Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Better Part of Summer II: Trail of the Calcinite Wolf

(Warning: the Calcinite Wolf proved impervious to photography and his image is not to be found within, but I liked the title too much to give it up.)

Our next excursion was out to Cathedral Grove, an old growth rain forest on the way to Port Alberni. This was mostly an excuse to take a leisurely walk around some gorgeous old trees. How old? In this case, you'd have to ask Fenya.

How big? 76 metres tall in the case of this 800 year-old Douglas Fir.

The forest is not as dense as it once was, due to a windstorm that knocked down a lot of the oldest growth. It's tragic to lose so many trees that were already old when Columbus sailed over, but it's fascinating to see new trees growing out of them in the fashion of nuresry trees. Plus it is almost a bonus to see deforestation not caused by bipedal carbon units, if you know what I mean. Cathedral Grove is not far from Cameron Lake, one of the preferred swimming spots in these parts, so we took a dip.

The next day we took a trip to Port Alberni. The main purpose of the trip was to ride a steam locomotive to Canada's sole operational steam-powered sawmill (Why? What do you mean, 'why?' Because steam-power is cool, and 54 inch head saws are cool, and combining them is AWESOME, that's why!), but we also went to the Maritime Centre to learn about the tsunami that struck the port in 1964 and which I was completely unaware of until I read about it in my AMA tourbook. The museums left a lot to be desired, but it was interesting reading and hearing some of the recollections from the tsunami. No one was killed, but imagining sitting in the attic of my house as it detaches from the foundation and ends up coming to rest on the golf course while you sit in pitch darkness inside wondering if you are being carried out to sea was pretty chilling, as were the signs both here and in Tofino which show you exactly when you enter the tsunami danger zone and mark out the route to safety should an offshore earthquake strike.
Port Alberni is also Vancouver Island's only deepwater port, which let me get a really neat picture of Fenya in front of a massive ship:

I really like this picture, and I can't articulate why. I'm not much of a photographer once you take the Rule of Thirds out of the equation, so I am not sure if it actually is a good picture or not, and if it is, why that is. (I know at least two of you are photographically inclined, and your comments would be appreciated either way!) I do like the tiny image of the crewman painting the side from a scaffold in the background, and the colour is very nice, but other than that, I am unable to say.

I certainly wouldn't call myself a train buff, but having a steam-powered locomotive pull you up to an old, out of the way locale like the McLean Mill is pretty cool.

Young dramatists (The Tinpants Players) acted out the roles of the many varied camp inhabitants from the mill's glory days in the 1940s, and even staged a production called "The Adventures of Douglas Fir". Fenya volunteered to go onstage, which was impressive in that there is virtually no chance I would have done that when I was her age, and not a lot better odds now, come to think of it. Good thing we got her into an arts school.

The mill demo itself was pretty interesting, and they actually sell the lumber they produce. What a great story behind someone's reno project! I spoke to the head sawyer, because he had mentioned that they still use the original engine the mill had started with in the 1920s, and I wondered about the boiler. "Oh yeah, it's all replaced with a new propane one now," he said. "The original, it was, you know, a bomb."

The next day had us heading on a narrow and winding road into the lake country and up to the Horne Lake Caves. I would have to put this one on the must-see list if you are ever in this part of the island. It's a decent hike up to the cave and then about an hour underground with a guide and the only illumination coming from your caving helmets.

The only other caves I have been in are the Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana, which are partially illuminated, you rearly have to even stoop and they have handrails throughout most of it. Not so the Horne Lake Caves; a lot of improvised handholds and butt-scooching and the like.

Our guide, Nick, had a lot of caving experience and was able to point out a number of fascinating mineral deposits, including a helactite, a spiraling variety of stalactite.

I was very pleased that Fenya was able to explain the difference between stalactites and stalagmites using a mnemonic I still remember from a comic featuring the Mighty Atom I read three decades ago and passed on to her. ("There's a 'C' in stalactite, let it stand for ceiling! And the 'G' in stalagmite stands for ground!")

Nick also spun a great yarn about a formation shaped like a wolf near the cave entrance, which he swore would animate in defense of the various calcium formations in the cave because they take so long to form and can be damaged irrevocably just by touching them. In fact, he told us that when they formally opened the caving centre, they had celebrities on hand, including Winnie-the-Pooh, who lost his head and started eating the formation called the Ice Cream Waterfall. At this point, the Calcinite Wolf burst forth from his shell and howled his anger, which scared the hungry bear so much that he tried to tunnel his own way out rather than face the wrath of the cave's defender. Alas, it was to no avail, as he became stuck and the wolf loped down and bit Pooh on his hindquarters, turning him instantly and permanently to stone, as this picture of hs stony bottom attests:

(In fact, if you look carefully in the background of the picture of Nick above, you can also see poor Piglet's little hooves, as he was unable to escape either.) I loves me a good folk story, especially a moralizin' one, and I can't say who believed and who didn't, but every kid in that cave was pretty conscientious about keeping their hands to themselves I tell you what.

