I’ve always had a thing for islands. As a kid I pictured myself at the edge of every turquoise-ringed sand mound, the smaller the better. I would even try to plan picnics on the grassy centers of roundabouts as a local alternative. Something about an island’s inaccessibility, and the promise that you can fully know it, resonated with my early stirrings of adventure. I wanted to explore new coastlines, mark the sand with my footprints, immerse myself in inescapable beauty.
Hence it was that, when planning a trip through British Columbia, there was no question that my sisters and I would stay on one of the area’s gulf islands. These small islands dot the gulf between the larger Vancouver Island and the mainland, where the city of Vancouver is just visible as a short silhouette. Some of these islands are seventeen miles long, others only a few hundred yards across. I finally settled upon Galiano Island, a long, thin island shaped somewhat like a tadpole.
Getting to Galiano Island was almost as much fun as the place itself. We took a ferry from Swartz Bay near Victoria on Vancouver Island. While we waited for the ferry to embark, we chatted with the artists in the arts-and-crafts shopping area (Linda, of knottylinda.com, was especially friendly). Of course, once the ferry was underway I didn’t go inside once. The morning was beautiful—the intricate Pacific Northwest clouds reflected against glassy water, creating the perfect conditions for spotting marine life. I caught a glimpse of a porpoise and a few harbor seals, but didn’t see any of the orcas for which these waters are famous.
We got to the island through a narrow channel between Galiano and the nearby Mayne Island, then set out to find our campground. Of course, we became quickly and gloriously lost. The great thing about an island is that you never have to worry too much about losing your way, because the distance you can get lost is limited by the water.
Just for fun, we took a random road named “Retreat Cove,” and ended up in a beautiful cove with a dock and a few thin beaches. My favorite discovery came from underneath the dock—attached to the pilings, I found a number of brilliantly red feather duster worms and creamy white tube anemones. In the shallow water, I also got a glimpse of a massive sun star working its way across the bottom on a couple dozen short arms.
We got directions from some helpful vacationers from Victoria, then headed to our campground at Montague Harbor Marine Provincial Park. The campsite proved stunning. After walking out through some thin forest, we found ourselves on the beach of a small cove with a fabulous view of the silhouettes of nearby islands. Some rocky ridges made for decent tide pools, but the real discovery came a few dozen yards down the beach. The first thing I noticed was the sand—it was white, but instead of being composed of rough grains it was entirely made up of small ridges of white shell. An information kiosk told me that these shells were the remainder of a midden, or trash heap, from a village at least 3,000 years old. The sand pressing angles into my feet, then, was the print of an ancient people ground by centuries of waves. As I left I noted a piece of broken bottle lying on the sand—our trash, it seems, may form the next civilization’s beach.
We spent the remainder of the day exploring the rest of the island. The beaches were all beautiful, but my favorite location had to have been Pebble Beach on the eastern shore of the island. To get to this beach we walked through along a path that moved from a beaver pond, through some fern underbrush, and finally out onto the beach. The location was perfect—black pebble beach strewn with driftwood, with long stretches on either side that promised some great exploring. I would have loved to have hit this area at low tide, as the rock shelves probably made for some great tide pools.
The final scene of our exploration came just before we headed off on the ferry the next day. We walked down a road near the ferry terminal until we reached a beach access area, then headed down to the water. On this part of the island, the coastline consists of flat sandstone formations with low cliffs and channels. I loved looking for anemones in the tide pools in the sandstone. The best find of the day, though, was a sea otter that surprised us from among the short fringe of kelp that lined the rocks.
Finally, we had to say goodbye to Galiano Island. Although we had been on the island for little over twenty-four hours, I really felt as though we were able to experience most of what the area had to offer. Nothing provides closure like a well-explored island. From the window of the ferry I watched the island disappear as Vancouver materialized out of the distance—our next adventure.