Find your way to the nature neverland of BC rural islands

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Immerse in the natural serenity of these one-of-a-kind rural islands of BC - Cormorant, Cortes, Gabriola, Hornby and Quadra - for an experience that will rejuvenate. #exploreBCruralislands

In the search for the fountain of youth, John Barclay found the elixir of nature and activity in BC's rural islands, off the BC coast. After moving to Quadra Island in 2003, Barclay quickly joined a group of volunteers that meet weekly to build an intricate web of trails across the remote community. 

Despite having no interest in biking the trails himself, Barclay has spent his weekends moving boulders and shoveling dirt ever since. 

“I connected with people who were half my age because they were the fun ones to be with,” he said. “It’s fabulous.”

Connect with the heart of nature across these five islands to bathe in the soothing sights, sounds and scents of nature. Hiking and mountain biking trails, beaches, whale watching, sea kayaking and majestic mountain vistas are a prime reason to visit. And island locals like Barclay are always ready to welcome travellers who are seeking serenity and connection to nature’s gifts while also taking care to leave no trace. 

Barclay is over 70 years old, but he doesn’t let his age define him. While he surrounds himself with younger generations to keep active, trail building is more than that – the weekly ritual allows Barclay to immerse himself in nature.

“When you're in the natural environment, you begin to appreciate it more,” he said. “You think of yourself as being an integral part of the natural environment.”

Increasing heat waves and severe flood events across British Columbia are impacting these rural islands. Social awareness about the effect of climate change on the land, water, air and Indigenous communities are top of mind as well.

Community organizations, local businesses and residents across the islands of Cormorant, Cortes, Gabriola, Hornby, Quadra, are collectively encouraging travellers to consider their environmental impact when visiting. By practicing responsible travel, local residents hope to strengthen visitors' connection with the natural world.

Photographer: Nic Collar
An aerial view of Quadra Island.

In doing so, Barclay said he hopes they will feel inspired to care for it when visiting.

Making connections on Quadra Island: 
Wei Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum Traditional Territories 

It’s only fitting then, that the Quadra Island Salmon Enhancement Society recently partnered with the trail building committee to construct a salmon observation loop trail along Hyancinthe Creek that is nearly complete.

While most trails across the island are geared towards climbers, hikers and mountain bikers, this easy walking trail was designed for public education and interest. 

Photographer: Melissa Renwick
John Barklay at work on the bike trails on Quadra Island.

Viewing platforms were incorporated onto the trail so school groups and visitors can witness coho and chum salmon as they return from the Pacific Ocean to their natal river to spawn. Meanwhile, informational signage is posted along the trail to teach visitors about the life cycle of Hyacinthe Creek’s salmon.

Trail building started to take off on Quadra Island in the 80s. It was a different time, Barclay said, adding that the impacts of water erosion weren’t considered in the same way it is today.


#exploreBCruralislands for your own nature getaway

Now, Barclay says sustainability is at the heart of the committee’s trail building methodology. Replacing organic soil material, planting native plants (such as sword fern and deer fern) and building culverts all help prevent erosion and regulate rainwater flow in a natural way. 

Quadra Island is quickly cementing itself as a mountain biking destination, said Barclay. Biking enthusiasts from the Comox Valley and surrounding islands frequent the network of trails built into Quadra’s landscape.

Photographer: Melissa Renwick
Danielle Hagan and a friend bike the Quadra trails.

Danielle Hagan was born on Quadra Island, but the 41-year-old just got into mountain biking around 2015. Biking through moss-covered rainforests with sweeping bigleaf maple trees allowed Hagan to access terrain she wouldn’t by foot, she said. That same year, Hagan joined the trail committee. 

“The building aspect gives me a deeper appreciation for the landscape,” she said. “You’re moving slower when you’re building – you’re really thinking about how to travel through the landscape by developing where to route a trail and celebrate [forest] features.” 

In developing deeper connections to the island’s mountains and forests, Hagan said she hopes to elicit “more awareness and more concern to help preserve and protect them.”

Nature seeking on Cortes Island: Klahoose, Tla’amin, and Homalco Traditional Territory

A 40-minute ferry ride away on Cortes Island, the sky was coloured with vibrant hues of pink and purple as the sun rose over Hollyhock Beach. Motionless, George Sirk, who is more prominently known as "Nature Boy," had a pair of binoculars glued to his face.

The naturalist was on the lookout for birds, naming them off as he heard their calls like in a game of jeopardy. Sirk has been making audio recordings of wildlife expeditions for decades, which he turned into a show on local Cortes Island radio (CKTZ) titled “Nature Boy.” 

Photographer: Melissa Renwick
George Sirk, AKA "Nature Boy", scans the horizon for birds and wildlife.

By recording his experiences, he said he hopes to transport his listeners to remote locations they might not experience themselves. While Sirk might not be slinging dirt on the weekends, the premise of his show is akin to the purpose of the trail builders: to connect people to nature. 

