Driving the station wagon crammed with our worldly possessions aboard the
Queen of Nanaimo at Vancouver's
Tswassen terminal, we passed a young walk-on passenger carrying only a 12-pack of beer and a Frisbee. It was a sign that our new west-coast life would be easy-going and happy.
My wife and I were on the final leg of moving from southern Ontario to our new home in the Gulf Islands. As the ferry chugged southwards into
Georgia Strait we were instantly enthralled by the watery world. The sun sparkled from the waves, fishing boats trolled the waters, a powerful tug pulled a barge on a long line and sailboats floated like butterflies.
Soon we were in the midst of a maze of rocky islands that stretched in all directions, for the
Gulf Islands are an archipelago of more than 220 rocky masses ranging from small deathly-dangerous-when-foggy reefs to large land masses. The five main islands - Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne, Galiano and Saturna - receive regular BC Ferry service; the rest can only be reached by private boat.
Our first stop was Galiano Island where a few cars clunked off and a few thumped on. Gulls soared behind the ferry while black cormorants dried their outstretched wings on the mooring posts like preachers blessing their flock. Then we entered Active Pass and watched a super-ferry make sharp turns in the narrow, twisting channel. Small fishermen's boats bobbed, seeking the herring and salmon attracted by the turbulent currents.
At Pender Island, we drove off the ferry and to our new home, a cabin in a glade in the middle of the forest.
Day after sunny day followed, for the Gulf Islands lie in the rain shadow of the
Olympic Mountains and have a warm Mediterranean climate. We soon strung up a long laundry line and once a week, our sheets and clothes billow in the breeze like miniature sails.
We discovered the islands exhibit two very different personalities: the sea and the forest. In the forest, we feel tiny amongst the enormous Douglas firs and western cedars all standing ram-rod straight. Their military precision is interrupted here and there by slouching, twisted arbutus trees with their bare, rust-coloured trunks, like hippies lost amongst a cadre of soldiers. Surrounded by delicate ferns, sombre light, towering trees and bright green moss clinging to logs and rocks it seems primordial. We walk close together expecting a raptor or other Mesozoic beast to suddenly burst through the trees.
We discovered that another way to enjoy the forest is to play a round of disc golf at Pender's 27-hole course, considered one of the prettiest in North America. The aim is to throw a plastic disc at a distant target, avoiding the many trees that lie in between. For more traditional golf, there is also a picturesque nine-hole course.
Our new island home is isolated with narrow winding roads and little night life. But it is achingly beautiful with numerous beach accesses and forest trails that often lead to secret glades or viewpoints. We love to hike sea-side trails, watch ferries float regally past, peer into tidal pools and admire the artful necklaces of weathered driftwood logs that mark the high-tide line.
One day we went sea kayaking. The tide was out and a long-legged blue heron was patrolling for dinner. Rising and falling with the waves, we witnessed an amazing abundance of marine life. The tour leader found a large red crab hiding inside a soft moon-snail shell. Purple starfish were attached like glue to rocks. An eagle sat regally high in a fir tree next to its massive nest. A dozen seals basked on a small islet watching us paddle past.
Our guide described the graceful black and white Orcas, or killer whales, that inhabit this strait. Three pods of about 90 Orcas live here and the ultimate thrill, he explained, is to watch the graceful movements of these powerful mammals from a nearby kayak.
Pender Island is a Mecca for artists, and we spent a delightful afternoon visiting galleries, chatting with the many craftspeople and admiring their work. Many of the artisans, as well as local farmers, exhibit their wares at the Saturday market, which became a weekly highlight for us. Frequently, we tipple at
Morning Bay Vineyards, a picturesque cottage winery.
We wanted to get a feel for the nautical character of the Islands. Although without boat, we solved the problem by visiting Poets Cove on south Pender Island. Set in a secluded cove, this is the finest marina/resort in the Islands, attracting boaters from California to Alaska. We spent hours watching the coming and going of gleaming yachts, sail boats with tall masts and roaring float planes. At the bar, we listened to yarns about fish that had been caught (or not), cruising the Inner Passage and the Orcas, dolphins and sea lions that had been sighted.
We learned about the history of the island at the museum at Roesland. One day I found a small cove where archaeologists had unearthed an ancient Native midden. In this quiet spot, I studied the perfectly preserved layers of tiny white shells as they curved up and down and pondered how the
Coastal Salish Natives lived here for 10,000 years.
At day end, my wife and I often retreat to a favourite viewpoint and as the islands turn a misty blue-grey, we raise a glass to our new home.
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.
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