Roesland: A Cornucopia of Nature and History

Published On: July 23, 2021Tags: , , , , , , , ,

story and photos by Hans Tammemagi

Whenever I visit Roesland — which is often, for it is one my favourite places on Pender Island — I head straight for Roe Islet, the elongated island (about 300 m in length by 40 m across) that pokes due westward into the Salish Sea. Walking from the parking lot, I pass the old white building that houses the Museum, a century apple orchard and the curving stone wall along the water’s edge.

To reach the island I have to cross a small channel, which is usually dry, but if the tide is high, I remove my shoes and roll up my pant legs. Then an enchanted kingdom greets me as I hike westward along a path through the magical forest. Dozens of gangling, reddish arbutus trees, probably the best stand on Pender, are here, and they are eccentric, like slouching hippies among the ram-rod straight and soldierly Douglas firs. A few decaying cedar trees have been attacked by pileated woodpeckers and are full of holes from top to bottom that act as condominiums for myriads of insects and birds. Peeking through the greenery are glorious views of the sea including the Otter Bay ferry terminal. You can imagine trolls and hobbits among the moss, berries, salal and large old trees.

After about 15 minutes, I arrive at the end of the islet and an island icon, a rustic white wooden bench. It’s a romantic, secluded place where many marriage proposals have been tendered, so I’ve been told. Several of the starry-eyed lovers have carved their initials, hearts and other symbols of ever-lasting devotion onto the reddish bark of nearby arbutuses. 

Close by is another bench where I enjoy sitting. It offers sweeping views onto the Salish Sea where sailboats flit like butterflies, their sails alight with the sun. Ferries regularly chug past, intent and purposeful in reaching their next scheduled harbour. You are surrounded by the sounds of waves lapping and the aroma of salt air. 

A brief period in springtime is special on this western tip of Roe Islet, as thousands of rare fawn lilies emerge into bloom. Their delicate white flowers are suspended from slender green stalks forming attractive white polka dots against the darker green vegetation and the sparkling blue waves of the sea. 

This is the perfect spot to relax at the end of the day and watch the western sky turn into blazing scarlets and oranges as the sun sinks slowly, teasingly behind the horizon. 

Sitting here, I think of Roesland’s long and fascinating history. Sadly, no evidence remains today to mark the long presence of Coast Salish Indigenous Peoples who lived here for several millennia. But you can sense their presence, and imagine them launching canoes to conduct reef-net fishing for salmon in the bountiful waters. The first colonial residents were Robert and Margaret Roe, who immigrated to Pender Island from Scotland and in 1906 began clearing 30 acres for their farm, which they named Roesland.

In the 1920s, Roseland was turned into the Roesland Farm Resort becoming a popular vacation destination. In 1971, the property was sold to the Davidsons, who had been regular guests at Roesland and continued the hospitable, family nature of the resort until it closed in 1991. The Davidsons sold Roesland and it became part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve when it was created in 2003. A large log house near the Museum, the former Davidson residence, became the Pender Island headquarters for the new National Park Reserve.

I stroll eastward, leave the islet and explore the landward side of Roesland. While many of the older dilapidated cabins have been torn down, several have been restored. The Pender Island Museum, founded in 2005, is located in one of these historic buildings, the former Robert Roe family home (1908). I love meandering through the galleries, inspecting the artifacts including an Indigenous whale carving dating back thousands of years, a century loom, old parchment documents and much more, which bring the history of Pender Island alive.

That Roesland is like a Garden of Eden, a paradise of west-coast nature, was proven in June 2017 when a Bioblitz was held on Pender Island and Roesland served as the headquarters. For 24 hours the Park was abuzz with scientists, Parks Canada interpreters and the general public working together to spot as many species as possible. Divers roamed underwater bringing back sea stars, sculpins, gunnels, sea cucumbers and other treasures that were placed in tanks for people to ooh and aah over. Slug traps were set up in the forest. The night expedition showed glorious bioluminescence. Numerous information stations with displays and microscopes explained the fine details of nature. Roesland was an ideal place for young (and even old) people to learn about the immensity of nature and importance of conservation. 

Gazing at the two signature Parks Canada red lawn chairs that sit prominently next to the water, it’s easy to see that Roesland, and especially Roe Islet, is a delightful park to visit and for a family picnic at any time of year for it is beautiful and rich in nature. Eagles often soar overhead. The sleek heads of harbour seals frequently poke above the adjacent waters. Sea stars dot the rocks in the log-lined coves. Located on the fascinating border between the forested west-coast land and the Salish Sea, Roesland does indeed present a cornucopia of enchantments.