Saturday, 31 December 2011

Big Sur coastline

Along with half of California we drove along the scenic highway 1 coastal route as far as Big Sur. The advantage to this was that I didn't feel like I had to drive fast to prevent the people behind me from getting angry, because everyone else seemed to be driving slowly too. First we stopped off at Point Lobos, according to the artist Francis McComas "The greatest meeting of land and water in the world." Perhaps we're feeling a bit coasted out, because although it was beautiful it was not that much different to the Cornish coast. The main difference though were the five migrating whales we saw going past. Once again Jenny had to drag me away, or we'd have spent the whole day whale watching. The scenic drive to Big Sur was scenic, but we were really starting to feel that we've seen this all already.
After queuing to get in to the Pfeiffer Big Sur National Park and immediately having to decide where we were going for a walk, we headed up to a valley overlook and then to the waterfall. It was a hot but nice stroll through the oaks even though the waterfall was not much compared to the water full waterfalls of Oregon.


On Christmas morning, once we'd got the obligatory phonecall to the family over and done with, we had a whale of a time. Driving the deserted streets to Pacific Grove, just North of the Monterey hostel, we took a look at the Monarch butterflies. There weren't nearly as many as I was expecting, considering this is meant to be the biggest Monarch butterfly wintering colony in California. But the morning's main spectacle was to be seen from the northernmost point of the Monterey peninsula. First we saw one whale, then more whales, and at one point three whales to our right and two whales to our left, that we didn't know what direction to look in. We must have seen at least fifteen whales, all of them headed southwards, grey whales, presumably on their migration. When we'd finally dragged ourselves away from the whales (I feel like I've become addicted to watching them)we drove back to Monterey, along with what now seemed the masses (seems the Americans take a while to get started on Christmas before they hit the roads en masse in their cars). From the hostel we walked to a beach where loads of harbour seals were hauled out before going to prepare our overexpensive sprouts, roast vegetables and vegan stuffing, while dancing around all the other people in the kitchen who were preparing a communal Christmas dinner in the hostel.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Monterey aquarium

Getting up at the crack of dawn we waited around to be the first to request the Monterey aquarium guest passes from the hostel's manager. Having got the passes we arrived at the aquarium at opening time. A crowd assembled round the sea otter enclosure to watch the feeding. I couldn't help but feel sorry for these three otters which can't be released back into the wild. Their enclosure as pitifully small and they were being fed bits of squid and fish, but not the shells you seen them hacking open in the wild. Voted the second best aquarium in the US lots of people seem to rave about the Monterey aquarium, but we weren't feeling too impressed,had we actually paid the $60 entrance fee we'd have been even more unimpressed. The tanks all seem pretty small, one poor penguin was trying to build a nest with no nest material, a turfed puffin swimming desperately into the glass trying to find freedom and shoals of fish would have to swim in circles all day and night. There was an area where you could go and touch starfish, sea slugs, urchins and other rockpool beasts. Surely this is a horrible existence for these animals being touched all day and perhaps constantly thinking they're going to be eaten. Perhaps they're not thinking anything though..

Thankfully the aquarium doesn't have any other marine mammals apart from the otters. There is just the big tank of the Pacific ocean. The star exhibit there was a really close grey whale. We were walking around when Jenny said she'd seen a whale right outside. So we rushed out to the balcony to join a few of the staff looking at the whale. It was so close that you could see the barnacles on its back, but it was tricky to imagine how big it was. After about five minutes what seemed like all the aquarium's visitors had emptied out onto the deck to look at the whale. Even the staff seemed excited that it was this close. By the time we'd seen enough of the whale there were very few people still looking at it.

In the aquariums auditorium we went to an interesting talk on biomimicry, inspiration from nature for great inventions. Bumps on the leading edge of humpback whales' flippers have inspired a new design for windturbine blades. Bumps on the edge of blades can lead to 40% increase in output. There's also a new car design based on the boxfish, which is a very square yellow fish that maneuvers well into small spaces and is very fast. Mercedes-Benz makes the cars, although I don't think they're selling them yet. Apparently they can get 80 miles to the gallon.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Sea otters

A short drive around the University of California Santa Cruz (which wasn't quite as exciting as I remembered it to be) was followed by the drive to Moss Landing, said to be the best place for sea otter spotting. Lots of cars were parked at the state park, but most of those belonged to the surfers. On a sand bar loads of harbour seals were lying, on a pier hundreds of sealions and between the two were some of the sea otters taking it easy. We managed to spend probably around three hours looking at sealions and sea otters swimming past, after which we drove to the sealion pier to examine them more closely.

At Moss Landing harbour I thought it was pretty pointless trying to see seaotters, but we discovered a really close one feeding on mussels attached to a pier. A friend then joined it and they frolicked through the water together, up and down the harbour. As the sun began to set we headed onwards to the Monterey hostel where we'll be staying till we leave California.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Santa Cruz

We didn't get in the car today!! Instead we walked along the coast seeing sealions, seals, sea otters, egrets, many surfers and another whale. We were heading to the Natural Bridges State Park to go rock pooling (or tide pooling as they call it here) and then see the monarch butterflies in the grove. Rock pools in England seem to be more easily accessible, whereas here they were on a rock plateau. The pools were really deep and we had to be particularly careful not to slip in them, we can't cross the Atlantic on the cargo ship with any broken legs. There were many large green anemones, purple sea urchins, purple starfish, orange starfish, some little pink coral-like things, mussels coating the rocks, a range of brightly coloured slimes and sludges and Jenny managed to find some crabs. Sharing the rocks with us was an egret, some gulls, oyster catchers and other excitable rock poolers.

The monarch butterflies were all flitting around in the sunshine, so the number of them resting on the eucalyptus trees wasn't that great, but there were still plenty of them. Notices told the onlookers to talk in hushed voices and creep along the boardwalks, one man however seemed to think that playing his ukulele to the monarchs was permissible. On the walk back we passed lemon trees in gardens and a small twig with tangerines on it. Opposite the hostel a grand old house has been fumigated, we are presuming against termites. The house now resembles a gigantic yellow and blue striped circus tent.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


Being on a roll with losing things we searched high and low for my room key, before giving up and resigning ourselves to the loss of the $20 deposit. Turned out I'd never taken the key in the first place and that's why I couldn't find it!

