We spend the better part of a week at Ladysmith and Stuart Island, two destinations with welcoming communities and robust, volunteer-powered organizations. This international mini cruise is likely to call us back in the future.
Along the tribal lands on one side of Ladysmith Harbour lie several miles of log booms. On the opposite shore is the old sawmill town that dates back to the 1890s. Local traffic and small tugs we see working the logs will make for a rocky anchorage, so we run down the options for docking. Our Waggoners likes the guest dock at Ladysmith Community Marina but warns that fills up with boats that have reservations. Since the day is getting on Jack uses up a couple of roving minutes and phones to see if we can get in. We can.
Ladysmith Community Marina
We’re met at the dock by a couple of folks wearing royal blue tee shirts embroidered with the white letters LMS – Ladysmith Maritime Society, or LMS. I trot down the dock to register with another blue-shirted person at the welcome desk of what looks like the lobby of a fine floating hotel!
The next morning we roll out of bed and down the dock for coffee and breakfast at the Oyster Bay Cafe, where aromas of fresh baked goods have penetrated the dawn. The Cafe shares the lobby with the Welcome desk and a lounge with comfortable chairs, board games, a fire place and a silent flatscreen reporting the weather. A doorway leads to the spacious restrooms with accessible stalls, the laundry, showers, bulletin boards, and an elevator to community meeting rooms on the upper level. The door with the wheelchair icon opens on a fully accessible bathroom with a roll in shower with grab bars and a flip down seat. Jack, who uses our phone booth-sized shower on the boat, sends me for his towel and soap and emerges Sunday scrubbed.
Breakfast is fresh fruit and berry salad and sun dried tomato and feta quiche. Lunch will find us back in our comfortable chairs feasting on local catch chowder and a grill blackened oysters in a Louisiana style po’ boy sandwich. By now the tables outside the soaring beams of the lovely structure are filled with visiting boaters, live-aboards, and Sunday brunchers from the community at large. I am too awed by the beautiful food coming from a small counter and an outdoor grill to think to photograph it. Even more impressive is the couple who prepare, plate and bring to the tables Oyster Bay’s fine cuisine. Call it sublime choreography. Not the experience you expect in the floating clubhouse of a milltown marina but nothing is ordinary here.
The soaring wooden-beamed ceiling of the structure is held up by two sections of the main mast of the Canadian Navy’s historic schooner Oriel; we once toured it on an official stop at Fisherman’s Marina. Floor to ceiling windows look our on growing activity along the docks. Everywhere you look there are colorful hand-painted banners, no two alike.
We visit the boat house with two historic wooden boats painstaking restored by LMS volunteers. Another building houses a small museum with exhibits on the history of nautical gear, outboard motors and woodworking tools and a boat selected for the next restoration project once the Society raises the necessary funds. On shore just up the hill from the docks LMS has opened a new Maritime Heritage Center which shares a historic waterfront building with their woodworking shop and the Ladysmith Arts Council.
Best of all, we decide Ladysmith Community Marina is the most accessible marine facility for mobility-impaired sailors we’ve seen anywhere along 900 miles of the Inside Passage. We give it a five on the Jack-and-Carol rating scheme, knocking Gorge Harbour off its perch.
The awareness and attention of LMS’ non-profit board and 200 volunteers is partly the result of their marina being chosen to host the British Columbia Disabled Sailing Society on this part of the coast. Two specially outfitted Martin 16 racing boats enable adults and children with severe physical disabilities to sail, either accompanied or independently.
LMS deserves recognition here so help us add this to the kudos they already enjoy. They are certified by the Georgia Strait Alliance as a BC Clean Marina, the only one we saw. They’ve received an outstanding achievement award from Heritage BC for the historic restoration of the 1909 M/V Saravan.
And the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has recognized them for their extraordinary contributions to the recovery of the Purple Martin. Not so long ago there were only 10 breeding pairs of Purple Martins on the BC coast. Today there are 80 pairs at the Ladysmith Community Marina alone. Serendipitously, our visit coincides with the annual banding of the newly hatched. Purple shirt wearing people put up an exhibit on the tented float. Berry pickers proffer purple smoothies.
