Two years after Pirates Cove Marine Park opened in 1966 with the assistance of the Council of British Columbia Yacht Clubs, my first husband and I anchored there aboard the 30-foot sport fishing boat he had just finished building. We fell in love with the island and impulsively bought a half-acre from the enterprising realtor who had set up shop there. It overlooked Dodd Narrows and cost a little over $5,000. I recall that we dove off the boat that day into the cove’s warm waters and that for dinner we collected a few of the gigantic oysters that used to line the shore. We felt fine with both activities because the cove had scant boats in those early days and no licenses were needed then to harvest shellfish.
Today my forever partner and skipper, David Dossor, and I are roaming the outer rim of the peninsula that makes up most of De Courcy’s 38-hectare parkland on its southeast end. The views over Pylades Channel to Valdes Island are majestic and a pair of black oystercatchers are swooping and calling just overhead, but our eyes are riveted to the ground. We’re looking for signs of Brother XII’s nefarious activities; not the gold in glass jars rumoured to be hidden on the island but one of the forts he built at his headquarters here toward the end of the Aquarian Foundation’s tenancy. According to John Oliphant’s meticulous research in his biography Brother XII, the Brother, who changed his name to Amiel de Valdes in 1931, had several forts built in the area. He seemed to be preparing for an invasion, going so far as to hand out written instructions to his disciples, “Details for point defense” and assign them four-hour shifts of sentry duty. Strange, I thought, that a prophet of enlightenment would have weapons like this on his spiritual sanctuary. Occasionally, boaters coming into the cove or too close to the shore would be fired on.
Long time De Courcy resident, John Naylor, had earlier told us about the forts and where to look for one. He mentioned this while he was showing us inside the impressive fire hall that he had helped build to house the island’s fire truck and to serve as a community hall. Outside, an expansive roof sheltered the long and meticulously crafted picnic table, itself a work of art. In the field was a bonfire in readiness for the colder, wetter weather of winter. Seeing the well-equipped kitchen in the fire hall I could envision the events that could happen here. The island population of no more than 20 permanent residents is well served. He also manages a series of wetlands on De Courcy’s one farm as a water source for fire. The farm also has a mill, which Naylor uses to produce various products, and a stall by the fire hall with produce in season.
Pirates Cove is a busy anchorage. Situated close to two main passes on the marine highway: Dodd Narrows, providing access to Nanaimo, and Gabriola Passage, providing passage from the mainland to the Gulf Islands’ inner waters, the park is the perfect place for skippers to wait for slack current. It also provides many pleasurable distractions while waiting such as hiking trails, beachcombing, swimming, camping, bird watching, kayaking, or simply absorbing the sunsets, the fresh air and the natural biodiversity of the island.
Although primarily second growth forest, the flora here is representative of the moist maritime coastal Douglas fir ecosystem found in the Gulf Islands, comprised of grassy clearings, low lying fens, rocky outcrops and mature forest of mixed stands of Douglas fir, arbutus and Garry oak. Oregon grape, salal, bracken fern and honeysuckle make up the understorey. Only five percent of the Garry oak ecosystem, restricted primarily to the southeast coast of Vancouver Island and the Southern Gulf Islands remains and some of it can still be seen here. Another endangered species found here, unpleasant, as it is if you trundle into it, is the poison oak.
Park managers have quite a challenge trying to balance accessibility while keeping the impact on the sensitive ecosystems low. In the case of Pirates Cove, the BC Marine Parks Management Plan includes ensuring its health along with protecting identified sensitive ecosystems, archeological sites and rare and endangered coastal and marine habitats and interesting rock formations. Quite a mandate! People like Naylor, with a long history of living and thriving in isolated areas, work closely with the parks, university research teams and other groups to provide assistance and valuable history.
Nearly everyone visiting De Courcy is familiar with Brother XII, his partner, Madame Zee, and the Aquarian Foundation he spearheaded on Gabriola, Vancouver Island and De Courcy. It was the fastest growing cult in North America in its time. Rumours of buried treasures still abound, as evidenced by the treasure chest that sits on the headland under the large park sign.
We found a circle of moss-covered stones just off the Pylades Trail. Could it be the machine gun site? Brother XII and the mystery of his buried treasure, his death and his shady past will never be fully known, but in the meantime we shrugged off the macabre feelings and strode on. We’re going swimming at the south beach where the water is reputed to be warmer and there are lots of logs to snuggle against and cold drinks in the backpack to enjoy.
Most of the marine park is located on the peninsula, with just a strip on the other side, Cove Trail, which provides easy access to the south beach, the campsites, picnic tables, the outhouse and the water pump.
The peninsula offers five kilometres of trails, and we took the longest—the Pylades Trail—along the channel of the same name, keeping a wary eye out for poison oak. It’s amazing how long three kilometres can feel, even on a level trail, when it’s 30°C and you’re dying for a swim and a drink. The Darkwoods Trail, at only one kilometre, strikes through the middle, although since the aftermath of the storm of December 2018, some of the sylvan giants that would have contributed to the darkness now lie uprooted. Brother XII Trail, which parallels the other two on the eastern shore of the cove, doesn’t even stretch one kilometre. The cove efficiently delineates the park from the rest of the privately owned island with only Cove Trail joining the two. A fence marks the southern border.
