Seeing out Summer on Saturna Island

When my flights to England were cancelled this summer due to COVID-19, I had to make new plans for how I would spend my annual leave. I changed my dates and booked a staycation week for September, with little planned other than day trips and hikes. After a friend mentioned the Gulf Islands surrounding Vancouver Island, BC, my mopey self felt a spark of inspiration. I had only been to the famous Salt Spring Island, so decided to explore a different island. After doing some research, I booked myself two nights in a B&B on Saturna Island. Just 12 square miles in size, Saturna is one of the most scenic and untouched of the Southern Gulf Islands, and this was part of its appeal to me. An enthusiastic hiker, I was also really interested in experiencing one of its best natural features – Mt. Warburton Pike.

The day before my trip, I woke to smoky skies in Victoria. The smoke had blown over from wildfires in the United States, and I feared it would cloud my views on Saturna. However, when I set off to the Swartz Bay BC Ferries terminal early on September 9th, the skies were clear and blue. The two-way ferry ticket for a car and one passenger cost around $46. I felt a sudden sense of childhood excitement as I drove onto the 9:10 ferry in my 1989 Toyota (it’s older than me but it still received compliments from one of the BC Ferries traffic handlers). The direct journey lasted just over an hour, and there were only around 12 other masked people on the ferry.

I don’t use GPS in my car, and instead will study maps before a trip to get a rough idea of where I need to go. Saturna is so small that a sat-nav system really isn’t necessary anyway, as it’s impossible to get lost. After leaving Lyall Harbour, I followed East Point Rd towards the top of the island, winding along roads lined by large swathes of forest. Since my check-in time wasn’t until 3 pm, I drove all the way to East Point Community Park on the eastern tip. It’s so convenient when nobody is around and you can just take off your trousers and change into shorts outside of your car instead of writhing around hopelessly in the backseat to avoid being seen by people.

Now better dressed for the heat, I followed a short path down to a bluff where I was greeted by a wide view of sparkling blue ocean. This area is known as the Whale Trail because of the potential for sightings of Orcas and humpbacks. Unfortunately I wasn’t blessed with any appearances, but the view of the vast ocean and distant islands was still delightful. The snowy head of Mt. Baker even rose up in the distance. I sat for a while taking in the view while snacking on an apple and some cheesy bread. A local woman walking her dog stopped to comment on the weather, and shortly after that, an elderly man from the ferry whose car had been even older than mine took a seat on a bench with a large sketchbook.

A sail boat on the ocean with a mountain in the background

On the other side of the hill was a grassy area perfect for picnics, and below that was a sandstone shoreline with tidal pools. I decided to lie down on a smooth face of rock, and before I knew it I had dozed off under the sun. It was that quiet and peaceful. As I made my way back to the car, the water at Shell Beach contained patches of turquoise that looked like a scene from the Mediterranean.

An ocean bay surrounded by forest

I left the park around noon, just before a group of older lycra-clad cyclists from the ferry were about to take up half the road. Families of deer grazed along the grassy side of the winding road as I made my way back to Winter Cove, on the north-west side of the island. A picnic area looked out over a quiet bay dotted with sailboats. The Xwiwxwyus Trail is a simple loop through the forest that leads to a look out point over the Strait of Georgia. As I lay under the sun on a rock in yet another spontaneous doze, I could hear sea lions grunting to each other in the distance.

After spending a quiet half an hour reading under the shade of a tree, I set off back towards Four Winds B&B on East Point Rd. A short but fairly steep gravel track led down to a wooden cabin that overlooked the ocean. I typically choose budget accommodation options when doing solo trips, so to have a place as nice and well-kept as this suite was a real treat. Cooking wise it had all the simple amenities I needed – a fridge/freezer, hot plate, microwave, utensils and cutlery. The host didn’t offer breakfast at this time of year. This was fine with me as I had brought my own food anyway, but after reading comments from previous visitors in the little guest journal, I have a feeling the breakfast would have been delicious.

