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The City Of Totems: Duncan, BC

The City Of Totems: Duncan, BC

Posted by on Oct 16, 2017 in Art, British Columbia, Canada, Gallery | 25 comments

We sailed away from Vancouver Island on Friday, after five weeks of adventures, British Columbia style. You would think five weeks would be enough time to cover every inch of an island 290 miles long and 62 miles wide. Not quite. But we did our best.

We explored the length and breadth of the island, discovering treasures around every bend. We found whales on the north coast and bears fishing for salmon in the interior. We kayaked in pristine waters, took a mail boat cruise to a remote village, hiked trails through moss-covered ancient forests, visited beautiful gardens, and walked stunning beaches on both coasts. We immersed ourselves in the First Nations culture and the vibrant local art scene. We indulged in a bounty of local foods from farmers markets, vineyards, breweries, cheese makers, fishmongers, tea houses, and bakeries.

The entire experience was pure magic. Except for the lack of internet connection, which was pull-your-hair-out frustrating. If you can’t live without internet, you don’t want to go to Vancouver Island. Your phone might work (sometimes), but your internet connection, never. I’ll share more about this in an island wrap-up post, but for now,  let’s talk about the little town of Duncan, a mere 40 miles north of Sidney.

Leaving Sidney, we envisioned small towns and wilderness ahead. Instead, we found ourselves driving through stop-and-go traffic on a highway lined with strip malls. And then it started to rain. It wasn’t exactly an auspicious beginning to our explorations of Vancouver Island.

But then we pulled off the highway in Duncan, also known as The City of Totems.

There were two things that drew us to Duncan: the large collection of First Nations totem poles, and the farmers market. Both were outstanding, even in the rain.

Totems created by First Nations artists by the railway station in downtown Duncan, BC

The Duncan Farmers Market takes place year round, rain or shine. Every Saturday, 150 vendors gather in the heart of downtown Duncan, laying out a cornucopia of island bounty. The Cowichan Valley is blessed with as close to a Mediterranean climate as you get in Canada, and has become a slow-food mecca for organic farmers, artisanal cheese makers, foragers, fishermen, vintners, brewmasters, chocolatiers, coffee roasters, and chefs. For food lovers (like us!) it’s heaven.

We knew nothing about the Cowichan Valley before stopping in Duncan, but immediately put it on our list for an extended visit later in our trip. As for the farmers market, we came away with feta and Brie from grass fed happy cows, beautiful organic berries and greens, fresh roasted coffee, and local smoked salmon. If our fridge hadn’t been stuffed full of Lopez Island goodies, we would have bought a lot more.

A little rain (or a lot) won’t stop us from visiting a good farmers market!

A local jazz band provides entertainment on a rainy market day

The surrounding Cowichan Valley is known for its Mediterranean-like climate (yes, really)

Along with hosting the largest farmers market in the Cowichan Valley, Duncan has a superb collection of totems in the downtown area. Totem poles are unique to the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast. It’s not unusual to find totems in British Columbia—many communities raise totem poles as a sign of respect to the First Nations peoples.

It is unusual to find such a rich concentration of totem poles, though. In 1985, the mayor of Duncan initiated the totem pole project to celebrate the close ties between the City and the Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) people. He also hoped the totems would attract visitors, but that’s not the primary message that comes through (there’s nothing amusement park-esque about the totem poles, fortunately).

Today, 39 totems, all created by aboriginal carvers, are placed throughout the town. The signs accompanying each tell the story of the totem pole from the carver’s perspective. Totem tours are offered during the summer, or you can follow the yellow footprints of the totem trail on your own.

Downtown Duncan has an outstanding collection of First Nations totems

Carved from cedar, totem poles tell stories of individual clans, and communicate history and legends. Each animal symbolizes human traits, personality and values. For example, Bear represents strength, family, and courage. Mischievous and curious Raven embodies creation, knowledge, and the unknown, while Owl signifies wisdom and intuition. Otter is one of my favorites, symbolizing friendship and family, as well as happiness and never ending curiosity.

The Eagle Totem, the first totem created for the Totem Project in 1986

Each totem has unique symbolism and tells a story

The Transformation in Life Totem

Eagle represents wisdom, great vision, and healing, and this totem tells a story of transformation. An eagle carries away a man on a vision quest. He returns as a young person wrapped safely in the eagle’s wings, representing his Guardian Spirit. Now, his life begins again, with a second chance to change his ways.

Totems against a background mural in downtown Duncan

The mythical Thunderbird, bringer of great storms, thunder, and lightning

A bronze water fountain totem, including a frog fountain for pets

If you get hungry wandering in Duncan, the Duncan Garage is a gathering place for locals and visitors offering homemade soups, salads, and lots more, all focused on local foods and with a definite retro hippie vibe. While you’re at it, you can browse the excellent little bookstore and shop the little natural foods store. It’s a cute, colorful place, right along the totem trail.

The Duncan Garage offers everything but gas, oil changes and tires

Hippie comfort food is on the menu at the Duncan Garage Cafe

Ten Old Books Bookstore

We spent several hours in Duncan and then resumed our journey northward. It was a great stop, and well worth the short detour off the highway.

Next Up: Nanaimo, BC: The Harbour City

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Vancouver Island: A Bucket List Item

Vancouver Island: A Bucket List Item

Posted by on Oct 5, 2017 in Canada, Gallery | 36 comments

Vancouver Island, British Columbia, has been on our bucket list for years. Truthfully, it would have stayed on our bucket list had it not been for the fires raging throughout much of the West this summer.

