Two or three times a week I like to get the bike out and ride a 20km circuit along the Galloping Goose trail. The Galloping Goose was the name of the old train that used to journey along what's now a popular commuter bicycle route on its way to the gold strike in the Sooke hills, 30 miles from the city. The circuit takes about an hour or 50 minutes if I'm working on the weight-loss programme. Since we got back from Scotland in June, I've lost about 15lbs. I'll need to keep on with the 50-minute rides if I want to get back to my old rugby-playing weight, but I'm not pushing it. It's no fun if it's pelting with rain, and we'll get plenty of rain this month.
The bike is an old Sekine. It was made in Japan, cheap when I bought it 30 years ago. It must be worth quite a bit now, because these old, lightweight 10-speeds disappear quickly if they're not well-secured when they're left unattended. Early morning is the best time to get out on the trail; a little before the sun comes over the horizon. Leave it until later and you'll encounter the Spandex people, and the ones on the electric bikes. They're the cycle commuters, and most of them must be late for work given the speed they flash by. They don't slow down, and they don't take prisoners.
Victoria, where I live at the south end of Vancouver Island, has the highest concentration of urban bicycle commuters in Canada. We took the first steps towards building a network of cycle paths and trails in the mid-1980s. Within a few years, the network began to incorporate old, disused rail beds – much as it has in Edinburgh. Now a visitor from the mainland or the United States can take the 90-minute ferry ride to Vancouver Island and cycle the 18 miles to Victoria, separated from vehicular traffic. In the city itself, you can get more or less from one end to the other on streets with dedicated bike lanes. From Victoria, you can hook up with the original Galloping Goose line and get all the way over to the west coast. In less than an hour on the bike, you can be in rolling sheep pasture; a mile further on, in wild country – with eagles and ravens above, and black bears in the woods.
When I pulled the bike out of the garage in the grey, pre-dawn light this morning, I almost bumped into a big buck that was munching on our fuchsia, which is still in bloom. The deer started but it didn't go far. It knows it doesn't have to worry about predators like wolf or cougar where people are living. The black-tailed buck just loped languidly out into the street and waited for me to leave. During the summer I often encountered a family of otters – two of them as big as border collies – on the sidewalk across the road. The otters have gone now that the temperatures have cooled, but there are plenty of raccoons about. In springtime, you can tell where the raccoons are because groups of crows follow them, hopping from tree to tree and haranguing them raucously until they leave. The crows know the raccoons rob their nests of eggs.
The birds were singing this morning; mostly sparrows, but you'll hear the occasional red-winged blackbird, and further from the city centre, the deep croak and chuckle of ravens. The California turkey vultures are silent, unlike the bald eagles you get around here, which often give out a cry like a cat mewing. Some people confuse the vultures and the eagles when they're in flight, but it's easy enough to spot the vultures; they're the ones that look unstable. Tippy, someone once told me. Every little air current seems to throw them onto one wing, or the other.
The ravens are the fascinating ones. They're the creatures who are really in charge. The raven is deeply embedded in British Columbia's First Nations' mythology and legend, where it is seen as the trickster, and also as a transformer, because ravens changes things – often big things, like the world. Sometimes on purpose; sometimes by accident. The brilliant Haida artist and sculptor, the late Bill Reid, explained in a wonderful story how Raven brought light to the world. Raven found light in a dark, dark world, hidden in the innermost box of a multitude of boxes. S/he took it away in order to release it. Eagle tried to steal it, and that made Raven drop some of it, and those bits of light that Raven dropped became the moon and the stars.
The bike circuit can bring good thoughts like that. You never know when they'll come. Sometimes you have no idea why they come at all. Sometimes you do. Near the navy base, the damp morning air is filled with the scent of a new cedar fence that someone has built to separate their garden from the trail. Having grown up in Scotland, where most of the houses and walls were built with stone, it reminds me how present the smell of wood can be here; reminds me that people in different countries build with materials that are plentiful and native to their environment. When I first came here, I didn't know the different properties of different woods; that one is better for walls, another best for flooring, a third for a roof, or the exterior cladding of a house. The scent of wood is often in the air on the bike-ride circuit, giving a fine weight to the early air.
Suddenly, the sea appears, as the trail passes along beside the inlet that houses Canada's Pacific naval fleet. Charles Dickens' son Sydney was based here with the Royal Navy in the 1860s. The base has the biggest dry dock on the Pacific Coast, and the old Queen Elizabeth
was secretly fitted out here in 1942 as a troop ship. Time moves on, and all last week a big Disney cruise ship was undergoing a mini-refit. On Friday evening, the dockyard workers and the ship's crew had a big party to test out the new sound system. Today there's a new ship in the dry dock, the Noordam
. At just under 2,000 passengers, it's one of Holland America's smaller ships on the seven-day, Vancouver-Alaska cruise run.
The sunrise paints windows red on a hillside five miles away, and a full rainbow sits in a perfect bow over the Sooke hills. A leaf falls into the rising sun from a Garry Oak tree. Rich scents from the piney-wood forest clean out the sinuses, a few yards from a place where a month ago the air was filled with the sweet scent of ripening blackberries. We picked enough of them to fill half a dozen big yoghurt cartons. They're in the freezer now, ready for us to make jam to one of Mrs Beaton's 19th-century recipes. A little further on, the malt-laden odours from one of Victoria's many craft breweries take over for a while.
The trail passes under the main Island highway and climbs as it heads back towards Victoria. The southbound lanes are jammed as far as I can see with cars coming from towns and villages 20 and 30 miles away. A parallel bridge carries the old railway line, which was built in the 1880s by Robert Dunsmuir from Hurlford, a stone's throw from Kilmarnock. It sits with its rails intact, empty of carriages or trains while the stationary cars sit, most of them with a single occupant, on the two main roads into the city – one from the north, the other from the west.
The trail winds away from the sound of idling engines, and a strong smell of coffee floats down from a tiny, trailside cafe. A moment later and something on the air tells me that I'm near a bakery I can't see. It's cinnamon buns, rather than fresh-baked bread. Then the views open out again and I'm looking down on one of the city's ocean inlets. This is Portage Inlet, a tidal lake that's a good five miles from the open sea. The mud flats and seaweed here can smell strong in summer, but they're quiet now that we're into the cool airs of autumn.
It's a rich sensual experience, this early morning ride. The wind scrubs your skin, blows the night-time cobwebs away. This bike-ride circuit is just the tip of things. It brings you alive, reminds you how fortunate we are to live in a place of such abundance. My mother used to tell me when I was growing up in Edinburgh that these are the really important things; the things you can't buy. Almost as important is something I learned from a friend – a Scot who went to live in France nearly 40 years ago. He taught me something that had never occurred to me before; that you can actually see the place where you live as visitors and tourists see it – as something exotic. That can make a difference; a big difference.
Photograph at top from www.thepedaler.ca