The following day, we found ourselves at Little Qualicum Falls. It is a gorgeous walk with tremendous scenery, which again, my photography is only a pale imitation thereof.

(Please disregard the sign in the foreground, they're perfectly safe, I assure you...)

On our last day in B.C. we went swimming in this river. Our attempt to swim in a pool carved out of the stone by the waterfall itself was thwarted by virtue of the fact that there was absolutely no shallow water within the pool at all. It was a classic swimming hole: barely accessible, wicked cold, and with steep stone sides. When the girls are stronger swimmers, you can bet your bottom dollar we will be going back. As it was, we headed up above the falls to a more conventional swimming area and had a great time. The girls let me tow them to the middle of the river on a floaty board, and by thrusting their goggled faces under the water, they were able to see all manner of trout and stonefish swimming through the 4 metre deep bend. In the rocks by the shallows were plentiful amounts of crayfish, 6-8 inches long. I tried to catch one with my hands, but they displayed not only a belligerent attitude but also tremendous alacrity, which brought to mind the warning signs at the Asian grocery stores I frequent regarding how the management will not be held responsible for fingers severed as a result of ill-advised crustacean interaction. And yes, belligerent, for reals; I fully expected these wily arthropods to dart back beneath the rocks from whence they came once they caught a glimpse of myself via their beady eyestalks. Not so much because I am particularly formidable per se, but rather because I am an omnivore of considerable size with opposable thumbs and the like. But they not only failed to retreat, they advanced onto the taller and taller rocks, holding their little pincer claws up as if to say, "I wonder what the big one tastes like?" or perhaps, "you want some of this?" At any rate, this is another spot I long to return to, and the next time I will be bringing a camera in a Zip-Loc, a dipping net, and a Cajun cookbook. Dipping in the river also meant we hit the waterbody trifecta, and had swum in a lake, ocean and river all in one trip.

We also had the opportunity to spend time with Island Mike's excellent in-laws, Trevor and Laurie. They are tremendously cool people with a pair of equally cool daughters, and they also took us over to visit their neighbour Josh and his Newfoundland ponies. These hearty little animals came within a hair's breadth of extinction, and now here are a score of them on the other side of the continent pulling carts for show. I had expected them to be stockier, like Mongolian Steppe ponies, but they look like nothing so much as perfectly formed horses in miniature. Film-makers take note: if you want Gary Cooper to look bigger on-screen, put him in the saddle on one of these.

Running this kind of operation is a lot of work, and I think it was incredibly hospitable of Josh to not only show us the ponies and provide some rides, but to let Audrey take a turn at the reins, no less! The quality of people that Mike and his family choose to associate with never ceases to amaze me. (I don't actually include myself in this, due to the fact that my association with Mike dates back to a time when he was, frankly, disreputable.) And that wrapped up our time on Vancouver Island.

On the way back, we stopped at Hell's Gate on the Fraser Canyon, but it was a bit disappointing actually, as the drought meant the water level was a little less than half of what it had been when Audrey and I had last been there 14 years ago. More like Heck's Gate, really. On the plus side, it is a dog-friendly attraction, which meant we didn't have to rush through and hurry back to keep Nitti from overheating in the car.

Thanks to that detour, we ended up arriving home at 4:00 a.m., but with no close calls on the road despite much caffeination, and nary a complaint from the girls.

All in all, a very satisfying way to wrap up the summer, and we hope we will be heading back to the island before too long. Now I just have to explain to my daughters exactly why Daddy can't get a new job out there...


  1. I am sooo wishing I had taken a weekend and driven out there, bro! Looks like you guys had an awesome time!!! My nieces rock, they are the bravest most adventurous girls I know! I credit a large amount of that to you and Audrey for helping them always test their limits and step outside their comfort zone, while knowing they can always step right back in with total love and acceptance!

  2. Fantastic summer trip - well done. You do know that you have a base camp in Ottawa anytime, right? And in a couple of months, the basement will even be renovated! (hallelujah)

    I like the pic with Fenya and the ship too. A few reasons come to mind (since you asked...); the angle of the ship gives the picture depth, and the lines of the fence and the ship also create a lot of triangular shapes, which is a classic 'picturesque' motif. I also think that having Fenya looking out on the water gives the image a narrative, and tells more of a story, then just a a straight on "cheese" shot.

    But that's just me overanalysing photos, which is I guess what I get paid to do these days.