If you are looking for a winter break that doesn’t include airfare, look north to a little island in the Salish Sea that provides quiet shorelines, forested trails, an escape from winter rains, and a community investing big in land conservation.
Galiano, located in the Canadian Gulf Islands, is a short ferry trip from the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal. The island has a year-round population of 1,100 people. Its many miles of community trails are enhanced by camping sites with splendid shore views and 27 public beach access points.
I visited Galiano on a foggy January weekend, planning to hike the community-owned trails criss-crossing the island and seek out groves of Garry oak (Quercus garryana). Even in the winter, the island shows off a botanical richness distinct from mainland forests.
Galiano is a gem unique from other Gulf islands due to the residents’ strong environmental stewardship and conservation vision. For much of the last 100 years, Galiano was owned and logged by Macmillian Bloedel, which resulted in a patchwork of Douglas fir and hemlock plantation forests—even as it kept housing development at bay.
In the early 1990s, the logging company sold their holdings, opening up vast forestry tracts for purchase. Today, many of these forest lands are managed to improve species diversity by selective thinning and removal of invasive species. And many of these forests are open to the public for hiking.
With a clear day predicted, I set out early for the top of Mt. Galiano, at 900 feet the island’s highest point. I started at Highland Road near a sheep farm. No sheep were visible, just a quiet trail beckoning through a Douglas-fir, Western red cedar, and madrone forest, layered with sword ferns and salal in the understory. The cackle of ravens and woodpeckers accompanied me as I huffed my way up the steep trail.
On the way up, I paused to take in the extraordinary view that spanned east to Vancouver, with the San Juan Islands and Mt Baker in the distance. Then at the top, clinging to the steep bluff, I admired the grove of Garry oak that I had come to find.
I was too early to find the star of the island, the rare white meconella, (Meconella oregana), which can be a delight in late March or April. This tiny flowering plant grows primarily in open grassland, but it can occasionally be seen in areas above 600-620 feet, on mossy wet slopes. It’s rarely sighted due to its brief bloom and small size.
A local conservancy group seeded a small patch to reintroduce the species on Mt Sutil in 2012, north of Mt Galiano. Since then, they have carefully monitored and protected the patch, in hopes of recovering the population.
The Washington Natural Heritage Program tracks this species. It’s listed as endangered in Washington State and considered a federal species of concern in the U.S. The Field Guide to the Rare Plants of Washington notes:
This small annual is easy to overlook, and it flowers for a very short period each year. Threats include competition from weedy annuals and soil compaction from recreational use of some sites. This taxon is rare throughout its range.
Heading back to sea level, I took a short but beautiful walk around Montague Harbor on the Gray Peninsula Loop. Historically, the harbor was used by native peoples as a summer home. The tiny bits of shells that layer the beach are evidence of their abundant clam harvests.
Bellhouse Park, adjacent to Active Pass, became my favorite place to watch the sunset. Here, a wide bench of sandstone extends to the sea from the trailhead, making it a perfect spot to watch ferries parade by from nearby Mayne and Saltspring terminals.
Each evening, seabirds gathered in the eddies, while seals floated on the surface—exactly the peaceful silence I’d come to find.
On a tip from a hitchhiker, I stopped at the Galiano Learning Centre on my last day. I discovered that in 2012, the Galiano Conservancy Association purchased 188 acres to create this place for hosting ecological restoration, permaculture, agriculture, orienteering, geocaching and backpacking workshops for grade school through adults.
They’ve trucked over an indoor classroom from Salmo, B.C. and have started to restore the nearby forest. I explored the old mill site, now richly planted with native plants and mulched with a combination of alder chips and topsoil.
“The Galiano Learning Centre is progressing towards becoming a hub for ecological education, and a center for applied research and innovation in living harmoniously within our natural community,” says Keith Erickson, Conservation Coordinator. For 25 years, the Galiano Conservancy Association has been actively working to protect the island, and with this important purchase, the long-term goal of fostering a greater connection and awareness with the natural world is becoming a reality.
My visit ended with the last ferry out on a dark Monday night. But with so much of the island still to explore, I was already planning my return.