The Sunshine Coast


October 13 — 19, 2011

From the hot, steamy jungles of summertime in Mexico to the cool crisp breezes of autumn in the Pacific Northwest, our next adventure in pet-sitting landed us on home turf. We were both born and raised in British Columbia and, while it’s always a blast to travel the world, there’s no place like home. Or someone else’s, as the case may be.

This particular home was in Pender Harbour, on what’s called B.C.’s “Sunshine Coast”. We met a few cynical locals who rolled their eyes at the hyperbolic tag, insisting it’s nothing but a tourism-marketing construct since the region gets a mere 2.9 hours more sunshine per year than the metro Vancouver area. Tim and Marsha (names changed on request) couldn’t care less about a few extra hours of sunlight; that’s not what drew them here 11 years ago. Marsha had long dreamed of owning a little house by the sea and, now that they’re both retired, her dream has come true. Their humble abode was cute and cozy and their backyard a tangled, rocky mass that tumbled down to the ocean — the same ocean we faced in Mexico. But in Mexico we had a view of the beach and the vast, rolling seas beyond; here we looked out onto a sparkling cove that rippled like a lake. In Mexico we were draped in banana trees, palm trees and vines; here we’re fringed by towering pines, fir and cedar. Either way, it’s still seaside bliss.

A walk through the rainforest.

Pender Harbour, like everywhere else in the country, was of course first the home of native people, in this case the Coast Salish and specifically the shishalh, from which the nearby town of Sechelt takes its name. The shishalh spent their summers fishing salmon, hunting deer, picking berries and bucking down cedars to build dugout canoes and longhouses. They passed their winters feasting on the fruits of their labour with raucous potlatches attended by other tribes from the Sechelt Peninsula. Food was bountiful, everyone lived in peace, life was good. Then came the Europeans. In 1862, explorers came ashore packing smallpox, colds and flu and nearly wiped out the natives with their germ warfare. If that wasn’t bad enough, a few years later the missionaries invaded, hell-bent on “civilizing” these peaceful people by banishing their rites and customs.

Meanwhile, a British expedition led by Captain Daniel Pender was busily surveying the coastline. Mystery solved on how the harbour got its Anglo name. When Pender and his pals returned to the Old Country, word spread of the area’s rich bounty, prompting an influx of more Europeans, and many of their descendants still call the harbour home. Tim and Marsha, hailing from the prairies, claim no historical roots to the region but it’s where heart and hearth are. They still travel several times a year, leaving their waterfront hideaway — and two cats — to pet-sitters. Lucky for us.

Satchmo’s right ear was clipped when he was rounded up after Hurricane Katrina.

Thus our streak of caring for rescue animals (and orange cats) continues: Satchmo, the tabby, was plucked from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The tip of his ear had been clipped, which was how the volunteer veterinarians, in the chaos after the storm, kept track of which animals had been caught and neutered or spayed (right ear for males; left ear for females). The mutilation was not exactly Van Gogh-esque — the cat’s ear was trimmed only about a half inch — but it still would have been painful. In any event, Satchmo has long since recovered, and left his life — and trauma —behind in The Big Easy. Easing into his Canadian digs, the cool cat (named after jazz great Louis Armstrong, who also hailed from New Orleans) struts his stuff around the house as if he was to the manor born and not a charity case. He quickly fell into line following house rules, however — no begging at the table, no sleeping with humans, no scratching the couch, no reclining on furniture other than designated seating — and knew not to push his luck; he learned the hard way that an unheeded “no!” got him a bracing spray from a water bottle (thankfully we didn’t have to do any dousing).

A first for us: a cat who sucks her thumb…

When he moved in, Satchmo had to make nice with Tim and Marsha’s other cat Daisy, a shy, fluffy tortoiseshell who sucks her thumb. I’ve been around a lot of quirky cats in my life, but a thumb-sucker is a first. The two weren’t exactly best buds, but they did tolerate each other. They even went so far as to play occasionally, but Satchmo can get a little aggressive, sending Daisy scurrying under the kitchen table, where she’d lay low, thumb firmly in mouth. Neither was a lap cat, although Daisy would occasionally jump up and sit with us, but only for about 10 minutes. Then she’d push through the plastic cat door to the deck where she’d stare at the birds she’ll never catch.

