Having just purchased a motorhome we were itching to set out on our second RVing adventure. Our first had been 5 wonderful days camping by two lakes in the south Okanagan. We decided to venture a bit further afield and thought a drive over the Coquihalla to Saltspring Island would be a little more adventurous.
Conquering the Connector and the Coquihalla we arrived at the the Gulf Islands ferry near Tsawwassen. I had lived on the coast and in British Columbia for many years but had never considered what gulf the term Gulf Islands referred to. I was aware of the many islands in the Straits of Georgia but had never seen a reference to a gulf on any map of the area. With a little research I learned that the “Gulf Islands” comes from “Gulf of Georgia”, the original term used by George Vancouver in his mapping of the southern part of the archipelago. The “Gulf” includes the open waters of the main strait between the mainland and Vancouver Island and includes all the communities and islands therein. So, when we pulled into the ferry terminal and saw the sign for the Gulf Islands, I had some idea to what they were referring….and we were in the right line.
As we passed through the ticket booth I was delighted in my new designation of “senior citizen” as I would receive a $9.50 discount on my $150.00 one-way ticket. I then tried to pass my travelling companion off as of a similar lineage with the accompanying benefits but our dastardly teller asked for our senior citizen cards. “What are senior citizen cards?” I asked. The teller frowned at me and replied: “A driver’s license would do.” We produced our driver’s licenses and my youthful partner was required to submit a further $9.50. Enquiring, “Oh, isn’t a senior citizen over 60 years of age?” The teller didn’t humble me with an answer or even a glance.
We passed the gates and were first in line, albeit a little lighter in cash and having a new humility. The ferry eventually arrived and all vehicles were boarded before our row. It seems there were only three oversized vehicles and we were first of the three to board. We were stopped immediately upon boarding and informed of the various obstacles that might damage our over-height and over-length vehicle. I avoided all obstacles with elegance and grace, which is a bit difficult in a 29-foot colossus, before shutting down the 500 grumbling horses. This motor-homing wasn’t so hard. We were sailing for Saltspring Island.
Having looked at the map and sailing schedule I wondered why the trip was to take over three hours as the usual ferries to Vancouver Island travelled further but sailing time was only a little over 90 minutes. About an hour on board my question was answered as we stopped at the first of three islands before finally landing on Saltspring. We first sailed into the harbor on Galliano Island, then Main Island, and, finally, Pender Island with vehicles and passengers dropped at each and others boarded. In one instance we were delayed for about a half hour when a very small tug boat was tugging on a very large barge against some exceedingly strong currents between two islands. Two ferries patiently waited while the little tug that eventually could, made its way through the passage.
After about 3 ½ hours we landed in Long Harbor. This was basically just a ferry terminal so we continued on through to the small, albeit biggest town on the island, Ganges. We had reserved a campsite at St. Mary’s Lake and followed the signs to Cedar Beach Campground where we would be staying for two days. I had visited Saltspring Island by sailboat a number of years previous but recalled little of the event so was looking forward to exploring the island.
Salt Spring Island is the largest, most populated, and most visited of the Southern Gulf Islands. The setting is typically West Coast Canadian with abundant forests, fabulous parks, beautiful landscapes, and wonderful vistas. The roads are very narrow and winding but I managed to carefully bike many of the roads and run on a few of the quieter lanes. Residents, generally, seemed to be very tolerable of a cyclist/runner.
The name Saltspring was coined by officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company for the cold and briny saltwater springs on the north end of the island. It was traditionally inhabited by various Coast Salish First Nation peoples before the arrival of European pioneer settlers in 1859. At that time the island was officially called Admiral Island until it was renamed in 1910.
I wasn’t sure if the island was named Saltspring or Salt Spring. Both spellings seemed to be liberally used. The Oxford Dictionary indicates it was called Salt Spring Island by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 1800s. In 1910 the name was changed to Saltspring by the Geographic Board of Canada. So, officially it is one word, but local usage tends to prefer two words, although it is not unanimous. Canada Post accepts both spellings of the name.
The year-round population of Salt Spring Island is about 12,000 and includes an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs. Many vacationers come to Saltspring simply to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and soak in the quiet island lifestyle and spirit. I noticed old farm vehicles, trucks, Porches, a Rolls, and the odd classic car all sharing the same roads. There are many notable residents on the island including: Randy Bachman of The Guess Who fame, Robert Bateman the artist, Harry Manx a musician and songwriter, Raffi a singer songwriter, Simon Whitfield an Olympic Champion, and Valdy whom I got drunk with a number of years ago after a concert. The island population seems very independent actually establishing their own currency. Although accepting Canadian dollars, the island banks and most island businesses accept their own Salt Spring dollar.