We then drove to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park (the first state park established in California), past the spot where four years ago Sorrel and I had wandered aimlessly and seen pitiful redwoods, because we'd didn't have a car. You just can't get to most of these places without one sadly.

These redwoods seemed far more impressive than those at Muir Woods, and looking at them was much less of a tourist circus. One of the trees had its middle burnt out in a forest fire and you could look right up the middle of it at the sky. 'Mother of the forest' is the tallest tree in the park, it did measure 329 feet, but lost its top in a storm. After walking around the redwood trail in the basin where the huge trees are we went on a hike along the river, up the valley, into the chaparral, to the ocean viewpoint and then back down into the redwoods (a round walk!). Whilst walking alongside the river we discovered another bobcat slinking up the path in front of us. It amazes me that there are only a handful of bobcat pictures on the nature picture library website (where Jenny used to work) since we're finding it seemingly easy to discover them.

Once again it was hard to get a true sense of scale and appreciate the great height of the redwoods. To be in the presence of such old and tall trees though is humbling, I can't help but be impressed by them. Jenny though I feel has seen more than enough of the redwoods.

Jenny cruised us along the road to Santa Cruz where we're now staying in the hostel, which stocks its kitchen with a bounty of out-of-date freebies. Although there's no cranberry and grain Christmas special like I had when I was last here there are mountains of radishes, bags of spinach, a packet of mixed organic salad leaves, some cake with a lengthy list of additives, plenty of a-bit-too-green-for-comfort potatoes, onions, loads of carrots, some cabbage, breads in all shapes and sizes (the apple cinammon swirl loaf will make a good breakfast) and quite a bit more. We can't help wondering why we bothered doing a big shop in San Francisco.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Lighthouses and elephant seals

Today we traveled from one lighthouse hostel to another. We're currently staying in the grounds of the Pigeon Point lighthouse, one of the tallest lighthouses in America. This afternoon we attempted rockpooling (or tidepooling as they call it here) again, but the tide just wasn't low enough. We did see a lot of sea anenomes clinging to the rocks like barnacles. From beside the lighthouse we spotted harbour seals lounging on the rocks, and raising their heads and tails in the air when waves were approaching. We also spotted two, maybe even three migrating grey whales on their southbound journey.

Elephant seals were however the main attraction of the day. At 10.30a.m. we left from the Ano Nuevo State Park visitor centre on a 'docent' guided tour to the elephant seal colony. In November/December the huge male elephant seals return to shore and begin sparring with each other. The females arrive in December, shortly before giving birth. The dominant males establish large harems of females. About four weeks after birth the pups are weaned and left to fend for themselves, while the female seals mate and return to the sea. Usually by now they would be seeing pups already born at Ano Nuevo, but this year the females seem to be late to come ashore.

Our walk led us to the dunes, to viewing areas and right between sleeping males. We didn't see any pups, but some heavily pregnant females and many many males, some huge with large proboscises. The males make a tremendous bellowing sound. more to follow...

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

To Montara Point Lighthouse

The morning was spent navigating San Francisco without going on the massive freeways and highways (they scare me too much), shopping for provisions (and somehow managing to buy brussel sprouts for $11.26) and driving to the Montara Point Lighthouse further to the South. We then went for a walk to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, where there are good rockpools. The tide was too high but we saw quite a few harbour seals instead. The hostel here is in the buildings surrounding the lighthouse and rather picturesque.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands (17th and 18th)

With the best of intentions to get up early and walk along the spit our morning plans went awry. The previous evening two Canadian hitch-hikers had arrived at the hostel and when they weren't singing were trying to find a ride on to Portland. We decided we could take them to the main road after our spit walk. They got a better offer though from the mysterious Brian who had also appeared at the hostel that evening. He was driving to Bandon, Oregon which would get them most of the way. Having arranged to leave with Brian around nine they were getting ready only to discover that he'd returned his sheets, asked a few questions and went on his way an hour earlier. Some discussion followed as to whether he'd purposely 'forgotten' the Canadian girls or had really just forgotten them. Without much chance of getting to the highway for a few hours we offered to take them and forget our walk. Kate who works at the hostel was right when she said we wouldn't need to turn the radio on with them in the car, they started singing almost straight away!

The rest of the day was spent driving, trying to walk but deciding not to because there were too many horses (too much like a normal day down Harcombe Road), driving to the South of Point Reyes and going for a short coastal walk (it's hard to keep going when you know you just have to go back the way you came, have they heard of circular walks?), driving past a few arrays of photovoltaic panels, listening to Christmas music (or American Christmas music which isn't proper Christmas music at all), visiting the hippie ville of the area- Bolinas (had a BC island feel to it), walking at Stinson Beach which according to a guidebook 'can't fail to impress' (well it did), winding round the bendy road along the coast, stopping at lookouts to take pictures, stopping at lookouts to let cars past, looking at what may or may not be 'the longest row of mailboxes in the States, trying to find a way not to go on the freeway, failing to find a way not to go on the freeway and you've guessed it- finally driving on the freeway.

Our day at the Marin headlands began with an early start to watch the sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge from the lighthouse. Unfortunately the lighthouse and the path to it was closed so we just had to content ourselves with watching the sunrise from the car-park. The sunrise did not manage to fully justify the 6.15a.m. start. Most intriguing was this luminous or certainly unnatural looking green fibre plastered on the soil along most of the roadside. It was bright blue on the underside, but we later learned from the park ranger that this is a native seed, grass and fertiliser mix that has been sprayed from a truck where the grass has been disturbed.

After our unsuccessful lighthouse trip we took a walk to the marine mammal center and went on a 'docent' (they seem to have an obsession with this word here) led tour of the facility, which was interesting. There weren't many patients though, just seven sealions and two fur seal pups. They had a variety of maladies and the fur seals weren't eating. One of the sealions has some condition they know very little about with air bubbles in it's brain. The facility is in part powered (only about 15%) by photovoltaic panels above the cages, which also provide shade for the animals. Production was at 3.3 kW on this overcast day.

The rest of the day was spent in a desperate search for my wallet, searching through all our bags and all nooks and crannies. I did finally find it though wrapped inside the towel from the hostel. Now I just better not lose it again!

