Montréal botanical gardens (2)

On our first full day in Montréal, Amy and I stayed true to form and made a beeline for the natural history attractions. The Insectarium was closed, but we did manage to tour the Biodôme (housed in the velodrome / Judo dojo from the 1976 Olympic Games) and the Botanical Gardens (founded in 1931 after years of campaigning by Québec botanist Brother Marie-Victorin).

Olympic ParkBiodôme trumpeter

Top left: A flower in the Botanical Gardens. Above left: Olympic Park. Above right: Grey-winged trumpeters (Psophia crepitans). Below left: Ibis, probably scarlet. Below right: An otter, probably river.

Biodôme ibisBiodôme otter

Biodôme turtleBiodôme bird (1)

Above left: A small turtle. Above right: A seabird, probably a tern or kittiwake. Below: Unidentified seabirds.

Biodôme bird (2)Biodôme bird (3)

Montréal botanical gardens (11)Biodôme capybara

Above left: Flowers in the Botanical Gardens. Above right: A capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris). Below: Flowers in the Botanical Gardens.

Montréal botanical gardens (1)Montréal botanical gardens (3)

Montréal botanical gardens (5)Montréal botanical gardens (6)

Montréal botanical gardens (7)Montréal botanical gardens (8)

Montréal botanical gardens (9)Montréal botanical gardens (10)

Montréal botanical gardens (4)Montréal botanical gardens (12)

Love guru wantedOne of the major perks of a university job over here is long holidays – a couple of months twice a year, plus national holidays (unlike the UK, luckless school students – and therefore teachers – have to work throughout most of the sweltering summer and freezing winter). Mine began – and will end – with frantic lecture preparation, so that I might not be as pressured come the new semester (I also have an extra class to deliver, decreasing my office time), but Amy and I decided to take a few weeks in July and August and visit the west coast of Canada again. This proved an excellent opportunity to figure out how to take better photographs, both from becoming more familiar with my camera and learning (mostly from Amy) how composition works. Some of the photos below were taken by me, and some (the well-composed and artistic ones) by Amy.

White Rock gullA severe ticket shortage forced us to take an indirect flight (via Tokyo) and pay a bit over the odds, but after a long and uncomfortable flight (on a double-decker plane though) we touched down in Vancouver two hours before we’d set off from Seoul and made immediate tracks for the pleasant seaside town of White Rock to drop in on Amy’s grandfather. We spent the next couple of days walking around the area, investigating the profusion of wildlife on the sand-and-mud shore and marvelling at the many food choices open to us. We also called in at the excellent Grey Haven Hobbies again and, after suitable research, placed a triple-figure order for board games (notoriously difficult to get hold of in Korea).

One of our first wildlife experiences turned out to be a slightly crazy young squirrel. We came across him scampering about in the middle of the road, and decided to shoo him away before he got run over (despite White Rock’s courteous drivers, who stop for you even when there’s no crossing walk). He ignored our noises and gentle prods, and then climbed on Amy’s foot. She scooped him up and deposited him on a lawn, where he proceeded to sniff and tear at the grass (possibly looking for buried nuts, but unlikely in the middle of summer). Despite deliberately walking down the same road a few times, we haven’t seen him since.

White Rock pier (1)White Rock pier (2)

Moss animalsBefore heading offshore, we spent a night in central Vancouver on the hospitality of Amy’s friend Laura who, coincidentally, was throwing a small party in her back garden. We arrived to find a disproportionate number of ex-ESL teachers from Korea, a friendly cat and poodle and lots of delicious food. We were due to catch a ferry out to Vancouver Island around noon, spent a couple of hours trundling across the city and made it on board with minutes to spare. We had expected to arrive in central Nanaimo, but quickly discovered that we would dock at Duke Point, miles from anywhere. To add insult to injury, the ferry that we should have been on departed from a different port, right near where we’d been staying. We absorbed this information with good grace, and disembarked in front of a row of taxis; the drivers assuring us that there was no bus into town and that the fare would be $35. Fortunately, the helpful ferry staff had previously told us about a shuttle bus and we drove into the city centre with some other budget travellers and the remonstrations of one particularly persistent taxi driver ringing in our ears.

