A Shambolic Journey on the Salish Sea (long)


Jan 30, 2006
SheilaP and I did a trip in the Gulf Islands in July that opened our eyes to how much the area has to offer. We've both been paddling in this part of BC for years, but we managed to put together a trip that showed us places we'd never seen before. I wrote this report based on my log entries, to which Sheila has added her own perspectives on each day.

Ten days and 120 nautical miles of paddling the Gulf Islands that saw us circumnavigate all the outer islands from Saturna to Gabriola. In the process, we traversed all the major passes (with the exception of Dodd Narrows) and visited almost all of the established camping areas.

Origins of the Trip:
Sheila and I have done a fair bit of paddling together over the last year and talked over the winter of doing a trip together this summer. On the table were the options of doing something on the west coast of Vancouver Island or staying on the inside. In the end, due to a number of factors we found it made more sense to stay closer to home. That said, we still wanted to do something interesting and reasonably lengthy, visiting new areas and challenging our paddling skills. This journey fit the bill nicely.

We conceived of it as our “Shambolic Journey” because we had no set plan other than a starting date, launch point, and two weeks worth of food. We vaguely said we would launch from Swartz Bay and “head north”. Leaving things this open-ended was hugely liberating in some senses, since it turned our kayaks into the marine equivalents of psychodelic hippy vans, wandering the waters according to whim and wind.

Day 1: Swartz Bay to Beaumont Marine Park, South Pender Island

The morning was a bit of a blur for me: get up, finish packing, and drive with my wife and daughter to Tswassen to be dropped off for the Swartz Bay sailing. I’ve walked on with my kayak several times before, but today I was running late and the foot traffic was heavy, so after a quick and somewhat painful goodbye to the family, I burned a few anxious calories running my boat to the berth to catch the sailing. Once aboard, I settled into my usual habit of watching the Gulf Islands slip by (a sight I never tire of) and in no time we were landing at Swartz Bay.

As I walked by boat down to the Dolphin Road launch, I could see that Sheila was already moving her gear down to the beach. In no time at all we had loaded up and were launching. At this point, the shambolic nature of our journey established itself. Where were we going? After some discussion, we both confessed that Portland Island, though a favourite of both of us, just didn’t feel right, so we committed ourselves to crossing Swanson Channel to South Pender.

The crossing was awesome: a small tide race off Moresby Island, the impressive cliffs of Oaks Bluff on South Pender reflecting the warmth of the late afternoon sun, another race off Wallace Point, and then hard a-port for the downwind run to Beaumont Park.

Sheila’s thoughts:
For me I could barely contain my excitement, and the wait for Andrew to arrive to begin our adventure was agonising. I was ecstatic to be avoiding the fog and high winds of the west coast as this has been a long and grueling year for me. I wanted a true holiday and had no doubts that the Gulf Islands would provide the serenity, rest and adventure that I was seeking this summer. I was hoping we would be able to escape to Pender on day one and launch ourselves into the heart of this journey.

Day 2

This morning set the tone for much of our trip: early morning starts to catch favourable current. Up at 0530, we rode the flood through Pender Canal into Port Browning. At this point, another decision had to be made. Head due east to ride the flood through Boat Passage? Or SE to Monarch Head, a place neither of us had visited? The appeal of the unknown got the better of us, so we turned into the current and wind and paddled hard for Monarch Head.

At Murder Point, we found that the coast of Saturna became desolate and wild looking, with open-forested slopes rising steeply above boulder beaches. Best of all, the bleating of wild goats filled the air and soon we saw small groups of them on the beach or hillside. Sheila did a very creditable goat-call and had a small flock bleating back to her. It was like something out of a Greek myth.

We passed under Monarch Head, craning up to take in its huge face (literally: it’s a face), and found a fantastic pebble beach in Echo Bay from which to watch a huge pod of orcas pass by, spy hopping and breaching as they went. After this stop, we pressed on, hoping to round East Point when Boiling Reef wasn’t living up to its name. At the point we found the ebb had produced a small race, but the Reef itself was relatively benign, so got just a little wet as we turned the corner into Tumbo Channel, our goal Cabbage Island.

