I love going to Canada. The scenery is beautiful, the people are nice, and no one is talking politics (at least not to me). There's just something about being able to visit a foreign country without going more than 100 miles from home that appeals to me, and Canada holds for me a certain, special "something" that I just can't get in the U.S.: ketchup-flavored potato chips. Honestly, we have barbeque/cheddar/sour cream/salt and vinegar/jalapeno/thai/whatever styles, and you're telling me that our U.S. tastes are too refined, too rarefied for ketchup-flavored potato chips? Listen, we're the country that put bacon and cheese between two fried chicken breasts and called it a sandwich. We will eat the hell out of ketchup-flavored potato chips. Anyway, I do volunteer fish surveys for REEF, and earlier in the year I got an email from them that mentioned a field survey trip to Hornby Island, BC at the end of September. Thinking that it had been a long time since I'd had ketchup-flavored potato chips, and also that it might be fun to do some diving, I signed up for it and headed up on September 26. The Trip Up: I have a problem crossing the border in that I really, really want to crack up when talking to Customs. This is due to an incident that happened on a high school field trip to Toronto, which I won't go into details about here, except to say that yelling "HIDE THE GRASS!!" just when the Customs guy is about to get off the bus is NOT funny. At least, it's not until he's safely off of the bus again. I got over the border with no issues and headed to the ferry to take me to Vancouver Island. This was the first time I'd ever ridden on the BC ferries, and I had decided to take the one out of Horseshoe Bay instead of the one out of Tsawwassen for the simple reason that I knew where Horseshoe Bay was. This entailed me winding my way through downtown Vancouver, but it was past rush hour and everything went swimmingly. Until I missed the turn off of Granville Street. Granville Street goes bus-only at a certain point. Who knew? Well, apparently everyone else did because I was the only idiot cruising between the bus shelters desperately looking for a side street to pull off into. I finally found one, turned off, and got myself pointed in the right direction and over the Lions Gate Bridge. I got to the ferry terminal with plenty of time to spare and decided to check out the little shopping village next to the terminal. On the way back to the car I stopped in a convenience store and picked up a small bag of ketchup-flavored potato chips to tide me over. I paid with a $5 bill, but it wasn't until I got back to my car and looked at my change that I realized that the clerk had slipped me a U.S. nickel. I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE DO THAT. Oh, wait... The crossing to Nanaimo was uneventful, as was the hour-long trip up the island to Buckley Bay. I got onto a much smaller ferry there to Denman Island, drove across to another ferry terminal, and got on an even smaller one to Hornby Island. The Place: I've often fantasized about living somewhere remote, accessible only by water or air. Hornby would do very nicely. It is very rural and sparsely populated, with only one four-way traffic stop on the whole island. The drive across to the dive operation was very scenic, and it would actually be fun to go back at some point just to go through all of the artisan workshops that I passed along the way. Definitely not the place to be for shopping or nightlife, but if you're looking to get away from it all it fills the bill. The dive operation (Hornby Island Diving) is very well run. Rob and Amanda are very nice people and treat their guests well. The guest lodge has three rooms on the first floor and eight on the second, with bathroom/shower facilities and large communal areas on both floors. The rooms were a little on the small side, but since most of us were only in them when we were sleeping it didn't matter. Meals are provided, and they know how to feed you. There is a refrigerator for guest use, and they also put leftovers from the meals in there so you can help yourself whenever you feel hungry. As an added bonus, they were totally unfazed to have a picky vegetarian show up, although I did warn them ahead of time so they weren't caught flat footed. Another bonus: they have a hot room on the first floor for drying socks and undergarments, and it was sooo nice to climb into my toasty warm layers before pulling on my drysuit. The rest of the folks who were there with me were, of course, fish geeks. In other words, my kind of folk. It was nice to be with people who didn't look at me strangely when I gushed about the obscure critter that I'd finally seen for the first time ever. I had a few firsts on this trip, and it was much more satisfying to say "OH MY GOD I JUST SAW MY FIRST NORTHERN ABALONE!!" and have it met with "RIGHT ON!!" or "OH MAN, I'VE NEVER SEEN ONE, YOU'RE SO LUCKY!!" than with "Ummm..." The Dives: The furthest site we dove was about a 10 or 15 minute boat ride, and some of them were as close a five or six. There is even a shore dive, although I didn't get the chance to do it. The boat returned to the lodge after each dive, and they have a compressor on site that they used to fill tanks between so it was only necessary to bring one cylinder. We would suit up in our drysuits at the lodge, and then walk across the street to the marina and set our gear up on the boat. After the dive we would bring the tanks back up to the lodge to be refilled and then climb into dry clothes. We did two dives a day, except for the first day when we did two dives plus a night dive. We could have pushed it and gotten more dives in, but I found it rather nice to come back between, get something to eat, and even take a little nap before going out again. There were 12 of us on the trip, and the boat was big enough to comfortably contain us with minimal bumping and jostling. It's an open boat so I would