A Saturna Sojourn

February 9th, 2011  |  Published in Hot off the press, On the Water  |  11 Comments

We can never figure out why boaters don’t spend more time at Saturna’s Winter Cove. It’s packed every July 1st, during the annual lamb barbecue, but a day later most anchors are hoisted up and vessels depart, their crew never having really experienced Saturna’s charms.

Perhaps it’s because the cove seems quite remote, with the bulk of the island’s attractions seemingly only possible by bicycle or car, yet with no taxis or bike rentals available. How can boaters access the public swimming hole at Shell Beach, whale watch from East Point Park and visit the heritage centre newly housed in the old Fog Alarm building? After all, they’re 11 kilometres away. It’s seven kilometres over two challenging hills to get to Saturna Vineyard with its beautiful views and bistro, and it’s four kilometres to haul back wine from the Saturna General Store, and local produce from the neighbouring Saturday Farmers’ market. And how can boaters enjoy those wonderful trails on the ridge of Mt. Warburton Pike when they’ve just exhausted themselves getting to the trailhead? Even the Lighthouse Pub at Lyall Harbour can seem unreachable at six kilometres.

Winter Cove Sunset

Winter Cove Sunset

However, it can be done. Boaters really need only two things: time, and a willingness to meet the locals. (Read, accepting rides or even putting out thumbs.) Saturna Islanders know transportation is a problem on the island. After all, the population is only around 350 permanent residents. They’re friendly and curious about their visitors. If you walk, most will stop.

If skippers also have a powered dinghy, seeing some of Saturna’s attractions is even easier. Then it’s only about ten minutes by dinghy to Lyall Harbour dock and the adjacent Lighthouse Pub and store, and only two kilometers up the road to the café and Saturna General Store. Then, fuelled by coffee and cake, you can easily access Staples Road and begin the climb up to the trails atop Mount Warburton Pike.

Our experience
Winter Cove’s expansive, shallow anchorage has long been one of our favourite gunk holes. Not having an engine on our tender, we start out walking, past the baseball field and site of the lamb barbecue, and turn right, prepared to tackle the large hill. Happily, we’ve never yet reached the top. It’s usually less than ten minutes before a car stops, and on the 5-minute ride we get to find out what’s happening on the island. Once it was crab night at the community centre, and the friendly driver even offered to come back to Winter Cove later to take us with her. Another time it was one of chef extraordinaire, Hubertus Surm’s incredible dinners at the Café, which was also featuring a new showing of local artist/photographer, Nancy Angermeyer’s startling images. That time, filled to the brim with Saturna Winery’s Semillon Chardonnay and Surm’s Salt Spring mussels and decadent dessert, we opted to walk back to the boat in the moonlight, turning down two offers of rides en route.

The anchorage
Somewhat exposed to north winds throughout, Winter Cove is shallow, with depths of 2 to 3 fathoms. We were surprised, however, to drop our anchor in a deep hole 150 meters off the remains of the wharf on our last visit. The majority of boats seem to favour east of the cable line in the southern part of the cove. Stay well out from remains of the old wharf, as submerged pilings still molder underneath. Probably due to the shallowness of the cove, the water is quite warm for swimming.

The park has a dozen picnic tables, outhouses, and trails, but sadly no longer any water pump. A must is to walk the 1.5 kilometer circular trail to the bench at Boat Passage to watch the waters chug in and out of this narrow passage from the Strait of Georgia, and to imagine how the original First Nationals inhabitants must have felt when they saw their first European vessel ghosting past in the Strait of Georgia.

A Little History

That was in 1791, when the Spanish Schooner, Saturnina, was on its voyage of discovery. Less than a century later, this infertile hilly island was peopled by British settlers who were able to buy land here for about £ 1 per acre in the 1860s. Thwarted in their attempts to work the soil, they cultivated orchards and raised sheep instead.

