Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Amazon Adventure. # 6. We turn left to cross Florida by River.

Sailing beside Lake Okachobee.

From Fort Meyers we joined the Caloosahatchee River system. No more tides stranding us for a while, but we do find a new set of problems: bezillions of insects that love us ( to eat). We have our first experience of passing through a lock and stop overnight in the town of La Belle. Here we meet a fellow cruiser (the first in a long series) who has actually been to the Bahamas and reassures us that we will have a great time there. He gives me his copy of the Bahamas Cruising Guide which I will read over many times before we eventually leave Florida. The ‘river’ we are following is mostly dredged straight channels and we are lucky to have following winds to hurry us on our way toward Lake Okachobee in the middle of Florida.
The Journal:

The lock raises us four feet.
Dec. 10th.
Up early in a nice little bay among some mangrove islands. I had a splash bath on the foredeck while the ladies did a complex bathing ritual in the tent. We motored up river to our first lock: a new experience holding onto a line as we were raised a whole four feet.

Anne sails us up the river.

Here I sit with a steady rattle of bugs trying to get in. We had a mosquito attack and finally made a smudge in the coffee pot to cool their ardor. Anne is tending it now. Elaine and Gwyn are in one hull doing a French story and Heather is making chilli and rice. We are anchored in a swamp, but a very beautiful, if buggy, swamp along the edge of Lake Okachobee. We have had a good day starting under the noisy bridge at La Belle and a quick stop at a marina to top up with gas. By 12:00 we were all starving because we had corn flakes for breakfast and not good porridge that sticks to our ribs.
We nosed into the shade of a large pine on the river bank ( this is open ranching country) for a lunch break and listened to the wind in the branches. We decided that the wind had come round to the point where we could sail. Got the big genoa out and away we went. Elaine and Gwyn steered while I dangled my feet and tended the sheet. Presently we arrived at the lock that lead to the big lake. Soon we were sailing quietly along the edge of a vast reed and grass swamp. Many strange birds. Bill.

Sailing beside the swamp.

Dec. 11th. Woke up this morning to another massive mosquito attack. Bill and I decided to move out into the channel to find a breeze but for the first time the engine would not start (too misty and damp I guess). In the end we got the girls up, took down the tent and we all paddled slowly and laboriously past a couple of men who should have been tending a sluice gate. We paddled around the corner and settled down in a bug free environment to bath and wash all our bloody and dead-buggy clothing. One of those men then showed up to offer us help, coffee, showers etc. Bill trotted off to see about a motor repairman (too expensive) and came back with a bunch of finger bananas.

Mosquito attack.
By now the sun was hot, the engine ignition wires dried out and the engine started. So we had a super day mostly sailing with the genoa along incredible avenues of eucalyptus . Seeing alligators and birds we have never seen before. Lots of sugar cane fields which were being burned off prior to harvest.

Elaine steers swathed in laundry after the bloody mosquito night.

We stopped at the little lakeside town of Pahokee where we were now out in the open lake and moored behind the breakwater confident that the predicted ‘norther’ would not arrive and we would get a good night sleep minus mosquitos and wind. But it was Friday night and party time and what a party they had too up on the levee behind us until it was too late and the wind was beginning to rise.... Heather.

Amazon behind the breakwater at Pahokee on Lake Okachobee.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Amazon Adventure #5. The Inter coastal waterway to Fort Meyers.

Shell collecting.

We are now well into a daily routine of sailing and motoring south along the Inter-coastal waterway which has been dredged to join up lagoons on the land side of a series of long narrow mangrove islands. Some of these islands are left natural with lots of birdlife, and some are developed by dredging channels to form classy home sites with a yacht at the foot of every lawn. Swinging bridges connect these islands to the mainland and we must blow our horn (like a little trumpet - the girls hate it as it makes people look at us and at their age this is embarrassing.) to get them to open for us.
Bill seems to be always working on the boat: completing our simple electrical system for example or trying out our new sails for the first time. Once we were sailing toward a bridge and blew the horn and the bridge did n`t open. We were moving fast! Gaaak! The engine started first pull and stopped us just before we passed under and our mast did not!

The Journal:

Dec 7th.
Woke up in the little harbour at Englegrove. Bill and I walked to a Marina close by to buy charts and were startled to hear ‘Rudolph the red nosed reindeer’ on the radio. It just does n`t seem like Christmas somehow.
Continued down the waterway until we reached the last bridge at Placida and found that it was broken. Some kind people in a motorboat showed us a shallow passage out to the open Gulf and we put up the yankee jib as well as the staysail and travelled in grand style along the coast of Gasparilla island. At the southern point we reentered the waterway through the Boca Grand Pass.
Our destination: a marina at last! With showers and a laundromat! Cabbage Key. This has been the first really warm sunny day and we all enjoyed it very much. Elaine and Anne sunbathed on the deck and Heather even seeking shade behind the sails. Heather.

Dec 8th.
We all woke up thinking we should go back to bed. Clumsy! Sleepy eyed! People telling me to eat quick or no food at all! Soon Anne and Elaine went to the showers (not the greatest). Mom came back from doing the laundry and then me and mom got to have showers. I got back and the tent was down and Dad and Anne were trying to figure out the mainsail and put it up for the first time. They bumped their heads a million times on the boom. We then had lunch and left at 12:30.

