My back rested against a sun-warmed boulder on Warburton Pike, the highest point on Saturna Island. The steep slope below me was marked by ragged contour lines-tracks made by feral goats-and the air was warm and rich with the aroma of fir trees. Spread before me like a feast were hundreds of islands: the San Juan's to the south, Pender, Saltspring and many of the Gulf Islands to the west, and far on the horizon the misty contours of Vancouver Island. It was heaven.
From my high perch I could see almost the full extent of the 16 islands and over 65 islets that form the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and are part of one of the most beautiful archipelagos in the world.
I was touring the Park and my next stop was Taylor Point at the southeast corner of Saturna Island. Near the point the sandstone cliffs have been sculpted by wind and sea into delicate lacework whorls of beige and yellow. Birds twittered and waves slapped against the rocky shore. Above me were the gnarled trunks of a stand of Garry oaks, which are found only in southwestern BC.
In this quiet spot in 1892, George and Anne Taylor established a farm and a sandstone quarry. Ghosts walked beside me as I found drill holes in rock faces, rusting iron works and other traces of a once-busy quarry. The thick ruined walls of their stone house remain were silhouetted against the green hills like a tombstone in memory of past lives.
Ron Hamilton, the park superintendent, has been involved with the Park since it was formed in 2003 and knows these islands well. I asked him why the park is special. "For such a small area the diversity is incredible," he responded, "It has sandy and rocky beaches, arbutus and Garry oak trees and each island is distinctive." This is high praise from someone who has seen almost all of Canada's national parks. "There's also a rich First Nations and early settlement history, and I enjoy the rural atmosphere," he added.
Hamilton explained how the region has a unique and fragile ecosystem formed by Canada's only Mediterranean climate. It is home to species of plants and animals not found in the rest of country with many endangered and threatened species, including Taylor's checkerspot butterfly, the sharp-tailed snake, shellfish, ferns and killer whales. The park's purpose is to preserve this natural treasure from the onslaught of development and tourism.
The way to explore an archipelago is by boat so I launched my kayak at Otter Bay, Pender Island. My first stop was Roesland, a former resort site for over 70 years. I lingered in the museum, gazed at an eagle's nest balanced high on a Douglas fir and strolled a path amongst the twisted, colourful arbutus trees on Roe Islet, a strong candidate for the prettiest walk in the Islands.
Then I started the long crossing of Swanson Channel with one stroke following another in a gentle rhythm. A snort sounded and a smooth seal's head popped out of the water to monitor my progress.
At Moresby Island "No Trespassing" signs glared down and I was thankful the Park protects a portion of this watery paradise. Slowly Rum Island grew larger and soon I had hauled my kayak onto the beach and, like Crusoe, had an entire island to myself. At day's close, I watched the light shimmer on the water as four seals frolicked in the darkening bay. A distant lighthouse started to wink.
In the morning when the tidal currents turned to flood I set off, careful to pack out everything I brought in. A gentle zephyr caressed my back as I paddled lazily past several islands. A blue heron flapped its ungainly wings and a lighthouse was mirrored upside down in the water.
Floating as one with the waves, I passed Reay and Imrie Islets where seals were hauled out, mingling with cormorants, gulls, murrelets and other seabirds. The map showed these islets are designated as Special Preservation Areas and landing is not allowed.
At Portland Island I coasted onto a dazzling white beach formed by broken clam shells, the remains of thousands of years of habitation by Coast Salish First Nations. The ocean has always been their central source of food offering a harvest of seals, whales, porpoise, shellfish, halibut, salmon and more. The Coast Salish have a spiritual connection to the land and the water, and many First Nations have ties to the Park. I hoped their respect for the environment would help guide the management of the park.
I followed a trail around the island passing coves with jumbles of bleached driftwood logs high on rocky beaches. Little meadows were resplendent with fresh dewy grass, tiny purple wildflowers and rocks capped by dark green mosses. I passed an old apple orchard, its gnarled, moss-covered trees a reminder that Portland was settled in the 1880s by Kanaka (Hawaiian) immigrants.
In the evening I watched the horizon turn into purples and blues. To the northwest I could see Russell Island, also part of the Park, which contains the remnants of a Hawaiian homestead occupied in the early 1900s, and silently made plans to visit it.
Next morning I pushed off the perfect white shell beach. Three otters, their long tails snaking back and forth, swam beside me for a short stretch, bidding me farewell.
Soon after, as I was hiking under a canopy of towering cedars, alders and Douglas-firs, surrounded by ferns and moss covered logs, I learned that the Gulf Island's forests offer a distinctly different character from the sea. The lush greenery had a primordial look and at any moment I expected a raptor or other Mesozoic creature to charge out of the dense foliage. Instead, I came upon a bench where I sat as a veil of water tumbled over mossy rocks and a small cliff.
A few days later I hiked onto a sun-drenched Mount Norman on Pender Island where I gazed at the islands arrayed before me and contemplated the next legs of my tour: I was drawn by Sidney Island and its unusual hook-shaped spit offering superb bird watching including a colony of great blue herons, D'Arcy Island with its sad and shameful history as a leper colony from 1891 to 1924, Georgina Point on Mayne Island whose lighthouse guards the entrance to Active Pass. So many delicious choices.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. He is the environment columnist for the Vancouver sun.
If you go
- Get maps, information and schedules for interpreter programs from Parks Canada offices in Sidney, Pender Island, Saturna Island or call 250 654-4000 or 866 944-1744.
Basic campgrounds: Beaumont Marine Park, Pender Island; D'Arcy Island; Portland Island; James Bay, Prevost Island; Rum Island; Narvaez Bay, Saturna Island.
Moorage &/or mooring buoys &/or dinghy dock: Sidney Spit; Beaumont Marine Park, Pender Island; Cabbage Island; Arbutus Point and Princess Bay, Portland Island.
First Nations Experience: - www.tseycumtours.com
- Enjoy First Nations Salish culture while touring the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in a traditional ocean-going canoe.