Still in Point Reyes (16th December)

It wasn’t the best of starts to the morning, woken by a lady and a child traipsing with their torches in their hands to the toilet at the other end of the room, and kept awake by the two ladies in our room who were evidently stuck in some other time zone having gone to bed at 8.30 p.m and then thinking six o’clock was a civilised time to start asking each other in loud voices how they had slept. I think I place too much value on sleep. We were going for a hike along the Drakes Estero Trail, but first got side-tracked by the promise of mountain views at Mount Vision, accessed by Mount Vision Road. The road wound into the hills for what seemed like forever and with no vision onto a view, although past many flickers and beautiful lichen draped trees. Eventually we found a view after a short walk up the hill and through an area that looked very much like Stonebarrow with a view that looked very much like the Dorset coast.

Having wound our way back down the hill of vision we did finally make it to the head of the Estero trail, but found it difficult to get ourselves going. Having eaten copious flapjacks, visited the outhouse and just getting started on extolling the virtues of the copious toilet paper situation among the outhouses of Point Reyes National Seashore Jenny spotted us a bobcat just visible on the side of the hill. We then observed as the bobcat, which looked very much like a cheetah, prowled through the grassland and waited patiently before pouncing at some prey. Not being successful it moved on to another patch and then came straight down towards me. I did get a bit scared (having heard too many cougar and bear stories over the past months..), but moving my camera and telephoto lens from my face, realised it really didn’t look like much of a threat.

Drakes Estero trail wasn’t greatly exciting, there were lots of birds, but we couldn’t see them well and even if we could have we wouldn’t have known what they were. The trail allows ‘the observant hiker opportunity to see owls perched in the pine trees’ according to information at the hostel. We were observing with all our might, but to no avail. But it didn’t really matter, because we saw the bobcat! Mammal watching is a far easier hobby, especially here.

Tule Elk (15th December)

On a mission to see the Tule Elk (red deer) of Point Reyes we headed to the Tule Elk reserve in the north of the national seashore. About 400 hundred elk are confined within the reserve in an attempt to protect these reintroduced animals from contracting a chronic wasting disease that elk elsewhere in the park have caught from cattle. Seems the wildlife here catches disease from farm animals, rather than apparently gives it to them (badgers...TB…). Threatening to rain on us for the first time since our arrival in the States we left the hostel in dense fog and concluded that American cars don’t have fog lights. Just another little bit of technology that seems not to have reached these shores. As we drove on though, the fog lifted and the light was too good not to keep stopping for a few photos. A coyote ran across the road and off into the distance before I’d managed to get the right lens on the camera, a full battery and find an empty memory card. I never seem to learn.

As the road bent round to the Pierce Point Ranch in the reserve we spotted a herd of elk lounging around. On our walk in surrounds looking like a combination of Scotland, the Lake District, Cornwall and Devon we came across some flowering plants (it’s such a pleasant surprise to find all these plants flowering in California), loads of turkey vultures circling around, some hawks and as we came into a valley there were more elk. Sitting down in a valley just next to a sign telling us to stick to the path and not disturb wildlife it wouldn’t really have been appropriate to try to approach them. Continuing on our walk we began to wonder whether we should not just turn back. Coastline (as I know only too well from walking almost half of the UK’s southwest coast-path) gets repetitive, so we weren’t sure if we needed to see the end of the Tomales Point Trail. Jenny was striding ahead to see over the next hill while I took some photos and I couldn’t understand why she kept on going and then why she was beckoning me towards her. But below us were even more elk and these were right on the path. We sneaked slowly along and the elk weren’t too perturbed to run away. They seemed more interested in listening to bird calls.

Back in the car we drove through the elk we’d seen from the road before, heard them bark and flock together as another car approached and then we spotted another whale! On a slight detour to Abbott’s lagoon in search of birds we found ourselves a bittern, lots of coots, and some sand dunes. After sitting in the car park in the wee village of Inverness and writing some letters, we drove back to the hostel in the dark and spotted two more bobcats.

Point Reyes (Wednesday, 14th December)

Today I told Jenny if I had two tick boxes, one with good day, the other with bad day, I’d definitely be ticking good day. We saw loads of California quail, stood on the San Andreas fault (even though it’s not as exciting as I’d been imagining), admired the lichen draped trees, spotted a herd of radio collared deer, spotted even more deer, saw sparring, snoozing and swimming elephant seals, plenty of harbour seals, scoters (which I for a while excited myself immensely into thinking were the elusive tufted puffins that breed all along the coast of Oregon and here too), a sealion, eight whales around Point Reyes Point and, as we were driving through the dark with a lady in tow whose car had run out of ‘gas’, another bobcat!
Point Reyes it seems abounds with wildlife!

From San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore (13th of December)

When we’d finally managed to make our way from the hostel to the budget rent a car, got away again with having no credit card but a sellotaped together debit car and got them to sign off the scrape the car had, we drove out of San Francisco in our huge white mafia truck (not an SUV but still..). Going over the golden gate bridge and up the hill beyond on the highway shared with another five lanes was somewhat terrifying. But we were soon on the smaller and very windy road heading to Muir Woods, admiring birds of prey and purchasing figs from a roadside stall. Muir Woods is one of the few remaining forest fragments of tall trees- coastal redwoods or Sequoia sempervirens. The redwoods are the tallest trees in the world.

Pulling into the second overflow car park we realised we were not alone in wanting to visit the redwood grove on yet another sunny day. The entrance fee into the park was $5 per person. As we sat eating our lunch loads of people emerged from the grove at once and we unknowingly both calculated their worth to the national park ($80). An Englishman, his two teenagers and a little squirt received a blank look from the ticket office man after asking if they would be able to push a buggy on the path, he got there in the end though and concluded the trail wasn’t ‘strollerable’. The trees themselves were majestic and smelt pleasant, but it was hard to get perspective and realise how tall the trees really were. As it says in ‘The Wild Trees’ book that I read a few months ago, you can only truly appreciate these trees while climbing them. A fallen down tree though gave a bit more of an idea as to how tall these trees really are.

Leaving the well-trodden tourist path behind we headed up the side of the valley passing many lichens on the ground which must have been blown from the very tops of the trees in the fierce winds that California apparently had a week ago. Unfortunately there was no longer a view from the Ocean Trail, due (as we found out from a sign when we’d finished it) to fire prevention (we might have to Google how this works..). After our walk we headed to our destination of Point Reyes hostel via a very windy road in ever increasing darkness. As we drove through the national seashore we spotted two deer and a bobcat.