So we travelled towards Fort Meyers but stopped at a little Key instead to stay the night. It had a neat little beach. And after we anchored for the night mom went out to fish ( In ‘Hippolyta’, our yellow inflatable dinghy. Hippolyta: Queen of the Amazons.- paddled like a hippo but was lighta) but we made her come back `cuz that wind was too strong. She picked up Anne, Elaine and me to bring us to the beach. We stopped off there collecting shells. The shells are really pretty here and strange. Mom went back and got Dad and food. After watching the sunset we went back to Amazon and had a delicious supper and Anne went back out to fish and caught herself! Mom got the hook out and so we are now going to bed. I know this is a boring journal today, but mom wants the light out. Good Nite!!!! Gwyn.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Amazon Adventure #4. Sailing away from Tampa Bay.

A sheltered place for the night.

Sailing ( for the first time) south in choppy waves, ( the northerly winds are still with us) we finally pass under an enormous bridge at the entrance to Tampa Bay at sunset and find some shelter behind it. We bump, bump, over the shallows and find a bay in the lee of a mangrove Island. As we are dropping anchor, some fishing skiffs are moving farther out. More room for us we think, not considering the tide.

The Journal:
Got up to find we were stuck in the mud (literally!!). Got into the water. Yummm! Nice slimy, oozy, mud. Yuck!! Pushed off into deeper water. Anyway, me and Gwyn ate out breakfast while Anne and Mom wash their hair and do their ‘spungy’.Then we changed over and me and Gwyn did that. Dad washed over the side.

We motored past the bay with Bradenton in it `cuz we were too busy trying to miss all the shoals. We got to Anna Maria and got gas and some pop. Yeah! Then we went down the channel under two bridges (lifting, that is.) We were following a tug so did n`t have to wait at all. Nor did we have to blow our horn but of course Dad did ( just to bug us I think.). After the second bridge, we went into a little town and bought groceries and ate lunch.

Then we motored up the channel to a bunch of islands and found a place to stay ( in the back yard of some people`s house). Doing homework. Pizza for dinner. Elaine.

Dec 5th.
Today we woke up at around 7:00 am. Gwyn slept in of course - beats me how she can sleep through all that! We decided to stay here all day and wait for the norther to blow itself out. It`s dangerous to sail in because the channel is shallow and the waves, choppy.

We were lucky last night to find a place as sheltered as this. Without this shelter we would have had to suffer all night. It was extremely cold. Mom and Dad definitely did n`t get much sleep. It should be high tide soon and we will float free. We are going to try to get to the causeway at Sarasota. I hope we will.

Nope, not quite, but almost. We could have, but decide to anchor in a little bay. Almost no wind. Incredible! Bye, Anne.

PS. Dad got the marine battery sorted out today - so we can listen to the little getto blaster.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Echo Valley.

That`s what we locals call it: Echo Valley. Our land slopes down toward the fields and stream, but we cannot actually see it through the trees. Our little stream rushes down through the woods to join the one in the valley bottom and together they slide through pools and forest to the sea not so very far off. Once joined with the sea, they are spread over most of the earth and some part of them rises as vapor, returns as cloud and snows back upon us again. Returning, like an echo, you might say.

This is a place we visit regularly: walking down the hill and into the wider world of fields and open sky. Years ago, before we went sailing, Heather and I would walk here on dark starlit nights with our star chart in hand. "There is the Dipper and the North Star. There is Orion -that brilliant line is his belt." So we would walk with our heads back and our feet feeling their own way down the deserted valley road. Recently, we have walked in the ruts left by cars in the snow, watched the ducks quacking on the ice edged flooded creek as the snow melting on the fields fills the creek to bursting. Water burbles dark brown through vegetation choked ditches.

The most visible thing in the heavens is the Milky Way; the edge-on view of our own galaxy: a great river of star foam washed across the night sky. A sort of negative or reverse echo: black sky and bright star path reversals of these white fields and dark stream waters. Some nights, we hear ducks up there too.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Amazon Adventure # 3. Launching Amazon.

Raising the mast on the Alafia River.

We had arrived in Plant City near Tampa Bay on the west coast of Florida for two reasons: this was where my cousin Bob lived, and he and Shirley were to be important facilitators of the transition from trailer haulers to sailors, and because we felt that from here we could go down the coast and across Florida in protected waterways while we adjusted to our new boat and way of life. The periods of new adjustments just kept on coming!

While Heather and the girls caught up on their schoolwork and adapted to the heat, humidity and cockroaches, Bob and I scouted for a launch site and shopped for boat supplies and charts. After a few days, we launched Amazon in a community Park on a river and left the car and trailer with Bob to care for over the next few months. We were now car-less in Tampa Bay and into the next phase of our adventure. The weather had now broken, the hurricane season was over and the winter ‘Northers’( strong, northerly winds reaching down from cold fronts further north) had started.