Cabbage was filled with yachties, but the sand beach was lovely and the sunset, the first of many, was worth watching.

Sheila’s thoughts:
0530? What the heck time is that? Don’t know who Andrew was travelling with, but I was not up at such a ridiculous hour. Using my stealth guide abilities, I woke up and packed my tent from the inside out, rushed through a cold breakfast, and joined Andrew on the water for the early launch. Monarch Head and the West side of Saturna was worth the extra paddling effort and I am glad the winds were favorable this day. I felt this was the day that the journey truly began. Orca and goats - who knew?I like Cabbage Island, but the boaters drive me nuts. I was hoping to find quieter and more secluded places for our overnight rests. Bathing in front of boaters is always a treat though.

Day 3

I was up even earlier today (0500), so I enjoyed the sunrise too. We left before any of the yachties were stirring, riding the flood tide north, a slight southerly breeze at our backs. With mother nature helping us along, we made excellent time along the shore of Saturna to Boat Passage, which we found roiling and bubbling away. We couldn’t resist this charming little tide race: I paddled upstream through the Passage, then rode the current out, while Sheila surfed some of the waves mid-stream. Prudence soon got the better of us, however, and we decided that we were not really equipped for playing, so we continued north along the Belle Chain, where the flood currents produced strange little overfalls and mixed the silty water of the Fraser in with the blue water of the Gulf Islands.

Before we knew it, we had reached Georgina Pt and the east entrance of Active Pass. We were still an hour before slack, but the max flood had only been 2.8 knots and by listening to channel 11 we realized that we had an opening between ferry runs, so we hugged the shore to Laura Pt then sprinted over the Burrill Pt in the wake of a Tsawassen-bound ferry. There was one section of tide rip with steep waves that Sheila couldn’t resist, but before we knew it we were across the Pass and heading northwest along the outer shores of Galiano. Our destination was Pebble Beach, a spot that neither of us had visited and about which we had little knowledge, except that it was a potential camping spot. To our delight, it turned out to be a wonderful gravel beach which provided plenty of space for us to carve out tent pads above the high tide line. It was quiet, the views and sunset were spectacular, and the water was warm (it hit 21 degrees out at Halibut Bank). After some 20 nautical miles of paddling, we were happy to relax and bask in the warm glow of the evening sun.

Sheila’s thoughts:
I am glad he specified that he was up earlier. I woke up to the sound of an anchor being dragged up from the depths. Wishing we had made some kind of coffee arrangement (Andrew makes coffee, I make dinner?), I stuffed my boat like the Grinch stuffs a sack and we were off again. Steep waves and tide rips are not as much fun when you have about two inches of freeboard. This day went off very smoothly considering the length of the day and the summer heat. Pebble Beach is worth the effort to get to! It faces north so we enjoyed a long sunset and relaxing evening. The only trauma was a direct result of leaking wine containers. Good thing we figured out a solution for that.

Day 4

Throughout the night I heard increasingly large waves crashing against the shingle beach and when we crawled out of our tents just after 0600, we saw considerable wave action in the Strait. Winds were light, but we learned that it had blown NW all night at Entrance Island, producing well developed seas down along the coast of Galiano. We launched without too much difficulty, but found ourselves bucking the waves up to Dionisio Pt, effectively cancelling out any advantage the flood tide was giving us. The five miles to the north end of the island were an enjoyable, if somewhat wet, ride along deserted shores of gently sloping sandstone fringed with firs and arbutus. Rounding Dionisio was particularly lumpy and a reminder that the Salish Sea, though “inside” waters, is not to be taken lightly. These were conditions that required our attention.

We landed on the sand beach, ate, and waited for slack at Porlier Pass. As we ate, we weighed the choice before us: continue up the outer coast of Valdes, another eight miles of lumpy conditions before the next camping option, or duck through the Pass to the inside waters and head toward Blackberry Point. I had been to Blackberry several times, but it was new to Sheila and that fact, along with the promise of the exceptional sandstone cliffs on the west side of Valdes, convinced us to go inside. With half an hour to slack, we set off into Porlier Pass on what we assumed would be the last of the flood current. To our surprise, the ebb was already running reasonably strong at western channel marker.