San Francisco

Oregon 4

Oregon 3

Oregon 2

Oregon 1

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Hiring a car

Perhaps I shouldn't even admit on this blog that we're going to hire a car. I should just gloss over it, pretend we miraculously got around Oregon (and then California) without one. But I can't do that to you dear reader (if indeed there are any of you aside from my mother!).

This blog is meant to be about going around the world without flying and thereby trying to reduce my carbon emissions as much as possible. Renting a car goes against that. It does make me feel bad or a bit like I've failed a mission. But sadly there really is a lot to see in North America that you just can't easily get to without one.

So we've reserved the smallest car we could find (which isn't all that small) and we'll refuse to upgrade to a bigger one, not just because I wouldn't be capable of driving anything larger. Tomorrow we'll visit Portland's Saturday Market and, provided they accept my debit card and lack of credit card, head to the Columbia River Gorge and in a few days time the Oregon coast.


The train to Portland was salubrious enough, but Portland itself is brimming with salubrity. One of the USA's most livable cities Portland is much to my liking. Like Seattle there is an element of free transportation within the downtown area- free trams (the buses were free too until a few years ago). It's also a very walkable city, which for North America is high praise indeed. There is even interesting architecture.

We've been staying at the nwhostel on the edge of the Pearl district, an area where many warehouses have been converted into upscale shops and fancy residences. The hostel itself is in a grand old wooden house and has a bright roomy feel to it, aside from the cramped kitchen. One of the most famous stores in the district is Powell's City of Books- the largest independent bookstore in the US. It was hard not to while away our entire stay in Portland perusing the many shelves and multiple floors of the bookshop. Open most days until 11pm (when it is still rather busy!) about 3,000 people walk through the store's doors each day. There are more than 1,000,000 different books on the shelves. Pam the Jam's new River Cottage cake book graces its shelves of course! On my second visit I came prepared with a notebook to write down all the books I want to get out the library and read one day. It took at least an hour to get through the environment section. Ironically these books shared their isle with hunting and shooting, and on the other side the fine art of golf. There seemed to be many locals browsing the shelves as well as tourists, one of whom declared to his wife 'Who works in this place? Must be Gods.'. I managed to leave with only one book, but was sorely tempted to buy 'the joy of cooking' which Joanne has at the blueberry farm.

Portland is a very wealthy city, or at least there are lots of really rich people that live here. Many company headquarters are based in the city including Vestas (the windturbine company), which we discovered near the university. Other less savory companies such as Adidas and Nike are also here. We've been walking around a lot and stumbled upon, while walking in Washington Park, and then purposely sought out some of the most salubrious houses of Portland. These often pompous homes are found in an area known as the West Hills where the roads are filled with sparkling new BMWs, Volksagens, Rangerovers and some of the largest SUVs known to man. These should be known as the West Hill combine harvesters as a Portland alternative to the 'Chelsea tractor'.

This superfluous wealth is such a stark contrast to the poverty that can be observed in the downtown areas of many North American cities. In Portland however it actually feels safe to walk around in the dark. And although there are some beggars they are a rare species and do not seem very threatening.

I do seem to think though that there are a lot of people in North America that talk to themselves. Jenny points out though that I don't often go to public places or sit on a bus to witness this phenomenon in England (and that time she wasn't talking to herself, I was listening!). Anyway, on the bus the lady next to me was saying in an accusatory voice 'you're fired. you're fired. Man you're fired'. I gather she wasn't talking to me because neither am I a man nor do I have a job to get fired from. Well not at the moment, but perhaps one day..

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

On the train to Portland

So it's been a while since I last wrote the blog (mum hasn't hesitated in pointing this out). Seeing as I got at least 8 months behind when I was travelling last time I can only think it's going to be a slippery slope from here on.

We're speeding (yes, it seems it is actually possible) towards Portland from Seattle aboard this salubrious Amtrak train with WIFI and plush seats. The snowy Mount Rainer lies to our left and is bathing in some winter sunshine.

From Victoria we headed back to Vancouver with BCFerries, sailing through narrow channels surrounded by the Southern Gulf Islands. We stood outside in the freezing cold wind, hands getting progressively redder in an attempt to spot orcas around the islands. Almost having given up as the ferry got into the more open waters after squeezing between Galiano and Mayne islands, I spotted about four orcas. We'd been thinking of going on whale watching tours in Tofino or Victoria, but didn't. Of course it was great to see some orcas again and just for the price of the ferry ticket!

Our time in Vancouver was not the most restful of experiences. Staying with Jenny's former flatmate Hope in her basement suite we were told when we got there that we would need to sort all our stuff out and pack everything into bin bags. The pest controllers were coming the following day to spray the entire flat against bedbugs with some noxious chemicals. Despite there being no evidence of bed bugs everyone packed all their clothes into bags. I resumed the mammoth task of further sorting some of mine and lots of Jenny's stuff to send home, throw out or deliver to the thrift store. In the morning I found my self vacuuming the living room. The housemates all had to leave for six hours before returning after the spraying. In the pouring rain, with our huge box to send back to England covered with a rain-cape, we trudged to the nearest post office. Pushing the box on a little trolley Hope has, with another box for the Salvation Army balanced on top, was quite the ordeal. We acted pretty quickly when it dropped into a puddle. We returned to the basement in the evening, I really didn't like the idea sleeping surrounded by the chemicals. It seems silly to be eating organic food or avoiding mobile phones, but breathe in these chemical fumes or as I've been doing- tiling and painting the walls in unventilated houses.

My days (and nights) were spent non-eventfully with sorting stuff, watching a few tv-show episodes, adopting strange sleeping patterns from these film industry bods, feeling like it was always night-time because it was so dark in the basement, reading travel guides, trying to plan our trip and going on a few short walks in the neighbourhood. On Saturday I went and drank hot chocolate and fed lichen to the reindeer at Grouse Mountain with Laura who I used to work with. I bumped into familiar faces and enjoyed a final ride on the skyride and soaked in the no longer so familiar view.

All the worries we'd had about crossing the border into the States with our B1/B2 visas (without having left North America) seemed to have been unnecessary. As the border officer looked at his computer screen and disappeared into a backroom we were a little concerned. However, all seemed to be alright. We did have to pay $6.00 each to cross the border though, which seeing as we've already paid a small fortune for these visas, added some insult to injury.