Deck with a view, overlooking Hospital Bay.

Because bears and coyotes lurked amongst the neighbourhood’s tall trees, these were strictly indoor cats and the deck overlooking the yard and ocean was the only outside life they knew. They didn’t appear deprived, though. They seemed content to watch the wild world from the comfort and safety of their perch on the porch. Daisy, however, could sometimes be a little ditzy when she wanted to come back in: she’d paw at the cat door like a fiend, believing she was trapped outside. It was kind of hilarious to watch her from the inside, feverishly digging at the door, clueless (every time!) that if she just pushed a bit harder, the door would give. When the flap finally yielded to her little paws, she’d dart inside, quite pleased with herself, as if she’d broken free from some sort of trap.

Not to be trusted unsupervised, at night the two got locked away in the laundry room. Sounds punitive, but they actually looked forward to it, their little cat feet softly thudding down the hardwood stairs at lights-out (maybe it was the cat treats that lured them . . .). They had all they needed: comfy beds, fresh water, litter box, and a warm, humming furnace that lulled them to sleep at night. Their room was next to ours, and we didn’t hear a peep out of them until sun-up.

In the morning, they’d bound up the stairs ahead of us, then wait patiently and politely at our feet for their quarter can of cat food. Satchmo gobbled his while Daisy delicately savoured every morsel of hers, pushing back from her bowl long after Satchmo had wandered away, licking his chops. He wouldn’t dare attempt to steal her portion; that would be rude (i.e., a water squirt). But just to be on the safe side, if there were any leftovers, she’d try to bury it by pawing at the hardwood floor as though it were dirt.

The rest of their day was spent dozing in the sunlight streaming through the windows or chasing a menagerie of stuffed animals across the floor. An empty box provided hours of entertainment — for them and us. Tortoiseshells — which, apparently, are almost always female — are known to be possessive of their people. Since we’re not her people, Daisy was not in the least interested in taking ownership of us, or of being cuddled or stroked. Maybe past experience with pet-sitters has taught her we’d be gone before we bonded, so what’s the point?

All is calm at the Narrows, between the rushing tidal waters, which pump billions of gallons of water through here twice a day.

When the felines were fed and curled in their beds for their afternoon cat nap, we’d take a bit of a field trip. One day we drove north for about 45 minutes on Hwy. 101 toward the town of Egmont and the great wonder known as Skookumchuk rapids. After about an hour’s walk through old-growth forest we emerged onto a rocky slope that overlooked the narrows. Twice a day, the tide changes and the salt water reverses direction, causing a powerful current as 200 billion gallons of water forces the levels to rise as high as nine feet (Skookumchuck means “strong water” in Chinook). We of course timed it wrong, and arrived to find an inlet as calm as a pond. As if to emphasize the serenity, a seal poked his head out of the water and stared at us as he drifted idly by.

Our latest pet-sit is just a short walk away from Garden Bay.

Another day we headed out into the cool sunshine to explore the neighbourhood. A short jaunt one way took us to Hospital Bay, named after St. Mary’s Hospital, the first on the Sunshine Coast. It was built in 1930 and closed in 1964 (a newer St. Mary’s opened shortly after in Sechelt). Now it operates as a small hotel and restaurant, called the Sundowner Inn, overlooking the small bay with its handful of fishing boats and pleasure craft tied to the docks. The opposite way winds us through the quiet neighbourhood, up narrow roads and past wood-framed homes high on the cliffs overlooking the Malaspina Strait and Texada Island beyond. We spotted deer grazing in the yards with the tastiest shrubs and we crept in close for a photo. But not too close; ever since those videos from last summer showing a beautiful doe viciously stomping a dog, we gave them their space.

Back at the homestead, we paused to pick some lettuce and tomatoes from the deer-proofed veggie patch for the night’s salad, then headed out to join the felines on the deck. It may have been mid-October, but the autumn sun was warm enough for T-shirts. The four of us settled back, closed our eyes, turned our faces skyward and breathed deep the sea breezes that blew softly off the bay. As Louis Armstrong would croon, what a wonderful world . . .

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