Gabriola is one of the largest islands in the Southern Gulf Islands and has 11 provincial, regional and community parks, so it strikes a balance between natural beauty and necessary amenities. My partner, David Dossor, and I have always been intrigued by the diversity of this kidney-shaped, 59-square-kilometre island, lived on and loved by around 5,000 residents and located five kilometres east of Nanaimo. It’s home to a plethora of shops, galleries, outlets and non stop attractions and entertainment, especially the August Theatre Festival and Thanksgiving Studio Tour.
For boaters, naturally, the first attraction is secure moorage, so we always begin our visits to Gabriola at its marine hub, Silva Bay. The first sanctuary reached when crossing the strait from the Lower Mainland, Silva Bay is well known by most boaters. The Royal Vancouver Yacht Club has had a station here at Tugboat Island since 1960, and both Silva Bay Marina and Pages Resort offer moorage. While the bay used to be a favoured anchorage of ours many years ago, times have changed and the installation of mooring buoys now makes this bay a very congested area. Ergo, these days we always book ahead at Pages Resort for our first few nights of gunkholing Gabriola.
The second attraction, for us anyway, is easy access to the rest of the island. We were delighted when Pages added mountain bikes and scooters to their inventory, and now Gertie, the community bus, plies a regular route to the village and other island destinations so boaters wanting to get off their vessel and explore the island will find it easy to do. As we pull into the marina in the mid-afternoon, we are greeted like old friends by Gloria and Ken Hatfield.
Pages Resort & Marina Originally a fish camp, Pages became a resort in 1943 when the manager of the camp, Kanshiro Koyama, was evacuated during the war and the owner of the lease, Wilf Taylor, had had enough. Two fishermen from Galiano, Les and Jack Page, revived it and it became Page Bros. Store & Fish Camp. In 1969, Les bought out Jack’s family and in 1980 he and his wife built the current home and office around the old one on the bluff overlooking the bay. In 1987, the resort/marina was sold to Ted and Phyllis Reeve and 20 years later, in 2007, the present owners took over.
They’ve made some welcome changes to the marina, upgrading the power to 30 amps and adding 20 new slips in 2014, a good thing seeing as Silva Bay Marina now has less transient berths and the third marina in the bay (Silva Bay Inn, previously called the Silva Bay Boatel) offers no transient moorage at all. Gloria, who became president of the Gabriola Chamber of Commerce a year ago, says: “Living at Page’s and meeting every single guest as they arrive has allowed us to know firsthand what we could do to make a better experience for them. We started with an overhaul of our washroom facilities and two years ago we also completed a rebuild of the fuel dock.”
The office also has a good selection of charts, books and confections and cold drinks. There’s a shower and toilet block, gas and diesel, cottage rentals and a grassy campsite in the orchard. They also rent kayaks.
Silva Bay Marina’s pub and restaurant can be accessed by tender, or by a shortcut along a footpath through the forest.
Silva Bay Marina The second moorage choice is Silva Bay Marina. It came into being in the 1960s, when the owner of the shipyard, Les Withey, began developing a marina along with a pub and restaurant, expanding the few log floats that had been there earlier. The marine ways was also relocated from the other side of the wharf ramp. Withey sold the marina in 1968 to Silva Bay Resorts and since then the facility has had many owners and was at one time a hotel and spa, which burnt down in 1981.
Jenny Ireland has been marina manager here for nine years and it’s a busy marina, hosting rendezvous, permanent boaters and a slew of transient boaters in the summer months. “A & B docks are for transients,” she tells us. “We have a little less moorage now for transients as 11 of the berths have been turned into permanents.” With the closing of the Silva Bay Shipyard School, the once bustling area is a little quieter, but visitors will still find the bar and grill, the seaplane base, a liquor store, a large ablution block with laundry and showers and a good little ship’s chandlery. The shipyard is now a do-it-yourself facility and there’s a 12-ton Travelift. The Pier Gallery Artists Collective, featuring the work of 16 local artists and five guest artists, also graces the area; look for the red door. Just a short jaunt up the road is a hand hewn log church worthy of a visit. Our Lady of Victory church was built in 1924 on land donated by John Silva and services are still held here. We walk around the building admiring the cross, the grotto, the angel and the handiwork of the builders.
On day two we rent mountain bikes and make our way down North Road past forests and a nature reserve to the museum on South Road. just past the village and back along South Road.
Museum We never leave without visiting the museum and the surrounding petroglyph park. The large, attractive building opened in 1995 through the efforts of the Gabriola Historical and Museum Society, which formed nine years earlier. Be sure to visit and view the 30-minute film, Stories of Silva Bay. Other exhibits include visual displays, artifacts and panels: Brick by Brick, the story of the brickyard, Gabriola Roots, The Land Provides, and Free Spirits, the story of Gabriola’s waves of occupants, from First Nations to hippies. There’s also a guidebook on Gabriola’s marine life (BeachQuest).
In the petroglyph park are found replicas of some of the over 70 ‘glyphs’ found on Gabriola and the surrounding islands. Carved into sandstone bedrock or boulders, from tideline to hillsides, sometimes together and sometimes singly, they were discovered under layers of soil and moss by Mary and Ted Bentley in the 1970s. The combinations of animal and human shapes, some almost whimsical, others mysterious, are a fascinating look at early First Nations history.
