Great Kayaking around the Southern Gulf Islands

kayakers on a beach

If you’re looking for a great kayaking experience, the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (GINPR) has a lot to offer whether you want to get out for a few hours or are planning an extended camping trip. Sheltered waters, spectacular scenery, a Mediterranean climate, lots of wildlife and easy access make it a prime choice.

My brother, who lives in Cincinnati, OH wanted to bring his 2 teenage sons out for a kayak camping experience on the west coast. Since his time was limited I suggested a circumnavigation of Saturna Island. Saturna is one of the least populated of the Southern Gulf Islands with a permanent population of only around 350 people. That, however, increases significantly through the summer months. Saturna is only about 31 sq km (12 sq mi) in size and is the most mountainous of the Gulf Islands. More than half of the island is part of the GINPR park system so there is a nice remote ‘feel’ to much of the island and a couple of really good campsites.

The other great thing about kayaking around Saturna is the Ocean River Saturna Kayak Shack. We had a couple of kayaks of our own but we needed two more for the boys. Being able to drive off the ferry at Lyall Harbour, unload all our gear on the docks at the Saturna Kayak Shack, get the two boats we needed and start paddling right from docks was awesome!

Day 1

Our route took us out through Horton Bay on Mayne Island and into the Belle Chain Islets in the Georgia Strait. There was a lot of current flowing between the islands, which added some interest and challenge to the passage, especially when we had novice paddlers in the group. The Belle Chain Islets are a string of rocky islets running along the north coast of Samuel and Saturna Islands. The islets are part of the GINPR and are a protected area so no landing is permitted. However, they are a good place to observe wildlife from a respectful distance. You will see all kinds of bird life, lots of harbor seals, and in the spring, sea lions are seen here as well.

From the Belle Islets we headed straight east towards Cabbage and Tumbo Islands, also part of the GINPR. The Georgia Strait is a large body of water and is quite exposed to northerly and southeasterly winds so it can get a little lumpy out there. Make sure you check the weather forecasts before you go. Cabbage Island, is tiny only 4.5 ha (11.12 acres), but it has some beautiful sandy beaches and gorgeous views. While there are no hiking trails on the island, an evening walk around the perimeter is highly recommended. The island is a GINPR wilderness campsite and fees are charged from May 15 to Sept 30. Cabbage is cradled along the eastside of Tumbo Island, which has some hiking trails and is definitely worth the short paddle across Reef Harbour and taking some the time to explore.

Day 2

Leaving Cabbage Island we paddled out of Reef Harbour, rounding the western tip of Tumbo. This got us out of the northerly breeze and enabled us to ride the current flowing along Tumbo Channel up to East Point on Saturna Island. East Point is spectacular. It became part of the Gulf Islands National Park in 2006 and the light station here was built between 1881 and 1887 and still warns vessels of the treacherous waters of Boiling Reef just offshore of the point. East Point is a prime area for wildlife viewing as nutrient rich waters sweep around the point and is perhaps one of the best areas in the Gulf Islands to view Orcas. At times, Humpback whales, Dall porpoise, white sided Dolphins, seals and sea lions can be seen. There is also an abundance of bird species to be seen on and around the point.

There is a unique structure conspicuously located on the point, the Fog Alarm Building, built in 1939. It has been restored and is now an interpretive centre focused on historical stories of the island. Farther up on top of the ridge is a steel light tower built in 1949. The lighthouse and Fog Alarm Building were one of BC’s first historic light stations to receive heritage protection under the federal government’s Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act. It is one of only 6 lighthouses in Canada to have this designation.

There is a good beach on the inside of East Point to land kayaks on and there are trails around the point and the cliffs on the other side making for some spectacular views and great wildlife viewing.

The flood tide was really raging around the point while we were there creating som significant tide rips off Boiling Reef. Fortunately we were able to hug the shore taking advantage of the eddies as we worked our way around the point. Once around East Point and out of the worst of the current we had an easy paddle into Narvaez Bay our next camp.

Narvaez Bay is a GINPR campsite on Saturna Island and is a gorgeous, fairly undisturbed bay surrounded by regenerating Douglas fir forest. The there are 7 wilderness campsites available for use which can be reserved through the Parks Canada Reservation Service. The grassy valley where the campsite is located looks like it was once a farm as there are many fruit trees and remains of old fencing. In May, while we were there, the fragrance from the blossoms of the fruit trees and hawthornes was intoxicating!

A short 1 km (0.6 mile) hike to Echo Bay is a must! The spectacular bay has a large cliff on the southern side making for near perfect echos. We all had a lot of fun with that…luckily there was no one else around with all the noise!

