Article

 February 18, 2016   Michael Collins

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Peter Kiidumae’s “Life in the Creek” series celebrates the wildlife living in False Creek in the heart of Vancouver, B.C.


by Peter Kiidumae

Tell someone for the first time that you live on a boat, and the inevitable question you get is “What is it like?” The short answer would have to be “Never a dull moment!” an expression Lorraine and I have found ourselves exchanging frequently over the past several years.

Mother Nature certainly plays her part in keeping liveaboard life interesting. The abundance of food occurring naturally along most shorelines, even in the heart of the city where we live, provides sustenance for a broad range of wildlife. Mussels, barnacles, and algae on the rocks and pilings attract crabs, starfish, worms, rodents, and small fish, which in turn attract kingfishers, herons, gulls, seals, otters, raccoons, and even the occasional Bald eagle. Living on the water’s edge puts us on a level of intimacy with the natural world not generally available to the city-dwelling landlubber, and sometimes it can even get a bit too intimate.

One evening, while reading down below after dinner, our dock neighbours Henk and Thea heard scratching sounds on the deck above. Henk got up to investigate and slid open the companionway hatch. The startled rat that was standing on the hatch at that particular moment suddenly had nothing underneath him and consequently dropped on Henk’s head. Gravity and Henk’s wild reaction forced the rodent to bounce off Henk’s shoulder and land on the floor of the saloon where it naturally scrambled to the nearest opening that offered refuge. Through two sleepless nights they listened to the desperate creature searching through all those hidden, empty spaces under the floor for a way out, a drink of water, something to eat. It chewed through electrical wiring and water hoses in its determination to survive, and Henk and Thea chased every sound and sight of him in an equally determined effort to get rid of him.

Eventually they trapped him in a storage nook with a piece of plywood over the opening. Now what? Henk drilled a hole in the plywood, found a CO2 fire extinguisher, and then pumped all the carbon dioxide through that hole until the rat was frozen solid. Nary a dull moment for 48 hours.

Rats aren’t the only entertainment Mother Nature provides. One year for three consecutive days the pilings around our docks were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of flashing silver herring in a spawning frenzy, so busy depositing millions of eggs on every surface that they were totally oblivious to the seals drifting upside-down amongst them, quietly having the herring feast of their lives, bellies bloated and masses of herring eggs clinging to their chins and chests.

For two days recently we were treated to a pair of dolphins performing spiraling leaps out of the water. We have seen the odd sea lion huffing and puffing its way up the middle of the Creek, swimming the breast stroke like some Victorian-era matron. More than once we have been awoken by the cawing of a rowdy mob of crows harassing and dive-bombing some hapless Bald eagle just passing through. And little can beat the sight of eight river otters, each about the size of a mature Labrador retriever, frolicking on the dock and diving in and out of the water right under our noses, although their prolific defecation skills add little to our delight.

As if nature’s show was not enough, there is also the limitless variety of watercraft passing by to provide entertainment that beats any “reality” show on television. There are canoes and kayaks, tugs towing huge and varied barges, dragon boats with their grunting teams of paddlers, charter boats decked out in festive lights with music blaring, rowing shells, Coast Guard cutters and hovercraft, police and fire boats, private luxury yachts with impenetrable dark windows, dredging and pile-driving equipment, and some of the most derelict home-made vessels you can imagine, looking like something out of one of those post-nuclear holocaust movies, complete with the appropriate characters on board.

Across the Creek on the opposite shore we have someone building himself a floating home of connected platforms covered with plastic tarpaulins, looking like miniature coupling Quonset huts. When the tide is low he is busy sawing and hammering in the shadow underneath the seawall walkway and every now and again a newly completed covered platform joins the cluster slowly growing there.

No matter what size of boat, for living aboard purposes one never has to contend with the problem of having too much space. The dearth of roominess constantly presents challenges that impact on every activity from sleeping, socializing, bathing, storage, and even cooking.

Because of such space constraints our propane oven has room for a turkey measuring not more than seven inches in height when laying flat on its back. When Butterball introduced a stuffed frozen turkey we tried, unsuccessfully all over town, to find one small enough, until my age-enfeebled memory caused me to bring home a nine-inch bird one day. (To give myself some credit, I did remember it was an odd number less than 10). These pre-stuffed turkeys have to be cooked in their solidly frozen state and I discovered no amount of pounding the chest of one of these icy birds with a large, heavy metal object would crack those frozen ribs to change the shape so it could fit into a space two inches smaller. We ended up having to cook it on the rail-mounted barbeque with me adjusting the flame and the lid-opening every 10 minutes or so in a desperate, but not very successful, effort to control the temperature which fluctuated up and down over a range of 400 degrees throughout the entire cooking process. It turned out to be one of the finest and least dull turkey dinners we have ever had.

Never a dull moment can have its tragic side. Around noon on a beautiful sunny day I heard a huge splash and spun around to see a great plume of water under the bridge falling back down. For one incredulous moment I thought a whale had breached, but it was the last trace of some desperate person who had jumped. Possibly even more tragic was the summer evening when our dinner in the cockpit was interrupted by a car flying through the air above us and then plunging nose first into the icy water beside us. The elderly driver had confused the accelerator for the brake while parking, and while he succeeded in scrambling out before his car sank in 20 feet, his wife did not.

When you live on a boat, socializing can be enough of a constant that sometimes you find yourself hoping for a dull moment for a change. Just as you get comfortably settled in the cockpit with your Sunday morning coffee and the paper, the ‘phone rings.

“Hi. We were just over at the Market and thought we’d drop by and say hello. Are you doing anything? We’re out by the marina gate.”

“Christ, Lorraine, we’ve got company! Quick, tidy up a bit while I stall them at the gate. And heat up some more coffee!”

At the gate I find our friends with six relatives from Regina here on vacation who have never seen the inside of a boat of any sort and are expecting a tour. People never do this to you when you live in a house, but some variation or another of the same thing happens frequently when your home is also your boat.

While we look on the marina as our everyday home, for those marina patrons who just keep their boats here and live in the ‘burbs, a trip down to the boat is a treat they associate with good times. Just when you thought you might make a dent in that long list of chores, they come down the ramp in a great mood and the next thing you know, it’s Miller time! Don’t get me wrong, we love those neighbours and nobody forces us to do anything against our will. But it’s those kinds of surprises and spontaneous moments that make this life so interesting.

As you might expect, the kind of people that choose to break with convention and live on their boats are, almost by definition, not dull. Philosophically, politically, spiritually they range all over the map, but in common they have a self-assured, self-sufficient, self-confident quality of independence that bonds them into a very special community. Vlad and Paula, our next door neighbours for several years, sailed off three years ago and worked their way via Mexico to New Zealand where they are building up funds for more travelling. Mark and Gabe are currently preparing their boat for a two-year cruise of the tropical islands of the South Pacific. Paul just sailed in from Japan via Alaska. Several own and operate their own successful businesses, and all of them are generous, helpful, and ready to party whenever they have to. No, in the lexicon of those who choose to live on their boats the words “dull” and “moment” never share adjoining spaces.

Peter Kiidumae’s current paintings can be seen at www.peterkiidumae.com