After admiring the view of the water and outline of Washington State’s mountains through the large living room window, I put on my swimsuit and walked across the field to a small beach that I had all to myself. The water was cold but refreshing. I left the water to see a man walking down to the beach. I said hello and he said “Sorry to disrupt your privacy.” He was a friend of the hosts and had come down to collect his crab traps. As I sat against a piece of driftwood in yet another doze, another voice came and I turned to see the host approaching to say a quick hello and check everything was okay in the suite. I commented on how lovely and quiet the island was, and she said it was pretty much always like this, aside from when it hosts the famous Canada Day Lamb BBQ. She left me with a “Sorry to disturb you. Enjoy!”

Saturna Island had put me in such a relaxed state that I almost felt like lounging in the suite for the rest of the day with a book. Something told me I would regret doing this, so just before 7 pm I got in my car and drove back in the direction of Winter Cove. After passing the turn-off I’d gone down earlier, a sign on the right led me down a short gravel road to a small parking place. From here I walked down to Veruna Bay, which the map in my B&B had recommended for sunset-watching. Although there were a couple of private property signs around this area, it still had a welcoming feel to it. I didn’t get the sense that someone was going to come storming out of their house telling me to keep away from their fence.

The sun was slowly lowering as I crossed the empty sand beach and took a seat on a log. A heron posed quietly fifty metres away. A moment later, a cheerful dog bounded down the path, splashed in the water, and then raised a leg against a tree. His owner came down the path calling him. Upon seeing me, he said “Sorry to disturb your peaceful evening.”

Sunset over the ocean

I returned to my B&B where through my bedroom window I could see the pink sky in the distance morphing into an orange colour. As my pasta slowly cooked on the hot plate, I looked further into the hike up to Mt. Warburton Pike. Standing at 1340 feet, this is one of the most popular hikes among the Gulf Islands. None of the B&B’s pamphlets explained how to access the hike, so my main source of information was TripAdvisor reviews online. It appeared that everyone leaving a review had driven up to the summit via Staples Rd, and then walked along Brown Ridge from there. Staples Rd was described as a bumpy, steep, single-lane track that took about 15 minutes to drive. Reading this concerned me slightly when I considered my old car’s suspension and cracked windshield (it was like this when I bought it for cheap, I’d like to add). I didn’t want to cause any further damage, so looked for other ways to access the summit. One blogger had written about an unmarked path further down the road, but the process of finding it sounded a little confusing.

I got into my comfortable bed and set my alarm early with the intention that this would give me time to find the right starting point and get me to Mt. Warburton Pike’s summit before it got too hot and/or busy. Before setting off the next morning, I took a few minutes to admire the pink sun that was starting to rise up behind some trees on a distant island. On the drive along East Point Rd, I had to pull over to get another look because the view was so beautiful!

Sunrise over the ocean

After turning onto Harris Rd, the surface soon became gravel and wound upwards to the left. ‘Is this already Staples Rd?’ I thought in surprise as I steered past bumps and potholes. Then I saw a sign pop up on the left for said road. There was a flat grassy space on the right before the track started to climb, so I impulsively decided to park there and walk up the track. It was 7:15 as I set off along the trail enclosed by the quiet forest. The track grew progressively steeper, but aside from two squawking crows that looked a little suspicious, it didn’t pose any particular challenges. This route certainly doesn’t compare to some exciting trails out there, but the anticipation of reaching the summit kept me motivated. As I neared the top (continuously guessing out loud how much further it would be), some feral goats bleated and ran further into the trees. I reached the summit just before 8 am and was quickly reminded to not base decisions on Trip Advisor reviews.

As expected, the views from Mt. Warburton Pike were breathtaking. One of those views that reminds you how beautiful this planet is and how lucky you are. After a few minutes of looking around in awe and trying to identify which island was which, I started to follow the narrow path along Brown Ridge. Unused to the human company at this time of day, several goats were on the path, and I stopped to give them time and space to wander away calmly.