We attracted lots of attention at the park on a wet windy launching day while we put our rig together, hoisted the mast and installed the galley boxes on the foredeck. Everything had to be onboard by nightfall and Amazon anchored safely well off the beach as this area was a winter retreat for poor ragged folks who chose ( like many Canadians) to spend the winter in a warm place. We were distinctly aware of our vulnerability and this was reinforced by a Marine Patrol officer who visited us regularly and said that without a gun, we would never get out of Tampa Bay, never mind the rest of Florida and (God forbid) the Bahamas!

One morning, after being sized up by a shady character in a car we decided to ‘test the outboard’on a short run down river and then kept going down the coast of Tampa Bay until we found a sheltered bay in a day use park. Here we anchored for a couple of days as we rigged the trampolines fore and aft between the hulls, completed and hoisted the tent, sheltered from another Norther and watched the manatees feeding all around us. The Park Rangers were none too happy at first to have us stay overnight but finally allowed ‘ a fellow ranger from Canada’ to anchor off the land portion by night and to come ashore and use the showers during the day. We found that generally our family adventure attracted a lot of fellow feeling from many people who dreamed of stepping out of the ruts they had dug themselves into and could almost imagine themselves in our shoes.

Amazon assembly.

Excerpts from the family journal fill in the details:

Nov 29th.
Launching day! At a public launching ramp on the Alafia River. Found a crew of people ( bums and boaters) to help push her off the trailer. Big push! Nothing. Out with the mazola oil to grease the ways. Big push! Zoooom!!!! Nearly burned my hands on the tether rope trying to stop her from bumping another boat coming in. Even still strapped together, she looked good floating high and wet for the first time. Then over to a beach to spread the hulls and assemble the big cross beams and central platform. What a hassle, but finally semi and quickly assembled in the pouring rain (warm) We then threw everything aboard and anchored beside the ‘Warning! Manatee.’ sign.

Nov 30th .
Doing the final adjustments to the rope lashings for the cross beams. Raising the mast, instruction book in hand. A long string of visitors with horror stories of pirates and storms. That evening aboard, it poured with rain as we celebrated Heather`s birthday so we were all under an orange tarp eating our turkey soup and bananas and custard. We lit the birthday cake candles and sang Happy Birthday. Later in the night I was up setting a second anchor in the wind and then slept intermittently rolled up in the tarp. Heather was down below keeping dry scrunched up in the head compartment. A birthday to remember ( or forget!).

Dec 1st.
As we motored down the river we saw our first alligator (10feet long). Once in Tampa Bay it was quite choppy. Splash, splash! Out in the shipping channel. We are navigating by road map. We passed a couple of barges and tugs and saw our first porpoises. Girls emerged from their hulls slightly green but recovered. We overshot Apollo Beach by a couple of miles but found a state park. We are anchored at last in a lagoon at sunset. Pelicans splashing down after fish. Alligators watching. We put the tent up for the first time.
A really beautiful place. Anchored fore and aft and watching the sunset through the palms. Now this is more like it! Bill.

Dec 2nd.
Pitched the tent for supper but the wind came out in force and we lay in bed (on deck) and watched it flap, until at 11:30 we upped, and downed the tent in a thrashing gale. The rest of the night was a bit chilly as Bill kept hopping out of our tarp to check things. Here`s hoping the wind is with us tomorrow so we can scoot south! Heather.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Fire and Ice.

Fire in the clearing.

At the beginning of February there are just a few frozen lumps of snow left on the roadside. A month ago we could hardly walk for the stuff. For days we were kept holed up and were glad of the food stores we had squirreled away. Along with the cold and snow came sunshine and blue skies which brought dramatic lighting to our blue shadowed, sparkling world.

Moss and snow.

Rock plants.

For all the beauty of those early drifts of pristine snow, it is these melting patches that attract me now: curves of crusty snow, blobs of brilliant green moss poking through: snow drops forcing their stems and white flowers through frozen ground. There is promise here of longer days and warmer times: of time marching on through the flow of the seasons.


I`m out now sharpening the cutting teeth of my chainsaw and felling trees for next winter`s firewood. There is a patch of Balsam firs that have been killed by budworm and will pose a fire hazard during next summer`s drought times unless they are cleared out. They have grown so tightly and are so hemmed in that it is difficult to fell them cleanly and the clearing is soon a crisscross of tree trunks. What a mess! After the challenge of felling, the job of bucking them up into fire-log sized pieces is a noisy chore, and dragging endless bundles of branches to the center of the clearing is exhausting for my winter softened body. The fire makes up for it all as the flames leap upward.
I climb back over the rocky ridge toward home and lunch, pause to glance back at the flames and then, after shaking the sawdust out of my pant cuffs, step through the front door. Heather looks up from the quilt she is sewing and sees my smile. ‘How goes the logging?" she says.
"I got the fire going at last."I reply, and shuck my jacket off. She knows that I am having a very good day.

Just as I`m finishing, down comes some more snow!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Amazon Adventure #2. 'Goin` down the highway'.

Anne (behind the car), Heather, Gwyn, Elaine, at a rest stop making breakfast.