While COVID-19 brought Nature Boy to a halt, Sirk is preparing to return to CKTZ’s radio waves at the beginning of next year.

“I think what’s being missed is the presentation of nature as it is,” he said. “Not as something that is collapsing.”

Too often, Sirk said “negativity” and “sorrow” surrounds the state of affairs on our planet, but it remains a very “rich, successful and happy place.” 

Photographer: Melissa Renwick
George Sirk at the CKTZ studio with Folk U host Manda Aufochs Gillespie on Cortes Island.

“When people talk about the planet dying, it shows to me that they don't have an understanding of how resilient the planet is,” he said. “And how many times it has gone through mass extinctions.”

In fact, he points out, birds are dinosaurs that survived the last mass extinction.

Sirk said he encourages listeners to send him audio recordings of sounds from their own backyards so he can interpret them. 

“Knowing more about the creatures we live with means we don’t need to fear them,” he said. “We respect them.”


Connect to nature when you #exploreBCruralislands

As the planet undergoes massive change, Sirk said he remains optimistic. 

“People must be optimistic,” he said. “Because if you’re not positive, you’re just going to give up.”

Whether trail building or wildlife “watching” (i.e. listening), getting out into nature is the whole goal. And this collection of five islands are rich with just such opportunities.

Here are a few more ways to connect to nature, on your own #exploreBCruralislands expedition.

Cormorant Island, Kwakwakw’akw Traditional Territory: whale watching, cultural experiences

A viewing platform at The Cabins at Alert Bay allows guests to take in ocean views at sunrise while enjoying a fresh cup of coffee. If you’re lucky, a pod of whales will greet you with their spouts in between feeding in the water down below.

A couple enjoys coffee and whale watching from the deck of their cabin on Alert Bay.

Owned by the ‘Namgis First Nation, staying at the cabins offers visitors a chance to support the nation’s economic growth on their traditional territory on Cormorant Island. Just a short way down from the cabins, you'll find the U'mista Cultural Centre, which holds a powerful collection of 'Namgis artifacts, including large masks, tools, drums, beading and craftwork.

The centre's Potlatch Collection is particularly culturally resonant, featuring returned artifacts from the Royal Ontario Museum, Victoria Museum, private collections, and even the Smithsonian Institute. 

“We were raised not just to respect ourselves, but our whole surroundings,” said Eli Cranmer, T'lisalagi'lakw School Cultural Assistant.

Following the trails on Gabriola Island, Snuneymuxw Traditional Territory

The Gabriola Land and Trails Trust was created to protect and restore natural ecosystems on Gabriola Island and nearby islands. It was designed to provide opportunities for people to explore and connect with the natural environment. 

Photographer: Logan Moore
The Gabriola Land and Trails Trust works to protect the island landscape, and encourage respectful access.

“We feel that you need to give people opportunities to connect with nature – to get out and explore the natural world – in order to gain or learn to have an appreciation for it,” said Rob Brockley, Gabriola Land and Trails Trust president.

The island's system of multi-use trails allows visitors to connect with undisturbed areas that lead you from one end of the island to the other.

Adventuring on Hornby Island, K’ómoks Traditional Territory

The Tribune Bay Outdoor Education Centre is a federally registered charity offering a variety of outdoor programs. Adventurers with or without experience are invited to try activities including, rock climbing, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, among others. 

Launching kayaks from Tribune Bay Outdoor Education Centre, on Hornby Island.

By prioritizing preservation and stewardship of the land, Kate Ortwein, Tribune Bay Outdoor Education Centre business manager, said she hopes people not only apply their teachings in Tribune Bay, but when they go home.

With white, sandy beaches, bigleaf maple trees and aquamarine water, Tribune Bay is a place for visitors to relax and enjoy the stillness of nature on Hornby Island

If you’re ready for your own nature experience, follow the examples of these islanders and head to some, or all, of these beautiful island destinations. Wander the trails, listen to nature, paddle the waters, learn about the Indigenous culture. You may even find your own fountain of youth, in the life-giving waters and lands of these rural islands. 

When You Go

It's easy being green when you #exploreBCruralislands. Here are a few tips to make it even easier.

Places to stay, things to do:

Getting there

Island hop with BC Ferries to check out all five islands:

  • Nanaimo to Cormorant (out of Port McNeill), 3 hours drive and a 40 min ferry
  • Nanaimo to Quadra (out of Campbell River), 2 hour drive and 10 min ferry
  • Nanaimo to Cortes (out of Campbell River), 2 hour drive, one 10 min ferry, 15 min drive, and one 40 min ferry 
  • Nanaimo to Hornby (out of Buckley Bay), 1.5 hour drive, one 10 min ferry, 15 min drive, and one 10 min ferry
  • Nanaimo to Gabriola, 10 min ferry from Downtown Nanaimo

For more inspiration

#exploreBCruralislands is a collaborative program between Seekers Media and the Rural Islands Economic Partnership (RIEP).

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