In 1886, the wooden, coal burning East Point Lighthouse was built on land purchased from pioneer, Warburton Pike, after the coal carrying John Rosenfeld went aground at the point’s infamous Boiling Reef, subsequently supply locals with coal for some time to come. The lighthouse was replaced in 1947 with the red steel skeleton tower you see today.
Saturna’s first school was built in 1919, followed by a post office and store. Recently a new complex on Harris Road has been built to house a clinic, recreation centre, and a Canada Parks office, but the island’s remoteness has kept development to a minimum compared to the other neighbouring islands.

In the 1960s the ground around Winter Cove was the site of an open quarry, the B.C. Lightweight Aggregates Plant, which produced stone chips for road building. Other than the remains of the old wharf, there is little reminder of that industry now. A newly rebuilt boardwalk winds through the wetlands and rushes, while meadows offer wildflowers and songbirds, and Douglas Fir and Arbutus line the two kilometers of trails that loop through the salt marsh to the Strait of Georgia and Boat Passage. Seventy five hectares of land, and an additional 16 hectares of inter tidal foreshore were acquired as a provincial park in 1979, in 2003 becoming part of the newly formed Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Since 1990, Winter Cove has also been the site of the Lamb Barbecue, a Saturna tradition since 1949.

Attractions

East Point Park and the restored Fog Alarm Building
If there’s only time to do one thing, start walking along coastal East Point Road to the most easterly point on the Gulf Islands, and be ready to ‘thumb’ it. The 2.5-hectare headland at East Point is where Haro Strait merges with the Strait of Georgia, and Canadian and American borders meet. International freighters churn to and from Vancouver harbour. Killer whales also troll the waters here, waters that make a liar out of whoever fashioned the phrase, ‘still waters run deep’. One hundred fathoms deep in places, this ocean is rarely still, providing good fishing for whales and fishers alike. We enjoy wandering on the pool pocked sandstone ledges, admiring nature’s sculptures and the views of Mt. Baker. On the highest point of the headland stands the historic fog alarm building, built in 1938 to house the large diesel air compressors and other large equipment needed to operate the Fog Horn, and one of the most photographed sights on Saturna.

Previous Senator, Pat Carney, played a huge role in saving this building from destruction through her introduction of a bill in 2010, the Heritage Lighthouse Preservation Act, in tandem with the late Nova Scotia senator, Mike Forrestall. It took ten years, but finally Bill S-215 came into affect in May 29, 2010.

A committee of indefatigable locals, the Saturna Heritage Committee, with architect Richard Blagborne at the helm, has subsequently been hard at work refashioning this old building into a small interpretation centre. Cleaning, painting, installing power, equipping, and restoring the building with the assistance of the Capital Regional District and Parks Canada, the committee expects to have the centre open for the 2011 summer season and weekends in the shoulder season. The centre is a welcome enterprise. Like Pender Island’s museum in the restored old Roesland homestead, and like Mayne’s tiny Plumper Sound Lockup, now a tiny museum, the restored fog alarm building will preserve some of the island’s history while adding to visitors’ enjoyment of this wind swept, wild landscape. “The entry room will have a display on the light station history, a small merchandising cabinet and a display of the Santa Saturnina. The larger room is set up for changing displays of wall hung graphic panels and a large video viewing area,” Blagborne told me. “Our committee has a core membership of about 40 residents.”

Check the website for information and opening times before you go: www.saturnaheritage.ca. or email info@saturnaheritage.ca.

