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On The High Seas With Bruno and Godfrey, Denman Island, Hornby Island, Catching Fish, Hiking, Swimming (And Shooting So Far 1500 Photos)

I don’t know where to start, or if I can start. So much has happened since I set out on a photo-shooting trip 3+ weeks age, I’ve had dozens of rich and inspiring experiences, met and hung out with a whole bunch of remarkable people, and yes, got banged around by Mother nature to remind me who’s boss. Plus got some photos that I love. It’s a sunny, blue-skied day here on Hornby Island, and I am appropriately in designer/builder Michael McNamara’s Blue Sky Design studio, looking out at dappled sunlight on the grass and trees of all types, connected to el mundo via wi-fi, and will try for an hour or so to touch on some highlights of this month on the road.

I took a boat trip up the coast with two remarkable guys. Bruno, who Godfrey once called “the ultimate guy,” and is by-now a legendary surfer and builder of the west coast of Vancouver island. He’s built dozens of homes and cabins, many of them out of hand-split-on-the-site cedar siding and roofing, built a homestead in the wilderness, and is as competent as they come AND Godfrey, wild-man artist, carver, builder of a number of wooden junk-rigged sailboats, friend of the Indians, lover of women, lover of life, and with us, on this trip, back on his beloved Pacific Ocean for the first time in a few years. Bruno’s got a 17′ aluminum boat with 65 hp motor that goes fast. Bruno runs a tight ship, you have to get things stowed and balanced and tied down. Well, Godfrey, Bruno’s longtime buddy, is the opposite of organized. He shows up with a black garbage bag full of stuff that’s spilling out and a basket of tools along with a beautifully carved miniature canoe he’s working on.

Godfrey spends the first night getting drunk with his buddy Cal, so we’re off to a slow start, but then things got progressively interesting. We visited a bunch of amazingly together and self-sufficient people, and all of them were delighted to see Bruno and Giodfrey. It was like a one-two punch, these two soul-guys of the area dropping in from the sea for a visit. And I got to tag along. I saw a bear with two cubs (are they cute!) in a grassy seaside garden and started to walk toward her and then thought, uh-uh. I found wolf teeth. We visited Godfrey’s friend Hughie, long-time local who runs a general store and boat dock in a remote cove next to Ahousat, a native village of 1500 people, reachable only by boat. We left Ahousat late in the afternoon, and without telling Godfrey or me, Bruno decided to race 15 miles to the north, trying to get to our destination before sunset. We came around the point into open ocean waters and it was majorly choppy. We got pounded by the ocean, where the boat would get airborne and come down about every 4th time with a smack, jarring my teeth; if we capsize, I was thinking, do I rescue my computer or Godfrey? On the last day Bruno took his fishing rod and in less than ten minutes caught about 10 fish and took them into the beach and cooked them in butter over a wood fire for lunch. We slept on the beach one night, and spent the second night in a cabin at Hesquiat cove, former large village of Hesquiat Indians. We went up long long cedar trails (walkways of split cedar steps, which is the only way you can get through the dense woods) at Cougar Annie’s Garden, 100 or so seaside acres so named after a gun-toting wilderness homesteader. Here’s a slide show of this garden on the Wild Coast of Vancouver Island. We looked at the little hand-split cedar cabins Bruno had built, and Bruno and I went swimming in a large dark lake in the hills a mile above the beach. Bruno and I kept jumping into whatever water we could find. We got Godfrey to go in with us once.

Godfrey was in irrepressibly good spirits, even with a hangover. He was excited about what was around the corner, I think he sees the world in patterns and colors and shapes, and it opens your senses to hang around with someone who’s in the right brain most of the time. This is wild country. Also fascinating. There are inlets and fijords, islands, coves, white sandy beaches, reefs, dangerous rocks, currents, waves, a lot more diverse a coastline than where I live on the Northern California coast. There are boats of every description, kayaks galore, and whale-watching power boats that Bruno calls “whale molesters.” Tofino is the end-of-the-road jumping-off spot for this coastal wonderland. ” Tofino is clogged with tourists in the summer,and it’s got a lot of nouveau riche overblown rich-people houses, but it still has a core of locals and a lot of Indians. It’s nickname is Tough City. There are lots of good places to eat, a lot of surfers, young people, music, caffeine, colorful characters, a great town bakery, beaches to wander…

Our trip was a classic. I’ve had only a few other trips that burned themselves in my memory like this one. Jeez we had a great time. Ate barbecued buffalo steak with stir-fried vegetables freshly picked from a beautiful garden, watched sunsets, hanging with these two guys who knew this land and the free-spirits so well. For them it was a journey back in time, revisiting places and people from the past, from a time when, as Godfrey said, “there were no laws.” For me it was hanging out with a lot of people who shared the same spirit 30+ years ago.

After the ocean trip I left Tofino on a hot day and headed into the mountains to cross to the east coast. It was HOT and I stopped and jumped in a cold, clear rushing river, got re-energized and went into Courtenay (covered in earlier blogs) for rest and recuperation. I took the ferry to Denman island and spent a few days. Had a great time photographing the powerful and witty wooden sculptures of Michael Dennis (you photographers know what I mean, like you come upon a scene of visual power — it’s a treat — click —click…), drank home-brew with around-the-world wooden sailboat adventurers Jack and Monica, slept two nights on the beach, had a killer waffle and fresh-roasted-beans latte prepared by a homemaker goddess at a funky little cafe with wireless internet, swam twice in a clear, perfect temperature inland lake, where the water felt like silk, man, do I love to move through water… Then on the 2nd ferry to Hornby Island, completely different sibling island, and getting some of my best photos yet.


