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By Hans Tammemagi
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

As the Queen of Nanaimo chugged into Georgia Strait, the sun sparkled on 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 Gulf Islands archipelago, a maze of more than 220 rocky masses ranging from small deathly-dangerous-when-foggy reefs to large isles. Only Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne, Galiano and Saturna Islands receive BC Ferry service.

At Galiano Island a few cars clunked off the ferry and a few thumped on. Gulls soared and black cormorants dried their outstretched wings on the mooring posts like preachers blessing their flock. We entered Active Pass and watched our ferry make sharp turns in the narrow, twisting channel that separates Galiano and Mayne Islands. Fishing boats bobbed in the pass, seeking the herring and salmon that are attracted by the turbulent tidal currents.

At Pender Island, my wife and I drove off the ferry. Day after sunny day followed, for the Gulf Islands lie in the rain shadow of the Olympic mountains and have a warm Mediterranean climate. Staying at a cabin for a week, we discovered the islands have three very different personalities: the sea, the forest and bucolic farmland.

In the forest we felt tiny amongst the enormous Douglas firs and western cedars all standing ram-rod straight. Here and there slouching arbutus trees with their peeling, rust-coloured trunks look 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 felt primordial. We walked close together expecting a raptor or other Mesozoic beast to suddenly burst through the foliage.

One day we went kayaking to Portland Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, which sprawls over 15 islands and numerous islets. On the shore an oystercatcher and a long-legged blue heron patrolled the beach for dinner. The tour leader found a large red crab hiding inside a soft moon-snail shell. Purple starfish were attached like glue to rocks. We passed sandstone cliffs sculpted by wind and sea into delicate lacework whorls of beige and yellow. A regal eagle sat high in a fir tree. Thirty seals basked on a small islet their watery, large eyes nervously watching our progress.

Our guide described the black and white orcas, or killer whales. Three pods of about 90 orcas live here and the ultimate thrill, he explained, is to kayak amongst them, their tall dorsal fins towering over you.

Our next exploration was to neighbouring Salt Spring Island, the largest and most populated of the Islands and a Mecca for artists and authors. Ganges, the main town, is full of artisan shops, cafes, and restaurants serving fresh seafood. That afternoon we hiked a sea-side trail and watched ferries float regally past; then we tippled at one of the three island wineries. The highlight was the Saturday market, which was abuzz with pottery, paintings, carvings, sculptures, stained glass and other products of the human mind and hand.

To explore the nautical character of the islands, which offer some of the best boating in the world, we visited Poets Cove on south Pender Island. We watched the coming and going of sailboats with tall masts, gleaming yachts and roaring float planes. We walked the beach toward the lighthouse peering into tidal pools and admiring the artful necklaces of weathered driftwood logs that mark the high-tide line. At the bar we listened to yarns about fish that had been caught (or not) and the orcas, dolphins and sea lions that had been sighted.

Saturna, the smallest and most isolated of the main Gulf Islands, has narrow winding roads and little nightlife and is a little paradise lost in a time warp. Sheep graze in tiny meadows and feral goats scamper on hillsides. The isle is achingly beautiful with numerous beach accesses and forest trails that often lead to beautiful secret glades or viewpoints. We found a small cove with an ancient Native midden. We studied the layers of broken white clam-shells and pondered how the Coastal Salish Natives lived here for 6,000 years.

At day-end, my wife and I hiked to a viewpoint and as the islands turned a misty blue-grey, we raised our glasses to this delightful feast of islands.


Travel Writers' Tales is an independent newspaper syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers.


Gulf Islands National Park Reserve:
BC Ferry schedules:
Poets Cove, Pender Island:
Kayaking & eco-adventures, Salt Spring:

PHOTOS by Hans Tammemagi

1- Kayaking - the best way to enjoy the islands
2- Primordial rain forest
3- Sheep in winter mist
4- Early morning ferry
5- Wine glass reflects the islands


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