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Gerry Feehan

A Necropsy in Friday Harbor

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Friday Harbor – by Gerry Feehan

On November 8, 2021 the land border to the USA is open!

The quay at Friday Harbor Labs.

I had no idea what a necropsy was until we visited the marine lab institute at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. It might have been better had my vocabulary been left unimproved, since a necropsy is not for the faint of stomach.

San Juan Island is in the United States but is actually much closer to Victoria, B.C. than it is to the U.S. mainland. British Columbia’s capital is just a few kilometers away, across the Juan de Fuca Strait. San Juan can only be reached by small plane or, as in our case, via ferry. We embarked with our motorhome at Anacortes, Washington and, after weaving through and around a multitude of conifer-clad islets, disembarked an hour or so later in Friday Harbor, the quaint town of 2200 people that serves as County seat and is the largest town in the San Juan archipelago.

We had come to visit our daughter who had recently accepted a position as postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington marine labs in Friday Harbor. Colette’s area of expertise is the interaction between sea urchins and kelp—that’s what urchins like to eat.

The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in.

Friday Harbor Labs is a true scientific research facility. It attracts renowned marine biologists from around the world. Small laboratories hug the shoreline of the lovely grounds. We strolled the shore, peaking in windows, spying pumps, beakers and aquariums full of life. It was exciting and mysterious watching lab coat-clad scientists recording data while carefully poured funny-looking liquids into test tubes.

It is encouraging and reassuring to see real science being performed—and adequately funded. Fortunately a good relationship and camaraderie exists between Canadian and U.S. researchers, particularly in the marine science field. Data is shared and papers co-written, without regard for border fences.

For most of our stay we were “in residence” and treated hospitably by everyone we encountered, from the maintenance people and dining hall staff to the doctoral candidates and tenured professors. Colette’s mentor invited us to dinner and served up a tasty dish of coconut curry soup while we watched sunset from the deck of her rustic home high atop a hill overlooking the San Juans.

The islands thrive with wildlife. On our walkabouts we saw river otters, harbor seals, dolphins and orca whales swim, jump and cavort offshore. On shore deer, bald eagles, raccoons and fat native foxes frolicked in the autumn mist.

In the San Juans, there’s lots of life—both below and above surface.

One brisk afternoon we hired a local guide for a sea kayaking tour in the cold fecund waters off Lime Kiln Point State Park. Colette and her oceanographer husband Mike pointed through the clear water at colourful sea urchins clinging precariously to rocks in the swell below. Colette gets pretty excited when she spots an urchin—particularly when a healthy bed of bull kelp floats nearby. Our guide reached into the kelp and handed me a raw blade. “Here, try this,” she said.

I munched. It was palatable. Nice texture, not too salty, with a kale-like flavour. Our spiny urchin friends have made a good dietary decision.

Drifting in a bed of kelp.

A necropsy is to an animal what an autopsy is to a human: an examination of a dead body to determine cause of death. Fortunately the procedure we observed took place outdoors—on the quay at the Lab. The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in. I was careful to remain upwind from the carcass. The necropsy was performed by a renowned local marine veterinarian, Joe Gaydos. He carefully dissected the entire animal—from flipper to brain. No organ was left unchurned: heart, lungs, stomach, glands, even the tongue, were surgically, skillfully removed and splayed out upon the dock in the crisp salty air for all to see. As he cut, Dr. Gaydos carefully explained each step in the process and what role each body part played in the life—and death—of the animal, in a matter-of-fact, good-humoured fashion.

Apparently the animal died of a chronic lung infection. At least that’s what I learned after I was revived by the smelling salts.

The necropsy.

Our last night on the island was a stargazer’s dream. We checked out of the marine lab residence and into the campground at San Juan County Park on the west side of the island. Across the Juan de Fuca Strait the shimmering lights of Victoria seemed a mere stone’s throw away. Florence knit while I lit a roaring campfire. An occasional cloud drifted by to briefly mask the moon and the Milky Way. Camping made perfect.

In the morning back in town Mike and Colette treated us to a hearty farewell breakfast before we caught the ferry back to the mainland. As we sailed away I snapped pictures of Friday Harbor Labs from the ferry deck.  A young couple was out on the windy bow taking selfies. I pointed to the cozy buildings lining the shore and said proudly, “My daughter is a scientist over there.”

They nodded vaguely but I don’t think they heard me.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

 

 

 

 

Revisiting the “All-inclusive” in Cozumel – by Gerry Feehan

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Gerry Feehan

Hawaii Five-O’s by Gerry Feehan

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Standing on an active lava flow is ill-advised. But our guide Steve demonstrated the art carefully, with a brief clamber onto the quickly cooling pahoehoe.

