Destination – Portland Island – A Park for all Seasons

February 11th, 2011  |  Published in Headline, On the Water

For quiet hikes or island walks without seeing a soul, for pocket beaches perfect for swimming, for delving into island history, for checking out flora and fauna, for beautiful scenery and gorgeous beaches, or for just lazily relaxing at anchor, there are all kinds of reasons to visit Portland Island. Long a popular day or overnight excursion for boaters from Sidney, only a few kilometers away, it continues to lure boaters back time and time again. Part of its appeal is the fact that the entire 575-hectare island is a park. Its sandy beaches, its tropical feeling, especially at Arbutus Point and Shell Beach, and its 10 kilometres of sylvan trails, are also draws. Two fairly secure anchorages, and several temporary places to drop the hook, also make for an easy visit.

Divers will remember Portland Island for another reason. The derelict freighter, G.B. Church, was scuttled off its northeast shore in 1991, becoming B.C.’s first artificial reef. Marked by a fixed, white, permanent buoy, the wreck is popular with scuba drivers and marine life alike.

Flora and Fauna
We can recall startling herds of shaggy, spooked feral sheep on our early island visits in the 70s, but a decade later, these remnants of early settler life were evicted. Now we’re more likely to see Black tail deer, raccoons, river otter, and minks. Birds commonly spotted include great blue herons, oystercatchers, red tailed hawks, bald eagles and turkey vultures. On our last visit in July, we were also delighted to spy on a family of ospreys.

If camping or picnicking be sure to keep an ‘eagle eye’ on your food. The coons, which have multiplied considerably, are now very adept at pillage and plunder.

The flora, much of which has recovered since the sheep left, is typical of Southern Gulf Island vegetation. The copious salal crowds much of the paths, along with sword fern and wild Oregon grape shrubs, while yellow cacti and Rocky Mountain Juniper thrive in the sun soaked rocky outcrops. Garry Oaks and arbutus twist on the coastal sections, while maples, alders, and Douglas fir thrive inland. Developed early as an agricultural island, Portland also boasts a variety of fruit trees, over a century old.

Unfortunately for campers and kayakers, there is no longer any water supply. Unfortunately, the policy of Parks Canada seems to be to cap the wells that we have always utilized here and at Beaumont on Pender Island, so you must now haul in your own water supply.

Named by Captain G.H. Richards of the HMS Plumper in 1859, Portland Island bears the name of the HMS Portland, a flagship of Rear Admiral Fairfax Moresby.

The First Nation middens here date occupancy back some three thousand years. Much later, the island fell into the hands of the Hudson Bay Company, who eventually in 1859 gave the island to a group of Hawaiians (Kanakas) who had left Hawaii to work for the Hudson Bay Company, largely acting as interpreters between coastal natives and the English speaking fur traders. They stayed and farmed the land until 1907; the orchards, which still bear fruit, were planted by these hardy people.

Twenty years later, the island’s new owner arrived, one Major General Frank ‘One Arm’ Sutton, who supposedly bought the island with funds he amassed while gambling on racehorses in China. His exorbitant dreams were to raise and train thoroughbreds here, as well as to build a hotel and summer cottages, and even to create a golf course. This eccentric’s grand plan was nipped in the bud by the 1929 stock market crash and the resulting demise of his funds. The only trace of these great dreams now is the Parks Canada sign in the overgrown fields where the barn used to be. You will find the trail off the main Princess Bay-Royal Cove track. If the path is barricaded, you can still go around it. (See sidebar.)

In 1958, the island was gifted by the B.C. government to Princess Margaret during one of her royal visits. As was the expectation, she gave the island back in 1967, and it then became known as Princess Margaret Island. When the Federal Government incorporated the island into its Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in 2003, its name reverted to Portland.

For the intrepid, cold water swimming is possible in many of the bays and can be very pleasant on a hot day. I like to take the shoreline trail on the south side, where several tiny bays offer shelter and privacy for morning dips, and the water seems somewhat warmer. A short trail along here also leads to a lonely little picnic table.

