Summer journal: Part 1 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - THE PLOT THICKENS No time for a summer vacation with bug battles to wage and crops to cater to at columnist Leslie Anthony's community-garden plot in Cheakamus.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • THE PLOT THICKENS No time for a summer vacation with bug battles to wage and crops to cater to at columnist Leslie Anthony's community-garden plot in Cheakamus.

When I was in grade... well, any grade really... I would have called a piece like this "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." But of course, I don't have summer vacations. I don't have any vacations. What I do have is the opportunity to travel for work and that must suffice. Well, at least until this summer, when I stayed at home because a) I was, actually, planning a real vacation for the fall, and b) took on the requisite amount of work to pay for it, which ensured I was pinned to the mat pretty much up until, well... whenever I started writing this. Work may, in fact, still have me in a headlock, but I'm taking a breath.

Though contrary to my itinerant nature, staying in and around Whistler all summer was, in many ways, satisfying. I wandered the Sea to Sky corridor a lot, making discoveries and seeing splendiferous things, from Bowen Island to Lillooet. For one, with Pemberton pretty much off the radar because my creepy-crawly friends there went into permanent hiding during the summer's first +35C heat-wave back in May, I ended up getting to know the charms (and alarms) of Squamish a lot better. But before I get into all that let's start with the lessons of home.

Before I moved to Whistler, I thought "Swimmer's Itch" referred to someone obsessed — nay, compelled — to dive into the nearest pool or water body and commence doing laps. True story. Sometimes even biologists #fail to pay attention. When I learned what it actually referred to, I headed to the website of that august authority, the Centres for Disease Control, to find out more. Found throughout the world and more frequent during summer, Swimmer's Itch is an allergic reaction to parasites that live in the blood of infected animals like ducks and Canada geese — which form plagues around Alta and Alpha Lakes. The parasites' eggs are passed into the water through the birds' feces, where they hatch into free-swimming microscopic larvae that seek out certain aquatic snails in which to multiply and undergo further development. The infected snails then release another microscopic larvae — cercariae (the reason Swimmer's Itch is medically labelled cercarial dermatitis). These then swim in search of a suitable animal host to continue the life cycle. We humans aren't suitable, but the little bastards don't know and attempt to burrow into our overly thick hides regardless, where they soon die — but not before sparking an itchy rash in some people. In all my years swimming in Whistler's lakes I'd never been affected. Then one day, after a dip at Wayside Park in early June, lounging on our towels, I watched my partner's skin erupt in red welts before my eyes. Because she's generally a delicate little flower for whom even mosquito bites cause mortal wounding while I unflinchingly donate a pint of blood each day to local ecosystems without suffering a mark, I laughed derisively over my continued apparent immunity. Until a couple hours later, when my butt cheeks felt like someone poured acid on them...

What ensued was a couple weeks of being unable to avoid this annoying local affliction that, each time it was acquired, lasted days. Finally we figured it out: don't lurk near shore or weedy areas frequented by snails; keep moving, don't tread water; swim where there's a shower you can use when you get out (Wayside, Rainbow and Lost Lake have them) to flush both skin and clothing; lather on sunscreen before you swim; towel dry vigorously. Also, see if you can get someone to cull all the irruptive geese in the area... but that's a bigger ask.

The last few weeks, at least, have seen us free of what should be called Swimmer's Curse. Which is fine, because I have a bigger itch to scratch.

Since we'd be hanging around this summer, we signed up for a community garden box in Cheakamus. With gardening the world's No. 1 hobby, and my partner's sister a genuine plant-whispering practitioner of herbal witchcraft, we knew we'd be in informed company no matter what travails were encountered. Our first discovery — after securing a plot, cleaning out weeds and other dead plant material, mixing the freely provided bio-solid compost into the soil, putting in seeds, seedlings and various wishful plants (hops!) collected at Canadian Tire and several Sea to Sky garden centres, then building a ridiculous superstructure of aspen wands to support the hoped-for jungle — was that you should live near your garden. Not that Creekside is all that far, but the two trips/day for watering and other maintenance in those first critical weeks was a 20-kilometre greenhousegasapalooza that sort of obviated the reduced footprint of growing your own food.

Our second discovery was that some folks did, in fact, live in their gardens. Well, maybe not in them, but there they were, tending their plots each, every, and any time one or the other of us went. This was a useful benchmark against which to measure our own sudden obsessive-compulsiveness and realize we did not, yet, require intervention (though we did open a questionable "overflow" garden on our back deck).

Once things sprouted, there was a growing (ha ha!) list of revelations, chief among them: birds and bugs don't care that those are helpless seedlings they're devouring; they don't care how much love and time it took to cultivate those gorgeous flowers / veggies / whatever; those butterflies fluttering innocently around your plants are actually laying eggs on them that will hatch into ravenous caterpillars; and, when it comes to the location of a food source, all animal communication is highly sophisticated, even among aphids — which give off a chemical telling other aphids to join the party.

On the other hand, bees, spiders, and a whole range of carnivorous insects like ladybugs and drone flies are now my best friends. And the harvest is on: spinach, radishes, peas, beets, kale and chard have come, gone and launched into round two; red things — red things! in Whistler! — like tomatoes and hot peppers, are glowing on the vine, and beans by the thousands leap into my hands anytime I get within 20 metres of the plot. Not to mention the hops... I have to wait for the hops.

I couldn't go on vacation if I wanted to.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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