|A customer shopping at the Duncan Farmers Market.
Credit: Landon Sveinson Photography / Tourism Vancouver Island
Once upon a time farmers markets were a weekly mainstay of life in virtually every small town, especially in Great Britain. Local growers, producers and crafters gathered at the town square to offer their wares to their neighbors. Townspeople shopped for beets and beef, pots and potatoes, afghans and apples. They hobnobbed with folks they might not see otherwise for a week, trading gossip and political views. They came home with supplies for the next week, and for them the market was a necessity--not an urban amenity.
Today, farmers markets have enjoyed a worldwide revival. Vancouver Island was one of the pioneers of this 20th century transformation, as our cultural emphasis on local provisions has been strong for decades. Few places on the Island lack a farmers market, and many have several. There are multiple farmers markets every day of the week now; and the industry overall reports that its problem isn't finding customers, it's finding enough producers to provide booths at all the markets now underway.
Today, as in centuries past, growers, foragers, artisans and crafters gather in a central spot to offer their wares to their neighbors. It might be a large parking lot instead of a town square--though we have markets at those, too--but farmers markets remain human events that enable community interaction as much as simple commerce. And today, perhaps not like long ago, they are also welcoming destinations for travelers who can enjoy them both as places to sample good food and great crafts, and as events at which they may gain greater appreciation for the flavors of local life.
This is especially true on our Island. Agriculture and food preparation are intrinsic to our character and quality of life--Sooke, west of Victoria, is home to Sooke Harbour House, which is often considered the most famous restaurant in Canada. Their owners came here from Europe expressly because they wanted to take advantage of the Island's marvelous productivity, and many of the philosophies they helped germinate here are on display at local farmers markets.
Foraging, for example: Local foragers gather from our woods and shores an amazing variety of foods. Wandering a market in late spring one may well discover a stand at which wild mushrooms are for sale, and learn the unique relationship between morels, spring rains and certain types of trees. Seaweed gatherers can explain the way these marine greens lent vital vitamins and minerals to the diets of First Peoples, and were often cooked with salmon eggs to make a rich soup.
If you visit a garlic grower in early summer, you'll learn that here on the Island the cloves are planted in fall--October, usually--grow slowly through the winter, undergo a sudden burst of growth in April and May and mature as summer warms in late June. Though the original types planted by growers may have been brought from the Old World, their producers today will tell you that the annual process of seed selection they practice has created unique varieties suited to the particular conditions they are grown in, whether it's the Saanich Peninsula or the Comox Valley.
You might meet a grower who's producing one of the ancient kinds of potato long grown by coastal First Nations people--a foodstuff that was traded up the coast from South America centuries ago, long before European contact.
Perhaps, in late summer, a forager can explain to you the differences between wild huckleberries and blueberries, and which is best for pies, which best for making into preserves.
And in early fall, on Salt Spring Island, growers display some of the hundreds of apple varieties grown on the island--many of them heritage strains that date back to a European era in which apples were a key crop to make cider, the drink that appeared on dinner tables through the winter.
You could find out, from the orchardist who grows them, the difference between Karmijn de Sonneville and Bromley apples--one is best for apple pie, the other better to serve sliced as dessert with artisan cheese. While you're at it, you can visit with an Island cheese producer and taste for yourself the differences among fresh and aged cheeses.
At a farmers market, you can learn, from an expert, why Berkshire bacon and Hampshire ham (that is, products from those particular breeds of pig) are better than the mass-market items you can find in any grocery store in North America.
In the Cowichan Valley, local bakers craft bread made from a heritage wheat variety, Red Fife, that has been grown in Canada since the 19th century, and is particularly suited both to our climate and to crafting hearty breads with deep texture and rich, musky flavour.
Our many Island potters, weavers and woodcrafters offer household goods ranging from bowls to stoles. Local artists represent, in many types of paint, the majestic heft of oak trees in summer meadows, and the shimmering red of arbutus trees leaning out over shoreline rocks. Perhaps visitors cannot take home a rasher of bacon--but they can surely pack a maple salad bowl in their bag.
Add all this up and the farmers market experience is among the most vivid and colourful facets of Island life. Red raspberries and lime green kohlrabi vie for sensory attention with the scent of smoked bacon, fresh roasted coffee and morning bread. Sprays of sunflowers contrast with the subtle harmonies of natural wool; lavender potatoes and lavender itself paint the stands pastel.