Purple martin parents dive bomb the volunteer who heads up a ladder and gently removes the chicks from the nest, putting them one by one into a soft cotton draw string bag.
A second volunteer reaches into the bag, removes a chick, cradles it in her hand, head between thumb and index finger. Her nails are lacquered purple except for a gold nail on her right ring finger and a silverish one on the left. This turns out to be an aide-memoire. She holds the chick’s leg so a third volunteer can apply a bronze band on the right leg and the silverish one on the left. Bird still in hand, volunteer #2 then compares the color of the chick’s feathers with life-sized photos to determine age.
It’s volunteer #3 who records everything: house number, nest population, and, ultimately, the age of each chick. House number C10 has 6 nestlings ranging in age from 13 to 19 days. Then volunteer #1 takes the drawstring bag with the banded birds back up to the nest. Each of the volunteers is shadowed by a trainee, who occasionally steps in to help. By nightfall, hundreds of ankle-braceleted chicks have been tucked back into their nests. It seems the parents are getting used to this and stand by as patiently as possible with huge dragon flies in their mouths. Comfort food.
Stuart Island is some distance from Ladysmith. Along the beautiful west coast of Salt Spring Island, there are few nooks to anchor but fine scenery and harbor seal haulouts and curious seals swimming up to check us out. Around Cowichan Bay there’s traffic – huge ferries from Vancouver along with all sorts of small craft.
But soon we’re crossing Boundary Channel toward Stuart Island, the most northerly of the San Juans. Jack phones for US custom clearance; we’ve had our I-68 interview with ICE Officer Vela in Port Townsend and no longer have to check in at Friday or Roche Harbor. We cut across the waters frothing off Turn Point to avoid a northbound tanker and hug the shore down to Reid Harbor.
Although there are a surprising number of houses tucked away around Stuart’s shores, we do not encounter a single homeowner, summer resident, or parks official. This is a quiet place where we can hang out with no phone and no internet. That’s part of the welcome; the rest comes through the year-round efforts of local history buffs and non-profit entrepreneurs.
I take off on foot, up the most dangerous ramp yet and a difficult trail. (Jack will have to to wait to get to shore. There’s a boat launch onto a county road and with ext batteries and nerve he can probably make it out to Turn Point on a future visit.) A couple of hikers suggest a short cut over the mountain to the school; no longer maintained, it must have been used by school kids.
At a clearing I spot Stuart Island’s beautiful modern school that has operated on and off whenever there are enough children, most recently in 2013. The library is in the old one-room school nearby. Next to it a splendid small museum occupies the teacherage. (My dictionary says this word, which parallels vicarage and parsonage, is strictly North American; so why then no doctorage, nurseage, or keeperage?)
Historic photos and well-drafted text document the challenges of homesteading such a remote place. Each of the early families is introduced in the majestic formalism that itinerant photographers had mastered by the turn of the 20th century. We meet fishermen, woodcutters, the people that ferried groceries and mail, and lighthouse keepers. Among a succession of young schoolteachers is Louise Bryant, who would go off to the Bolshevik Revolution with John Reed.
The library and the school are open – unattended – every day except Monday. Nearby is one of the Island’s “Treasure Chests”, attractive stalls filled to the brim with postcards, notecards,and tee-shirts designed by local kids. On Stuart Island, the honor system is the rule – you take an envelop and send a check whenever you get the chance..
I continue on to Turn Point on the county road, all other roads being private. I pass lovely old farms overlooking Prevost Harbor and am passed only by other hikers and one green, antique, GMC truck. Now property of the US Bureau of Land Management, Turn Point has been owned by homesteaders, the Lighthouse Service, the Coast Guard, and Washington Parks. The light and associated weather stations have been automated since the early 1970s.
Today the grounds and buildings are shipshape, thanks largely to the Turn Point Light Preservation Society (TPLPS) and the elbow grease of volunteers. The Mule Barn houses the museum and there are plans for the fog signal station and the small former fuel shed out on the point. To my surprise, the keepers’ house – a fine 1893 duplex – is open. I am shown around not by local people but by a pair of cousins from Wisconsin and Alaska. They are lighthouse aficionados, spending the week for the price of their TPLPS membership. Sound good? Membership form here.