Breakfast with Orcas

Adventures on North Vancouver Island

By Ana Simeon

If the history of civilizations has any wisdom to teach, it is that geographical cures don’t work. Human beings moving away to escape injustice tend to replicate the same conditions in their new home. From this perspective the decision to get behind the wheel to escape the drought in one’s back yard – likely brought on by burning fossil fuels in the first place – seems an act of tragic folly, not to mention hypocrisy. And yet, and yet …

Each of us has special places where we feel utterly alive, part of something greater than ourselves. For many people this special place is by a lake, river or the ocean. For me it is the dry, spare places – the desert landscapes of the South Okanagan, the sagebrush benchlands along the Similkameen, bluebunch wheatgrass standing taller than a man in the rolling hills of Churn Creek on its way to the Fraser.

Forest Fire Skies

Forest Fire Skies, photo by Laura Hope

This summer, instead of me visiting the dry places, the drought moved in with us, settling on southern Vancouver Island like an occupying force. Hardly any rain fell from April through July, barely a couple of days in August and September. The Garry Oak meadows were carpeted with prematurely dropped leaves, a stress response even from this drought-hardy species. Smaller lakes – hidden gems like Killarney, Pease, Eagles – became warm, shallow puddles. For days, the sun setting into the Salish Sea was a blood-red ball with a reddish halo from the mainland fires. Mid-Island residents battled their own forest fires.

And so my husband and I packed up tent and hiking boots and headed for Malcolm Island. Past the sprawling new construction along Hwy 1, past the clear-cuts, out of the shimmering heat and droopy foliage, the 20-minutes ferry ride from Port McNeill delivered us to a cool and verdant oasis. The Bere Point (pronounced “bear”) campground offered expansive views of the Queen Charlotte Strait and Coast Mountains and miles of beach to explore. Eagles and ravens vied for possession of a particular treetop near our camp.  Every night, the swish of surf soothed us to sleep.

Malcolm Island, Photo by Caelie Frampton, via flickr

Malcolm Island, Photo by Caelie Frampton, via flickr

Malcolm Island was settled at the turn of the 19th century by a Finnish intentional community seeking to build lives of sharing with each other and harmony with the land. They built a village and named it Sointula (Finnish for “harmony”). Although the intentional community folded during the Great Depression, the story of Sointula is a remarkable exception to the above stricture regarding geographical cures. The co-op founded by the Finns in 1909 is still a thriving concern, selling local produce, island-fished wild salmon and a range of necessities, mostly locally made or fairly traded. The village is home to a conservation group, Living Oceans, and residents are vocal about the impact of salmon farms and the importance of protecting wild salmon. This is also the only place in B.C. that I know of that offers free bikes!

On our first morning at Bere Point we woke up to sunlight diffused through soft mists, punctuated by gentle showers. As we sat down to a breakfast of freshly-picked salal berries and buckwheat pancakes, we sighted a family of three orca whales, one clearly a young calf. Breakfast was forgotten – though not for long – as they breached and dived and breached again.

Cool misty mornings gave way to warm sunny afternoons perfect for long walks and lake swimming. We returned to Victoria infused with love for our Vancouver Island and renewed energy to continue working for a world where humans honour our interdependence with nature.

We know that we gained this joy and energy at the cost of more greenhouse gases. It’s a continuous balancing act, assessing what we truly need. It’s intimately personal to our own lives (“yes” to driving to camp within B.C., “no” to flying vacations, small allowance of “love miles” for visiting immediate family). We wish our federal and provincial governments would commit to real action on climate change, which would help anchor our own decisions within a larger communal endeavour.

Photo by Lynn Mathieson

Photo by Lynn Mathieson

This article originally appeared in Island Parent