Islands mark escape route to ocean, sky

An expedition to Copeland Islands Provincial Marine Park, 150 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, can make a salty season starter for local kayakers. This tiny but spectacular archipelago is an easy 40-minute paddle from the quaint hamlet of Lund, just north of Powell River at the end of Highway 101. Its three major and 14 minor islands can be explored at leisure in a day or so and the whole trip tidily compressed into a three-day escape from the city. If you get there before summer, it's likely you'll have the place mostly to yourselves.

We visited at the end of May, when the coast was erupting in heat and sunshine after weeks of wet coolness. An earlier mad windstorm had swept the smog from the sky, leaving crystal views of Vancouver Island and its snowy peaks.

Campsites are not numerous in the Copelands, but we found a splendid one at the neck or isthmus between the two ends of the dumbbell-shaped southernmost island. There are a couple of tent platforms here, and space for other tents, plus a pit toilet. Kayakers should approach from the north, where there's a pocket beach. A runway has been cleared of stones to the low-tide mark so that boats can be conveniently carried and launched. (There is no fresh water anywhere in the park.)

This is an intimate place for a small group. White-tailed deer wandered through camp, and we were joined at dinner by a Douglas squirrel that brought its fir cone down to the beach to eat. A steady stream of birds-kingfishers, bald eagles, Canada geese-flew overhead through a gap in the Douglas fir and arbutus forest. To the south, Savary Island's long, white beaches gleamed.

In the morning we paddled out to Major Islet, a bare and somewhat forbidding rock about one kilometre offshore. Dozens of common murres swam and dove beside us, while black oystercatchers strutted over the reefs like dark-suited aristocrats, probing every crevasse with their long, cartoonish red beaks.

We worked our way round the Copelands' western shores, watching prawn and crab fishermen set their traps, and soon came upon another campsite on a bay halfway along the northernmost large island. Here there are several tent spots, plus another toilet; two cleared runways lead up to a fine little beach. (We eventually found a third undeveloped camping area on the south shore of the middle large island, just across a channel from our base. If the park is crowded in summer, a bit of searching will turn up other sites, as well.)

At the northern boundary of the Copelands, adventurous paddlers have several opportunities. They can head out into the Strait of Georgia a kilometre or so to Townley Island, then another couple of kilometres to the Powell Islets. From there, it's only half an hour's journey to Mary Point on the southeastern tip of Cortes Island. Or they can continue north to Sarah Point and into Desolation Sound. We veered instead toward Turner Bay on the mainland.

Tucked at the head of this bay is the little community of Bliss Landing, named not for the euphoric state of its former residents but after Joe Blissto, a pioneer hand logger. In an earlier era, the landing was a regular stop for coastal steamships and boasted a school, post office, and store. Today it's a private enclave of luxurious summer homes, complete with marina. We paddled back to camp down Thulin Passage, the narrow channel between the Copelands and Malaspina Peninsula, passing dozens of pylons where huge log booms are sometimes tied.

An unusually low afternoon tide revealed strange scenes as we poked along. Great pink and purple clumps of marooned sea stars clung to the granite bluffs, while sea anemones drooped grotesquely beneath them. At water's edge, sheets of orange and green seaweed were pinned to the rocks like dirty laundry the ocean didn't really want you to see.

Sunny evenings were spent clambering over islands where the last of the spring flowers still blossomed. We contemplated the example of Joe Copeland, a disreputable former Confederate officer in the U.S. Civil War, who gave the islands their name. Apparently, Joe became a stagecoach robber and outlaw, then fled to Canada with the law in hot pursuit. On these islands, he found a perfect hideout and sanctuary, living there for years and surviving as a logger. As we huddled over our campfire and looked out over a vast vista of ocean and sky, it was easy enough to imagine that we were castaways.

Andrew Scott's latest book, Secret Coastline II: More Journeys and Discoveries Along BC's Shores, was published by Whitecap in May. The writer can be contacted through