Feral goats on a mountainside overlooking ocean

Islands in the ocean

As I continued along the ridge, the views gradually changed to show the San Juan Islands of the United States. I spent a good hour on the summit just admiring the views and appreciating the fact that I had them all to myself. Sunlight over mountains and ocean

As I walked back down the track, I saw just one car heading up to the summit. I wonder how many people arrive at the top and wish they had just walked. If you don’t have any mobility problems, I recommend doing this. Good exercise, good for the environment, and good for your car!

It was 10:15 when I spotted my beloved Ronnie waiting for me at the bottom of the track. I approached only to discover that I’d forgotten to lock the doors, but when I looked inside, my debit card was still in the storage box next to my seat. There aren’t many places where you could leave your car unlocked for three hours and return to find it untouched!

Further down Harris Rd is Thomson Park, described as the locals’ favourite community park, beach, and sunset spot. Because I was keen to avoid more bumpy gravel roads where possible, and I prefer the more secluded spots anyway, I decided not to bother visiting it. Instead I turned east onto Narvaez Bay Rd which, ironically, soon turned into gravel road for a few kilometres. Poor Ronnie. From the parking area, I followed the easy trail to the viewpoint at Monarch Head for more glistening ocean views. Sadly, the whales still refused to wave at me. Narvaez Bay has a quiet campsite and was a lovely tranquil spot for a picnic.

A quiet bay surrounded by forest

By the early afternoon, I began to feel tiredness creep in from my early morning start and large amount of walking. I drove slowly back along the gravel road and on to my B&B, reminding myself that I had paid $150 per night for the suite, and I should enjoy spending time in it if that was what I wanted to do. (A very different outlook from the hostel days!) The host had thoughtfully provided binoculars for guests, so I sat by the window for a few minutes observing a small pod of seals playing with each other in the water.

After another quick dip in the ocean, I ran a bath. The bathtub was probably my favourite thing about the suite; it had a sloping back, a head rest, and a skylight above. I lowered my tired legs down in the warm water and it was heavenly. The bathroom also had great acoustics for singing, and I updated my karaoke/open mic list so that it now included ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ by Billy Paul, ‘The Look of Love’ by Dusty Springfield, ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ by Tom Jones, ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac, ‘Let’s Stay Together’ by Al Green, and a few songs by Neil Young. (The list is regularly reviewed and updated.)

In the evening, I walked back along the field towards the beach. Although I couldn’t see the setting sun from this area, I could still watch the changing palette of colours in the sky and the silhouettes of islands and mountains. It was all very relaxing.

Sunset over an ocean

After an early night, I woke naturally at 6:30 and opened my blinds to see the sun just starting to pop up. I quickly threw on some clothes and went to sit outside to watch. The sky was more hazy pink today; smoke was starting to blow over again. I was extremely lucky that I escaped its presence and had amazing sunny weather for the two days of my trip.

Sunrise

I loaded up the car with some reluctance. Although I had seen most of what I could on Saturna Island in the two days, it was such a relaxing and rejuvenating time away following a busy year of working mostly from home during the pandemic. When I used to visit Vancouver Island as a tourist, I always thought of it as one of the calmest, friendliest, and slowest-paced places. Since living and working there, my level of exposure has increased and my view on that has changed slightly. Saturna Island is now my new example of easy-going island life!

When I pulled up outside Lyall Harbour terminal, I loved how the BC Ferries representative that went up the cars asking COVID screening questions would say “Hey, Judy!” or “How’s it going, Bob?” to customers she recognized. There was a yellowish smoky haze in the sky as the ferry pulled away from the harbour. That was too bad, as I’d have loved to look back up to Mt. Warburton Pike and remind myself of that lovely experience. The weather was gloomy and grey in the days after I got back to Victoria. It seemed that Saturna Island had offered me my last slice of summer, and I was grateful to have finished it there.

If you’re a BC resident who is looking for a solo getaway and a peaceful place to recharge your batteries, Saturna Island is the place for you!