Over the next two weeks we crossed America by driving south to Central California and then east through the desert states and along the Gulf Coast to central Florida. Easily said in one sentence, but a land voyage full of adventure in it`s own right. For towing, the two hulls were held side by side with temporary 4x4 cross beams so the package was within the width restrictions for highway travel, but the 26` hulls together with the trailer was more like 30` long and high and light. Going down the highway turned into a white knuckle experience for me, the driver. The big commercial trucks loved to pass us and as they did so the pressure wave of their passing set our load twisting and turning like a snake. At first I tried to correct with steering but soon realized that it was far better to just let it happen and be spat out again at the end. We discovered that with all the family and all those extra school books, the car was front high and back low. We stopped in Oregon to install air shocks to balance us up a little. The electric trailer brake mechanism had to be readjusted and I had to learn to use the trailer brakes alone to keep us straight when going down steep hills. Fortunately, the route we chose had few of these.

At the end of each day`s drive we spent the night at either an RV camp or in a free Rest Area (lay-by) which suited our small budget. The girls slept in their berths in the hulls of Amazon and Heather and I in the back of the station wagon with a plastic tarpaulin pulled over the top for privacy. Trucks arrived and departed all night long. For meals, we lifted the galley boxes and ice box down from the trailer and used the propane stove. We attracted a lot of attention ( a boat in the desert) and I had interesting chats with many who stopped especially to tell me of their own sailing dreams.
There were a number of stressful moments and the girls found this far too exciting! Not only were we taking them away from home, friends and normal life, but their parents seemed not to have everything under control. Perhaps we could turn back? While all their lives they had experienced their parents solving problems as they built the little farm in the big woods, what they had never seen was their pre-children exciting life working with CUSO in South America and some of the canoe and sailing travels they had experienced in BC. Their first lesson on this trip across America was that ongoing problem solving could be ‘situation normal’ and that things worked out OK. They adapted very well.

The Golden Gate.

We decided that we would all take turns writing a daily journal and our daily record preserves what would by now be a hazy memory.

Nov. 9th.
6:00 PM. Stopped for night in Centralia, Wash. We have developed electrical problems with the car. No lights or brakes. Too dangerous to continue so we have found an RV park and bought a pizza for supper. It`s too cold to cook supper outside. Elaine and Anne are going to snuggle into their duvets and listen to the radio while Gwyn and I start on one of her French tapes in the car. The plan is: to get up at the crack of dawn to bags the showers, a cold breakfast, and then on to find a garage to get our electricals fixed. Hopefully, we will get almost to California tomorrow. We`d better not spend any money, that`s for sure! Heather.
Nov. 13th.
Today we drove through San Francisco. Crossing the Golden Gate bridge was hair raising. The family say it was quite a thrill to see the bridge, the bay and the great shining city spread out around them. I would n`t know, as I was white knuckling the rig along a narrow space between the bridge side and rushing traffic.
Later that night we shopped for groceries at Los Banos. We are not finding food cheap at all. Then driving on in the dark. We drove past Fresno with passing trucks buffeting us as they roared by. Down to 45 mph and sleepy. Finally see a camping sign and turn off and wind through grape orchards to a RV park on a lake.
A quick supper of egg in a hole and so to the end of the day. Everyone tired, but cheerful. Tomorrow, Bakersfield, a mountain pass and the Mojave Desert. Bill.

Mon. Nov.17th.
Last night we slept in a rest area again. Unfortunately we had to sleep with the Trucks!! There were a lot of weird people and it was kinda scary! There was this one bum who went around asking people for a ride, food etc. This morning he asked dad, and he gave him a razor and a couple of buns. Wow! The people in the hippie van right beside us were all stoned.
Today was kinda boring, but - that`s usual! We got to Van Horn, Texas, tonight and are staying in a RV park. ............Wow, but isn`t this FUN! Anne.
Thursday, Nov. 20th.
Today we all woke up complaining about how bad our sleep was last night. I could explain that rest area in two words. THE WORST!
We started up again and drove toward a storm. There were dark clouds and the sky looked mean!
Along the road there were pine trees and some other kind that were yellow and green. We missed the storm `cuz we went to the left of it. Soon we were on a bridge over the Atchafalaya swamp. I say it is the longest bridge in the world. I know it`s not true but I don`t care! We finally saw a gas sign and we got off the bridge thank goodness as my arms were getting tired ( hands up for all bridges) We soon found there was no gas so we turned around and went back on the bridge and up went my hands! We still were looking for Alligators or crocodiles.
We crossed the border to Mississippi. We stopped at a rest stop and we went down to a swamp-like thing with a bridge going across to a pond or lake. There was a stick that looked like a crocodile. I thought it was! Gwyn.

Friday Nov. 21st.
Today we woke up in the most beautiful park ( Buccaneer Park) and had showers. We left the park at `bout 9:00 and drove down the beach front. White sand and beautiful houses. My first sight of the Atlantic Ocean ( Gulf of Mexico). We went over a long bridge that had people fishing on it and we nearly got caught by a fishing rod! We got into Alabama and through it again in about an hour. We did n`t see much of it except for a tunnel that we held over our heads ( hands up for all tunnels) all the way through in Mobile. Then we got to Florida and we stopped at a rest stop info. center and had some Florida Orange Juice. And they gave it for FREE!!!! Later it was starting to get dark and a semi passed us and put our car totally out of control! We were swerving all across the road.
We are staying at a campground near the highway but not so close that we can hear the trucks. Elaine.

