The Ideal Craft


by Lyn Hancock
© 2005
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Although I have lived and traveled on water all my life, it was not till middle age that I bought a kayak ­ long before I ever sat in one! I must confess that I was motivated more by trying to impress the kayak seller than by the kayak itself (and apparently, in the end, he was more interested in selling the kayak than in the woman buying it). I soon parted from this particular Prince Charming, stowed the unused boat at the side of my house, and retreated to my longtime companion, the computer.

Still, I had taken my first step into the kayaking world and perhaps my first real journey of self discovery. Since then kayaking has steered me to consider the current course of my life, whether my personal contentment lies in marriage or spinsterhood, in far away places or my own backyard, in work or play. Perhaps it also floats the answers.

Back in the early 1960s, I wrote a book I called I Married the Ideal Man. Fortunately, the publisher at the last minute changed the title to There's a Seal in my Sleeping Bag. I say fortunately because the marriage ended in divorce despite the blurb on the jacket that proclaimed "this book proves that marriage can be a bed of roses when all too often it is on a bed of rocks."
I fell in love with more than the man, David, a biologist flying a float plane around counting the eagle nests of Barclay Sound. I fell in love with the islands and fiords, the mountains and forests, the birds and animals of the B.C. coast. What could be more romantic, more adventurous, than getting engaged on our first date on the eve of my departure back to Australia, followed by marriage a month later on the other side of the world?

My subsequent decade as a wife, wildlife research assistant and mother to a menagerie of eagles, falcons, seals, seabirds, cougars, bears, raccoons, and even an ape while exploring the BC coast by float plane and rubber raft was certainly more exciting than my alternative plan to teach speech at an Australian university, followed by spinsterhood spent in an attic with a parrot. I'd always loved exploring new places, learning new things, and now as Cinderella to my first Prince Charming, I developed a passion to conserve the world and its wildlife.

Alas, to my husband, marriage was more business than romance. We parted during an expedition to be first across the Northwest Passage in a small craft. "You could have a baby in the rubber boat," urged my ideal man. "It would draw attention to the stories you write and the films we make about the trip."

In many ways, I spent the next three decades trying to re-live the adventure of that marriage with new companions: a bush pilot flying the Yukon and other remote areas in the Far North; a conservation officer in British Columbia who promised to help me continue my cougar study; a sexy, first husband look-alike in Nunavut who promised to carry on my arctic explorations with me.
Divorced a second time, I returned to Vancouver Island in the mid-nineties and moved into a waterfront cottage on Nanoose Bay. I was a single woman known for her independent offbeat adventures around the world, yet underneath I was still Cinderella seeking to re-live her early dreams through domesticity with an ideal man.

My backyard in Nanoose Bay offered everything that had attracted me to the B.C. coast. Clams and oysters grew in abundance on my beach. Bobbing harbour seals, bellowing sea lions, flocks of wintering seabirds, even whales swam close on the water. A kingfisher, a great blue heron, several bald eagles and a clamour of crows visited daily, once an otter dropped a flounder at my door and twice a bear strolled along my driveway. The sun rose behind the snow-capped mountains of the Lower Mainland and it set behind Mount Arrowsmith's craggy crown on Vancouver Island. It seems incredible now, but my single kayak stayed on the side of my house untouched, and two years would pass before I ventured forth from the computer to connect with my beloved coast again.

Fate sent me a modern day angel who would help heal the wounds of my past, project me into the present and set the foundation for the future. Frank, a lay preacher, outdoor educator, canoe instructor, and volunteer coastguard, showed me there could be variations on the theme of my ideal man -- a devoted friend and companion. A lover of the water, he bought me a double kayak and two sets of everything needed for kayaking.

Although an island-studded paradise lay within sight of my house, Frank was to die before I relinquished my computer to make room in our lives to discover them. Before he passed away, Frank promised to send me Someone to take his place. Meanwhile, I continued to travel to the ends of the world ­ Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Australia ­ while two kayaks sat unused in Nanoose Bay.

