Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017

© Jeremy Ferguson

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Into the mist

Orcas, fossils and ancient First Nations heritage awaits in the wilds of Vancouver Island's east coast

Visitors roaring off the boat for a fast look at Victoria and a $60 cuppa tea at the Empress Hotel have missed the boat. Picturesque though the BC capital is, it barely hints at the genuine wonders of what locals know as “the Island.” For them, the ticket is a breezy road trip up the island’s oft-neglected east coast.

The distances aren’t great — only 458 kilometres in all — but it’s an especially rich and rewarding journey. The highlights include a modest aquarium that delivers immodest results, Canada’s most dedicated locavore restaurant, the casual acquisition of 80-million-year-old souvenirs and a magnificent playground for 200 orca whales.

Ocean swells

While it’s true that some wags refer to it as “Scooterville” — referring to a seniors’ population twice the size of Victoria’s — Sidney is an especially affable seaside city. It looks out on the Strait of Georgia, or, as it’s been renamed recently, according to First Nations history, the Salish Sea. Sidney has a fine hotel, the Sidney Pier, a handful of restaurants as good as any in Victoria and 12 bookstores in a four-block radius. It’s a place where most people actually read.

Sidney’s bona fide tourist attraction is the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre (shawoceandiscovery.ca). Think Monterey Aquarium on a much smaller scale. Located in the Sidney Pier, the 17-aquaria complex reveals a local marine ecosystem as spellbinding as it is fragile.

Jellyfish and sea nettles captivate visitors at the outset. Their dance is something to behold, the orange nettles leaving trails of flame as they to cascade the buzz of digital cameras. Such tiny creatures kick-start a very large sense of wonder.

Among the centre’s four galleries, the Gallery of the Salish Sea reminds us that 99 percent of the living space on Earth actually lies underwater, that we’re the odd man out in nature’s grand scheme. It brings us nose to nose with fishes from salmon to wolf eels. The popular fave is the giant Pacific octopus, whose shape keeps changing as it negotiates its grotto. Greek chefs look on covetously.

If Ocean Discovery represents part one of the local marine experience, part two is Sidney Eco Tours (ecocruising.com), about two minutes away. Former botanist Brian Smiley’s 90-minute excursions focus on the same immediate environment, revealing the extraordinary behind the ordinary.

Smiley plucks an armload of bull kelp from the water. It’s the fastest-growing plant in the world. It grows the length from a human elbow to fingertips daily, maturing at about 36 metres long. It’s edible, too. Smiley urges passengers to take a bite. Sure enough, it’s plenty tasty. How soon will ecologically correct menus be offering ragout de bull kelp aux palourdes?

Locavore locale

Don’t expect bull kelp, but Courtenay, three-and-a-half hours north of Sidney, stakes a legitimate claim as foodie capital of the island. Offering the produce of the fertile Comox Valley, its credentials are considerable.

Courtenay’s proudest restaurant is Locals (localscomoxvalley.com). Chef Ronald St. Pierre has done what other chefs only talk about: His restaurant is almost entirely about product. He pulls it off with style and largesse. He shines the spotlight on local producers — Prontissima for pasta, Island Bison for buffalo, Christine’s Quackery for duck — at every turn. Wasabi comes farmed from Springs Wasabi. It’s the real thing, not the counterfeit horseradish and food colouring concoction used in most of Canada’s sushi houses.

When you offer eight species of fresh fish from ling cod to sablefish, you’re brave. When you offer each in five ways from steamed to stir-fried, you’re very brave. Seared albacore loin reveals the St. Pierre modus operandi, the nicely seared tuna served with a brace of vegetarian sushi rolls and as accents, soy ginger dip, chili oil and cashew-coriander pesto. Bison tournedos bring juicy Campbell River bison medallions wrapped in double-smoked bacon, charbroiled, set atop a bed of perfect lentils and garnished with caramelized onion and lavender confit. It’s a wonderful dish.

Even the drinks are local. Try a robust Red House Ale from the Surgenor Brewing Co. Or a silken Cabernet Sauvignon from the Beaufort Vineyard & Estate Winery. Never heard of it? Don’t snicker: The husband-and-wife winery walked away with gold at the 2009 All Canadian Wine Championships.

