Excursion to Flower Rock
by Adrian Dorst, Tofino
My kayak slices through a kelp bed and glides into a tiny cove protected
from the ocean swells. Or so I hope. I reach out to grasp the slippery,
seaweed-covered rocks on the port side, but the sea slowly rises and
falls. With a combination of agility, timing, and luck, I succeed in
extricating myself from the boat and planting my feet on terra firma.
Then, grabbing the bow of my boat, I haul it ashore, well out of reach
of the rising tide.
Boat secured, I look around. I am on the lower part of a dome-shaped
rock that lies offshore from Vargas Island, just five miles from Tofino.
Cement and pavement may dominate in the village, but here on this rocky
outpost, nature reigns supreme. Harlequin ducks in breeding finery
splash among the reefs nearby, while black oystercatchers create a
din as they chase one another in mating ritual. Overhead, a resident
osprey scans the sea for coho. The eagle that had been watching my
arrival from atop the wind-swept spruce is gone now, but I don't
mind, today my focus is on wild flowers.
Vivid splashes of Technicolor greet my eyes as I look up—deep
reds, oranges and vivid yellows, against a background of green, dotted
with purple. I grab my camera bag and tripod and proceed upward, taking
care not to step on the vegetation, at least when that's avoidable.
The weather is nearly ideal for flower photography – overcast
with a light drizzle – but a light breeze caressing the flowers
makes conditions somewhat less than perfect. Depth of field can be
a problem when the subject is in motion. Nonetheless, its as close
to perfection as one is apt to get on the outer west coast and I'm
a happy man.
Close-up, the bright splashes of color have metamorphosed into plants
called Indian paintbrush, yellow monkey-flowers and Siberian miner's
lettuce. On the side of the cliff, a cascade of monkey-flowers attracts
my attention. I set up tripod and camera, take a light-reading with
my hand-held meter, adjust aperture and shutter speed and peer through
the view-finder. The shutter clicks once, twice, three times. I get
up and wander like a hummingbird from bloom to bloom, praying that
the wind will lay low.
Here and there among the verdant growth I see signs of other visitors.
A barely perceptible trail runs through the vegetation, created by
mink, which apparently use this isle as a base for raiding the inter-tidal
pantry that surrounds it. And emerging from a cleft in the rock on
a low cliff face, I see a path so well trodden, it can only mean that
the mink's larger cousin, the river otter, is also a resident.
Familiar with the otter's preferred lounging requirements, I
decide to climb up toward the summit for a look.
I circle the cliff and fight my way through dense scrub into an open
area beside the island's only tree, a Sitka spruce that, although
small for its species, looks ancient. The trunk is a metre wide at
the base, and for a short distance runs parallel to the ground before
rising to a maximum height of about 6 meters. The contorted, wind-swept
branches are festooned with hanging beard lichens of the Usnea genus
as well as large clumps of leathery polypody, or Polypodium scouleri,
a relative of the licorice fern endemic to the salt zone of the outer
So dense is the foliage overhead, it forms a protective canopy that
shuts out the sky. Where I am standing, the ground is bare, forming
a perfect playground for fun-loving otters. A well-traveled otter freeway
is visible descending from the scrub-covered summit.
Somewhere nearby will be a pool of rain water which serves the otters
as a bath to wash sea salt from their fur. I know this from having
visited other rocky islets similar to this one over the years. Inevitably,
at or near the summit, usually in a place that affords a splendid view
of the surroundings, and often beneath a canopy of branches, I would
find the earth similarly bare, with a pool nearby for bathing. While
this arrangement serves otters in a practical way by providing them
with a safe place for lounging, as well as bathing, it appears that
these intelligent animals also prefer a penthouse suite with a view.
Later, in the meadow below the terraces, I find the breastbone and
skull of a bird – a surf scoter, I conclude, devoured by an eagle.
From my favourite campsite on Vargas, I often see bald eagles perched
here in the flower meadow, or on top of the wind-swept spruce. All
three species, I realize, mink, otter and eagle, contribute to the
ecology of this rock garden by depositing organic material through
what they haul ashore, as well as through the excrement they leave
Flower Rock has not always looked like this. During the last ice-age,
when sea levels were hundreds of feet lower, this would not have been
an isle at all, but merely a rocky hilltop, miles from the sea. In
fact, judging by striations caused by glacial scouring on rocks on
nearby Vargas, at one time this area was buried beneath a mantle of
ice. What I have no way of knowing is whether the scouring happened
during the peak of the Fraser Glaciation some 15,000 years ago, or
a previous one. Scientists believe as many as 13 may have come and
gone in the past million years.