Let’s veer from the linear into the random here, OK? I feel like skipping around:

I walked into a clearing in the woods and about 10 crows started really hassling me. Crows in my garden at home keep a major distance from humans, but the ravens and crows in BC get right in your face. Their intelligence is up there with dolphins, I read (in Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage, a great book). No wonder they are the top animal in totem art…synchronicity is in overdrive on this trip…yesterday by pure chance I met Peter Schmidt, logger/fisherman turned artist/builder who said, about BC Indians: “Natives lived here for 10,000 years sustainably, giving them the right to carve their cultural story into old-growth cedar. We’ve been here 200 years and pretty well fucked it all up.” It turns out some of Peter’s structures are going into the book…Around 8 this sunny blue-sky morning a woman came up to the little outdoor capuccino stand and said, “Oh, another day in paradise, what are we gonna do?”…went to a solar-powered barbecue on the 4th of July, 150 people, all neighbors, near Petrolia, on “The Lost Coast,” a lot of builders, homesteaders, people who “kept the faith.” Hey, I like that expression, come to think of it. keeping faith, in life, love, beauty, treating the earth right, harmony…I read that a French catamaran set the world record for crossing from America to Europe: “…Bruno Peyron and his eleven men of crew completed the crossing in 4 days, 8 hours, 23 minutes and 54 seconds with average speed over 27 knots Orange II beats the previous record by 9 hours.” That’s 32 mph…Talking about the profusion of goods increasing from China, someone said “China’s been the world’s leading economy except for the last 300 years.” Watch out!…How about The Scorched Earth Catalog — The Catalog for Global Warming? Title cooked up with Monica…I’ve got two blues harps, both given me by different people, I’m playing along with a jug band from the 20s CD in my truck, trying to learn how to bend notes…One day barefoot Rick and I take a walk up the creek in the woods and as we’re hopping over logs, Godfrey starts reciting Rambeau (with his additions and subtractions):

“Far away from village herds and village girls, the Sabine women of the suburbs came and threw themselves on my neck…”

and on and on. Godfrey is acting the poems out, voice rising and falling, striding through the woods, rich imagery from a French poet, out of the blue…

Well enuff fer now I’m going out to shoot pix and take a swim.

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Godfrey at Work on a Mermaid

This was after about half an hour with his tiny electric Stihl chain saw and Bruno’s large chisel and small adze. Wonderful art — carvings and paintings — have flowed from him all his life. I met him on the beach in Yelapa (south of Puerto Vallarta) in 1963, and he came back with us to Mill Valley in my 1960 VW bus (see a full account of him in Builders of the Pacific Coast). Ironic that the world does not know of him. I saw a painting of a sort of skull-like head by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that was bought by a Japanese internet billionaire for over 100 million $ last week. Godfrey’s art is better than this. Go figure.



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Lloyd and Bruno

Godfrey and I drove out to visit and spend the night with Bruno and Mecea. I hadn’t seen Bruno for 3 years. We had a shot of homemade calvados, then red wine with dinner of barbecued salmon with rice, yams, salad, piece of chocolate for desert. I slept on Bruno’s boat, Godfrey slept in the van. The next morning Godfrey took his mini Stihl electric chainsaw and Bruno’s small adze and large chisel and roughed out a mermaid on a log.

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Jay Nelson and Friends Visit Godfrey Stephens in Victoria BC Yesterday

Jay and 3 surfers are on a surf/photo trip on Vancouver Island for a Surfer’s Journal article, traveling in a camper Jay built. Yesterday they visited Godfrey. In this photo (Jay at left), they’re looking into the cabin of Godfrey’s latest sailboat. I’m hoping they get a chance to visit Godfrey’s best friend, master builder and surfer Bruno Atkey.

Both Godfrey and Bruno are featured in our book Builders of the Pacific Coast.

Jay’s San Francisco home is featured in our forthcoming book Small Homes.

Photo: Godfrey Stephens

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Bruno’s Hand-hewn Froe Mallet

Bruno Atkey, one of the major builders in Builders of the Pacific Coast, has been splitting cedar shakes for most of his life. He split the shakes for my 6-sided tower roof from driftwood logs (and his girlfriend Mecea drove them down here in a van). He’s split cedar shakes, and even siding, in British Columbia for numerous homes over the years.

Godfrey Stephens sent us this photo of Bruno’s latest mallet. (I use an old bowling pin.) In the background is one of Godfrey’s paintings.

Here’s a photo of a froe:

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Bruno Atkey’s Steel Sailboat in British Columbia Waters

From Godfrey Stephens:

“Bruno and Mecea’s s/v Ola Suerte

 ‘engine’/sailing up the coast…”

Bruno was one of our star builders in Builders of the Pacific Coast. He welded up this spiffy sailboat out of sheets of steel, using the “origami” technique  of boat building, pulling the sheets into shape with come-alongs, then welding. Over a period of 12 years. He also welded up a tiny stainless steel wood stove for the boat.The deck is split cedar. Bruno is an awesome builder, master with many materials, also surfer, fisherman and adventurer of “The Wild Coast” of British Columbia. I want to be like him when I grow up.

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