Many boaters like to kick back and just enjoy the natural ambience of the bay combined with their comforts on board, but we always enjoy stretching our legs after a long day on our little sailboat. We’re frequently amazed to discover that even when the bay is crammed with boats, the trails and beaches are often empty. Here are some of the treks you can take:

  • If you only have a few hours, or have children, take the trail from Princess Cove over to the Shell Beach campsite. It’s about a half hour walk, 1.4 km. Everyone can enjoy the beach, exploring the rock pools, and beachcombing. There are picnic tables under the trees, a toilet, and a canopy of cherry trees. From here, you can carry on westward along the island perimeter walk, or go as far as Kanaka Bluff, and then take the path back to the cross island trail to complete a circular route back to Princess Bay. A youth crew put through many of these trails in 1980.
  • The cross-island trail from Princess Bay through to Royal Cove and on to Arbutus Point is also a must. It’s 2.3 level kilometres, partially on boardwalk. You’ll pass the sign to Kanaka Bluffs en route, you can take the short path on the left to read about Major General Sutton and his horses, and you’ll discover more fruit trees in the meadow, fighting with the roses for the sunshine. Be sure to check out Royal Cove before heading to Arbutus Point. The Point is beloved of kayakers, and for good reason. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches and campsites imaginable.
  • Alternatively, there’s a trail to Arbutus Point that goes along the shoreline from Princess Bay, past the Pellow Islets, undulating along the shore and revealing several lovely beaches en route, the places where I love to swim. It’s a hillier trail but we rarely meet anyone on it. The distance is about the same.
  • It’s also possible to hike around the entire island if you have the stamina and the time. Parks Canada has recently added plenty of new signs. The perimeter trail is approximately 10 kilometres and shouldn’t be rushed. Remember your water.


  • Royal Cove

Located on the northwest side, the narrow cove is sheltered from all winds, but is subject to punishing ferry wakes from ferry traffic in Satellite Channel, and boats will probably require stern tying due to limited anchorage. The cove is sheltered by private Chads Island, but plan your cooking to be between ferries. A dinghy dock that dries out at low tide, a toilet, and an information sign are also located here, and Arbutus Point is only a half a kilometre away on a good trail. Enter the Cove from the north as a reef jutting out from Chad Island impedes almost the entire passage south when exiting the cove.

  • Princess Bay (once known as Tortoise Bay)

The favoured anchorage is on the southeast side. It’s more expansive and with far less ferry wake. The Tortoise Islets also provide some protection from the seas. There’s a dinghy dock here as well as a dock for the host boats from Victoria Yacht club, which provide information for visiting boaters in the summer months. The campground is at the head of the bay, with picnic tables, a composting toilet, and a passable beach. Don’t go too close in to anchor. The beach shallows quite a long way out and there’s a small submerged wreck visible at low tide as well. We draw 4.5’ on our sailboat, so never creep in past the park host dock, and have always found secure anchorage here in the muddy bottom.

Because the bay is open to south easterlies, only plan on an overnight stay in fair weather conditions. We’ve occasionally had sleepless nights here because we didn’t check. The best way to enter is between the last of the Tortoise Islets and the larger unnamed island with small cabin on it. You’ll have 8 meters under you at chart datum. Although knowledgeable mariners also use the southerly entrance between Hood Island and Tortoise Inlets, we never do. If you’re going to, only attempt it above mid tide.

Temporary Anchorage
Dropping the hook in front of Shell Beach is very tempting. You’ll get some shelter from Brackman Island. (No trespassing on it, however; it’s a nature preserve.)
It’s very close to a lot of ferry wakes, so time your coming and going ashore accordingly. This definitely is only temporary anchorage.

There are other short stay anchorage possibilities but many shoals and reefs, especially on the east and northeast sides, make it a tricky business. Use a large-scale chart, #3475.

Portland Island is one of those destinations you always want to come back to.

If you’re a regular visitor to Portland Island, you may be in for a surprise this year. Parks Canada has been busy. In addition to replanked boardwalks, and new signage everywhere, a storage shed is under construction near the Princess Bay crossroads, and yellow tape now surrounds the old orchard. Apparently this is to protect the heritage trees. Camping in the orchard is no longer permitted. You’re right if you think the orchard looks different. All of the surrounding wild roses and blackberry bushes have been removed.

A ‘tent city’ had also settled into the Princess Bay campsite during our July visit. Apparently, the University of Victoria and Parks Canada are two years into an arrangement whereby anthropology students and their instructors undertake archeological field studies through the summer. Seven tents clustered about the large ‘mess hall’ when we were there, accommodating around a dozen people.

Visiting boaters and kayakers will also find a smaller version at Arbutus Point, where students from the universities of Victoria and Western Ontario are encamped as they study the habits of birds and mammals. The reason for the barricade across the trail to the old barn site and informational sign mentioned earlier, was because these students, some of whom had been here since March, were studying song sparrows in the adjoining meadows. Electrical fencing had been strung along the area to keep out minks and raccoons, but they assured me, not two legged visitors.

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