by Deborah Rogers –
Puttering out of Port Sidney Marina on a glorious morning – the sea calm and glassy and nothing but a few puffy clouds in the blue sky – I feel exceptionally fortunate. I’m in the good company of Reg Kirkham of Island Camping Water Taxi Services for a morning of exploring the Gulf Islands and National Park Reserve. It’s a slow, slow start out past the breakwater, but after we’ve given photographer Cassidy a wave, Reg turns the engine up and we set out towards Cole Island. We’re keeping a lookout for “Hollywood” seals – you know, the ones that sun themselves on the rocks and have appeared in many a visitor’s photos!
I quickly learn that Reg has a story for every occasion, having spent his life on these waters. You couldn’t imagine a more generous or informed guide. We’re in Reg’s 27-foot aluminum crew boat, the “Westy Too;” it’s very comfortable and you could fit eight or so friends onboard if you wanted to share an adventure with them.
The BC Parks Service would like to see more people making use of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve; these beautiful islands are perfect for a hike and a picnic, to spot birdlife and to truly get away from it all. Portland Island has three backcountry campgrounds and hiking trails, and nearby Russell Island has a landing dock, though no overnight spots. Russell Island was settled by a native Hawaiian family and remained in Kanaka hands until 1959. We tie up briefly and check out the Interpretive boards sharing some of the island’s history.
Next we head towards Prevost Island, passing the SALTS tall ship “Pacific Grace” and some small sailing yachts at anchor on the way. There are a pair of eagles just sitting surveying the scene as we cruise past. These islands are so well protected, covered in wildflowers – camas and chocolate lilies – and with no deer on the smaller islands to affect the flora.
Did you know that there is a Secret Island? Of course not, you haven’t met Reg! It has about 40 homes on it, and is so tucked away you wouldn’t know it was possible to enter the narrow gap between rocks to access it. It’s like going back in time. We cruise out past Owl Island (Reg’s favourite) with no buildings on it, just a dock hinting at adventures to come.
As we approach Galiano’s Montague Harbour we see a large group of kayakers off the sandy beach – everyone is having an idyllic day. Later the Marina manager tells us it is a school group from Vancouver having a camping field trip – what a childhood! We step off Westy Too to grab a coffee and survey the scene. On another day we could have stayed for lunch at the Crane and Robin where the fish tacos are apparently the best this side of Hawaii. But we have to press on if we are going to see all the islands. We don’t stop at Mayne, but skirt close enough to see Miners Bay and the Spring Water lodge, the oldest continuously operating hotel in B.C. Looking like driftwood logs, there are big fat harbour seals basting in the sun just outside the harbour.
The morning is flying past as we head out past Pender Island towards Saturna. With about 300 residents, it’s the most easterly of the Gulf Islands. We stop briefly at Lyall harbour. Everything is deserted this morning, but I see signs for the Saturna Bus, a double-decker restaurant, and also a bike rental facility next to the pub.
Then we’re off to Browning harbour on Pender island. There’s more life here, with a pub and restaurant as well as camping and lots of boats prettitly anchored up. We cruise past Shark Cove and Mortimer’s Spit before we head under the bridge that joins the two Penders. South Pender has Beaumont Park and of course Poet’s Cove where you could enjoy some luxury lodging and a meal, use the pool, rent kayaks or simply head off for a hike.
There is such deep, rich First Nations heritage on all these lands, and I appreciated Reg’s knowledge as he told me of trips to bring First Nation groups back to explore their history. It isn’t hard to imagine how it would have been 1,000 years ago – there were people here then, but the sounds would have been different, made only by nature, not waves from freighters.
You’re not far from the US border now, you could keep cruising on and never go home … .