An Adventurer’s Guide to Salt Spring Island in British Columbia

Salt Spring Island, so named for salt springs in the northern part of the island, is one of the Gulf Islands, located between the Strait of Georgia and the mainland of BC. Local expert Hans Tammemagi lets us know how we can embrace “the extremes” of the island, and all that aboard his trusty 50 cc scooter, “Big Max.”

Sunset on Salt Spring Island in BC
Sunset on Salt Spring Island in BC. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Exploring the winding country roads of Salt Spring Island aboard “Big Max”, I discovered that nothing beats riding a scooter on a sunny summer day.

OK, Big Max is only a 50-cc putt-putt scooter, but it’s perfect for the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. I planned to explore the island, in an unusual way, by visiting its “extremes.” After all, you can learn a lot about the middle by looking at the margins.

Day One of Exploring Salt Spring Island

What better way to start than heading from the ferry terminal to Salt Spring’s southeastern-most corner. I putted leisurely along country roads with hand-made signs advertising artists, fresh farm goods and warnings to slow down and watch out for garter snakes and alligator lizards. I couldn’t resist pulling over to pick blackberries from the roadside. What a delicious treat, and totally free! 

Venturing Over to Ruckle Provincial Park

Near the entrance of Ruckle Provincial Park, I was greeted by a bucolic scene of turkeys, chickens and sheep surrounding a vintage barn dating back to the 1800s. Trekking into the lush rain forest, of the park, I passed old trees whose branches were wreathed with beards of bright green moss.

Soon I was in a clearing at the very south-east point of land, and I sat with my back against a sun-warmed boulder gazing at passing boats and ferries in Swanson Channel. I relaxed, picking an apple from an old abandoned apple tree that leaned over the rocky shoreline.

As I munched, I wondered how the early settlers had lived in those ancient times.  

Summiting Mount Bruce

Heading up Mount Bruce on Salt Spring Island
Heading up Mount Bruce on Salt Spring Island with “Big Max.” Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

My next goal was the island’s highest point, Mount Bruce. I scootered along twisting roads passing the Sacred Mountain Lavender Farm, all awash in purples. As I rose, the road turned from asphalt to dirt, perhaps a warning of what lay ahead. From gaps in the trees the view was grand and sweeping, revealing a patchwork of farms and the sun glistening on the Salish Sea dotted with dozens of islands.

Nearing the summit, the road became steep and rocky and Big Max struggled. The summit was home to eight tall communication towers hung with white saucers, but there were no amenities other than the impressive views.

Without a doubt, I had come to a seldom-visited corner of the island.

Visiting the Eclectic Salt Spring Farmers’ Market

Descending was relatively easy and soon I was heading for the Salt Spring Farmers’ Market, one of the best in British Columbia. It was bursting with paintings, carvings, sculptures, fresh farm produce, pies, breads, and jams. Everything in this visual and mouth-watering cornucopia was either grown or made on the island.

Clutching a blackberry smoothie — I love blackberries — I sought out Jayne Lloyd Jones of Spectacular Ink, a tourism PR company, and asked why tourists should visit Salt Spring. She responded:

“The island has a vibe and energy, yet it’s so close to nature. Anywhere you turn there’s something beautiful and soul-filling. People crave that and need it.”

Onwards to Southey Point

Swimmers at Southey Point on Salt Spring Island
Swimmers at Southey Point. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Next, I headed to Southey Point — inappropriately named — at the very northernmost point of the isle, where I lazed under an azure sky on rocks next to a tiny beach. A few swimmers’ heads bobbed in the water, kayaks launched for an afternoon outing and a paddleboard quietly stroked past. It was so relaxing I dozed off for a minute. 

Awakening, I mounted Big Max and rode to the nearby Sunset Farm where Sandy Robley raises sheep on 300 acres along with pet donkeys, horses, and a llama. The sheep, who eat native grasses, produce wonderful wool for knitting and felting, beautiful sheepskins, and wool comforters, blankets and pillows. Robley’s farm also produces top quality meat. I was impressed to learn Sunset Farm provided lamb for Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Victoria in the 1980’s.

Then, my putt-putt carried me to Burgoyne Bay where two totems faced west. Their arms are upraised, welcoming visitors to this island.  I sat nearby and mused about the original Indigenous inhabitants of this island, whose history goes back at least 5,000 years, and wished I had been present in 2016 at the raising celebrations for these Welcome Poles by Cowichan Master Carver Harold Joe.

Four generations of Quw’utsun Tzinquaw Dancers performed at the unveiling, which was a reminder that Coast Salish peoples were the original inhabitants of this land.

A Second Day of Adventure on Salt Spring Island

Salt Spring – A True Haven for Artists

Next morning, I rose early and photographed a spectacular sunrise over Ganges Harbour with fiery oranges and deep mauves. After a hearty breakfast, I set off to visit some art galleries. After all, Salt Spring Island, with more than 250 visual artists, is considered one of the top artists colonies in North America and the arts scene here is definitely on the extreme edge. 

Tucked away among heritage apple trees I found the gallery of Judy Weeden, whose distinctive porcelain and stoneware pottery are much sought after.

“My pots express my relationship with the powerful natural world around me,” she said.

I was mesmerized by the imaginative flair of her bowls, figures and vases, which are decorated with beautiful designs and colours. 

Heading West to Mount Erskine Provincial Park

Fairy door at Mount Erskine Provincial Park
Fairy door in Mount Erskine Provincial Park. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

My exploration of the island’s extremes wouldn’t be complete, I felt, without meeting the most unusual inhabitants. At Mount Erskine Provincial Park on the western side of this isle I began to hike.

Nearing the summit, little doors appeared on the sides of boulders or at the bottom of trees. Ah ha, I thought, I’m getting warm. I searched and searched and even left tempting food morsels and drinks but not a single fairy, troll, elf or gnome appeared.

Judging by the number of tiny doors, this area is densely populated by these creatures, but I guess they’re very shy. After a long time, I departed, disappointed not to have made the acquaintance of them.

Sipping and Reminiscing

Finally, I rode to Salt Spring Shine, the island’s only distillery, where I met Michael Papp, the master distiller, who explained, “All our spirits — Sting Gin, Hive Vodka, Apple Pie Moonshine — are made from honey rather than grains, because it yields a higher quality.”

We chatted about various cocktails and I sipped a Honeycomb Moonshine, the island’s strongest spirit, while reminiscing about the two wonderful days exploring the island. Oh to love the extremes!

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