Not much has changed in Seattle since our previous visit, there still doesn't seem to be too much to do there. Our one and a half days was enough, although it might have been nice to see some of the parks or the chocolate factory (the first fairtrade and only organic cocoa roasting factory in the States) which were a bit further afield. At the Green Tortoise Hostel where we were staying we got free breakfast and a free spaghetti dinner, although how free this actually is when you pay $28 a night is questionable.

I had thought Vancouver was an expensive city and had a lot of homeless people, but it looks like Seattle is even more expensive and has even more homeless people. The homeless people in Vancouver are largely found in the one area, but even so there really do seem to be more over here. I'm grateful that England still has some social programs available for the homeless, although with the current government we'll see how long they last...

Monday, 28 November 2011


The remaining hours of our four day stay in Victoria were spent in visiting the Royal BC Museum (which was not nearly as exciting as I had hoped it would be), going for a short hike in Mount Douglas Regional Park, exploring Beacon Hill Park, wandering round the touristy shops, deciding I want to knit my own Cowichan sweater and exploring some of the eco and clothes shops around the market square. At the 'Global village' fairtrade shop I couldn't help realising once again that there's really nothing I need from these kind of shops, as much as I would like to support fairtrade. We did buy some palm oil- free soap and a rolled paper bowl, so that I can make one myself when we get home though. The more I travel the more cooking and craft project ideas I come across, I think I'll be baking for weeks and working on quilts, carpets, clothes and rugs for years.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Salmon Run

We've had a very successful day here in Victoria despite not getting much sleep due to people wandering in and out of the twenty-bed dorm, the girl in the next bed who wore her gloves to bed because it was cold in here getting up noisily at 4.00 a.m. (dread to think how she survived the cold when she got outside) and our own alarm clock going off at 5.50a.m.

Since my last try at viewing the salmon run was unsuccessful it was time for attempt No.2. The early start was so that we could get the bus to the southern end of Goldstream Provincial Park and walk to the estuary while the tide was still low. In addition to the salmon run we were hoping to see hundreds of bald eagles which gather during the winter months to feed off the dead salmon at high tide (sadly we were too early for this).

In the autumn chum salmon of approx. 4 years old return from the Bering Sea to the Goldstream river. They spawn in the river in which they themselves were born. Females make nests known as redds, which protect the eggs until they hatch. Just days after the spawning, male and female salmon die. Today it was estimated that there were 14,490 chum salmon in the river, 94 coho salmon and 19 chinook salmon (these seem to be disappearing almost entirely from the river).

The salmon run is an impressive spectacle and it's great to have experienced it. Although it's hard not to feel guilty at delighting in the utter carnage of all these dying salmon. When we started walking along the river there weren't any salmon, but as we got about halfway to the estuary we started seeing rows and rows of salmon in the water facing upstream. Lining the river's edge and parts of the riverbed were dead salmon and salmon gasping their final breaths. A great many gulls were feasting upon the fish glut, sitting on the riverbanks or on dead fish, eating the dead ones, but also ripping chunks of flesh out of the still living ones. Some gulls would paddle their feet in the water to bring any lose fish-bits to the surface. One gull was attacking live salmon by continually flying into the air and diving into the water. No gull would be swooping down on ice creams in Lyme Regis if they had this feast in front of them!

But what really made our day was the otter family that we discovered playing with and gorging upon the salmon. Every autumn the all you can eat restaurant pulls up right outside their den. The mother otter and her two (or three) adolescent pups didn't seem too concerned about our presence on the riverbank and approached us curiously. We returned to them in the afternoon after our walk to the estuary and through the forest above the river. Just as we'd given up on seeing them again they poked their heads out briefly, hauled some salmon out of the water and took a few bites. They were either not very active or more scared than they had been in the morning. The pictures didn't come out too well, because it was a dark and damp day. At Campbell River I'd wanted to see the salmon run and saw orcas, and this time I wanted to see the eagles but instead saw otters.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Goodbye to the blueberry farm (and this time it is goodbye!)

I've visited the blueberry farm in three seasons now, this time it's definitely been winter. It was snowing as we both got off the Tofino Bus in Coombs and the snow was lying around the red blues. We started off taking Polly for a walk (and managed not to lose her!), threw some toys and snowballs (she was quite intrigued) for her, cut the blueberry bushes free from their remaining strings transported a few wheelbarrows of wood from the barn to the porch and then as Joanne put it got started on the serious work. Aided (or a bit slowed) by Lyra and Elena we made two lemon cakes and two chocolate cakes, unfortunately there wasn't time to bake Santa Clausu some more cookies which he had made a special request for. Around the dinner table Joanne, Richard, Ashlee and Luke gave us some Oregon and California travel tips.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Tofino, Ucluelet and the Pacific Rim National Park

So right now I'm with Jenny at the deserted 'Surfs Inn' guesthouse in Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island. After being dropped off near 'Goats on the Roof' in Coombs I met up with Jenny on the Tofino bus. Tofino is a small and seemingly sleepy town on the edge of Clayoquot Sound where many whales can be seen at the right time of year. Unfortunately though this isn't the right time of year. In the spring 1000s of grey whales pass Tofino on their migration northwards from Baja California. The southward migration occurs sometime around now, but they don't seem to be swarming past Tofino!

With sunny, but cold weather on our side we hiked where we could around the coast (Tofino's coast is somewhat inaccessible though), hoped to see otters and whales but didn't, purchased some overpriced food in the co-op, cycled the 35km round trip to Long Beach and walked to Schooner Cove along a slippery boardwalk through pretty trees. For some reason everyone seems to rave about 12km Long Beach (apart from Joanne..) and without a car we really thought we had to cycle there. It was nice, but a bit disappointing to be honest. We really are quite privileged to have grown-up in the southwest of England and to have traveled half-way round the world without flying.

Sunshine doesn't last forever and we discovered that torrential rain does hit the west coast (at least the guidebooks got that right). So in the wind and rain we walked along the same bit of coast again and thought the Pacific was starting to look much more like an ocean than a lake (as it usually seems to). Snowflakes were falling from the heavens as we awoke from our last night's sleep in Tofino and it was quite wintry. On our bus trip to Ucluelet we drove through beautiful snow covered trees.

