Reflections from Rowing the "Bus" to Work.
The best part of this rowing day was the orcas, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Most summer days I commute by rowing from Gabriola Island to the Pacific Biological Station in Departure Bay. It’s only five and a half nautical miles for a raven traveling, but more for me as the tide pushes me across the channels emptying into the Strait of Georgia from the inside waters between Gabriola and Nanaimo harbour.
My traditional 1937 handliner is named after the first owner and salmon fisherman, Bus Bailey. The Bus Bailey, a double ended carvel-planked rowboat, is well-proportioned with a well-defined and balanced sheer providing a solid “sweet” appearance. Like all handliners, it is ideal for long rows with supplies and fishing gear, and for hauling home the catch, or in my case, it rows well with seaworthy confidence and is able to carry my lap-top and office files enclosed in a heavy dry bag, a small safety bag and a guide bag for clothes.
My Bus was built by the Luoma brothers, who built their distinctive Luoma-handliners from salvaged beach logs on Shack Island where they lived fronting Pipers Lagoon in north Nanaimo. The original ribs are said to be cuts off a salvaged oak bar from Nanaimo’s Queens Hotel. Frank Hackwood, the next owner, tells me that Bus Bailey paid twenty dollars in 1937 for a fully outfitted boat with a pair of fine spooned oars of tight-grained old-growth fir and an oak ‘dry-ass’ seat.
Frank allowed me to exercise the Bus for several years, then stunned and honored me on my 50th with the “Bus Bailey” present. What a gift and what a coveted responsibility. Access to Frank’s beach railway makes my rowing commute feasible from Pilot Bay and we always enjoy an early evening chat as I haul up the Bus. Frank has such a wealth of knowledge and stories about our shared local maritime scene and is always keen to share. If I didn’t have to get down-island for dinner, (and a shower), there are many evenings that I’d happily hang around for more tales of past coastal days and the boats and people that filled them.
But it’s the mornings that I love. Every morning on the water is different. The interplay of light, sounds, seals, birds, occasional orcas, waves, wind and tide create an internal happiness that shapes my day and connects my mind and body and stirs feelings of mornings past.
Waves and wind, or the lack of them, dominate the daily conditions. As with snow to the Inuit, they come to me in a myriad of forms and shapes, many of which I’ve come to describe with words and names of my own. Often in the early morning, the waves are short, slurppy and choppy as the north-west wind resists the tide moving along Gabriola’s exposed shore[U1] . Sometimes they make for what I call “lively water,” with following waves on the starboard quarter - slightly countered from a pressing south-east breeze. Just occasionally, there is a flat calm, with no discernable movement showing on the slick and glimmering surface, save the inevitable wash from a distant boat or a ghosting zepher-breath.
I like the lively water best as I slowly work my body and the Bus into an intuitive all-connected movement through the water. It’s the ‘magic zone’ that I search for. The one that has me smiling – even breaking out in laughter between gasps for air. I know I’m getting close, when the converging water line following the point of the stern is maintained steady and true as the stern bobs up and down with a shake and twist as the wave passes under. Up rises the stern, shake, twist and a little rolly wobble, down and up again. By feeling and understanding the rhythm, I know when I’ll be positioned just near the rising wave so the stroke and pull can give the necessary surge to steady and maintain the forward drive. Making those constant adjustments to the strength of the pull on the windward or leeward oar, lifting them for the forward reach in smooth syncrony, become sub-conscious tasks, almost lost in the work of the day’s row. It’s like a beautiful harmony, with parts for the sweet lines and structure of the Bus, a part for the balanced and spooned oars connected to the repetitive and cyclical movements from the rower, while the melody is led by the “lively water” and the forward tracking motion of the Bus.
The beauty is that even in the magic zone where the Bus rides smoothly over the waves, there are endless variations at play. Yes, it can require considerable effort, but the work of the row is not a monotonous constant physical thing. Of course, I stop to rest and re-energize, but rhythm is the key. Two or three long draughts of water and a moment to breathe full and steady, wipe the sweat off my forehead, stretch, and check over my shoulder for a ‘direction-correction,’ combine for a surprising energy boost.
