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PART 8 - CLOSING THE CIRCLE -  SOOKE TO  SEATTLE

July 23rd - Day 55

“Hey, before you get to Victoria, go explore the Race Rocks.” 

That was a message on my phone from Lee. 

“What is there to see there?” I asked.

“Lots of cool stuff. There’s an underwater shelf where the current has to change direction, you get all kinds of fun whirlpools and standing waves to play in.”

“There’s also puffins, sea lions, sea otters, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot an elephant seal. Though probably not this time of year. This is as far north as they come in the Pacific Coast. If you see one you won’t miss it, they are huge!;  Even the sea lions look small compared to them."

“Can you land anywhere on the islands?”

“Oh no… not unless you’re in serious trouble. If you tell the caretakers at the lighthouse that you had to stop to take a leak, they will be really pissed at you. Have a bottle handy.”

I paddled down the Sooke River and the bay back to the Juan de Fuca Strait. The sun burned away the morning fog very early, and by 9:00am the snow-covered mountains of Olympic Peninsula in Washington were easily visible. They looked like it was so close; just a hop away to cross the channel. “ In good weather, how hard can the crossing be?” I thought. 

Gauging distances in the sea with your naked eye, however, especially when sitting in your kayak, is incredibly deceiving. When you look at the horizon it is as if you’ve lost the ability to see things with depth perception. Massive cruise ships can look like toy boats, and towering lighthouses seem like they are made of Lego pieces. If you see an object in the horizon, you must ask yourself, “How big does it look? And how big is it actually?”

My father  sometimes tells me of a story that he and my mother once decided to swim out to an island just off the shore of Sahy Beach near Santos in Brazil. In good weather the islands do look invitingly close, like you could hit a baseball there. They set out, but after swimming for an hour decided it was not worth the remaining effort to get there and turned back.

With Google Earth I decided to measure the distance. From beach to beach it was 1.3 miles! About half the distance you’d swim in an Ironman triathlon. 

I saw a cargo ship leaving the straits and almost the entire hull was beneath the horizon. The only things I could see clearly were the ship’s bridge and the topmost containers piled on top of the deck. That meant it was at least good nine to ten miles away and given that it would be sailing some distance from the shore, the opposite bank of the Olympic Peninsula was at a minimum thirteen miles from me. 

A good rule of thumb for when you’re out on the water in your kayak is, “if you can’t see the sand, then it’s not close.”

It was about fourteen miles to reach Race Rocks. Getting there took a considerable early effort. The tide was falling for most of the morning, and I hugged my way close to the shore, taking advantage of eddies in the current wherever I could. 

The ebbing tide slacked about an hour before I reached the islands, but the slack barely lasted fifteen minutes, and for the last few miles the current carried me like a moving walkway in an airport. I hardly realized how fast I was moving, and until I reached the rocks where unless I made some effort to stay in place I’d soon be carried past the entire group. 

There is only one island of significant size at the Race Rocks Group which is where sits a black and white striped lighthouse flanked by prefabbed buildings. It was the only one of the islands that had even a small patch of grass. All the other islets were bare rocks. 

At least, that is, for the portions above the high tide. Perhaps it was the beating sun making me delirious, but in my mind, I thought the islands reminded me of  a  friar monk with a Jamaican Rastafari. The friar haircut has a bald crown with a thick bushy rim around the ears, while the Rastafari has long and messy dreadlocks. So it was with these rocky islets; they were barren on the top but rimmed by an entanglement of bull kelp that lay flat on the water in a ring, and stretched in the direction of the current.

So thick was the kelp that when I paddled into the bed at the West Race Rock I was immediately out of the current’s grasp and could stop for a rest. I also wasn’t the only one who discovered that the kelp beds can be a place to escape the current.

“Oh! Hi there!” I said to a harbor seal that popped its head through the reeds to see what I was. 

He wasn’t the curious type and soon dove down before popping back up at a safer distance.

With the current was getting stronger by the minute, I hopped back into the flow to ferry  my way towards the island  with the lighthouse. 

I observed the place from the kayak. There were no elephant seals. 

“If you see one you will know it.” I remembered Lee telling me. 

At first, I thought I saw two big white sausage looking creatures sleeping on the boat ramp, but when one tilted its head and I noticed the small pinched ears and knew they were “only” sea lions lazing out in the afternoon sun with no interest in me.

At this point the southerly wind picked up and blowing in the same direction of the tide had smoothed out the swells into a rolling blue meadow punctuated with the odd white surf spray.

I turned north, put up the sail, and whizzed North to Victoria whose tall buildings were now easily visible in the clear weather.

