The Cortes Portraits: Alanna Cartier
My face is an inch away from the bank of windows in front of me. I move in closer. I must look like a child peering into the windows of a candy store waiting for it to open. I’m just as eager. I eye up each passenger as they disembark the plane, looking for the woman who stuffed so much gouache paint into her carry-on bag that security forced her to check the whole lot.
Comox Airport is small. All around me people are hugging each other hello. One man, who had been holding two cups of coffee, offers one to an arriving traveller. They smile at one another as I turn back to the window. On the top of the ramp, a woman in a rose collared shirt and blue jeans steps into view. Her brown hair is styled into an adorable pixie cut. She’s too far away for me to make out much more, but I can fill in the rest by heart: hazel eyes behind bright purple frames, a charming quirky smile. My best friend has arrived on the west coast.
Alanna Cartier is an Illustrator, Writer, Skillshare Teacher, and Co-administrator for an online collective called The Everyday Creatives. To me, she is an endearing bundle of creativity and encouragement. In fact, everything I’ve written she has edited to perfection (even this post has her magic touch all over it). We met a lifetime ago, when I was twenty pounds thinner and living in a one-bedroom, one-window basement apartment in Toronto. Alanna was my sunshine in those days. Almost a decade later, our friendship is one of my greatest and most-lasting love stories.
“Welcome to Vancouver Island!” I call out as I walk up to her. We wrap our arms around each other. It’s a long-awaited hello. Then we head to the bathroom, because we are girls, and she’s just been stuck on a plane for hours.
“I’m so, so happy you are here!” I squeal through the stall door.
“ I’m so, so happy to be here!” she answers giddily back.
It’s late morning, which means we have a few hours before we need to leapfrog Quadra Island and head to Cortes by ferry. I’ve been planning Alanna’s arrival for months and can’t wait to take her into downtown Courtenay. Alanna’s taste is more refined than mine. Her home and wardrobe are a mindful bounty of rich textures and vibrant palettes. My style, in contrast, is a minimalist mish-mash of yoga pants and blank walls. I’ve always admired her elegant, often playful style which focuses on craftsmanship. She is going to love the beautiful boutique shops that make up main street. We park along a side-street and begin our tour at Cake Bread, with a latte and an Italian soda.
“Imagine mountains to your left” I tell Alanna. The 19A, also known as the Old Island Highway, follows the coast of Vancouver Island, offering panoramic views of Georgia Straight and the Discovery Islands. Usually. For the past few weeks the view has been socked in by smoke from the wildfires consuming British Columbia. Today the sky is a hazy blanket of white ash, with nothing to boast but an eerie orange glow. For the last three years, I’ve been raving about my new west-coast home to Alanna: an island nestled in amongst towering cedar, surrounded by salty shores, and snow-capped peaks. I’m worried all she will see is this haze. It would be such a waste.
“It’s still really cool” Alanna states, catching my eye, “And if it’s like this the whole time, oh well! I’m really just here to visit you!” My expression softens. I’ve missed her. We often joke that our friendship has improved with distance. I’m an early bird, Alanna’s a night owl, so our three hour time difference actually helps us connect. But video chats and text messages miss the nuances. It’s better in person.
The next morning, at my place on Cortes Island, I wake to yet another socked in sky. I fix my nightshirt and walk through my little front room to the bedroom door. I knock. “Alanna?” She opens the door wearing a white cotton sleeper set. I recognize it from her engagement shoot with Jenn & Dave Stark two years ago. It was a relaxed session: Sam and Alanna playing board games, sipping tea, and petting their fat cat Penelope. It suited them perfectly. Alanna and Sam compliment each other so well. I love Sam. And I love him even more for how he loves Alanna.
“Why don’t we tour the island and shoot today?” I ask her. “The weather isn’t great, but it’s warm and the sky is a giant soft-box of light.”
“Deal!” Alanna replies, using one of our favourite phrases. “But painting first.”
Alanna is on day thirty-five of a one hundred day challenge with The Everyday Creatives. Her challenge is to paint with gouache every day. She’s even planned weekly themes to keep her on track. This week’s theme is mushrooms. It’s perfect for Cortes Island, where wild mycelium grows abundant. Alanna creates an darling set of poisonous mushrooms, as I whip up some fungus-free eggs.
The main road on Cortes is shaped in a figure eight. The patten makes it incredibly easy to do a full tour of the island in a little over an hour. More, if you stop to take photos. We begin the loop, weaving through the downtown core. With two stores, a post office, and community hall, Manson’s Landing is very different from Courtenay. There isn’t a boutique shop in sight. We make our way to Siskin Trail, where an easy walk will offer us a big reward: old growth cedar. We wander slowly, enjoying each other’s company.
Along with her hoard of gouache, Alanna travelled with a goodie bag of watercolour supplies for me from her favourite Toronto shops. She also brought along two books from her personal collection. The first, My Friend Fear by Meera Lee Patel asserts that having a big fear is a chance to make a big change. The second, Your Story is Your Power: Free Your Feminine Voice, written by Elle Luna and Susie Herrick, is about understanding the stories that have made us into the women we are. Both are illustrated with the most inspiring watercolour designs.
“I think you’ll really love them. Just mail them back to me whenever you are done” Alanna offers, standing in front of the ocean at Smelt Bay. She’s posed casually towards the water. I move in closer with my camera, and then closer still. Alanna is as strong as she is sweet. I want to capture both sides of her. The loveable woman who reads sixty books in a bad year. The fiercely passionate feminist who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and honour other people's’ perspectives.
We hop back into the car and head to Squirrel Cove. In the heat of summer, I love to jump off the cove’s red dock. Each time the jump is different. If the tide is high, it’s a fun splash. If the tide is low, the jump becomes a breath-taking plunge. I ask Alanna to sit in the far corner of the dock. She’s quiet, but I can tell this is her favourite spot so far.
“This is very close to how it looks in the winter” I share, “The mountains obscured by fog, misty rain in the air. It might be smoke today, but it does have a similar feel.”
“I really like how soft it is” Alanna offers. “I thought that was just the way some artists interpret the coast, particularly in watercolour, but it actually looks this way.”
Despite our plans and the well-woven road, I realize we’ve forgotten to visit Hague Lake. We backtrack ten minutes and scramble up the rocky trail to the ridge. I point out Turtle Rock, a tall bluff-like island in the centre of the lake. It’s common for locals to jump swim out and jump off of it. I did two years ago. It was fun, but thanks to my clumsiness, I came back with nerve damage to my hand. I slipped while climbing up the rock face, and my right hand, braced against a rock, had saved me from a proper fall.
“No wonder you got hurt!” She exclaims analyzing the height. I grin. I’ve always been the wild one.
After lounging on the rocks, we decide to hit one more spot before returning home. Manson’s Lagoon is sandy. The briny water is clear to the bottom. To my great relief, a touch of blue is making its way across the sky. Half the sky is still smoke. But only half. Alanna’s fair complexion glows under the mixed light. I direct her to the end of the sand spit. To her left is the shallow water of the Lagoon, home to hundreds of oysters. To her right is the ocean, extending out into the Salish Sea. Alanna offers a coquettish smile. It’s the last shot of the day.
After weeks of smoke, clear blue skies welcome us the following morning. Alanna is already up. We aren’t going waste a single moment of this beautiful day.
“Let’s go back to Squirrel Cove,” I suggest, recalling how much she loved it the day before. “Then we’ll go up to Red Granite Point and Hank’s Beach. Both spots will have stunning views with this sky.”
I know she isn’t really here for the mountains. But they are the reason our friendship must span two thousand miles, at least for now, and they are a bonus we just can’t miss.