Again I pick up the rhythm and within four or five strokes I’m pulling into the zone. As my breathing steadies, thoughts creep to the front of my consciousness. Occasionally certain aspects of the morning experience resonate into my brain and I recall past days on the water.
Sometimes it’s recollections of carefree teen years when summers on Galiano Island brimmed with youthful freedom both out on the water and hiking on Bluff Park overlooking Active Pass. My summer job left plenty of time for fishing and exploring in my old clinker, powered by a noisy and temperamental seagull outboard. Strangely, my thoughts roam through that time as I row steadily into the open water.
The fishing was often good then and I’d always feel a pinch of pride bringing in a couple of beautiful coho to my Grandmother. Together we’d wrap one for the freezer and Maimie would go on in her warm and loving Scottish manner about how she and Bill (Grand-dad to me) will savor it, “Och you’re a good lad and we’ll enjoy this fine salmon some dreary and damp Novemburr day.”
We had grown up fishing for rockfish throughout Sturdies Bay, the line between the two points forming our boundary. Even as kids we were sharp to the very real dangers of the current drawing into Active Pass and we never challenged Dad on this boundary. With some proven competence, and having reached the lofty age of thirteen I was finally allowed to venture along the shoreline, past Gossip Island and actually fish for salmon! The realization that my world had been increased beyond what I could ever get to fully know, served a life lesson of respectful humility for the natural world.
With further exploration and experienced-based learning, prized ling cod became more common place – occasionally even big ones that fought really hard on our hand lines or short trolling rods. Roger, my younger brother and adventuring partner, and I would be hollering at the head-shaking fish and each other, wild in our excitement while trying to gaff our first really big ling.
Perhaps it was the familiarity of being out in the early morning north-west wind that flashed these and hundreds of linked experiences and memories. How easy it is to compare the relative emptiness of today’s Georgia Strait with those idyllic days when coho were always possible and rockfish available off every rocky point and secret reef.
As I’m jolted back into the morning row reality by a cold splash across my back, dribbling, then seeping sea down my neck, I refocus on the waves and the angle of the Bus through them and on timing my strokes. Several minutes of power work gets me beyond the splashy tide-rip. My thoughts continue on a little voyage of their own, completely outside of the other part of me, my body working part, as I continue to reach and pull and push with my legs and back. I’m thinking of Bus Bailey, not the boat, but him, fishing, here. Bus, in the same boat and place, rowing his single hammered-brass spoon along these agitating tide-lines, 70 years ago! I am certain the fishing was comparatively good, despite his very basic gear.
Thinking and wondering about the “way things used to be” has always come easily to me and my wandering mind takes it further. I recently learned of a UBC project called “Back to the Future” which used diverse information to estimate productivity of the Pacific northwest coast prior to contact with Europeans or Russians. Now that provides one hell of perspective of the “way things used to be!” My mind races to picture this coast so many times more productive than today. Just what kind of a fishery would Bus have encountered if he fished here 200 years ago instead of just 70? How many birds and whales could he count from here then?
No question this commute gets me feeling really connected to my body. Perhaps it’s simply an endorphin-enhanced working-body feeling, the same as a distance-runner, I guess. Meanwhile, my thoughts continue to flash and connect as a significant idea comes into focus. What if everyone carefully reflected about the “way things used to be,” about the mind-boggling scope of change we have each experienced? Wouldn’t we all conclude with real personal action? Action based on a recognition of the need for dramatic change in direction. Yes, even the level of action required to get us all back on the track to meaningful sustainability. The thought becomes like a mantra while I pull on the oars:
“I believe we can, pull together, in a new direction, because, we are human, and it is possible, and because we must.”
“I believe we can, pull together, in a new direction, because, we are human, and it is possible, and because we must.”
