An old school friend from the east, who had never been to our little island before, visited last year. “I’m going to take you to my very favourite place on Pender Island,” I told him happily. I was looking forward to chatting with my buddy, who I had not seen for a long time. And, of course, I never tire of visiting George Hill.
We parked the car at the trailhead at the northern end of Clam Bay Road on north Pender Island. Perhaps surprisingly, there are two other paths that lead to George’s summit. The oldest one starts from the corner of Walden and Ogden Roads in Stanley Point. The shortest begins at the end of Upper Terrace Road.
Almost immediately we were immersed in a second-growth forest with tall Douglas firs turning the understory into a dusky magical place with many shades of green and a coating of moss on trees and boulders. As we hiked higher, we saw occasional gangling arbutus trees looking like slouching hippies among the soldierly ram-rod straight firs. Now and then we passed a bigleaf maple, whose leaves were the size of dinner plates. Sword ferns covered the ground in shimmering green.
Hiking steadily upwards, we came frequently onto open ridges which offered glorious views looking east and south-east onto the nearby islands of Mayne and Saturna. Far beyond lay the mainland, a long line of hazy snow-capped peaks. Up closer in the foreground lay Clam Bay farm, the lighter colour of fields and vineyards contrasting with the surrounding dark forest. Our speech became sparse, for we were huffing with the exertion of the hike.
We came upon a group of tall spires of dead trees that were marked by a loud conversation. Looking up, we saw two ravens perched high up, their black bodies silhouetted against the grey clouds. One raven would utter a series of loud caws. Then the other would answer. Then the first would respond with another string of deep booming cries. In the stillness, Their cawing back and forth boomed and echoed afar. But what were they saying?
We continued upward, and the intriguing and picturesque trail, I realized, was as rewarding as the summit itself. Along ridges we clambered over gullies and rocky protrusions while admiring outcrops of sandstones, schists and occasionally conglomerates.
Finally, we reached the peak at an imposing height of 554 feet (169 meters), and it took my friend’s breath away — Okay, mine too. The views are grand because this is the highest peak on north Pender Island. (Mount Norman, on south Pender, is slightly higher.)
George is famous for his gorgeous vistas. Facing the northeast, we looked across Trincomali Channel to Mayne and Galiano Islands, which are separated by the famous roiling waters of Active Pass. Far behind lay the mountains of the mainland.
But the best views were toward the west. Spread before us like a feast were the Gulf Islands, a maze of more than 220 rocky masses ranging from small deathly-dangerous-when-foggy reefs to large isles, forming one of the most beautiful archipelagos in the world.
Although it was the summer holiday season, only a few boats were visible. A superferry, the Coastal Renaissance, churned past, heading from Vancouver to Victoria. A tug slowly hauled a barge full of logs. A few sailboats flitted here and there, their sails brimming with sunlight like butterflies alit on the sea. A sinuous line of foam, giving a hint of the underlying currents, moved slowly but steadily to the north. A flood tide I thought.
To the southwest lay the United States, but there was no way to tell where the Gulf Islands ended and the San Juan Islands began. Nature and landscape don’t have borders, my pal suggested.
Directly below lay the government dock at Port Washington. That’s where a general store operated decades ago, and a regular float plane checks in, I pointed out to my friend. On a small island just off shore, a beacon jutted toward the sky. Its powerful light that warns ships of rocky perils was turned off in the present bright sunlight. Purple wildflowers carpeted the rocky isle, and three kayaks paddled around the southern end.
We explored the rocky summit of George Hill, discovering that it was host to a number of rare Garry oaks. One had fallen and its trunk, partially decayed, was noble in repose. It was silent and thoughtful, almost as though begging us to be quiet and not spoil the grandeur with noise and babble. Blue wild flowers were gracefully arrayed alongside it. Mushrooms grew along the trunk in curving rows, as though in a painting.
We sat on the bench and my chum marvelled, “There’s no one else up here. You live in a fabulous region, where you can revel in this delightful scenery in solitude.” He peered through the courtesy binoculars attached to the bench at the kayakers far below and then across the gaggle of islands that form the Gulf Islands.
“Many of the islands you see, or parts of them, belong to the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve,” I said, “so they will remain protected.”
“This hill was called Prospect Hill in the old days,” I continued, “but at some time in the distant past some bureaucrats in Victoria decided to rename it after George, whoever he is, without consulting the locals. Today, there’s a move to get it renamed back to Prospect.”
Slowly the sun slipped westward and began to sink. The golden orb dropped toward the distant horizon, hung there for a brief moment, and then fell below the hills, leaving a blazing sky of purples, oranges and indigos.
A seagull was silhouetted against the darkening yellow of the western sky. Far below a superferry headed toward Vancouver, its lights twinkling in the dusk, warning us that it was time to head for home. We set off knowing we would soon be sipping a glass of wine, reflecting on the beauty of this magical place.
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We are grateful to live on and visit the Southern Gulf Islands and acknowledge that the lands and waters that encompass these islands have been home to Indigenous peoples since time immemorial, part of the traditional unceded territories of the Coast Salish Peoples, including W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations and Hul’quimi’num Treaty Group.