Cast Away on Galiano Island

Time takes a holiday on Galiano Island

August 12, 2015

This article was originally published in Vancouver Magazine’s July/August 2015 print issue.

First, we stock up. Sturdies Bay Bakery, close to the ferry dock on Galiano—the closest of the southern Gulf Islands to the mainland—is a funky little place that turns out coma-inducing cinnamon buns, pies, and bread. Of course, man does not live by bread alone. You also need chocolate-almond bark. It’s available (along with organic produce and much more) at Daystar Market. Across the road, at The Corner Store, we find chilled bottles of our favourite rosé.

Off to the beach. The trail in from Bluff Road to Matthews Point, on Active Pass, takes us through salal, red cedar, Douglas fir, and a meadow of Garry oak. A stillness settles over everything. We stop to listen; certain cathedrals have this majestic, resonant silence. A pileated woodpecker’s brazen hammering breaks the spell, and we’re on our way again. The trail ends with a steep, rope-aided zigzag path down to the quarter-mile-long beach—which, at low tide, is expansive, gleaming, and ours alone.

We set out a simple picnic on driftwood logs. Before long, warmed by wine and sunshine, we spread our blanket on the sand and gaze up at the bald eagle soaring overhead. The afternoon stands still. Active Pass, at tidal stasis, is as smooth as glass. Not far offshore, two hefty sea lions patrol back and forth, oddly graceful creatures, as frankly curious as we are. Up the way, where the beach ends abruptly in a sheer rock face, an otter family—five in all—slips into the water as easily as we slip into reverie.

Where are we? A bellowing ship’s horn has jolted us back into awareness. What time is it? The Salish Sea is now coursing through the pass, creating standing waves. The currents make it too tricky to swim. The sun has shifted lower, the salt air is cooling, and BC Ferries’ massive Coastal Celebration, bound for Vancouver Island, comes into view. Most of the passengers onboard, texting and taking selfies, fail to notice that the ship’s wake is a playground for a school of Pacific white-sided dolphins, dozens of them.

Barefoot, we explore the length of the beach—rock and shellfish worn by millenniums into pebbles and sand. Oysters are cemented to the rocks. The only other footprints we find were left by a deer we didn’t notice. An owl’s haunting call filters through the trees above.

Unseen forces make this island a blessed respite, a decompression chamber, a time machine back to simpler days. Hitchhikers don’t wait long. Doors are left unlocked. Strangers wave. The endlessly restorative power of nature is everywhere felt.

Matthews Beach, like the island itself, refutes our notions of time. Weather and tides and ships of all sorts come and go in a lazy procession. A pod of orcas passes by, thrillingly close to shore, with the casual swagger of all apex predators. To spend a few hours here—basking like a lizard in the sun, unfettered by phones and Facebook, attuned to rhythms as old as memory—is to reconsider priorities and recharge the soul.

Heading back to the dock with an hour to kill before the ferry leaves for Tsawwassen, we stop at the Hummingbird Pub for a pint, a Galiano Burger, and a taste of local culture. Every island is home to idiosyncratic types, and the pub has a few on display. The real-estate office, around the corner from the dock, attracts fantasizing visitors. (Prices are modest compared to those on the mainland.) “Most people get back on the ferry and return to reality,” says Ron Taylor, a local agent, “but some make plans to spend time here.”

Indeed, some do. We did.

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