Tag Archives: Desolation Sound

Woman looks out to sea while the sun sets

Exploring Cortes Island

My first morning on Cortes Island, I open my eyes tentatively. Thanks to gale force winds and a string of cancelled ferries, we arrived the previous day much later than planned. This is my first glimpse of our cabin in the daylight.

I sit up in bed and find I haven’t pulled the blinds. Outside the window, an American Robin flutters around a golden arbutus tree. Beyond that is the sea, now calm and inviting. There’s an oyster farm and I watch as the owner chugs his boat across the inlet. We soon grow accustomed to his singing, a new tune marking the start and end of each working day.

I creep downstairs and assess my surroundings. I quickly conclude that it’s my dream home. This cabin has obviously been built with love. Everything is made from wood, and every piece of timber looks like it’s been carefully selected and skilfully handled. Even the sawdust toilet is a work of craftsmanship.

Woman looks over sea while the sun sets with a fire in the foreground
Living the good life on Cortes Island

The open plan living space is full of quaint, cosy furniture with a wood-burner to boot. The large windows provide sweeping views across Gorge Harbour. In the distance, you can make out the snow-capped mountains of Vancouver Island. It makes you want to sit here all day, staring out to sea.

If you did, you’d soon realise that this is a prime spot for bird-watching. Twitchers will be delighted at the variety of birds that visit the area, with everything from hummingbirds to vultures. Seals also make a frequent appearance in the inlet and seem completely unfazed when we launch ourselves off the rocks to swim, fish and kayak.

Woman looks through binocular while sitting in wood cabin
Bird-watching from the cabin

After making a pot of tea, I spot something else on the horizon. It’s my boyfriend, who’s taken the canoe out to drop a crab pot. As it turns out, our equipment is surplus to requirements. You can walk to the shoreline below the cabin and scoop out red rock crabs with a net, along with oysters the size of your hand.

Man holds four large oysters
Oysters the size of your hand

During our stay, fresh seafood becomes a daily staple. Every evening we stoke the fire in the outdoor pit, grill a few oysters and crack open a crab claw. If we’ve been to Manson’s Landing, we’ll also cook up a pot of butter clams on a bed of pine needles, conveniently collected from the foot of a nearby tree.

Man and woman cook oysters and clam on an outdoor fire
Cooking up oysters and clams

It’s an idyllic way to live, sourcing food from your doorstep and cooking it as the sun sets over the Salish Sea. Self-sufficiency is a way of life on Cortes Island, it seems. There’s a strong counter-culture vibe here, too, with a focus on community spirit. People even wave to you while driving, no matter that you’re a tourist.

Dinner spread on an outdoor table
Dinner of freshly caught oysters and clams, served with homemade pickles and bread

In April, it’s also extremely quiet. I hear the island gets busy during the summer months, even if it does take three ferries to get here from Vancouver. At this time of year, the only other visitors appear to be boaters – a frequent sight amongst this smattering of islands in Desolation Sound, known collectively as the Discovery Islands.

By day we explore the island. The hikes up to Easter bluffs and Green Mountain are relatively short, but provide beautiful views across the region. We enjoy mostly good weather. It’s either luck, or the fact that the southerly half of Cortes Island is in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island, making it drier and warmer.

Woman sleeps on mossy rocks
Chilling at Easter Bluffs
Two women stand on high elevation rock
Green Mountain

The day we head to Ha’thayim (Von Donop) Marine Provincial Park, however, it pours. We delay our start, meaning we don’t have time to reach our destination of Cliff Peak. It’s slow going in the forest, as fallen trees block your path, forcing you to clamber up and under the debris. Even so, it’s a magical place – ancient, remote and full of wolves.

Two women make their way over fallen trees in a forest
Clambering our way through Ha’thayim (Von Donop) Marine Provincial Park
Woman walks through an overgrown forest
Walking in wolf country in Ha’thayim (Von Donop) Marine Provincial Park

As our five-day trip comes to an end, I can see how people might come here to visit and stay forever. It’s that place you move to in search of the good life. The atmosphere is laid-back and friendly. There’s a vibrant community, should you want it. But there is wilderness too, full of Mother Nature’s finest produce.

If I could just get a wood cabin here, I’d be as happy as a butter clam.

How to get to Cortes Island

If you live on the mainland, getting to Cortes Island requires three ferries and a healthy dose of dedication.

Firstly, get to Vancouver Island. Then take a ferry from Campbell River to Quadra Island, which has a crossing time of 10 minutes. Drive across Quadra Island to Heriot Bay. Take the ferry from Heriot Bay to Whaletown on Cortes Island, which has a crossing time of 45 minutes.

Alternatively, you can access Cortes Island via plane or seaplane.

Top tip – if you’re on Quadra Island waiting for the ferry, enjoy a drink and a game of pool at the Heriot Bay Inn. Don’t forget that ferries may not operate in adverse weather conditions.

