In the warmer months, Vancouver still has a few good options for spontaneous overnight camping excursions. When most provincial campsites are fully booked and forest rec sites are overflowing and unruly, Saturna Island offers a quiet escape with exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities.
Saturna has purposefully kept development at bay to retain its wild character. The island’s residents have historically opposed allowing camping, seeking to avoid rowdy camping culture and to reduce the risk of forest fires. The high ferry costs and end-of-the-milk-run nature of getting there also keep the crowds away.
Campers were finally able to get a foothold on the Island with the addition of the Narvaez Bay back country campsite, established to expand overnight opportunities in the young Gulf Islands Natural Park Reserve. The campsite makes circumnavigating Saturna in a kayak more feasible and also provides an excellent option for those wishing to hike, cycle or walk-in from the parking lot.
We’ve always taken bikes, but some hardy souls hike the 8km from the ferry terminal. If you decide to leave your car behind, overnight parking at the ferry terminal cost us $32. There are probably parking options in Tsawassan though, if you want to the bike the rest of the way to the ferry.
The ferry trip takes about 3.5 hours, stopping at Galiano and Mayne, (where you must change ferries) and then continuing on to Pender and then, finally Saturna. After departing from Mayne, Ria excitedly asked, “Did you see that?” She had seen a splash, a dorsal fin off the bow or was it just a rogue wave? The wind was up and the water choppy, but several moments later, the undeniable fin of a large female orca whale broke the surface, once again. After years of paying exorbitant prices to be ferried around BC’s coastal waters, this was the first time we had ever spotted an orca from the ferry. We were gleeful. At first it appeared that this was a lone, transient orca, but further along the coast, a few more orcas appeared. We were turning in to Otter Bay on Pender Island, to drop off and pick up some passengers and then were on our way to Saturna Island. It appeared that the orcas would be accompanying us for part of the journey. You can find and report whale sightings in the area at the Orca Network website.
The bike ride from the terminal is pleasant with an elevation gain of about 130 m — reasonable for a gulf island. We only passed two cars on the way in and road was paved for most of it. The sides were lined with wild edibles such as stinging nettles and vanilla leaf, which, apparently, makes a good tea.
There’s overnight parking at the park entrance and another 500 m to the campsite, most of which is downhill. The last couple of hundred metres passes beside an old homestead which still features some heirloom varieties of apple trees that ripen in August and September.
There’s no water at the campsite so we packed in about 10 litres although we ended up only using 6 in the mild weather. The fact that we didn’t need to cook with water probably helped keep our consumption to a minimum, as did the 3.5 litres of beer we brought. According to the park website, “moderate alcohol consumption” is allowed, whatever that means?!
When we finally arrived at the campsite, we were surprised to find 13 tents already set up and no spare tent pads to be had. Many of the campers had spilled over into the no camping area near the water. There’s also designated overflow camping in a clearing by the old homestead. However with the long grass and potential for ticks, we opted for an ocean-side site.
At any rate, it doesn’t really matter where you set up your tent as the best place to hang out is a few hundred metres opposite the campsite at Echo Bay. A path leads to a rocky bay and then continues along to the tip of rocky peninsula with awe inspiring views of Mt. Baker, the San Juan islands and the snow capped mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. It also looked like a decent place for crabbing with drop offs and high cliffs to throw your traps from.
Lion’s man jellyfish
Aggregate green anemone
Harbour seal in bull kelp
Echo Bay is also where the wildlife action is. While picnicking there, we’ve been visited by porpoises, river otters, seals and many varieties of birds such as terns, bald eagles, turkey vultures, hummingbirds and pigeon guillemots. The fast tidal currents of the gulf islands stir up the water off of the end of the island creating perfect conditions for sea life all the way up the food chain. The point at Echo Bay has the classic Gulf Island honey combed sandstone rock formations, filled with limpets and anemones below the high tide line.
If you go before mid may, there’s no charge for camping so you probably won’t get a visit from the park wardens that come by boat to collect camping fees. Fires aren’t permitted in the back country camp sites but we couldn’t resist the prospect of some Oyama smokies roasted over flame using the biolite with grill attachment accompanied by some brioche like Terra hot dog buns, Dijon mustard and sauerkraut.
Calypso orchid – one of two varieties of orchid we found
At dusk, we strolled back to Echo Bay, passing four small deer grazing in the old homestead clearing. They barely raised their heads as we passed by. A full moon sat above the bay, flanked by steep cliffs that framed the sky, ocean and Orcas Island — all different shades of lavender. We were cursing ourselves for leaving the camera back at camp. While we soaked in the view, the silence was broken by a loud blowing sound. Was it a seal? We waited. After a few minutes a humpback whale surfaced a couple of times in quick succession before diving back down. Racing to the end of the point for a better view, we arrived just in time to see the whale surface another few times — exhaling loudly before diving into the depths and out of sight.
Monarch Head – a short hike up from the campsite
On Sunday, we meandered back to the ferry terminal. En route, we spotted a river otter loping along one of the side roads. It was the first time we’d seen one so far from the water.. Arriving at the terminal, we were tempted to hit the Wild Thyme Coffee House for lunch but opted for a third visit to the sunny, oceanside patio of the Lighthouse Pub.. We split a Cajun blackened halibut burger and a locally raised lamb burger served with Saltspring Island goat’s cheese. Both were delicious and were washed down with Lighthouse craft beers from Victoria.
We set up on the ferry-side dock to snack rest and wait for our departure The shore did have a few ochre starfish which we haven’t been seeing lately due to the wasting disease that is killing them off. There were a lot of feather duster worms though and a seal kept on surfacing close by to keep tabs on us.
Feather duster worms
The trip back was uneventful and, with one less stop, took less time. All in, it was $60 in ferry charges for two of us, there and back. Because we loaded the cost up on the Discover pass, we didn’t have to pay the few bucks for the bikes. All in all, it seemed a lot longer than an overnight trip and we’ll certainly be back.