Friday, May 29, 2009


Canada has its share of wildlife, and we do on the west coast, too. Cougars? Yup. Bears? Yes; quite a few actually. Raccoons, wolves, martins, squirrels, bald eagles, whales...and lots of smaller furry, feathery, scaly, squirmy creatures. But one of my favourites is an animal that (1) grosses many people out, or (2) one people ignore altogether. We have large slugs here. Big banana slugs that can grow to about 20 cm. The banana slug is not the only native species of slug, but it's the most memorable. Maybe you've seen one:

Slugs are an important part of the rainforest; they're like the garbage collectors, eating dead and decaying vegetation as well as animals and, uh, even more unsavory "deposits." And there are a lot of them. Scientists measure animals in ecosystems by biomass. That's the total weight of all of that species within the system. The animal with the highest biomass in the coastal rainforest is not the bear or wolf or cougar or other big predators. It's the banana slug. Now think about that for a moment. A bear is pretty big and heavy. How many banana slugs would weigh as much as one bear? There's a lot of them. Maybe you'll see one if you come to visit?

Here on the coast, banana slugs can also inspire art. I was thinking of them the other day as I was dusting (a VERY rare occurrence, let me assure you) because I found myself rearranging these on my mantel:

Aren't those fabulous? My younger daughter made them during some of her art classes with local potter Cathy White. (Look for a longer post on Cathy's work next week.) And then there's this beauty, that was a gift from my brother a few years ago:

It comes from the Mayne Island Glass Foundry.

And, Marion Syme, from Clayoquot Eclectic also finds inspiration in slugs. Her art cards, t-shirts and bags with west coast wildlife and plants (real and imagined — her mermaids are my favourite) are available in town. (More on Marion soon, too.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Our Daily Bread

I work at home and this gives me a certain amount of flexibility, which I cherish. There are days when I'm up at 5 am working, or still up at 10 pm working, but there are other days when I can work around things that need to be done. Once in a while, the "thing that needs to be done" has something to do with bread. Some days — when I'm feeling inspired — I'll actually make if, often using my "No Wait" bread, which is tasty and fast if a bit yeasty. When I have more time (and perhaps less sense), I'll make a loaf from one of my favourite cookbooks, Home Baking. Often this is a two-day affair as they go for the slow rise version — not too much yeast and a lot of patience — but it's worth it. (An aside. The authors -- Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford have my dream job. Travelling the world, "photo-journalising" about food? Yup, dream job.) In reality, though, when I need a loaf of bread, I usually wander down the road to this place.

Sweet T's is owned and operated by Deb and Tracy Crocker. A few years ago they built a home and included a commercial kitchen. Every morning, with the exception of one, Tracy is up early baking bread and other treats for their bakery as well as for several B&Bs and other businesses in Tofino. They have a teeny tiny shop in the downtown core (which, you understand, is all of four blocks or so) where they sell their goodies. I usually nab the Finnish loaf, which is a lovely, dense grainy bread with a hint of molasses, but the other day I tried the 100% spelt (pictured above). Also very tasty and, as Tracy told me, there's less "going on." It's a simpler taste, but great with stronger tasting filling (like, ah, blue cheese; yes, that was good).

As far as treats go, my daughter loves the cream puffs (and the ganache brownies). Me? The modestly-sized ginger cookies (no face-sized cookies here) with chunks of candied ginger. Excuse me, but I think it's time for elevenses.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Signs of the (Tofino) Times

We love our public bulletin boards in Tofino. Have a Harvest Gold fridge to sell or a fundraiser to advertise or a need a place to live? Check out one of our many bulletin boards. You probably won't have much luck finding your own piece of Tofino to rent through one of these boards (yes, even if you are quiet, responsible, employed, independently wealthy...finding a place is pretty much word-of-mouth), but for other things, the treasure troves are definitely worth a look. Here are a few of the more loaded, and frequently updated, ones.

