If it hadn’t already been coined, ‘So Close, but So Far’ might have been inspired by B.C.’s southern Gulf Islands, home to a host of paddling adventures.
Nature dealt Canada a lovely hand when it created these five island fingers. They are unique pastoral paradises perfect for getaways ranging from the best known, Salt Spring Island, to tiny Saturna.
And you can start to explore them in as little as 15 minutes from Victoria International Airport.
That’s if you connect with a company like Pacifica Paddle Sports. The folks there can have all your paddling and camping equipment ready for you, down to spoons and forks, at Canoe Cove, a terminus of the B.C. Marine Trail. The food is on you to organize.
Canoe Cove, which is close to Swartz Bay ferry terminal on Vancouver Island, is also a terminus of the B.C. Marine Trail, which wends through the Gulf Islands but will require very good paddling skills to take on. Photo by Pam Martin.
Or you can be on the water at two of the islands in as little as 90 minutes through Swartz Bay ferry terminal with BC Ferries Walk-on, Paddle-off program.
Bennett Bay on Mayne Island is a stunning stretch of peaceful water accessed right in front of Mayne Island Resort. Photo by John Kernaghan
Again, you’d need to organize equipment through a company like Pacifica Paddle and either carry or roll a rental kayak or standup paddle board on to a ferry to Long Harbour on Salt Spring Island or Sturdies Harbour on Galiano Island.
PADDLING ADVENTURES BY FERRY
In the case of Mayne Island and Fulford Harbour at Salt Spring, you’d need to have transportation arranged at that end to get your craft to a launch point.
Gulf Island Ferries, which operates out of Ganges Harbour on Salt Spring, offers inter-island travel for kayakers and standup boarders and Pacifica Paddle can get you to their terminus from Canoe Cove in about 30 minutes.
Want to check out your sea legs on land? Spots like Burgoyne Bay on Salt Spring Island provide moderate to difficult hiking in tandem with a paddling outing. Photo by John Kernaghan
The most flexible option to experience all five of the Southern Gulf Islands is to arrange a rental vehicle, ideally with a roof rack to handle your watercraft. Or bring a soft rack you can pack in your luggage.
Ferry travel between the islands runs frequently and, as well as being stunning, helps you get your bearings on areas you’d like to paddle.
Here are thumbnail sketches of the islands:
SALT SPRING ISLAND
One is tempted to call the biggest of the string of gems also the busiest, but that is only in the context of the general peacefulness of the group.
It has several nodes for shopping and dining, though they are so laid back compared with mainland life.
Salt Spring Island is dotted with calm little bays like this one at Ruckle Provincial Park. Photo by Pam Martin
The bonus in this relatively developed island is that you can get on the water easily without bringing your own equipment.
There are four adventure outfitters who will rent kayaks and boards as well as lead groups, a wise option if you want to navigate waters dictated by tide, currents and winds you are unfamiliar with.
This vegan feast was served with a flight of ciders at Salt Spring Wild Cider House, an informal eatery that is a memorable stop after paddling, hiking or cycling. Photo by Pam Martin
Salt Spring Island Paddle Board Company, Beachside, Salt Spring Adventure Company and Gigi’s Paddleboards can help you explore historic indigenous beach sites, silky bays fringed by arbutus trees or wider expanses of the storied Salish Sea.
This long, thin isle is modestly developed on one end, wild and natural at the other. Montague Harbour Marina is home to kayak and paddle boards through Gulf Island Kayaking and just up the road is the Montague Provincial Park. It has a nice launch point for a calm paddle along Gray Peninsula, which features a rock ledge rising to 180 metres and sculpted by time and tide.
To catch high tide and run with it as a spectacular sunset lights up the beach, is one of the finest paddling adventures on the islands.
At Galiano’s other end, the north, is Dionisio Provincial Park, which features a compelling shoreline with artistically sculpted sandstone formations, a sand beach for swimming at Coon Bay as well as tidal pools, carpets of colourful wildflowers and forested areas.
Dionisio Provincial Park offers a wild coastline with stone sculpted by time, tide and wind. Photo by Pam Martin
It is advertised as marine access only, but locals will direct you to locations you can park and walk in, though it is a fair hike.
This island’s footprint is small but it has a good variety of paddling spots, some interesting history and a few nice places to eat.
We checked out Bennett Bay, where calm waters provided a good spot to test skills and Kayaking Gulf Islands offers kayak and SUP rentals and guided tours.
Dinner Bay is a placid place whether on a bench or on the water on Mayne Island. Photo by John Kernaghan
The bonus to this location is Mayne Island Resort, where you can enjoy apres-paddling spa treatments, refreshments on a sweeping patio or an estimable lunch or dinner at the Bennett Bay Bistro.
The Groove Island Kitchen, meantime, provides a funky backdrop in a breezy setting to enjoy a wide range of tapas and gourmet burgers and pizzas. Add a range of regional craft beers and local entertainment and The Groove is a fine spot to finish the day.The Japanese Garden on Mayne Island honours the Japanese pioneers who had to leave the island during World War II when the Canadian government deemed them a risk to national security. Photo by Pam Martin.
If you’re in a contemplative mood, the memorial to Japanese contributions to the island is a worthy visit. The Japanese Garden, which features a meditation hut and ‘secret’ quiet garden, honours Japanese who had to leave Mayne during World War II due to security fears.
For a modest island, by size and population, this island delivers an outsized visual wallop. From the windswept seascapes of East Point to the brilliant view from Mount Warburton Pike, you’ll crowd your camera with images.
In winter, with a permanent population of about 350 people, it was easy getting around.
At East Point, sea lions from a colony just offshore serenaded us with a raucous chorus and bobbed inquisitively 20 metres away. Orcas also congregate here to enjoy nutrient-rich waters boiling with plankton and fish and play close to the rocky ledges.
Ocean River caters to paddling adventures on Saturna from a tiny kayak shack beside the ferry terminal, offering local knowledge on tides, currents and sealife.
Mount Warburton Pike rises close to 400 metres and is marked by a lattice of goat trails that dive to sea level. The view towards Victoria across other Gulf Islands is almost mystical, confirming that sense of So Close, but So Far.Saturna’s rugged coast near East Point shows the ever-present Mount Baker in the distance. The year-round snowy peak is on view from most of the islands. Photo by Pam Martin
You get two of the price of one with North and South Pender. It’s divided by a canal, which can literally be a rush (four knots) depending on what phase of the tides you paddle it.
We took the connection from Port Browning to Bedwell Harbour under Canal Road bridge and enjoyed a solid few hours of paddling for the round trip.
Paddlers can get in some longer outings when you combine Port Browning and Bedwell Harbour, which is connected by this narrow canal separating the north and south islands. Photo by John Kernaghan.
North Pender is the more populated half, with most of the accommodation, eateries and galleries.
While the South island is more pastoral, it does boast the high-end accommodation Poet’s Cove. The luxury setting offers kayaks and paddle boards and a state-of-the-art gym to warm up before, and a spa to work out the kinks after your time on the water.
Sunset paddles are popular on all the islands, many organized by adventure companies like Blue Jellyfish SUP Adventures. Photo by Pam Martin.
COVER PHOTO: Another stunning sunset at Montague Harbour on Galiano Island. It is close to the island’s small business hub but a world away when you paddle close to peninsula with sheer rock cliffs. Photo by Pam Martin