Where to stay on Cortes Island

The main settlements on Cortes Island are Whaletown, Manson’s Landing and Squirrel Cove. If you have a car, it is very easy to drive around the island, which opens up your options in terms of accommodation.

There’s lots of rental accommodation available – just search on AirBnB.

Camping is available at Gorge Harbour Marina Resort and Smelt Bay Provincial Park.

What to do on Cortes Island

  • Hike to Easter Bluffs and Green Mountain
  • Hike through Ha’thayim (Von Donop) Marine Provincial Park and have lunch at Von Donop Inlet. Continue to Cliff Peak if you have time. Keep an eye out for wolf poo!
  • Get a chocolate brownie from Cortes Natural Food Co-op
  • Collect butter clams at Manson’s Landing at low tide – be sure to get a fishing licence, take only what you need, and be wary of red bloom.
  • Eat some local oysters
  • Get a kayak and explore the coves, inlets and beaches

Things to know

  • Most of the island’s amenities are found in Manson’s Landing
  • You can get groceries at Cortes Natural Food Co-op and Cortes Market, which also sells alcohol
  • The island is 25km long and 13km wide, so you could survive on a push bike, although there are most definitely some hills
  • People will wave to you while driving – it’s a thing, just go with it
Kayaks landed on East Curme Island

Kayaking in Desolation Sound

We’ve been paddling for two and a half hours. My arms are heavy. My nose prickles under the midday sun, and I quietly wonder how much further we’ve got left.

We’ve already navigated our double kayak through the quiet waters of the Okeover Inlet and now Desolation Sound Marine Park stretches ahead of us. There are more than 6,350 acres of shoreline and water here, and now the winds have picked up, it’s become much choppier.

As waves break against the kayak and soak my lap, I become increasingly fearful of capsizing. To distract myself, I keep my eyes fixed on the view. We’re encased by layer upon layer of tree-clad mountains, each with their own hue. It’s quintessentially Canadian, and it’s nothing short of stunning.

But here’s the thing about sea kayaking – you don’t move very fast. The view can remain the same for hour upon hour, and after a while, your eyes start to play tricks on you.

And that’s when I saw it. Or did I?

A black fin, poking through the water.

“Orca!” I yell.

“Walker?” my boyfriend politely enquires, pandering to my habit of pointing out every man, bird or beast in the vicinity.

“Fin!” I shout. Apparently, I can only muster one word at a time when I’m excited.

“No”, he replies, “no chance!”

And then it breaches. And so does a second. It’s a mother and her calf.

“Whales!” I squeal. Now he believes me.

We immediately stop paddling and sit in silence, hardly breathing, worried that even a whisper will prompt them to dive under. They swim past us, just 30 metres away, gliding through the water in perfect unison.

Then they are gone, back to the watery depths. The entire episode lasts less than a minute, but the memory will stay with me for a lifetime. It’s only the second time I’ve ever seen an orca in the wild, and it’s my first sighting from a kayak.

We were later told by the folks at Powell River Sea Kayak, from whom we had rented our sea-going vessels, that we were incredibly fortunate to have seen orcas. Although they’re not unheard of in Desolation Sound, it’s by no means an everyday occurrence.

After waiting another five minutes to make absolutely certain they wouldn’t resurface nearby, we continued on our way. By now the fatigue had miraculously vanished, only to be replaced by frenzied chatter, toothy grins and a rapid paddling pace.

Kayaking with seals

The seals on their rocky perch

We made short work of the remainder of the journey and soon reached our destination: the Curmes Islands.

If we thought the day couldn’t get any better, we were wrong. This tiny cluster of islands is more akin to the Mediterranean than the Pacific Northwest. Warm azure waters lap gently against rocky outcrops, scraggly trees sprout from scorched earth, and the vast seascape is punctuated by countless uninhabited islands.

Those wishing to spend the night here must purchase a backcountry permit in advance, and due to the delicate nature of the ecosystem, are asked only to camp on the tent pads provided.

Consequently, the next 30 minutes are spent running around like breathless maniacs, deciding precisely which spot would be the best. Despite being warned the Curmes Islands would be busy, there are few other people here, and the choice is ours. In reality, the exercise is futile, as the view from each wooden platform is jaw-dropping.

Woman looks out over Desolation Sound Marine Park

A wooden tent pad on East Curme Island

Once camp is finally set up and the kayak has been hauled above the tideline (which was much, much higher than anticipated), the activity is suddenly over. Now there’s nothing left to do but indulge in our Robinson Crusoe fantasies. The rest of the day is spent swimming, fishing and just sitting and watching.

I follow the exploits of the nearby seals whose rocky perch becomes increasingly smaller as the tide rises, only to disappear completely – much to their annoyance. I watch the sail boats motor lazily on by. And I track the progress of the blistering hot sun, until it finally dips below the horizon, causing reds and purples to bleed like ink across the sky.

Days later, when I’m back in Vancouver, the presenter of the TV show I’m watching poses the question – ‘who gets to live in paradise?’

I did, I think. Just for a night.