Bear habitatSafely booked in at the excellent Painted Turtle Guesthouse in Nanaimo, we had enough time for a short walk along the waterfront and to pick up some supplies before taking the morning bus to the west coast and Tofino, our first outdoors-y destination. The roads wound through endless old-growth forest and lakes, and eventually ended at a small peninsula harbour town surrounded by sea and islands. We’d opted to stay at the Clayoquot Field Station, a working botanical garden and research facility, and found ourselves surrounded by pristine rainforest and climate-suitable plants plus a few hostellers and WWOOFers.

Clayoquot Flats (2)Eager to get into the thick of things, we booked ourselves on back-to-back wildlife watching excursions for our first full day and started a little early when a beautiful setter-type dog started following us about halfway into town. He was keen to play, but we had places to be and tried to shake him off as he went to explore interesting smells down side roads. He always reappeared within a few minutes, though, and we eventually deposited him at the local municipal office for owner tracing (having being directed there by the disappointingly non-mounted RCMP) before presenting ourselves at the thoroughly recommended West Coast Aquatic Safaris for a flavour of the local fauna.

Clayoquot Flats (1)Tofino seals

Bald eaglesOut first trip was designated as bear watching, but we paused just out of Tofino to see a young bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) hanging out on the shore – juveniles are completely brown, the white head and tail feathers coming in at around four or five years. Our boat meandered around the innumerable bays and inlets, avoiding a rival (less comfortable) tour boat and stopping again to check out some harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) basking on a bear-less rock in the middle of a channel. Around thirty minutes after leaving Tofino, we cruised into a long, sheltered bay with four distinct black shapes wandering around – I assumed that we were looking at a family of bears, but apparently the Vancouver Island black bear (Ursus americanus vancouveri) is smaller that its mainland cousins and the four adults were each pretending that the others weren’t there.

Tofino isletsAfter a very loud commentary, the other tour boat in the bay departed and we were free to drift right up to the shore and take a closer look at our bear. He spent a lot of time turning over rocks to look for crabs and other small seafood, then switched to crunching mussels for a while. He seemed pretty uninterested in the huge boat only a few feet away, possibly because none of us had any food out. Eventually he caught a big crab and sneaked off to some long grass to eat in peace. On our way back, we stopped off at another small bay and, after frightening a duck, briefly saw another bear before a passing helicopter annoyed it into leaving.

Vancouver Island black bear (1)Vancouver Island black bear (2)

Beach sunsetNext on the agenda was whale watching, and we set sail for the open ocean – but not before visiting a bald eagle nesting site just outside the harbour where a young eaglet was contemplating his first flight. Once we ventured out of the sheltered island area, the sea began to once again assert its influence over my inner ear- though thankfully I was able to avoid any major sickness. Aided by other tour boats on similar trips (much like spotting wildlife by looking for clusters of safari vehicles), we tracked down a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) feeding near the shore, and spent some time scanning the water for any surfacing. By a huge stroke of luck we ran into a sea otter (Enhydra lutris) on our way back, but only got a quick look before wariness won out and it disappeared.

Swamp treeWe rounded off the day with some local wine and organic bakery fare, and took a short walk down to the beach to see the fabled sands of Tofino (much like other sands, as it turned out). On the following afternoon, we got ourselves on a guided tour of the botanical gardens and spent an entertaining hour or so learning about the local ecosystem and catching crabs on the nearby mudflats. In the evening, we walked down to the friendly Gull Cottage (the first B&B we’d ever stayed in), met the existing residents (young professional couples, not unlike ourselves) and investigated a new and interesting locality (consisting of a pleasant beach and a cluster of businesses, including a luxury chocolate maker and cookie-tastic organic grocery).

Dragon treeThe plan for our last full day in Tofino had been to rent some bikes and cycle out to Wickaninnish (around 20 km), but after talking to the bike rental people we decided against it due to the lack of bike lanes and quantity of poor drivers. Instead we went out to the same area by bus and took a wander around a well-self-guided swamp park, stomping on the boardwalks to scare bears away. We had then intended to take a clifftop forest path out to the local interpretive centre, but a bridge was out and we ended up trudging back along the roads to the southern end of Long Beach (a fairly long beach), belatedly paying our national park fee (for the swamp area), watching part of a film about sea otters and taking the bus back into Tofino for some refreshments.

Florencia BayOur time on the west coast of Vancouver Island came to a close all too soon, and with our next destination looming we took a couple of long bus rides out to Campbell River and the short ferry ride over to Quadra, nestled in the Discovery Islands. We’d arranged a WWOOF / Help Exchange homestay and would spend the next week living with a family, working in exchange for our food and board. The current big project was extensive preparation for an anniversary, and so our duties consisted mostly of cleaning, tidying, gardening, repairing and child-watching to get the place shipshape and give the parents time to organise before the guests arrived.