We were on the Big Island of Hawaii. Ten of us, five couples in our fifties (the Five-Os), were sharing a charming three-floor oceanfront home in Kona. Although we spent much of our two-week stay lazily floating in a private solar-heated pool watching humpback whales breach, spinner dolphins spin and surfers hang ten, we also took time to explore the many wonders of Hawaii’s largest, youngest chunk of land.

Posing papaya enjoys the view

It is labelled the Big Island for good reason. All the other islands of the 50th state could fit easily within its landmass. Driving from Kona on the western leeward side to Hilo on the wet eastern side is a three-hour drive one-way. But that’s where the lava is and it doesn’t flow uphill. So we hopped in the rental cars and made the overland foray.

Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did.

There are few places on earth where one can view lava freshly vented from a magma chamber, oozing inexorably toward the sea, creating new planet. The Big Island is one of those magic spots.

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the Volcano, is tempestuous and unpredictable. As placation she insists on an offering of gardenia, plumeria or an equally entrancing native Hawaiian blossom. So said Steve as we embarked at twilight on our trek across twenty-year-old lava toward the fresh, gurgling stuff.

There are two types of lava, each easily recognized by its remnant trail. A’a’ flows are jagged and brittle, settling in an upright, dangerous posture. Our path was over the more subtle, titanium-coloured pahoehoe lava, defined by its often ropy, luxuriant and more accessible texture. Pahoehoe wanders hot and plentiful, vented from deep in mother earth’s mantle. A’a’, pushed methodically downhill, builds like windrows graded from a winter street. I prefer pahoehoe. It’s much more forgiving if you trip and fall.

Steve and his partner Ken purchased 23 acres of oceanfront Hawaiian land a decade ago. Recent transports from Montana, they intended to milk goats on their new abode. Lava had not invaded this parcel for 5000 years. But their nanny-milking ambitions were destroyed within three months of move-in when Pele unleashed her fickle fury on their whole tract of Hawaiian soil.

So they gave up the goat and took up lava tours. Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did. They are a knowledgeable, informative and respectful team. We dutifully followed our guides across terra incognita. Ken led. Steve took up the rear.

The group begins their twilight traverse across pahoehoe lava

Twilight in the tropics is brief. After an hour slowly meandering across the shiny titanium landscape we halted. Utter blackness had descended, but beneath us the darkness evaporated. We stood mesmerized atop newly borne earth — the fresh molten evidence under foot, like a glowing red spider-web. And to our left and right fresh molten rock slowly flowed by, like incandescent rivers.

I proffered Pele’s floral gift directly into the path of the creeping molten stone. The flower wilted and disappeared beneath the hot rock’s onslaught. Nearby a large Koa tree caught fire, exploding in light, whistling and popping like Canada Day fireworks.

The author a little too close to the lava for comfort

When Steve stepped up onto pahoehoe that, seconds earlier, had been a red-hot sinuous mass of 1100°C flowing stone, we stood back, aghast. Fortunately, Steve is light on his feet. After a moment atop the smoldering lava he hopped back to safety, the bottom of his boots smoking faintly. Goddess Pele loves to see soles burn.

Steve prepares to pose atop the cooling lava.

Headlamps illuminated for the hike out, we carefully retraced our steps through a minefield of sharp lava. In the night sky the island’s persistent vog had evaporated. The Milky Way lay crisp and clear above us. We were one with the universe. Well not actually one. But pretty darn close.

Mahalo

The beachfront house at night.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

Vancouver Island by Gerry Feehan

 

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

Vancouver Island by Gerry Feehan

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Let’s face it. April in Alberta sucks. Beneath the snowy mantle cold and clean… lies a bunch of dead brown grass. Meanwhile on Vancouver Island, spring is in bloom. The cherry trees are in full magenta majesty. The land is bright with magnolia and rhododendron blossoms and colourful tulips punctuate the evergreen grass. Hummingbirds flit amongst the flowers, sipping spring’s sweet nectar.

I’m not stupid. Last year on the first of April my wife and I packed our cozy little motorhome and headed for the coast. Avoiding the customary Vancouver to Victoria ferry route, we elected to travel up the Sunshine Coast, on the mainland to Powell River, before heading over to the Island.

I use the word ‘mainland’ loosely since, although technically attached to the continent, there is no direct road to Powell River. Getting there entails travel by ferry—two ferries actually. After departing Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver, the first stop is Gibson’s, made famous by the old CBC series The Beachcombers. We combed Molly’s Reach unsuccessfully for Bruno Gerussi and Relic before navigating the steep road up and out of town and onto the Sunshine Coast Highway.