We had plans for Glacier in early September, but scratched that idea because of uncontrolled wildfires. Washington, the Canadian Rockies, Idaho, and Oregon were also choked with smoke. In mid-August, just a couple of weeks before we were due to leave Lopez, we had no idea of where we were going. And then we came up with the brilliant idea of exploring Vancouver Island.

Brilliant, and also a bit overwhelming. We don’t know anyone who has spent time RVing on Vancouver Island. We’ve visited Victoria, the capital of BC on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, twice—once on a tent camping adventure 20 years ago, and again recently while staying in an Airbnb. However, hauling our trailer to the island felt a bit daunting. Not because of the ferry crossing; with all of our travels in the San Juan Islands, we’re accustomed to traveling by ferry.

The Challenges

We had no reservations for places to stay, weren’t sure about campsite availability in September, and we wondered what it was going to be like crossing the border with our trailer. Plus, we didn’t know much about the island (except Victoria), and had no clue about where to go and what to do. With no easy access to internet on Lopez to research our options, for the first time in 15 years we bought a travel guidebook. It wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped. Despite the fact that the internet is a time-sucking vortex, it is infinitely better than any other way of researching travel plans. Being without internet drives me crazy. But I digress.

There were two things we knew for sure we wanted to do on Vancouver Island: Whale watching in Telegraph Cove, far north on the island. And exploring Pacific Rim National Park, on the wild west coast. We would fill in the blanks for the rest of our journey as we learned more along the way.

Border Crossing Trauma

Deciphering information about border crossing restrictions is an exercise in futility. There is no way to determine precisely what is and what isn’t allowed. I spent a couple of hours trying to make sense of the rules only to discover this disclaimer: “the requirements may be adjusted at any time.” Not helpful at all.

It’s not that we were planning to haul drugs or guns or plants across the border. Or even large quantities of alcohol. But we had a freezer stuffed with local Lopez Island meats and salmon, and a fridge filled with two dozen local eggs and fresh vegetables from our favorite farm stand. I didn’t want any of our beautiful, organic, island-grown food confiscated at the border. (Of course, the easiest solution is to travel with an empty fridge and freezer. But we had stocked our freezer in preparation for our trip to Glacier.)

I wasn’t being completely neurotic. We’ve heard horror stories about border crossings, including a tale from a close friend who was threatened with stiff fines for neglecting to declare a dessicated lime lolling about in his fridge drawer.

I called the RV Park in Sidney where we would spend our first night, asking if they had any idea of current border restrictions. The woman tried her best to help, searching the same official website that I had tried to sort through. “Hmmm…this is confusing,” she finally said. And we both agreed that essentially, the ease of our border crossing would depend on the mood of the border guard, and whether or not the guard fancied lunch from our well-stocked fridge.

It Was A Piece Of Cake!

On September 8th, we loaded our trailer onto the ferry, sailed away from Lopez, and caught another ferry in Anacortes to Vancouver Island. Two hours later, we cruised into the port of Sidney and queued up for our turn with the customs agent—while watching the trailer next to us get pulled over and searched.

Our agent asked where we were headed and how long we planned to be on the island. Her only other question was whether we had weapons (only bear spray, which is allowed as long as it’s labeled as such). We then had a pleasant conversation about our plans to head north to Telegraph Cove for whale watching. “That’s the best place on the island for whales—I saw orcas there!” With a smile, she waved us on.

A Brief But Fun Visit To Sidney

We made a good choice to stay in Sidney the first night instead of hitting the road and immediately heading up island. The waterfront is a beautiful place to walk, with sculptures and a picturesque harbor.

A colorful welcome to Sidney, British Columbia

Strolling the Sidney waterfront walkway; about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) one way

Flowers along the waterfront

Hanging out with the bronze fisherman by the pier

An orca mosaic at the Sidney Marina

Our entertainment in Sidney consisted of walking along the waterfront, visiting the sweet little aquarium (our docent at the touch tank was probably 12 years old, and very knowledgeable), and enjoying happy hour at the excellent gin distillery. All very wholesome activities.

Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, a delightful local aquarium on the waterfront

The doors to the inner sanctum of the aquarium; very Jules Verne

Inside the fascinating Salish Sea Aquarium

Dancing sea nettles

Our wonderful young aquarium docent, keeping watch over the touch tank

Treasures of the Salish Sea; fancy pink anemones and blue sea stars

The fabulous Victoria Distillers, right next door to the aquarium (how convenient!)

Gin tasting at the distillery; three different gins, two tonics, two bitters, and garnishes

Purple gin created for the Empress Hotel; the color comes from dried butterfly pea flowers

About the RV Park:

Oceanside RV Resort, in Saanichton, is only 15 minutes from the ferry terminal in Sidney. It’s beautifully maintained, with a mix of seasonal and overnight sites. Our site backed up to a wetland with trails to a small beach. Paved roads, level gravel sites, full hookups, erratic wifi, immaculate showers and laundry. It has the reputation as the nicest RV park in the area, and from the looks of a couple of the others we passed by, I’d say there’s no question about it.

Oceanside RV Park, Saanichton, BC

Next Up: A  Couple Of Days In Nanaimo, BC

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