Day 3

We left Narvaez Bay on a perfect morning, sunny, warm and flat calm. There is no better time to be on the water and it was stunningly beautiful as we set off around Monarch Head. Once around Monarch Head we began heading west along Saturna’s steep western shore. We crossed past the Java Islets so the boys could check out the harbour seals there, then headed back in towards Taylor Point. Which is has a beautiful beach and ruins of an old house. After Taylor Point there really aren’t any more good pullouts along this side of Saturna before Breezy Bay.

It pays keep a good look out at the cliffs as you paddle along this side of the island. There are lots of feral goats on the island and they can often be seen walking along the trails as they work their way along the cliffs. Another interesting spot we paddle around is Murder Pt. Aptly named for the murders of a father and his daughter driven ashore here by bad weather in 1862. They apparently ran afoul of some Lamalchi First Nations people.

Rounding Croker Point we paddled into Breezy Bay for our first break of the morning’s paddle. Saturna Beach and Thomson Park are located here, so it is a great place to land and do a little exploring. Thomson Park is founded on a tract a land once owned by one of the first homesteaders on Saturna Island. It is also the site of the first post office and ‘Pike’s Landing’, the first general store. Wandering around this beautiful park you will still find remnants of the old homesite including foundations, a row of magnificent century-old locust trees, and fruit trees. There are also picnic tables, a covered picnic area and a dock.

From Breezy Bay it’s a short paddle past the Elliot Bluffs and Payne Pt to Lyall Harbour and the Saturna Kayak Shack. Of course the trips not over until all the gear is unloaded from the boats, packed back into the truck, and boats cleaned and put away. Lots of work, but my nephews were strongly motivated by an offer of lunch at the Saturna Lighthouse Pub, located across the road from the Kayak Shack.

Getting There

To get to Saturna Island you will have to use the BC Ferries Southern Gulf Island ferries, either as a walk on or with your vehicle. The ferries leave from the Swartz Bay Terminal at the northern tip of the Saanich Pennisula, about a 30 minute drive from Victoria. See the map below. The ferries schedules can be accessed by clicking this link: BC Ferries. If you have your own boats it is possible to walk your kayaks on the ferries and launch at the Saturna Kayak Shack.

Kayak Rentals And Launching

If you have your own kayaks you are welcome to launch from the docks at the Saturna Kayak Shack located to the left of the ferry dock. You can drive onto the dock to unload your gear and boats. If you need to rent boats you can reserve them by contacting Ocean River Sports, by clicking this link: Ocean River Adventures , or call 250-381-4233 or 1-800-909-4233, or contact Bob Bruce at Saturna Sea Kayaking at 250.539.5553.

Gulf Island Tours

If you’re not up to planning your own kayaking trip, consider a tour. Saturna Sea Kayaks in partnership with Ocean River Adventures offer some amazing guided tours and special trips around Saturna and other locations in the Gulf Islands. For bookings contact Ocean River Sports, by clicking this link: Ocean River Adventures , or call 250-381-4233 or 1-800-909-4233, or contact Bob Bruce at Saturna Sea Kayaking at 250.539.5553.

Trip Planning

While there is some sheltered paddling around Saturna Island, if you venture out into the Georgia Straits you will need to check the weather carefully. Georgia Strait is a large body of water and you are very exposed to northerly winds. Environment Canada and Windfinder provide good wind forecasts.

There can be a lot of current flowing between the islands and around East Point on Saturna so you will want to be very careful when negotiating some of these passages, particularly Boat Passage between Saturna and Samuel Island. Currents can be checked in the Canadian Tide and Current Tables which can be purchased at Ocean River Sports or other fishing and boating retailers, or they can be accessed online by clicking this link: Canadian Tide and Current Tables. Bob Bruce at Saturna Sea Kayaking is a great source of local knowledge of the area. He can be reached at 250-539-5553 or email at robertbruce@telus.net.

Marine Charts and the Gulf Islands Recreation Map and Trip Planner are great resources for planning your trip and aiding your navigation while on the water. They are available at Ocean River Sports at 1630 Store St in Victoria.

Camping On Saturna

There are two places that are available for overnight camping and both are within the Gulf Islands National Parks Reserve. Cabbage Island is a wilderness campsite available on a first come first serve basis. The other site is at Narvaez Bay. This is a reservable campsite and reservations are definitely recommended for this popular spot during the peak summer months. Reservations can be made on line: Parks Canada Reservation Service

If you need a campsite before setting off on your trip or if you want to spend some extra time exploring Saturna Island, there is a small commercial campground just up from the ferry terminal at Lyall Harbour. For more information and bookings click this link: Arbutus Point Campground.