After dropping our (many!) possessions at this hostel, where we are the only guests, we headed out onto the 'Wild Pacific Trail' along the rugged cliffs of Ucluelet. The waves crashing over the rocks and the rain/sun/snow combination made for nice light. Hoping to photograph sunrise over the lighthouse we got up at 7.30a.m., but sadly I'd forgotten that the sun rises earlier now that the clocks have changed. Although in hindsight it is pretty good that we weren't sliding and slipping our way through the dark and icy streets. Despite Ucluelet getting far less attention from most people than Tofino we are quite charmed by it.

Blueberry Farm visitation no.2

Back at the blueberry farm Santa Clausu wasn't able to eat quite as many cakes as he'd been looking forward to because the kitchen was out of action for the first three of my days. Joanne and Richard really do have a knack of drawing interesting people towards them, and Horst who was tiling beneath the stove was one of them. Having lived in Canada for about thirty years his English was still pretty non-existent, so I had to act as translator at times. If he had just spoken German it would have been more understandable, but the splattering of English words inbetween did not make it an easy task. It always strikes me as strange that people with not much grasp of a foreign language are quite adept when it comes to the swear words. His fluency in this area led me to tiptoe around the kitchen and steer clear until beckoned by Joanne to translate.

Because Santa Clausu couldn't wait much longer for his cake I went into Ashlee's kitchen (Castle East) and baked apple cake with Elena, and when the kitchen was up and running baked oatmeal-raisin cookies. Other activities included picking apples, boxing apples, cutting strings from the blueberry bushes so that they wouldn't snap under the winter snowfall, bringing firewood onto the porch, washing dishes, sweeping, dusting and vacuuming. I shied away from walking the dogs every morning before breakfast after losing them on my first day back. Buddy followed by his puppy sidekick Polly headed off into the forest on our afternoon walk, and wouldn't return when I called them. After a while I gave up and sought help from Joanne, but still they didn't come back. I was sent to run back to the house with the direction to gather flashlights and get Richard off the phone to drive round the neighbourhood in search of the troublesome two. Joanne returned to lock the chickens up and sent me ahead. She cycled back into the wood armed with baseball bats to fend off bear attack. After much calling Polly returned but there was no sign of the old chap Buddy.

In the evening while lantern walking at the children's waldorf-inspired school Buddy returned home, but with a very bad limp as though he had broken his leg. He could scarcely walk and spent most of his time lying down. We had to do our best to stop Polly play biting with him. As the days went on there was some improvement and the talk about having him put down subsided. Hopefully he'll make it through this winter, even though they had been questioning putting him down last winter.

Monday, 14 November 2011

A venture into hitch-hiking

On Monday the 7th I left Linda's with Vincent to hitchhike my way to Qualicum Beach where Joanne would pick me up to go back to the blueberry farm. I hadn't got round to getting the money I'd spent on milk and cat food from Linda before she left on her latest trip to Courtenay, but instead I could get it back by hitch-hiking with Vincent rather than taking the greyhound. At 9.00a.m. after making the fire, doing some last minute packing and giving the house a bit of a clean we walked into the village and managed to get a ride on the first try to the community centre with a mother and her baby in tow. From the community centre we got picked up quickly by another mother and her toddler Fern who were on the way to drop off their recycling in Quathiaski Cove. We were dropped off at the dock and walked aboard the ferry hoping to see orcas rather than just becoming windswept. Vincent went up to a few trucks to see if they would take us onward, but they said they weren't going south. He wanted to play a game where we would take it in turns to go up to cars and ask them for a lift, unfortunately for him I was not feeling overly courageous.

In Campbell River we walked almost to the edge of town to a lay-by where there was good potential for a car to stop for us. So we stood there and stuck our thumbs out and smiled. Quite a few cars passed us by and the rubbish lorry didn't seem to want to give us a ride. After a while a man with six children who fixes mold in houses around Courtenay stopped for us. He talked almost the entire way to Courtenay and was quite interesting. He has walked Vancouver Island's West Coast Trail five times and enjoys hiking around Cape Scott Provincial Park (at the northern tip of the island). To improve our chances of hitch-hiking he drove us to the highway and left us there beside a lot of scotch broom (an invasive species that Joanne at the blueberry farm is doing her best to eradicate around Coombs with the aid of her broombusters).

After quite a lot of cars had passed by us by Vincent came up with another game for us to guess how many cars would go by before we got a ride. Optimistically he guessed twenty and pessimistically (but what turned out to be more realistic) I guessed sixty. We counted the numbers in german while car after car sped past us. Sometimes it looked like they might be slowing down but it seems we didn't pass the test and they sped up again. It was cold and just as I was saying that I really didn't think anyone was going to stop for us a nurse from Nanaimo, on his way back from sorting out his passport, hesitantly stopped and Vincent said we had to be really nice to him since he looked like he wasn't going to stop. He had taken pity on us, because he had himself been hitch-hiking a few weeks ago after his car broke down and no-one stopped for him. He drove pretty fast and probably in excess of the speed limit, which got me to Qualicum Beach quite a lot earlier than Joanne had been expecting me.

Monday, 7 November 2011

WWOOFing at Heron Guest House

My current location is the Heron Guest House in Heriot Bay, Quadra Island, the most populated of the Discovery Islands, a few hours up the coast via ferry, greyhound and another ferry from Denman Island. Linda's guest house is right on the oceanfront; no garden inbetween the house and the sea, the pebbles start almost right in front of the house. Looking out of the kitchen and living room the view of Quadra, surrounding islands and the mountains on the mainland is amazing. My room accessed via ladder from the kitchen also has a stunning seaview. It's been lovely to see the sunrise, the sea, the ferry to Cortes going past, the surf scoter ballet, seals and eagles all from my bed (when I haven't had to clamber down my ladder to let the dog or the cats out).