My “orca morning” was not unusual nor particularly notable, although the north-west wind did feel different as the September light was more subdued than the earlier mid-summer brightness. The wind was real and the waves provided a colder splatter. Having worked over the series of serious waves rushing and rolling in toward Tinson reef outside of Pilot Bay, I was already starting to make steady progress away from the shore towards the red can buoy. As I glanced over my shoulder for a direction correction, I noticed movement through the water and immediately thought a single porpoise was heading out to the Strait. On my second look, the big straight dorsal fin of a large orca broke across the wave and two small fins followed one behind the other. From less than 20 meters away I clearly saw the three orcas once again, traveling with business-like purpose out to the open.
It was one of those brilliant images with the sunlight shining directly through the waves as the big orca rose and the fin arced over and disappeared into the early morning sunlit waves. The sparkling water drips and the glistening black of the orca’s side was there for those few seconds and then gone. There was none of that personal doubting that can sometimes happen after you see an unexpected event – it was an image now locked away on my memory screen. Despite searching glances I didn’t see them again. Ten or fifteen minutes later however, I saw a Nanaimo-bound seaplane circle once out in the Strait and then resume its original direction. It’s easy to assume that some sharp-eyed pilot or passenger saw my whales and wanted another look.
The orcas made my day and the rest of the row seemed to go that much faster as I thought about how often I wished for orcas.
Sighting orcas, while not unusual in many locations on the BC coast and certainly not a new personal experience, remains relatively unusual in my home waters around Gabriola Island. The convoluted international boundary between the southern BC Gulf Islands and the San Juan Islands means nothing to the threatened population resident there and their occasional cruises up the coast are regularly noted. Of course members of the well-traveled and more independent transient orcas are periodically observed throughout the coast from Alaska to California, and perhaps beyond.
I find that upon reflection, my ‘orca moments’ provide me both clear memory markers of distinctly different periods of my life and a symbol of feeling connected to the ocean scene. Other thoughts form a sub-conscious attempt to communicate, “…carry-on sister, fine morning to be traveling.” I try to imagine where she’s going with the two youngsters. Their longevity, raw beauty, mobility and sophisticated social behaviour clearly place the orcas at the top of the coastal scene – a position we can all easily respect.
Perhaps in some way the handliner fisherman of the 1930’s mirrored the way of the orcas. Stories suggest that some were also transients, traveling up the coast, searching for good salmon fishing, living a challenging and lonely life. The majority of handliners more likely behaved as resident pods, concentrated in key locations dictated by a combination of good fishing, access to protection from really nasty weather, the opportunity to row home most nights or perhaps quick access to fish-buyers.
There are certainly times when the row home seems longer than it should or a southeast wind has freshened up after lunch and a solid effort is required. However, those days are easily forgotten with the natural high from the glorious days of downwind summer rows home. It is the very best of this marine commute.
On those warm and wonderful “Gulf Island trade-winds days,” the northwest wind blows strong and steady all day and once out of the lee of Vancouver Island my rowing sleigh-ride really begins! The afternoon waves and wind have built and swung around off my stern quarter, putting me on a broad-reach if I were to be sailing, so that I feel the surge as the sizeable waves quarter under me. The Bus can really surf when I time an accelerating series of quick strokes to pull me off the crest and maximize the surge. It’s wonderfully invigorating, truly an undiscovered sport - surging in the summer afternoon, looking back toward Mt. Benson with the sun glinting on the waves.
The wind, wave-shimmered reflections, sunlight streaming through the gaps in the clouds, low-angle light on the hills, way of the waves, nature of the boat’s movement, sounds of the water lapping along the hull, the bubbling look of the following wake and the feeling through my arms and back – together these have become an intimate part of my daily experience. This maritime connection has become my subconscious grounding – it feels natural and comfortable while demanding and energizing. This familiarity never detracts from the special characteristic of each day on the water.
All this, from my west-coast Bus ride.