imagine that it could get chilly in the winter, but on the other hand it's not a long boat ride so I think it would be bearable. Depths ranged from around 50 feet to 90+. Unfortunately vis was not good for the first 40 feet or so, so we mostly stayed deeper. There were some walls, some boulder fields, and some rock falls: in other words, great places to poke around for things to see. Most of the time the current was minimal, but on two dives we had fairly significant current for the first part of the dive. One of those was a night dive, which was further complicated by my having two buddies to keep track of that time instead of just one. The dive would have been over had we gotten separated because the current was ripping and there was no way we'd have been able to regroup on the surface to continue, so we were actually quite pleased with ourselves when we manged to come up together at the end of the dive. My favorite dive was the first one on the second day, called Toby's Islet. We followed the anchor line down to the top of a huge wall that dropped down to over 100 feet, and I love hovering over the edge of those and wondering what's living at the bottom. We descended down into the 80-90 foot range and followed the wall until we were running close on bottom time, and then gradually ascended and poked around in the shallows until we hit 500 psi and came up. The last dive on the last day was also memorable in that we got to name it. We had done our first dive in front of Flora Island, and on our last dive we went to the back of Flora Island. Hence the name: Flora's Backside. Yes, we have questionable taste, but we mean well. As far as critters go, rockfish were the most common. There were coppers and quillbacks, but also quite a few tigers and I saw juvenile yellow-eyes on several occasions. We came across an adult yellow-eye that Rob estimated to be over 100 years old that was the biggest rockfish that I've ever seen. There were also kelp greenlings and ling cod all over the place, and it's at times like this that I realize how spoiled I am by my frequent dives in the Edmonds Underwater Park. People would come up talking about the big ling cod, and I suppose they are big if you've never seen the ones that hang out in Edmonds, but as I said to one person on the dive, "It takes a lot of ling to impress me" (at which point it was decided but several people (but not me) that I need to have a Facebook page just so I can have that as my status). However, there actually were a few that were Edmonds-worthy, and which scared the crap out of most of the folks who saw them. On the other end of the scale there were several small critters, like longfin gunnels and moss-head warbonnets, that had me craning my neck so that I could look out of my bifocals to focus on them. It was also invertebrate heaven, lots of sea pens and anemones, and even some abalone, which I'd never seen before. Not a lot of crabs, which mystified me a bit, although we did run into some giant Pacific octopus. I found one in a den, and as I shone my light in it the arms started moving and looping and when they stopped I noticed debris being pushed out in a stream of water and realized that the siphon must be right next to the entrance. I moved position to get a better look, and discovered that it had maneuvered itself so that it could look back out at me. It was definitely interested in what I was doing, and I wish I could have spent more time there to see if I could have coaxed it out. Another first on this trip for me were orcas. We were on our way out to our first dive site Friday morning when a pod suddenly crossed in front of the boat. We stopped and watched them for a few minutes, and there was at least one calf in the group. Rob did a good job anchoring the boat to put us in nice proximity to what we were diving, and he also gave good briefings. He almost always had another crew on hand to help out, and all of the dives were live-boat pick-ups. All in all, I really enjoyed the place and will be returning whenever I get the chance. The Trip Back: I decided to catch the ferry to Tsawwassen so I would know where it was. Since I was going to be leaving before breakfast in order to get back home in time to spring the dog, I rooted around for leftovers and came up with a bowl of mashed potatoes, some Swiss cheese, and a piece of apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream. The Breakfast of Champions, or in my case, The Breakfast of Someone Who Wants Something Other Than Cliff Bars for Breakfast. I did the two-ferry hop to get back to Vancouver Island and then made it down to Nanaimo to catch the one back to the mainland. By this time I had a shade over a quarter of a tank of gas, but didn't want to fill up until I got back across the border where it was cheaper. However, 10 kilometers shy of the border I decided to stop and get a couple of bags of ketchup-flavored potato chips to take home. Apparently my stash of Canadian currency is old, because when I gave the clerk a $5 he said "Whoa, I haven't seen one of these in years" and ran it under some sort of scanner to see if it was legit. This minor pit stop turned into something of a nail-biter, as I missed the south exit and wound up back on north-bound 99 headed back to Vancouver. I took the next exit, which turned out to be another highway, took the first exit off of it and wound up on another highway that finally had some side streets that I could turn around on and eventually work my way back to south-bound 99. Now I had less than a quarter tank of gas and was very grateful that they've put up signs on how long the border crossings are. I decided that I might run out of gas waiting the 40 minutes at the Peace Arch and headed over to the truck crossing, which the sign said only had a 20 minute wait. My luck was in and the wait was actually much shorter there. I crossed, refueled, and arrived safely home with a stash of potato chips that lasted approximately two days.