Discovering the Discovery Islands
At the northern end of the Salish Sea, the seascape between British Columbia’s Mainland and Vancouver Island narrows dramatically, filled by a dense cluster of ten Discovery Islands. This picturesque, crazy puzzle piece of islands shrinks the seascape from a broad expanse to a maze of narrow, twisting and turning passages, inlets, arms and channels — seemingly, far more a landscape than a seascape. Boaters are never more than a few minutes from land and a sheltered cove for anchorage. National Geographic has named this collection of island jewels one of “Canada’s Places of a Lifetime”. Come and see why for yourself.
There are endless possibilities for fishing, kayaking, diving, whale watching, beachcombing and hiking. Or just listening to the silence and counting stars in an ink-black sky. May through September are recommended months for exploration. You can always find a private anchorage, but in May and September you can have the whole place to yourself, almost. Campbell River on Vancouver Island and Powell River on the Sunshine Coast are full-service starting points for your exploration. Sayward/Kelsey Bay serves as a northern entry to the islands. Many boaters provision, then cruise for a week, return and go out again. It pays to plan for considerable periods of self-sufficiency if the adventurous explorer spirit lures you into this vast wilderness area. Steep-sided inlets and channels can create barriers for both VHF and cellular coverage.
Relatively easy to access and a gateway to true wilderness and more isolated and less visited inlets and waters to the north. The Discovery Islands are a gateway and also serve as a respite for salmon before they head into the Salish Sea, the Fraser River or further south to rivers in Washington. Salmon hailing from rivers near and far pass by on their way to a river in Campbell River or to the south along the east coast of Vancouver Island. The lively tidal flows the area is famous for make for many unique points and structure to fish during all tides. Coho and Chinook through the summer months and Chum salmon in the fall.
Which way should I go?
There are countless routes among the Discovery Islands. Despite the lack of settlement on most Discovery Islands, there are nevertheless an impressive 22 marinas, some in surprisingly remote areas, offering a range of services and provisions and valuable advice. A number of marinas are associated with a wilderness resort so, if a break from galley fare or an overnight off the boat seems enticing, check out the hospitality. Use the map and search options to locate them.
Quadra and Cortes Islands
Cruising north out of the Salish Sea, you find the Discovery Islands’ two most populated and popular islands for boaters. As well as its many beaches, trails, lakes, and parks, Quadra Island (pop. 2,500) has a thriving art community (including artist studio tours) and a rich First Nations cultural experience, generously shared with guests. The Nuyumabalees Cultural Centre is the place to start with its impressive collection of historic artifacts and art exhibited with dramatic flair. Take a guided tour of nearby petroglyphs, watch traditional dancers and local artists at work, or learn how to barbecue a salmon, native style. Four full-service marinas make a stay on Quadra easy. Or just cruise the generous shoreline of this largest island in the Discovery cluster for a myriad of safe, all-weather anchorages.
Cortes Island (pop. 1,000+), to the southeast of Quadra, is roughly halfway between Powell River and Campbell River. It is an outdoor lover’s destination with five marinas and small communities with well-stocked general stores, cafés and restaurants scattered around the island. A week or two to explore the marine parks, white sand beaches, saltwater lagoons, inlets and freshwater lakes is time well spent.
But beware! In the southern waters around Quadra and Cortes, the westernmost channel known as Discovery Passage (25 km/16 mi in length and about 2 km /1.2 mi in width) has some surprises in its north/south flow wedged between Vancouver Island’s eastern shore and Quadra Island. When winds and tides conflict, some of the world’s most treacherous waters can be created. The seemingly distant Pacific Ocean flows in powerfully from both the north and south ends of 300-mile-long Vancouver Island, meeting just south of Quadra Island. This generates flood tides and challenging cruising conditions for short daily periods. However, the churning of rich nutrients from its deep waters makes the region a haven for seabirds, sea lions and seals as well as visiting humpback whales and orcas, all looking for a tasty meal. Plenty of people also flock to the area for world-class sport fishing that has made Campbell River the Salmon Capital of the World!
The Redondas and Toba Inlet
Tucked against the mainland shore, West Redonda and East Redonda islands point the way for cruisers to the breathtaking 35km-long (20 miles) Toba Inlet with the promise of ice fields, cascading waterfalls and serrated mountain vistas. At the inlet’s mouth, Toba Wildernest Marina makes a great base for exploring a remote region that few people will ever experience. The Redondas, with deeply-thrusting inlets that threaten to sever each island, offer endless wilderness adventures. There are three provincially-designated marine parks with protected anchorages but no services. Refuge Cove at the southern tip of West Redonda offers full marina facilities.
Stuart Island and Bute Inlet
Leaving the Redondas, let’s cruise north along Calm Channel spotting the abundant wildlife and heading into nowhere… until you find one of the smallest of the Discovery cluster, Stuart Island. Blocking three-quarters of the already-narrow entrance to 80km-long (50 mile) Bute inlet, Stuart Island has a bustling cluster of moorage and resort facilities, professional sport-fishing guides, eco-tours and all the local advice you could possibly absorb. Dent Island Lodge welcomes recreational yachts to its marina, spa, and gym, and gourmet restaurant. Enjoy similar comforts and adventure tours at Nanook Lodge. Civilization and wilderness meet here! We know you will sail up Bute Inlet, lured by fang-topped Mt. Waddington, highest peak in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia.
The Thurlows, Back and Beyond
Your exploration of the Discovery Islands exploration ends with the most northerly cluster of West Thurlow and East Thurlow Islands all but closing the entrance to Johnstone Strait. Pure lonely wilderness here, you might think, but not quite so. Stop in at Blind Channel Resort on West Thurlow, a four-generation family marina born of a pioneer dream in 1970 to build a resort from scratch. If you began in Campbell River, you can make this a circle tour via Johnstone Strait and the Discovery Passage. You will discover why the Discovery Islands are indeed among Canada’s Places of a Lifetime! North of the Thurlows lie the Broughton Archipelago, Great Bear Rainforest and Northern Passages. You will be tempted to keep discovering.
Main image at top of page: Moored old timer, credit Seascape Waterfront Resort