Sat. Nov 22nd.
This folks is our last day of this drive. We should get to Plant City sometime tonight. Good! Great! Yeah!
We stopped for lunch at a rest area as usual. Florida is pretty much OK. Not as pretty as Mississippi, but OK. When we got to Plant City we found a supermarket and phoned dad`s cousin Bob. Their house is pretty small, but nice. Smells like mothballs.
Mom and dad think they are pretty smart trying to scare us into believing all their stories about cockroaches. By the end I did n`t know what to believe. Ugh! They sound disgusting! Well, I`ll believe it when I see it. Time for bed. It`s nice to have lights and a BED for the first time in two weeks. Anne.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Wild Woman of the Woods.

Arbutus branches reaching for the sea.

Down the road from our home, maybe fifteen minutes away by bicycle, is a point of land on the north shore of Fulford Harbour. It is Indian Reserve land, but the tribal owners permit others to walk on it: very thoughtful of them, given the difficult history of land settlements between the original inhabitants and the newcomers.
It is possible to walk a loop trail that leads through cedar forest and then up through oak and moss covered rocky slopes and then back along the shoreline. The walk might take a leisurely hour: it is a vest-pocket bit of land whose original use to the Salish people would have been as a summer fishing camp at the sheltered beach. The soils there are a thick midden of seashells, freshly exposed along the shore by winter waves.

I`ve walked here for thirty years or so, with my young and then grown-up family and now with my grandchildren. I also come here on my own when I need to touch base with a deep reality that this bit of sea shore acts as an entry point for me. I`m sure that if we are lucky we all are aware of what part of our life does this for us. The natural world has chosen me, but I`ve also seen into that space in the eyes of those that suffer or are dispossessed. I know each of us can find his own truth in a multitude of places and times and that it is important to our understanding of the world and our place in it that we should do so.

This place at the shore does not exist merely to give peace and harmony to me. That may be how many receive it, but I will not wrench it around so it will perform that sole function for my benefit. Rather it calls to me to see it`s reality and create from it a new understanding of my place within it. "Look at me! Look at me! See me as I am, not through the usual filters that fill your mind!" it says. And that is difficult and challenging and takes a sharp focus.


Recently I walked with my camera, releasing my thoughts to wander down darker trails. There are twisted arbutus trees here that seem locked in combat, a dark fir forest that exudes sadness and the kind of horror that raises the hair on the nape of my neck. Shattered, beaten shards of rock are pressed apart by plunging roots. It helps that it is an overcast winter`s day and that a brighter layer of Spring leaves cannot yet disguise the snarl that lies just below the surface. The ‘Wild Woman of the Woods’ is here now, speaking through this landscape. Perhaps it is no accident that this powerful place is Indian Land, uncluttered by settler`s Gods and busy commerce. This small piece of the island is still free to unsettle my mind as it expresses a wider and wilder range of thought.

Truth is beauty, beauty truth.

A couple of walkers come up behind me as I am photographing the twisted trunk of a fir tree. "What am you doing? What there is worth a picture?"
I stop and look at my subject through their eyes and see the pitchy, carbuncled, hacked bark. I pause and then say thoughtfully that it is beautiful. I am remembering the last lines from John Keats`Poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That`s all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." This is beautiful, but within a more searching aesthetic than simply what pleases my eye. If I can see the truth of this place, no matter how fierce it may be, then I will be seeing a true form of beauty. Within this frozen passion I am close to understanding some very great thing. For a moment, " I see you ! Yes, I see you!"

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Amazon Adventure #1. The Peter Duck Expedition.

Crossing The Gulf Stream.

Behind us on the receding horizon in Palm Beach, Florida, some pre-Christmas fireworks are sparkling in bright colours. Ahead, behind the mast and sail, the moon drifts through light veils of cloud. Somewhere, 50 miles ahead of us, hidden in the darkness, is our destination; the Bahama Islands. My 11 year old daughter Gwyneth and I are sailing our 26`open-deck catamaran across the Gulf Stream on our first night passage; in fact this is our first venture out into the open ocean since launching our new boat over on the west coast of Florida near Tampa. The rope lashings that tie the cross members of the hulls together squeal and complain. The waves splash aside with our passage, a dolphin or two rise grey in the moonlight to say hello, and distant shipping sail up and down the strait. Gwyn, is trying hard to play her part as crew just as the children in the ‘Peter Duck’ book do, but she is dropping off to sleep. We practice doing times tables and capital cities of Canadian provinces to keep her awake. My wife Heather, and daughters Anne (15 ) and Elaine (13 ) are trying to sleep below in the hulls until it is their turn on watch to steer the compass course.
It was only six months ago that we launched this sailing idea back on our Gulf Island near Victoria, BC on the West Coast of Canada. Obviously, a lot has happened since then!

A situation had opened up some possibilities in our ‘back to the land’ life on Saltspring Island. Our children were entering their teenage years with no experience of the world beyond our island shores and I had just missed getting the art teaching job at the local high school. My work as a Park Ranger was seasonal and I had completed all the house building I usually filled my winter months with. How could we make my seasonal employment into a plus in our family`s life? Heather and I had begun to get the itch to do something revolutionary. ( Perhaps it was that wild look in my eyes that cost me the job!) The family, deep into reading the Arthur Ransome series ‘Swallows and Amazons’ had just finished ‘ Peter Duck’, a story full of children and pirates, set in the coral islands of the Carribean. When we suggested a winter holiday,‘Lets go to the South Seas,’ was the enthusiastic vote. Thus the ‘Peter Duck Expedition’ was born.

