3-10 July 2019 Saturna Island, BC. We’d walked the nearly two kilometres in from the road, passed through the backcountry campsite, and found our way onto Echo Bay trail. Walking over the rocky ground knitted together with the dry brown grass of a hot summer, past the arbutus trees and the Douglas firs, we’re nearly at the edge of the cliff when suddenly I spot it silhouetted against the azure sea way below. It’s the rear end of a large adult male right on the edge of the cliff! We creep closer. There are three of them: Saturna Island’s famous feral goats.
They hear us, see us, smell us and are off down the cliff face, moving where only a goat can go, but still, it’s exciting to see them, and much closer than those we’d seen the previous day.
We’d arrived on Saturna Island a couple of days earlier by ferry from Vancouver Island. We’d been visiting a friend in Duncan on a weeklong amble around the islands and Saturna was our next stop. Saturna is the most easterly of the islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland and due to a kink in the offshore border it’s surrounded on three sides by the US. All the islands to the north of the border are called the Gulf Islands; all those to the south are known as the San Juan Islands, and they all lie in the Salish Sea. I love that name: the Salish Sea. It’s a “new” umbrella term for the colonial names of the area – the Georgia Straight, the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound. All lie within the Salish Sea, which recognises the original inhabitants – the Coast Salish peoples.
Leaving the ferry we drive a few hundred metres up the road to Arbutus Point Campground, the only campground with facilities on Saturna. We’ve booked a canvas wall tent. With beds! Luxury! We’re going glamping! Alas not quite. Because the tent has beds we assume there will be bedding. But no, just beds. Fortunately the lovely woman who checks us in loans us what we need. Also not really glamping: there is no power in our tent, the only outlet being at the facilities a couple of hundred metres across on the other side of the campground. We have a travel fridge that needs to be plugged in, and an electric kettle.
Each morning I gather all I need from our food box and wander over and plug in the kettle and make myself a cup of tea. It takes very little to make me happy; one of the most important things is a cup of tea first thing in the morning, and although the outlet is on the far side of the campground, and down low next to the boardwalk in front of the shower room so I have to squat down to get at it and make my tea on the ground, I am absurdly pleased with the way I’m able to make everything work. We have all we need to be comfortable and to provide ourselves with breakfast and lunch. Dinner we have at the pub just down the road by the ferry dock. I am so not a foodie. I don’t make notes of what we eat, or take any instagrammable photos, but we do enjoy the meals there.
Our tent may not have power but it does have a patio looking out over Lyall harbour,
and it’s a short walk down to the deck of the pub for a wide open view of the sunset.
This campground is nothing special: a composting toilet, a raised platform for outdoor cooking with a sink and hot water, a shower room, four tent sites with picnic tables, and two wall tents, all set in an inelegant mix of gravel and unkempt grass and a few straggly trees. But I am happy! We have all we need.
Over the next couple of days bit by bit I explore the area around the campground – down the hill to the nearby government dock,
which allows me to get right down by the water below our tent,
and where hiding at water’s edge is a Great Blue Heron fishing for dinner.
And every night after dinner at the pub we watch the sunset from the patio as it gradually turns the sky and water from blue to golden,
and then to indigo with a splash of raspberry jam and honey.
Saturna is one of the least populated and least spoiled of the Gulf Islands. For all its proximity to Vancouver, the year-round population is only 350, and most of the island is part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. It takes coordinating two fairly infrequent ferries to get there from Vancouver, and even then there can often be a stop along the way at another island. This means there’s not much there – the pub, a small café, the campground, a general store, and on the other side of the island the walk-in campground with a pit toilet but no fresh water. That’s about it really except for the beauty; the wild untouched forests; the natural silence punctuated by bird song and the wind in the trees; soaring eagles; wild goats and deer; the views across the water to the surrounding islands; one of the best places on earth to see migrating orcas from land; and heart-stopping sunsets. This small island, only 31 square kilometres in area, and only 10 kilometres in length, radiates solitude and tranquillity.
Our first exploration is to hike the Brown Ridge trail. Warburton Pike, the highest mountain on the island soars up on one side, with the infinite sapphire sea and sky framed by fir trees on the other.
The original track was a goat trail and in some parts it still is.
Brown Ridge is all dry grass and rocky bluffs, great views of the water and other nearby islands, and gnarled fir trees, some tall and leaning inland from the wild winter storms, some missing their tops, and some fallen altogether having lost the battle with the hurricane force winds. But this day is soft and calm and blue as we walk the three kilometres out and back again. And we see goats! It’s our first sighting of them, but of course they’re skittish and run quickly from us.
There are about 100 goats in the Brown Ridge tribe, and many more spread across the island. They originally came from a dairy herd that was abandoned back in the late 1800’s and they quickly adapted to the mild climate. Most of the Gulf Islands have herds of feral goats.