Rebecca SpitOne of the most exciting things about our area of Quadra was the profusion of wildlife – within a few days, we’d seen snakes, kingfishers, more eagles, a salamander, many interesting insects and arachnids, a hummingbird, seals and even a mouse – mostly in the garden, but also down at the beaches. As the house and garden slowly started to resemble those pictures in Canadian Living, we got time to explore our immediate surroundings a bit more and, on various occasions, cycled out to Rebecca Spit, took the family dog (Oliver, a large black labrador) out for walks in the woods, made supply runs to the store (quite a long way away) and hit the beach with the family. As soon as everyone had assembled on the pebbles, Oliver would start collecting driftwood and challenge all comers to take it away from him. On a few occasions, he went after full-sized tree logs and managed to drag a couple into shallow water, where he proceeded to gnaw on them until someone produced another stick. One time we took Oliver’s tennis ball out with us to play fetch, threw it in the water and watched aghast as it sank with only a few bubbles to mark the spot. Unable to dive, Oliver began swimming in circles around where the ball used to be and refused to come ashore. We tried enticing him with sticks, but he was adamant and I eventually waded out hip-deep and kicked the ball back to shallow water.

BC coastOur various projects included carrying and reconstructing a greenhouse frame (currently awaiting plastic sheeting in the garden), rescuing timber offcuts from sawmill burn piles and turning them into fence slats (the fence is currently about five feet high and looks pretty good), making the overgrown garden paths passable (we went a bit too far here and cut back vegetation the family would rather have kept) and myriad small tasks to help with the big party. The subsequent cleansing operation went very quickly due to the bright idea of having a separate clean-up party complete with waffles and plenty of helpers.

Hyacinth BayOn our final full day on Quadra, Amy and I took the day off and borrowed the family canoe to explore the Heriot Bay area a little. While I consider myself a reasonably competent kayaker, my open (Canadian) canoe experience is pretty limited and I found the open ocean a little daunting. A fresh breeze was blowing across the harbour as we launched, and it took thirty minutes of hard paddling against the wind to traverse the few hundred metres to the tip of Rebecca Spit. We paused to let the ferry to Cortes go by, and then struck back inland in an effort to avoid the worst of the wind. We’d initially planned to visit the Breton Islands just offshore, but I was quite deterred by the choppiness of the water and seeming instability of our craft and we opted for the more sheltered Hyacinth Bay instead. A bald eagle sat in a tree and watched us as we ate lunch (mostly leftover party desserts), and we gratefully felt the wind behind us as we headed back (passing a large jellyfish), landing to find a huge purple starfish eating a clam and a huge crab trying unsuccessfully to hide under the rocks.

Deer Lake ParkBack in Vancouver, we rested for a night in the city centre and spent the following day shopping and hanging out with Laura, who introduced us to La Casa Gelato, a 218-flavour gelato emporium including convention-challenging tastes such as rice, corn, balsamic vinegar, garlic, durian and (allegedly) kimchi. Everyone comes to try many outlandish flavours (they offer unlimited free samples, and at $4 a cone one tends to try a lot of things to offset the cost a little) and ends up buying something reasonably familiar, which is what we all did. We then made tracks back to White Rock, and I made an uncharacteristic error by leaving our shopping bag on the bus (weeks later, it still hadn’t turned up at lost property).

After a quick reunion with Amy’s grandfather, we took the Skytrain to Metrotown (a big shopping complex) to meet Amy’s sister Kate, who was in town for a conference (staying at the Hilton, which has a great outdoor hot tub and a perplexingly narrow pool). We stumbled upon a Chinese market area right next door, stocked up on tropical fruits for breakfast and then hit the mall to get Amy some pretty snappy clothes that aren’t really available in Korea (for reasons of both size and taste). The following day, we went back for more gelato, saw Kate onto a bus going to the conference venue (UBC) and walked over to Deer Lake Park, a huge expanse of meadow and wetland (presumably harbouring countless animals, of which we saw only a few).

Provincial flagsThe next day was Kate’s presentation and so we all trundled out west, arriving in the nick of time due to the bus not going all the way up to UBC on weekends, and also to the driver stopping about halfway because his shift was over, failing to find a replacement driver and then kicking us all off to wait for the next bus (after which he drove off in the direction we needed to go). Amy and I had the morning free, so we took a two-hour walk out to the nearest board game store to augment our order waiting in White Rock before returning to cheer Kate on and doze through the final paper. On Sunday, we did some last-minute shopping and then made the trip back out to White Rock where Kate thoroughly beat us at Dutch Blitz (a card game we acquired at the mall).