Tofitian, at the south end of town on Pacific Rim Highway:

The Co-op Hardware store on 1st Street: (Nb. This one is cleared every Monday morning, so it's not "fully loaded" until later in the week.)

And, for the mother lode of flyers, a visit to the Common Loaf Bakeshop is a must:

Writer, Greg Blanchette, wrote a great story about a bulletin board "vigilante" in the last issue of Tofino Time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Season: Salmonberries

I was a little late in starting this blog to hit the real beginning of the salmonberry season, but I can see in my journal that I saw the first brilliant pink petals open on March 1st. (We're actually tracking the appearance of the first blooms each year as one tool to study climate change, so I'm keeping track.) I found this intact flower — and a developing berry as a bonus — in my (very soggy) garden this morning. If the weather finally warms up, the first salmony-orange berries should be ripe in a few weeks. Personally, I find salmonberries a bit insipid and watery, but there's something about seeing the first ones ripe on the bush. I'll nibble a few here and there, but mostly I leave them for the robins, who love them. My kids enjoy them, but I'm holding out for thimbleberries.

One part of the plant, which I will nibble on more, is a fresh shoot, peeled of its thorny skin. Ivy, a friend of my daughter's, taught us how to eat "m'aayi," which has always been an important food for the First Nations' people of the coast.

I haven't heard a Swainson's Thrush yet, but they are said to arrive right about the time the salmonberries ripen. No wonder they're also called the "salmonberry bird."

In Season: Rhubarb

No doubt most of the northern hemisphere is in rhubarb season. We are too. It is one of the things we can actually grow pretty well out here. I have a rhubarb bed, which is competing for nutrients with several cedars, but I've been harvesting it for a few weeks now. I'm on the lookout for how local chefs are using rhubarb and I'll post the results here after I've scoped them. I'm a fan of simple stewed rhubarb, lightly sweetened on its own or perhaps with yoghurt or ice cream, but some compote recipes have caught my attention.

First I tried this recipe for Orange Rhubarb Compote from The Tasting Menu. It was delicious and just a little goes a long way to flavour what you add it too. The addition of orange liquor makes it a tad pricey for this writer's budget, so I may try it with orange juice concentrate.

Then this recipe for Yvette's rhubarb compote from Pia Jane Bijkerk's blog caught my eye. I didn't have any clementines so used regular navel oranges. Vanilla pods are a challenge to find in Tofino, but I managed to track them down. (See below.) Yvette's recipe looked tasty (anything with cardamom and vanilla will catch my attention) and it is delicious but oh, oh, oh — my teeth are aching just thinking about it — there's too much sugar. If you give it a go with your rhubarb haul, I'd suggest going easy on the sugar. Adjust as you go.

Looking for vanilla beans and other exotic ingredients?

If you are visiting Tofino and need something which, for a small town might seem out of the ordinary, go to Beaches grocery first. The owner clearly loves to cook and seems to intuit just what the travelling chef might be looking for. Beaches looks a little rough around the edges in this photo, but it's a useful shop to know about, particularly if you're staying at the Chesterman Beach end of town.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Does It Rain Here All the Time?

No, it doesn't rain all the time in Tofino. But it does rain a fair bit — and, personally, I'm glad for that. It's lush and green here. They don't call it a rainforest without a good reason. (Having said that, I'm ready for summer and sun and heat. I'm not that much of a Pollyanna.) When it does rain though, which it is right now, this is where like to sit.

If you ever come for a visit to Tofino and it's raining, resist the urge to stay inside to drink tea and read all day. It may be wet, but it's probably not too cold. Take a walk on the beach or through the rainforest, then you can feel so much more virtuous when you do sit down to enjoy that long, lazy afternoon with a book or a board game (or snoozing in bed, which is what I feel like doing right now).

