is of paramount importance to Parks staff and discussions are taking place to develop cooperative principles and guidelines to ensure hunting takes place safely.

This means that IR#7 and all Gulf Island National Park Reserve lands are available to local First Nations for hunting at any time. Fall is a traditional hunting time for food on the table and longhouse ceremonies. First Nations can hunt from the road, use rifles and pit lamp.

Through Gulf Islands National Park and the generosity of our local First Nations, we have a gift of wild land to walk through but at this time of the year, we should be cautious and dress vividly.


December 15
Oh, the wonderful fuzzy dark of winter! If you’re not moving at the first sign of day, or better yet, ready to roll by barely light, the day slides away into night before half of your chosen tasks are crossed off! Mid-December, we haven’t had a crushing freeze yet. One rose is still in business and the hollyhocks promise they would still be flowering if there was any amount of sun and the slightest bit of heat.

In the greenhouse, the tomatoes are still ripening, the last peppers are coming in, winter greens in the garden and green house are giving us opulent salads. The plump sheep are wandering around, not too keen on hay—which means they are finding plenty to forage. There are still some flowers growing glacially slowly—the mighty orange calendula keeping the faith for spring!

This is a busy time for Islanders; lots of get-togethers whether you are in longhouses or your neighbour’s living room or community halls. Cooking in winter is alluring. You warm yourself up concocting something elaborate and nourishing, after poring over those cookbooks. There is time to set the table and the dark, damp nights make being inside enticing with candlelight reflected in the windows…warmth and conviviality.

The second week of December started with the arrival of the Santa Ship on Saturday and hot chocolate and Christmas goodies for Santa and the kids up the hill at the hall; next came the Volunteer Fire Department Christmas Dinner on Sunday; next day the Saturna Lions Christmas Dinner; then the Saturna Community Club Candlelight Dinner; and on Wednesday the School-kids Christmas Concert, no turkey but a spread of every Christmas confection going. Do your own cooking on Thursday and Friday—salad? On Saturday, December 17, the Rec Centre will hold a Christmas tree lighting, have carol singing, and without a doubt, festive food! And still a week to Christmas!





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