Doubting Valdy would welcome us into his home, we stayed two nights at Cedar Beach Resort on St. Mary’s Lake. This was a rather rustic campground where we were the only transient inhabitants. There was a little community of run-down mobile devices at the resort entrance complete with moss covered roofs to greet visitors by the office but, otherwise, the resort was completely empty. It was located in a rainforest of 200-foot-high fir trees with the sun only visible a few moments a day at high noon or if the wind pushed a few branches aside. The owners were a very laid back couple dressed in a particular fashion unique only to Salt Spring. They seemed to enjoy the soggy darkness of a rainforest and spent much of their time smoking on the porch. What they were smoking, I was uncertain, but they were very happy people. This lovely jovial couple seemed to have a strong affinity for poodles and were always ready with a hardy wave amid clouds of blue smoke as we passed by the office.
We remained two days in the rainforest until I complained that moss was growing between my toes and we moved campsites over to Mowhinna Campground about a kilometer on the opposite side of the town of Ganges. Cranking up the 500 horses we chugged through town and found a much brighter campground at the top of a long hill. We were greeted warmly by the camp commander, Lynn, who, surprisingly, had already committed both of our names to memory. She had me fill in an application form that would make our long form census look trivial. I required my driver’s license number, license plate, mother’s maiden name, and about 25 other innocuous questions. Lynn would not let me leave until every line on the form was completed. This was my first hint of the ‘anality’ of which we were about to experience. There was much more to come. Finally completing the lengthy form, Lynn handed me a list of rules and regulations for our stay that was almost completely highlighted in yellow….by hand. I was directed to read it and commit it to memory.
Escaping the office, our guide showed me where we were to park, how to operate the water, electricity, where the waste vent was located, and precisely how I was to park. I followed accurately and apparently passed my first test. It looked like we were going to be allowed to stay the night.
The site was much sunnier than the rainforest and, again, we were the only residents beyond a few permanent mobile units that congregated at the entrance of the resort. One would think they would hide these aging dinosaurs at the back of a property but, no, they all seemed to be front and center.
We spent two further days at Mowhinna enjoying the relative heat and taking note of the interesting structure required by Lynn and her affable husband, Milton. I am sure they received their training at some WW2 gulag. While sitting one evening sipping a nice Island pinot grigio, I noticed a small camper lumbering down the steep hill to the office. As usual Lynn was present to greet them and probably knew their names as well as those of all their children. After some time the little camper travelled past my singular party, apparently seeking their future home. No dust was produced and they seemed to be travelling at a reasonable pace. Soon, I witnessed Lynn in hot pursuit, driving a little golf cart, with determination on her face and furrowed brow. I waved amiably but she had no time for such frivolity. It seems the perpetrators had been travelling at 9 kilometers per hour when the designated speed limit was clearly posted at 8 kilometers per hour. She returned some time later, shaking her head at such disregard.
With this in mind I began to take note of the numerous signs posted on every available space in the campground. It was like someone had recently purchased a new printer and gone amuck with this new technology. There were signs for everything. My most enjoyable was the posted check-out time of 11:00 AM brilliantly portrayed opposite the camp toilet. There was abundant green space on the resort grounds but signs were posted almost everywhere. Such signs as “Please stay out of forested areas as it is a fragile ecosystem and has a low tolerance for being stepped on.” or “The creek is strictly out of bounds. It is used for drinking water by our neighbors and has steep unstable sloping banks. Keep out.” Heaven forbid if a dog is found off leash. One dog sign said, “Noisy, aggressive, unruly pets will not be tolerated.” Would they be sent off to the gas chamber? I wondered what they would do to noisy, aggressive, and unruly people.
Lynn asked if I would be requiring a shower. She seemed despondent when I said, “Yes I would love a shower.” She informed me that she would leave one, only one, shower open. I wondered if the toilets were similarly locked but did find one, only one, open. The next morning, I arose early and did find a shower open but a loonie was required to activate any heated water. Most campsites have showers that require payment of a loonie in exchange for a 5 or 7-minute shower. One can usually do one’s business in 5 minutes and any more is wasting water. Well, Lynn and Milton had the minutes per loonie set at 3 minutes. Taking on the challenge I stripped naked and was ready to jump into the shower when I deposited my single loonie. Nothing happened. I fiddled with the knob and soon found water….freezing cold water. More fiddling, I found scalding hot water. Finally, after about a minute, I managed to step into the tepid shower and tried to wash, shave and enjoy a little warmth. I made sure the rinse was out of my hair before attempting to shave. Half way through the shave I heard a clunk and the water flow abruptly ended. I would do better tomorrow but wondered how someone with a little more hair would manage in 2 minutes.
Yes, Mowhinna is a tight ship. It is very beautiful and gloriously warm but one is only allowed to look and, ensure that you do not exceed 8 kilometers per hour. Of course, upon my departure, I spewed gravel all the way up the hill with my 500 horses in sweet memory of Lynn and Milton hoping a little upset ship would do them some good.
On our last day we attended the Saltspring Island Farmer’s Market. This had the usual local crafts and produce of a farmer’s market complete with participants who appear to have escaped the 60s completely unscathed. Also, as in most farmer’s markets, the prices are fairly high but we purchased some great bread before heading out on the return trip to Kelowna. Saltspring is a beautiful little island and well worth the visit.