Sunday, December 25, 2011

Galiano Island Oyster Feast

Katrina and I took a ferry to Galiano Island on Thursday to meet our good friends Shin and Andra.  Galiano Island is conveniently located half way between Victoria and Bellingham, and Shin was able to host us in the fabulous house of a UVic Professor that he is house sitting for.  I was fascinated by the post and beam construction of the home and the use of enormous local sandstone slabs in the landscaping, and custom Douglas Fir cabinetry.  Most of the hours that we spent indoors not cooking, eating, or playing Settlers of Cattan, I spent daydreaming about a similar but smaller version of the home that I would like to build someday.  Fortunately, I didn’t waste too much time in idle dreaming, because we spent much of our time outside.

Seaside Juniper growing at Porlier Pass on Galiano Island
We hike through Dionisio Provincial Park on the north end of Galiano.  We investigated the ruins of an old light keepers home at Porlier Pass and the modern solar powered light and fog-horn that put the light keeper out of business.  Porlier Pass provides a shortcut for north bound mariners trying to get to Nanaimo, but the narrow passage, strong currents, and frequent fogs make it dangerous.  Donald Graham has written a chapter dedicated to the history of this particular lighthouse in his book Lights of the Inside Passage.

Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) still fruiting in December
Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) bark
The vegetation of the Island’s Coastal Douglas Fir Ecosystem thrives during the winter as many of the tree and shrub species are evergreen, and special suite of groundcovers have adapted to thrive in our relatively mild and wet winters.  We spotted Evergreen Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) that still had a few ripe berries, but repeated rainfall and age had leached most of the flavor out of the berries.  We also saw a number of Pacific Yew trees (Taxus brevifolia), which are currently grown industrially to produce the chemotherapy medication Taxol from the bark.  Taxol is used for treating breast, lung, and ovarian cancers.  Pacific Northwest Indigenous Peoples also used Yew bark medicinally and constructed hunting bows, digging sticks, and splitting wedges from the dense and flexible wood of the Yew tree.

Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Further down the trail we found the tasty winter annuals Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and Chickweed (Stellaria media) growing luxuriantly on a mossy sandstone cliff under a Blue Heron rookery.  Had they leaves not been speckled with white-wash, I would have had a hard time resisting my impulse to immediately stuff them in my mouth.  Licorice Ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) were also thriving on the rock face on account of the more open, wintertime, tree canopy, and ample moisture.  Unlike most plants, these Licorice Ferns will go dormant during the summer because the rocks are too dry to support photosythensis.  Licorice Ferns persist these annual droughts as a rhizome.  The green colored rhizomes can be dried and used to make a nice sweet tea with trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) leaves and Grand Fir (Abies grandis) needles, which were also abundant on Galiano Island.

Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii) bark scar
After we rounded the point we came to a series of small bays with shell beaches.  Park signage informed us of the historical Salish use of the site as a seasonal village and harvesting ground for shellfish, roots, and berries.  A few fallen trees revealed the salt and pepper soil of black “human earth” and white shell fragments.  I also noticed that some of the larger Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii) trees were scarred from the removal of thick chunks of bark that were probably used for fire wood.

Shin cooking Pacific Oysters
An Oyster ready to be devoured
The low tide was at 9:40 pm, so we returned to the shore with flashlights to hunt for Pacific Oysters (Crassostrea gigas).  Also called Japanese Oysters, these large oysters were introduced to the coast by Taylor Shellfish Farm (here in Bellingham) in the early 20th Century.  Since then they have spread to brackish estuaries from Baha to Alaska.  Now they are much more common than the native Olympia Oyster (Ostreola conchaphila).  We rustled about the sea lettuce and rocks in the dark until we had 12 large oysters.  The next day we baked them until they opened and served them on the half shell in their own juices with a healthy slathering of herbed garlic butter.  They were divine!
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