Seconds after landing our Zodiacs on a sparkling white, shell midden, we hear screams and squeals, unnervingly sounding like something between a cat and a child. "That's just river otters having sex," says Maureen Gordon, deckhand and co-owner of the Maple Leaf -- British Columbia's oldest tall ship.
We focus binoculars and zoom lenses on the boisterous coupling. Tearing ourselves away, we follow naturalist Fiona Chambers into the woods. She plucks a morel mushroom through dense moss. We eat a grand fir's needles (tastes like grapefruit) and then Chambers picks up a slimy banana slug, sings a little slug song and kisses it!
Is this woman bonkers?
I'm one of nine Gore-Tex-clad passengers held captive for the next six days aboard the Maple Leaf, a 28-metre wooden schooner. All of us are sleeping in the main cabin, our bunks separated by curtains -- and there's no turning back.
The Gulf Islands is the first cruise destination for Maple Leaf Adventures this year, taking explorers to many bio-diverse and wildlife-rich areas. But the trip turns out to be a helluva lot more than Fauna and Flora 101. And by the second night, passenger John's snoring and his frisky bedtime whispers (yes, we all heard you) to Tina, his 74-year-old girlfriend, don't even bother me.
It's a bonding experience, to say the least. We're soon a little tribe: Seven people from Canada ranging in age from 50 to 80, and two doctors in their 30s from Australia.
Upon booking, guests are given a trip itinerary, but the crew rarely sticks to it. By letting tides, weather and currents dictate its course, the Maple Leaf -- unlike, say, a cruise ship -- can tuck into bays and land at remote beaches. In sailing, spontaneity is key.
We wake the next morning in Montague Harbour, Galiano Island, to a grey and misty dawn, but hey, none of us packed sunscreen. Surprisingly, given our close quarters, everyone reports they slept well and the weather doesn't dampen anyone's spirits.
On day three we anchor in Narvaez Bay, Saturna Island. Maureen tells us the 2.5-kilometre hike to the viewpoint at Monarch Head takes about 90 minutes; Wikipedia calls it "challenging," but Uleta, age 80 and single, makes it to the lookout -- arthritis be damned -- to enjoy spectacular views clear to the U.S. San Juan Islands.
The crew appears with our "extreme picnic" of smoked tuna, soba noodles and freshly baked carrot cake, and on the way downhill, we stop to hug trees. I kid you not. "People will think we're crazy, but it was kinda fun," says Uleta.
Even more fun is a Zodiac trip over to Sea Lion Rock, about 5.5 km from last night's harbour. "We see so many boats careen up to the rocks full throttle, and right away the sea lions plop into the water," says Maureen.
She tells us not to point; our arms could be mistaken for rifles. (Some fishermen hate sea lions since sea lions love salmon.) Instead, we approach gently, and sure enough, we get plenty of photos. Back on board, the sun finally appears, and what a difference a few rays can make. We peel off layers of Gore-Tex and wool and sun ourselves on deck. Fiona announces it's SPF time and passes around seaweed called Fucus, which contains sun-blocking fucuoidan, so we smear the sticky substance on our faces.
Then she grabs a piece of Sargasso grass floating by that's full of herring spawn. It pops and crackles in our mouths -- definitely an acquired taste. We're sailing at a walking pace -- the Maple Leaf needs 12 knots of wind to be under sail completely. We pray for a breeze.
Day four and there's still no wind. A gentle ocean swell lulls us into napping, but not before Maureen gives us her hilarious David Attenborough imitation (she grew up watching his nature documentaries and has his accent nailed).
"Here we are on the edge of the Salish Sea in southwestern British Columbia. We are surrounded by thousands upon thousands of Bonaparte gulls, who are here because upwelling from the current, and energy from sunlight, has created a rich feast in the ocean of algae and krill..."
By day five conditions are perfect -- yee-haw! The captain explains the rigging, and how to raise and lower the sails and everyone is welcome to haul a line. Maureen takes the gasket of the staysail to ready the sail and I set the foresail with her. Then she sets the jib from the bowsprit. The Maple Leaf excels under full sail -- it's truly exhilarating. We tack to Pender Island, and take turns steering the boat. Everyone has a job to do -- we have an even greater sense of camaraderie.
We wail, We are the Champions at the top of our lungs.
That night is the last grand hoorah and a farewell "sundowner" is waiting on deck. "A little ecotourism company from Victoria thanks you for coming," says Maureen.
We all tear up.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014