There’s time left over for us to visit Mad Rona’s café for killer carrot cake and cappuccinos, to check out the Emporium now taking residence in the two-storey building that used to be Artworks and to wander around the rest of the outlets in Folklife Village. We cycle on in the afternoon heat, relishing the cool breath of breezes on South Road.
Percy Anchorage and the Green’s Landing Wharf We roll down the hill and brake suddenly as we see the dirt road that leads to the Green’s Landing and Gabriola’s first wharf, built in June of 1878. When the various governments tried to divest themselves of its responsibility, a group of volunteers in the Green Wharf Preservation Society saved it. There’s not a lot of room on this tiny dock at the western end of False Narrows, but it’s a pretty little spot to tie up if heading south and waiting for slack at Dodd. The proximity to Mudge Island makes this section of Gabriola a favoured spot for runabouts heading over to properties on Mudge. Percy Anchorage, just east of Green’s Landing, offers good temporary anchorage in its shell bottom.
I also want to check out Brickyard Beach at the bottom of the hill, a small park with a picnic table and shoreline festooned with broken bricks from the time the area hummed with Chinese contract labourers producing up to a staggering 80,000 bricks a day by hand, helping to build the towns and cities of the province from the 1890s right up to 1951. After a short rest, we cycle another block and then down to a busy boat launch where families are returning and leaving in small runabouts for Mudge Island.
It’s definitely time to get back to Pages. The sun is almost over the yardarm.
Gabriola’s Northeastern Shore and Gabriola Sands Provincial Park So, on day three, with favourable tide and wind, we’re ready to guide an eager Aquila out into the Strait of Georgia through Commodore Passage between Acorn and Tugboat islands, giving Shipyard Rock a wide berth to starboard. The forecast for the next few days is a settled one, so the plans are to sail up the island’s northeastern shore where most of the island’s 15 public beach accesses are located, pass Orlebar Point on Gabriola’s northern point, the closest point to Entrance Island, keeping the red buoy in Forwood Channel to starboard and then on two miles to Pilot Bay. This bay, one of the two joined by a narrow isthmus, makes up what the locals call Twin Beaches (Gabriola Sands Provincial Park). Pilot Bay was so called because pilot boats would head out from here to guide ships into Nanaimo Harbour. It’s a fair anchorage surprisingly sheltered from northwesterlies but we anchor well out as it’s very shallow. It’s not far around to Taylor Bay, which also offers anchorage in settled conditions. The 1.5-hectare park also has toilets, picnic areas and grassy fields. A sleepy miniscule mall is located just up the road, home to the Roxy Theatre, which shows an interesting selection of films. Check out what’s on by visiting the Gabriola Chamber of Commerce website.
I love these anchorages for their incredible sugar sands and tropical feel. Because both beaches shelve slowly, the water is warm and the sea bottom soft and friendly. Another great reason to anchor here is its proximity to the famous Malaspina Galleries. Just a short walk away, this landmark formed by wind and wave erosion centuries ago was revered by First Nation people way before the Spanish visited in 1792. The massive sandstone overhang resembles a huge wave about to crash on to the ledge and its occupants. We decide to spend two days at anchor here as the weather is perfect for both swimming and overnighting and tomorrow we’ll walk two kilometres to Descanso Bay rather than sail over. As it’s the location of the Nanamo-Gabriola ferry terminal, the area is busy. In Spanish, Descanso means ‘small bay of rest.’
We want to check out the abandoned giants to be found here—huge millstones manufactured in the 1930s when they were in demand for the pulp mills. Then it’ll be time for a cold drink at the Skol Pub at the ferry terminal before heading back for a swim and another happy hour. Life’s tough.
Back through Commodore and Gabriola Passages to Degnen Bay It’s day five now. Time to retrace our wake and head back for slack at Gabriola Passage, now bound for Degnen Bay. In the narrowest section of the passage we favour the north side close to Josef Point. It’s a short jaunt but we’re on a mission to check out if anything has changed in this anchorage since our last visit. The 190 feet of dock space here is always crowded but because Aquila is only 25 feet we are able to squeeze in on the inside dock near the ramps. Unlike many public docks on the Gulf Islands, Degnen Bay offers power and garbage collection. No water, however.
If we hadn’t found dock space we would have dropped anchor in the sheltered outer area.
There are two great attractions to walk to from here so we stay two nights. The first is Drumbeg Bay, a favourite of ours. We pack a picnic and head to the 20-hectare park where we munch lunch on one of the three headland benches while watching boats transit Gabriola Passage. It’s about a four-kilometre round-trip walk.
The second attraction, which we visit in the afternoon, is the short petroglyph trail found behind the Gabriola United Church on South Road, about two kilometres return. A sign here gives visitors some idea of what to look for. It’s only about a fiveminute walk before we discover the first of many bedrock carvings in the forest. There are approximately 50 to be found here but we have never seen more than a quarter of those and some are very faint. These amazing finds spent a long time under moss and forest debris before being discovered. Try not to step on the bedrock as this ancient art is rapidly being degraded. (One of the reasons why the museum has created replicas of the petroglyphs in its own park.) Day seven and time to head home to Pender Island. It has been a perfectly balanced trip of sailing, cycling, indulging, exploring and relaxing.
When can we do it again?
If You Go
Pages Resort & Marina
Silva Bay Marina
Gabriola Chamber of Commerce
Bertie the Bus’s schedule
Gabriola’s August Theatre Festival info
The Thanksgiving Art Studio Tour
Gabriola’s museum and info on petroglyphs
Gabriola’s walking trails
The Haven Resort & Centre for Transformative Learning