Soon after the glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago, sea levels
in this area were some 50 meters higher than they are today. This rock
would then have been far beneath the ocean's surface. As the
water gradually receded and areas of the rock became exposed to stand
above the reach of storm waves, plants such as villous cinquifoil,
seaside plantain and hardy grasses colonized, as indeed they are still
doing today nearby. Clutching minute amounts of soil with their roots,
these pioneers prepared the way for other plants. Fertilized by otter,
mink and eagle, soil fertility gradually increased to the point where
the verdant flower gardens I am seeing today are able to flourish.
People may also have played a part in the ecology of these gardens.
Similar domed rocks on this coast are often topped by shell middens,
indicating that they were used seasonally by the native Nuu-chah-nulth
as a base for gathering seafood such as mussels, urchins and abalone.
On this rock I see no sign of a midden, nor do I see a place suitable
for that purpose. However, on nearby Vargas Island, a shell midden
exposed by a toppled tree suggests that they chose to camp in that
more sheltered location. It would have been a small matter for them
to canoe from there and land, as I did, in the sheltered cove below.
Besides gathering food from the inter-tidal zone, the Nuu-chah-nulth
may have arrived to harvest plants as well. Nodding onions, who's
roots and flowers impart a delectable flavour to soups and stews, and
which, when eaten raw stimulate the appetite, grow in abundance in
the meadow. And on the steep north-east side of the rock, in places
sheltered from the wind, cow parsnip is much in evidence. The young
stems are said to have been peeled and eaten in the manner of stalks
Looking down at the abundant growth of Siberian miner's lettuce
at my feet, I wonder if this plant was also harvested for food. After
all, its cousin Claytonia perfoliata, distinguished by round leaves,
is quite palatable, if not actually flavourful. I chew a few leaves
of Claytonia sibirica but gag and spit it out as the oxalic acid burns
my throat. I have been quickly and effectively dissuaded from my hypothesis.
I read later in Plants of Coastal British Columbia that Nuu-chah-nulth
women used it in times past to induce labour.
Near the crest of the meadow, I set up my tripod and camera where
a particularly attractive cluster of paintbrush have taken root. Despite
the fact that some of the blooms in front of me are orange in colour,
I suspect they are all common red paintbrush, or Castilleja miniata,
as they are known to botanists. Although there may be 40 different
species from seashore to alpine, or only half that many, I don't
trouble myself to differentiate, as even the experts can't seem
to agree. I prefer the name Indian paintbrush, which is the name used
locally. Surprisingly, the magnificent blooms I am looking at are technically
not flowers at all, but brightly pigmented leaves or bracts serving
the function of petals.
As wind and rain pick up and it becomes increasingly difficult to
maintain depth of field, I decide to call it a day. Besides, after
exploring the rock and exposing three rolls of film, I have just about
exhausted the photographic possibilities. I return to my boat, stash
the camera bag in the rear hatch and seal it carefully with the flexible
hatch cover. Then, I haul the boat back to the water and with great
care, launch it at the crest of a rising swell. I scramble to get in
without upsetting the kayak.
Success! I am securely seated and feeling rather smug about my dexterity
and skill, when the impossible happens. To my utter disbelief, and
as if in slow motion, I watch helplessly as the bow disappears beneath
the water and the kayak is abruptly wrenched upside down with me in
The cold water shocks me into action. I struggle to the surface and
my first thought is for my cameras. I flip the boat right side up and,
still clinging to it with one arm, reach out with the other and attempt
to grip the slippery, seaweed covered shore. The receding swell, it
seems, has other ideas and drags me down, breaking my hold. After several
attempts I succeed in clutching a protruding rock at the top of an
incoming swell and struggle ashore. I pull the boat up behind me and
with bated breath open the hatch. Almost miraculously and much to my
relief, the camera bag remains dry. Cold and wet, I clamber into the
boat once more and paddle towards Vargas Island.
Little more than half an hour later I am sitting stripped down, but
none the worse for wear, beside a crackling fire on Vargas with Flower
Rock visible in the distance. With a cup of piping hot tea warming
my hands I have a chance to reflect on my mishap. The answer, it turns
out, is quite simple. The bowline dangling over the side had become
ensnared in the bull kelp anchored to the bottom. When a rising swell
lifted the boat, the line prevented the kayak from rising with it.
The tension on the line that was attached to the bow flipped the boat.
Another lesson learned. I concluded long ago that if you succeed in
surviving enough mishaps, you may actually live long enough to become
Raising my binoculars, I look back at Flower Rock. From here, the
flowering blooms are once again mere splashes of red and orange and
though painted by an artist's brush. But near the summit, atop
the spruce, sits a large dark bird with a white head. The eagle is
back. Once again the rock belongs to its wild denizens alone, the eagle,
otter and mink. At least until next year, when I'm bound to return
to wander among the magnificent blooms once again. And there's
one thing you can count on. This time I'll be sure to secure
Adrian Dorst is a Tofino nature photographer, carver, and birdwatching
guide. His photos can be found in our photo
gallery or on Adrian's website at www.adriandorst.com.