Until Barry came into my life. A Scot with a passion for the sea, he had been kayaking in British Columbia long before the pastime became popular. For years, he had paddled the waters of Vancouver Island especially Nanoose Bay and the Winchelsea Ballenas Archipelago. He had fished and wandered the beaches collecting seafood and cooking it on lonely campfires, dreaming of sharing this world with a special Someone.

Many a time he had paddled past my house while I watched from the window over my desk, but it was not until I met him at a singles club meeting in Nanaimo that I joined him on the water. We were soul mates from the start. We began talking kayaks at 7.30 p.m. that night and it was 1.30 a.m. before we noticed that the room had emptied and everyone else had gone home. We continued talking in the hot tub at my house for the next several hours and made plans for my first kayaking foray into Nanoose Bay the next day. Barry would bring the food ­ barbecued chicken, turkey sausage, healthy salads and of course, a bottle of wine ­ while I supplied the boat, my double touring Necky, the yet unused gift from Frank.

Considering that first date, it's a wonder Barry's still my kayaking partner six years later. I soon learned he was no male macho type. He insisted that I captain my own kayak even though I had never paddled it before. One of the politest, least-controlling people in the world, he remained silent, even when I was so distracted by the images I wished to capture with my camera that I forgot to lower the rudder and steer the boat. We did the Winchelseas that day in a series of circles.
Fortunately, it was a serene sunny spring afternoon. As we launched from the end of the lawn, two bald eagles trilled and chittered from the top of the ivy-clad fir tree that leaned over the beach. We paddled across the bay through scattering gangs of scaups and scoters, goldeneyes and mergansers. Pairs of diminutive marbled murrelets dived from sight as we approached. Years before as the wife of a wildlife biologist and zoo collector, my job was to scoop up swimming eagles and diving seabirds from a speeding rubber boat with a net or my hands. Now my hands held a paddle.

It felt good to just be out on the water, for no particular reason but the beauty of it. A pair of flamboyantly feathered harlequin ducks sat primly on a floating log. I smiled to think that I have bellied for hours across the arctic tundra to take pictures on their breeding grounds, but here in my own backyard I could just float by.

Shiny heads of harbour seals slipped silently into the dark water and disappeared. A bull California sea lion stretched along a Navy buoy as if asleep. I was reminded of Sam, the Alaskan fur seal, and Reginald, the Steller sea lion, who lived as my family in Vancouver and Victoria backyards and became characters in my books.

As we paddled, Barry kept up a running commentary on our route. We passed Wallis Point at the mouth of the bay. "At high tide you can paddle through the Hole in the Wall, it's probably the most picturesque spot in the Winchelseas, and clams there are the best you can get, you never have to clean them."

We rounded Southey Island, "This is one of my favourite camping spots and fishing is excellent just offshore."
As we headed over to the Ada Islands, "There's an eagle nest on one of the Adas you'll be interested in."
Barry pointed to Maud Island, "It has a good swimming cove, but once a transient orca chased a paddler out of the water and onto the beach."

We saw no whales, but a bevy of immature bald eagles clothed the still bare branches of stunted trees along the north shore of one of the Ada Islands, which lived up to their alternate name, Bird Islands. I was ecstatic.

I was even more ecstatic later when we wound through the central Winchelsea Islands and I caught sight of hundreds of massive bull sea lions plastering the rocks in one wheezing, bellowing, pulsating heap. I had no need to go all the way to the Bering Sea where Sam was born to see such multitudes. Here they were in my own backyard. And to think that I had ignored these rocky little islands, considering them insignificant compared to their grander better known neighbours.

Galvanized, I finally realized I had a rudder and steered full power towards them. Barry was galvanized too but not with the same reaction. "Don't go near sea lions," he said with uncharacteristic command. "They're dangerous."

