One crisp winter day in late 1972, a light southeasterly rippled the Strait of Juan de Fuca as we made our run from Victoria in Puffin, a sturdy cabin cruiser. We were comfortable if a bit crowded. Several shotguns, waders, food and other supplies were stacked about the deck and piled high in the wheelhouse. Two dogs milled about the deck as the vessel rolled in a light chop. These were happy days indeed. Penny sat beside me and, together with her family, we were on our way. Our destination, somewhere in the fetch of that silver sea, was Sidney Island, one of the southernmost of Canada’s Gulf Island chain.
About mid-morning we nosed into the tiny wharf at the head of the lagoon and were met by Jack Todd in a Volkswagen bus with two more dogs. Chaos. People shouted introductions over the gunwale as we offloaded the baggage; too many hands at the mooring lines and too many dogs tumbling in circles over one another. But things were soon sorted out and our safari was bumping down the overgrown ruts of the island’s only road.
I was the outsider. Jack was the major owner of the island, having bought out nine of the original 10 members of a group of Victoria businessmen and members of their families who, attracted by the island’s prolific flocks of brant, ducks and other waterfowl, had bought it whole in 1915 as a hunting retreat.
Penny’s father, Richard Wilson, Victoria mayor at the time, now held the tenth interest originally held by her grandfather. Being a minority owner, Wilson was not much involved in the running of the island, but he usually took his family for a visit in December to find a Christmas tree. This year, my relationship with Penny having grown closer, I was invited to join the group: Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, Penny and her brother David (“Wick”), a Victoria lawyer.
Jack, an avid hunter, had proposed we augment our quest for a Christmas tree with duck hunting and we had come prepared. But we were to gather first at the farm- house halfway down the island to have coffee, warm up and get organized. The road took us through the forest and, being a forester, I was immediately struck by the vigorous canopy of Douglas fir second growth, with a remarkable variety of other conifers and hardwoods.
There were rare Garry oaks and our only native broadleaf evergreen, and my favourite, the stunning arbutus, with its rich orange bark and shiny green leaves even in the middle of winter.
The day passed quickly. We idled at coffee, lunch and ducks and as the sun dipped to the northwest horizon, we realized we’d made no progress on the Christmas tree. A good Christmas tree is hard to find in a wild forest; most trees are too big or too small, too scrawny or lopsided. Besides we were pressed for time.
Nevertheless, there was one last pond at the south end of the island that Jack insisted we hunt. Then it was time to pack up. But as Penny and I walked back towards the van, sharing our frustration about the lack of a Christmas tree, we came upon a perfect specimen. We had no axe or saw, having left them in the van. After a brief consultation, we decided on a new course of action. Penny stood back. I raised my shotgun, fired and the tree fell cleanly from its stump. A successful day of hunting indeed: four mallards and a Christmas tree.