It is amazing how the first great hurdle is finding the strength to make a change, but once made, how things immediately begin to flow from there. Looking at a map we decided that buying a big boat and sailing to Hawaii in the Pacific was too ambitious for us, especially given that we wished to leave within six months. We found that the Bahama Islands off the coast of Florida, on the other side of the continent, had shallow protected waters, islands, coral reefs and palm trees. They even had a long reputation for piracy! We could drive there - or at least to Florida, just across a little blue strip of water from the Bahamas. We could do all this during my winter lay-off from the Parks. We parents were both trained teachers, so we could teach our own children so they would not loose a year of school, and travelling in lands less wealthy than our own was an education we wished our children to gain before they were completely absorbed by our unquestioning consumer society.

We looked into buying a small sailboat in Florida for our adventure and then reselling it before we returned home. The thought of all five of us in something like a Cal.20. felt claustrophobic and besides, the time taken to locate one and then re-sell it would gobble up precious adventuring time. We would build a trailerable, specially designed boat and take it with us. I started sketching possible solutions and quickly focused down to the idea of an open decked plywood catamaran that could be transported disassembled and expanded on launching day in Florida ( just add water.). A week later, I found a description of a James Wharram 26` catamaran that was very much like my own design idea. We sent for the plans!

I was well into my summer Park Ranger work by the time the correct plans arrived. Having no time to build, I priced out what it would have cost me to build it and then went shopping for what it would cost to have it built for us. After all, I reasoned, the building plans were of a rapid stitch and glue style that would be quick to build. Maybe the limited labour costs would be offset by the cheaper cost of materials available to a professional builder? We found our builder ( Hugh Campbell.) for the right price in the town of Sidney, just a quick ferry ride away from home.

With the boat building under way, we sold our VW van and bought a Ford station wagon to tow our boat. Heather and our friend Ken Dobson designed and built two galley boxes (kitchen) that could fit on deck. We bought a large Sears tent, and with zippers, Heather remade it into a deck tent to give us an enormous airy home while at anchor. A propane cylinder, light and stove, a porta potty, a used 4- stroke Honda outboard, a VHF radio and many more bits of inexpensive camping kit were ready by the time AMAZON finally came home from the builder on the flat deck trailer we had bought and rebuilt especially for it.

Anne, Elaine and Gwyneth had already started school in the Fall by the time the boat arrived and I was laid off for the winter, so we visited their teachers and got the course outlines that the children must follow. Their science teacher asked that they study how people on the islands we were to visit dealt with infrastructure like transportation and fresh water. We brought along all the novels the girls had to read while they were away. I built shelves into Amazon`s hulls to contain them all! One morning we drove onto the ferry to the mainland with our long rig trailing behind, doffed our disguises as mild mannered Islanders and carefully adjusted our bandannas and eye patches. ARRRR, we were off!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Tour.


The Tour. (1) "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

Las Vegas to Zion National Park.
Plastic bags flap on the desert bushes and broken fences that line the highway on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The white passenger van, with it`s trailer full of baggage, is filled with twelve strangers setting off to view the arid world of the American South West.

This is a unique experience for my wife Heather and me: our exploring has always been of the unguided more solitary type. We are here now because I won this week-long tour by Trek America in a BCAA contest and experiencing this guided group experience will turn out to be just as fascinating for us as the canyons we will be seeing. Our leader John, (a country boy from Mississippi and proud of it! ) tells us we will be stopping soon at a Wal-mart to stock up on cheap supplies for lunch and breakfast fixings. His passengers strain to understand his fast talking southern accented English over the microphone as they also struggle to grasp what they are saying to each other in their own accents. Nine of us come from Canada, England, Ireland and Australia, and one couple hails from New York and is off to explore their own enormous and diverse country. We listen to John effortlessly making conversation with the person "riding shotgun"in the front passenger seat over the insistent pulse of the Country and Western theme music that, like it or not, adds that extra layer of authenticity to our daily travelling experience.

Zion National Park is about three hours drive east of Las Vegas, our first stop on a circuit that will land us back in Las Vegas just in time for our tour leader to start all over again with another group the following day. Over the next week we will learn a lot about John, his life on the farm back in Mississippi, the Trek tours he has lead all over North America, and we will marvel how he can continue to maintain his interest, energy and professional dedication to his job. He will be our window into the personality of the people of America and no matter how unique the public personality he presents to us is at times, we will feel the unreserved warmth of Americans shining through.

Our group is mostly in their thirties and forties, and interested in the social aspects of travelling together: beer was picked up at that Wal-mart and will serve to lubricate the evenings in motels: unlike many Trek tours which are camping ones oriented towards younger people, this one provides a motel each night and has attracted a slightly older and well heeled demographic. There is an interest in walking and hiking each day that we all share and which is our leader`s speciality. He makes sure that those who do not wish to challenge themselves on difficult hikes have lots of alternatives and are not made to feel second class because of it. Behind the public persona we see John thinking, watching and evaluating his group, constantly adjusting to both our needs and the needs of the schedule. We are going through a kind of boot camp and John is a very good sergeant.

