Boat camping in Gulf Islands British Columbia

My son Keith and I just made it home after action-packed 4 days / 3 nights of exploring and touring the Gulf Islands of British Columbia.  We took basic camping gear and our trusty small 14-foot Caribe RIB (rigid inflatable boat) with a Yamaha 60-hp motor on it.  I grew up on the west coast where my father had worked as a mariner on the steamships going from Vancouver to Prince Rupert and all points in between.  He had always dreamed of one day getting a zodiac (the generic name for RIB) and going boat camping on the coast. The idea had always been in my mind.  After living on Salt Spring for 15 years and owning 2 snail boats I came to the conclusion sailboats are great for sailing but almost useless for getting to too few beaches and exploring.   RIBs are the perfect boat for the avid explorer.   The boats offer speed, safety, economy, and freedom to pull into almost any beach at any time.

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Route map counterclockwise from Long Harbour

Our trip started on a slow note with Keith, who is 17, dragging and making me load and prep all the gear.  All he had to do was get his life jacket and a few clothes.  We made it to the boat launch in Long Harbour on Salt Spring Island and Keith realized he had forgotten his life jacket.   Instead of yelling at him I just gave him mine and drove the car home and met him at the beach off Walkers Hook.  To me, life jackets are something that needs to be worn on a boat at all times by all.  As an ex-army Combat diver who spent too long in the cold water, I know the shock of going overboard only too well.  I’m always surprised at how few wear their life jackets while on the water.   I do know once something happens it’s too late to put one on.

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Abandoned dock on North Tip of Galliano Island
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Abandoned coast guard dock North tip of Galliano Island

We were finally on the water and headed for Dionisio Point on the north tip of Galliano Island.   Note to readers some of the Gulf Islands were named by the Spaniards and some were named by the English.   The thing about the park is one has to go through the fast-running Porlier Pass to get to the park.   The tide rip in the pass is amazing hitting 6-8 knots with standing waves and whirlpools.   We were going with the tide and bobbing along slowly.  I had the chart plotter right in front of me and we still managed to hit a rock.  It is a treacherous waterway.  Luckily it was a glancing blow with no damage done.   We made it to the beach and surveyed the campsites.   The wind was blowing into the bay and with a combination of swirling water, current and wind it was not somewhere I wanted to anchor to the Rib.  We shoved off and headed north.

We were going past Valdes Island and spotted an abandoned town site.  Later I read it was First Nations land.  We went to the beach to explore and it was a little on the creepy side.  We found an old graveyard that has gone into total disrepair.  Seems as if ‘old Bill’ had a good long life and his marker is one of the few that was not smashed or defaced.

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After paying respect to the pioneers we walked out to the point only to find more abandoned homes.  The place seemed very odd and not welcoming.  

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We pushed on.  Sometimes it is better not to stick around a place that is not welcoming.  As we proceeded up the island we spotted a campground on the beach.  This was a welcome sight.  Campers and people having fun.  The day was early we did not stop.  We went around the next corner only to find a float home with 

a naked person waiting to greet us.  Later we found out we had met the crazy Pete of Valdes Island.  He seemed like he wanted to chat but it was a little too much to see.  We moved on and headed up to the Silva Bay area off Gabriola Island.  It seemed very busy with mega West Van yachts and no apparent campground.   We had fun blasting through the various channels and bays.   With one last blast down False narrows and then back through Dodds narrows we headed back to Blackberry Point on Valdes Island (the campground we had passed).   We beached and set up camp in short order.

We settled down for the night. I was just telling Keith about Brother x11 who had lived on Valdes. Nothing like adding a little drama to the night. My knowledge of Brother x11 cult was very limited but the rumour of buried gold is a good way to keep the adventure real. I was just having my supper and a small pod of Killer whales happened to swim by our campsite.

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The whales made for a memorable bowl of soup. What a sunset it was, a perfect ending, for our first day out.

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The next day we realized we needed water and the staple of camping (potato chips) so we packed up and headed to Chemainus on Vancouver Island.  I had read about their new dock and wanted to try it out. Note to the reader; the article I read was from the Mayor and the regulatory hassle of putting in the dock and having to deal with 27 different bureaucratic agencies. At first, we could not find it because of the ferry Kuper and a full-size freighter almost blocked it in. It is too bad I did not have a photo the dock was really shoehorned between the two large ships.   The unique 49th Parallel grocery store is right there at the top of the ramp.  It’s a very odd store with everything from used furniture to a small deli.  We found the water, chips and a few other treats and headed back out on the water.  No man can survive by just eating chips we needed real food so we made our way to the Genoa Bay cafe in Genoa Bay which is a tiny little protected harbour off Cowichan Bay.   I had read the cafe’s great reviews and always wanted to try it out and needless to say, it was fantastic.   Keith had to roll me onto the boat after that scrumptious meal a little nappy cabin would have come in handy at that point in time.  Now we were stuffed and tired and looking for a port to call home for the night.  Sidney spit was not that far away and if not too busy a perfect spot to camp.    We managed to squeeze into a spot on the dock.  We really did feel a little out of place.  Most of the boats had their second wives on deck.   Leaving the second wives club at the dock we headed out on the 1.2 km trails to the campground with all our gear in a cart provided by the parks board.    I had thought the park might be full.  It was almost empty with only two other campers.   We paid for our moorage and campsite (approx $20) via envelope and a steel lock box vault was provided.