I’d earmarked Monday for making the long trip back into Vancouver to replace the items I’d left on the bus (daily calls to BC Transit lost property resulted in them telling that if my stuff was going to be handed in they’d have it by now and not to call them anymore), but we took the morning to go and meet Sean (who I’d met during my first trip to Canada), who was in town for a wedding. He and Amy caught up over an early lunch (some of White Rock’s rather good veggie burgers), we explored rock pools on the beach and then called in at Grey Haven to collect a huge pile of board games. I got bonus Sean time as we were both going into Vancouver, was dropped off on Commercial Drive and quickly and efficiently found everything I’d previously lost.

White Rock heronKate flew out the following morning, leaving Amy and I to potter around doing some cleaning and breaking out a few of our new games. We decided to spend some more time in central Vancouver (principally to give Amy’s grandfather a break from having us around all the time), and met up with Laura again just in time for a mini-barbecue. Over the next couple of days, I spent quite a bit of my time in the library at UBC (the University of British Columbia) trying to figure out which of the books were also available at Ewha so I could get some lecture planning done (our initial timetable had us back in Korea already, and I was pretty keen not to fall behind on work due to flight unavailability). I didn’t see much of campus, but there was a clock tower (essential for any decent university), plenty of space (compared to a British or Korean institution, there’s an incredible amount of sprawl) and friendly staff.

Sea monster (2)For the last few days of our holiday, we returned to White Rock in time for the the Spirit of the Sea festival. This was principally a family-focused celebration of the history of living on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, but also a showcase for local businesses. We were there on Sunday for the sandcastle competition and interpretive walk, and it was well worth the (limited, as we’d learned our lesson on Quadra) sunburn. The tide was well out and still receding when we arrived, and the castle builders were mostly busy piling up mounds to be later shaped down. We left them to create while we checked out the stalls (there really are are a lot of local jewellery makers) and got ourselves on the interpretive walk (possibly the only people there not escorting kids). A park ranger took us along the pier, explaining about barnacles, how to tell male crabs from female ones, how the larger dungeness crabs (Cancer magister) hide under eelgrass when the tide goes out, what those things that squirt water at you are (horse clams, Tresus spp.) and starfish dining habits. When we got back up to the sandcastle zone, the various sculptures were well underway – we saw a few actual castles (some with additional sea creatures), several giant corporate advertisements (businesses are allowed to field teams, and from 2009 will also be able to hand out promotional material), a few animals and one mound that we though would become Skull Island (from King Kong) due to a guy in a gorilla costume jumping around, but turned out to be a huge bowl of fruit.

Sandcastle (1)Sandcastle (2)

Neptune-Poseidon-ZaiusSand gorilla

Sand octopusSand whale

Sea monster (1)Airport divers

The next couple of days passed in a pleasant blur of board gaming, film watching, baking, shopping and visiting more of Amy’s relatives (who had us over for tea and biscuits). Almost before we knew it we were packed and on the way to the airport, five weeks having evaporated seemingly overnight. There were no issues at check-in this time (but then we weren’t flying Air Canada), and the return flight was every bit as uncomfortable as I’d feared. We touched down in Korea the next evening, and collapsed in our respective apartments to sleep off the worst of the jet lag before rousing ourselves to get back to work.

With most wildlife endangerment caused by habitat loss due to human activities, it stand to reason that once humans clear out of an area the biodiversity will improve. Nature noted this effect in the zone of exclusion around Chernobyl, and now The Guardian reports that Korea’s demilitarised zone (DMZ) has become a human-free haven for the local fora and fauna.

While the two Koreas face off at the border crossing points, there’s little chance of serious activity within the zone. However, unification will come sooner or later and this is a rare chance to preserve near-pristine habitats in what will be a rapidly-developing area. The DMZ Forum was set up in 1997 to do just this, and has won support from local government officials in the bordering regions.

Although many parts of Korea still have good forest cover, environmental awareness seems to be quite low and this is a remarkable opportunity to educate people about the benefits (economic as well as ethical) of habitat conservation. Given how Koreans are such good tourists within their own country, having a development-free “demetropolised zone” could be an immensely positive step for the green movements.