Winter Cove Park

Winter Cove Park

Mount Warburton Pike
When we’ve had too many days cooped up in our 25’ C & C, it’s time to really work out with a hike up to the mountain’s summit at 497 meters. We fortify ourselves with a snack from the Saturna General Store, then climb the 4 kilometer dirt road to the ridge. The views from here are the best to be found on the Gulf islands, looking over to Pender and beyond, as well as over to the San Juan Islands. It’s worth descending another steep kilometre to Taylor Point if your legs can take it, and if you have lots of stamina, you can combine trails and actually hike for 21 kilometers in this area. An extended hike this long is a rarity in the Southern Gulf Islands. Be sure to go prepared. Check for maps at the national parks office in the new buildings on Harris Road en route. You can also copy trail instructions from the following site: http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM8XVC_Brown_RidgeSaturna_Island_BC

Saturna Island Family Estate Winery
One of the benefits of extending the hike is that it takes you past the winery. Open from May – October, Saturna Winery offers wine tastings, a lofty bistro, and outdoor tables in a Mediterranean-like setting. Located on what was once the old Thomson farmland, the winery and its 60 acres of vines are tucked into a suntrap between Plumper Sound and Brown Ridge, with nearby Thomson Beach and park providing access for boaters. It’s an idyllic location, but the road in redefines ‘steep’, so be prepared. We have been known to wimp out, saving the winery until we’ve pulled up anchor in Winter Cove and motoring around to the visitor’s dock at Thompson Park and Saturna Beach for lunch and a swim. The park shouldn’t be rushed; it offers good swimming, an attractive beach, and trails along the headland. I can recall teenage summers here when Jim and Lorraine Campbell’s tourist cabins lined the beach and the lamb barbecue was held nearby. This area became a park in 1999 when one of the Thomson siblings, Lorraine Campbell’s brother, sold his part of the land to the winery. Thankfully, this section was saved as a community park. The Campbells still have their farm and home in the eastern portion of what was once a huge property.

Any boaters visiting on the third weekend of September should make a point of visiting the winery for the annual Harvest Festival. It’s a wonderful family event with great food, wine, sack racing, and live music and it has been delighting locals and visitors alike for seven years. www.saturnavineyards.com/events.htm

Combining history with scenic beauty, hikes with deluxe watering holes, and explorations with a serene anchorage, Saturna Island wraps it all up with a sense of community you rarely see these days. Just step off your boat, hit the road, and let it all unfold.

Sidebar:

  • Getting there. The preferred approach is from the west, but with the wreck of the tall ship, the Robertson ll firmly in mind, watch out that Minx Reef doesn’t get you as well. It extends westward from the cove’s south side parallel to Samuel Island. If entering from Georgia Strait via Boat Passage, remember there’s only a fathom of water at low tide in the 10-meter-wide channel and that the water can race through here at 8 knots during spring tides.
  • Shore leave. Saturna Lodge, a welcome addition to the B & B scene on Saturna, is a great overnight option for boaters ready for a bed on dry land and someone else to cook breakfast. They’ll come and get you. (www.saturna.ca)
  • By tender. Dinghies can safely take the shorter route to Lyall Harbour over the reef across Veruna Bay to Saturna Point, site of the public wharf. It’s just over a nautical mile.
  • Saturna Regatta.
  • If you ever find yourself sandwiched between a squadron of wacky sailing vessels and the shore anywhere near Saturna, check the calendar. If it’s the fourth Saturday of August, you’re in for a lot of fun. They’ve been doing this for twelve years; how is it they haven’t been banned from the seas? This is a sailing race where you can probably get away without sails, and even racing appears optional. Check out the fun. http://www.saturnacan.net/PageFiles/regatta.html

Responses

  1. Graeme Bregani says:

    September 15th, 2012at 6:59 pm(#)

    This is one of the best written descriptions of my island I have ever seen, And its all true!
    Well done.

  2. Cherie says:

    September 27th, 2012at 12:57 pm(#)

    Thanks Graeme. More stories on your wonderful island will be appearing soon. A community profile on Jon Guy will be in the next issue of Aqua Magazine, and a story on Jack Campbell will be appearing in a later issue. Also will be featuring the Lighthouse Pub in a roundup article for Pacific Yachting entitled Brews for Crews in 2013. My memories of Saturna go back to when I was 17 and used to stay in Lorraine and Jim Campbell’s cabins on the beach. Honeymooned there as well.

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