Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast

Passage to the Gulf Islands


Queen of Nanaimo

This past weekend I returned to Mayne, some six years after my first visit to the Southern Gulf Islands, and reached further to Saturna. This island-hopping was made possible by an ambitious community event, Tour des Iles, which provided free sailings between neighbouring islands. Some boats took routes we landlubbers might otherwise never see: from Retreat Cove in the north of Galiano to Salt Spring Island, and in a triangle from the eastern side of Mayne, to Saturna, to Hope Bay on Pender, and back again.

To keep things simple, I planned a Saturday morning arrival on Mayne followed by a bike ride across the island to Horton Bay. A Tour des Iles boat would then ferry me to Saturna in the early afternoon and return me to Mayne in the evening for camping near Miner’s Bay. Sunday would allow a meandering journey back to Vancouver.

“Are you headed to the Campbell Bay Music Festival?” a cool dude asked me at Bridgeport, hoisting his bike onto the 620 Tsawwassen Ferry bus beside mine. His hair was buzzed on both sides and combed long on top. “I’m meeting my girlfriend there.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I think I’d seen Campbell Bay mentioned on the Tour des Iles website. It wasn’t the last time I was asked, being a relatively young person headed to Mayne Island with a tent. At Village Bay, the Queen of Nanaimo disgorged backpacks, textured clothing, and boomers in sandals. The dry, sunny weather, maritime scene, and eclectic cast fused into a postcard Gulf Islands moment.

Mayne Saturday Market

The Saturday Market near Miner’s Bay started calmly, with obvious regulars and bunches of organic greens. I cycled in from the ferry with my camping gear, and locked my bike by reflex even though no one on the islands seems to. Slowly — perhaps hinting at a riotous night before — the hippies and hipsters of a younger generation flooded in. It turns out the Campbell Bay Music Festival is, locally, a big deal.

A series of folk bands and experimental musicians took the stage. “We’re here from the Campbell Bay Music Fest, and I’m sure many of you are, too!” called out one bearded lead to a colourful, disheveled crowd. Six years earlier, I remembered Mayne as a quiet place, beautiful but faintly suburban. I had instead disembarked on a Gulf Island mythology that I thought no longer existed.

For me, the Gulf Islands have always carried layers of fantasy. Well before I visited, I heard stories of American draft-dodgers and back-to-land earthers that fled the modern world for a simpler life in the Georgia Strait. I heard of Canadian counterparts to California communes, with the added abandon of an international border and the Trudeau government. As much as any cultural significance, I was also intrigued by the microclimate of the islands within the Olympic rain shadow, a golden Shangri-La of mild weather and gentle ecology to remind me of Marin or Sonoma many latitudes south.

Mayne Island Farm

I left the Saturday Market to set up camp, passing grassy shoulders of island people along the street. Traversing a tunnel of ferns and cedars at the edge of town, I found the Seal Beach campground nestled beside the sea with a plain view of Active Pass. Remarkably, the snowpack above Howe Sound was visible beyond Galiano Island, so close yet seemingly so unreal and distant. The eclectic market and dramatic scenery endowed the day with a magical quality. I set out for Horton Bay after setting up my tent, stopping for lunch near the centre of the island.

A comfortable woman sashayed beside me as I bit into my sandwich, roasted vegetables on chewy sourdough. “They’re great, aren’t they? You have to stop yourself from getting one every day when you live here!” She let out a hearty laugh. At first I was taken aback by the persistent greetings, but soon began to return them. More twentysomething hippies rambled by on bicycles.

The shuttle to Saturna was really just a powerboat, operated by a punchy Englishman named Andy. My only fellow passengers were a pair of retired women who went to high school together in Newfoundland. We motored along Plumper Sound and some of the lesser Gulf Islands on the way to Lyall Harbour. My first memory of Saturna is of a sunburnt, shirtless band of young mariners at dock. They wore rough trousers and a few dreadlocks, drinking beer between hauling dinghies and rope. Saturna was no suburb.

Saturna Island

I walked further along the road to a secluded neighbourhood at the base of Lyall Harbour. Curiously, everyone waves at you on Saturna when they drive by. In a large garden of raised beds, two older men in shorts and worn t-shirts ambled about as I approached.

“So what’s growing well this year?” I called across the fence. Al’s beets had to be seen to be believed, whereas he explained that some of the broad beans had been planted too late. We compared notes between the Kitsilano Collaborative Garden and their own community plots, speaking an unexpected common language. He knew exactly where the Kitsilano Collaborative Garden was. (It’s between the Community Centre and the ice rink, by the way.) In fact, most people I met on the islands seemed to know Kitsilano intimately, as if it were a neighbouring village.

I stole away to the beach for a nap in the afternoon sun, followed by a hike through the Gulf Islands Natural Reserve. The few homes I spotted along the way — about 350 people live on Saturna year-round — appeared a class removed from those on Mayne or Pender, more ramshackle and less self-conscious. In the human ecology of the Gulf Islands, Saturna occupies a casual, far-flung niche at the edge of Canadian waters. I hiked back to Lyall Harbour, taking up a quiet waterfront spot at Lighthouse Pub near a woman and a man speaking alternately in English and Québécois French. The solstice evening sun burned hot in the Western sky. I ordered a cold Lighthouse Race Rocks ale on tap and a perfectly crisp veggie burger, taking in the midsummer vision of paradise.

Saturna Lighthouse Pub

Andy met me again at the dock sometime before 8pm, the sun still shimmering across the Salish Sea. I was the only return passenger to Mayne. A man who I spotted at the pub came down to meet us, and soon introduced himself as one of the organizers of Tour des Iles. I thanked them for giving us the chance to see the islands in a different way. Apparently this was the first year, with a few typical mishaps. I hope the event happens again — I’ll be a regular.

My ride back to the Western edge of Mayne island was a fuzzy delerium of hops, evergreens, and fantastical 9pm sunlight. I felt as though it were a living dream, one I might have nurtured in December weather, or in my past life south of the border. The peaks of Howe Sound turned a dark lavender in the falling light. I read of the first European explorers of our Pacific refuge, seeking riches rather than sanctuary, and drifted into a deep sleep, contented that I had found this place.

Gulf Islands Sunset

The following day, I was joined at breakfast by two women at the Sunny Mayne Bakery. “Oh yes, it’s changed. We’ve had declining student enrollment for years. There aren’t very many jobs, and rents aren’t as cheap as they used to be.” I learned halfway through our conversation that one was the chair the Gulf Islands school board. “The boomers who used to visit weekend homes are now coming full-time, and families can’t make it.” Surprisingly, she voiced a familiar Vancouver worry: gentrification.

“Galiano still has a community of artists and creative people,” she commented. “Mayne and Pender have always been a bit more white collar,” said the other. But they shared a sense that the eccentric character of the Gulf Islands might not last. I’m still surprised that the Gulf Islands have never stepped into the spotlight. I never heard of them while living in the United States, and only periodically from longtime Vancouver residents after I moved here. Whistler is mentioned dozens of times by tourists before a slightest mention of the islands. We can only hope it stays that way.

Mayne Island Bike Camping

Author: Chris

I'm the author of Reflecting Vancouver, a West Coast blog devoted to urbanism, culture, politics, philosophy, and everyday living in Vancouver.

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