Zion`s sandstone cliffs.

Our first ‘free day’ in Zion ( no travelling, no required participation) sees most of the group up before dawn with John and off to climb a steep trail to a spectacular lookout in this beautiful canyon. Feeling like the grandparents we are, we choose to explore on our own. We walk the box canyon trail in the cool, shadowed light that bounces down to us from the sheer sandstone rockfaces. I photograph the flowers that are a month late this year thanks to a cool spring and muse about the Indian peoples who once called this home. This is not easy to do amidst the streams of park visitors on the paved and well signed trail. Zion is one of the oldest national parks and gets a lot of visitors each year, so the staff work hard to both protect the park and yet give access so that the landscape can speak directly to those individuals who pause to learn it`s language. This park originally was named after a local tribe, but somehow the park and the landscape became known by the names assigned by the early Mormon settlers who took this land. At some level, the biblical names - the Patriarchs, the White Throne, the Altar and Pulpit, serve to tell us that we stand on holy ground: that reverence is the appropriate attitude to nature. On the other hand, that only takes us so far, it is so culturally specific that it is difficult to reach past it to that secret space where we can touch nature directly and discover that we and nature are one and the same: we speak the same language, but with different accents.

Cactus flower.
The dominant voice here is the sound of flowing water; of the Virgin River that carved this landscape over the millennia and of the little streams, pools and waterfalls that splash down the canyon sides. We walk , pause, listen and edge along other trails that zig-zag along mountain sides. I stop to offer to take photos for couples and families that would like evidence that they are all here, experiencing the special quality of this canyon. As an ex- Park Ranger I have done this service a thousand times and it is so rewarding for me to see individuals so touched by this experience of nature. As Thoreau said, " In wildness is the preservation of the world."and the truth of this familiar statement reaches us even in this well walked place.

Back in the motel over supper we share our experiences. The hiking group is a tired and happy crew: they have achieved their own version of revelation in overcoming fear and pushing personal physical limits. For those whose normal lives are lived among complex layers of culture this must indeed have been a mind altering experience. Our leader smiles: tired, happy folks are a lot easier to manage and tomorrow we will be "back in the saddle again".

Lunch break.

The Tour .(2) "As long as the rivers shall run."
Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley.
As the van winds its way higher and higher on the way to Bryce Canyon which lies still farther east in high plateau country the conversation has a different feel, the disparate crowd of individuals now have a common background: they have struggled and helped each other and it has been a bonding experience. We are getting used to different accents and even our leader`s taste in music is having its effect of grinding down our individuality and making us a team. As our companions chatter, the landscape unrolls on either side of our ribbon of road. Heather and I try to imagine the miles and miles of ‘unspectacular’ hills, trees and peoples that lie outside our narrow channelled view. This zooming along is frustrating.

Bryce Canyon.

Our visit to Bryce Canyon does n`t touch Heather and me as did Zion, although it is an amazing sight - an enormous amphitheatre filled with thousands of hoodoos. We walk the rim trail and listen to the sound of cool wind whistling through pine needles but it seems more of a show stopper kind of freak landscape; a photographic opportunity! Our personal mood can influence how we experience what we think of as the world out there and this day we are resisting the pressure of the group . Our one fellow Canadian later reported that this was his most meaningful experience of the trip - perhaps because he walked it on his own.

The rodeo.

That night we visit a small rodeo near our motel and later walk through a curio shop. We are struck by the open friendliness of the local folks and the special quality of the peoples of this high, thousand mile view western country. We are aware of our Canadian restraint in this environment which surprises us because when we travel abroad, say to Europe, we so often feel our lack of restraint compared to the people of older cultures. As usual, Canadians walk a middle path! The European members of the group are having their own difficulties in this environment: for them its so very raw. The rodeo puts them off with its ‘man and horse work with cattle’ focus. Somehow they miss the point and can only see a form of cruelty. Travelling broadens the mind, or it can if the mind is prepared to loosen its belt. It is so automatic for all of us to hold up the unfamiliar to the gold standard of our own culture and see how this or that falls short. I take the opportunity to describe to an English woman, how when I visit Europe, I feel oppressed by the very weight of the centuries of history and culture that she holds up as a ruler to measure this sweeping vista by.

Monument Valley.

At the end of a long days drive, with a stop for horseback riding or a hike (take your pick.) we arrive at a different kind of experience - Monument Valley , a Navajo tribal park . John primes us in advance for what we will experience and tells us that he and another tour leader made a point of contacting a new family operated tour company and showing them what ‘Trek’ would like to have included in the tour. Because of this attention to quality we get an unforgettable ride in the back of a truck through a landscape of buttes in the evening light.


Our guide, Willy, cannot resist giving us a movie tour like all the other tour operators ( a lot of John Wayne westerns were shot here) but then collects himself and takes us to visit an elderly lady called Suzie in her Hogan where she demonstrates Navajo spinning and weaving techniques that will lead eventually to beautiful and expensive rugs. Willy soon has us moving on to some rock-arch formations and pictographs. Here the rocks have Navaho names and stories attached rather than "Sleeping dragon" or "Camel" or "Snoopy". "Now" he says, "We will go and look at religious stuff."He means that there is serious thinking ahead.