Linda has lived on this patch of land for mostly all her life, her parents having bought the land fifty years ago for a mere $200. Her parents trans-located their wooden house via boat to the land. When she was around 20 Linda and her now ex-husband built the kitchen/dining area of the now main house and added bits on when they had children. It is pretty quirky and homely. There is a B & B addition to the house with sunflower themed bathroom. Below the main house is another room that she wants to rent out as a self-contained flat. Everything has it's unique style here. The old house is further up the garden, a bit dilapidated, but Linda can't bare to tear it down because it's the original family home. She sometimes has hostel guests stay there in the summer. Scattered around the property are some further shacks and dwellings, some of which I'm not really sure what they are because Linda never gave me a tour. There's a long narrow building which I walk to to use the oven (because the one in the house is temperamental) which seems somewhat messy and has a double bed. This is either additional hostel accommodation or where Linda stays in the summer when she lets people use the house as a hostel. Then there is an out of the water houseboat that was purchased by her partner (who died a few years ago) to sell fish out of and now is a pretty cosy bit of accomodation. There is 'Heron Cottage', the luxury accommodation with sea-view almost as good as from the house, full kitchen, living room, double bed, bathroom, extra bedroom and piano. It's quite glamorous compared to everything else. And finally along a little path from the main house and bordering the beach is the 'boat house' complete with outdoor shower, bath and outhouse. Some of the rooms here are rather rustic in a charming way, but the reviews on tripadvisor indicate that it's not everyone's cup of tea!

Linda used to run a fabric shop on the island, but now she runs her guesthouse, helps on a friends oyster farm in the winter and is taking a fine arts course in Courtenay. Along with a visit to Vancouver she's been away at her house in Courtenay for most of my stay. For the first few days there was another WOOFer at Linda's- Barbara who is an insurance broker from Switzerland and happens to have traveled with Liesbeth who I volunteered with at Cathedral Lakes. The rest of the time my company in the house has been the two black cats (who like to bite and swipe me), Tuna the podgie but very sweet dog (who according to Linda's friend used to be a Jack Russell), for two days Dave- Linda's Courtenay housemate who came up to chop some wood and for a short visit Vincent the couchsurfer who lives in Terrace (nr. Prince Rupert) and is on his way to Victoria to take some classes for his mostly long-distance masters course in habitat restoration, and also happens to have worked last summer at Mariposa Organic Farm.Small world.

The night I got to Linda's I lay in bed looking out over the ocean and at what I thought was light pollution, but which I discovered in the morning was the northern lights. The following day Linda dropped us off in Campbell River (on her way to Courtenay) in an attempt that we could try and see the salmon run. Linda took us to the 'Salmon capital of the world' but we only saw many half-chewed fish at the side of the water. Giving up on Salmon we walked along the pier and spotted about ten orcas, which came pretty close! Much better than salmon!

I have seemed to work a lot at Linda's. It didn't help that there was not a clearly defined number of hours that I should work per day. Most places I've been at I've had to work four hours in the morning and get the afternoons off, but she never told me how many hours I should be doing (Dave told me she usually asks unskilled wwoofer to do six hours per day and hopes they'll work all day). When Linda was there the work day dragged on, with her always finding something else for me to do. When she wasn't there I still felt like I should be working a lot, especially after Dave told me I should be working six hours. And then I couldn't sleep because the cats would wake me up in the night to come in or go out or Tuna would wake me as he scratched his back on the bottom of the table or rolled around in apparent ecstasy on the floor. I washed sheets and cloths, tumbledried, cleaned windows, swept floors, vacuumed floors, swept the decks many times, mopped floors, cleaned mirrors, kitchens, toilets, bathrooms, made raw beetroot, carrot, pepper and tomato salad, made tasty salad dressing, cooked apple oatmeal crisp (a bit like apple crumble), cleaned extremely dirty dishes, helped edit Linda's entry for the 'CBC's Canada Writes' competition- an account of her walk a couple of years ago on the Camino, typed and edited Linda's homework on Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper, raked an awful lot of leaves (surely this is the most pointless task ever invented and deserves almost equal ranting attention in books as the topic of lawns), emptied leaves from the gutter, picked up horse chestnuts (to deter spiders from the guestrooms apparently), perfected my breadmaking (with a recipe left by previous WWOOFers), fed the animals (although feeding the cats just involved leaving a bag by the door which they would dive into everytime they came back inside), trying to get Tuna to come for a walk (I only realised when Linda came back that he was actually capable of the task), walking to the shop and buying items such as catfood, trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to light the fire, sorting out the numerous piles of recycling,and helping Linda to rearrange the living room and then to start painting it.

In the what felt like small snippets of time I had to myself I cycled to Rebecca Spit provincial park where I saw some dolphins swimming by and beaches piled high with driftwood (I would really be inspired to build something out of them if I lived here), took the ferry to Cortes Island and straight back with Barbara to admire the neighbouring islands and mountains, looked at Linda's good book collection (books such as builders of the pacific northwest) and copied down recipes, went to the Heriot Bay Inn and 'attended' the Quadra Island's University Halloween special course in 'How to survive a Zombie attack' (we weren't sure what to think), played bananagrams with Dave and Sarah (who are also helpxing on Quadra) and along with Vincent drunk tea at their host's house (which seemed very clinical compared to Linda's house), listened to the open mike night at the pub and cycled to and then walked up Chinese Mountain with a good view over southern Quadra Island, the mainland and surrounding islands. With Linda and Tuna I went on a walk near Quathiaski Cove on the other side of the island, but didn't spot any more whales. Today Vincent guided Linda, Dave, Sarah and I (as well as Tuna) in some mushroom picking in the woods behind the community centre (where the Quadra Island Quilters were hard at work in a quilting marathon- I really want to make a quilt one day). We picked a lot of chanterelles and a huge cauliflower mushroom. Vincent has just made a delicious soup with them.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

WWOOFing at East Cider Farm

Right now I'm on Denman Island, the larger and less isolated of the two main Northern Gulf islands. Here the ferry seems to be more like a road addition and many of the residents flit back and forth from Vancouver Island since the ferry across doesn't stop at 6pm as the one from Denman to Hornby does. Just like Hornby though, it feels a bit like the British countryside. Like Hornby it has its fair share of hippys, but it's also got quite a few right wing Albertans who apparently started coming to the island once there were flights direct from Calgary to nearby Courtenay. There seems to be quite a bit of community spirit here too, with lots going on in the village such as drumming circles, concerts, yoga and Chinese medicine classes.