The inside waters of Valdes were bluer and calmer than the open waters of the Strait. We pulled into Blackberry Pt. in the late afternoon, finding it completely deserted, and I was immediately reminded of what makes this spot so popular with paddlers: excellent camping, a great beach for landing, trails through the bordering forest. Blackberry Point really does have it all. The prime location was complemented perfectly by Sheila P’s culinary masterpiece that night, rockfish in coconut curry sauce, the single best backcountry meal I have ever had in my life.

Sheila’s thoughts:
Why thank you Andrew; and thank you for cleaning the fish. I love fishing when on a trip and was not disappointed on this one. I have learned not to ceremoniously release the first fish though (fish 1 caught in 10 minutes. 2 more took 2 hours). Paddle bumpy-lumpy waters was a lot of fun this day and made me glad I had worked at my skills throughout the winter this year. Dionisio was a wonderful stop and a great place to refill water along the way. On the other hand, Blackberry Point did not disappoint! I was a little horrified when I thought someone was taking pictures of me in my flyless tent in the middle of the night! Then I heard the rumble of thunder. I fell back asleep wondering if I should use the fly on my tent, but I was determined to prove to Andrew that such things are not really necessary.

Day 5

We rose early again (0545) to catch the favourable current. Our plan was to hit False Narrows at its maximum flood (3 knots), then continue on to Newcastle Island. We hugged the west shore of Valdes to enjoy the intricate sandstone fretting in the cliffs that rise straight from the water. Sheila’s favourite birds, Pigeon Guillemots, were there in numbers, adding a bit of comedy to the scene. After viewing the expansive cliffs, we crossed to Link and Mudge Islands, timing our arrival perfectly for the flood tide. At first, a headwind seemed to negate any boost the current was giving us, but as we came to the northern part of the Narrows, we encountered the full current and had some fun blasting through the rapids.

Exiting False Narrows, we entered the busy world of Nanaimo harbour, with its booming grounds, dozer boats, and industry. The wind was blowing stronger now from the northwest (17 knots at Entrance Island) and, meeting the flood tide, was building up steep waves (Entrance Island reported 5 foot waves at this time) with very short periods. My longer boat was hanging between the waves: advantage, Sheila’s shorter Atlantis Mist. The crossing of Northumberland Channel was a very long mile, what with the conditions, the commercial traffic, and the less than inspiring scenery. We had to give full attention to the conditions: no place for the absent-minded.

After what seemed a very long time, we reached the western shore just shy of Duke Point ferry terminal, just as the Queen of Alberni hove into view around Gabriola Island. With our pace (barely above a crawl) there was no way we were going to cross the terminal before the ferry docked, so we tucked in behind the berth and waited. After 45 minutes, the unloading and loading was done and the ferry left, so we made slogged north to Jack Pt., where we encountered yet another rip before starting our lumpy crossing to Protection Island, dodging still more tugs and yachts.

Inside the calm waters of Protection and Newcastle Islands, we could at last breathe easy. It hadn’t been our longest day, but I count it as our toughest. Luckily, the luxury camping of Newcastle awaited us, my family was bringing us dinner for the evening, and we had a rest day to look forward to.

Sheila’s thoughts:
Man this guy gets up early. This was a tough paddling day and the 45 minutes wait for the ferry tried my patience (or lack thereof). This is why good communication and respect between paddling partners is the key to a successful journey (IMHO). It was a slog of a crossing, but once we entered calm waters, one of those days where you could bask in the glow of personal effort.

Day 6

Today was a time to laze, to eat, to stroll, and to reflect on what we wanted to do next. The northern waters of the Salish Sea beckoned, but the weather had not yet settled into a steady summer pattern: NW winds were blowing all night, creating developed seas that would surely tax us if we headed to Ballenas and across to Jedediah, as we had talked about. And also, there was the outside of Gabriola and Valdes Islands that we had missed on our journey north. We had come about 70 nautical miles from Swartz Bay, perhaps halfway into our trip, and we now had to decide what direction to take.