We climbed down the stairs leading to the six campsites and the beach, quenched our thirst at the hand pump, and spent a sun-soaked hour swimming, splashing and sipping. Two kayakers shared the beach with us and four boats sat at anchor. The campsites, which were originally twice as many, were developed between 1973 and 1976, but were relocated in 2001 to protect the midden upon which they had originally been constructed. The midden dates First Nations occupation back 3,000 years. No one was camping during our visit, which was surprising for a sunny early September day. However, with COVID-19 and the thick smoke forecasted from the disastrous Washington state fires, the conditions were somewhat less than perfect. Even the anchorage had been fairly quiet since we arrived; about a dozen vessels shared it with us.
The two dinghy docks, rebuilt since our last visit over a decade ago, offer access to both the northeast and the southwest sides. The 12-sided design is meant to discourage larger boats from pulling in but where there’s a will, there’s a way, and larger powerboats occupied both of the docks when we arrived. The ladders at each are sturdy and helpful and I’m embarrassed to say this time they were appreciated.
Delicious water is available at the south beach area near the campsites. It’s potable and contrary to what the 2020 Waggoner writes, does not need boiling first. One of the two outhouses is also located here. The other is near the headland close to the northeast dock.
Many boaters like to arrive early in order to watch the antics of the less fortunate or less informed as they attempt to enter the cove. There’s a reason for the white cross on a tree and white arrow on the cliff fronting the entrance. It’s essential that skippers approaching from the south not be distracted by the treasure chest sitting on the peninsula’s headland and instead line up the marks on shore before turning to port and entering between the port hand day mark and the starboard-hand buoy. The reef extends a long way northwest from the position of the day beacon and is just waiting to catch up those who try to cut the corner at the entrance to the cove.
The private marina, which has definitely expanded since our last visit to the island a decade ago, lies to the left
While Waggoner recommends stern tying, the only times we have ever dragged anchor were when we were stern tied, so we try to avoid it at all costs. Instead we head for the middle of the anchorage and drop the hook there where the holding ground is better. We have it on good authority from long time K2 Park Services operator, Dick Dowling, that the mud is just a tad thicker and stickier here. There are 24 stern tie chains set into the sandstone cliffs that encircle the bay making it extremely easy to set the stern by simply putting lines through the various links in the chain. Dowling reminds skippers to be sure to set their anchors before stern tying as, over the years, he has seen considerable mayhem when that is overlooked. He also points out that stern lines should be flagged or have a fender tied to them as some of the lines can extend a long way out and can inadvertently be run over by boaters.
The snug anchorage is protected from all seas but one can’t say the same about winds. The northwesterly wind can wreak havoc in here and we’ve frequently seen boats drag anchor. Not all holding ground is created equal, which is why we pay particular attention to local knowledge and head for the stickier mud.
Having cooled off in the south beach’s warmish waters, and then warmed up in the sun, we headed back via the road. (A fence separates the private headland from the park.) Soon, we came to the Pirates Cove Trading Company on our left; it’s a small farm stand advertising that it’s an off-grid company creating nourishing products using traditional techniques. Did that include cinnamon buns, I wanted to know, and grabbed one of the business cards I found there. The stand was deserted that day but the couple who run it, Sabrina and Dane Clark, confirmed that yes – cinnamon buns and many other goodies are on offer, including their own sauerkraut, kombucha, cookies, banana bread and more. “We believe in only eating healthy nutrient-dense ancestral foods and one way we do this is through sprouting and fermenting. This traditional way to prepare grains is used in all our baking.
We can deliver to boats too but many like the excuse to get off their boats and go for a walk.” Order in advance from their website at piratescovetradingcompany.com.
To while away the time as we waited for our cinnamon buns and kombucha to be delivered, I walked a bit farther along the road to check out both of the book swap stalls. One is at the bulletin board near the marina and the other is at the farm stall. Unfortunately, there were no eggs, fruit or veggies on offer, but it’s worth keeping an eye out on the local farm offerings in season.
Books swapped, food order placed, legs exercised, bodies refreshed, souls nourished, we made our way back to the dinghy dock down the narrow trail along the cove.
Oh no! We start to laugh. We forgot our dinghy is at the other side of the cove. Oh well, if we hurry, we can still make happy hour.
Four DO NOTS to remember:
Do NOT tie stern lines to trees.
Do NOT discharge holding tanks or grey water.
Do NOT trespass or go past the gate to the farm. Stay on the road
and respect private property.
Do NOT build campfires at any time.
If Pirates Cove is full mooring is available at the south beach anchorage near the campsite. Watch for a drying rock. It offers good protection from the NW in depths of three toeight metres in good holding in sand and mud.
Another overflow anchorage is also nearby, just north of Pirates Cove off Link Island.
What’s in a name?
Formerly known as Gospel Cove or The Haven, Pirates Cove also was named after Brother XII, who had a home built beside the cove, according to Andrew Scott (The Encyclopedia of Raincoast Place Names). De Courcy was named after Capt. Michael de Courcy, who served on the Pacific Station from 1859 to 1860 as commander of the GMS Pylades.
The dock located near the SW dinghy dock is solely for the Maple Bay Yacht Club park hosts. Kudos as well to the K2 Park Services staff who do a stellar job of keeping the park and campsite maintained.
Where’s that machine gun site? Well, Naylor told us it was about 100 feet east of the composting toilet and was marked by a circle of stones. We think we found it, but who knows?