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Islands In The Gulf



From top: The Southern Gulf Islands are a kayaker’s paradise; a mountain-top view towards Salt Spring’s Fulford Harbour.

When Victoria-bound tourists take the ferry from Vancouver’s Tsawwassen terminal to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island, they travel on a southwesterly route toward a string of slender islands. And just when it seems like the islands form a solid barrier, a gap appears and the passengers find themselves in Active Pass, the winding body of water separating the islands of Galiano and Mayne. To the north–rising above Galiano’s shoreline–are tree-covered bluffs. On either side of the pass are large and small homes, perched above the beaches. In Active Pass it is not unusual for passengers to spot a pod of killer whales with their distinctive black and white markings.

Galiano and Mayne are just two of British Columbia’s beautiful Southern Gulf Islands that lie off the east coast of Vancouver Island. Overall, there are more than 450 islands in the chain which stretches from Denman and Hornby islands in the north, near Comox, to Saturna in the south.

Paradise is a word often used to extol the tranquil and sometimes rugged beauty of these islands, known for their numerous bays, tide pools, channels and often spectacular sandstone formations. Indeed, the feeling that you are visiting or living in a utopia grows as you drive or cycle past lush evergreen forests and quiet meadows with horses, sheep and, occasionally, cattle.

Each island is distinct, but every one reveals seascapes that are an artist’s and photographer’s dream. From atop the bluffs on Galiano, the southern view encompasses the islands of Mayne, North and South Pender and sparsely populated Saturna which gets its name from a Spanish schooner. Beyond them is the long sloping ridge of Orcas Island, in the United States San Juan group.

No matter how well travelled you are, there is always a sense of anticipation when you approach an island, and with access to so many–made possible by BC Ferries and local float planes–this anticipation is felt time and again.

Islanders are quick to tell you about the advantages of living where they do, but this is not to say they don’t have any concerns about what the future might bring to the islands. Indeed, the thought of too many people using up limited resources, especially water, is something that worries a lot of them. They are, after all, living in one of the country’s most idyllic environments.

Sheltered from Pacific Ocean storms by the mass of Vancouver Island, the islands are recognized as one of the world’s most ecologically significant regions. They embrace two distinct biological zones; one a temperate dry zone that has two unusual tree species, the Garry oak, with its tangle of branches and twigs, and the Arbutus, identified by its twisted reddish scaly trunk. The second zone is typical evergreen rain forest, dense with hemlock and cedar.

The islands are also home to many species of plants and animals, including black-tailed deer, black bear and river otter. The bald eagle and great blue heron can also be seen, not to mention the two million waterfowl that descend upon the islands during their yearly migrations. In the surrounding waters, there are approximately 180 different species of fish. With so much at stake ecologically, vigilance is paramount. That is why the British Columbia government set up the Islands Trust, a federation of local governments that plans land use and regulates development on the larger islands. Each island has two representatives and elections are held every three years, just like municipal elections.

Population in the Southern Gulf Islands has grown by 21 per cent in the past 10 years. It is now approaching 25,000 and is expected to grow another 35 per cent by 2020. Fortunately, most newcomers share common concerns and values. Some even deed their property to the Islands Trust. Despite these acts of generosity and examples of stewardship, there is tremendous pressure for new housing. Salt Spring Island, which is the largest and most populated of the Southern Gulf Islands, currently has two large developments that are expected to increase the number of homes by several hundred. The island, which gets its name from the cold, briny salt water springs on its north end, is home to roughly 10,500 people.

Internationally renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman and his wife Birgit are longtime residents of Salt Spring. They recently moved onto an 80-acre farm purchased in the late 1970s, trading in the water and mountain view they enjoyed from their previous island home for a more bucolic setting. From his house, Bateman can look out across a 100-year-old apple orchard to an ancient water tower and old farm buildings, beyond which is a small, fresh water lake. Moving from Ontario in the early 1970s, it was important for the Batemans to find a place where they would be content for the rest of their lives. When they asked a group of friends which island they should settle on, the answer–without hesitation–was Salt Spring.

Describing how he saw the islands, Bateman said: “My feeling for them can be summed up in my own philosophy, which I can further extend to embrace our whole planet Earth, with its variety of landscapes.” He went on to describe the Southern Gulf Islands as a microcosm of our planet in sharing this variety. “Here you can walk over a hill and be in an Alaskan-like climate with big old cedars and moss-draped branches; but go to the other side of the hill and you’re in California, with bright, sunny southwest facing slopes covered with Garry oak savannah and open meadows strewn with wildflowers. So you have the rural countryside as well as Alaskan and Californian climates. Then there is the ocean and all the bays and islands….”

Bateman has recollections of the social mix he found during his early days here. He understands the island’s history and is aware of how that mix of people is changing. Following World War II many ex-servicemen settled on the islands because land was cheap. The veterans mainly built simple cabins, often close to the shoreline. Over time this proved to have one unexpected result that would definitely appeal to the wildlife artist. “There was an increase in the number of otters because the otters liked to den in the warm dark places underneath the cottages,” says Bateman. “The otter population is still healthy today, but with the more sophisticated homes they are less welcome.”