The spirit of the wind.

Under a high arched rock roof with a natural round hole in the centre - a natural kiva, Willy first thumps his drum and sings a chanting song and then makes us lie on our backs and look up at the ceiling. "See the Spirit Bird of the Wind," he says, and sure enough there, as part of the natural rock formation, is a great head of a bird of prey with the centre hole forming the eye. Coming from the west coast of Canada, I recognize the Thunderbird. "Just keep looking." he says, as he pulls out an Indian flute and starts to play. Now I know this may sound weird, but the flute and the overarching image suck me into a very sacred space. A space without words or concepts, that probably if our guide had suspected it might actually happen to a tourist he would have been careful to avoid the risk of exposing even this little bit of sacred stuff to us. He has spoken earlier of how so many Navajo are marrying ‘Anglos’ and the old ways are being forgotten by the people, but now he is teaching just a little of Navajo thought to a wider audience and that may in the end be it`s enduring legacy to help us all preserve the world for as long as the rivers shall run.

Heather and Bill.

We end the evening with Navajo tacos, deep fried and served by his son and family in a rock amphitheatre lit by the setting sun. We all feel we would like to exist here forever in this moment but Willy brings us humourously down to earth. "You sleep here tonight, you will find scorpions sleeping beside you!"

Soon we are off to our hotel for a safe sleep in clean sheets but we know that so far this contact with real personalities is what we will cherish; that and the glimpse into another culture.

The Tour.(3) "We happy few..."

Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon.
We look forward all day to our arrival at the Grand Canyon. We are tired of the van and we will get another free day tomorrow. After our experience in Monument Valley it will be difficult for the world`s biggest hole in the ground to measure up! We really are consumers of scenic real estate as we drive from one fancy canyon to another and there is something wrong with this that we don`t really want to get our minds around. We shrug, stop analysing, and pile out to stretch our cramped bodies. John has dropped us off to walk along the rim of the canyon and we immediately understand as we peer into vast space that the size of the canyon is too grand for us. The far rim is fifteen miles away, the depth measured in thousands of feet. It is beyond a human scale. We are like aliens standing on the brink of a whole new world.

That evening, after settling into our last hotel of the tour, we carefully step out onto a rocky spur that juts out into the canyon and experience the sunset that brings dramatic colour and structure in dark and light to the endless vista. The Colorado River has carved so deep a trench over the millennia that it lies hidden in the shadows below. After the flat blue lighting of the afternoon this is our first grasp of the beauty of the canyon. Our spirits expand to encompass this giant world!

Three of our group have decided to hike the Bright Angel Trail down to the river and back despite John`s many alternate suggestions for less ambitious commitments. It is the end of May and it will be thirty degrees hotter in the bottom of the canyon than on the rim. That means over one hundred degrees F., thousands of feet in elevation going and coming back and about sixteen miles of walking on rocky trails. People, fit young people, have died hiking down there. John drops them off at the trail head before dawn after going over and over every facet of the journey. We are aware of him biting his nails all day as he shuttles the rest of us to less dramatic walks.

Heather and I opt to walk the rim trail, stop at galleries, and buy Ice Cream in the over eighty degree F. heat and even then I feel a little out of sorts due to forgetting to drink lots of water. The first of the three hikers arrives at the rim again at eleven-thirty and indicates that the remaining couple is far behind. As they should be; he is an experienced mountain walker in the British tradition and has beaten our leaders best time by two hours! We take the free shuttle bus to Hopi Point to eat our lunch and get a glimpse of the river far below. If we look very hard we can catch a glimpse of the rapids that make this an exciting river to raft down.

Suppertime, and we are told to walk down to the restaurant as John is still waiting for our last two hikers. As we worry about our comrades, I`m reminded of the television WWII series Band of Brothers and realize how close knit a group we have become over the span of only a few days. We have had meaningful conversations, taken risks and won through, helped each other in adversity, laughed a lot and shared the common burden of our leader`s taste in music. When John shows up with our tired but proud hikers we all feel a tremendous burst of camaraderie.

On the long drive back to Las Vegas the next day we feel a let down. That really was a high point last night and it will not be recaptured on this trip toward the dissolution of the group. Our leader keeps up his cheerful conversation and switches the music to classical ... ‘that`s classic country, ya hear!’ We stop for a swim in the Colorado River that winds through the hot desert two hours short of our destination and then suddenly we are back in Las Vegas and being given a tour down the Strip with all its ostentatious glitz that is so much harder not to hate after our canyon experiences. We part at the hotel, already slipping back into our separate lives with planes to catch. And yet: "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers".... we really had something there for a while.
"Perhaps man will someday reconcile the greatness of his human creativity with the greatness of the wild that created it. If we can do this without diminishing either man`s great work or nature`s, then we shall indeed walk in beauty for as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow."
From: 'Navajo Wildlands.' Steven C. Jett.

At Hopi Pt. Grand Canyon.

Monument Valley.

Virgin River. Zion.

Pictographs. Monument Valley.