It’s the next morning that we walk the path into Narvaez Bay, pass through the backcountry campground, and spot the goats on the ridge. We walk the rocky ridge with forest on one side
and glorious views of Boundary Pass on the other,
until at last we arrive at exquisite diminutive Echo Bay.
The further inland the water goes the more emerald it becomes, a shining secret jewel highlighted by the clamorous orange of the arbutus trees.
In the afternoon we head out to Winter Cove, a sheltered bay with open meadows backed by a forest of Douglas fir.
We walk the easy 1.5 kilometre loop trail that takes us through the forest until eventually we reach the open water of Georgia Straight. Here the land is only forty metres from tiny Samuel Island, and the calm waters of the bay are in an endless battle with the deep waters of the straight creating an ever-restless race, glassy on one side and roiling on the other.
I’m fascinated with the way the water is moving, at war with itself, one side trying to get out but unable to win against the bigger opponent so that there is never any peace. Turning away from the warring waters and looking out across the straight it’s the opposite. In this direction there’s a blue dream of a view of Mount Baker, about a hundred kilometres away in Washington.
Walking back, first along the shore and then through the forest we see it! Our first sighting of one of the many Black-tailed Deer on Saturna, and it stays a moment to say a shy hello.
It’s so exciting to finally see one, though before we leave the island we see several more.
The next morning we say goodbye to our cosy home at the campground and head east as far as you can go along the northern shore of the island to stay with friends. We stop along the way to scramble down onto the rocky beach. Here there are wild flowers,
and strewn seaweed, fallen trees, their tangled roots reaching to the sky
and another fabulous view of Mount Baker.
It’s on the way to our friends’ house that we see more deer: a doe and fawn with all the cuteness of Bambi.
Our friends P and L had only recently started living on Saturna in a major lifestyle move – upsizing rather than downsizing like people our age are supposed to do. But they always have been intrepid so taking on a large property, a house that needs renovations, and plans for two art studios may be daunting to ordinary people but not to them. It’s so good to see them again.
Their home is among a small raggle-taggle cluster of houses at this far end of the island. After settling in we walk past the little cove
to East Point, the very most eastern part of the island, and one of the best places for whale watching, though P tells me they’ve already seen them from their front deck. What a place to live! We don’t see any whales but we do see a lone seal swimming off shore; and another deer sighting! I suddenly see this fine-looking young buck that carefully watches that we don’t come too close, then ambles away. I’m not blasé about them, and likely never will be, though no doubt people who live on the islands are.
For many years I lived in the far north of Canada in the tiny town of Atlin, and in various places in the Yukon. Come October, when moose hunting season opened, many families would hunt for a moose. Moose are enormous and can easily feed a family for a year. We would have moose butchering and wrapping parties, each cut wrapped and labelled and stored in the freezer. Nothing was wasted. It was a native tradition of course, but non-native people living in these remote places (even in the city of Whitehorse where groceries are expensive because they are all transported) followed their lead. I never actually shot a moose. I learned how to use a gun to protect myself from bears while cooking in remote wilderness camps but decided I was more scared of guns than I was of bears. Anyway back to Saturna and the Gulf islands: many people there, in the same way, hunt deer in the fall for meat to fill the freezer. It makes better sense to sell the more valuable livestock, and eat venison. And it keeps the numbers in check.
As we leave the area I look back and for a moment think I’ve stepped into an Andrew Wyeth painting.
This is the solitary building in the East Point area of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. It is the Fog Alarm Building, originally used exactly as its name suggests, but which is now a small museum.
Back at P and L’s place we explore their new home, the deer-proof garden of herbs and roses and great plans for the future, the art studio, and plans for another, and the wide expanse of lawn contained by forest on three sides and the Salish Sea on the fourth. We have drinks and appies sitting outside looking out over the sea and catch up, talking our way through the sumptuous dinner that P and L prepare for us, and on into the evening.
We’d planned to stay another day, another night, but next morning Don is suddenly unwell, his heart again, and we need to get back to Vancouver. There’s a photo of the four of us sitting in the pub where we had lunch together and waited for the ferry. We don’t look very happy. It was an abrupt end to our summer island ramblings. But I remember all the best things about Saturna Island: catching up with old friends – thank you so much P and L for your wonderful hospitality; the deer and goats – there is nothing quite as special as seeing wildlife in the wild; the warring waters at Winter Cove; our cosy campground home; the beautiful views; the trails and forests; and of course the sunsets.
PS: Don is fine. This trip happened in the summer of last year. He felt wonky for a few days, saw his cardiologist, and then things settled down. Settled down enough that we spent six weeks travelling in India and Malaysia earlier this year.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.