In the end, it was the thought of looping back around the outside of Gabriola/Valdes and then back inside, completing a large figure-eight of the entire the Gulf Island chain, that fired our imaginations. We had seen very little of that territory, so it met our general criteria of exploring new places. It would also make the logistics of getting home again easier, since we could count on a ride from Swartz Bay. We settled on the southern route by day’s end.

Sheila’s thoughts:
And laze I did. We enjoyed a great dinner at the Dingy Dock pub, full of grease and other fattening wonders. A new friend of mine joined me on the island for my day off and I got to share with him some of the wonders of shore crabs and sandstone. (lighthouse, beehive, right?) I will admit, the committed crossings of journeying north, with NW headwinds, did not appeal to me. I really want to grab this part of the Salish Sea, but the wonder of unexplored territory and wonderful tailwinds lured me south. This is the benefit of embarking on a Shambolic adventure, no?

Day 7

Again, the night was bedevilled by strong NW winds that showed no signs of abating during the morning. They were strong enough to bring down a large douglas fir near our camp, which fell with a deafening crash and reminded us that the same wind blew on land and sea alike. By late afternoon, however, the wind had lessened enough for us to cross Fairway Channel to Malaspina Pt. on Gabriola Island. We set out at 1530, very late for us, and made the crossing in good time. After the imposing and contorted cliffs of Monarch Head and Valdes Island, the Galiano Gallery was a little underwhelming, so we did not linger, pressing on around to Foxwood Channel and good views of Entrance Island. I had really wanted to paddle out and around this lightstation, but Sheila wisely pointed out that the winds were rising again, the hour was late, and that we had eight more miles to go before sunset to reach our camp, so I contented myself with a couple of blurry photographs.

The shore of Gabriola seemed unexceptional to me until a couple of miles past Lock Bay, where we encountered a series of fractured cliffs that I called The Faces. These sandstone cliffs were broken in such a way that the evening light created all sorts of strange and totemic profiles along their walls. We paddled almost close enough to touch them, feeling once again cut off from the world, pointing out to each other new profiles that reminded us of Easter Island monoliths or Mayan glyphs. It was strange and unworldly in the light of the setting sun.

We began to see houses again and then reached the calm and homey waters of the Flat Top Islands. Silva Bay was wall to wall yachts, but headed to our camping spot, the crown islet between Bath and Saturnina Islands, for our own private tombolo, sandstone gallery, and secluded tent spots. It was a beautiful place to be in the last light of day.

Sheila’s thoughts:
Paddling with the setting sun was a treat indeed. I found the crossing pleasantly bumpy-lumpy and noticed I was not fatigued by the late start. The cliffs on the SE side of Gabriola are definitely worth a visit! Include them with your next Flat Top Foray. This camp spot was my favorite of the trip, and hard to leave the next morning (whatever time that was).

Day 8

We allowed ourselves a later start this morning, leaving the beach at 0900. I wanted to poke into Gabriola Passage, which was an hour into the flood, so we eddy-hopped our way to Dibuxante Pt., then turned and rode the current back out. As we left, a large yacht’s wake combined with the tide race to create large waves that required some bracing and left us pretty wet.

The journey south along the outside coast of Valdes followed a shore that was quiet and undeveloped, save for the odd cabin here and there. An open forest of fir and arbutus shaded grassy openings that looked perfect for camping, though the entire shore is shelving sandstone. It was very pastoral scenery. At Detwiller Pt. we encountered a greater concentration of cabins and soon we could see the sand beach of Dionisio Pt. where we had stopped a few days before. Polier Pass was running on a 6 knot flood as we approached, but we decided to hug the shore of Valdes and eddy-hop as far as we could. And in so doing, we surprised ourselves by doing something that neither of us had been trained to do: we used our rudders. With our rudders deployed, we found that we could set an exact angle to blast through the eddylines, then power forward and steer upstream to the next section of counter-current. We crossed four strong eddylines this way and were out of the Pass and into Trincomali Channel before we knew it. Granted, the strongest eddylines on the flood are on the Galiano shore at Rip Point, but the current we fought against was not trivial and we credit our rudders with our success. Live and learn.