Dogwood Drive

We did a little road trip this past weekend. The weather was lovely and warm here and away, which is always nice, but one of the highlights was the drive between the west coast and Port Alberni. Between here and there is a mountain range you must drive through. The top of the range — "The Pass" or "The Hump" — is also a bio-climatic divide meaning that we see some plants on one side of the hump, but not the other. Dogwoods, arbutus, and bigleaf maple are all examples. If you are coming to Tofino in the near future, you'll still be able to catch the dogwoods — B.C.'s provincial "flower"*— at their height. I couldn't resist a few photos. It's unusual in this part of the world to see such huge flowering trees.

* Technically, the "flowers" are actually the plant's bracts. The flower is the tiny cluster in the centre of this inflorescence.

Stairway to (Sandy) Heaven

I try to take a daily walk to a beach about 10 minutes from my home. It's a lovely pocket beach quite close to town. It's been a hidden "locals" gem for years, but, like most other good things, it's been discovered. (I'm not quite prepared to drop the name here, but if you come to Tofino you'll easily be able to find it.) Still, a walk here, gives me a daily dose of rainforest and seashore and sometimes I just manage to make it there when no one else is. The other morning, it was just me and the crow.

The boardwalk and system of stairs down to the beach were getting crickety in the last few years, so they were replaced last summer. And what a beautiful structure appeared, complete with this, a most stunning west coast, Japanese-inspired bridge, which uses beach logs for the spanners.

As a fundraiser, people were encouraged to "buy a board" to help finance the bridge. Our family bought one, which is somewhere in this photo.

And one last photo, because, well, IMHO, it's just so pretty.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Tofino's Got Crabs

When I first lived here, some time in the late '80s, I am sure you could buy t-shirts or bumper stickers that said, Tofino Has Crabs (or maybe, Tofino's Got Crabs). Indeed we do. Great, big tasty Dungeness crabs. The sheltered, relatively shallow waters on the inlet side of the Esowista Peninsula are the perfect habitat. Thank goodness it is partially protected at least, as part of a Wildlife Management Area. You can see part of the mudflats here, behind Chesterman Beach, in this photo from The Nature Trust.

Of course, most of us love to eat crabs (I like mine boiled with nothing else -- no butter, no garlic, nothing; okay, maybe with just a big adult-sized bib and some nice chilled white), but we also celebrate the mud the crabs love. Just lookee here at the More Than Just Mud Mini-Flicks contest held earlier this year. Yup, in Tofino we sometimes celebrate mud.

Crabs have a long history in Tofino. Of course they were (and are) an important part of the diet of the native people who lived (and live) here. Early settlers enjoyed them too, and in the 1940s, the Crab Dock -- a Tofino landmark -- got it's start.

Here's what "The Crab Dock" looks like today. I don't think you can actually buy crabs there at the moment, but I've heard that might change in the near future.

One of the things I write about is local history. I publish some of my stories in Tofino Time and last month I wrote this mini-history of how The Crab Dock got its start. (If you're coming late to this blog, this link might be broken as it will only stay live for a month. If you're interested, email me.) Here's how that same building, which was the original cannery, looks today.

Kindergarten Beans and Killer Potatoes

Every spring, for the 16 or so I've lived here, I start imagining the garden I might have come summer. My flower and herb gardens are finally getting in pretty good shape – perennials well-established, a few trees (including some fruit trees) are beginning to put on height, etc., but the vegetable gardens have always been less than stellar. People can and do grow food some here, but it's a tough go in Tough City. Even after a warm day, it is cool — often cold — in the evenings. It's a rare evening we can sit outside without fleece jackets and blankets. A greenhouse helps (so would a full-time, coddling gardener) as does an early start. I've managed two out of three this year (no sign of the coddling gardener). I've got some greens growing in the neighbour's greenhouse, peas and broad (fava) beans started in the garden and sprouts of arugula, carrots, kale, lettuce, and beets are starting to pop up. There are three cookie sheets full of seedlings in peat pots waiting for it to warm up enough to set out. Perhaps next week.

