Quadra Island: Dipping Beneath the Surface

Yesterday I climbed a stepladder to hang my laundry on a line strung between a mobile home and a cedar tree in a forest. Two cycling jerseys, a pair of shorts, two pairs of socks and underwear, and a white silk sleeping bag liner fluttered in the breeze. A half-finished shed stood before me, opaque plastic walls and blue tarps sheltering the bicycles and motorcycles inside. It was another sunny day on British Columbia’s Quadra Island. As I hung the last item—my mom’s red bicycle club bandana—I had an overwhelming urge to call her.

Tearing up, I descended the ladder to the soft grass. I walked between the panels of the sleeping bag liner, letting it billow around me the way we played with sheets on the line as kids. Lois died more than five years ago, but I stood there crying for her loss all over again.

Shortly before I left Seattle for a life of bicycle travel, I revisited “The Tree of Life,” Terence Malik’s sometimes-surreal cinematic meditation on love, family and evolution. There’s a scene where the ethereal mom casually pirouettes a few feet above the lawn of her Texas home. Lois wasn’t ethereal, but she taught me how to savor the physical world. She was shell middens on the banks of the Mississippi, orange bittersweet on the fencerow, a diaphanous bellydance costume twirling to a 45 in the front yard.

Because bicycle travel forces me to slow down, sometimes it triggers feelings I’d rather not feel. Grief, for one. And loneliness. States of mind I’d normally speed past on the way to the next thing on my to-do list. Especially in a heavily touristed spot like Quadra Island, it’s easy to cast myself as the odd person out. The solo middle-aged woman in a sea of vacationing couples and families.

But I’m also the woman on the kayak tour who gets to pilot her own boat.

Yesterday afternoon, nine of us visitors—some from as far away as Germany and Switzerland—converged on Quadra Island Kayaks for a three-hour paddle around the nearby islands and coves. Fifteen minutes into the trip, we thrilled to spot a humpback whale. We ceased paddling, letting our kayaks drift in the current as we watched for the giant to resurface. After a couple more glimpses of her back, we saw her tail pop above the waterline as she dove for the depths.

We had turned our attention to a colony of sunbathing seals by the time the whale eventually reappeared. This time, we saw fins. “Pectoral fins,” said Tony, one of the guides. “He’s laying on his back.” Tony expressed concern about the whale’s health: Why so slow to resurface? And why lying on its back so much?

Upon finding a purple starfish and passing it around for everyone to touch, we also talked about the sea star wasting syndrome that has killed most of the starfish up and down the West Coast. Rising ocean temperatures were the culprit, according to Tony. He assured us that the other guide would replace the starfish at the same depth where he found it.

He also named the gelatinous blob I had fallen in love with the other day: moon jellyfish. An opaque white globe with four lavender “petals” in its center that form a flower. A little ruffle floats under its chin (although jellyfish don’t technically have brains, and so, I guess, no heads or chins).

“The ones that are drifting along, are they dead?” I wanted to know.

“No,” Tony told me, “they’re just moving with the current. When they want to get somewhere, they’ll start that pulsing motion.”

Upon learning that they wouldn’t sting, I reached into the water to pet the jellies as they moved past my kayak. Their bulbous bodies were like babies’ pates, smooth and soft but surprisingly firm to the touch. They drifted through the clear waters like the sleeping bag liner floating in the forest.

Sleeping in my silk cocoon later that night, I was awoken by an airborne cacophony that sounded like something from another world. Not screaming, not growling, not birdsong, not yowling. It was like a sci-fi movie soundtrack, when aliens communicate with tones not meant for human ears. Then came a yipping in the forest. Coyotes? But nothing (or no one) seemed to be approaching my tent, so I stayed put and eventually drifted back to sleep.

In the morning, I lay awake listening to a squawking stereophonic bird duet—one near, one far—when there came a distinct snorting. This time, an unseen mammal was definitely moving toward me. Bear? That thought finally propelled me out of the tent and into my host’s trailer home.

Before I could tell him about the snorting, he said, “There were owls playing some kind of game last night.” Owls! So that’s what it was! I wish I could have seen them, slicing the air with their sharp wings, taking in the night with their enormous eyes, cartwheeling and barrel-rolling as they got up their kooky noise-fest.

As for the snorting, Brent, my host, told me it’s too early for bears on this part of the island. “It was probably a deer,” he said. Then he paused and looked at me. “Or it could have been a wolf.”


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