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British Columbia's Emerald Isles : Beyond the San Juans, Summering in Canada's Less-Traveled Gulf Islands

July 24, 1994|HELENA ZUKOWSKI | Zukowski is a free-lance writer who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia

SALT SPRING ISLAND, British Columbia — If point scores were awarded for understatement, our captain on the Queen of Nanaimo ferry would have earned a 9.9.

"Uh, anyone who happens to be standing on the starboard side may notice a couple of whales," he droned in his best monotone. (In keeping with their supposed national character, Canadians feel they have an obligation to convey an aura of quiet calm.)

Immediately the ferry tilted to starboard as the boat's complement of passengers rushed to the rail. There, just yards away, as we plied between Mayne and Galiano islands in the Strait of Georgia, four huge killer whales were either having a whale of a lot of fun or engaged in an immodest display of courtship.

One of the "couples" leaped into the air and then flopped down, spraying water in all directions in a backward belly flop. A few minutes later, another of the orcas made a shallow dive only to remain perpendicular, waving its tail fins at the boat.

The lady from Munich next to me at the rail looked as if her lottery number had just been announced.

"These whales, they are trained, yes?" she said.

I assured her that no, they were indeed wild orcas and that we didn't allow Disney-fabricated mammals north of the 49th Parallel.

Even though I live in British Columbia, I don't get over to the splendid Gulf Islands too often--nor do I often see spontaneous whale performances. But it was June when I related the whale incident to my B&B hostess on Galiano Island, and already my third visit for the year. "That's nothing," she said. "Last August, there were not one, but two pods of killer whales with 35 or 40 whales each that played around in Active Pass for almost an hour."

If sights like this give you goose bumps, they're only a taste of what awaits in Canada's exquisite Gulf Islands. Riding the ferries between the islands, one is likely to see porpoise, otters, sea lions and birds of every color. Bald eagles are so abundant in places that they are considered a nuisance because they edge out resident cormorants. On all the islands there are miles of shoreline without a single cottage. Mountain peaks and mountain trails. Deserted beaches. The finest cruising and sailing anywhere.

Even though Vancouver and Victoria are both kissed by the Japanese current, bringing a mild climate (and less rain than Seattle), the Gulf Islands go one better. Tucked into the rain-shadow of Vancouver Island, they are remarkably dry, and have a climate that at times and in places feels almost Mediterranean--with much more sunshine and warmer temperatures year round than any other place in British Columbia. Cactus can be found on some of the islands along with tropical palms and flourishing artichokes.

About 200 islands lie in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver on the mainland and Vancouver Island, but only five have regular ferry service, a substantial resident population and services for visitors: Salt Spring, Galiano, Mayne, North and South Pender and Saturna. These five form the northern or Canadian extension of Washington state's San Juan Islands.

B.C. Ferries have numerous sailings every day from Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island and from the harbor at Tsawwassen, about 25 miles south of the city of Vancouver, to the various islands. You can see the islands in a day trip from Vancouver, but that would be missing the whole point of going there.

All the islands are mountainous in appearance with rugged shorelines, immense bluffs and sheer cliffs that plunge into the sea. There are wide, dazzlingly white beaches layered with crushed shells that have accumulated over the centuries. The roads are draped with gnarled Garry oaks and twisted red arbutus trees. Wildflowers and berries grow in abundance.

Each has a distinct personality, but what they all offer in abundance is tranquillity and decompression from the stresses of contemporary life. You won't find a Hilton or a Sheraton anywhere, but there are quiet guest houses, small elite hotels that seem to have been plucked out of the English countryside and a few discreet motels. The unspoken law everywhere seems to be come, enjoy, but don't start a stampede.

Salt Spring

On a hot Sunday afternoon, a small group of Vesuvius Bay residents are sitting around in lawn chairs at the Arbutus Court Motel for the first meeting of a committee with a very serious purpose. The ferry from Vesuvius Bay to Crofton has, because of a bureaucratic whim, all of a sudden started to toot on arrival and departure.

"When the damn thing goes, I practically have to peel myself off the ceiling," says one angry homeowner.

A letter campaign is quickly organized, government representatives to be contacted identified, tactics and counter-tactics discussed. A dozen citizens have put on their armor and are girded for battle.

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