Southern Gulf Islands

Among the Stars

Past and present, sea and sky tell the story of the Southern Gulf Islands

by Peg Fong

Shutterstock.com

Out in a small boat off Mayne Island, midway between Victoria and Vancouver, there’s a perfect spot, a place where the timeless beauty of the night sky surrounds you. The only manmade light is a dull glimmer from the folding slopes of the Tsartlip First Nation on the Saanich Peninsula about 45 kilometres away. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, the sky fills with a stunning tapestry of stars, a vast panorama rarely seen by urban dwellers.

There are hundreds of islands and islets in the Salish Sea’s Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The Southern Gulf Islands group includes Salt Spring Island — the largest and most populous — and the “outer islands”: Galiano, Mayne, Pender and Saturna. This is a story of life on those outer islands, from the hardscrabble past to the easygoing present, through the eyes of those who live there.

For Mamie Hutt-Temoana, the stars shine brightest on Pender Island, where she moved from Vancouver five years ago. And it’s not just her: astronomers and stargazers often stay at the Salmonberry Inn, her bed-and-breakfast, just to get their fill of a night sky free from light pollution.

“Some nights we just sit outside and the stars are as far as the eye can see,” she says. When the stars make way for the sun, Hutt-Temoana explores her island home. She and her three dogs set off for long walks along the ocean or up rocky bluffs to meadows and forests. With wildlife from the sea to the sky — including more than 100 bird species — there is much to see.

For Hutt-Temoana, Pender is the perfect spot. It’s not as busy as Salt Spring and not as small, population-wise, as Saturna. The island’s two separate parts, connected by a bridge, have a quiet side, South Pender, for those seeking solitude, while North Pender has an active community with more to offer families and kids.

STAYING CONNECTED

Island life isn’t right for everyone — and for decades, it wasn’t right for Eva Hage. She first purchased her home on Saturna in 1996 and began going to the island on weekends and holidays. The idea of living there permanently seemed too isolating.

Hage grew up in a small community in her native Sweden, and she never thought she could go back to one. But she and her husband, who had Vancouver office jobs, decided recently that they were ready to be on Saturna full-time. Technology had made island living practical for them.

“In the beginning, we didn’t have good Internet access on the island. Now we do, and that allows me to stay in touch with clients,” Hage says. A business consultant, she still needs to spend time in Vancouver. “But this is our permanent home. I sleep so much better here. When I’m gone, it’s not home — it’s not Saturna.”

DIFFERENT VIEW

For some with deep roots on the Gulf Islands, the love of island life and the lure of the larger world can be in conflict.

John Pender’s great-grandfather was the first permanent settler on South Pender back in 1886. (The name is likely pure coincidence, although Pender’s family believes there may be a distant connection to explorer Cmdr. Daniel Pender, for whom the islands were named in the mid-1800s.)

“Some of our first lessons in life from our father, grandmother and grandfather were about how to live with water and how to respect it”
— Galiano Island resident Rosemary Georgeson

Pender spent summers and holidays on the island beginning in 1952. He lived in Vancouver and Nanaimo, moving to the island briefly in the 1980s but soon leaving.

In 2003, he decided it was time to settle full-time, like his family generations before, on Pender Island.

When he visited the island as a boy in the 1950s and ’60s, rough, unlit dirt roads were the route from the top of North Pender to the southern tip of the south island. “It was kinda scary at times — and the view was different then,” Pender says. “When you drove along the water, you could see all the way to Saturna.”

That’s because logging, a mainstay (along with fishing) of the Gulf Islands economy for much of the 20th century, had stripped the old-growth cedar and fir forests right to the water’s edge.

The 120-hectare Pender family farm had been cleared in the 19th century by hand and with oxen. The family took boat trips to shop and play darts or tennis, or to the Saturna Lamb Barbecue — a July 1 highlight, as it is today. The water was also the transport route for huge log booms pulled by tugboats to lumber mills.

LIVING WITH WATER

Commercial logging and fishing have all but vanished now — gone are the days when Rosemary Georgeson’s family depended on both for their Galiano Island livelihood. Georgeson’s great-grandfather Henry (Scotty) Georgeson made his way from Scotland to San Francisco then to the BC coast, lured by gold fever in the 1860s.

In time, he and his First Nations wife Sophie became pioneering lighthouse keepers along Active Pass, the shortest route between southern Vancouver Island and the mainland, guiding ships past hazards on what can at times be a treacherous route.

“Water for us is not just for travelling over,” Georgeson says. “It is what’s beneath us and above us. Some of our first lessons in life from our father, grandmother and grandfather were about how to live with water and how to respect it.”

“WHAT IT ONCE WAS”

To make a life on the Gulf Islands as the early settlers did, before ferry service, electricity, telephones and the Internet, required determination. Work in the forests and on the water was hard and dangerous. Until the 1960s, there wasn’t much to lure the general public to island life. “No one really wanted to be here,” Georgeson says.
But then, as regular ferry service and more amenities were put into place, longtime residents saw more people arriving on Friday nights — people who, it turned out, had bought weekend homes. “There were massive wall-to-wall loads of people. Then on Sunday they would reappear and load back on the ferry. For a long time, we didn’t know where all of them went.”

They weren’t coming to farm, log or fish, but to seek a relaxed, quiet break from the mainstream. And in time, some of them stayed. Restaurants and stores opened, and more tourists came.

The trees that had been logged began to grow back. They grew taller, and were protected by law. “You can see, now, what it once was,” Georgeson says. “It was a rainforest, and now it is again.”