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 those 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. Tranquility 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 brooder 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. And well they should. Ominous-looking turkey vultures, summer visitors as hefty as eagles, black-feathered with red necks, idly perch on nearby 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 located at well-marked locations en route to the park.
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 Island Escapade's 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 visitors 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 sea star numbers plummeted on the West Coast in the past several years, Milton has observed a recent rebound of the garlic-scented marine invertebrates. Now if chocolate lilies would only repopulate Third Sister Island, which give their name to a shell beach midden with a measured depth of over two metres. Along with shellfish, bulbs of the spring-flowering plant were a staple of the local Saanich First Nations' diet. Ponder that while exploring the diminutive island along a pathway that leads past an outhouse hand-crafted by islander Micah Booy who frequently pauses here at the mouth of the harbour, a one-hour paddle from the dock.
On deck of BC Ferries' 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 provides travellers with an open-air geography challenge of fitting together facets of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve puzzle.
From the bottom of a glass of Salt Spring Ales' Heather Ale
Regardless of personal preferences, there seems to be wide-spread 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.
For information on visiting Salt Spring Island, visit www.saltspringtourism.com. Details on travelling to Salt Spring on BC Ferries are posted at www.bcferries.com/schedules/southern. A good map to consult is Salt Spring Island Natural History & Heritage ($8.50; www.islandpathways.ca) featuring road and bike routes. Directions to the Tsawout First Nation Trail are posted at www.saltspringhop.com/wennanec-tsawout-first-nation-trail/. For events at Ruckle Farm, see www.ruckleheritagefarm.com/. For details on Ruckle Provincial Park, see www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/ruckle/. To arrange a guided kayak tour of Ganges Harbour, visit www.islandescapades.com. For details on Salt Spring Island Brewery, see www.saltspringislandales.com. The writer travelled with the assistance of BC Ferries and Hedgerow House Bed and Breakfast.