We slipped into a narrow gash in one of the western Winchelsea Islands and had our picnic dinner on a log, thankfully hidden by a hill from the adjacent Navy base. I was euphoric. I had spent three decades poking motorized boats into the intricate waterways of Canada's Pacific and Arctic coastlines, frenetically chasing stories and pictures of the wild and its wildlife in remote locations, but here in this tiny oyster-studded cove so close to home, I felt content to just relax in the company of a friend. It was déjà vu but with a difference.

Not even a helicopter hovering directly overhead disturbed the peace of that idyllic evening. "It's almost dark," warned Barry. "We'd better start paddling back." It was completely dark an hour later when we slid into the beach below my house to be greeted with hot chocolate by my boarder. Kevin had illuminated our way with every light in the house. Worried, he had also alerted the Coastguard and Navy to our after-dark paddle. So that explained the helicopter intruding over dinner. The pilot could probably have told Kevin what we were eating.

Barry and I have been kayaking to many of the places David introduced me to in the 1960s by float plane and rubber raft. Now these old haunts are world famous kayaking destinations, especially Barkley Sound where my life in B.C. began. We've camped on Dodd Island where I once dug clams and collected salal and picked fruits and vegetables with legendary Salal Joe. We've drifted into Joe's Bay on Turtle Island where David and I kept our float plane tied to Joe's floating home. We've explored the place where once I sat for nine hours in an eagle's nest, watching seven orcas kill and feed on a minke whale. We've sought the cabin where I spent my eagle watching days, and floated through the protected lagoon between Jaques and Jarvis. We've discovered the miniature islets and secluded shell beaches of the Tiny Group, explored the trails and sea stacks of Clarke and Benson, and paddled past the sea lions of Wouwer and Batley.

Decades ago, David and I had sped through waterways in dinghies and rubber rafts, always hurrying to more distant destinations. Now I was learning to savour them more peacefully by kayak. And Barry has shown me new marvels ­ a photogenic tombola on Vargas Island, Aussie-type sand dollar beaches of Sandy Island and sand dunes of the Whaler Islets, the popular island chain of Mudge, Link, DeCourcy, Ruxton and Pylades.

Perhaps the most satisfying and surprising discovery of all was to find that my own backyard is far from boring. Barry has shown me more wildlife in the creeks that trickle into Nanoose Bay and the sixteen islands of the Ballenas Winchelsea archipelago than in world-renowned Barkley Sound.

It takes only twenty minutes to paddle from my house to an impromptu supper on Wallis Point. We call it Clam Dammit Island for its easily collected little neck clams and our verbal reaction if an incoming tide cuts off our kayaks. One memorable Christmas, we donned our wet suits instead of party clothes, paddled to Wallis Point, spread our Christmas dinner, candles and decorations on a driftwood log, and hung our presents on an overhanging tree. It could have been a disaster when we discovered we had left behind the corkscrew but fortunately Barry scrounged a piece of wood with an embedded nail and used it to open our bottle of wine.

In half an hour we can reach Southey Island, which is ideal for swimming, fishing, walking and an overnight camp. To top it off, Nanoose Bay has a fascinating history. Often we rest on our paddles in the middle of this comparatively undiscovered waterway and imagine the day slave-hunting Indians from the mainland swooped into Berry Point (Wallis Point) to attack the Snone-os (Nanoose) Indians while they were picking berries. All the males were massacred and the women and children abducted. Or, we contemplate more peaceful days when the Indians built fires in their dugout canoes at night to attract the multitudes of fish that they would then spear.

We often lunch on the rocks in Mellstrom's Cove where Spanish and British sea captains repaired their sailing ships. We gaze up at Notch Hill and think of the peaceful life of Nanoose's first settler, John Enos who raised sheep and cattle on these slopes, and the far more tumultuous life of the Giant Powder Company who later would build there a gunpowder production plant and a townsite, wharf and railway to support it.

It is hard to imagine hundreds of people living in this now almost deserted bay. In the early 1900s there was another busy townsite, wharf and railway on the southern side of Nanoose Bay which supported several lumber mills on shore and a coal mine in the hills behind. Barry and I paddle between the remains of wooden pilings to watch the purple martin nests put there by concerned naturalists.