Soon we were serpentining through massive stands of hemlock, western red cedar and Douglas fir. We encountered the sea again at lovely Sechelt where we enjoyed a quiet hike through a towering old-growth forest—and a lively overnight stay with Sechelt friends. In the morning we followed the meandering road to Saltery Bay where we boarded our second ferry for the leg to Powell River.

We had hoped to avail ourselves of some Sunshine Coast tourist amenities—perhaps a day trip to Desolation Sound, a floatplane into Princess Louisa Inlet or a zodiac ride to Sechelt Narrows—but none of the operators had yet opened for the year.

Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, this became a recurring theme during our April trip to the wet, er I mean, west coast. That it was quiet was just as well. Highway 101 (which apparently originates 15,000 road miles away at the tip of South America) terminates at Lund, BC. And I mean, terminates. Had there been a couple more cars parked in front of the historic Lund Hotel, I’d still be trying to turn the motorhome around.

After retracing our path south to Powell River, we caught the late afternoon ferry for the run over to Comox on the Island. Our arrival was inauspicious. Rain poured down through the night. In the morning the windshield wipers were flapping time all the way to Port McNeill. Literally flapping. They were broken. But when we pulled into town the sky cleared and we enjoyed a lovely, crisp evening. The town was deserted. We had the world’s largest burl, a Port McNeil must-see, to ourselves.

For the uninitiated, a burl is an abnormal outgrowth on a tree, like a wart, or a giant blemish. This particular burl is six meters in diameter and is estimated to weigh 30 tonnes. That’s one big zit.

A few kilometres up the road is Port Hardy, which bills itself as a salmon fishing mecca. But the charters were all in dry dock. The run of spring salmon had yet to arrive. And the orcas that eat them were nowhere to be seen. So forget whale watching.

Perhaps this whole ‘Vancouver-Island-in-April’ thing was not such a great idea after all. But of course, it was. Sure, we got a bit wet here and there and, yes, some of the more touristy things weren’t yet open for business, but there was the quiet solitude, gorgeous hiking, camping in peaceful remote forests—and spring’s bright blossoms.

I unfurled my fly rod and spent a delightful day wading the Marble River, near Port Alice, casting every manner of lure onto those pristine mountain waters. Alas, I didn’t land a thing, despite digging deep into my fly box for the finest of flies. Clearly, the fish of Vancouver Island are either blind—or very stupid.

We had the Island’s campgrounds to ourselves

Pursuing more quiet isolation, we headed for Telegraph Cove, located on a dead-end road just south of Port McNeill. We phoned ahead to see if the campground was open but the pre-recorded message simply thanked patrons for ‘a great season’ and offered an encouraging ‘see you in the spring’.

We weren’t optimistic. We resigned ourselves to a night of boondocking in some remote pullout. Still, we pressed on and pulled into the cove just as the setting sun glimmered red on the calm, gorgeous bay of the tiny hamlet.

Telegraph Cove

Look up ‘quaint’ in the dictionary. There’ll be a picture of Telegraph Cove. The small harbour is surrounded by cute, rustic lodging; converted fishing shacks and charming motel units hang precariously over the water.

At the end of the pier stands the iconic rust-red Telegraph Cove Lumber & Trading Co., which now houses the Whale Interpretive Centre. Everything was shut fast. I peeked through the smoky windows of the local cafe. In a far corner, tables and chairs were upended and neatly stacked. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an older fellow, with a hitch in his gait and a sharp tool in his hand, appeared. ‘Can I help ya?’ he inquired, hoisting a hacksaw. I looked at Florence and shivered. It was reminiscent of The Shining.

‘We were hoping to find a spot to camp for the night,’ I mentioned nervously. ‘No problem,’ he said. ‘we’re not officially open yet but you’re welcome to pull in anywhere and hook up. No charge.’ He pointed up the hill toward a steep gravel road leading into the forest and a sign that read, ‘Camping.’ I turned to thank him. He was gone.

Still, we slept peacefully that night, lullabied to sleep by the rhythmic swaying of giant Douglas fir. In the morning we moseyed down to the boat ramp, intending to launch our inflatable kayak. The wind was gale-force. Outside the harbour entrance, the roiling sea was grey and angry. And we’d been warned that even on calm days, navigating the tide at Telegraph Cove can be challenging.

Deflated, but not defeated, we stuffed the limp kayak back into its lair in the rear of the RV and pointed the wheel toward Tofino on the rugged west side of Vancouver Island… where we would soon encounter a real adventure on the ocean.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

Heavenly Valhalla by Gerry Feehan

 

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