Sooke Basin - Big Salmon, Big Trees

It was not trees that initially motivated me to slide my canoe into Sooke Basin, west of Victoria, B.C. It was salmon. A variety of salmon have been spawning in Pacific coast waters for millions years. Salmon and human cultures have intertwined for many thousands. Every year the people of Salmon Nation celebrate the strength and gifts of this flash of lightning as it leaps toward home.

Recent news of 10.6 million Fraser River sockeye going missing was nothing to celebrate, and I wanted to see if I could find a bit of good news in local waters. The Billing Spit area has three public accesses, and I launched from one of them. The Sooke River empties into the harbour here, so this is a good place to view salmon and the things that feed on them, like fishermen and eagles... and the odd bear.

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Two or three paddle strokes into my voyage a chunky silver-sided salmon exploded from the water, glinting in the early morning light. Then another, and another, often two or three at the same time, breaking free of the water, then slapping back down. In the still quiet of the morning, salmon belly flops were all I could hear. A spectacle of the natural world and not something you see everyday. Humans need the salmon and now, the salmon need us. They need us to give them a fin up, so to speak.

Having found at least some evidence of returning salmon, I paddled into the morning sun. An easterly breeze was meeting with an incoming tide and raising waves. The bow of my canoe slapped out a rhythm to accompany that of the salmon slapping around me.

I like the fact that south Vancouver Island lacks obvious evidence of tree harvesting. Even from local mountain tops one sees an almost endless stretch of forested hunchbacked hills. From my canoe on Sooke Basin all I could see was an endless stretch of water, rocks and trees. Water, rocks and trees. And what beauty and variation in each.

The water ranged from silky flat and dark, to rolling with white caps. Rock formations plunged into the water, harbouring flowering succulents above and florescent starfish below. The forest also showed its variations. Above the evenness of the trees tower the emergents - genetic superiors, or lucky recipients of a choice location.

I paddle past the three small islands making up the Goodrich Islands group. They all have caps of bent trees that have been pruned into aerodynamic shapes by relentless winds. In many places along the shoreline of the basin the trees come right down to the water. The water-loving cedar branches add lime green to the dark blues of the watery depths below me.

I spot a Douglas fir in such an exposed area that it has been blown horizontal over the years. The trees I am seeing from the water are not in the huge category, but some are old none-the-less. These woody warriors are on the edge and are vulnerable to harsh winter winds and lashing rain. Since this exposure is not the best growing conditions, the trees I see are older than similar sized trees in more ideal locations.

The larger trees bordering the basin also show evidence of being battered and de-limbed by storms. You can see their hulking masses dominating the surrounding forest. Deeply furrowed bark, missing branches and shaggy lichens give these centuries old trees character they deserve after weathering everything the coast has thrown at them, year in and year out.

The tree in the header at the top of this blog is the largest shoreline tree I surveyed on my paddle, and one of the chunkiest trees I have seen in the area. It is in Roche Cove Park, and is a fine specimen of a Douglas fir. Note the bench below it and a bit to the right to give this giant tree some perspective. It is notable for the small amount of taper that the trunk has. It stays fat and massive for a long way up. I have sat at this tree's massive trunk, but what a sight from the water.

I pulled up on the beach back at Billing Spit, exhausted and elated. I had hoped to relax for a while on one of the many rocky beaches that I passed, and had even brought a book along. But alas, the wind was against me for the 4km to the east end of the basin, then it shifted and blew against me out of the west for most of the way home. Thinking of salmon migrating up to a thousand kilometers against the currents of major rivers gave me the inspiration I needed to battle the currents testing me all day. Pondering the stick-too-it-ness of old trees helped, too.

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