Easier to invoke are the oyster companies of the early 1900s because there are still active oyster leases at the head of Nanoose Bay. When winds prevent us leaving the bay, Barry and I paddle between the floating blue barrels that support the hanging nets of oysters on our way to the wildlife sanctuary between Bonnell and Nanoose Creeks. In fall, salmon work their way up the bay to spawn in these creeks and eagles wait in turn to feed on their carcasses.

I remember well the day I suggested we kayak to the wildlife sanctuary. It was one of those serenely beautiful winter days when the sea was glass, the snow-capped peaks of the Coast Mountains in front and the Vancouver Island Mountains behind were etched clearly against a perfect blue sky and then again in the motionless mirror below. Within minutes we were skimming into the middle of the bay in Barry's double kayak ­ over clouds of creamy jellyfish, through rafts of wintering seabirds, past pop-up seals and around the blue-barrelled oyster farms.

It was so calm we could test our new gear - new cameras, new deck bags, new bags, new rainwear. It seemed so warm and sunny, we decided to leave our wet suits behind.

There were so many photos to take and the day so idyllic that I scarcely had time to zip closed my waterproof camera bag for one picture before zipping it open for another. "Let's go up Bonnell Creek," I turned enthusiastically to my partner behind, "we may find some spawned-out salmon."

"It's not wide enough, there's a current and no room to turn around," Barry protested.

"Then, let's back out," I retorted with the faith - and ignorance - of a true neophyte. I chose to forget that kayaks and creeks don't necessarily go straight and parallel.

Not wanting to be seen as a wimp, he told me afterwards, Barry set aside caution and steered into the skinny, twisting creek. Almost immediately, the fast outpouring current swept us backwards towards the bay and then slammed us sideways into the bank. I raised my paddle to ward off a tangle of sweepers. Then, without thinking of the consequences, I grabbed hold of the branches that wrapped themselves around me.

Meanwhile, Barry watched speechless as the inevitable happened: a true gentleman, he is not used to barking orders such as "Duck down" or "Let go of the sweepers" or "Let the kayak reverse naturally," especially to a woman. Caught amid a medley of limbs that acted as a pivot point, the kayak rolled sideways into a full turn, and we both found ourselves upside down in the creek, underwater. I hadn't yet learned a wet exit, but I managed to perform one in the surging current which whipped off one of my rubber boots and sent anything not tied down or inside a deck bag ­ this was everything but a pump ­ into the bay and out to sea, never to be seen again.

Somehow we righted the kayak and swam it to shore in the icy water. While I hopped about uselessly bare-footed on the pebbles, Barry gallantly pumped out the water and politely invited me back into the boat. This was not easy task, considering the swirling current in the creek.

It was a long, cold and difficult journey home as a sudden southeast gale whipped up the whitecaps and slammed into us head-on as we entered the bay. Every paddle stroke forward sent us two paddle strokes backwards. We left home on a lake, we returned on an angry ocean.

Chastened, embarrassed, frozen, sodden from head to bootless foot, I crawled out of the kayak, and fell onto the beach. Nevertheless, I insisted that my heroic and patient steersman take my picture. It seemed so ridiculous, we both laughed.
"I'm sorry, it was my fault," apologized Barry later that afternoon while we were arresting hypothermia and toasting our survival with a bottle of wine in the garden hot tub. I'm not sure what the funny side was, but we set aside our uninsured losses and thanked the universe for our lives ­ and our laughter.

I am still the explorer, the photographer, the recorder. I have still not learned to relax and do nothing. I still dally behind to get the most from every moment while my paddling partner, anxiously watching the weather wants to return to harbour. I don't know yet if I have found in Barry my ideal man, but we have found in each other a special Someone. And perhaps the best is yet to come. Whatever the future has in store, and whether I am paddling a single or a double, kayaking is the peace in the puzzle, and has brought me farther along and closer to home than any motorized craft ever did. 

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