No need to ask the captain’s permission to come aboard a Salish Sea cruise to the southern Gulf Islands. A simple willingness to see with fresh eyes will do, especially when visiting the largest member of the archipelago, Salt Spring Island. Action on Salt Spring is centred on the island’s southern half, a fact that helps define the arc of the possible during a serene summer getaway. Whether you’re an old salt or making a maiden voyage, here are five approaches guaranteed to reward with new perspectives.
Hike through old-growth forest on the Tsawout First Nation Reserve Trail
Officially opened to the public in 2012, this four-kilometre ramble leads through stands of western red cedar (some of whose trunks have been culturally modified by bark collectors), strawberry-hued arbutus, and thickly grooved Douglas fir. At the trailhead, an imposing 13-moon calendar sign created by local artist and author Briony Penn presents an intriguing portrayal of the natural wealth and seasonal rhythms found here in one of the oldest and richest First Nations sites in the Gulf Islands. Tranquillity reigns, and nowhere more so than when making like a bump on a log while drinking in views of the Saanich Peninsula due south as the ferry to Fulford Harbour—formerly the Tsawout village of Hwne’nuts (which, humorously, translates as “move your butt over”)—glides past. Best swimming is from a white shell beach where ocean waters are both clearer and warmer than in nearby coves. Mind the rock crab that just might nibble at your toes.
Talk turkey in Ruckle Provincial Park
Originally settled by Irish immigrant Henry Ruckle in the 1870s, these days B.C.’s oldest family farm sits at the entrance to one of the best campgrounds in any provincial park and is managed by Mike and Marjorie Lane, whose produce stand fronts their heritage residence. (Honour-box flower and produce stalls are a fixture at most homes along Beaver Point Road between Ruckle and Fulford Harbour.) A flock of free-range turkeys hunkers in the shade of outbuildings constructed with logs whose chunky ends Ruckle cut and squared by hand. On approach, the gobblers’ tail feathers fan out defensively. Nearby, ominous-looking turkey vultures, summer visitors as hefty as eagles, black-feathered with red heads and necks, idly perch on fence posts. Wander through the old fruit and nut orchard down to Grandma’s Beach to savour a picnic lunch sourced from local bakeries and cheese shops.
Paddle Ganges Harbour to Chocolate Beach
As harbours go, Ganges is surprisingly intimate, especially considering the buzz of land- and ocean-based activity that imbues the island’s main commercial district. Tucked off in one corner is a sheltered launch spot for paddlers keen to explore the coastline. That’s where the likes of kayak guide Margo Milton set off to check marine habitat set aside for the exclusive use of winged residents such as black oystercatchers. Tag along with the island-raised UVic undergrad and don’t be surprised to find yourself handling a leather star. Although several sea star species’ numbers plummeted on the West Coast in the past few years, Milton has observed a recent rebound of the marine invertebrates. Now if only nearby Third Sister Island could be repopulated by the native chocolate lilies, which give their name to a shell-beach midden with a measured depth of more than two metres. Along with shellfish, bulbs of the spring-flowering plant were a staple of the local Saanich people’s diet. Ponder that while exploring the diminutive island along a pathway that leads past a unique outhouse handcrafted by islander Micah Booy.
On deck of B.C. Ferries’ MV Skeena Queen between Swartz Bay and Fulford Harbour
Catching two ferries to Salt Spring’s southern entry point from Vancouver via Swartz Bay may seem farfetched at first. Think again. Combined sailing time may be half that of the direct Tsawwassen–Gulf Island route that makes as many as three stops prior to reaching Long Harbour near Ganges on Salt Spring’s east side. (A third ferry route links Vesuvius on Salt Spring’s northwest corner with Crofton, south of Nanaimo.) The Skeena Queen’s 30-minute, five-kilometre crossing from Vancouver Island provides travellers with an open-air geography challenge of fitting together pieces of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve puzzle.
From the bottom of a glass of Salt Spring Island Ales’ Heather Ale
Regardless of personal preferences, there seems to be widespread consensus among islanders that nothing beats the smoothness of this locally brewed thirst-quencher flavoured with heather flowers and a smattering of hops. Open daily during the summer, the rustic brewery is undergoing a major makeover of its facilities, which, at present, more closely resemble a moonshiner’s cabin. Drop by for complimentary tastings on Fridays and Saturdays.
ACCESS: For information on visiting Salt Spring Island, visit www.saltspringtourism.com/. Details on travelling to Salt Spring on B.C. Ferries are posted at www.bcferries.com/schedules/southern/. The writer travelled with the assistance of B.C. Ferries and Hedgerow House Bed and Breakfast.