Another couple of miles brought us to the crown islet at the south tip of Reid Island. The landing was definitely a challenge (jumbled boulders below a bluff), but the campsite above was choice and the privacy of the site convinced us to stay. As I went to bed, I paused for a moment and wondered how bad the launching would be on the ebb tide the next day...

Sheila’s thoughts:
… I love the way Andrew never says I told you so. I begged to go to this islet because I wanted seclusion and sunshine. Of course, when we got there I hid in the shade. Andrew did most of the boat and gear schlepping because of the rocky landing and my lack of ballet skills. The launch the next day wasn’t the best, but I think it was worth it. Now, maybe if I had done more of the work? I just wanted to have a little islet all to ourselves, although I would probably pick Wallace or Blackberry Point in the future. Although...

Day 9

Up at 0530, I saw that the launch was going to be bad. Slimy, barnacle covered rocks shelved into deep water. Still, with a good deal of teamwork and some wet thighs, we managed the launch and rode the ebb tide down the Secretary Chain, past Wallace Island, then over to the cliffs of Galiano. Our goal for the day was Prevost Island, some 15 miles from our campsite, and I wanted to avoid the dull shores of Saltspring, so we wended our way between the islands around Montague Harbour and then hopped from Phillimore Pt. across to Peile Pt. on Prevost.

I have many happy memories of family camping in James Bay on Prevost Island, so it was pleasant to return there and even more pleasant to have it all to ourselves. We had a lazy afternoon, during which I hiked to the Point and explored a couple of the old orchards. This was our last night of camping and we both wanted to enjoy it to the full. I sat and watched the sunset from the bluff where I had set my tent and went to bed a little sad, but very satisfied with the journey.

Sheila’s thoughts:
Wended? Is that what you call zig-zagging across a channel?? Actually, this was a great way to enjoy the day and various sights without getting bored. Andrew forgot to mention the lovely lunch stop that was covered in bugs and bird poo, but I digress. While Andrew hiked his heart out on Prevost, I played sauna in my tent and lay in the meadow watching oodles of dragonflies and other critters in their native habitat. I was getting sad because the journey was just about over, but was already thinking about our next adventure. I am also thinking about a solo trip in August and mapped that out in my mind.

Day 10

We woke to cloud and cooler temperature at 0500. We wanted to leave before the ebbing tide made our beach too difficult to launch from, so we were on the water quickly and heading down the east coast of Prevost Island for Portlock Pt. The strength of the ebb was noticeable and when we reached the bluff just north of the Point we were really flying. At the south end of the island we paddled among the Red Islets and encountered a strong counter-current -- so strong that we had to transit a race that was flowing against us. Sheila called it a typical Gulf Island toilet flush. Active Pass at this time was ebbing at its max of -4.1, which explains the strong currents that worked both for and against us.

The crossing to Beaver Point and the subsequent crossing to Portland were unremarkable. After a brief stop on Portland, we rode yet another small race down the west side of the island and then continued on to Swartz Bay and the Dolphin Rd launch. We found the launch site to be an expanse of mud and seaweed, evidence of the large tide cycle we were in. Given that tide and current had been such a major theme of our journey, it was perhaps fitting that we overcome one final obstacle as we humped our gear up to the dry reaches of the upper beach.

Sheila’s thoughts:
The drizzly and grey day seemed to be a perfect setting for my pensive mood. I am always sad when a trip ends, but especially so when it means saying goodbye to a good friend. Since I have been home, I have thought back on this trip many times. Seeing the Gulf Islands on a long journey has a much different feel that the 3 day weekend routine; I highly recommend it. I still have a few spots in the Salish Sea that I have never been to and plan to get to them soon. The lumpy waters, burbly passes, and windy days meant that this was anything but a simple adventure. I can’t wait to get out there and find some more hidden gems in the Southern Gulf Islands.



Paddler & Moderator
May 15, 2005
marvellous report. Love the banter.
I have to do that trip some day.

Gecko Paddler

Sep 16, 2011
Saanich, BC
Thanks for sharing the adventure with us Andrew and Sheila. Robyn and I have started our own Gulf Islands Exploration adventure and I must admit following you two on Facebook during the trip got our camping juices flowing.