Jurassic souvenirs

Courtenay’s other draw is 80-million-year-old souvenirs. They’re the fossils of creatures that inhabited the ocean 15 million years before T-Rex. Seems 80 million years ago, the Courtenay and Puntledge River area were a marine version of Jurassic Park. Spielberg might love the elasmosaur, a fearsome marine reptile 12 metres long, with ferocious teeth and a turtle-like body. Its near-fully preserved skeleton was unearthed on the Puntledge River in 1988 and now resides in the Courtenay & District Museum and Palaeontology Centre (courtenaymuseum.ca).

“It’s an ongoing process,” explains assistant curator Pat Trask. “The Island is always rising. The mud keeps pushing up, bringing fossils to the surface. The rivers wash forest away. The fossils arrive at the surface.”

It’s possible to fossil-hunt independently, but the museum offers expeditions through most of the year. Trask himself often leads, explaining the how-to’s, dispensing hammers and picks, delighting in discovery. Occasional shrieks punctuate the rhythmic pick, pick, pick of the search. Ancient stones cleft apart come studded with such prehistorics as snails, crabs and lobsters. Try to out-antique that.

Whale music

Two scenic hours north of Courtenay, nestled between ocean and rainforest in the northern Vancouver Island wilderness, Telegraph Cove (population 4) was postcard perfect until a US developer threw its rustic perfection awry with an RV camp and housing tract hogging the horizon.

The singular reason to pause here is whales — orcas, humpbacks, minkes. Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau ranked Telegraph Cove as one of the best places in the world to view orcas in their natural environment.

In 1980, Jim Borrowman and his wife Mary gambled on a public interest in whales, no sure thing at the time. They launched Stubbs Island (stubbs-island.com), Canada’s first whale-watching outfit. Thirty years later, it’s still regarded as one of the best.

Forget Zodiacs and suiting up. Borrowman and his captains transport passengers to the Blackfish (another name for orca) Archipelago in the comfort of heated 18-metre-long vessels. Tours run 3.5 hours, but longer when the whales want to play, which is frequently.

Borrowman guarantees nothing, but his success rate is 90 percent. The law says whale-watching vessels must stay at least 100 metres from the mammals, but the whales, happily, aren’t bound to it.

A recent outing for this article produced a trio of orcas, two orphan sons and a lonely grandmother, in what marine educator Jackie Hildering called “a ritualistic dance of adoption.” A pod of humpbacks were the second act, lobtailing every few minutes to the oohs and aahs of spectators, one of the whales swimming under the boat for extra excitement.

Hydrophones attune passengers to “whale music.” Impassioned experts like Hildering accompany each voyage. Acolytes learn the orca, roughly nine metres long, is really the world’s largest dolphin. And that fish-eating orcas are called Residents, while carnivores are Transients. The latter have a taste for seals and sea lions. Observers witnessing a Transient attack on a seal colony are catching nature at its most dramatic. Transients are also gourmands. A Transient will attack a great white shark for its liver.

Jim Borrowman loves whales right down to the bones. In fact, he unearths, cleans, polishes and assembles entire whale skeletons. They’re on display at the Whale Interpretive Centre (killerwhalecentre.org) on the cove’s boardwalk. Suspended overhead is the skeleton of a giant Fin whale — the second largest animal species ever to live — killed when it was struck by an errant cruise ship. Other skeletons are an orca, Pacific dolphin, Dall’s porpoise and Steller sea lion.

Masks and mist

It’s half an hour north to Port McNeill, a friendly town of loggers, fishermen, outfitters and artists. It’s the gateway to the wild and misted Broughton Archipelago, BC’s largest marine park. What amazes anglers is the astonishing calm of the archipelago. Miraculously, there’s no swell. No being flung around like rag dolls while reeling in a halibut or Chinook salmon.

Each year, the voyage of the Columbia III focusses on the ancestral waters, lands, culture and history of the Kwakwaka'wakw people. Operated by Mothership Adventures (mothershipadventures.com) and departing from Port McNeill, it carries up to 10 passengers through the breathtaking archipelago and includes a day exploring the masks and totems of Alert Bay.

It's a 40-minute ferryboat ride from Port McNeill to the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations community of Alert Bay. This is the home of the remarkable U’Mista Cultural Centre and Museum (umista.org). Its heart is the Potlatch Collection, a trove of 450 ceremonial masks and artefacts of regalia outlawed as subversive and seized by Canadian authorities in 1921. The masks weren’t returned, often from private collections, until the 1970s and 1980s.

Powerful expressions of a culture on the rebound, they haunt those who look at them — and continue to do so on the return journey to the realm of the familiar and predictable.

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