I almost died today. OK, it is a little bit of an exaggeration, but I certainly had an adventure. An adventure stemming from my curiosity and the need to capture this brilliant photograph.
My family recently acquired a place near Qualicum Beach, a tiny destination for retirees and tourists that spreads along the east side of Vancouver Island. It is twenty minutes north of Parksville and and hour south of Comox. Centered around a seaside highway, Qualicum Beach boasts some amazing scenery. I was helping my father with some yard maintenance when we heard some loud yelps carried over the forest from the direction of the beach.
The house is about 100m (300ft) above the ocean and during low tides on clear days you can see the edge of the rocky beach from the patio. I walked to one of the few partings in the trees to see if I could identify the source of the yelps. From the house, I could barely see the dark rocks on the beach and I noticed a suspicious rocky outcrop in the water.
“They are probably seals,” said my dad. “Sometimes I can hear them in the morning.”
I grabbed my camera, equipped my telephoto lens and headed back outside to see if I could make out the seals. Due to the distance, the rocks still seemed to be rocks, but with some weird shapes. I snapped a few photos, used the zoom function on the display and found what seemed to be a few shapes sunbathing on the rocks. The one rock that captured my interest seemed to have a pup and what I assumed to be the mother.
After I finished my work, I took another look at the rocks. The mother seal hadn’t moved an inch and the pup seemed to be moving back and forth. There seemed to be a gash in the side of the mother’s belly. Thinking the worst, I decided to head down to the beach.
There is no marked trail from the house all the way down to the beach. My father had walked almost halfway down along a few decaying wooden steps, in what could generously be called a trail, but after that point, the way was obscured by rotting trees, thick vegetation, and large patches of mud. I had not attempted to go to the beach, as my previous visits coincided with rains and it seemed nearly impossible to reach the shore. I was hesitant to head down because I intended to take a ferry in three hours and still had to finish packing my belongings.
The first third of the trail was easy enough; in places, the ground felt like it was giving way due to last night’s rain, but the day was mild and sunny and I didn’t mind a little dirt. When I reached the end of the trail, my view of the water was obscured by trees.
I can still hear the seals. It can’t be too much further. I reasoned with myself, spurred by my cursed curiosity and the fact that it took less than ten minutes to reach this point. Readjusting the strap to my camera, I continued on my way down. The crackle of dried twigs was the only sound in this dense forest, aside from my increasingly quickening breaths. I kept one arm in front of me to fend off stray branches, webs, and leaves, but it was only partly effective.
After another five minutes, I stopped again, as the ground was noticeably more bog-like and I was facing a small cliff dropping down towards some ferns. How can get back up this cliff if I go down to the beach? I was already most of the way down. As I stood there, I could hear the waves crashing on the rocks and splashes which I assumed were seals. I started to have some doubts that I could find the path back to the shoddy trail. Gingerly, looking over the edge, I placed my foot near the protruding root of a mossy tree and tried to gage the steepness of the cliff. My foot punctured the phony ground and pierced through brittle twigs, a few leaves and some very soft mud. The ground gave way under me and I landed rather awkwardly on some ferns. Luckily the ground below was as soft as the ground I fell through.
Seeing that it was much too late to turn back, I made my way over more logs and emerged on the beach. The beach surpassed all my expectations. Extending at least a kilometer in either direction, the surface was covered with small rocks and a layer of kelp. The beach was alive with sand fleas, small crabs, and oysters, but the real treasure was off the shore where a contingent of seals lay sunbathing on a few larger rocks. I noticed the roaring sounds were not waves, but the wings of hundreds of birds taking flight and circling the calm water to settle in a different area.
What I assumed was a rocky outcrop were actually an overcrowding of seals. The heads and tails stuck out of the shallow water like secret smiles as the seals balanced on their bellies, enjoying a joke with the ocean. Their heads and tails peep out of the water to give the appearance of small rocks as they soak up every available ray of sunshine. There weren’t enough flat rocks for all the seals to sunbathe. I concentrated on the original rock that piqued my curiosity to search for the mother and pup.
It was odd that their rock was spacious. On a rock large enough for at least four or five seals, only the mother and her pup languished. Also, the mother was the only seal to expose her belly. A sign of weakness maybe? Or a sign of confidence. It is weird that weakness and confidence could look so similar?
