If you’ve had the pleasure of leafing through West Coast Wild: A Nature Alphabet, written by Deborah Hodge and illustrated by Karen Reczuch, then you know it’s a very special book. This stunning nature alphabet book explores the fascinating ecosystem of the Pacific west coast — a magnificent area that combines an ancient rainforest, a rugged beach and a vast, open ocean, and where whales, bears, wolves, eagles and a rich variety of marine species thrive in an interconnected web of life.
We thought you might like to see how such a special book is researched and created, and Deborah Hodge kindly agreed to dig into her photo archives and give you a peek behind the curtain. Read on!
Two years ago, I picked up Karen Reczuch from her Vancouver hotel and we set off on a west coast adventure. I hadn’t met Karen before, but I was familiar with her lovely art — I had admired her illustrations for years.
When Sheila Barry (Groundwood’s amazing publisher) agreed to publish my latest work, West Coast Wild: A Nature Alphabet, I said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Karen could illustrate the book?” Sheila agreed, and a new creative collaboration was born.
Karen decided to come to BC for a week-long research trip (she is from Acton, Ontario) and I offered to be her travel guide. We spent the better part of a week in late September exploring the magnificent west coast of Vancouver Island. Not quite a Thelma and Louise trip, but a lot of fun nonetheless!
From Vancouver, we took a two-hour ferry ride to Nanaimo and then drove west across Vancouver Island for another three hours, with the trip ending at the open Pacific Ocean, where I like to imagine that I can see all the way to Japan. Here’s Karen surveying the view from the ferry.
We stopped enroute at the awe-inspiring Cathedral Grove to investigate the forest of giant trees that are centuries old and seem to reach to the sky. Karen was astonished at the scale of the nature we were seeing. It was all so big! Here she is with an 800-year-old tree. Look w-a-a-a-y up!
Karen had never been to the far west coast, but I have been visiting the beautiful Pacific Rim region for over forty years — first as a teenager, then as a university student, later as a mom with a growing family, and now with my adult children and their young kids. I feel as though I’ve gone full circle. It’s been thrilling to watch the newest members of my family discover this special place. (They were the inspiration for this book, in fact.) On a recent trip to the beach, the kids and I were very excited to find a big purple sea star!
What’s it like on the west coast? It is beautiful and wild. Sea and sky go on forever. There are miles and miles of a long sandy beach bordered by ancient trees that have stood for hundreds (or maybe thousands) of years. The surf crashes and the ocean roars — and it stretches far as the eye can see.
Whales, eagles, wolves and other wild animals inhabit this spectacular spot. And there is an abundance of marine life in every shape and colour: bright green anemones, tiny pink crabs, brilliant purple and orange sea stars, and more kinds of seashells and seaweed than you can imagine. It is a beachcomber’s paradise!
Karen and I stayed in a cabin on a little cove, right on the water. Every day we saw amazing sunrises and sunsets, and watched the tides roll in and out. The weather was uncharacteristically sunny and warm for late September. I kept saying, “Do you know how lucky we are?” (This region of the west coast is one of the rainiest places on earth.) Here’s the day and night view from our cove.
What did we do for the week? We hiked the glorious rainforest trails, where we saw plants and trees in a remarkable palette of greens. We visited the fish hatchery and watched salmon on their fall spawning run, leaping up waterfalls, and black bears scooping the fish out of the stream with their big paws!
We walked the beaches in the sunshine (see our selfie) and revelled in the expanse of sea and sky. We checked out the “catch and release” aquarium and had a close-up view of the local marine species. I loved the shifting, shimmering sea jellies and the waving pink anemones.
And we caught up with friend and fellow author Adrienne Mason, who works as biologist on the coast, and kindly reviewed the art and text of our book and answered a zillion questions about west coast species.
In the evenings, we cooked dinner (Karen makes a delicious Greek salad) and sat by the fireplace discussing our lives, the upcoming book and the possibility of Karen moving out west. (She was that impressed by what she’d been seeing.) There may have been some wine involved in our fireside chats, but I am remaining mum on that.
Karen took photos wherever we went — some 400 photos that became the basis for her art in the book. I took a few photos myself, mainly to document our adventures, but also because I love looking at the ocean photos throughout the year when I am back in Vancouver.
With some reluctance, our time at the beach came to an end and we made the return journey to our respective homes.
It’s been great to see the art that emerged from our trip and to visualize the west coast through Karen’s eyes. Her work is stunning! I feel very fortunate to have my words brought to life by her art.
If you haven’t been to the far west coast of Canada, consider a visit. It is one of the world’s most beautiful places. Bring your kids — they will love it! (Check out the back pages of West Coast Wild to learn more about exploring this region.)
And if you can’t arrange a trip just now, you can travel there by reading our book:
A is for an ancient forest that towers over a long sandy beach…
O is for orcas that leap and dive in the west coast waves…
T is for tides that rise and fall endlessly…
See you on the west coast,