A few years ago, I was looking at the sunny, south-facing slope at the back of our elementary school (yes, there's only one) and I thought it would make a fine place for a terraced vegetable garden. I brought it up to the people running our community school program and they ran with it. Now they have this lovely small garden, named by the kids, too:

The timing is a bit of a challenge for the school because things really get growing once school is out in the summer. Still, there are enough kids around and programs going on then to care for "the crops." Regardless, clearly the kids are having fun. It's always a bit of a miracle to see what can pop out of a tiny seed.

And here is what the older kids are growing:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rock On!

A few weeks ago I was mighty proud to be a Tofitian. It was the week of Earth Day, but having one day to celebrate wasn't enough for us. Instead, we held Earth Week with all sorts of events. To add to the fun, the Pacific Rim Arts Society also launched an event that I hope will become an annual one: R.A.A.T.U (Random Acts of Art in Tofino and Ucluelet). This morning I was up early so took advantage of the lovely sunny day and sleeping family and walked down to our local beach. I think I discovered a remnant random act of art. It's so wonderfully Tofino -- written in chalk (so, biodegradable) and the "graffiti" includes words like TEACH and LEARN!

Oh, and there's a heart, too.

Tofino's Rhodoland

A cool, moist climate and acidic soils mean that rhodos love Tofino, too. The entire west coast for that matter. George Fraser, a (now) world-renowned rhododendron breeder choose to make Ucluelet — just a hop, skip, and a marathon away from here — his home in the early 1900s. George is being celebrated this coming weekend with the annual George Fraser Days in Ucluelet. (The celebrations kick off Saturday at 10:30 and include a walk through George Fraser's heritage gardens.)

The rhodos are at their showiest at the moment, but they've been blooming for over a month and will last about another month too. Not to be missed is Ken and Dot Gibson's Rhodo Hill (or "Painted Mountain" it's been called) in the downtown core (there's that Heart of Tofino again). Their collection — which has taken over 40 years to amass and nurture — includes 2000 plants with about 1000 varieties.

Even I have a few lovely rhodos that came with the property when we purchased it in 1991. This fluffy pink beauty (I've no idea of the variety) is at it's peak at the moment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's a Sign!

The sign says it all, no? Welcome to Tofino. This is our home. We know there is a whole lotta' Tofino love going on in this country and, many say, even the world. Yes, Tough City is well and truly on the map. But there's a lot more to Tofino than a surf lesson and a crab dinner. Those are fine things, we agree, but there's a community at the heart of this place and that's what we aim to home in on here. 

In this, the first post of The Heart of Tofino, it's apt that this Welcome to Tofino sign lies in the heart of our village of 1500. The sign was designed and carved by the late Henry Nolla. I didn't know Henry well, and I'm sad about that. He was a fixture here for years, living at the "nude end" of Chesterman Beach for years before he had to cover up with the coming of a high-end inn. Until he died a few years ago, his carving shed was both a gathering place for locals -- artists and friends and others just poking around for a visit -- as well as curious tourists. Henry's legacy lives on though, in many places -- the carvings on the Roy Henry Vicker's gallery (the Eagle Aerie), the adzed posts at the Wickaninnish Inn and the Common Loaf Bakery, and many private commissions here and around the world. His carving shed is still on the beach and one day soon I'll introduce you to the artists to carve there now. My friend Jackie wrote this tribute to Henry. I'll bet after reading it, you wished you'd known him too. 

Behind the Welcome to Tofino sign lies another gem at the heart of this place. Today, I want to end with a big shout out to the people who had the good sense to leave a "village green" smack in the centre of this place. And to those more recently who said, "You know, it's okay to put a skate park smack in the centre of town, too." On almost any day it's not raining, this place is pulsing with boarders and tennis players and kids playing in the playground. People have a picnic or play their guitar (or bongos...) in the gazebo and every Saturday from now until the fall there will be a Saturday market where people flogs the wares they "make, bake, or grow." 

So, here's to the start of this adventure. Welcome to Tofino.