Major farmers markets operate in almost all the Island's bigger towns, from Ucluelet to Courtenay to Sooke. While most are open only one or two days a week, at the height of the season it's virtually certain there will be at least one somewhere nearby; for more information visit www.islandfarmfresh.com. We invite you to find one of our markets and experience a brilliant facet of Island life that we all treasure. Their virtues are both aesthetic and practical, and it's hard to get better than that.
|Passengers aboard a zodiak from Campbell River experience the exhilaration of fast flowing water near the feature known as Hole In The Wall near Okisollo Channel.
Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island
Set astride one of the most scenic ocean channels in British Columbia, and bounded by one of the most famous salmon streams in North America, Campbell River has long been a capital for its best-known resource, salmon. First Peoples have lived here along Discovery Passage at least 8,000 years, practicing an abundant life based on seafood, cedar, berries and a benign climate. Thousands of residents for thousands of years have found what visitors find today, a locale rich in things to see, do, savour and appreciate. Today, about 32,000 residents enjoy the gifts of life here 155 kilometers northwest of Nanaimo.
The city's most common nickname, "Salmon Capital of the World," reflects one of the key visitor activities, sportfishing for salmon. Possible year-round, it's most popular May through October, during which all the five types of Pacific salmon can be caught--especially the big kings (chinook) for which the region is known. Dozens of charter operators provide fully guided fishing excursions for travelers; inland anglers can pursue steelhead and trout in local streams and lakes.
The river that borders the city on the north, the Campbell, was the home of one of Canada's most famous naturalists and fishermen, Roderick Haig-Brown. His many books about fishing, and salmon ecology, set the standard for such writing; his cozy home is now a heritage site and charming B&B set beneath the riverbank's graceful cottonwoods.
Upstream from there, at Elk Falls Provincial Park, a new suspension bridge allows visitors a close-up view of these powerful falls that cleave a small escarpment west of town. Farther west, Strathcona Provincial Park is the Island's biggest, a largely wilderness haven of lakes and rivers, mountain peaks and ancient forests that invite hiking, biking, fishing, canoeing and much more each summer.
This valley is also a warm and productive agricultural region where small farmers produce many local products ranging from beef to beets. Campbell River restaurants focus on these, and local seafood, for their menus; especially popular today is sushi based on the area's abundant seafood.
Wildlife watching includes wilderness excursions to find bears catching salmon on the region's streams; boat trips to view the orcas and humpback whales that ply the innumerable channels and inlets among the islands north of the city; and quiet walks at local wetlands to spy the many waterfowl species that pass by here.
But the quintessential experience is snorkeling the river in late summer and early fall to view the salmon that epitomize the area. Brightly coloured in their spawning regalia, thronging the river to complete their amazing freshwater-to-saltwater-and-back cycle of life, these fish represent one of nature's most marvelous stories. It's just one of many such tales here, but it may be the best of all.
|Little Huson Caves on the way to Zeballos are worth exploring and contain wonderful rock formations caused by the constant waterflow and erosion of water over Limestone. Near Nimpkish Lake.
Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island
A cave is its own world, a place apart from the earth's surface. In these subterranean fastnesses, time slows and stills; sound diminishes to the plink of water and the minuscule rustle of cave insects; colour assumes the serene hues of mineral accretion under artificial light. Light bounces from the crystalline sheen of limestone and direction loses its usual meanings, transforming to up and down, left and right, back and forward.
It's a world most people think best quickly visited and marveled at, and remembered well until the next time. Others long to spend hours wandering the subterranean planet, far from the bustle and business of everyday life. In either case, Vancouver Island--somewhat uniquely along the Pacific Coast--offers plenty of opportunity to explore what lies beneath.
Geologists estimate there are more than 1,000 caves on the Island. That's a huge number, greater than the entire rest of Canada put together. It ranks us with far more famous cave locales such as Kentucky, where limestone strata, the key to caves, are common, and nature has taken millions of years to carve tiny underground crevices into massive labyrinths. Even though limestone karst is just 4 percent of the Island, and our terrain is the youngest on the continent, this is still the largest island on the West Coast of North America, and there's ample landscape in which seeping water--we have lots of that!--can work its magic over time.
Our most famous cave system, Horne Lakes, is much smaller than famous caves such as Mammoth. But it is a popular attraction at which visitors can take either guided tours or rent equipment and explore on their own. Inside the cave, formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, cave popcorn, frostwork and many more, all illustrate the remarkable sculpting ability of groundwater leaching limestone over millions of years. Even though Vancouver Island is less than 200 million years old, that's plenty of time for our ample rains to create quite a gallery of terrestrial art. The colours are subtle but rich; the shapes are gracefully arced and extruded; the sense of peace and age is profound.
Our many other caves are open to exploration by experts, or visitors accompanying local caving clubs. For more information visit the Island's caving club, Vancouver Island Cave Exploration Group, at www.cancaver.ca/bc/viceg.
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