Writer Daniel Otis mingles with artists, drifters, dreamers and urban escapees in the Southern Gulf Islands. Toronto Star, June 3 2017
“Over the time since I moved here, it switched from being a hideout to a mecca for artistic people,” says Ron Crawford, who’s been painting and sculpting on Salt Spring for more than 30 years.
“I think the island is a contrast between an isolated community and an open community,” he says. “Like a lot of artists, I need to talk to people … But I also need that time that I take along the ocean and in the studio to find myself and work it out through what I do.”
With a little more than 10,000 people, Salt Spring is the largest and most populous of British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands, which sit nestled between Victoria and Vancouver in the Strait of Georgia. For decades, they’ve attracted a steady stream of drifters, dreamers and urban escapees.
Ganges, Salt Spring’s largest town, is peppered with colourful restaurants, shops, galleries and cafés. There are almost no big chains here. The town is a nexus for the island’s greying hippies, agro-millennial parents and raucous young eco-punks, who seem united by a grow-your-own ethos and a New Age-y glow. The island, I’m told, even lies directly on a ley line — the metaphysical pathways that spiritually align the earth.
Follow any street out of Ganges, and it’s almost all rugged coastline, low mountains and winding roads that lead to hidden farms, homes, parkland and coves.
At one, Xwaaqw’um, a pair of carved wooden welcome poles stand at the head of a lushly forested bay that forms part of Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park.
“They’re … facing the sea here and welcoming Quw’utsun, Hul’qumi’num and other visitors to this ancestral land,” says community organizer Joe Akerman, who was part of a group that helped raise these poles in 2016 to honour his people, the Quw’utsun First Nation.
Capt. George Grams of Gulf Islands Boat Tours takes us from Salt Spring to nearby Mayne Island aboard the 20-foot Meg.
“Every time I get to travel to one of the other islands, it stokes my gratitude for what we have here,” he says.
The son of a fisherman in northern England, Grams has always felt the pull of the sea. Yet it was the islands’ culture that prompted him to sell his architectural firm and move here a dozen years ago. He’s now even an elected official in the islands’ municipal government.
“I was just given the right signals about the beautiful people I met when I came here,” he says as we near Mayne Island. “My wife, for example.”
On Mayne, we stroll the island’s tranquil Japanese garden before trekking through the mossy rainforests of Mount Parke Regional Park to a precipitous ridge that overlooks the Southern Gulf Islands and the Salish Sea. Later, we launch kayaks with a guide from Bennett Bay Kayaking to a chain of low, rocky islets covered with rooking seabirds and languid seals. Kelp sways below. A bald eagle glides overhead. Barking seals bob in the swell, inspecting us floating intruders. In the distance, across the Strait of Georgia, you can just see the towers of metro Vancouver and the snow-capped Coast Mountains.
Mayne Island, which has a population of about 1,000 people, is dotted with little studios, workshops and boutiques. Jennifer O’Shaughnessy, who sells everything from “faerie glamour” to art supplies at her Dragonfly Gallery, has called Mayne Island home for 17 years.
“I just fell in love with the island,” she says, smiling in her colourful, cluttered shop. “There’s a lot of history on this island. It was called Hell’s Island … People would boat over to party! So, that captured my heart.”
I ask if that spirit lives on and she tells me I’m lucky to be here on a Thursday, when The Groove, the island’s pub, hosts its weekly open mic jam.
Pounding local brews in the packed pub to the sweet sounds of the island’s rockers, I look at the smiling, drinking dancers and can’t help but think that Mayne is like a wonderful never-ending summer camp for hippie retirees.
The next morning, we catch a quick water taxi to Saturna Island.
With about 350 permanent residents, Saturna is the least populous of the Southern Gulf Islands. Nearly half of its mountainous 31 square kilometres form part of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, drawing hikers, kayakers and whale watchers to its winding trails and quiet coves. Culturally, Saturna is more salt-of-the-earth plaid than the flower power paisley of much of the other Southern Gulf Islands.
“When we get dressed up, we shine our gumboots with WD-40,” a longtime resident says later over sunset pints at the island’s only pub. “You can shine ’em up so good, you can see yourself!”
We board a boat to cruise along the island’s wild, rocky shore. Larry Peck, a vagabond sailor with a snow-white beard, heads Saturna’s SIMRES (Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society) marine research centre, which is laying hydrophones in the ocean to study the effect of ever-increasing vessel noise on whales.
“The sea is something that demands respect,” Peck says. “But it’s also something you need to understand.”
We get off the boat near the lighthouse at craggy East Point, which forms part of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Sometimes, we’re told, you can see transient orcas stalking the seals that lounge on the rocks below. Eating only salmon, the Salish Sea’s resident orca pods leave marine mammals alone.
Peck, who once ran a treatment centre for troubled kids, had spent much of his life sailing around North America and the Caribbean before settling on Saturna 17 years ago.
“Sailing teaches you a lot about life,” he says, turning philosophical. “Like, when you have a strong wind coming at you, you never take a straight line — you tack left and right.”
When you go
Get there: Fly to Victoria or Vancouver and then take a ferry or float plane. BC Ferries(bcferries.com) regularly services the islands from both cities, though connections from Victoria are shorter and more frequent.
Get around: A rental car is useful but not essential. Salt Spring has taxis and buses. Mayne and Saturna Islands have donation-based, volunteer-run bus services. Hitchhiking is common and each island has a “Car Stop” program, where locals will pick you up from designated hitchhiking posts. If you rent a car in Victoria or Vancouver, arrive early or make a reservation to secure a spot for your vehicle on the ferry. Island hop by ferry, water taxi or private tour operator. Bike and kayak rentals are easy to find on all the islands.
- The recently renovated https://www.fairmont.com/empress-victoria/ Fairmont Empress (fairmont.com/empress-victoria ) combines class with comfort and views of the city’s lovely harbour.
Salt Spring Island:
- https://www.lakeshoreonsaltspring.com/ Lakeshore on Salt Spring (lakeshoreonsaltspring.com) offers cottages on picturesque St. Mary Lake.
- For art lovers, https://gallerybb.blogspot.ca/ Gallery B & B (gallerybb.blogspot.ca) has rooms and cabins next to the Duthie Gallery and an atmospheric sculpture park.
- https://hedgerowhouse.ca/ Hedgerow House (hedgerowhouse.ca), on the edge of Ganges, is a bed and breakfast with three comfortable rooms and a yoga studio.
- The https://www.mayneislandresort.com/ Mayne Island Resort (mayneislandresort.com) has bright and modern cottages and suites overlooking tranquil Bennett Bay.
- Further inland, https://fernhillbandb.com/ Fernhill Bed & Breakfast(fernhillbandb.com) has three comfy rooms on a forested property.
- https://sunsetbeachestates.ca/ Sunset Beach Estate (sunsetbeachestates.ca) has a pair of waterfront cottages overlooking tranquil Sunset Beach.