Winchelsea Islands Are Home to Navy and Seals

From Schooner Cove, Lyle Montgomery runs us over to the Winchelsea group in his water taxi. As he rounds the buoy just south of the islands, we see the animals, scores of them, littering the rocks like a broken boom of short, fat logs. Next we hear them, a chorus of barks and growls that merge to form a dull roar. They lift their massive heads to watch us but don't budge one centimetre otherwise.

"Wait till you smell 'em," Lyle says, but the wind, for now, is behind us. The objects of our attention are a hundred fully grown male California and Steller sea lions spread out along the shore. Not 300 metres away, on a separate island, is the cabin we're headed toward. For the next three days (and nights), the sea lions' antics and bellowed conversations will entertain us as we explore our surroundings by kayak and foot.

It's the end of March, mild but gusty, and Katherine and I are visiting South Winchelsea Island off Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island with another couple. The Ballenas-Winchelsea Archipelago may not be a well-known destination for kayakers, but on the chart, at least, its 19 islands look perfect for paddling. The only drawback may be the fact that we're within spitting distance of Whiskey Golf, the Canadian Forces' controversial torpedo-testing range. A monitoring station on North Winchelsea Island, only half a kilometre from the cabin, bristles with antennae, satellite dishes, and a bright orange-and-white dome. If you paddle too close, we've heard, naval personnel appear and shout at you to stay clear.

It's our first outing of the season, and the weather is marginal for kayaks. But that's the beauty of 10.4-hectare South Winchelsea: if you can't get out on the water, just put your feet up in front of the fire at the cozy, three-bedroom Robert T. Ogilvie Research Cottage. The island is owned by The Land Conservancy of B.C., a nonprofit organization that works to protect sensitive ecosystems. In 1998, with two other land trusts, TLC purchased South Winchelsea for $595,000. Now it's working to restore the island's endangered Garry oak/arbutus ecosystem to its original state.

TLC owns, manages, or holds covenants on dozens of ecologically valuable properties around the province, from Abkhazi Gardens in Victoria to the Koeye River Valley near Bella Bella and Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island. Several can bear a little carefully measured human traffic and have habitable structures on them, which TLC rents out to raise funds for its acquisition and restoration programs. Visitors can stay at cabins near Sooke, on the Cowichan River, and beside Nimpo Lake in the Chilcotin, but the one on South Winchelsea, with its rainwater-collection system, solar panels, and well-equipped kitchen, may be the nicest of the lot.

For those who find Winchelsea's rental fees a tad high (April 1 to October 15, $250 per night or $1,200 per week; October 16 to March 31, $200 per night or $1,000 per week with two-night minimum and six-person maximum at any time and transport from Schooner Cove included), TLC also organizes working holidays for a great deal less. Participants spend part of their visit helping remove invasive, non-native vegetation or doing other jobs and have plenty of free time for exploring. A working holiday to Winchelsea is scheduled for May 14 to 18. The $185 fee includes meals and a guided kayak outing with Ocean River Sports of Victoria. For more information, phone (250) 479-8053 or visit the TLC Web site (

We head out in kayaks the morning after we arrive and paddle around our island home. The wind rises from the southeast, though, and steep waves begin to form, so next we investigate more protected waters between North and South Winchelsea, keeping well away from the boisterous pinnipeds. A dozen immature bald eagles swirl above us, while Vancouver Island's 1,817-metre Mount Arrowsmith shimmers in the background. We devote the afternoon to exploring the island, where spring wildflowers--blue-eyed Mary, sea blush, shooting star, chocolate lily, yellow monkey flower--are blooming. A mink grooms itself on a sunny driftwood log.

In the evening, over braised tofu, asparagus, and bottles of red wine, we amuse ourselves with fantasies about testing North Winchelsea's security perimeter. Staff would be surprised to awaken and find "Osama was here" sprayed on their compound walls. Then we consider that our neighbours might just be amusing themselves by listening in on our conversation with impossibly high-tech eavesdropping devices: how far do you think those Canucks will get in the playoffs, anyway?

The next day is sunny but very windy, and we remain island-bound. In Whiskey Golf, boats plow back and forth. Helicopters hover and lift things from the ocean while a gigantic U.S. navy plane flies endless, low circles overhead. On the island, yellow-rumped warblers, song sparrows, and belted kingfishers swoop and call. Our final morning breaks calm and clear. We get in a magnificent paddle round the nearby Ada Islands, where harlequin ducks and black turnstones go about their business. Then it's time to clean up and pack. All too soon we're inhaling wafts of sea-lion breath as Lyle returns us to our everyday lives.

Andrew Scott's latest book, Painter, Paddler: The Art and Adventures of Stewart Marshall (TouchWood Editions, $44.95), is nominated for the 2004 Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Award at the B.C. Book Prizes to be announced May 1.