July 24th - Day 56 - Victoria and Around

Arriving in a big town like Victoria in the late afternoon was a challenge. Not only did I need to find an appropriate boat ramp or beach to land, but it also had to be reasonably close to some kind of accommodation, the accommodation had to have a vacancy, and be reasonably priced. That is a lot of independent variables to nail in one place.

For a moment I thought I had that. On the GPS I located a boat ramp west of the main harbor entrance near Saxe Point Park. The ramp was free, and there was a hostel less than four blocks away. Unfortunately, when I called, there was only a prerecorded  message on the answering machine.

 “Hi there, we are sorry to inform you that the hostel is closed until August 1st. We are on vacation in the Bahamas! If you wish to make a reservation, leave us your number and we will call you when we’re back, eh.”

“Hi there, hope you are having fun in the tropical sun! I’m only here tonight and tomorrow. Sorry I missed you. Maybe see you next time!” 

I paddled back out again and headed for the main harbor, where there was another boat ramp next to the cruise ship docks and was closer to the center of town. 

“Yes, we have room for two nights. Breakfast is included, $300 Canadian per night.” Said the lady at the Huntington Manor. 

This was the fourth place I called to check on availability, and I didn’t feel that I could afford to take a pass. I booked it over the phone. At the check-in I had my usual friendly talk with the receptionist before popping the question.

“So, I have a big kayak with me. Do you guys have a place I can keep it?”

The receptionist, a young girl whom I judged from her matter-of-fact expression must have had other guests with strange requests, climbed down from the reception desk, walked out the front door, and espied my boat parked on the entranceway. 

“You can put it in the garage against the wall. I’ll give you a card to open the gate. Go all the way down and put it in the space behind the white delivery van. No one is driving it this week, so management won’t see it there. Keep quiet about it, eh.”

“You got it! Thank you!”

 

I made arrangements to meet with my friend Lee and his family later in the day so I had a free morning.. 

I stumbled onto the British Columbia parliament building. It was easily the most imposing building in the town center. The main façade was a mixture of baroque style sprinkled with a neoclassical look. It was built entirely of a fine-grained stone which at first, I thought was granite. When I looked closer, however, I concluded it was something else. The grains and minerals of the stone blocks were much too fine for granite, but it was definitely some kind of igneous rock as it could not be scratched with your fingernails.

The building had a main central copper dome with a golden statue of a man on the top, but I did not know who it was. The dome was flanked by twelve other smaller domes all of which had developed the telltale evergreen copper rust from the rain and exposure to the weather. The color gave it an elegant pairing with the green fields that stretched from the steps to the boulevard and gardens that flank the harbor marina. 

“That is Captain Vancouver up there.” Said a voice in the street from a passerby who noticed me gazing at the statue.

“Is that so?”

“Yeah, though some folks don’t like it. You know, colonialism and indigenous right’s stuff, or the war, or environmental causes, or God knows what else. They don’t like the Queen Victoria statue down here either.” he said pointing down the park. 

“It got sprayed some years ago by vandals.  They might tell you about it on the tour."

“Oh, you can do a tour of the parliament?”

“Yes. there’s the line right there by the steps…”

I decided that it was worth a look. I walked up to the line and grabbed a ticket for the 9:30 am tour that would be starting in fifteen minutes. 

My group had about twenty folks mostly made up of Chinese tourists. Our guide was a girl of about university age working as a summer guide. She introduced herself in English, French, and then to the delight of the other tour attendees, Mandarin.

We proceeded into the building through a side door and then through a labyrinth of corridors and chambers that acted as human roundabouts. Our guide lady must have had some kind of internal compass as she walked backwards almost the entire time.

We stopped at a chamber wherein on one of the walls was an aluminum sculpture of the coat of arms of British Columbia, unveiled by queen Elizabeth in 1987. It was a blend of the British Empire’s coat of arms with some local touches. Instead of the Lion and the Chained Unicorn (which represents Scotland, which I guess must mean they are tied to the UK  whether they  like it or not) it had an elk and a big horned mountain goat, while on the footer had several dogwood flowers and the words in Latin “Splendor Sine Occasu.”  Magnificence Without Diminishment, which over the years seems to have taken on different meanings. 

“At first it was a reference to the sun that never sets on the British Empire, although it does skirt the horizon here in British Columbia before rising again in the Western Pacific.” Said our guide.  

“Today, however, it is interpreted as a call to preserve the natural beauty of British Columbia.”

“I like the sea otter with the starfish.” Someone in our group mentioned.

Our guide paused and took a closer look at the coat of arms to make sense of the comment.

“Of course, the sea otter is in the BC coat of arms.” She said with a laugh. “It is the fluffiest, friendliest, and most charming of all the noble creatures that inhabit BC. And it keeps our kelp forests as green and lush as the forests on the land.” 