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that is me


The campsite was the site of an old brickyard dating back 100 years.  Our particular site was at the kiln.

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The odd thing was the sign that Parks Canada had up said this was a sensitive ecosystem and banned all boats from the lagoon.  I must say I have never seen a former brick factory posted as a sensitive ecosystem but then again what’s not a sensitive ecosystem.   Before bed, we went on a little hike out to the end of the spit.   Keith went to the end and I waited for him at the halfway point.  I figured if the tide came in fast someone would have to go get the boat and be the rescue party.   The beaches on Sidney Island are made of silky smooth sand.  We headed back to camp along the east side of the island not knowing there was no access off the beach.   There is a vertical cliff of approx 100 ft going all away around the east side of the island.  What to do? Most would turn around and go back but being me we bashed on and found a spot where the deer made small trails up the cliff.  We managed to crawl up the cliff on the very stinky trail.  Luckily we were parallel to the campsite after a good wash up we took in the gorgeous sunset. We slept well after the last jet came into Victoria International airport.  Maybe this is why the campsite is almost empty, it’s under the flight line.

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The next morning we got up and moved the boat to where we could load it.  As we were loading the boat 3 20ish beer-drinking bikini-clad girls were using a small sheet of plywood as a surfboard on the sandy beach.  I think they wanted Keith to help them surf. Keith is too young to drink beer so we left them for their fun.   I’m sure someone would be by to help them learn how to beach surf.   Off we went heading east with a shortcut through USA water.  We went past Stewart Island lighthouse and waved to the people on the hill.  I’m really not sure why people in boats wave at people on the land, it does seem odd, but why stop something that is fun to do.

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USA light house Stewart Island Washington State

As we skirted south of Saturna Island the wind kicked up with gusts up to approx 20 plus knots which made it rather wet in the open boats so we got in close to the shore of Saturna.  Being a real estate agent I could not help myself and had to take a couple of photos of the unique homes that are perched on the south-facing high bank.  One we called the lawyer’s home because it was built split up into two homes and the other was the pope’s home with a spot to stand and give Sunday mass.

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Pope house

On the southeast tip of Saturna is a park with an old lighthouse “East Point” from a bygone era it’s the west coast version of Peggy’s cove without the tourist.

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Once we rounded the corner of Saturna the wind hit us will full force.  It was a long haul up to Cabbage Island campground only to find it was full and besides not a good spot for a RIB on a bungee hook.

rough water

We decided to push through to boat passage and back to protected waters.  It had been a long day of banging around in the boat with nothing to eat but chips.  Once through the very narrow boat passage we made a beeline to the pub on Saturna for a late lunch.

Pub food is always good for the soul especially when one is not a good cook and the thought of eating our rations was not that appealing.

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After stuffing ourselves we headed off to Bedwell harbour via the canal between North and South Pender.   Keith drove at the speed limit.  I was trying to goat him into doing a James Bond full-speed pass but he is just so practical and cautious.   Our last night was all quiet no beer-drinking girls there to pester us.   Other than a fantastic breakfast at the pub on Pender, it was calm last day run home.

The odd thing while out on the trip was my good friend Danial at Harbour End Marina on Salt Spring emailed me to say that he finally has insurance on his rental RIB that he has ready to rent. I had told him I would be his best customer and rent it from him but did end up buying our boat. So if you want to boat around the Gulf Islands and make a similar trip Daniel is your man.

Equipment checklist;

Stove, coffee pot, sleeping bags, tent, camera (extra foam to sleep on, we skimped on this and it was not good), and whatever else you manage to bring along including your life jackets (and please do wear them). Do not forget your life jacket at home.  Another thing you will need is a 5-pound anchor with 30 feet of bungee anchor line and 200 ft of line to tie to shore.  It’s amazing how well the RIB sits on a small anchor.

One last note. When we pulled out of the dock on Pender on our way home we idled past about 30 – 40 bigger boats and I was so proud of our little RIB and our camping gear. We were free to pull into any beach at any time and it felt great. Thanks, dad (Keith Simmons) only wish you were still with us and able to make the trip.

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Cheers Scott and Keith Simmons from Salt Spring Island BC

6 thoughts on “Boat camping in Gulf Islands British Columbia”

  1. Great article. My 14 year old son and I are planning on doing something similar this summer in our 21 foot cuddy. So far I have found very little info like this available online so thanks for posting this.
    Our boat is bigger but I would like to hear about your anchoring system and what other boats use.
    Please from me a line if you can find the time.
    Grant Brown,
    White Rock, BC

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