I'm almost at the end of the second week of my fifth WWOOFing session. I'm at East Cider Farm/Orchard with Larry and Anne, their crazy stick obsessed dog Ringa, the scratchy cat Screech, some chickens and four Muscovy ducks, as well as at the moment their youngest of three sons, Sebo. My abode is a small (what they call) trailer just outside the house. Larry is now retired to farm work after working 25 years, or more, for BC ferries and Anne works a few days a week as a mediator trying to resolve parent-teenage conflicts.

When Larry and Anne moved to the farm in the early 1980s there was a falling down shack of a house, a few apple trees and some fields. They built their own wooden house, planted about 1000 apple rootstocks, grafting on approximately 80 different varieties of apples and surrounded the orchard with a high fence to stop the deer getting in. The trees are semi-dwarf trees, which apparently only give a steady yield for thirty years, after which productivity starts to dwindle. Their size is very convenient and there are only a few trees that I can't reach the top branches of, and I haven't had to climb any ladders yet. Varieties include gala, blenheim orange, bramley, asian apple-pear (shinjuku), dabinett, liberty, jonagold, prima, james grieve, tompkin's king, chisel jersey and new orleans renette.There are also some pear trees. There are no coxes, russets or kidd's orange redds. Almost all taste pretty good, apart from some of the cider apples and a variety from New York that doesn't even have a proper name, but just numbers (and now I understand why..). The Tompkin's King, which I was picking yesterday, is a yellow-red apple, with pink markings, pretty juicy, susceptible to being worm eaten (almost half of the apples I picked had worms in them) and is really tasty. It is thought to have originated from New Jersey and is quite popular in North America (I've been reading the apple books). The dabinetts (cider apples) are delicious and the galas rather good too. I'm also fond of the apple-pears, although theirs are much smaller than those we had in China and South Korea. I've been thinking of planting one at home for a while, so it's good to see that they can grow in this damp almost Devonshire-like environment. It's hard not to eat a lot of the small apples when I'm picking, I think the blueberry picking has made me think I need to eat while I'm picking fruit!

Back when the trees first started fruiting it wasn't hard for Larry and Anne to sell the apples on the island, but now that everyone seems to have planted their own there's not such a demand. They did used to take some to sell at farmers' markets in Vancouver, but it is rather far to go and sell your apples. In Vancouver you can sell organic apples for about $1.80 a pound. You are lucky to find any apples in downtown Vancouver below 99 cents a pound. All the apples sold here at the little self-service shop in the apple barn are 75 cents a pound. Although not as bad as our apples at home, East Cider Farm's apples have some scab. Larry used to apply some limewash, which is permitted when you're growing organically, but now he can't be bothered. So the low value of the apples and the scab has led them to using most of their apples in juice, or apple cider as they call it in these lands. They separate the apples into good quality apples for sale and juicing on Vancouver Island, second quality (the scabby or wormy ones) for cutting up and juicing on Denman Island and third quality (too small, too scabby, too rotten, too wormy), which they wheel to the edge of the wood for the deer to eat. The man who juices for them in Courtenay wants to retire and appears to be a bit of a fussy grump. He has stopped pasturising the juice for them this year and is threatening to stop pressing at the end of the month, despite it having been a late season.
So Anne and Larry are now pasturising the raw juice themselves by boiling it to 180F and filling it into sterilised glass bottles. They have installed a propane heater beneath the sink to keep the water the bottles are in hot and put a spout and some improvised insulation on a very large pan to boil the juice in. Aside from apples and juice they also sell some jams, dried apple, pear and plum bags and in the summer organic fruit from the Okanagan (and Similkameen) from Hornby's veg. stall man (who came to buy some vegetables from Mariposa Organic Farm while I was there.)

Despite growing up surrounded by about 70 apple trees I have to shamefully admit that I've never really picked apples before. There is a little bit of an art to picking apples, because you mustn't pick the fruit spur (just above the apple stem), otherwise there wont be any fruit on that particular branch next year. Usually when the apples are ripe enough you just need to move them up or down or from side to side and they will come off. When they don't come off so easily you have to use your thumb or other hand to hold the branch to stop the fruit spur coming off. It is much easier to pick the windfalls, but it's wetter on the ground and the apples are more often host to woodlice (or woodbugs...), worms, maggots and in my first week here wasps.

So what have I been doing here on Denman? Workwise I've been picking apples, picking up windfalls, sorting apples (obviously), cutting the bad bits out of the second rate apples (which I do too slowly) watering the tomatoes, picking maize, pulling out the stems of the maize and chopping them into small pieces, picking the tomatoes, pulling out the tomatoes, pulling out the squash plants, clearing out the chicken shed in preparation for two turkeys due to arrive at the weekend, slicing and peeling apple to dry it, preparing the dried fruit bags, making pear compote and trying to stop the school kids who came to visit the farm from picking all the fruit spurs along with their apples. And when I've not been working I've been to a thanksgiving potluck dinner with 17 other people, participating in my first 'thanksgiving round', eating a thanksgiving meal with the family, throwing possibly into the thousands of sticks for Ringa in the garden and on the beach, walking along the beach, seeing an otter and many bald eagles, cycling round the island, visiting Fillongley provincial park, visiting Boyle Point provincial park, eating two meals in Lindsey's (she was a WWOOFer here and now comes and helps once a week) pioneer cabin, meeting up with Dave and Sarah in the 'city centre', watching the end of the Denman v. Courtenay football match, having a look at an art exhibition, getting some wool and felting needles at the felt shop, drinking hot chocolate in the cafe, reading 'Two Caravans' by Marina Lewycka (it's a good story about immigrant workers in the UK), trying to read (because you have to when you come from Lyme Regis) the copy of the 'French Leutenant's woman' that I found in the Northern Studies Centre, taking photos, sorting photos, trying to trip plan (but the internet is slow) and going to a cello concert with Lindsey (we weren't going to go because it was expensive but then Connie who I met exhibiting her art at the art exhibition gave us free tickets). I've also baked brownies (although out of a president's choice packet so I don't think that really counts), a lasagne and steamed lots of vegetables.

I'm dreaming of all the things I can bake when I get home. One day I'll try bottling some fruit and veg., making my own granola and I think I should try drying some pears and plums. I'm currently stealing some recipes from an Italian vegan cookbook written by a Denman Island lady. I'm worried that I've lost the book with all the other recipes I've gathered on this journey (hopefully it's at the blueberry farm), so I've learnt the lesson and am storing these on the computer.