Someone had added a stuffed animal to the coat of arms, and it seemed to have been there for a few days already without anyone noticing. Perhaps the sea otter will get a permanent placement in the next iteration.

We proceeded to visit the legislative chamber of parliament where the state bills are debated. It seemed to me a much more elegant and comfortable establishment than the British House of Commons I’ve seen on  TV. Unlike the hard cushioned green benches which are as comfortable as the seat on an economy class flight, each member of parliament in British Columbia gets their own padded chair, desk section, microphone, and cup holder. In addition, after Covid, the parliament installed two large flatscreen TVs for the members unable to attend in person due to illness. 

“I don’t suppose that given the microphones, the MPs here need to go Uggghhhh and Aggghhhh and yeaaahhh and grunt every time there’s debate, while the speaker screams “Ordeeeeer! Oooooder! Order!” Like they do in the House of Commons.” I joked with the guide.

“Oh, it happens from time to time but folks at the state level get along much better. Our speaker Raj Chohan doesn’t have the baritonishness and forked tongue like John Bercow in the UK Parliament. He is too nice.”

She then pointed to the mace at the head of the chamber in front of us.

“The BC Mace represents the authority of the Queen. It is what vests the parliament in British Columbia with the authority of the monarch to make and pass laws. Without it the assembly has no power. It must be present in the chamber for the assembly to be in session.

“What happens if they misplace it or lose it or someone steals it?”

“ It would be a huge embarrassment. I’m sure they would be flipping every chair and desk in the chamber rummaging through every closet in parliament to find it. If it was lost for good, I suppose the Speaker would have to order a new one. If it was stolen though, you’d better be craftier than Pierce Brosnan in the Thomas Crown affair. Even if we had a new Mace made, the symbolism of the crime would not be lost on anyone…”

I observed the mace in the glass case. It was entirely made of gold,  topped with a crown, and the bowl was embossed with the BC coat of arms with the Latin “Splendor Sine Occasu” motto inscribed at the base.

To be entirely honest, I felt that the mace was a little tacky as if it was a proclamation stating, “You know who’s really in charge, right? I am a  little crown topped with a bigger crown that represents someone with an even bigger crown, who got their big crown from God.” 

I’ve been told that one of the things Canadians particularly dislike is to be confused for a northern version of the United States, and one of the ways to draw a sharp line of distinction is their system of government. The United States started as the colonies that overthrew a king to found a republic. Thus part of the Canadian identity is to be grounded in being a monarchy and all the regalia and rituals that come with it. In these modern times, however, I cannot help but roll over with laughter that anyone really believes the Queen has the divine right to rule. 

“Really?” I would say, “You know, I have a porcelain throne in my house too.” 

 

I walked back to the hotel where Lee and his wife and daughter came to pick me up and we spent the afternoon in Beacon Hill Park. From Flagpole Hill I looked towards the south across the straits where I’d soon be paddling. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the snow capped summits of the Olympic Peninsula were as clear as if someone had traced their outlines on a canvas with a thick black pen to separate them from the sky. They seemed  so close, but the opposite shore was almost  thirty miles away. 

“Very clear day today!” Said Lee. 

“Some of those little boats we see are container ships three hundred meters long. Huge vessels. Watch out when you’re crossing tomorrow.”

“From the forecast, it seems I’ll have perfect weather, so I should see them from some distance. Been pretty lucky with the conditions so far.”

“You have indeed. It’s been an unusually calm year, and hot too. Climate change for sure. The water is way warmer than usual for summer.”

“I want to go see the petting zoo.” Said Lee’s daughter. And so, we went. 

We climbed down Flagpole Hill to the zoo entrance on the main loop road where a small area was fenced off so the little critters wouldn’t escape. They had all the usual farm animals there; goats, rabbits, sheep, chickens, an alpaca, and a couple free roaming peacocks. The place was kind of small and easily seen in less than fifteen minutes. Two goats in their little fenced barn weren’t interested in entertaining the kids trying to feed hay stems. They sat on the bare dirt with their eyes barely open like middle schoolers dozing off in class. 

“Perhaps they already ate all they could today and are now having a siesta.” I said. 

As I walked around however, I concluded that perhaps the goats were a little sad. On the wall of the barn was the photograph of a white and brown pony with the inscription, “RIP Peanut Butter. Forever In our Hearts.” 

Peanut Butter was the star attraction of the petting  zoo. She was a dwarf horse, (which I learned is not a pony) that was friendly  with total strangers, outgoing  with the other animals and beloved by her keepers during the 24 years she lived here. She was just shy of turning 31 when she started having breathing problems and passed away suddenly in April just after the zoo reopened from the Pandemic. 

“Well, I guess Peanut Butter got sent to the glue factory.” I joked.

Lee let out a laugh before telling not to mention it to the kids.