Aboriginal occupation of the Southern Gulf Islands goes back at least 5,000 years, made up mostly of members of the Saanich (Te’Mexw), Cowichan, Chemainus (Hul’qumi’num) and Snuneymuxw nations. Crown lands may be included in a treaty settlement with the Hul’qumi’num and Te’Mexw once the land selection has been agreed. Some claims have now reached an agreement-in-principle stage. Of all the islands, only Kuper Island is entirely occupied by First Nations people, members of the Penelakut tribes. The waters around their island are home to oyster and clam beds, which are prime sources of food and income.

The people who have settled on the islands since the mid-1800s have included Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiians and, most surprisingly, blacks, who came north to escape slavery in the United States. Longtime Salt Spring Island resident Naidine Sims–now in her 80s–is a member of the Stark family which arrived in 1860.

The Boultons are another family that is representative of those who have been here a while. They farm on Gabriola, located off the coast near Nanaimo. Covering 350 acres, their farm is one of the largest farms in the islands. Today, it is owned by Eric and Sue Boulton. Eric’s father George bought the original 160 acres in 1948 after coming to the West Coast from Stettler, Alta., with his wife Molly, sons Nelder, Eric and Basil, and daughter Betty. They first had to convert a chicken barn into a kitchen and bedroom. At the time, there was no running water or electricity.

Despite these drawbacks, George saw the advantage of being close to Nanaimo. They began with a small flock of sheep and six cows. With 13 butchers in Nanaimo, selling the meat locally was not a problem. Over the years the farm was improved and expanded; the numbers of sheep and cattle increased. The living was sparse and Eric worked in the local pulp mill for several years until he and Sue took over the farm in 1970. They now have 80 head of cattle and 26,000 battery hens. With Eric and Sue’s hard work it is certainly one of the most productive farms in the islands.

Gabriola’s first subdivision was developed in 1957 and by 1969 10 had been completed. That, notes Eric, led quickly to the elimination of other farms as land was sold off. He was quick to point out that there are at least two dozen families who produce their own food supply on their five-acre lots, though they have to rely on other means to make a living.

As far as oceanfront house prices are concerned, on Gabriola–as of mid-April–they ranged up to $1.9 million. The less expensive home is 1,600 square feet and sits on less than half an acre. The other home is 4,330 square feet on five acres.

For many years forest companies were active in the islands, particularly on Gabriola and Galiano. One such company had a large tract of land on Galiano which it wanted to subdivide after years of logging, but it was stopped following legal challenges that went in favour of the Islands Trust.

Eric Boulton says he remains ever watchful of any new government regulations that could easily devastate local agricultural economies. He is of the opinion that neither the federal or provincial governments recognize the positive impact of small agriculture on rural communities. At the same time, people are becoming more suspicious of industrialized agriculture. Two of the Boultons’ adult children are interested in taking over the farm, but for reasons quoted, Eric ponders upon what the future might hold for them if they do.

On Salt Spring, Michael Ableman and his wife Jean-Marie have long-term plans for their 120-acre parcel, and will specialize in organically grown produce, including strawberries, tomatoes, radishes and asparagus. There will also be a grain field, an orchard and free-range chickens. Michael, who came from California in 2000, has been interested in vegetable gardening since he was a youth and has written books on the subject.

With their large areas of open space, the Ablemans and Boultons are acting in the spirit of the Islands Trust mandate. All the settled islands are expected to come up with a community plan and land-use bylaws. A booklet outlining the differences between island life and mainland living is being circulated with special emphasis on preserving the islands’ rural character. And although surrounded by salt water, islanders are very serious about water conservation because the annual rainfall is only between 30 and 38 inches. With an increasing population, contamination of groundwater must be avoided.

To discourage overuse of water the trust recently installed a demonstration rainwater harvesting system, currently used to supply additional water to one of the nature reserves. Demonstrations are being held, both at the site and through an educational outreach program.

Recently, two conferences were held on the future of tourism, one sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability, Education and Action and the other by the Islands Trust. The thrust of both conferences showed the dilemma faced by residents of the entire island chain. Along with the desire for increased tourism there was also a strong wish to maintain sustainable communities. High school students and honorary trustees Elizabeth Cronin and Charlotte Mellstrom expressed concerns about their own future; afraid that they could not afford to remain there when the time came to set up home. As trustee George Ehring said: “What can possibly be sustainable about a community that offers no future to its young people? What can be authentic about an island of people if nobody grew up here?”

These are questions islanders must ponder as the population grows. One guest columnist for Salt Spring Island’s Driftwood community newspaper suggested an emphasis on ecotourism, making Salt Spring a living demonstration of sustainability–almost like a living laboratory. The writer admitted it was a tall order, and one not every resident would welcome.

For present-day visitors, however, an enjoyable feature of the islands is its access to some of Canada’s most creative people, including painters, carvers, jewellers, silver and goldsmiths, potters, weavers, dancers, singers and musicians. On Gabriola Island alone there are almost 60 listed studios and galleries, plus many annual festivals and community events where artisans display their works.

These same people, along with the many others who call the islands their home, continue to be in awe of their surroundings. Indeed, islanders share a common resentment to any time spent away. This strong desire to return to the islands is also shared by those who have come from away and, like Robert Bateman, have decided to stay.

Island Hopping

A good way to see the islands is to purchase a four- or seven-day Sailpass ticket from BC Ferries, which for the price of $149 or $179 allows unlimited island hopping on BC Ferries’ network of routes. For info, visit or phone 1-888-223-3779.


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