As the Queen of Nanaimo chugged into Georgia Strait, the sun sparkled on the waves, fishing boats trolled the waters, a powerful tug pulled a barge on a long line and sailboats floated like butterflies.
Soon we were in the Gulf Islands archipelago, a maze of more than 220 rocky masses ranging from small, deathly-dangerous-when-foggy reefs to large isles. Only Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne, Galiano and Saturna islands receive service from B.C. Ferries.
At Galiano Island a few cars clunked off the ferry and a few thumped on. Gulls soared and black cormorants dried their outstretched wings on the mooring posts like preachers blessing their flock.
We entered Active Pass and watched our ferry make sharp turns in the narrow, twisting channel that separates Galiano and Mayne islands. Fishing boats bobbed in the pass, seeking the herring and salmon that are attracted by the turbulent tidal currents.
At Pender Island, my wife and I drove off the ferry. Day after sunny day followed, for the Gulf Islands lie in the rain shadow of the Olympic mountains and have a warm Mediterranean climate. Staying at a cabin for a week, we discovered the islands have three very different personalities: the sea, the forest and bucolic farmland.
In the forest we felt tiny amongst the enormous Douglas firs and western cedars all standing ramrod straight. Surrounded by delicate ferns, sombre light, towering trees and bright green moss clinging to logs and rocks, it felt primordial. We walked close together expecting a raptor or other Mesozoic beast to suddenly burst through the foliage.
One day we went kayaking to Portland Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, which sprawls over 15 islands and numerous islets. On the shore an oyster catcher and a long-legged blue heron patrolled the beach for dinner. The tour leader found a large red crab hiding inside a soft moon-snail shell.
Purple starfish were attached like glue to rocks. We passed sandstone cliffs sculpted by wind and sea into delicate lacework whorls of beige and yellow. A regal eagle sat high in a fir tree. Thirty seals basked on a small islet, their watery, large eyes nervously watching our progress.
Our next exploration was to neighbouring Salt Spring Island, the largest and most populated of the islands and a Mecca for artists and authors. Ganges, the main town,
is full of artisan shops, cafes and restaurants serving fresh seafood. That afternoon we hiked a seaside trail and watched ferries float regally past; then we tippled at one of the three island wineries. The highlight was the Saturday market, which was abuzz with pottery, paintings, carvings, sculptures, stained glass and other products of the human mind and hand.
To explore the nautical character of the islands, which offer some of the best boating in the world, we visited Poets Cove on south Pender Island. We watched the coming and going of sailboats with tall masts, gleaming yachts and roaring float planes. We walked the beach toward the lighthouse peering into tidal pools and admiring the artful necklaces of weathered driftwood logs that mark the high-tide line.
Saturna, the smallest and most isolated of the main Gulf Islands, has winding roads, little nightlife and is a little paradise lost in a time warp. Sheep graze in tiny meadows and feral goats scamper on hillsides. The isle is achingly beautiful with numerous beach accesses and forest trails that often lead to beautiful secret glades or viewpoints.
At day-end, my wife and I hiked to a viewpoint and as the islands turned a misty blue-grey, we raised our glasses to this delightful feast of islands.
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