A Klahoose elder tends hunks of sizzling salmon, slowly achieving perfection over an open beach fire.
A growing lineup snakes down from the vendors' stalls and the tables, where cooks reign supreme, their cuisine's redolent aromas twisting through the amazingly patient queue. Locals know there will be lots to go around, but our hungry niece and nephew aren't so certain. They need distraction, and fortunately there's lots of that. My partner, David, leads them over to a somber youth dressed totally in black, who on cue rises solemnly from his box perch and begins meticulously to twist a rainbow spectrum of balloons into fantastic animals.
Kristen Scholfield-Sweet is this year's organizer: "This originally started about 20 years ago as a fundraising event to create public awareness and support for stopping the toxic discharge from area pulp mills into our local waters," she says. "John and I are oyster growers. Our way of farming the sea is dying.
We love what we do and want to share not just the good food we grow, but our island way of life."
"The main reason for having a shellfish festival is to bring the growers and the larger community closer together," adds her partner and co-organizer, John Shook, as he heaves a sack of oysters on to a table.
Clearly, eating and growing oysters have kept him fit.
The locals behind us cheerfully make room for the return of David, both children, and their balloon pets, and soon we're eyeball-to-eyeball with the oysters, cooked five ways, from 'Oyster Rockefeller' to Mexican style 'Pico de Gallo'. There's more than oysters to slurp too: creamy clam chowder, steamed mussels, and prawns in a sweet red chili sauce accompanied with rolls and salad also await. Folk guitar and vocalist entertainment by Andy Vine and his wife add to the festival's atmosphere. Is that Brian Robertson's When the tide goes out, the table is set I'm hearing? How appropriate.
Most families might think twice before tackling remote Cortes Island on the May long weekend. From the Lower Mainland that's three ferry trips, as well as a 284-kilometre drive up Vancouver Island from Sidney to the Quadra ferry terminal at Campbell River, or 153-kilometres from Nanaimo, but lured by rumors of a succulent seafood festival secreted away on this oyster fringed Discovery Island, we had to go. Scooping up my brother's seafood-addicted children, we chanced it, and were well rewarded. If you love seafood, and especially oysters, follow our oyster shells.
Held on the Saturday of the Victoria Day weekend, the festival usually hums late into the evening, with ale and poetry at the Cove, the popular nearby café, but with ten and twelve year olds to entertain, we have other fish to fry. We're meeting the amiable Lynne Jordan at low tide at Manson's Lagoon. A local resident who used to work at the Vancouver Aquarium, she volunteers to give guided tours of the lagoon, in return for donations to the local museum - money very well spent. What she knows keeps us all enthralled for hours.
We hunt for Moon snails, we watch a feeding frenzy of local critters, we study clams, and we eat seaweed. Give her a call at the museum. (250-935-6340.)
Returning to our halcyon waterfront cottage, with the forest breathing behind us, and the sea and mountains of Desolation Sound stretching ahead, we learn that our hosts, Sandra and Philip Wood, have kayaks on offer. On Sunday we opt to watch a little of the Ultimate Frisbee Tournament at the local school, laughing at the contestants' wild outfits and antics. Later, an excellent, nearby skateboard park provides an hour of fun for our charges, both of whom, having heard about Cortes's excellent skateboard park, have hauled along their boards and helmets. While David and I nervously watch, they chug, roll, and fly with the locals.
That night, our last, we head down to Smelt Bay to see the much-lauded sunset. Initially reluctant to leave our oceanfront retreat, our temporary family is soon combing the beach for agates, turning over rocks in search of life, and gathering wood for a large group of young locals who have invited us to share their fire. The sun goes down in orange splendor, accompanied by guitar strumming, and punctuated by charred marshmallows.
Early Monday morning early we roll home, pronouncing the weekend perfect.
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