Puzzled by this mystery, I took my time observing the herd. Not too far from the mother and pup duo, a flat rock was overcrowded with at least six seals, with another in the water itching to get onto the rock. Other seals were scattered with arched backs along the shallow water, a humorous gathering of lazy mammals. It was clear now that the mother and pup had some communal status in the herd. Maybe they respected mothers, or the mother could be sick. Was she (I’m assuming its a female here) the strongest seal in the herd or the weakest? The seals stretched down a kilometer from the main encampment to find a suitable rock, but not one seal attempted to climb onto this available rock. I chose to believe that the other seals respected the bond between a fierce mama seal and her pup.
Satisfied with my discovery and conclusion, I made my way back to the ailing tree where I set foot on the beach. A few steps into my ascent, I knew I was in trouble. I took the first two familiar turns, balancing on a fallen tree and scampering around some small shrubs. There was no path, but I retraced my footsteps. After those two turns, every log and bush looked the same. I knew I had to head upwards, but I could not find the same cliff. I am no stranger to hikes and getting a little lost doesn’t usually rattle me. However, this was not a normal trail and I knew that this area, for the most part, was deserted.
There were many ravines along my path upwards that I had not noticed on my initial descent. I would go up one slope only to see that my path was cut off by massive trees or aggressive thorns. My journey was lengthy and tiring because there was no path straight back up. I had to circle around three ravines before finding a suitable path.
My camera, a Nikon 9100, kept swinging in front of me, causing me to stop and re-position it to keep my precious photographs safe. After circling the third ravine, I could still see the beach peeking through the trees and I started to get frustrated. One of my knees is still recovering from a MCL tear and I had hit the other on the accident on the cliff. I checked the time on my iPod (not the best choice of hiking gear) and noticed that it was over an hour from when I originally departed from the house. My father would be worried.
About halfway back up the slope, I noticed a pipe, three feet in diameter and spewing out water. There was definitely no pipe on my descent, so I knew I was a little off course. It was about then that the first inklings of panic started to set. The pipe must be built for a house. Maybe it’s for our house. I faced a tough decision to either follow the pipe upwards or to find my own path. The pipe wouldn’t lead back to the original trail, but it was a sure bet to lead somewhere. Glancing left and right, there was no clear path, so I started walking along the side of the pipe. After only two steps, my foot hit a spot where water leaked from the pipe, forming a muddy hole, and the ground enclosed around my leg up to the knee. There was no way I could climb up a hill that gave away on each step.
I hopped onto the pipe and balanced on all fours. The surface was slippery, so I maneuvered carefully, clearing dead branches and vines from the top of the pipe. Most of the way, I shimmied up a few inches at a time, unable to get off due to the mud and unable to move faster in fear of sliding back. Every time I moved a few inches, I rested a few minutes, legs gripping the metal. The grueling pace started to sap my energy. I had no indication of time or distance as I focused only on the next section of pipe.
After a while, the pipe suddenly became much steeper and my shimmying gave no headway. I slowly raised my legs and returned back on all fours and immediately slid back two feet. Grumbling at the loss, I quickly abandoned that tactic. With no other options, I chose the least muddy path and started out back into the forest. I tried to keep the pipe in my sight, but it was too quickly lost in the foliage.
The trees ahead started to thin out and I knew I was close. However, the steepest part of the climb was still ahead. My next choice would be to circle another ravine or climb a rotting log using knobs as hand and footholds. Doubtfully scanning the log, I knew that parts of it would crumble when I place any weight on it. The ravine was too deep to scale and it was one of the larger ravines I had come across. I knew that I was almost spent.
Like the seals, I started on my belly, but with no hint of a smile. The first knob crumbled as soon as I grabbed it. I got almost halfway up the log, the smell of moss fresh in my nose and leaves slapping my face. As I grabbed onto the next knob, I started to lose balance and the knob crumbled to my touch. Rather than grabbing wood, I had grabbed a rather large piece of fragile fungus. My reaction was to grab the tree on all fours, like a frightened koala. Somehow, the tactic worked and I didn’t slide back down. With even more care, I continued on my way upwards.
Finally, I saw some loose rocks, an alien feature to these woods and an indication that I was near a human influence. At long last, I relinquished my hunched position and scaled the few rocks up to a wire fence. I had made it to the border of my neighbor’s property.
I had traipsed through woods as a madman, destroying branches, leaves, logs, and disturbing large volumes of dirt and mud. All of it was for a few pictures, a little insight on seals, and a great story. I looked over the water again through my camera from the safety of my house, the last of the smiles disappearing with the rising tide.